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Complete header information may be found in Part One. You may find all parts of this story by clicking the Getting Severus Married tag.



Chapter Forty-Eight: The Kith and the Kin

The Giant Squid really is an extraordinary creature, Harry thought, watching it glide back beneath the surface of the water, but squid-watching wasn't how I thought I'd be spending this night, was it?

No matter what Minerva had told him and Severus about Mysteries, Persephone Price and Albus' dealings with her, and Albus' other political machinations—and perhaps because of what he'd learnt about just how vast and deep a conspiracy could be developed if one knew the right people—Harry hadn't felt easy; Minerva's news had just reinforced his own feelings of alienation from and disgust with the wizarding world. Sure, they'd caught some people engaged in criminal interference with the governance of several magical societies, but that didn't mean that there weren't still others just as ready to see pure-bloods take control.

People's attitudes don't change with the leadership. People band together because of their cultural biases, right?

Perhaps it wasn't the right question to be asking himself at the moment, but because it had seemed impossible to Harry to actually change or understand the arcane systems and byzantine social structures which truly supported society and government, let alone to have discussed these things with Minerva and Severus, he'd elected to leave them to their debate and look for answers to those questions that he knew how to ask—one such being why Draco Malfoy had felt it right to hide Aries from him.

I never expected to come to understand him to some degree, or even to like him a bit. Fucking weird, all this has been.

He probably hadn't learnt that much about Draco, who was in some respects more manipulative than Harry could stand. Gazing at the water, he caught sight of the flash of the Giant Squid's chromatophores and smiled. At least one being wasn't moving through his world in confusion; what game-playing could there possibly be in the depths of the Black Lake?

Harry was glad that he'd taken his walk about Hogwarts' grounds after leaving Madam Pomfrey because he'd needed to clear his head and consider the future, which he'd begun to suspect would not include a career in politics for him.

I'd rather have a family than Head a Family.

Of course, to achieve that, he'd have to find Aries, and when he did, he wasn't sure what places in his son's life Draco and Narcissa would hold. He didn't entirely trust them, no matter how they thought they'd been protecting Aries, but he knew that his son would need familiar people in his life as he became used to the idea of having a stranger for a father.

"And I don't know what Bellatrix's influence on Aries has been, but I suppose I'll have to figure that out so that I can undo it." Which means that I'll need to find a way to accept the Malfoys as family.

The thought was surreal.

"Merlin, this really isn't how I saw my life turning out."

"No doubt," a male voice replied.

Harry turned, his wand drawn. The threat of a wand was more immediate an impediment to danger in most cases than was the assumption that a potential attacker would understand that he didn't require one to defend himself.

Keeping his arm steadily pointing in the direction from which the voice had come, he ordered, "Show yourself."

Pop!

Morgan Moody was suddenly standing before him. "I would like the opportunity to explain," he said simply, holding out his wand towards Harry.

"Just sheathe it and tell me why you're here. Minerva's already explained to me something about your lot's kind of magic."

"Minerva?"

"Minerva McGonagall, the Deputy Headmistress here."

Morgan still didn't seem to know her name.

"Would it help if I told you that she's Persephone Price's sister?"

That seemed to spark some recognition from Morgan. "And you trust her?"

"Yes. She left Mysteries because she disapproved of her actions with regard—"

"To the children, good! Because that's just why I took Aries."

"Baird Price told Minerva—"

"Wait, Baird . . . Baird Price?"

"Yeah, he's Minerva's nephew. You didn't know that?"

"That he was Most Unspeakable Price's son? Of course I didn't! Price isn't an uncommon name. It never even occurred to me that he might—"

"That's why preparing for a mission is important. Take it as a lesson, yeah? But as I was saying, Baird told Minerva that you'd taken Aries to the Home, only he's not there now, so I want to know what you've done with him."

"Nothing! I didn't take him from the Home. I left him there so that I could figure out a way to speak to Draco about—"

"I'd avoid Draco if I were you."

"Potter, Ian wanted paperwork—to prove that I was within my rights to have taken Aries. Ian and Baird don't exactly understand what happens at Mysteries—hells, I doubt anyone truly does—but they know me well enough to know that I'd never hurt a child."

"Hence that request for paperwork," Harry replied, forcing himself to be patient.

"They're sticklers for protocol in some respects."

And that didn't surprise Harry at all, but he said nothing.

"I was hoping that Draco would understand what I'd done and help me forge something so that I could protect Aries—but when I saw you, I thought perhaps it would be better to have your help."

"My help protecting my own kid? Yeah, okay, that makes sense, but what doesn't is that you didn't just bring him to me. Why the hell didn't you? Do I not have a pretty respectable record on the protection front?"

Morgan ran a hand through his hair, frowning. "You're an Auror."

"Oh, for fuck's sake."

"Look, I couldn't risk your reaction to having a necromancer for a son, and you should understand that given what your lot does to—"

"You really believed that I'd kill him."

"And me, actually."

"So what's changed?"

"I've been following you. I overheard you talking to yourself about wanting to find Aries, and you didn't sound as though you wanted to harm him. But what do you mean, Aries is gone? Even considering who Baird's mother is, I just can't believe he and Ian would have surrendered him to her."

And I suppose that's why you'd make a lousy Auror. "They went up to feed him lunch. He was gone. That's all we know."

"Fuck. Someone from Mysteries must have followed me, must have taken him. I thought I'd been so careful, but . . . damn, Potter, I'm sorry."

"Not as sorry as you might be," Harry said, gesturing casually in Morgan's direction and watching dispassionately as he collapsed.

He couldn't take Morgan in on a kin-stealing charge.

That would put him in danger of Price and wouldn't help me find Aries, Harry thought, wondering if Price had indeed found another Unspeakable to take Aries from the Home. If so, perhaps she'd be willing to bargain for the return of two of her people and my silence in exchange for him.

It seemed a good plan if incomplete—Harry knew that there were children other than his son who needed his protection—but he was pleased with himself for actually forming one in spite of not having known what he was about when he'd Stunned Morgan.

At least Tippy will know what to do with him.

~*~

"This wizard is not being a guest," Tippy said, greeting Harry upon his return to Snape Manor.

"No, and I'd like you to hold him as you're holding Lorelai—but not with her, please."

"Yes, Master Harry, and then Tippy—"

"Is needing to speak with me, I know. I'm sorry, but first I've got to see Severus. I'll come to you soon."

Pop!

"Wizards' 'soon' is not being house elves'," Tippy muttered, levitating the wizard Master Harry had left lying on the floor.

She inadvertently allowed him to drop, however, as she realised two things: the first was that this wizard was, from the scent of him, the stealing wizard; the second was, and it perturbed her not to have noticed it earlier, that Harry Potter could travel like a house elf.

But Master Harry isn't smelling like a thief.

There was a mystery in it, the magic of house elves being used by wizards and witches but not all of them smelling like thieves. Tippy didn't like it. Mysteries were for books.

House elves, despite possessing an understanding of the way wizardkind experienced the passage of time, essentially experienced it as a continual present. This was something of a necessity for beings who could be in two places at once if duty required it. They were by nature, then, instinctively phobic about anything that seemed to restrict the flow of Being as books did; wizards could travel into books as house elves could not, so books presented a threat to house elves' ability to serve wizards and were therefore to be disdained. To a house elf, this attitude was only dutiful because "A good house elf is always present to serve unless ordered to serve elsewhere."

That Rule had always been a difficult one for Tippy to comprehend, but she knew that there was nothing more important than being a good house elf; it was a Rule without being part of the Rules, and Tippy felt this categorical imperative working within her in the same way that she felt her heart beating: to be a good house elf, a house elf had to be helpful; to be helpful, a house elf had to serve. That was the way of things.

Tippy couldn't imagine any other form of existence, even if she worried that she might have become too curious about certain things in the long present of not having had her Family to care for. But even with the disturbing and angering mystery before her, she couldn't muster sufficient curiosity to solve it; the mystery was to do with house elf magic and she was a house elf, but the mystery was also to do with wizards—and Tippy understood very well that she was not to interfere in the affairs of wizards unless her duties demanded it.

But it is being very confusing to be serving a Master who is being like a house elf.

~*~

The problem before Persephone kept her from sleeping. Her sources had informed her that the International Confederation of Wizards had moved with alarming speed to quash the political ambitions of a certain, loosely affiliated group with which she'd been familiar for some time. It was a terrible disappointment to her. She'd hoped to see a return to the Old Ways after the vote was taken and the "pure-bloods" came into absolute power. Most witches, and of course, wizards, knew so little of their own history—or their bloodlines—that they'd never even learnt what it meant to truly wield magic, and Persephone had hoped that Mysteries would have the opportunity to broaden their knowledge somewhat in the aftermath of such a dearly desired sea change within the culture.

Our children's education is despicably lacking. We allow them to marry for love, and greatness is feared!

As much as Persephone wished to end the superstitious destruction of extraordinarily magical children, however, she felt no compunction against curtailing the use of the more destructive magics; it was only sensible that not everyone should be great and that those in a position to manage greatness should use what tools they had at their disposal to retain their positions for the benefit of society as a whole. Still, it hurt to see her culture withering under the weight of the conditioning that had caused most people to live little better than Squibs.

Is it right that we should have fallen so far as to find ourselves relying on prophesied heroes to defend us rather than preparing ourselves properly against future threats? Didn't we stop the goblin menace? Didn't we end the Killing Times?

The Killing Times, oh, how learning of them had been horrifying for Persephone, and she often wished that society had not been helped to forget them. But even with the best scholarship and the most diligent archaeological exploration, there was so much about that time which remained unknown even to Mysteries, and what was known, her old mentor had taught her, was not something that wizardkind, as it existed presently, could accept.

And they worry about their petty blood status. They don't even know what power their own blood carries, the fractious, unquestioning fools!

The elves, the spawn of the goblins and a race now long dead and utterly forgotten by anyone outside of Mysteries—a race so potently magical, by Merlin's own account, that they could live on the very air alone, change their forms at will, and be "before and behind at once"—had been sent from the deepest goblin caverns to plague those who dwelt above-ground. Before the elves' seemingly endless, destructive powers had been Bound, they had fallen upon both Muggles and magical folk alike, sating their base desires with them and twisting humans into monsters to plague their own kith and kin—which had permitted the goblins to make horrific advancements in their campaigns against wizardkind.

It was wrong, Persephone felt, that the majority of her kind no longer truly remembered just why Merlin, the Maker of Rules, had been great, and the source of his greatness was for what she had spent all her adult life searching because she knew that Merlin's mother had been of that lost race and had thought it fitting to mix her blood with that of a wizard, just as Merlin, himself, had known and spent his own fading years in search of his maternal kin. Over the centuries, Mysteries had learnt that Merlin's mother's race had interbred with a variety of beings; traces of her gifting blood remained yet in what had come to be called house elves, in the common garden gnome, in vampires and werewolves, and in wizardkind, as well, amongst its Metamorphmagi and necromancers, among others. Time had caused changes in the creatures who had sprung from this admixturement of races and had lessened subsequent generations, but there was potent magic locked within such blood still, no matter how diluted it had become. One had only to know how to detect it.

In time, we shall find a way to strengthen the blood of those who yet share something of the Mother Heritage and harness its power—but that won't happen if Albus and his silly world-watchers expose Mysteries' mission.

It had been wrong to allow Albus to keep Harry Potter from her, but that was done. The boy was now a man, and such useful conditioning as might have been employed to make him fit for study was now impossible. He could not be used. No, to preserve what Mysteries had accomplished thus far and protect its future, there would have to be compromise.

The necromantical child Aries would have to be found and surrendered to Potter. Something more public than wise, perhaps, would have to be done about necromancers in general, should Potter take up their cause. Persephone wished to avoid this because of the attention it could draw to Mysteries, but she was yet confident that she could think of some plan to avoid publicity. The important thing to remember, she knew, was that although Unspeakables had gleaned much of house elf magic through experimentation and learnt to employ it well, that same magic, wielded by someone born with the Mother Heritage flowing through his veins was always going to be stronger.

If Merlin had been a different man, he could have put himself forward as something of a god, as others of his blood have done over the ages, as Potter might have done, were he not so thoroughly ruined by his education and Auror training. . . . No, we cannot risk falling afoul of Potter. Even without knowing what he is, he knows enough about what he can do to bring destruction upon our heads, Persephone told herself, relieved to think that whatever had become of Merlin's mother's race, it was well and truly dead.

Yet threats new and old remained in the world, and others unknown could develop at any time; it was her task, Mysteries' task, to prepare for them.

Potter is a protector by nature, and the children currently in our keeping, well, I suppose it would mean more to him to see them safe than to interfere with us. The loss of them will be dear, but there are others of their ilk to be had. I shall make Potter a proposal that he will understand and hope that he accepts it. If he does, his distraction will be complete, Albus will refrain from taking any action against us on Potter's behalf, and Mysteries will continue to operate without fear of outside influence. Yes, that is a serviceable plan, and one that will protect us all.

~*~

"—else do you know about the attack?" Severus was asking, as Harry arrived at the threshold of the Slytherin Suite where Severus slept.

Immediately alert, he stopped to listen and heard Albus' answer.

"Casualties are still being determined, but we know we've lost Auror Thomas Greene, several patients on the ward, two Healers, and Spellen Spurlock. When they Shroud, they become aggressive. If Creatures hadn't already been at St Mungo's, more people would have died."

"And Bellatrix?"

"Tobias Spriggs, the Chief Healer on the Janus Thickey Ward—says that her effects were found in her room."

"So the locket—"

"Hasn't been recovered. They're still sorting out the confusion. Someone may have picked it up."

"Yes, Albus, someone who shouldn't have."

Harry heard Albus sigh.

"Why wasn't it removed?" Severus demanded.

"I felt it best to leave it under guard until I could remove it."

"Damn it, Albus! There are other, competent people to whom you could have entrusted the task!"

"I trusted Kingsley to guard it as he guarded Bellatrix."

"Clearly, your lot missed someone in the sweep."

"It's not as if we could have taken everyone, Severus. There is always someone waiting to pick up the reigns."

"Precisely my point! Has it ever occurred to you that it's time to retire from your meddling in everyone's lives? As you say, there's always someone waiting—"

"This doesn't sound productive," Harry said calmly, surprising himself as he moved into view of Albus' head floating in the fire.

"Harry."

Sorry to eavesdrop. "What's happened?"

Albus brought him up to speed, and Harry's state of calm diminished a great deal.

"Fuck. Are the damned things dead now? And how—"

"I've sent someone to the Spellcraftres' Guild where the Lethifolds found under the Ministry were being kept. They're gone," Albus said. "And they've got most of them, thanks to your spell and temperature control. Apparently, the heat level was interfered with before the animals were released."

"All right," Harry said, surprising himself by not rushing off to the action, "so we assume that someone took them from the Guild, someone with access to it and the hospital. Who?"

"The people left alive on the ward," Severus answered. "It would almost certainly have to have been one of them if no one was able to leave the ward during the attack."

Albus nodded. "Kingsley's holding the survivors at St Mungo's for now, and we know that it wasn't Pansy."

"Yeah, she's in no fit state to be going anywhere."

You saw her? Severus silently asked Harry.

I've a lot to tell you, but it can wait.

"I would very much like to locate Aries, given the disappearance of the locket."

"So would I, Albus." Harry said.

Pop!

"Tippy cannot be waiting any longer because Tippy is knowing where the Aries is!"

"What?" the wizards demanded, as one.

~*~

Hazel and Brendan turned together. "Dissolvus vacivus umbra!"

The Lethifold rained onto the floor with a splat! and then ran thickly into the crevices of the tile.

"That is nasty," Hazel spat, screwing up her nose at the stench.

Brendan cast a strong Sun Charm and glared into the now lit corners of the room. "Nose guard, I told you."

"You tell me a lot of things," Hazel retorted, sheathing her wand and exhaling forcefully, "and don't think I've forgiven you for that 'gnomes are harmless beggars' speech of yours. In any case, this is the last room. No more hot pockets left for these beasties to hide in, I'd say."

"You're forgetting the duct work."

"I'm not. I sent Jane and Ann."

"Right. They'll be shagging."

"With death duvets for company? I doubt it. 'Sides, there are Gen Enforcement Aurors up there with them."

"Worse and worse. We'd best check on them before—"

"Oi! We can hear you!"

"Er, sorry Bailey. We didn't mean you," Hazel called, before saying to Brendan, "I don't do ducts."

"And that's a comfort."

"Arse."

"It is nice, isn't it?"

"If you lot want to get home before dawn, you'd best come help," Bailey called.

Hazel looked pointedly at Brendan. "Don't let's make this an order situation. You know I'll give you one."

"All right," he said, following her out into the corridor, "but the next time there're heights without walls, you're going after whatever winged beast it is, yeah?"

"Fair enough. I've nothing against heights."

"So I hear."

"When you're through cocking about, we could use some assistance with the sus—survivors."

"Yes, sir, Auror Shacklebolt, sir!"

~*~

They were good at their jobs, he'd give them that. And they'd certainly learnt the Lethifold-killing spell quickly and thoroughly enough, even with its intricate wand-waving pattern, but Kingsley knew he'd be pleased to see the back of them. The Creatures Unit were some of the most undisciplined, rowdy, irritating Aurors with whom he'd ever had to work.

And I want to be home well before dawn, damn it!

~*~

"Nice mouth on you, and I'll just be having that," Rosmerta insisted, snatching the necklace away from her recalcitrant customer. "Pretty. It should just pay your shot."

"Hey, that's mine! I found it fair and square."

"Out," Rosmerta insisted, "before I set Auror Moody on you. I don't run tabs."

The young man in stained, lime green robes muttered darkly under his breath but slid off his stool and left the pub as Moody turned and rolled his magical eye in his direction.

"And that's almost the last of them," Rosmerta said, eyeing a pair of unconscious blokes slumped over one of the back tables before examining the necklace. Blood in the links. Right, he found it. "Alastor, you might want to take this. It's clearly been stolen."

Moody grunted and pocketed the necklace.

"So, why aren't you at the Hog's Head not drinking Aberforth's beer?"

"Goats," Moody replied, pocketing his flask.

"At it again, is he?"

"Told you before, it wasn't like that."

"As you say," Rosmerta replied, setting clean rags to shining the tap. "You're looking glum on such a happy occasion. Why is that?"

"Getting too old for this shite."

"Alastor Moody, you great git! You're not so long out of your prime. What happened? Another scrofungulus outbreak amongst the novices?"

"Does everyone know about that?"

"Hard to keep that sort of thing a secret, you know. All right, if that isn't it," Rosmerta continued, coming around the tap with a mug of tea to sit by Moody, "then what is?"

"Bloody Tonks and her stupid bloody books, that's what! Sybil, she told me her name was Sybil Vimes and to ask after her at the Hogsmeade library—and didn't Tonks laugh about that!"

Rosmerta blinked. "Alastor, Sybil Vimes is the name of a fictional character in that Squib author's books, what's his name? Pruitt, Prattingsby, er, Prat?"

"Hatchett, I think."

"Yes, well, what does he have to do with Tonks?"

"Nothing. It's to do with—never mind."

"You know, there's nothing wrong with my beer. I'll pour you a pint on the house if you like."

Alastor swivelled away from her, but Rosmerta could still feel his magical eye. She rolled both her own and decided to ask Tonks what had crawled up Moody's bum the next time she was in.

~*~

Outside the Three Broomsticks, Rosmerta's recalcitrant customer was just dying, his throat cut from ear to ear.

"It's not nice to steal things, is it?" his killer asked him, thrusting her hands into the rain barrel and cleaning them and her weapon as best she could. "You left a mark on me. That's not allowed. And you took my locket, and I want it back!"

~*~

Fuck. I know that voice.

Tonks stopped walking up the alley from where she'd ordered two shagging kids to dress and then Disapparate home before they were missed, and stared. Just inside of it, she could see a stooped figure washing something shiny in a rain barrel—from behind which feet were protruding.

And that's murder done! Tonks thought, as the murderer stood up and her face became visible.

There was no time to wonder how she'd got out. Tonks knew that she had to act. She felt her features change, altered her robes, and stepped forward before truly thinking through what she was about to do.

"My most faithful servant."

Her knuckles were white against her wand as Bellatrix Lestrange rushed shrieking in her direction.

~*~

The sound of crying was coming through the door, and Harry just stood there, his hand on the knob.

"Would you like me to go in with you?"

"No, Severus, but . . . don't go far?" Harry asked, before stepping into the room.

There were candles floating dripplessly above the bed in which Aries lay; he was turned on his side, his back to the door, with his head thrust into the pillow. Harry pushed the door almost closed and went to sit next to the bed.

"Well, this is no good."

Aries turned over with pillow in hand, brandishing it. Harry could see that at some point after Tippy had left him, he'd dressed himself again.

Good for you, readying yourself to escape like that. "Hey, I didn't mean to scare you."

"You're that Harry person!" Aries exclaimed, dropping his pillow and throwing himself into Harry's arms. "How did you know I was here? Are you going to take me back home? Do you have your mirror? Where's mine? Does Cousin Draco know I'm here? Is he all right?"

Harry was completely taken aback by this string of questions. He'd not expected the hug, either, given what Draco had told him about Aries' reaction to Morgan; he was just as much a stranger to Aries as Morgan had been, wasn't he?

"—and you were nice to me and followed the rules, so I know you'll help me. You will help me, won't you? Tippy is nice, but she won't say when Father will come, and I know he'll be mad and so will Aunt Cissa 'cause I'm not allowed to go away from home and—"

"Shh, shh," Harry soothed, holding Aries tightly and pressing a kiss to his forehead—which caused an abrupt change of mood in his son.

"No kissing! I'm a boy, not a baby."

Harry laughed. "Don't your parents kiss you goodnight?"

Aries scrambled down Harry's lap and back up onto the bed before turning to look at him. "I'm a big boy. I don't nee—like kisses."

And that was heartbreaking, wasn't it, the way Aries' eyes went shiny to think of all the kisses that he'd never received. Harry knew exactly how he felt.

"Well, all right then, no kisses."

"That's good. Boys aren't supposed to do that."

Crap, Harry thought, swallowing hard to think of the adjustment in store for everyone.

"Do you know what Mummy did when I told her about you? She got mad. She . . . she shouted at Pippy—Pippy's one of our house elves—for telling bad stories about . . . about 'unclean' people to me. But I like Pippy, and you seem clean, and I wish Mummy wouldn't shout."

Harry swallowed again. "Does your mum shout a lot?"

"Well, maybe. What's a lot? I don't see her every day. She's very important, you know, just like Father, and Pippy says I should be 'being respectful of my elderlings'. She talks funny."

Funnily, Harry thought, before rethinking his own correction because it sounded odd to him.

He also found it odd that Aries had been told that his father was John Parkinson because little boys didn't make good secret-keepers—and it was "Aries Thomas Lestrange Potter" in the Record, according to his son's birth certificate—but he supposed that Bellatrix had used Aries to secure her place in John's affections and hadn't much cared about Evessa's feelings about the matter.

Poor Evessa. "You're right. House elves do have a strange way of speaking—but aren't you tired? Tippy tells me that she taught you Exploding Snap, but that was a few hours ago."

"Yes," Aries replied, looking down at his swinging feet, "but I'm sca—I want to know where my parents are. I don't belong here, even for games. I miss Pippy, and Cousin Draco will be looking for me."

"Would . . . would you like to see Draco? He's my . . . friend."

"You don't sound sure."

Harry had to smile at the way Aries' eyes narrowed. "You're very smart, I think, but what I sound is tired. I haven't been to bed, either."

"That's just silly. You know where your parents are, don't you?"

Fuck, Harry thought, suddenly wishing very much for Severus.

"And who's this?" Severus asked, entering the room. "My name is Severus, and I'm Harry's husband. What's your name?"

Aries eyes flew open to stare at Severus, but almost at once, he composed himself and said to Harry, "I guess some boys do kiss."

~*~

As Bellatrix tried repeatedly to kiss her, Tonks thought, I suppose it really was like that.

Her spell caught her aunt in the side, and as the bitch dropped like a half-empty sack of potatoes to the cobbles, Tonks started shouting in earnest as she sent her Patronus to Mad Eye.

He came running down the alley only seconds later.

~*~

"Hey, your hair sticks up just like mine!"

"Yes, he's very messy," Severus said, playing his card.

"Well I'm not that messy, nor tired at all—and look at your card! That's loads of points!"

It's because he's exhausted, Harry heard Severus tell him.

Yeah, Ronnie and little Harry are just the same. "My turn."

Aries clapped enthusiastically at Harry's effort and fell back on the bed, kicking his legs up in the air.

"Shoes on the bed? Now since when has that been allowed?"

"COUSIN DRACO!"

Harry watched in amazement as Aries practically flew across the room to leap up into Draco's arms. Draco, he saw, looked more relieved than he'd ever seen him—and softer; his entire face softened into happiness as Aries covered his forehead in kisses.

Don't be stupid, he told himself, as his stomach muscles clenched.

No, don't be, Severus' voice, gentle, flowed into his mind.

Without knowing if it would even be there, Harry reached for Severus' hand; he wasn't surprised to find it within reach.

"Well, it seems that we now have sufficient players for an epic game of Exploding Snap," Severus announced.

But Aries' head, Harry saw, was already beginning to droop against Draco's shoulder, in spite of his continued chatter.

~*~

Silence greeted Kingsley at the Three Broomsticks, just before dawn, silence, and Rosmerta.

"They've just left, love."

"Did you stay open late or have trouble getting the bastards to leave?"

"Pardon? Oh, no Kings, I don't mean patrons. I mean Alastor and Tonks—with Bellatrix Lestrange. She escaped and murdered some poor St Mungo's staffer outside the pub earlier. I thought you'd know."

Kingsley groaned. This isn't happening. "Rosie, I thought that she was dead. There was an attack at—we'd best go inside. It seems we've a lot to tell each other."

"Not until you pay the toll, sir," Rosmerta insisted, winking, her hair shining as beguilingly as her smile in the lamplight.

Sod explanations! If Headquarters wanted me, someone would have sent word by now. It's past time I was in bed. Swinging Rosie up into his arms, he declared, "I'll pay your toll, woman. I'll keep you well in funds."

"Good, because I like a man who'll spend a little something on his lady."

"A 'little something'? Don't you mean a giant sum?"

~*~

Hazel turned to Brendan and grinned. "I told you he wasn't coming here for the beer."

"Imagine my bloody amazement to discover the stick up his arse ain't that large."

"That's not hard, really, imagining your amazement. Bit slow, you are, thinking the Triple B would still be open."

"But you promised me a pint, Haze. You know I always have a pint after work—especially after quack work."

"Oh, awful. Must you pun like that?"

"A pint would stop my punning."

"Would it stop your whinging about going up into the duct work for me?"

"Worth a shot, isn't it?"

"Fine. Let's away to the Tricky Tentacle. It never closes."

"I thought you didn't like drinking with Jane and Ann."

"They won't be drinking, now will they be? You'll have yourself a pint and a show."

"You are an extraordinarily clever creature, Hazel, and make no mistake."

"What I am is tired of Mum and her attempts to set me up with unsuitably 'suitable' blokes and her constant nattering on about how 'special' my children would be if only I'd marry well. I should've bunked with friends instead of staying with her while the exterminators dealt with the Bundimun infestation in my flat, I really should have done."

"Seems like the Head of the Creatures Unit ought to be able to deal with a Bundimun infestation and thereby avoid having to stay with her matchmaking mum."

"Seems like an Auror in the Creatures Unit who doesn't want to have to deal with his superior's Bundimun infestation ought to know when to shut it."

"Yes, ma'am, Auror Price, ma'am! The Tricky Tentacle it is!"