EMPTY CHAIRS AT EMPTY TABLES

Conscientious Objections

A blind man could have seen there was trouble coming, but Potter had always been worse than blind, when there was something he did not want to see. On the fifth of October, when the carefully selected Magical embassy was to meet with members of the Muggle Cabinet, Draco cancelled his classes and they drove up to the Lake District, to Malfoy Lodge, the shooting box Draco'd inherited from his father. Draco drove, because even though the new Mini Cooper was Potter's—and just the kind of car Draco would have expected him to choose, too—he drove the way he flew and his Muggle license had been suspended.

They did not talk very much on the way there, because politics was a bit of a sore subject and there was really nothing new to say. It was not an unpleasant silence; Draco had noticed that when he and Potter were not actively trying to brass one another off they actually fit together quite well. When he stopped for petrol he remembered to get Potter cherry coke and chocolate bars, and Potter didn't complain about the new Unforgivables CD he'd confiscated from one of the students.

The lady at the counter of the petrol station made a point of saying what a lovely couple he and his partner were, and Draco turned dubiously to look at Potter. They looked, to him, like any two Muggle men their age. They had not been holding hands, had they? Potter stood by the pump, finger-combing his tangled hair and staring at his reflection in the side mirror. He looked the ass he was; Draco glanced down complacently down at his own tidy leather jacket and flared jeans, recollected himself and thanked her. Relationships of their sort were still so rare in the magical world, despite Hermione's amendments, that they generally passed unremarked.

There were a number of Malfoy properties, both in Britain and on the continent, but the little house in Northern Scotland had always been Draco's favorite, as once it had been his father's. He had brought Potter there once before for a weekend, but they had ended by fighting and Potter had stormed off to Floo home while Draco sat on the stairs and sulked. Sat on the stairs and sulked, watched over by the werewolf heads Lucius had had carefully mounted. Draco had had all of his father's hunting trophies and the Raeburn portrait of his grandmother exiled to the attic, but he had been surprised when Potter had suggested the trip.

When they had arrived he carried the bags up and left Potter sprawled on the featherbed. He had brought with him a few papers to grade, but now he decided to go for a ride instead. His spirited chesnut mare spent most of her time in the stable and would be glad of a run. He had allowed Potter to name her—not without misgivings—and Potter had chosen to call her Cannon, in honor of her orange-red coat, and in disregard of her gender and Draco's feelings.

There had been a dozen horses once, pureblooded beasts renowned for their tempers as well as their speed. Now there was only Cannon, and a black and white pony Draco'd purchased for Rain in a fit of optimism, and which she'd never seen. Hermione despised horses and hunting both, the one as exploitative (dangerous in an election year) and the other as cruel. Draco rather thought Rain would take more after her father and prefer both elitism and cruelty to sappy middle class sentimentality, but he had learned to value peace.

He rode the mare out onto the moors, and when her stride lengthened and she fought for her head he let her run. He spent so much of his time at Hogwarts indoors, sneaking out at night to fly; it was glorious to have the cool autumn wind on his face, the sun at his back. He turned Cannon toward the hills and felt her check obediently as they moved upward, her first exuberance gone. Near the top she slowed to a trot as she began to tire, and he stroked her neck absently. He was thinking of Potter—of how it would be to share simple pleasures like this as well as the more complex ones.

The shadow passing close overhead took him as much by surprise as the mare, and he was still fumbling for the reins when it turned back and was on him. He recognized it, of course, by the way it flew. The hawk in him knew every predator in the sky, and an eagle's flight was distinctive. Despite its size it landed lightly on his shoulder, its talons bruising but not tearing his skin. Cannon froze in startled wonder, and Draco half-dismounted, half-fell free and let the reins drop as he caught his balance. The eagle's beak opened and Draco threw up his free arm to protect his eyes. But it only gave a hoarse shriek, and slowly he relaxed.

Eagles, kings among birds, were seldom used to bear messages; they were proud and difficult to train and one this size must have cost a fortune. Must have cost as much as a fair-sized house, at least. Not a king's ransom, not quite, but close. He could not imagine who had sent it. Gently, carefully, he raised his arm so that his hand was level with his shoulder. The bird moved slowly and with majestically to perch on his wrist, and Draco gasped as he took its full weight. But he could tell it approved; those fierce wild golden eyes were softening. It looked at him as it might have done a fellow bird of prey, and after a moment he ran his fingers delicately down the beautiful feathers of its breast. "Well, cousin," he said to it, "what have you brought me?" The bird dipped its head so that Draco could work the pouch free; the instant he had done so it took flight again, circling once overhead as if in salute before it disappeared into the sun.

Draco's wrist ached and his shoulder throbbed and still he could not stop himself from smiling. He opened the suede bag and tipped its contents out onto the grass: a scrap of parchment, a silver compass, and a gold ring set with onyx. The letter said only, We beg your protection. It was unsigned, only those four words and nothing else. The ring was a signet, a phoenix signet, and inscribed, Lead us to salvation. And engraved on the back of the compass, Govern us now and forever. And these were words he knew, of course, because he had said them three years and a lifetime ago. 'I grant you such protections as I have to give, such power as I have to save, and such governance as I have to endow.' From Draco Malfoy to Salazar Slytherin, a vow to bind the descendants of both for a thousand generations.

He knelt, staring at the three objects, and finally he put the ring on his finger and the paper in his pocket and closed his fingers reluctantly around the compass that was also a Portkey. It had always been his least favorite method of traveling, and this time because he had no idea where he was going it was worse than usual. He drew his sword as the swirling began; there was some slight risk that he might impale himself on it, but surely that was better than landing unarmed. But when the world stopped spinning he was alone, in an empty room with walls paneled in dark wood and windows made of stained glass.

This was an art that had been lost long ago, blowing glass full of moving figures, and Draco had seen such things only in books. He touched the glass gently, marveling at the skill that had gone into such a creation. They were scenes from Slytherin's life, of course: the slaying of the unicorn, the founding of Hogwarts, the binding of the basilisk, the crucifixion in the wood. Draco recognized them at once, and after a moment he realized why. He had, after all, seen them before. He had seen them in his History of Magic book, illuminated on vellum: the windows of Saint Salazar's Cathedral. The windows of a cathedral in the heart of London that had been confiscated by Henry VIII, and burned by Octavius Cromwell, and bombed during the Blitz. He was in the vestibule of a cathedral that no longer existed, in the fabled headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix.

Draco glanced down at the compass he had been sent. Its arrow pointed toward true north, toward a narrow arch of a door that had just appeared in the otherwise blank inner wall. There seemed to be nothing to do but follow it and after a moment Draco did so. There was no handle on the door but it opened to his touch and he stepped into a vast sunlit space. This had been the nave of the church, once, and he stood just above the sacred space where the altar had rested. Below the dais, where the pews had been, perhaps a hundred people stood in small, knotted groups. They looked like any other people at a party. He recognized many of them at once: his mother, Vincent Crabbe, Parkinsons and Blacks, Goyles, Weasleys and Bulstrodes. These were the elite of the wizarding world, representatives of all the great pureblood houses.

He was not sure who caught side of him first, but one by one all the heads in the room turned toward him, and silence spread like a plague. Cho Chang broke the stillness, moving to meet him. She came bounding up onto the dais, bristling with energy. She was beautiful, delicate as the bits of glass that made up with the windows. Time and the war and her treachery had left no mark on her.

"Malfoy," she said to him, with a brilliant smile that belied her cool voice. "Welcome to the Order of the Phoenix." She put out a hand, which he did not take, and frowned at his rudeness.

"Don't touch me, you little bitch," Draco said pleasantly to her. Perhaps she had been a spy for the Order, and not a Death Eater, but he remembered that frown as the one she had worn when she had helped Voldemort plan his purge. They had called her the Butcher, and even there, in that company, it had not been meant as an honor. Cho took a step back and he moved forward, bent until his lips were level with her ear. "I own you now, Cho," he whispered. "Your master has given you to me." He thought she was going to hit him, at first; he would have liked to hit her. It would have relieved his feelings considerably.

But there was a man coming toward them from out of the crowd and Cho was turning, reverence on her face. Draco saw that somehow, through surgery or sorcery, she had had her tongue split; it forked like a snake's. And, of course, there would be nothing more attractive to her master, the snake prince himself. Salazar Slytherin, patron saint of rebels and purebloods and traitors and serpents. He looked less like Lucius, seen in daylight; less like his picture and more like a person. A person who should have been dead a thousand years ago.

"Slytherin," Draco said as neutrally as he could. Slytherin did not offer his hand, but he smiled, the way an Alsatian smiled just before it pulled off your arm at the shoulder. He was a dangerous man, or ghost, or hallucination; he was dangerous and he was Draco's.

"Lord," Salazar Slytherin said and knelt before Draco. One by one the others in the room knelt, until Draco was the only one on his feet. Draco put out his hand and Slytherin took it and kissed the stone of the phoenix ring. "I beg of you, Prince of Swords, lead us to war."

Draco drew him to his feet, thinking frantically. The timing was too close to be a coincidence; something must have gone wrong with the embassy. These were people who had opposed the liaison in principle but been willing to accept it in practice. They were wealthy, pragmatic, and wise: they had supported neither Voldemort nor Fudge's government, and they had survived both. For them to be willing to fight—something must have gone very wrong, because they had a great deal to lose. If they were willing to take on the Muggle world they must be very frightened now.

They wanted him for leadership, because he had not stood aside the last time, but he wondered if that was the only thing they wanted of him. Slytherin stood beside him, dark and tall and proud, and he had been willing to kneel. The first time Draco had seen him he had bidden Draco to save his people. Now it seemed he meant it. The moment called for a stirring speech, and all Draco could think of was platitudes. At last he drew Ferux, held her shining blade to the light. He took the weighty gold compass in his other hand, and raised it so that they could all see it.

"You have called me Prince of Swords," he said, and the room itself amplified his voice, brought it back to him. "And it is you who shall be my sword. We have a war to fight that must be won. It is their world or ours, now. I ask this of you: stand ready, and stand fast. When I call you, come at once."

"When you call us we will come, Prince," Slytherin answered him, and the others, still on their knees, echoed him. Draco knew that they would come. They did not like him or trust him, but they would come.

"Pray that the day never comes when I need call you," he told them, and bent his head to collect himself, and so that they would not see his intention. He was not entirely sure until he did it that he would be able to Apparate, or that they would not try to keep him there. But his first thought had been of Potter, who would want to know this news at once. Dumbledore was in that embassy, and he knew that despite it all Potter still loved the old man. Dumbledore, and Charlie Weasley, and so many of the best and brightest of the wizarding world that had survived the last war—wasted, and for what?

It was tricky, Apparating to somewhere that wasn't anywhere, Apparating to the middle of a field. He stumbled as he found himself again in sunlight, on the side of a hill, in grass as high as his waist and Cannon standing beside him waiting patiently, her bridle broken in three places and the corners of her mouth bleeding. Draco disentangled her from what remained and mounted without stopping to repair it. She seemed to sense his urgency and went as quickly as she could. Draco left her to the house elves to cool out and walked up the drive to the house. He surprised Potter packing their bags into the Mini. He looked tired and angry; it had not been much of a holiday, a few hours of sleep and news like that, and probably wondering where Draco had gone on top of it.

When he saw Draco he put down the suitcase and came over to him at once and hugged him, hard. It was a rare display of affection from a man uncomfortable with such displays and Draco was glad of it. He pressed his cheek against Potter's and held onto him tightly, and asked, "Then you know?"

"I know," Potter's voice was muffled, and he said it into Draco's shirt collar. "You know, too?"

"Only the fact of it," Draco answered, "and none of the details." He didn't say why and Potter didn't ask.

Instead he said, "They're holding the embassy hostage indefinitely. Apparently it's their policy not to negotiate with hostile nations. Their parliament is meeting right now to draft a declaration of war. Hermione's frantic—the government's fallen, there will be an election tonight. I've got to go, all the Aurors have had leave suspended indefinitely. I'm supposed to Apparate straight to the Ministry."

"Okay," Draco caught his breath and forced his voice steady. "You go on, and I'll drive the car back. I love you." He had never said it before to Potter, except in bed, but the words sounded right, natural. He was glad he had gotten them out. Merlin alone knew when they'd see each other again, if they'd both survive.

"I love you, too," Potter said back, with no theatrics, another first. Things were serious indeed. "I'll owl you when I know anything."

"Be careful," Draco told him, kissing him goodbye. The house elves could think what they liked. When Potter had gone he climbed into the car and set off. The drive had taken him three and a half hours that morning, more or less obeying Muggle and natural laws. Fortunately he and Ron had been able to make certain adjustments to the car while Potter had been at an Auror's Expo; with a little bit of luck and a good deal of magic he ought to make it in less than an hour.

Potter flew by instinct and he drove the same way. Draco had had to work to learn to fly, but cars made sense to him in a way nothing else had. He pushed the Mini hard, and it responded well—quicker than a flying carpet, smoother than a Skyhawk 2010—and it never left the ground. There was little risk of being pulled over, at the speed he was traveling, but he used an Obscuring Charm anyway. Safety lay in the details. He had been trying to explain that to Potter for years.

Draco left the car in Hogsmeade and walked back to Hogwarts. He hadn't heard yet from Potter, and he couldn't stand the thought of the empty, quiet flat. He was rather hoping to catch students smoking marijuana or making out in the grass; it would have been nice to have the chance to ruin someone else's day. As it happened, he saw no children at all until he reached his office. The corridor was nearly dark, and he was fumbling with the combination spell, too lazy to use an illumination charm, when he realized there was someone else there.

His wand was in the back pocket of his jeans, but Draco was running on enough Red Bull and adrenaline to light all of England. The boy in the hallway threw up an arm to shield his eyes, but Draco had seen enough of his face to recognize him. It was a face he'd have known anywhere; it was his own face. "Alexander," he said resignedly.

"Sacha," the boy corrected him sullenly. "Only my mother calls me Alexander."

"Was there something you needed?" Draco asked him. Maybe the boy was lost. And maybe the Muggles were preparing to surrender. Surely unlikelier things had happened. He sighed and resisted the urge to look at his watch. It had been a long day. "Look, why don't you come in and sit down?" The lock on the door refused to yield; sometimes when he was upset he mixed numbers up. He muttered a curse and hexed the door off its hinges. Dumbledore was likely to be incapacitated for some time.

Behind him the boy made a small breathless sound, either fear or astonishment. "Sacha," Draco said to him reluctantly, "Sit down." There were two chairs in the front of the office, and he moved the pile of file folders from the second and sat, too, so that he and the boy were facing one another. For a moment neither of them said anything. It was one of the most uncomfortable silences Draco could remember. He waited, hoping the boy would break first. It was impossible to guess what he wanted. Acknowledgement? A share of the inheritance? A father? The visit could not have been worse timed; there was almost certainly going to be a war.

"What is it you want?" he asked finally, when it had become clear Alexander was willing to wait indefinitely.

"Who are you?" the child demanded. "Are you my father?"

Draco thought of Potter at eleven, scrawny and awkward and rude, all elbows and knees and lost puppy eyes. Alexander had a little more self-possession, but not much. He opened his mouth, and closed it again abruptly. This child's conception had been an accident, nothing more; he owed him nothing, not an explanation, not even a moment's kindness. He would be justified in throwing him out, should he choose to do so. Except, of course, he couldn't bring himself to do it. Potter had worn off on him; only a Gryffindor would admit to this. "You're my son."

His only son, begotten and forgotten, but Sacha was a Malfoy through and through; was persistent and arrogant and foolish. He stood up, turning his back on the boy, and drew the invisible sword at his side. He closed his fingers around the blade, felt blood well up almost instantly. He was remembering Rain, the daughter he knew and loved, and the other two daughters he had never seen, whose lives lay elsewhere. He was remembering the promise he had made before the Order of the Phoenix, and the war that they might none of them survive.

Alexander gasped when Draco touched bloody fingers to his forehead but he did not flinch. Draco could not remember the words, not exactly, but he knew that it was intent that was important. "By the blood of the Malfoys I consecrate you Sacha Ivanov Malfoy, heir to all attendant claims and privileges." His own father had acknowledged Severus so, and been betrayed. But Draco could not bring himself to be sorry that Alexander was alive, or even sorry that he knew Draco was his father. He wrapped his hand in the edge of his cloak and smiled at the boy and Sacha smiled back a little tentatively.

It was dark when Draco opened the door to the flat he shared with Potter and dropped the keys on the counter. The place was a tip, as always, but Draco had learned to move through the mess without seeing it. He dropped his books on the sofa and his overnight bag in the hall and eased open the bedroom door. Potter was sprawled on the bed, sleeping heavily, the Time-Turner still clutched in his hand. They'd sent him back to have a rest; things couldn't be so bad as all that. Draco undid his jeans and shrugged off his leather jacket and slid carefully in beside him. Potter rolled toward him without really waking up and Draco curled into the familiar warmth and fell instantly asleep. For a few hours, at least, the world could take care of itself.