A/N: I changed the title, after some consideration, to The Malignant Masquerade. Because Harry thought she cut out the ruse like a tumor. But it had already metastasized.
The Malignant Masquerade:
It was weeks before they stopped warding the Floo. Even when the spells wore off, Harry didn't dare try her luck. It felt too much like a test—prove us wrong, the open Floo whispered. She wanted her parents to trust her again.
She also wanted to see Leo again.
There hadn't been time to talk. He hadn't pressed. A field of explanations lay fallow, and the more time went by, the more she worried he would think she wasn't coming back. The lord's daughter who cut ties when she was done playing pretend.
All she could do was continue sending potions to Krait and hope he understood. It was like a tiny pocket of warmth, that hope. A candle in the cavernous winter that was her frozen relationship with James and Lily.
Harry bottled the latest batch and carried it upstairs. The family owl would have to take multiple trips, but there was no help for it. James had finally been let back to work, and Lily had taken Addy to Sirius', so Harry nearly dropped the potions in alarm when she heard the floorboard creak in the living room.
Her magic flared and came to back to her, reassuringly familiar with the signature it encountered. "Remus," she called. "My parents aren't home."
Remus sidled into the kitchen and watched her ready the potions for post for a long moment. "I fancy a walk, Harry. We could take those wherever they're going, if you'd like to join me."
Her first thought: this is a trap. "I'd have to ask Mum and Dad."
"I've left them a note." Remus gestured to the kitchen counter where, sure enough, his penmanship outlined the errand clearly. "I'm sure you'd like to get out of the house."
"I would," she admitted. "Lately, though, I've become suspicious of situations that seem to give me exactly what I want."
Remus shrugged. "By all means, continue your rather convoluted freighting method."
Harry scowled down at the owl harness and accompanying strings. "If you're taking the blame..."
"That is how you operate, isn't it?"
Harry winced. "Pretty sure it's too soon to joke about that."
Remus chuckled. "No, Harry. Joking is the only way through it in this family. Go on, you try."
She swallowed an awkward mouth of spit and said, "Maybe we should switch places for the trip. You carry the potions and I'll ask the penetrating questions."
Remus gave her an approving smile. "There she is. I was wondering if the Harry who faced down Regulus Black would ever emerge from the limpid lampshade she's donned."
Harry blew out a short breath. "I'm trying to turn over a new leaf."
"No, you're trying to turn Devil's Snare into a house plant." Remus put a hand on her shoulder, and it was not unkind. "Dimming yourself and tiptoeing around conflict won't make them forgive you."
"What if they never do?"
"You know them better than that. But Harry, you have to earn their good will again. Being invisible won't do it. Not causing more trouble isn't enough. You have to make it up to them."
"Let's start with a return to normalcy." Remus picked up her potion crate and made for the Floo. "Diagon Alley, I presume?"
She hurried to get the Floo Powder for him and stared at the grate after he'd gone through, wondering if it was really all right to go on with life as though it hadn't changed ineffably. It shouldn't be okay. If the real world matched her internal experience, there should have been a violent rift—life before the ruse and life after. Surely, nothing as ordinary as a potions delivery should bridge the distance between those two realities.
Then again…Harry took a handful of powder and stepped into the grate. If anything could transcend the disconnect, it would have to be potions.
Remus waited patiently, as though he hadn't noticed the delay her existential crisis had caused. That was the dangerous thing about Remus; it was hard to know how much he really saw. She fell into step and tapped the bricks with her fingers to trigger the passageway. Remus' gaze lingered, and she hunched her shoulders instinctively, wishing for a crazy moment she had Rigel's face to hide behind.
"I don't have a wand," she said quietly. "Ri—he used to bring it back between terms, but…I don't suppose I'll see it again." He absorbed the information without commenting, assessing the implications. She didn't know what to do with the Phoenix and Holly wand. She couldn't use it, not when it was so intimately connected with Rigel. Her stomach turned at the thought of destroying it. So, it sat in her mokeskin pouch, suspended between lives, just as she was.
Jason tipped his cap at her as they passed the owl emporium. Harry wiggled her fingers, surprised that word of her new appearance had spread so quickly—it was only her second time in the alley since the change, after all.
"Remember last summer, when you weren't sure whether to tell me about the dueling tournament?"
She raised an eyebrow at the non sequitur. "Ralph hit me hard, but not enough to cause memory loss."
Remus didn't smile. "You asked me a question."
She cast a lure back through her mind, but nothing bit. "Which one?"
"You asked whether I'd rather know something but have to keep it a secret or not know it at all."
Ah. She nodded carefully. "You said you'd rather know."
"I said I would rather someone knew what you were doing, in case you ever needed help," he corrected. "And you trusted me because you know I can keep a secret. Both of those things are still true, Harry."
She swallowed. It was impossible to guess what exactly he suspected without incriminating herself. "I'll keep that in mind," she said as they took the fork down Knockturn.
Remus tensed slightly as they picked their way along the narrow alley. When they reached the Serpent's Storeroom, he studied the window with a furrowed brow.
Harry held open the door. "I stack the crates in the back—"
"Harry!" Krait dropped the bottle he was inspecting and rounded the counter to look her over. Only once he'd scanned for visible injuries did the worried look fall into something nonchalant. "Brave to show your face after worrying us all sick."
"Krait." She clasped his hand. "Sorry I was away so long. It's been…complicated."
"Not too complicated to keep you from a cauldron, I see." He eyed the crate as Remus set it down, then sized her uncle with a gruff, "Hired some help?"
"This is my uncle, Remus," Harry said. "Remus, this is my employer, Mr. Krait."
"A pleasure." Remus stuck out his hand and Krait inspected it before giving it a perfunctory shake.
"Bout time. Was starting to wonder if her family cared for her safety at all."
Remus went very still, and Harry winced. Changing the subject, she asked quickly. "Can you get a message to the Shrouds for me?"
Krait wrinkled his brow. "The vamps? I'd rather not."
"To Leo, then. He'll get it there." With an apologetic glance at Remus, she added frankly, "My mail is being watched."
Remus grimaced, but turned away to inspect an advert for Wolfsbane that read: Inquire at Counter.
"What's the message, then?"
"Just an inquiry into Gavril's condition. I heard some of what happened to him, and I'm sure it's a difficult time for the coven. If there's anything I can do…"
"They don't like help from outsiders," Krait said firmly.
"I'd still like to offer it. Have Leo talk to Kasten. He'll understand."
"I'll tell Leo when I see him," Krait muttered doubtfully. "He'll be fussed he missed you."
She smiled as though the thought of seeing Leo after their last encounter didn't scare her at all. "I know he meets with the merchants on second Tuesdays. How are things otherwise? Have they…settled?"
Krait gave her a long look. "Yes and no. Aurors had a lot of questions, but everyone knows what answers to give. Your friends have questions, too, but they'll wait for you to tell the tale yourself."
"I'll come back as soon as I'm able." Krait shot Remus a dark look, but Harry shook her head. "Don't blame them. My cousin and I made a lot of enemies. It's not safe for me right now."
"It was never safe for you," Krait said staunchly. "But we take care of our own."
She let the man see how the sentiment humbled. That the alleys still considered her theirs put an entire subset of fears back in their boxes.
Remus broke the moment with an incredulous question. "Do you really sell the Wolfsbane series at this price? It can't be profitable."
Krait raised an eyebrow. "Your family doesn't even know which potions you brew for me?"
Harry gave him an unappreciative look, but Krait was unrepentant. Remus turned his incredulity to her. "You take commissions for this, Harry? I know you make it for me, but I thought it required a license to sell."
She hummed. "I am licensed." Wolfsbane was the first thing she'd tested for, after Seifer's Solution. It hadn't been difficult to convince the Guild after all, with Aldermaster Hurst putting in a word for her—the only annoying bit was the outrageous 'administration' fee each license required.
"You're supplying it at cost, aren't you? This price can't be anything else." Remus said, still frowning. "You must be booked out for months."
"That's the sticker price. We have it on shelf during the Full Moon. It's a little cheaper if they order ahead, because I can buy ingredients in bulk when I know how much I need," she explained.
"And there's an additional discount if it's purchased with a week's worth of Potter's Protection Potion," Krait added, likely sensing a business opportunity.
"But to make enough to advertise…it's so much magic, Harry."
She could see the suspicion entering his eyes, so she shrugged in a particularly blithe way. "I'm homeschooling, and way ahead of the curriculum. What else have I got to spend my magic on? Once I figured out brewing to exhaustion made my core grow stronger, I started doing it all the time. I've got plenty, now; it's actually a bit of a waste if I don't make high-level potions with it."
Remus shook his head, but smiled ruefully at her. "I wish you would tell us about this stuff."
She bit her lip and said, not entirely truthful, "I didn't think it would interest anyone else."
Remus stopped smiling. "Is that really it? Or were you keeping so many secrets it was easier to hold everything back? I'm not trying to be hard on you," he added, seeing the look in her eyes. "Your parents will come around eventually, but they might sooner if you shared this part of your life with them. Whatever else you have going on, you're so obviously a good kid." He gestured to the price on the sign. "I mean, Merlin, Harry. They'd be so proud."
She swallowed and ducked her head in a nod. "Maybe you're right," she said hoarsely.
He let it go at that, and they said their goodbyes to Krait. Harry couldn't stop thinking about the idea of sharing her work in the alleys.
It was easier to hide things from her parents when they didn't know too much about her life. About her. All that was over, now. It was officially year one in After Ruse time.
Maybe…she didn't have to hide anymore.
Sirius kept the snakes after all. There were several new rocks arrayed in the small courtyard at Grimmauld Place, each with a flat, inviting top, and at midday it looked as though the Blacks were running some sort of reptilian tanning salon.
Addy loved them. The toddler's approving babble punctuated an otherwise oppressively warm and still atmosphere, and Harry listened with one ear for any sign the snakes were growing irritated at the constant commentary.
Archie sighed as he rolled over to expose the back of his neck to the sun. He muttered something into the grass, and Harry nudged him lazily.
Archie turned his head and repeated, "Dad's agreed to let Hermione come over."
Harry sat up straighter. "Truly?"
Her cousin nodded, pushing the grass with his head. "I'm going to show her my actual life and hope she continues to forgive me."
"I hope you work it out," Harry said encouragingly. "I'm sure Sirius will like her."
"Everyone likes Hermione," Archie agreed with a soft smile.
Addy attempted to generously bestow her sunhat on her favorite snake, and Harry rescued the straw bonnet from immanent sundering.
"Are you going to try to regain any of your friendships, Harry?" Archie asked quietly.
"As myself?" Harry snorted as she tied the sunhat under her little sister's chin, and Addy copied the sound like a miniature prize bull. "No. It was meant to be this way."
Addy rolled onto her back to defeat the intended purpose of the hat, and Harry scooped a small snake out of the way absently. "I've been thinking…it might be for the best that everything ended when it did."
Archie shot her a surprised look. "You think so, too?"
Harry picked at the grass. "Better now than three years from now, right? I always knew I would have to sever those ties. I tried not to weave them too strongly, but somewhere…" Her fists clenched around soft tufts and she shook her head. "I don't even know how it happened. I certainly didn't encourage—" She broke off when the blades of grass blurred into a verdant watercolor and she realized she was crying. "Sorry."
Addy's hand slapped against her cheek with a wet smack and Harry caught her up gently in her lap.
"Sorry," she said again as Archie's arm came around her shoulders. "It's Rookwood's wedding this week. It's stupid, but I finished their present ages ago, and I don't know what to do with it now."
"You should send it anyway," Archie said at once. Harry scoffed, but Archie squeezed her. "I mean it. I think…it'll mean a lot to them, to know Rigel is out there, safe enough to send them a wedding present, you know? As long as it can't be traced back to you…won't it make you feel better?"
She shrugged. "I'm a little afraid of things designed to make me feel better. Can't really afford that kind of self-gratification, can we?"
Archie frowned and transferred Addy to his lap, patting her hat-rumpled hair like she was an emotional support animal. Addy cooed, evidently pleased to be mussed. "I don't think there's anything wrong with self-gratification, and it kind of bums me out that the ruse has brought you to the point that you think it's inherently bad."
Harry thought about it as one of the more friendly snakes wound its way up her ankle. "Maybe I will," she said softly. "As a sort of apology."
"A reassurance," Archie corrected her.
Her mouth hitched. "If there's anyone left to be reassured by it." She flopped back into the grass with a hard sigh. "Assuming they don't all hate me."
The letters came to her already open, but at least they came.
I know not what you have heard, but Gavril is indeed returned to us. He is weakened, but himself, and Grandfather expects with my assistance he shall make a full recovery. It provides me the opportunity to re-focus my work on healing essences. I have not yet discovered many distillations which prove effective for our kind. Much of the work in the restorative field is done by wizards, whose access to active magics informs their solutions. Such draughts are ever beyond me, but I believe I have only begun to probe the boundaries of pure essences and their applications.
Your inquiry is met, as always, with pleasant surprise and a modicum of polite puzzlement. Grandfather asks, and I hesitantly relay the question: what is the manner of assistance you offer? If there is a specific brew you think to provide, please name it. If there is something you imagine we may ask of you, that, too, requires elocution. We are not in the habit of seeking assistance from wizards, and they are not in the habit of providing it. If, as I suspect, your offer to help was a verbal display of support of the kind one friend may extend another, then I thank you, and we shall say no more of it.
Yours in mutual understanding,
She tucked the letter back into its heavy envelope, wondering how to rectify the confusion she'd caused the coven. Harry hadn't meant her open-ended offer of help to be enigmatic. She wasn't sure exactly what sort of assistance a coven whose lieutenant had been possessed by Voldemort would require, but she supposed they weren't sure exactly what help a wizarding schoolgirl with a cauldron could supply, either.
The idea that vampires couldn't brew potions as she understood them wasn't new, exactly—she knew that complicated brews required active imbuing and she knew that vampires had no ability to channel magic. She just hadn't thought through the implications before. Knowing that, it was more obvious what form her assistance would take. She just had to find a brew for the occasion.
Harry was tempted to begin brainstorming then and there, but the second letter glared accusingly at her from the workbench. She couldn't avoid it forever.
Her mentor's handwriting slashed across the parchment—but then, it always did. There was nothing especially vicious about the slant of it now, no ink blots or nib-tears that would indicate a festering homicidal rage permeating the page. That was something, at least. She laid it flat so the shaking in her hands didn't distort the message, and even then, the letters crossed until she shook her head sharply to focus her vision.
Stupid girl. He can't do anything to you that you haven't already done yourself.
She let out a long breath and made peace with it; whatever Snape had to say, she had to hear it.
I will not waste ink enumerating the many artifices that now shade our professional interactions. While you and your co-conspirators are no doubt awash in questions, I write to ask but one: have you been and do you remain in earnest about this apprenticeship?
Whatever else has been the fallout, the fact persists: I am left one student. If you should seek a continuance, the pressures and expectations on your shoulders will henceforth double. I trust you are prepared for this—as you appear to have been prepared for the rest of it in spite of any sane expectation.
You have now a rare opportunity only afforded those whose every plan has utterly unraveled. Re-examine your life. Decide what was real and what merely the trappings of a grossly convoluted plot. If, at the end of your evaluation, you find Potions stuck fast at the center of your being, we will speak again.
The relief and self-recrimination broke through her, almost indistinguishable. He was angry. He wrapped it in professionalism, but Harry could tell she fell squarely within the shadow of his blame. What must he have thought, when Rigel was revealed? He, who was so unfailingly in Rigel's corner. He, who was so sensitive to betrayal.
For all that, he hadn't severed the apprenticeship. She'd expected cold silence or heated demands for information. She'd braced for a devastating extraction—a severing of lingering attachments—and she wouldn't even have blamed him. Of all the relationships Rigel built, Snape's mentorship had the strongest hold on her ego, wrapped up as it was in the very definition of her ambitions and self-worth. She was cognizant enough to know that, if he'd wanted to, he could tear a hole from her soul that no achievement would ever fill.
Instead, he'd given her the choice. Let her decide whether or not to preserve a bargain he must know he had no duty nor expectation to honor.
Even as her stomach unknotted, she told herself not to trust it. Snape would never accept the loss of Rigel so easily. If he made a show of forgiving her, it would be to gain her confidence. To get information on the student he truly cared for. The thought twisted her gut back into tight cramps, but it was better than the alternative.
It would have been for nothing, if Snape renounced her completely. Even if he only meant to use her to get to Rigel, at least she would have something to show for it all. An apprenticeship with Master Snape. It wasn't nothing, no matter how hollow it sat.
The idea to find Harry Potter started as a whim, really.
Edmund was inundated with wedding preparations and Aldon didn't have anyone else to talk to about the thousand-and-one questions that plagued him without end. Pansy had all but moved into Malfoy Manor, which illustrated rather painfully how well Rigel's peers were managing, and if one more of Aldon's own year mates suggested they'd suspected Rigel was a halfblood all along, he would not be responsible for the ensuing homicide.
Wizards older and more professionally connected than Aldon were searching for Rigel already. Aldon hoped they never found him. He could also accept that the odds of his finding Rigel were nearly zero without a significant trail to follow. Still, he needed answers, and an outlet for the restless out-of-place feeling that pervaded his reality. He thought there must be something only he could do, and that's when it came to him: Harriett Potter.
She hadn't disappeared to France or wherever. She knew Rigel—or at least the person Rigel pretended to be—better than anyone, and she was right there in England, waiting to be asked.
At least, he assumed she was. The papers had torn through the real Arcturus Black's interrogation at the Ministry, but no mention was made of Heiress Potter being officially questioned. People had largely overlooked her, probably because she was a halfblood. Aldon no longer knew what to think of halfbloods, and he suspected her part in the charade was more interesting than assumed. Aldon could recognize interesting when he saw it, and Harry had that in spades.
If she was more than incidentally involved, she'd be in danger if anyone else figured that out. Armed with urgent purpose, Aldon stopped thinking about finding Harry Potter and actually left his manor to go and do it.
His sense of purpose waned as he approached the Potions Guild on Craftsman Alley and realized he had no secondary plan in the event that she wasn't there. He could turn up on Lord Potter's doorstep, but it wasn't quite correct to call upon a young lady at home without sending a card first.
He disliked the feeling of having all his eggs clustered in a loosely-woven basket, but admitted silently that he didn't know the girl well enough to guess where, besides the Potions Guild, she might turn up.
As he dithered rather embarrassingly in the street, an urchin with a basketful of flowers curtseyed before him somewhat charmingly. "A bloom for you, ser?"
He began to shake his head, but thought better. It would be rude to call on Miss Potter empty handed, no matter where she turned up, wouldn't it? "What kinds do you carry?"
The girl blinked solemnly up at him. "All kinds, ser. What's your occasion?"
Aldon searched for words to describe the situation. "What sort of flower would you give a young lady who does not know you are coming to visit and who has not, upon reflection, expressed any interest in flowers during past interactions?"
"You're not a stalker, I hope," the child said severely.
Aldon raised his eyebrows. "If I am to present the lady with a gift, that implies a certain willingness to be seen, does it not?"
"There's all types of stalkers," the flower girl informed him primly. "If she doesn't like you back, it has to be daffodils. If you have an understanding, red carnations are good. If you think you do but you don't want to come on too strongly, I recommend dahlias, for strength and grace."
"I'll take two dahlias," Aldon said weakly.
The girl wrinkled a dirt-smudged nose. "Two is awkward. Either make a small bouquet or take just one."
Aldon ran a hand through his hair. "Just one, then. Do you have red—"
"Too strong." She handed him a pink dahlia that he had to admit was rather striking. "Four knuts."
He fished into his robe pocket for his money pouch and peered into it with a frown. "Do you have change for a galleon?"
The child squinted disapprovingly at him but did produce the requisite coins from various places about her person. She took the golden galleon with trepidation and hid it with a slight of hand so smooth he didn't see where it went. With another jarringly incorrect curtsey, the girl trotted off to critique someone else's romantic interests.
Armed with a single dahlia, Aldon strode through the foyer of the Potions Guild and cleared his throat perfunctorily to gain the attention of the deskman.
"Indeed. I am looking for Harriett Potter, and I understand she uses the laboratories here from time to time. Would you be so kind as to tell me which—"
The man at the desk cut him off with a scowl. "Miss Potter is not an official member of the Potions Guild and I am to direct all journalistic inquiries to our public statement disavowing any knowledge of the Rigel Black Conspiracy and condemning the use of Dark Potions in acts of terror such as that witnessed at the Hogwarts tournament finale."
Aldon blinked at him. "I beg your pardon. I believe I have given the wrong impression—"
"I'm not at liberty to give any information as to the habits or whereabouts of any of the Guild-associated student interns, past or present, including Miss Harriett Potter—"
"I can see you reading from that little piece of paper," Aldon drawled. "If you'd be so kind as to allow me to explain—"
"What's all this, then?"
A man he recognized easily from the society pages was coming toward them with a slight frown. Aldon straightened to his full height before bowing to the proper degree.
"Aldermaster Hurst, my name is Aldon Rosier—"
"Got another tabloid scribbler after Miss Potter."
Aldon gave an affronted shake of his head. "I certainly am not—"
"—asking questions, he was—"
Aldermaster Hurst held up his hands peaceably. "Gentlemen, please." Turning to the deskman, he said, "Mr. Fawle, I thank you for your tireless work protecting those affiliated by the great science of Potions; however, I very much doubt the Heir of Rosier has picked up—what do the kids call it?—a 'side-hustle' writing gossip for sensationalist rags. In fact, I'm certain I'd have heard if Lord Rosier disowned his only son." Hurst chuckled as though the end of an Ancient House could be considered amusing. "Mr. Rosier, why don't we speak in my office?"
Aldermaster Hurst was moving briskly before Aldon had quite registered his suggestion, much less given his agreement. He followed the man down several corridors to a handsome set of doors that opened onto a study that would not have been out of place in any manor of old. Aldon readied himself for an offer of refreshment, already eyeing the decanter of beautifully-colored brandy by the bookshelf, but Aldermaster Hurst simply sat and folded his hands on the eighteenth-century mahogany desk.
"What do you want with Miss Potter?"
Aldon paused for a moment, surprised into silence by the lack of invitation to sit, but gathered himself. "I would like to speak to her."
Aldermaster Hurst gave him a wry smile. "Many people would like to speak to Harriett Potter. From the flower in your hand, I would like to suppose you mean the girl no harm, but, alas, I cannot make such an assumption without proof in these troubled times."
"I wouldn't hurt her," Aldon said, taken aback by the stern interrogation. "I'm a…well, friend might be overstating it," he admitted, rather more freely than he ought. "We have met several times at various functions, and I was concerned for her wellbeing in light of recent events. I hoped to…reassure her. And to be reassured."
The words were pulled out of him by some force he couldn't name. Guilt? Decency? No—magic. He stepped backward away from the desk, pinpointing it after a moment as the source of the pull. "Just what in Salazar's name are you about, sir? Did you think I'd not notice the infernal mind magic inset in that—"
"My apologies," Hurst said at once, standing. As his hands left the desk, the subversive presence of magic faded. "You don't know how many ill-wishers we've dealt with on Harry's behalf. All the public knows of her is her work here, after all."
Aldon was completely off-balance. Never in his life had he been subjected to such ungentlemanly treatment. "Dishonorable," he muttered, eyeing the desk with extreme prejudice. "I could have taken a wizard's oath, if you required it."
"Would you have? Then you would be quite different from the others—even lords, yes—who have come intending to do the girl harm," Hurst said flatly.
Aldon paled. "I'd no idea it was that bad. There hasn't been much backlash in the papers yet…"
"The papers are careful," Hurst said on a long sigh. "They can only print facts and fish for quotations, with the combined legal thunderstorm of the Potters and the Blacks rumbling overhead. That doesn't mean people can't read between them, you know. Any mixed-blood associated with the Hogwarts Halfblood is a natural target. Poor girl."
"I've all the more reason to speak with her, then," Aldon said. "Is she here?"
Hurst shook his head ruefully. "She hasn't been back."
Aldon's hope sank. "It's safer for her at home, I suppose." Hurst hesitated. Just a fraction of a second, but Aldon caught it. "Unless there's somewhere else I should be looking?"
Hurst's face was hard to read, but he eyed the flower in Aldon's hand once more before saying, "There's an apothecary she brews for, and as far as I know she's still brewing."
"Nearby?" An apothecary. He had heard something about that, hadn't he?
Hurst rubbed his jaw. "It's down Knockturn Alley. Still want to go?"
Aldon suppressed a shudder. He hated that alley. As a boy, his father had taken pains to show him exactly what kind of a life he could expect outside the family. Penniless. Filthy. His children clad in rags, selling flowers or worse—
He cleared his throat. Swallowed. "That one on the corner past Borgin and Burke's?"
Hurst inclined his head. "The venerable Mr. Krait runs it, and he doesn't part with information about Harry easily. Tell him I sent you."
Aldon grimaced at the idea of being sent like a house elf, but turned it into a smile. "Thank you. I'll take my leave, then."
"Harry needs all the friends she can get," Hurst said, opening the doors in the first show of courtesy thus far. "I hope you find the reassurance you're looking for."
Aldon made an awkward gesture, somewhere between tipping an imaginary hat and saluting, and hurried out of the Potions Guild feeling somewhat less than the recently come of age wizard he was. Something about Mastery in a subject gave a person a perpetual aura of professorship. It was enough to make anyone feel like a schoolboy.
He stopped at the entrance to Knockturn Alley. Instinct told him to cover his face, hide the fact that the Heir of Rosier was about to stroll blithely though a din of iniquity. He fought against it: he was seventeen, now. He could walk anywhere he chose.
By Merlin, the smell. Gutters that hadn't seen a cleaning in days, and something he could only assume was rot. Aldon breathed as little as possible until he reached a corner that looked vaguely familiar. The Serpent's Storeroom. There were worse names, he supposed.
The door creaked on the inward push and the abrupt transition from afternoon sun to musty shadow had him blinking. The proprietor eyed him suspiciously from the counter, and Aldon put on his most pleasant expression.
"Are you Mr. Krait?"
"Aldon Rosier, at your service." He bent at the upper back and smiled, but it died when the man sniffed dismissively.
"Rosier, eh? Don't sell dark potions."
"I am not in the market, thankfully," Aldon said, looking over his shoulder automatically. What a thing to say in an open room. And just what was he implying about his pedigree? "I'm here looking for a brewer of yours, actually. Harry."
That got his attention. Krait stood with a swiftness Aldon would not have credited the older wizard. "Never heard of him. Get out."
Aldon stood his ground, lowering his voice in an attempt to smoothly deescalate the interchange. "Aldermaster Hurst sent me. I'm a friend of Harry's, and I know she brews for you."
"You don't know anything if you're showing up here bandying that name about like—"
The door creaked open and Krait snapped his mouth shut. His eyes flicked to the doorway and an unhappy scowl settled over his features. "Fine timing you have, lass."
"What's my timing matter?"
That voice. Different and yet familiar. Unable to believe his luck, he turned with his heart in his throat and faltered at the sight of someone—Harriett?—blowing black curls out of her face with a loose grin.
"Just be grateful I could get away today," she said, hauling the crate of potions in her arms toward the counter. "Got a double batch of—"
She froze, then very deliberately set the crate down and turned to face him. "Aldon Rosier…" she murmured the name to herself, almost disbelieving, then shook her head. "Mr. Rosier. What—are you here for potions?"
"He asked for you," Krait grumbled.
Her eyes—dear Salazar those eyes—landed on the dahlia he forgot he was holding. "How did you…find me? That sounded silly. I'm not hiding." She gave a self-deprecating laugh that died quickly. "What, ah—"
"I can see him out if you prefer, Harry," Krait growled.
Aldon took a step away from the counter and Harry shook her head quickly, coming to stand beside him—no, in front of him. Protectively.
"That's all right, Krait. Thanks for looking out, but I know him."
Krait give him a rather insulting one-over, eyes lingering on the gold chain of his pocket watch. "You know him. Really."
Without asking, Harry reached out and tucked the chain back into Aldon's robe pocket. "We've met, anyway," she muttered. Looking up at Aldon, she added, "What did you want?"
He pressed the flower into her hand and bent over it gallantly. "I had hoped to speak to you at some length. Are you at liberty this afternoon?"
She hesitated, staring at the flower. "I…am. Sort of. Is it about…?"
"I wanted to see how you were doing," Aldon said.
Harry didn't seem to believe him. She twirled the flower consideringly, and seemed to come to a decision. "Have you eaten?"
He shook his head. She took two steps toward the door, then looked back at him with a nervous smile. "Come on. I know a place."
Aldon was prepared to turn back toward Diagon, but Harry led him further away from the high street instead. He gave up trying to follow their progress after the first turn and instead tried to make sense of her absent rambling.
"—lucky my uncle was busy today and my dad still thinks he's accompanying me," she was saying. "I don't have to be home right away."
They stopped in front of a curtained food stall and Harry ducked in to rattle off two orders without asking his preference. She unstacked a pair of stools and nudged one toward him unselfconsciously.
"They do have you on lockdown, then," he guessed.
Harry nodded as she sat. "It's been better lately, but…we scared them."
"So, they didn't know," Aldon said. That confirmed one of his theories.
Her shoulders hunched and he regrated voicing the thought aloud. "No one knew. And now everyone does." She turned to look at him with haunting guilt. "Listen, I'm really sorry. About Rigel. It must have been a shock."
Aldon shrugged, ignoring the pit of churning worry and confusion that rioted in his stomach when he thought about Rigel. "In some ways it was," he said hoarsely. "In others…well, Rigel was special. We already knew that."
"He was." Harry said the words almost perfunctorily. "Even we didn't realize how special."
Aldon traced her features, ignoring how different they were now and focusing on the tension in her brow, the defensiveness in her eyes. He decided she was lying. Harry lacked the aura of shock Rigel's schoolmates now walked the world with. For all that she was clearly sorry, she wasn't surprised. She was too solidly planted. Too guilty.
Not that that was surprising. He'd come because he already suspected as much. Rigel spoke of her too often and too fondly. Rigel knew Harry, which meant Harry knew him. She had to lie to protect herself, but she definitely knew more than she implied.
Harry waved to someone across the street, and Aldon looked up to find the girl who'd sold him the dahlia perched on a slumping rooftop overlooking the alley. Harry tucked the dahlia behind her ear with a grin, obviously guessing its source, and Aldon marveled at how comfortable she looked. A far cry from the stiff girl in tight shoes at the Gala, or the done-up doll from the Yule Ball. Perched on a low stool with a rough-cut flower in her hair, she looked at home.
Someone inside the stall called Harry's name, and she jumped up to collect the food as the flower girl disappeared from the roof above them. Harry came back with two bowls of steaming curry and Aldon took his with a cautious sniff.
"It's not spicy," she assured him.
Not sure if he should be insulted or grateful, Aldon took a small bite. People walked by them in the alley and he moved his shoes further back, wondering if this was her idea of private.
"I put up a muffling charm," she said.
Aldon frowned, not having noticed her casting. "You didn't use a wand."
"I don't have one," she said plainly. The grin twisting her lips told him at least she knew how absurd it sounded. "Rigel took mine to school. I was too afraid to go to Ollivander's at first, so I learned everything wandlessly. It took a lot longer, but turned out to be more useful."
He wondered why she would tell him such a thing, but was distracted when his mind caught up with the implications. "That's why Snape took Rigel to get a new wand his first term. Your wand didn't work for him."
She nodded slowly. "He gave that one back to Ollivander. I wonder if I should buy it, now that Archie's is no longer registered in my name."
Aldon shook his head. "But I saw you use one that night at the Gala…or you had it switched with Rigel's…?"
"Rigel wasn't there that night," she said gently. "That was the real Archie. He had his own wand and I had Rigel's, just for safe keeping, mostly. Didn't think I'd have to pretend to use it." Harry snorted into her curry. "Of course, Malfoy noticed and we had to 'switch back.'"
Aldon clutched the bowl with both hands, processing everything as fast as he was able. "So, you can't actually use one another's wands." Even as he said it, he felt entirely stupid.
"Of course not," she said softly, stirring her curry slowly. "We aren't twins with sympathetic magic."
"Of course." And wasn't it frustrating? Wasn't it just a bit nauseating that Rigel did so many impossible things they couldn't tell which ones were real and which were bald-faced lies?
Harry pivoted slightly on her stool to face him better. "What did you really want to talk about, Rosier? Please understand, I don't know where Rigel is."
He shook his head. "I don't want to know anything that might compromise his safety. You may not believe it, but I still consider Rigel my friend." She caught her breath, but Aldon couldn't look at her. Staring into his curry, he kept seeing Rigel's face that night in the kitchens, his eyes tight with something he hadn't understood. "I feel terrible about the way it…went," he confessed. "At the end, you know, he said he was tired. That he felt like a fraud. And I didn't listen—"
A hand pressed into his elbow and he regained control of his faculties at once. Harry's verdant eyes were soft. "You couldn't have known."
"I never imagined. But that doesn't lift the regret." He moved his shoulders in an almost-shrug, but the weight of it resettled, unshaken. Sometimes he wondered if the feeling of failure would ever go away.
"He wouldn't want you to blame yourself at all," Harry said quietly.
Aldon swallowed all the words he had for Rigel and ruthlessly focused on the girl in front of him. Clearing his throat, he said, "I really didn't come here to talk about him. I want to talk about you."
Harry blinked at him. "Me?"
He nodded. "My offer from the Yule Ball—"
"Oh." Harry let out a short laugh. "Oh, no. Please don't worry about that." She waved a hand as though to clear a sudden smoke. "With the legislation failing and all, I don't have any expectations of you."
He tried not to be insulted that she dismissed the matter so easily. She was trying to be kind, he was sure. "I mean quite the opposite," he said carefully.
"I came to let you know that…my offer still stands." He almost didn't finish the sentence. The confused frown on her face wasn't promising.
"But the Marriage Law is finished."
"But the advantages of being pureblood in our society go on." She flinched, but he thought she needed to hear it all. "I've been thinking about the entire mess with Rigel, and I think you were more involved in the cover-up than you've admitted. Don't admit it—don't say anything. Just listen." He set down his curry and took her hand, gently at first, but more firmly when she squeezed back with wordless anxiety. "If you were complicit in the blood identity theft, as a halfblood, you could be in a lot of trouble. If you were bound to a pureblood…you might be shielded from the blowback."
Harry's breath evened out, and suddenly she was perfectly calm, like a switch being flipped. She squeezed his hand one more time and let it go. "What do you think Archie's been doing all this time?" she said quietly.
Aldon pursed his lips. "If I'm right in thinking Archie was the 'Harry' I danced with at the Yule Ball, then I think he's very in love with his American classmate and might have taken the opportunity afforded by the legislation being struck down to break your engagement."
Harry grimaced. "That's a good guess. And he did, but I don't need protection. Nor do I deserve it."
He opened his mouth to object, but she put a repressive hand on his shoulder.
"Your loyalty to Rigel is admirable, to go so far even knowing I'm not really his cousin." She said the last teasingly, as though she could make light of the situation. "If I really am culpable, you shouldn't be trying to protect me anyway. Luckily for both of us, I wasn't as involved as you think. I'm in no danger, Rosier."
He didn't believe her for a minute.
"Thank you for checking in on me, though. No one else has. Not that I expect them to," she added with a little stab at her curry.
He wisely chose not to comment on the likelihood of Pansy Parkinson paying the girl a visit as soon as Draco could be trusted alone for more than an hour.
Aldon opened his mouth to ask whether she'd really been living on her own since she was eleven, but Harry jumped up to smile at a roughly-garbed stranger, bowl abandoned on the curb.
"Leo!" She smiled at the newcomer as though he was her best friend in the world. "I thought Margo might tip you off."
The older boy gave her a crushing hug before swinging her out for a once-over. "She said your new boots looked expensive."
Harry grinned and stuck out her foot to show them off. Aldon supposed they did look new. "They're the latest model. Non-slip, acid proof, and temperature controlled."
"The trifecta," Leo said, smiling at her fondly. "Who's this, then?"
Aldon stood from the low stool and bowed shortly. "Aldon Rosier, at your service."
Leo bowed back. "Lionel Hurst, at hers."
Harry nudged him with a roll of her eyes. "Leo is the Aldermaster's son," she said, as though the shape of his nose and the shared name didn't make it clear. "Leo, Aldon is one of Rigel's friends from school."
The understanding that lit in Leo Hurst's eyes was more suspicious than Harry's entire act had been. "Nice to meet you," the older boy said. He slipped a moneybag out of his pocket, and it took Aldon a long moment to recognize it. "I believe this is yours."
Aldon patted his robes and realized, yes, it must be. He reclaimed it with an incredulous stare, even as Harry grimaced at Leo reprovingly.
"They didn't know he was your friend," Leo said apologetically.
Harry sighed and nodded as though this was a perfectly intelligible turn of events. "Put it in an inside pocket," she suggested as Aldon made to tuck it away again. He did so with an embarrassed grunt.
"Do you have time to train this afternoon?" Leo asked her.
Harry's eyes lit up. "I do, actually." She turned to collect her bowl. "Sorry, Rosier. I've got to run, but—" She paused and gave him a long look. "It was good of you to come." Her eyes took on a wistful quality. "Rigel had a good friend in you."
Harry's expression fell into something stern. "You'll never see him again." The words cut through him like a rapier. "Please understand that," she implored.
He buried the hurt and summoned a small smile. "Well, then. I've got an opening in my friend roster now, so…"
She bit her lip. "I…will keep that in mind."
He'd been sure she would refuse the offer, and the smile she pulled on said almost as much. Harry returned the bowls to the stand and restacked the stools. Before she left, Aldon beat back his pride enough to ask, "How, ah, do I get back to—?"
The flower urchin from earlier appeared at his elbow like a demon summoned to a dark ritual. "I'll show you the way."
"Thanks, Margo," Harry said, flipping the girl a coin. "Keep an eye on his watch."
"Won't let nobody nick it," the girl promised solemnly.
Aldon could hardly refuse. "Lead the way, Miss Margo."
The girl giggled and took his hand in her smaller, dirtier palm. "Aren't you glad you didn't go for carnations?"
He had no answer to that. He was leaving with far more questions than answers, come to think of it, but even so…he was glad he took the trouble to track Harry Potter back to her lair. If nothing else, she was still interesting.
"How many more of your posh friends are you going to lead down these alleys?"
"I didn't lead him," she protested. "I never imagined seeing Aldon Rosier here." The mental image of him squatting on that stool with a bowl of street curry would never leave her.
"You say that like he's royalty," Leo pointed out.
"If the Wizarding World had Kings and Queen, he probably would be," she admitted ruefully. "Only the Malfoys and Lestranges stand above the Rosiers." At Leo's unimpressed look, she smiled slyly. "Little did he know he was graced by the presence of true royalty."
Leo pretended to inspect his bare fingers. "Should I have offered him my ring?"
She laughed. Leo stopped walking and took her hand. "That, right there. I've missed your laugh, lass. You've been away too long."
Harry swallowed. It was so easy to fall back into place with Leo and forget the unsaid things between them. With her father working late that night, she had no effective curfew. There could be no avoiding the long-overdue conversation. It had to happen.
It didn't happen.
Leo launched into a story about Marek and a gang of out-of-towners, and she forgot about their impending Talk until they reached the Dancing Phoenix. She waved at familiar faces as they wove through to the courtyard, but Leo didn't let her stop.
Only when he began to take off his shoes did she realize he really did intend to train.
"You're off-balance," he said, sinking into a ready stance.
She wobbled a bit copying him and grimaced. "It's maddening, being short again."
"Short can be useful," Leo said, darting in with a jab she ducked beneath easily. "Use it, don't fight it."
Harry grumbled, but launched into the practice with a sense of relief. This was a familiar problem. She'd take any distraction from having to fully explain herself.
The session went longer than usual, and Harry was far from holding her own, but even dusty and sweaty she felt better by the end of it. She still lost her balance and overestimated her reach, but the feeling of despair about it had receded. Maybe re-learning was a better answer than a permanent Polyjuice solution. With her luck, she'd get to a size she liked and then go through the second half of puberty.
Leo's whole crew was there when they trudged back into the Phoenix. Solom had a glass of milk waiting on ice, and Harry had to pretend her glasses had fogged when Rispah pulled her close and told her how very brave she was. Aled gave her grief about staying away half the year when she was only down the street, and they all had a good laugh at Marek for not realizing the bloke in America wasn't even her.
"Now I know why you were so cross with me for sending him," Leo sighed.
"A woman doesn't need a reason to be cross with a man," Rispah sniffed.
Leo shook his head, leaning back in his chair precariously. "My Harry's never cross! It was dreadfully out of character and can only be explained by a great deception."
Harry nudged his chair further back with her foot and smiled sweetly as he grabbed for the bench to stay balanced. "If I've deprived you of regularly experiencing my ire, Leo, I do apologize. I'll see to correcting that now that I have no secrets to keep."
"A woman must have some secrets," Rispah told her seriously. "It's part of the mystique."
"Everyone's seen your mystique, Rispah—"
Marek was on his arse before anyone knew what happened. He pointed accusingly at Rispah, who lounged in exaggerated indolence on Harry's shoulder. "How—?"
They laughed Marek back into his seat with a fresh pint to nurse his pride. As the guitarist in the corner struck up a note and the men jumped up to sing, Rispah dipped her head toward Harry's ear and said, "You look fully yourself, my dear. It becomes you."
Harry gave the beautiful woman a watery smile. "I'm sorry for deceiving you all—"
"Don't." Rispah let a single finger hover over Harry's mouth. "We understand it. What wouldn't we do for our own?" She gestured at the carousing group and shook her head. "I would do anything for my cousin. I just hope yours appreciates all you did for him."
She let Rispah see the pride in her eyes. "He'll be one of the greats. Now that he doesn't have to hide himself anymore, the world will see what Archie can really do."
Harry was looking forward to seeing it. She didn't know how much of his magic and attention had been tied up in continuous morphing, but she could imagine.
"You too, Harry."
Rispah nudged her. "You can show the world what you can really do now, too."
She hitched her mouth. "I haven't exactly been holding back."
As the sun threatened to set, Harry stood with a groan of stiff muscles. The group protested but she shook her head with a smile. "Dad'll never let me leave again if I'm not home when he gets in."
"And we all want Harry to come back again soon," Rispah said. She bussed Harry's forehead and patted her cheek. "Mrs. Hurst's been worrying, too. Next time, drop by the clinic."
"If I had time, I'd go right now and have her heal the beating from my limbs."
"And cheat yourself of all the progress?" Leo tapped her bicep with a gentle fist. "I wouldn't let you."
"Better walk her home, Leo," Aled called.
"To save her from temptation," Marek added with a clink of his glass on the table.
Leo waved off their capricious comments and sent Harry through the door with a bow.
"A king would never bow so deep," Harry said lightly.
"He would to a queen," Leo shot back.
Stymied, she made a bee-line for the nearest public Floo. As the noise of the Dancing Phoenix faded behind them, Harry said, "You still haven't…asked me anything."
Leo took a deep breath and let it out slowly, looking up at the sky as he did so. "Way I see it, there's no need to rush through it. Is there anything you need help with right now?"
She shook her head.
He nodded. "Then I don't need to know anything right away."
Harry didn't know what to say to that. They walked in silence for a time, and she listened to the sound of his footsteps keeping pace beside her. Leo stopped at the Floo and put his hands in his pockets. "We have time, Harry. Just be for a bit." With a wry tilt of his head, he added, "You seem like you need a break from interrogations, anyway."
She smiled. It was exactly what she needed. "Somehow, you always know."
"If you're the only thing I know my whole life, Harry, I'll be a wise man," Leo said.
Harry shook her head, a grin fighting through her reproach. "And then you ruin it."
"You liked it."
"Sleep tight, Harry."
For once, maybe she would.
It was Sunday morning, and Harry was meditating. She was supposed to be practicing her Animagus transformation, but James didn't know she'd already cracked it. He did know she was working on it, thanks to something Archie had admitted during his 'Morning at the Ministry,' as the family continued to refer to his interrogation. She wasn't sure what exactly was said, only that James had insisted on overseeing the remainder of her training, so she was pretending to try.
No one could know she'd had the ability when Rigel escaped. It was too easy to imagine an animagus slipping the Auror's net, and it was probably only unwillingness to know that preventing anyone asking whether Rigel was an animagus himself.
She wasn't even sure she could replicate the transformation outside of such an extreme fight-or-flight situation. She wasn't going to find out with her father watching.
A tap at the window broke her façade and she watched with unabashed interest as James crossed the room to collect the post. The owl shook its leg impatiently as James ran several spells over it, but he wouldn't be rushed. Once satisfied, he flipped through the mail deftly and handed an envelope to Harry without commenting.
Harry raised her eyebrows. "Are we done triple-checking my mail for letter bombs?"
"Keep joking about the death threats, Harry. That's sure to make me rethink your restrictions." James looked at her over the top of his coffee and she made a face at him.
Neither of them was completely joking, but they weren't deadly serious, either. Remus was a wise man. She went to open the envelope, pausing as her father added, "Besides—if the Potions Guild is trying to kill you, even I can't save you."
Harry slid the newest edition of Potions Quarterly from its sleeve with a smile that froze when she turned it over and saw the cover.
"Lestrange," she muttered darkly. "Must be his thesis piece."
"You don't sound happy for him," James remarked.
Harry pressed her lips together, but flipped to the middle of the magazine against her better judgement. His pointy, inbred face stared out at her from a glossy centerfold. She recognized the view from the window behind him and scowled. "He made them go out to his castle for the shoot? Ew."
"This would be his first publication under his own auspices, yes?"
She lowered the periodical to stare incredulously at James. "Without Master Whitaker on the byline, yes. But how did you…?" She flipped back to the front and realized he was paraphrasing the subtitle of the cover blurb: 'Breakout Brewer Caelum Lestrange: First in Print with Fresh Ideas.'
Harry tore back to the article, skimming it angrily until the content caught up to her. She shook her head and started back at the beginning. "It's…about Shaped Imbuing." It wasn't even bad. He outlined the concept in a way that was persuasively interesting before jumping into his ideas for theoretical applications and practical demonstration. She read the third paragraph several times before believing it.
'Shaped Imbuing, a method pioneered by novice brewer Harriett Potter, is the most revolutionary advancement to Potions in three centuries.'
Shaped Imbuing, pioneered by Harriett Potter.
"He credits me…" Harry felt her mouth fall open as she read on. "He cited my internship paper and—and there are direct quotes from our tutoring sessions." Unable to take anymore, she balled the magazine and threw it into the fire with a growl of rage.
James summoned it from the fire and doused the flames with an incredulous smile. "Is that how we treat repositories of knowledge?"
Harry jumped to her feet and began to pace angrily, not sure she trusted herself to control her magic without some physical outlet. "What the hell is he playing at?"
James looked between her and the article, clearly amused. "Is this some kind of weird potions courtship thing?"
She clenched her fist and shook it in his general direction. "Can you just burn that, please? I need some visceral satisfaction, but I can Vanish something into Non-Being if you'd rather."
"Not the antiques, please," James said calmly. He was skimming the pages. "Now, I'm no expert, but he seems to treat the subject fairly."
"Fairly? He's downright respectful," she snarled. "Constructively critical of its limitations and practically admiring in describing the discovery process."
"You've lost me," James said frankly. "Because those sound like good things."
"But they're all a lie." Harry sent a fireball of magic into the fireplace and winced as the chimney shook. She ran static-charged fingers through her hair and buried her face in her hands. "They have to be. He's vile."
None of it made any sense. It would have been submitted months ago for review, but months ago he would have been brewing that potion. How could she reconcile the words with his actions? He could he treat her work, halfblood work, so professionally, yet hold such hate that he would work with Voldemort toward pureblood supremacy? Normal people couldn't compartmentalize their beliefs so completely. Could they?
"Maybe he didn't write it," she said, testing the words aloud. Only no one else could have quoted her like that.
James came to kneel beside her on the floor. "What's this really about, Fawn? I thought you enjoyed teaching this kid."
"He did something unforgivable," she muttered. "It made me realize he's just a bigot like all the others, and he'll never change."
James brought her into a strong hug until the fight went out of her. When she blew out a long breath, he said, "You know, it's very difficult to do what Sirius did."
She lifted her head to give him a look. "I know that."
"Do you? Maybe because you grew up with him, it seems normal to you that he turned his back on everything he knew for the sake of principles. For friendship." James leveled her with serious eye contact. "But it's really, really hard to do. Most people don't. That you've made any progress with the Lestrange boy is…impressive."
"I haven't," she bit out.
James bopped her over the head with the singed article. "This was not written by a bigot. Don't give up on him yet."
Harry glared at him. "You don't know what he's—"
"And you don't know what Sirius had done, before he turned his back on the Dark. Even while he was trying to." The grim truth in James' eyes gave her pause. She couldn't imagine Sirius doing anything unforgivable. Her father pressed the journal into her hand and said, "You don't have to forgive him for whatever he did or said. Just…be a hand, if he ever reaches out."
He stood and picked up his coffee. On his way out of the room, he added, "I'm not saying it'll work out. Some people never turn. But I know you're brave enough to try, Harry."
James left, and she sank her head into her hands again. Lestrange stared at her through the cracks in her fingers, looking so sure of himself it had to be an act. He didn't deserve it. Maybe that wasn't the point, though.
Maybe…she could try again.
"The so-called pureblooded elite will never buy into an equal society if it means willingly relinquishing their own undue power! The Rigel Black Child has shown us the only way! Revolution! Revolution from within and without!"
A general cheer went up about the alley. Harry slipped through the crowd, avoiding eye contact as the woman on a makeshift pedestal shot sparks into the air with her wand to accentuate her talking points.
"If we have to shove their high and mighty noses in it every day, we will—"
Harry turned the corner and was left to imagine how, exactly, the woman planned to bring the attention of the ruling class to her cause. It was the fourth protest she'd seen in the alleys that week. Rabble-rousers, James called them. Harry gathered it was a loosely-affiliated group of groups rather than a single, cohesive movement, and the Aurors didn't seem concerned. They were busy tracking down Voldemort and dodging political attempts to assign blame for the disastrous way Riddle's tournament ended.
One silver lining of said disaster was that Riddle had disappeared from the lime light completely. Brooding, no doubt, and nursing wounded pride. And furiously plotting Rigel's demise, she allowed after a moment's consideration. It would be a very good thing if she and Riddle never crossed paths again.
The sun had already set when she reached the Lamia Lodge. James didn't like her leaving the house so late, but he was the one who had officially lifted her restrictions. Trust had to begin somewhere.
She entered without knocking, as she usually did, and the door scarcely had time to creak before she was slammed up against the inside corridor with a cold fist around her collar.
"Human," the unfamiliar vampire growled.
"Guilty," she choked, pulling her magic tightly into her skin to keep it from lashing out. "Is there a new human policy I should know about?"
"More like a new menu—"
"Enough, Silo. The human is here to see me." Kasten appeared at the end of the hallway, dark eyes glinting in the dim light of the wall sconces.
The hand released her, and Silo, who upon second glance was quite a bit shorter than any vampire she'd ever seen, leered at Kasten as he passed. "Watch your tone, fledgling. And teach your pet the codes."
Kasten stared after the other vampire with reproval. Harry rolled her neck as she touched the bottle in her pocket to make sure it hadn't cracked. "Are there codes now?" she asked.
"Not really. The Rogue uses one, but Silo's rule of thumb puts humans up against the wall in any case."
"I'm sure it's effective security," Harry said, somewhat doubtfully.
"The coven is on edge," Kasten murmured.
Harry thought about the woman shouting in Diagon Alley and grimaced. "The whole world is on edge."
"Beings with sense are always tense in times of great anticipation." Kasten's face was hard to read, but he did not sound anticipatory so much as pained. "People feel a change coming. It terrifies some and galvanizes others. So it will always be."
"I don't mind if the world changes," Harry muttered. "I just wish it would leave me out of it."
Kasten shook his head and led her further into the lodge. In some places, she could see where the wallpaper had burned away, and the wood around the doorway into the foyer was noticeably charred. "In an upheaval, there is no safe place to stand."
She eyed the slumping front desk, which had somehow survived the spring's conflagration despite being the textbook definition of dry tinder. A pair of chairs in the corner of the room were new, and Kasten gestured to one of them, awkwardly hovering until she sat.
"Your lab?" she asked, glancing toward the soot-stained staircase.
"Still being refurbished," Kasten said. "It is fit for working, but not for human lungs."
Harry took the bottle from her pocket and passed it to Kasten for examination. "This should help with his disorientation. The mental scars of possession will heal with time, but Doggart's Dram will speed the recovery."
"You are certain it will work on our kind?"
"It works on Squibs and there are documented uses of it by centaurs and banshees." Kasten raised his eyebrows, and Harry shrugged. "I didn't look into the specific circumstances. Sentient minds are the key; it won't work on animals, but any being could benefit. Active magic is not required."
Kasten nodded. "I will test a small dose on myself if you don't mind. Just to ensure it is safe."
"I understand. If it works, I'll bring more."
"You do not understand," Kasten said slowly. "Not fully. Your assistance in this time is…it implies a certain relationship with our coven."
Harry frowned. "In this time but not in others?"
Kasten's eyes widened. "You do not know." At her blank look, his eyes grew distant and pained once more. "The coven goes to war, Harry. This night."
She startled. "Tonight? What, now?"
"The Carpathians have crossed a red line. They conspired with wizards to enslave a rival vampire." Kasten leaned forward as though to ensure she understood the gravity of his words. "It cannot be borne."
Harry took a deep breath. "I thought you were already at war with the Carpathians. They did all this." She gestured to the scars of fire and ash on the room around them.
"Covens attack one another from time to time. It is expected when tensions reach a breaking point," Kasten said slowly. "Now, however, we know that attack was orchestrated by a human. Now, we know this is no skirmish. After this night, there will be only one coven in the alleys."
Harry gripped the arm of her chair to keep from reaching out. Her touch would not be welcome, she suspected. "Will you fight?"
"Even I cannot remain aloof," Kasten said. "Though I am young, I am Grandfather's heir. I will—"
"You will remain here with Gavril."
They looked over to see Irvina coming in from the courtyard. She was bedecked in blood-red battle armor, the elegance of which Harry had never seen the like. Her beautiful hair was bound with black ribbon, and there was a flame in her eyes that gave her the air of an avenging goddess. Harry pitied anyone in her way.
Kasten stood, Harry a moment after. "I am of age," he began, but Irvina interrupted him.
"Gavril must survive. You will tend to him through the battle. If our coven falls, you will carry him to safety. You are the seed that must plant us anew, Kasten. Gavril will be your lieutenant. The Count has decreed it."
Kasten's face hardened. "Then it shall be done."
Irvina turned her deadly gaze on Harry. "And you, fleshling? Will you fight for us?"
Harry recalled trying and failing to fend off Voldemort in his vampire host. "I could never keep up," she admitted.
Irvina nodded once. "That is as well. War is for the wrathful. You will be more use to Kasten alive if we should fail." She tipped back her head and let out a deep-throated cry. Countless echoing cries answered from the courtyard. The vampiress curled her fingers into claws, and the fierce expectation in her smile was terrifying. "Blood has waited long enough," she crooned.
"Go home, Harry," Kasten advised her. "This night is not for humans."
Harry moved toward the door in a daze. She looked back at the door to see Kasten standing a silent sentry at the other end of the dark corridor. "Be careful," she whispered. "If it goes wrong—"
"I will write."
She nodded, and stumbled out of the Lodge—and into Leo.
He caught her on the step and shook his head exasperatedly. "Why am I not surprised to find you here?"
"Leo, what—is the Rogue involved in this?"
Leo pulled her to the other side of the alley. "The Court doesn't strictly speaking get involved in coven matters."
She gave his attire a once-over, noting the arm braces, extra sheaths, and the leather-backed steel collar that looked like it might turn a pair of fangs from the carotid. "But?" she prompted, armed crossed.
"But the code was broken," Leo said grimly. "The Carpathians sold out one of ours to an outsider, and even if they hadn't—these battles have a way of getting out of hand."
"How can you keep up in a vampire fight?" Harry asked, bewildered. Leo was fast, but he wasn't that fast.
He laughed, a short, hard sound. "We won't. My boys'll be setting a perimeter, trying to keep the fighting in and uninvolved humans out of the way. If we happen to catch any stragglers…well, that's as it is."
Harry worried, and it must have shown on her face. Leo clipped her chin with a finger. "We'll be all right, lass. Dealt with coven squabbles before, and I don't doubt we will again." He hesitated, then said casually, "That said, I wouldn't mind if the city fire-brigade got a little tip-off, if you take my meaning."
Harry stared at him. "You want me to…tell someone?"
Leo pursed his lips and tilted his head. "Strickly speaking, it's not illegal for two covens to work out their differences. Only thing is, vampire battles tend to involve a lot of fire. And last time, well, we ran our folk pretty ragged trying to contain it until the fire-dousers came round." He waggled his eyebrows at her. "Might be nice if they showed up sooner. Not too soon, mind you. But quick enough."
"Uh-huh. This seems a little outside the spirit of the Code," Harry said. "I don't want to see a tattle-tale tax on my next tithe."
"This is a somewhat gray area in the Code," Leo admitted. "Fact is, fire is dangerous, and there's enough folk in these parts without magic to make it worth erring on the side of preventative planning."
Harry nodded slowly. A fully grown wizard could escape a fire no problem, but children, Squibs, the myriad passive-magic beings…not to mention the entire population of muggles just one city sector over, who wouldn't even see the smoke until it spread beyond the alley wards. "I'll see what I can do, Leo."
"Get home quick, and watch your back, lass."
Leo slipped into the Lodge after a series of complicated knocks, and she hoped he was going to be as removed from the fighting as he implied. The nearest public Floo was just a couple of blocks, but she jogged the distance to settle the nerves in her stomach.
James was waiting for her in the Floo room when she stumbled through the wards. "Hey, Dad."
"Little late, don't you think?"
She stood and brushed the soot from her sleeves. "My friend had more to talk about than I thought."
James gestured to the sweat on her face. "And then you went for a run?"
Harry wiped her brow with her sleeve and nodded. "Well, things are a little…heated in the alleys."
"What does that mean?" he asked sharply.
"Who's the on-call team for dousing this week?" she asked casually.
James scowled down at her. "It's Kingsley's crew. Are the alleys on fire?"
Shacklebolt. Harry had heard how he'd pulled one over on Archie in interrogation and didn't feel too bad about saying, "Not yet. But you might want to Floo him and let him know to be on more of an…alert status tonight. Maybe he shouldn't even go to sleep."
"No wizarding laws will be broken."
"I don't love the way you stressed 'wizarding.'" James rubbed his forehead. "You've been out of restriction one week and you've gone and set the alleys on fire. Do you see how this makes it hard to trust you?"
"I haven't done anything," she said primly. "I am a concerned citizen making an anonymous tip that at some point tonight an enormous fire might break out south of Diagon Alley and if someone wanted to put his fire brigade on alert it might be of benefit to the community that he protects and serves. Maybe."
James groaned. "Anonymous tips will be the death of me."
Harry pretended to yawn. "Gosh, I'm tired. I'm sure you have lots of paperwork to start, so I'll get out of your way."
"I should deputize you and make you do the paperwork."
"I'm afraid the Auror department doesn't accept interns of ill repute."
"I'm closing the Floo."
"Thanks, but I've finished my errands for the evening."
Harry pretended not to hear her father send a ball of fire magic into the Floo. She climbed the stairs and the worry settled back over her. For all that she'd told Kasten she wanted to stand to the side, it was difficult to sleep knowing people she cared about were fighting battles without her. When it came to a fight where she could keep up…how long would she really be able to stay a spectator?
Regulus strode into the study without knocking, but straightened to attention upon finding him within. "My lord, forgive me. I assumed you would be taking supper."
Riddle eyed the missive in the younger man's hand. "Your report?"
Regulus inclined his head and crossed to the fireside armchair. "There's been an attack on the coven that aligned itself with the impostor."
"No, other vampires," Regulus said. His mouth twisted on the word, and Riddle knew it rankled the proud man to be reduced to a gutter alley spy. Regulus was not yet forgiven for falling prey to Rigel's deception. If anyone should have seen through the act, it was him.
That was the problem with these old-school elitists. When it came down to it, they couldn't actually tell the difference. Rigel's power blinded them, and it took a blood ritual gone wrong to expose his impurity. Without unfathomable back luck, the boy might have gone his whole life without being caught. Might have climbed the ranks. Might have been given the very keys to the kingdom. Might have been the forceful change their kind needed to survive.
Instead, he was vapor in the wind. One more ghost story in the pantheon of purity myths.
Riddle tossed the report into the fire and let it smolder. "Inter-species squabbling doesn't concern us. When the Order and the impostor come to a head, that is our moment."
"My lord, about what I told you…" Regulus quailed under Riddle's sharp look, but rallied manfully. "Why not use the…mark of magic to track the imposter down and deal with it."
"I could do so quietly and efficiently and save the world a lot of trouble," Riddle admitted with a dark smile. "But that would not earn us any favors, Regulus, and we are sorely in need of good publicity."
He didn't. None of the fools ever did. It wasn't really his fault—poor, sheltered pureblood, soaring, eyes closed, toward a burning sun, knowing not his coming demise, only chasing the warmth of it on his skin. Without him to lead them, they'd be gnats on the windshield of the world already.
Regulus bowed out of the room, but the door swung open almost immediately and a far more impertinent thorn took his place.
"Are we skipping dinner again?" Owens all but threw himself into the opposite chair, crossing his legs and allowing his foot to tap with American manners. "Only I wish you'd warn a guy. I could've eaten more at lunch."
"If you're looking for something to prattle at, the mirror in the foyer pretends to listen better than I," Riddle drawled, turning back to his book.
"I wanted to talk about the summer champion's tour," Owens said flatly. "Are we still going to—"
The boy sniffed. "Why not, though?"
Riddle snapped his book together and regretted it when he recalled in which century it had been bound. Smothering his irritation until it was discernable only as a thread of steel beneath his words, he said, "What would be the point of that, Jacob? The legislation is dead. We must nurture another opportunity to advance our cause."
"But I could show my face," Owens whined. "Make connections. Aren't I more useful as your heir if everyone knows who I am?"
"You are not anyone's heir yet."
"I'm Slytherins'. You said so yourself." He spoke in Parseltongue as though Riddle needed reminding of his gift. At times he wondered if it had been a mistake to draw Isolt's line out of obscurity, but it was his nature to retain a fallback plan.
As annoying as that plan might be, it was preferable to having no alternative, particularly now that Rigel had gone and proven himself unsuitable in front of all and sundry.
"So, as heir presumptive you would give the media a spectacle? Should we leave an empty chair for our missing felon to remind everyone of the colossal, inexorable failure of the final task?"
Owens sunk into his chair and grumbled, "Maybe he'd come. Show-off likes attention."
"He'd be a fool to show his face, and Rigel is no fool. Never mind the Ministry. What I'll do to him when I have his lying neck within reach…" He allowed himself to picture it for one, satisfying moment. So many loose ends would be severed with the boy's death. The wildcard taken out of play, and all the vows laid to rest between them.
The Vow…there was a thought.
The wording had been…ambiguous, on the boy's end. Any and all tasks required of a champion. Did that proscription end when Rigel satisfied the condition of winning? Certainly, Riddle was still held to his part of it. He would not be so arrogant as to predict the exact boundaries of the Vow's interpretations; one never really knew until the blood began to heat in the veins.
Still, there was a chance. He risked appearing the fool if Rigel didn't show, but Rigel risked much more if the Vow considered the requirement valid.
It seemed he had one final wager to make with Rigel Black.
He was trying to get his head right and be an adult about it. Trying to put his feelings aside and see how much bigger than him it all was. Trying to listen to what Pansy needed him to hear.
Some days, it was harder than others.
The conservatory was tastefully bedecked, with silver cloth draping that made the greenery stand out all the more. His mother had cried, as she always did at sacred bondings, and she would cry again when the bride and groom exchanged first spells. The reception was in full swing and shaping up to be a who's who of Dark society.
Draco wove through people without really seeing them. The notes of a string quartet drew his gaze to the dance floor, and he wondered how two people could possible be so happy with so much chaos and confusion in the world. Watching Edmund and Alice sway, he thought people in love must exist in a separate reality from the rest of them.
He skirted the punch table and nabbed one of the undiluted fairy wines. His mother wouldn't approve of him drinking in his 'fragile emotional state,' but she would be too busy imagining Rookwood-Selwyn babies to notice.
"—can't believe how badly the Party misjudged that—"
"—wrong that I'm glad the law didn't go through? Wouldn't want to marry one of them…"
He took a long swig, wishing he could charm his ears shut with magic without being unforgivably uncouth. There was no avoiding politics at such events, but he was sick to death of the endless speculation about the legislation, the last task…Rigel.
"—and that thing—the amulet! It stopped the Killing Curse."
"That piece of refuse must not have cast it right."
"I think I know a perfect Killing Curse when I see one."
Draco turned to blink incredulously at the wizard who would say such a thing in mixed company. He had a beard that was either woefully neglected or a wild animal making a remarkably neat nest in the folds of his neck. The beard quivered as the wizard poked his friend in the chest and insisted, "That was a fully manifested curse and something stopped it."
A hand at his elbow made Draco start and slosh his wine onto his cuff. Blaise was there, apologetically siphoning the spilled wine off the fabric with practiced wand movements.
"Sorry, Draco. Didn't mean to startle you."
"Not your fault," Draco murmured. "I got distracted by—"
"The imbecile bragging about recognizing the most recognizable curse in existence?" Blaise shot the bearded wizard a droll look and shook his head. "Hard not to hear him."
"Sick of people talking about it," Draco complained.
"You're going to be sick for a while, then," Blaise said flatly. "In case you missed it, Rigel won the Triwizard Tournament, broke the Founders' wards, revealed himself a halfblood, and then escaped from under the noses of the entire DMLE."
"You forgot 'survived a killing curse' and 'betrayed all his friends,'" Draco grumbled.
Blaise raised an eyebrow. "I assume you're kidding about the second part, as Pansy indicated you had recently pulled your head out of your arse, but as to the first—that was Lady Potter's doing."
Draco stared at him. "What was?"
"The Killing Curse," Blaise said quietly. "Rigel let me examine the amulet he was wearing. It had some intense protective magic woven into it, and Lady Potter designed and crafted the whole thing."
"The Potters just can't stop inventing things, can they?"
Blaise and Draco turned guiltily, and Pansy shook her head with a rueful smile. "Didn't I say we were going to go through it together? Come along, boys. The others are waiting."
Something about the way her elegantly secured ponytail swished when she walked away made Draco wonder if Pansy had led armies into battle in a previous life.
The others were gathered in an out-of-the-way clearing, loosely shaded from prying eyes by a trailing vine that had escaped its winter pruning.
Pansy cleared her throat and met each of their eyes before starting. "To be exceedingly clear, we are here to discuss the potential whereabouts of our friend, Rigel. We do not intend to turn him in and we are not here to blame or question him. Only to find him and help him, if needed."
All eyes turned to Theo, who scowled back defiantly. "I wouldn't be here if I wasn't still his friend. Anyway, I came around before Draco did."
Draco narrowed his eyes, but Pansy said quickly, "Speaking of Draco, he is not to be questioned or tasked in regards to this matter. He is here as an interested observer only."
Theo smirked at him. "We know about the life debt. Everyone knows Lord Malfoy is in the dog house with Riddle because of it."
"All these years and no one's murdered you yet, Theo. Remarkable," Draco bit out.
"And we aren't here to argue," Millicent put in. "I have an update."
"Go ahead, Millie," Pansy agreed.
"There is no sign of him on the continent." At their frowns, Millicent gestured impatiently. "No, that's good, don't you see? We're narrowing it down."
"Or he's better at hiding than you are at looking," Blaise suggested.
"We traced every recently disgraced or penniless family," Millicent said defensively. "No lost heirs unaccounted for, and no one suddenly reappearing after a long time away. My father and uncles have been making inquiries, too. I know they haven't found anything."
"You're assuming he's associated with a prominent family," Theo argued. "That doesn't even line up with the account Arcturus Black gave the Aurors."
"I've chosen to treat Heir Black's account not as fact but as evidence of what Rigel wants us to think. We all know he's too smart not to have thought up a story ahead of time in case he got caught."
There was general consensus at this. "Does anyone else have news to share?" Pansy asked hopefully.
Aldon stepped forward with a smile so smug it was a wonder it didn't walk off his face and start its own line of leather shoes. "I found Harry Potter," he said.
"Was she missing?" Theo looked around to make sure he was not the only one confused by the non sequitur.
"She's been laying low," Pansy said, eyes narrowed. "My letters have been turned away unopened. Where did you run into her?"
"Knockturn Alley." The way he said it was deliberately provocative.
Theo whistled. "I knew she was cool."
"She works there, apparently," Aldon went on. At Pansy's sharp inhale, he smirked. "Not like that. As a potions brewer."
Pansy blew out a breath, color in her cheeks. "Obviously. I knew that."
"We knew she had a job, at least. Was it really in Knockturn Alley? I thought those rumors were nonsense," Millicent said.
"Which ones? I heard she was living in some old lady's attic. Then I heard she was living in a nest of vampires, acting as their blood bank. And some are saying she lived on the streets and stole to eat—only I guess she wouldn't need to steal if she had income." Theo scratched his head. "It's not easy parsing through all the mad stuff."
Draco could keep quiet no longer. "Harry brews for an apothecary in Knockturn, and for Horace Burke and a number of other distributers probably as well. I'm sure she doesn't need to steal anything." The others stared at him. "What? Rigel and Uncle Snape have both have mentioned it numerous times. Weren't you listening?"
Pansy gave him a soft smile, and he realized it was because he'd said Rigel's name aloud without growling it. "All right, so you found her at work," she prompted. The attention turned back to Aldon, who preened like an underfed puppy.
"We had a long talk. She's doing surprisingly well, all things considered."
"Is she?" Pansy and Millicent exchanged a look.
"Well enough to leave her family's protection to wander about London," Aldon said, shrugging. "More than that, she seems…relaxed. Like a different person—and not just her appearance."
"Her appearance has changed?" Blaise said sharply.
Aldon nodded. "Drastically. She used to look like Rigel, remember? And so did Arcturus. All three of them have apparently been switching places for years."
"All three of them? Are you sure?" Pansy pressed.
"She admitted it. I think it was difficult to switch Rigel in and out of place while they were at home. At some of the social events we thought Rigel attended, it wasn't him at all. It was one of the other two." Aldon nodded in the face of their collective disbelief. "Hard to fathom, isn't it? That's why they all had to look alike."
"And why he was so bloody androgenous," Theo muttered.
Draco's stomach clenched at the thought that Rigel's unique femininity had been so precisely designed—a mask even Harriett Potter could wear. Aldon was right; it was mental.
"But which times was it the real Rigel, and which times was it Arcturus? Or Harriett?" Millicent put a hand to her head. "I have to think about this."
"Maybe we never saw Rigel on holidays," Aldon speculated.
"No, we did." Pansy was thinking furiously. "At the summer garden parties—that was definitely Rigel."
"And at the Yule Ball," Blaise put it.
"But that was not Harry," Aldon confirmed. "Archie went as her that night."
"Wicked," Theo breathed.
"What about the New Year Galas?" Pansy asked.
Millicent shook her head. "Too hard to tell. Maybe when he saved Mr. Ogden—"
"No, that was Arcturus and Harriett," Aldon said confidently. "I asked her about the wand switching thing. It's…not a thing."
Pansy turned with wide eyes to Draco. "You noticed they switched that night! Rigel had Harriett's wand, and Harriett—"
"Never had a wand. She carried Rigel's on holidays, but even now she doesn't carry one at all. Doesn't need it," Aldon said. Draco wanted to shake him until he dropped all his secrets at once instead of dolling them out like an old lady in the park who didn't want the birds to go away.
Pansy deflated. "Oh. I suppose that explains why Rigel had to get a new wand in first year."
"Doesn't it?" Aldon shook his head. "It's amazing how many things considered 'Rigel's eccentricities' were actually part of the act."
"Amazing," Draco muttered sourly. How could they act like they were solving clues at a murder mystery party? Didn't it kill them to picture Rigel's face? Didn't it feel as though a knife was twisting deeper with every new lie revealed?
"When you think about it like that…" Theo ticked off his fingers blithely. "There's his weird aversion to touching people, the way he sleeps fully dressed, and how none of us ever saw him change clothes. How do you explain that?"
"It's called modesty, Theo," Millicent muttered.
Aldon blinked slowly, something sad overshadowing the pleasure of knowing things no one else did. "Merlin, no wonder he was so damn self-conscious. I thought it was some kind of inferiority complex, but…it was more than that, wasn't it? Every day was a reminder that he wasn't good enough. That without the lie, he wouldn't be there."
"That would give anyone a complex," Blaise said slowly.
"And every time someone talked about the inferiority of lesser bloods, they might as well have been talking about him," Aldon croaked.
Even Theo winced at that. "He was too good at fooling us."
"We weren't looking for that sort of deception," Millicent said, somewhat defensively.
"Now we know better. Always look for the deception," Draco drawled.
"Our parents will be hamming that home for the next decade, yes. Thanks, Draco." Pansy's smile was devastatingly insincere. She turned to Aldon. "This is too much to process verbally. I need you to write down everything you remember about your conversation with Miss Potter and—"
Aldon took a scroll out of his sleeve and handed it over with a smile.
Pansy snatched it with a moue that was not quite a pout. "Thank you. Millie and I will go through this and cross-reference it with other facts. We'll come up with new theories and try to meet again before the new term."
"It's going to be weird without him, isn't it?" Theo said.
"This is what normal looks like, now," Draco said. "We just have to get used to it."
Pansy gave him a proud smile.
"You lot are the worst sort of wallflowers."
Edmund had found them, Alice at his side.
"The anti-social sort?" Pansy came forward to press Alice in a hug, which the older girl tolerated magnanimously.
"The conspiratorial sort," Edmund corrected. "Trading information?"
"More like pooling it," Aldon admitted shamelessly.
"We were just finishing," Pansy said quickly. "Looking forward to the, er, cake-cutting, Edmund."
"And the gift-opening." Blaise had a meaningful note in his voice, and Draco followed his gaze to a small package Edmund was holding half-hidden in his dress robes.
Edmund revealed the present with a slow nod. "That's why we're here. Our elf pre-screened them to prevent any unpleasant surprises and…"
"We got a pleasant surprise instead." Alice lifted the tag so they could read it.
Pansy took two steps forward with a small gasp, her eyes welling up. "Oh, Rigel."
"He sent it?"
"He's alive, then!"
Alive. Rigel was alive.
"Alive and as predictable as ever," Alice said with a small smile.
"We didn't want to bandy it in front of prying eyes, but you all deserve to see it."
Without any fanfare, Edmund pulled on the ribbon and the wrapping fell away. It was a potion, and Draco wanted to cry because of course it was.
"A memory potion," Millicent breathed. "But those are so rare."
"And difficult," Blaise murmured. "How does he have the time or resources on the run…?"
"What does it do?" Theo asked tentatively.
Alice was staring at the bottle like it might disappear at any moment. "It captures important memories. Like a pensive, only you don't have to know any mind magic to use it."
"They retain memories crystal-clear, forever," Millicent said.
"Did he…send a memory?" Blaise asked.
Edmund shook his head. "It's empty. But there's a note." He pulled a small card from his pocket and read it aloud. Draco couldn't help it—he heard the words in Rigel's voice.
Edmund and Alice,
I almost didn't send this, but there's no sense letting a good potion go to waste. If the words of a cheat and a cad mean anything, please accept my good wishes and know that I'd be an even worse person if I'd never met you.
Life is unpredictable. Everything can change in an instant, so cherish what you have as long as you can, and don't take the everyday moments for granted. I put as much into this as I dared, and I'm confident it will hold a lifetime of memories, so don't wait for the big ones—save them all.
For myself, your friendship and guidance will be cherished always.
The words sank into Draco's soul and the fire there banked and eased just a little. Rigel's words said so much—except sorry. He was guilty and conflicted. He wasn't sorry.
Alice blinked hard against her mascara. "The little twerp is making it really difficult to stay angry."
Edmund pulled her close. "That isn't your angry face, love."
Millicent had her arm around Pansy, and Theo wrapped them both up with a loud sniff. Aldon pulled Blaise into the mix and the new bride and groom joined the embrace with quiet dignity. Then Pansy held her hand out for Draco, and waited.
He took it, and soaked in the presence of those who knew Rigel best. For a moment, he could see that they felt the loss as keenly as he, though they all expressed it differently.
"He's still our friend, too," Pansy whispered.
That much was clear. Rigel was still their friend and they would find him, no matter what it took. Maybe he couldn't actively look, but he could put himself in places and situations where he might hear something by accident. Pansy was right. Rigel needed them.
And they needed him.
[end of chapter one.]
A/N: Please know that I gave myself stomach cramps writing Harry's reaction to Snape's letter. So naturally I had to invent an entirely unnecessary scene with Aldon getting his wallet lifted for comic relief. Because then I picked open the scab formerly known as Caelum Lestrange. Sorry it's all over the place, but it feels good to jump into Book 5. I missed you, readers, and these characters, too. The soundtrack has to be Baby Steps by Amy Shark. Harry is pulling her life together…sort of.
Thank you for all the support that pours out of the fan-run Discord server Harry Get Some Sleep. The link is floating around the forums somewhere if you want to jump in. There are fanfiction and fanart events, nice, fun people, and all the theories to be had.
On a completely unrelated note, I started writing for a Webtoon comic. If you want to check it out, it's called Forever After and one free episode comes out every week online. The characters and themes are very different from this work, but the artwork is pretty amazing.
I hope everyone's spring was youthful and green.