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The Compact

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The doorway in the wall of the Leaky Cauldron wasn’t opening. Harry dropped his wand and desperately ran his hands over the bricks, trying to find the crack, the right place, but he couldn’t find it. He turned round to ask someone for help, but when he did, he wasn’t in the Leaky Cauldron anymore, he was in another pub, familiar: the Oak Barrel pub in Little Whinging, and Uncle Vernon was sitting at the table saying loudly to Aunt Petunia, “What’s that addled boy up to now?” Harry looked down for his wand, but it was gone. The magic was gone. It was all gone. It had never been there at all—

Harry jerked up sweating and breathing hard in his bed and looked over involuntarily, just to make sure his Auror robes were still there, hanging over the back of the chair where he’d thrown them last night, with his wand in arm’s reach on the bedside table. It was the third time this week the nightmare had come. It was getting hard to tell where it left off and the real world began. Yesterday had been especially bad. The Edinburgh branch of the Floo network had collapsed, and he’d spent the whole day ferrying urgent cases to St. Mungos on his Firebolt. Broomsticks were the only transport still working reliably, at least if you had an older one that you’d taken care of; new ones were dumping people half the time.

He rubbed his face and got out of bed and padded barefoot into the living room. Hermione hadn’t made it to bed tonight at all: she was at the dining table with her head pillowed on her arms. When Harry came out she lifted it blearily from one of the eight massive tomes stacked up around her. The top one was A Brief Essay Upon The Disruption Of Magickal Fields, some six hundred pages long. She had torn through every book she could get her hands on—she’d even gone to Hogwarts and resurrected a few destroyed ones as ghosts and got the Friar to turn their pages for her—and even she hadn’t come up with any better idea than Luna’s suggestion, which was that a plague of Magic-Eating Flinjies had descended on Britain and were devouring everyone’s spells.

Hermione had made a magical map that sat in Shacklebolt’s office where they all gathered every week to review the incidents. It plotted the places where some critical bit of magical infrastructure had collapsed or someone’s spell had fizzled out. When they’d first started realizing it was more than isolated incidents, the little green pinpoint wisps had been glowing in twenty or so places across the map. Now they were so thick on the ground that it might as well have been a map of where wizards lived: clusters over Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, smaller ones to mark every small village, and then the scattered isolated pinpricks of wizards traveling or living among Muggles.

It seemed just a matter of time until they became Muggles again. Harry swallowed hard and went to the kitchen. After the war, he and Ron and Hermione had got a Muggle flat, because it was loads cheaper to get a three-bedroom place in one of the suburbs than to live anywhere in wizarding London, and Hermione had been able to hook them into the Floo network with no trouble. Harry had reluctantly agreed; it was sensible, of course. Now he wished he’d argued harder. Everything about the place was so horribly ordinary. There was a telly, because Ron was fascinated by them, and they’d got prefab furniture that could be assembled with a single charm, and the kitchen had all the mod cons, and Harry could without any trouble imagine himself a perfectly normal boy in a perfectly normal life, and be reminded his nightmare was only a few steps sideways from coming true.

He got a glass of water for himself and one for Hermione and took it back. He sat down across from her and pushed it across the table. “Thanks,” she said tiredly, her voice a bit thick, and drank a few swallows. She took a deep breath, her shoulders slumped.

“Hermione,” Harry said. He wanted to ask so any luck? and he wanted to say get some rest, you’ll find it soon. Instead he forced himself to ask the question he hadn’t asked, that no one had asked, because they didn’t want to know. “How long? Before it’s all—” gone, he couldn’t quite make himself say. He didn’t want to know, but he had to know; he had to steel himself.

“Oh,” she said, her face crumpling a little, as if she hadn’t wanted to know either. “Well…” She swallowed, and then she got up and went to her overflowing desk and pulled out a big rolled-up sheet of graph paper from one of the innumerable cubbyholes. She brought it back over and spread it over the kitchen table. “I can pull the data from the map,” she said, dully. “If I plot the failures over time…” She took a deep breath and waved her wand over the paper. “Expondere!  

Dates began appearing in thin spidery numbers along the bottom, and in the body of the chart, dots appeared like someone sprinkling inkblots. A black line through the middle of them went climbing steeply and swiftly towards a faint red dotted line across the top, a horizon Harry didn’t want to see beyond. The black line raced towards the meeting with greater speed as the dates unrolled, until suddenly towards the end, it began to taper off. It was still going closer to the red line, but not as fast…

Harry looked urgently at Hermione, who was staring down at the chart with dull puzzlement. “How strange,” she said. “It looks as though it’s not progressing towards a complete…” And then she trailed off, her whole tired face coming suddenly alight as she straightened up. “Oh,” she breathed. “Oh, Harry, that’s it.

“What?” Harry said, jerked up involuntarily by hope. “What is it, Hermione?”

“The magic’s not going away at all!” Hermione said. “It’s going back.” She whirled away from the table and charged into the living room and began throwing books to every side.

Ron came out of his room rubbing his eyes. “What’s the racket for?” he asked yawning.

“The magic’s not failing!” Hermione said muffled out from between the stacks of books. She’d got down on her knees and was going for the bottom shelf on the middle bookcase. “Or not completely. It’s only receding back to natural levels…there!” She yanked out an old tome in cracked leather bindings and flung it out behind her straight onto the coffee table, but bizarrely it wasn’t one of her research volumes at all; it was actually one of Ron’s old childhood storybooks he’d brought from home.

Hermione crawled back out of the small tunnel she’d made among the books and opened it to a picture of a small crowd of druid-looking wizards in robes and witches holding broomsticks all standing round a white-bearded wizard raising up a crown over the head of a kneeling young man with light coming from his head. “It’s the Compact failing. It must be. It would explain everything.”

“Right, did I miss something?” Ron said, looking at Harry confused.

“Ron, at least you must know about Merlin’s Compact!” Hermione said.

“Wait, Merlin?” Harry said, baffled. “As in Merlin and King Arthur and the Round Table? But that’s just made-up stories, it’s not history—”

“Of course it’s history!” Hermione said impatiently. “It’s wizarding history. Arthur’s coronation was the foundation of wizarding Britain.” Harry gaped at her, and even Ron was looking doubtful. She glared back. “Did either of you pay any attention in History of Magic ever?

“Er,” Harry said.

“No,” Ron said bluntly. “And neither did anyone else but you, so you might as well just tell us.”

She threw up her arms, but she turned back to the chart and tapped the end of the black line, where it began to curve away. “Look, back in the old days, before the Compact, this was the original level of magical activity in Britain. Spells that worked one time in ten, and artifacts that were magical only under really limited conditions—magic just doesn’t occur in large quantities in nature on its own. Even wizards themselves, you don’t find whole families of wizards just hanging about. Normally you’d get one witch or wizard in a family, and then five generations later one of their descendants would pop out with magic. Merlin’s the one who changed all that. With the Compact. He got all the wizards of Britain—there were lots fewer of them then, of course—and loads of the sentient magical creatures too, to swear allegiance to the high king—”

“To Arthur,” Harry said, still half incredulous. It sounded almost too magical. “To King Arthur, who was a real person—”

“Yes,” Hermione said, and then immediately corrected herself. “Well, no. First, they swore allegiance to the high king—which was Uther Pendragon at the time—and his heir. And then at Arthur’s coronation, when the Compact was sealed, they affirmed the oath, and it carried forward from then on, forever. That was the really brilliant innovation Merlin came up with—that’s how he made the spell permanent, it’s like proof by induction—” They were both staring at her uncomprehending, but she shook her head in dismissal. “Never mind, the point is, if the Compact is coming apart, that would explain everything we’re seeing. Why magic is still working sometimes, and why it’s only happening in Britain—”

“Wait, how does it explain that?” Harry said. “Or, if Merlin only did this Compact in Britain, why is there magic in France, and everywhere—”

“Well, people in other nations copied the model at once, naturally!” Hermione said. “It’s massively advantageous: get everyone to agree to swear allegiance to someone in a symbolic position, form a system, and suddenly all of your children will be wizards more or less, and your spells will work every go, and your potion recipes will be reliable, and you can build magical artifacts that will last and teach magic in schools—all of it, the whole modern wizarding world, is built from that foundation.” She frowned. “The real question is why it would be failing now, in fact.”

“That is not the real question!” Ron said loudly; he’d woken up fully by now, and Harry had too; it was starting to sink in that they’d found the problem. “The real question is, how do we fix it?”

“Oh,” Hermione said, and then she said slowly, “Well—we’ll have to—crown a new high king.”

“Is that all? Just pop a crown on someone’s head and call it a day?” Ron said.

“It’s not that simple,” Hermione said. “We have to find someone everyone can agree on, for one thing—that’s going to be a lot more difficult now there’s a million wizards in Britain and not one hundred—” Harry stared. Hermione didn’t avoid things, but she was rambling, and talking a bit too loud, as if she wasn’t saying the thing that really mattered; her eyes darted to his face and then away again, and then she finished, abruptly, “And they’ve got to be willing to—to make the sacrifice.”

“The sacrifice?” Harry said.

Hermione swallowed. “Well—you know that part of it, Harry. Arthur was a massively powerful Animagus when he was young, that’s made it into the Muggle stories—he could become an ant, he could become a hawk—” and she still wasn’t saying it, until she did, she finished, and said, “—and he had to give it up. He had to sacrifice his own magic to seal the Compact. To make magic for everyone else.”

#

Hermione immediately dug up an expert, a senior Merlin scholar at the Magisterium, and woke her up over the Floo and made them an appointment to see her first thing that morning. Harry didn’t argue; it was a lot better than the alternative, which was her dashing straight off to Shacklebolt. There was a hard angry knot in his stomach that tightened more and more every time Hermione avoided looking him in the face.

It was painful now to remember, but he’d secretly been glad when things started going wrong, at first. They’d all thought it was some kind of attack, maybe a few Death Eaters dredging themselves up out of dark corners. He’d thought, hoped, that maybe it was—something worth fighting.

He put his Auror salary into Gringotts every month, because he needed to pay the rent, but most days he didn’t feel like he was earning it—well, no, that wasn’t it; he felt like he was earning just that, a steady reasonable wage, largely for putting in an appearance at his desk every day. Hermione said he’d got used to the adrenaline rush, but it wasn’t the danger he missed, it was the wonder. Of opening his Hogwarts letter, of stepping into Diagon Alley the first time, of coming across the lake with the lights of Hogwarts shining and feeling with the gasping joy of escape that he’d found his way not out but in, to a secret and spectacular and yes, sometimes even terrible world. Voldemort had been the price for it, the horror big enough to match the beauty. And he’d paid the price, willingly. There had never been a moment’s regret, a single instant where he’d ever thought I wish I was just an ordinary boy, not even while he’d been walking to his death.

But now Voldemort and everyone on his side was either caught or buried or, grotesquely, doing just fine, like Lucius Malfoy, who’d managed to weasel himself a suspended sentence on account of ill-health—“Give me a chance and I’ll make his health worse yet,” Ron had said to Harry savagely, when they’d heard—or Dolores Umbridge, who’d got off on account of claiming she hadn’t understood what was going on and had just been doing as she’d been told by Thicknesse. Shacklebolt had kicked her out of the Ministry, but what seemed like five minutes later she’d landed in a job as the artistic director at the Westminster Living Plate Factory. Either for good or ill, though, they’d all been dealt with; there wasn’t anything more to do about them. There’d been a round of memorials and medals, a comprehensive shuffling of Ministry officials, and then wizarding life—went on.

And it had turned out that ninety percent of the time, being an Auror was like being a bobby in a village full of slightly peculiar people. On most days Harry turned up at a broom crash or escorted a Splinched drunk to St. Mungos or at best caught a rampaging Erumpent escaped from an illegal zoo. Six months ago, he would have given a lot for a deadly and mysterious magical attack on wizarding Britain.

Now, of course, he’d gladly have taken the Splinched drunk. Lately it was so hard to Apparate that most people had given it up completely, drunk or sober. The chart on the table was still going: the thin black line had grown a tiny bit even over the last few hours, creeping infinitesimally closer to the red, and Hermione kept talking about all the things the Compact made possible—Hogwarts, which had been founded to teach all the wizard children that were born thanks to the Compact, and Diagon Alley, which had slowly grown up around the Ollivanders wand shop, and Harry kept telling himself maybe she had it all wrong, and he wasn’t going to think about it while it was still just some wild theory.

But when they got to Magister Glaudisa’s office, she was actually pacing the floor waiting for them, wringing her hands, and Hermione hadn’t even had a chance to outline her theory before she said, “Yes, you’re right. It’s the Compact failing,” in despairing tones. “We’ve actually had a study going the last fifty years monitoring the flow of power through the ley lines that the Compact established. We can see it coming apart. Only there’s no way to fix it, except…”

“Crowning a new high king,” Hermione finished for her. “That would renew the Compact, wouldn’t it?”

Glaudisa lifted her hands and let them drop helplessly. “Yes, of course.”

There wasn’t even the faintest hesitation in Glaudisa’s voice; she’d said it as matter-of-factly as if she’d been asked whether the sky was blue. And Hermione sat there a moment longer with her face clenched up in misery, but then—she turned on him. “Harry—you must see—there’s no other choice. If we just sit back and let the Compact fail, it would be an absolute disaster. And—and you’re the natural—”

He was on his feet, his hands clenched. “Forget it!” he snapped. The horrible thing was it wasn’t just her asking—it was everyone, everyone in the whole wizarding world having the fucking gall to ask him to do this, to give up magic, the one thing that had saved him, the one thing that had made his life worth living. “I don’t believe you’d even ask—”

“You’re the only one!” Hermione said, standing up to confront him. Ron was staring between them, looking appalled. “You must see it, Harry! You’re the one who defeated Voldemort, you’re halfblood—the Potters are one of the ancient lines— You’re the only one who can unite all of wizarding Britain—”

“I wont!” he shouted at her. “I won’t do it! You do it, if you’re so keen!”

“Harry—”

“What on earth are you talking about!” Magister Glaudisa cried, breaking in on them both.

They both jerked and stared at her. Hermione burst out, “Well, who would you pick, if we’ve got to have a king?”

“But—you don’t get to pick!” Glaudisa said, sounding completely bewildered. “This isn’t a democracy. You can’t renew Merlin’s Compact by slapping a crown on some random hero’s head—absolutely no offense intended, Mr. Potter,” she added hastily.

Harry stared at her gaping blankly, and then he blurted out, “None taken,” almost trembling with relief and adrenaline: he hadn’t expected anyone else to offer him a reprieve. No one ever had before.

Hermione was the one looking bewildered now. “But then—”

“It’s got to be the rightwise-born high king of Britain!” Glaudisa said. “That’s the only way to renew the Compact.”

She said it as if it were perfectly obvious, and she was only perplexed that they hadn't understood it at once. They all stared at her blankly. “Er,” Ron said after a moment. “Do you mean we’ve got to get the Queen to do it?”

Glaudisa gawked at him. “What? No! No, of course not! Queen Elizabeth’s a johnny-come-lately; she’s not the rightwise-born queen of one square inch of the country by Merlin’s standards.”

“But there isn’t a rightwise-born king!” Hermione said. “The only child Arthur had was Mordred, and Mordred never…”

She trailed off. Glaudisa was staring round at them, and her face was crumpling into misery. “Oh,” she said, her voice cracking. “You don’t know. When you wrote to me about renewing the Compact, I thought… I assumed you already knew…”

“About what?” Hermione said. “About—about Arthur’s heir?” Her voice was rising with incredulity. “King Arthur has—there is a rightwise-born high king of Britain, alive today—”

“Of course there is!” Glaudisa said. “Otherwise the Compact would have fallen down round our ears. It’s the line. We’re all sworn to the high king’s line. That’s why the Compact lasts, and the Compact ensures that the line continues—”

Ron said in rising incredulity, “And you never thought this was worth maybe mentioning, to anyone—”

“It’s not a secret, exactly,” Glaudisa said, in a suddenly evasive crabwise way. “We just—we don’t talk about it outside the field.” 

“Outside the field?” Hermione nearly shrieked it. “Are you saying it’s not just you, there are loads of people who know about this?”

Glaudisa didn’t deny it, just stood there biting her lip. It was like walking into IKEA and spotting the crown jewels sitting on a back shelf among the cheap nordic glassware or something, and all the shop assistants around you smiling fixedly and carrying on like there wasn’t anything odd about it. “None of you have ever told anyone?” Harry said.

“Bad things happen to people who try,” Glaudisa said, rather grimly.

“You mean there’s some sort of curse?” Hermione said.

“Well, not exactly,” Glaudisa said. “The family really don’t like it being spread about. If you try, they generally find a way to object. Strongly.”

“That’s loony!” Ron burst out. “You’re saying Arthur’s heirs don’t want people to know they’re descended from King Arthur—”

“They don’t want their magic taken!” Glaudisa said sharply, and Ron stopped short. “The Compact works even without a crowned king, but it’s much more powerful with one. If people knew about them, and Britain was at war or something—well, you can imagine the pressure that might be brought to bear.”

Harry couldn’t blame them. Even though Glaudisa had let him off the hook, he still felt the horror of it like the cold breath of a Death Curse flying just inches past his head. Giving up magic—having it taken away, so everyone else could have it—

Glaudisa nodded, seeing his face. “They really don’t want it known.”

“So how did you find out?” Ron said. “And everyone else in the bloody field.”

“It’s not that hard to find out if you consult the primary sources,” Glaudisa said. “Going to the site of Camlann, interviewing the minor ghostly eyewitnesses—it’s just the sort of tedious legwork that only odd postgraduates working on Merlin research or Arthuriana bother to do. Most people in the field stumble over it fairly early in their careers, and naturally they tell their advisors in great excitement, and then the advisor explains why we don’t publish the information. I found out when I was only twenty, myself.”

“And what exactly did you find out?” Hermione demanded.

Glaudisa swallowed. “On the eve of Camlann, drunk with some of his jesters,” she said, her voice falling into the practiced rhythm of a lecturer, “Mordred married his favorite of the camp followers and crowned her High Queen of Britain with a wreath made of straw. He did it to mock and spite Arthur, but he still married her, before witnesses, and it so happened that she was with child. She fled to Brittany with the remnant of his forces after the battle was lost, and gave birth there. And the line has never failed since.”

No,” Ron said, horrified. “The rightwise-born king of Britain is French?” Hermione threw an annoyed look at him. 

“No,” Glaudisa said. “They came back over with the Conquest. They’re drawn to the throne, you see: it’s their birthright, even though they naturally don’t want to give up their magic to have it. We think that’s what Mordred himself was so angry at Arthur about—he wanted the throne, but he didn’t want to pay the price.”

“And the heirs have been hiding out in a corner somewhere ever since?” Hermione said. Glaudisa hesitated visibly again, and Hermione added sharply, “The Compact’s failing, so whoever the heir is—is it a man? Well, he doesn’t have a choice, unless he wants to watch wizarding Britain fall apart round him.”

“Oh, Merlin,” Glaudisa said, pressing her fingers to her forehead. “You don’t understand. It’s not that he doesn’t have a choice. It’s that we don’t have a choice.”

 Harry said slowly, “Magister, just tell us, who is it?”

She looked at him helplessly. “Don’t you see? The rightwise-born king of wizarding Britain—he isn’t just descended of Arthur. He’s descended of Mordred. Mordred the traitor. The man of—bad faith.”

Hermione stepped back so sharply she knocked into a stack of books that fell over onto the floor of the cramped office with a thump. “No,” she said flatly. “No.”

“Bad faith?” Harry said, looking between them, startled, and Glaudisa said, “In France, they called him le roi de mal foi. The king of bad faith. Arthur’s heir is—Lucius Malfoy.”

#

“So we’re all agreed, we’re going to forget we were ever here,” Ron said, as they all staggered back out of the Magisterium Tower onto the deceptively peaceful green-grass grounds. There were birds tweeting and everything. “I reckon we should Obliviate ourselves just to make sure. You’re a dab hand with Memory Charms, Hermione—”

“Oh, Ron!” she said, in despairing tones.

“We’re not crowning Lucius Malfoy the high king of Britain!” Ron yelled at her.

Harry couldn’t even say anything. It felt like his fault, as if by wanting his own escape, he’d made a bargain with a demon somewhere: not me, anyone but me, and now instead he’d handed a crown to Lucius Malfoy, of all obscene possibilities. “Oh, God,” he said out loud, feeling queasy. “I’m sorry.”

“As though it were your fault,” Hermione said miserably. “I’m the one who had the brilliant idea of crowning a new king in the first place.” She shoved her hands into her hair and stood there distractedly.

“What if—” Harry swallowed bile and forced himself to go on. “What if we make a new Compact, from scratch?”

She shook her head. “We can’t. Not when there’s a living heir. We’d be oathbreakers—well, at least the two of you would be, you’re both descended of British wizards alive at the time of the Compact. I’m not sure if I count just because I was born in Britain—oh, of course; I’m not thinking. My parents signed the Hogwarts acceptance letter for me. That put me under the authority of the Wizengamot, and formally, they’re stewards for the high king.” She sighed. “We’d fall out of the Compact at once, which would make our own magic go sideways, and we couldn’t put up a new one in its place until we’d somehow got literally every wizard in Britain to swear allegiance—in fact, we’d probably set off some sort of civil war all over again. We’ve—we’ve just got to find another solution, that’s all.”

They went home and they all pretended to forget about it, Harry and Ron silently willing Hermione to find something else as she made skyscraper towers of books all over the living room and the dining table, trying to make another answer appear. But three days later, the Night Bus crashed into a bridge when its Resizing Charm failed, and everyone on the top floor was killed instantly: one elderly witch going to visit her grandchildren, and a family of four going on holiday to the seaside. Three other people landed in St. Mungo’s. The Ministry announced that all wizard bus service was suspended until further notice.

Harry and Ron came home late from helping clean up the mess and found Hermione on the couch with tear-tracks on her face and a bottle of cheap gin they’d got for a party on the coffee table in front of her, half drunk after two large glasses of the stuff. “I can’t even work out why it’s failing now,” she said despairingly. “And I—I can’t find another way. There isn’t meant to be another way.” She wiped her face. “I’m going to Shacklebolt tomorrow.”

“I’ll come with you,” Harry said quietly. Ron looked away, but even he didn’t argue outright; he just picked up the bottle and swigged down a big gulp.

It took another month of rapidly accumulating disasters for most people to start coming round to the idea—Ron still hadn’t—and then at the end of July, just before the Hogwarts annual deadline, Minerva McGonagall sent an owl to the Ministry to tell Shacklebolt that only eleven new names had been added to the Book of Admittance—only eleven wizard children born the whole year, in all of Britain.

“Look, is there any reason not to just handle the thing as a mere formality?” Dedalus Diggle said in faintly desperate tones, when Shacklebolt had finished reading out the letter to all of them assembled urgently in the map room. “What I mean to say is, Lucius hasn’t dared to poke his nose off his grounds since the war. Stick a crown on his head, fix up the Compact, and send him back home to keep quietly mouldering away. No reason we can’t have forgotten all about the business by Midwinter. For that matter, if you ask me, it’s nothing more than a just punishment. If anyone deserves to lose his magic…”

He trailed off. No one else spoke. It didn’t matter. They could call it a meaningless formality, it could be a horrible punishment, it could be nothing Lucius Malfoy wanted. It still meant all of them having swear fealty to him, to kneel before him: Lucius Malfoy standing at the top of a dais with the Dark Mark on his arm and a crown on his head, staring down his nose and smirking with malice, and it made Harry’s stomach turn. And he couldn’t imagine Ron doing it at all, any of the Weasleys—Narcissa Malfoy standing up there as their queen, with Bellatrix Lestrange looking out of her face?

Most of the wizards in the room were older than them, had more senior positions, but Harry still felt the whole room looking at him, at Hermione’s bowed head, at Ron scowling with his arms folded across his chest. As if everyone was waiting for them to speak, handing the final decision over to them along with the Order of Merlin awards they’d hung round his and Ron and Hermione’s necks for stopping Voldemort. He couldn’t bring himself to say anything. All he could think to say was I’m sorry, even though it still didn’t make sense.

But he and Ron and Hermione had family dinner with the Weasleys at the Burrow every Friday. No one talked much that night when they gathered. Everyone round the table knew, not just about the troubles but about the only solution anyone had found so far, and then at the end of the meal Fleur took a deep breath and looked at Bill, and they clasped hands and she said, in a tremulous voice, “Bill and I, we are—we are going to have a baby.”

They all tried to celebrate, with grim determination, but they couldn’t help feeling the shadow lying over them all. Afterwards, when nearly everyone had gone to bed, Ron came out round the back. Inside, Arthur was still sitting at the kitchen table with his arm round Molly: she’d been loudly joyful until Fleur and Bill had gone home for the night, and then she’d crumpled into his arms sobbing. “All right. It’s got to be done, let’s get it over with,” Ron said flatly.

“It’s not just up to us,” Hermione said.

“Isn’t it?” Ron said. “You think anyone’s going to argue with us, the three of us, if we stick a crown on Lucius Malfoy’s head and tell everyone it was the only way?”

He was right, of course; and Harry realized that was why Ron had kept refusing to accept it, all these months. He rubbed his hands over his face.

“It’s late,” Hermione said softly, after a moment. “We’ll go to the Manor in the morning.”

#

When they Apparated to the front gates, Harry first thought the spell had gone wrong and dumped them in the wrong place. The tidy hedges round the Manor had gone violently out of control, and vines were climbing over the iron gates, which were standing forced ajar just wide enough for someone to squeeze through. There was no sign of the white peacocks except a few stray feathers caught ominously in various bushes, and the gardens looked like the underbrush of some primeval forest, a thousand years old, the half-covered fountains standing silent and choked green and black. The house itself was dark. The windows were cracked.

They tried the front door, banged on it, and then Hermione used Alohomora, but she might as well have been yelling Abalone for the good it did. They struggled through the overgrown paths round the back, looking for another door, and found Draco in shirtsleeves chopping wood with an axe, in a small bare patch of lawn. The growth was being fought off around it in a rear-guard action: there was an old rusty sword lying in the grass near the edge of the verge, which had been used to whack away at the brush and vines.

He didn’t notice them at first; his hair was plastered down over his forehead with sweat, and he was deep in the mechanical rhythm of the work, thwacking down, jerking the axe loose, starting again. He wasn’t much good at it: Harry had never seen him do an ounce of physical labor in his life, other than flying Quidditch, and his build wasn’t what anyone would call impressive. He’d always had Crabbe and Goyle round for anything that needed muscle.

“Draco,” Hermione said.

He slowly raised his head and stared at them blankly, as if it was taking him a moment to place them, and then he surfaced from the work-trance and straightened up frowning. He dragged an arm across his sweaty forehead. “What do you want?”

“We—we need to talk to your father,” Hermione said after a moment.

Draco snorted. “No. Was that all? Thanks for stopping by, nice to see you, do let the dragonthorn bite you on the way out.”

“This isn’t a social visit,” Harry said.

“Are you here to arrest him for something, then? Funny that I hadn’t heard; our solicitors are still getting paid, even if the house spells are all falling apart and our groundskeepers can’t keep the hedges trimmed from day to day. Where’s the warrant?”

“If only,” Ron muttered.

Hermione cleared her throat. “Draco, we know about—Arthur. About Mordred.”

At first Draco stared at her like she was a lunatic, and then he brayed out a laugh. “So what? Unless you’ve come to crown him, I’m not sure what possible difference it makes—”

“That’s—that is why we’re here,” Hermione said, and he actually took a step back, the sneer falling off his face into horror; the axe slid out of his hand and thumped to the ground.

“You—you’re not,” he strangled out in protest, looking round at them all like an animal that had just suddenly found itself in a corner with sharpened knives all round. “You can’t be serious—nobody would let you—”

“You think we’d be here if there were any other choice?” Ron burst out. “Your dad as king, it’s a cartload of shit, and if there were any way round it—” He shook his head angrily. “Well, there isn’t, so stop dragging it out. Where is he? Hiding in the attic somewhere—”

“He’s ill!” Draco said, his voice rising. “He’s—you can’t, he can’t do it,” and Hermione interrupted suddenly, peremptory, “Draco—Draco, wait, has he been ill since the war?”

He jerked to stare at her. “Yes,” he said.

#

A wave of sickroom stink hit them in the faces, the instant Draco opened the door to his father’s bedroom: sweat and piss and something worse beneath, something rotting. The large four-poster bed was heavy and wooden and hung with dark blue velvet, once sumptuous; now it was limp and dirty. Lucius was lying propped on the pillows with his eyes closed. His long silver-blond hair was lank and matted, and a week’s growth of beard fringed his mouth; there were deep greenish hollows in his sunken cheeks, round his sockets.

He opened his eyes and turned his head a little when Draco came in, a faint glimmer coming into the bloodshot blue. Draco went to the bedside, his mouth turned down, and put a hand on his forehead. Lucius’s mouth moved in what might’ve been meant to be a smile, looking up at him, and his eyes slowly wandered over to the rest of them, uncomprehendingly, before they closed again.

Draco turned and came back to them, angry and pleading at the same time as he hissed, “You can’t ask it. He can’t even get out of bed.”

“Has—has a Healer seen him?”

“No, Granger, we thought we’d just keep him this way for our amusement. A dozen Healers have seen him. We flew in specialists from New York and Rome—all of them were useless. It’s some curse of Voldemort’s, something he set to go off if he died. They don’t even know exactly what it’s doing, and they say they can’t do anything, because—” Draco hesitated, and then he shrugged a shoulder, angrily, as if it didn’t matter. “Because he didn’t repudiate Voldemort before the end of the war.”

“And that’s what’s been going wrong—that’s why the Compact is failing,” Hermione said, low. “Because Arthur’s heir is cursed. And I’m sure it’s not just a coincidence. Voldemort must have found out. Somehow he found out your father was Arthur’s heir, and he set a Dying Curse up to attack him, and the Compact through him, to get back at us all if he died.”

“Hermione,” Harry said after a moment, “does that mean if—if we just healed Lucius, that would fix it?” Draco jerked a look at him, full of desperate hope, but Hermione shook her head.

“Lucius became a Death Eater willingly, Harry, and never turned away. That gave Voldemort power over him. I’m sure that’s why the Healers haven’t been able to do anything—because he gave his consent.”

“He didn’t give his consent to being rotted away from the inside out!” Draco said angrily.

“No, he just signed up for murdering and torturing innocent people,” Ron said. “Don’t look at us to feel sorry for him.” He turned to Hermione. “Look, does it make a difference? We can prop him up in bed and stick a crown on his head, as long as it’ll still work.”

Draco clenched his fists and took a step towards him. “It’ll kill him!”

“And a great loss that would be,” Ron shot back, and Harry had to shove in between them, holding them off each other.

“Merlin’s Compact is far stronger than any curse even Voldemort could’ve cast alone,” Hermione said. “If it’s renewed, I’m sure it can fight off whatever Voldemort’s managed to do to it. But…” She hesitated. “I’m sure he’s got to complete the coronation ceremony at least, and when he’s already so weak… ” She looked over at the bed. “I don’t know that he’d make it to the end.”

“He’s not going to get better otherwise, is he?” Ron demanded. “He might as well do one decent thing with his life. He owes, if anyone does.”

“Go to hell,” Draco spat. “You think I’m going to let you—”

Ron wheeled back on him. “Why should we let him say no? After everything he did—I reckon we can give him a choice of the crown or Azkaban, see which one he likes better.”

“You can’t!” Draco said, a really desperate edge rising in his voice as much to say he knew they could, and Harry looked at Hermione, helplessly. He didn’t know what to say.

“Draco, don’t you understand, it’s not just your house that’s falling apart,” Hermione said. “It’s the whole of wizarding Britain! Everyone’s magic is failing all over the place. If the Compact isn’t renewed, if Voldemort’s corruption keeps working on it, it’s all going to collapse. All the old pureblood families will die out, for that matter. Hogwarts will collapse, so will half of Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade—all of it! Do you believe your father would want to keep going like this, at that price? At the cost of destroying magic in Britain for generations?”

“Why are you bothering to ask?” Draco said, through his teeth. “You’ve already answered the question in your own head. You’re going to shove a crown on him and save yourselves: you don’t care.”

Hermione flushed. “I do care, actually. I don’t like any part of forcing something like this on a sick man, not even your father, and I won’t be holding the crown, if that is what it takes. But to be perfectly honest, I think that this is happening to your father because he turned traitor to us all and signed his allegiance over to a Dark Lord that the rest of us had to risk our lives to stop. It’s his own fault, and if he had an ounce of courage he’d fix it. And if—if the Ministry decide they’re not going to let him cower out of it—well, I won’t blame them for an instant!” she finished defiantly, her chin raised, as if she was trying to persuade herself.

Draco’s face had gone white, his hands clenched at his sides as he stared at her. He stood, trembling, another moment; he looked at his father in the bed. Then he looked back and said harshly, “You can have me instead.” They stared at him. “Find a way for him to abdicate the crown to me. I’ll do it instead.”

#

The scholars and the solicitors alike all agreed without hesitation that it was all right. “The Compact cares more about the bloodline than it does about anything else,” Glaudisa said as she went plowing feverishly through dusty scrolls and tomes: her orderly office had turned into a disaster, and there were three different quills stuck into her hair in various places and forgotten as though she’d begun transforming into some sort of bird. “We’ll just draft a legal agreement that the Wizengamot approves, and have Lucius sign it—”

She and the other Merlin scholars were the only ones actually happy about the prospect of the coronation, and the Wizengamot vote was violent—literally; three wizards ended up going to St. Mungo’s, and it would’ve been worse if half of the hexes being thrown round the chamber hadn’t failed. But the vote passed without any real difficulty. The most furious objections had fallen away once it was Draco instead of Lucius. Everyone like Diggle who’d been calling it a judgement upon him had hastily stopped.

Harry took the papers to the Manor with Ron and Hermione, even though secretly he wanted desperately to shove the job off onto someone else. Draco took them from him unsmilingly and carried them into the bedroom with a quill. Narcissa was reading in a chair by the window, a single curtain pushed open letting in the only crack of sunlight into the room. She rose and threw one anguished look at Draco before she left the room. Draco went to the bedside and woke his father. 

It took Lucius a long struggling while to understand what the papers were, what he was signing, and then he started trying feebly to shove them away, whimpering protests. Harry stood at the far end of the room staring at the pattern on the carpet, trying not to listen; even Ron looked a bit sick. Lucius was actually crying weakly, tears tracking down his face, trying to put his hand on Draco’s cheek. “No, Draco, not you, not you. Let them take me,” he was whispering, his voice cracked and thin as wind coming through a broken window. “Let them take me instead.”

Draco said harshly, “It won’t work, you’ll die before they even get the crown on your head, and then they’ll just come for me anyway. Stop being a fool.” He shoved the quill into his father’s hand and dragged it to the line and held it there, unyielding, until Lucius ran out of the strength to fight and straggled out a signature mostly under the pressure of Draco’s hand before sinking back against the pillows, still weeping.

Draco stood up from the bed and walked over and held the papers out, his face cold and hard. “When is the ceremony?”

“Tomorrow, at nine,” Harry said, fighting to keep his voice steady. “There’s—it’s going to be at Caerleon. Do—you need help getting there?”

“From you? No,” Draco said. “I’ll be there. Now get out of my house.”

They went back home together silent and wretched; Ron was trying to fight it off, but it was getting to him, too. “It’s not like we’re sending him to his bleeding execution,” he finally exploded, after they got in and shut the door behind them, but Hermione just sat down on the sofa in silence, and Harry could only do the same. Lucius deserved any punishment he got and then some, but—Harry couldn’t help remembering Draco with his wand pointed at Dumbledore, believing his life and the lives of everyone he loved depended on him committing murder, and still unable to let the curse fly. He’d been a complete arse every minute of their lives, and Harry with pleasure could’ve handed Draco a five-year sentence rebuilding houses or cleaning streets, but he didn’t deserve to have his magic ripped away forever just because he had the bad taste to love his miserable bastard of a father. Harry couldn’t help hearing his own voice in his ears saying I won’t! I won’t do it!

He didn’t sleep well, and got up the next morning sandy-eyed and dull. He put on dress robes—Magister Glaudisa wanted them to observe all the formalities, as far as they could. A rush job had even thrown up a facsimile of the ancient church on its old site, and a host of Aurors were ringed around to gently redirect Muggle tourists on their way. A gaggle of reporters accosted him at the doors: the whole plan had made the Daily Prophet three days ago while they’d been ironing out the legal documents, and since then, the paper had been twice as thick as usual on the volume of the editorial pages alone, opinions and letters fighting it out for space and degree of vituperation. The magical presses had all failed completely a month ago, but an enterprising Muggle-born wizard with a sister who was a computer programmer had set up a digital typesetting business, and they were putting it out on ordinary newsprint, all the photographs unmoving.

“There’s no other way,” Harry told the reporters tiredly, the agreed-upon party line, and went inside. He was sitting in the left hand pews, up at the front with the rest of the senior Ministry officials, the Aurors and all their friends in the rows just behind: Shacklebolt wanted to present a unified front, and Harry couldn’t refuse to be part of it. Hermione sat next to him, Ron on her other side; she was ramrod straight, her face still unhappy.

The old church was a cavernous place, and he’d expected the place to be mostly empty. It was hard and dangerous to travel the wizarding way now: even experienced wizards got splinched Apparating one time in ten, broomsticks failed midair, and more than half the Floo network was down every day. But despite it all, people were streaming steadily in, many of them just walking up the hill from the nearest Muggle bus stop, and a few driving—badly—in rented cars. A lot of wealthy Slytherin clans had showed up in horse-drawn carriages. They packed the pews on the right side of the church, across the narrow aisle from the rest of them. The rest of the seats on the left were being filled in by their side, several people still talking loudly of the disgusting outrage of it all. A few of them even came up to try and argue Shacklebolt out of the thing. None of them had any other ideas for fixing the problems.

Arthur’s crown was sitting on the altar. It was just a simple dull-gold circlet, plain; one of the scholars had dug it up out of a minor museum in Cornwall. A desperately nervous Magister Glaudisa was standing in formal robes in front of it, her lips moving as she silently rehearsed from the notes in her shaking hands, but she hadn’t been able to bear the idea of not performing the coronation ceremony herself: she’d done her dissertation on the subject.

People were glaring at each other across the aisle. The whole church was abuzz with muttering and arguments, the volume starting to rise, and Harry was just exchanging a glance with Shacklebolt, thinking they’d have to do something, when suddenly the ghostly resurrected bell above their heads began to sonorously clang the hour of nine all on its own in a deep voice that cut through the noise. Everyone stopped talking. Hoofbeats rang out in the sudden quiet. Harry looked over his shoulder: the doors at the back were still open, but no one else was coming in. The Aurors had been told to send latecomers round to the side doors, but there wasn’t any more room, anyway; every pew was packed. An enormous black carriage was pulling up to the doors, drawn by a pair of snorting black horses, and Draco pushed the door open and stepped out.

He turned and gave his mother a hand out of the carriage, and walked with her down the center aisle. Despite the summer’s heat, they both wore all black, like Victorian mourning, long robes tight down the arms and around the throat, sweeping broad down to the ground. His face was pale above them, even for him, and his mouth held rigid; his eyes were fixed on the altar like he was going to his execution. Harry looked away, but it didn’t help: Draco’s boot heels echoed horribly loud with every step. Not even any of the complainers were making a sound that could’ve drowned them out; everyone had fallen into total silence. Draco left Narcissa in the front row on the right-hand side: Pansy was there, and she’d saved a seat. Her own face was tight, looking up at him, though she didn’t say anything.

He turned away and faced the altar again. Hermione had reached out and gripped Harry’s hand painfully tight, and he couldn’t help feeling—this was the moment something was going to happen, something was going to stop it—he’d stop it, he’d think of something else to do—but Draco was climbing the steps, one after another, and he was standing at the altar, and Harry still hadn’t thought of anything, and apparently neither had anyone else, because Magister Glaudisa cleared her throat and shakily started in, and no one interrupted her.

The coronation was long and numbingly dull in the same way as all the Order of Merlin ceremonies had been, and the memorial services: something small trying to stand in for something enormous. It went on a long while, and Draco repeated a lot of things she told him to, and the rest of them said “Aye,” and “Amen,” in the right places when she told them to, and then finally she said, “Lord, vouchsafe thy blessings upon thy servant our king,” and put the crown on his head.

Draco staggered underneath it, so heavily he sank down on a knee, clutching the edge of the altar with a gasp, and there was a sudden lurching electric jolt of connection that ran through Harry’s entire body as if he’d just been plugged into a live socket.

He surged to his feet and found himself shouting, “Long live the King!” with everyone else in the church, without meaning to, like a hand had closed round his throat and was squeezing the words out of him. When it let him go, he jerked to look over at Hermione and Ron—shocked and panting just like him—and when he looked back, Draco was slowly and shakily pushing himself up onto his feet. He stood at the altar trembling for a moment. Harry could see his face a little from the side; Draco looked white and sick, and he was blinking away a glassy sheen of tears. No one moved or made a sound, only Narcissa, who had got out of her seat and come a couple of steps up towards the altar, her hand outstretched and tears running down her face.

Draco was breathing hard, in ragged heaves. He turned around and came down the steps slowly, carefully, his head wobbling a little, as if he was having to make an effort to keep it balanced on his neck with the crown on top. He made it down to his mother, and to the aisle. Goyle and Blaise Zabini got up and came around him and supported his arms. He stopped a moment with his eyes shut, leaning on them, and then he shuddered all over and straightened carefully again, bringing himself into a rigidly straight line, and then he took his hands off their arms and strode off down the aisle more steadily. Narcissa followed him, one step behind on Pansy’s arm, the small knot of Slytherins at his heels—Goyle, Zabini, Theodore Nott—and they were out the doors and back in his carriage before even the reporters had managed to catch their breath, dust kicking up behind the wheels as it flew off.

#

Two days later, Shacklebolt called Harry and Ron into his office. He looked tired. Having hundreds of spells and magical artifacts suddenly start working again, smack in the middle of all the workarounds everyone had knocked together around them, was temporarily causing almost as many problems as the original failures.

“Draco sent an owl this morning,” he said, and showed them the note: My house is being invaded by reporters on an hourly basis: is it too much to ask for you to do something about it, or shall I let the mandragora have them?

Harry read it silently. Of course, Draco couldn’t chase them off himself. He couldn’t do magic anymore. “I’ll go.”

“I am afraid I think we need to do more than merely chase off a few trespassing reporters,” Shacklebolt said. “I think—we will have to create a royal guard.”

“To look after Draco Malfoy?” Ron said, revolted.

“Ron,” Shacklebolt said, “given the recent events, I am not sure any of us want to find out what would happen if the high king should die without an heir. Naturally I would rather only ask for volunteers for the duty. But…under the circumstances, those are likely to be few. Unless someone goes first.”

“I’ll do it,” Harry said. Ron scowled at him and muttered, “Fine, I will too.”

“I’ll go to the Manor with you,” Hermione said, when they told her. “I’m sure I can repair the wards on the house now, and those should work to keep most people out.”

The grounds of the Manor were already looking better in all the ways that money could buy: a small army of gardeners was having at the overgrowth with machetes, and the broken windows had been mended. Pansy Parkinson was in the hall sleeping on a sofa in rumpled robes; she started up when they came in, rubbing a hand over her face. “What do you want?” 

“We’re—Shacklebolt sent us,” Harry said, taken aback. “As a guard.”

“Three days late, and didn’t bother to ask Draco who he’d like for the job?” she said contemptuously, as if it were obvious Draco needed guards, which Harry guessed maybe it ought to have been. “Why am I not surprised.”

“Death Eaters can’t be choosers,” Ron said. “Sorry, were you looking for work?”

“Some of us know what an oath is, Weasel,” she said, and then the room seemed to lurch round them as Draco said, “Never mind, Pansy,” from the upper landing of the stairs. He was wearing stark robes again, dark grey and plain. He didn’t come downstairs the rest of the way, just looked down his nose at them. “The eastern wall has been damaged, and the gates are broken. I trust you can work out how to repair them?” he said coolly, and then he vanished away upstairs again.

They fixed the gates and rebuilt the wall, and then Hermione wove complex warding spells over the borders while Harry and Ron spent the rest of the day playing catch-and-release with reporters, all of whom begged and pleaded for just one photo of the new-crowned king. Apparently no one had actually got any during the ceremony, except a few blurry shots of Draco’s back disappearing into the carriage.

“I can’t believe they’ve just got the presses working again after six months and the only thing they can think of to print is photos of Malfoy,” Ron said sourly, when they reported back to Shacklebolt after. “If the papers are that hard up for material, they should just close up shop for good.”

“Monarchy has a certain romantic appeal, even among those who might otherwise know better,” Shacklebolt said, frowning, “and Draco’s reputation is far less marred than his father’s. I think it might be just as well if the papers do not get their photographs.”

“We can’t keep him locked up in the Manor,” Harry said.

“I don’t see why not,” Ron said. “Where’s he got to go? He can’t Apparate or Floo, anyway.”

He sounded pleased about it. Harry looked away. Shacklebolt said, “Fortunately, the question has not arisen. So long as Draco himself is content to remain on his grounds, let us make it our business to keep them free from intrusion.”

“If you want him to stay in, we might want to let him pick his own guard,” Harry said after a moment. “Pansy Parkinson was there—it looked like she and some of his friends were already taking turns hanging round to help keep the reporters off.”

Ron snorted. “Much use they’d be against anything actually dangerous.” It was a fair point; Harry certainly knew who he’d have wanted watching his back, but he could also see why it wouldn’t make you feel entirely comfortable, being protected by people who would’ve just as soon been guarding your prison cell.

“Perhaps a combined patrol would serve best,” Shacklebolt said.

He put Harry in charge of the whole thing. A dozen more of the Aurors grudgingly agreed to help when he asked them, and Shacklebolt let Draco choose a dozen of his friends to match, who came mostly from their old Slytherin classmates. Harry set up a rotation that put one of each group on duty together, day and night. It took him a week of tedious Floo calls and letters back and forth—he missed Hedwig painfully all over again, though Pigwidgeon did his best—to work out a schedule that suited everyone long-term. The Aurors all had other duties they minded a lot more, and Draco’s rich Slytherin friends had social obligations, which were apparently just as important in their opinion. When Harry had finally finished, he looked at it with relief, glad to be done, and then he made a face and reluctantly took it with him to his own shift the next morning.

He half expected Draco to throw objections in the way just to spite him, but Draco only looked the rota over briefly and inclined his head and handed it back. He was sitting in the library by one of the large windows, thrown open to the formal gardens in the back of the house; a team of groundskeepers were fighting valiantly with Blasting Charms against the furious thrashing arms of the mandragora that had gone wild and taken over an entire quadrant. It was fully large enough to have devoured any number of reporters. Above them the sun was shining and you could see for miles across the estate, small puffs of white cloud scattered across a blue sky all the way to the dark woods on the border, an invitingly mysterious line along the horizon. It made Harry’s hands itch for his broom—he’d gone flying for pure joy just the other day, for the first time in months—except abruptly he found himself thinking that Draco couldn’t do that anymore, either.

Harry looked away from the window. “We’ve got the perimeter secured again. We’ve fixed the gates, too. Hermione wants to put an inner fence round the gardens all the way up to the house—it would be a good support structure for a ring of defensive spells.”

“As long as the Ministry’s sparing no expense, you might as well.” Draco smirked, mirthless. “The whole nation is hanging on my weakest breath, after all. Has Shacklebolt begun plans for the royal wedding yet? Will I get a say in that, do you suppose?”

He sounded more resigned than mocking. Harry eyed him. “Watch out, Malfoy, someone might think you actually meant it.”

Draco looked away, his mouth thin and hard. “Why not? The camel’s down, Potter; I’m not going to strain at a gnat.”

Harry almost told Ron and Hermione about it that night, meaning to share it as a joke, but somehow the words didn’t make it out. Hermione had packed away all her stacks and stacks of books and started in on a new round of research: fortification magic. In two weeks she’d already demolished the last half-century of received wisdom and the floor of her bedroom was covered with diagrams of vast elaborate defensive networks, the Manor sketched roughly at the center of all of them, like she meant to try and build Draco a replacement for the magic he couldn’t use to protect himself anymore. Her hair was more of a bushy bird’s nest than usual, and she only spoke distractedly at dinner.

Meanwhile Ron was doing his best to stay disgusted and angry about having had to crown a Malfoy, but he was a little too loud about it, crumpling the paper ostentatiously to throw it into the fire when he came across Pansy Parkinson, a member of the high king’s guard, was at the Rosiers’ party this weekend, as if he’d ever even looked at the social pages before, except by accident looking for the Quidditch reports. “If anyone ever calls me a member of the high king’s guard, there’s going to be hell to pay, I’ll tell you that,” he said, stomping away. “I can’t believe I’m having to spend time babysitting Malfoy instead of actually doing anyone any good.”

Harry was sitting on the sofa in the living room. He let his head sag down over his hands. He’d filled in most of the gaps in the schedule with himself: it didn’t leave him a lot of time to do any other work, not even helping Splinched drunks and catching wild Erumpents. He still wanted to be doing something meaningful, too, but it felt like—he didn’t have the right to want it. Not anymore. Because he hadn’t been willing to do the thing that he’d helped force Draco to do.

#

He was on duty at the Manor again two days later, with Blaise Zabini this time. Harry had also made a point of assigning himself most of the slots opposite Blaise, who had a really special gift for provoking people into getting violent with him. He’d got three students suspended for fighting during their school years, without so much as a warning on his own record. He was really good at Shielding Spells, so he took the minimum necessary number of punches to get his target into trouble and then threw one up to protect himself from any more damage and waited for authority to arrive with punishment. But Blaise stayed mostly civil with him: presumably he figured that Harry could get away with beating him up.

They were patrolling the perimeter of the inner fence that was just going up—well, Harry was patrolling it, and Blaise was strolling through the gardens vaguely in his vicinity, poking at the freshly replanted flowerbeds and occasionally coming close enough to throw out a half-heartedly rude remark—when the back door opened and Draco came out, frowning.

“Fancy a walk?” Blaise called to him. “It’s almost possible to get round the estate without anything trying to kill you again.”

Draco just said peremptorily, “I need to ride out to the woods,” and turned for the stables. The long building had escaped the encroachment of the gardens, possibly because the plants had been nervous about the inhabitants. It held a row of alarming black horses with unnaturally red nostrils and eyes who all started snorting challengingly and baring their teeth when they came in. The tack was hung by their stalls, and Draco stopped by the first one and reached automatically for a wand that wasn’t in his sleeve anymore. His lips flattened, and he turned and waved an impatient hand at the saddle.

“Draco, it’s not that I don’t adore enormous brutish animals who enjoy the occasional taste of human blood, but is this really necessary?” Blaise said, looking faintly anxious.

“Do you want me to make it a royal command?” Draco sneered. “Come on, saddle them and stop cringing, it’s embarrassing.”

“Er,” Harry said, eyeing the saddle, which had a lot of buckles and straps, “how do you—”

“Wonderful,” Draco said. “Perhaps we’ll get there by mid afternoon.”

Harry lost his reins after five minutes and spent the rest of the ride grimly hanging on to the mane. He forgot to ask why Draco suddenly wanted to go riding out to his woods, until they got close and the horses slowed, snorting, and he saw the knot of five centaurs standing just inside the shadow of the trees. He blinked.

Draco reined in many lengths away. “Well? What do you want?” he said warily.

The first of the centaurs stepped forward. He was taller than Firenze, with a dappled grey body and a long grey beard, his hair shot with white. “We have a grievance.”

Draco crossed his arms over his chest. “Shocking.”

“The high king swore to us all the deep forests of Dornoch, to the north, to our use without intrusion, so long as his line endured,” the centaur said. “Long have we patrolled our borders, and kept those without magic from entering our lands. Yet still wizards come, and raise up their houses without our consent; they take our game and gather our fruits and cut our trees.”

Draco was eyeing them incredulously. “What do you expect me to do about it? If you’re under the impression anyone’s actually obeying me just because they shoved a crown on my head, you’ve gone sadly astray. Submit a complaint to the Minister for Relations with Magical Creatures.”

“The high king promised us,” the centaur repeated, without batting an eye, and the whole pack of them wheeled and galloped straight away into the woods without another word.

Draco wore a look of strong indignation the whole way back to the house, and when Harry went upstairs—limped upstairs, actually—at the end of his shift, he found Draco pacing the floor frowning. He looked up when Harry came in and said abruptly, “Will you tell Shacklebolt to look into it?”

“Yeah?” Harry said, surprised; he’d been meaning to anyway, but he hadn’t expected Draco to ask him to.

A flicker of what might have been relief went across Draco’s face, and then he threw himself back into his chair and waved a hand, airily dismissive. “Do that, then. And for Merlin’s sake take a riding lesson or twenty if you’re going to be hanging round here. It’s the only way I can get anywhere now, unless I have them haul out the carriage.”

Shacklebolt did look into the centaurs’ claim, and sure enough, there were some ancient crumbling records that said something about it, if you squinted at them sideways, except they were thirteen hundred years old. Meanwhile, after the Statute of Secrecy had been established in 1689, the Wizengamot had bought up Dornoch Forest from the various lords who technically owned the land—it hadn’t been especially valuable, as the centaurs were killing or chasing out any unwary Muggles who went in, giving the place a bad name—and had been selling off plots ever since. By now there were eight hundred wizards and witches living in the area, and most of their families had been there for centuries.

“We can’t force them to leave their homes,” Shacklebolt said. “But there’s still considerable land to the north that hasn’t been developed. We’ll offer it to the centaurs.”

Harry wrote to Hagrid about it, hoping to pass the offer along through Firenze, but Hagrid wrote back pessimistically that it wasn’t worth even trying. You can try telling them you’re giving ’em land, but from their way of looking at it, you’ve taken it away. I wouldn’t count on ’em taking it well, Harry.

Draco didn’t take it well either, bafflingly, since it wasn’t as if he liked centaurs at all. “They weren’t lying,” he said angrily. “They were given the land!”

“Yeah, well, the Wizengamot took some of it back,” Harry said, tightly; he didn’t like having to defend the argument himself, much less to Draco of all people. “I’m not saying it wasn’t wrong, but Shacklebolt can’t order hundreds of wizards to up and leave their ancestral homes because it turns out King Arthur gave the land to the centaurs a thousand years before they got it, five centuries ago.”

Draco just stared at him, hands clenched by his sides, and then he whirled away and started pacing the library like a zoo animal stuck in a too-small cage. Harry stared for a moment, and then left him to it, but when he came back to the house for another shift the next morning, the carriage was in the drive. Draco was in the hall with Pansy Parkinson next to him—and he was wearing the crown.

“We’re going to the Wizengamot,” he said, and wouldn’t say another word to Harry the whole way there. Harry went along with it uncertainly: the Wizengamot was in session, and any citizen had the right to petition them. Anyway, he didn’t see what harm Draco could do. He made a small shrug in Shacklebolt’s direction when Draco came out onto the floor with the crown on. Everyone stared, and the open-mouthed clerk forgot to ask Draco what his petition was, which was probably just as well, because as it turned out, it wasn’t exactly a petition.

“In the year 862, the whole of Dornoch Forest was granted to the centaurs by the high king,” Draco said, talking very fast. “The Wizengamot had no right to contravene that gift. Any wizard who continues to trespass upon their lands has broken the king’s law.” The whole room was gawking at him now, and Harry saw a lot of faces he knew going purple, surprise moving straight to indignation. The murmur was at audible levels, and Draco gulped a breath and finished, loudly, “They have one week’s time to vacate the lands they have invaded, before I will declare them oathbreakers, and outside the Compact, to bear whatever consequences that brings. I suggest the Wizengamot consider how this body should compensate them for giving them the false assurance that they could make their homes in the Forest.”

He turned on his heel and swept out of the room, his shoulders rigidly straight, ignoring the storm of shouting that chased him down the corridor. Harry was aghast himself, and even Pansy was gaping; they both had to run after him to catch up. “Are you out of your mind?” Pansy was squawking at him as Harry grabbed the carriage door and swung himself inside just as it closed. He landed and demanded, “What on earth were you thinking?” Draco shot them both a furious, vaguely queasy look from where he’d sunk back against the seat cushions, and Harry abruptly realized that he was—scared shitless, actually. “Wait, what are you doing it for?”

“I had to!” Draco bit out. “I couldn’t breathe, you bastard.” He jerked the crown off his head and stared down at it. “You don’t even understand what this means,” he added bitterly, and Harry realized in slow alarm that he didn’t, at all.

#

The uproar hadn’t died down any by the time Harry got back to the Ministry and found Shacklebolt and Hermione in conference with Glaudisa and half a dozen researchers, who’d all reached the conclusion that Draco could, in fact, toss individual people out of the Compact. “For just cause, not willy-nilly,” Hermione said. “And I don’t think it’ll have the same effect on them as if the whole Compact had gone from underneath all of us—the general stabilizing effect would still keep working round them. They could still use the Floo, or anything like that. But it would almost certainly undermine the strength and reliability of their own spells, and—well—their children…”

“If I may say something more urgently to the present point,” another of the scholars put in, “even if nothing whatsoever happens to their magic, our original peace treaty with the centaurs was made by King Arthur. If the high king throws the citizens of Dornoch Forest out of the Compact, the centaurs will certainly consider them out from under the treaty’s protection and fair game for direct assault.”

“And then the Wizengamot will have to decide between standing by, and fighting a war with the centaurs,” Shacklebolt finished. “Damn him.”

“Look,” Harry said, “this is going to sound odd, but I don’t think Draco actually wants to do this. I think the Compact is making him, somehow. He said he couldn’t breathe.” He looked at Hermione.

She shoved her hands into her hair. “He’s probably not lying,” she said after a moment. “Part of the coronation was an oath to uphold the high king’s law. He might be under a compulsion.”

“I don’t care if he wants to do it or not!” Ron said. “The point here is Draco Malfoy just walked into the Wizengamot and started making threats like he’s actually the high king and not just a slimy treacherous git who belongs in prison if he belongs anywhere! This is why we shouldn’t have let him anywhere near a crown in the first place.”

There was a round of murmuring agreement, and Harry said sharply, “Except what he’s doing is protecting the centaurs! Before we all start yelling about him abusing his position, can we admit for a second that he’s right, and we’re the ones in the wrong?”

It was a really weird argument to be having, defending Draco Malfoy for throwing around his newly-crowned weight like that very idea wasn’t guaranteed to turn Harry’s stomach. But there was no way around it. Kicking eight hundred wizards out of their homes wasn’t going to be anything like painless, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do, at least as compared to telling the centaurs to shove it.

The first thing Draco said the next morning when Harry came in was, “So what are they going to do to me?”

“What?” Harry said, stopping at the library door.

Draco glared at him. “I’m under no illusions of how that went over with the Ministry, Potter. What are they going to do to me?”

“Er, well, Shacklebolt wants it to be clear that there’s not to be any more dramatic scenes in the Wizengamot. If there’s something that has to be done, you bring it to him.” Draco just waved his hand beckoning impatiently for more. “That’s it,” Harry said.

Draco sat. After a moment he said, warily, “What are they doing about Dornoch?”

“They’re—Shacklebolt is sending a team of negotiators to the centaurs to buy or trade the land from them, and if they won’t agree, then—the Ministry will compensate the owners for having to move.” Draco was staring at him by then, and Harry felt like he had to say something else. “It was the right thing to do.”

“Oh,” Draco said, and his voice cracked twice, in wavering relief. He looked away hurriedly and picked up his book again and started pretending to read it, but Harry could see his hands still trembling hard enough to make the whole book shake.

#

Harry got woken up out of a sound sleep at midnight two weeks later by a panicked Floo call from the guards on duty at the Manor. “There’s a whole pack of hags at the gates here, Harry!” Ernie MacMillan blurted out of the living room fireplace. “They say they want to see the king. And there’s three trolls with them!”

“Don’t tell me King Arthur signed a treaty with the hags,” Ron groaned: the call had woken him up, too.

Harry let Ernie pull him through the Floo and went down to the gates: Draco was already there, and the hags were jammed up against the iron bars all talking at him at the same time, complaining that they were respectable hags who kept the king’s peace and had never eaten a single tender delicious baby in their lives—“Not once!” one of them yelled reproachfully from the back, as though it wasn’t fair she’d never had the pleasure—but they were still hounded relentlessly because of the bad reputation of the other criminal sort of hags, and now what with Voldemort’s fall the persecution had got even worse, and they’d been chased out of their hidden enclave in the Welsh hills by a pack of hunting wizards, who had also slaughtered the little herd of sheep that produced their supply of lamb and the wool to knit jumpers they sold to passing Muggle tourists for the money to buy fresh liver, and now they hadn’t anywhere to go and they were all starving and they appealed to the king for justice.

Draco was staring at them all incredulously. When Harry showed up he glared at him and hissed, “Hags asking me for justice, it’s like some sort of hideous joke,” and turned back and demanded, “And what are the trolls doing here?”

“Oh, they’re good lads, sire,” the chief hag said, while the others nodded vigorously. “They can’t talk much, but they chop our wood and carry our water and they’re ever so good with the carding. They’ve been with us nigh on twenty years, never a spot of trouble out of them; all they want’s a bite of mutton now and then, but not a wizard’ll let them alone.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Draco said. The trolls nearly came up to the top of the gates and their enormous misshapen faces were full of teeth like jagged rocks. He turned and glared at Harry. “Well?”

“Er,” Harry said. “What d’you want me to do?”

“Your job, you nitwit: keeping the king’s peace! Someone’s burnt up their houses and killed their herd. Property destruction is still a crime on the books, last I checked.”

“Um, right,” Harry said, a bit bemusedly. The next morning, he did find the still-smoldering ruins of the enclave, and when he traced the magic to a nearby village, he found a wizard pub tucked away through one of the large washing machines in the laundrette. There were a handful of regulars there who beamed when they saw him, shook his hand and bought him a pint he didn’t want at eleven o’clock in the morning, and proudly told him the whole story of how they’d just rooted out a nest of hags and trolls in the mountains who’d been terrorizing the surrounding area for years.

When Harry went back to the Department and dug into the records, there had been some hag attacks on children reported in the area, and a few Muggle hikers had ended up in the local hospital with serious injuries after a fight with what they described as a giant living rock, which was a reasonable description of a troll.

“So we have only the word of the hags and trolls that there were other hags and trolls in the area who committed these crimes,” Shacklebolt said. “I am afraid I am not inclined to take it.”

“What use is your inclination?” Draco snapped restlessly: he’d come to Shacklebolt’s office this time and had been pacing the floor while Harry reported in. “The hags aren’t lying: they haven’t broken the peace.”

Harry eyed him sidelong, and Shacklebolt paused. “And how do you know that, precisely?” he asked.

Draco made an impatient wave of his hand. “They came and asked me for justice! I know!” Shacklebolt hesitated, and Draco’s mouth tightened. “So actually it’s my word,” he sneered, “and you’re still not inclined. As though I’d be putting my neck out for a bunch of wart-festooned grotesques.”

“I am afraid it is not a matter of my inclination alone,” Shacklebolt said. “A court of law must decide the matter.”

“A wizard court of law, with a jury made of wizards, to decide a case between a group of wizards and a pack of hags and trolls,” Draco said. “Who can possibly guess how that will turn out.” He whirled and stalked out.

“Make sure he doesn’t try to take matters into his own hands again,” Shacklebolt told Harry, so he went after Draco and rode back to the Manor with him, both of them sitting silent in the carriage staring out opposite windows. Harry felt rotten. Not that he trusted Draco to either have some power to tell when people were lying or to report it accurately, but—he did trust Draco not to be sticking his neck out for hags and trolls, actually.

Who were all still camped on the Manor doorstep, just outside the gates, huddling in the shadow of a stand of dark trees; they all stood up as the carriage approached. Draco was staring out that side, and when the carriage stopped for the gates to swing open, he abruptly opened the door and got out. Harry jerked back from the other window and jumped out after him, but the hags had already gathered round, their wizened and gnarled faces turned up to him, silently demanding.

Draco looked down at them, his jaw tight. “The Ministry refuses you satisfaction.” Their faces all drew in on themselves like folding pockets, shadows gathering in the folds and wrinkles, and then he ground his teeth and added, “So I’ll give you sanctuary on my own lands, instead. There are woods in the north east of the estate, with good water.”

Harry spent the rest of the day blankly following around as Draco set the hags and trolls up on the Malfoy lands. He even sent a deeply displeased Blaise out to buy them a new herd.

“What the hell do I know about sheep?” Blaise complained, and in revenge came back two hours later with a flock of pashmina goats imported from India. “So sorry, couldn’t tell the difference,” he said insincerely.

“You could have guessed from the difference in price,” Draco said, glaring. The hags were already cooing over the goats and stroking their sides, so sending them back didn’t look likely.

“Well?” Draco said bitterly to Harry, as they walked back to the Manor afterwards. “Did I stay within acceptable bounds? That is what you were tagging along for, wasn’t it—making sure I didn’t do anything that might upset the Wizengamot?”

“No,” Harry said at first. It just hadn’t occurred to him to leave, even though he realized belatedly it was Flora Pringle’s shift—except of course that wasn’t true. “Er—yes,” he admitted, and looked away.

“It should make you lot happy for me to put up a pack of hags on my own land—makes me look even more delightfully vile, doesn’t it,” Draco said. “Not that I’m in any real danger of rehabilitation, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. People do get stupid and romantic about kings, after all.” He slammed into the house, and Harry stayed outside, feeling weirdly rotten all over again.

#

He managed to avoid speaking to Draco for a couple of weeks after that, keeping to the borders on his patrols, only catching a glimpse or two of him at the library windows, and once saw him at the front doors, seeing off yet another Healer who’d come to take a look at Lucius: a small Korean woman who shook her head to Draco with a regretful air before turning away. She drew the shape of a doorway in the air with her wand, lines of thick green smoke that lingered briefly in place, and she walked through it and vanished. Draco stood mouth downturned watching the smoke dissipate up through the orange-red of the turning leaves, and Harry stood at the gates watching him, until he turned and went back into the house and shut the door again.

“Are we going to actually do some patrolling on this patrol, or are we going to just hang about in the gardens snooping on our beloved monarch?” Blaise said. “It’s all the same to me, I’d just as soon stretch out on one of those nice ornamental benches.”

“Come on,” Harry said, irritated with Blaise and with himself; he had no idea why he’d been staring. He didn’t care if Lucius Malfoy never got well; it wouldn’t have felt fair if he did.

Two nights after that, Harry got a call at home over the Floo from Gripfang of all people, who asked how soon his next guard shift was. “Er, why are you asking?” Harry said warily, running a hand over his face.

“I have a message to deliver to the king,” Gripfang said.

“Why do I need to be there?”

“You don’t,” Gripfang said.

“Right,” Harry said under his breath. “I’ll go over now, shall I?” Gripfang nodded.

“And if the message he wants to deliver is that he wants to blast me in front of you and destroy the Compact in one go?” Draco inquired sarcastically, barefoot in a dressing gown, after Harry had knocked on his bedroom door to rouse him.

“Then I stand there watching while Hermione’s Reflective Shielding Globe Charm deflects whatever he throws at you back in his face, and call the goblins to come cart away whatever’s left,” Harry said. “Nothing is going to hurt you inside the inner perimeter of the grounds anymore unless you stab yourself, and I wouldn’t lay odds on that working, either.”

“I’ll consider myself lucky if I’m not tempted to try it sooner rather than later,” Draco said, and slammed the bedroom door. He came down to the Great Hall ten minutes later wearing black robes and the crown, and he demanded Harry drag over a massive carved chair so he could sit himself on it at one end of the hall like a giant ponce, but Gripfang seemed to approve more than otherwise, or at least he bowed after he came down the room to Draco.

“Well?” Draco said. “What’s the earth-shattering message?”

Gripfang brought out an arrow and said without ceremony, “We declare war,” snapped the arrow in half, and threw the pieces at Draco’s feet. Then he bowed again, and turned and walked away. Draco gawked at his back, and Harry had a shocked gaping moment himself before he shot after him and caught Gripfang in the entry hall.

“Gripfang!” he said. “What the hell? We just got rid of Voldemort, and now you’re starting a—is this because Draco was a Death Eater?” 

Gripfang looked at him. “You have not learned much of goblins, Harry Potter.”

“Then tell me something I should know,” Harry said grimly.

“We are not fools who declare war when we think our enemies are strong,” Gripfang said. “Your forces have been weakened. Your Clan-Chief is young and unproven. We choose to see what he is worth. I am going now, unless you mean to kill me?”

“What? No!” Harry said.

Gripfang nodded equably. “May we not meet upon the field of battle.” He turned and went out the doors.

“I don’t believe this,” Harry said out loud, and went back inside to get the arrow to take to Shacklebolt.

“How sure are you of the Manor’s defenses?” Shacklebolt asked Hermione. “If their plan is to take out the Compact by killing Draco—”

“That would make absolutely no sense whatsoever!” Hermione said. “The goblins would suffer, too. They’re not in the Compact themselves, they never accepted Arthur’s overlordship, but they’ve definitely hooked their own anchors onto the magic of it. Loads of goblin-made artifacts failed during the troubles—”

“The goblins have shown themselves willing on previous occasions to cut off their noses to spite their faces,” Shacklebolt said. “If they expected us to suffer more than they would, they might still make the choice.”

“Well, even if they’d like to, they can’t,” Hermione said decisively. “If they spent a year or so working on some novel technique to pierce the new multifaceted defenses I’ve installed on the Manor, I expect they’d find something, but not any time soon. As long as Draco stays within the walls, he won’t get a scratch.”

That would have been more comforting if the goblins had actually tried to attack the Manor. They didn’t. Harry and Ron patrolled the Great Hall together all the rest of the day, and everyone was on tenterhooks, but the only vaguely threatening thing that happened was that reports came in that Gringotts had closed down abruptly, at the very instant of the declaration of war: all the doors and windows had vanished. A handful of clients and wizard staff members had been inside, and Fleur and all the Weasleys were desperate with worry for Bill, but nothing else happened.

And then the next morning at dawn, the goblins attacked a double handful of smaller wizarding communities round the country at once, with horrible systematic thoroughness: they herded all the underage and elderly wizards and mothers of small children into one building, then killed every last wizard of fighting age and razed all the other buildings to the ground. Before the sun was quite up all the way, Harry stood shaking almost blind with horror and rage in the midst of the smoking ruin of Glendough, where six wizard families had been cut down. He recognized one of the dead wizards by face: a Hufflepuff girl who’d finished Hogwarts just last year, as though being a certified wizard made her fair game, even though her brother only two years younger had been carefully spared.

“They’ve never done anything like this before,” Hermione choked out, a hand over her mouth. “The goblins don’t—they don’t just attack random villages and kill everyone! They take prisoners sometimes, but not—not this.”

Harry spent the rest of that day like every other Auror, Apparating round the country to every wizarding community he could, casting Alarming Charms all over the place. But trying to do the job only made it feel more impossible: there were so many little enclaves, knots of two or three families who’d moved in next door to one another to give themselves and their children wizard neighbors. There weren’t enough Aurors to protect them all. By the time Harry dragged back to the Ministry in the early dark hours of the morning, Shacklebolt had grimly started organizing a reprisal instead, and Harry realized they were staring down a war of attrition, waiting to see which side would find their losses intolerable first.

“We will need you in the morning,” Shacklebolt said briefly to the three of them. “Go home and rest as much as you can.”

Harry had been up and casting spells since first light, after only a few hours of restless sleep; he desperately wanted to fall into bed. But when they got home, there was a heap of letters piled on the mat, all of them from Draco, and the last one was a Howler: Harry accidentally stepped on it, and it opened up and started yelling at him savagely to “Come tell me what’s happening, you useless four-eyed git!”

“When he’s the one damned wizard in Britain who’s safe as houses, and doesn’t have to do a thing,” Ron said furiously, and incinerated it with a blast.

Hermione didn’t say anything; she just went silently into her bedroom and shut the door. Harry went into his own and fell across the bed. His whole body was aching like he’d been beaten. It wasn’t just the horror of what the goblins had done, and how he couldn’t stop them; it was having to hate them, having to plan ways to hurt them. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, and then he rolled over and stuffed his head into the pillow and then he groaned, muffled, and pushed himself up and went to the Manor.

The lights were still on in the library and Draco was pacing back and forth so frantically his robes were billowing around his legs. He looked up with a glare when Harry came in. “Where have you been?” he demanded.

“All over the country,” Harry said. “They hit six different villages. They killed—a lot of people.”

Draco looked away. “I—felt it,” he said harshly. After a long moment, he said almost angrily, “Is there anything—” and stopped, his hands clenched at his sides, like he couldn’t even finish the sentence, because it was too clear there wasn’t anything he could do. He couldn’t even cast a single Alarming Charm.

“You’re keeping the Compact together,” Harry said tiredly. “Would you really rather be outside making a target of yourself?”

Draco threw him a furious look like he did want that, even though what he said was, “Of course, Potter, naturally what I’ve always wanted is to find myself in the middle of a goblin war without magic.

Harry spent the next three horrible days chasing down one attack after another, mostly arriving too late to do any good. Even where they’d put in Alarming Charms that alerted them of an attack while it was happening, the enclaves and villages the goblins went after were small enough that by the time the Aurors arrived, it was almost over. Wizards knew by now that no quarter was going to be offered, so the fighting was getting bloodier; there were goblins and wizards strewn intertwined across the ground, charred and grotesquely twisted corpses. It was all the more horrible because now there were more goblins dead than wizards, five to one sometimes—a single wizard fighting to the death could do a hell of a lot of damage—and yet the attacks kept coming, as though the goblins were willing to heap their own bodies into mountains just to get at them.

Harry kept going to the Manor every night, giving up sleep he couldn’t afford to lose, just to tell Draco the details he could have read in the next day’s Prophet. He had to hide what he was doing from Ron and Hermione, because he knew they’d tell him to stop, and he didn’t actually have a sensible reason for it, but every time he went, telling himself it was the last time, he found Draco looking even more pale and desperate, his shoulders bowing in like there was some immense, invisible weight piling onto them, and Harry came back the next day after all.

On the fourth day, the goblins attacked the Ministry itself. Harry was on his way back to the Department of Aurors at first light when he saw the cloud of dust rising and Apparated over to find a gaping crater in the middle of the ground floor and people running and screaming in every direction as goblins in armor came pouring out, throwing magical knives that killed with a slice, cutting down anyone in reach. Harry blasted half a dozen of them and managed to shout the less panicked wizards into forming a defensive line. After another six Aurors banged in to join him, the goblins retreated back into the depths, leaving behind a scene of carnage, bodies strewn everywhere.

The goblins collapsed the tunnel in after themselves, but a few minutes after they had vanished, there was a stirring among the rubble. Harry whirled around, his wand out, he and every other wizard ready to blast away, but a flash of red hair stopped him. He shouted, “Don’t cast!” as Bill Weasley and two other Gringotts curse-breakers struggled gasping out of the rubble, covered with dust. They’d fought their way out of the vaults and into the goblin tunnels and hidden there as best they could until they’d caught a glimpse of daylight and waited until the goblins retreated to try and break their way out.

“No, forget that, I’ve got to see Shacklebolt right away,” Bill said hoarsely, waving away the Healer trying to see to his crudely bandaged arm. “Harry, this isn’t a goblin-wizard war. This is a clan war.”

They all assembled in Shacklebolt’s war room not half an hour later: Bill hadn’t even washed the dust from his face and hair, and he looked like a blood-streaked ghost of himself talking. “You have to understand, the goblins don’t consider any of us combatants, normally,” Bill said. “I’m guessing they decided back in Arthur’s time that the high king is our Clan-Chief. Since we haven’t had one all these years, by their way of thinking we’ve all just been a bunch of pathetic clanless bastards, dangerous but not actually warriors. That’s why they used to take wizard prisoners—normally they consider that a hideous insult; there’s not a goblin warrior who’d let himself be taken prisoner by another, they’d cut their own throats first. But they haven’t been holding us to their standards of war.”

“And this is their idea of a standard of war?” Harry shouted at him. “They’re murdering people! They’re sneaking out of tunnels without warning—”

“It wouldn’t have been without warning!” Bill said. “They’d have sent someone, with an arrow or a spear—” Harry was staring, and Bill saw it and nodded. “That’s how a clan war works. They formally declared war. Then they gave us a day to offer battle. When we didn’t, that’s when they started provocations. They’re trying to get us to come out and fight.”

“We have come out!” Ron said. “We’re chasing them all over the country! Anytime they stay long enough for a fight, we’ll give it to them, right down their bloodthirsty little throats—”

Bill was shaking his head. “We’re not coming out, not by their rules. Because I’ll bet every Galleon I’ve got that the instant war was declared, the first thing you did was make sure it was completely impossible to get to Malfoy.” Harry stiffened, and everyone around the table straightened. “That’s as much as our saying that our own Clan-Chief isn’t any good, we can’t risk him meeting theirs in a fight—but we’re still calling him a Clan-Chief. To a goblin, that’s the equivalent of mortally insulting their Clan-Chief and for that matter every other Clan-Chief alive. We’re spitting in their faces every second we don’t give them a go at Malfoy.”

“Wait a minute,” Hermione said. “You’re saying we need Draco to meet some goblin chief in single combat? He’s given up his magic! He’ll get carved apart in five minutes, and then the Compact will collapse—”

“No, the goblins don’t want a single combat,” Bill said. “A clan war is a chance for goblins to change status, climb the clan ladder; they want a battle. But Malfoy’s got to be there—he’s got to take the field.”

He and Shacklebolt started drafting a formal challenge to send to the goblins, to give them a time and place, and Harry and Ron and Hermione Apparated over to Malfoy Manor to get Draco. “And what are we supposed to do when he tells us to go to hell, he’s not going out on a battlefield when he’s nothing but a sitting duck with every last goblin trying to come for him?” Hermione said, with heat, as they went up the drive. “If Shacklebolt—if either of you,” she added, with a militant sweep of her eye at them, “think that we’re dragging him out in front of a goblin army when he can’t so much as defend himself—”

“That’s why we’re going to be guarding his sorry arse the whole time!” Ron said. “You can’t really think that we ought to let him say no, he’d rather sit here safe and quiet while the goblins keep hacking apart innocent people across the country—”

Harry didn’t get into either side of the argument. He had a terrible certainty that Draco wasn’t going to say no, even if he was going to be a sitting duck. That Draco wouldn’t be able to say no. They were at the front door, but before they could reach for the handle, it flew open, and Pansy Parkinson burst out in a panic and grabbed Harry’s arms, blurting, “He’s gone!”

She recovered enough to be rude again quickly. “How in Merlin’s name should I know?” she snapped to all his questions. “You tell me where he’s gone! You’re the one who keeps coming here driving him wilder every night, like there’s anything he can do out there besides get himself killed.” Ron and Hermione looked puzzled at Harry. “He shut himself in the library at dawn this morning. I didn’t go in until just now, when he didn’t come out for dinner. He could’ve been gone for hours.”

“The useless git’s going to get himself killed!” Ron said.

“Come on, let’s start looking for a trail,” Harry said grimly. “He can’t Apparate, and Pansy would’ve seen the carriage being brought round, so either he’s on foot or he’s riding.”

One of the horses was out of its stall. They threw saddles on the rest and followed the trail, which Hermione highlighted with a quick Tracker Charm. They rode an enormously long time, the horses racing southward, billows of yellow and red-brown leaves gathering in their wake. They picked up speed as the sun went down: the horses seemed to blend into the night, and the countryside blurred with their every stride. Shacklebolt had taken a risk and already sent the goblins the challenge, to avoid another dawn attack: the two armies were supposed to meet at first light, on Bodmin Moor, but if they couldn’t find Draco and bring him in time—

The sky was starting to get light along the edges when their horses suddenly began to slow, and straight ahead of them, the pink gleam of the Tracker Charm ran itself out at the heels of the missing horse. It was breathing hard, its sides heaving, and Draco was silhouetted just a few meters away, standing on the shore of a small lake. Harry hadn’t any idea how far they’d come, but they were in a sheltered valley somewhere, where the autumn wasn’t far advanced: leaves of green mixed with gold were spread thickly over the surface of the water, almost carpeting the whole thing.

“Draco!” Harry jumped down and ran to him.

Draco threw him a terrified, desperate look, but Ron caught up to them and drove it off, demanding, “What the hell d’you think you’re doing? Riding round the countryside for no reason in the middle of all this! Come on, there’s no time for this nonsense.”

“Go to hell, Weasley,” Draco snapped, jerking his arm free when Ron tried to get hold of it. “If you’ve any better ideas, it’s news to me.”

“What are you doing?” Hermione said, more puzzled, looking out over the lake.

“What do you think!” Draco said. “They didn’t declare war until I was crowned—isn’t it obvious I’m the one they want? They’re going to just keep slaughtering us until I come out and fight them.”

“Well, er, yes,” Hermione said, a bit blankly. “How—how did you find that out? And—wait, did you send them a challenge? Are they coming here?

“What are you talking about? Why would I send them a challenge? All I need to do is show up wherever they decide to murder some wizards next.”

“So why’d you come here, then?” Harry said, and Draco swallowed and looked out over the lake. The sun was limning the mountains along the eastern side, straight ahead of them, and suddenly it broke over the top and hit the dark water. Everywhere the leaves didn’t cover, the lake turned silver, and small waves of golden leaves went rippling away from around a single light flaring in the middle, painfully bright, as the tip of the sword came rising out of the water like it was piercing a hole into the world. They all stared as it lifted into the air, water streaming brilliant down its sides and over the dark hilt, the sun gleaming around it. There wasn’t a hand holding it up like in the stories: it was just floating there above the water, blazing with light.

“You’ve got to be joking,” Ron moaned in agony.

“Shut up, you idiot, and one of you conjure me a boat,” Draco said bitterly.

#

Harry Apparated Draco along with him to a hill overlooking the battlefield, Hermione and Ron right behind them. It was a stark contrast to the hidden sheltered valley: the low rolling hills of the moor were furred golden, and the bushes withered to deep brown, sharp under the grey sky. Every Auror and a host of able-bodied wizard volunteers were assembled and already fighting, dueling furiously against goblin blades and goblin armor. Draco stared down at the melee with a faintly green and nauseated cast. The goblins were a solid, disciplined mass, and at the far end, around the cavern mouth they’d opened straight through a granite slab, they’d set up a pavilion; a large goblin in dazzling gold-washed armor sat underneath it on a low chair, watching the proceedings, with a dozen others ranged round him. He had a really large axe.

“That’s got to be this Clan-Chief of theirs,” Ron said.

“You couldn’t have made me some armor while you were so bloody busy,” Draco said to Hermione. He gulped and then looked at Harry and said reluctantly, “Can you get me to him?”

Harry took a hard look at the battlefield. The wizards had been pounding the left side of the goblins’ force, and they’d shifted to meet it: he thought there was a way to hit them on the right flank and drive through. But the hole was going to close up behind them fast. “We’ll have to keep moving. I’ll be in the lead. Hermione—you take the rear. Keep them off our backs, and keep a shield round Draco. Ron, take my left flank, stay in line with Draco.” They nodded, drawing their wands, faces settling into determination. “Let’s go.”

He ran down the hill already firing curses, and started taking out goblins in narrow, controlled attacks, first one with a Blasting Curse, then the three who’d been closest—already dazed by the blast—with a Stunning Spell, clearing a narrow triangle of room they could drive forward into. In between the strokes, he used Expelliarmus against anyone who tried to come at him or Draco from his right, leaving Ron to cover their left sides. Goblin blades skittered blue sparks off the shield Hermione had put up round Draco, thrown daggers falling off uselessly.

Almost at once, the goblin ranks became a solid enveloping wall around them. Harry couldn’t tell how far through the mass they’d come, how far they had to go, but it didn’t matter. There was only one way to go. He kept fighting on, the rhythm of the battle sinking into his body. It was—terrible, but also simple; it was as clean a fight as he’d ever had in his life. They had to win not just for themselves but for the goblins, too; they were fighting to stop the war—to save everyone. He was driving a line straight to where they needed to go, and he had Ron and Hermione and—and Draco behind him. Harry could feel his presence, electric, like standing right next to a power station with waves of energy crackling over his skin.

And then—they broke through with the pavilion rearing up in front of them. The Clan-Chief was already standing up from his throne, holding out his hand for the massive double-headed battleaxe, which took two goblins to lift up to him, and his guard was charging. Harry took three of them with a wheeling loop of fire, jerked them out of the way howling with their armor melting. Ron blasted another two, and then they had to split to right and left to hold off the rest. It was automatic, a response to the way they were coming in, and Harry realized half an instant too late that the goblins had done it on purpose. They’d opened up room between him and Ron, exposing Draco, and the Clan Chief was coming straight at him as literally twenty goblins threw themselves bodily at Hermione to distract her, too.

Harry was about to turn back, even though he knew he’d take a bad hit if he did. But before he could move, Draco pulled out the sword. He’d been carrying it wrapped in his cloak, the whole way. It came out of the cloth blazing ferociously, like a sun had suddenly come out on the field, and all the goblins winced away, throwing up arms to cover their faces. The light caught in Draco’s silver-blond hair, and then he was shining too, brighter to unbearably bright, the crown a solid dark shape bound around the blaze of him, like—like there was some impossibly vast power in him that had to be held in. Harry couldn’t breathe himself suddenly, couldn’t fight; all he could do was look, a wave of sheer incoherent longing roaring over him, want a physical knot in his throat.

The Clan-Chief was standing in front of Draco, blinded like all the rest. The light was blasting him full-force, and Harry was swamped with a completely irrational surge of something that felt like jealousy—Draco was facing him—

The Clan-Chief made a wild swing, unable to see, his whole face squinted away. Draco jumped easily back out of the way, and then he brought down the blade in a messy overhand swing exactly like someone who had no idea how to use a sword. He didn’t have to be graceful about it, though: the sword took the entire head off the axe in a single ringing slice. Draco heaved the blade back up and landed it directly on the Clan-Chief’s shoulder, the edge easily parting the collar of armor covering his throat, and froze him in place with it.

“Surrender, and swear allegiance,” Draco grated out, and when the Clan-Chief hesitated added, “Or I’ll keep going until I find a goblin who will.”

The Clan-Chief stood motionless another moment, and then he slowly and heavily sank to one knee. “Hail, High King,” he said. “I will give you my oath.”

“For him and his clan!” shouted Bill Weasley faintly, from a distance, and Harry jerked round to see him and George leading a company of wizards in their direction from the front lines. “Make him swear for him and his clan!”

“You heard him,” Draco said sharply.

“For me and my clan,” the Clan-Chief said grudgingly.

“Swear you will keep the king’s peace, and accept the king’s justice,” Draco said.

“I swear,” the Clan-Chief said. “For me and my clan, so long as your line endures.”

Draco stood a moment longer, panting heavily, and then he drew the sword away. All round them, just like that, the goblins were already lowering their arms, and taking off their helms; one of the guard near Harry took off his, and was Gripfang. He nodded to Harry, who stared at him half blankly. It didn’t seem like it could be over.

Bill and George pushed through to them, and then Shacklebolt and half a dozen Aurors. They all froze into place as Draco turned away from the Clan-Chief, the sword still in his hand. The light had faded, the blade going dim, but his hair was still shining faintly like the sun visible from behind a haze of clouds. The grey cloudbank above them had even literally broken apart, thin slivers of blue beginning to appear, like a lingering brightness had come into the world. Nobody spoke for a moment that went on a little too long, like none of them could think of anything to fill it, and then abruptly Draco turned to Harry and said, “Kneel.”

Harry went to one knee before it occurred to him he probably ought to have had at least one thought about it first, and then Draco was thumping the sword down on his shoulder, a blow that somehow knocked the breath out of him, even though it didn’t actually hurt. The blade lifted over his head to strike his other shoulder, and then Draco said, “Rise, Sir Harry,” and it was ridiculous, except he also half wanted to cry.

#

Of course, as soon as Draco had publicly demonstrated that it was now once again possible to become a knight of the round table—albeit metaphorically; no one had any idea what had happened to the original table, and the table at the Manor was large but decidedly rectangular—it instantly became the life ambition of a wide swath of wizards, and it didn’t seem to matter to some of them that the slow, wary cleanup from the goblin war was still going on. On the wizard side, at least: Gringotts had reopened the afternoon of the very day of the battle, the goblins back at their desks as if nothing whatsoever had happened, except there were some younger ones replacing the ones who’d died, and the bank flag had been replaced by a coat of arms: a silver dragon segreant under a silver crown. Not many people were going in yet, though.

Not a week after the battle, Shacklebolt said irritably to Harry, “Ask Draco to come in tomorrow—we’ll need to discuss a list of honors before the other half of the wizards in Britain stop by to drop hints.”

Harry covered a yawn, nodding, and went over to the Manor the next morning. He tried not to be glad of the excuse to go back. He’d spent the intervening days working on the repairs at the Ministry, and helping Hermione install her new defenses there, and afterwards he’d sensibly been going home and going to bed, but—he couldn’t escape the uncomfortable sensation that there was something back in the Manor, waiting for him.

But the next morning he was up at first light to shower and shave. After he Apparated to the gates, he found himself walking down the drive faster than he meant to, but then he came through the front doors and something caught the corner of his eye and jerked him to a halt. The hilt of the sword was sticking up out of a tall porcelain umbrella jar next to the door, among a handful of umbrellas and brooms and walking sticks.

“I know,” Blaise said. He was lounging on the sofa across from the doors eating an apple. Harry frowned at him; he had a sense of something strange and yet oddly familiar looking at him, and after a second he realized, a bit indignantly, that Blaise had been knighted, too. “I can’t decide if it’s appalling or brilliant, personally,” Blaise went on, and Harry was about to say unquestionably appalling and realized that Blaise meant the sword. Which was also unquestionably appalling, actually.

“You’re keeping Excalibur in an umbrella stand,” he said flatly, facing Draco over his desk in the library.

“That’s where it belongs,” Draco said, without raising his head. He was writing letters.

“Mixed in with a golf umbrella and a broom someone’s forgot to throw on the rubbish heap?”

Draco looked up, cool and level. “Ready for use.”

Harry swallowed. “And if someone accidentally swaps it for a two-pound automatic from Tesco on the next rainy day?”

Draco snorted. “Have a go and see what happens. Mother’s tried to hang it on the wall three times already, she’s of your opinion about umbrella stands. Where have you been?”

“The Ministry,” Harry said, trying to be annoyed that Draco seemed to think he had a right to demand that information. “There’s still a lot of damage, and there’s a lot of wounded still out of commission.”

Draco frowned down at his desk. “I should visit St. Mungos, I suppose,” he said unenthusiastically.

Harry had an instinctive jerk of rejection, and opened his mouth to ask if Draco really thought anyone would want a visit from him, except—they probably would, since the battle, and then Harry realized to his horror that actually he was just having another moment of lunatic jealousy, as if he couldn’t stand—sharing Draco. “Actually, Shacklebolt wants you to come in,” he said instead, hurriedly. “To talk about doing a list of honors. There’s loads of people clamoring for knighthoods…” He trailed off. Draco’s head had come up again slowly, and he was staring at Harry hard, glittering. “What?”

Draco stood up and came round the desk. A slow, terrible thumping started against the wall of Harry’s chest, in time with every step, like something enormous was coming near and he was a puddle rippling with the shake of the ground. Draco leaned in dizzyingly close and said, low and level, “Go and tell Shacklebolt that if the Minister for Magic wants to see the High King of Britain, he can come to me. And if he wants a say in who is to be knighted, he can have a go at Excalibur himself while he’s here.”

He swept grandly past Harry, out into the corridor. Harry stood there a few moments longer before he shakily turned round and went back downstairs, his heart still pounding and his mouth dry. He wasn’t sure if he’d escaped something by the skin of his teeth, or if he was desperately sorry it had passed over. Then he actually consciously processed what Draco had said and nearly groaned out loud. Shacklebolt was going to love that.

And as if things weren’t as complicated as they could stand already, Gripfang was in the entry hall when he came down; Blaise had vanished. “What are you doing here now?” Harry demanded.

Gripfang looked up at him. “The High King sent for an ambassador.”

“An—” Harry was speechless.

Blaise appeared from another door. “His Majesty will receive you now,” he told Gripfang. “Come along. I hope we’ll see you for dinner tonight, Potter? Himself has been getting a bit tetchy about the AWOL,” he added, ushering Gripfang out and leaving Harry behind them, lost somewhere between outraged and unsurprised. He looked down at the sword poking out of the umbrella jar and told it resentfully, “Merlin’s got a lot to answer for,” before he girded his shoulders and went back to the Ministry.

#

“Is this some sort of joke?” Ron said loudly: as soon as Harry had reported in, Shacklebolt had called an emergency conference. “Why don’t we have a go at it! Not even a sword can actually have such rubbish taste it’ll go for Malfoy and not any other wizard.”

“It doesn’t work like that, and it wouldn’t do you any good if you could pick it up!” Hermione said. “It’s not a real sword. Well, it’s not!” she added, when everyone in the room stared at her. “It’s more like—a key. The power isn’t in the key itself, it’s in what the key unlocks, and you can’t just shove it in anywhere. The high king is the door that it’s made for.”

“And what’s behind the door, besides that useless git?” Ron said.

“You saw it!” Hermione said, and Harry shivered involuntarily, remembering that light, blazing out around a crack in the world, through a door standing ajar. “The Compact. The conjoined power of every wizard in Britain.”

“And now Draco can use that power?” Arthur Weasley said.

“He can’t use it like magic,” Hermione said. “He can’t cast spells with it, he can’t do anything for himself. It’s only available to serve the Compact. But—if he had Excalibur in his hand, and he was serving the Compact—well, I don’t think very many people would like to try and stand in front of him.”

Ron looked sick. “Anyone want to take bets on how long it’s going to take him to start telling everyone we’re to do exactly as he says, or else?”

“He can’t do that!” Harry said. “Like Hermione said, it has to be for reasonable cause. He can’t just run around doing whatever he likes. The Compact’s been forcing him to do things left and right.”

“Well, yes, except we’re not the ones who get to judge what’s just or not—we’re being governed by Merlin’s idea of what’s just.” Hermione said. “I’m fairly certain that Draco’s compelled to uphold all of the coronation oath—to keep the king’s peace, give justice, all that sort of thing. But that doesn’t mean he can’t also order us all to stand on our heads when the whim strikes him. He’s the king, he has the right to command obedience.”

“Why would Merlin hand any one person that kind of power—”

“Merlin wasn’t exactly a nice person!” Hermione said. “He helped Uther Pendragon rape Ygraine and murder her husband Gorlois, all to produce Arthur, and for that matter, the story about Morgan Le Fay seducing her own half-brother to beget Mordred, it’s all nonsense if you ask me: I’m sure Merlin Imperiused her into it. He needed to fix some trait into the bloodline of his high kings. He wanted Arthur’s heir to be a child of incest.”

“Ew,” Ron said, his face screwed up.

“And now that I think of it,” she added thoughtfully, “it’s entirely possible he added some kind of subtle compulsion to make the Malfoys so pureblood-mad, too. If you wanted them to stay a bit inbred, making them stick to marrying the handful of wizard families who’ve been around since the Compact, that’s a good way to do it.”

“All right, just hang on a minute!” Ernie MacMillan broke in protesting. “I know you’re Muggle-born, but it’s outrageous! This is Merlin you’re talking about! The Merlin, the greatest wizard of all time—”

“I’m not saying he was evil! He did all of it to create a lasting foundation for the entire wizarding world—he made all our lives possible, and he gave his own entire life to the work! He wasn’t selfish. But there’s a reason he was in Slytherin: it’s perfectly clear that he was willing to do anything whatsoever it took along the way, no matter the cost,” Hermione said.

“Er, wait a second,” Ron said. “The Compact—I thought you said the Compact’s what made the number of wizards start to grow, made it so there could be a school. How could Merlin go to Hogwarts and get sorted into Slytherin if the Compact wasn’t around yet?”

“He lived backwards!” Hermione said. “The Compact needed a lot of support at the start, but only a massively powerful wizard could cast it. So he turned himself round in time to do it—that way he could cast the Compact when he was nearly two hundred years old and at the height of his powers, and then he kept supporting it while he got younger and younger, until it was time for him to go to Hogwarts, which had been founded by then.”

Nearly everyone round the table had a deeply confused expression.

“Anyway,” she continued, “he certainly didn’t have the slightest objection to absolute monarchy as a system of government. Merlin wouldn’t bat an eye at Draco dissolving the Wizengamot and ruling by fiat. In fact, I expect he’d probably think we were all silly widgeons for plunking such an inefficient system on top of his beautiful design. He’d tell us we should all just accept the word of the high king as law and trust the Compact to keep him in reasonable bounds.”

Everyone was silent when she’d finished. Shacklebolt put his hands flat on the table. “We did not want to give Draco Malfoy a crown,” he said quietly. “Perhaps we did not realize the danger was so great as this, but none of us wanted to do it. We had no other choice. I think we have none now. Does anyone here wish to argue that we can trust his judgement and his self-restraint? That we can rely upon him to put democratic principles above his own pride and will?”

No one did; Harry wasn’t in the least tempted to speak up himself. The truth was, he realized helplessly, he didn’t have any objections to absolute monarchy either, not on these terms. The idea that Draco could point him at something and say go and fix that—and thanks to the Compact, he’d know that fixing it would be the right thing to do, and he wouldn’t have to worry about whether it was politically sound or how many people would complain—Harry wanted Excalibur slicing through the Gordian knots, and personally he didn’t even care if Draco made him pay for it by making him stand on his head once in a while in between.

But he didn’t say that, because it couldn’t work; he knew it couldn’t. Maybe if you had an Arthur—someone who’d willingly sacrificed himself for everyone’s benefit, someone that everyone loved and trusted. But Draco—even if you forgave him literally having been a Death Eater, on account of his father dragging him into it, he’d spent his entire life making enemies, sneering at anyone who wasn’t pureblood enough and rich enough. Nobody would ever want to follow someone like that, even if Draco was under a compulsion to be just. Ron would’ve resented Draco ordering him to so much as cross the road, and fair enough.

No one else said anything either, and after another moment, Shacklebolt nodded heavily. “Then we must act to preserve the liberty of the wizarding world. Hermione, how soon can you raise the time barrier?”

Harry looked round at her, confused. She looked unhappy, but she said, “It can only be activated at the moment between two days, so—at midnight tonight, I suppose.”

“What?” Harry said, just as Ron said, his whole face coming alight, “Hermione. You built in a trap.

“It’s not a trap!” Hermione said. “It’s a part of the defenses, the last resort. It separates the whole Manor out of the time stream. Our time keeps rolling on, but theirs just—stops. So the whole place becomes completely invulnerable. You simply can’t change anything without time, and any kind of damage would be a change. And nothing can go in or out, for the same reason.”

“Including Malfoy,” Ron breathed out, gazing at her worshipfully. “That’s brilliant.

“And we don’t think this is going to hurt the Compact?” Dedalus Diggle asked uncertainly.

“It shouldn’t at all,” Hermione said. “Draco’s going to be perfectly alive and well as long as the spell lasts.”

Harry couldn’t make a sound. He felt strange and sick. It was actually Justin Finch-Fletchley who said, “Er, I don’t want to be priggish about this or anything, but isn’t that—a spot of treason? What I mean is, we did all say Amen when we stuck the crown on his head, or at least I did.”

“How’s it treason to raise one of the defenses on the Manor?” Ron said, sententiously. “There won’t be a hair on his head hurt, sounds like.”

Shacklebolt raised a hand. “I do not mean to suggest this is an ideal solution. I only see no other alternative under the circumstances. If we do not restrain Draco, he will not restrain himself.”

Harry made himself speak, forcing it out of his throat. “So we made him take the crown to save the Compact, now you’re going to—bury him alive, or something—”

“It’s not going to be anything like that!” Hermione said. “Draco won’t even know anything’s happened. Time’s just going to stop for him. He’s not going to be suffering. In fact, at midnight, he’ll probably be asleep: he’ll just keep sleeping.”

“Oh, that’s all right, then!” Harry said. “How long are you planning to lock him up for? Since we’re deciding to be the wicked fairy now, is a hundred years going to do, or will it be forever? Seems too convenient to pass up, really. No one ever has to worry about the high king getting killed, having an heir, doing anything you don’t like—”

“Harry, listen to you!” Ron said. “What d’you want to do, then? He bloody made you of all people kneel to him like he was doing you a favor, you think he’s going to be shy about doing it to anyone else? This is Draco Malfoy we’re talking about! Off with their heads won’t have a thing on it!”

“Will both of you please stop being wildly dramatic!” Hermione said. “Of course we’re not going to lock him up forever! As though I’d do something like that!” Harry stared at her, wanting to be relieved, not quite able to let himself relax.

“We’re only going to take the Manor out of time for a short period,” Hermione continued. “A few months should do it, while we draft a constitution, and then we’ll bring the Manor back into time. Draco will wake up and look out his window, see it’s spring instead of fall, and then he’ll know that we’re not lying when we tell him we can lock him up if we have to. Then he signs the constitution, and we amend his formal oath as king to defend it.”

“And what if he says no?” Harry said.

“Then we lock him away for another six months and try again, until he changes his mind,” Hermione said firmly. “And no, I don’t like bullying him into it, but I like all of us getting shoved back to the Dark Ages underneath an absolute monarchy even less.”

“But—aren’t we getting ahead of things, here?” Justin said. “I’m not saying we should lump it if he were running around murdering people or something a la Voldemort, but so far he’s only asking for a bit of reasonable protocol! The Prime Minister doesn’t tell the Queen to drop by Downing Street when he wants to have a chat.”

“And you think it’ll stop at reasonable protocol, with Malfoy?” Ron said.

And Harry knew it wouldn’t. Even if Draco wanted it to, it wouldn’t. The Compact would drive him, and the Wizengamot would object, and sooner or later he’d take up the sword and say my way or else. Draco wouldn’t see anything wrong with it, either. So Harry didn’t say anything more, even while everyone else around the table argued themselves into it; he couldn’t. But he walked out afterwards still sick to his stomach, and he pretended he didn’t hear Hermione calling his name behind him.

Instead he Apparated to Hyde Park and sat on a bench emptily for hours, trying to find a way out that he could bear. He didn’t trust Draco, he couldn’t, but—he finally realized, letting his head sink into his hands, that he didn’t trust Shacklebolt either. He didn’t trust the Ministry or the Wizengamot. Not with this. Once Draco was locked up and the wizarding world made safe for everything to just keep rolling along the way they were all used to—he didn’t trust them to ever let Draco out, whatever Hermione said was the plan. The negotiations over the constitution would drag out for years, or they’d decide it wasn’t safe to give him a chance to escape, or they’d give Draco one chance to agree and then they’d lock him up forever—

The church bells started ringing across the park: seven o’clock. It was already full dark, and the air was cold, a first taste of winter on the wind. Harry stood up. After a moment, he Apparated to the Manor gates and slowly walked down the drive to the house. The windows were shining with golden light against the night, and everyone was already at table in the Great Hall when he came inside. It wasn’t only the Slytherins from the king’s guard, either; a handful of the more junior Aurors were there, too, the ones who’d been too young for Dumbledore’s Army. They gave Harry vaguely defiant looks like they thought he’d be angry that they were there. 

He didn’t really pay attention to any of them. He couldn’t. Draco was at the head, with his mother at his left hand, and the chair on his right was empty. His eyes followed Harry intently as he came in, and Harry went slowly down the room, and pulled out the chair, and sat down next to him. He took a deep breath. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. 

It was the only thing he could think of to do. If he was in here, locked away with Draco, then Ron and Hermione wouldn’t let the imprisonment go on forever, no matter what Shacklebolt or the Wizengamot wanted. And when the chance came, when the window opened—then maybe Draco would listen to him, because he’d stayed. It was the only middle road Harry had been able to come up with.

He didn’t expect to do anything but eat mechanically, and get through it all, and lie down on a sofa somewhere until the clock struck midnight. But the food that appeared on their plates tasted like—the memory of his first meal at Hogwarts, or maybe something earlier that he couldn’t even place. There was music playing from somewhere, soft and beautiful, and the whole hall was full of light. Everyone at the table talked and laughed: Blaise told half a dozen hilarious and only gently malicious stories; Evelyn Westminer sang; Harry even found himself talking to Pansy, who was on his other side, about how they’d got through the goblin forces, and she had a good suggestion for using Knockback Jinxes instead of Stunning Spells to clear a bit more room, if he ever had to do something like it again. It wasn’t that he suddenly liked them, but they all felt palpably—connected; like some odd enormously extended family.

Afterwards they went into one of the walled gardens, and there were gleaming fairies darting all over among the retamed hedges in the moonlight, humming songs to themselves and coaxing improbable pale-blue flowers to open from the old vines. Harry was bemusedly watching a couple of them skating over the surface of a fountain when the heavy thunderstorm-chill crawled up his back, and he straightened as Draco joined him.

“Tell me something, Potter, I’ve been wondering,” Draco said, leaning over to touch a ripple to the surface of the water. “Why did you come tonight?”

Harry swallowed. He could have confessed everything to Draco about the whole plot, and it still wouldn’t have answered the question. It wouldn’t explain why he’d walked away from everyone he loved to come here, to be at Draco’s side even if it meant being dragged out of time and standing against his friends. “I thought you wanted me to,” he said, desperately, but it was just an excuse.

Draco didn’t let him get away with it. He turned towards him, his eyes glittering. “I did.” He stepped in closer and reached up and caught Harry around the back of the head and said softly, insistently, “Why did you come?” Harry shuddered all over, the current flowing through him, and he grabbed Draco by the shoulders and kissed him. 

The fairies were interested, a crowd of them hovering overhead and giggling, but Harry didn’t care. He pulled Draco with him over a low hedge and onto one of the manicured trapezoids of lawn instead, and they fell to the grass together. Draco sprawled back underneath him, his hair shining faintly against the dark, and didn’t make a move to do any of the work himself, only watched with glittering eyes as Harry dragged his own robes off over his head, tossed his shirt after them. The air was crisp-cold on his skin, but he felt overheated anyway, already panting for breath. One moment went jumping to the next—a wordless Unfastening Charm rolling in his throat to get Draco’s robes out of the way, silver-and-pearl buttons undoing themselves one after another, too slowly—they had to have taken Draco ages to put on without magic—Harry shoved his pants down—Draco gasped again, and then again, and then Harry was in him, moving fast enough that he managed not to think about what he was doing until it was done and the terrible connection had become almost too strong to bear, shivering through him.

Draco had his hand gripped tight in Harry’s hair. “Why did you come?” he demanded again. He shut his eyes and shuddered as Harry moved on him, and then dragged his head down and kissed him. He held their foreheads together: they were sweating despite the chill, bodies straining against each other. “Why did you come to me?” he said again, a murmur, going low and almost tender, and Harry groaned against the bare skin of his shoulder and gave up the true answer, the one fighting to come out of him. “You’re my king,” he said, raw, and Draco breathed out one long satisfied sigh, shuddering beneath him.

They lay together heaving deep breaths in the grass afterwards, sweat still cooling on their skin. Harry had pillowed his head on Draco’s chest, and Draco’s fingers were carding slowly and methodically through his hair. Harry didn’t know how long was left. He wondered if Draco would go again. It had been almost unbearably glorious, the dizzying peak of connection, and he wanted to be there again when time stopped.

“Yes?” Draco said, his hand stilling. Harry jerked his head up in mortification as Blaise said sweetly over their heads, “Ever so sorry to intrude.” He didn’t bat an eye at them lying entwined in the grass, only said to Draco, “The goblins just broke through into the cellars. They say the passage will be ready in fifteen minutes.”

“All right,” Draco said. “Tell everyone to get down there.” Blaise nodded and sauntered away.

Harry sat up on his heels and looked down in confusion at Draco. “What?”

“It turns out you’re not the only one who didn’t quite have the stomach for it,” Draco drawled. He stood up, brushing grass from his arms, and picked up his crumpled robes by the shoulders with a critical look.

He knew. Harry couldn’t breathe for a moment. He scrambled to his feet, facing Draco. “But—why didn’t you just walk out? It’s not like there’s any point setting it off if you’re not here.”

“Because then Granger wouldn’t set it off,” Draco said.

“I don’t—why would you want her to take the Manor out of time?” Harry said, baffled.

Draco turned hard, glittering eyes on him. “Because my father’s still dying,” he spat. “They’re giving him less than a month, now. Maybe less than a week,” and understanding shot through Harry with the painful crack of Draco’s voice.

“You want time to save him,” he whispered. “Why didn’t you just say so?”

“And what price would Granger put on her help, to save my father’s life?” Draco said. “That you all haven’t charged me already not to outright murder him? I didn’t ask to be made high king,” he added bitterly, “turned into a Squib and saddled like a horse with spurs digging into my side anytime someone wants to pick a fight with the crown—but you did it, and it’s too late to wish you hadn’t.”

“Draco,” Harry said, his throat aching, “if you signed a constitution—”

“What you mean is, if I sign something turning myself into a figurehead who shows up where I’m told to hand out medals, while the Ministry continues blundering along in its usual way, charting a course equally distant from justice and anarchy,” Draco said. “Do you think the Compact would let me? I doubt it, and I’m not going to find out.” He’d swung his robes back on, and he was doing the buttons back up by hand, one after another, his chin lifting so he could get the last ones closed.

“Where—where are you going?” Harry said. 

Draco dropped his head and took a step towards him, glittering and furious. “Where are we going,” he snarled. 

Harry swallowed, but Draco was right. “Yes,” he said. “Where are we going?”

Draco stood tense another few breaths, and then he relaxed a little, straightening, and managed a smirk that almost looked like an expression he’d have worn back in their school days, except for the faint tremor in his mouth. “We’re going to Camelot, of course.”

#

The rest of the knights were waiting down in the cellars, wands at the ready; two of them were carrying a small chest between them, and others had bundles of books and Carrying Sacks. It was still half an hour to midnight. Harry stood with the others watching as Draco said goodbye to his mother at the cellar doors: Narcissa was staying behind. They were silhouetted against the doors: she whispered something to him and put a hand on his face, drew him down and kissed his forehead.

He kissed her hands, and then he turned and came striding through their ranks. The sword was belted at his waist, a bare silvery length, and he was wearing the crown. The goblins had cut steps into the stone of the cellar floor, and he descended into the dark, his hair shining faintly like a beacon. Harry took the lantern Blaise held out to him, and followed.

It was a long strange journey. Gripfang and two other goblins met them at the bottom and led the way. The passage was cool and dry, a faint breeze blowing in their faces while they kept walking and walking, endlessly. Sometimes the tunnel split, and the goblins led them one way or another. Harry couldn’t tell any difference between the passages. It went on and on. He should have been exhausted; it had nearly been midnight to start, not to mention what he’d been doing before then, and they’d come for miles, up and down long slopes. But somehow he wasn’t; when he felt his strength flagging, he looked up ahead at Draco and an infusion of strength welled up from some reservoir, like a cool drink of silver water. And when he thought about being surprised, he found that he wasn’t; he somehow understood without anyone telling him. He was a knight, on the king’s business. The Compact was supporting him.

Abruptly the tunnel turned a sharp right and emptied into a vast cavern full of train tracks: like the Gringotts minecart lines, only there were twenty of them all in a row. Gripfang picked his way over six of the tracks and found a lever next to the seventh and pulled it: a few minutes later a massive wheeled cart pulled up sharply next to them, and they all piled aboard, a relief to be sitting down. The whole world blurred round them as the cart set off flying into the dark, peeling away from the other tracks.

They rode one track to the end, and then repeated the process with another passage, and another interchange. Harry had never realized how far the goblin tunnels went. None of the others had either: after the first few changes, most of the wizards started to have faintly appalled looks on their faces, and it wasn’t just from motion sickness. “It’s like all of Britain is honeycombed,” Pansy muttered, looking back at a rat’s-nest of snaking tunnels as they got out of yet another cart. “Where do all these go?

“Humans have roads,” Gripfang said. “We have tunnels. They go where goblins go.”

“Why hasn’t anyone ever heard of them before?”

“We kill any human who finds them,” Gripfang said equably.

“Hm,” Blaise said, out of the ensuing silence. “So why are you bringing us through…?”

“You are the high king’s, and he is ours,” Gripfang said, and followed Draco into the next waiting cart.

It seemed like a simple answer, but it kept gnawing at Harry’s head. “What does that mean, exactly?” Harry said to Gripfang, at the next change. “The high king’s yours—because your Clan-Chief swore allegiance?”

“We have joined the Compact. The high king is given us in return.”

“You make it sound like he’s—a present or something,” Harry said warily.

Gripfang turned eyes hard and black as obsidian on him. “The sacrifice, made freely.”

“It wasn’t made freely!” Harry said, gone cold. “Draco didn’t have a choice—”

“Made freely,” Gripfang repeated. “The bloodline is bound to the crown, but one compelled would not be a true high king. We were not sure of him. That is why we declared war.”

“And now you think—you think he’s—what are you expecting him to do for you?” Harry found his hands clenching, ready to—to fight, to step between Draco and whatever the goblins wanted from him—

“We are expecting him to be king.” Gripfang shook his head disapprovingly, like Harry was a small child refusing to understand a basic lesson. “You humans. You crowned a high king and thought you had finished. You have only begun. You do not understand what Merlin did.”

“What did Merlin do?” Harry said tightly.

“Magic is like money,” Gripfang said. “You make more of it when you give it away. But no one will give, unless they know return will come back to them in fair measure. So the high king was given to all in the Compact, taking no return himself, to make justice between us. That we all will be willing to give.”

#

It felt like hours later when they finally climbed up another fresh-cut stairway that the goblins had opened and out through the floor of an ancient, dust-clogged storeroom: bushels of arrows that had rusted together and the rotted remnants of leather armor, so old they didn’t even stink anymore. The air was musty and still. The door fell off disintegrating hinges when Blaise tried to use Alohomora on it, and smashed into a cloud of dust. They waved it away coughing and peered through the empty arch: it gave on a dark corridor lined with other doors and rusty dead sconces.

After trying half a dozen more ancient doors, they found a stairway up and made their way into an enormous room that had once been the banquet hall. Large wooden tables arranged in a square had fallen apart into broken pieces and worm-eaten dust. “Is the whole place buried?” Gervaise Rowle asked, rather green. He was staring up at the massive cathedral stained-glass windows, which were pierced with pale tree roots, and where small panes had fallen out, solid dirt packed the other side. There had to be air coming in from somewhere, since they weren’t suffocating, but Harry did still feel—entombed. Like they had been taken out of time, after all.

“We’ll sleep here,” Draco said, after a moment, and it felt to Harry as though a hand had just set him down, a wave of weariness rolling over him. Everyone sighed out and put down the loads they were carrying. Harry used a few charms to sweep up the worst of the dust and broken glass from the floor, and Pansy transfigured the heaps into thick candles and levitated them up into the large hanging candelabra above to give them a little light for the night. Then they all lay down on the ground wrapped in their cloaks and fell straight asleep.

They spent the next few days finding their way around the silent halls, first climbing up to the highest tower. Its top had escaped being completely buried, and its windows peeked past overhanging ivy down a steep, rocky hillside, looking miles out over the countryside, pale grey-white with morning frost. “Well, it’s certainly impressive in a fortified sort of way, but no one in their right mind would call the place convenient,” Blaise said to Draco.

“Convenience is for commoners,” Draco said. He was also dissatisfied when the goblins said they could dig the place out again, but it would take a good long while. “I want it hidden until they’re done,” he said peevishly. “It’s not nearly as impressive to have a castle excavated over months as it is to have the place appear out of nowhere.”

“That would take three times as many wizards as we have, holding an Illusion Charm in shifts day and night until we’ve dug it out!” Pansy said.

“Er, maybe we’d better worry about hiding it after it’s been dug out?” Harry said, peering out the top of a half-buried arrow slit on the other side of the tower. He could see a nice ordinary B-road running past at the bottom of the hill, and even as he watched a couple of cars went by. “Muggles are going to notice a castle appearing out of nowhere.”

“I’m sure Arthur didn’t have these kinds of problems,” Draco grumbled.

Flora Pringle opened the door, panting from the climb, and blurted out, “Sire!” They all turned and stared at her, and she promptly went bright red and mortified.

“Yes?” Draco said, in a cool lofty tone. Harry found himself trading an immediate appalled look with Pansy and Blaise, who also clearly understood that this was a disaster and Draco would become completely insufferable about this sort of thing in five seconds if allowed. Flora was a Hufflepuff Auror who’d graduated the year before the war and hadn’t really known any of them personally at school. She’d volunteered for guard duty, and evidently she was one of those people finding kings romantic that Shacklebolt had worried about.

Not that Harry had any business talking, to be fair.

Floria cleared her throat and said a bit squeakily, “There’s—we’ve found—I think you should come down and see,” and led them back down to the long corridor that ran from the banquet hall to a narrow staircase, cut from rough stone, that led down and down into dark: they’d left it for later, assuming it led to more storerooms.

But instead it came into an enormous room that had evidently been cut out of a large natural cavern. The ceiling overhead vaulted past the reach of their lanterns, and their lights flickered over all the flagstones and furniture thick with dust: chairs carved out of grey stone, all neatly pushed in around a large, round table.

They all stood clustered inside the stairway a moment longer, in silence, and then slowly Draco stepped down onto the floor. He left the first footprints and eddies in the dust, walking round the table, and Harry followed him. The backs of the chairs were engraved with letters, some of them with scraps of gilt still clinging to the crevices catching gleams, but the engravings were full of dust; Harry couldn’t make out the names in the dim light. Draco stopped finally: he’d come to the one chair that was a little taller than the rest. He blew away the dust from the top, and a crown carved out of the stone took shape. He stood looking at it another moment, and then he pulled it out and sat down at the table.

It wasn’t like the moment of the coronation, or when he’d drawn out the sword on the battlefield. Harry just felt a sort of faint breath of air go sighing away from around him, sweeping up all the dust in a little ripple away from the table, leaving a wide cleared circle around it. The table and the chairs suddenly glittered in the light: their surface was polished like a mirror, the grey stone flecked with silver. Pansy drew a sharp breath, putting her hand out to touch the chair in front of her.

Harry looked over: Lady Pansy, the letters read, bright and golden as if they’d been freshly painted, and Harry swallowed and looked at the chair in front of him, the one just on Draco’s right: Sir Harry, it said.

None of them moved. “Well, I suppose we might as well be comfortable,” Blaise said brightly, and pulled out the chair on Pansy’s other side and sat down with a determinedly casual air. He even made a half movement to put his feet up, but then he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it, and had to pretend he’d just been shifting round in the seat.

Pansy slowly sat down, too. Harry reached out and took hold of his chair and drew it out. It looked like it was made of solid stone, and felt like it under his hands, but the whole massive chair slid as easily as if it were on wheels. Flora had found a seat, and so had all the other knights who’d come down, spread all round the table. There were only twenty of them, and many more seats left open between them, unmarked, unnamed.

Harry looked at the empty seats next to him, wondering if he’d ever see Sir Ronald or Lady Hermione there. He couldn’t imagine it, but it couldn’t be right that this table was real, that it had come back into the world, into wizarding history, without places for them both. He swallowed and looked over at Draco, almost desperately, but Draco was looking hard-faced at the empty chair on his left, made of a different stone: solid black, and in its surface engraved the words Siege Perilous.

“You want the Grail,” Harry said that night, lying next to Draco, mostly breathless. “You really think we’re going to find the Holy Grail—”

“Don’t be absurd,” Draco said in superior tones, or at least as much as he could manage when he was still panting, too. “How would a cup that Christ used in Jerusalem end up in Britain? That’s some ridiculous idea that got latched on to the stories by Muggles, obviously. It’s the Black Cauldron. And yes, of course I think we’ll find it. The sword turned up. That will, too, once…” He trailed off.

“Once what?” Harry said. “You already need it.”

Draco huffed out a short harsh laugh. “What I need doesn’t matter. The Compact’s a gift for everyone else, not for me. The sword only turned up because I had to win the war. The cauldron…it’ll surface once the Compact demands it. Once my court demands it. That’s what it was really for, after all. So Arthur could feast the whole court at Camelot, all the year round. It was his power base.”

Harry stared silently at the dim recesses of the ceiling. He remembered dimly Professor Binns droning on in class—somehow managing to make even this topic boring—about King Arthur’s extraordinary court, the way it stayed in one place instead of moving from castle to castle like most medieval rulers, and how that permanence had allowed him to make Camelot so glittering and powerful that the legends of it even slipped out to the Muggle world. And now Draco was going to try and build a glittering court of his own, because that was the only way he’d be able to draw out the magical cauldron that could heal any injury, break any curse, and save his monstrous father’s life.

#

While the goblins were looking into the question of how to safely excavate the building, the rest of them spent the next month poking through more dusty corridors and lost chambers, and setting the whole castle to rights. A deceptively ordinary-looking door at the end of one corridor magically led to a different bedroom for any knight who opened it. They also found a massive central courtyard that had once been open to the sky, and now was roofed with thick woody vines that hung like garland from one tower to the next like a canopy. It was full of rotten training dummies, and a long, empty stable ran along one wall.

The front doors of the main keep were massive and carved from stone. They swung open at the touch of Draco’s hand and let them into the throne room, which seemed larger on the inside than the outside, with a pair of tall stone chairs waiting on the dais. He walked to the foot and stood a moment looking up at them unsmiling, and then he climbed the dais and walked around behind the thrones and through a small archway to the winding staircase of the royal tower with its living chambers. Harry walked hushed beside Draco as they stepped off the highest landing into a round sitting room full of tall windows and the remnants of velvet-cushioned chairs. A half-finished piece of embroidery had been left on a blocked-in window seat, a silver dragon rearing with one foreleg and the tarnished needle still stuck in, like Guinevere had just stepped out for a minute. The bedroom beyond had a garderobe made of solid oak that hadn’t disintegrated. The clothing inside it had all been devoured by moths long since, except for one cloak of deep red bordered with fur that had to have been magic-woven. There were a few silver-blond hairs clinging to the wool. Draco touched it with his fingertips softly, and then closed the doors on it again.

That was as far as his reverence for the past went, though: a ninth-century idea of luxury wasn’t up to his personal living standards. He ordered all of them to dive into sweeping renovations at once. Harry winced thinking about what Magister Glaudisa would say if she ever found out, but couldn’t really object, particularly in the fairly critical arena of plumbing: chamberpots that emptied themselves were better than the other kind, but not that much better, especially since the spells on them had got dodgy over the centuries and often needed a few good kicks to go.

Besides that, the furniture had to be reconstructed and mended and then enlarged and made more sumptuous, the carpets and tapestries rewoven, all the too-short beds stretched and the mattresses replaced, any chairs upholstered and lengthened. It took half a dozen of them a week of work before Draco was even satisfied with just his own bedroom.

“There,” Harry said finally, glaring. “That’s good enough,” daring Draco to nitpick anything else. Draco made another inspection tour of the entire room before finally letting himself fall backwards onto the ridiculously large bed he’d demanded; the room had been forced to stretch itself a bit to keep from becoming cramped. “It’ll do, I suppose,” he allowed. “But it would be just as well to make sure,” and then propped himself up and gave Harry a meaningful look that made his mouth go dry and made Pansy roll her eyes and say, “Honestly,” as she walked out and left them to it.

Meanwhile the goblins were bringing in supply for them and doing all the construction work, without complaint. “They’re not even asking for money,” Harry said, still wary of them. “They’re going to want some kind of payment at some point, king or no king.”

“I’ve already paid them,” Draco said. “The high king had the right to a set of silver mines in Wales. I traded them the mines for their help getting Camelot livable again.”

“Er,” Harry said. “What about whoever owns those mines today…?”

“I don’t see why that’s my problem,” Draco said airily. When Harry glared at him he added, “Oh, don’t fret. They’ve been mined out by human standards ages ago: the goblins will get whatever was left behind, and no one the wiser.”

So the cracks in the throne room doors were polished away, the massive tables in the banquet hall were cobbled back together and the chandeliers relit, the windows mended and the throne dusted off, and their voices and footsteps left echoes bouncing off the stone. Little by little life crept back into the halls, but they still hadn’t thought of a way to keep the castle from being visible, during the excavation or after, when Gripfang came to dinner one night and said unceremoniously, “We have finished examining the construction of the castle. The Compact is woven through the stones. We do not need to dig it out by hand. We can use explosive charges and clear it overnight.”

“Well, that will certainly be a terrific victory for Draco’s vanity, but it won’t do anything to keep Muggles from noticing the place,” Blaise said, but abruptly Draco said, “Have it done tonight, then.”

They all stared at him. He swept a look round. “I’m done with living in a tomb. The castle wasn’t hidden in Arthur’s time. The Statute of Secrecy is a modern innovation. If the Ministry want to hide the place, they can manage it themselves.”

“And what do we do in the meantime when a horde of Muggles show up wanting a tour?” Blaise demanded. “Charge them admission?”

“Wait, we should,” Flora said suddenly. “If we put up a sign saying admission is—something outrageous, two hundred pounds like Disneyworld or something, it will keep everyone out.” Everyone blinked at the obvious genius of it.

“Splendid,” Draco said, pushing back from the table. “Tomorrow it is, then.”

Harry climbed to the uppermost turret again after dinner to stare out through the open arrow slit at the twinkling of houses and street lamps and car headlights scattered thinly over the surrounding countryside. Tomorrow. He’d known it was coming, that it had to come, just—not this soon. Tomorrow they’d step back into the world, back into time. And everything would start moving again. He wasn’t sure where to. It was like climbing into the goblin minecarts again, shooting off into the dark, following his terrible shining star.

Silently he climbed down and went through the halls and back up to the royal suite. Draco was in the bedroom standing at the window, staring into the solid earth as if it was a view: you could occasionally see an earthworm or a mole or a few beetles making slow progress through the packed dirt. When Harry came to him, Draco turned round and reached out and caught his head with one hand and kissed him almost ferociously, his hand gripping painfully, perfectly tight, and kissed him again until Harry was gasping for breath, holding on to Draco’s shoulders.

When Draco let go at last he turned away and said abruptly, “I’m sending you and Blaise to Shacklebolt in the morning.”

Harry stood panting for a few more breaths. “Why?”

Draco held out a sealed scroll he’d been keeping in his other hand. “To summon him and his pack of conspirators to face the king’s justice.”

Harry didn’t move at first, staring down at the scroll. “Draco—”

“I’m not planning any executions, if that’s what you’re afraid of,” Draco said. “Not even throwing anyone into prison, which puts me one up on your lot. They’ll all be allowed to leave Camelot again freely, if they come.”

Harry jerked his head up. “Do you mean that?”

“My oath as high king upon it, if you like,” Draco said, mockingly. “Don’t delude yourself that I’m going to be merciful, though.” He looked away. “To any of us.”

“You can’t just throw half the Ministry out of the Compact!”  

“For high treason? Of course I can. As for what I’m going to do, you’ll just have to wait and see like everyone else. Are you coming to bed?”

Harry shut his eyes. It was like being ripped right down the middle. “Yes,” he said grimly.

#

He was vaguely aware of faint thumps going all through the night, like distant fireworks going off; they half woke him for a moment until some part of him remembered the goblins were working, and he sank right back to sleep. The castle didn’t even shake. But in the morning a sharp gust of winter wind came in through the newly cleared window and struck him full in the face, and Harry sat up wincing, shielding his eyes from the light, a mole dragged out of its cave. Draco was still asleep next to him, the sun skimming his cheek just below the eyes, but he shifted and yawned and squinted awake in a moment.

He looked out the window and then said coolly, “You’d better be getting up, hadn’t you?”

Harry looked himself, when he’d blinked away the glare, but the sun had only barely come up. “There’s time,” he said, and pushed Draco back down into the pillows. Draco didn’t argue, just pulled him down, sliding his arms round Harry’s back.

There was time, and time to slowly get ready, to shower and dress in his own rooms, before he went downstairs to where Blaise was waiting for him in the open courtyard. Draco had come down by then as well and was looking round at the high towers making the corners of the square, just the least bit of ivy left trailing over the pale grey stone to give it a bit of contrast, blue sky and sun shining all round and glittering off the windows and flecks of mica in the stone. Gripfang held out a thick scroll to him. “Our structural report,” he said. Draco turned back and took it and stood there looking down at Gripfang with a frown, like he was irritated or something even after the goblins had just managed to deliver him a fairy-tale castle to order, but it turned out that wasn’t what he was irritated about.

“Can you take a knighthood, or is that going to create some awkwardness with your Clan-Chief?” he demanded, and Gripfang went utterly motionless, along with the six goblins at his back.

After a moment, Gripfang said, “No. You are Clan-Chief now. He swore.”

“Fine,” Draco said. “We’ll hold the ceremony in three days’ time. And you can invite your kin to attend,” he added. “We may as well do the thing properly, now there’s a proper place to do it.”

Gripfang bowed without another word, and went. After the goblins had vanished, Blaise said, with his face screwed up, “You’re going to knight a goblin?

“What else can I do?” Draco said sourly, with a wave of his hand round the castle. “Get going: Shacklebolt and his gang will be hearing about the castle by now, and I want you there before Granger manages to come up with some new piece of cleverness. And here, wear these,” he added, beckoning to Flora, who was coming out of the castle carrying cloaks: green, with the cords weighted with silver medallions in the shape of a dragon.

#

Hermione and Ron and everyone were gathered in Shacklebolt’s office round the table again when they walked in, all talking about the mysterious appearing castle so urgently that they didn’t notice even when Harry cleared his throat. Blaise had to say loudly, “My, my, such busy little bees hard at work!” and then everyone jerked round to stare at them.

“Harry!” Hermione said, straightening up with relief on her face. “Thank goodness! We traced you to the Manor after the time was suspended, and then we couldn’t track you leaving it, of course. I thought for sure you were stuck in there with...”

But she was already trailing off, as it sunk in: Blaise next to him, the green cloaks, the dragon pendants. Everyone round the table was suddenly staring at Harry: Ron’s face was stricken, appalled. Harry swallowed and told him, “It wasn’t me. I wasn’t the one who told them. Draco already knew when I went to the Manor.”

Luna turned round from the window. “Oh, that was me. I told him,” she said. Everyone jumped and turned to stare at her: she almost never talked in any of the meetings, apart from warning them about the Magic-Eating Flinjies.

You told Malfoy?” Ron said, almost choking. “He and his dad locked you up! In that house! He tortured you!”

“Yes, exactly,” Luna said, nodding.

“Er,” Ron said.

“Well, I didn’t want to do it back,” Luna said. “I’d much rather be hurt by someone behaving like Voldemort than behave like Voldemort myself. But all of you seemed so sure it was all right.” There was a lot of uncomfortable shuffling and people avoiding each other’s eyes around the table. “Anyway, I kept thinking about it, and I decided I’d tell him what we were going to do, and if it was all right, he could just stay. I thought he might have,” she added. “He looked tired. I thought he might like a rest.” 

“Afraid not,” Blaise said insincerely. “But His Majesty didn’t want to disappoint you all, so we just slipped quietly out the back before your charming little spell took effect.”

Hermione turned back to the table, where a scale model of the castle made in illusion magic was standing on the surface, with a map of the countryside round it and Muggle houses marked with glowing red dots; they’d all been studying it. “What have you all done?”

“Pretty, isn’t it?” Blaise said. “Hard to see the detail at this scale, of course, but don’t fret, you’ll have the chance to see it up close soon enough.” He threw the scroll onto the table with a thump, knocking the illusion apart. “Each and every one of you miserable traitors are hereby summoned to face the high king’s justice, tomorrow morn at Camelot, whereof you shall not fail, save at your peril,” he said, his voice going to a sharpened edge of icy contempt. “Let’s go,” he said to Harry, and started to whirl away.

“I’m not coming,” Harry said, round a hard lump in his throat. Blaise stopped and stared at him. “I didn’t tell Draco. I’m as guilty as everyone else here. I’ll—I’ll come and answer tomorrow, same as all the rest of them.”

Blaise glared at him indignantly. “Oh, and now I’ve got to go back and tell him so? Thanks, Potter, really, don’t mind if I do get dragged into the middle.”

“Um, sorry,” Harry said a bit awkwardly; that part hadn’t occurred to him.

“You’ve always got to find the most complicated and unpleasant option for yourself,” Blaise said. He threw an annoyed look back at the rest of the room. “Well, you lot had better not get any bright ideas like locking him up yourselves, or there’ll be hell to pay,” he added, and then flipped his cloak into an elaborate swirl before he Apparated away with a bang of smoke.

Harry swallowed and turned back to face the roomful of his best friends and the people he trusted most in the world, all of whom were still staring at him with appalled expressions like he’d completely lost his mind. “Um,” he said.

“Oh!” Hermione said suddenly. “I’m an idiot, you can’t help it, can you? He knighted you. Now you’re forced to obey him—”

“Er, what?” Harry said. Everyone round the table had drawn a breath and was looking relieved— “No! No, Hermione, I’m not,” he tried to say, except Ron was already yelling, “We need to throw Malfoy and that sword of his right back into the lake he got it out of!” and everyone was talking, and Harry had to shout, “I’m not being compelled!” loudly over all their voices, and when everyone paused, he added, “If I were, I would have had to tell him! And I couldn’t have stayed now!”

“But,” Hermione said bewildered after a moment of general silence, “but then what are you doing?”

Harry opened his mouth and shut it again helplessly. “Er, I don’t—I don’t know, honestly. I’m just trying to—look, we’re all stuck, don’t you understand?” he burst out abruptly. “Draco’s stuck, and we’re stuck. He’s our king. Gripfang’s right: we crowned him and thought that would be the end of it, but it can’t be. Crowning the king’s the start of renewing the Compact. It’s just the start.”

Hermione said slowly, “That’s—that might be—” and stopped. The words were true, the way a spell was when it left your wand, and everyone felt their truth; Harry could see the understanding traveling round the table, only Ron looking away almost desperately, refusing to let it in.

Then Shacklebolt reached out and took the scroll off the table. He looked down at it silently; everyone in the room did too. “And now our king has summoned us to face his justice,” he said, quietly.

“He’s not going to imprison anyone,” Harry said. “He gave me his oath as king. Anyone who comes and faces his justice will be allowed to leave Camelot again, freely.”

“And to leave the Compact while we’re at it,” Hermione said flatly.

“He—he didn’t tell me,” Harry said. “But—if you don’t come—” He stopped.

Nobody spoke. Then abruptly, Justin said, “I’ll come.” He lifted his chin, his mouth set. “We shouldn’t have done it. We knew it at the time. I’ll come.”

One after another, everyone nodded, except Ron, who folded his arms mulishly across his chest, and Hermione, who had her head bowed over her laced hands, her mouth downturned. Harry stared at them both, his stomach in a knot, and Shacklebolt said, “Hermione?”

She jerked up slightly out of being lost in thought, and looked round at them. “What? Oh. Yes. Yes, we’ve got to go. If we don’t, we’ll be raising a rebellion against the high king.”

“Fine with me,” Ron said, through his teeth, but Hermione shook her head.

“We can’t, Ron,” she said. “We’d be starting a civil war, and even if we won, which is hardly certain, we’d destroy the Compact in the process. We’d have to create a new one from the beginning, and it won’t really start working properly for ages.”

“Right, and he knows it,” Ron said. “So what d’you think he’s going to do to us, with that power?” He swept his arm round the table. “We’re going to have to fight a war against him, sooner or later. You really want to let him jam half of us into prison first? You know he’s going to try to lock you up for sure, Hermione!”

“Well, he’s already sworn he won’t, so that’s not what he’s going to do,” Hermione said. “I expect the Compact won’t let him. If he did try to put us all in prison, we certainly would rebel, and that would do loads of damage to the Compact even if he won the war. So he must have something else in mind, only I can’t imagine what he thinks is going to make it work…” She trailed off, and pushed herself up from the table.

Afterwards, as everyone straggled silently out, Harry and Ron looked at each other, the same love and desperation Harry felt mirrored back in Ron’s face, and by silent agreement neither of them said anything. They followed Hermione straight out of the conference room and through the Floo back to their own flat, which already felt—unreal to Harry, when he stepped inside it, like something made up as a joke—the squashy sofa, the galley kitchen, the TV; he stood in his own living room in the cloak Draco had swung round his shoulders and felt like a fish someone had pulled out of a bowl and dropped gasping on the carpet.

Ron was looking him up and down in the green cloak like he felt the same way backwards, as if Harry had suddenly stopped making sense to him at all. Even Hermione had sat down on the sofa and was regarding him with an oddly stern look on her face. Harry swallowed and said, “Hermione—Ron—” trying to find the words to say. I’m sorry still didn’t make any sense, because he couldn’t be sorry, not with the shivering line of silver still coiled round his heart.

“You can’t really want to—to follow the bastard,” Ron said, desperately. “Draco Malfoy?

“It’s not—I don’t—he’s,” Harry said, and stumbled to a halt again: nothing he could have said that was true was anything Ron would’ve wanted to hear.

“It’s like you said. He’s our king,” Hermione said flatly. “He’s our king, and you’ve always wanted one. You wanted to follow Dumbledore to the end, you trusted him all the way, even after it was completely clear he’d lied to us and concealed things and made loads of mistakes. And it’s not really Draco you’re following now. It’s Merlin, and the Compact, and all you’ve got to believe about Draco is that he’s going to find clever ways of doing what he’s being forced to do. That’s not a stretch, he was massively clever in school.”

“At being a rotter, maybe!” Ron said.

“Yes, exactly!” Hermione said. “Those stupid Potter Stinks badges he made in fourth year, they were really intricate, most certified wizards with ten years’ experience couldn’t make something like that in a month. He’s always been marvelous at finding ways to get what he wanted. He just never wanted to be anything but a bully. Now he’s being forced to be a king.”

Ron was staring at her, betrayed. “’Mione, you can’t mean it! You can’t really be thinking of—of bowing down to Draco—”

“I’m not saying I want to!” Hermione said. “I’m saying Harry wants to! I don’t trust Merlin to decide our lives for us all, a thousand years in the future! There wasn’t anything like a functional society in his time that wasn’t monarchy, of course he thought the best he could aspire to was creating a monarch who had to at least be just and fair.”

“Draco—Draco’s not going to sign a constitution that takes away his power,” Harry said.

She pushed her hair back from her forehead. “Of course he won’t,” she said wearily. “I suppose the Compact wouldn’t let him sign anything reasonable, anyway. I should have realized before, but you’re right, it’s only the beginning of the renewal. The coronation’s like—all of us boarding the train and starting off together. The Compact still needs Draco to have the power to lead us through.”

“And we’ve just got to take it on faith he won’t drive us straight into a mountain, is that it?” Ron said savagely. “Well, I won’t. I won’t.” He clenched his jaw tight and looked away, and then he said flatly, “I’ll go, tomorrow, with the rest of you. But I’m not bending the knee to Draco Malfoy again. I shouldn’t have done it in the first place. If he has the gall to act as though he has the right to look any of us in the face, any of us who stood up against Voldemort and his dad, and give us orders—well, I won’t, that’s all!”

He turned and slammed into his bedroom, and Harry turned away, his chest squeezed tight. “Hermione,” he said, his voice cracking. “I’m sorry. I’m not—I’m not going to—” He stopped. He wanted to say whatever you and Ron do, I’m with you to the end, no matter what, except he felt the weight of the sword still heavy on his shoulders, and he wasn’t sure he could make that promise anymore. He half wished Draco hadn’t promised not to put anyone in prison; if he did try to throw everyone into Azkaban, that would’ve made things easy. But if he just asked for something else—a slap on the wrist, a gesture, and Ron refused on principle—

Hermione just shook her head. “Let’s get some rest,” she said. “We need to be up before dawn.”

#

Harry was queasy all morning, anticipation curdling in his stomach, and yet he couldn’t help the lifting of his heart when he came back through the castle gates, the first rays of sunlight dazzling on the blue-grey stone and the silver-dragon pennants snapping in the wind. Two of the knights were waiting for them at the doors of the keep in green cloaks, Flora with an anxious face and Pansy, scowling; she hissed at Harry, “We’re going to have words, Potter, if he doesn’t just have your head,” as she turned and pushed open the doors.

The sunlight flung the stained-glass scenes onto the flagstones in vivid color, making figures that moved stiffly to look at them as they walked down the hall. The throne stood at the end like a mountain, bigger than Harry had remembered, and it felt like it took a long time to get to it, looking the whole time at Draco seated implacable and hard-faced beneath the crown. Shacklebolt was in the lead. He stopped before the throne and didn’t bow; his face was grim. Harry was right behind him, lined up with Ron and Hermione next to him.

Blaise stepped forward and said in a cold ringing voice, extravagantly formal as if he’d studied it in advance, “Your Majesty, here comes Kingsley Shacklebolt, Minister of Magic, with these his servants, who stand accused of high treason against the crown. Will you hear their defense?”

“No,” Draco said. “I will give it for them.” Blaise did a double-take, startled, and around Harry everyone was exchanging uncertain looks; Shacklebolt was frowning warily. Draco stood up and came to the edge of the dais, looking down at them. “There is a breach in the Compact,” he said flatly. “A breach in the wizarding world. Those who fought Lord Voldemort had just cause, and because of my father’s actions, and my own, they were forced to stand against their own rightful king to defend themselves. We broke faith first, so they now doubt the king’s justice, and are thus unwilling to submit to my judgement. Anything to add, or is that a reasonable job of it?” he added, dryly.

Shacklebolt was staring openly now. “No,” he said, after a moment. “I think you have admirably described the situation.”

“No, he hasn’t!” Hermione said, stepping forward. “It’s not about you!” she said to Draco. “You certainly don’t help, but the real point is that we don’t want an absolute monarch no matter who it is! We want a constitution, and civil rights, and—”

Draco rolled his eyes. “And a pony, I’m sure! Rubbish, Granger. If you actually wanted your precious representative democracy more than magic, you wouldn’t have crowned me in the first place. Are you really trying to tell me you’d have tried to lock up—oh, I don’t know, Potter here, if he’d been the one with a crown on his head?”

Hermione folded her arms with a militant look. “Harry would have respected democratic principles.”

“Yes, right until the Compact jabbed him in the arse and he couldn’t,” Draco fired back.

“And when that happened, he’d have explained to us all, and we’d—” Hermione stopped short, biting her lip.

Draco smirked at her, mirthlessly. “And you’d have trusted him. Just so, which brings us back to the real point, which it turns out is, after all, me.”

“You won’t hear me argue,” Ron said, crossing his arms over his chest. “So what’re you going to do to fix it, Malfoy? Fancy abdicating in Harry’s favor or something? I reckon that would do nicely.”

Harry winced, but Draco only snorted. “I’d tell you not to be an idiot, Weasley, but the Compact won’t let me give impossible orders. Fortunately for us all, we’re not relying on you to come up with the solution. But the breach must be healed, or the Compact cannot be renewed.”

He stopped there for a moment. He was looking down at them, his jaw tight; he didn’t look anything like pleased with himself, or smug, and Harry suddenly remembered him saying don’t expect me to be merciful—to any of us, like the deep clamor of a warning bell. And then Draco put his shoulders back and said, “Hermione Granger.”

Ron took a protective step forward, his eyes narrowing. “If you think we’re letting you so much as muss a hair on her head—” Hermione put her hand out to hold him back and looked up at Draco. “Yes?” she said coolly.

Draco stared down at her a moment longer, and then he drew a deep breath and said, “Three weeks hence, on Midwinter’s Day, you shall come to the mound of Glastonbury, with such attendants and friends as you desire for witness—” and he paused there again, while a puzzled frown started on Hermione’s face, as though she was trying to remember something, and then she suddenly blanched, her eyes going wide, taking a step back.

Ron half reached towards her, and shot Harry a confused and worried look over her head, so Harry was looking right at his face when Draco finished, grimly, “and there I shall pledge to you my troth, and crown you high queen beside me, that the throne will once more have the trust and faith of all the wizards of Britain.”

#

“I can’t believe that rotten piece of filth actually thinks you’re going to agree!” Ron said violently, throwing his jacket onto the hooks as they came into the flat. “That you’re actually going to marry him, just so he can go on lording it over everyone—” He whirled round, his voice strangling off, as Hermione stopped in the middle of the living room and burst into tears.

Draco hadn’t waited for an answer after his pronouncement; he’d just swept around the dais and vanished off behind the throne, the knights falling in behind him. Hermione had turned and walked out of the keep blank-faced, and she hadn’t said a word, not to them or anyone, even though everyone was looking at her sideways. Shacklebolt had been about to say something to her, and then he’d hesitated and turned to everyone and said, “We’ll convene tomorrow morning to discuss the situation,” and then he’d Apparated away.

Hermione had stood there in the courtyard a little longer still not saying anything, until a handful of American Muggles with cameras came into the courtyard taking photos and talking excitedly about historical re-enactment and how much they’d loved that television show and what a good job the construction crew had done. One of them had asked her for directions to the loo, and she’d stared at the woman and then jerked and run out the gates before Apparating back to the flat.

“Hermione!” Ron said, taking a step towards her. He took another, and reached for her shoulders and tried to turn her in towards him, but she jerked back, away.

“Don’t!” she said, choked and gulping; she was crying messily, her whole face gone blotchy. “Don’t! It’s no use. He’s right.” Then she laughed suddenly, and it was worse than the sobbing, almost frightening. “Of course he’s right. He’s the high king. And I’m—I’m the only one who can unite—” She broke off on another gasp and ran into her room and slammed the door.

Ron looked at Harry wild-eyed, desperate. “She can’t mean it! Harry, she wouldn’t!” except Harry couldn’t say anything, because he knew that Hermione would. She’d march herself to the altar and the crown as firmly as she’d have marched him to it, no matter how miserable she expected to be, if she thought it was the only thing to do, the way to save everyone. “She wouldn’t,” Ron repeated, his voice cracking, and then his hands came up over his face and he was crying too, choked sobs, as bad as the day they’d buried Fred. Harry went and put his arms around him, his own eyes burning.

Hermione left the flat around noon, with a small bag. “I’m going to my parents’ house,” she said, coming out of her room dry-eyed and blank, blotted off. “I think I’ll stay there until… I’ll have to explain…” She trailed off, and then she took her coat and went.

Ron didn’t even look up. He was sitting on the couch, bent over like someone had taken out everything in his middle. Hermione had been the one who’d insisted they take things slow. “We’re still really young, and we’re not jumping into anything,” she’d said firmly, when Harry a little tentatively had asked her if she was sure she wanted all three of them looking for a flat together.

“It’s driving me mad,” Ron had groaned to Harry. “It’s not that she doesn’t want to! I’ve even offered her, if she wanted to go out with other blokes, until she was sure—but she said she doesn’t, she just thinks it’s the sensible thing to take our time. D’you reckon it’s because I was such an arse over Lavender? Or over you, for that matter,” he added gloomily. “I couldn't blame her, you know, I just want to know what I’m up against.”

“No,” Harry said. “I reckon it’s because she thinks it’s the sensible thing.”

Ron had sighed. “I'll be lucky if she lets me get the ring before the decade is out.”

Harry wasn’t even sure they’d ever—they’d never come out of the same room in the morning, anyway, even the nights when Hermione let Ron take her out on a date. And now—

Harry got up and went into the kitchen. He made some pasta, standing by the hob and stirring the water the whole time, unnecessarily. He poured sauce on and put the bowls on the table, and Ron picked up his and ate it all, mechanically. Afterwards he wiped his mouth and put the bowl down. “Are you going back there?” he asked, flat.

Harry swallowed. “I’m not leaving you.”

“Not even for your king?” Ron said, bitterly, and then he shook his head angrily at himself. “No, I don’t—that’s not—” He stopped, his face working again. “Sorry,” he said after a moment, cracking, and Harry wished with every part of his heart that Ron had yelled at him instead.

“No,” he said. “No, Ron, I’m sorry—”

“Don’t. She’s right, there’s no use. We decided, didn’t we? The three of us. We went and stuck a crown on his head, and everyone went for it because we did. So we’re the ones who have to pay.” Ron dragged his hand over his face. “I’m going home, too,” he said abruptly. “You should go back. Merlin knows I want someone keeping a close eye on that rat bastard, especially once—oh God,” and his voice broke again, and he shoved his face hard against his hand, trembling. Then he got up and went into his bedroom. Left behind, Harry squeezed his eyes shut, clenched his jaw tight, as if it would help him hold himself together.

#

Draco only laughed, high and sharp and mocking, when Harry said, “There’s got to be another way.”

“Yes, because I didn’t consider the alternatives thoroughly before asking Hermione Granger to marry me,” Draco said. “I’ve always longed to drug myself into insensibility to endure my wedding night.”

“She’s in love with Ron!” Harry yelled at him.

Draco rolled his eyes. “He’s in love with her.”

“Both!”

“The direction matters,” Draco said. “Is there anyone else, anyone in the entire bloody wizarding world, for whom Ron Weasley would agree to become a knight in my service?” Harry stared at him. “Yes, Potter, that’s the point. I might be able to find another symbolic bride to satisfy the rest of you, but the only reason he’ll bend the knee is because it’s the only way he’ll be able to be near the woman he loves, and his clan won’t leave him to do it alone, and they’re the last holdouts that matter, and thus shall be the Compact made whole,” he intoned, sweeping a grandiose arm around the castle walls.

“Wonderful!” Harry said. “That’s just brilliant, you’re going to marry Hermione, and use her like bait to get the Weasleys behind you, and you think that’s all going to work out splendidly? It’s like you’re deliberately trying to play out Camelot all over again, only now Ron’s going to be Lancelot—”

Ugh, will you look up a bit of bloody history,” Draco said. “Lancelot was made up by a drunk Frenchman three hundred years later! Anyway, in case you haven’t noticed, the one shagging the greatest knight of the Round Table is going to be me, so I’m hardly going to drag her to a stake if she keeps Weasley on the side.”

Harry gawked at him. “You just want to—you want to keep on—”

Draco stared back as though Harry were the one making bizarre pronouncements. “What did you have in mind? Me and Granger grimly shagging away in a tower on a regular basis with you and Weasley off moping in corners somewhere, and in his case likely plotting violent overthrow?”

Harry opened his mouth and shut it again, blankly. “But,” he said.

“We’ll have to consummate the thing, and make a show of it to keep people happy,” Draco said. “But thankfully that will be the worst of it. There’s charms for the rest of it now.”

“Hang on,” Harry said, a little desperately. Draco’s plan made a kind of unpleasant practical sense, but it would still be—awful. The four of them all twisted up into this grotesque crossways knot where he and Ron sneaked past each other in the corridors every night, and in front of the whole world Draco and Hermione put on a forced smiling face of unity, and meanwhile Ron hated Draco for having any kind of claim on Hermione, and Draco kept hating Ron just on principle, and he—Harry didn’t actually know how he’d feel. He wasn’t in love with Draco exactly, he didn’t think, he hoped, but he definitely wanted Draco to the point of slavering, and Draco wanted him back, and meanwhile he’d have to watch them all being miserable, all the time. “Hermione thinks Merlin wanted your family to always marry pureblood to keep the line—working, somehow.”

“We’ve racked up thirty-odd generations of inbreeding by now, Potter, it’ll have to hold up to the strain of one Muggle-born,” Draco said. “I don’t have a sister lying about that I can accidentally father a bastard on, sorry to disappoint. But don’t fret, I mean to take all the comfort there is to be had along the way.”

Draco said it all mockingly, as if he hardly even cared, but he looked away at the end with a hard, miserable twist to his mouth that said as clear as letters of fire that he did mind, and he saw exactly what Harry did and how awful the whole thing would be, and he still couldn't see any way out of it, any escape for any of them, even with all his cleverness.

#

Harry spent the next three weeks struggling to find another way, any other way. He came up empty-handed—in fact he came up worse than empty-handed, because the day after he came back to Camelot, Gripfang showed up to be knighted. All his close relations turned out for the occasion—all six hundred of them, cramming the castle and the courtyard, including the Clan-Chief himself, who was apparently his great-great-grandfather. Draco had indulged himself in an absolute orgy of pomp and circumstance, demanding a feast of extravagant proportions and sending them all scurrying to every luxury shop in Diagon Alley to find hangings and furnishings and plate he considered acceptable, most of it gilded somewhere or other. The expense would have been beyond even his means, except Blaise took it on himself to offer merchants the right to display the Pendragon crest along with by appointment to His Majesty the High King, which made the prices plummet remarkably and also caused cartloads of sample goods to start appearing out of nowhere—literally—at the castle.

 The goblins clearly appreciated the display, looking around approvingly, and all remained perfectly still, silent, and almost dreamily attentive during the long pompous speech Draco gave Gripfang about the obligations and duties of knighthood, and when Excalibur came out from under his cloak, they all very faintly sighed in pleasure at the same time, like a soft whispering note echoing off the stone.

That wasn’t the problem, though—well, it was a problem for Harry’s patience, which ran out less than halfway through Draco’s outrageous speech, but the real trouble came after the knighthood ceremony was complete. Gripfang had risen and bowed, had been fitted with a short green cloak and was approvingly surrounded by his mother and nine brothers, and Draco had sat back down in his throne and was about to dismiss the court when the Clan-Chief abruptly stood up from his seat of honor next to the dais. He stepped in front of the throne. “High King, I would speak for myself and my clan.” Draco hesitated, and then gestured him on, a wary look in his eye. “By wizard law, goblins have been denied the right to pursue the wandlore,” the Clan-Chief said. “I petition the high king to lift the ban.”

Blaise stiffened next to Harry, instantly alarmed. “Oh, you wouldn’t,” he muttered under his breath, staring at Draco in flat horror. “You can’t—

Draco looked appalled himself. He didn’t say no, though, just held himself rigid and clamped down, as though something were trying to force its way out and he was trying to keep it in. But he was losing the fight. “The ban on wandlore was established after a war in which you and your clan attacked wizards,” Draco finally said, the words sliding out between his teeth. “Your attack was not without provocation,” he added, in a strangled and unwilling way, “but you took the first blood. And you have but lately struck so again. There is just cause for wizards to fear your people.” Draco’s jaw shifted back and forth. “But you are now also subjects of the high king,” he grated out. “And the ban itself is unjust.”

He stopped, breathing hard. The Clan-Chief and all the goblins had gone very still, watching him intently, and all round the throne Harry could see the knights staring at him, most of them in horror. Draco was staring over everyone’s heads at the stained glass window over the doors, his face screwed up. He drew another deep breath, his chest rising and falling, and said, “Here is my judgement. The ban shall be lifted, but the use of wandlore shall be bound among you as wizards bind it among ourselves and our children. No goblin shall bear a wand, save as required for study, who has not formally completed certification at a school that has received the approval of the Ministry.” Draco grimaced and unenthusiastically added, “And I hereby decree that no such institution shall continue to be so approved if they do not accept goblin students as they do wizards. I’m not finished,” he snapped, as the Clan-Chief began to bow and all the goblins hissed low in approval. “But as you seek wizard secrets, so too shall you open your own.” The Chief stiffened, and the goblins went still again. “You will open all the goblin tunnels to the rest of the high king’s subjects, without concealment, and your own schools and masters must accept wizard students in return. So shall you amend the evil for which the ban was imposed. Do you accept this judgement for yourself and your clan?”

The Clan-Chief was silent another moment, and then he said, “The high king’s word is just. We accept the judgement.” He bowed.

Draco breathed out heavily, then stood up. “The court is now adjourned,” he said flatly, and turned and vanished behind the throne.

Blaise was after him instantly. Harry followed him through the green velvet curtains, and Blaise was already talking the second they came into the anteroom behind the throne. “Are you out of your fucking—”

“Shut up!” Draco snarled at him. “Do you think I wanted to?” He took off the crown and flung it so hard against the wall it clanged with a loud brassy note and fell to the floor ringing. He threw himself into a chair against the wall, breathing hard, a hand over his mouth. “I did the best I could,” he muttered.

The rest of the knights had followed them in. “I—I think it was a splendid solution,” Flora said, a bit defiantly, her voice wavering a bit as nearly everyone else in the room glared at her. “We’ll finally have a real peace with the goblins this way. That’s better than having wars every fifty years!”

“Merlin save us from optimists! Fifty years from now, we’ll have a war where they’ve all got wands!” Blaise snarled at her. “Do you want to imagine what the death toll will look like after that one?”

“No, hang on,” Harry said. Blaise looked at him. “Gripfang said—Draco’s their Clan Chief now. So they won’t ever attack us again. Not as long as the high king’s line endures. Draco could give them all ten wands apiece, wizards still won’t be in danger.”

Draco laughed suddenly, sharp. “Oh, no. It’s much, much better than that,” he said. They all looked at him. “Wizards won’t be in danger—as long as they’re in the Compact. But anyone who sticks a nose out of it—anyone, for instance, who raises a rebellion against the high king—well.” Draco smirked, without any pleasure in it. “If I’m the goblins’ Clan-Chief, they won’t exactly hang about on the sidelines when I’m attacked, will they? How brilliant of me! I’ve just arranged an entire army of wand-wielding goblins to enforce the high king’s justice. Really, I’m going to outdo Arthur at this rate. Bring on the Saxons!” He stood up and stalked out of the room.

#

Everyone at the Ministry was silent and appalled the next morning, after Harry finished telling them what had happened. Only Hermione said, with cold, perfect calm, “It’s the right thing to have done. Wandlore is only reliable for wizards because of the Compact. The more the goblins come to rely on it, the more they’ll have to commit. Very soon, it’ll be unimaginable to them to break the peace. Anyway, it doesn’t really make a difference.” Ron flinched hard, looking away. She’d already told them all that she’d marry Draco.

She got up and left the room, and the meeting broke up like a crumbling piece of stale cake, people slowly just going away. Harry walked out with Ron and reluctantly told him that Draco wanted to knight him. “That’s a joke, is it? He’d like to have me round to rub it in my face harder?” Ron said bitterly.

“No, that’s not—Ron, he—he doesn’t—” Harry stopped, helplessly, because he had no idea how to say it. Draco had said, “Just tell Weasley my only requirements are an heir and a modicum of discretion—and I don’t even expect him to manage either of those,” but Harry couldn’t just bring it out. Ron was frowning at him puzzled, and then Hermione came out of Shacklebolt’s office as they were passing the door and nearly ran into him, and they stopped and just stared at each other so miserably that Harry forced down his mortification. “Look, Draco doesn’t—he doesn’t expect—there’s only got to be an heir,” he managed, feeling like he’d rather have gone and fought Voldemort three times over.

Ron said, “What?” But Hermione said, “Yes, of course,” dully, as though she’d already thought of it all the same way. She pushed her hair back from her forehead. “I’m glad he’s going to be sensible about it. It’ll make things easier.”

“Wait, sensible about—” Ron said baffled, and then he got it, and his face left misery and ran through half a dozen feelings in rapid succession, only to end right back up where he’d began. Harry looked away; so he hadn’t made things any better, and quite possibly worse.

He went back to the castle angry, and stalked up to the tower room ready to yell some more, and then stopped in the doorway, his chest constricting. Draco was sitting in the window seat looking out over the countryside, his silver head shining faintly in the dim light, the old mossy grey stone arch of the window like a frame around his profile with the sky going to muddled violet behind him, and the hills to soft dark blue, the river winding still bright among them. Harry didn’t want it to be love, but he wasn’t sure what else to call it: devotion maybe, and whatever name he gave it, he felt it might swallow him whole. He said through the tightness, “I told Ron. He’ll take the knighthood after the wedding.”

“Yes, of course he will,” Draco said, also dully—as if even though he’d laid the trap for himself, for all of them, he’d still been hoping. His head bent a little, his face clenching in a quick flash of pain, and he took one short breath like a gasp. I couldn’t breathe, he’d said to Harry, savage, that first time when the yoke had only just been laid on. It was hard to imagine it had only been a few months. Harry felt it the same way that he had then: standing on the side of the road watching someone staggering along half crushed under a monstrous weight, the weight of everything that mattered to him, and he’d said I won’t do it

He was wildly, furiously angry at Merlin all of a sudden. He crossed the room to Draco’s side. Draco didn’t look round. He only kept staring out of the window, wrung out. Harry knelt down in front of him. Draco jerked and stared at him. Harry reached out and took his hands and kissed them, one after the other. “Come on,” he said, roughly. “We’ll have dinner in your room.”

It felt like throwing a pebble into a bottomless well, but it was the only thing he could do. Draco stared at him a moment longer, almost blankly, and then he said, wavering, “All right.” But then he reached out and took Harry’s face in his hand and kissed him, a soft careful kiss, his mouth trembling a little with something that felt like uncertainty, as though he wasn’t sure he was allowed, or welcome. Harry shut his eyes and leaned in.

#

The days rolled away to Midwinter, cold and dark and over too fast. Draco had recovered by the next morning, and threw himself—and all of them—into wedding preparations with a fervor that rivaled the most crazed society bride. He wanted a silk and ermine ensemble, but it couldn’t just be ordinary silk, it had to be underwatered silk. “Er, you mean watered silk?” Harry said, except no, what Draco meant was silk woven underwater, by mermen, and would Harry go talk them into making him a pile of it, in silver-white and sea green.

“They’re going to chase me off with tridents!” Harry said, but Draco sniffed and said, “A few mermen? It’s sad how Round Table standards have slipped these days,” so Harry threw up his hands, bought a full-body wetsuit at a Muggle shop, and Apparated to the lake at Hogwarts. He found some gillyweed growing on the banks and dived in through a frozen crust at the edge, fully expecting to be speared at any second, and sure enough, a party of six mermen swam up to meet him at once, very sharp tridents very much on display. He showed his empty hands and gargled out as rapidly as he could that he wanted to buy some of their silk. They didn’t look impressed, and informed him at length of, well, something in Mermish, the very rough gist of which was that they didn’t sell their silk to wizards.

Harry bubbled out a sigh that went up to the surface in a single enormous blob. “Yeah, I figured,” he told them. “His picky majesty will have to make do with ordinary silk.”

He was about to swim back up when the mermen demanded to know if he was talking about the high king. Harry paused and said, “Er, yeah, he wants it for his wedding?”

 He sloshed back to the castle four hours later, cold and wet and irritated, having been loaded down with enough underwatered silk to outfit not just Draco but all six of the horses he insisted on having pulling his carriage for the joyous occasion. “There, happy?” he said, dumping it in a puddle at Draco’s feet. It felt wet even when it was dry.

“Exquisitely,” Draco said.

Blaise had got back from a kind of shopping trip of his own at the same time, with a large apothecary’s case full of small unlabeled potion vials that he handed over with a flourish. “There you are, a full set of my mother’s finest work. Don’t mix any of the ones in the back row with anything else, she says, or we’ll be looking for a new high king.”

Draco carried it up to the bedroom that night. “What is all that stuff?” Harry said warily. He really wanted to put it past Draco to poison anyone, but he still would’ve felt more comfortable knowing for sure.

“Love potions,” Draco said, poking amidst the vials, and raised an eyebrow at Harry’s squawk. “Oh, don’t be absurd. There’s no reason to make an agony of it. A healthy dose of the right one, and we won’t have to think about it until morning. Here, try this.”

“What? No! It’s not like you need one on me!” Harry said, and then his face got hot when Draco smirked at him.

“I want to find out which one’s the best,” Draco said. “So you’re going to help me experiment. Come on, down the hatch.”

Harry groaned, but took a small swallow, while Draco downed a gulp of another. Two hours later, hanging facedown over the side of the bed, Harry said, muffled, “That one was all right?”

“Mm. Mine was a bit disorienting,” Draco said groggily. “Everything’s still sort of rainbows.”

Harry spent the last week in an almost continuous haze, making love to Draco for slow, languid hours hidden behind the lush velvet bedcurtains, drunk on a dozen love potions and even more on the taste of Draco’s mouth, on Draco’s hands tangled in his hair, on the deep sigh he made when he shuddered to climax, letting go for a moment in Harry’s arms. The shining current of power was always near the surface now, like a faint nearly-visible glimmer under his skin. Harry could see it from between his own fingers, spread wide on Draco’s smooth back while they lay catching their breath, another potion wearing off and the firelight gilding his body.

Draco sighed again, his back rising and falling with his breath under Harry’s hand. “Not that one, I don’t think,” he murmured, a little heavily.

Harry shut his eyes and pressed a kiss to the back of Draco’s neck. It was only eleven o’clock in the morning; they couldn’t fall asleep yet. “Do you want to try another?”

“We may as well,” Draco said.

And then the last of the days ran out from under them. Midwinter dawned beautiful and clear and sharp-edged, a fairy-tale deep blue sky without a single cloud. Draco got up and bathed and let half a dozen house elves—Harry didn’t know where they’d come from, they’d just started popping up all over the castle lately and asking Draco if they could serve the high king; he loftily agreed, as if he were performing an act of great generosity—help him into his formal robes of white and sea-green, the dark green cloak over all clasped at his throat. He picked up the hard golden band of the crown and set it on his own head and stared at himself in the mirror like he was meeting a stranger he didn’t like. Harry had gone to his own rooms to shower and dress, but he’d come back after—like jabbing himself all over with pins, but he didn’t know for certain it didn’t help Draco to have him there.

“All right,” Draco said finally. “It’s time.”

They went down. The carriage was waiting, with the six stamping black horses in their caparisons of silk embroidered with the Pendragon crest. There was a quiet sitting room inside, and the other knights were already seated there. Draco didn’t talk to anyone; he went to the small window seat and sat watching the countryside unfurl away.

They’d agreed on Shacklebolt officiating, and he was waiting on the hill with Hermione’s mother, who looked at once bewildered and anxious. Everyone else had come too—everyone else; there was a bigger crowd than there had been for the coronation, all of them gathered in concentric circles round the high hill. There was a large goblin contingent, and Harry even saw a pocket of centaurs and fauns, and merpeople with their heads poking up out of the curve of river round the base of the hill, watching. The crowd parted in a wave when Draco stepped down out of the carriage and climbed the hill.

“Harry, surely there’s some sort of—mistake,” Mrs. Granger whispered to him, while they all sorted themselves out into their places. “Hermione’s been telling me—but this—but he’s—” She trailed off, her face turning to follow Draco like she could find understanding by looking at him. He was standing straight and tall at the old white stone altar in his robes and his crown, his hands clasped over each other in front of him, and Harry didn’t blame her for not being able to believe in him, in any of it.

There was a low murmur starting behind them, and when Harry looked, the crowd was parting again. Hermione was walking up to join them on her father’s arm. Harry had half doubted that she’d dress up at all, but what she’d done was dress—Muggle, Harry realized; she was wearing a deliberately traditional white wedding dress, veil and train in lace, carrying white roses; nothing like wizard robes, and a political statement loud and clear. They reached the altar, and her father hesitantly turned to Draco, and then darted one last doubtful look at Hermione before he slowly gave Draco her hand. Her face was set, and Draco looked absolutely grim, and Harry looked away as Shacklebolt started in on the formal service. He wasn’t expecting anything to save them this time.

And then it was over, and Draco put a crown on Hermione’s head. “Long live the Queen!” Harry said, along with a full roar of voices behind him, wholehearted the way the cheer hadn’t been at the coronation, even though he was blinking away the smear of tears. Hermione and Draco were both wooden and stiff, walking down arm in arm from the altar to the waiting carriage. Hermione slowed to take people’s hands as they reached out to congratulate her, and Draco a bit sullenly started taking them too, but even so they finally reached the carriage, and climbed inside, and it flew up into the sky. Harry didn’t follow straight away. He stayed and talked a little while with Hermione’s parents, before he put them in the carriage Draco had arranged to take them to Camelot for the feasting after, and then to Shacklebolt, who said, “I am sorry, Harry. It is easier by far to mourn when all the world mourns with you, and more painful to weep as all around you rejoice.”

Harry shut his mouth hard on what he thought of Shacklebolt or anyone else having the nerve to rejoice, to be happy, because they’d forced Draco and now Hermione to throw themselves like wood onto the bonfire of the Compact. “Yeah,” he said shortly, and walked away, and when everyone else had gone, he knelt on the green mound and pounded his fists on the hard-frozen dirt and yelled at the top of his lungs until his air gave out.

He stayed there breathing in snotty gulps for a bit. By now they’d be dancing, back at the castle; everyone rejoicing over their new queen. And soon—Draco and Hermione wouldn’t drag it out; they’d leave early, to get it over with. She’d take the potion, too; it was the sensible thing to do. And then—and then—Draco would lie down with her in the royal bed, the bed that wasn’t Harry’s and wouldn’t be, no matter how many times he stole into it; and Harry wanted to be sorry for Hermione and for Draco, who had to do it, he’d been ready and braced to be sorry for them, sorry for Ron, but he was sorry for himself, too, and he didn’t know how he was going to bear it. Merlin had planted a thousand-year-old knife just below his sternum, and now Harry was being carved carefully and precisely down through his guts, as if his agony were needed to run the Compact, too.

He pressed his fists to his eyes, shaking—fuck Merlin anyway, fuck him and the whole Compact and the whole wizarding world, and if this was what he wanted—if this was what he wanted, Harry decided suddenly, lifting his head, he wasn’t going to get it.

He shoved himself up and Apparated, over to Diagon Alley, where the whole street for once was completely deserted, shuttered up and down except for one store: Weasleys Wizarding Wheezes, lit up and going full-blast just like on any other night, and when Harry went inside, Ron was sitting on the staircase inside with George, who had a bottle of firewhisky and was steadily topping off the glass in Ron’s hand every single time Ron took a swallow.

Ron paused when Harry came inside, but he didn’t say anything; he didn’t ask has it happened, is it over. He was so gutted that he hadn’t even been crying; his face was a bit red, but that was because he was more than halfway drunk. Just as well, actually. Harry walked over and took the bottle from George and swigged from it, healthily, three times. He wiped his mouth on his arm, and told Ron, “We’re not doing this. We’re not doing it this way. Come on.”

Ron got up instantly, without even asking a single question. “Just to check,” George put in, “but the way you are doing it, will you be needing any help with complicated things like navigating stairs or walking straight lines or casting first-year spells, anything like that?”

“No,” Harry said. “Thanks, George, but I think we’re going to have to muddle through on our own.”

The Diagon Alley merchants had all clubbed together to fund putting up a massive barn-sized doorway, which now went from Diagon Alley to the side entrance of the castle, for deliveries. Harry took Ron through it. They skirted the whole raucous celebration still going noisily on in the banquet hall and the courtyard, and Harry led the way upstairs. They passed Pansy snogging in a corner of the first landing with Justin Finch-Fletchley of all people, and she broke off long enough to say, a little breathless, “Potter, please tell me you’re not bringing Weasley here to commit regicide or anything else stupid?”

“All bets are off on the second part,” Harry said. “Did they already—”

“Yes, just a minute ago,” Pansy said, eyeing him skeptically, but she didn’t try to stop them. Harry could see why she’d been concerned: Ron was just following after him blind with misery and rage, and his hands were clenched by his sides. He still hadn’t asked any questions or even said a word—because it couldn't get any worse, whatever Harry had in mind, and Harry hoped that really was true as he got up to the bedchamber door and knocked.

“Honestly?” he heard Draco say, on the other side, sharp and irritated. “What?” he called loudly.

Harry took a final deep breath and opened the door. The royal couple weren’t in bed yet, but they’d been on the way there: Hermione had got out of the massive contraption of the wedding dress, abandoned crumpled in the corner, and was down to petticoats and a complicated and uncomfortable-looking bra, and Draco had been halfway out of his robes, which were hanging unbuttoned over his bare chest and trousers. They were at opposite ends of the room with their backs to the bed, clearly doing their best not to even look at each other: Harry made a third point of a triangle when they both turned their heads to stare at him.

“What are you,” Draco started, and then Hermione made a small choked noise: she’d seen Ron, standing behind him, staring at her, and she jerked away and put her hands over her face. Draco glanced over, frowning, then he noticed Ron, and stared at Harry, somewhere between outraged and baffled and unwillingly hopeful. “Did you think you’d just come and twist the knife a bit more?” he snapped, though, because he wasn’t going to let himself hope, obviously.

“No,” Harry said grimly. “I thought I’d come and stop this.”

“Oh, Harry!” Hermione said, her voice cracking. “What’s the use of—of—You know there’s no choice! If you really did have anything that would work, you might have spared us the wedding! Or have you come up with some brilliant idea in the last hour?”

It came out so unlike her, vicious, that his eyes stung, sorry for his own selfishness; she’d fought so hard to be brave, to make it all seem nothing more than practicality, but in the end, she’d walked into this room to be raped, and it wasn’t much help to say Draco was under duress as much as she was.

“I’m sorry, Hermione,” he said. “It’s not brilliant. It’s a complete mess, actually. But we can’t do this. We can’t. You’ve all got to see it.” He looked at Draco. “This is exactly what you were talking about. You and Hermione stuck up here, and me and Ron stuck downstairs—we’ll all end up hating ourselves and each other, and the Compact and everyone in it.”

Draco flung up his hands. “So what’s your solution? Do you think the Compact will let us off with a red-haired heir, and we can forgo the consummation? I wouldn’t rely on it.”

Harry shook his head. “No. We can’t do anything about that part, and we couldn’t do anything about the marriage. There’s no way to get out of it.” He swallowed. “The only thing we can do is—is get through it together, instead of apart.”

Draco snorted. “What did you have in mind? All four of us piled in a bed?”

“It’s a good job you insisted on one big enough,” Harry said flatly.

“Wait—what?” Ron said, the first thing that had come out of his mouth all night. “You want us to—you want to—” He was gawking.

“Oh, God,” Hermione said, muffled, her hand over her face. “Harry, how could you—”

He wasn’t sure if he could, actually, but there was no way to find out but try. He shoved into the room and went straight for the apothecary’s case on Draco’s side. He yanked out four vials, picking them out—Hermione would hate anything that left her muzzy-headed or out of control, she didn’t even like to drink more than a glass of wine; she’d prefer the one that tasted a bit of seaweed and just made you really like being touched. He turned and handed Draco the caramel one that had made him go all dreamy and relaxed and mostly monosyllabic.

Draco was still staring at him disbelieving, but Harry pushed it at him and said fiercely, “Do you really think it’s going to be worse if I stay?”

“There's certainly room for it to be more mortifying,” Draco said. “And I don’t like this one!”

He tried to swap the vial, but Harry firmly pushed his hand back. “There’s no way we’re getting through this if either you or Ron are capable of talking!”

Draco glared at him. “I can’t believe you’re really trying to get me to sleep with Ron Weasley.”

“As I was saying,” Harry said pointedly. “Come on, drink up, you know that one takes a bit to kick in.” He’d taken the one that tasted like salad dressing for himself, and he took a good long swig from it right away too, because the sooner his own inhibitions went, the better. Then he went across the room to Hermione, who had at least stopped crying and was only watching him with her mouth hanging half open, as if she still couldn't believe he actually meant it.

He put the vial in her hand and crouched down and said softly, “I know it’s mad and really weird and nothing you want. But neither is the other way. And this way—it can at least be something you’re doing with—with friends. With people who love you. With the one you love.”

“What’s even in this?” Hermione said, diving for escape by looking the potion over.

“I don’t know, actually,” Harry said. “Blaise’s mum made the whole batch for Draco. I don’t think most of them are on the legal list, to be honest. But they’re all right.”

“You didn’t try them all!

“Well, no,” Harry said. “Draco tried half.” At her outraged look, he laughed, and took out the cork. “Go on, it tastes a bit like sushi.”

“And you’re already off your head, aren’t you,” Hermione said, but her mouth was softening, and he leaned up and kissed her—he’d never let himself want to kiss her before, because he’d known what she wanted, and what Ron wanted, and he wanted them to have it, but why wouldn't he want to kiss her, he loved her with all his heart, and this was by far the best idea he’d ever had, actually. Hermione gave a faint squeak, and she was flushed pink after, but she said half-despairingly, “Oh, this is mad, and then she looked down at her potion and tipped it up for a quick swallow, still blushing.

Harry took the last one to Ron, the peppery roller-coaster one that made you stop thinking at all except from one instant to the next, and the only thing you thought about was what would feel the nicest. “But you can’t mean it,” Ron said, cautiously, as if he wasn’t quite sure that he was perceiving reality properly.

“Come on and take it,” Harry said. “What are you going to do otherwise, sit outside the door and listen in?”

Ron stared at the vial when Harry shoved it in his hand. “But Harry, I’ll strangle him.”

“Not with this in you, you won’t,” Harry said. “You’re never leaving Hermione in this alone anyway, so go ahead.”

After a moment Ron said, “If my mum ever finds out I’ve ever done anything like this, I’ll be disowned,” but it was fatalistic. He gulped the potion down, and Harry pulled him the rest of the way into the room and shut the door and barred it. Then he shoved Ron over towards Hermione, and went to get Draco, who had sprawled muzzily backwards over the bed and looked fantastically delicious in the half-open seafoam robes: Harry wanted to bite the whole way down that bare slice of chest, and he was going to, and Merlin could go fuck himself, he really could.

They ended up side by side, him tangled with Draco and Ron and Hermione kissing and gasping and moving beside them, and hearing them together was lovely; Ron gone incoherent but still saying Hermione's name in drunken adoration while he worked urgently between her thighs, and she sighed out in long pleasure, a sound that made Harry lean over and nuzzle at her throat with happiness, and she giggled and turned and kissed him suddenly, and then Harry kissed Ron too, because he was so glad he was there, so glad they were all here in this together.

“All right, I think I’m ready,” Hermione said, after the third go-round, with a faint sigh. Ron, who had finally crumpled in a spent heap next to her, made a slightly desperate noise of gathering himself for heroic acts, but she stroked his head. “No, darling, I mean, I think we’d better, if Draco can,” and she only sounded—practical about it, in her usual way, not like she was steeling herself for agony anymore.

Ron did make another incoherent noise of instinctive protest, but his limbs couldn't organize any sort of collective action. Of course, Draco was also a drowsy and mostly limp sprawl, and he refused to manage the thing without assistance. “You reduced me to this,” he muttered vaguely, and pushed Harry’s head down and made him suck him hard again, and then he said, “No, stay there,” before he beckoned to Hermione.

“Um, but,” Hermione said, and then turned crimson when Draco drawled a long licentious, “Mm hm,” but after a moment she let Draco pull her in, and Harry kissed her thigh and let his hands and mouth wander everywhere, everywhere, while Draco slid into her. Harry reached out and prodded Ron, who groaned faintly out of a doze and rolled over to bury his face into the back of Hermione’s neck and curl up around her, and Harry caught his hand and pulled it in with his own, the two of them touching and teasing lightly at Hermione’s folds, the soft nub, at Draco’s cock sliding deeply in.

 “Oh, oh,” Hermione said in a strangled voice, and went over almost at once, and then Draco shuddered abruptly and for a moment an oceanic tilt rocked through the bed, a bright glittering sensation sparking Harry’s nerves. He heard them all gasp right along with him as he came blindingly, and they all collapsed in limp quivering heaps—suddenly and completely sober.

“Oh my God,” Hermione said.

Harry rolled over onto his back and stared at the canopy. After a moment, he wiped the back of his hand over his face; his mouth and nose were really wet. He was still mostly certain that had been the right thing to do.

“That didn’t really just happen, right?” Ron said in a blank way. He had frozen with his head still tucked in between Hermione’s shoulder blades and was carefully not lifting it. “I mean, we’ve all just—”

“Climbed naked into bed together and had a massive shared hallucination?” Draco said snidely. “Unfortunately, I’m reasonably certain that’s your hand still on my—”

“Gyaarrh,” Ron said and jerked back so violently he nearly fell off the edge of the bed and had to windmill ungracefully to stay on. Draco snickered.

Hermione levered herself up sitting with enormous staring eyes, yanking bunches of the covers over herself; her hair had turned into a massive tangled cloud. “I can’t believe we actually—did that.”

“Don’t worry, I imagine it’ll sink in after a few dozen rounds more,” Draco said, yawning. Ron and Hermione both swiveled their heads round to stare at him, but he just stretched, unconcerned. “What? There’s certainly no reason not to do it again that wouldn't have kept us from doing it the first time.” He propped himself on an elbow and raised one eyebrow. “Unless you’ve developed a new appreciation for the royal person after the first go and got over this peculiar taste for gingers, Granger?”

“Hardly!” Hermione snapped, indignantly, while Ron purpled back up again.

“No accounting for taste,” Draco said, shaking his head.

“I don’t believe you!” Ron said through his teeth. “All this—everything—and you’re still being an absolute little—”

Draco leaned over the side of the bed and came up with—Excalibur. Harry sat up and Ron’s eyes went wide, but before any of them could do more than yelp in alarm, he’d swung it over and whacked Ron on either shoulder, the blows making him gasp. Draco tossed the sword back over the side again—horribly cavalier—and grabbed Ron by the back of the neck and yanked him in and kissed him. Ron shivered all over, then made several horrified squawking noises and fell back with a deeply dismayed expression when Draco let him go.

“Shut up before you commit lèse-majesté, Sir Ronald,” Draco said amiably, sprawling back against the pillows highly self-satisfied. “More than you already have, obviously.” He waved a hand up and down over Hermione, who gave him a deeply annoyed look. “And you,” crooking his finger at Harry, “come back up here. I want a buffer. I’m feeling a distinct possibility of being murdered in my sleep.”

Harry laughed, with relief and with a rising, improbable gladness: it had been the right thing, after all. “It’d serve you right, honestly,” he said, and climbed over to kiss him.

#

Draco woke him up the next morning before the sun was even really up: there was a pale grey sky out the window. “Whassit,” Harry mumbled, and Draco shoved him again.

“Go on, get a move on,” Draco said grouchily. “You’ve got to go to Jura. Don’t stop for coffee.”

“What are you on about?” Ron complained from Hermione's other side. “It’s not five!”

“No rest for the wicked et cetera,” Draco said. “You go too, if it’s not too much to ask you make sure Potter doesn’t get himself killed or anything.” Then he sank back down and shut his eyes.

“What?” Ron said. “Is that some sort of—Harry, what are you doing?”

Harry was mostly running on automatic, his eyes still half closed, but he’d got himself vertical and found his pants. His robes were around here somewhere. He groped through the pile of wedding clothes until he got hold of something that didn’t feel wet when he touched it.

“Harry, you’re not letting that wanker send you off like this?” Ron demanded, trying to glare at Draco, who wasn’t noticing because he’d already fallen back to sleep. “It could bloody wait.”

Harry stifled another monumental yawn. “No, it can’t. Come on.”

Ron took a deep breath, taking on air for a more comprehensive protest, but Hermione made a complaining noise and stuffed her head deeper into the pillows, and Harry had got on his trousers and gone for the door, shrugging into his robes, so Ron came after him, muttering under his breath; he just wrapped on his robes and caught Harry in the dressing room outside. “Are you joking? D’you let him do this to you all the time?” 

“Well, he is the king, you know,” Harry said. “It’s all right. Get your trousers on, you’ll see when we get there.”

Ron threw up his hands and went back into the room. “Don’t stop for coffee, honestly!” he was muttering savagely as he came back out with the rest of his clothes and jerked them on. “It’s going to be three hours’ flying time to Jura, we can bloody well get a cup of coffee.”

“We’re going to Apparate,” Harry said.

“When have you ever been to Jura?” Ron demanded. “Even if we go to Hogwarts first—”

Harry was still too sleepy to work out the words, and anyway time was tight, so he just reached out and got Ron’s arm and said, “Where the high king wills. Apparate,” and banged them out on the Isle, right next to a tall and somewhat askew standing stone, with screaming Muggles running every which way as a giant some fourteen feet tall smashed a massive granite-studded club down through one of a little circle of five camper vans. The giant grabbed both halves and tore it further apart, and Harry heard high-pitched screams coming from inside. He was already running towards the giant, Ron a few gawking steps behind him, and he yelled out, “Wingardium leviosa!” and yanked the screaming half away from the giant’s hands.

Half an hour later, they’d got the giant knocked out, the camper van mended, and the Muggles Obliviated. “I wouldn’t go any further this way, the road’s washed out,” Harry told one of the dazed-looking Muggle drivers, before sending them on their way.

“Yes, of course,” the driver said vaguely. “The road’s washed out. We’ll go back.”

Ron was standing over the unconscious giant, his own face almost as bewildered. “But,” he said. “But.”

Harry covered another yawn; the sun was only just now really coming up. “It’s the Compact. Draco knows when something’s—gone wrong, I suppose. Where the king’s peace is being broken. And then he sends one of us to sort it out.”

Ron sat down on a rock, his mouth downturned like a clown out of an opera. “And you just—go. On Draco Malfoy’s say-so?” Harry shrugged. Ron put his head in his hands. “It’s a nightmare!”

“Sorry,” Harry said apologetically. “It works, is the thing. D’you want to head back? I really wouldn’t mind a cup of coffee.”

Ron maintained a look of strong disapproval, which only got worse when they got back to Camelot and found Draco and Hermione eating a lavish breakfast in the royal suite, even if they were also yelling at each other hammer-and-tongs over still-warm croissants. “You can’t simply send a basket of legislation to the Wizengamot and order them to pass it!” Hermione was saying furiously.

Watch me!” Draco said. “Well?” he demanded of Harry.

“A wild giant smashing up some Muggles on holiday who’d come into his hunting grounds,” Harry said, and stole Draco’s coffee cup. “We turned them back, and dropped him further up on the mountain. But that’s the seventh giant attack this month.”

“Yes, we’ll have to do something about it,” Draco said. “I suppose a tidy war will cut down their numbers to something manageable.”

“A war!” Hermione said, indignantly.

Draco rolled his eyes. “They’re giants, Granger. Giiiiiants,” dragging it out like he was talking to a child. “They can’t be reasoned with, murder humans on sight—nipping off their heads for a snack more often than not—and immediately smash up any property they see that’s got anything like a straight line. Voldemort stirred up all the sleeping clans, there’s too many of them active now, so they’re going to keep running into Muggles and trying their best to commit wholesale slaughter.”

“They’re still thinking beings!” Hermione said. “You’re not deliberately culling them! Why do I even have to say these things?”

Draco snorted and looked at Ron. “Well, Weasley? Giants. What’s there to be done with them?”

Ron turned bright red with the violence of the conflict between his desire to tell Draco to shove his head up his arse and his fairly obvious conviction that the only thing to do with giants was in fact to kill them by the dozens. “Ask Hagrid!” he blurted out, squeezed down a third road.

Draco frowned. Ron looked a bit unhappy himself. “That’s a splendid idea, Ron,” Hermione said in approval, beaming at him. “And after we’ve got Hagrid’s advice,” she added, turning back on Draco with the militant light still in her eye, “we will consult with the Wizengamot, who will vote on the best course of action—”

Draco snorted. “Not that I want to deny you the experience of having your innocence shattered, since you’re so eager for it, but perhaps you ought to look into how many members of the high council have estates in the country that have suffered giant attacks lately,” he said, and Hermione bit her lip with a suddenly anxious frown. Draco waved a hand at Ron. “Fine, go and  talk to your pet gamekeeper, see if he has any ideas Her Majesty likes better.”

He got up from the table while Ron was still grinding his teeth and sailed into the dressing room. “And that’s another thing!” Hermione added, throwing down her own napkin and getting up to chase after him. “I refuse—I absolutely refuse—to be waited on by enslaved house elves!” The half-dozen elves currently about to fling clothes on Draco froze in place, all staring at her with enormous woebegone eyes. “I don’t want to turn any of you off!” she added to them. “But we’re absolutely going to set you free, and pay you—pay you wages,” she continued, raising her voice over the wailing and sobbing as they all prostrated themselves, “and give you time off—”

“I’m trying to get dressed here! Will you stop working them into a frenzy?” Draco shouted at her over the rising clamoring.

“No!” she shouted back. “I wont! You’ve all brought them to this, you’ve taught them they have to be absolutely servile or you’ll throw them out into the street—”

“Out of the Compact, you addlepated woman!” Draco yelled. “If they haven’t got a master, they can’t draw on it.” He stopped, a startled look coming across his face, as if he hadn’t known it before he’d said it.

Hermione had stopped too, blinking, but she wasn’t at a loss for long. “Then you’ve got to invite them in directly!” She turned to the crouching, alarmed house-elves. “Will that do?”

“They’re not allowed!” Draco said, and got that puzzled look again, with a side order of scowling; he evidently didn’t like the feeling. “They—what did you lot do?” he demanded of the elves. “And I’ll know if you’re lying.” 

One of the huddled mass, a little narrow-chinned female elf wearing a patchwork quilt of what looked like cloak scraps, squeaked out, “Elves is stealing magic, Majesty. Arthur is giving three chances, but then he is saying elves cannot be in it anymore. So house-elves are asking to have magic from masters instead.”

“You asked to—” Hermione was speechless. “That can’t be the whole story. I don’t believe an entire free people agreed to go into slavery just for more magic.”

“No, no, Majesty,” the elf said. “Many elves is not doing it. They is sticking to the old ways. They is mostly dead, though.”

Hermione’s eyes narrowed. “And how did they die?”

“Elves is only living for a year and a day without the Compact,” she said. “So whenever a wild elf is deciding they want to live, they is becoming a house elf, if they is lucky enough to be finding a master. Please, Majesty, us all wants to live.”

Hermione stared down at them with an open mouth of horror. “So—so you’re all serving in fear of your lives?” she said, her voice rising. “That’s—that’s worse than I even imagined!”

“Wait a minute!” Harry broke in. “Dobby was free, and he lived for a lot more than a year—”

“Dobby is having a master for a long time,” another elf, with very large ears and a gown made of the end of a badly frayed tablecloth, explained. “But Dobby is dying soon, if he is not already dead from fighting. But Dobby is wanting to be free more than Dobby is wanting to live.” He sounded fairly skeptical about Dobby’s choices—which of course made sense, if you were one of the elves who’d looked at the ticking clock and decided you did want to live.

“It’s all absolutely monstrous,” Hermione said fiercely. “And all this because they stole some magic a thousand years ago! Draco, if you don’t put them back in this instant—” 

Draco opened his mouth, and then hesitated, frowning. He looked down at the elves. “If I put you back in, will you start stealing again?”

“Yes.” All the house elves nodded. “Elves cannot help it,” the narrow-chinned one one said. “We are not meaning to, we just takes it, and the Compact cannot stop us. So Arthur is saying he must put us out, or the whole Compact is going, and then elves is out of it anyway.”

“Except you don’t do it if you’ve got a master, so there’s some solution!” Hermione said. “I refuse to believe slavery is the only one. Why did Arthur do it this way, other than being perfectly happy to get wizards a lot of free servants?”

The elves all just stared at her blankly, so she whirled on Draco, who let his head loll back from his shoulders and heaved an enormous, put-upon sigh, and then went to the wardrobe and yanked out Excalibur. He held it up, and light bloomed suddenly through the blade, through him, shocking and incandescent. Harry’s breath caught in his throat all over again. Next to him Ron was wincing away, and all the elves were shielding their faces, but he couldn’t bear to look away, even though his own eyes were watering from the radiance. Draco was lit up like a torch shining from inside him, his hair molten and his eyes solid white flame, and when he spoke there was a light gleaming out of his throat.

“The Compact had been sealed,” he said, his voice echoing strangely as though he was speaking with someone else, and that other voice was coming down a long corridor. “Merlin was gone. It could not be rewritten, and the elves could not touch it directly without draining it dry. Nimue found only this way to save them. The vow of bondservant to master formed a link wide enough to let the elves draw from the common well, but bounded by their master’s will. And thus could they be granted a measure of the Compact, if they chose to have it.”

He lowered the blade, and the terrible light faded out of him. “There, happy?” he told Hermione coolly, as if nothing much out of the ordinary had happened, while all around the room everyone cautiously lowered their hands, or peeked back to see if it was safe. Harry wiped his wet eyes, his breath hammering at his chest trying to catch up, some part of his soul secretly curling up around the memory of that blazing light.

“Hardly!” Hermione said, her voice almost perfectly steady. She had turned away only a bit, and now was looking at Draco with narrow eyes. “The Compact was sealed. But now—we’re in the middle of renewing it. There’s got to be a way to rework it somehow along the way…”

Draco snorted. “When you’ve thought of a way to improve on Merlin’s greatest work, Granger, do let me know. As it’s likely to take you at least until the afternoon, do you suppose you could go away and let me get dressed in peace?”

 “No, because even if we can’t fix the Compact at once, it’s still no excuse for the elves to be treated so horribly! If you can’t give them wages, you can still give them respect.”

“Sorry, I can’t actually decree that all wizards have to be nice to house elves!”

“No,” Hermione said, “but you can decree that any house elf who isn’t treated well has the right to leave their master and come be sworn as our bondservant directly instead. And then you can be nice to house elves, although I realize it’s going to be a strain,” she added tartly.

Draco scowled at her. “I don’t know, Granger, I think perhaps we’d better send it to the Wizengamot for a vote.

#

Hagrid was delighted when Ron and Harry appeared at his door, and insisted on having them sit down for tea and a spread of inedible biscuits. “And—and Hermione’s all right, then?” he said anxiously, looking between them as he set down the tray. “Wasn’t sure what to think of it, hearing she was marrying Malfoy.”

“Er,” Harry said, “yeah, I—I think it’s going to be all right,” avoiding Ron’s glare.

“Well, I’ll admit it did my heart good, seeing her crowned High Queen,” Hagrid continued, “and if it’s her asking, that’s different. I wouldn't of trusted that Malfoy to look at a giant except to spit on em, or worse. T’ain’t like with the goblins—yeh can’t get more’n’ one giant to agree on anything for more’n’ one minute, they ain’t going to start an army and make the high king offer ‘em all a spot.”

“A spot?” Ron said.

“In the Compact,” Hagrid said. “’Tis the only way ter do it.”

Ron gaped at him with an expression of horror. “You want Malfoy to bring the giants in?”

“Ah, yeh’ll never get them all,” Hagrid said. “But I reckon I can get Grawp to put his thumb on it, and his clan with him, and mayhap a few more. There’s some up in the Cairngorms that’ll do it, on account o’ they remember Arthur givin’ em a drubbing. Once yeh’ve got them, they’ll bring the rest in line, or knock ’em back to sleep, as need be.”

While Ron was still suffering through repressed apoplectic convulsions, Hagrid hesitated and added slowly, “Yeh know—well. I ain’t said nothing before now, on account of yeh were Aurors. I didn’t want to make any trouble for yeh when t’were your business to be enforcing the laws, not helping anyone work round ‘em. An’ I know Malfoy don’t care two pins for any magical beast. When I think about how him and that dad o’ his near did for poor Buckbeak—” Hagrid shook his head under lowering brows. “Well, I knew better than to ask him. But Hermione, she’ll not let him trample over anyone, if they’re in the Compact or no. Or any creature.”

“No!” Ron yelled. Hagrid paused and blinked at him. Ron stood up and pointed at him. “We are not putting Acromantulas in the Compact! No! There’s a line!

“I weren’t thinking of the Acromantulas,” Hagrid said, a bit bemused, only to add, to Ron’s purpling indignation, “but t’ain’t such a bad idea as all that, now yeh mention it. But there’s loads o’ Acromantulas yet, down in South America, an’ Aragog’s colony is goin’ gangbusters in the Forest. It ain’t the same sort of thing. No, what I mean is…well, perhaps I’d best show yeh.”

They had to follow him on his motorbike all the way to Pokesdown in Dorset, where he took them to the front door of a little cottage tucked thoroughly away behind ivy-carpeted walls. A tall, slight wizard opened the door—quite old, with a shock of white hair and an anxious, spectacled face, but wiry still. “Hagrid!” he said, reedy, and then made a jerky move of alarm as he saw them behind him. “What, who—I don’t, I’m not sure,” he stammered out, throwing a worried look at Hagrid.

Hagrid put a hand on his shoulder. “I ain’t said anything yet,” he said. “But I reckon it’s the best chance yer going to see, Newt.”

The old wizard dithered on a bit incoherently for a while, taking them into his untidy parlor—photographs all around of him with a smiling witch who aged along with him through the pictures, the main difference being which bizarre-looking creature was next to them in each one. She disappeared abruptly out of the photographs again somewhere roughly twenty years ago, and then there was a substantial gap before a few more appeared of a significantly-older Newt with some more odd beasts, including—“Wait a minute,” Harry said, frowning at one relatively recent one on the end table next to the sofa. “That’s the mad Erumpent! The one that went through three Starbucks before we caught it!”

The wizard wrung his hands. “It’s addicted to Frappucinos,” he said, throwing an anguished look at Hagrid.

You’re the one running the illegal zoo!” Harry shot a hard look of his own at Hagrid, who just shook his head at both of them.

“T’ain’t a zoo, Harry,” he said. “It’ll be all right, Newt,” he added. “Go on, yeh’d better show them.”

After another unhappy wringing moment, Newt went to his bedroom and came out carrying an old battered suitcase, its handle nearly falling off and the leather worn almost translucent at the corners. He put it down on the floor and opened the lid—and a gust of warm moist air came blowing out. He climbed inside it and then just kept going down, the top of his head vanishing away into the depths almost at once. Hagrid carefully climbed in after him, the sides of the suitcase bulging out around him as he squished himself through. Harry traded a look with Ron and they went in after them.

And came out, off a narrow staircase, into a wide and messy yard, a massive barn standing at one side of a large fenced area, and beyond it— “Have you ever seen anything like this?” Harry muttered to Ron, who wide-eyed shook his head: it was the biggest hidden-interior space he’d ever even heard of. The ceiling had been enchanted like the one in the Great Hall at Hogwarts, to mimic the real sky, only it was divided into what looked like a dozen different habitats, with landscapes below to match. A clucking herd of roly-poly green birds with tall golden plumes off their heads went running by on their way into a forest, and a small herd of mooncalves were cropping grass in a wide plain.

Newt took them around to show them the animals—dozens of rare and in some cases literally extinct beasts, or so Harry had thought. “I had the last breeding pair,” Newt said, when Ron asked him where he’d got the fat green birds, who were apparently Gold-Feathered Darters, which had been hunted out during the First Wizarding War because any spell written down using their plumes for a quill would stick in the wizard’s head for good and always be cast properly. “They—they really need more genetic diversity—there’s one more male in China, I’ve managed to arrange a few breeding trips—”

He rambled it out while somehow navigating through a thicket of Ropewinders that tripped all of them half a dozen times, ducking under the swinging scorpion-barbed tail of a Ruby-Crested Manticore as it wandered across the path. He caught them back a dozen times from stepping on something that would have killed them in a single bite. It was absolutely massively illegal, but it didn’t look anything like a zoo, Harry had to admit. There wasn’t the least concession to getting around or to human comfort at all.

“So what are you doing it for?” Harry said to Newt, who just stopped and stared at him blankly.

“Because—because—because—” He stopped there, as if he literally couldn’t say anything more. “They deserve to live!” he burst out finally. “They’re beautiful. They’re all beautiful. You can’t see?

Harry looked round himself a bit helplessly—most of the beasts were hideous, actually, except for the handful of really pretty ones that were also the most horribly deadly of them all, like the leopard thing that was drowsing on top of a distant hill, under a cloud of what Harry was pretty sure was nerve gas—but when he looked at them all together, there was something about them, wild and terrible and—and extraordinary. They weren’t pretty. They were—wonderful, and by the time he’d turned himself in a full circle, he’d started to understand, and Newt’s face went slack with relief when he saw Harry come back round to look at him.

Ron had a bit more of a scrunched up look to him, but he grudgingly said, “Well, as long as you don’t let them go rampaging over people, I don’t see any harm in your keeping them.”

“You’re wrong,” Newt said, with unexpected force. “There is harm. Great harm. These beasts don’t belong penned up. They should be free. I only keep them because—they’ll all be killed, otherwise.”

Hagrid turned to Harry urgently. “But if they were in the Compact, under the high king’s protection—”

“Like the unicorns,” Newt put in. “And the hippogriffs—”

Ron snorted. “You reckon on Malfoy agreeing to take on a whole new bunch of monsters if he doesn’t have to?”

Harry would’ve agreed, not that long ago. Draco didn’t have to help these beasts, so why would he? The Compact wasn’t going to be forcing him along. If anything, it might get in the way. Setting loose a bunch of magical monsters in safe wizarding countryside where any one of them might attack a wizard? He didn’t see how you could ask them to keep the king’s peace themselves. So he couldn’t really argue it with Ron, only—“We might as well ask him,” he said. “It’s worth trying. You’re not going to be worse off if he says no.”

“Unless he orders us to round them all up for their pelts instead!” Ron said, and Newt blanched.

“He won’t!” Harry said, only he didn’t have an answer when Ron said, “Why not?

Hagrid snorted. “He wants a bit o’ domestic tranquility same as anyone. I reckon he wouldn’t hear the end of it for a while if he tried it, or I don’t know our Hermione.”

“That’s—true enough,” Harry said, and felt his face get a bit hot as Ron shot him a look; well, he wouldn’t let Draco hear the end of it, so it was true enough, just—one step sideways.

“There’s not much to lose,” Newt said after a moment, a bit despondently. “I’m—getting too old to keep it up, and this place…it’s tied to my family line. But none of the children…well. When they were little, I spent so much time on…and then… when You-Know-Who was attacking Muggles—Tina went to help defend them, but I couldn’t go, there was a sick…and they blamed…” He trailed off. “Well. They won’t look after them. They’ve even walked out of the photographs.”

“And I couldn’t take but a handful of ’em, if I had ter keep them in the Forbidden Forest,” Hagrid said. “There’s not many could live there, not without a lot of looking after.”

But Draco’s expression when Harry told him the idea wasn't what anyone would have called encouraging. “Are you joking?” he asked, sincerely, as if he couldn’t even imagine why Harry was asking. “Why would I ever do this?”

Harry glared at him. “I don’t know, maybe you’d like me to be in the mood to give you a blowjob sometime in the next month.” He’d come upstairs to the tower with Ron, who was cringing up into a solid ball next to him, but Harry was too irritated to care, mostly at himself; of course Draco wouldn’t even consider it.

Draco glared back. “Potter, you’re in the mood to give me a blowjob six times a day, and the last time I let your overgrown animal herder friend introduce me to one of his undomesticated pets, I ended up with a severed artery!”

“Are you seriously going to try and use Buckbeak as an example here? If you’d listened to one word Hagrid said instead of insulting him—”

“Luckily, being king, I don’t have to be polite anymore to gruesome things that haven’t the mental capacity of a portrait,” Draco snapped.

“Shut up, they’re amazing!” Harry yelled at him. “They’re—they’re magnificent, and if nobody does anything about it—if you don’t do something about it—they’re all going to die out. They’ll just—be gone. Like all the rest of it would’ve been gone!”

“Ugh, you’re pathetically romantic, do you know that? I’m sure they’d magnificently eat you if you gave them half a chance.” Draco stood up and snagged his cloak from where it was draped over the window seat. “And just to be clear, the instant one of those things tries to take a nip of me, I’ll be leaving.”

“Fine!” Harry said, still heaving with indignation, before it hit him that Draco had just said—“Wait, you’ll—”

“Well?” Draco said, coolly. “You’re ready to show me this zoo of yours, I hope?”

“Er, yeah,” Harry said, confused with victory. “Hagrid and Newt’ve got it downstairs.” He looked at Ron, who was at least ten times as surprised as he was. “Er, will you get Hermione?”

“Right,” Ron said, a bit blankly.

“I’ve never seen such an elaboration of the Undetectable Extension Charm,” Hermione said, her voice echoey and muffled; she was kneeling at the side of the suitcase with her head stuck all the way inside. “Mr. Scamander, it’s absolutely amazing, how did you cast it so large? Wait, there’s more than one here, isn’t there?” Her voice got fainter as she put more of herself inside to have a closer look. “That’s not meant to be possible! You can’t nest them—”

“They aren’t nested, exactly,” Newt said. “They’re attached. We—the Scamanders, I mean—each cast another piece. It’s a bit of a tradition, when we come of age. You need something that’s grown on the inside. I used an acorn, myself. You take it outside and cast the Extension Charm on it there and make the interior space, then you bring it back inside—it’s a bit tricky actually, you have to keep a containment spell round it—and you take it to wherever it grew, and you—let go. And the new interior sort of—pops out and latches on to where you are.”

“That’s absolutely brilliant,” Hermione said, pulling her head out. “And the habitat spells, tell me—”

“I hate to interrupt your orgy of tedious and unimportant detail, but can we just get on with this?” Draco said. “There’s eighty wizards coming to dinner tonight, and I need time to dress.”

Hermione shot him an annoyed look and then stood up and told Newt graciously, “Perhaps we can talk more afterwards,” and he smiled a little and nodded.

Draco peered down into the dark hole of the suitcase and waved Harry in. “You first, Potter.”

“Stop worrying, I’m not going to let anything bite your head off,” Harry said. “Even if I want to.”

In the yard, Newt rather anxiously showed off his creatures one after another while Draco stood with his arms folded and an expression of incredulous distaste and made rude remarks that made Harry want to hit someone, ideally him. “What on earth do you even want me to do with them, set up a royal menagerie?” Draco demanded of him.

“No!” Harry said. “They should be free.”

“Half of them are tropical! I’m not king of the Amazon rainforest, in case you haven’t noticed!”

“Will you just give it the least bloody chance!” Harry yelled at him. “Just try to—” He stopped, his mouth tight. Ron had his arms folded across his chest scowling, and Hagrid was looking at Draco under his bushy brows the same way, both of them—completely unsurprised.

Hermione also threw Draco a disapproving look and then turned to Newt. “Thanks, Mr. Scamander, it’s really lovely to see them all. I’m sure we can create microclimates in a few isolated locations for the species that need particular conditions. Of course—please forgive me—you must know we can’t take them all.”

Newt’s face went sort of wobbly and desperate. “But—”

“I mean—you’ve got a Nundu.” Hermione waved her hand up the hill towards the sleeping leopard-creature. “One of them literally slaughtered three villages in Kenya last year before it was subdued by a specialist team of more than sixty wizards, seven of whom died!”

“Wait! You don’t understand,” Newt said, his voice cracking with urgency. “That case—they’d killed her cubs. When they’re young—the cubs—their fur—you can use it to make Glamorous Cloaks—”

Hermione shook her head, with a touch of incredulity. “Mr. Scamander, there were children in those villages, too!”

“Now—look here, Hermione—” Hagrid said, but she turned on him with her hands on her hips.

“Hagrid! I understand you love these creatures. And I appreciate them as well. But we can’t set a Nundu loose on Britain!”

“Oh, but rampaging hippogriffs, that’s all right,” Draco said, rolling his eyes.

They all jerked to stare at him, Hermione wheeling round veering between baffled and indignant. “Are you telling me you want to bring a Nundu into the Compact!”

“No!” Draco said. “I don’t want to bring any of these things into the Compact! But I’d as soon have a Nundu as—those disgusting globby things over there,” waving his hand at the small cluster of translucent Shelless Snails Newt had shown them, which were nearly hunted out because their shells—they did actually have them—could be used to make potions of invisibility. “At least it’s not grotesquely hideous, which is more than I can say for the rest of these monstrosities being paraded before us.”

Hermione was staring at him open-mouthed. Hagrid and Newt both had deeply confused expressions, mirroring Harry’s own feelings. “That’s—that’s ridiculous!” Hermione spluttered out at him, recovering first. “You like it because it’s prettier? It breathes nerve gas!

Draco stared at her. “What difference does that make? It can’t go round breathing it on people if it’s in the Compact. They don’t get let off keeping the king’s peace just because they’re wild beasts.”

“If someone attacks it—”

“And again, you don’t seem to mind outrageous violence when it’s hippogriffs, never mind they’ll go overreacting to the least little remark!”

“It’s a question of scale!”

“No it’s not, it’s a question of justice!” Draco said. He turned and walked over to the edge of the fence looking up to the Nundu’s hill. “Here, kitty, kitty,” he called, snottily. “Want to be in the Compact?”

“Oh, er, maybe that’s not…” Newt said, as the Nundu raised its head. It looked down at Draco, and then it stood up and started to pace down the slope. It got bigger and bigger as it came—a lot bigger, and Draco started to get rather wide-eyed and unhappy.

“Oh, yes, it’s just the same as a hippogriff,” Hermione said, her arms folded.

“Shut up!” Draco hissed, panicky. “It didn’t look that big before! What’s it doing? Is it going to attack?”

“No, no! It’s just a Telescoping Charm, on the hill,” Newt said, hovering with a quivery anxiety. “It needs a larger range, and—and it alarms the other beasts—”

“I can’t imagine why! ” Draco said. “Get over here!” he added to Harry. Harry went a bit bemused over to him. Draco wasn’t backing up from the fence, but judging by the angle at which he was leaning away from it, he wanted to be. The Nundu’s tail was slowly lashing the air in an endless S-curve as it padded down—the thing was easily larger than a Hungarian Horntail, and a faint acrid smell hung in the air around it. It came to the edge of the fence and put its head over and sniffed. Draco had his face screwed up and was cringing back from its massive jaws, but he still didn’t break and run for it, as if the Compact had clamped him in place now he’d made the offer. Newt had his hands knotted together into a single solid clenched mass, and a few steps back, Hermione and Ron and Hagrid were all staring.

“Well?” Draco said to the Nundu, not quite looking at it. “No slaughtering villagers, no more breathing nerve gas around—”

“They—it’s instinctive,” Newt put in hurriedly.

“I don’t care!” Draco said. “The nerve gas goes, or no deal! I’m not having to worry about some skylarking wizard flying through a cloud of it and dropping dead! It’s a fair trade for no more hunting its cubs, isn’t it? And you’ll have to bring them dow-wn!” his voice going up squeakily as the Nundu made a deep growling noise in its throat, and the odd saggy skin round its neck started to inflate.

“Bring what down?” Hermione said in outrage, even as Newt made a frantic noise of warning and waved his hands. Draco gulped and told it, high-pitched, “I didn’t make the rules! Do you want them in or not?”

The Nundu growled again, the rumble loud enough to make the whole fence vibrate. Harry had his wand out, although he had no idea what he was going to do; far as he knew, Protego wasn’t any use against nerve gas, you still had to breathe inside one—and then the Nundu turned round and went bounding up the hill. The Telescoping Charm made it look like it was covering a mile in every single leap, shrinking back down to the size of a far more reasonably sized leopard—and then it bent down its head to the ground over there and brought out—a tiny silver-furred cub, and then a second, and then a third—

“You’ve been breeding Nundu!” Hermione all but shrieked at Newt.

“I didn’t mean to!” Newt said a bit desperately. “I found a range in Kenya and set her free, but she came back three weeks later—”

“Oh, and I suppose it didn’t occur to you she was looking for a safe den!” Hermione said, through her teeth, and Newt cringed a bit abashedly.

The Nundu carefully brought down her three cubs by stages, keeping them all close enough that she could have got to them in a single bound. Tiny was extremely relative; by the time they reached the fence, each one of them was the size of a healthy pony, and all of them started pawing eagerly at the fence and making cute if rather loud mrowly noises. She deposited the last and stood hovering over them, her tail lashing with extreme vigor. Draco gulped and then brought out Excalibur—Harry hadn’t even noticed him belt it on—and said to her very quickly, “Keep the king’s peace and you shall have the king’s justice, for you and your get: do you swear?”

The Nundu eyed him warily: Excalibur was catching light in his hand, a limning effect outlining the blade and his head and body. But after a moment, she slowly crouched down at Draco’s feet, as low as she could get, and bowed her head. Draco swallowed, and then he very gingerly reached out and put his hand on her head, from as far back as he could stay and still reach, for just an instant, and then he even more warily reached out towards the cubs. Newt made a tiny faint swallowed squawk, but the Nundu nudged forward the first and put her paw on it to keep its head down in reach. Draco darted his hand out and touched it very quickly, yanking it back with a yelp as it nearly managed to playfully catch his arm with its dinner-plate-sized paws—the claws gleamed like steel and were a good two inches long—and then repeated the touch on the other two quickly.

He fell back from the fence gasping, and the Nundu instantly herded her cubs away and back up the hill into their hiding place. “I am never,” Draco said to Harry fiercely, “never doing anything for you ever again.” Harry stared back at him feeling half stricken, because it hadn’t occurred to him until that moment that Draco was doing it for him, and clearly Draco hadn’t meant to admit it, because as soon as he saw Harry staring, he flushed and looked away, holding his head up stiffly, Excalibur still in his hand. “Well? Let’s have the rest of them,” he said to Newt imperiously, despite what he’d just said.

Newt took them all down the same path he’d followed before, showing Harry and Ron around. Draco didn’t trip even once, though. The vines coiled themselves out of his way, and one by one, dozens of small vicious creatures—Harry hadn’t even seen most of them last time—emerged onto the path before him and bent to take the touch of his hand before they fled back into the underbrush.

Newt had tears running down his face. “Oh, that’s where you’ve been,” he said to a tiny curled-tail lizard thing that made a small chirruping noise in answer and then turned colors to exactly match the bush it was sitting on as it darted away again. “It’s been a few years since I spotted it,” he told Harry.

An uncertain, half-bewildered look started climbing over Draco’s face as the beasts kept coming to him, as if he was at last, if ever so slowly, catching the same feeling that had got into Harry’s head, looking at all of them wild and glittering. Hermione’s face had softened too; she was holding hands with Ron, walking after them, and she didn’t object any more even to the handful of other really beautiful creatures—Newt eyed her a bit anxiously when the pair of Iridescent Devourers came out of the underbrush with their hypnotically beautiful violet eyes and tiny peacock-teal chicks trailing, but Draco said to them, “You’ll have to work out some other way to get their dinners from now on, and no sentients,” holding his hand back, and they cooed softly to one another and then let him touch their backs.

Excalibur shone more and more brightly with every new beast that accepted the Compact. By the time they made it full circle back to the barn, it was blazing almost painfully, and even the scowl Ron wore anytime Draco was in view had mostly faded. Hagrid was beaming outright. “Thank you, your Majesty,” Newt said, his voice trembling, ducking his head, and Harry felt his own throat choked a bit; he didn’t mind the title at all, Draco could be as insufferable as he liked— “You do see, don’t you? You see they’re—”

“Stop,” Draco said tightly. He’d halted in the center of the yard. He turned round. The fragile look of wonder had vanished, but he hadn’t gone back to his usual determined sneer; a terrible hardness had come into his face, like stone. “That’s not all of them, is it.”

Newt froze, his mouth trembling. He whispered after a moment, “I thought—I didn’t want to—it’s not—”

Draco turned away and walked straight into the barn. Newt dashed after him, and after a startled moment, the rest of them followed inside the door. Draco was looking into the back recesses of the building, and in Excalibur’s blazing light, Harry could see a small door hidden there beneath a low ledge, almost invisible in the shadows, with a massive bar across the door and a heavy lock securing it, with faintly glowing letters painted all around the frame.

Harry shot Hagrid a look, but he was frowning at the door himself, obviously surprised. “Your Majesty,” Newt said, a bit desperately, “let me—I can explain—”

Hermione said, “Those are Seventeeth-Level Containment Runes! What on earth do you have in there?”

“An—an Obscurus,” Newt choked out. Harry had never heard of it, but Ron made a gasp, and even Hagrid stiffened. “I thought—there might be a way to—to reintegrate—to restore…” He petered out.

Hermione was staring at him aghast. “What—what have you done with the child!

“What?” Harry said in horror, but Newt was shaking his head. “It—she—she was already dead, when I got there. There was only the Obscurus left, and it was—it was dying—”

“So you thought you’d just pack it into a bag and take it home?” Draco said, turning on him, and even Hagrid looked appalled and unhappy about it.

Harry said slowly, “Er, can someone tell me—”

“It’s the magic power of—of an abused child,” Hermione said. “An abused wizard child. One who’s been…” She hesitated, glancing at him, and finished low, “One who’s suppressed their own magic. It turns inward and builds up and up until there’s no more room left…what I can’t understand is how you’ve kept it from dissolution, if the host is—”

“What do you mean, how?” Draco said. “He’s given it his blood, that’s how!”

“No one would ever—” Hermione started, except she saw Newt’s face, which made it perfectly clear that he had. “Oh, you didn’t.”

“Oh, he did,” Draco said savagely. “It’s touching the Compact through him, that’s how I can feel it. Did you give it anyone else’s, too?” he demanded.

“No, not—only mine, and—and my wife’s,” Newt whispered. “She didn’t like it… only did it to spare me, a few times…”

“And she’s already dead. No one else?” When Newt nodded, small, Draco said, “I suppose we can only be grateful your children haven’t inherited your congenital idiocy. Newton Scamander, go and open that door,” the words coming out thundering and strange. Newt flinched hard, like he was a bell someone had just struck, and then he stumbled over to the door and hunched down to work on the enormous lock, the tumblers grinding noisy against one another.

“Jes’ hang on a minute!” Hagrid said, putting out his arm to bar any of them following. “If Newt’s given it his blood—the Obscurus’ll be able ter draw on him, if yeh attack it.”

“That’s right!” Draco snapped at him. “And now I’m going to have to send my knights in there to fight a monstrous incorporeal with the power of three wizards’ life force behind it!”

“But—but when yeh kill it, it’ll kill him too!” Hagrid said.

“It may well,” Draco said cuttingly. “What it won’t do is escape to slaughter a thousand unsuspecting innocents when he dies and whatever spell he’s using to contain it finally fails.”

“As if yeh’ve any business talking about what might happen ter innocent people,” Hagrid said angrily. “I reckon yeh did yer part for some of ’em, and no good intentions to muck it up, either. Harry—Ron—Hermione—yeh can’t listen to him. I’ll help Newt find a way to pen it up, til he passes. Hermione, if yeh’ll only help us—”

Harry stared back at him helplessly. Hermione had a hand over her mouth, her face wrenched and irresolute, and even Ron looked purely appalled, but before any of them could say anything, Draco actually laughed out loud, a sharp and vicious sound. “Do you think it works that way?” he said bitterly. 

Hagrid wheeled on him in anger and actually took a step towards him, his hands clenched. “Yeh were always a right rotten—”

Silence!” Draco roared at him, Excalibur blazing out, his hair and eyes coming alight. They all reeled back from the thunderclap wave of it, and a total hush fell, the steady muttering hum of animal and insect noises outside collapsing like towers coming down in an earthquake. Draco was even left panting raggedly himself, shaking a little. Into the awful stillness, he said savagely, “You were glad enough to have me forcing a thousand kinds of vicious beasts down the throats of all the wizards of Britain, weren’t you, even though you knew they wouldn't like it? Take it as a lesson. When you call on the high king’s justice, you don’t get to choose the parts of it you like.”

Harry swallowed down the sour taste of bile. He’d asked Draco—he’d called on him—and now Draco was going to order him and Ron to go through that door, and kill the beast on the other side, even though it was going to kill Newt along with it. Newt had come out from under the dark space, but was still standing hunched over, small and old and frail-looking. Ron was looking at him wildly for an escape, but Harry knew with flat-out certainty that they weren’t even going to be able to refuse the order. They’d chosen when they’d brought Draco into this, deliberately. Now they didn’t get to choose again. Not until…it was over.

Draco wasn’t looking back at him at all. His light had dimmed, and he had an iron look in him, cold and angry and grey. He wasn’t any happier about it than they were, Harry realized, and tried to make himself feel that it would make a difference to him, afterwards.

“No,” Newt said in a low voice. “No, of course we don’t. I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I knew that it couldn’t be kept. Only I couldn’t—I couldn’t make myself—” He lifted his head and looked a wretched apology round all of them. “That’s why wizards kill the rest of them, you see. Because they’re—dangerous.”

He dropped his head again a moment, and then he took a deep breath and raised it and went over to face Draco. He knelt down before him and looked up. “I accept the high king’s judgement. I ask only that you have a care for—for the beasts. Not just mine, but all of them. They haven’t anyone. Only—only a few of us—like me. Like Hagrid. And the world’s got so small.”

Draco looked away, his own face crumpling; he’d been eyeing Newt warily, as if he’d been afraid that Newt might—beg for mercy. For something Draco wasn’t going to be allowed to give. He drew a deep gulping breath. “I will,” he said, his voice raw. “Your beasts shall have freedom and shelter in my realm—and so too all other magical creatures who willingly seek the king’s peace. I swear it.”

Newt closed his eyes, and his shoulders sagged with relief. “Thank you,” he said softly, before standing up.

Hagrid’s face was screwed up with misery. “Newt—”

But Newt turned round to him shaking his head. “It’s all right, Hagrid. I’m not sorry to die for that,” he said softly. He even smiled a little, waveringly. “I almost have before. Loads of times.”

“If I hadn’t tried ter talk yeh into it—” Hagrid said.

“You wouldn’t have if I’d told you about—the Obscurus,” Newt said. “Because you’re like me. You’d have helped me hide it, and taken it yourself when I’d passed on. Then one day—you’d have had to—pass it on. And then whoever you got—and every step of the way it would have got stronger—until one day…” He trailed off. “It’s better this way. I’m not sorry.” He bent his head and then he turned to Harry. “I’ll—show you the way. Maybe I can—talk to it a little. Calm it.”

Harry thought, afterwards, that Newt had done it on purpose—that he’d known what would happen. Hermione stayed inside the barn to hold the containment on the door, and Ron followed him through and onto a half-frozen dark slope, cold as Dementors breathing on your neck, flakes of snow drifting on the wind that hurt when they stung your bare skin, and at the top of the mountain the Obscurus hovering, pulsing inside its thin shell. The instant Harry saw it, he understood, almost gratefully. It wasn’t really alive at all. It was—misery turned solid, with so much magic behind it that it could move and touch and devour, but there wasn’t anything else to it. It shouldn’t have existed, and all it wanted was to stop existence, its own as much as anyone else’s. He could feel at once that Draco couldn’t let this thing live.

Newt said to them, “Just—give me a moment.”

He turned and walked up the slope towards the Obscurus. It moved and shivered within its shell. He stopped a few steps back from it. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I haven’t been able to find a way. I don’t think that there is one. And—time’s run out.” He paused, a shadow of grief passing over his face. “I should have listened to Tina,” he said, low, his mouth quirking a little. “Well.” He heaved a little sigh, and then he said, “I withdraw my promise to protect you. Please forgive me.”

The Obscurus swelled instantly, bulging and roiling, the thin transparent shell around it straining for a moment to hold it, until it broke, and then the black cloud flung itself on Newt instantly. It threw his body at their feet only a few savage moments later before they could even start to run up the hill: broken, with deep horrible gashes all over his face. But his eyes were still open, and he looked up at Harry and for a moment his mouth tried to smile—and then he was gone.

It took them an hour of fighting, with the help of their Patronuses, to destroy the thing: one whittling spell after another shredding away bits of the savage magic, and having to protect themselves the whole time from the thing just rushing over them and seizing them. Harry finally managed to disintegrate the last knot of it, and Ron flung a loop of flame through it and scorched the faint remnants into terrible burnt residue. They stood, panting, and then Ron slowly gathered Newt’s body up into his arms, and they went back out into the barn. Hagrid sank to his knees and moaned, looking down at his face, tears running in unashamed streams. “Ah, Newt, Newt,” he said brokenly.

“He—the Obscurus killed him,” Harry said. “Right away.”

Hagrid nodded a little. “He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. He couldn’t have raised a hand to them, ter any of them. Couldn’t even have watched yeh do it.” He reached down and lifted Newt’s body and carried it outside into the yard. All around the edge of the cleared ground, creatures had come in close, peering through fences and underbrush, and they watched as Hagrid slowly laid Newt’s body down there in the middle of the yard. Draco turned and went to the stairs going upwards, and after a moment, one by one they followed him. Harry glanced back down before he climbed up out of the suitcase, and saw the beasts one after another beginning to come in towards him, touching him with nose and paw and antenna, paying their final respects.

Draco was waiting outside the suitcase with his face still hardened. “All right, pack it up,” he said, when they’d all come out.

“What d’you mean ter do with it?” Hagrid demanded, his voice still roughened up, rubbing a hand over his wet face.

“I gave my word, didn’t I?” Draco said coldly. “Bring it,” he told Harry, and turning swept away down the stairs, ordering one of the house elves to bring the carriage round.

They all followed him, but the carriage ride was totally silent. Draco wouldn’t say where they were going; he didn’t say anything at all beyond issuing his few curt commands, and Harry couldn’t find anything to say himself, either. He’d understood as soon as he’d seen the Obscurus, but—Draco had given the order; he’d commanded Newt’s death with the same hand that he’d used to take all Newt’s beasts into the Compact, like he’d had to charge him for it. It didn’t really feel better that Newt had been willing to pay.

The carriage finally halted and let them out at the edge of a wall of enormous dark old pine trees, heavy with snow. The sun was low and small in the sky, a cold white ember. “Where are we?” Hermione said, looking round.

“This is Dornoch Forest,” Hagrid said slowly, even as the branches rustled, and a party of six centaurs came out of the trees to meet them.

“Hail, high king,” the one in the lead said to Draco. “Why have you come?”

“To ask a favor,” Draco said. He gestured to the suitcase, which Hagrid was carrying cradled in his arms. Hagrid put it down and opened it.

The centaurs came forward and bent down to put their heads inside; they all came up frowning. “This is a place of imprisonment,” the lead one said, in cold censorious tones.

Draco rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, he should have left them all to die out nobly on their own, but he didn’t, and he’s dead anyway, so let’s move on. I need somewhere for them to live, far away from people who’d hunt them all down indiscriminately, or alternately try to tame them. You lot won’t, and you’ve got a massive forest, half of which has been recently vacated. Well? What would it take to persuade you to let them in?”

The centaurs looked down at the suitcase and at one another. “Many of these beasts are not suited to the climes of Dornoch,” the lead one said.

“Her Majesty will knock you up a rainforest somewhere in the middle,” Draco said, with a careless wave of his hand at Hermione.

She shot him an annoyed look at being spoken for, but stepped forward. “I’d be happy to create a variety of microclimates, in fact, with your permission. And since I can anchor the spells in the Compact itself, they won’t draw from your power, or that of the Forest. In fact,” she added thoughtfully, “I can do more than that. I could duplicate the technique that the Scamanders used to create the interior of the suitcase. I could actually add on new pockets of territory, which could be expanded every generation—with an entire untouched magical forest as the foundation, we could probably even triple the size of your overall territory, given enough time.”

“These spaces,” one of the centaurs said, all of them listening, “could they be barred to entry from without, by those who have not our consent?”

“I don’t see why not—” Hermione started.

“Save for those who pursue the king’s justice,” Draco broke in, sharply. “No starting a war and hiding out in your convenient hidey-holes.”

The centaurs looked at one another, and then they turned back and the one in the lead nodded. “Under these terms, we will grant sanctuary and the freedom of our forest to the king’s beasts, so do we swear.”

“Splendid,” Draco said. “These terms shall be fulfilled, so do I swear. Give it to them,” he told Hagrid, “and let’s get going. We’ve still got a dinner to attend.” He turned and swept himself back into the carriage.

Hermione glared after him and turned back to the centaurs. “Thank you very much for this,” she began, but one of them was already taking the suitcase from Hagrid, and they all wheeled round and galloped away before she could finish.

They dropped Hagrid off in Hogsmeade, at his request. Before he got out of the carriage, he paused, after saying his goodbyes, and said abruptly, “Draco.”

Draco was still in the window seat; he snorted without looking over. “If you’re working up an apology, save yourself the trouble.”

“No, I ain’t apologizing,” Hagrid said. “What I said in there, yeh earned it, and I reckon yeh’ve got a ways to go before that debt’s paid off. But Newt couldn’t’ve asked for better. So for that much, I’ll thank yeh.”

Draco still didn’t look back at him, but Harry saw him swallow and blink hard, a few times, before he lifted his chin a bit and fixed his gaze back out the window.

“For what it’s worth,” Hermione said to Draco, back at the castle, “I agree, that was a good solution.”

“I’m so delighted you approve,” Draco said sourly. “Now run along and get your crown on, the guests will be here in an hour.”

“Wait, what?” Hermione said.

“Yesterday we couldn’t have a tenth of the wizards who wanted in,” Draco said. “So we’re hosting the rest of them in more intimate gatherings. All the next week.”

“Are you joking?” Hermione said. “You want us to host a dinner party every night for a week—”

“What,” Draco said mockingly, “did you think being royalty was going to be all putting mad monster-farmers to death and commanding valiant knights into battle?” He swept off upstairs.

“Oh! When it’s not as though he actually even cares about hurting anyone’s feelings!” Hermione said. “Honestly, I could strangle him.” 

“Anytime?” Ron offered.

Harry bit his lip. He knew why Draco wanted to host a week of dinner parties, and it wasn’t to appease anyone feeling left out. He didn’t say anything, though, just went and put on clean clothes and his knight's cloak, and settled into the round of one day after another making polite conversation at one increasingly elaborate feast after another, none of which produced any significant results except making them all increasingly irritated: Draco, because his cauldron wasn’t showing up; Hermione, because she was being forced to sit through endless banquets for no reason she knew of; Ron, on principle because Draco was getting his way; and him, because he ended up having to smooth things over every night. It wasn’t always successful: he was going to have to send Mrs. Zabini flowers or something for all the times that he resorted to flinging a potion at someone, including himself. Who could've known that having an affair with his two best friends and someone they both hated would be so bloody complicated.

It all came to a head when Draco finally ran out of wizards who hadn’t been asked to dinner, still with no luck. After a few days of seething, he held court in the throne room to announce that there was going to be a Winter’s Ball in a week’s time. Hermione nearly brained him throwing her crown at his head. They were still in the middle of yelling at each other from their respective thrones when the doors of the keep swung open and Ron screamed out loud, shrilly, and jumped behind Hermione’s throne. A vast tidal wave of Acromantulas was flowing in from the courtyard, pitch-black against the freshly drifted snow, leaving dotted tracks.

“What do you want!” Draco yelped, not much less horrified, pulling his legs up onto his seat.

The spiders were still flowing in, sorting themselves out roughly by size: there were some three hundred of them gathered at the front, each the size of a healthy carthorse, and the second wave, too many to count—there had to be thousands of them—were all roughly the size of small dogs. There were a lot of smaller ones behind those. One in the front, the biggest, clicked its pincers loudly and said, “We seek the king’s peace, your Majesty. We have come to join the Compact.”

“No,” Ron moaned faintly.

Harry was trying not to cringe himself; he still had the occasional nightmare of being carried through the dark with the chittering of pincers all around. “Are you—are you Aragog’s children?” he asked, a bit faintly.

“Aragog’s children have all died by now. We are Aragog’s grandchildren,” the big one in front said, waving one hideous furry leg around to encompass the larger spiders, “and his great-grandchildren. We have come to swear for ourselves and our descendants. And we have brought a gift,” it added, and came clambering up the dais.

Draco made a noise of dismay that might have been a small shriek, and tried to become one with his own throne, but he didn’t have anywhere to go, and then the spider got up to him and with two legs brought something out from under its belly: a scabbard.

It was like no material Harry had ever seen: almost opalescent, colors rippling over the surface in the light. Draco was caught by it enough to stop trying to cringe into a ball. “It is woven by all of us descended of Aragog, at least a single thread from each,” the spider said, holding it out. Draco a little wincingly accepted it across his palms and relaxed a bit when he took it and it evidently wasn’t horribly sticky or poisonous. “If anyone has been poisoned, and you touch them with the scabbard, it will draw out the venom, and they will be healed.”

Draco stared down at it, then with a slightly grim expression stood up and took Excalibur out from where it had evidently been tucked under his cloak. He slid it into the sheath and belted it on, adjusting it, and then he took a deep breath and drew the sword out again. “Grandchildren of Aragog, do you swear to keep the king’s peace, and accept the king’s justice, for yourself and your descendants?” he said, and when they all said yes, he went down the steps into the mass of spiders, his hand outstretched and his eyes squeezed shut, letting them all touch him.

“Oh, God, I can’t watch,” Ron moaned in horror, and moaned again when Draco told the spiders they were all invited to dinner as thanks for the scabbard.

“If I have to endure dinner with five thousand spiders, so do you,” Draco said unsympathetically, when Ron begged to be let off. “I want every last knight there, in fact,” and sent them all out in a mad scramble for supplies that wasn’t entirely successful: it was hard finding enough small animals for all of them to eat. They had to have some of them share, and Harry caught the sharp gleam of intensity in Draco’s eyes when they told him.

All night long he kept looking expectantly at the empty dais in the middle of the banquet tables, and getting more and more angry as it continued to be completely empty. Harry came back in and found him still there a few hours later, after all the guests had cleared out—all the spiders, anyway; all the other guests had cleared out long before, when the spiders had arrived. Draco was standing glaring at the absence of a cauldron with his hands clenched into fists. “What the hell else do I have to do, you bastard!” he yelled at it. “I just feasted five thousand fucking spiders, that didn’t call for a little help with the supply?” He whirled on Harry as he came into the hall. “Summon all the knights. If it’s grandeur Merlin wants, that’s what he’s going to get.”

Harry a bit dubiously—a lot dubiously, actually—passed the word and gathered at the Table with all the others. Ron hadn’t actually been downstairs before: he stared with a kind of stricken expression at the seat waiting next to Harry’s, the one that said Sir Ronald, and gulped before he sat down. Gripfang nodded to Harry from across the table, and Shacklebolt himself was there; Draco had knighted him and most of the Aurors after the wedding.

Draco swept into the room and sat down at the Table, and all the rest of them followed suit as smoothly as though they’d coordinated the movement. Harry saw more than one disturbed expression from the newer knights. Everyone got distracted almost immediately, though, since Draco said peremptorily, “Of all Merlin’s gifts, the greatest one has yet to be found. I hereby charge you one and all to go forth into my realm, and find my cauldron.

“He’s gone raving mad!” Ron said incredulously, after. “He wants us roaming all over Britain, looking for some stupid artifact someone shoved in a cupboard a thousand years ago.”

“He has not gone mad!” Hermione said, storming down to join them in the banquet hall: evidently someone had reported to her. “Oh! I don’t believe I didn’t realize it before, all this idiotic entertaining, it’s been about the cauldron all along! He wants it for his father!” Harry winced, and she caught it and wheeled on him. “And you knew! That’s why he sneaked out of the Manor, isn’t it? So the spell would go off and keep Lucius alive!”

“I…yeah,” Harry said. “I’m sorry I didn’t say. I was afraid you’d…”

There was a dangerous spark in her eye. “Try to blackmail him into signing a constitution? The way he ought to?

“The way he can’t!” Harry said. 

Yes, Harry, which became perfectly clear to us all once he proposed marriage to me,” Hermione said. “What you really mean is you’ve been keeping it secret because you thought we wouldn’t go along with it if we knew what he was after! And you,” she whirled on Draco, as he unwarily came up the stairs and into range, “do you think you might ever come around to the idea of talking to anyone else for even a single minute before you go flinging around the monumental power of the Compact just to get your way!”

“It doesn’t really seem likely, does it?” Draco said, folding his arms. “Don’t try and tell me you’d put yourself to any trouble for my father’s sake.”

Ron folded his arms, too. “That’s right,” he declared flatly, glaring at Draco. “I’m buggered if I’m going out to look for the Black Cauldron just so Lucius Malfoy can get healed.”

“Ugh, all of you!” Hermione said, and jabbed a finger at Ron’s chest, making him take a startled hop back. “The Black Cauldron could heal loads of people, not just Lucius Malfoy! There are hundreds of people in the long-term care wards at St. Mungos, victims of the war, people with magical injuries no one can heal! You’re not going to avoid finding it just because it would help Lucius Malfoy too! And neither am I!” she added to Draco fiercely. “Could you all think of the bigger picture for five seconds!

They all shuffled and muttered a bit—Harry had a momentary awkward flash of several incidents of detention they’d all shared—while Hermione heaved a deep breath of irritation. “All right, fine!” Draco said. “Then as you’re so eager to help me, what else should I have done differently?”

“Nothing!” Hermione said. “You’ve done exactly what I would have recommended to pull forward the cauldron, and it hasn’t worked, which means it’s probably been destroyed! Meaning you’ve just sent all the knights of Britain on a useless wild goose chase!”

“What idiot would destroy the Black Cauldron?” Draco demanded. “Not even a Dark wizard would want to smash it up.”

Hermione threw up her hands. “It wouldn’t work for anyone but the high king!” she yelled at him. “Someone picking over the battlefield of Camlann, likely not even a wizard, found an old battered cauldron lying around, no different than any large cooking pot and too big to be convenient, and they melted it down for the iron without so much as realizing what they had. That’s the generally accepted theory, which you would know if you’d bothered to do a little research.”

“It’s generally accepted bunk, then!” Draco snapped. “The Black Cauldron hasn’t been melted down for scrap. I don’t believe it!”

Hermione glared at him. “Fine, then where is it?

“That,” Draco said coolly, “is what my loyal knights are going to find out. Well?” he snapped at Harry and Ron. “What are you waiting for?”

It was like being poked hard in the stomach; they both jumped a little. Ron glared at Draco, but Harry rolled his eyes and caught him by the arm. “Come on, let’s go.”

“And here’s another royal command: be back in time for dinner!” Hermione added. “Since fortunately, His Very High Majesty didn’t specify how long you all had to keep looking.”

Harry all but dragged Ron out, leaving Draco and Hermione glaring ferociously at each other behind them. “You heard Hermione!” Ron said to Harry. “I’m not wasting my time hunting something that doesn’t even exist anymore!”

“I also heard her saying if we could find it, it would be terrific,” Harry said pointedly. “Come on, we can spend a day chasing rumors.”

“You want rumors, do you?” Ron said, with a narrow look in his eyes.

“Er,” Harry said, warily.

#

“D’you want me to say I’m sorry again?” Harry said.

“No, not at all,” Ron said, in expansive tones. “I’m not angry in the least, Harry. I’m just doing my part to try and serve our beloved monarch.” 

He marched up to the front gate and rang the bell, right underneath the still-askew sign reading Editor of The Quibbler. “Come in, we’re in the garden,” Luna called, her voice not far distant, and they pushed the gate open and went through the snowy arch and down the zig-zagging walk, looking bemused round themselves. On the other side of the arch, the tiny walled garden was a riot of color and greenery, Flying Snapdragons darting back and forth among vines overhead and seventeen kinds of Flowerface Pansies craning around to look at them and show off their patterns. The crabapple trees were bursting with fruit and white flowers at the same time, improbably, and the Snargaluffs had sprawled their thorny vines out like the limbs of some happily gorged octopus and were blooming in astonishing gold and purple.

Luna came down to meet them. “Harry, Ron! It’s so nice of you to visit. You must all be so busy. I hear there have been a lot of parties at the castle.”

“Er, yeah,” Harry said, feeling a bit embarrassed; he realized he hadn’t thought to see if Luna was invited to any of them. “Have you been working on the garden? It looks—amazing, actually.”

She smiled up at the green of the interlaced canopy overhead. “It does, doesn’t it? I only really did it this last week, since magic got so easy.”

“What?” Harry said.

“Magic,” she said. “There’s so much more of it around. Haven’t you noticed? I suppose you wouldn’t, though. You’re knights, so you can take as much as you need no matter what.”

“Why would there be more magic?” Ron said, baffled.

“Well,” Luna said, “it started a little bit just after the goblin war, but I think we were using a lot of it to repair things. I noticed it getting stronger starting with the wedding. This whole week it’s been getting easier and easier to do almost anything. So I thought I would try and bring the garden back. My mother used to take care of it, so I think it makes my father feel better.”

“Is your father ill?” Harry said slowly. “Luna, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

“It’s all right,” she said. “I haven’t told anyone. I didn’t really feel like talking about it when everyone had so many problems.  He’s not really sick with anything, he’s just been going downhill since the war. Being in Azkaban wore him down so much, and since then he can’t stop feeling guilty.”

“About what?” Harry said, startled.

“Oh, about betraying you to the Death Eaters,” Luna said. “He can’t sleep very well. He keeps having a nightmare where they captured you and now Voldemort is ruling everything.”

“Him and now me,” Ron muttered, with a shudder.

They followed her deeper into the garden, where Xenophilius was lying on a weatherbeaten old sun lounger, covered in blankets, his eyes closed; he looked gaunt and thin and faded, much older than his years. It reminded Harry a bit of Sirius, the marks of Azkaban and the Dementors on them. He said to Luna softly, “Would it—would it help at all, for us to tell him that we forgave him?”

“That would be nice of you, if you really can,” Luna said.

Ron had a half-reluctant look on his face. But he said, “Yeah, of course I do,” only a bit grudgingly, when Harry looked at him. “It wasn’t like he wanted to give us to them.”

“No, but he did it anyway,” Luna said simply.

“Well—it’s still different,” Ron said. “It’s not like Lucius Malfoy, anyway. Yeah, go ahead,” so Harry sat down cautiously next to Xenophilius. He had the feeling of trying not to startle up a bird, or a handful of moths, something that might fly away in a second. Xenophilius opened his eyes after a moment and turned his head slightly to look at Harry, his eyes widening when he recognized him.

“It’s all right,” Harry said, putting out his hand. “Ron and I just came to visit Luna.”

Xenophilius nodded a little, his mouth trembling. He whispered, in a cracked voice, “And…you’re all right. You’re both all right? You look well.” He smiled a little, reaching out a slightly trembling hand to touch the edge of Harry’s cloak. “Knights of the high king…” 

“Yeah,” Harry said, while Ron made a face over his head. “We’re all right.”

Xenophilius’s face was crumpling already though, a thin slide of tears starting at the corners, even as he spoke. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”

“I know,” Harry said, putting out a hand to cover his. “You did it for Luna. We forgive you.”

He stared at Harry, and then up at Ron, nakedly longing, and after Ron gave a short jerk of his head, Xenophilius shut his eyes tight, the trickle widening. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Oh, thank you…” He reached out his other hand, shaking, and Luna stepped forward and grasped it. He opened his eyes and looked up at her, wet and smiling, his face somehow deeply relieved, and then he closed his eyes again and sighed out and was very suddenly dead, his hand in Harry’s going empty as his body relaxed.

Harry jerked and stared up at Luna in horror. “Luna, I’m so sorry—I shouldn’t have—”

She was crying, tears running down her face, but she was smiling, too, and shaking her head. “No,” she said. “No, thank you, Harry. It was just what he needed. He’s much better now. He’s gone to be with my mother.” She sounded calm, perfectly certain, even though the tears kept running. “I couldn’t help him. You did.”

They wanted to stay with her, to help her with arrangements, but she shook her head. “I’m not ready yet. I’m going to put him under a preservation charm and keep him out here for just a little longer. He’s been sick and unhappy for so long. I’d like to remember him like this instead, peaceful, in the garden. I don’t think he’ll mind.”

She sounded peaceful herself, as if they’d taken a load off her, but Ron’s shoulders were hunched with anger as they went down the walk with her. “It’s just—garbage!” he burst out. “Us looking high and low, Hermione’s spell keeping that snake alive, and meanwhile someone like Xenophilius just—goes! At least he would’ve deserved it!”

“Deserved what?” Luna asked.

“The Black Cauldron,” Harry said. “Arthur’s Cauldron. We thought…you or your dad might have heard something about it.”

“Oh, of course,” Luna said. “You’re looking for it, for Draco.”

“For Lucius,” Ron said bitterly.

“Well,” Luna said, “I don’t think that’s something anyone can really deserve or not, but it’s nice of you to think my father would have. I don’t know where it is, though. If I were you, I’d try going to the Wishywindles and offering them some Boom Berries. They can see the future, you know.”

“Yeah, uh, maybe we’ll try that,” Harry said, but when they’d closed the gate and got out to the lane, he stopped and said slowly, “Wait, that’s not a bad idea.”

Ron came up out of his brooding cloud to stare at him. “Are you joking? It’s a terrible idea! Wishywindles won’t tell you anything about the future, they’ll just bite your face off.”

“No, not going to the Wishywindles!” Harry said. He didn’t even know what they looked like, and Ron’s description didn’t make him particularly eager to find out. “I mean, going to someone who can see the future.”

“Where d’you reckon you’ll find someone like that?” Ron said. “It’s not like you can just find a Seer under a bush somewhere.”

#

“Is this you trying to get back at me or something?” Ron said, resisting.

“Look, we’ll just have a word—”

“And then she’ll say she’s seen the cauldron hidden in the black depths of night where none can find it and we shouldn’t worry our heads about it because we’re going to die in the morning, when it might or might not be raining!” Ron said. “Come on.”

Harry rolled his eyes and knocked on Professor Trelawney’s door. After a moment he heard a scraping noise inside and Harry caught a round crystal on the side of the doorframe winking at him, as if there were some sort of elaborate peephole arranged. There was a pause—a faint hasty clattering of dishes came from within—and then the door swung open, with Professor Trelawney sitting at a slightly-too-small table pouring tea for three. She smiled up at them tremulously. “Dear Harry and Ron,” she said. “You’re exactly on time. I knew you were coming, of course.”

“I suppose that means you know why, too,” Ron said belligerently, glaring at Harry. “That’s convenient, it’ll save us all the trouble of explaining.”

“Of course, dear,” she said. “But why don’t you go on and tell me the details while we have a nice cup of tea. Life becomes very lonely and quiet for one with the Eye if she uses it to avoid conversation.”

It was a herbal blend of some sort that tasted vaguely of vanilla and dill. Professor Trelawney herself quickly topped up her cup with something out of a hip flask when she thought they weren’t looking, but they had to drink their own unadulterated. Ron glared at Harry even harder. “We’re looking for the Cauldron, Professor,” Harry said determinedly, not looking at him. “The Black Cauldron. It hasn’t reappeared at court, and we’re trying to work out where it might be.”

“And so you have come to consult your old teacher!” she said, clasping her hands; her eyes were brimming a bit behind her enormous glasses, which made them look even larger. “I knew all along that one day you would overcome your doubts and hesitations about my Gift.”

 “Yeah,” Ron said. “So where is it?”

Professor Trelawney closed her eyes. “Alas,” she intoned, “Arthur’s Cauldron will not be easily found again. Long ago was it lost, and such mystical artifacts conceal themselves well from even the most powerful Sight. But I will do what I can!”

She kept them for the next two hours while she brooded over a massive crystal ball, shaking her head with a deep frowning look, and then pushed it away and made them fetch water out of the Lake itself to fill a massive basin that she chanted over for a solid twenty minutes, rocking back and forth. Harry ignored both the routine and Ron’s increasingly murderous expression and kept watching her closely: she’d only ever made two real prophecies, but if magic really were getting easier, maybe she’d come out with something else this time, too.

Finally, she set three kinds of incense burning to See in the smoke, only she kept throwing on more and more until the whole room was in an impenetrable fog and they couldn’t breathe anymore, and Ron got up and flung open all the windows. She sank back on her divan gasping and coughing weakly, whispering a request for water, and taking a quick nip off her flask while they were getting it for her. “Oh, dear boys,” she said, her mouth trembling, “I am so sorry not to give you better news. I have strained myself to my utmost limits and indeed I caught—a glimpse! But the merest glimpse! But I fear that the Cauldron may be lost forever! It is lost in darkness. It is buried, or hidden in some deep crevasse—it may very well be in the ocean! More—more I cannot say.” She let her arm fall across her eyes.

“Right,” Ron said savagely, “well, thanks loads for trying, reckon we’ll go and give His Majesty the bad news straight away.”

Harry was dismally certain he was going to be hearing about this a while. “Er, yeah, thanks, Professor,” he said, getting up, and followed Ron out onto the stairs.

“Oh, and boys,” Professor Trelawney called after them. Harry stopped and turned to look up the stairs: she was standing in the doorway of her room. Then she said, in a terrible, hollow voice that echoed violently around in the narrow stairwell, “Beware! The knight is not yet made who shall restore the cauldron to the world. For though you are valiant and true, your hearts are stained with wrath and mortal love, and should you lay your hands upon the cauldron, endless dark shall be your fate. Only the knight of purest heart will ask the questions three that shall set the cauldron free.” Then she waved her fingers in a little twinkly way. “Travel safely!” she said in her usual reedy lilt, and shut the door in their faces.

Ron was gaping fish-mouthed next to him. “What—what was that!” he burst out. “Did she just—what—”

Harry swallowed hard; his heart was pounding. “Let’s go,” he managed. “We’d better tell Draco he’s going to have to wait.”

#

“The knight is not yet made?” Draco said.

“Which we knew anyway, since the Siege Perilous doesn’t have a name on it!” Hermione said.

“Oh, but I thought the Cauldron was melted down!” Draco said to her through his teeth.

“And then we received new information,” Hermione said coolly. “Which I am prepared to accept as evidence that the Cauldron does still exist, and also for the moment remains out of our reach. So now do you think we could possibly stop holding idiotic parties for at least a few days to address some of the many issues you’ve created by spending the last month running roughshod all over the Wizengamot and the Ministry?”

“Aren’t you supposed to protect me from hideous dangers?” Draco said to Harry.

“Sorry, you crowned her,” Harry said.

Draco did actually start to look rather wild around the eyes over the course of the next month as Hermione ruthlessly set about determining the limits of his ability to delegate royal authority back to the vast wizarding bureaucracy. Ordering the Wizengamot to keep on making the laws seemed to be all right, up until there was a minor vote held on some obscure land-use provision that nobody really understood except the civil servants who’d drafted it. The second it was passed, Draco got jolted out of the chair—itself the subject of a long argument about its insufficient ornateness—in which he was sullenly being forced to sit through the proceedings. He voided the law instantly, sacked the bureaucrats responsible, dismissed the members of the committee that had passed it, and finally told the entire Wizengamot to go home for a week and think about what they’d done, before the Compact would let him go again.

“That was splendid, wasn’t it!” Draco snarled at Hermione afterwards. “I don’t even know why!” It took Hermione and several hastily recruited independent solicitors three days of reading the details of the bill and all the related legislation to work out that the provision would have had the effect of giving wizards who lived in a handful of places in the country the right to freely harvest seventeen rare and valuable magical plants from otherwise-protected lands that neighbored their own property.

“Several members of the committee would have benefited, either themselves or their relations, and they had authority over the civil servants. At least a few members of the larger Wizengamot must have known about it, too,” Hermione said, over dinner that night.

“Huzzah for democracy,” Draco said coldly. “Somehow I don’t expect there will be much progress made if I’m forced to dismiss the entire Wizengamot for a week every time someone exercises a bit of cupidity.”

“We’ll have to do it like Parliament, officially make it just advisory votes and proposed legislation,” Hermione muttered. “That way it won’t actually go into effect, and then you simply won’t pass anything that’s incompatible with the Compact.”

“Fine, and then they can batch all this advice up and send it over when they’re done!” Draco said. “I’m not sitting through anymore of these tedious debates.”

“Yes, you are!” Hermione said. “You’re the only one who can tell when the Compact is satisfied, but if it’s not, you can’t find your way to the best solution if you don’t understand the rationale behind the proposal!”

“Then I’ll send it back to them to try again until they work it out!” Draco yelled back.

“That’s a monstrous waste of time!”

“Better theirs than mine!”

That wasn’t the worst of it, though; what really made Hermione go through the roof was three weeks later when a wizard—a member of a wealthy old Slytherin family who was evidently second cousin to Pansy—showed up at court and appealed to Draco to overrule the decision in his divorce case.

“Don’t you even think of—” she had just started saying, when Draco rolled his eyes and told the wizard, “Let’s hear it,” and got a story from him about how his halfblood wife had taken the children and gone to live with her Muggle mother, and they weren’t being given a wizarding upbringing, and therefore he ought to be given custody, and naturally also let off paying the ruinous child support. Hermione fixed Draco with an icy look and said, “If you dare—”

“Oh, stop fussing!” Draco said, before turning back to the smirking wizard, whose smile fell off his face almost immediately as Draco went on, “because since you accidentally neglected to include that hidden second Gringotts vault in your assets—no, don’t start protesting, I know you’ve got it, you’re the one who decided to bring me into it—your wife will be getting double the child support, which should be an ample sum to allow her to set up her own establishment among wizards, which should address your deep paternal concerns. Off you go,” and he waved the aghast supplicant away. “What? What was wrong with that! I gave the halfblood witch all the money!”

“And then ordered her to move!” Hermione shouted. “And that’s not the point! You can’t go overruling the courts at random just because someone Apparates over to Camelot and asks you! You’ll completely undermine the entire judiciary! There’s got to be a system—”

Please could some terrible enemy attack us,” Draco groaned, dropping his head onto his fist. “Or I’ve got a claim to most of Brittany, don’t I? Let’s invade France.”

On the slightly brighter side, the sex stopped being awkward, because Draco and Hermione were arguing so violently they just carried on all the way from throne room to dinner table to bed without even a pause, barely noticing anymore when they took their clothes off, and at that point of the day Harry and Ron were both desperately motivated to shut them up, or at least to come so they could just fall asleep and leave them to it. However, after a solid month of it, that wasn’t an adequate consolation any longer.

“Will the two of you just give it a bloody rest!” Ron exploded finally one Sunday morning, when they started right back in on the latest round not five seconds after they’d both woken up, and Ron hadn’t, quite. Harry hadn’t either, but he’d just shoved his head deeper into the pillows in resignation.

“I’d be delighted!” Draco snarled. “It’s not my very favorite thing to be carped at before breakfast.”

“And it’s not my very favorite thing to have to hound someone just to behave like an adult!” Hermione snarled back. “If you’d only consider the implications of the—”

“For God’s sake!” Ron yelled. “Could we have a little peace for one morning?

Seconded!” Draco snapped. 

Hermione glared at them both. “Ron! I’m not shouting to entertain myself! This matters!

“So did the other thing, and the other thing before that, and the two dozen other other things!” Ron said. “If we’ve got to wait for something that doesn’t matter, you’ll be yelling until Judgement! It’s not working on this absolute git, anyway.

Draco scowled at that, and Hermione drew an enormous breath, and Harry winced in anticipation, but then she let it out and pressed her lips together, silent a long moment, and when she spoke, it was in steady controlled tones. “I don’t want to keep shouting all the time. I shouldn’t have to. Draco, you’re not stupid! You must see that the way things worked for Arthur, back when there were less than a million people living in all Britain and not fifty of them wizards, can’t work for us now. You can’t just keep operating on some combination of your whims and the Compact’s prodding, waving Excalibur and dragging us all from one massive upheaval to the next behind you. You’ve got to start treating being king like the responsibility it is, instead of making some sort of carnival out of it!”

Draco laughed shortly. “What, you mean along with carrying round the Compact, I’ve got to selflessly devote my every waking hour to maintaining the stability and smooth functioning of the wizarding world?”

Hermione obviously wanted to burst out at him all over again. “At least a few of them!” she said.

“Well, it’s a pity Merlin didn’t include those requirements in the coronation oath along with justice and protection, in which case I’d be getting jabbed along those lines on a regular basis, too,” Draco said, “and it’s a pity the rest of you didn’t work in a few more conditions while you were holding a knife to my father’s throat to get me to swear it.”

He threw back the covers and got out of bed, snatching up his dressing gown and stalking out even as he swung it on. Hermione sank down on herself frustrated and unhappy, her shoulders slumping. “There’s got to be some way to get through to him!”

“Sorry,” Ron muttered.

“I’m sorry, too,” she said. “It is intolerable, we can’t keep on this way, I just don’t know what else to do. We can’t make him, but I can’t simply give up and swallow it either.”

And Harry knew she couldn’t; she wouldn’t. Which was exactly why everyone had wanted her in the job. “Could we have a truce, though, d’you think,” he said tentatively. “Just for today?”

“Oh—” She sighed. “Yes, I suppose. My throat’s starting to get sore anyway.”

Breakfast was blessedly quiet, but it still wasn’t peaceful; Harry could feel Hermione’s frustration and Draco’s resentment all still bubbling away beneath a thin and fragile surface. He wasn’t counting on the truce lasting all day, but before they’d finished, an owl came in through the door with a note for him and Ron and Hermione: Luna was holding Xenophilius’s funeral that afternoon.

“Thank you, I know it’s last minute,” Luna said, when they arrived at the house, early: Harry and Ron had traded a look across the breakfast table and instantly suggested to Hermione that they go and see if Luna needed any help with the arrangements. “I just haven’t been ready, all this time, but this morning I got up and there were some prints in the garden right near him. It was a little too muddy to be sure, but they almost matched the descriptions of Crumple-Horned Snorkack tracks, so I followed them, and the trail ended right at a really nice spot in the woods out back. I think he’ll like it there.”

A lot of other people showed up by the time everything was ready: all their friends from school and Dumbledore’s Army and the Ministry, and oddly enough loads of reporters, even though as far as Harry knew most of them thought really uncomplimentary things about the Quibbler. “It’s so nice of everyone to come, but I hope I have enough food for the wake,” Luna said thoughtfully.

Hermione gave a sudden snort. “It’s all right, Luna, we’ll move it to Camelot. We might as well have a decent reason for some of the endless celebrating for once.”

Draco scowled a bit when they all descended on him having dinner with Pansy and Blaise, but he didn’t raise any objections; the house elves stretched the banquet tables out, and the party got underway. It was a lot less formal and grand than Draco’s carefully orchestrated extravaganzas, especially after the first few rounds of toasts, and went progressively more rowdy as the night went on. Hermione was actually drinking quite a lot, Harry noticed, in what looked like a vaguely defiant spirit.

“You there, get Her Majesty another drink,” Draco said a bit sourly to one of the house elves, noticing too. He was sprawled loose-limbed with one leg thrown carelessly over the arm of the elaborate new throne he’d had made especially for the dining table, his eyes still sullenly brooding over the empty dais where the Cauldron wasn’t, nursing a glass of firewhiskey himself. “If she has enough of a hangover, I might get another day of reasonable quiet.”

“Thank you for having us, Draco,” Luna said, making her way over to him; for once the crowd wasn’t full of people cramming forward to see him.

“It wasn’t my doing,” Draco said ungraciously, but added grudgingly, “Sorry about your father,” before he slung back another gulp of his drink.

“Thank you,” Luna said. “I’m sorry about yours, too.” She looked over at the dais. “You still haven’t found it.”

Draco let his head flop back. “With my luck, I’ll have to wait for this dreadful Galahad to be born. That’s not a hint to cheat on me,” he added to Harry pointedly.

Harry glared at him. “We’ll not mention you’re married.”

“Yes, let’s not,” Draco said. “Merlin, let’s not. Someone bring me another drink, too,” he called, and held out his glass for the instantly appearing house elf to top it off.

Luna looked over at Hermione—Ron had his arm round her and was mostly holding her up by this point, actually. She frowned a little and looked back at Harry; he avoided it and pretended he was looking for another drink himself. No one else had noticed their arrangement, or at least they weren’t letting on if they had. Harry got the feeling they didn’t want to notice, really, and it still made him angry: they all just wanted Draco and Hermione to be king and queen, who cared what it did to them. He wasn’t going to say anything to Hermione, he couldn’t, but as far as he was concerned, Draco had every right to tell the whole wizarding world to shove off, and if it made things inconvenient for people, that was just too bad.

Luna said after a moment, “Draco, can I ask you something?”

“Why not,” Draco said, waving his glass grandiosely, sloshing firewhisky over the edge. “Everyone does, these days. You might not like the answer you get, fair warning.”

“If your father had died,” she said, “before the coronation, I mean, so you were the only one. Would you have said no?” Draco stiffened, glass in mid-slosh, staring at her. “I don’t think they could have made you,” she added. “You didn’t have a criminal sentence or anything. You could always just have run away somewhere that magic wasn’t failing. Would you have let the Compact go down?”

Harry’s breath stuck in his throat, waiting. After a moment, Draco said, harshly, “No, of course not, I’d nobly have put myself on the altar for you all. What’s giving up magic, really; it’s loads more fun to be Merlin’s whipping boy. What kind of idiotic question is that?”

“I was just curious, that’s all,” Luna said. “And you’re the only one who could answer it. I thought it might have been an easier reason.” She stood up. “I think I’ll go home now. Thanks again.” She looked around the banquet hall, the massive candlelight chandeliers flickering, fairies and pale glowing moths wandering among them, the stained-glass windows dark with the night behind them. “Father would have liked this a lot.”

“Night, Luna,” Harry said, but he wasn’t looking at her. Draco didn’t say anything more. There was a strange, blank look in his face, and he didn’t drink anymore, just sat there a while, and then he went upstairs with that look still in his face. Harry followed him in silence. He couldn’t say anything to Draco. It had never occurred to him to ask. He didn’t really want to hear the answer, either. His footsteps on the stairs sounded like I won’t, I won’t.

Hermione was upstairs in the suite with Ron, in the sitting room; she looked pale and washy, like she’d recently finished being thoroughly sick, and she was leaning back against his chest with an exhausted look in her face. They looked up when they came in, and none of them said anything then, either; they all just went silently to bed, and no one said anything the next morning over the breakfast table, either, until Draco half angrily threw back the rest of his coffee and then said harshly to Hermione—she was still listless and drooping herself—“Fine. You’re right. We’ll have to work something out.” She lifted her head slowly and stared at him puzzled for a moment, and then she blinked hard and straightened, her face going wide and startled and relieved, and Harry stared down into his cup and tried not to feel oddly like—like the Snitch was wriggling its way out of his fingers, just when he’d thought he had it.

#

Draco and Hermione didn’t actually stop arguing after that in the slightest: they disagreed virtually every step of the way on every single decision, but they were arguing with each other, now, about what the system ought to be like, and they spent most days in council with Shacklebolt and senior members of the Wizengamot listening to people’s opinions. And when Draco abruptly called a halt to the meetings, Hermione wasn’t even upset. “He says we’re spending too much time listening to other wizards, and he’s perfectly right,” she said, whisking clothes and things into an improbably small suitcase. “There were already loads of beasts in the Compact, and now there are more of them, not to mention the goblins and the centaurs and the merpeople, and none of them are going to show up in Camelot to attend a council meeting. We’re going to have to go to them.”

Ron had his face screwed up. “Does that include the spiders?

“It’s all right,” Hermione said. “You’d probably both better stay here anyway and keep an eye on things: Draco was talking about leaving Blaise in charge otherwise. We won’t be gone long.”

Harry didn’t like it, but he didn’t like any of it. Draco looked tired a lot; he was making fewer clever remarks and a faint light seemed to be on him all the time now, like the Compact never left him alone anymore—like he’d given in to it somehow, and it made Harry want to dig Merlin out of his grave and strangle him. It didn’t hurt worse to see Draco drive off with Hermione on royal progress than it did to watch him in Camelot, putting himself on the altar, freely, after all.

Harry jerked out of sleep the third day after they were gone, his heart pounding, and found Ron sitting up gasping next to him, the echo of Draco’s voice fading out of his ears, the words already gone—and he was out of the bed and going, without knowing exactly where, only that he had to be there, now, and he Apparated into a cloud of icy mist, Hermione in front of the overturned carriage with her otter Patronus leaping savagely around to fend off a dozen Dementors, and desperately holding a Shield Charm overhead at the same time: three massive giants, skin blue and frost-white, were pounding it furiously with spiked clubs, and a pack of slavering-jawed massive grey werewolves were pacing the perimeter, with a handful of centaurs behind them, arrows notched and ready, waiting for an opening.

Harry shouted, “Expecto Patronum!” His stag charged forward, blazing-bright, and he raced after it. Ron was shouting, “Hermione!” right on his heels. Harry got close enough to realize that the dark shape behind Hermione, on the ground, was DracoDraco, lying in a spreading pool of blood

Expelliarmus! he roared, and ripped the clubs out of the giants’ hands and sent them flying into the midst of the werewolves, bowling half of them away. Then he was next to the Shield Spell and without even stopping he whipped up the terrible whirling circle of flame that he’d seen Dumbledore use, lashing it violently into the giants’ faces, sending them bellowing backwards in agony, blinded and covering their eyes: where the fire touched them, great hissing gouges melted into their flesh.

The centaurs shot their arrows at him, but he poured more power into the flames, spreading them into a wall, and incinerated the arrows mid-air before they reached him. He formed it into a whip and started lashing them all back, one crack of flame after another at the giants’ feet, catching them and the werewolves: their fur started to go up with a horrible stench of burning hair. They all broke and ran, howling, and the centaurs turned and galloped away with them.

Harry chased them up to the top of the rise, the lash in one hand and hurling every lingering hex and jinx he could think of with the other: he wanted to be able to find them after. He stopped panting when he got to the crest of the hill: they’d fled into the forest, the giants’ crashing footsteps thumping away. He turned and ran back down the hill.

Ron had thrown up another Shielding Charm over himself and Hermione, so she could drop hers. She was kneeling at Draco’s side, and Harry skidded to his knees next to her as Ron let him through. Draco’s face was ashen-pale, and his breathing was labored: there was an arrow sprouting out of his chest, and another in his thigh. Harry threw a wild desperate look at Hermione. “What do we do? Can you take them out?”

“The arrowheads were barbed!” Hermione said.

“Get me back to Camelot,” Draco whispered. There was blood on his lips, and his eyes were glassy with shock.

“We’ve got to get you to St. Mungos, not Camelot!” Hermione said.

Draco’s lips worked again, and his eyes closed. Hermione shook her head desperately. “Even moving him—”

There was a bang of Apparition, and Harry jerked up standing, his wand drawn, but it was Pansy, white-faced, with a Healer in blue robes with her. Harry stepped back to make room for the man to kneel down by Draco’s side. “How long ago was the wound given?” the Healer said sharply, looking up, even as he took Draco’s pulse.

“It couldn't have been more than ten minutes,” Hermione said, but the Healer said, “But longer than one?”

“Yes,” she said, questioningly.

“These are blackroot arrows,” the Healer said. “They’re poisonous. But they should have killed him already,” he added, as Pansy covered her mouth with a choked noise.

“The scabbard!” Harry said, and knelt down to jerk open Draco’s robes at his side--Excalibur was hanging there off his belt, dull, but the spider-woven scabbard was pulsating faintly, threads going dark-green and then fading back to translucence, as though they were sucking something out of Draco’s body. The Healer drew a breath and nodded.

“Then we have a chance,” he said.

#

They did take Draco back to Camelot: three more healers popped in, and together they carried him back, floated between them on a medical carpet. “He can’t be Apparated in this state, and Camelot is closer,” the Healer said. Harry flew alongside it all the way, and stood outside the bedchamber shaking, his hands clenched, until one of the healers came back out, eleven hours later, exhausted and pale. “The barbs were planted deep in his flesh,” she said. “And the arrows were live: new ones grew whenever we took the old ones out. We’ve finally extracted them, but…the wounds are Mortified.”

“What does that mean?” Harry said. “What do you have to do?”

She hesitated, looking at Hermione, as if she wasn’t sure she should say in front of her, but Hermione was the one who said, low, “Mortified wounds kill unless you amputate the limb. But one of them was in his chest…”

“Yes. The king won’t let us amputate his leg, but in any case there’s not much point putting him through it,” the healer said.

Hermione swallowed. “How…how much time?”

“We can keep him alive a few more days, thanks to the scabbard,” the healer said. “But then…”

It all seemed to be getting said very far away, and none of it made sense. “No,” Harry said flatly, and shoved past her, into the room, and—and stopped, the whole room going nauseatingly awhirl around him: Draco was lying in the bed, his face remote with Relieving Charms, and the wound in his chest was a horrible puckered knot with the edges going virulent green and purple, a dark blot against the light shining through him.

Ron caught his arm to keep him standing; he and Hermione had followed him in. Ron said to her, low, “What—what’s going to happen to the Compact?”

Harry nearly punched him, but Draco said distantly from the bed, “It’s covered, isn’t it, Granger?”

Harry jerked to look at her. She had a hand over her mouth, tears standing in her eyes. “Yes,” she said, muffledly. That didn’t seem real either, but Draco closed his eyes and turned his head a little, relaxing as if he’d been worried, as if he’d cared about that, of all things—

Harry went to his side and bent over him. “I’m going after the cauldron,” he told Draco harshly. “Hold on for me, Draco. I’m going to find it.”

Draco glared at him, a little feebly. “You’re going to get yourself killed, you mean,” he whispered. Harry bent down and kissed him, desperately.

Hermione put her hand out to his arm as he went past her. “Harry,” she said urgently, but he shook her off. Ron followed him out.

“Wait, Harry,” Ron said.

Shut it,” Harry snarled at him. “I don’t want to hear it.”

Ron paused, and then said, “I was going to say, I’m coming with you.” Harry stopped, and then swallowed and nodded a little. He didn’t trust himself to say anything more.

He didn’t know where to look though, any better than before. “We could go back to Trelawney,” Ron actually suggested, but Harry didn’t want to go to her and hear another prophecy he wasn’t going to be following anyway. Dumbledore had said it himself, prophecies didn’t always come true; he wasn’t going to hang back until some new knight showed up. “We’re going to the Wishywindles,” Harry said abruptly. “We may as well try it. Do you know where to find them?”

Ron groaned faintly, but he took Harry to a massive old bog in a highlands valley. “This is a really really awful idea,” he said grimly, holding his wand low and ready, and Harry had to concede it ten minutes later, both of them hanging in a net suspended over an alarming bunch of Wishywindles, which were round glistening toadlike things with shark-toothed jaws taking up half their bodies, staring up at them hungrily. They were all rasping their teeth against each other, a sound like someone sharpening a knife, and some of them had crawled up to the top of the branch to chew through the ropes.

Calidium auster,” a voice said, and abruptly a scorching-hot wind blasted through, making Harry’s skin go dry, and all the Wishywindles began making frantic croaking noises and hopping away into the bog-water with splashes until they’d all gone. Luna came out from behind a bush and looked up at them. “Hello, Harry, Ron. Are you all right?”

“Just fine,” Harry wheezed. Ron’s knee was planted firmly in his diaphragm. He managed to choke out, “Resolvo! and the top knot untied itself and dropped them both to the ground. “What are you doing here?”

“I went to the castle. Hermione said you’d both gone, and Draco was sure you were in trouble and getting really frantic, but no one knew where you were. Everyone thought you’d probably gone to the centaurs, so they all went looking for them, but it occurred to me, if you went looking for the cauldron, maybe you’d decided to try asking the Wishywindles after all. And I guess you had.”

“Yeah,” Ron said sourly, picking himself up painfully from the heap they’d fallen into. “Can’t say we got much out of them.”

“No, it didn’t look that way. I’m sorry,” Luna said. “I think I know where it is, though.”

They both stared at her. “What?” Harry said.

“The cauldron,” Luna said. “I’ve been thinking about it, and why it hasn’t turned up, and as I was coming to find you, I worked out where it is, I think.”

“Er,” Harry said, blankly. “Where?”

“In Malfoy Manor,” Luna said. “I think they’ve had it all along.”

#

Draco squinted at Harry with a simultaneously dull and irritated look. “It’s not bad enough I’m dying, now you’re going to subject me to this.”

“No, listen to me—”

“We did not have the Black Cauldron sitting in our fireplace without noticing!” Draco snarled at him weakly.

“It wouldn’t have been a cauldron,” Luna offered, from the foot of the bed. “The historians said Mordred’s wife had to flee over the ocean. It would have gone small, so she could carry it.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “So our pepper pot is the Black Cauldron, of course, why didn’t that ever occur to me.”

“Wait—pepper pot?” Hermione said suddenly.

Draco tried to heave a sigh, but couldn’t. “Everyone’s got one, Granger, if they aren’t Muggles. You get spices out of them.”

“Yes,” Hermione said. “Whatever spice you need. Who’s yours from?”

“What?” Draco said.

“Who supplies your spices?” Hermione said.

Draco stared at her baffled. “No one! It’s magic.”

“Spices are food!” Hermione said. “You can’t just conjure them out of nowhere. Pepper pots have to have suppliers—except if they’ve got the entire Compact behind them. Did you stop giving your father spices in his food, when he got sick? Or maybe—before he got sick?”

Draco flinched a little. “Yes,” he said, after a moment. “That was the first symptom. He couldn’t stand any spices, they tasted all wrong—”

Hermione was nodding fiercely. “It was part of the curse. Voldemort couldn’t stop the cauldron’s healing power, but he could keep Lucius from taking it. He realized you didn’t know what it was…”

“So the Black Cauldron really is inside the Manor,” Ron said slowly.

“And now it can’t get out, because of Hermione’s spell,” Luna finished.

“If you take the spell down,” Harry said to Hermione. She was already nodding and standing up.

But Draco interrupted, saying, “Wait. Help me up,” thready, and beckoned to Harry with one hand. “And you, kneel down here,” he added to Luna.

“What are you doing?” Harry said. “No!”

“Shut up,” Draco said. “Have you already forgotten that prophecy you brought back here? It’s not going to be that simple, and you need another knight. Just prop me up.” Harry unwillingly got an arm behind him—he could feel the feverish heat pouring off Draco’s skin, a pulse pounding where his hand pressed against Draco’s side. Draco actually had Excalibur under the covers; he drew it out and with his teeth clenched against pain tapped Luna on either shoulder. “There, Lady Luna,” he said, his eyes already closing as he sank back against the pillows, shaded green and grey. “Now go downstairs and make sure you’re the one meant to nab it.”

Harry didn’t like it, and he didn’t like after they went downstairs and Luna sat down in the Siege Perilous without any hesitation and her name inscribed itself in gold letters across the back. It felt like they were walking right back into Merlin’s trap. Only Merlin had somehow arranged the right bait, again: it was the only chance to save Draco, so Harry had to do it, even if it meant following his rotten thousand-year-old script. He wanted to believe they’d go to the Manor, and Hermione would take down the spell and bring it back into time, and they’d walk straight into the kitchen and get the pepper pot, but he couldn’t.

It was massively creepy standing outside the Manor gates, after they Apparated over. It was dark on the other side—not the dark of midnight, but a solid, utterly impenetrable black nothingness. “What’s happened to it?” Harry said.

“It’s outside time,” Hermione said. Her voice was involuntarily hushed. “Nothing is moving inside at all—not even light. It can’t come out, so you can’t see anything across the boundary.”

“You made a black hole,” Harry said.

“No! It’s nothing to do with gravity or anything! Nothing’s been crushed,” Hermione said. “As soon as I lift the spell, time will start moving on the other side again, and it’ll all still be there.”

“But inside, it’s almost six months ago,” Luna said.

“No, that’s not how it—” and then Hermione paused with a suddenly uncertain look. “Well,” she said, after a moment. “Well—”

“Right,” Harry said grimly. “Take it down, Hermione.”

“Maybe…maybe we’d better step back a bit,” Hermione said. “I’ll put up a shield over the Manor grounds, just in case there are any side effects.” She did put up the shield, but she was still looking worried when she raised her arms, and she hesitated uncharacteristically. Then she took a deep breath and said, “Tempus revertus!” and there was a single split-second instant when Harry was looking through the gates at midnight, six months ago, the Manor’s lights up and the fairies flickering in the autumnal gardens, and then there was a horrible sort of lurching, all along the boundary, and suddenly it wasn’t midnight on the other side, but it also wasn’t three o’clock in the afternoon, or it was, but in patches; ripples of time were rolling over the house and the gardens, seasons and times of day changing too fast to follow, washing up against Hermione’s shield and rippling back into the interior, time changing again wherever they banged into each other.

“Oh no,” Hermione said, in horror.

“What’s happened?” Ron said, staring.

“Luna was right,” Hermione said despairingly. “Oh, why didn’t I realize—of course as the inside time met the outside time, there was a disjunction—it’s like if you poured a small cup of heavy blue ink into a large pool of water. The blue ink doesn’t just instantly dissolve. It goes all thready and suddenly there are places that are clear, and places that are dark blue, and others that are pale blue that aren’t either—time’s going to be massively mixed up around here for—months, at least.”

“Draco hasn’t got months!” Harry said.

“Well, you can’t go in there!” Hermione said. “There’s absolutely no telling what’s going on. There might be pockets in there where time’s still not running at all, or where there’s more than one time happening. Some of those ripples won’t be either past or future, they’ll be times that aren’t real. If you got caught in one of those, it’ll be dissolved by the other ones sooner or later, and if you’re in it at the time—you’ll be dissolved too.”

“I think it’s getting better, though,” Luna said. Harry looked back inside: the worst of the ripples had faded. The garden seemed to be settling into a few odd pockets of nighttime, with borders that weren’t sure if they were night or day, and big patches that looked just like right now.

 “It’s settling after the first big explosive moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s stable,” Hermione said. “There will be ripples and odd things happening here—forever, maybe. All it takes is one wrong step into the wrong ripple, a bit of time that never really existed—”

“I’m going,” Harry said flatly.

Luna nodded. “I will too.”

Hermione said after a moment, anguished, “I can’t go. If—if Draco dies—”

Harry clenched his jaw on a shout of how little he cared about the Compact, about—anything; some hot furious desperate part of him wanted to shout at Hermione that she’d done it, that she’d given Merlin his chance by getting pregnant, which meant Draco was all of a sudden expendable

Hermione looked at Ron miserably, and he stepped up to her and kissed her and said roughly, “We’ll be back soon.” She nodded after a moment, her face setting into a kind of fixed calm. Harry looked away, unfair anger still churning, only he felt its unfairness too vividly, seeing her future if they didn’t: alone, Draco dead, bringing up a child who’d never know an instant without the burden of the Compact on their shoulders. “One thing,” she said, “you may be able to affect the ripples.”

“How?” Harry said.

“I don’t mean in a good way,” Hermione said. “Vivid memories might pull up the time you remember—and you have really bad memories of this place, when it was full of enemies. You have to be careful not to think about the past. Try and stay fixed in the present.” They nodded, and she raised her hands to let them through the shield.

It was fairly easy to cross the gardens: the ripples weren’t moving very fast, and in the wide-open space there was enough warning to steer clear. But the front door was half in night, with not quite enough room to get through in the present. “We could smash one of those windows,” Ron said, pointing to the one on the right, and when they nodded, he fired off a quick Shattering Spell. The glass fell in, leaving a gaping broken frame, and a sudden wave of heat came radiating against Harry's back. He looked behind them and saw in alarm a rippling line of hazy summer rolling towards them—last summer, before the coronation, when so many of the windows had been cracked.

 They scrambled in through the window, robes catching on the glass, and just managed to get inside ahead of the wave. It came sloshing over the broken windowsill and spilled a triangle of too-bright sunlight over the floor, still eddying towards them, a weird glowing section moving through the air: visible because of the dust motes glittering. It was blocking the way to the stairs down.

“We’ll have to go around,” Harry said, and they turned and dashed ahead of the rolling wave into the Great Hall. The table had been tidied up after dinner: it stood empty, the tall chair at the head and the two lines running down the table’s length with an expectant air, but all wrong somehow. It didn’t feel like the high king’s table. The endless banquets and celebrations had written Camelot into Harry’s head: that was the court’s place. This was only—a shadow of the truth, too small and cold and dark, and even as he thought it, a greenish light was creeping over the far side of the room, out of the fireplace, casting a ghastly pall over the wall, and there were people in the chairs along the far side of the table suddenly. Not the knights, though: these were people Harry recognized mostly from the obituaries in the Daily Prophet, after the war—or from the front lines across from him.

And as the dark and greenish wave of time slid along the table length, it revealed—Draco. Thinner and pale with wrenched misery, staring down at his plate, with his father and mother on either side of him. Lucius was unshaven and unkempt, twitching a little with unease, glancing up and to the side. Harry stared at them, something odd curling in his stomach: Draco looked so young. He hadn’t seemed that young at the time. Harry didn’t remember feeling young at the time himself, but it suddenly seemed absurdly long ago.

The miasma of that dinner crawled slowly outwards, while the thin lapping edge of summer tried to come in at the door, the two of them meeting along an odd distorting edge that smeared the wizards sitting near the end of the table into odd blurred ghostly figures.

Then Ron gasped in horror, and Harry jerked his wand up as Voldemort came gliding out of the murk, growing more solid as he came along the table until he stopped behind Lucius, and held out his hand.

Harry couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it was—a demand, clear and peremptory. And Lucius—obeyed. He slowly drew out his wand and gave it to him, handed it over, and only sat there flinching and cringing as Voldemort looked over its length and then abruptly snapped it in two, smiling with vast malicious cruelty, a cat playing with a half-dead mouse.

 “We have to go!” Luna said urgently, grabbing his arm, and Harry startled and pulled himself away from the scene, grabbing for Ron’s arm too. They ran along the empty side of the table. The door into the courtyard stood open, but it was still midnight out in the garden, full of dancing fairies still bobbing green among the hedges, as if it were just moments since Harry had left, following Draco to Camelot.

They had to take the door going out to the solar instead, even though it was the wrong way, further from the kitchens, and as they reached it, behind them a terrible hissing voice said, “Massster. Sssomeone is here…Sssomeone will be here…” and Harry jerked to look over his shoulder at where Nagini was swaying on the table, staring right at them.

And Voldemort turned his head and looked right at them too. Harry froze for one ice-cold moment, his scar burning suddenly with familiar and also long-forgotten pain, and Voldemort’s eyes narrowed to slits. He came striding down the length of the table in enormous billowing strides, to the edge where the time disjunction was furring the air. He paused there as if he could somehow sense the boundary, and then he slowly reached up and set his hands against it, his eyelids lowering. His lips moved a little. And the boundary—began to edge further out.

Harry shoved Ron through the door and slammed it shut behind him. A chill was emanating from the surface of the door, though, as if that terrible time was now following them deliberately, spreading outwards to try and swallow them up.

“Which way?” Ron said frantically, looking around without recognition.

“We have to get to the kitchen!” Harry said. “It’ll be somewhere in the back—”

“Shouldn’t we go to the Malfoys first?” Luna said. “They’ll know where it is.”

“First?” Ron said. “Why ever?

“We can’t just leave them in here,” Luna said. “They probably don’t even realize they need to get out. For them, it’s six months ago.”

The cold was crawling further over the floor; a stairway up was right next to them, and a narrow servants’ hallway running to the back, like a choice laid out, and Harry didn’t care about the Malfoys, he cared about Draco. The Malfoys had trapped him in all of this and handed him over to save themselves the consequences; it would only serve them right to be lost between times. But Luna was looking at him with her clear eyes, and Harry said tightly, “Let’s go get them,” and turned up the stairs.

He hadn’t gone back to Lucius’s room since that awful day when they’d brought the abdication papers. But he remembered perfectly where it was: down at the end of the long hallway full of glowering portraits, with a thread of the faint sickly-sweet stench of rot wafting down, a warning. Blotches of other times spread like stains out of several of the bedroom doors along the way; they had to squeeze against the walls and hurry past them, and Ron lost a corner of his robes to a sudden bubble of nighttime that came rolling across the hallway just behind them.

Then Harry was pushing open the door to Lucius’s bedroom, and they went inside and found him lying still in a quiet pool of midnight, alone: there was no sign of Narcissa.

He didn’t seem to notice them at first. Harry cautiously crept towards the bed, one step at a time, and the pocket of night gradually gave way to the ordinary sunlit day around him, until it finally reached the bed and began to creep over the eiderdown.

Lucius took a deep ragged breath, blinking, when the change rolled over him. He threw a roving, confused look over the three of them. “Draco…?” he said groggily, and then he focused on Harry and Ron and began to shake his head, whispering, “No, no,” and then the door at the other end of the room was opening and Draco was coming in, unsmiling, with a thick sheaf of papers in his hand. He came to the other side of the bed in a path of colder wintry light that washed over the bed, forcing them to scramble back from it.

“Oi!” Ron shouted. “It’s already over; he’s crowned and we’re here to save his ruddy life!” but Lucius kept shaking his head in abject misery, tears leaking, staring at Draco bent over his bed. “We’ve got to get the rotter to snap out of this. Harry, you reckon if we make a run at him together we can push the time over—”

Harry dragged his eyes away from Draco—whole and healthy and somehow ordinary, with a hint of color in his thin pale face that had faded out of it a long time since—as a shivering coldness washed over his back and a pallid greenish cast began tinting the light underneath the door—accompanied by the faint rasping sound of scales dragging.

“Shit,” Ron said flatly.

“Yeah,” Harry said, his hand clenched on his wand.

“Harry, d’you reckon we can kill him? He’s still got the Horcruxes in that time, doesn’t he,” Ron said.

Luna said, “But of course you can’t kill him. He’s already dead.”

“You can tell him so in a minute!” Ron said, jerking his chin at the green glow rising.

“You’re the ones bringing him back,” Luna said. “He can’t do anything you don’t give him the power to do.”

Harry shook his head in frustration. Even if Luna was right, he hadn’t any idea how to stop thinking about Voldemort. “Either way, we’re not here to fight him. Let’s just get out of here and down to the kitchens.”

“Yeah,” Ron said. “Lucius can look after himself. He and Voldemort can have a nice chat, the two of them.”

“That can’t be right,” Luna said, with a sudden and unexpected sharpness. “We can’t steal the cauldron.”

“How d’you want to get Lucius to talk to us, then?” Ron demanded. “And before You Know Who makes it into the room!”

Luna was silent a moment, looking at Lucius, and then she said, “I think maybe…it all goes together. We have to reach Lucius. And we can’t, because you’re still too angry about the war. You have to stop hating him. You have to let that go.”

“Fat chance,” Ron said with a snort. “This is all his fault! You saw down there—throwing the doors wide to have Voldemort over for dinner, him and and his Death Eater pals—started all of this in the first place—”

“And let Draco pay for it,” Harry said, tight and helplessly bitter, caught between watching Lucius signing Draco’s life away and watching the oncoming creep of virulent green.

“Oh,” Luna said. “But that’s so strange, isn’t it?”

“What is?”

“Lucius knew he was the Pendragon heir,” Luna said.  “Why would he help Voldemort become the ruler of wizarding Britain?”

Ron snorted. “He thought he’d get to rule from behind the throne and have everything his way without putting on the crown, that’s why.”

Luna shook her head. “No one who’d met Voldemort would ever think that they’d get to be in charge. I don’t think that’s why.”

“Whatever reason, it wasn’t good enough!” Ron said. “And he didn’t even fix it himself, like Harry said. He dumped it on Draco. He’s the High King, so I reckon the cauldron belongs to him now, and he’s sent us to get it.”

“But he didn’t want it for himself,” Harry said, low and reluctantly. “He wanted to save his father.” He looked at Draco again, gripping so tight the knuckles were whitened as he forced Lucius weeping through the signing. “But we’re not going to do either of them any good if we get stuck here fighting Voldemort. If we just get the cauldron now and go save Draco—we could still come back and get Lucius after time has settled.”

“I don’t think we can,” Luna said. “Time is moving here again. Even if one of the time ripples doesn’t hurt them, he’ll die before it’s safe to come back.”

Harry clenched his hands. He wanted to shout Luna down, tell her to just shut it and stop finding reasons they couldn't just get on with saving Draco’s life, but the terrible voice of prophecy coming out of Professor Trelawney still echoed in his ears: should you lay your hands upon the cauldron, endless dark shall be your fate. He wasn’t getting the cauldron himself; he didn’t meet Merlin's standards for touching his precious treasure, probably. As little as he qualified for putting his hands on Merlin’s high king, for that matter.

“So what do you want to do?” he said instead, waving angrily at Lucius, still caught away from them on the other side of the boundary, where Draco was turning unsmiling with the signed papers in his head, to go out of the door—to go back to them, Harry realized with a hard knot in his throat, to him and Ron and Hermione waiting for him to come back and hand them over. Lucius had crumpled back against the pillows and was weeping softly into them.

Harry put his hands back up to the edge of the boundary and took a step, trying to push it onward again. It shivered and the past rolled back suddenly on Draco’s heels, the open door blurring into closed even as he went through it, but Lucius was still lying there in the bed crumpled and pale, skin mottled with dusky spots of rot that seemed to get darker as the sunlight changed. Harry moved up to the side of the bed again and said sharply, “Lucius! Listen to me. Draco’s hurt, we need to help him!” but when Lucius dragged his head up, his eyes wide and blood-mazed and confused, he stared at Harry a long moment, and then his face convulsed in agony and twisting hatred.

“You took him,” he whispered. “Draco… You took my boy, all of you…you took him… I tried so hard, I tried…”

Harry’s stomach turned over, and he couldn’t say anything. It was true. They’d taken Draco, and if he died, it would be doing the work they’d made him do, the choice they’d rammed down his throat instead of letting him make it freely—

“Harry!” Ron said.

Harry jerked to look. The door was shimmering weirdly, funhouse-bulging with distortion as the edge of the past began to push through, and the doorknob was turning— Lucius was shrinking back against the pillows again himself, staring at the door as it flung open suddenly under a hard push from Nagini’s head—and Voldemort was standing there, framed in the doorway. He didn’t seem to see them, his eyes roving around as if all he saw was an empty room, but he raised a hand and started issuing a hissed incantation, and the edge of the time boundary began to bubble and seethe and push forward from him. Harry gripped his wand and stepped up next to Ron grimly, getting ready—

“Oh,” Luna said. “I think I understand.” She turned back to Lucius. “He’s what you tried.”

Harry looked at her over his shoulder. Lucius was looking up at her stricken.

“Voldemort,” Luna said. “You joined Voldemort to save Draco from becoming high king. But how did you know?”

Voldemort flung both his hands forward with a final word of command, and the boundary flooded into the room. It spilled over them, and for one cold green instant they were caught up in it and Voldemort saw them, his slit-pupilled eyes widening—but only for an instant. Another time was rolling in over him, like a larger wave crashing onto a smaller one, and in an instant he was gone; the murky green swallowed up by early-morning sunlight and spring birdsong coming in through the open windows—but it wasn’t their spring day. Lucius was sitting up on the side of the bed with his arm round a radiant and satisfied Narcissa, lying back against a heap of pillows in a lace and silk confection of a dressing gown. A primly smiling woman in blue healer’s robes was laying a swaddled bundle of baby in her arms. “There, that’s you all settled. A beautifully healthy boy,” she said, straightening. “Now then, are you ready to give me his name?”

Lucius and Narcissa smiled at one another—they looked oddly and terribly young and happy as Lucius said, “Draco. Draco Ignatius Black Malfoy.”

The healer smiled professionally and said. “A splendid name. Put your hands on his head, please, and I’ll put mine on yours. Of course I must remind you that a midwife’s prophecy is by no means guaranteed in a family of your gifts, where a child’s future is unbounded.”

“Naturally,” Lucius said, with a touch of coldness, but it faded as he looked back down at Narcissa and the baby. He laid his hand on top of her slender one. The midwife put her hands on his, and closed her eyes, her face settling into cool serious lines almost identical to Professor Trelawney getting ready to give her best performance. “Ahh,” she said, intoning a sigh. “I greet thee, Draco Ignatius Black Malfoy—”

And then her whole body jerked stiff and her eyes went open and solid white, and she said in a voice like a pack of wolves howling, “Pendragon,” and Lucius and Narcissa both jerked their heads round to stare up at her in horror.

Her body was stiffened into a rigid line. She shrieked out, “Hail Draco. Hail, High King!” Then she fell sideways onto the bed and then slid off to land on the floor with a thump. Lucius had started up from the bed; Narcissa had the baby clutched up against her and a hand pressed over her mouth, smearing the carefully applied lipstick she’d had on.

Frozen watching on the other side of the bed, across a span of years, Harry felt sick with dismay. Next to him, Ron was staring open-mouthed, almost disbelieving. Lucius had lunged to stand over the unconscious midwife with clenched fists, as if he wanted to try and make her take it back; then he turned back towards the bed and took a step, reaching out. “I won’t let them, Narcissa. I swear to you. I won’t let them take our son—”

“Hush, Lucius, you’re dreaming,” Narcissa said, coming in the door with a candle, on a wave of cold midnight that swallowed up that long-ago spring, and Lucius was crumpling and sagging back into the heavy lines of age and pain as the past melted away from around him. “Draco, Draco,” Lucius said, sobbing in the bed, quavery and ragged. “No, no. Not my son. I won’t let them take you…”

“Narcissa,” Harry said, and as the midnight line hit the boundary, it bounced away again, and the sunlight of their own early spring day swept back in the opposite direction and over her. She stopped in her tracks, blinking at them all.

Harry just stared back, bereft of words, but Luna said, “Hello, Mrs. Malfoy. We’re here for the cauldron.”

#

It took a little time explaining: Narcissa was dazed, and less interested in listening to them than bending anxiously over Lucius, who was coughing raggedly all over again. But she straightened up at once when they told her Draco was hurt, her face drawn with a fear that was somehow unsurprised. Harry said urgently, “We think the cauldron’s disguised as your pepper pot. Do you know where—”

She pressed a hand to her forehead and shut her eyes a moment. “This way,” she said abruptly, and took them straight out into the corridor, still carrying the candle. Daylight flowed ahead of her as she went, as if bringing the Malfoys into their time had brought the house along with them: huge rectangles of sun came spilling in through all the eastern windows as they walked, and Narcissa led them to a small doorway they might easily have missed in the dark that opened onto a narrow cramped servants’ stair.

They descended single-file in the dusty flicker of Narcissa’s candle, and down into a warren of a pantry full of shelves stacked untidily with dusty old-fashioned crystal and china and tarnished silver waiting for cleaning. One large round silver sugar bowl with a lid and spoon was standing half out of sight behind a tower of plates on a counter—it was pristine and polished silver, heavily ornamented, nothing Harry would have looked at twice while searching, but Narcissa took off the top and worked a hidden latch, and its sides split open to reveal a smaller bowl inside, old and blackened iron with tiny stumpy legs, as incongruous as a sledgehammer among the elegant silverware and dishes, obviously covered up to make it more palatable to some Victorian-era Malfoy. She took it out and handed it to Luna, who held it cupped in her hands, carefully.  

There was a back door out of the pantry, leading out to the gardens. Spring and sunlight was spreading out from the house in a gentle slow rippling wave now, inch by inch clawing the house back into the world. But beyond the edge of that wave, the lawn was still striped with waves of sunshine and night, autumn and winter and spring shifting and seething between one another, up to the shimmering wall of Hermione’s shield.

“Do we wait until it’s clear?” Ron said, uncertainly.

Harry shook his head. He couldn’t tell how long it had been, on the other side; it felt like they’d been in here for years, when Draco only had hours. He turned back to Luna, to the cauldron in her hands. “Can you get it to give me a healing potion for Draco?” but even as he was asking her, a bubbling liquid filled up the bowl, smelling like too many wonderful things to name—hot tea and chicken soup and butterbeer, but not as if they’d been mixed together; it was the smell of the Great Hall at Hogwarts at the holidays, it was the smell of the Leaky Cauldron, a room full of delicious smells that reached you one after another.

Luna poured it off into one of the silver goblets, and Harry took it. “The rest of you, stay here until it’s safe,” he said. “If I don’t make it, if I get stuck in some other time—you’ll still have a chance to get it back to him.”

“If you don’t make it to the gates,” Ron said, “I’ll try next.” Harry paused and stared at him, and Ron said gruffly, “We’re going to save him, Harry. He’s—our king.”

Harry reached out his free arm and hugged him fiercely. “I’ll see you in Camelot,” he said, his throat tight, and turned toward the gates.

#

Harry barely paused long enough to tell Hermione the others were all right before he Apparated back to Camelot. He carried the goblet into the sickroom carefully, watching the rim to keep the potion from sloshing anywhere near, and Pansy and Blaise both lifted Draco gently up from the pillows so Harry could put the cup to his bleached-pale mouth. Draco’s skin was greyish and taut over his cheekbones, unhealthy and poisoned, even though the scabbard by his side was pulsing so urgently it looked almost like a flashing light. He looked closer to dead than alive.

But the first moistening of his thin cracked lips flushed them with color. He parted them without opening his eyes, and Harry could trickle in a little bit that brought a brief burst of color into the rest of his face. The first small swallow took life rolling down his throat like a wave, and then he was reaching up a shaky claw of a hand and gulping, thirsty, and then he fell back gasping on the pillows with the cup emptied and said, “Someone draw me a bath instantly,” in tones of violent disgust, shoving the covers away from himself almost frantically, although they were enchanted and still perfectly clean, and Harry said, “Everyone out,” and didn’t even wait for them all to be gone before he was shoving Draco down into the bed, kissing him desperately, almost savagely. Draco didn’t protest at all, just grabbed his head and kissed him wildly back.

Harry fell asleep afterwards, and woke alone in the late evening, hearing music and laughter floating up to the room. He got up and dressed and slowly went downstairs to the great hall, and stopped inside the doorway looking in. The cauldron was on the dais, enormous and squat and black, with faintly shimmering wafts of glorious smells drifting through the air out of it, and the tables were laden with an orgy of platters that all looked completely full, even though the meal had clearly been going for a long time and the whole room was as crowded as Harry had ever seen it, raucous with the slightly-too-loud voices of the happily drunk, the relieved: a vigil turned into a celebration. There were wizards and goblins and fairies and elves all crammed in together; a giant sitting on the floor in the corner, gnawing on a massive haunch of something even more enormous; three centaurs sharing a pot of grain mash; a spider daintily eating a slice of cake.

At the foot of the tables, the doors were wide open to spring, and all the vines above the courtyard were blooming. People were dancing on the green lawn, to a bizarre group of musicians: two wizards on violins, a goblin on a massive tuba-like thing roughly the same size as he was, a faun playing pipes, a confused but pleased-looking tourist on a guitar, and the pair of Iridescent Devourers, who were contributing almost painfully beautiful trills between eating gobbets of raw meat out of a small bowl. The combination worked, mystifyingly enough.

And partway down the hall, in a quieter place mostly out of the light, Narcissa was sitting among Blaise and Pansy and Justin. And Lucius was next to her: still pale and gaunt and faded, his hand trembling a little as he brought a cup to his mouth to sip, but—he wasn’t rotting anymore. He’d been healed, too. His robes were fresh, his long silver-blond hair caught back, and if he wasn’t quite restored to the sneering icy presence Harry still remembered vividly from second year, still he was whole. He and Narcissa were looking together up at the noisy and crowded head of the table, their hands clasped, lingering worry starting to fade away into helpless wonder: Draco lolling in his ridiculously ornate throne, wearing robes of dark blue and silver, surrounded by his knights and saying something to Hermione that was making Ron, sitting on her other side, roll his eyes.

Harry looked at Lucius, testing his own feelings in his head like a loose tooth. He found himself remembering vividly that glimpse in the Manor—the long table lined with Death Eaters, Voldemort in all his cruelty and malice presiding and Lucius bowed down shivering before him—and Harry discovered that after all he could be glad to see Lucius at this table, instead. The high king’s table, the high king Lucius had loved and tried so desperately and savagely to save.

He’d only ended up—beginning the story, instead.

And Harry had wanted to save Draco, too—from Merlin, from the Compact. From the sacrifice he hadn’t been able to face himself. But now he realized Hermione had been right all along, of course. The Compact had been made a thousand years ago, for a small and fragmented wizarding world, and it wasn’t really working properly anymore. Even as that world had flourished and grown, it had also begun to slide further and further away from the king’s justice, the balance that kept magic flowing freely. That was why a new high king had been needed—and foreseen—even before Voldemort had struck at the Compact.

And taking the throne, renewing the Compact—that had always been Draco’s choice to make. Harry’s own choice had always been something else—to follow Draco into the Compact, despite all the bitterness of the war. To choose magic, to choose wonder, over revenge.

Harry set off down the hall, passing the whole joyful crowded length of the tables. He smiled across at Hermione and Ron as he pulled his own chair out. Draco tipped his head back to look up at him and drawled, “About time you got here, Sir Harry. What do you think?” He waved a languid hand out at the hall full of rejoicing, sunlight rioting through the stained glass windows to illuminate the scene, straight out of a storybook they all knew: the crown and the sword, the table and the cauldron, the king and the queen and all their knights. All assembled, ready to begin the story they all had to tell together.

Which wouldn’t after all be Arthur’s story, but their own. A new story like Arthur’s; full of resonance and echoes, beautiful enough and magical enough to fix what was broken. To unite the wizarding world afresh and lay a new foundation that could last beyond their own lives, and support a world of magic for another thousand years and more.

Harry reached out and caught Draco’s hand and brought it to his lips and kissed it. Draco stared up at him, flushing along his cheekbones, and Harry smiled, helplessly happy, and said softly, “I like what you’ve done with the place.” And then he sat down in his own place at the king’s right hand: just next to the shining steel gleaming of Excalibur, unobtrusively leaning against the side of the throne. Waiting for the touch of the high king’s hand, waiting to open the door with endless magic on the other side.

# End