The first rays of dawn found Harry at his desk at the office, sipping acidic espresso from the newly repaired coffee-machine and trying to stay awake. The letters on the half-finished case report swam, but Harry knew that if he did not finish it now, he would never get down to doing it at all. His superiors from the DMLE, when he had still been an Auror trainee, would be appalled at his paperwork as it was. Unlike Pansy, he had always hated it, while grudgingly admitting that at least the bare minimum should be done. Not that Pansy's reports would meet Senior Auror Robards's approval. She preferred old-school Rita Skeeter style of writing to objective statements: lots of scathing adjectives and exclamation marks.
"This is undrinkable," Pansy said from her own desk. Contradicting her words, she gulped down the rest of her cup.
They had spent the night at Greengrass Manor, where Harry explained everything that happened to Daphne and Astoria. Aspraki had left somewhere between the second and the third round of questions, but Harry and Pansy stayed until the house-elf announced that Grandfather Greengrass's condition had worsened critically. The family went to be with him in what probably were his last hours—although Malfoy at first protested Astoria facing the man who had possessed and tried to kill her, or, at least, some version of him. Malfoy had her hand clutched tightly in his own. He had not released it once since leaving the crypt.
"I kind of feel sorry for him." Pansy banished her cup with a disgusted expression.
"Benedict. The portrait, I mean, not the old man."
"Why?" Harry raised his head from the report.
"Imagine being trapped like that for decades, centuries. A point must come where you'd do anything to get out."
Harry sighed. If he was honest with himself, this thought had come to him as he had been pulling the Basilisk fang out of the destroyed portrait—came and vanished as soon as he remembered everything Benedict had done.
"He attempted to kill three people and succeeded with one," he reminded. "Not to mention at least one more murder to create the Horcrux. And he had no qualms whatsoever about framing Malfoy."
"People make stupid decisions when they feel cornered and alone," Pansy said, looking out of the window with a slight crease of her brow. She shook her head. "But he went way too far. Whatever my opinion of Astoria is, she didn't deserve to get boiled in that cauldron so her granddaddy could get reborn and lead a cushy life with the money he stole from her sister."
"We'll make best friends out of the two of you yet." Harry smiled wryly. Astoria and Malfoy had both thanked Pansy profusely, and she had been at a loss on how to respond.
Pansy crumpled a paper from her desk and threw it at Harry, who caught it with a grin. "How did you guess it was the portrait?" she asked.
"The things just clicked." Harry hesitated. "Ginny was under the influence of the Horcrux in her first year at Hogwarts. A piece of Tom Riddle's soul wanted to regain his body using her life force, same as Benedict intended to do with Daphne. Ginny also had memory lapses when Riddle possessed her and was exhausted all the time."
"The Basilisk," Pansy breathed out.
"Yeah. Then there's the fact that Astoria and Mrs. Longbottom both had blackouts in Daphne's flat. And Astoria's changed behaviour when she received that painting-shaped package. Besides, Benedict always appeared slightly... too alive."
"What about his plan for Astoria and that cauldron? You knew it right away. Don't think I haven't noticed you redirecting the question when Daddy Greengrass asked it."
"Voldemort used a similar ritual for his return in our fourth year," Harry said curtly.
"He had that creepy baby body instead of possessing anyone." Harry shook his head, driving off the memories of the graveyard. "But the end result, I suppose, would be the same."
"Him resurrecting and living as a son of the squib from the richest pureblood family."
"With Astoria out of the way, he'd have a good chance to become their sole heir, too."
Pansy gave a whistle. "Whatever you say, Benedict was certainly ambitious. And cunning. I'd be very surprised if he was in any house other than Slytherin in his time."
"Speaking of Slytherins," said Harry. "How's the Chamber of Secrets?"
"It's a... landmark, I guess, although morbid dungeons went out of fashion some centuries ago, don't you think?" Pansy was clearly not impressed but hesitant to show disloyalty to her old house. "It's got a little too filthy since our esteemed founder's time. Some cleaning would not be amiss. Look, my shoes are ruined forever." She swung on her chair to stretch her leg out to Harry. The black loafers looked good enough to display in a shop window.
"They seem fine to me."
"I will always remember the horrible grime and splashes from Moaning Myrtle's toilet dive on them." Pansy scoffed. "And what do you know, anyway? You fished out those ratty trainers from the aquarium in January and would have worn them to your first date with the Professor if not for my well-placed Incendio."
Right in Harry's hands, too.
"I'm not that clueless," he protested.
Pansy gave him a pitying look. "Please." She grew serious. "That snake was at least sixty feet long. I heard the rumours in our second year, and Weasley would throw an occasional reference, of course," she said with a frown. "But I'd never imagined it this big. You were twelve, for Merlin's sake!"
Harry pushed his glasses further up his nose and ducked his head. "Hopefully, my serpent slaying days are over."
Before he could change the topic under Pansy's intense gaze, the door opened, and a bleary-eyed Fleur peeked inside.
"What is everybody doing here this early?" she asked.
"This late, you mean?" Harry snorted. "We've just finished with the case, and Severus is making a cure for the cursed woman."
Severus stayed in Draco's flat well into the night, lifting the curse, and had spent the rest of it brewing squib-tailored potions to alleviate the after-effects. Harry had felt his chest ready to burst with love and pride when he had returned to the office to find an exhausted Severus in the lab, working on three cauldrons at once.
"What about you, Fleur?" Pansy asked.
"That putain de chat. The potion to get Harry that cat out of the mirror is timed, and I have to do a final application together with the countercurse in—" She consulted her wristwatch. "Two minutes and forty seconds."
Pansy stood and followed Fleur, peeking curiously into the cursebreaking office. Harry lingered for a while, stoically finishing the sentence before giving up on the report and going over as well. He was just in time to see puffs of smoke coming from the mirror and a tabby cat darting past his feet.
Fleur let out a string of profanities in French. "Your namesake, your office. You get him out," she said, crossing her arms over her chest.
Two amber eyes gleamed at Harry from under Pansy's desk. With a warning hiss promising retributions to anyone daring come any closer, the cat jumped onto the chair and then, after carefully sizing up the distance, onto the desk itself. There, he looked around, his whiskers twitching, and froze as he spotted the photo of Arsenius Jigger that the man's wife had given to Pansy. Ears flat against his head, he let out his claws and proceeded to methodically rip the picture to shreds.
Harry picked him up, ignoring the disgruntled meowing. "There, there, buddy. I'm not a fan of Brother Asphodel myself, but let's not destroy Pansy's desk."
Pansy snickered. "Maybe it's a personal beef. Maybe, like the portrait, our four-legged Harry is also not what he seems."
Harry snorted, but the cat froze in his arms and yowled. Thrown, Harry peered down at him.
The cat blinked and gave a miserable meow.
"I told Bill it was odd that he got trapped in a soul-capturing mirror. Those shouldn't work on animals," Fleur said, coming closer. "Let him on the floor, Harry. Hominum Revelio!"
Nothing happened. The cat sat still, only his tail thumping at the floor.
"What is this caterwauling?" Severus appeared from the lab. The cat darted to him, and Severus picked him up. "I should have known it's you again," he said, petting the striped head.
"Severus," Harry started, an idea forming in his mind. "It might sound like a silly request, but could you please use Legilimency on Ha—the cat?"
Severus looked at him quizzically, but as Pansy and Fleur came up close with an intent expression, he shrugged and lifted the cat up to his eye level. After a moment, he staggered back.
"Damocles?" he asked incredulously.
The cat meowed in agreement.
"This is Damocles Belby," he announced after another minute in the cat's mind, his voice still full of disbelief. "Jigger cursed him over Damocles's editorial in the Potions Monthly on the state of his apothecary. Some dark curse that pushed his soul into the neighbour's cat; Damocles didn't catch the exact incantation."
"And his body is still in St. Mungo's, right?" Fleur's eyes were alight with professional interest.
"Yes, give him to Fleur," Harry said through his teeth. "I don't appreciate you cradling strange men in your arms."
"You're in luck, Potter," Pansy said, grinning. "If Jigger is in Azkaban for assault and dark magic, as I'm sure he will be, you won't need to attend another Lodge meeting. Although I'd need to collect the first paycheck from his wife before you press any charges," she admonished the cat.
"We'll find out what spell you are under, Mr. Belby, but first, I need a proper breakfast," Fleur said, taking the cat from Severus. "Bill's going to be so sorry he's won that coin toss to sleep in today."
"I still say we should have stayed in Milan and celebrate my birthday there," Harry said as he and Severus stepped out of the Ministry's international floo.
"I agree wholeheartedly."
"You were the one who wanted us to come back a day early!"
"That I did," Severus said with a pained expression. Despite his attempts to ward off the tan, he managed to pick up some Italian sun. His nose was slightly red, a fact that Harry secretly found adorable. "Now, let's floo home, and don't forget to act surprised."
Harry smiled at him calling Grimmauld 'home'. "Should you give away the secret after keeping it for so many days?"
"Please," Severus said as they crossed the hall to the usual fireplaces set up for domestic travel. "After the way Weasley called me day and night, is there a chance you didn't notice? No subtlety whatsoever. Why is he connected to my mirror, anyway?"
"George made them," Harry explained. "And I'm glad I heard him. You getting up in the middle of the night to talk to someone under a Muffliato was getting suspicious." He bit his lip.
The corner of Severus's mouth twitched. "I thought I was supposed to be the jealous one in this relationship."
Harry took a pinch of floo powder and braced himself. Even without overhearing Severus, Harry knew what to expect: his friends threw him a surprise birthday party every year.
"Grimmauld Place!" he called.
His house greeted him with pitch-black darkness and hushed ruckus.
"Ouch!" someone whispered. "That was my foot, Ron, you clumsy prat!"
"Be quiet, Ginny! Here he is!"
Harry heard Severus coming out of the fireplace behind him.
As Harry was showered with confetti, the lights went up, illuminating the drawing-room decorated with balloons. The furniture was pushed to the walls to free the space for the crowd in the middle—more space than he remembered the room to have. A big disco ball had replaced the chandelier, and Harry wondered what his friends had done to persuade Kreacher to put it down, even temporarily. Most probably, kidnapping.
"How's the holiday, mate?" Ron thumped him on the back. "Hullo, Snape."
"Oh, you must've seen so much!" Hermione said, coming over to give Harry a hug. "Italy, both magical and muggle, has such a long and fascinating history."
"Yeah, a bit," Harry said. They did travel across the country some, going for a gondola ride in Venice and eating seafood at the Mediterranean coast, although guided tours were the last thing on their mind.
Someone turned on cheery music, and Pansy was already dragging a bemused Parvati Patil, unaccustomed to Harry's birthday traditions, to dance in the middle of the room. Judging by the half-full glasses in some hands, the party had started well before their arrival. His birthday had always served as an excuse for his friends to come together and have a good time.
Harry waved to Hagrid, who was sitting nearby with a giant mug, taking up almost the entire sofa. He had spent the year before in France with Madame Maxime, and Harry missed his first-ever friend immensely. With a grateful peck on Severus's cheek for helping to organise the party, Harry looked around with a smile.
Which dimmed slightly as he spotted some unexpected guests.
"What is Malfoy doing here," he hissed to George who came over with two glasses of punch.
George frowned at Severus. "You said—"
"Draco will be on his best behaviour, I'm sure." Severus waved him off. At Harry's questioning look, he elaborated. "Narcissa asked to invite him. Four owls and a floo call to the hotel, all for a playdate," he said, raising his eyes to the ceiling. "Apparently, after we left, Draco went straight to his parents to announce that he's marrying Astoria in two weeks and opening a printing business on Diagon."
Harry whistled. "Good for him. I guess being suspended over a giant boiling cauldron is helpful for reevaluating your life priorities."
"Having that Lumos moment, as they say," Severus added with a grave nod.
"People say that?" George asked, looking from him to a now suddenly snickering Harry. "And a giant boiling cauldron?"
"Long story. What did Malfoy Senior say?" Harry asked Severus.
"Lucius threw a fit and barricaded himself in his study with a bottle of Ogden's." Severus said, his voice snide. "Narcissa thinks Draco is going through a rebellious phase and wants him to feel included."
"I'm sure we'll be a positive influence." George snickered.
"Don't be too hard on him today." Harry, well familiar with George's ways, wagged his finger. "Malfoy might prove himself not a complete wanker yet."
"A shining endorsement," said Severus.
"But more importantly, how did Narcissa know about my super-secret"—Harry shifted his gaze from him to George and back—"birthday party?"
"Narcissa has her own sources." Severus shrugged, looking over to where Draco was talking to Andromeda, chin up, anxiety rolling from him in waves palpable across the room. Astoria had her hand on his arm, smiling encouragingly. "When it comes to Draco, it's often easier to just do as she asks."
Teddy ran up to them from the snack table, sausage roll in his hand. His eyes, changed from his usual brown to green, shone with excitement, and his hair was dark and messy.
"Happy Birthday, Uncle Harry! Hello, Mr. Severus! Nan says you'll be opening presents later, but please open ours first, it's the best!"
"I promise I will, monkey." Harry smiled.
Watching his friends and their loved ones (and one maybe-not-so-bad-after-all ferret), Harry felt happiness blooming inside him like the exotic flower Severus had insisted they collect from the magical Alpine valley the night before. The song changed to a ballad, and Harry tugged him to where the couples were forming.
"There's not enough alcohol in this room to make me, Potter," said Severus.
Harry laughed. "I knew you'd say that. Perhaps I'll tempt you for a dance after this crowd leaves?"
"Perhaps you will."
Thank you for reading!