The Creation of Geoffrey
"It's done!" Draco announced, slamming into the room and sweeping off the invisibility cloak with a flourish. Luckily for him, his ingrained Slytherin sense of self-preservation meant that he just managed to duck before he was brutally pummelled under the pressure of twenty-three high-powered and extremely aggressive fairycakes.
"Get down!" Harry yelled from where he was crouched behind an overturned table. They were in one of the temporary practise-kitchens Professor McGonagall had arranged for Slytherin students' experimenting before the bake sale, though currently it looked like a battlefield from the Epic War of the Flour and the Chocolate Icing.
"What the – ?" Draco ducked another volley of fairycakes, then sprinted across the room to dive behind Harry's table shield. He was, Harry noticed, surprisingly agile when the situation called for it. "What on earth have you done this time, Potter?" he hissed.
"It's okay," Harry assured him. "I have it under control."
"You could have fooled me."
"All right," Harry amended. "The chocolate gateaux has it under control."
The look Draco gave him then left no doubt as to his views on the state of Harry's sanity.
"I'm serious. Look over there – under that Welsh dresser." Harry pointed to the little dark space across the room, then turned to see Draco's pale brows furrowing as he squinted in that direction.
"I don't see…Merlin's balls! What the hell is that?"
Harry grinned. "That's my pièce de résistance. I'm thinking of calling him Geoffrey."
From under the dresser, Harry's most recent baking creation began to emerge. It moved with the same sort of smooth fluidity as a snail, leaving a trail of crumbs in its wake. Although it was essentially a large circular cake with more icing than is healthy for the human digestive system, it still managed to convey an attitude of stealthy menace. The peaks of chocolate icing dipped like scowling eyebrows. A long, cocoa-coloured tongue emerged from the cream filled centre layer and licked the front edge of the gateaux like a large cat reacting to the sight of a mouse lounging in a tin of tuna.
Draco gaped, forgetting, for the moment, to keep behind the cover of the table. At the sight of his blonde head emerging above the protective shield, the malignant fairycakes made a sharp turn from where they had been battering uselessly against the glass of the window like transfigured bumblebees and headed back towards him for a third attack.
Draco yelped and ducked again, but he needn't have worried. As they passed overhead, the chocolate gateaux leapt skywards, the cream-filled layer gaping like an open mouth and snapped two of the slower faiycakes out of the air.
:-Mate, that thing is a beast,-: Sirius said reverently.
"Mordred and Morgana, Potter, where did you get that fairycake recipe? It wasn't one of Voldemort's was it?"
Harry laughed breathlessly. "I thought you said he never pranced around your house in a frilly apron baking fairycakes."
"I said I never saw him do it."
"Well," Harry said, risking a peep over the edge of the table, "I don't think we need to worry either way. Geoffrey will deal with them."
"Geoffrey!" Draco turned to look at him, face a picture of exasperation. "And then who, pray tell, will deal with Geoffrey? That thing looks rabid."
"He saved us."
"It's a sentient, malevolent chocolate gateaux. What are you going to do – keep it as a pet?"
:-He has a point, love,-: Lily said.
Harry deliberately avoided Draco's eyes, picking sugar from under his nails.
"In the name of Salazar, Potter, you're not serious! If you wanted a pet we could have got you a bloody toad or something. What on earth possessed you to charm cakes of all things."
"I didn't charm them," Harry said indignantly. "It just happened when I finished icing. I don't know what I did wrong." Aunt Petunia's cakes had never got up and attacked anyone – with the small exception of the pudding in his second year. But that had been Dobby's fault.
Draco's eyebrows furrowed and he turned peer over at Geoffrey. The gateaux, at that moment, was munching happily on the second-to-last fairy cake while the final one buzzed in angry circles in the air above it.
"Where did you get the ingredients?" he asked.
:-Ooooh…-: James, Sirius, and Remus said together suddenly.
:-Well, that explains it,-: Remus added.
"Explains what?" Harry asked.
"Potter, kindly at least attempt to make sense when you're speaking to normal people," Draco said, looking long-suffering. "Are you looking to be shut away at St. Mungo's?"
Harry scowled, but couldn't really think of a decent comeback. "I got them from the house-elves," he said instead. "I asked them for their best ingredients. Top quality. I gave them money to buy them for me."
"Of course you did," Draco rolled his eyes. "You know, considering you are actually the most famous hero and icon of the wizarding world, you are still remarkably ignorant about it."
"What do you mean?" Harry asked, frowning.
:-You asked the elves for top quality ingredients,-: Remus explained. :-In the wizarding world, the most expensive ingredients you can buy are those that have been heavily charmed for specific purposes. Usually, you only use one charmed ingredient per dish that you produce. What you did was mix a whole bunch of them together – like a potion. I guess this is the result.-:
"Someone in there explaining your idiocy to you?" Draco asked, arms folded, pale eyebrow arched.
"Shut up. How was I supposed to know? No one ever told me."
:-You're right, Harry,-: James said, sounding genuinely contrite. :-I've got to be honest – it never occurred to me either. I never was much of a cook. None of us were. Even Lily only did it because she had to.-:
:-And neither of you would eat the results when I did,-: Lily added.
:-We never could figure out how she was so good at potions.-:
"It's finished the fairycakes," Draco said, eyes fixed on the gateaux which, had it been a person, would have been licking its lips. "You reckon it's going to start on people?"
"Of course not," said Harry, indignant. "He saved us."
"It just devoured twenty-three mutant fairycakes in under five minutes."
"Come on – give him a break. Look at his little face." He came out from behind the table and stared down at his creation. The eyebrow-like peaks in the icing pointed appealingly in his direction. "I always wanted a pet," he said, without thinking. "I used to have a centipede called Puff. I kept him in my cupboard, but Aunt Petunia found him in his little tub and boiled him."
"In a pan. To teach me a lesson. She made me drop him in. Lucky he wasn't a kitten, eh?" Harry turned to look at Draco only to find the other boy staring at him with a wide-eyed, unreadable expression on his face. Harry blinked, confused. "I'm sorry? Centipede fan? I wouldn't have told you if I knew."
"Your aunt made you drop your pet in a pot of boiling water?"
"Well, when you put it like that it sounds –"
"And you'd called it Puff." Draco looked genuinely distraught. "How old were you?"
"I don't know. Five-ish maybe. Why are you getting so worked up? It was just a centipede. I honestly didn't drop any kittens into boiling water, you know."
:-Help me!-: Harry appealed silently to his family. :-I've stumbled into a twilight zone where Draco Malfoy is a centipede fancier.-:
:-Oh, Harry!-: Lily wailed and mentally enveloped him in a hug.
"Seriously – what's going on with everyone?" Harry struggled to free his mind from his mother's clutches. "Is there some sort of sacred bond between wizardkind and centipedes that no one told me about?"
Draco looked at him with big, grey liquid eyes. "We'll keep the gateaux!" he declared.
"Er…good." Harry shuffled back awkwardly. "Though you should probably know he's trying to eat your shoelaces."
Draco's face stiffened in a horrified grimace as he tried to free his foot from the eagerly chomping gateaux without touching it. "It's okay," he said manfully, although his voice was two octaves higher than normal. "I never liked them anyway. It just needs to be housebroken."
"Yeah? Any ideas how to housetrain a chocolate gateaux?"
:-We'll figure it out, lad,-: James said, in a kindly tone of voice. :-Don't you worry.-:
"Right." Harry was feeling the need for fresh air and possibly a brisk jog. Anything that made sense in a Muggle sort of way. "We'll do that then."
"So why did you burst in on my baking session earlier anyway?" Harry asked as he and Draco collapsed in front of the fire in his living room. Geoffrey appeared to be snoozing off his large meal in an old cake-box under the desk. It had been hard work to wrestle him to Harry's quarters while still keeping Draco invisible. They were both rather splattered in chocolate icing.
"Oh, yes!" Draco sat up, exhaustion apparently forgotten. "I finished the potion for my mother. Now all we need to do is break into the Ministry, turn her into a hamster, swap her for a house-elf, and we're home free."
Harry blinked. "A hamster? I thought the potion would turn her into a ferret."
"You need essence of the animal you're turning into. I didn't have essence of ferret, but one of the Hufflepuff firsties has a hamster. It doesn't matter, does it? As long as it's small."
"You scalped a poor child's hamster? Why couldn't you have got me or Hermione to switch you to ferret mode and used your own 'essence'?"
"Have you learned nothing in the last couple of hours?" Draco flung up his hands in exasperation. "I don't know how many more ways I can say this, Potter – don't mix magical ingredients unless you know what you're doing!" He gestured meaningfully to the snoozing gateaux. "I'm a magical ferret. And besides, I didn't 'scalp' the little beast. Just pulled out a bit of fur."
"Still nothing! Now when are we breaking her out? I don't want to leave it any longer. She's been in there with only Bobsy for company for months. I shudder to think how she's coping."
Harry groaned. "Do you know how much I have on my plate at the moment?"
"I know I did. I know. Just…" Harry rubbed his head, though it did little to alleviate the dull ache that had taken up permanent residence there. "We'll need another house-elf."
Harry squinted at Draco through his fingers. "A small one. Kreacher said Bobsy was your smallest, and even he barely fitted through the bars of the cell."
"I'll get Althie back," Draco said. "She's tiny. We lent her to my Great Aunt Grizolda when she traded in her eyes. I'll give her one of our others for the time being. She'll never even notice, the crabby old hag."
"She traded in her eyes? What on earth did she get in exchange that made that a good deal?"
"Trust me," Draco shuddered. "You don't want to know."
"Okay, so we have an elf," Harry said, mind grinding into gear. "What else?"
:-You'll need more of George's special Polyjuice Potion,-: Lily suggested. :-Both for the new elf and to top up the reserves Bobsy was using. The Ministry are clearly dragging their feet when it comes to releasing suspects, so who knows how long they'll be in there.-:
:-And it'll give you a chance to figure out if he really is seeing Fred's disembodied spirit,-: Remus added.:-and if we can somehow rope him into the get-a-body-back spell.-:
"Animal transfiguration potion, Polyjuice Potion, invisibility cloak, house-elf," Harry mumbled, ticking them off on his fingers. "Luckily I know the spell to get into the cells from last time."
"You've got to be joking," Draco said.
"You're not bloody doing it."
"Why?" Harry asked, outraged. "I was good enough for you, but not for your mother?"
"You spent most of yesterday morning convinced you were a psychotic ex-con with a fetish for aging werewolves."
:-Hey!-: Sirius said. :-I'll have you know I found him just as attractive before he was aging.-:
:-Not helping, Padfoot.-:
"I had to get Granger to tie you to a chair and gag you, just to prevent you from going on a hell-bent rampage to bring about the downfall of all Slytherins and the reunion of you to your 'heroic godson' and the aforementioned aging werewolf. Any of this ringing any bells?"
"Well, what do you suggest I do?"
"Make one of your minions do it."
"You want me to send one of my two best friends into the bowels of the Ministry at a time when all the Aurors are on high alert to rescue the mother of the idiot who made their lives miserable from the moment they met?" Harry laughed.
"Do you have a better plan?"
Harry opened his mouth, then closed it again. He scowled.
"Not the Weasel," Draco added airily, leaning over to add a new log to the cheerfully blazing fire. "Granger already knows the spell, and she is much less likely to screw everything up horrendously."
"How dare you –"
"Tell me I'm wrong."
"You're an annoying, arrogant, prissy little git."
"But not wrong," Draco said smugly.
"Sometimes I just want to turn you into a ferret and feed you to the thestrals."
"I know." Draco smiled beatifically. "Infuriating, isn't it?"
"Harry!" George said, face lighting up as he opened the front door to the mirror-lined apartment above his shop. "To what do I owe the honour of a visit from He-Who-Should-Be-Saving-The-World-Again-Rather-Than-Slumming-It-With-Dastardly-Slytherins?"
Harry winced. "I take it you got the Daily Prophet this morning then?"
"Hard to miss, mate. The Headline alone took up two pages. Come on in. Mum just left. There's now enough Scottish butter fudge in the pantry to feed an army."
Harry followed George into the living room, stealing sidelong glances at the other man's reflection in the many full-length mirrors as they went. There was nothing to hint that it was anything other than ordinary. They settled on the lime green dragon-leather sofas with a couple of bottles of butterbeer and a tin of fudge.
"So?" George asked, leaning forward. "I take it this isn't a social visit seeing as it's term time and I know you've got your hands full."
"No," Harry admitted. "I actually need more of that Polyjuice you developed for house-elves."
George exchanged a glance with his reflection in one of the many mirrors lining the room. "You're planning another prison break?"
George pursed his lips. "Listen, mate. You know we, of all people, are all for pushing the boundaries and breaking a few rules, but…" he frowned, looking more serious than Harry had ever seen him. "This is the second time you're asking me to help you break suspected supporters of Voldemort from Ministry-run holding cells. I'm just not sure I'm comfortable doing that until you give me a bit more to go on."
"Come on, George. Draco's not exactly an evil mastermind. The most evil thing he did this week was to use up all the marmalade and put the empty jar back in the cupboard without replacing it."
"Draco?" George's blue eyes were massive. "And what do you mean 'used the marmalade'? Are you living with him?"
Harry could have sworn that the reflection of George in his chair flopped back in shock a few seconds before the actual George did. It created a weird squirming sensation in his head that was even more weird and squirmingish than the weird and squirming mental sensations he had grown accustomed to.
"Well," he tried to explain, "I suppose, in the strictest sense…"
"Great Merlin!" George said suddenly. "That's why you wouldn't get back together with Ginny, isn't it? Fred always said the two of you were a little too obsessed with each other to be completely square. Oh, mate, no wonder you've always been so touchy about your love life. If this got to the Prophet you would be slated."
"What – no! Why does everyone assume that Malfoy is my bedroom-friend?"
There was an awkward pause.
"Bedroom-friend?" George repeated, clearly trying not to laugh.
Harry's head was filled with the sniggers of the Marauders. Lily gave him a consoling mental pat that radiated maternal sympathy.
"Seriously, though," George said. "Is that what this is all about? I won't judge, you know."
"No!" Harry rubbed at the pounding ache that was growing in the centre of his forehead. "Listen. I just need you help to break Narsissa Malfoy out. That's it. End of my crime spree."
:-You do realise you're not helping your case, right?-: James said.
"It's not what you think," Harry said quickly. "Look…" He took a deep drink of his butterbeer then sat forward in his chair. "I started this whole thing all wrong. There's something I need to tell you. It's a really, really long story, and I'm going to need you to trust me."
"For you, Harry, we have nothing but time," said George, sharing a glance with his reflection.
"Right. Here goes." And Harry launched into his story, describing, as clearly as he could, everything from his death and meeting with Dumbledore at the Place-In-Between, to the moment he realised his family were in his head and everything that had happened since.
George, to his credit, listened quietly and attentively, although his eyes grew larger and larger as the story went on and his fingers, apparently unconsciously, had drifted towards the nearest mirror and now pressed against it, fingertip to fingertip with his twin reflection.
"…so now he's finished the potion to turn his mother into a hamster and Hermione's going to break into the Ministry to rescue her. And Snape's going to help with the Master of Death Potion, and Alex and Daniel are the other Peverell descendants and we need to get them to a church in London to do the ceremony without anyone noticing, and I'm trying to arrange a Slytherin bake sale and everyone thinks I should also be out there trying to beat Crouch Junior and his Dementor army as well."
Harry sat back, exhausted, and drained the last of his butterbeer.
George blinked twice, then turned to look at his reflection. Once again, Harry could have sworn that the movement of the expressions on their faces were slightly out of sync with one another. After a long moment, he turned back to look at Harry. "Well, you know what this means," he said.
"Er – what?"
"We can finally hear the end of that story about the hag, the goblin, and Herbert Biggleswozzle."
"Sirius had promised to finish it the next time we saw him and then he went and kicked the bucket before he could."
Harry floundered in a sea of bemusement.
:-He's looking for proof, lad,-: Remus explained gently.
:-Let me take over,-: Sirius said.
For once, Harry was glad to give up control.
"It's nice to know you Weasley twins have your priorities right," Sirius said through Harry's mouth, rounded aristocratic vowels slipping neatly into place. Harry distantly felt his body language go from exhausted droop to arrogant sprawl with a few small shifts of muscles.
George tensed in alarm, wand appearing in his hand.
Sirius's familiar bark-like laugh sprung from Harry's mouth and Harry's own wand slipped into his hand from the forearm wand-holster that James had insisted he start wearing over the past few weeks. Apparently Moody wasn't the only older wizard with a paranoia for accidently blasting off butt cheeks. Sirius spun Harry's wand in his hand with a dexterity that can only really be achieved by someone who grew up with a wand in his hand.
George's eyes followed the movement, a small wrinkle appearing between his brows. "I've never seen Harry do that."
"Harry can't," Sirius shrugged. "For someone whose such a good seeker, he's hopelessly inept with wand handling."
"You certainly sound like Sirius," George admitted. "I cannot even begin to tell you how disturbing it is."
"Like you're one to talk," Sirius said, nodding towards the mirror-lined walls.
"So anyway." Sirius sat up, a marauderish grin spreading across Harry's features. "picking up where we left off - this goblin is well upset about the whole issue of the stolen armour and the accidental marriage proposal and decides to get revenge."
George sat intent and silent. Sometimes Harry forgot just how quick and intelligent the other young man was. The twins had always masked their quicksilver minds with absurd humour, ginger hair, and freckles, but at this moment, it was impossible not to see the blade-sharp wit behind blue eyes.
"He clubs together with the hag and they hatch a plan using the bindweed potion, the broomstick and the enchanted harp."
George suddenly looked revolted. "Please tell me this story isn't going where think it's going."
Another bark-like laugh. "It's going exactly where you think it's going. So that night, the hag gets into the kitchen and spikes his wine with the bindweed potion, then puts on the helmet from the armour with the visor down and waits until Herbert Biggleswozzle had finished eating and then goes in with the harp to –"
"Okay – stop! Stop!" George had relaxed , and to Harry's amazement, there were two bright points of colour high on his cheeks. "Seriously. Don't describe it. I'll never be able to look at look at applesauce or listen to harp music again without feeling nauseated if you carry on."
Harry decided he never ever wanted to hear the beginning of that story. If it could make a Weasley twin blush, it would probably scar him for the rest of his life.
"So you believe us?" Sirius asked.
"You pretty much had me from the start. There is nothing too bizarre to happen to our Harry, right, mate? But it's always good to check. Besides," he added, "he's been a lot more understanding about my situation than anyone else. No questions asked. It's only fair that I return the favour."
Harry felt a slab of guilt. He hadn't been as accepting of George's situation as the other man had thought. "That's sort of what we wanted to talk to you about," he said, taking over from Sirius.
George blinked. "Harry?"
"Yeah. Listen, George. How likely is it that we would be able to get Fred out of – you know – your reflection and into my head instead?"
The moment stretched between them, hot and filled with potential.
"You would do that?" George whispered eventually.
"Of course I would," Harry said immediately. "It's Fred."
"But…you said you were barely coping as it was. You have constant headaches. Your brain is breaking down. You're mentally becoming a werewolf every month. You're forgetting who you are."
"It's only for a bit longer," Harry pointed out. "And it's Fred."
George's breath hitched in his throat. Harry jerked his head towards the twin reflection which had unmistakably made an abortive gesture in George's direction. When his eyes fixed on it directly, though, it really did just look like a reflection.
"Would you excuse me for a moment, Harry?" George said, voice low and filled with some indefinable emotion.
"Yeah. Of course – yeah."
George stood and stumbled to the kitchen. He closed the door behind him.
:-So…that went well, I thought,-: James said brightly.
None of the others commented, all attention fixed on the door.
Harry could not have said how long George was gone. It could have been five minutes, it could have been twenty. Eventually, George emerged. His face was a ghastly white, his freckles standing out against his skin like drops of blood. His expression, though, was resolute.
"So?" Harry asked, heart thumping.
"No. We're not doing it."
"Well. Firstly I don't think we can. Fred is linked to me through some sort of…of…twin bond. We always had it and it never really went when he died. But I don't think he's actually here. Not in the sense that your family are here, anyway. The reason I sense him through mirrors and reflections, rather than in my head, is because he's on another plane of existence. A sort of parallel existence." George paced the length of the lounge, gesturing vaguely as he tried to get his point across. "He's here with me, but sort of in another dimension. Beyond the veil. No one else can see it except me because I have that link to him."
"I see him sometimes," Harry said. "Out the corner of my eye. I saw him wink. And sometimes he moves out of time with you."
"Yeah, well. You're the Master of Death, aren't you? You have all this strapped up potential floating around inside you."
"Even Ron said he started questioning himself sometimes," Harry added.
"Well he's family as well, right? He's also got a sort of link. Not like mine, but it's there."
Harry felt a wave of grief rise up inside him, and he rose to his feet to intercept George as he paced pack across the room again. "But all that doesn't matter," he said. He reached out to place a hand on George's shoulder, just below his missing ear. "You're right. I am destined to be the Master of Death. If we put our minds to it, I'm sure we can take advantage of your connection to him to drag him all the way through into our dimension, or something. Whatever we have to do."
George avoided his eyes, turning his head towards the window, framed by its garish yellow curtains. "I'm sure you could, Harry. I don't think there's anything really beyond you. But we're not going to do it. I don't want you to."
"But why not?"
"Because if something went wrong, I might lose him forever. We might break our bond and I don't think I would survive that. He's my twin. I don't think I can be a whole person without him. And we wouldn't do that to you, mate."
George reached up to cover Harry's hand on his shoulder with his own. "We can see you, you know. You're underweight and puffy-eyed. You're clearly squinting through a god-awful migraine. You're struggling to keep track of conversations from one end to the other." He grabbed one of Harry's sleeves and shoved it up to his elbow, revealing the fading nail-gouges that criss-crossed his arms from the last full moon. "You're hanging on by a thread."
"I'm fine," Harry said, snatching his arm back and taking a step back.
"Harry." George shook his head. "Hold up your hand."
"Hold it up."
Harry hesitated, then slowly raised his hand between them. It was trembling – not obviously, but continuously, every one of his muscles and tendons clenched and straining.
"The only time that stopped was when Sirius took over your body."
Harry stared at his hand. How had he not noticed? Was he shaking all over?
"We're not going to add to that. Fred and I," he shrugged. "We've got used to our new arrangement. We still discuss things. We still joke around. We're still twins. Yeah it's rubbish that he's not here in flesh, and that everyone is pretty much convinced I'm insane, but it works for us. We're solid. You though, mate. You need all the help you can get."
Harry shoved his hands into his pockets. "So you'll help me?"
George tilted his head and grinned. "We'll pick up where Malfoy leaves off."
Harry gaped. That had come out of left field. "Huh? Malfoy? I told you, George, we're not –"
"Bedroom-friends, I know," George said, rolling his eyes. "But I was listening to your story and it sounds like he's still doing a lot to keep you from losing it altogether. You're friends, real friends, whether you want to admit to it or not. God knows why, but he's supporting you a hell of a lot more than the original agreement you came to required. Think on that, Harry."
Harry did think on that. He thought about Draco running a bath for him, or helping him smuggle Geoffrey back to his room, or reminding him of his duty to the Slytherins when it slipped his mind, or irritating him out of depressive mood swings. He thought of the few occasions where Draco had even stood up for him against Hermione or Ron. "Huh."
"He's still a stuck up, snooty little git," Harry asserted.
George laughed. "Be honest – you wouldn't have him any other way."
The February twilight was chilly and laced with frost as it settled over Hogwarts. The Forbidden Forest was a shadowy tangle of trees and undergrowth that stretched out to the horizon on one side, and the long rough lawn spilled from the massive front doors of the castle and down towards the willow-fringed inky blackness of the lake. The castle itself was a forbidding silhouette against the silvery sky, dotted with warm yellow squares of lighted windows. One of these windows, on the west side of the castle, was attached to the small, but cosy living room of Hogwarts' current Transfiguration teacher, Hermione Granger. Right now, she was standing with her back to it, her arms folded and her foot tapping with the irritated, persistent beat of frustrated women everywhere. The three young men seated around the little table in the centre of the room were eyeing her warily.
"I'm just making it clear that I am incredibly unhappy with this plan," Hermione said.
"But why, Hermione?" Harry pleaded. "We've done it once already."
"Exactly! This is the second time you'll be forcing me to lock up an innocent creature in a cell in place of a human being who is much more deserving of being there."
"My mother is innocent," Draco said hotly. "They have no right to keep her there. Besides, the house-elves don't mind. They're not capable of getting bored."
"I hate to say it, Hermione, but we did promise the little ferret we would get his mum out," said Ron, eyeing his girlfriend's glowering face with trepidation.
Hermione sighed, then stomped over to the table and took her seat. "I suppose we did. I just think we need to get the elves out again as soon as we can. It's not fair locking them up."
"We will," Harry assured her. "One mission at a time."
Ron moved to pour her a cup of tea from the battered china set on the table. She took it gratefully and added a little milk to it. She reached for a chocolate biscuit, then frowned when she spotted the empty plate. "Where are all my biscuits?"
There was a loud belch from under the table.
"Geoffrey was hungry," Harry told her.
"Those were a Christmas present from my aunt," Hermione said, scowling at him. "They were from Harrods!"
"He has good taste."
Hermione gave up and sipped her tea. "So where is this new house-elf I'll be taking with me, then? We'll have to give her some lessons on being your mother, Malfoy."
"Hang on a sec. Althie!"
Harry, Ron and Hermione jumped when a tiny house-elf with ears hugely disproportionate to its frame materialised on the table in front of them dressed in a pillowcase that had the Malfoy crest embroidered on it.
"Yes, master," it squeaked.
"I spoke to you earlier about what I want you to do. Have you been practising?"
"Yes, master. Althie's being better than Bobsy, master, you'll see!"
"Let's see it then."
Althie closed her eyes seemed to transform before their eyes. The habitual, cowering posture that was common in most house-elves disappeared. Her shoulders straightened, her chin lifted, her tiny, pointed nose thrust towards the ceiling. Her little hands clasped in front of her in the genteel pose of an aristocratic woman. She opened her eyes.
"Now, Draco darling, what are you doing associating yourself with this half-blood riff-raff? How many times do I have to tell you! You have pure blood in those veins – Black blood. Do try to behave as if you care. And clean that robe, my dragon. You're really a disgrace!"
There were a few moments of shocked silence and Harry gradually became aware that his mouth was hanging open in shock.
"Well," Ron said eventually, voice awed. "She was right. She has Bobsy beaten hands down. If the Ministry hadn't done extensive tests to prove your mother wasn't a demon, ferret boy, I would have sworn she was possessing her."
Althie looked inordinately pleased. "Althie's been telling you she could do it, master. And your robe really is a disgrace, sir."
Draco scowled. "Be quiet, you little monster, or I'll make you iron your hands."
"Oh no, master. You can't be doing that to Althie. Althie's needing both hands to be your mother."
"Oh for Salazar's sake – just get out of here. I'll call you when I need you."
"Yes, master. Wash your robe, master."
The house-elf disappeared with a snicker and a pop. Harry was shaking with the effort of containing, not only his own laughter, but the laughter of the other Marauders as well. Ron wasn't nearly so considerate and belted out his own amusement at full volume.
"Oh, Malfoy! She has you owned."
"No she doesn't."
"She totally does."
"She was always a troublesome one," Draco admitted. "It's why we sent her to my aunt in the first place. We felt they deserved one another."
Harry couldn't help a snigger that broke free and Draco turned to glower at him. "It's not funny!"
"It really, really is. Right, Hermione?"
But Hermione, to Harry's surprise, wasn't looking amused. In fact, she was staring at Draco with the same expression she used when trying to figure out an incredibly difficult Arithmancy problem. "You know," she said, "when I was working with SPEW we spent ages trying to talk house-elves into rebelling. We got creature psychologists on the case and had dozens of volunteers trying to persuade them to stand up for themselves. And do you know what? Not a single one had any effect. We did not convince a single elf. That's why we gave it up in the end. It just wasn't working. And yet here you are – a man whose family have owned your house-elves for generations, and you have not one, but three house-elves who took rebellion and ran with it at the slightest provocation." She shook her head in disbelief. "I mean, I thought Dobby was an exception! But after seeing Bobsy and Althie as well…"
She leaned forward, a rather manic gleam in her eye. Draco leant away, sending Harry a panicked look.
"What's you secret?" she demanded.
"I don't know, Granger. I guess we just treat them like we treat everyone else."
She frowned. "No you don't. You're mean, unfeeling, abusive, and heartless towards them."
"Like I said." Draco shrugged, looking completely unrepentant. "Just like we treat everyone else."
"If she gets caught doing this, I'm going to rip all that stupid peroxide hair from your head, weave it into a rope and strangle you with it," Ron said pleasantly to Draco the next evening, as the three of them waited impatiently in Harry's living room for Hermione to return.
"It's natural, you carrot-topped barbarian," Draco snapped back.
:-Don't you love how he always focuses on entirely the wrong thing?-: Lily said.
"Hush, Ron," Harry said tiredly. "You know as well as I do that this was the deal from the beginning. Draco's held up his end. We have to hold up ours."
Ron glowered. "If I'd known it would be Hermione doing the breaking out I wouldn't have agreed."
"You wouldn't?" Harry felt an unreasonable stab of hurt at that. It was stupid because he knew that Ron was just desperately worried about the woman he loved.
Ron flashed a quick look at him, pausing in his pacing in front of the fire. His face twisted with the realisation of what he'd just implied. "No, mate, that's not what I meant. I just…I wish I could have learned the damn spell myself. I tried, but…well, that kind of intricate spell-work has never been my forte, has it?"
"Hermione will be fine," Harry asserted, trying to convince himself as much as Ron. "She'll break in, get Narsissa out, drop her off at Grimmauld Place, then come straight back here. No problem. In fact, it's been a couple of hours already. She should probably be well into it by now."
"I still don't see why my mother couldn't come back here," Draco said sulkily.
"Because I'm already sharing my room with one Malfoy," Harry told him. "Two would finish me off. Besides, Kreacher will take care of her very well. He almost exploded with joy when he heard a Black was going to be living in the house again."
"She's not a Black anymore."
"Once a Black, always a Black," Sirius said through Harry's mouth before Harry could stop him. "You can't just cover it up – trust me. I've tried. You've got Black blood in your veins as well, Malfoy. Blood will out – trust me. You just got to hope you got the Andromeda/Alphard/Nymphadora strain." He blinked, mind suddenly hazy.
"What was I saying?" Sirius squinted at the young man in front of him. "Malfoy? Lucius Malfoy? Great Godric – when did you get so pointy? Being married to my spiteful brat of a cousin taking its toll on you?"
"Shut up!" the young man snapped, eyes blazing. Grey eyes. Classic Black eyes, not Malfoy ones. This was not Lucius Malfoy. Sirius frowned, whipping his wand from where he felt it concealed up his sleeve. It felt wrong in his hand. His whole hand felt wrong. "What the –"
There was a blinding white pain in his jaw.
Harry dropped his wand to clutch at his jaw and turned to stare at Ron in betrayal. "You hit me!"
"Sorry, mate," Ron said. He was shaking out his hand with a wince. "But it worked, didn't it? I thought of it earlier when I heard one of the customers in George's shop saying he was going to knock some sense into his friend. I thought, if your body gets a knock, it'll probably twang back to you again, won't it? Like an elastic band. You're the real owner, so you're kind of its original setting, right? Anyway, if it's any consolation, I think I just broke at least one finger. That's a hell of a hard jaw you've got on you."
Harry wished he could pick a hole in the logic, but he couldn't argue with results. "You didn't have to hit so hard," he grumbled.
"I know. I really am sorry – stressed out, you know." Ron reached out and squeezed his shoulder apologetically.
"Does this mean I get to hit you any time I want, Potter?" Draco asked.
Luckily for Draco's continued good health, the fire blazed an iridescent green before anyone could react to his comment. Hermione stumbled through, hair more frizzy than it had been since first year, a streak of soot on her cheek and her robe smoking gently.
"Hermione!" Ron launched himself forward and gathered her up into his arms. Hermione visibly sagged against him.
"Are you hurt?" Harry asked anxiously, moving forward to try and examine her around his friend's fervent embrace.
"Fine," Hermione mumbled into Ron's chest. "Though that might not continue to be the case if Ron suffocates me."
Ron chuckled in a rather watery way and loosened his grip. "Sorry, love."
"What happened?" Draco asked, pushing his way past Harry to grab Hermione's arm. "Is she okay?"
"She's fine, Malfoy. Do you know she insulted my blood heritage three times in the first five minutes without actually mentioning the words 'mudblood', 'blood', 'heritage', or 'Muggle'? It was so subtle I didn't even realise she was doing it at first."
"My Mum has refined the art of the subtle insult to perfection over the years," Draco said with a note of pride in his voice. "She can insult a person's lineage, personality, family, house and wardrobe while politely offering them a cup of tea. Other pureblood families used to send their daughters to her for lessons in etiquette."
"Could your family get more messed up?" Harry asked, though he couldn't help being a little fascinated by this insight into the bizarre workings of the pureblood upper class.
"Like you're one to talk," Draco sniped back.
"Why are you all singed round the edges?" Ron asked Hermione, directing Harry's attention back to his friends.
"We experienced a little hiccough during the break out," Hermione said, pulling away from him and dropping into one of the armchairs with a sigh. "I had Narcissa hamster-fied and in my pocket, and was just about to get the lift back to the main Atrium when that Auror friend of Andromeda's got out."
"Ogborn?" Harry asked in alarm.
"Yes. He saw the guards I had cast a sleeping charm on and started to order a lockdown. I knocked him out and Obliviated him. But there were already people coming so I had to make a run for it – not easy when wearing the invisibility cloak, I can tell you. Aurors were pouring down into the cells, and I only just managed to slip into the lift before they called lockdown. I ran all the way to the floos and just leapt in before the flames had even gone properly green. Hence the smoking robe."
"So they know someone broke out?" Draco said, eyes wide and worried.
Hermione shook her head. "Everyone will be present and accounted for in the cells, won't they?" she said. "Althie took the potion to change into Narsissa, Bobsy was still there – looking disgustingly cheerful considering where he was, I might add. We hid all the supplies of Polyjuice in the mattresses. No one will ever know."
"They'll probably think it was Crouch breaking in to try and rescue his followers," Ron said. "Which means it'll be even longer before they officially release the prisoners." He nodded to Draco. "Looks like you're going to be in hiding for a fair bit longer, ferret."
Draco nodded gloomily, not even rising to the bait of the 'ferret' insult. "I'm guessing coercing you lot to come up with some sort of hair-brained scheme to clear our names is out of the question?"
"There are a couple of things that take priority over that," Harry agreed. "My sanity, for one."
"All right. How about if I agree to do everything I can to help you with your Master-of-Death thing, you promise to help get us released afterwards?"
"Agreed." Oddly enough, it was Hermione who answered.
Ron shot her a betrayed look. "Hermione! I understand that Harry has become infected with The Ferret's Slytherinness, but I expected better from you."
"It was a good potion," Hermione defended. "The one to change his Mum, I mean. Worked even more smoothly than the book said it was going to."
"I made adjustments," Draco said modestly.
"We need him if we want to get Harry's potion right. I was planning on starting it tomorrow, actually."
"The sooner the better," Harry agreed, rubbing his still-aching jaw.
"I am still teaching full time," Hermione said. "I won't be able to spend much time down in the dungeons brewing. The bulk of it will have to be done by Malfoy, with Portrait-Snape to guide him."
"So we're agreed then," Draco said. "I'll help you make a start on it tomorrow, Granger. We have the ingredients we need for the time being, and you've finished the translation for the potion now, haven't you?"
She nodded. "Although there are a few things we're going to need to get hold of for later on."
"Who are you?" James asked, staring at the rather sooty and frazzled looking young woman in front of him. "And who's the poncy bugger with the blonde hair? Good God, Malfoy, is that you? Is Narcissa starving you because you can't put out in the bedrooom?"
"And that," the poncy bugger said, jabbing his thumb in the direction of James without looking at him, "is something I'm really getting tired of. I could put up with the unflattering comparisons to my father – I get that I'm not looking my best at the moment – but if one more of Potter's blasted family insinuates that not only am I shagging my mother, but that I'm not doing it well, I'm going to do something drastic."