A/N: Welcome to chapter 3! In which the phrase 'absolutely necessary' is creatively interpreted. Thanks for your patience. Enjoy!
The Malignant Masquerade:
"I know about the Unbreakable Vow."
His nostrils flared as his every sinew stilled and pricked. Severus turned slowly to meet Minerva's censorious stare. She was not typically to be found at Hogwarts over the summer break, and neither was he. That she'd caught him on the headmaster's staircase meant she knew he was coming and, like the overgrown cat she was, had lain in wait.
What he didn't know what which Unbreakable Vow she was so eager to condemn him for.
"You'll have to elaborate." No doubt she was dying to.
Minerva drew herself to full height, as though it gained her any advantage over his towering frame. "Rigel Black." He did not flinch. He had already hardened himself to whatever words she felt justified in hurling, but the name did send a ripple of pain through the part of his soul that was better left undisturbed. "Tom ruddy Riddle. How could you, Severus? You knew, saying nothing to the rest of us for all that we are charged with the safety of every student—" Minerva turned abruptly as her voice broke.
Severus was not interested in her dramatics, but he was interested in how she knew. It was not old knowledge, as she shook with the fury of fresh indignation. He'd thought no one knew apart from Riddle and Rigel himself. Cold suspicion washed over him. "You've seen him."
Minerva's smile was bitter. "Albus didn't even warn us. Just showed up at our meeting with the boy in tow, as though the whole world's not looking for him, and us with Aurors and Ministry officials in the room."
"How did he look?" The question was out of his mouth before he'd even considered stifling it.
"Scared out of his mind." Minerva searched his eyes, looking for something she would never find unless he let her. "He thinks this champion's ceremony is another task. One the Vow applies to."
That—His mind retreated from the present, and suddenly, the pieces aligned. The political megalomaniac, usually so careful with appearances, was dragging the crumbling bulwark of his failed tournament through its death throws, and Rigel had shown himself to Dumbledore, an act of desperation he didn't know how to countenance. And Severus had not seen it coming, had not even considered it. He hadn't bothered to listen to Riddle's grandiose announcement, didn't read the driveling gibberish that passed for press in their country unless absolutely remanded, so he didn't know what wording had been used but—Riddle easily could have. Which meant he had, of course. It was Riddle.
"So, he came to Albus." And Albus had brought the boy to them. Not to Severus. "Where is Rigel now?"
Minerva gave him a severe look. "I'm sure I don't know. He left as quickly as he'd come."
He could not have understood her correctly. "You let him go."
"We weren't about to imprison the poor lad—Severus? Now wait just a minute, we are not finished!"
But they were. He left Minerva at the foot of the stair and rode the dizzying conveyance to its summit. It was not the moving staircase that brought nausea to the apex of his throat. Albus had Rigel in his grasp, in the Longbottom's sodding estate no less, and he'd let him go.
The headmaster waited on the astronomy platform behind his desk. His gaze was fixed on the stars, though he looked merely with his eyes, not any of the dozens of delicate instruments that would help him divine their precise positions. Severus climbed the stairs brusquely, but Albus tore his attention from the night sky only reluctantly.
He expected a report, but Severus had nothing of value to relate. Evidence that the Party was dabbling in creature smuggling had turned out to be exaggerated, and now he had reason to suspect Albus knew that it would.
"Why, Albus?" The anger had abated on the long stair ride, and he wondered if that wasn't orchestrated as well.
The headmaster was not slow on the uptake. "Minerva has spoken to you before I could." The regret in his voice did not fool Severus for an instant.
"Did you send me on that errand to keep me from him?"
Albus examined Severus' face as though it was he, not the headmaster, whose actions were in question. "I had no way of knowing he would come tonight."
"But you did know he was coming." The anger roared back out of the grate, all the hotter for having been banked.
"I merely suspected." Albus turned back to the sky, his eyes troubled. "I suppose I did keep you from him, though perhaps not for the reasons you think. I needed to understand him. To be sure. You are not the least bit objective about the boy."
"And you are not my keeper."
"I suppose Minerva mentioned I brought him to an Order meeting."
He fell into a familiar sneer. "I'm not sure what you're expecting, there. You think he refused Riddle to mascot your knitting club? Rigel has no interest in—"
Albus hummed. "I believe Rigel will agree to lend his not-insignificant voice to our cause."
"And his not-inconsiderable magic?"
The headmaster peered at him chidingly over his half-moon glasses, but Severus would not apologize for his cynicism. Albus employed him to see the darker machinations of the world, even if it meant seeing through him, on occasion. "There will soon come a time when the political and social work we have been pursuing will no longer be enough. Unrest simmers everywhere below the surface. Open prejudice and open support of muggleborns and halfbloods are both at an all-time-high. Soon, we may need Rigel more than anyone realizes."
Severus could not deny that. But— "He is not yours to control. He is my student. I need to see him."
"You will." Albus cut him a stern look. "When I am certain you will not attempt to compromise his identity."
Surprise squeezed his chest on a sharp inhale. "You cannot ask that of me." Of course he would discover the boy's identity. Rigel could not remain on the run forever.
"Then you cannot see him."
Severus growled low in his throat. "How can I adequately protect him if I don't know who he is?"
"His only protection is that no one knows who he is." Albus was rarely so firm on a point, and Severus realized he would not be moved, even before he elaborated. "If one person finds out, even if it is you, even if it is me, he is less safe."
He struggled with all the things he wanted to say, all the retorts on the tip of his tongue, and swallowed each and every one. Seeing Rigel came first. Convincing the headmaster he was wrong would come later, if it came at all. More likely, he would be once again begging forgiveness.
Albus had seen the rebellion in his eyes. For the headmaster's sake, he made a show of working through it, of struggling with it, and then accepting it, all without drawing any of his true feelings out of their cages. "I—" He began again after clearing his throat. "I won't question him at Order meetings. Just don't keep me from him again."
He said nothing about outside of meetings. Seeing the boy alive and well with his own eyes was one thing, but Albus was wrong; Rigel would never be safer alone than with him in his corner. He had seen the utterly imbecilic decisions the boy made under his own auspices. He needed Severus.
He would find the boy, with or without Albus's approval. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, it was sure to require Severus's help.
Not for the first time in wrestling with the Disguise Dissolution Potion, Harry wished she had some help. No combination she tried resulted in a less-abrasive potion, and she knew she wasn't missing ingredients because she'd identified each of them from the original sample. At first, she thought it was a dilution issue, but it was pourable, it looked right, and the proportion of ingredients to base was consistent with the sample. It had to be an issue with the order of operation, but she couldn't figure out what.
Archie found her staring dully at another finished cauldron of the version that gave her a sunburn, and, being an exceptionally smart individual, he approached her cautiously.
"All right there, Harry? Only it looks like you're trying to set that liquid on fire." Harry made a displeased noise in her throat, and Archie came around to look into the cauldron beside her. "I don't recognize this one. Not your usual stuff for Krait, is it?"
"No." Harry grimaced apologetically at her cousin. "It's—secret."
Archie stared at her. "Secret from me?"
Right. Obviously not. Harry shook her head. "It's the Thief's Downfall Potion. Sort of."
Archie's eyes flared wide and he took a deep breath before saying casually, "Stealing goblin secrets, now?"
"I…re-discovered it. Independently." Archie's eyebrows rose and Harry pursed her lips. "With a sample from Gringotts." Archie shook his head in slow disbelief, and Harry gestured to the cauldron in annoyance. "Anyway, it isn't quite right."
Archie's mouth quirked in a smile, and she braced herself for the bad joke that was going to follow. "I'd say. Supposed to be a waterfall, isn't it?"
Harry elbowed him with a groan, then froze. A…waterfall. "Oh. I don't have to dilute it; I just have to apply it differently."
Archie's face twisted in confusion. "You're not actually going to build a waterfall."
"Take this." Harry thrust a beaker of the potion into his hand and flicked her wrist in his direction. He rose into the air with a disconcerted wobble.
"I am not a fan of being cast on without my permission."
"Sorry," she said distractedly. She cast a Glamour Charm that made her look like a human-Veela hybrid. "Can you sort of sprinkle it on me? Don't pour it directly on my head, I've done that. I'm thinking—"
"—the waterfall is high, so maybe it's supposed to disperse in the air before it hits." Archie's voice grew more interested as he reached the same idea. "I'll sort of sweep it quickly back and forth, and you shouldn't stand still; you should walk through it."
"Brilliant!" Harry jogged over to one side of the lab. The carts moved fast, so she would get a running start. If she was right, there was no need to pour an entire bottle over her head to dissolve the disguise. She'd gotten soaked with the potion in Gringotts, but if her hooded cloak and robes had absorbed most of it before it touched her skin, then she'd been using too much when directly applying it to her head.
She ran quickly toward the levitating Archie, and when she was right underneath him, he poured the potion in an uneven stream—
And collapsed on top of her.
Harry groaned and Archie cursed. She rolled her cousin off of her and flexed bruised muscles with a scowl. "What in Merlin's name happened?"
"Don't look at me. You're the one who canceled the Levitation Charm." Archie rubbed his wrist and wiggled his fingers tentatively.
Harry examined his appendage for breaks, muttering, "I didn't cancel anything." Had her magic given out? She tried a general Healing on Archie's bruised wrist, and it worked perfectly. Not a problem with her magic, then.
Archie made a noise when she looked up at him. "Your face!"
She felt it, but found no sign of burns. The glamour was gone, too. Harry grinned. "It worked."
"Too well if it canceled your Levitation Charm." Archie shook his head slowly. "Do you think it's supposed to do that?"
Harry thought back to her experiences at Gringotts. The Thief's Downfall cancelled disguise-related magic from a person, but didn't strip magic from objects; her expandable pockets in her kit had remained intact, as had the magical devices on her person. Did it cancel active magic as well? She hadn't been using magic actively the two times she'd been underneath it, so she didn't know.
She and Archie stared at one another, both thinking the same thing. If that potion could interrupt active magic no matter the type, then…
"Merlin." Archie whistled low. "They could stop any wizard from casting."
"Maybe not from casting before or after, but it appears to at least interrupt active magic," Harry said. The implications were incredible. A splash of that potion could have interrupted the magic ritual Voldemort had attempted. It was a literal bucket of cold water on any magical fire. And the goblins had it all along.
"Why would they…oh." Archie's eyes were wide. "If someone was using an Imperious Curse or some other kind of magic to break into Gringotts, it would be interrupted. Long enough to stop them, maybe."
Harry frowned. "We don't know it works on Unforgivables." If it did, anyone suspected of being under the Imperious Curse could just be put on a Gringotts cart. That was too much to hope, however.
She pushed a hand into her hair and tried to marshal her thoughts. She had to test it against the Modified Polyjuice, of course, and she should try it against other active magic to see where it's limits were. She wondered if she would be able to replicate the application process by herself. She could—
"Harry." Archie snapped his fingers in front of her face.
She shook her head. "Sorry. I was just thinking."
"You're stressing me out just watching." Archie gave her a shrewd look. "Don't try and do too much again. It isn't healthy."
"There's so much to do, though."
"What can I take off your plate?" Archie said it earnestly, but there was a look in his eyes that told her he wasn't sure he meant it.
"Can you give these notes to Hermione?" She crossed the lab to escape Archie's all-knowing gaze and dug a packet of dictated notes from one of her many piles. She'd been dutifully recording everything she could remember about the various cores she had interacted with in the course of the Sleeping Sickness and after. She tried to recall everything that could be useful to Hermione about how magic manifested, was created, or could be drawn out of a core.
She had not had much time for new research based on her own focused meditation, but she hoped that would change, after the ceremony was over and the tournament settled at last.
"Sure." Archie took the notes. "I'll come up with an explanation for how I got them. Is that all?"
She couldn't think of anything else he could—or ought to—help with. "If I think of something, I'll let you know."
Archie was clearly torn between wanting to be more involved and wanting nothing to do with it. Harry couldn't blame him, and she wasn't sure herself how much she wanted to involve him at that point. He had a life he was trying to get back to. And she had…a life still in stasis. She couldn't move on until the past was put to bed. Until she had no obligations or complications hanging over her. That wasn't Archie's problem, though. He should be looking toward the future.
She had already decided not to become more involved with the Order. For once, she would just accept someone's help and not try and bend over backwards to repay them for it. She would let them help her get past the Vow's final condition, and then she would never seek out Riddle or politics or anything that wasn't Potions-related in any life hence.
She found the note tucked into one of Krait's empty bottles. She'd nearly poured a dose of Strengthening Solution right onto it, and wondered at the odd choice in communication vehicle. It wasn't as though he couldn't simply tell her whatever it was when she picked up the empties crate. Only, when she unrolled the tiny scroll, it wasn't Krait's handwriting at all.
Hog's Head, 4 o'clock, Room 13.
She recognized the handwriting by the stupid way the H's curled back on themselves. How in Godric's name had Caelum Lestrange slipped a message into one of Krait's bottles? How had he known this particular crate would go to her and not another one of his brewers? Was it even meant for her? Harry didn't think she was being too egotistical in dismissing that question as soon as it formed. Of course, it was for her. The real question was: what was she going to do about it?
Setting aside the sheer creepiness of asking someone to meet you in a hotel room in the middle of the day, the Hog's Head was notoriously shady. She would know, as she'd been there all-too-recently in a dodgy black cloak, layered in disguise spells. What was Lestrange thinking? And why hadn't he sent a letter like a normal wizard?
Not that she would have read a letter, if the envelope indicated it was from him. She was nowhere near prepared to return to their previous, cantankerously productive relationship after he'd used her brewing technique for pure evil. Just where did he get off, dictating a time and place to meet him like she was his dirty little halfblooded secret? She wasn't some clandestine brewing partner he could call up out of the blue whenever he needed a fix or a second pair of hands. She was Harriet-bloody-Potter and her time was spoken for.
No matter how much she wanted to rail against him and demand answers for his article in Potions Quarterly, she wasn't going to hare off to Hogsmeade with less than a day's notice when he hadn't even solicitated a time of her convenience.
If she did go, it would only be to give him a piece of her mind.
Lunch found her furiously slathering jam on a piece of bread in the kitchen. James Flooed in on his lunch break and stalled awkwardly in the doorway as Harry looked up through her fringe at him.
"Harry, what are you doing to that sandwich?"
She considered it objectively and supposed it did have more holes in it now than when she'd started. Harry stubbornly wrapped it with a fresh piece of bread and bit through both with a jerk of her jaw that may not have been entirely necessary.
James slowly slid the butter knife out of her reach. "You seem…" He knew better than to say 'upset.' "Annoyed."
She was, at that. "Lestrange wants to meet." Harry wasn't sure why she told James, except that he was the one who wanted her to give the boy another chance.
"And you haven't forgiven him yet." James nodded knowingly.
"That depends; does forgiveness feel like wanting to kick someone's teeth in?"
James snorted. "It can, actually."
Harry looked down at her half-eaten jam-which and scowled. "He makes me so angry. I'm not sure I'm even capable of meeting him without hexing his stupid face off."
James plucked the bag of crisps from the table and unrolled it. "Hexes can be very cathartic," he agreed. "Only, you can't afford to get into any more trouble at the moment. Physical violence can't be traced with a priori, on the other hand."
"You're suggesting I literally kick his teeth in, instead?" Harry had to smile at the thought.
"Sometimes just imagining it is enough, I find." James munched a mouthful of crisps in fond reminiscence. "I hardly ever get to kick anyone's teeth in, these days. Too much paperwork."
"Your imagination must be all the stronger for it."
They grinned at one another, and moments like this, Harry couldn't understand how their relationship had become so warped.
James wiped his hand on his robes and asked, "Will you see him, then?"
Before she could answer, Lily came in from the study. Her eyes narrowed on the bag of crisps in her husband's hands. "I know you aren't spoiling your appetite with junk right before lunch."
James gulped. "I was just offering Harry some. She's going to meet the Lestrange boy."
Lily and Harry both eyed the grease-mark on his robes in silent judgement.
"It's leftovers today," Lily said firmly. "No one is going anywhere until we finish the casserole Mrs. Bagshot sent over."
James and Harry made a face at one another behind Lily's back. Godric's Hollow had turned out in full force to support the Potters through their 'difficult summer,' mostly in the form of homemade food. Some of the very supportive offerings were more palatable than others.
Lily produced the haggard remains of a casserole that had been dead on arrival. No clue as to its once-edible precursors remained; had it been meat-based? Vegetarian? And what, in Morgana's name, had gone so horribly wrong that its status as an item of dubious consumability was discernable only by the baking pan it arrived in?
Harry held her jammed bread like a shield between the monstrous casualty of cooking and her innocent taste-buds. "I'm good."
"Sit down before I ground you from your lab," Lily said mildly.
Harry sat. James slid into the seat beside her, and she realized instantly it would be a competition to see who could slide more of the casserole onto the other's plate without Lily catching them.
Harry had to distract herself before she looked too closely at the pockets of congealed— "Addy with Remus today?"
Lily nodded as she served James first. "He's been a godsend this week. I'm just about ready to begin crafting a new amulet."
"Another Dark Detection Disk?" Harry asked. She accepted her portion of the casserole with only the barest of flinches as the smell reached her nose.
"Are we keeping my name for it?" James began dividing his portion into pieces, perhaps to convince himself there was less of it than he thought.
"I've been calling it 'Practically Potter-Proof Protection,' actually."
James made a noise of offended protest, but Lily's joke did not keep Harry from noticing that her portion was significantly smaller than theirs.
"Is the Ministry paying you for a prototype?" Harry asked.
Lily nodded again. "The Department of Mysteries contracted—" She paused as the taste of the casserole, fleetingly resurrected by a Warming Charm, assaulted her tongue. Eyes watering, she drank half a glass of water before finishing. "Me."
"If you need raw magic to power it, I'm not using mine much," Harry offered.
Lily gave a droll smile. "One thing I have in plenty is excess magic. Did you know some witches' cores expand again with each subsequent pregnancy?"
"Molly Wesley must be terrifying." James muttered it into his juice, where his tongue was attempting to take permanent refuge.
Lily nodded. "She is, actually. I've been meaning to ask if she'll allow me to examine her core more closely. I think it could be a useful contribution to the research Archie's friend is doing."
"Hermione's Fade research?"
"But Molly hasn't lost any—oh."
"Two major projects at once," Harry commented.
Lily grinned like a tigress. "It's an exciting time in experimental magic."
"If only everyone shared your excitement." There was a cynical edge to James' voice that Harry didn't recognize.
At Harry's questioning look, Lily made a face. "There are some people who believe a counter to the Killing Curse must be unnatural in some way. Not everyone at the Department of Mysteries supports my research."
"Because some Dark Wizards would prefer it remain unblockable." James stabbed his casserole with rancor. "No matter that Dark Wizards kill one another with that spell more than anything else."
"If anyone thinks your life-saving amulet is unnatural, they don't have to use it," Harry said, shrugging. "You can't force change on people. You can only unlock the door."
Lily leaned across the table to cup Harry's cheek. "You're right. And that's exactly what I'm going to do." She stood, taking her plate with her as she headed for the door. "I'm going back to work. See you at dinner, darlings."
James and Harry exchanged a suspicious look in her wake.
"She's definitely Vanishing that, right?"
"We'll never see that plate again."
As one, they slid the remains of the casserole-that-wasn't into the trash and left the kitchen to the tender mercies of a strong Airing Charm.
James ruffled her curls and gave her a smile she hadn't seen in a while before he headed for the Floo. As he disappeared, it occurred to her that the entire exchange had felt…normal. Nothing simmering just under the surface, and no second- or third-order thoughts getting in the way of the words between them.
She slipped the tiny scroll out of her pocket and stared at it. If her relationship with her parents could come back from so much…maybe any relationship could be fixed with enough work.
Harry had a plan. She would march into Lestrange's ill-conceived hourly meeting place with righteous indignation stacked carefully in her heart. She would not listen to any cruel thing he felt entitled to say to her. She would make him understand that what he did was wrong, no matter how he was raised, and that she wouldn't tolerate the misuse of their discoveries in future collaboration.
Her plan made it to the door. Lestrange opened it, and she just…stared.
He did not look like any version of Caelum Lestrange she had encountered before. His hair had the volume of the continuously harassed, his robes rumpled and stained with something that was fresh and sour. He looked, she could only think, like James that first summer after Addy's birth.
Whatever Harry might say—and she wasn't even sure herself—was belayed by the creature that stumbled out from behind Lestrange's legs.
A miniature pony with a dragon's whiskers and tail. Her eyes traced its pointed ears, tufted head, and the golden scales running down its back. "Tell me that's not what I think it is."
Lestrange pulled her bodily into the room, and that's when she knew something was very wrong. He never touched her unless absolutely unavoidable.
Harry circled the tiny creature, unable to believe even with her own eyes. It moved on spindly legs, keeping her in its sights even as she paced around it. A chiming noise like the most delicate of bells came from its throat, and Harry put a hand to her mouth as the sound reverberated through her. "Lestrange…what are you doing with a baby Qilin?"
Lestrange leaned against the door. He looked exhausted. "It's a long story."
Lestrange moved to sit on the bed, and the Qilin stumbled over to bump at his legs imploringly. The creature couldn't be more than a few weeks old. Lestrange picked it up and cradled it in his arms, and Harry had never seen anything more incongruous in her life.
"I found him on the black market." Before Harry's face could settle into a dark scowl, he hurried to clarify. "I don't normally deal in such things anymore, but people occasionally approach me about items of particular interest. When I saw him, I…this is ridiculous, but I could hear your self-righteous voice in my head. I knew you wouldn't want it killed for parts. They wanted to sell me a vial of its blood, for—"
"—yes, exactly. Instead, I—I bought it. On my parents' credit. For you."
"For…me." Why would Lestrange think she wanted a live Qilin of all things?
Lestrange avoided her eyes, stroking the Qilin soothingly, and the Qilin leaned into the touch with its eyes half closed. "Maybe I needed a reason to speak to you. I've been wanting to…apologize."
Harry had scarcely been more confused. "You…illegally acquired me one of the rarest creatures in the world to apologize for helping a violent extremist make a potion using my own technique that trapped my good friend and contributed to the unraveling of a ruse that upended my life. Am I getting that right?"
"It wasn't my first plan," Lestrange said defensively. "I thought you'd see the article and understand, but then I realized you might not be getting your mail right now."
Harry wanted to sigh. "And this was the next best thing you came up with?"
"Look, I didn't ask for someone to try and sell me a Qilin."
"You just accepted it instead of reporting them to the authorities. And now we have an illegal Qilin!" She hadn't meant to raise her voice, didn't realize she had until the Qilin trilled and buried its head in Lestrange's arms.
Lestrange just stared at her, waiting for something else. He wasn't ever going to utter an actual apology, she realized. He was just going to hand her a basket of trouble and consider the matter settled.
Harry pushed a hand into her hair. "I don't know what to do here. Saving this creature was…a good thing. I do think well of you for it. And I did see the article." He lifted his chin, and she shook her head repressively. "But that isn't the same as apologizing, and I just…I don't understand. How can you treat me with professional courtesy and then work for a monster who thinks people like me should have their magic stolen?"
"I didn't know that's what they were going to do with the potion!" Lestrange stood on a wave of emotion, putting the Qilin's fuzzy head at her eye-level. He could not gesture wildly and keep hold of the Qilin, but she could tell by the tension in his arms he wanted to. "That's not even what the potion does. I didn't know about the ritual at all. It was just a resurrection potion."
Just a resurrection potion. Did he even hear himself? "You just thought that would be put to an innocent use? That someone who commissioned such a potion was just eccentric?"
"No. I…" His shoulders curled inwards, hunching around the Qilin. "It was my father." The words were so quiet she had to lean forward to catch them. "He asked if I could design such a potion and I…couldn't say no." His face screwed up into something bitter. "You wouldn't understand. Your parents stepped out of a Witch Weekly column. My parents have never, not once treated my interest in Potions as anything but an embarrassing obsession that was beneath the son of Lestrange. When he asked, I realized your technique could do it. A technique no one else but Master Snape was capable of, and I…"
"You couldn't resist."
"I wasn't kidding myself," he admitted quietly. "I know what sort of people my parents associate with."
"The sort that deal in illegal Qilins?"
"Yeah. Only I just…didn't think about it. The implications." He shrugged. "I got lost in the intellectual challenge, and I just wanted them to—to see that—"
He couldn't finish the thought aloud, but Harry already understood. He wanted his parents to be proud of him, to admire him for doing what no one else could. And blast it, how could she stay mad when she'd already forgiven Blaise for what she assumed was the very same thing.
Blaise's mother had sent him that runic ward problem, and he'd taken the assignment without thinking about its potential uses. Lestrange was not so different, except that Harry was more inclined to think the worst of him, perhaps.
Lestrange rummaged in the sling around his shoulders, and when he leaned over to submerge his whole arm in it, she realized it was undetectably expanded. He pulled out a roll of parchment and handed it to her. "This is the recipe."
Her hand froze on the ribbon. She was no longer sure she wanted to look.
"I thought you deserved to have it, since it was your technique."
She put the scroll in her robe pocket without looking at it. She would think about what information could be gleaned from the recipe later.
They stared at one another for a long moment, and then Lestrange held the Qilin up sheepishly. "So…can you take him? I've been hiding him in my lab for a couple of days, but I don't want to keep risking my parents finding him."
She knew she had already decided to, so it didn't make any sense to hesitate now, but Harry gave herself a moment to breathe before she held her arms out for the Qilin. Lestrange settled it against her chest and carefully transferred the sling to her as well.
"He's got plenty of space inside the extended compartment, so you don't have to worry about him while he's inside. He won't want to stay in there all day, though." Lestrange stepped back, and the Qilin's head followed him plaintively.
"He likes you," Harry observed. That was perhaps the strangest part.
Lestrange stood there awkwardly, Qilin hair on his robes, a somewhat lost expression on his face. "Qilins don't judge your past. They only look into your future."
Harry eased the Qilin into the expanded traveling sling. She prayed it had Silencing and Cushioning Charms woven into it.
"Are we—" Lestrange struggled to find the right word. "Good, then?"
"We're…" She didn't know what they were. "Still colleagues. Menesthes and Zosimos." She lifted her chin. "Perhaps I will cite your paper in my first article."
Lestrange sniffed. "It'll be obsolete by then."
"I'm testing for Mastery this year."
"You're only fifteen," he spluttered.
"I'm done playing truant." Harry could not be more serious. "I'm good enough for Mastery and I know it." It was time for the rest of her life to begin. "So, don't think you can sit on your laurels for the next three years."
Lestrange gave her a disbelieving look, but his lips hitched. "We must continue to move the field forward, mustn't we?"
Harry affected his snootiest tone. "The rest of the peons aren't going to do it."
She took her leave, pondering the concept of forgiveness. She didn't know if forgiving Lestrange was the right thing to do. How many chances did he get? And were people inherently limited in the number of chances they deserved?
And what the hell was she going to do with an illegal Qilin?
She Flooed directly to her apartment. It was the only place she could think a Qilin might go unnoticed for a short period of time. If she brought it home, her father would have no choice but to launch an investigation, and while it would be satisfying to have those involved in its trafficking brought to justice, she wasn't sure she was ready to upset the precarious balance she'd found at home just yet.
Did that make her no better than Lestrange? It was not a question that sat well in her stomach.
She peered down at the Qilin in its carrying pouch, marveling at the size and stability of the inner compartment. Her potions kit relied on numerous sub-pockets that were all carefully packed to keep contents from shifting even with the stabilizing spells. The Qilin gazed up at her trustingly, perfectly relaxed on a bed of warm blankets, with no evidence that the Floo had done it any significant jostling. Lestrange had either given her a family heirloom or paid good gold for the bag. And gold was not something the boy usually seemed to have in ready supply. She wondered uneasily how he was going to explain the sum he'd put on his parent's credit to acquire the Qilin.
Harry fished the Qilin from the pouch and set it in the middle of her small living room. After a moment's consideration, she cleared the area of Potions supplies, pushed the furniture out of the way, and laid down a ward with a vial of Protection Potion. The Qilin stared at her from behind the ward, and she couldn't help but smile as she compared it to the label her dad had designed for the potion. A baby Qilin looked a lot like a young deer.
"Sorry," she offered. She did feel a little bad penning it up behind the ward, but she needed to think without worrying it was going to get into something. "If it makes you feel better, I do the same thing to Addy sometimes."
She crossed to the kitchen and lifted the lid on one of the ceramic cookie jars Leo had furnished her apartment with. She didn't know if Merriam had ever kept cookies in it, but it was where she'd hid the phoenix feather.
Every now and then, when she was passing through the alleys, she'd lift the lid and take a peek to see if anything had happened. She didn't know what she expected, that one day it would be glowing, perhaps, or blinking urgently, but so far it always sat undisturbed. That day, she lifted the lid and found the feather had made friends.
Nestled beneath the feather was a slim notecard in the headmaster's familiar writing, and next to it sat a blue marble. She eased the card out of the jar and read it quickly. Then she sat down and read it again.
My dear boy,
A much-anticipated event is happening in Paris. I took the liberty of procuring means of transportation, should you still be interested in attending. How is 11 o'clock? My friends and I look forward to witnessing a satisfying conclusion to a very long year.
Yours in anticipation,
Paris. No one had said the crowning ceremony would be happening in Paris. Granted, no one had said where it was to be held yet, but somehow, she'd assumed it would be at Hogwarts, or maybe the Ministry.
Then she realized—Fleur. It was happening in Paris in deference to the default champion, because no one expected Rigel to actually show. And he wouldn't. Unless absolutely necessary.
Harry pocketed the marble, trusting it not to activate until eleven on the day of the ceremony. She considered the feather for another moment. Aloud, she wondered, "Can I send a message back?"
The feather winked in and out of existence. She supposed that was her answer. On the back of the card, Harry scrawled:
Have a semi-urgent, unrelated matter. Illegal Qilin acquired accidentally. Do you have contacts who can give it a safe home? Sorry to bother. Thanks.
She didn't sign it. Dumbledore would understand who it was from if he looked at the other side of the card.
She placed the card under the feather and said, tentatively, "Message for Professor Dumbledore."
The feather and card winked out of the cookie jar. There. That was good. Now she only had to wait until she received a reply—
The feather reappeared, a card attached. Harry blinked at it. Had her note just been returned? But when she picked it up, it was clearly a new card.
Kindly bring Qilin to event in Paris. Old friend will meet you after to collect.
Well, then. Harry eyed the Qilin doubtfully. She just had to keep it alive for a few days…but she knew little about Qilins and nothing about what they ate. Lestrange hadn't explained any of that, come to think of it. What had he been feeding it? She would have to find a book.
In the meantime, she couldn't stay there with the Qilin. She could bring it along to the bookstore, but something about its wide, brown eyes made her not want to stuff it back into the bag until she had to. "Don't look at me like that." Harry paced the apartment floor. She couldn't leave it there alone, even with the ward. Someone might break in and steal it, or drop by unannounced—
Only Leo would drop by unannounced. Leo, who was probably at the Dancing Phoenix about that time, relaxing after a long day's work. Harry took a deep breath, crossed to the Floo grate, and threw a handful of powder into the fire.
The Phoenix would be too crowded and loud to hear someone Floo-calling, so she stumbled straight through and craned her neck over the crowd toward Leo's table.
He was there, Rispah to his left and Aled to his right, a trio of pints between them. Harry pushed her way over, returning the smiles that greeted her upon her appearance.
"About time you dropped by."
"Pull up a chair. Solom! Milk for the King's favorite!"
Harry shook her head quickly. "Thanks, Rispah, but I can't stay."
Leo's eyes sharpened, sweeping her for injury. "Trouble?"
"Not the violent kind. I do have a situation I was hoping you could help with. If you aren't busy." She tucked her curls behind an ear to keep them out of her face as she added, "Shouldn't take more than a couple of hours."
Rispah smiled slyly. "Ambitious, aren't we?"
Leo elbowed his cousin in the corset. He tipped the remains of his pint into Aled's glass, effectively turning the man's guffaws into a choked protest. "Come, Harry." Leo rounded the table and took her arm. "We rise above the imaginations of the masses."
Harry waved to the others and towed Leo back toward the Floo. "I have this thing in my apartment I need someone to keep an eye on for a little while," she explained lowly. "It came up kind of suddenly, and I wasn't prepared."
"Is it dangerous?"
"It's adorable," she admitted.
Leo raised his eyebrows. "Do I finally get to meet your little sister?"
He was not as far off as he might think. Harry went through first and made way for him on the other side. Leo spun out of the grate like a dancer, landing in a graceful crouch as his eyes darted about the room, assessing.
Harry gaped at him. "Do you practice that?"
Leo rose from his crouch with a smirk. "I can do a somersault, too."
Harry rolled her eyes, but couldn't stop the smile from spreading on her face. She missed Leo when he wasn't around. "So, this is the…thing." She gestured to the ward in the middle of the room and the Qilin napping peacefully inside it.
Leo circled it without speaking for a long moment. "That's a Qilin."
"Yes. Someone…gave it to me. Today. And I don't know how to take care of it."
Leo gave Harry a gentle look. "Lass, I don't think you can keep it."
Harry made a face at him. "I'm not keeping it. Merlin." As if she didn't know it was an internationally protected species. "Another friend it going to get it to a proper home in a few days; I just have to keep it safe and alive until then."
"Ah. And you want my help doing that?" Leo seemed a little relieved that she wasn't planning to keep what amounted to the Queen's jewels in animal form penned in her apartment for the foreseeable future.
"If you don't mind. I was going to run to the bookshop before it closes, to see if they have anything on the care and keeping of Qilins. Do you think you could watch him for an hour?" Harry looked at the sleeping creature with trepidation. "I don't feel safe leaving him here alone. Even carrying him around feels like I have the Philosopher's Stone in my pocket."
"No kidding." Leo shook his head. "I didn't even know there was a pregnant mother alive right now. I'm surprised I haven't heard of a search."
"It was found on the black market," Harry said. "Its mother might have been there for some time."
"Might even have been raised there herself," Leo agreed. "Probably an underground breeding program. Trickster preserve me, but you do get into the oddest spots of trouble, Harry."
"I don't mean to." Harry bit her lip. "And obviously, you don't have to feel obligated or anything."
"Harry, I don't," Leo began. He crossed the room to look her directly in the eyes. "I don't ever mind helping you."
Harry wanted to be sure he understood her. "I don't mean to take advantage of your friendship, Leo. I just…need someone to help me protect him, and you were the first person I thought of." She felt safe with Leo, and somehow, she knew the Qilin would be safe with him, too. "You're good at protecting people."
Leo wrapped her in a slow hug. "You don't always make it this easy."
When the moment stretched and she reached a point where she no longer wanted to pull back, she knew she had to. She turned to the sleeping Qilin and said, "You be good for Leo." She dug the ward-disrupting potion out of her bag and set it on the counter. "Use this if you need to get to him before the ward wears off. I'll be back as soon as I find something useful. Thanks, Leo."
"Whatever you need, Harry."
She was not smiling stupidly as she closed the door behind her. Leo had already given her everything she needed, whether he knew it or not. He claimed she didn't make things easy for him, but he made everything easy for her.
She could breathe when she was with Leo. Where everywhere else the air was too thin, in his presence, she found an ecosystem that felt as though it had been made for her. She wanted to plant roots there and soak in the energy he radiated. She could flourish with Leo, given half a chance.
Soon, that chance would come. After the crowning ceremony, it would all be over. She would have the headspace to explain everything, like he deserved, and maybe it would be nice to have one person finally know all of her. Maybe it wouldn't be terrifying at all.
The bookshop didn't close until eight, so she had plenty of time to get there and find the right reference. She moved unhurried through the quiet streets, at home in the familiar neighborhoods she passed through. There was something nice about walking rather than Apparating or Flooing. The world felt like a tapestry of continuous threads, instead of a hanging mobile of individual pieces, connected by invisible wire.
She glanced at the lit windows of the Serpent's Storeroom as she passed, and the last person she expected stepped out of the doorway into Knockturn Alley.
The evening sun tangled like a crown of fire in her golden hair, the longest tendrils of which trailed down her back and swung when she turned to find Harry staring at her. Pansy.
"Hello, Miss Potter."
"Your hair…" The words stuck in her throat. It was a strangled moment before she worked past the lump. "Miss Parkinson, forgive me. I almost didn't recognize you with your hair so long. It's been a while." Hadn't it? "You look well." She had to stop talking. What was Pansy doing there? Was Harry destined to have every possible emotional confrontation in the alleys that summer?
"Thank you." Pansy eyed Harry's mess of curls, and she wondered if they were noticeably brittle. "You also look well."
Harry snorted. "I look a mess." She probably had Qilin fur on her robes and a strained look in her eyes. She fingered a curl self-consciously. "The growing charms are brutal, I know. I can't seem to stop singing them, though."
It wasn't defensive to offer an immediate explanation, she told herself. Pansy would notice either way. Best to head her off before her intellect wandered down that road.
Harry cast a glance toward the Serpent's Storeroom. "Been waiting for me long?"
Pansy gave her an offended look. That was good. Offended she could work with. "Actually," the other girl said stiffly. "I was placing an order with the proprietor for a modified recipe. He was quite accommodating."
A modified recipe. "For Draco?"
Pansy frowned at her. "How could you know that?"
Stupid. It didn't matter whether or not Draco was on Nutrient Potions again. She no longer got to know such things. Harry shut the part of herself that was Rigel away in a box firmly and tried to brush the question off nonchalantly. "No Acai, right? I've taken commissions from Lord Malfoy before."
"Of course." Pansy gestured to the storefront with a nod of her head. "This is your apothecary. I just hadn't realized you filled every custom order."
"I don't." Harry shifted her weight awkwardly. "So, you really weren't waiting for me? You'd be the first. Rosier was by earlier this summer."
"Anyone else?" Pansy asked. She showed no surprise at Aldon's actions. Harry wondered if they were working together.
"No one you would associate with."
At least, she didn't think Pansy kept in touch with Lestrange. All she needed now was for Draco and Snape to jump out from behind Eyelop's and her bingo card for difficult encounters would be full.
Pansy pressed her lips together. "Ignoring your presumption in assuming my associations, I won't pretend I wasn't…hoping to see you here. I have concerns—"
"You have questions."
Pansy's expression sharpened in offense once again, and Harry kept her chin up unconcernedly. Rigel would never be so rude to Pansy. Harry had to be so different there wasn't even a comparison to be made. "Yes, I do. And I'm not the only one."
"Are you an emissary, then? For Rigel's friends from school?"
Pansy glanced around, and she was right to worry, but Harry wouldn't be going off-script. "We'd like to know where Rigel is," Pansy said firmly.
"I can't tell you that."
"Because you don't know? Or because you think you're protecting him?" Pansy moved closer, tilting her head in a way that meant she wanted Harry to look deeper in her eyes. Pansy could be so very persuasive, when she wanted to be. "Because you don't need to. Not from us."
"No offense, Miss Parkinson, but your friends' families are spearheading the search."
"We are not our parents. We care about Rigel and we would never betray him to anyone." Pansy's eyes were bright, her lips soft. So very believable. "We just want to know he's safe."
"Then know it." Harry allowed Pansy to stay in her personal space. She spoke softly, to let her know she understood and even empathized, but would stand against her anyway. "In your heart, know that he is safe, but also gone. He can't afford to look back when it would only bring danger to us all."
"Why? What is happening?" Gentle supplication peeled back to reveal the stress beneath. "Look, we can't help him if we don't know." At her continued silence, Pansy's face hardened. "We're learning Occlumency. All of us."
Harry wanted to cry. Oh, Pan. That will never be enough.
Pansy wasn't finished. "We'll be able to keep his secrets and help him with whatever is going on. Between us, we have access to a lot of resources."
"Money and power can't fix every problem." Harry did not allow her voice to waver. "Rigel is in danger, and the more people know where he is, the more danger he is in."
"So, you do know where he is?"
"I have only guesses. Unlike you, I haven't asked." Harry tried to put censure into her tone. "I respect his choice to maintain distance at this extremely complicated and dangerous time in his life."
"And I care about him too much to let him do this alone!" The end of Pansy's sentence came out on a sob that went straight to Harry's gut. She had never, ever wanted to make Pansy cry. Pansy's hand reached out to press against Harry's heart, and she wondered if the other girl could feel how wretchedly it beat. "Please, Harry. I am one of his closest friends. Rigel would want me to know."
Harry placed her own hand over Pansy's and squeezed. "No, Pan. He wouldn't."
Pansy stared at her, slow tears squeezing out of the corners of her eyes. "Only he gets to call me that." She wiped the tears away angrily, too upset to realize he just had.
And Harry was grateful for it. Let her stay angry. Keep them angry and off-balance, and they wouldn't press deeper.
Harry stepped back and gave the girl a moment to compose herself before she asked suddenly, "What do Qilins eat?"
Pansy gave her an incredulous frown. "What?"
"Qilins." Pansy had taken the Magical Creatures elective, and there was very little chance of her ever mentioning the random question to Lestrange, even if their paths did cross anytime soon. Even then, Harry could admit to having been in contact with a Qilin. It was Rigel who should not be so casually connected. "What do they eat?"
Pansy looked as though Harry had handed her a riddle she wasn't sure how to answer. Too late, she realized the blonde might take it as a clue to Rigel's whereabouts. Before Harry could further clarify, she said, "They eat only dead vegetation."
"Oh. That's what I thought," she lied. "Thanks."
She said goodbye before she could make things any weirder. At the very least, Pansy was not crying anymore. She was frowning as Harry took her leave.
Frowning was good. Stay angry and forget. That was all she could hope.
Grimmauld place was decked in AIM banners. Confetti covered the floors in a treacherous snowfall, and all four Potters were given a magically-adhering party hat when they Flooed through onto the grate.
"Welcome! Cocktails and pre-dinner refreshments in the kitchen. Just put your coats anywhere."
"It's summer," Lily reminded Sirius.
"And we've been to your house a million times." James trod a careful path through the confetti, Addy in his arms. "What's the formality for?"
The Floo flared to life, and the Grangers stumbled through next.
"Oh." Mrs. Granger looked around at the self-waving banners. "How festive."
"Hello again." Hermione's father took Sirius's hand warmly. "Thanks so much for having us."
"Archie wouldn't hear of celebrating without Hermione," Sirius assured the man. "Plus, I wanted to get your opinion on the new decoration scheme. I'm going for an updated, more muggle look."
"More modern, you mean?" Hermione gave Sirius an admonishing look.
He grinned unrepentantly. "Just so. Right through here."
"Has Remus arrived?" Lily asked.
Sirius was already halfway to the kitchen. "He can find his own way, the smug bachelor!"
"Should we take our shoes off?" Hermione asked.
"Never leave your shoes, or any article of clothing, for that matter, unattended in this house." Harry walked her through to the kitchen.
Archie sprang from his stool and nearly bowled Hermione over in a hug. "I did it! Can you believe it?"
"Can I believe you tested into exactly the class you should have been in after four years of study?" Hermione smiled as they broke apart. "I'd be concerned if you hadn't."
"Devastated, too." Archie waggled his eyebrows at her. "Who could ever replace me as a study partner?"
Hermione seemed entirely immune to his charms. "What's devastating is the amount of correspondence I've been fielding from our classmates over you."
Archie gave Hermione a hopeful look. "You, ah, explained things to them?"
"I did not. I said you would explain it yourself when you returned."
Archie tilted his head in confusion. "I just told you I passed today, though."
Hermione smiled. "I never doubted you."
Harry let them have a moment as she went to get a plate of fruit from a platter that had been arranged to look like the American flag. Strawberries, blueberries, and dragon fruit formed an odd but not unappetizing mix on the palate.
"Did you pass your entrance exams as well?"
Mrs. Granger had a kind smile on her face, no notion of how sore a question that was. Harry avoided her mother's eyes as she said, "I'm taking my O.W.L.s at the end of the summer, and if I pass, my parents have agreed to let me continue homeschooling."
Grudgingly, but they had allowed it. They didn't know she planned to take the Potions N.E.W.T. soon after, and the Masters as soon as she met the qualifications. She wouldn't need any other N.E.W.T.s once she had a Mastery. The rest would be history.
"Are you really? A whole year early." Hermione gave her an impressed look. "Sometimes I wonder how I would have fared homeschooling—I did consider it, when Mrs. Figg explained the employment considerations to me—but I wouldn't trade my time at AIM for anything."
"A well-rounded education is essential for many," Harry said. "But I've always known where my talents lie."
"Some real hard-headed eleven-year-olds, we had," Remus said dryly. Giving Lily and James a look, he added, "No idea where she gets it from."
"Yes, yes. We shoulder all blame and take all credit due," James waved his free hand dismissively. "Let's not talk about the past tonight." He raised his glass of amber alcohol. "To the future. May it be as bright as our children think they are."
Everyone raised a glass or plate and clinked with the nearest to them.
"To the future!"
"And on that happy note, dinner is served." Sirius ushered them into the formal dining room, which Harry didn't think she had ever seen used. The long table was ornately set with goblin-made plates and crystal water goblets.
James eyed the silverware distrustfully. "That's not the cursed cutlery your uncle passed down, is it?"
"Bought fresh this morning," Sirius said cheerfully. "I'm certain there hasn't been enough time for anything to settle onto it yet."
The reassurance seemed to leave the Grangers a good deal less assured. "Do you have an issue with…ah…curses in your family?" Mr. Granger looked at his daughter uncertainly. "That is, I have heard they can run in families."
"That's something else." Hermione corrected him gently. She glanced at Lily and smiled self-consciously. "I've been telling them about my research into the Fade. It's not a curse, though. It's a congenital problem that is made more likely in certain families due to genetic predisposition, so to speak."
"Although curses can run in families," Sirius said thoughtfully. "Blood curses, and the like."
"Sounds ominous." Mrs. Granger was slicing her heirloom carrot very slowly.
"I'd much rather hear about Hermione's research," Lily put in.
Hermione nodded. "I've been meaning to set up a time to speak with you about it."
"How's Saturday?" Archie suggested.
Awkward looks were exchanged around the table. Oh, Harry thought. This will be good.
"Saturday is the crowning ceremony," Hermione said quietly. Naturally, she had been following it, too.
"Have they asked you to go?" Remus asked.
"She declined." Mr. Granger punctuated the statement with a stab of his fork. "Hermione doesn't want any more to do with that hysterical nightmare of a tournament."
"Wise girl." James was soundly approving.
Just to nettle him, Harry asked, "Aren't you going, Dad? As security?"
"Yes." James cleared his throat. "I'll be working it."
"It's in Paris, I thought. Bit outside your jurisdiction, isn't it?" Mr. Granger was not entirely wrong.
"Well, the French have their own security, of course, but the British Minister will want a personal detail. So." James threw back the rest of his drink with a quick grimace.
"What about you all?" Harry asked the rest of her family. It was a bit cruel of her, since she already knew at least some of them would be there, to help the Order with a distraction, but at least it gave them a chance to air their alibis.
Sirius and Remus exchanged a look. "We might go along. Keep an eye on things," Sirius said slowly.
"You expect Rigel to come?" Hermione was quick. Her sharp eyes turned to Archie. "He wouldn't, would he? It would be incredibly foolish."
"Rigel's not a fool, you know that," Archie said easily.
"I doubt there will be any trouble," James added.
The Grangers once again remained spectacularly un-reassured.
"I might visit Alice that day," Lily declared suddenly. "Harry, would you be up for babysitting?"
Harry pretended to consider it. "I was thinking of watching the ceremony with Leo in Diagon. I haven't seen him much." It was a bald-faced lie, as she'd been returning to her flat to check on him and the Qilin any spare moment she could, but her parents weren't very good at keeping track of her when they had so much on their own plates.
"They've got a mirror up, haven't they?" Mrs. Granger smiled. "We saw it looking for new robes for Hermione. Sprouting like a weed, our girl."
"Mum." Hermione's cheeks pinkened.
"It's a fun bit of magic, those mirrors," Mr. Granger added. "Almost like a telly."
"They are fantastic representations of runic flexibility," Lily agreed. "Not something you can accomplish with wand-work alone."
The conversation segued to the various branches of magic and the capabilities and limitations. The Grangers were fascinated, and Lily and Remus in particular were happy to expound on things. When they found out Remus was a teacher, the questions grew more pointed still, and soon the four of them were having an entirely separate conversation.
Hermione smiled sheepishly at the rest of them. "I don't take them to magic things as often as I should. I think they feel bad always asking me questions. I don't mind," she added. "But I don't know everything."
"Remus and Lily are in their element," James assured her. "We should have you three over to our house next. It'll be nice to have more friends our age."
It was as good as an invitation to the family, and Harry could see her cousin vibrating in excitement on the other side of the table. "Let's definitely do that," he said loudly.
Sirius ruffled his son's hair. "All right, calm down. No engagements until you're seventeen."
"You let Harry and me get engaged at twelve."
"Let it not be said Sirius Black can't learn from his mistakes." Sirius gave Hermione a sidelong look. "Speaking of which, I've been meaning to enlist your services to spy on my son while he's at school this year."
Archie's objection was studiously ignored as Hermione asked, "How often would you like a report?"
"Ideally, every week, but I understand if you feel that to be excessive."
"Shall we say biweekly, with a by-exception clause built in for extraordinary circumstances?"
They shook on it, and Archie sunk three inches into his seat. Sirius patted him on the head. "You understand, son. Just making sure you're still there."
"I understand," Archie muttered weakly.
"I could spy on Harry in the alleys as well, Mr. Potter." Hermione gave James a winning smile.
James looked a little too interested in this offer, so Harry cut in quickly, "No need to go to any trouble, Hermione."
"I work in the clinic anyway, so it would be no trouble." Hermione's smile had an edge Harry didn't trust. "Only until the end of the summer, of course. I can't look out for her during the school year."
"I have plenty of people looking out—"
"Harry won't be returning to the alleys—"
James stared at her and she stared back. "Harry," he said slowly. "Homeschooling means schooling…at home."
"Right." She knew that.
"Where Lily can check your work and Remus can help you with any practical portions you don't understand." James' eye-contact had not wavered.
Harry held firm under the suspicion in his stare. "Uh-huh. Looking forward to it."
Actually, she had been looking forward to having her own space. Not that she wasn't happy at home, but she hadn't spent a whole year there since she was ten. She had already finished her fourth- and fifth-year course-work, in any case. It was a prerequisite for testing for O.W.L.s, but her parents must be under the assumption she would begin N.E.W.T. work next.
They would have to revisit the conversation when she was ready to test for Mastery.
It was the day before the crowning ceremony of the Triwizard Tournament, and Regulus had nothing to do. He should have been in Paris, overseeing the security wards around the Place Cachée, but Riddle had found an…alternate Ward Master for the event. As though his diminished standing in the Party needed rubber-stamping.
With nothing therefore prescribed that afternoon, he meant to infiltrate one of the dubious establishments that passed for a pub in the Lower Alleys. At the Phoenix, the little king liked to hold his court, so that was where Regulus would watch and wait. He had not given up the search for Rigel Black. Nothing but success in that endeavor could return him to Lord Riddle's trust. And with the Malfoys out of the picture, no one was better positioned to succeed.
The market was packed with shoppers stocking up for the weekend. Regulus wove among them, but slowed to a stop as he passed a stall selling old vegetables by the ounce. There was a girl with riotous black curls speaking to the proprietor, and as he approached, she froze and turned deliberately to face him.
"Potter." He didn't know how she had sensed him in the crowd, but she did not look at all surprised as their eyes met.
"Black." She hefted her sack of vegetables over her shoulder and flashed spell-green eyes at him. "How surprising to find you at market. Have your house-elves gone on strike?"
He ground his teeth at her audacity. "How surprising to find you out unattended. Are the death-threats not getting through?"
"No, I'm getting them." She pushed back her curls unconcernedly. "The words of uninspired bigots don't really bother me."
"Let us hope you don't learn to heed them the hard way."
Her eyes narrowed and she took a step closer. "Now what would a man of your pretension be doing wandering the Lower Alleys on a Friday afternoon?" She pretended to think. "We've no use for a Ward-wizard that I can think of."
"And you know everything that happens in the alleys, do you?"
"Nearly." She bared her teeth at him. "And Leo keeps track of everything else."
He sneered. "Where is your boy-king? The pub, playing knights and ladies?"
"Leo's taking care of something for me." Potter's amusement soured his own mood further. Hurst was at her beck and call, too. What strange power did this chit have over the boys of her generation? "Why?" She rocked back on her heels, and he had seen that posture before, hadn't he? "What are you looking for?"
Her casual disrespect tempted him to brutal honesty. "I'm looking for Rigel Black, and I think someone in these alleys knows where he is." There. Let him see how she reacted to that.
The Potter girl only smiled pityingly at him. "If you haven't found him yet…well, they say the first forty-eight hours are crucial in a missing person case."
Regulus bit back a snarl. Carefully, he said, "It is vital that I find him before tomorrow. More than you know."
Potter raised an eyebrow. "Before the crowning ceremony, you mean?
He made a show of looking around before telling her, "He will be in grave danger if he does not appear at the final ceremony."
"In danger if he doesn't?" Potter scoffed. "That's rich. What makes you think someone here knows where he is, anyway?"
He watched her face closely, but saw no evidence of dissembling or concern. Privately, he agreed with her assessment, but Lord Riddle had assured him that anyone with first-hand knowledge of the RBC's circumstances would know what danger he spoke of in that context. Potter continued to stare disbelievingly at him, and he had to conclude she did not know whatever it was.
Except, last time, she had known something even Lord Riddle hadn't been aware of. Something that made the wizard extremely interested in discovering Regulus' source. Only the notion that pursuing the source would lose him the Black Family support entirely stopped his inquiry. For now.
And the intimacy required to know such a thing—to know that Rigel, who had carried a piece of Lord Riddle's magic inside him, had somehow transferred it to the imposter while being imprisoned and possessed—there was no reason she would know such a thing and not now know of what Riddle spoke.
Unless their connection had since been broken. Was that the case, or was she a very good actress?
To answer her question, Regulus gestured to the alleys around them. "There was a tournament here, last summer. I saw Hurst use the same moves that Rigel used in the dueling task of the Triwizard Tournament. There can be no doubt there is a connection."
Potter didn't deny it. Instead, she smiled widely. "Of course." She spread her arms, bag swinging along with the motion. "The connection is me."
His heart stuttered, and he thought he must have misunderstood her. She was—
"I taught Rigel to free-duel, as Leo taught me."
His breath hissed out. Salazar, but that made too much sense not to be true. Of course, she was the link to the alleys. The chit was always too close to everything. She'd been living there, so it made sense that she would be the point of contact between the alleys and Arcturus and Rigel. She looked so at home in the filth of Diagon, he wouldn't be surprised if she had more to do with the shadier aspects of their deception than either of the other two had. "Does your father know you free-duel in your free time?"
"My dad is learning a lot about me this summer," she said ruefully. "Not that you're at liberty to talk specifics about the alley tournament last year."
Potter was much too informed about his role in the Lower Alleys. He hadn't even known she'd been in the tournament last summer. He didn't like it and he didn't like her, but at least he had learned his time there was wasted going forward. "If you see Rigel, do give him a warning."
"He wouldn't trust any warning that came from you," she said immediately.
"From you, then." His lip curled. "I don't care if the boy comes to harm, but you do. So warn him or don't. It'll be on you."
"I'm sure Rigel doesn't need me to tell him anything." She had an odd look on her face. "He's two steps ahead of us all."
Despite his words, there was a part of him that hoped she was right. If Regulus knew where the boy was, he'd tell him to stay as far away from Paris as he could get. Whatever danger came to Rigel in staying away, it couldn't match the threat that awaited him if he showed.
"I've grown so fond of this guy."
Leo sat on the floor, a lapful of Qilin, looking as though Harry had demanded his first-born.
"He was never ours to keep." Harry turned back to the conjured mirror and carefully applied a Transfiguration that would make her look like a Weasley's bastard. She'd already taken the Modified Polyjuice that would form the base of her disguise, but that was only a backup, in the event that her Transfiguration was cancelled by some other magic in the course of the afternoon. She had learned that lesson at Longbottom House.
When her hair was the color of a carrot and freckles dotted her cheeks, she let the mirror dissolve and turned back to Leo. To his credit, he didn't even blink at her altered appearance.
"Maybe I can visit him, wherever he ends up."
"I'll ask if that's an option," Harry said doubtfully. "His native habitat is in China, though."
"I've never been to China. Could be fun." Leo cradled the Qilin as he stood. With a gentle nod, he bumped foreheads with the small creature. "Goodbye, little prince. I shall miss you." The Qilin solemnly inclined its head in turn. Leo carefully situated the Qilin in the sling around Harry's torso, then gave her a dangerously imploring look. "I don't suppose you'll change your mind about letting me come with you?"
Harry looked away. "There can't be any connection between Harry and Rigel. If someone recognizes you—" Will, or anyone else in the Order or at the ceremony, for that matter. "—it puts me in danger."
"You're already in danger." Leo searched her eyes. "I don't like this."
She knew he wouldn't. There were so many words still left between them. "If I don't come back—"
"That's it." Leo palmed his wand and rearranged his features before she could protest. "You're not the only one who can change faces." His hair was black, now, his cheeks a little sharper and his nose smaller. He took her by the hand as the portkey began to warm, and she let him keep it. "You are coming back, Harry. I'll ensure it."
He had not been to Place Cachée since his own crowning. Just after taking the title, he'd met with his counterparts in Dublin and Paris. It was good form to keep tabs on the other major Wizarding communities, when it was so easy for people and goods to move between them. Not all underground leaders were friendly or even civil, but he'd liked Nadine well enough. That didn't mean he was keen to let her catch him mucking about in her city, mind.
The disguise served more than one purpose.
There were unmistakable signs that the British had stuck their foot in the decoration scheme. Intermixed with streamers and ornaments in Beauxbatons' powder blue were staid MoM banners with the logo for the Department of Magical Games and Sports prominently displayed.
A stage had been hastily erected in the center of the public square. It shone in his Sight with fresh magic and the unmistakable perfection of a conjured item. He supposed it would make for easy cleanup. In the center of the stage, reflecting the mid-summer sky, was one of the enormous magical mirrors so ubiquitous throughout the tournament.
The crowd was thin, but filling in quickly. French Aurors stood at checkpoints wherever alleys met the square, and a team of them were slowly filtering people through the statue that guarded the main entrance to Place Cachée, as well.
The portkey had deposited them inside the security perimeter, a fact Leo took a moment to fully appreciate. Others were portkeying in alongside them, dignitaries with official entourages and symbols of office, even some celebrities in outlandish and expensive dress robes. Leo looked at Harry in her nondescript black cloak and stolen face and wondered what powerful friend had procured that portkey. It had to be someone above scrutiny, but why would someone like that aid a wanted criminal in evading capture? There was still so much he didn't know about her.
Harry's hand snuck out of her cloak to take his arm and together they made their way to the stage. With a few carefully placed elbows, they were close enough to see the fake grain in the floor of the stage. Not in the very front row, but they could get there in a hurry.
He was not one hundred percent clear on the plan, but he didn't think Harry was either. She had explained that there was an Unbreakable Vow she had to put to rest, and he was all in favor of that, but she claimed she wouldn't know what completing the Vow entailed until it happened. Which was not comforting.
She also claimed to have friends in the crowd, people—he wasn't sure how many—who would help cause a distraction, if absolutely necessary, when the time came. Then they would go to a safehouse, whose coordinates she had rattled off of a little card in her pocket. It was a messy, play-by-ear kind of a plan, but he was no stranger to reacting in an emergency. The relief that had not quite faded since Harry accepted his hand in her apartment came back, blood-heady and coursing. Even with no idea what was to come, he liked her chances better with him at her back.
His mother would twist his ear for such chauvinistic thinking, but he couldn't help it. He wanted to be there when things went wrong in her life, wanted to fix them so she didn't have to. He wished he could put his wand and knife and influence in the way of any problem that approached her, whether she needed his help or not. He knew that was impossible. He couldn't always be there for her, but today he could. Right now, that was enough.
The Minister took the stage and held his hands up for quiet. He cast a Sonorous on his throat when that didn't work.
"WELCOME, ONE AND ALL, TO THE CROWNING CEREMONY OF THE NEW TRIWIZARD TOURNAMENT."
The crowd yelled their approval all around him. Some eager spectators even sent crackling sparks into the air with their wands. The Minister adjusted the volume on his Sonorous so that he could be heard without deafening them.
"Now, now, no unauthorized use of magic in the security perimeter," Fudge chastened half-heartedly. "Don't make me call those nice Aurors in to calm things down."
Leo doubted he spoke enough French to order those Aurors to do anything, and Fudge's own entourage of Aurors did not look big enough to subdue an entire crowd of boisterous witches and wizards.
"I, along with my counterpart, Minister Houdin, would like to thank you all for coming here today to celebrate the finalists and crown our tournament champion!" Fudge gestured for the French Minister to ascend the few steps to the stage. Minister Houdin repeated more or less what Fudge had said in French, at least Leo thought so. Admittedly, his French was not very good either.
But even he understood when Lord Riddle was invited to the stage.
The man did not walk as a wizard in the midst of losing everything walked. He did not talk like a leader whose supporters were abandoning his platform in droves. He made eye contact. Smiled. Mounted the stairs of the platform as though he were on a one-way ride to the halls of history.
Leo had to admire his courage, if nothing else. He wondered: would Riddle pretend not to hear the world's amusement, or would he somehow turn it to his favor?
Even the most enthusiastic of the gathered grew quiet for Riddle.
"The fugitive known as Rigel Black—" Leo felt Harry tense completely at his side. "—is the undisputed champion of the Triwizard Tournament!"
Riddle smiled even in the face of the raucous response he received to that declaration. "Yes; he shocked us all, I assure you. The matter of his blood notwithstanding, Rigel Black surmounted the competition in every category." Riddle shook his head as though pained. "He is, of course, invited here today—" Riddle continued to speak over the rising noise, no waver in his confident expression. "—as is contractually required by the nature of the tournament by-laws, but we do not expect an appearance."
Riddle's eyes held a challenge, and Leo wondered who it was for, if he did not expect Rigel to show, after all. "No, ladies and gentlemen. Though we are wizards of our word, and prepared to honor his achievements in absentia, I'm afraid he cannot be said to hold the title of Tournament Champion, or indeed, be considered to have finished his obligations to the tournament at all, unless he does indeed appear to claim his prize."
Leo felt more than heard Harry suck in a breath beside him. This was it, then. The Vow's conditions would rest on claiming whatever prize was presented.
"The prize, of course, is the famed Rod of Zuriel!" Riddle unwound a cloaking enchantment and the silver staff appeared on the stage, planted squarely in the center, just in front of the magic mirror. Anyone who wanted to claim it would have to mount the steps and be reflected before all. "This prize is Rigel's by right and obligation, but if he does not appear to claim it by the end of the ceremony, we are prepared to crown the runner-up, Miss Fleur Delacour."
He gave a moment for the audience to calm down before continuing. "Before we get to all that, let's bring out our tournament contestants! Won't you help me welcome them to the stage?"
From one the adjacent alleys, a line of teenagers appeared one at a time. Aurors made a path for them through the crowd. Leo recognized the other contenders, but unless he miscounted, they were a few plums short of a pudding.
The young witches and wizards climbed the stage to thunderous applause. Delacour led them, followed by Owens. Antiope came next, then Sousa, and finally the Zahi boy, the only one among them to wave back at the crowd. Hermione was not there, nor Shang, nor Krum. They lined up along the center of the stage, on either side of the mirror; Delacour and Owens on one side, and Antiope, Sousa, and Zahi on the other.
"Let's give these extraordinary witches and wizards our deepest appreciation." A tidal-wave of applause filled the square. "And to those participants whose schedules didn't allow them to be with us today, another round of recognition. Thank you. Thank you all for supporting these gifted young people. And now, our runners-up will get the chance to say a few words." Riddle gave Delacour a gentlemanly half-bow. "Miss Delacour, if you will."
He did not go far from center stage or the mirror, Leo noticed.
Delacour pressed her wand to her throat and began her speech off a small notecard. "Zank you, Mr. Riddle. Zis tournament and etz aftermath 'ave been rife with talk of blood and purity."
Leo's eyebrows rose as he realized the girl was going straight for the point. The expression on both Ministers' faces suggested they had not heard her speech ahead of time. Delacour's eyes flashed in angry defiance, and Leo almost hoped one of them would dare to try and stop her from speaking.
"Zere are zose 'oo zink ze tournament finals were not valid, because zere waz no pureblood champion represented. So, Rigel waz a halfblood. So what? Zen I am ze pureblood champion of ze finals. My grandmozer was a full Veela. Does anyone 'ere zink zat makes me lesser?" Her eyes glowed. "'ardly. To me, and to all of us in France 'oo are not bigoted and backwards, zat means we did have one pureblood, one halfblood, and one muggleborn finalist. And ze halfblood won. Good for him, 'ooever he is. I am 'appy to accept ze runner-up prize and put zis whole matter to bed now." She released her Sonorous Charm and stepped back to her place in line with her head held high.
Beside Leo, Harry's gaze held only worried dismay. "Don't be the next target," she mouthed.
Riddle's smile looked like it had petrified. "Thank you, Miss Delacour, for your…creative interpretation of the tournament results. The second runner-up is also here to be recognized. Mr. Owens, is there anything you'd like to say about your time in this tournament?"
Owens raised a hand to the crowd and smiled broadly. His voice came out already magnified, and Leo realized with a snort that he'd cast the Sonorous a while ago and had been waiting for his turn. "Hello Paris! Always wanted to come here. What a beautiful city." He paused to smile directly into a press camera, then continued. "It is a boon to be here after all that has happened. I was not sure we would get this chance. I never suspected," he said, shaking his head dramatically. "Who could have guessed? Though, looking back, the boy was a little off." Owens smiled at a few of the audience members conspiratorially, a boyish glint in his eyes. "The blood magic he used—did you catch it? That should have been a clue. It takes Dark magic to fool so many brilliant wizards for so long."
He did not notice the malevolent stare Riddle was aiming at the back of his head, but Leo did. It was something stronger that the annoyance he'd aimed at Delacour. Something more personal. Owens smiled self-deprecatingly, completely in his element on stage. "I just hope the world will be more careful who it exalts in the future. Someone more worthy, perhaps."
"Thank you, Mr. Owens." Leo did not think Owens was, in fact, done talking, but Riddle had taken command of center stage once more. "There are a few people we'd like to thank before continuing."
Riddle gestured to the great mirror at his back. "These mirrors. These stunning and irreplicable works of magical genius, were commissioned by the tournament organizers and completed by none other than famed Alchemist, Nicholas Flamel." Riddle bowed to an elderly man in the front row, and Leo's eyes widened as he realized they were standing not ten feet from the famous wizard and his wife. They looked ancient beyond any wizard or witch Leo had ever seen, and yet Flamel smiled and waved as though he were a spry seventy-five. "Like many of your contributions to wizard-kind, these mirrors are an innovation that is sure to change the Wizarding World forever."
Leo had no idea how they'd managed to trot Nicholas Flamel out at such a controversial event, but perhaps that was precisely why they felt the need to. If anyone's presence could give a weight of legitimacy to the proceedings, it was the most beloved man in all of France.
The Department of Magical Games and Sports was recognized, as were a number of other organizations and people Leo stopped paying attention to, and then Riddle's demeanor changed, and he could feel the crowd's energy shift in anticipation.
"Our final wish, before the champion's crowning, is to once again highlight the spectacular achievements of this bright cohort of young witches and wizards." The mirror came to life behind Riddle, bright with the strength of the magic powering it, but it was not transmitting anything currently happening elsewhere. It showed the first presentation of all nine champions in a room he recognized from pictures as the great hall in Hogwarts. He had not seen the image in the mirror before, and by the way Harry squeezed his arm, he gathered she also hadn't known the tournament organizers had captured that moment.
"How much did they record?" Harry said quietly. Her eyes were tensed against whatever was to come, as though she knew, on an instinctual level, that something bad awaited.
"As we remember the many highs and lows of our illustrious tournament, Rigel Black will have one final chance to claim his prize." Riddle looked out over the crowd carefully. Looking for Rigel, or just trying to appear intimidating? "At the end of this recording, we crown Miss Delacour Triwizard Champion, with all accompanying rights and privileges."
Harry sucked in a breath. Leo took her hand gently. "Steady, now," he murmured. There was no way she'd make it to the stage undetected with everyone in the square staring at the mirror, and therefore at the Rod of Zuriel. They had to wait for the distraction before they could act.
The image in the mirror began to change and—it was so much worse than anything Leo had expected. It went straight into an image of Rigel—of Harry—swallowed by a column of dragon-fire just as her shield collapsed. Even knowing it was long-finished, Leo had to bite his tongue to keep from reacting.
All of Harry's air went out of her, and Leo realized she had never seen any of this before. She had always been on the other side of the mirror, and now she was going to re-live the worst moments of the last year and he couldn't believe for one second he'd ever considered letting her come and do this alone.
She should never have to be alone.
Harry—Rigel—who was she? Who was the girl in the mirror?
She didn't recognize herself, or maybe she didn't want to.
The highlights were awful. Images flashed in the mirror so fast, and yet agonizingly slowly.
She and Hermione peeking out from the trailing soil of an enormous, rotting root bed, a troll lumbering across the clearing in search of their scents.
Antiope fighting a Sphinx.
Treeslider throwing himself between her and the werewolf.
Krum struggling against the quicksand.
Shang playing a lullaby for a Snallygaster.
Hermione hanging from a floating platform.
Antiope struggling against a ward that was slowly crushing her bone by bone.
Rigel, shaking off sleep spores.
Rigel, pulsing magic so strongly it destabilized the entire obstacle course.
Duels—one after another.
Tahiil turning into a hyena.
Hermione conjuring a flock of birds.
Shang sending a burst of wind across the stage.
Dramatic shots of the nine of them casting, diving, shielding, sweating, bleeding, falling…
Then the lake. Rigel being pulled along by the giant squid. Rigel pulling Pansy and Johanna up toward the surface desperately, drowning, screaming for air—
On and on they came. Each a punch to her gut. Each a terrifying reminder of something she never wanted to think about at all. Even as Leo curled an arm around her and brought her into his chest, her breath wouldn't steady, her eyes wouldn't close.
She had to look away, she couldn't watch the fifth task. It was too—too everything. Her gaze landed on the staff before the mirror instead.
The artifact taunted her. Its blood-red stone called to her, mesmerizing even from so far away. Leo didn't seem to notice. No one else did, but it had a presence like soft shadows and she could swear she felt its inky black fingers reaching out across the air toward her.
It repulsed her, but she had to claim it, and she was running out of time.
It could be worse. She didn't have to make a speech or shake anyone's hand. She just had to get the rod and then get to the safehouse Dumbledore had prepared. She even had an undetectably expanded bag to put it in. The Qilin wouldn't mind sharing, and it wouldn't be for long.
Soon, one of the Order would cause a distraction. She had her dad's cloak. She had the muffling stickers on her shoes. She would take the chance. She would grab the rod and simply…run. She would not use magic that could be traced. Invisible, she would run until she lost any pursuers and found the safehouse. And Leo would try to cover her tracks, and join her when he could.
Soon, this would all be over.
He had noted the many members of Dumbledore's fan club, some in official capacity, some obviously planted for another purpose, but he paid them little mind. It did not matter what grand plan or distraction they had orchestrated to shock and awe the security forces into losing sight of the main objective.
Tom had already won.
Rigel would come, because he had to, and he would take the Rod of Zuriel, because he had to, and so the rest of it didn't matter at all.
Perhaps he would escape. Tom doubted it, given the complexity of the security wards even now enclosing the square, but he would not particularly mind. Seeing the boy brought low in Ministry custody would be mildly satisfying, but hunting him down on his own? Away from the eyes of the world where they could settle things as wizards had always settled things? Infinitely preferable.
Tom kept his eyes on the Rod even as horrified gasps and whistles of approval punctuate the crowd's rapt attention to the double-sided mirror. His press team had really outdone themselves, compiling the reel. Anyone with an ounce of humanity would not be able to look away. They would miss the fact that what they were really looking at, what the whole would was watching at that very moment, was the Rod itself.
It was amusing, how Fate sometimes circled back on itself. He hadn't even known what he was going to do with the Rod, when he found it. In the early stages of the search for the Dominion Jewel, another, less powerful jewel had made itself known to him. The Rod of Zuriel had blanketed the rule of countless hypnotic autocrats over the centuries. It had an innate ability to suppress the waking mind, subjugating the consciousness of all but the very strongest of Occlumens who dared to lay hands on it.
It had been all too easy to introduce a subtler version of its power to Dumbledore's precious school. The Rod was a poison, and children's minds so easily infected. Now, despite his escape from its clutches once before, Rigel would be the one infected. The hair he'd used in the bonding spell was the only useful thing Owens had provided him thus far.
He'd tried to use the hair in Polyjuice, first, to see what Rigel really looked like. Who he really was. But the hair was tainted already with a non-traditional blend of the same potion and the magical signature was too warped for a tracking spell. Assuming the boy used the same method of disguise today, however…the signature would be a perfect match.
Rigel would take the Rod and it would be his. And then the boy would be Riddle's.
He was waiting for it, so he was perhaps the only person in the arena who didn't flinch when the first explosion came. Two more eruptions followed the first. The mirror kept playing, but people were shouting and screaming for wholly different reasons, now. There was no heat. No smoke. But the sound had been unmistakable. It took him a moment to realize the explosion had not come from inside the Place Cachée after all. He was loath to take his eyes off the Rod, but he spared the barest of glances to ensure that—yes, it appeared to be outside the magical district altogether, in nearby muggle Paris. Billowing black smoke rose over the rooftops surrounding the square.
Bombing muggles, that was a new play in Dumbledore's book. He had to admit, he would not have expected such tactics from the old man. Then again, he hadn't defeated Grindelwald with twinkles and lemon drops.
The French Aurors were shouting for order, both Ministers had been whisked off the stage, the tournament contestants were looking to him for direction, and Tom. Didn't. Move.
It was all so believable. The Aurors reacted exactly as they usually would, right down to Dumbledore's plants. The crowd's response was almost too believable. Complete panic, fear, and, of course, distraction. He had to commend them for creative thinking. A disaster there in the square could be swiftly handled by the numerous security forces, not to mention the powerful collection of wizards present. But a distraction outside the wards? It would have everyone looking away from the happenings in the Place Cachée, wondering what section of Paris had been hit, wondering if it was their home or shop or Ministry being attacked.
Brilliant. A pity it was for nothing.
Even if the rest of the world turned away to look, Tom was there, and he would not. In fact, the chaos was likely to aid Rigel in reaching the stage and securing the Rod of Zuriel, which of course worked toward his ends as well. Dumbledore's chattel working for him; he could get used to the ease with which his plans fell thusly into place. There was no way in or out of the square once the event started, and this time there was no lodestone to be loosed. The wards would stay up until Tom brought them down. The boy would not get away so easily.
"Mr. Riddle, what's going on?"
The Grecian girl had inserted herself imperiously between him and the Rod. He brushed her to the side, but she grabbed onto his wand-arm with surprising, if suicidal, strength. "Releasse me at oncce." He did not bother to keep the hiss from his voice, but the redheaded girl dug in her heels despite the fear he could see in her face.
"Not until you tell us what's going—"
Wandlessly, he levitated her bodily off of the stage and deposited her behind him, out of the way. He could not afford such distractions at this—
"Mr. Riddle, should we be getting off the stage?"
"We're safest on the stage."
"But what waz zat—?"
The champions were bickering, jostling one another and getting in between him and the Rod. "Move aside. Exit this stage at once, or I will—"
The Unbreakable Vow flared to life in his blood, the intensity of the magic strangling his words in his throat. Power coursed through his veins; on its heels, heat and pain. For one burning instant, he thought he had miscalculated. Was the boy not coming? Had he chosen death after all? But—the bond flared one final time and…broke. The hold the magic had in his chest went slack all at once, and no amount of mental groping could locate the bond any longer. In disbelief, he looked to his wrist, but there were no fresh markings. Rigel had not broken the Vow. He had satisfied it.
Which meant—but the Rod was still there. It was there, in the middle of the stage, and he pushed toward it, but the champions were in his way. A pulse of magic sent them scurrying or flying backwards. Spells came out of the crowd at his back—he barely caught the first in time, could not identify its caster in the sea of people around the stage—and then he was deflecting other spells, spells from all directions. Tom shielded with a snarl, livid that anyone would attempt to waylay him at this moment. He looked to the Rod; no one had moved it. But somehow, Rigel had already claimed it. Then—
He's touching it now.
The bond he had laid in trap would hold him while it settled. Tom had but moments left to act. Ignoring the magic still raining down upon him, he mustered the strongest disillusionment-dispersing spell he knew and hurled it through a pinhole in his shield at the Rod. This was it, then. The moment the world would see—
Nothing. There was nothing revealed. The spell had made it through, he was certain, but there was nothing there. Tom was paces from the Rod, just moments from it when he saw it move at last. It lifted, twisted, and—disappeared. He was there.
Tom was not the only one who noticed the staff move.
A wordless containment spell left his wand, but it collided with a spell sent from Delacour's wand at the same time that Owens sent an overpowered "Finite!" at the spot the Rod had stood. Tom's spell canceled against Delacour's, the Finite hit the stage and—
The stage Vanished, its conjuring canceled by Owens' overzealous spell. The teenagers screamed as the ground literally fell away beneath them. Tom allowed his magic to catch him gracefully, his hair barely ruffling at the sudden dip, but he forgot the mirror.
It crunched into the cobblestones and cracked down the middle. The crowd screamed as it shattered into an avalanche of glass, and by the time Tom shielded himself and those around him from the worst of it, the space where the Rod and boy had been was overrun with panicking spectators and there was no sign of Rigel at all.
He rounded slowly on the tournament participants. Delacour, Sousa, and Antiope stared unrepentantly back at him. So they had not come to be recognized. They had come to help the traitor escape. He put a ward around his rage. He would not curse schoolchildren for the world to see. It was no matter. The perimeter wards would keep the boy inside the square, and he could deal with their blatant interference later.
Owens shot him a terrified look, and Tom wasn't sure he was entirely pretending. It had been his responsibility also to watch the staff. The last contestant wasn't even looking at him. Zahi waved over the milling crowd, calling into the chaos, "Good luck, Rigel!"
He wanted to scream.
Instead, Tom sent his magical and mental awareness out with a savage thrust. There were too many people to catalogue completely, but Rigel should stand out even in a crowd. A boy with Occlumency shields but no aura.
His Legilimency pressed against a number of unfamiliar minds, some better guarded than others and some significantly more compromised by the din and shove of hundreds of people who were realizing en mass that there was no way out of the square. Aurors, ministry officials, socialites, office workers—he flickered from one to the next, searching, searching for the one with no aura who had shields he recognized.
There was no one with Rigel's characteristic un-presence. No sign of the boy at all.
Tom did not panic. He was…irritated, yes, that the world had endeavored to disappoint him again. So many fools wanted Rigel to go free, when it would be better for all of society if Tom brought him safely to hand. Still, he did not erupt. The Vow had been broken, and the boy had disappeared, but there was still time to find him before the wards came down. And Rigel had the Rod. All was going according to plan.
What's more, he had another piece of the puzzle.
His spell should have disrupted any form of invisibility, be it spell or object-based. Even ghosts would have been revealed. Only one form of invisibility might be immune.
Rigel had it. So he was from one of the old Peverell Lines. Tom already knew there was a connection; the Parseltongue made it obvious, but the Cloak—that would not have been accidentally passed to a bastard or handed down through obscure branches. An heirloom like that would follow the main line of a family. He should know. And the number of families who were left to inherit such a thing could be counted on both hands.
She collapsed on the other side of the wards and let her animagus form slip away immediately. It was too much of a strain to carry the Qilin's sling as a raven. She pulled the Cloak around her with shaking fingers and just let herself breathe for a moment.
The din of the crowd in the square below her was deafening, frightening. She put her hands over her ears to shut it out, needing a moment to think, to process—
Because she'd done it. She had the Rod and she was free.
She couldn't stop the tears that streamed down her face, but there was no need to. No one could see her, hidden under the Cloak and stories above them on the rooftops of Paris.
The feeling when the Unbreakable Vow had dissolved from her soul: it was like shackles dropping away and a wind rising up to take her all at once. She'd felt a little drunk at first, high on the freedom, like her entire being was suddenly suffused with a buoying, beautiful magic, and she wasted several moments on the platform simply marveling at the lightness of her soul, at the click of something off re-aligning at last. Only then had she realized what an anchor the Vow had been.
How she could have thought she was free of it before, she'd never know. It was so obvious, now. She'd felt like flying—had almost spontaneously transformed into her animagus form right then and there on the stage—but she'd managed to hold on just a little longer. When she reached the perimeter and realized the wards prevented Apparition, it had been the simplest thing to scale one of the buildings, mostly covered under the long, trailing Cloak. Someone would have had to look in exactly the right place to see the occasional hand or foot sticking out for a hold. Leo would be proud.
She'd made it to the roof and discovered the wards went much higher, but it didn't matter. Away from prying eyes, with a giddy kind of relief and the feeling of wanting to fly still warm in her heart, she shucked off the Qilin's sling and transformed. She wasn't worried about the Rod of Zuriel—if the Cloak was fine being transformed alongside her, the staff likely would be as well—but she wasn't sure what side-along animagi transformation would do to the Qilin, even protected within the expanded sling.
As a raven, she had picked up the bag and flown in through the wards with ease. Truly, nobody thought to ward for animagi, and all those painstaking months of frustration trying to figure out how to manage it seemed entirely worth it in retrospect. The raven had saved her twice, now, though she was still trying to accept that she had actually escaped. The sound-permeable wards behind her told her exactly what the Order's distraction had cost.
The crowd had been crushing, confusion and terror warring with one another in a frenzied mob. Everyone remembered the attack on the World Cup, and while the danger had not been in the square, the idea that they could not Apparate away, could not escape, had preyed on the throng and spurred them to panic.
She wasn't sure she agreed with the choice of distraction. Didn't Dumbledore realize how nervous the public already was? Some fireworks might have done it, or a smoke-screen or something. Explosions were a bit much, and the frantic reaction of the Aurors had seemed all too convincing. No wonder people panicked. She had seen James dive on the Minister. Seen the French Aurors set up an immediate shield around the French dignitaries.
She had also seen the spells Riddle hurled at her on the stage, and the many answering spells that burst out of the crowd to waylay him.
She rubbed a hand down her face, then re-secured the sling across her shoulders under the Cloak. As she climbed down the far side of the building, she tried to calm her hammering heart and not worry too much about Leo stuck back in the square.
If he was smart, and she knew he was, he'd drop the disguise spells and leave as a normal spectator when they let people out. Leo had nothing to hide from the French Aurors. Riddle didn't know him. He would be anonymous. He had assured her, before she'd slipped on the Cloak and made a run for the stage, that he could make his own way back to England if they were separated. She knew first-hand that Leo could take care of himself. Still, she would wait as long as the portkey allowed and hope he remembered the coordinates to the safehouse.
Remaining under the Cloak, she cut through a number of old, winding streets as she attempted to follow the Point-Me spell on the card. The needle had her carefully circling the perimeter of the Place Cachée to the southeast, which meant the safehouse was on the opposite side of the plaza from where she had escaped.
She hadn't wanted to go that way, with black smoke still billowing over the rooftops, but she had nowhere else in the city to go, and if she made it to the safehouse, she could get off the narrow streets.
She kept hearing Muggle police sirens going off as she hurried through the twisting cobblestones of the Marais, and she wondered if Dumbledore had planned for their reaction to the distraction as well. Dumbledore probably thought of everything, she told herself. The fallout from the distraction was not hers to deal with, though she couldn't help but feel a little guilty about it.
A lot of people had gone to a lot of trouble to set her free. How could she live up to the risks they took on her behalf? By being better, she told herself. Every day, every hour, remember what it cost to secure this feeling. She would make it worthwhile. One day, as she had once promised Snape, she would pay it forward.
The air was hazy with smoke and particulate matter. The closer she came to the card's coordinates, the thicker the smoke became, until the needle stopped spinning and she stopped walking and she realized.
The safehouse was the fire. It was on fire, and there were muggle fire-dousers milling about the street, confused, because they could see the smoke and feel the heat but they could not see the house or the fire.
She looked dumbly at the card in her hand, then back at the house, flames roaring and rubble littering the street. A great, gaping hole in the side of the fifteenth-century standalone and the flickering runes left on a lodestone that had fallen all the way into the street at her feet told her exactly what the explosions had done. It was a wonder the Notice-Me-Not spells were still intact.
It didn't make any sense. Why would Dumbledore send her to a safehouse the Order was planning to destroy?
As she was standing there, frozen under her Invisibility Cloak, a man stumbled out of the burning house. He was a great deal older than her parents, but not as old as the headmaster. He wore casual wizard robes but clutched a muggle briefcase to his chest.
He was injured. Blood stained his sand-colored robes and he stumbled on a bad leg out into the stone-strewn front walkway. Harry stepped forward to help him, about to pull the Cloak off, when a masked man stepped out of the house after him.
Scar. He aimed his wand at the sky, and a monstrous snake in green smoke swallowed the air above the house. Scar turned to the injured man, leveling his wand in preparation of finishing him off, but Harry had gotten to him first.
She Apparated, the man in tow. She had never Apparated with someone else before, and for a moment, she was not sure it would work. She felt the older man resisting her, resisting the forced side-along, and she was grateful she hadn't tried to jump far.
They landed in an alley she had just walked through minutes before. The older man clutched his briefcase and looked around, bewildered, until she pulled the Cloak off and gave him an apologetic grimace.
"Sorry. Are you all right?"
"You're English." So was he. The man pressed a hand to his stomach, and Harry hoped the sudden Apparition hadn't splinched him. "Are you the one Dumbledore sent to me to meet?"
"Code word: Qilin?" She put a hand to the sling at her side. "I suppose it wasn't you who blew up the safehouse, then. That was not the distraction the Order had planned at all, was it?"
"No." He shook his head regretfully. "No, I was waiting for you when they came. They got me by surprise. Got my wand and then…" He indicated his stomach and leg, and she crouched beside him to look closer.
"May I?" When he nodded carefully, she cast her awareness into her magic and examined his injuries. It didn't take a complicated diagnostic to see his leg was broken and his abdomen lacerated. She set to work Healing him, murmuring, "What happened?"
"Took down the wards like it was nothing," he said. His face had begun to relax when he felt the Healing magic enter his system. "Used some kind of device that held magic trapped within. I don't know how they found the house. It's unplottable. Dumbledore himself designed the protection spells and—sweet salamanders, they have the stone."
His hand gripped her arm in sudden urgency, and she froze in the midst of Healing. "You have to let go so I can finish."
"We have to tell Dumbledore. The stone."
"I don't understand. The lodestone?"
He stared at her. "Do you know whose house that was?"
"No…?" She was getting a bad feeling though.
He shook his head. "I suppose it's a little late for rushed dramatics." The man struggled upright, and she hurried to brace him from one side. "Get me somewhere safe, and we can talk."
He gave her an address. They started to stumble along toward it. And she wondered what new fire she had walked into, when all she'd wanted to do was leave the inferno of the tournament behind.
[end of chapter three.]
A/N: I watched the new Fantastic Beasts movie and…the Qilin just appeared, woven into the outline as though it had always been there. I am not sorry. Regulus Black, also not in my outline, steals screentime like it's brownie points with Riddle. And the final POV for Riddle was a fun experiment in how many times em dashes can be used without breaking the reader's mind.
The edited migration to AO3 turned into a re-write somewhere around chapter 6, so while the new versions will be up on AO3 as I finish them, I won't change the versions on FFN for a little while at least.
Sam Gabriel has started a new audio version of the story, using the edited chapters, and he does live recordings for anyone interested every Sunday morning (US time) in the 'Harry, Get Some Sleep' Discord.
Also, I moved to Taiwan this month! Starting a new chapter in life and very excited to have more time dedicated to writing and editing going forward (the everlasting hope that lives just out of reach ^^).
Thanks for reading,