"We had some rather sharp words, but I think she'll do it," Minerva said to Albus, as they sat down to lunch.
"She'll speak to Harry?"
"She'll do as he asks, yes, but that doesn't mean she's going to give up her 'studies', Albus."
"No, of course not, but in talking to Persephone on Harry's behalf, you've made it possible for him to avoid engaging in a fight that he could not win."
"That's all you have to say?" Minerva demanded.
"I've been in contact with Mugwump Xu," he replied calmly. "She oversees a project similar to Persephone's and is always looking for researchers. She's most interested in comparing notes with your sister."
"How will that solve anything?"
"I rather think that it will solve everything, Minerva, because it will mean Persephone's removal to China where the Ruling Council refuses, unlike the Ministry, to remain ignorant of the work of their Spellcraftres and researchers. Once installed in the Spell House, your sister will find that her studies are guided along a more humane path."
Minerva frowned. "I don't know that I believe that, but I do know that you don't actually have the authority to banish Persephone. There's no way she'll agree to surrender her own authority and leave her life's work."
"Xu is remarkably persuasive. I'm certain that when she makes her offer, she won't fail to make clear to Persephone that she's in possession of evidence connecting her to the Parliamentary conspirators, in particular, to Spellen Spurlock and his recent activities."
"I'm afraid so, and as people died during that unfortunate incident, I'm certain Persephone would have no wish to answer for her part in it."
"Albus! You know perfectly well that—"
"Persephone aided Spellen to a greater extent than we initially believed. I found their correspondence to that effect among his papers."
"Oh, Albus. What did she do?"
"She gave him access to the Ministry catacombs so that he could assist Bellatrix and Pansy with the incubation of the Lethifolds there, and when it became unsafe for them to remain there, she arranged for Hazel's residence to be made suitable for the creatures."
"No, I don't believe it!"
"Don't you, Minerva? You know your sister better than anyone." Albus sighed. "It is my belief that Persephone's was the name with which Lucius Malfoy intended to barter for safe passage to his home."
"Does Hazel know anything about this?"
"Apparently not, and I have no intention that she ever should. Her relationship with her mother is difficult enough as it is. That said," Albus told her, removing a letter from one of his sleeves and passing it to Minerva, "it seems as if she's still Unspeakable enough to interfere in certain matters on her mother's behalf."
"That silly idiot!"
"Indeed, but she's not beyond saving, I think, and for Alastor's sake, I'd like to try."
"'Alastor's sake'!" Minerva spat, setting the letter aflame. "Alastor's feelings where Hazel's concerned should have no bearing upon—"
Albus coughed. "It wasn't his decision to hide her parentage from her. You know that Persephone didn't want him to be part of Hazel's life. He's stayed away because—"
"He's a cowardly, irresponsible fool who never could learn a simple contraceptive charm!"
Frowning, Albus replied, "You may be angry, but you should be fair. Your sister is more than capable of casting such a charm, and she didn't. And why was that? Because she was intrigued by the possibilities of blending her magic with Alastor's in a child. Hazel was planned."
"You're right. Forgive me."
"There's nothing to forgive, but I would hope that you could be civil to Alastor when we see him. It wouldn't be right to—"
"I know. I won't say a thing, but I don't like this, Albus. I've never liked it."
Albus took Minerva's hands in his. "Do you regret not having children of our own?"
"Certainly not! That would definitely not have been fair."
"Agreed. Now then, shall we be going? I expect you'll be wanting a word with Hazel."
"More than one, yes, even if saving her is more than she deserves."
"What makes you say that?" asked Albus, as they made for the hearth. "You're quite fond of your niece, or so I've always thought."
"I say it because she should know by now not to close her eyes where her mother's concerned!"
Hazel awoke to the sound of stone grinding upon stone; from the hardness beneath her, she knew that she was lying upon it, as well. Gingerly sitting up so as not to worsen the throbbing in her head, she went for her wand.
It wasn't there, but she knew at once where she was.
"Why am I in the Hall of Monuments?"
Hazel winced in pain and at her own carelessness as her question bounced off the marble with the jarring repetitiousness of any alarm. There was nowhere to run. The chamber had no doors or windows. There wasn't even a ledge above her to which she might fly.
Right, she thought, rising unsteadily from the bench upon which she'd found herself so that she could manually inspect the walls. There has to be a door. I just can't see it.
"Ever seen a ghost before?" Aries asked Ronnie.
"Nope, but we've seen a ghoul, haven't we, Haw—Harry?"
"That's right," Little Harry agreed. "Our grandparents live with one!"
"No, really?" Aries asked, suitably impressed.
"Yep. He's an ugly one, too," Ronnie said.
"That's only proper," Aries replied, as the other boys nodded.
"So, what are they doing in there?" asked Ronnie.
"Harry says that Mr Severus' ghost is a little boy. His name's Edmund, and he lives in there."
"Uncle Harry never told us he knew a boy ghost," Little Harry told Aries.
"Well, he won't much longer 'cause he's taking Edmund away to be with other boy ghosts."
"That's nice of him," Ronnie said.
Aries smiled. "Harry is nice."
"Think we could sneak in there and watch?" Little Harry asked.
"I don't think we have to sneak here."
"Course we don't," Ronnie asserted. "Uncle Harry told Aries about the ghost, didn't he?"
"You sure you're okay with this?" Harry asked Severus, as they stood in the chapel.
Severus watched Edmund flying after the colourful ribbon he'd conjured and nodded. "I'd prefer it to whatever the gnomes might do to him."
"I can't believe how excited Evessa is about the gnomes."
"My sis—Evessa's always despised the ghosts."
"Well, after my experience with them, I completely under—"
"Hello, Uncle Harry!" Ronnie and Little Harry called, in chorus.
"We've come to see the ghost!" Aries announced.
"Oi! You lot!" called Ron, entering the chapel behind the boys. "Do you have permission to be in here?"
"It's quite all right, Mr Weasley," said Severus.
"Wicked! Can we play, too?" Ronnie asked, as Edmund went streaking by his head after a streamer.
"Of course you may, but just for a little—Edmund's going home," Harry explained.
"Aries already told us, Uncle Harry," said Ronnie, as he and the others joined Edmund in a pew.
After they'd made their introductions, Severus set additional streamers to flying and smiled as the boys screamed in delight.
There were children at Snape Manor, laughing children. It was something of a miracle, and nothing Severus had ever imagined he'd witness.
"Aunt Muriel would not approve," said Ron, shaking his head at the boys' raucous behaviour.
"Your aunt's a religious woman?"
"Not so much, just very concerned with propriety. Don't know much about that, myself."
Harry snorted, and Ron punched his shoulder.
"I meant about church propriety, you arse."
"As much as I hate to disturb them," Severus said, "I think we should begin."
"All right, you little monsters," Ron called, "it's time. You can either sit down quietly, or come outside for some broom time."
"Broom time!" Little Harry exclaimed, leaving the chase to join his father.
Ronnie and Aries quickly followed.
"Nice meeting you, Edmund."
"Have a good trip!"
Laughing, Ron led them from the chapel.
Edmund waved and came down to float before Severus. "You promise there will be other boys where I'm going?"
"That shall be most welcome," Edmund said, his diction a reminder to Severus of just how long ago he should have gone Beyond. "I shall not forget you, Severus."
"Nor I you," he replied, turning to Harry. "Are you ready?"
"Yes, are you, sir? And what must we do?"
In answer, Harry partially discorporated so that he looked very much like a ghost, himself and took Edmund's hand. "Well, I suppose we just go," he said, beginning to walk. "It's not as though there's any particular ritual to—"
"Follow," Severus completed for Harry, who had disappeared through the altar with Edmund.
Looking around to make certain he was alone, he sniffed away the sadness he was feeling with regard to his childhood friend because soon, all the souls his ancestor had trapped in the ground under his feet would be free. The battle being played out in paint on the chapel's ceiling was no longer to be a painful reminder of the historical one that had led to so much suffering. He was free to look at it without guilt.
And in whatever manner I choose to do, he thought, as he stretched out in the aisle and gazed upon Verrio's masterpiece with fresh eyes.
It didn't take Hazel long to find what she'd been looking for, an indentation in the stone. She traced the groove in the wall until it rose too high for her to follow, and then she moved over a bit in hope of finding its twin. Relief flooded her as her fingers dipped into a similar indentation; she'd found a portal.
Stepping back to stand in between the two sides of it, she said, "Open."
Bugger. Perhaps I am locked in.
That wasn't unexpected, but somehow, she doubted that Moody would have imprisoned her in the Hall of Monuments.
I just need to keep trying. "Reveal yourself!"
"If you'd be good enough to step back, I will."
Hazel was so startled that she jumped back, and the stone in between the two grooves turned glassy and then transparent to reveal the speaker.
"Aunt Minerva! What are you doing here? What's happening?"
As if she'd merely turned up to tea, Minerva replied, "Twistarm, the goblin responsible for this area of the Hall, is creating the crypt in which we intend to Bind what remains of Riddle's soul."
"So I was right. Moody did have it."
Minerva moved to the bench and sat down. "What were you thinking?"
"That it was my duty to see the Horcrux destroyed, is what. Mum told me—"
"Enough to get you into serious trouble, but not enough to help you destroy it, correct?"
"I was leaving that to Mum, of course."
"And were you planning to ask her how she knew of its existence?"
Hazel felt her face warm. "Eventually."
"I see," Minerva replied, compressing her lips.
Hazel crossed her arms. "I assume that you don't believe she would have destroyed it."
"You assume correctly." Minerva shook her head. "I'm disappointed in you, Hazel. Mysteries' collection of magical artifacts rivals that of the British Museum's Unseen Wing! Persephone would never willingly destroy something so unusual and powerful—no matter that a deadly faction has been trying to secure it for themselves!"
"That's not fair! Mum deals with tricky shit all the time, and she isn't even remotely connected to Lestrange's people!"
Minerva snorted derisively. "You know your mother had dealings with Spellen Spurlock. Surely you've wit enough to have worked out that he was part of Lestrange's conspiracy?"
"He was screaming something to that effect when he died, but that doesn't mean—"
Hazel stopped speaking then as all the air in the chamber was sucked out of it, only to rush back into it with great force. She would have been knocked from her feet had Minerva not reached out to pull her down onto the bench.
"Well, that's done."
"Super," Hazel retorted, closing her eyes against the pain in her head. "How . . . how much did Mum know?"
"Everything she needed to—that Spellen was sympathetic to Lord Voldemort's cause!"
"To be fair, however, it wasn't until Persephone sorted through Spellen's effects that she learnt he'd been instrumental in Lestrange's plans. It was Spellen, you see, who arranged the incubationary chambers beneath the Ministry."
Somehow, Hazel wasn't at all surprised by the presence of her "Uncle" Albus. "But Skeeter reported that Lestrange did that."
"Yes, just as I told her it happened."
"Isn't that tidy."
"Quite," Albus replied, appearing completely unperturbed by her sarcasm.
"Why are you trying to shield Spurlock's reputation? He's dead, and he was a Death Eater! There may be others within the Guild, as well, which to my mind necessitates an investigation because who knows what the Spellcraftres have been getting up to?"
"My dear Hazel, if the Ministers knew what Spellcraftres got up to, they would seek to control them. That cannot be permitted. No, it's much better that the Guild remain a powerful but disorganised group of researchers. The harm they might do should they be constrained or persuaded to work together towards one political aim could very well lead to catastrophe."
"As much as I hate to agree with you about that, Albus," said Alastor Moody, as he and a goblin joined them, "I do." Turning to Hazel, he barked, "Explain yourself! What business is it of yours, interfering with the assignment of a Senior Auror?"
She didn't flinch. "If you think for one moment that I believe all this is officially sanctioned, you've got another thing coming."
"That's no way to address a Senior Auror."
"Auror Shacklebolt!" Hazel exclaimed, smartly drawing herself up as her superior entered the chamber from a newly opened portal.
Shacklebolt ignored her. "Is it done?"
"Done and done—but for Sealing the corridor, of course," said Moody.
"Thank you for waiting. I'd like to inspect the arrangements before that's done." With that, Shacklebolt, Twistarm, and Moody returned to the crypt.
"Bugger," Hazel muttered.
"Don't fret," Minerva told her. "I hardly think Kingsley has time to oversee a disciplinary hearing just now."
"Especially if you display the appropriate discretion for which this matter calls," added Albus.
Hazel only half-heard them; she was too busy thinking about the fact that she was an unregistered Animagus, which no one but her mother, Brendan, and now Alastor Moody knew. He'll tell Shacklebolt, and then my career will be over. "Bugger," she repeated.
Albus chuckled. "Oh, no, I shouldn't think Kingsley will have time to . . . give a hoot, as it were."
Double bugger fuck!
Before Hazel could worry too much, however, Shacklebolt and the others returned.
"Please," Shacklebolt said, nodding to Twistarm, who tapped the marble archway.
The stone melted over the portal as if it had never existed.
"Thank you, everyone," said Shacklebolt. "That concludes the business that we did not conduct here today. Enjoy the rest of your afternoon."
"I'll have a wee word with your mother, dear," Minerva murmured, as she and Albus left the chamber with Twistarm. Hazel, suddenly preoccupied by what her mother's reaction to her failure would be, began to follow them.
"Except you, Price."
Of course not me, she thought, snapping to attention.
Shacklebolt circled her. "You entered Auror Training rather late, didn't you?
"Yes, sir, but what does—"
From behind her, Shacklebolt interrupted, "I'll ask the questions here, thank you very much."
"From your file—"
Crap. Why was he reading my—
"—I see that you apprenticed for a time in the Department of Mysteries." Having apparently completed his inspection of her, Shacklebolt stood glaring before her.
"Yes, sir, I did. I was—"
"And do you miss the excitement of the Brain Room, Price?"
"Then why is it you felt compelled to behave like an Unspeakable rather than an Auror in this matter?"
"Aurors follow orders!" Shacklebolt shouted, suddenly inches from her face.
Her head throbbing worse than before, Hazel exclaimed, "Yes, sir! I apologise, sir! It won't happen again!"
"It won't happen again, what?"
"It won't happen again, sir!"
"You're damn right it won't happen again." Shacklebolt stepped back and removed an envelope from his robes, which he thrust at her. In a more conversational tone, he continued, "Effective immediately, I'm reassigning you to the DMLE's Training Unit."
"You're demoting me—sir?"
"I wouldn't call being responsible for the care and feeding of novices a demotion. Would you, Kingsley?"
Shacklebolt merely grunted.
"No," said Moody, "I'd call it more like being forced to serve in one of the Four Great Hells." Much to the detriment of Hazel's aching head, he then began to cackle in a loud, phlegmy manner.
Brendan's never going to forgive me for this, she thought, assuming that he'd be promoted in her place. Her partner hated any responsibility that came with additional paperwork.
"Well, Price?" demanded Shacklebolt. "What say you?"
What can I say? It's either nannying or nothing. "I say that I'm up to the challenge, sir."
"You'd better be," Shacklebolt threatened, leaving her to Moody.
"So, Auror Price," he said, a worryingly gleeful expression on his face as he returned her wand, "what do you know of the perils of scrofungulus?"
"Neville, that's not a nice thing to say. Let Dippy answer the door."
"But we were supposed to spend the day together. You know why she's here."
The rapping on the door grew more insistent, and Dippy's agitation, more pronounced.
"Oh, all right. Show her in, Dippy, and, er, offer her tea. I'll be right there."
Laura shook her head and smiled. "You said yourself that the gnomes needed a new home-hole. Why keep them from it unnecessarily? Besides, Harry's note said that he had news. Don't you want to know what it is?"
"Well," Neville replied, stalling, "it can't be about Malfoy. Alastor Moody told me that the official announcement of his death would be left to Mrs Malfoy, and there's been nothing in the paper."
"You don't fool me, Longbottom. I know you're trying to avoid Snape Manor."
"Why would you say that?"
"Because I know that you don't like Harry's boyfriend."
"Just because Harry's an Eligible doesn't make Snape his boyfriend."
"No," Laura agreed, "but I read that Tattle person's column in the Prophet. He certainly seems to think that Supplicant Snape's interest is firmly fixed on Harry."
"That's why I don't want to talk to Mrs Parkinson. I'm afraid of what she might tell me—because if Snape were truly paying attention to Courtship Ritual matters as he ought, he wouldn't have time to be thinking about the gnomes."
"It's none of your business whom your friend chooses to love," Laura said, taking his hand, "especially considering that you've chosen a Muggle girl."
"Laura, no one I know would ever think less of you for being a Muggle."
"You're a very lucky wizard to have such open-minded friends."
Laura's pointed tone made Neville feel like an arse, and he couldn't think of anything to say in his own defence.
"Why don't you like Severus Snape? Is it to do with the war you've been teaching me about?"
"It's more to do with the fact that he was a right bastard to me in school. I just can't wrap my head around the idea of Harry's being in love with him."
Laura giggled. "If I didn't know you as well as I do," she told him, massaging his hand suggestively, "I'd say you were jealous."
"What? Ew! No, I'm not jealous of Snape!"
Laura bit her lip.
"I rather think I meant Harry."
Neville sat back. "Please, Laura, never suggest anything remotely like that again. That's . . . ew."
"Oh, I'm sorry. After last night, I suppose I have no cause to doubt your tastes."
Neville suddenly felt over-warm as the sense memory of Laura's skin sliding over his made him shiver. "Great, now I have to face Mrs Parkinson with a—"
"Master Longbottom, your guest is being very impatient. She isn't wanting tea, or biscuits!"
"Go," Laura told him, picking up the Prophet. "We can see to our appetite later."
"I know! Make her eat a bug!"
"By putting it in her pumpkin juice, of course."
"That's a good idea, Aunt Cissa."
"You're fun for a grown up girl, Mrs Malfoy."
"I have my moments, young man."
Lavender smiled as she closed the door to Aries' room and found Hermione standing nearby. "Hello, there."
"What's all this about bugs?"
"Oh, the boys and Mrs Malfoy are just helping Ronnie plot revenge upon Alice Finster—not that I'm going to allow Ronnie to put any of their ideas into practice, you understand—but I'm truly surprised by how good she is with children. Given Draco's behaviour at school . . . ."
Hermione nodded. "I know, but nothing much surprises me at this point."
"I can imagine."
"Who's Alice Finster?" Hermione asked, as they made their way back downstairs.
"A perfectly dreadful little girl in Ronnie's speech therapy programme."
"Ah, then their plotting will happily distract them while we have our little 'gnome-coming'."
Lavender groaned. "Oh, Hermione, not you, too."
"I'm afraid so, and you know whose fault it is."
"Punning is a Weasley family trait. So, has Mrs Parkinson returned with Neville?"
"Not yet, so the boys have started a Quidditch match on the lawn. Severus is even playing."
Lavender's eyes widened. "Wow, getting laid must agree with him."
"You know it's true," Lavender said, inordinately pleased that Hermione had used her pet name. "In fact, I'd say you look like a woman who knows all about 'agreement'. How is Blaise?"
Hermione went quite pink.
"I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have—"
"He's quite the, er, accord-builder, but you didn't hear that from me."
Lavender burst out laughing as they returned to the lawn. It was great fun to discover that Hermione Granger wasn't such a horrid swot after all.
Hermione laughed with Lavender, relieved to have something to laugh about. It was incredibly taxing to feel so happy, sad, and worried all at once, but she bore it because it was nothing to what Harry must be feeling.
Congratulations on becoming a father, she thought, watching him attempt to out-manoeuvre Severus.
Before she and Blaise had left Longbottom House, he had explained everything to her, and even though she'd known as well as anyone what Bellatrix Lestrange was capable of, she'd sobbed. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair, what Lestrange had done to Harry, or that Harry had lost so much time with his son. It wasn't fair that just as Harry had found such happiness with Severus, he'd been forced to recall what he'd suffered at Lestrange's hands. It wasn't even remotely fair, but life had a way of sending the good with the bad, and there was nothing bad about Aries. Hermione had resolved that she'd be damned before she allowed anything in her behaviour towards him make Aries believe otherwise, so she'd simply smiled when Harry had introduced Aries to her as the child of a "family friend."
The strength it must have taken for Harry to have said those words with regard to Lestrange staggered her to contemplate.
"You amaze me, Harry," she murmured, and suddenly felt a hand slide into hers.
"He amazes me, too," Lavender told her. "I'd be out for blood, myself."
Hermione squeezed Lavender's hand, grateful that she'd offered it. "Everything's going to be fine."
"That's right," Lavender agreed. "Everything will be."
Harry felt nothing but determination as he hurtled towards Ron's goal. Four-player Quidditch was a fairly straightforward, though more brutal, version of the standard game: the Keepers Kept one-ring goals and controlled a Bludger each with which to repel the opposing team's Chaser. The two Chasers fought for possession of the Quaffle while avoiding the Bludgers in an attempt to score goals. There was no Snitch, and the first Chaser to score five points won the game for his or her team. It wasn't an easy game, however, because the Quaffle went without the Easy Hold charm and was instead charmed to attempt to escape the Chaser who held it when the other Chaser flew within five feet of him or her. So far, Severus, who was playing with Ron, had taken the Quaffle off Harry three times by flying rapidly around Harry's broomstick, and each time, the Quaffle had smacked Harry's chin as it had escaped him and flown towards Severus.
Harry had already scored four points and didn't wish to worsen the ache in his jaw, so after recapturing the Quaffle the last time, he'd shoved it down his shirt. There was nothing in the rules against this, no matter Severus' howls of protest as he sped after Harry, and since Ron had already released his Bludger and missed Harry, all Harry had to do was get the Quaffle out of his shirt and into the hoop.
As Severus caught up to Harry and employed his dizzying tactic of flying in loops around Harry's broomstick again, Harry stopped abruptly—shoving the Quaffle to rest against his back—sunk about three feet below the goal, and jerked up his shirt, only to rise up on his broomstick and bump the Quaffle with his bum to send it flying in a diagonal trajectory towards the hoop under Ron's feet. He was just able to turn himself about in time to see that his manoeuvre had worked.
"Yes!" shouted Blaise. "Tremendous bum work there, Harry!"
Lavender and Hermione cheered and laughed as Ron, his grin belying his words, declared, "For a cheat!" before calling the game in Harry and Blaise's favour.
Severus righted his broomstick and came to float next to Harry as Ron and Blaise joined the girls for refreshments. "'Tremendous bum work', indeed."
"What can I say? I have skills."
Severus flew close enough to Harry that their thighs touched. "If we didn't have guests, I'd pull you off the pitch and have you demonstrate them for me."
Harry swallowed against the thrill of lust Severus' words sent surging through him. "Fuck, but I wish we didn't have guests."
They leant in closer until their mouths almost touched and would have kissed had Ron not shouted, "Oi! Don't make me add a new penalty!"
"Later," Harry promised.
Severus shook his head and said, "Now. Life is too short to—"
—postpone its pleasures, Harry heard Severus' voice in his mind, as their lips met.
"Time for the Kiss, is it, Albert?" an Auror asked, as Andromeda entered the antechamber that led to the DMLE's holding cells.
"Not quite yet, lad," the Charge Auror with her told him. "Minister Marchbanks has approved a visit for the prisoner before we get on with things. Mrs Tonks is to receive five minutes. Tell the others to clear out."
Andromeda took several calming breaths as the others left them.
"Right, then, Mrs Tonks," said the Charge Auror. "Five minutes only—my men don't need to keep the beastie here much longer than that, as I'm sure you understand—and stay away from the bars."
"Of course, and thank you." Andromeda entered the long corridor of cells, moving to stand before her sister's, who cackled to see her. "Do shut up, Bellatrix."
"It's just the joy I feel, sister dear, to welcome you," Bellatrix said, curtseying to her.
"As mad as ever, I see."
Bellatrix pulled out her skirts and swayed left and right as if displaying a fancy gown to Andromeda. "Aren't I pretty in victory? They think they'll take me away and kill me, but they can't. He'd never allow it."
"The Dark Lord is dead."
Bellatrix rushed the bars and seized them. "Don't you say that! You don't know. He can't die—and neither can I because the Dementors only take it out!"
"What are you babbling about?"
"Spelly will have our lord safe by now, and Lucius will know how to fix him, won't he? Just like he'll fix me!"
Andromeda didn't know who "Spelly" was, but her sister's ignorance of reality made her smile. I think I'm going to enjoy this.
"Why are you smiling? You'll be next, you know. We'll come for you and your pet of a husband—and your mongrel brat, too, so stop smiling! Why are you smiling?"
Andromeda took a step closer to the bars, and Bellatrix shoved her arms through them in a futile attempt to reach her. "I'm smiling because you can't touch me, sister dear. Your plan has failed. Lucius Malfoy will not be coming for you."
"Yes he will! You don't know what power he holds! You don't know what he can do."
"Whatever it is, it can't help you."
Bellatrix pressed her face between the bars. "What do you mean, standing there like that in your oh so superior way? You know nothing. You're just a blood traitor whore!"
"I know that Draco holds the power to destroy his father, a fact which you seem to have conveniently forgotten. Blood matters, Bellatrix, at least in terms of the Familial magics."
"What are you 'babbling' about?" Bellatrix half-mocked, half-demanded, her face twisting in confusion. "Draco's a good boy. He wouldn't hurt his daddy. Draco loves his daddy!"
"Even if that were still true, it doesn't matter, either, because Draco still loves Pansy. You shouldn't have taken her away from him, Bellatrix."
"Oh, why not? He didn't know what she was for."
"You disgust me."
Bellatrix stuck out her tongue. "Don't care. Don't have to care."
"Oh, but you do, or you should. Have you forgotten what you know of blood magic?"
"I know more of that than you. I always have done."
"Do you remember what Father told us when we were little and misbehaved?"
"That one ran his mouth all the time, didn't he?" Bellatrix asked, shaking the bars. "But his knowledge only led him to disrespect and death!"
"He used to tell us that he'd take away our magic and leave us worse off than Squibs."
"He should have done that to you! You left! You refused Lucius and left!"
"And the Dark Lord punished him for it by murdering him, which is why I retain my magic yet." Andromeda unsheathed her wand.
"You and your little stick don't scare me."
"We should, because I'm going to stay. I'm going to witness your Kiss."
Bellatrix rolled her eyes and swung back and forth while hanging on the bars. "You won't come with me all the way to Azkaban for that! And who cares if you do? I told you, Lucius will put it back."
The door opened then, and Andromeda shivered. "To do that, he'd need your body, wouldn't he?"
"Nyah, nyah, nyah," Bellatrix began chanting, only to stop abruptly as her eyes fixed on the frost climbing up the bars.
"That's right," Andromeda told her. "They've brought the Dementor to you. No one wants to risk your escaping on the way to prison."
"But it's not supposed to happen here. You tell them that. You make them take me to Azkaban!"
"It doesn't matter where it happens," Andromeda said, flattening herself against the far well as the Dementor approached. "The only thing that matters is that Lucius won't be putting you back together again once it's done."
"He will! I told you!"
"No, he won't, because Draco will see to him, and after the Dementor sucks out your soul, I'll see to you."
"You stay away," Bellatrix ordered the Dementor, as the door to her cell swung open to permit it to enter. "Tell it, Andy! Tell it to stay away!"
"I think not."
"But you're my sister. You can't let it! You wouldn't have come here just to watch it eat me!"
"Of course I didn't come here for that, you silly bitch. The Dementor only wants your soul. I'm here for your body."
Bellatrix's eyes widened as Andromeda's meaning sunk in, and she rushed towards the Dementor in an effort to get through her open cell door. "I won't let you! You can't do that to me, you murderous bitch!"
The Dementor's cloak swirled around Bellatrix, obscuring her from Andromeda's view.
"No! She's a murderess! Auror! I need an Auror!" Bellatrix shrieked, as the Dementor began its work. "Don't let it . . . don't let her . . . Lucius! You have to save—"
"It doesn't have to be like this, Draco. If I make a report to Headquarters, there'd be no saving—"
"No. This is my responsibility," he replied calmly, which was no surprise.
Once Tonks had actually managed to get Draco to drink a cuppa, her mother's calming draught had worked a treat. She and Draco had then discussed what had to be done. Ordinarily, such a discussion would have horrified Tonks, but she knew that Draco was right: as far as anyone else knew, Lucius Malfoy was dead. It would only complicate matters to involve anyone else in seeing to it that he actually got that way.
"What can I do to help?"
"As much as I appreciate your offer, I think that it would be best if you stayed out of things now. You've a career to think of, and—"
"You've your life. I can't let you do this alone!"
"Tonks," Draco said, handing her the letter she'd recently received, "read it. You said it was from Harry, and whatever he needs is bound to be important."
"Draco, nothing's more important than—oh, fuck. Remus was right."
"Lupin's been discussing the importance of family with you?"
"That will be Mother's influence. In any case, I think you may find that Harry's business is a family matter."
Tonks opened the letter and read it:
11 February 2006
I have a favour to ask. Could we meet at Snape Manor at nine? I know it's last minute, but it's important.
"He wants a favour, which I can do him later. What you're about to do requires—"
"A member of the Malfoy Family. I'm the only one who can do it, and I need to do it alone lest I risk discovery. You know that."
Tonks sighed. "Draco, if your plan fails, you could die, or worse. I may be prepared to ignore the fact that I'm an Auror, but I'm not prepared to let you go without having some way of knowing it'll be you when I next see you—which will be immediately after you—"
"That's reasonable, so allow me tell you something that only I know."
Draco thought for a moment. Whatever he told Tonks had to be something that his father wouldn't have known.
Something that happened at Hogwarts, then. Something personal.
The first thing he thought of was more than personal; it was quite possibly the only secret he'd ever been able to keep from his father.
"When I was a Fifth Year, Luna Lovegood . . . kissed me on the Astronomy Tower."
Draco frowned. "Oh, all right—it was more than that, but I shouldn't like for Lovegood to know I told you."
"I don't know Luna well, but I do know she's not one for secrets. If she told someone, it could have got back to your father."
"Ordinarily, I'd agree with you. I used to treat Crab and Goyle like lackeys, but that was, well, mostly because I knew they were watching me for Father. I almost never had any true privacy at Hogwarts, but they weren't spying on me then because Professor McGonagall had given them detention with Hagrid. They were mucking out some creature's stall that evening."
"There were other students."
Draco sighed. "Perhaps, but even if they had seen us together, they wouldn't have got close enough to see Luna's birthmark. If I tell you what it is, will that suit you? I intend to leave for Hogwarts directly, so there's no way I'll have an opportunity to interfere with her, and I've no doubt that Luna would verify what I'm going to tell you. She's . . . an open sort of person, isn't she?"
Sighing, Tonks nodded.
Narcissa rose from amongst the plates and cups, careful not to wake the boys. They'd had their tea and gone through the toys and books she'd brought, and before long, they'd fallen asleep while watching an animated pop-up story.
Draco always liked that one, too, she thought, as she returned to her rooms.
She knew that one of the house elves would look in on the boys soon, and she had a memorial notice to compose. As she entered her suite, however, she found herself fire-calling Remus.
"Will you speak to me?"
"Of course, Narcissa. Are you at Snape Manor?"
"Yes, and I've seen the boys—Ronald Weasley and his family are here."
"Ah, the better to distract Aries from asking any questions, I imagine."
"You're not wrong, but Remus, I don't understand."
He frowned. "You don't understand why Harry might be having difficulty explaining to his son, who doesn't know he is his son, why his mother would have sent him to Harry?"
"No, not that. Why you were so angry with me this morning? When I first told you about Aries, you seemed to understand. You even promised to help me explain everything to Harry."
"I did?" Remus' scowling expression turned to confusion, but only briefly. "Oh, of course. I did. I'm . . . Narcissa, it was . . . ."
"A great deal of information to absorb, I know."
"It was a shock, and you were upset. I had no wish to disturb you further by shouting at you. Perhaps that was dishonest of me."
"Can you forgive me, Remus?"
"It's Harry whom you should ask that of, not me."
"But I want to know your answer. It's selfish to ask, but I need to know, Remus. Can you forgive me?"
"What are they doing? Why are they behaving like that?" Evessa demanded, as she, Neville, and Laura watched the reunion of the Green Hat Clan.
The male gnomes had poured out of the Bottomless Bag and rushed throughout the goat yard, calling to their women—who had initially seemed incredibly happy to see their fellows but were now glaring at them.
"That doesn't look like a happy homecoming, does it?" Laura said. "I wonder what the boys told them?"
"Perhaps their women are annoyed by how long it took them to secure a home-hole," suggested Evessa.
"What is it, Mr Longbottom?"
"The lady gnomes wouldn't have known about the Red Hat Clan, would they have? They didn't think they'd be sharing a new home-hole."
As he said this, one of the female gnomes began waving her arms and shouting at Gnourl, the watch gnome of the Green Hat Clan.
"Oh, dear," said Laura. "Perhaps you ought to let the Red Hats out of their crate. Their women seemed perfectly happy with the arrangements.
"All right," Neville told her, in spite of his doubts. "Be right back." Shrinking himself and approaching Gnoldren, the Red Hats' watch gnome, Neville quickly explained things.
"They didn't tell their women?"
"It doesn't seem likely."
"Look at that! Crossed arms. Tapping feet. Waving arms! We can't get involved."
"Go back into the crate, Gnoldren," an imposing-looking female gnome ordered.
"Gnoanna, this is Neville Longbottom. Neville Longbottom, this is Gnoanna. She has chosen me as her mate."
"It's a pleasure, ma'am."
"How would you know that?" asked Gnoanna, turning to frown at Gnoldren.
"I said nothing!" he exclaimed.
"Er, that was my wizard's way of telling you it was nice to meet you."
Gnoanna appeared unconvinced. "That remains to be seen. You will make the introductions."
"Shouldn't Gnoldren do that? He is your leader."
The Red Hats gasped at his words, and Neville realised too late that he'd made a terrible assumption. Before he could worry too much about having ruined all chances of a peaceful clan-blending, however, Gnoanna laughed.
"Wizards are funny, Gnoldren. You didn't tell me that."
Before he could say anything else stupid, Neville led Gnoanna towards the female gnome who appeared to have taken Gnourl as her mate. The other Red Hats formed a semi-circle around them as they went, and Neville saw that the Green Hats were doing likewise, leaving Gnourl and his lady in the centre of the ring. Waiting until Gnoldren had caught up, he turned to face the Green Hats' lady.
"I am Neville Longbottom," he said, looking her in the eye. "May I know your name so that I may introduce you to my friends?"
"You know our ways. Gnourl said that this was so. It is too bad that he seems to have forgotten them."
Neville stood very straight and still, waiting.
"Polite," said the lady. "I am Gnoeve, Chieftess of this clan. Make your introductions, Neville Longbottom."
As soon as he had, both Chieftesses turned to their mates, and Gnourl and Gnoldren joined their fellows in what had become the outer ring of gnomes.
"Does it suit you that this thing be done, Gnoanna of the Red Hat Clan?" asked Gnoeve.
"If the Friending be equal."
Are they going to count one another? wondered Neville, as Gnoeve replied, "That is as I, too, would wish, no matter that Gnoldren asked nothing of a mixing before he left this place."
"The men need guidance ever, do they not?" asked Gnoanna.
Apparently, that had been the right thing to say because the two Chieftesses bowed to each other and withdrew; Neville saw that the other female gnomes were withdrawing, as well, and taking the younger gnomes with them to form a new outer ring. Inside of it, the male gnomes cheered.
One of them shouted, "Surrender your hats, boys!" and his fellows began tossing them into a large pile, of which Neville found himself the centre.
Counting must just be for the men, he thought, struggling to prevent himself from becoming buried in the rapidly growing hat pile. I suppose I should offer to help.
Before he could, however, another gnome shouted, "Now take them back!"
Neville dug himself out of the pile just in time to see the male gnomes rushing it—and him. Hells!
"Clearly, your understanding of gnomish cultural practices leaves something to be desired," Evessa told Neville, when he regained consciousness.
"They . . . they fought. It was like being trampled by a host of demons!"
"Here," Laura said, gently pressing an icy flannel to the knot he could feel forming on the back of his head.
"Don't be such a baby, Mr Longbottom. Everything's fine. Look, they've made friends."
Neville looked. A large group of gnomes wearing green hats were chatting excitedly with one another. "Oof!"
"Wizard!" Gnourl exclaimed, from his position on Neville's stomach. "Let us be off to the home-hole! Chieftess Gnoeve grows impatient!"
"But, how did you decide—"
"Apparently," Laura told him, "when a mixing occurs, the gnomes change hat colour, and because Gnourl retrieved his hat before Gnoldren, his lady became Chieftess of the Green Hats."
"Laura speaks truly, wizard. Now hurry!"
"Yes, do," Evessa urged him. "The dear little things want to go home."
Gnourl scampered away with Evessa in his wake, and while she was helping the gnomes into the Bottomless Bag and the crate, Neville turned to Laura in confusion.
"The names?" she asked.
"Gnoeve knows that I'm a Muggle and can't make myself appropriately small. When she came to apologise for the battering you took, she formally introduced herself to me. I introduced her to Evessa in turn, and now we're free to use their names among ourselves because we were witness to their mixing."
"But I thought the Friending, er, mixing had to be equal. That's what Chieftess Gnoanna said when—
"I'm sure that whatever you overheard was just a form of gnomish politeness, Neville. Come, let's get you up. Evessa is more excited about installing the gnomes at Snape Manor than her new friends are to be making it their home-hole."
"Well, I hope that she'll allow us to eat something before we let the gnomes loose," Neville told her, and he brushed himself off. "By the time we get them sorted, it'll be long past tea time!"
A five-minute farewell, that's all it was supposed to have been. But only a fool would have believed that, Albert thought, as he pushed the report he'd been writing towards Mrs Tonks. "It's all there, ma'am, just as you put it to Auror Shacklebolt and myself: the prisoner seized your wand in an attempt to escape. You called for help. The Dementor, drawn by, er, unhappy thoughts, broke away from its handlers and Kissed Lestrange early. My men and I, in the confusion, cast Killing Curses, one of which hit the prisoner. Is that right?"
Mrs Tonks, who was sitting across from his desk drinking a cuppa as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened that afternoon—an afternoon that had devolved into several rounds of shouting with his superiors and what had seemed like endless reams of paperwork for him to complete—nodded and set aside her teacup.
"You're sure, then, that you didn't see which of the men it was as cast the Killing Curse?"
"What I am certain of, Charge Auror Smythe," she answered, signing the report, "is that you and your men performed your duties admirably. Should anyone ask, that is what I shall say."
Albert sighed in relief. It wasn't right, what had happened, but he'd been an Auror for long enough to know when something unofficially official was afoot; he knew better than to complain about such things. Perhaps he might have done had it appeared that he or his men were going to be made to take the blame, but as it was clear that this wasn't the case, he just wanted to see Mrs Tonks off, file his report, and go home to his bottle.
That damned Dementor had sucked all the warmth from his bones.
Evessa stood at the foot of the stone stair that led from the sepulchre above down into the Snape catacombs and watched her breath form clouds before her face. All was quiet but for the occasional belching gnome, and she felt nothing of the menace she'd experienced amongst the bones during her childhood wanderings.
Just bones now, she thought, amazed. "Just bones."
Several of them knocked together as a green-hatted figured climbed the wall and pulled itself up into an alcove next to her. "Ay, just bones. Dead ones. You'll have no trouble with the spirits now. We've taken their air."
"Th—thank you, Gnourl. That is excellent news."
"Gnoeve asks if we're free now," he replied.
"Yes, Evessa Parkinson, free to make of this place a new home-hole, or holes, as there are so many. Are we free?"
Evessa searched the gloom for the gnome's Chieftess and found her: a swollen, doll-sized lady in a stretched, dun-coloured dress and bright green hat that no longer fit her head. The former Chieftess of the Red Hats appeared similarly as she lolled next to Gnoeve, but the male gnomes looked as they'd always done. They'd 'taken the air', as well, but it was clear that it was the female gnomes who possessed the greater ability.
And it had been terrible to watch, hadn't it been? The gnomes had opened wide their arms and mouths and sucked, first at nothing, and then at great gouts of swirling ribbons of ectoplasmic essence. The ghostly energy had streamed towards and inside of them for what had seemed rather a dreadfully long time, given the stinging charge to the air and the screams, Evessa supposed that non-noise had been; she'd felt the screaming more than heard it, and then, all had gone miraculously, wonderfully still.
"Will they, er, your Chieftess and Gnoanna remain like that?" Evessa asked Gnourl.
"'Course not! They'll be normal enough in no time."
"Good. Well. I . . . oh! Oh, yes, Gnourl, you're free. You've made good our deal, and I thank you for it. Tell your lady so."
Gnourl scrambled back down the wall to his lady, and a great, tinny cheer went up in the corridor. Evessa smiled. There was now nothing to interfere in Snape Manor's being a proper home, and she was proud of her part in that, but more than pride, she felt fear. So much had happened recently that Severus, she was certain, hadn't had enough time to think everything through. When he did, his thoughts would be on his own life, a life in which she had no place. She knew that, and soon, her boy would see that, too.
Which means that I will no longer have a place to call home.
It was just as she deserved, of course, and entirely her fault.
"Your guilt is unnecessary, Mr Malfoy. It wasn't your doing."
Draco bit the inside of his lower lip. The woman before him appeared healthier and steadier than he would have credited had he not known that Headmaster Dumbledore had shared with her his magic. Of course that would have lent anyone strength, but to see her appear so unconcerned in the face of his apology was unnerving.
"Perhaps not, Mrs Millblossom," he said, because he couldn't not say something, "but it was my Family's doing, and . . . ."
"Yes, Mr Malfoy?" she asked, her voice echoing harshly in the stone hall of the Infirmary.
"I mean to make things right."
"Your concern for the Parkinson chit has addled your mind, boy. There is nothing you could do for me that would—"
"Bring back your family, yes, I know, and again, I cannot express how terribly sorry I am—but please allow me to conduct you to the Guild. I'm sure you'd prefer to be in familiar surroundings after everything that's happened. Please, ma'am, it's . . . all I can think to do just now."
"You're a . . . sweet young man, Mr Malfoy."
"No, ma'am, I'm not. I'm just doing my duty. Now if you'll excuse me for a moment, I'll arrange for a carriage to take you home."
Albus Dumbledore was standing in the thestral stables next to a harnessed carriage when Draco entered them.
"I take it that Mrs Millblossom has accepted your assistance?" he asked.
"Reluctantly, but yes."
"Did she ask for me?"
"Repeatedly, Professor, but I explained that you were unavailable."
"Unavailable, to you, at least. . . . You needn't do this alone."
Dumbledore's gaze was too pointed for him to have been feeling polite concern, and at once, Draco understood. "You know."
"I strongly suspect."
"No, you know. How?"
"I gave Remus Lupin a Soul-Hold so that he could capture your father's unbound essence. I've come to realise, however, that he was unsuccessful."
"Among other reasons, because Remus didn't destroy the object as he most certainly would have done had he been successful."
"Are you blaming him?" Draco demanded, taking a step towards the Headmaster. "Are you blaming him when it was you who let this happen?"
"Is that what your mother told you?"
"Mother lies to me as much as tells me the truth, but I know that Severus never would have given her the Draught of Living Death without your approval. He stood by and watched my father," Draco tightened his fists, "brutalize me on more than one occasion rather than reveal that he was your creature."
The tears welling up in his eyes made it difficult to see, but Draco thought he saw Dumbledore sigh.
"There is nothing that I could say to you to make that right."
"Try," whispered Draco.
"I did not know of your father's ill-treatment of you—"
"Abuse," Dumbledore continued, "until your mother came to me for assistance with regard to the surrendering of your wand. I believe that Severus must have been too ashamed of what he had to do during that time to tell me of it."
"No. No! He just knew that you wouldn't do anything about it," Draco spat, drawing a sleeve over his face, "because destroying the Dark Lord at any cost was all that mattered to you!"
The air seemed to charge with current and the thestrals began to stamp and snort in dismay as Dumbledore's eyes narrowed. "Yes, it was. You know why."
"You're a . . . a . . . ."
"Monster? Perhaps, but you did survive the war, as did your mother and cousin and nephew and countless others."
"Survive it? Is that what I did? For what?"
"For family, or so it seems to me," Dumbledore replied, inclining his head in the carriage's direction.
Draco stared at him while stroking the thestral nearest to him without realising it.
"Dra—Mr Malfoy, perhaps it comes as no great surprise to you that I'm rarely plagued by guilt. It is a destructive, useless emotion. That does not mean, however, that I have no conscience. There was no real reason, no tactical reason, that I should have saved you."
Scowling, Draco asked, "Then why did you?"
Dumbledore smiled ruefully. "Maudlin sentiment, I suppose."
Caught off-guard by the remark, Draco issued a bark of laughter, and the thestral he was soothing began to stamp again. "Easy, easy girl," he murmured to her, before saying to Dumbledore in a louder voice, "and that's utter bollocks. I don't believe it for a second."
"I'd think less of you if you did, but I certainly did not save you to see you break yourself on the rock that is your father, and all because the woman you love is drowning in her own despair."
Still comforting the thestral, Draco replied conversationally, "Fuck you, old man."
Albus produced a cube of meat and gave it to the other thestral harnessed to the carriage, and while Draco did the same for his beast, asked, "Who's the greater coward, Mr Malfoy? The man who refuses to accept responsibility for his actions, or the man who seizes it as the most expedient form of suicide?"
"You think that's what I want? Is that why it's 'Mr Malfoy' all of the sudden?"
"It's 'Mr Malfoy' because you are no longer a child, and I cannot pretend to know you. I have no real idea what it is that you want, beyond the obvious, of course, and with that, I can help you. The rite you seek to perform, the one that will assert your power as the Head of the Family Malfoy, that is a rite with which I am more than passingly familiar."