He was breaking; he could feel it, the lack of strength in his arms and legs, the sharp pain that made him think his head was going to explode, and over the top of it all, a cold, high voice laughed at him.
Quirinus sat upright, gasping, and tore through his own mind, checking, but it was just him in there.
Just me, he told himself. Not Him, just me- He kneaded his eyes and peered out into the main part of his flat. His flat was tiny – there was only a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom, and none of it was in awfully good condition. There were, however, layers and layers of warding over everything. If someone even breathed in the hallway, Quirinus would know about it. And since there were no alarms going, there was no one else inside. Just me, he told himself again.
He picked up the wand – which he'd managed to procure from Ollivander – on his bedside table, and flicked it. A moment later, a glass of water drifted into the room, and Quirinus gulped it down, and then set both the glass and his wand down on his bedside table, with shaking hands, and tried to pull himself together.
He almost wished Dumbledore had handed him to the Ministry, so that he'd ended up in Azkaban. He'd done enough bad things that he'd have been driven mad quickly, and would have been too mad to be scared. But Quirinus wasn't in Azkaban, he was in a dingy flat in South London with nothing to do and far too much time to himself.
So Quirinus, being a Ravenclaw, thought. He'd reached several conclusions; one was that Azkaban was the perfect punishment, for anyone except a Ravenclaw; Hufflepuffs would hate the isolation, Slytherins would feel like they were wasting time, that they could accomplish nothing and Gryffindors would hate sitting still. Ravenclaws, though, would hate the deterioration of their minds, certainly, and the lack of stimulation, but after a while, they wouldn't have enough of a mind left to care.
A Ravenclaw that had done horrible things though, and was not sent to Azkaban, would be forced to think about things, and that, Quirinus thought, was a worse punishment.
His second conclusion was that Dumbledore knew that. Dumbledore knew he would think about Christopher, think about what wasted potential that was, and what an awful thing it was, to kill a child. Dumbledore must have known that Quirinus would think about all of the other things he could have learned in the year that he instead repeated his first year at Hogwarts, thought about the way he'd failed.
Gryffindors took failure as a challenge, Slytherins as an opportunity to build character. Hufflepuffs didn't mind failing as long as they'd tried their best, but to Quirinus, to a Ravenclaw… Quirinus had never failed at anything before, not a test or assignment, not a job application… And to fail at something he'd invested so much in… Quirinus rubbed his temples and sank back into his pillows.
He was just drifting back off to sleep, when his wand twitched and started to emit a shrill ringing noise. Quirinus sat upright and seized it. He wrestled with the covers for a moment, and then he was free, and standing in the middle of his small bedroom, wand held out before him, trembling.
There was a sharp knock on his door. Quirinus held his breath.
"Open the door, boy!" a gruff voice called. When Quirinus didn't reply, there was a low murmur and then the voice said, "I can see you in your bedroom, you know!" Quirinus' stomach dropped. "So I know you're there, and I'm not in the mood to go blasting down any doors today, but I will if I-"
"Coming," Quirinus managed. "Sorry, I'm coming. I was just-" Quirinus didn't bother with an excuse, though; whoever it was knew he'd just been standing there. Quirinus undid the locks – both magical, and mechanical – on his door, and opened it a crack.
A rather terrifying, electric blue eye, stared right back at him. Quirinus swallowed a scream, and opened the door a tiny bit wider. Alastor Moody's grimacing face, and, over his shoulder, Sirius Black's grim one, stared back at him.
"H-hello," Quirinus said, surprised, and a little embarrassed at the stutter that slipped out. He thought he'd grown out of that years ago, when Professor Flitwick had put an end to the bullying.
"Evening," Moody said, with a rather scary smile. It was obvious they were there to see him, so Quirinus stepped away from the door and let them in. "You can put that down," Moody said, waving a hand at Quirinus' wand. "You're not allowed to hurt us, and even if you tried to, we're more than a match for you." Quirinus tucked it into his pocket.
"Can I- would you like tea-?"
"No, thank you," Black said, speaking for the first time. "We're just checking in."
"Making sure I'm still alive?" Quirinus asked.
"No," Black said, looking confused. "Making sure you haven't hurt anyone else."
"Oh," Quirinus said. Moody took a swig from his hip-flask and limped off toward the bedroom. "Where's he g-going?" he demanded.
"Dumbledore said he's visited you," Black said quietly. "And he said you were- well, that you were holding up your part of the Vow. Mad-Eye and I wanted to make sure, though, as you can probably understand."
"Certainly," Quirinus said stiffly. He eyed Black for a moment, curious despite himself. "You don't trust Dumbledore's word?"
"I don't trust you," Black said simply. Qurinus was a talented Occlumens – it was one of the only good things that had come out of the past year – but he had no such talent in Legillimency. He wished he did, though; he would have been very interested to see what Black was thinking. "We kept you out of Azkaban, and out of Voldemort's-" Quirinus twitched. "-hands, and the more I think about it, the less I think you deserve it." Black's voice wasn't angry, or cruel, just troubled. "I'm going to make sure you aren't responsible for hurting anyone else."
"I swore the Vow, so-"
"I'm just taking precautions," Black said, with a smile that didn't quite make it to his eyes. "And I came to give you a warning; just because I didn't tell the Ministry who you are, or that you're alive, doesn't mean I haven't told them anything. Both the Ministry and Gringotts have a description of your magic – I told them you were the one who gave Croaker to Voldemort-" Quirinus couldn't help the twitch that accompanied the name. "- and also the one who killed Krognug the goblin and broke into Gringotts – so if you go to either of those places, don't expect a- well, don't expect a warm welcome."
"Where am I supposed to find work then? Or get money?"
"Your break-in would have been successful if the Stone hadn't already been moved," Black said. "You've got a knowledge of the inner workings of Gringotts that only the goblins have, and they're not strictly covered by your Vow. You're less familiar with the Ministry – at least as far as I know – but your mind is susceptible to Voldemort." This time, Quirinus made the effort not to flinch, and Black gave him a thoughtful look. "He won't try to use you again, not in the same way as before, but he'd have no problems getting information out of you if he ever found you again, and you're too smart to stay stuck in a low-level Ministry job.
"You'd climb," Black continued. "We already know you like power, and that you'll do anything-" Black's lip curled. "-to obtain it. And climbing would give you access to all sorts of information that no one particularly wants in Voldemort's hands."
"So you're cutting me out of the wizarding world?" Quirinus said curtly. "Alienating me… no Ministry, no Gringotts… Dumbledore would never let me into the school… What else is there?"
"More than you'd have if you were in Azkaban, or dead," Black replied quietly. "Mad-Eye?"
"Nothing suspicious," Moody replied, limping back into the room. His magical eye roamed over Quirinus, while the other eye stayed perfectly still. Quirinus shivered.
"I suppose you don't need anything else, then?" Quirinus asked weakly. For all that he wanted them to leave, he'd much rather their company than the company of his own thoughts.
"I've said everything I needed to," Black said.
"Should I expect another check-in?" Quirinus asked him, a little sarcastically.
"Oh, yes," Moody said, grinning rather scarily. "See, I've retired, boy, and I'll need something to do, to keep me busy. We'll be getting to know each other well, I should think." For the first time since arriving, Black smiled, or rather, smirked. "Until next time!"
"Yes, good bye," Quirinus said, rather faintly.
"Keep close, Hydrus," Lucius said, without looking back to see whether Hydrus had listened or not, because he knew he would have.
"I thought we were going to look at broomsticks," Hydrus said, the faintest whinging tone slipping into his voice.
"And we shall," Lucius said, "right after I finish my business with Mr Grotler." Hydrus said nothing; Lucius glanced back at him and saw his son's attention had been captured by a ragged wizard huddled beside a rubbish bin.
"How revolting," Hydrus said, taking no care to keep his voice down. "I think I'd rather die before I lived like that." The wizard's face scrunched up, and he reached into the pocket of his tattered robes, but Lucius already had his wand out and had hit the man with a non-verbal Stunning spell. Hydrus looked delighted.
"This way," Lucius said curtly, and Hydrus hurried after him.
Grotler's Apothecary was a dingy little shop, squeezed between a shop selling magical creatures where Lucius had once purchased an Occcamy, and an even smaller shop where one could pay to have curses or enchantments placed on people or objects. Grotler himself looked right at home in the dim, cramped space of his shop; he was a squat man, with one eye, a hunched back, and rather lopsided smile.
Hydrus looked around at the ingredients and phials that lined the ceiling-high shelves.
"Don't touch anything," Lucius warned him.
"Mr Malfoy," Grotler wheezed, limping toward him. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I wanted to gauge your interest in certain items that have come into my possession," Lucius said, procuring a list from his robes. Grotler snatched the parchment out of his hand and examined it.
"Ye're scared of the raids," Grotler said knowingly. "Aren't ye, Mr Malfoy?"
"That's none of your business," Lucius replied, frowning. Scared certainly wasn't the right word, in any case. Concerned was more appropriate, in his opinion. He'd worked far too hard to get to where he was, only to lose it because a nosy Auror discovered a few poisons in his home.
His joke of a niece and her Auror partner thankfully hadn't found anything, but Lucius had doubted she would be the last Auror to try to investigate him. He shivered at the thought of McKinnon being in charge of such a raid; she, he knew, wouldn't leave until she'd found something. Lucius intended to make sure that there was nothing to find.
"What is your business," Lucius continued, "is whether or not you're interested in any of those."
"And if I'm not?" Grotler wheezed.
"I'm visiting Borgin next week," Lucius told him. "He'll buy what's left over… I just thought, given that potions are your field, that you might appreciate a chance at some of the more… unique items."
"Borgin'll buy anything, without really appreciating it," Grotler said, scowling through his grubby window at Borgin and Burke's. "It'd be a waste to see some of these things end up with him." Grotler limped back to the counter to fetch a quill and started to write on Lucius' carefully constructed list. Lucius curled his lip. "There ye are." Grotler thrust the list at him. "I'll take those off ye hands, if ye'd like." Lucius folded the list, taking care to touch it as little as possible, and tucked it into one of his pockets.
"A pleasure to deal with you as always," he said, as Grotler hobbled off to inspect one of his displays. "I'll drop by next week." Grotler waved over his shoulder. "Hydrus," Lucius barked, for Hydrus was leaning over a fat, bubbling cauldron near the back of the shop. "Come along."
The pair of them left the shop and made their way out of Knockturn Alley, and up to Quality Quidditch Supplies. Hydrus was almost bouncing by the time they arrived, and had a smile on his face that somehow reminded Lucius of Draco.
The thought of his younger son made Lucius sigh. He'd hoped that the holidays would be good for Draco, would allow him to clear his head. Lucius had even asked Dobby to stop Draco's post; there wasn't much he could do about Draco's choice of company at school, but he could certainly help it in his own home. And, he rather hoped Draco would find he didn't miss his Housemates, and that he would find himself enjoying the pureblooded children's company, the way Hydrus did.
Draco was yet to say anything about his letters, which Lucius took to be a good sign, but other than a few brief exchanges with the Nott boy, and the younger Greengrass girls, Draco seemed not to care much for his Slytherin peers, nor, Lucius had to admit, did they seem to care for him. Young Daphne Greengrass, who Hydrus got on very well with, and Pansy Parkinson, who'd once been so close with Draco, seemed to delight in teasing him. Or so Narcissa had told Lucius one night, after dinner.
Other than at meals, or on special occasions, Lucius had hardly seen Draco all holidays. Lucius had made no more effort to have contact with Draco, than Draco had made to have contact with him. It wasn't that Lucius didn't care for his son – though he had been furious when he learned about Draco's misadventure down the trapdoor with Potter – it was simply that Lucius didn't know what to do with him, the way he did with Hydrus.
Hydrus was like a younger Lucius, like the pureblood children Lucius had grown up knowing. Draco was like… well, he was like an odd mixture of Sirius and Regulus Black, who Lucius had known at school. Sirius had been far more antagonistic than Draco ever was though, and Regulus had been far more… well, far more Slytherin. Lucius, as a Slytherin himself, from a long line of Slytherins, had no idea what to do with his Gryffindor son. Lucius sighed again, and called Hydrus over to him.
"Do you think Draco would like a broomstick?" he asked.
"No," Hydrus said. "He never comes flying. Get him a book; all he ever does is read. He's almost as bad as that Granger, but at least Draco's only a bloodtraitor, and not a mudblood." Then he said. "Come and look at the Nimbus 2001, Father, it's incredible. The best broom available, I heard the manager say. I expect I'll need it, if I'm to do my best at Seeker tryouts."
"I expect you will," Lucius agreed, though he thought Hydrus could probably fly one of those awful school broomsticks and still make it into the team. Hydrus was a good flier – better than Lucius had been at the same age – and they'd spent a lot of time training over the summer. He ought to get in with no trouble at all.
Several thousand galleons later, Lucius found himself in possession of a very smug son, and a carefully wrapped broomstick.
"Father," Hydrus said, sounding puzzled. "The Leaky Cauldron is that way-"
"I'm aware, Hydrus," Lucius drawled.
"Well, then where are we-"
"Florish and Blott's," Lucius replied.
"Why?" Hydrus asked. "We're not doing our school shopping until next-"
"You said Draco would prefer a book, did you not?" Lucius said, and gestured for Hydrus to keep up.
"Draco," Mother said, knocking firmly on the door. "Who are you talking to?"
"No one," Draco replied, hastily scribbling his name down at the end of his letter.
"Go," he whispered, pressing the letter into his visitor's hands. Kreacher vanished with a pop, just as Mother opened the door and strode in, frowning.
"I've been meaning to talk to you," she said.
"About what?" Draco asked, making himself comfortable in his desk chair.
"The end of last term," Mother said. Draco's jaw set, but he said nothing. "I- it pleases me you believe your housemates are worthy of such loyalty." Again, Draco stayed silent. "They must be remarkable people to have earned such a response from you." Draco waited. "What does not please me," Mother said, her voice still light, "is the way in which you chose to display that loyalty."
Again, Draco said nothing. He hadn't gone into specifics about what had happened the night he went down the trapdoor, or rather why he'd gone down there, but either his parents had been told, or they'd simply reached the right conclusions. Draco didn't know a huge amount about the war; only that his father and Aunt Bella had served the Dark Lord, and enjoyed it, and then Potter had defeated the Dark Lord and supposedly ruined everything.
Draco though, despite his upbringing, was rather fond of Potter, and of Weasley and Granger. And, he was rather fond of himself, and if the Dark Lord had managed to get the Stone, Draco would have been killed, along with his friends.
"Well?" Mother said. "Do you have anything to say?"
"Not really," Draco said. "It's already happened. I can't change anything." Not that I would, anyway, but she doesn't need to know that. Draco's stomach wriggled guiltily, but he dropped his eyes and tried to look apologetic.
"You can't change what's happened," Mother corrected. "But what if something like this happens again? Then what, Draco? Will you put us all in danger, by being so openly defiant toward the man that did so much for us, back when he was in power?" There was a faint tinge of distaste in her expression, and Draco thought it might have affected him more, had he not grown used to it on his brother's face. Still, this was Mother.
"I won't worry you like that again, Mother," he said. "I promise. I never meant to endanger the family." That part was true. He'd understood his family mightn't like his decision, that they wouldn't support it, but he hadn't thought that they'd be in danger… only that he would be, because the Dark Lord was trying to come back, and the Dark Lord, everyone knew, didn't tolerate blood traitors. "I was only trying to help-"
"Your housemates," Mother said. "I know."
"Not my housemates," Draco mumbled.
"Oh?" Mother asked, arching a thin eyebrow.
"My friends," Draco said.
"Ah," Mother said, slowly, giving him a thoughtful look. "Your friends. I see." After a moment, she let out a sigh. "Might I tell you something?"
"Of course, Mother," Draco replied.
"Bellatrix is my sister, and I care for her very much," Mother said, almost sternly.
"Yes, Mother," Draco said. "I know."
"And it saddens me to see her in Azkaban," Mother said, a shadow falling over her face. "But the Ministry believes that is where she belongs, and regardless of my differences in opinion with the Ministry, it would be foolish of me to contest that. Far better that I say nothing, and go along with them, than contest her imprisonment and be prohibited from seeing her." Mother eyed Draco for a moment. "Do you understand me?"
Draco might not have, had he not been subjected to that enlightening talk about red and green with Dumbledore. Mother meant to tell him he could go along with people to keep them happy, without necessarily acting to help them, or agreeing with them.
She certainly had given him something to think about, something he wouldn't have considered before because it seemed too… sneaky, or something. If Draco disagreed with people, he had a tendency to tell them so, and Granger had once suggested that was why he struggled to make friends.
But now, Draco had friends, and he wanted to go along with them, regardless of what his family thought. He still cared for his family, but they could be rather narrow-minded about certain things, and stubborn about others. His Sorting, for example. Draco would have huffed, but Mother was still there, watching him closely.
So maybe it's my family that I go along with to keep happy, the way that Mother goes along with the Ministry…? Draco frowned, thinking. That would mean his loyalty was to his friends, rather than his family… Or, it could mean my loyalty is to me, and what makes me happy, and what keeps me alive, Draco told himself, and nodded.
"I understand," he said slowly, thinking that Mother probably hadn't intended for him to reach this conclusion.
"Very good," Mother said. "So, no more reckless adventures?"
"None," Draco said, and then added silently, that you'll know or worry about.
Mother's expression flickered, and Draco wondered if she'd guessed what he was thinking. He hastily cleared his expression, the way he'd seen Severus do, and then pasted an earnest smile onto his face. Mother smiled back, and then hesitantly reached out to clasp Draco's hand.
"I'm glad," she said, her voice shaking ever so slightly. She glanced at the desk, where Draco's quill was steadily dripping ink onto what had been a blank piece of parchment. Mother's expression tightened and she released Draco's hand and smoothed her robes. "I see I interrupted you," she said quietly. She hesitated and then said, "Are you writing to your friends?"
"If that's all right?" he said.
"I can't see why it wouldn't be," Mother replied. Draco watched her face closely.
Not a lie, he thought, as Hydrus bellowed for Mother from downstairs, and she slipped out of Draco's room. Perhaps she doesn't know? He discarded that thought immediately. Father doesn't keep secrets from Mother.
"Are you taking it?" Remus asked, through numb lips. A steaming coffee cup slid onto the table in front of him. "Thank you," he managed, and their waitress, who would usually have stopped to chat – they were on friendly terms with her, because they were at the Ministry coffee shop so often – glanced between them and slipped away.
"If I'd decided, I would have said so," Dora said, apparently exasperated. "I wanted to see what you thought before I committed to anything." Remus said nothing for a moment, busying himself with adding sugar to his coffee. Dora made an impatient noise. "Well? What do you think?" Remus took a sip, then set his cup down.
"I think it sounds like a wonderful opportunity," he said quietly. "Do you want to go?"
"Like you said, it's a fantastic opportunity," Dora replied, her hair turning a sunny yellow, for just a moment. Then it returned to bubblegum pink. "But I- well- Mum and Dad are here, and all of my friends are here, you're here... And- well, it's so abrupt! I have a week to give them an answer, and if I take it, it's only another week until I'd have to start! But Scrimgeour and Mad-Eye and Charlus Potter are the legends in our Ministry, but they're only that way because of Elliot Pinard! And after they did this thing, Potter and Scrimgeour both went on to be Head Auror!" Dora had a dreamy look on her face. "I mean, Pinard was an Auror during Grindelwald's time… the things he must have learned- and Anastasiya Orlov, and Ken Sato are huge names. I grew up reading their biographies- well, not Sato's, but he's only five years older than I am, so-"
"You haven't answered the question," Remus said quietly, taking another sip of his coffee.
Dore murmured a thank you to the waitress, who was back with a cup of tea, and looked up. There was a very small, very nervous smile on her face.
"I think that this might be something I'd like to do," she said, watching him closely.
Should have known, he thought. If it wasn't my- problem that ruined everything, something would have. He watched her fondly, from across the table. She's young and smart and talented. The offer, for advanced Auror training was evidence of that; Dora had told him only ten of them, from all around the world had made it in, and Dora was one of only three in Europe that had been offered a place. If that didn't prove her talent, Remus didn't know what could. And then there's me… old – well, old compared to her - and poor and broken, like I've been telling her for years, now. I'm a school teacher, and only because Dumbledore doesn't listen to the Ministry.
"It's a wonderful opportunity," Remus heard himself say again, and forced a smile at her from across the table.
"Isn't it?" she almost squealed. "Strange that it's located in France, and not somewhere more central, but I suppose it is organised by Pinard, and he's a bit old to be moving too far these days…"
As Dora babbled on, excitedly, Remus watched her with that same, forced smile fixed carefully in place, while his world crashed down around him.