AN: I'd like to give a shout-out to the guest reviewer, Aditi, for being making my 2,500th review. Usually I like to strike up a conversation and send a funny snippet from the chapter I'm working on to those who hit those big round numbers for me, but alas, that's impossible with a Guest.
Anyway, this is the longest chapter I've written and we've got a lot to cover, so let's get on with this.
It was still short of noon when the portkey from the Ministry arrived at the Hogsmeade station. When they reached the road that would take them to the school though Lucius had to wonder if his threatening letter had been too threatening or had not been threatening enough, for where there should have been carriages ready to carry them up to the school there were no carriages to be seen. It certainly wasn't the reception they should have had but he knew who to blame.
He was content to let Cornelius mutter under his breath that it was Delacour's doing to slight him somehow since getting that frustration out now would no doubt make things easier to manage later on but it was an annoying blemish to what he tried to see as a victory march. In truth, this had to do with Dumbledore. The petty slight was no way for a vanquished foe to behave in a civilized world but if this was the kind of antics he could expect from the man then perhaps it was good that he was gone from the game.
For years the two of them had circled each other, probing for any vulnerability, looking for ways to trip the other one up; he had suffered defeats and setbacks, true, and gave as good as he got, but never did he think that it would come to today, though he'd hate to think that he'd be so petulant if he had been the one to lose. Weak enemies made you weak as well though so if goblin viciousness was what the old propaganda against them made it out to be then perhaps it was a good thing that the opponent that'd come to replace Dumbledore was a cunningly erratic player, for as his father had always said, 'the only thing worse than having weak enemies was having none at all.'
Lucius supposed that he should have seen this response coming though for it really did make a Dumbledorean kind of sense. The man had lost, and just as importantly he knew that he'd lost. Though the old man may still have a trick or two left to play, only a fool would think that he actually had a chance to return later on, and that meant that the only thing he could hope to achieve now would be to shape how the game would be played after he was gone.
Hogwarts was Dumbledore's last bastion of defense, the last area of the world he could influence and control and one where he was surrounded by his closest associates. Naturally he would want to hold onto it for as long as possible, and though he had the votes on the Board to remove him whenever he wished, it suited him to keep the man there as he exerted the kind of pressure he needed to splinter the school and reshape it in his image.
His letter had been the essential first step, a heavy hatchet fall to cleave the professors away from the man and leave him without support. The lack of carriages to greet them said that Dumbledore had not only seen such a threat coming but had planned for it. No doubt careful and intense politicking has been going on within the castle to bolster the teachers' loyalty to him and his vision of Hogwarts – to the legacy he wished to leave behind – to the extent that by now the professors may well be willing to call his bluff and refuse to abandon the headmaster so that he'd be forced to either back down or face the consequences of trying to hire an entirely new staff when there were only nine days left until the start of term.
He wondered if Dumbledore had even bothered to inform them of what the letter entailed. If he had been in the man's place and had his goal he certainly wouldn't have, and he would have planned for more frustrations to visit him along the way: locked gates to keep them out so they'd look impotent in front of the international crowd and perhaps getting the flock of post owls to come down and harass them as they looked for another way inside. It was a pity that the Founders put so much power into one person's hands, at least when that person wasn't him.
Dumbledore was trying to goad them, to aggravate them, to frustrate them enough that they'd treat the staff harshly. Then, even if they did manage to pry them away from the hem of his robes and take him away they'd hate them all the more for it and cling to his muggle-minded ideology that had them embrace the dross and dreck of the world. Countering that would be tricky and take time but surely the other accusations against Dumbledore would come into play eventually. And, no matter how devoted to the man they were, they were still human beings with interests and goals of their own to see to.
Lucius knew that he should have reached out to Severus for more information about what was going on behind the scenes but one reason he didn't was that for as long as the old man was still in the castle – and it did suit him to keep him there for a little while longer – he didn't want to give him a reason to doubt the other man's loyalty. He had been a good and reliable font of information during his time as potions master, a trustworthy spy against Dumbledore. He had even become a genuine friendly acquaintance of a sort – far more than Marsh, Crabbe, Goyle or any of the others ever had.
The lingering issue of what to do with his son kept intruding into his thoughts in a way that he knew would poison any attempt at communication though and that had stopped him as well.
'There should be an opportunity today to get a quick word with him about all of it,' he thought to himself as the dirt and gravel of the hard-packed road crunched beneath his feet. 'The man's waspish cynicism is entertaining enough when it stings others but perhaps it's just the thing I need to figure out how to remedy Draco's faults.'
"Something's not right," the large, deep-voiced black auror beside the Minister said, drawing him from his thoughts. "I don't like this. Where is everyone?"
Lost in thought, Lucius hadn't seen the boar-topped gates until they were already within sight. To his shock they stood open, unguarded, and without a milling mass of I.C.W. wizards in front of them. What was Dumbledore playing at with this? What was the gain? It really didn't make any sense, Dumbledorean or otherwise.
On his advice Cornelius had the man, Kingsley, send someone ahead to find out what was going on as they continued. Reaching the gates in time to see their man pass through the castle's double doors opened a view of an equally deserted castle grounds to them. There was an eerie quiet that hung over the place, it was as if every living person that was supposed to be there had disappeared in an instant, not even leaving their clothes behind.
They were halfway to the castle itself when the Minister timidly suggested waiting where they were but the auror they'd sent ahead picked that moment to reemerge with three other figures behind him. Two of them remained at the double doors: one a tall and tartan, the other short and round with I.C.W. written all over him, they made an odd dichotomy that he struggled to piece together. What was it, a show of strength? Why would Dumbledore invite them in and cooperate? The only way that could possibly help him now would be if–
Lucius's stomach plummeted as he felt the aurors' presence pressing in around him like the bindings of an Incarcerous.
'It's a trap,' he thought as he quickly looked for a way out of this, but it was impossible and he knew it. All of his scheming had arranged for him to be here at this very moment and if he made an excuse to leave now it'd not only confirm any accusation against him Dumbledore might make but it'd also be impossible to get the momentum he had back if the old man had nothing to say. Was he really going to risk everything he'd worked for, everything he stood to gain, just on the chance that some trick of Dumbledore's could turn this around on him?
'No, he this is his doing, not mine,' Lucius thought as his hand tightened on his cane. 'It was some scheme of his that got too grand and led to his fall; he can't turn this back on me.'
He found no comfort in the thought though because for once, now that the stakes were well and truly raised, he didn't know quite how firmly he stood. Was it possible? There'd been plots and plans over the years that the man had somehow foiled, whether by mistake or design he couldn't know. Did Dumbledore know enough to trace something back to him? Did he have proof? Had he taken the plush prison he'd provided him with and turned it into a snare set to trap him, using himself as the bait?
'Is that what this is, Dumbledore?' Lucius asked himself as he eyed the castle and approaching aurors. 'Some bluff? A coy ploy to vanquish the man that vanquished you? It won't work,' he smirked with growing assurance as his hand relaxed on the pommel of the cane that held his wand. 'I'm a better player than you are, Albus. It'll take more than you to remove me from the game, and I won't allow you won't trick me into removing myself.'
"Minister Fudge," the salt-and-pepper haired auror from the castle saluted, with an additional nod to Kingsley, before falling in beside them. "I didn't expect to see you here yourself, sir."
"What happens at Hogwarts is a concern for the whole country," Cornelius said as if there were anyone else that might act as a fawning bureaucrat looking for his favor. In truth he was glad that Madam Bones had been called away to attend to some escalating matter in the muggle world and Dolores now had other duties to attend to. Bones was far too likely to ask penetrating questions for his tastes and Umbridge was only equipped to make a mess of things.
"Where is everyone?" that Kingsley man asked the other auror. "Why have the men been pulled from the gates?"
"I had to remove them from when we had to secure the school," he said promptly. "The Deputy Inspector General was afraid that Professor Dumbledore would do something drastic."
"Drastic? What do you mean drastic?" the Minister asked as their lead auror looked on curiously.
"He had reason to believe that Dumbledore would try to blow up the school," the man said without hesitation and Lucius had to admit that he was intrigued. "We've seen nothing to support the suspicion but he'll be able to tell you more about why he thought it necessary."
"Oh, well then…"
"My men are still inside," the auror continued with an eye to his most immediate superior. "I've positioned them near the headmaster's office and on the third floor corridor while we were waiting for more men to continue further. There may not be a cerberus in there any longer but you can never be too careful."
"Minister, permission to use part of your escort to join them in their efforts?" Kingsley's deep voice asked somewhat reassuringly.
"A-as long as you leave us some, I guess," Cornelius said in a shocked stupor.
The aurors wasted no time divesting them of most of their escort and running off back to the castle. Even though the two guards they had kept their distance the Minister pitched his voice low nevertheless and leaned over to ask, "Who's the Deputy Inspector General and what's on the third floor?"
"I believe the Deputy Inspector General is the Frenchman with the long title, Delacour, that you've been talking about," Lucius said patiently as they closed the gap to the large double doors. "If he has reason to believe that Dumbledore may be irrational and violent I think we should listen to what he has to say. As to what's on the third floor," he continued as he drew upon the information that Marsh had provided, "it may be nothing now but unless I miss my guess that'll be where Dumbledore hid the Sorcerer's Stone."
Cornelius contemplated that a moment before fastening on his politician's smile.
"Mr. Delacour, it's good to see you again," the Minister said falsely when they arrived. "I hope we didn't keep you waiting too long. Our departure was delayed by a growing muggle concern."
"Not at all, Meenister Fudge," the short man at the double doors said in the same political manner. "Madame McGonagall 'as been most forthcoming and very accommodating," he said in glowing terms that made Lucius wonder what McGonagall's motive was as Cornelius asked him about the security concerns he had. The man was presumptuous, there was no doubt about that, and ignorant of the way they did things in Britain, but it was amusing to hear him lay out his reasons to suspect Dumbledore of arranging a goblin genocide.
"Ah, yes, Monsieur Malfoy," Delacour said as he took his hand when the Minister introduced him and called him a close friend and advisor. "I weesh to extend ze 'eartfelt appreciation of ze Eenternational Confederation of Weezards to ze Board of Governors for permeeting zis search of 'Ogwarts. I know 'ow much ze school must prize eets ancient secrets."
"As anyone would," he agreed smoothly, "but we prize our good name more. The Board of Governors is shocked and appalled by Dumbledore's actions and considers it a terrible misuse of the trust we've placed in him."
"Zat was Madame McGonagall's sentiment as well," Delacour said with a polite smile that was difficult to read.
Lucius turned to his former teacher to ask, "Did I hear tell that we had a cerberus in a school full of children?".
"We did indeed, Mr. Malfoy," McGonagall said with perhaps a hint of humility wafting through her rigidly stony exterior. "Though that particular protection was intended to frighten students away from the area, there were adequate safeguards on those protections so that they would be nonlethal. The other obstacles between them and where the Stone was supposedly being kept were all designed to delay, incapacitate, or contain any would-be intruder while the Headmaster was alerted."
"And why wasn't the Board of Governors informed of this?" he asked, enjoying the position of power he had over her.
"Since the Board communicates directly with the Headmaster and our current Headmaster has been sitting on the Board for more than ten years, we assumed that you did know," she answered immediately. "I'm prepared to give a general report on our security measures to the Board whenever you wish, though there are still some particulars that're known only to the individual professors who designed them; Professor Snape was particularly resistant to give his up."
Lucius smiled as her purpose became clear.
"Perhaps once we're finished here," he said instead as he made the mental note to evaluate later whether she was seeking to replace Dumbledore out of her own ambition or to insure that the man's ideology continued after he was gone. "There wouldn't happen to be anything else that the Board might find troubling, is there?" he couldn't help but add.
McGonagall hesitated a moment before answering.
"Our last Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Quirrell, left under some… unusual circumstances, that have never been fully explained," she said eventually. "It was widely rumored that he attempted to steal the Sorcerer's Stone only to die in the attempt. Given the safeguards we had employed I took this to be nothing more than childish speculation at best, and though I never saw him again, I can't dismiss the much more likely possibility that he was simply dismissed. When asked about it, the Headmaster only said that he had taken care of the situation."
"Ah," Lucius said, leaving that single syllable hanging in the air in a way that'd give her no closure on the topic. Turning to Delacour he said, "How far have you gotten in your search and questioning?"
"We 'ave not gone far," the man said quickly with a look at McGonagall that spoke volumes about what the man didn't know. "Aftair ze men from ze Meenistry checked ze first several floors my men 'ave been concentrating on zis eentryway and ze dungeons," he said, gesturing inside to the men in blue robes who were busy checking the walls and sconces; there were even some being levitated towards the ceiling. "Besides for ze eenformation zat Madame McGonagall provided off ze record we 'ave waited for you before we questioned anyone. Would you prefer to do all ze questioning with you now or weel ze Board be conducting eets own eenvestigation?"
"I'm sure that we'll be doing our own at some point, though we may sit in on a few interviews, if that's alright with you," Lucius demurred with a polite smile. "The Board's main concern is getting your investigation completed before the start of term so that it doesn't impact the school year. The other Governors and I would appreciate any information that you'd be willing to share with us though."
"You will be finished by then, won't you?" Cornelius asked as if feeling himself being excluded for too long and desperate to show that he was still in charge of something.
"Zis place ees bigger and more complicated zan the Tower of Nichola Flamel so eet's a tall order," Delacour said, furrowing his brow in thought. "Eef we could 'ouse our eenvestigators 'ere rather zan going back and forth every day eet would speed up ze process since we could work all ze time. Zat would be up to Monsieur Malfoy, of course," the man said, offering up a suggestion that actually played into his hands.
"I'm sure that Professor McGonagall would be happy to have the Gryffindor dorms prepared for your men, though I suppose you would want to search them first," he replied sagely before turning to Dumbledore's Deputy Headmistress. "You'd be willing to escort some of his men there and seeing to their needs, wouldn't you, Professor?"
"Of course," she smiled in a way that screamed that she hated having to take orders from him. "If you'll excuse me, I'll get right to it," the woman said before primly taking her leave, spiky waves of frustration seeming to emanate off her as she went.
"Before we begin, Deputy Inspector General," Lucius said in a quieter manner, thinking that there was no time like the present to start to draw the man to their side. "The Minister and I have a somewhat related and rather sensitive subject to talk to you about."
"Ze Eenternational Confederation of Weezards commends ze small step zat both sides 'ave taken to deescalate ze growing tension in Britain and 'opes zat both sides will continue zat process through to a peaceful resolution," the Frenchman said in full official blather without missing a beat. "Sadly, unteel such time zat both parties agree to a 'earing under ze binding arbitration agreem–"
"The Ministry never agreed to–" Cornelius tried to interrupt.
"–Gentlemen, please," he cut in with a put upon air as if he honestly only wished to help. "Unfortunately, Mr. Delacour, there isn't an agreement that covers this because – while I cannot say that it doesn't involve the goblins – it has large political ramifications for us and I've just learned that it lies at the heart of your investigation."
"Ze Eenternational Confederation of Weezards is a neutral organization and does not weesh to be unduly involved with ze political affairs of member countries," the man said by way of a rote response.
"And that's a commendable goal, to be sure," Lucius agreed, "but you're already involved simply by being here and will be further entangled once word of why you agreed to delay your request for Dumbledore's extradition becomes public."
"What ees zis you are talking about?" the short man asked, his curiosity finally breaking through that official defensive wall. "We only agreed to wait for zis opportunity to search and question zose responsible and for–"
"–The well-being of a child, yes," he finished for him. "And I'm afraid that it's that particular child that may cause trouble for us."
"You can't mean Harry Potter?" the Minister asked shocked.
"I'm afraid so, Cornelius," Lucius said in a way that he hoped would come across as caring parent, though he knew he always missed the mark on that. "I thought it best not to raise the issue until now because it has to do with all three of our institutions."
"'Ow is zis?" the Frenchman asked, looking curiously concerned.
"I'm sure that in your talks that the Minister informed you just how famous that young Mister Potter is here and the important position he'll have one day," he said by way of reminding him.
"Ze 'ereditary system of yours, yes," the man said dismissively. "What of eet?"
"It extends in part to the Hogwarts Board of Governors as well, though at least we can vote to expel members if their behavior proves too egregious," Lucius explained. "As it happens, Mister Potter is one of the rare individuals who not only has a seat waiting on him in the Wizengamot but on the Board as well, which may have been why his family was targeted during the war in the first place," he said in order to draw it all together for the foreigner.
"What Professor McGonagall said about Dumbledore sitting on the Board for so long is true," he continued. "What she failed to mention though is that it's Mister Potter's seat that he's been using this entire time, so our two concerns are now even more entwined since he's used this illegally gained position in order to serve himself and steal the Stone."
"Eef indeed ze Stone was ever 'ere," Delacour groused. "Zere seems to be debate on zat and ze goblins 'ave not been good at deegging up eenformation."
"Goblin secrecy is a concern for all of us," Lucius said, trying to slyly slide the other man over into their camp only to be rebuffed with a look that said he wasn't having it. 'This man's certainly not making this easy,' he thought. 'No wonder Fudge wasn't able to make any headway on him.'
"As luck would have it," he continued changing tactics, "I happen to have gained a bit of information that I must ask you to keep away from our friends at the bank."
"About ze Stone?" Delacour asked skeptically. "'Ow could zat 'appen?"
"Through someone who works for them but is afraid to come forward because they fear goblin reprisal," Lucius answered sympathetically, hoping that this token sign of trust would do what insinuation could not. "From what this person says they can be very vicious behind the scenes but it was information they thought that we absolutely had to know."
The little man played with the point of his beard as he thought it over.
"If this is the same man, he's provided Lucius with information before," Cornelius helpfully added in a way that seemed to lessen their chances of success.
The Frenchman eyed them both before answering.
"Ze goblins weel 'ave no way to know what I find 'ere or 'ow," Delacour said quickly. "And ze men staying 'ere means zey weel 'ave no way to find out unless I tell zem. So what ees zis eenformation?" he asked in an imperious way that Lucius simply had to admire coming from such a small man.
He leaned in and pitched his voice lower to confide in them a horrible truth.
"This source told me that the theft of the Stone was revealed when the Gringotts goblins got access to a Hogwarts student's mind–"
"Merlin's beard!" Cornelius exclaimed.
"–And from what they saw they were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Stone had not only been stolen but was indeed here," he continued conspiratorially. "The protections McGonagall went on about were breached not once but twice, that the Stone was obtained, and that this Professor Quirrell was indeed killed – or at least grievously injured."
"Quel désastre!" Delacour joined the Minister in his fright. "Why would zey not tell me zis?"
"Because goblin justice is very different than ours, or so my source tells me," Lucius replied. "Once they make their decision about who's to blame they don't bother with trifles like truth or providing proof to people. They may also have an even deeper reason to hide this from us, just like McGonagall has."
"What do you mean?" Cornelius asked at a loss.
"The student they examined was Harry Potter," he explained, "and McGonagall – if she knows of his involvement – would naturally want to protect him as his Head of House."
The Minister's mouth sagged open and the Frenchman covered his face with his hand as if just now realizing just what a tangled mess the whole thing really was.
"I weel 'ave to talk to 'eem," Delacour said exhaustedly.
"You can't drag him into this again," the Minister scolded the man. "The boy's twelve years old."
"And he's had a very rough life," Lucius added. "Did you not see the Weekend Prophet today?"
"I do not need ze deestraction of your newspapers," the man said dismissively as he massaged his brow, effectively smashing any hopes of swaying the man through a Prophet propaganda campaign.
"There was a weekend one today?" Cornelius asked him instead.
"Some of the Ministry employees started to arrive with them when you and Madam Bones were distracted with that muggle concern," he replied. "I wouldn't be surprised if that had to deal with him too. Apparently Dumbledore made sure that the boy's home life was rather monstrous. The public may be inclined to respond in kind."
"That's ghastly," the Minister said to one bit or another. "As soon as he's out of the boy's life we should put him with a proper family."
"That certainly would be for the best," Lucius smiled, thinking of all the possibilities that would bring, though for the first time he did regret having to rid himself of his first child simply because it was a girl. Putting that aside he turned to Delacour and said, "The boy wouldn't have anything useful to add I'm afraid. The last thing my source said they extracted from him was Dumbledore telling him that the Stone had been destroyed."
"Zat is ze same as Madame McGonagall told us zat 'e told 'er," the man nodded before quickly waving it all away. "Ze plural of anecdote ees not data and none of zat is on ze record. Ze people 'ere would know more about what weent on zan any leetle boy; I am sure zey weel suffice," he declared before snapping and gesturing for a young man carrying a satchel bulging with quills and parchment to attend him.
"Since your men are already heavily involved with searching the dungeons, might I suggest that we question Professor Snape first?" he said, taking the opportunity to offer a sensible suggestion so the Frenchman would get used to taking them without thought.
"Absolument," Delacour replied quickly. "One moment," he added before turning to blather to boy next to him in French for a while before sending him off elsewhere for some unknown reason.
Being so thoroughly excluded had Lucius's hand tighten on the handle of his cane again and thinking of all the information he just missed out on for not knowing the blasted foreign tongue. He was British though so it'd be undignified to speak anything else. Having to hear it was a rudeness he simply had to accept he supposed. The man was French after all.
The tiny flame flickered and flared as he dropped the last remaining tip of parchment into the stone bowl to burn. When the fire went out he worked his pestle to grind the small pile of ash into a fine black powder, further pulverizing the message he'd been sent. Using magic for this would've been quicker but with all the intrusive wizards buzzing about the castle one couldn't be too careful.
Upending the mortar to empty the ground ash into a well of black ink, Severus couldn't help but seethe about what he did for love. The man had no right to invoke her name or use her death in that way, no matter what his reasons for doing it were or how right the cause. As much as he may loathe the boy for being who he was he couldn't blame the mother for it, for as much as he had tried it hadn't worked; he knew that he only had himself to blame.
It'd been too many years of studying by himself, too many years rooting for different teams, and too many snide comments made to run off her other friends so that he might better enjoy their time together alone. Saying the word 'mudblood' after years of that was just the final straw, the final piece of the puzzle to show her that the future he offered her had held nothing that she valued. It would've been all too easy for that toe-rag to smarm his way into her good graces by badmouthing him to her face while going behind her back to gloat to his friends about how he'd been the one to get her.
Still, he wasn't about to let his disgust of the father detract from his duty or let his anger at what the old man did to the child she spawned distract from his chance to take his vengeance upon the man who murdered the woman that the girl had grown to be. At least the old man upstairs had the presence of mind to ask for the right thing – that he conceal the truth of the Dark Lord's survival – and not that he accept that his leaving the boy in Petunia's hands had been the best thing for him, for it certainly wasn't.
The boy may be the malformed spawn of his enemy but that didn't mean that he couldn't have been everything that his father was not. He had seen enough potions start to turn to know what possibilities each failing potion offered if care was taken reinforce a misstep in the proper way and coax its development in order to bring about an alternate result. The last thing you should do though is simply throw as many malignant influences as possible into the mix and that was all Petunia was good for.
Dumbledore had let her mishandle the boy to the extent that he couldn't even see a diluted, polluted vestige of what his mother had once been still left within him. The reason why the man would want the boy to come out that way was clear: he wanted him to be even more dull and ignorant than his father; an unthinking, uncaring tip of the spear, a weapon to be thrust into the Dark Lord's side when the time came for him to do so. The Headmaster didn't care for the boy any more than he had for Lily Evans or James Potter; it was the prophecy he cared for, nothing more.
There was rap on the door and Severus capped the inkwell and gave it a swirl before setting it on his desk next to this morning's Weekend Prophet. It wasn't enough to suffer through insufferable know-it-alls and delirious dunderheads of every kind but now he had to handle the increasingly intrusive international irritations as well. Making his way to the office door he wondered what required his attention this time: a loose rock in the wall, a moldy old book, or perhaps a portrait that didn't like being prodded?
Whipping open the door he was unsurprised to come face-to-face with a boy who looked closer to fifteen than twenty, no matter how many of those ridiculous individual hairs he grew and tried to string together on his upper lip to make himself seem older. If he'd come because yet another person had locked themselves out of the Slytherin common room again he was going to have to curse someone.
"What is it now?" Severus asked with a look guaranteed to inspire fear in any native child.
"Ve haf foundt a room at da back ov da clazroom down da hall," the boy replied in his heavily accented English.
"That room has been set aside for my own personal stores," Severus informed him. "What of it?"
"Da room is empty," the boy noted, showing the level of intellect he's come to expect from him.
"As are my personal stores," he said, waiting on him to put the two together.
Extending the arm that held the door, he gave the boy a view of the same boxes and crates that had filled his office the last several times he had knocked.
"My stores were arranged to be sold well before your arrival in the country made delivery of them impossible," Severus said simply. "They have nothing to do with any Stone."
"I vas toldt ve vould haf to search dem anyvay," the boy continued. "Your ovvice and rooms too; ve can search dem ven you are in questioning."
He wanted to spew vitriol at the insolent boy for his presumption but it wouldn't have done any good. Just like with his dealings with the bank, Dumbledore had placed him on the wrong side of everything and it was up to him to find a way out. If that required blaming it all on the Headmaster then so be it; Severus couldn't say that it wasn't deserved.
"If even one ingredient goes missing," he said while staring down his hooked nose at the boy in a way that finally got an uncomfortable reaction. "If so much as a quill gets misplaced or if the potion I'm working on is disturbed in any way, you will be held personally responsible for its loss… and the goblins those stores belong to are not known for their lenience."
The boy scurried back down the hall with his tail between his legs making Severus feel that he could leave his office with the irritation he felt momentarily lessened. He didn't like people touching his things and the thought of a bunch of strangers riffling through his office made his skin crawl. Trying to leave that all behind him he made his way through scurrying crowds in I.C.W. blue and towards the entry hall, where even if he didn't find any peace at least he'd be able to get away from all these people.
"True, that's an occupational hazard for someone as famous as me," an unctuous voice oozed into the hallway from a spare upperlevel classroom. "The five time winner of Witch Weekly's Most Charming Smile Award is no stranger to someone trying to ensnare him, believe you me. If I had a galleon for every time someone tried to slip me a Love Potion – well, I'd be even more well off than I already am!"
It was with great difficulty that he forced his feet to move because for of all the things he held against the Headmaster at this moment, having to leave Lockhart free to wander his dungeons unwatched was something he couldn't forgive. The fact that the man was here at all was yet another crime he couldn't forgive. Dumbledore could opine about what a great loss it'd be to the school to lose him as potions master or to the supposed curse on the Defense position but giving it to that man instead was an insult; anyone else would've been better than him.
"And here's our potions master already," a familiar voice said when he reached the stairway, causing him to look up at those coming down to him. "Head of Slytherin House and youngest Head of House in Hogwarts history."
"Mr. Malfoy," he said in curious greeting as he took in who he was accompanying. McGonagall's notice had said that the I.C.W. was arriving but she'd neglected to mention the Minister of Magic and the Chairman of the Board of Governors.
"Severus, you know Mr. Delacour of the I.C.W., don't you?" Lucius said in the same falsely social way he had at all those fancy parties he tried to avoid. The similarity in tone was so striking that he could almost see the customary glass of wine in the man's hand, which told him that Lucius wanted to win over the other man for something. With story after story in the Prophet about the goblins though it wasn't hard to know what that would likely be but he wasn't about to step into that cesspit again.
"Only by reputation," he said neutrally though in truth he knew nothing of the man. Anyone who traveled with so many irritants though had to be one himself.
"Zese dungeons are charmant!" the pint-sized man said in a most annoying way that he must've thought was ingratiating. "I look forward to seeing more of zis 'istoric school."
Lucius caught his eye as if to say that he should invite the man on a tour but if he thought for one moment that it was going to happen then he had more to learn than that self-absorbed son of his. He for one couldn't get this entire thing over with soon enough.
With a jerk of his wand the large dog jumped leapt aside as a blast of dragonfire engulfed its giant lumbering companion. He'd already lost one dog that way, he wasn't about to lose another. In a scrambling run it whipped around behind the invasive beast and clamped its massive jaws down on its arrow-like tail and immediately started savaging it with its jagged teeth and claws.
It wouldn't do a lot of damage on its own but it might distract it long enough so Bill wouldn't lose the great stone giant he had. When the dragon stopped trying to melt the giant and turned its head towards his dog Hugh couldn't help but feel the thrill of success – and a bit of puzzlement because he'd just run out of plan. They hadn't discussed what to do when this happened but he supposed–
With a push of its forearms the dragon suddenly twisted its whole body around. Building up momentum, the motion continued only for him to see his dog leave the ground and with a great sweep of the dragon's tail was catapulted high out over the sea. The sight was spectacularly beautiful in its own way, so he didn't feel much of a loss twisting his wand to release the spell which had given the dog its shape and watching it fly apart, back into the rocks and dirt from which it was formed.
Ducking down behind the rocky ridge as Bill's giant continued its assault Hugh started bringing his – fourth? Fifth? – stone dog out of the ground.
'Crushed, smashed, bit, and burned,' he recounted to himself as he worked. 'And flinging makes five. So this one's six while Bill's still on two.'
He knew it wasn't a game since the dragon could wizen up at any time and realize that the threat didn't come from what was attacking it but from the easily-fried things hiding nearby, but it kind of helped to think of it as one. He tried to hearten himself with the thought that distracting a dragon away from a giant rock monster was a monster of a job in itself, and with Bill's creature being so big it was more likely to survive anyway, so he supposed he wasn't doing so badly. With a chuckle Hugh continued his wand-work, determined to make this new dog as big as a car.
The dragon roared in frustration and he could hear the blast of fire go off again as he was nearly done.
"I think we've almost got him," Bill said beside him as he finished up dog number six.
Peeking up over the ridge to better see what was going on, Hugh saw a curious sight. Even as Bill's giant was melting before them and molten bits and pieces were falling off it, more bits were coming out of the ground to join up with it and replace what'd just been knocked off.
"Hey, that's no fair," he said to the red-haired wizard. "We never said we could heal them."
"We never said we couldn't either," the tall, younger man countered. "C'mon, I need the help."
With none of the flourish that had accompanied the first dog he'd created that day Hugh sent the latest one around the ridge to enter the fray and considered removing the his tie so it could join the suit jacket on the ground near him. Transfiguration was taxing work. Another roar brought his head back up above the ridge.
A quick turning motion saw the dragon's powerful tail slam into Bill's quasi-molten Quasimodo, knocking it back a pace or two before it extended its wings as if to make itself look bigger and more fearsome – as if it needed to. He sent his dog around to one side as Bill directed his giant forward again, only for it to be met with another blast of dragonfire, a routine even the dragon must be finding predictable by now.
With a sudden flash of inspiration Hugh stopped his dog's scramble towards the tail and sent it darting to the dragon's serpentine neck instead. The dragonfire cut off quickly as the beast tried to wriggle out of the stone dog's large jaws, pulling its head one way before the dog pulled it back, raising it up only for the giant to smash it back down again.
Hugh could only chuckle at the dazed look on the dragon's face as it finally decided that enough was enough. He made his dog let the dragon's neck go as it began a shambling run to the nearest cliff, though he did send it nipping after it in case it changed its mind. Bill's giant was already falling apart to form a stone outcropping as the scaly black beast took flight so Hugh undid his spell and let the dog crumble as well.
He wiped his brow with his tie and stooped to collect his suit jacket. It was strange how hot you could get from doing some hard wand-work, even when where you were at had some pretty chilly wind. Then again, all of that dragonfire might've had something to do with it.
"You know, I didn't really expec–," Hugh said as he turned to the other wizard, only to stop short when that wizard wasn't where he thought he was. Looking over the ridge again he saw him standing over near where the dragon had been making its valiant stand against eviction. He put on his jacket again and walked over.
"You know, I didn't really expect that to work," he said once he'd gotten close.
"To be honest, neither did I," the younger man said with a grin. "Probably not the method my brother, Charlie, would've used but it worked fine all the same. The problem now is how to keep them from returning because those are something they might want to come back for," Bill said, pointing to the ground not too far away.
In a depression that hadn't been visible from the other side of the ridge sat six perfectly smooth rounded stones that were far too perfect to be stones.
"Holy crap," Hugh exclaimed. "That'd make a hell of a lot of omelets."
"Dragon omelets?" Bill asked with a quirked eyebrow. "Sounds spicy."
"Throw in some serrano, maybe some cayenne or habanero," he said with a grin, "and wash it down with firewhisky. If that doesn't make you breathe fire then nothing will."
"I've never even heard of those, except the drink," the tall fellow said as he kept an eye on the sky.
"Oh, you should try them," Hugh said happily. "They're really spicy peppers. There's a restaurant by my place that – aw, man," he moaned dejectedly as something horrible occurred to him.
"What is it?" Bill asked, looking back at him.
"I just realized that now that I've taken this job I'll probably never be able to go home again," he groused.
"Working your way up in Gringotts does seem to put you in ever increasingly uncomfortable positions," the other wizard said sympathetically. "I'm staying with my folks and my father works for the Ministry, and if that wasn't bad enough the head of the D.M.L.E. paid a house call the other day and I had to hide in my room. Nobody ever said that'd be in the job description."
"Better than hiding under your bed in case the aurors came to call," Hugh agreed.
"You did that?" Bill asked curiously.
"Wha–no," he lied, suddenly remembering what that strange goblin girl said about rumors. "It was – that was just an example," he said, scrambling for cover faster than any of his dogs that day had done.
"Besides, you're right," Hugh continued, hoping to leave that buried in the past, "we've got bigger fish to fry. Namely, making sure those dragons don't come back," he said with a glance to the skies before turning back to the other wizard. "If this problem's a new one, what'd they do to keep them away before?"
"Oh, this place used to be protected by a wardstone," Bill said as he ran his fingers through that ponytail of his. "They've still got the pieces in the tower library but I don't think anyone could make heads or tails out of it. I couldn't even tell where one rune ended and another began, let alone what rune system it was using.
"That could be one starting point, and a better one than going to the MacFusty clan to see what they use," the man went on to say in a way that said he wouldn't suggest doing either. "The I.C.W. 'borrowed' the library or I'd suggest that we might find something there that could shed some light on it but even if we had it, by the time we found anything did those eggs would've probably hatched, bred, and those hatchlings would've had hatchlings of their own."
"Yeah, let's not go with either of those," Hugh agreed. "Any outside wizards we go to would probably run straight to the Ministry and I was never any good with runes anyway; I was more a fan of arithmancy. The only way I even passed my Ancient Runes O.W.L. was to cheat."
"Wait – how did you cheat on O.W.L.s?" Bill asked. "They've got Anti-Cheating Quills. You try to cheat with them and all they do is write 'cheater' all over your paper."
"Anti-Cheating Quills are like Truth Quills," he said with a dismissive wave, "they rely on you to hang yourself. You could write lies all day long with a Truth Quill as long as you believed it was true, so I Confunded myself into thinking that it was a secret trick that I was allowed to do. After all, half of what Hogwarts is about is figuring out how to break the rules and not get caught, so why stop doing that when it came to tests?"
"Okay," the other wizard said with an appraising look. "That explains how you were able to cheat but it doesn't tell me how you cheated."
"Did they let you carry in your own parchment when you were there?" Hugh asked him instead.
"Because, for us, they did," he answered with a grin. "It was supposed to be used for working our answers out, brainstorming, things like that – I turned it into a cheat sheet. I wrote all the runes I had to know on it in a way that nobody but me could see."
"Wouldn't they have checked for hidden writing," Bill said, now with cautious disbelief written on his face. "Or did they not do that back then either?"
"Oh, no, they did – or at least they thought they did," Hugh chuckled. "I watched them during my other exams and all they really did was check for Invisible Ink, and that's ink that's enchanted to be invisible until it's revealed with a Revealer. I didn't use an enchantment on the ink; I used a spell on the paper itself. Specifically, I blended an Obscuration Charm and a Muggle-Repelling Charm and flipped it around and adapted it so that only a part-goblin could see what was written; besides that the ink they were looking for was perfectly visible."
"So the writing on your cheat sheet wasn't invisible," Bill said with an odd look, "they just couldn't see it."
"Exactly," Hugh smiled.
"That – that's like N.E.W.T.-level work you did just to cheat on your O.W.L.s!"
"Well, yeah, but if you're going to bamboozle the Ministry of Magic right under their nose then you might as well go all out," he said before realizing how that was basically what they were supposed to be doing now.
"Besides, it wasn't like it was perfect," Hugh continued with a shrug. "I bumped into Professor Flitwick afterwards and he saw what I had. He was my Head of House – and couldn't prove anything directly – so he didn't turn me in. He did give me Detention until the end of the year though; that kind of sucked, but I got my Exceeds Expectations. That might've been why they stopped letting us carry our own parchment in though; I failed my N.E.W.T. with flying colors."
"You know, we might be able to use something like that here," Bill said thoughtfully as he ringed the dragon eggs in fire, though whether to keep them warm or cook them he didn't know.
"How's that going to help?" he asked, wondering how failing tests would help with anything.
"Well, assuming that Gringotts aren't going to be bringing dragons here on a regular basis we might be able to adapt the Muggle-Repelling Charm into a dragon-repelling one," the other wizard explained. "If they are planning on doing it though we could use the cheat sheet method to hide the island from dragons unless they're – I dunno – with a goblin, or something."
"Yeah, good point," Hugh agreed. "They can't take over the island if they can't even see that it's here. You think we could do something like that against the Ministry too?"
"Maybe, but if we did that we might not be able to undo it," Bill said with a look. "It'd be hard to put that in place without having it affect me and all the other wizards that work for Gringotts, maybe even you as well."
"Yeah, let's not go nuts just yet," he said, withdrawing the suggestion. "I can't really supervise something I can't see."
"Are you expecting anyone?" the other wizard asked suddenly.
"This is my first day on the job, I didn't even expect to be here," Hugh replied before turning to look back towards the tower. Coming their way was a child in a big fluffy coat with its hood up, though he supposed it could be a goblin; he was going to have to get used to seeing those guys around. The only one he really knew though was Overseer Bankor and it was hard to think of him dressing like that, even if it was a bit chilly here.
"I'll go get started on that spell," Bill said as the figure came closer. "If you need anything just give me a call."
"Oh, sure thing," he agreed, "unless the dragons come back, in which case I'll be screaming in terror."
Bill chuckled as he took his leave. That weird little Overseer from before was right, Bill was a decent human – er, decent wizard. No, that didn't work… a decent person? Either way, a good sense of humor went a long way. If they'd been in Hogwarts together then it might not have been so bad.
He tried to find something official-looking to occupy himself with as the person came closer but since he didn't have a clue where to start with planning a city, much less a goblin one, that left him with nothing to do but look at the sky and watch for dragons near the heat of the burning pit of eggs.
"Overseer?" Hugh asked once the mysterious figure got close enough.
It stopped and looked up at him with a jerk as it huddled in its coat.
"Me? An Overseer? Yeah, like that's ever gonna happen," broke a scratchy voice from within the hood, sounding not too far away from laughing at him.
"Nunya?" he asked, already knowing what the answer was. "What are you doing here?"
"That's Nunya Business," she said, lowering the hood to reveal a nose slightly tinted green from the cold. "I don't know you that well yet. And I'm here because, honestly, how many other people do you know?" the odd girl shrugged.
"Well, th-there's Bill," he said feebly as all the names of those other Overseers went flying out of his head.
"You've got a workforce to set up that'll probably grow to be as big as an entire Department," Nunya said, sending his stomach into a steep dive, "and you're gonna get Bill to do it? Yeah, I'm sure he'll be a big help."
'Ah crap. They really do want me to build a city; that hadn't been hyperbole,' Hugh said to himself, wondering if he'd even make it to the end of the day.
"Oh, goldstrike!" the goblin girl said as she ran to the pit. "You found this?" she asked with a surprised look on her face. "The guys back home are gonna love you. They might not even care how incompetent you are!"
"Thanks," he said, feeling slightly relieved before he caught that last bit. "Hey!" he cried, "I'm not incompetent."
"Yeah, we'll see," Nunya replied as she pulled up the hood again and stuck out her hands to warm them over the flaming egg pit. "I'm safe either way. I do hope that you last longer than I expect you to though. I'd hate to have my first job end too soon; then I'd never get another one."
"Job? What job?" Hugh asked quickly, feeling like there was something obvious he was missing.
"What do you mean, 'what job?' – I just told ya," she said, moving the bulky hood so she could see him better. "You're gonna need all the help you can get to get this thing going and you don't know the first thing about goblins."
"The Overseers obviously thought differently," he cut in to say, hoping to stomp on this before it became a permanent thorn in his side.
"The Overseers do things for their own reasons," she swatted back at him, "and Gotts only knows what those are."
'Hang on,' Hugh thought to himself. 'Do goblins have a religion?' He hadn't noticed one with all the time he'd spent in the wizarding world but that was with wizards, who could tell when it came to goblins? 'Well, that girl could but I'm not going to ask her. It'd just prove her point.'
"You might've fooled them enough to get the job," little miss Nunya Business continued on, "but keeping it is something else. This isn't one of those 'shoveling dung all day' or 'sit on your butt polishing knuts' kinds of jobs, this is gonna be some real work," she said enthusiastically. "Luckily, nobody knows Gringotts better than me. I know everybody. I must've harassed almost every office for a job at least once; now they'll be coming to me."
"Oh, so you're here to hire staff?" Hugh said, finally making the connection, though why he got saddled with someone who's always been unemployable was beyond him.
"Something like that," she said with a shrug. "When he finally pulled his head out of his butt to hear what I was saying and send me here, he said I was to be your 'goblin liaison.' I take it to be more like a personal assistant, because you'll need something way more involved than just a secretary – just don't get any ideas, pretty boy," she finished with a scowl and a point.
He was beginning to miss the Ministry's slightly malevolent bigotry, because at least that he understood. Here he was though, completely lost. How could anything function when everything was so jumbled up?
"So Overseer Bankor sent you here?" Hugh asked, thinking the 'goblin liaison' thing would likely only come from him. "I was under the impression that goblins don't talk about Overseers like that."
"Beh," she derided with a wave. "He's not gonna do anything to me. It's not like it's Overseer Gutripper we're talking about. Besides, he wanted me to keep an eye on you."
"–Keep an eye on me?" he interjected, almost afraid to ask who this Gutripper was and how he got that name. "What does he think I'm going to do?" he asked, remembering that threat about betrayal.
"Probably end up dead," Nunya said stoically. "Ideally, I'd say he sent me here to keep you alive, but he doubts my ability to do that for myself," she shrugged as she pulled out a knife from somewhere and bent over to tap the eggs.
"You seem to make enemies easily though," she said when she continued. "He's sending people to your place to get your stuff since he doesn't trust the Ministry not to come after you now that you're ours," she said ominously as a weight settled in his stomach. "I don't know where he's gonna put you though. Rumor has it the Enforcer's not happy that you're here at all, and his guards are everywhere."
Hugh didn't have to ask who that was. Matching it up with the name Gutripper it could only be one person, it was grumpy Mr. Buzzcut from before.
'Good grief,' he thought morosely. 'I've jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Great going, Hugh.'
"I suppose they could always stick you here though," the girl said critically. "I haven't seen many people here at all. I guess that'll change though when we knock that tower down and get to work."
His mind slammed on the brakes so fast he was sure his brain was bruised.
"What! Why would we do something like that?" he asked aghast.
"Why wouldn't we?" she rebutted with a shrug. "There's got to be more stone in that than there is in the surface levels of the bank combined, and that's a lot of stone. We could probably build two – maybe even three – bank-like buildings here with that; more if the inside walls are thicker. We could quarry it here, I guess," Nunya said as she tapped the ground her foot as if to see what it was made of, "but there's no telling what kind of quality we'd get out of it, and they're not gonna want to ship it in from somewhere else when we've got something this close."
"But that's hundreds of years of wizarding history!"
"So? It's not like it's our history," she said with a look. "I'm pretty sure the higher-ups just want to leave that all forgotten."
Hugh put his hands in hair and started to pull. They could not be asking him to do this! He may dislike the majority of wizards – and almost all of wizarding society – but the buildings and their history hadn't done anything to him. Knocking down the tower would be like blowing up Hogwarts or burning down Diagon Alley. They're key cornerstones of the entire country, destroying this one, before public ever got a chance to so much as see it, was a tremendous waste of an opportunity, one that he couldn't allow them to make.
"No. No. Absolutely not. We are not doing that," he said definitively as he smoothed his hair back down again. "This job's going to be hard enough on its own. I'm not going to destroy this island's one and only asset in order to do it."
Nunya was looking at him like she'd never seen him before.
"Asset?" she asked curiously. "How is that an asset?"
An idea suddenly popped into his head.
"The Tower of London!" Hugh cried.
"Tourism!" he said with a smile.
"What in Gotts name are you talking about?!" she asked, her voice cracking again in frustration.
"Are you kidding me?" Hugh asked in return, practically tingling with excitement. "It's the mysterious Tower of the immortal Nicholas Flamel; the tower that served as both his palace and his prison. Hidden from the world for hundreds of years, what secrets lay in store for those who enter there – the lair of the maker of the Sorcerer's Stone himself?!" he finished dramatically.
"People will be queuing up from all over the country – No, from all over the world! – just to look inside that thing," he continued. "And we're the only ones that can sell them a ticket."
"Wow!" Nunya said with eyes the size of galleons. "When you say it like that I wanna buy one – and the thing's sitting just right over there!"
"Exactly," Hugh smiled, his mind going a million miles a minute. "We market this correctly and people will eagerly hand over their money just for the chance to come here and look at it. Then they'll hand over more just to go inside! We'll replace all the valuable stuff with fakes, but they won't know the difference. And then there's nick-nacks and t-shirts to sell, restaurants and hotels, all sorts of other keepsakes and paraphernalia – we could even pay a guy to dress up like Flamel and people would pay to take pictures with him!"
"Can there be dragon rides?!" the goblin girl's cracking voice asked, getting into the spirit of things.
"D-dragon rides?" he asked, somewhat at a loss.
"Yeah, they had a bunch of dragons they used when they attacked this place," Nunya explained. "They flew 'em up here and even had like twenty guards or more strapped to their backs. You think we could use that to give dragon rides?"
"You'll never get me on the back of one of those, I don't know why not," Hugh said with a shrug. It really was the kind of idea that wizards would throw their money away on.
"I always wanted to ride one. Good Gotts! It'd be like minting our own galleons!" she said, her voice cracking with glee. "We do that anyway, but these are galleons that we'd be able to keep!"
"Bingo," he agreed, though all that did was get her to look at him oddly again. "That's what this'll be, an all-goblin city with goblin-run businesses that makes its money appealing to wizarding curiosity and a need for holiday travel they didn't even know they had. It'll be generating a goblin economy that's completely separate from anything that deals with the bank.
"Oh, and don't forget taxes!" Hugh went on to say, though for some reason Nunya started to look concerned. "If we get enough people coming here, the taxes we collect from sales and lodging and who knows what else could be enough to support a local goblin government."
"Oh no," an agitated Nunya declared with a set face. "You step away from that mine shaft right now before you take me down with you."
"What?" he asked curiously.
"They might be willing to let the tower stay if they think it'll bring in money but you start talking about a forming new goblin government and you'll end up with your head chopped off and stuck on a pike," she said earnestly. "The Overseers aren't going to let something like that happen, and it's dangerous to even think it, so you just forget it."
"What-no! I wasn't talking a revolution or anything," Hugh tried to explain. "I was talking about what they could do with it, not me."
That only got her to look at him like he'd done it again.
"How 'bout you don't say anything for a while before you're dead and I'm sold off to the next goblin that passes by for not turning you in?!" an exasperated Nunya rhetorically asked.
Under the circumstances he thought it a wise suggestion to take, so he just kind of stood there as Bill's magical flames snapped, crackled, and popped. After a moment he did think of something to ask though.
"W-would it be alright to ask how we might go about doing the good stuff about what I said?"
The goblin girl looked out of her hood at him like she was weary that he might explode at any moment. Eventually though she settled down to think.
"Hm, with the gold still in question the Diggers don't have anything to do, so we could always use them for labor if we need to," Nunya said to herself finally. "I'd rather not have to deal with Overseer Gutripper though unless I absolutely have to, though that might be where his Department overlaps with Gringotts Operations; it's one of the few jobs even I didn't want. I suppose once this takes off we could try to get them all transferred, but we'd need a plan for that."
She was quiet again for a second but eventually she scratched her nose and nodded.
"There's a Secretary in Legal that's nice," she said more to herself than to him. "She almost got me a job once. She's got a daughter that's with a Gofer for a guy in Operations and she said she's said that he's said that he complained that he hasn't had anything to do but design a flipless flip-lift recently, so he might be up for something new, especially with everything you're planning.
"I'll go talk to him and see if I can get him on board. He'll know more about what we need," Nunya said with further nods before looking up at him. "You...," she said with a pointed finger as if she didn't know what to do with him. "You just stay here and don't talk to anybody. I'm the one that handles this."
"Of course," Hugh said, holding up his hands to signal he wasn't about to fight. "That's what goblin liaisons are for."
The abandoned dungeon classroom had taken no time at all to search, especially since they had taken his suggestion to clear it out first to make the going easier before moving selected pieces back in. It was dark and gloomy rather than bright and airy, as he would've liked, but dungeons were dungeons after all. How Severus could stand living like this for years on end Lucius had no idea but he supposed it could always be worse; he had caught a glimpse of an over-sized woodpile shaped like a hut earlier near the tree line so there was no accounting for people's lack of taste.
The dungeon needed more light though, that much was sure, because there was only so much gloom that could be cast back by the torches and the dimness had a soporific effect. Surely it would make it difficult to read by too, so perhaps Draco's grades weren't completely his fault, not that he'd tell the boy. Making the boy take responsibility to fix his own failings might be just the thing he needed in order to correct what Narcissa had gotten wrong in him. He'd have to tell Severus to stop padding the boy's scores too just to drive home the lesson that he can't rely on anyone but himself.
Severus seemed odd today for some reason and even more lacking in the social niceties than he usually was – and that was really saying something. If he didn't know any better he might even say that something was bothering the man, more than the usual at least. Could it be that Dumbledore's politicking had actually turned the castle against him? And why would he do that?
Willfully taking the blame upon himself did make a Dumbledorean kind of sense, he supposed. Rendering the staff befuddled but blameless, they'd then be free to idealize the Dumbledore of the past and hold onto that vision of his for what society should be. And with the rest of the staff sharing that muggle-hugging mentality, replacing the Headmaster would have little effect on the culture of the school as a whole.
'Some deeper changes will have to be made,' Lucius thought as the Frenchman droned on and his scribe scratched away, quickly copying the politician's platitudes about how thankful they were to be there. 'Professor Slughorn would've had this place properly lit and taken a proper interest in the boy,' he thought critically. 'He might not have padded his scores unless it were a favor to me but he would've gone out of his way to properly connect those of proper bearing and ability together in ways he would've benefited from.'
Aside from Dumbledore it was already too late to make staffing changes for this school year, but with the Headmaster gone the year after was full of possibilities. He didn't know who this Lockhart person was that Dumbledore had found but from what he'd seen at Florish & Blotts the man made a point to appeal to the uncultured masses, which was certainly not the direction that Hogwarts would be going. What was the point of being nature's nobility if you didn't act like it? And with that man gone as well it left several holes to fill.
'I could give Severus the Dark Arts position he always coveted,' Lucius mused as Cornelius made his own gratuitous display of political thankfulness. 'Someone who'd always wanted it and spent years critiquing others would doubtlessly be better prepared than anyone who's never done it before. That would give me the opportunity to lure Professor Slughorn out of retirement too.'
The old potions master had a liking of his own comforts so it shouldn't take much more than an offer of a roomy office, a bright and airy above-ground classroom, and the ability to network with the next generation of well-to-do witches and wizards to put the man back in his proper place. Severus would no doubt be a bit insecure if he thought the man might usurp his place as Head of Slytherin House but that might make him more amenable to relocating his classroom if he were given the assurance that the position would remain his if he did so.
"Binding?!" Cornelius exclaimed, drawing his attention to the here and now. "Surely that won't be necessary."
"What seems to be the issue?" he asked as his he tried to conjure up what he'd missed, his eyes finally coming to rest on the parchment in front of Severus on the other side of the table.
"I 'ad 'eard zat Wizarding Britain 'ad a dislike automatically-binding contracts, Meenister Fudge," the Frenchman said diplomatically and effectively filling him in about what's going on. "I can assure you though zat it 'as a well-known record on ze Continent for allowing ze gathering of truthful eenformation wizout compromising on ze principle against self-eencrimination. Eet would be seemilar to 'aving 'im write out ze account using a Truth Quill, but zey do not meet ze I.C.W. uniformity standard."
"If it's truth you're looking for there's always veritaserum," Lucius interjected. "It's not used by our courts," he said knowing that any self-incriminatory information gained that way would be thrown out, thereby insuring that the man himself could never be charged with anything even if he had been involved, "but Severus may have some lying around."
"Any potion 'e 'as would 'ave to be checked," Delacour said, discarding the idea, though not unpleasantly. "I understand ze reservation you all may 'ave – and thankfully ze goblins were good enough to supply ze potion to us–," he said reaching into his robes to produce a vial of a slightly golden substance. "But going with ze potion puts ze burden of not asking eencriminatory questions on us while ze Candid Contract allows for ze truthful non-answer; veritaserum does not."
Lucius didn't know what he thought of that particular bit of jurisprudence. Something like that would only serve to protect the innocent while encouraging everyone to think that those who refused to testify in that way or answer a question were guilty and he didn't want to imagine what would happen if something like that became the norm. What would their justice system be like if no one could convincingly lie in court anymore? It'd be madness.
"May I see that?" Snape asked, indicating the vial in question.
The Frenchman passed the potion to him as something that was tugging at the back of Lucius's mind reminded him of something.
"Veritaserum is supposed to be colorless, and that potion's gold," Lucius noted as Severus held the vial up to the light. "The goblins are not to be trusted; they could have given you poison," he said, hoping to further plant a few seeds of doubt.
"That's just the sort of thing they'd do," Cornelius agreed obediently as if on cue. "They probably hoped that you'd kill Dumbledore for them just to save them a few knuts."
"We deed theenk of zat, yes," Delacour said with a sardonic smile. "Ze potion 'as been tested, eet is not poison. And tests show zat eet is veritaserum though zere are some very peculiar qualities zat we cannot identify," he explained as Severus sniffed around the stopper, though typical veritaserum was supposed to be odorless as well.
"If you had need of it you could have asked us," Cornelius said in a falsely chummy way. "We would've been happy to provide–"
"Sorry to interrupt you, Minister, but I don't like the sound of this news at all," Lucius cut in, hoping to push things along a little further. "If the goblins are practicing potions in secret then Merlin knows what else they're doing," he said gravely as there was a motion in Snape's direction. "Could this be something they found on Flamel's Island?"
"I made this," Severus said flatly.
"You?" the Minister asked perplexed as his head swiveled to the man.
"Yes," he replied as he restoppered the vial and handed it back to Delacour with a small but noticeable loss of fluid within. "I gave it to a goblin Overseer about a week ago in order to cancel a debt incurred by a prior business arrangement that has no bearing on the Stone."
"Zis is not ze way veritaserum ees supposed to work," Delacour said as he peered at him curiously, no doubt wondering – like he was – why the man wasn't in a talking vegetable.
"The recipe and process has been altered to counteract the original's incapacitating effects," Severus explained from where he sat. "And while I am still compelled to be truthful, it does allow for the mental ability needed to avoid those concerns regarding self-incrimination. I trust this will suffice?"
"How were you able to accomplish this?" Lucius asked, wondering just how underutilized the potions master's skills truly were.
Severus hesitated for a moment before speaking.
"I prefer not to answer that question," he said evasively.
"Ah, yes. We should steek to topics within ze bounds of zis eenquiry while ze potion is een effect," Delacour said to them all. "I weel say though zat you could make substantial sums providing zis for ze eenternational law eenforcement community."
"Indeed," Lucius agreed. He might not want to see something of the sort become common in Britain but with the proper backing there was nothing to say they couldn't export it by the gallon, presuming that money still had value anymore that is.
Severus looked at him curiously for a moment before turning to Delacour.
"What was it that you wished to know?"
The time that followed was very informative, or it would have been if Lucius hadn't heard most of it a week ago from Marsh. That Dumbledore thought to hide the Stone here and never seemed to consider what might happen if it were discovered simply boggled the mind. Severus's laconic nature though made for a quick and concise statement of facts as if he were listing potions ingredients rather than detailing the largest breach in international wizarding law in anyone's lifetime.
That abbreviated style did serve to hide many things though. Lucius didn't know whether Severus knew that the so-called Dark Lord had survived his encounter with the infant Potter, let alone that he had been residing in the castle last year, but he certainly gave no hint of it. Likewise he referred to 'a group of meddlesome students' nosing around and breaching their security rather than mentioning that it was Potter himself, though Delacour did make him double back to give their names in case he had to question them. On the whole there was something else the Frenchman was concerned with.
"So 'e knew zat zis Quirrell was aftair ze Stone from ze beginning?" he asked astonished.
"Precisely when he began to suspect him I can't be sure," Severus answered in the same blasé manner that he'd addressed everything in. "He certainly knew after the troll on Halloween."
"And he did nothing but tell you to watch 'im?" the Minister added.
"So far as I can tell," he replied. "I believe the Headmaster saw secrecy as the Stone's best defense, though why he kept it from you I have no idea."
"'E deed not keep it from you," Delacour noted pointedly. "'E showed you. Why?"
"To prove that it was still safe, I imagine," Severus said.
"But why you and not Madame McGonagall?"
"The Headmaster would often reveal such things to me," he replied. "He trusts me."
"But why?" the Frenchman asked again.
"The goblins know why," Severus said with a shrug, the curiousness of his answer drawing odd looks from the three of them. "I never cared for using the name of Merlin in that way; it trivializes someone who may have been the greatest wizard to ever live," he said by way of explanation, though Lucius didn't buy it for a moment. Maybe letting that potion be used in court wouldn't be so bad after all because he could swear the man was lying.
"I think we've gotten a bit far afield," he said as a way to prod Delacour away from the subject.
His mind refused to be so easily diverted though and he simply had to wonder what the goblins knew about the man that he didn't. Was it that odd business arrangement he'd mentioned? Some covert relationship between him and the goblins that Dumbledore had been making use of?
Severus might have a small mountain of gold in some secret Gringotts vault if he'd been supplying them with specially made black market potions. What he said implied that it was over but if it wasn't he'd have to get a part of that action for himself.
"And what of you?" the Frenchman asked getting back to the subject at hand. "Were you ever tempted to steal ze Sorcerer's Stone for yourself?"
After a moment Snape replied. "The note that the Daily Prophet said Flamel's body had clasped in its hand, do you know of it?" he asked in a suddenly inscrutable way.
"Yes," Delacour replied soberly, "I was ze one who found eet. Why?"
"Because it's true," he said simply. "Unless you already have something to live for, living forever is only prolonging your death," Snape said with an introspective coldness that proved all the more chilling when you knew that the man honestly believed it.
"And you have nothing to live for?" Lucius asked his long-time associate.
"That," Snape said, turning to look at him with dead black eyes that even Occlumency couldn't make look any more deceased, "is not within the bounds of this inquiry."
"But ma'am, that's not the way things are usually done," the infuriating little scribbler said from behind that ludicrous bristly mustache of his. "Changes need to come through the committees where they can be studied and debated, where a consensus can be reached, before they recommend–"
"I do not care about consensus or the concerns of degenerates!" she said with a righteous huff. "We are here to lay down order, not to debate what is right and wrong–"
"Actually, ma'am, that's precisely why we're–," the spineless fuddy-duddy said, lowering his head to talk down to her.
"You will not speak down to me!" she cried, filling her new office with a tremendous noise. "I am Dolores Jane Umbridge and you will refer to me as Chief Warlock!"
"Of course, ma'am," the infuriating man that Dumbledore had left her with said as if asking to be tortured. "Traditionally, the women who've held this office have preferred to be addressed as 'Chief Witch' or 'Chief Warwitch' instead, so as not to have people confuse–"
"–I do not care what other people have done or what they think!" she informed the man. "You are part of my staff now and you will do what I say. Now, I am the Chief Warlock and the Wizengamot is mine to control, and I say that it's high time we root out these unnatural degenerates once and for all!"
"Of course, ma'am, we can get started on methods to do that if you wish," What's-his-name said just as oblivious to what she'd said as ever. "There have been those who've tried similar things in the past, I hesitate to say though that it may be a more difficult proposition if you choose to proceed at this time. The Minister might prefer–"
"The Minister prefers a neat and orderly society, as do I," Dolores cut in to say. "Bringing low and ridding ourselves of the likes of Dumbledore and his ilk is what's best for everyone. Let them serve as an example of what indecency brings and the world will be strengthened by it. The Minister knows this and I am assured of his complete support."
It was a boast, of course, but a good one for it was sure to come to pass. Cornelius had always been uncomfortable having to accept indecency as some respectable other way of life and now, with the first act of her Wizengamot, she'll make it so that no one would have to have acceptance of such unacceptable, undignified, and unproductive behavior forced upon them any longer. Proper people had been oppressed long enough! It was time to undo the depravity that Dumbledore imposed.
"Ah. I see, ma'am," the man said with a bob of the head that could be taken as a bow. "I could get started on it now and have something ready for you to propose within six months," he smiled happily, as if offering her a treat.
"Six months?!" she asked aghast. "That's preposterous."
"Well, I am only one person, ma'am," the insubordinate man said with a small smile that his mustache failed to hide. "Things actually would go faster through the committees where the ideas could be batted back and forth, with rivals trying to out-do each other in getting their proposals written, but since you–"
"That sort of thing may have worked on Dumbledore but it won't work on me," Dolores said firmly. She was not about to let some slippery little underling stop her from doing precisely what she wanted to do. "You will have this ready for the next meeting of the Wizengamot, no excuses!" She went on when he looked to say something again, "Any more of your insubordination and you can find yourself another job, is that clear?"
"Of course ma'– uh – miss Chief Warlock," the cowed man finally said, now in a properly differential tone. "I'm sure that I can have a very strong bill for you propose by then."
"Good," she said triumphantly. "See that you do."
As the petulant man left she couldn't help but think, 'Finally, the wizarding world will have order.'
The-man-she-might-eventually-learn-the-name-of had been right about one thing though – not that she was going to tell him that. Imposing order upon the world would've been easier if she went through the so-called official channels but after they had completely disregarded her and blamed her for what happened in Diagon Alley that wasn't about to happen.
Cornelius having her nominated to succeed Dumbledore as Chief Warlock had been a surprise but if he thought that was all it would take to make things right or that she'd be the same kind of useless schedule-keeping gavel-banger that Dumbledore was then he was sadly mistaken. This time Cornelius would be the one brought to heel, this time he going to have to come to her. She couldn't prove that he'd been behind her nomination, since it had come from someone else entirely, but them doing so would've had to come from Cornelius so it amounted to the same thing.
When he saw what she proposed the Minister would grasp it with both hands, and how could he not? After his failures over the last few weeks, failures he had tried to blame on her, he'd be looking for a new direction, a way to show how strong he was – the fool; that was not his proper place. The Ministry served the Wizengamot and just as the Minister was the embodiment of the Ministry, the Chief Warlock was the embodiment of the Wizengamot, the embodiment of society itself.
'Yes,' she thought as her destiny came into focus. 'Now the world will be the way I want it to be.'
The hours that passed since Severus's interview had been a strange blend of blurringly fast and monotonously slow, though of course he supposed the whole thing could've been so bromidically boring as to have blessedly blended itself together. The sort of sustained social work required to slyly slide someone to your side was so much easier and more productive when there were plenty of other groups to converse with and play against each other; the wine flowing freely never hurt either. As it was Lucius found that he was getting no closer to his goal at all. In fact he may be losing ground, as strange as it may seem.
They had spoken with Severus, separated so the Parisian could look in on how the investigators' interviews with the other professors were going while he had remained behind to have a few words with Severus about other concerns, only to meet up again on the mysterious third floor to learn what a great lot of nothing that turned out to be, and then they toured much of the castle and grounds while grilling McGonagall over what she knew. And though hearing more about the protections they'd placed around the Stone was mildly interesting it really didn't amount to much besides an attempt for the professors to compete with each other in showcasing their abilities.
At first it was easy to casually slip in the occasional anti-goblin comment whether it was about the Stone and how they – with a silent 'as humans' – needed to work together to resolve the matter or about how 'other concerns with the bank' were keeping that from happening. Cornelius would agree of course, and naturally add his own, but that had only caused the visiting Delacour to look at him for a moment before continuing on as if they hadn't said anything. Over time those looks became longer and then would come before the Minister's agreeing comment, even when he himself had pulled back on the frequency in which he said them.
It was somewhat unsettling to realize that he had been the one that'd been forced to moderate his tone and speech rather than the other way around but it was a small and temporary price to pay in order to stay close to the man. Perhaps what he had attempted was to too much for the man too soon but given access and enough time a remarkable amount of change could happen in a man's mind. Delacour did seem particularly canny about such things though and now he'd begun sending him those looks as soon as Cornelius opened his mouth, even when he himself hadn't said anything at all.
It was almost a relief when it came time to return to the castle and call Dumbledore down from his lofty perch so they could finally finish the day off. They could have gone to him of course rather than to send aurors to bring him to them but even Cornelius saw the sense in treating the man like the criminal he was. What none of them expected though was for it to take so long, which gave the tediously trite Frenchman time to taunt him even more by giving simple suggestions and the obvious next steps that made too much sense to ignore – it was the very tactic that he had used in the past to get so many others reliant on his advice.
Lucius decided that he couldn't stand the man and the sooner he could get him away from the Minister and out of the country, the better off everyone would be. He just couldn't understand the man; surely someone as astute and politically sophisticated as this Delacour was would see the futility of fighting amongst themselves when there was a meddlesome and untrustworthy third party to act in concert against. Wizarding Britain and their continental cousins had their differing points of view but it wasn't like–
'Severus was right,' he thought as he battled a suddenly sour stomach. 'Invoking Merlin's name for this would be an insult to the man's memory. Then again,' Lucius said to himself, 'the man was said to be of Slytherin House so he might've disemboweled the Frenchman instead, before going on to do something truly drastic to protect the country from their influence.'
Lucius looked at him out of the corner of his eye as the man gave the Minister his assurances that all the golden plates from the great hall and the many cups and plaques from the trophy room that they'd have to confiscate would be returned once the gold testing was complete – though how long that would take he couldn't say.
'He couldn't be one of those people who actually likes non-human creatures, could he?' he wondered as he tried to see him anew. 'No. No, certainly not. The man carried himself too well for that sort of thing; he was obviously well-bred. Espousing those beliefs are one thing, carrying them out is another. If one of them tried to marry his son or daughter, then we'd see where he really stood on the subject.'
If it wasn't that, and he'd already negated any hope he had of detachment from their politics, then it really left only one other thing the man could be: a moralizing busy-body. How anyone could stand being such a small and insignificant person as to be constantly compelled to go around trying to feel superior by striving to make everyone who doesn't agree with your narrow-minded view feel cheap and small he didn't know. What he did know though was that such a thing would never be tolerated in Britain, no matter what the man thought.
'Just let the man try to tell people here that they were no better than goblins,' Lucius thought as the aurors they'd sent for Dumbledore finally came back into sight. 'The country would revolt faster than they would if they cancelled Quidditch. Some people are just better than others and everyone knew it.'
The downside of not using Merlin to swear by though was that it left you with very little to say, even when the nemesis you've spent years sparring and trading jabs with hobbles through the door wearing what'd pass for an old bed sheet. What was the old man playing at?
"Merlin's beard," the Minister whispered to him suddenly. "Has he gone mad?"
That being the first thing to pop into Cornelius's head made everything perfectly clear.
"I'd say 'no,' Minister," he replied. "I think the man's trying to trick us. After all, if he was mad he'd spend the rest of his life in a comfortable ward at Saint Mungo's, not locked away in Azkaban."
"Gah, really!" the scandalized Minister whispered before turning to glare at the hobbling, smiling man that was making his way over to them.
"Cornelius, Lucius," Dumbledore greeted them as soon as he was close enough, "a pleasure to see you as always. And Jean-Olivier, I had been wondering who they would send, and they did not disappoint. They could not have made a wiser choice. I do hope your time here has been pleasant, given the circumstances," he finished with a groan as he sat across from them in the same dungeon classroom as before.
"Given ze circumstances," Delacour said in a more remote manner, though not so remote as to make it seem falsely so.
Lucius forced himself not to smile.
'Even in defeat he's still trying sow the seeds of suspicion somewhere else and turn us against each other,' he thought humorously. 'The old man simply can't help himself. He has to try and play with our minds and perceptions when he has the chance.'
"Before we begeen," the Frenchman said as he beckoned one of his fellows over, "would you preefer ze Candid Contract or veritaserum?"
"Ah," Dumbledore said in that sagely way he had when he was trying to buy more time to think. "Naturally I would choose the Candid Contract, since I know that it's what you favor, but alas, I am no longer allowed a wand," the man said with large eyes trying to illicit pity. "And veritaserum would put our English friends at a loss since it is not used in our courts."
"Laws can be changed," the Cornelius said tersely, which drew a curious look from the accused man and made Delacour look past the Minister to him as if he were the one making the man speak.
"I really don't think that'll be a concern here," Lucius cut in smoothly, ignoring the Frenchman's look. "The Stone is an I.C.W. affair," he said with a polite smile and nod to the obstinate Delacour, "the Deputy-Inspector General has been gracious enough to include us as honored guests so that we can see that all the appropriate steps are being taken to safeguard our mutual economies and your rights as an individual. And I must say," he continued, turning to the man in question, "that this has been very professionally done. The Hogwarts Board of Governors commends you for your efforts."
"Oh yes, very well done," the Minister added.
Delacour nodded appreciatively at their words but his smile looked more like someone who was amused by their efforts. What did the man have against trying to reset relations between them in a more positive direction? It was as if he saw them as if they were small children playing with dolls. It was an aggravating tactic but if he thought it'd put him off his goal then he was sadly mistaken; it would just take more time.
"As eet would 'appen," the Frenchman said, getting back to the matter at hand, "your potion mastair 'appened upon ze most eencredible breakthrough for veritaserum zat I am sure weel pass ze standards board een short ordair."
"He is a man of many special talents," Dumbledore smiled, making him wonder–
No. No, he wasn't thinking about that. It was a well-known secret that Dumbledore was that-that other way when it came to private things but Lucius refused to even contemplate anything like that. Getting in good with the Headmaster because the so-called Dark Lord commanded you to was one thing; doing… that was going too far by half.
Once the man had been properly dosed he expected all sorts of evasions and equivocations and Albus did not disappoint. To the very first question, whether the Stone was ever at Hogwarts, the man simply smiled and said, "Yes… and no. It depends, I suppose, on how you define the term."
"Th-the Stone," Cornelius sputtered, at a loss for words. "The one guarded by goblins."
"And by 'ere at 'Ogwarts we mean 'ere, at 'Ogwarts," Delacour clarified.
"And I'm afraid that still gets us no closer to the truth," Dumbledore said sagely. "Perhaps it would be better if I were to explain. Why I must say both yes and no to what you ask has to do with what the Stone is, and what it is not. In my youth, after I had passed through our process to be able to see and study with my dear friend, Nicholas – the stipulation never to reveal information that has not been cleared by the I.C.W. has been rendered moot, I take it?" he asked Delacour quickly, which got him an equally quick nod.
"Ah," he continued. "In my youth I came upon a curious phrase in some old correspondence he had tucked away, forgotten in a book. 'The stone that is not a stone,' it said and I must admit that I was puzzled. And Nicholas, of course, would give me no help in unraveling the mystery."
"And well he shouldn't," the Minister butt in to say. "We've seen what you did with it."
Dumbledore smiled at him.
"That part of the story comes in far later, I'm afraid," he said, looking over his half-moon spectacles at him. "But, as I was saying... The phrase got me curious, and some years later I was able to puzzle it out. How could a stone not be a stone? Why, it's simple. The stone is not a stone when it is the Stone itself and that Stone is something else entirely."
Lucius suddenly felt everything on the left side of his brain turn sideways but didn't want to voice his concerns.
"You're saying that the Stone is a fraud?!" Delacour exclaimed, saving him from having to do so.
"A curious question, with humorous implications depending on how you define the terms," a jovial Dumbledore remarked. "The answer for which is 'yes,' to all possible interpretations; that does require a bit more explanation though. It was some years into our friendship when I presented him with this," he said as he continued the story, "and though he had sworn never to tell the secrets involved with the use of the Stone, it was never a part of any agreement he made to hide how the whole thing came to be."
In spite of himself Lucius felt the spike of curiosity for as far as trying to talk his way out of trouble went, what Dumbledore was attempting would be a master stroke of duplicity and subterfuge if he could actually pull it off. Fortunately, for his purposes, they had more than the Stone to use against him.
"In the thrill of discovery and the excitement of returning both himself and his wife to the prime of their youths, Nicholas made an unfortunate mistake," Albus said sadly. "He sought to give the remarkable benefits to the entire world by eliminating their debts in one fell swoop and ushering us all into a new age of prosperity. Naturally, as such foolhardy plans often do, his good intentions went awry when the gift was not accepted in the spirit that it was given."
"'E almost destroyed all of France!" their county's visitor said angrily as Dumbledore finally hit on something that mattered to him. "'E would 'ave left us destitute."
The old man nodded sadly, "Many believe that with age comes wisdom, but that is not always so. Bitter experience brings that and in this case it was bought at a terrible price. Nicholas was forced to flee his home and was hunted by wrathful rulers, beguiling bankers, mischievous merchants, and penniless peasants for almost seven years, the wizarding world began to turn against Alchemy as a whole, and many noted scholars lost their lives because of fear, jealousy, and suspicion. Nicholas himself faced death on a nearly-constant basis until he finally came to these shores."
"And what does this have to do with the Stone being a fraud?" Lucius cut in to ask before they got too mired in the past.
"When he and Perenelle arrived, Nicholas knew that they would never be allowed to live in peace as long as people still feared what he could do, and they would always fear what they could not control," Dumbledore said by way of explanation. "That is why he created a stone like no other, and convinced the goblin king that bartering it on his behalf for his survival could give the king all of the power and influence that his kind had always craved–"
"Setting ze stage for ze Flamel Agreement," Delacour finished for him.
"Naturally," Dumbledore agreed.
"But that stone was only created after his arrival here; almost seven years after he was chased from his home, you said," Lucius reminded them before getting to the conclusion that Dumbledore wanted them to reach. "That means that the Stone, the Sorcerer's Stone that changed metals into gold and created the Elixir of Life… that wasn't the stone he traded away," he said with cold certainty. "It was a lie; a lie he used to buy his life. The only thing that could really do those things – the real Stone – was Flamel himself. That's what you're getting at, isn't it?"
"Precisely," Albus said with a happy smile that irked Lucius to no end. "I couldn't have said it better myself."
"So you are askeeng us to believe zat ze Flamel Agreement – wheech spurred ze eenternational community to develop and 'as served as a template for magical cooperation around ze world for centuries – ees a-a," Delacour stammered, at a loss for words.
"–A six hundred year old joke," Dumbledore finished for him with a grin that showed teeth. "Nicholas was quite amused by it, even if no one else ever did manage to figure it out. He didn't wish to die but had resolved never again to hurt the world as he did; only no one would believe him, so what was he to do? Life does find funny little ways to work things out for the best, don't you think?"
Delacour seemed unable to conceive of such a thing while Lucius tried to hold at bay the start of a headache that he knew would only be cured by large quantities of wine.
"That means that the one you had here," the Minister said, trying to come to terms with the ramifications of all this, "the one that was stolen from Gringotts–"
"–Was a pretty, but useless, stone," Dumbledore happily said before continuing in a somber tone. "But even in its powerlessness it was still a dangerous thing – not for what it could do, but for what it could bring out of us. Though it was actually worthless, it was still a stone that many around the world would kill to possess, simply because they believed in what it could do," the man said with a look at him over his half-moon spectacles.
"So the great Dumbledore had to protect us from one of Beedle the Bard's tall tales or we'd all be fighting for the Fountain of Fair Fortune," Cornelius said disparagingly. "Is that about the size of it?"
"If zis ees what you feared would 'appen," Delacour cut in before Albus could respond, "why deed you not come to us een private? Why deed you steal ze non-Stone stone? Why deed you 'ide it 'ere? And ees it still 'ere now?"
"In order to answer those questions with the seriousness the subject demands, I'm afraid that I must ask for your indulgence once again," Dumbledore said with an air that one could confuse with humility.
The weary-looking Frenchman gestured for him to feel free to launch into yet another story, and Lucius couldn't help but agree with the sentiment. This was far from the longest interview they'd had that day but it was surely the most tiresome. A week spent searching this place to try and confirm what the man was saying would likely have the wizards of the I.C.W. either permanently stupefied or dreading the thought of talking to the man again.
"Eternity, as it turns out, requires a great deal of persistence to endure," Albus said somberly when he began again. "And while I would like to think that my friendship with Nicholas may have helped give him the drive to continue seeing the next sunrise, who can say for sure where that desire sprang from? Unfortunately, it was not a desire that his wife, Perenelle, continued to share.
"She had confessed to me once that she had forgotten what life outside the tower was even like," Dumbledore said in a way that evoked a kind of reflective, contemplative sadness. "I think it may have been not wishing to leave Nicholas by himself that had her choose to linger on but, in a way, I'm surprised that she elected to live as long as she had. I am grateful for it, in my own selfish way, for it let me get to know them, but there you are."
"Zere we are, what?" Delacour asked. "'Ow ees zat an answer?"
"My apologies, Jean-Olivier, you are right," Dumbledore demurred. "That was not an answer but an old orator's offense of setting up the conundrum that we faced. Perenelle wanted a change and embracing death, and discovering what mysteries wait for them beyond, was preferable to her than continuing to live as they were.
"Nicholas, for his part, was willing to go with her," he continued, launching into yet another story-like answer that was beginning to feel like a History of Magic lesson. "Being locked away from the world for so long though – a world that seemed to them to change every time they looked – did not lend itself to knowing how it would respond to their deaths, to the knowledge of the great lie that had saved them, or even whether anyone would believe them. Thus, he feared what would happen if the false Stone was left in untrustworthy hands."
"'E should 'ave come to us," Delacour declared, reasserting his point from before.
"You're the people who wanted him dead," the Minister reminded the man.
"Oui, we are," the Frenchman agreed, "but we are also ze ones who deed not move against 'im in seeks 'undred years."
"That is very close to what I said to him," Dumbledore said with a smile. "He may have lied to the world in the past but he did have six hundred years of good behavior to weigh against it. He had never created gold again, never told anyone how, and had only made enough Elixir to keep the two of them alive–"
"Why would he need the Elixir to stay alive?" a curious Cornelius cut in to query. "The man was immortal; taking it again would just make him doubly immortal, wouldn't it? What would that do for him?"
His interest in the subject may have waned considerably but it had seemed an obvious question to Lucius, he certainly wasn't about to ask it himself though. Judging by the inquisitive looks that Dumbledore and Delacour sent the Minister, he was glad he didn't.
"Ah, apologies, Cornelius, I had taken it for granted that you would know," the testifying man said with a humble look on his face. "The kinds of alchemical perfection that Nicholas achieved – though permanent when dealing with transmuting lesser metals to gold and multiplying the more mundane matter ad infinitum – did not have that same permanence when it came to the effects of the Elixir of Life."
"Because the perfection that they achieve is very different, though it is done in similar ways," the Headmaster professed. "The perfection of metals into gold is done by extracting the disparate essences involved and then recombining them into a perfected balance. It is this perfected balance – this perfected essence – that then perfects the matter in which it resides; so too does the Elixir of Life, though the essence on which it works is that of the soul, and the body is then renewed by it."
"That-that doesn't really explain," the Minister said, and Lucius was inclined to agree, no matter how the Frenchman was nodding.
"Though ze spirit may be renewed, ze man weel always remain 'imself," Delacour dumbledored his way through in explanation. "All ze potions and magic we 'ave may tweest and contort 'im into something 'e ees not, but ze man weel always be what 'e is. So while the Elixir can rejuvenate ze body, only experience can change ze man."
"Quite so," Dumbledore agreed. "In other words, the perfected state that's reached through the magical process is impermanent for the man will eventually return to what he is: changeable, and therefore mortal. Living life in seven year increments though does add up over time. Deciding to no longer prolong their lives and simply not taking the Elixir again would, in this instance, be as if Time itself suddenly sped up for them and made them the age they should naturally be," he finished finally.
"They'd be like the Lost Generation," Cornelius said aghast at the thought.
"Indeed," Lucius drawled.
"Taken, for ze moment, zat Nichola Flamel did indeed eentend to end 'is life," Delacour said as his scribe scribbled away beside him. "You steell 'aven't explained why you stole ze stone, even eef it was a fake."
Lucius sat up in his chair, rather interested in what Dumbledore would say to that while the man himself seemed to consider his options.
"I cannot say for certain how Nicholas had planned to go about handling the realities of ending his life," he said when he finally answered. "Simply waiting for the potion to expire was the most dignified means he had available but there was still the issue of how to inform his goblin caretakers. Naturally, he did not wish them to be alarmed when it finally happened and think something was amiss but should they prove less than understanding concerning his decision there would still be quite some time to have to live with potentially severe consequences should the full story be told too soon."
"So even after all this time Flamel was still a coward?" Lucius probingly pricked the man.
"If by that you mean that he didn't wish to face the goblins' ire or the world's wrath, as he did before, but how many of us would be so eager to do the same?" Dumbledore asked in return.
"The goblins could have taken him prisoner and held him for ransom again, like they're doing now with our Hit Wizards," Cornelius said, prompting Delacour to look to Lucius again. It almost made him want to give some signal for the Minister to stop saying such things but it was now a point of stubbornness between him and the Frenchman. Eventually he had to learn that he and the Minister were two separate people, even when the Minister was only following the general plan he had laid out at the start of the day.
"Precisely," Albus agreed, choosing to take the slight change in topic. "And though it would no doubt secure the Hit Wizards' freedom, you haven't offered to take their place. Does this make you a coward any more than Nicholas?"
Cornelius opened his mouth a time or two as if to respond but in the end settled on crossing his arms in front of him with a look that clearly said that he didn't like the comparison one bit, no matter how appropriate.
"Nevertheless," Dumbledore continued, getting back to the previous topic, "I believe that Nicholas did say something to someone, though I cannot say for sure precisely who or how. He did inform me though of a distinct change in his caretakers' attitudes towards him, becoming far more distant to him than they had been in a very long time. Nonetheless, Nicholas became concerned that something was afoot."
"Simply because they didn't like him anymore?" Lucius asked with an artfully arched eyebrow.
"Admittedly, it seemed a small thing when he mentioned it," Dumbledore agreed. "Perhaps he simply wasn't used to change occurring so closely to him and thus was at a loss as to how else to explain it, so I began to look into it myself and discovered that he was correct. Unbeknownst to Nicholas, some outside influence had conspired to have the stone relocated to a lower security vault when it arrived back at Gringotts after its next scheduled trip to the tower. From there they would have almost seven years to discover the secret before the change was likely to be discovered."
"Someone else 'ad wanted to steal ze stone?"
"How did you learn this?" Lucius interrupted.
"Ah, now as to that, I will not be saying," Dumbledore said sagely over the top of his half-moon spectacles. "It wouldn't do to have them face the negative repercussions from those they may have inadvertently betrayed. They deserve a second chance to keep the peaceful life they have.
"And as to those whose secrets they revealed, who's to say what this experience will teach them, given time? Perhaps, once the truth of Nicholas's story is known, they'll learn that it's not the length of time we spend on this earth that's important; what's important is how we choose to spend that time and what we do with it," the other man said with rhetoric mirroring his stance on Blood Purity.
"Zey are still people 'oo conspired to steal ze stone," Delacour pointed out. "Whether ze stone was useless or not, zat is still a crime."
"A crime that amounts to nothing because their attempt to do so failed," Dumbledore in turn reminded him.
"Because you were ze one 'oo stole it first?" the Frenchman rhetorically asked. "Eef I poisoned you 'ere today, would zere be no crime een it if you 'appen to fall and break your neck before it killed you?"
"Not to step on your toes, Deputy Inspector, but this doesn't really deal with the main issue that we're here to discuss, I think," Lucius interjected in an attempt to end the meeting before it went forever. "I am not an expert, of course," he said to softly blunt the move along message he wanted to send, "but any crime such as the one you describe would likely fall under British jurisdiction, wouldn't it? Conspiring to do something and actually doing it are two very different things," he said with a gesture to Dumbledore who twinkled his eyes back at him mirthfully.
"Per'aps," Delacour said noncommittally.
"If we are to get into the legal reading of things though," Dumbledore said seriously, "I believe you'll find that what I did – or at least arranged to have done – was not theft but the reclaiming of property on behalf of its rightful owner."
"How do you see it as that?" Cornelius asked.
"Because the stone in question still belonged to Nicholas Flamel," he explained simply. "The Agreement he had did not change that and he was the one who asked me to remove the stone from its incorrect vault and to keep it safe. Better, he believed, for the stone to be safely hidden until after he died than for this would-be thief to realize the truth behind the Stone's forgery and come after him for the true secret of it."
Lucius's stomach roiled; he hadn't read this purported Agreement any more than Cornelius had but what the man was saying made a common kind of sense. That wasn't to say that it was true but it certainly sounded so, which went a long way in disarming them of this issue. It wouldn't be enough for him to have Cornelius drop it but it might be enough to get the I.C.W. not to press for extradition once the Potter boy's case against him was over.
Lucius much preferred the thought of Dumbledore spending the remainder of his days locked away in Azkaban. The I.C.W.'s Nurmengard simply didn't have that kind of appeal to him, despite the irony of Dumbledore having to share the prison with the Dark Wizard he once felled. Besides, that prison was said to be rather comfortable in comparison, providing books and all sorts of amenities for their prisoner. The two of them would eventually age and die in comfort, like the Flamels had, and what sort of end for him would that be?
"Now that they are gone though and the truth has been revealed," Dumbledore said with a smile as his hand dipped into his pocket. "I think it's safe to say that this will be safe in your hands now," he smiled, placing what looked like a large uncut ruby the size of a man's palm on the table in front of an eye-popping Delacour.
"Is–is that–?" Cornelius asked with similar shock.
"The pretty, but useless stone, yes," Albus said, his eyes twinkling merrily.
Petunia peered out the window from between the slats of the blinds. She couldn't see them out there, but they were there. They'd been out there all day and she couldn't stand it. Her perfectly normal life had been turned into one giant freak show with her as the main attraction.
'I am not the freak,' she seethed to herself. 'They're the freaks, only they're too freakish to know it. They wouldn't know what normal was like if it shot them in the face!' she thought without a bit of imagination having to go into it for it was precisely what Vernon had done, or rather, it had been what he'd tried to do.
Somehow the freaks at the door last evening had made the blast bounce back and hit her husband, which was completely uncalled for. She'd run to the phone and called the police but that didn't stop the freak-police that'd shown up from taking him away or stop them from bewitching the real police into thinking that she'd just made it all up. All it had done was get her a stern talking-to in her own house by some big bald black man with an earring about why she should take this as a warning never to do something like this again.
All the magic in the world at their disposal though and those freaks couldn't stop the real-police from coming back by an hour later wondering why they'd left without getting their information, whether it was a phony case or not. But of course she'd told the truth, because that's what normal people do with the police, not like those people who tried to make it all go away. Dudley was still clutching his buttocks to one side lest he grow a tail as she was telling them what had really happened when Vernon shown up again without a mark on him.
'But did he try to help me at all?' she asked herself as she silently stewed in her resentment. 'Oh no, not Vernon.' Rather than take a stand for normalcy, the great coward had lied and said that he'd just been working late and that Petunia made up stories when she was worried.
'Made up stories?' she scoffed. Petunia Dursley had never made up stories in her life... except when it came to the boy's parents, and those would be most likely to somewhat true if she ever cared to know anything about them.
Vernon hadn't said where they'd taken him, or what they'd done to him, but he'd seemed the same to her. As if to prove it, as soon as the police were gone he thundered about the house about how they had to leave and find somewhere safe to live. The man was mad; she wasn't going to be forced out of her own home; besides, they'd tried that before and they still found them. How can you hide from people who can do anything?
And what had she gotten for all her efforts? What came from standing up for decency? She was labeled 'The Goblin Lady of Surrey' and plastered all over the front page like a mad woman for everyone to laugh at. Well, there had to be some out there that knew the truth. There had to be some, like her, who never got their letters but had to watch others go off to Magical Adventure Land without them, and they'd know the truth.
Truth didn't seem to matter to the freaks though or they wouldn't have had to put up with what they had next. What right did they have to terrorize decent, innocent, normal people, much less drop a load of foul-smelling muck all over their lawn? Why would they turn the hedges blue? And most importantly, why would anyone ever call her a 'bad mother,' let alone write it on the house in glowing letters? Her Dudders was a perfect little gentleman, no matter what her neighbors thought.
Of course she'd known just what to do about that: call the police, call the newspapers, call everyone she could think of to get them to finally see what was happening! Vernon, though, had forbid it – even going so far as to rip the phone off the wall and throwing it outside at the freaks. Of course, it only turned into a bird and flew away but whoever those freaks were took it as licence to up their attacks and send birds pelting back at them, but at least the whole street got to see that she wasn't a mad woman!
She hadn't really thought what would happen after that though because everyone seemed to call someone different. Firefighters, police, news crews, even blokes from the electric company started showing up. Everything seemed to get bigger and bigger while those freaks were still using the chaos to take pot shots at the house!
Petunia never thought she'd be thankful to see the Freak Police but they'd been a godsend at the time. More and more of them kept arriving, dressed in all sorts of different robes, and how much time they spent rounding up all those troublemakers, chucking them out if they didn't disappear on their own, and dealing with all the trouble they'd caused and who knows what else was anyone's guess but it had to be the far better part of the day.
There was no undoing what'd happened though, people saw it this time; people would believe her this time for sure. ...Or at least they would have until the Freak Police started turning their magic on them as well, then it was like the whole thing never happened so if she tried to tell anyone – even the ones who were there when it happened – she'd just seem like a mad woman all over again.
The stern-faced, hawk-eyed woman wearing a monocle and seemed to be in charge was not amused by what was going on, not in the slightest. Even safely inside the house Petunia could hear her demand to know who was responsible for what she called, "the largest breach of Secrecy in a decade." Petunia felt a stirring of pride at that because even if they managed to erase everything that happened that day from people's minds they couldn't take that from her... unless they did it to her too.
As time went on, and order was established outside, someone must've told her some version of what happened for when she finally came to their house she seemed to know everything, and blame her for most of it. She had the audacity to blame them for what happened last night when all they did was shoot someone, blamed her for calling the police when they were the ones being attacked, and blamed her for not taking her responsibility to keeping wizarding secrecy important – just as, the woman said, they hadn't taken raising their nephew seriously.
Dudley was cowering in the corner clutching his buttocks so hard he might never let it go and while she didn't know what they'd done to Vernon last night to make him try to hide behind the sofa, that left her to deal with this. The only bit of their world she had ever seen may have been that silly platform her parents had dragged her along to see but she would show them that you didn't have to be a witch to be brave and stand up for what's right.
"What do you mean by that?" Petunia asked scathingly.
"I think you know perfectly well what I'm talking about," the bone-headed woman said sternly. "If you had then none of this would've been possible for there would've been no story of you to write about."
"Story? What story?" she asked quickly, concerned about the gossip that was going around about her.
The woman snapped and one of her freakish toadies came scurrying over with a newspaper for her to see.
"Harry Potter's Monster Muggle Relatives?" Petunia said, scandalized by what she saw. "How dare they use those words on us?! We are not the monsters here, you are. You and all your freakish kind, why would the boy be any different? Regrowing cut hair, shrinking sweaters, leaping to the top of the school – what do you call that if not monstrous? What would you have us do, give him a ribbon for being Best Freak?"
"I would have had you take it as proof that your nephew was gifted, miss Petunia Evans," the woman replied, "just as your sister was before him. You would have seen her do similar things at her age to know that they were perfectly normal."
"It was not normal!" she cried wanting more than anything to get away from talking about her sister. "They're freaks and dangerous! The boy set a giant snake to attack my Dudley at the zoo! We had to keep him locked up, it was for our own safety."
"I'm not familiar with the incident but do you have any idea just how dangerous mistreating a magical child could be?" the hawk-faced woman asked in retort. "Accidental magic pops out when they're angry or scared and I could easily see him being both rather regularly in this house. Imagine all the bad things you've ever wanted to do to people when you had a flash of anger or fear; I'd hate to see what it'd be like to mishandle a child like that, without someone having magic to back them up."
Suddenly Petunia thought about what their lives could've been like under the boy as a pint-sized dictator. It would've been something right out of the Twilight Zone. All the more reason to keep the monster locked under the stairs! She wasn't the only one who didn't like what she saw when she thought about it.
"Mummy, make them stop!" Duddy said from the corner, one hand covering his privates now.
"And as to the 'monstrous' allegation," the woman continued after only sparing her Dudley a glance, "I can't say that you could be any more wrong than you are now. I happened to have met with the boy just yesterday and I found him to be a fine young man," she said shockingly.
"He was notably upset about the way that he was treated here, of course," she continued. "But he seems to be dealing with it quite well now that he's away and with a good family and friends. I've even been told that he has a little girlfriend."
'Harry? With a girlfriend?' Petunia thought to herself since her mouth didn't seem to want to move. 'The last thing we need is any more freaks!'
"Good!" Vernon said from behind the couch, and seemingly unconcerned for the future of mankind. "They can keep him!" he continued as she caught on to what he was after. "We never wanted him in the first place!"
He looked over the couch for a moment seeming like his old self again, only to cower back again the moment the woman looked at him with a mumbled 'mimblewimble.' What had they done to him when they took him? What had they done to her big bully bear?
"Yes," she said, taking over for her husband. "Nobody ever asked us if we wanted him. They just dropped him on our doorstep with a 'take him or you're dead' letter. With what happened here today we see what good his promises were."
"What you saw outside may have been bad but it was far from the worst of it," the woman said with an adjustment of her monocle. "There were some witches and wizards out today with more on their minds than a bit of muggle-baiting but had every intention of harming your family," she informed them, sending Petunia's jaw to the floor. "It seems as though Professor Dumbledore had provided some protection for you though so they couldn't get close to the house.
"I had been informed about everything else though," the hawk-eyed woman said as if she hadn't just elaborated on their possible murders. "Young mister Potter has initiated legal action that may see him virtually independent if it succeeds based in part on your wretched handling of his care and it's something that I'm in full support of. Everything that's happened with this house for the last day has only served to reinforce that position.
"If it weren't for the fact that you and your family are sure to be called to testify," the woman pushed ahead as a well of dread formed in Petunia's stomach, "then you all would be facing the prospect of having the existence of magic and the magical world erased from your minds entirely. As to what else that might mean for you, only time will tell. Prison is a real possibility at this point."
"Prison?" she asked, the fuel for nightmares she'd heard about when she was younger coming to mind. "You can't send us to Azkaban. We aren't one of your freaks and we haven't done anything wrong!"
The hawk-eyed woman remained unruffled.
"While normally I would agree that you haven't done anything illegal in the mishandling of Mr. Potter," the woman said, "It seems as though that only pertains to my world. After speaking with the boy I took the liberty of looking into the current state of muggle law and was astonished at what I found," she said as Petunia felt weak in the knees. "It seems as though your kind has advanced considerably since any of us last looked into it. So we may not be able to send you to Azkaban but we could certainly do something."
In desperation, Petunia attacked with the only thing she had left.
"And you think that you and your kind are so special?" she said almost maddeningly fast. "Your kind couldn't even handle the police correctly yesterday. They came back on their own almost as soon as your people had left, wondering why they'd left in the first place because nothing they had made sense! How's that for mishandling things?
"How many times have you repeated that mistake today?" she asked, gesturing to the window. "Policemen, firefighters, news people – these aren't people who'll drop a mystery just because you want them to, so you've accomplished nothing! Your world will be exposed and you are too stupid to stop it! You think that we should be afraid of you but it's you who should be afraid of us!"
The woman swooped in to close the distance very quickly so that she was almost nose-to-nose with her when she spoke.
"I have tried to be tolerant," she stated, staring at her right in the eye. "But people like you give muggles a bad name. Something will have to be done about you," she said before pivoting to leave the house. "Tongue-Tie them," she said to her Freak Police friends as she went. "All of them."
In the hours that'd passed Petunia hadn't seen any of those particular ones again, but she knew they were out there. Dudley was the first to return to his senses after the freaks had left but eventually Vernon came around. For a while he breathed through his nose while spying out the windows for any other freaks but eventually settled down to watch the telly and tried to put the whole mess behind them.
That was something that she simply couldn't do. The others might not have realized it with all the woman's talk of prison but Petunia knew that that's exactly where they already were. They were imprisoned in their own home by invisible magical jailers that they couldn't tell anyone about.
If she watched closely though, occasionally she could see one of them. When someone came too close to the house a wand-waving robe-wearing weirdo always appeared to interrogate them before leaving them standing there confused for a moment before they finally went on their way. There had to be more out there somewhere, she was sure of it, and the pink-haired young woman walking towards them proved her right.
She stormed to the front door to beat her there.
"You've got a lot of nerve coming back here after what you did," Petunia said looking down at her from the top of her front step.
"After what I did?" the girl asked.
"You shot my husband!" she reminded the freak.
"Your husband shot himself," the girl shot back at her. "All I was doing was protecting miss Skeeter. If he had shot her the article would've been worse."
"What else did you do to Vernon?" Petunia pressed. "He wasn't himself at all today."
"What do you mean, 'what did we do?'" the girl asked stupidly. "We took him to the hospital, what'd you think we'd do with him? I don't see what's got your nickers in a twist. What you should be doing is thanking me, or did you want his face to be stuck like that permanently?"
"That'd be just the sort of thing you freaks would do," Petunia scoffed. "But there had to be something more than that. He's never been such a coward in all his life so I know you people did something."
"My name's not 'Freak,' it's Tonks," the girl said with a stubborn face as flecks of red began to highlight her pink hair which she did not take to be a good sign. "And we didn't do anything to your precious husband besides putting his face back together. There was that bit where we had to knock him out a few times because he wouldn't stop struggling," she added quickly, "but besides that it was just the face."
"Why are you even here?" she asked, not even giving the girl a name. "We haven't done anything."
"I'm here because you've already done enough and all the shit jobs land on me," the girl said as her hand went to her back pocket.
Petunia thought she was going for a wand but all it was a folded piece of parchment.
"What's this supposed to be?" she asked, snatching the thing from the girl though if she actually expected her to read anything that came from freaks then she had another thing coming.
"They're my orders," miss freak said, and this time she did produce her wand. "I'm assigned here for your round-the-clock protection – and don't try to get out of it because I've already tried; you doing it would only get me stuck here forever."
The girl thrust her wand towards the ground causing a pair of suitcases to suddenly appear.
"So," miss pink freak said, picking up her things. "Which room is mine? Caution–," the girl said before she could even think about responding, "if you say 'under the stairs,' I'm authorized to hurt you."
All in all it was hard to see if this day amounted to a win or a loss, as far as the I.C.W. was concerned. Naturally, they'd be cautiously optimistic with the return of what they once thought to be the most powerful magical artifact ever created but at the same time couldn't know whether what they thought was true or a cunning lie, or if what they just learned about it was the lie. Likewise, while they had gained a legitimate reason to hold Dumbledore accountable, what he did was looking more and more mundane by the minute – aside from the mysterious disappearance of Professor Quirrell, which he still refused to give any information about.
Dumbledore finally did have to admit that he and Flamel had violated the I.C.W. strictures on communicating with each other in order to carry out their plan for the man's death but, as far as great crimes go, that rather paled in comparison to what they were looking for. Stealing a fake stone and passing a few notes lacked the flashy appeal that taking a real Stone had, which put public prosecution of the man in doubt. Plus, there was the public embarrassment to consider too.
Prosecuting Dumbledore openly would only invite the world to know just how big of a lie they'd swallowed, how easily they'd been tricked, and how long it'd been maintained. Such things were not meant for public consumption because they'd wear away confidence in the traditional wizarding institutions. Lucius may not like Gringotts or the I.C.W. but they were wizarding institutions in a way, plus it had implications for the Ministry as well so they all must be maintained in this regard, even Delacour would know that.
The whole affair had the smell of Dumbledore all over it. It was messy and common as well as believable and credible, in a disappointing way, even down to the most mundane of details. Like the whole deal with fish. His phoenix was there when they stormed the Tower because it had gotten used to traveling there to convey their secret messages and because it had a fondness for fish, and Flamel had always provided. It was the kind of explanation that made your mind say, 'Oh, of course that's why,' but it left you disappointed because you had been wanting so much more.
Still, as small as his offenses seemed now they were still enough to end him because people now wanted him gone for reasons they simply never thought possible before. In the more cordial parts of the day Delacour had mentioned that the I.C.W. had convened an emergency session to elect a new Supreme Mugwump – some strange-named African fellow that Lucius wasn't about to try to remember, let alone try to pronounce the name of – and the man had immediately pledged to give all the issues that Dumbledore had continually relegated to committees their chance for votes so that "the wizarding world might progress once more."
What a horrible thought progress was; all it did was take you away from how things should be. It was likewise strange to think that, as much as they differed on domestic policy, had the old man confined himself to the international arena they could have been rather stalwart allies rather than enemies. Still, one might as well wish for honest goblins, hygienic werewolves, or obedient centaurs for you'd be just as likely to find one of them as you would a Dumbledore that didn't meddle.
At least there seemed to be no doubt in anyone's minds that he was still meddling for his own benefit though. Delacour had been drawn away by some surprising finds in Dumbledore's office and he had sent for them at once; what they found there was a far cry from the lush office that the man once enjoyed. The portraits of former Headmasters and all of the hard fixtures were still in place but the whole room was virtually vacant with only a few old wooden crates, presumably for furniture and to serve any sort of function he may need it for.
The most unnerving of all was found in the man's bedchamber where he'd haphazardly attached newspaper articles to the wall. There was some speculation of his mental state being worn down by time until he noted that all of the articles were very recent, only coming in the last week or so, after the first inklings of what he'd done had become public.
It was a clever move, to be honest, making such a thing so easily seen through. It tempted them towards overconfidence so they'd prosecute him anyway but at the same time warned them against doing so for he'd be sure to pull the same trick there so as to land a lighter, easier sentence. For him to even contemplate going this route to escape I.C.W. conviction though seemed to suggest that he'd already written off the Potter boy's case as a lost cause, or at least was hoping to avoid stiff penalties there for the same reasons.
He'd have to make sure that the Wizengamot was well aware of this trick before the case was ever called, that way the slow-walking of it would completely destroy the man's public persona and credibility once and for all. Doing so would also end any resistance the I.C.W. had to letting them deal with Dumbledore themselves and leave them free to let him wither away in Azkaban where he belonged. It wasn't like anyone here would care where the man ended up once he was done with him.
Yes, as far as Lucius was concerned, today was a win for him. There'd been disappointments and setbacks, sure, but those were temporary concerns and what he was after was permanence. Dumbledore's fall would be permanent, that was all that mattered. With that in mind, it was time to press the advantage.
"Now that it's had time to settle in," Lucius said to Delacour as they leisurely walked through the castle and the sun slid closer to the horizon. "What effect will Dumbledore's information, and the return of the Stone, have on your investigation? Will you be packing up and heading home now that your job is accomplished or will you be staying for some other reason?" he asked, using all his might to withhold any tone of voice that'd make his preference blatantly apparent.
"As much as I would like to see my wife and cheeldren again, I'm afraid zat we weel 'ave to stay for ze moment," Delacour replied. "We do appreciate all of your 'elp in this endeavor, so we weel try not to unduly burden you in ze future. Alas, there is still so much work to be done," he said in a way that belied the fact that he seemed to enjoy it.
"Still, eet is 'ard to believe zat ze Stone ees not real," the man said, referring to the object that was currently winging its way out of the country under heavy guard. "Eet 'as been such a feexture of ze mystique surrounding Alchemy zat eet weel be 'ard to let eet go as a simple myth. Still, eet does put some 'istorical accounts into better light.
"For eenstance," he continued, "Eet was nevair known why ze goblins were so set on their demand zat both ze Stone and Flamel must remain in their care. Contemporary reports say zat ze best alchemists ze Eenternational Confederation of Warlocks could find could do nothing with ze Stone when zey examined it.
"So there's a chance that it may be real after all?" the Minister asked, no doubt wondering if he'd made a mistake in not protesting letting them remove the Stone for testing simply for thinking it worthless.
"Not necessarily, Meenister," the Frenchman replied. "Ze same reports claim zat Nichola Flamel was unable to replicate 'is success without eet as well, though to be fair, what Dumblydore said was true in zat regard," he explained. "Ze world 'ad turned against ze study, so per'aps ze ones they 'ad simply lacked ze skill to use eet properly or to know eef what Flamel deed before them stood any chance of success at all," the man shrugged.
"There was speculation at ze time that ze goblins believed zat by keeping both ze Stone and Flamel within their grasp zat in time they would be able to quietly create as much gold as zey weeshed," Delacour said, adding a bit of intrigue to the events of so long ago. "Indeed this is why ze terms were so 'arsh on ze goblins and why zey soon found themselves unable to do business eenternationally for quite some time. Some believe zat it was this strictness that led to ze goblin king's downfall, though who can be sure of zat?"
"History of Magic sounds so much more interesting when it isn't being explained by a ghost," the Minister said to Lucius. "You think it's time for the Board of Governors to see to Professor Binn's retirement?"
"Once Dumbledore is gone, I suppose anything is possible," he replied, though he had no intention of doing anything of the sort, at least for the foreseeable future. He preferred the young to be bored and uninformed, it made for such easily controlled adults. Plus, you didn't have to pay a ghost.
Lucius was happy to see the Deputy Inspector General was finally in a talkative mood and was content to see where the man's thoughts led.
"As to whether ze Stone is real or not," Delacour continued when they were done, "that weel be for ze experts in Geneva to decide. There 'ave been many through ze years that 'as argued that eef they 'ad been zere all those years ago that they would 'ave been able to make it work. Now, they weel get there chance, and eef successful, weel 'ave ze 'onor of knowing they were right before ze Stone promptly deestroyed and their mind ees Obliviated."
"That seems a bit harsh," a wide-eye Minister said.
"Eet weel be limited to recent events and only if zey succeed," Delacour clarified. "But even that ees not as 'arsh as living een a world without money. Ze accounts we 'ave of ze 'avoc Flamel caused een France is shocking. Eet is doubtful zey weel 'ave an answer for us anytime soon though," he said with a dismissive gesture.
"Ze Stone ees only part of my remit," he continued as they waited for the moving staircases to align themselves again and they could continue. "So even if ze truth of that is nevair discovered we must make sure zat we 'ave done everything we can to check both ze story and ze gold, and zat is a lot of work. 'Istory weel not look kindly on us eef we are taken in by ze big fraud ze likes of which Dumblydore described."
"What do you mean?" Lucius asked, not keen on the prospect of living forever in history as the butt of a very large joke.
"I mean to say zat eet is important not to put too much faith een what anyone says," Delacour replied, "even one zat ees under ze effects of veritaserum. Professor Dumblydore 'ad access to all these reports for decades and – let us not forget – access to ze only one with living memory of what 'appened: Nichola Flamel 'imself.
"Per'aps 'e convinced 'imself zat ze Stone was a fake and eet is real, per'aps eet was Flamel who convinced to Dumblydore zat ze Stone was a fake, per'aps Flamel manufactured zat stone and 'id ze original somewhere, or per'aps Dumblydore manufactured zat stone 'imself and 'id ze real Stone 'ere somewhere," he said as he gestured to the hallway full of portraits and suits of armor around them. Zere are other things zey could 'ave done and unteel we check all zat we can we may never know."
Lucius did not like where this was going.
"As for myself, I theenk zat ze old fraud story is ze most likely true at zis point in time," the Frenchman said with a shrug that brought relief to the growing tension in his shoulders. "I do not like what this weel mean with ze goblins though; we 'ad promised to return ze books from Nichola Flamel's library to them when we were done checking zem but now it seems we may 'ave to keep zem for a while."
At last Lucius sensed an opening.
"Eet would not be so bad but zey keep pressuring us to buy zem all at a rideeculous price," the man said dismissively as Lucius silently sent Cornelius a signal to let him do the talking. "I know zey spent a great deal of money looking aftair Flamel all those years but zey cannot believe to make eet all back at once. Zat ees silly."
"Silly, but expedient," he replied. "I wouldn't put it past them to try to sell off what they could while the ownership of the island is still in dispute."
"And we come back to zis," Delacour said with a click his tongue and shake of his head. "Ze two of you 'ave been dancing around zis all day. No, do not make excuses," the Frenchman said before they could protest. "Eef I were in your positions I may 'ave done ze same. Still, what you fail see is 'ow ze situation ees on my side, I weel explain," he said coming to a stop and looking up at them.
"Zis is not a matter of whether I, in my official capacity, decide to side with ze Meenistry or with Gringotts," he said quickly. "Eet is a matter of me upholding ze integrity of my good name and ze name of Eenternational Confederation of Weezards eetself. I was ze one who saw ze agreement zat came from ze Meenistry, I read it, I saw eets Seal next to zat of Gringotts – and I know them both when I see them. To ask me now to say all of zat was a fake is to say zat I was fooled and I let ze I.C.W. be fooled.
"Ze Eenternational Confederation of Weezards does not like embarrassment in cases like zis," he continued on to say, "but 'ere we are with embarrassment to go around, eef what Professor Dumblydore says is true. To add zis as well – there ees seemply no way that ze I.C.W. weel allow zis without something for me to point to so I can say zat I was right to believe before zat the agreement was real, and now I am right to believe zat eet is not."
"I want to believe you, Meenister," Delacour said to Cornelius in a tone that seemed genuine. "Really, I do, but I need some proof of what you say; some tiny bit of something for me to take your side, zat is all I ask. Agree to a hearing, present me zis proof you 'ave, and let me see for myself," the man said, pressing his case directly to the Minister. "I weel believe what is true; let Gringotts then prove zat you are wrong eef zey can. Zat ees so leetle to ask. You see ze sense in this, yes? Come, say you will."
"Well I–," Cornelius said darting an uncertain glance at him as he stammered. "I guess that's not so bad," he finished, completely misreading the look he'd given him and single-handedly demolishing any hope they had to sway the man by other means.
"Magnifique!" he cried, clasping the Minister's hand to seal the deal as Lucius washed his hands of the entire affair. "We weel 'ave to work very 'ard to search zis place before ze begeening of your term but aftair zat we can see to ze island issue and 'ave eet all straightened out straight away," he said with a smile that the dimwitted Minister returned.
"Wonderful!" Cornelius replied as some of the internationals came into sight. "We'll have everything ready for you then."
"Excuse me, sir," one of them said in surprisingly good English before he gave a nod to Cornelius. "Minister Fudge."
"Yes, what ees it?" Delacour replied.
"We're having a bit of trouble with interviewing Hagrid," the English I.C.W. wizard said.
"'Agrid?" he asked, looking over to the Minister.
"He's the gamekeeper here," Cornelius said. "Big man – very big, lots of hair. Some bad Growth Potion or Engorgement Charm, I think, but rather harmless. What could possibly be wrong with Hagrid?"
"Well, sirs," the man hesitated. "He won't stop crying."
"I think it's time we go," Lucius said, finally taking control of the Minister again.
"Oh, yes, I weel take care of zis," the Frenchman said as he bid them farewell. "I look forward to seeing you again, Meenister."
"Likewise," Cornelius agreed, much to Lucius's dismay.
"And you, Monsieur Malfoy," the man said with a cheeky grin. "Eet was especially enjoyable to meet you. We weel 'ave to do eet again sometime."
Lucius offered a polite smile in response before the two other men made their leave.
"Well," Cornelius said as they made their way towards the castle's front doors. "He seemed a reasonable fellow after all, don't you think?"
"Quite reasonable," he replied, gripping his cane tightly in frustration. Lucius had changed what he'd thought from earlier though. It was clear that from the I.C.W. standpoint that they saw this as a win for them on all fronts, and he was in no position to deny it.
She'd always thought that was prepared for the realities of work but nothing had prepared her for the job she faced. Nunya had never thought that anyone could be both brilliant and dumb at the same time, but that'd been before she'd met Hugh Hobson.
'That guy'd wander into the dragon pits at feeding time without knowing where he was,' she thought to herself as she struggled with the heavy metal jug full of water. 'But then he'd wander back out again and have this great idea for how to make money with them. Were all bosses that odd or just the one I got stuck with?'
The residential levels were plain compared to the surface levels of the bank but never so plain as they were now. That big tower had been so-so... so Towerful that she didn't even know how to describe it! After that though everything just looked drab, even the Surface levels, but then again that could've also been due to the fact that she'd been Outside for the first time in her life, twice!
Still, even with all of that she wished she'd have more to show for her first day of work – even Diggers and Cart Operators got something when they went home at the end of the day – but here she was, walking back home after fetching the nightly jug of water for dinner, just like she'd always done. It wasn't exactly the glamorous end she'd thought it'd be.
That's not to say that the day hadn't been productive, the guy in Gringotts Operations had been eager to sign up, but to okay that she had to talk to Overseer Fillast just to make sure she wasn't stepping on anyone's toes, but then he approved the transfer of several more people if they were interested so she ended up getting a whole design team out of it! She didn't quite know who to go to about Gofers and Secretaries but supposed they had to be included with the team and so told her crew – Gotts, she really liked the way that sounded – to include whoever they thought they'd need. It wasn't like Director Fillast wouldn't cancel it if he didn't want them to go.
Paying for these people was something she wasn't quite sure about. She had a suspicion about who'd she have to go through but at the same time didn't think he'd talk to an underling and really didn't trust her boss not to get himself killed by saying the wrong thing to the Grand Overseer. She'd have to bring it up after the explanatory meeting she'd scheduled for tomorrow to tell the new workers what their jobs entailed. Then again, she didn't know how one of those went but it was something else she didn't think Hugh Hobson was in any way cut out to handle.
Maybe they should have a pre-meeting meeting to make sure they knew what they were doing so they didn't look too stupid in front of their workers.
'Gah! His incompetency and stupidity is rubbing off on me,' she thought with a shake of her head.
One of the residents of the next level down looked at her oddly as he walked by and she shot glare right back at him, sending him scurrying away down the hall. She'd always been taken for a curiosity but with what'd happened today there had to be all sorts of rumors flying around about her. She wondered what they were and who she'd have to threaten to get the worst of them to stop, but you rarely ever heard the bad ones when they were about you.
With another look around the hallway to see if anyone was talking about her, she backed into the doorway that led to her family's quarters.
"What took so long?" her mother said from the spit over the fire, the gutted and skinned cats she had browning nicely.
"There was a line," Nunya replied as she kicked the door shut.
"There's always a line," her mother grouched. "I've told you before, unless they're important, push your way through."
"The last thing I need today is more people talking about me," she said as she put the water on the small stone table jutting from the wall.
"Pah," the older goblin scoffed, "You deserve it. You and your wanting to work. Why do you want to work for?" her mother said, starting her common complaints. "You know how many people would kill to have what you have? You know how many people have killed to get you what you have? Why do you want to throw it all away for some lousy job?"
Her mother stood and gestured for her to take over the fire spit, probably to keep her close so she could continue to nag her.
"All you had to do is find the right goblin and grab him, and slice any other female that got in your way," her mother continued, proving Nunya right. "You could've had Slaggran without a fight, or Fillast or Braglast if you'd wanted them. Good Gotts! You could've had Barchoke when the getting was good if you'd gotten off your ass and stopped playing with knives, and look where you'd be now! And you know who's got him? Trixie, that side-winding shadowsnake of a Secretary, that's who. That could've been you."
"At least Trixie got to work for what she got," Nunya said as she turned the cats on the spit. "Even if I'd wanted any of them – which I don't–," she hastened to add, "how was I supposed to get them without working? You got him by working. Trixie got hers by working. Everyone gets everyone by working," she pointed out. "That's the way it works."
"You're different," her mother repeated. "Your father claiming you made you different," she said with finality.
Nunya hated hearing her say that. She didn't want to be different. She didn't like always being singled out and everyone knowing who she was, but having a father made her that way.
'Girls don't have fathers,' she wanted to say. 'Boys have fathers, girls have mothers. That's the way it goes; that's the way it's always gone.'
Her mother would only say what she'd always said, 'Not with you.'
"I never asked him to do that," she said instead. "I never wanted it. It's only made my life worse."
"Worse?" her mother said sarcastically. "How do you call this worse?" she said gesturing around the room. "We're on the top level of Residential because he claimed you, girl. He might claim your sister soon. How many others would do that for anything but a boy, hm? Pah," she said with a wave, "You wouldn't be happy unless we were all three sent Down Below and forced to make our way from scratch."
"At least then we'd earn it ourselves," Nunya muttered under her breath.
"Ha!" her mother bit back at her. "You'd have an acquisition on the way within a week. How many generations would it be before any of your brood saw the right side of the Barracks level? Seven? Five, if you're lucky? Bah," she waved again. "Now I see why your father claimed you. You're just as odd as he is."
"I'm not odd," she said defensively.
"You're odd if I say you're odd and I say you're odd, and that's final."
Nunya grumbled under her breath.
"What'd you say?" her mother asked sharply.
"I asked where Nada was," she lied, hoping to divert her with her sister.
"Gotts only knows," her mother said as she readied the table. "She'll show up when she smells food."
Suddenly she heard a door close and both her and her mother's eyes went to the door separating their quarters from his; another oddity that he'd had installed. More sounds came from there and her mother motioned for her to hurry over with the cats.
"You just be quiet," her mother hissed as they slid the cats off the spit and quickly divided them up: three-quarters of one for him, half of one each for her and her mother, and the remaining quarter for her sister, if she ever showed up. "For once don't fight. Don't speak at all unless you're spoken to. You've already done enough for one day."
For once Nunya was inclined not to fight her on that.
The door from his quarters opened and her father entered, his suit looking just as pressed as it had earlier that day.
"Smells good," he said politely, sniffing the air before moving to take his customary seat on his side of the table.
They ate in silence but it was more uncomfortable than ever before. The only thing that was even remotely normal was when Nada announced her presence by biting her ankle as if to accuse her of stealing her food. Nunya swatted her head, picked up the younger girl's portion and handed it down to her so that she'd retreat to her customary corner as if to keep them from stealing it.
'And mother calls me odd. Pah!' she said to herself.
When they were done Nunya and her mother immediately moved to clear the table.
"No, not you," he said when she stood, before turning to point at Nada. "Come here," he called to her.
When she got close, her father took the dishes from Nunya's hands and put them in Nada's, making the all of their eyes go wide. He'd never given the girl any chores before, he'd never taken an interest in how her mother handled her either. Was he claiming her or was this something else?
"Go," he said with a wave towards where their mother prepared the food, with a nod to their mother as well.
They both withdrew to the back chambers quickly after that, leaving Nunya alone with her father.
"Do sit down," he said in a more professional manner than she'd ever heard him have before.
She sat as calmly as she could but there was no doubt what this was, not to her at least. She wasn't speaking to her father as her father anymore but as the person he was in public. She'd never really done that before and didn't know how this was supposed to go.
"So," Overseer Bankor said his hands clasped on the table in front of him. "Do you think it will work?"
Instantly she wanted to say everything she thought, everything Hugh Hobson had said that day that she didn't want attached to her, but that wasn't something you said to an Overseer.
"I-It can work," she said, her voice suddenly dry and that water tantalizingly close. "I can make it work," she repeated a bit more firmly before she mentally added, 'If he doesn't get us all killed. Please, Gotts, let him learn to keep his mouth shut so he doesn't get us all killed.'
This was supposed to be one of the best times in her life. She was supposed to be sitting on pins and needles and eagerly waiting to begin the actually exciting part of her life. So far though everything was just going wrong for little Ginny Weasley.
Okay, not everything, she admitted. She was still able to go to Hogwarts and had gotten her own broom, even if it was a hand-me-down, but nothing else was going right for her. ...Besides Luna; she had Luna back as a friend too. And she had Tom, who lived in her diary, but besides those four things everything was wrong.
She'd known, or at least realized, that Harry wasn't at all like the Boy Who Lived from the books she'd gotten from Luna, but what she never thought about was how completely wrong they could've gotten his life. From what they'd said in the Weekend Prophet, Harry's aunt and uncle were horrible people and did all sorts of bad things to him, and that wasn't like what the books said at all.
In the books they'd been nice, and frequently needed saving, but the ones he'd grown up with were more like villains. That had put Harry at the center of attention today, especially with her mum who seemed to enjoy ignoring her for him, not that she'd ever been the center of attention at all unless she'd done something wrong.
What she hadn't seen coming was what that whole Harry mess would do with that Hermione girl. Her parents had given her permission to stay late that day and she'd been quickly invited to dinner, so Ginny no longer even had the distinction of being the only girl there anymore. Luna had eaten with them before too but she didn't count; she wasn't interested in Harry and Hermione was the enemy.
She was the enemy that didn't seem to notice that they were at war. Not that it'd matter even if she did, Ginny knew. If she did then Ginny'd just be obliterated in a heartbeat without the other girl having to try. No matter what she did, no matter what she tried to be like, Harry just wasn't interested. He hadn't been interested in Little Ginny Weasley, or Study-buddy Ginny – though that one had only lasted as long as it took for that elf of his to land on her head – and he certainly hadn't looked at Sporty Girl Ginevra twice.
It was sad that Sporty Girl Ginevra wasn't working, she liked being Ginevra. The name had begun to grudgingly grow on her and being so sporty was the closest she'd likely ever get to being like her hero, Gwenog Jones. Either way she didn't guess it mattered, it wasn't like First Years were allowed to bring their own brooms to Hogwarts anyway.
She just didn't get it. It was so unfair. What did Little Miss Know-It-All have that she didn't, besides almost getting killed by a troll? If she almost got killed would Harry like her then? That was just stupid. What'd happen if he wasn't around to save her in the nick of time? And what if someone else had done it first? Harry might not like her in that way but she didn't want some other boy hovering over her like that; that'd just be gross.
Ginny just tried to bury all her thoughts with food and was tempted to cram those sprouts in her ears. Maybe that would blot out the sound of Little Miss Know-It-All going on and on about some Child Projection System and Adroptive Services that those weird muggle people had. Maybe then she wouldn't have to hear her dad be so interested in every little thing the girl said either. She didn't deserve the attention, she wasn't a Weasley. She was barely even a witch, though she wasn't supposed to think that way.
She excused herself as soon as she was done and went back to her room to write to Tom. They spent some time trading ideas about how to get revenge on the other girl, but it was all in fun. She'd never really do any of that, even if it would've been fun to see all of her hair fall out and pimples and big, hairy moles pop out all over her face.
As Harry was saying goodbye to Hermione in the backyard, she and Tom got back to the topic everything always returned to: Why did she even bother going after Harry? What made him so special that she simply had to have him? With Harry being so much unlike the Harry she'd known from the books there was really only one thing that was special about him at all.
'He was the one who beat You-Know-Who when he was a baby,' Ginny wrote in her diary before remembering that Tom didn't really know who You-Know-Who was. She took a steadying breath and gathered the Gryffindor courage she'd need to write the name you were never supposed to say. 'He was the one who beat Lord Voldemort.'
AN: As always, thanks for reading.