Chapter 18: The Dragon and the Ball
When Harry Potter stepped into the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, everyone rose from their seats and clapped. Led by Adam Potter, the entire table length of Gryffindors stood up and applauded. The Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws followed, rising from their breakfasts to make their respect known. The Beauxbatons students had already stood and joined the Gryffindors in clapping by that time. The only ones that were not involved in some form of ovation were all clad in silken green. Draco Malfoy's face was an ugly mask of hate and envy as he stared at the boy. Besides him, his fellow Slytherins stayed on their benches, though the younger students looked like they wanted to join in. Viktor Krum, who was sitting between Malfoy and a fellow Durmstrang student, glanced at the blank faces around him and rolled his eyes. The quidditch star pounded his fist against the table, an action that was soon mirrored by the rest of his schoolmates. Together, they produced a wild, rhythmic beat that more than made up for the Slytherins' silence. If at all possible, the look on Malfoy's face grew even uglier.
The boy, for his part, did not look surprised at the ovation he was being given. Nor did he look happy for that matter. He didn't seem to notice the way his fellow students were applauding him, or how all the professors at the staff table were on their feet and smiling at him. The way his lips were pressed together in a slight grimace suggested annoyance, discontent, and perhaps even a little bit of anger.
Harry began striding towards the Ravenclaw table. He made it half way before a pair of massive jaws hovered into view behind him. The applause that had been so thunderous, so passionate, died instantly. All except for Hagrid's. The half-giant clapped even harder than before, his bearded face lighting up in delight. It took a twinkling stare from Dumbledore to get the Care For Magical Creatures professor to finally stop.
When silence finally settled over the Great Hall, the pair of jaws became a giant eye as their owner lowered its head to gaze into room. The reptilian orb blinked owlishly at the hall's occupants then lifted away, revealing an entrance blocked entirely by scaled muscle. When it returned, it was accompanied by the other, along with the full regalia of horns and spikes as the Hungarian Horntail thrust its head through the open doors.
A tide of gasps rippled from table to table. Everyone had seen the dragons during the events of the First Task, but this was the first time they had seen one so up close and personal. It was both a frightening and awe-inspiring experience. Curved fangs the length of a man's hand jutted from the creature's upper lip, hanging down in perfect rows. Its immense head was wide enough to cover one of the house tables, and long enough for half a dozen students to sit alongside. A ridged crest decorated the tip of the dragon's snout, a colorful contrast to the beast's otherwise dark skin. Across the crest, situated on each side, the Horntail's nostrils flared as it let out a loud snort, creating two streams of thick, black fog that drifted lazily towards the ceiling.
The dragon shook its head then opened its jaws. The sound that came out was not the blood-curdling roar that it had produced on the tournament field. Instead, it was a curious, bleating cry that set everyone's ears on edge. Strangely enough, it almost sounded like the dragon was complaining.
The boy stopped in his tracks, turned around, and gave the Horntail what could only be described as a scathing look.
In response, the beast began to squeeze through the entrance. Its heavyset body scrunched up against the sides of the gates, the spikes adorning its skin clacking methodically against the smooth stone. First in was the serpentine neck, following the bobbing head in its own weaving motion. Next came the broad shoulders and powerful front limbs. Following that were the wings, clinging to the creature's sides, blanketing the length of the dragon's body with slabs of leathery hide. A rumbling snort announced the arrival of the thickest part of the creature's body. The muscular torso and wide stomach, hidden from view by the wings, lumbered through the entryway. Locomotion was temporarily halted when a one of the Horntail's side spikes lodged fast into the stone. The dragon growled in frustration and jerked its body away from the offending barrier. The spike came free, and along with it came a significant portion of the wall.
A few in the hall whimpered.
The beast ignored the stream of disturbed stone and gravel pouring across the floor and continued squeezing through. The hips were next, attached to backward-jointed legs that ended in splayed, taloned feet. The tail was last to enter, swaying haphazardly to and fro in rhythmic, sweeping motions. The massive appendage connected accidentally with one of the Great Hall's enormous gates. The resulting impact knocked the door completely askew, and left it swinging there, hanging on its one remaining hinge.
The dragon craned its neck back to stare at the demolished gateway and snorted, as though if the mess it had left was barely worth its attention. Harry, meanwhile, had already arrived at his usual seat, and was in the midst of sitting down. The Horntail plodded in the boy's direction, creating what felt like a miniature earthquake with every step. At the professors' table, Hagrid looked like Christmas had come early.
The beast stopped when it reached Harry's seat. Lotus, always on watch behind Fleur, took a single step sideways to avoid the creature's shuffling bulk. The dragon reared back and promptly sat on its haunches, like some enormous guard dog.
"Tail," the boy suddenly said.
The Horntail hesitated, and craned its neck to stare back. Its meter wide tail halted in its downward motion, and stopped bare centimeters from smashing into the Hufflepuff table. The subsequent collision would have split the table in two and knocked more than a few students flying. Slowly, begrudgingly, the dragon lifted the heavy appendage away from the wide-eyed Hufflepuffs and curled it around its massive hind legs.
Harry turned around and noticed the disbelieving looks he was being given.
Aimeric pointed to the Horntail with a shaking hand.
"Zere is a dragon behind you."
"I've noticed," Harry replied dryly, "In fact, I've noticed ever since I left the Infirmary."
Fleur, who was eyeing the beast up and down with a small frown, gave her bodyguard an amused smile.
"It followed you for zat long?"
"I wish it hadn't," was the rather deadpan response.
Clare stopped gaping at the dragon long enough to shoot the boy a questioning glance.
Harry reached for a piece of toast.
"Let us just say that the dragon likes me more than originally thought."
The stares just continued. The boy sighed.
"I had to use the restroom," he explained, "before I got here. It," the boy jabbed his thumb backwards towards the dragon, "followed me in."
Clare let out a nervous giggle.
"Zat's kind of cute," Aimeric gave her a horrified look, "What? It's true. It acts almost like a puppy."
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere near a puppy like zat," the pureblood muttered.
"Oh that's not the worst part," Harry said matter-of-factly, "I decided to use a stall for some privacy. Somehow, it managed to stick its entire head in there with me. Consequently, you'll find that the boy's restroom near the Great Hall contains a broken stall."
Aimeric made a faint gagging noise. Clare giggled again. Fleur hid her smile behind her hand. The rest at the table, those who had been listening in to the conversation, seemed torn between looking afraid and amused.
"Have you fed your dragon yet, Lord Wrackspurt?" the sudden question caused everyone to stare at Luna, "If you haven't, you should consider it. Crumple-Horned Snorkacks get very peeved when they miss their daily meals. I can only imagine how sad a dragon would be."
"No," the boy admitted, "The first thing I did when waking up was come here. I'm sure the dragonhandlers have taken care of it though."
At that exact moment, a loud, complaining rumble sounded from the dragon's belly. Luna gazed at the boy in a way that suggested disappointment. Harry grimaced.
The Ravenclaw huffed and turned to the looming figure before her.
"You must be hungry," she looked thoughtfully up at the Horntail's immense jaws, "I can share my breakfast with you, if you like."
The beast craned its neck downwards to regard the girl. Its slit-like pupils locked onto her then onwards to the table filled with food-laden plates. It turned its head towards Harry. The Horntail let out a growl that somehow sounded like a question. To those who were watching, it was as though if the dragon was asking for permission.
The boy shrugged.
"Go for it."
The Horntail snorted and switched its attention back towards Luna, who beamed in return. The Ravenclaw picked up a piece of toast on the edge of her plate, ignoring the incredulous looks she was being given, and presented it towards the dragon. The beast's massive snout lowered until it was a mere arm span away from the girl's hands. The dragon sniffed at the offending offering, curiosity warring with caution in its eyes. The tip of its jaws opened a fraction of an inch, just enough so that the piece of bread could be slid in, which Luna did with gusto. The Horntail reared back its head, closed its eyes, and clamped its jaws back together. It swallowed. A second passed by. Maybe two. All watched in the meantime, horrified and awed at the same time.
When the dragon opened its eyes, there was an eager light in them, a hungering intensity that had not been there before. It lowered its head again, licked its chops, and nudged its snout towards the table.
"Oh?" Luna mused, "You want more?"
The Horntail shook its head up and down in an unmistakable nod.
"Alright then, but you can't have all of my food," Luna wagged a finger in the dragon's face, "I'm still hungry too, you know."
The Ravenclaw swiveled back to reach for another piece of toast, humming contentedly to herself as she did so. A row of dumbstruck faces greeted her.
"I don't believe it," Aimeric said haltingly as he stared at the girl and then at the dragon and then at the girl again, "I literally do not believe what I am seeing."
Clare let out an uneasy laugh.
"Zat's Luna for you."
"She's feeding ze dragon," Aimeric murmured, "She's actually feeding ze dragon. Zis can't be happening."
"Why can't this be happening, Aimeric?" Luna asked calmly as she spread a knifeful of jam over the bread. The Horntail looked on eagerly from behind her, its yellow eyes following the quick movements of the girl's hands as she worked with impatient hunger, "It all seems very sensible to me."
"It's a dragon," the French pureblood repeated, as though those three words were explanation enough, "You're feeding a dragon."
"Yes, Aimeric," the Ravenclaw chirped, "I know it's a dragon. But why can't I feed it? Just because it's a dragon? Would it make you feel better if I fed a Crumple-Horned Snorkack instead?"
By her side, Harry snorted.
"Thank you, Lord Wrackspurt."
Aimeric opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, and instead took a long draught from his goblet of pumpkin juice. Clare patted his back sympathetically.
"Zere's no alcohol in zat, you know."
"Yes," the pureblood said rather sadly, his eyes still lingering on the Horntail, "But I wish zere was."
A soft tinkling sound caused everyone's gazes to shift from the dragon up to the staff table. Professor McGonagall had stood from her seat and was currently rapping a spoon against her glass for attention. The deputy headmistress kept on giving disapproving glares towards the Horntail's direction, and only stopped when she realized she was the receiving end of the entire hall's stares. The woman harrumphed loudly.
"The headmaster has an important announcement to make."
Dumbledore's eyes twinkled brightly as he stood.
"Thank you, Minerva," the old wizard said bemusedly. McGonagall promptly sat down and resumed her one-sided staring match with the dragon, "Students, the First Task has come and gone, and with it some unexpected happenings," everyone turned to stare at the dragon again who by now had thrust its muzzle past Luna and was happily devouring an entire plate of food that the Ravenclaw had placed before it on the table, "Now we must look forward to the rest of the tournament and the school year. The Second Task will occur in late February. For clues of the Task's contents, the champions are advised to pay close attention to the golden egg they retrieved from their respective dragons. Mr. Potter," Dumbledore smiled in the boy's direction, "I am sure that your fellow champions would be more than happy to lend you their eggs for a few hours each day," Harry nodded respectfully back, "Now. On to the last part of this announcement," the aged headmaster beamed, "It is the tradition of every Triwizard Tournament to hold a ball in honor of the champions. This tournament will be no different. Thus, I am pleased to announce that Hogwarts will host the Yule Ball this upcoming December."
Almost instantly, a wave of giggling spread throughout the Great Hall, all from the girls. The boys just looked horrified.
"Of course there will be some rules that will be implemented for the safety of students," Dumbledore continued, "There will be adult supervisors, mostly your respective professors, in attendance. Alcohol is strictly forbidden in any form in the ballroom. Participants of the ball will be checked to prevent spiking of the drinks," the old wizard gazed amusedly at the Gryffindor table, where Fred and George did their best to look innocent, "Finally, third year students and below are forbidden to attend."
The wave of giggling quickly succumbed to a chorus of groans when a significant portion of Hogwarts's female population realized they couldn't go. Dumbledore chuckled.
"An amendment to that last rule is that third years can go if they are asked by a fourth year student and above. That is all," the old wizard finished and sat back down.
Sighs of relief this time, followed by excited murmurs.
"For those of you who are worried about your dancing skills," the clamor died temporarily when McGonagall spoke up, "I will be holding lessons in the future to show those who cannot dance, how to dance," the deputy headmistress glared when a few groans broke out from the boys, "Attendance is not required."
Over by the Ravenclaw table, Harry turned to Fleur. He opened his mouth. The quarter-Veela immediately placed a finger over his lips to silence him.
"Yes, I will go to the ball with you. No, I do not care if there is a dragon following you around. Yes, I will expect a date sometime before the ball. And yes, I will expect you to look your finest when you come to pick me up."
Harry blinked. He turned to Aimeric and Clare, who stared back at him in amusement. He closed his mouth. He turned to the dragon, who was busy finishing off its third plate. The Horntail gave a supportive snort. Flecks of food landed everywhere. The boy nodded, then turned to Lotus, who besides moving to give room to the dragon, had stayed motionless throughout the whole affair. The bounty hunter rolled her eyes at him. The boy nodded again and turned back to Fleur.
"Right," was the only thing he managed to say.
Clare let out a low whistle.
"Well. Zat was fast."
Fleur's face flushed slightly.
Aimeric chuckled and was about to add a witty comment of his own when a loud crunching noise sounded from above them. The Hungarian Horntail stopped chewing when everyone stared in its direction, and looked guiltily to where it had bit off a sizeable chunk of the table in its eagerness to feed.
"Bad dragon, bad," Luna admonished, "Don't eat so fast. You'll just end up biting your tongue, or worse, choking on the Kvlompers. They'll make your throat inflamed and your tongue all yellowy. You wouldn't want that, would you?"
The dragon looked suitably horrified and swallowed, seemingly unmindful that it was swallowing splinters of wood alongside the meal.
"If you do that again, I will be most angry at you," the Ravenclaw continued, "And I think you'll make Lord Wrackspurt angry too."
The Horntail reared back, alarmed. It looked at Luna, then at Harry, then at Luna again. It made a noise halfway between a grunt and a bark. Somehow, it sounded like an apology.
"Don't apologize to me," the Ravenclaw gestured to the table, where a sizeable chunk of wood was missing, "Apologize to the table. It doesn't like being eaten."
The beast grumbled and dipped its jaws obediently. It made the same, half-bark, half-grunting noise as before. It almost looked like it was sulking.
"There, there," Luna cooed and held out her arms. The Horntail thrust its massive head into the girl's chest, and in return she wrapped her limbs around its snout. The girl then proceeded to rub the space behind the creature's crest affectionately, "I forgive you."
The dragon warbled.
Aimeric immediately moved to grasp Clare's goblet of pumpkin juice.
"I know," the pureblood said miserably, then emptied its contents in a single gulp, "I know."
"It's an out of context problem for us," Charlie Weasley rubbed the back of his head awkwardly as he spoke to the boy outside the Great Hall, "You have to understand, Harry, that this hasn't ever happened before, recently or in the past."
"No vun has ever tamed a dragon in this way," Yvette confirmed uneasily by the man's side, "Even the battle dragons our ancestors used in the Great Vizarding Vars…" the dragonhandler shook her head, "Dey had to bind the creatures to demselves with many arcane rituals and vards. Enslavement, in other vords. Your case is completely different. Honestly, I am not sure vat to make of it. I vouldn't even call it taming."
Harry stared at the two neutrally.
"So what you're telling me, is that I'm stuck with it."
Charlie squirmed under the boy's close scrutiny.
"Well… if you put it that way…"
"I thought all boys your age vould like to have a dragon as a companion," Yvette frowned, "I'm sure they attract girls like flies."
The boy smiled. His eyes did not at all mirror the smile.
"With all due respect, ma'am, ever since the dragon followed me into this castle, it has gouged lasting scars into the walls with its spikes, broken the bathroom stall I entered in its attempt to follow me, hurled aside one the gates to the Great Hall with its tail, and devoured a substantial chunk of the Ravenclaw table. And all that happened in one morning. One morning. What would happen in a week's time, or a month's? What would happen if it became careless with its body and accidentally harmed one of the students?"
"I see your point."
Harry turned to her male counterpart.
"Is there no way you can take it back to the reserve?"
"Can't," Charlie replied uncomfortably, "It's yours, Harry, and there's nothing we can do to change that. Even if we somehow managed to drag it back onto the sanctuary, it'll just find a way to get back to you," the man shuddered at the thought, "And that would get ugly, quick."
"So I'm stuck with it," the boy said again.
Both dragonhandlers nodded tentatively. Charlie tried smiling, but didn't quite manage it under Harry's stare.
"It won't be all bad, Harry. Think of it as having a pet. Granted, it's not very pettable and you won't be able to teach it how to fetch, but everything else will be the same as owning a dog or a cat."
"Except for the spikes," Yvette pointed out.
"Yes," Charlie nodded, "Except for the spikes."
"And the teeth," the woman added in.
"And the teeth," Charlie confirmed.
"And the wings."
"And the wings."
"And the propensity to breath fire at ten thousand degrees Celsius."
"And the propensity to breath fire-" Charlie noticed the look on the boy's face and coughed, "I think that's enough, Yvette. I believe he has the general idea."
"Right," Yvette's expression was one of acute disappointment, "Sorry."
"So yeah," Charlie finished lamely, "It'll be like having a pet of your own, just big, and scaly, and a bit temperamental."
Harry closed his eyes and let out a sigh.
"Who's going to feed it? Who's going to clean up the messes it will make?"
"We can led you a few men from our squads," Charlie said uncertainly, "They can't stay for long, but they can give you in-depth knowledge on how to properly take care of the Horntail," the dragonhandler swallowed when they boy's eyes seem to grow just a bit colder, "Not that you'll need it, of course," he amended quickly, "Hagrid volunteered to feed and clean the dragon as soon as he learned it belonged to you. Personally, I could think of no better man to look after it than him. He still misses Norbert, you know."
"Yeah, Norbert. The Norwegian Ridgeback hatchling your brother and Ron managed to inform me about in their first year. Good thing too. If the Board of Directors learned that Hagrid had a potentially dangerous creature in his possession, they would have gone absolutely insane," the man paused, "Adam didn't tell you?"
"Adam and I," Harry smiled, "have not had a conversation since the choosing of the champions."
Charlie's face turned a rather sickly shade of white. Yvette elbowed him hard in the side.
"Vay to tick off the only vun who controls a dragon vithin the last five hundred years."
"Sorry," the dragonhandler apologized rapidly, "Sorry, Harry. Merlin, but it's just that I forgot and-"
"It's fine, Charlie," the boy held up a hand to stop him, "I understand."
The man nodded jerkily. An awkward silence hung in their air, made so by the dragonhandler's unintended slip-up.
"So that's everything," Charlie finally said, "If you don't need anything else from the two of us, then we'll be heading back. A lot of preparation is needed to move dragons around, and today, we have to move three. We'll be up all night setting up wards," Yvette muttered something beside him. Charlie smiled uncertainly in response, "And we'll need to compile reports for the head of our reserve. He'll no doubt wonder what in Merlin's Name happened."
Harry regarded both dragonhandlers in silence for a few seconds.
"Will you get into trouble, for losing the Horntail?"
Charlie scratched at his chin idly as he pondered the question.
Yvette scoffed and tossed her hair back.
The boy chuckled at the two differing answers.
"Not very much in agreement, the two of you, I see."
"Yvette likes to think the worse of things," the woman huffed at the statement, "while I like to think in a more positive light," Charlie shrugged, "To be honest, I would put our chances at fifty-fifty. Your situation is complicated, so I think our boss might let our punishments, if there are any, slide a bit."
"But ve vill be demoted," Yvette said darkly, "Lose our captaincies, no doubt."
"Ah well, it beats losing our jobs," Charlie responded cheerfully. The way his tone wavered midway through the sentence fooled nobody.
The boy stared at the two in silence for a few more seconds.
"If you would like," he said slowly, "I can put in a good word for you. Affirm that what happened wasn't entirely your fault."
Both dragonhandlers looked stunned.
"You would really do that?" Charlie asked disbelievingly, "Even though the Horntail nearly… well, you know… killed you?"
"Like I said, what happened wasn't all your fault."
"That… That would mean a lot to us…" Charlie said, his voice thick with emotion, "At the very least, it will save us from whatever punishment our boss will have in store."
"Punishment? That vouldn't even be an issue!" Yvette's eyes shone with excitement, "I know Gregor, and if there is one veakness in him, it is influence. If ve have the vord of the first dragon tamer in centuries," the dragonhandler nodded towards the boy, "then ve might even be able to keep our ranks. Vith luck he might even reward us," the woman sighed happily, "I vish it was hours off. I haven't taken a vacation in so long."
"If Harry doesn't mind, of course," Charlie reminded her.
Yvette immediately turned towards the boy with pleading eyes.
"I will try my best," was Harry's sincere reply.
The two smiled brilliantly.
"Thank you, Harry," Charlie grinned, "This takes a lot off our shoulders."
The boy inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment.
The dragonhandlers gave him one last happy look, then headed off towards the Hogwarts grounds in a much better mood. Harry watched them go until they were out of earshot. He turned to the pair that had arrived halfway through the conversation, and had been waiting patiently ever since.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," he said politely, "for the wait."
Apolline Delacour gave him an inscrutable glance and went back to staring at the backs of the retreating figures.
"To be honest," she confessed in French, "I thought you would be angrier at them."
"I am," the boy replied with a smile, "I just hide it well."
The half-Veela frowned.
"And you're really going to give them recommendations?"
"If they send me an owl asking for it, yes I will."
"And your reasoning is?"
"One, because I truly don't think it's their fault," Harry said absently, "Two, because what's done is done. No matter how angry I am at them, it won't change the fact that the dragon is now mine, even if it has proven to be highly annoying. Yelling at them would gain me nothing, while offering my assistance will improve their disposition towards me. Their expertise in dragonhandling will be invaluable. I need that expertise, and after all of this, I daresay I will get it."
Apolline looked slightly disturbed.
"I'd preferred it if you had only told me about the first one."
The boy smiled innocently.
"You and your husband are my clients. To the two of you, I give the truth."
"But not all of the truth," the woman amended.
Harry's smile grew.
"No. Not all of the truth."
Apolline heaved a defeated sigh. This caused the girl hiding behind her to finally act. Gabrielle peered at the boy from behind her mother's legs then immediately dug her face in Apolline's dress when Harry smiled back.
"Gabrielle," the woman murmured, "Some manners, please."
"I can't maman," the girl said sadly, the words made muffled by her parent's robes, "I can't talk to him anymore."
"Oh?" the boy raised an eyebrow, "And why can't you talk to me anymore?"
The little Veela sniffed despondently.
"Because you are a hero. And ordinary people can't talk to heroes. That's what all the stories say."
"Well then, those stories were wrong," the boy replied, "Heroes are ordinary people too. I'm no different now than before. I'm still the same Harry."
"Do you mean it?" Gabrielle peeked at him hopefully, "You're still Harry?"
The boy spread open his arms in an inviting gesture.
"Of course I am."
The little Veela stepped out from behind Apolline tentatively.
"Does that mean you're still the same Bayard too?"
"Still the same Bayard too."
The girl covered the distance between him and her in three quick steps and launched herself at the boy. Her slight arms wrapped around his waist in a childish embrace.
"I thought I had lost you," the little Veela looked up at the amused face, "I was worried that we wouldn't be able to talk again!"
Harry patted her head awkwardly.
"Why would you think that?"
"All the heroes I've read about marry the princesses and ladies they saved. Then they go live in big castles and aren't ever heard from again. They don't even come out and say hello to their friends and family," Gabrielle pouted, "You should have never changed into Harry. I liked Bayard much better. Bayard wasn't a hero."
"That's enough Gabrielle," Apolline declared firmly, then looked at the boy helplessly when her daughter continued talking as though if she hadn't heard.
Harry caught the meaning behind the look and nodded in understanding.
"You know," he said suddenly, interrupting the girl's chatter, "A friend of mine told me you would like to ride the dragon."
The little Veela stepped back, her eyes wide.
"Did the knight really tell you?" Gabrielle asked excitedly.
"He tells me many things," the boy smiled, "Your request was one of them."
He turned and whistled. At first, there was nothing. Then came the footsteps, growing louder with each step. The floor began to tremble. From around the corner, the head of the Hungarian Horntail emerged. It let out a pleased grunt at the sight of its master, and lumbered for him, massive sides shaking with every movement. Its tail whipped behind it as it turned the corner, taking a chunk off the wall in the process.
The dragon halted when it arrived before the boy and sat on its haunches. The horns atop its skull immediately scraped against the ceiling. A small shower of loosed debris rained down on its face, which was seemingly ignored. It warbled a contented greeting.
"Dragon," Harry gestured towards the girl, "This is Gabrielle."
The Horntail stared at the boy then cocked its head sideways to peer at the girl. It snarled. Apolline took an alarmed step backward. Gabrielle looked up in awe. The dragon thrust its snout downwards, until its nostrils flared bare centimeters away from the little Veela's chest. It sniffed at her, and caused the girl's hair to fly haphazardly around her face. Gabrielle giggled.
The dragon rose back to its original height, apparently satisfied. It let out a low, questioning growl.
"She wants to ride you," Harry said mildly.
The beast craned its neck back. It looked surprised, astonished even. The Horntail huffed in the direction of the boy, as though it hadn't heard correctly.
"Only for a little while. Take her along for walk around the corridor. Just watch the ceiling."
The dragon made an exasperated sound from deep within its throat. Nevertheless, it lowered its head obediently towards Gabrielle, and set its mandible against the floor. The little Veela immediately broke free from the boy and surged for the Horntail. Using the spines that adorned the beast's neck as handholds, she clambered aboard the dragon's skin and perched herself securely near the back of its skull. The Horntail shook its head slightly at this newfound presence. The motion caused a delighted squeal from Gabrielle.
Slowly, cautiously, the dragon brought its head up, careful not to dislodge its passenger who in the meantime, was waving excitedly at her mother, nearly twenty feet below. Apolline tried to look brave, and waved hesitantly back. The way her hands shook gave her away.
The dragon swiveled its neck to stare at the boy. Harry nodded then jerked his head in the direction of the corridor. The beast let out a long, deep breath that sounded suspiciously like a sigh. Then, it began moving, plodding along on its thick, trunk-like limbs. Gabrielle's joyous cries rang after her as both she and the Horntail vanished down the hallway. The dragon's spiked tail was the last to disappear, whipping around its hind legs and carving two more additional furrows into Hogwarts's already battered walls.
Apolline winced as tufts of recently disturbed stone bounced to the floor. She turned to the boy.
"That's not exactly what I had in mind."
"You wanted a diversion so you could have a chance to speak with me alone. I couldn't think of any other way."
The woman sighed, and stood on her tiptoes to peer into the corridor where her daughter had disappeared off to.
"If that dragon of yours harms my Gabrielle-"
"It won't," the boy interrupted confidently.
Apolline regarded him skeptically for a while, then bit her lips in thought.
"I believe you," she finally said, "I don't know why, but I believe you," the woman smiled half-heartedly, "I'm sorry, Harry. I shouldn't be treating you this way, especially after you've saved my eldest again. But it was terrifying to see what happened on the tournament field, what with the dragon breaking free and heading for Fleur. And now that dragon belongs to you," Apolline rubbed at her forehead wearily, "It's a parenting thing. I realize you'll never endanger Fleur or Gabrielle, but seeing that Horntail following you around… well… you know."
Harry inclined his head slightly.
"I understand, ma'am," he said sincerely.
Apolline sighed again, then looked down at her daughter's bodyguard.
"So. Tell me the truth. What did you think of the dragon breaking free?"
The boy shrugged.
"Too coincidental to be an accident. Most likely a diversion to force me to play my hand. Almost worked too," he paused, musing, "From what you have told me about Montague, this doesn't sound like entirely his work. He seems too arrogant to use a ploy like this one. I would say there is a significant chance someone else is helping him, someone with enough cunning to think this plan through and with enough influence that Montague is willing to listen to him or her."
Apolline swore under her breath.
"It can't be anyone in France. All of the logical purebloods are stoically in our camp. Those few who hang around Montague are cronies, and nothing more. Rich and wealthy, but lacking in intelligence."
Harry gave her a measuring look.
"You think it may be someone from another country?"
The woman nodded reluctantly.
"All wealthy purebloods, especially the likes of Montague, have connections to likeminded individuals in other countries. The majority of the cases, these connections are just for business, and the parties leave as acquaintances. However, sometimes they can become lasting alliances between families, spanning decades to centuries. I fear that one of Montague's foreign allies is set on helping him accomplish his goal. And that means even more resources at the pig's disposal," Apolline's face twisted in disgust, then worry, "To think he managed to unleash a dragon in his attempt to capture Fleur. I don't want to think what other types of atrocities he will commit to get at my daughter."
The boy made an amused sound.
"I think I know where this is going."
"Yes," Apolline said solemnly, "I'm sure you do," she took a deep breath before continuing on, "With all due respect, in the light of the circumstances that occurred during the First Task, I beseech you to reconsider your decision on the contract regarding the termination of Augustin Montague."
"A little too formal," Harry smiled, "don't you think?"
"I am a politician's wife," the woman responded dryly, "I've learned to be formal even if I am not at heart," she dug into her robes and produced a neatly folded piece of parchment, "Here is a preliminary draft of the contract," she noticed his bemused stare and shrugged helplessly, "I wrote it while you were still unconscious in the Infirmary. It helped pass the time and alleviate some of the worry."
The boy took the parchment from Apolline's hands and unfolded it.
"You do realize" he said slowly, "that in our line of work, a signature on a contract is worth nothing more than the paper it's printed on?
The woman frowned slightly.
"Sebastian made mention of that when I managed to drag the truth out of him. I didn't believe it at first. There seems to be little point in using contracts if they can be declared null at whim."
"It's an outdated process," Harry responded, "Back when bounty hunting began to become popular; real, magical contracts were used. That didn't work too well for us. Take for example, if a client tasks a group of us to take out a rogue basilisk that's been killing townspeople. We head into the forest to deal with the problem, and then discover that there's a whole nest festering in the forest. The whole job goes awry, a lot of us are killed, and the rest are forced to temporarily retreat. Now, the logical conclusion is to flee, but the contract explicitly states that we have to kill the basilisk for the job to be considered done. That means we can't just run off or else we'll lose our magic. So we are forced to continue fighting the entire nest even though it most likely will lead to our deaths. Bounty hunting back then was nasty, nasty business. Very small chance of survival. As a result, the process was changed. There are still contracts, but they hinge mostly on the reputation of the mercenary. Good ones will get the job done and return for the reward. Bad ones won't, but at the very least, they'll get to live," the boy halted when he began scanning through the document. A faint smile spread across his face, "That is a substantial amount of money."
"Fleur and Gabrielle mean the world to us," Apolline said quietly, "There is no amount of money we wouldn't be willing to part with if it means their safety."
Harry folded the parchment back into a more manageable size, then slipped it into his robes.
"I will consider it."
"Thank you," Apolline responded gratefully, "If there is anything you need from us, you may count on me or Sebastian."
"Nothing at the moment," the boy began, then hesitated. When he next spoke, it was with the air of someone unsure of what he was doing, "Actually, there is one thing. One minor problem, that is. The Yule Ball."
"Yes," Apolline replied, smiling, "I heard my daughter asked you to it. I'm assuming that's not the problem."
"No," Harry shook his head, "Definitely not… The problem is… The problem is I don't know how to dance."
Apolline appeared shocked for a split-second, then immediately covered her mouth with her hand. The woman's shoulders began shaking with what seemed suspiciously like laughter. The boy looked momentarily flustered.
"I see now that broaching this subject with you was a mistake. Please forget about me asking."
Apolline moved to grasp him by the arm when he turned away.
"No, wait," the woman let out one last chuckle before regaining her composure, "I'm dearly sorry, Harry. I really am. It's just that I didn't expect this to come from you. You saved my daughter from Montague's kidnappers and just recently a dragon. To say that I hold you as a person worthy of respect would be an understatement. Dancing was something I assumed you already knew. I'm not laughing at you, Harry, just at the situation."
"My line of work doesn't allow much time for diversions," the boy said stiffly, "Dancing being one of them."
"Yes, I know," Apolline smiled apologetically, "I am sorry, and I can certainly see why this would be problematic with the Yule Ball in a month's time."
Harry nodded and took a deep, steadying breath.
"I was wondering, ma'am, if you would have the time to teach me how to dance. The lessons don't have to be long," he amended when he noticed her hesitating, "A few pointers will do."
Now it was time for the woman to look flustered.
"I would love to Harry, but there's a slight problem with that."
The boy gave her a puzzled glance.
"And that would be?"
"Well, for starters, I don't know how to dance either."
Harry blinked, then blinked again.
"I thought all Veela could dance."
"It's a stereotype," the woman responded easily, "All Veela look like perfect women to men, so it is assumed that we are perfect elsewhere as well. Singing, dancing, entertaining. Anything women were historically good at, it is assumed that Veela could do better. Truth of the matter is, a Veela will be good at singing if she practices, just like a human, and a Veela will be good at dancing if she takes lessons every week for most of her life as Fleur did. I was afforded no such luxury in my youth."
The boy looked thoughtful.
"Huh. You learn something new every day."
Apolline nodded in agreement.
"There are Veela out there who wouldn't be able to out-sing a rooster, just as there are Veela out there who will make sure your toes are broken after a single dance. I, myself, had to fool Sebastian into other forms of festivities when we dated. Had to keep making up excuses on why I couldn't go to the new, expensive ballroom that just opened up. I did manage to keep on fooling him until our wedding. But after we read our vows, it was expected for the groom to dance with the bride. Sebastian was limping halfway through the song."
The boy chuckled at the mental imagine. Apolline smiled wryly.
"So unless you want me to teach you how to step on all of Fleur's toes, I think it would be best if you didn't learn from me," the woman winked roguishly, "Though I do play a mean game of pool. It's one of the only things Sebastian has yet to best me on. Now that, I can teach you."
"If the Second Task involves anything to do with pool," Harry remarked jokingly, "I'll know who to ask."
A grumbling snarl made the two turn their attentions down the hall. The Horntail emerged, a happy Gabrielle still perched on its neck. The dragon huffed complainingly in its master's direction as it slowed to a halt, as though if the entire errand had been beneath it. Its grievance did not seem to bother the girl clinging to its skin at all.
"I have decided," the little Veela said primly from her makeshift seat juxtaposed between the beast's spikes, "I like Harry much better than Bayard now."
Apolline shook her head in resignation. Harry just smiled.
"Oh? And why is that?"
The Horntail snorted and lowered its head until its jaws touched the floor. Gabrielle leapt off, and landed lightly in front of her mother. The girl skipped into Apolline's waiting embrace. She beamed happily.
"Bayard didn't have a dragon."
The office of the Deputy Headmistress was a bare, spartan room consisting of very little in the terms of decoration. A few pictures hung from the walls, portraits of famous transfiguration masters and past heads of house, sitting stern-eyed and motionless in their frames. Pieces of furniture were placed sparsely throughout the office, mainly cabinets and drawers that contained past records of all those that attended Hogwarts. Near the center, a simple oaken desk sat surrounded by a ring of heavy chairs, the set devoid of any ornamentation save for a few carved lines that twisted down their legs. The table's surface was filled with neat, tidy stacks of parchment, essays and assignments already graded by the room's sole occupant. A heavily worn Transfiguration Through the Ages tome lay open on the desk, its earmarked pages currently being flipped through by the woman behind the table.
Minerva McGonagall looked up from the reference book when she heard the knock at her door.
The hinges on the wall creaked as they turned. The door opened inwards, revealing a boy with emerald eyes and wild, unruly hair. McGonagall's eyebrows rose. She had not expected the visitor to be him of all people.
"What can I do for you, Harry?"
The boy stepped into the office, and looked around. His gaze took in the room's surroundings expertly before locking on her. He smiled. The head of house frowned. Dumbledore had spoken in the past of how Harry could hide behind his masks, and McGonagall had believed. But what the old headmaster did not mention was just how well the boy could do it. Looking at him now, McGonagall got the impression that he was just a normal, fourteen year old boy without a care in the world. Everything about him, from the way he stood nonchalantly gazing around to the way he smiled, was so natural, so ordinary, that the deputy headmistress was sure that if Dumbledore had not told her beforehand, she would have assumed nothing was wrong. It was hard to think that this was the boy that had stared down a dragon and survived to tell the tale.
"Your office isn't what I expected it to be, professor," Harry said sincerely, "It's very much unlike the headmaster's."
McGonagall's lips twitched. Polite conversation. So natural from him. So ordinary. So disarming.
"If you are referring to my office's lack of extravagance, then I assure you it is no one's fault but my own," the woman gingerly closed the book in front of her, "I've always been a very plain person, Mr. Potter, and my tastes reflect that."
The boy nodded in understanding.
"Is that why the portraits on your walls aren't alive?"
McGonagall's gaze turned to the pictures in question. All were frozen in their places, the people and scenery within them stiff and unmoving.
"I've never understood why wizarding kind are so keen on making imagery come alive," the head of house said bemusedly, "A picture should be just that. A picture, and nothing more. If I wanted to see something then I'd go out and see it, not hang a mimicry on my wall. Besides," the woman shook her head, "moving pictures tend to rob me of my concentration, pictures of people even more so. Merlin knows how Dumbledore keeps his sanity in his office with all those pictures of past headmasters haranguing him every day."
Harry nodded again.
"The headmaster has always seemed like an eccentric person to me. Perhaps his personality reflects that as well."
Minerva snorted at the thought.
"He certainly appears that way doesn't he?" a rare smile appeared on the head of house's face, "I'd say it was the lemon drops, myself. Lots of sugar in those things. Can't be good for a wizard his age," the woman blinked when she realized she was rambling. Her smile disappeared, replaced by the usual stern demeanor. Disarming indeed, "Though I am sure that is not the reason you are here, Mr. Potter."
The boy stood there for a moment. It seemed like he was struggling inwardly with something, fighting for words that he wanted to say but whether from pride or shame, couldn't. When at last he did speak it was in a voice that was strangely hesitant, nervous almost.
"This morning, at breakfast, you mentioned that you would be holding classes for those that didn't know how to dance in time for the Yule Ball."
Minerva inclined her head briefly.
"Yes. I did make that announcement."
"Well," Harry began, "I find that I am in need of those lessons," he confessed, "I don't know how to dance."
McGonagall tried hard not to show just how impressed she was.
"Very few boys are willing to admit that Mr. Potter," she said quietly, "And even fewer are willing to ask for help. She must be really worth it."
The boy shrugged. McGonagall noted with interest that he avoided confirming the statement.
"When do you plan on starting the lessons, professor?"
The head of house closed her eyes tiredly. Now came the hard part. She would have to be careful with her words and her tone.
"I am afraid, Mr. Potter," McGonagall said levelly, "that those dancing lessons are only open for Hogwarts students."
She looked for a flash of disappointment, but received none. Harry's face showed nothing but earnest interest.
"You avoided mentioning that this morning," he pointed out.
"I did. It was a mistake on my part. Perhaps I will make an announcement tomorrow about it."
The boy smiled charmingly.
"What about these lessons are so special that only Hogwarts students are allowed to enlist in them but other schools' students are barred from taking?"
"It's a curriculum issue, Mr. Potter. As a Hogwarts sponsored class, priority must lie with our students. They get the first pick. I'm sorry to say that it's the rules."
"A rule that somehow doesn't apply to the rest of the classes, but only this one? The potions class I share with the Gryffindors and Slytherins certainly doesn't seem to be run on this tenet."
McGonagall pursed her lips tightly.
"Those classes have spots open in their rosters. I expect the dancing class to become full very soon. I'm afraid that there will be no room for you," the head of house dipped her head apologetically in the boy's direction, "Perhaps when the students learn enough about dancing, there will be a place for you when they leave."
"By the time they learn enough about dancing," Harry remarked candidly, "then the Yule Ball will already be around the corner. There will be little time left for you to instruct me."
Minerva nodded reluctantly.
"Yes. That may very well happen. Unfortunate. I'm dearly sorry, Mr. Potter. But it's the rules," the woman paused, a thoughtful look developing on her face, "There may be another way, however."
Harry cocked his head to the side. Had she not known better about him, the motion would have been endearing.
"Your mother was very skilled at dancing in her youth," McGonagall said softly, "She turned many a head in Hogwarts' past balls. I am sure that if you ask her she will be more than willing to teach you."
The head of house peered at the boy over her spectacles, searching for a blaze of anger or a spark of resentment that she felt was sure to result. She received none. Harry just smiled.
"I see. I will take that into consideration, professor."
"I really am sorry, Harry," she said and meant it.
"I'm sure the problem's out of your hands," came the reply.
McGonagall frowned. She swore she had heard a hint of sarcasm in the boy's tone, but wasn't certain.
"If that's everything, Mr. Potter."
"It is. Thank you," his tone was sincere, but the head of house again had the nagging feeling that she was being mocked, "Good night, professor."
The boy turned on his heel and strode out of the office. The door closed behind him with a resounding thud. McGonagall blinked at the vacant spot where Harry had stood. She let out a long, drawn-out sigh and leaned back into her chair.
"You were right," she said out loud, seemingly to no one, "He did come."
In the corner, closest to her desk, the air rippled and distorted. The head of Lily Potter appeared and hung there, her face taut with anxiety. It looked like the woman had come very close to crying.
"You don't need to worry," McGonagall sighed again, "By now he's long gone."
Lily's head nodded reluctantly and a second later, the rest of her body appeared, stepping out from under her husband's Invisibility Cloak.
"Thank you, headmistress," was the first thing she said.
The head of house gave her a warning look.
"I didn't do this for you, Lily," Minerva said sternly, "I did it for him. It was for his sake that I took part in your plan, and if I believed it would be hurtful to him, then I wouldn't have agreed. Don't take this to be an act of forgiveness. There is still much between us."
Lily hesitated, then smiled sadly.
"I know headmistress, but thank you nonetheless."
McGonagall ignored her grateful words and turned to stare at the Muggles Studies professor.
"To be honest, I did not expect he would come. James would have rather died than admit he couldn't dance."
Lily dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a handkerchief before replying.
"Yes, he certainly would. James is proud like that."
Lily chuckled at the thought.
"Adam is just as stubborn as his father. I can't imagine him asking for help about anything related to dancing," the woman let out a sudden giggle, "You know the first time came to us for help was about riding a broom. And that was only because he couldn't get it to fly straight. Turned out he was riding it backwards."
McGonagall snorted, though her tone was far from disdainful.
"Yet Harry came today to ask for help," the head of house tapped a thoughtful finger against her table, "And he was the first."
"Harry has always been more like me than James," Lily said forlornly, "He's proud and stubborn, but he knows when to bend and when to stand his ground."
"Some common sense among the Potter men at last," Minerva's lips twisted into a half-smile.
"Yes," the Muggles Studies teacher sounded a bit proud, "Yes, I guess you can say that."
The two fell into relative silence for a while, with McGonagall looking still thoughtful behind her desk and Lily standing where she was, staring longingly at the door where her son had disappeared from.
"You think it will work?" the head of house suddenly said, "Your whole plan. Will teaching him to dance get him to open up to you?"
Lily shook her head demurely.
"I don't know, headmistress. I really don't. I want to believe it will work, but we've hurt him too much. All I know is that it's my turn. James and Adam have given it their best while I sat back and watched. This is my chance to make things right."
"You do realize that this is all a gamble," Minerva said neutrally, "There is a chance he might learn from someone else or even not try to learn at all."
Lily chewed on her bottom lip fretfully.
"I understand it is a gamble, but even if this doesn't work, I'll find another way. James and Adam will too. We'll find another way, and we won't stop until either he's back with us or we die trying."
McGonagall stared in silence at her professor. The woman flinched under her gaze but did not try to avert her face.
"That is a worthwhile goal, Lily," the head of house finally said.
Lily looked up, startled.
"Headmistress?" she asked hopefully. By then, McGonagall had already opened the reference tome on her desk and was pouring through it with quill in hand. The old witch made a shooing motion with her other hand.
"You are dismissed, Professor Potter," this time, her voice lacked the usual stern quality she had used before.
The woman smiled and wiped away the tears that had been gathering in her eyes.
"Thank you… Minerva."
In the moonlight glow of night, the lakeside of Hogwarts grounds played host to its usual visitors. A boy, sporting the light blue of Beauxbatons and a knight, clad entirely in shadow. This time, however, was different. Tonight, it was not the knight that paid respect to the boy, but the opposite. For this time, it was the boy that knelt before the knight.
"Have I not been a most considerate lord to you, Hate?" emerald eyes flickered up towards the warrior's iron visage, "Have I not granted you the boon of existence?"
The knight chuckled, clearly amused.
"That you have, my lord."
"Have I not listened willingly to your counsel in the darkest of times?" the boy continued, "Have I not heeded your advice through all these years?"
An armored finger stroked the hilt of a sheathed sword lovingly. The rest joined the first and wrapped the blade's pommel in a possessive hold.
"You have always heeded my words, my lord," the knight smiled
"And have I not done great deeds in the face of the impossible?" the boy lifted his head at last to stare into the gaze of eldritch fire, "And have I not made your proud with said deeds?"
"I have always been proud of you, my lord," the knight's voice still held the same steely quality as before, but there was a sincere undertone to it that suggested truth in lieu of lies.
"Then teach me how to dance."
The groaning creak of moving joints. The soft rasp of steel upon steel. The dull thud of a sword being planted tip-first into the ground.
The knight knelt before the boy, its sneering helm dipping until the two were face to face. Its eyes shone with amusement.
"Have I not been your shield and protector in your time of need?" it grated, "Have I not been the guardian that stood by you even when those that should have did not?"
"You have, Hate."
"Have I not made your enemies my own?" the knight drove its blade deeper into the dirt, "Have I not been the edge of your sword and the tip of your spear?"
"Many lie dead in their battles against me," the boy agreed, "They would have won were it not for you."
"And have I not been always loyal to you, my lord?" the knight placed a plated palm over its chest and bowed its head, "Have I not always been the one you could rely on? The one who will never betray you? Have I not been those things for you, my lord?"
The boy smiled.
"Then forgive me, my lord, when I say I don't know how to dance."
"Damn," Harry cursed.
The two stood back up. The knight removed its sword from the ground and slid it back into its sheathe. The boy dusted off his robes with a faint grimace.
"Well," he said matter-of-factly, "It was worth a try."
"Apologies, my lord," Hate drawled, "But dancing was the last thing on your mind when you called for me."
"We should have learned then," the boy grumbled good-naturedly.
"Indeed," the warrior quipped, "Dancing lessons would have fit right into your schedule, lord. Right between terminating a pack of rogue werewolves and protecting a client from would-be assassins. Just make sure you clean off the blood in between."
Its master gave the knight an amused look.
"Now I know you're just being sardonic towards me."
"Really?" Hate remarked, and rather dryly at that, "What gave me away?"
"The dancing lessons in between killing werewolves and protecting clients," the boy smiled, "A bit too thick in my opinion."
The knight nodded.
"Ah. I see. I'll make sure to be less obvious next time."
The boy snorted, then turned to his companion.
"But I am serious. About learning how to dance. If not from you, then from someone else."
Hate made a disappointed noise from behind its helm.
"You do realize, my lord, that it was a trap," the knight's tone had turned distasteful. The metallic tinge that accompanied its voice made it sound like it was sneering, "No sane man would have bought that woman's excuse."
"Oh, I know," Harry said mildly and swept a hand through his hair, "And it was a well done trap at that. Backed me into a corner, in a way," the boy chuckled to himself, "To be honest, I did not expect it. Something from Dumbledore, maybe, but McGonagall and my mother? Now that is an unlikely pair. If this was war, I would applaud them for surprising me."
"And you would willingly walk into this trap? You would willingly allow them to spring their ambush? Do not tell me, my lord, that you really intend to suffer the presence of the one that betrayed you just to learn… dancing?"
The boy turned towards the knight.
"I don't have much of a choice, do I?"
Hate's eyes gleamed dangerously.
"You could choose not to learn."
"I am a champion," Harry retorted, "It is expected of me to participate in the Yule Ball. I just don't want to embarrass myself."
"Embarrass yourself," the knight growled, "or embarrass her?"
The boy gave his companion a sour look.
"Embarrass myself," he said firmly.
Hate laughed. The boy frowned.
"I don't see anything amusing about this."
"Hypocrisy is always amusing," the knight smiled, "More so when it comes from you, my lord."
"Oh?" Harry crossed his arms over his chest, "And how is this hypocrisy?"
"Simple, my lord. You have never cared about frivolities such as dancing before. You still don't. This absurdity of learning to dance is nothing more than an attempt to impress her. You just don't want to look bad in front of her. You speak of wanting to learn where your true intent lies elsewhere. Therein lies the hypocrisy."
The boy scoffed.
"You speak as though if I committed some terrible crime."
"There is no crime in being human, my lord," Hate bowed its head, "Just weakness."
"Now that is hypocrisy," Harry smiled, "You, warning me at first about being a monster. Now, telling me the folly of becoming human."
The knight flexed its heavy gauntlets. There were no bones within the armor, but still the armored digits cracked most satisfyingly.
"The difference, my lord, is that I do not try to hide it, while you would pretend as though there was no hypocrisy at all."
The boy chuckled.
"Are you going to tell me that is a human trait as well?"
"Human," the warrior confirmed, "and foolish."
"Well," the knight's master stared up into the night sky, "You know what they say about affection. It makes fools out of all of us."
"And here lies the reason of my concern," the plated fingers curled to form a fist, which the warrior used to clasp against his chest, "You have mastered your hate. Forged it to become something more than just emotion. You have made me, my lord, and shaped me to become your knight. I will go where you go, fight where you fight, and die where you die. But can you say the same for love? Or anger? Or even fear? They will seek to control you, my lord, and they will fight you every inch for dominance. Whereas I offer only counsel, they offer slavery, bondage, even debasement. Do not forget, my lord. You are strong because you do not fear. You are cunning because you do not rage. You are ruthless because you do not love. Just as I have warned you before on being too hateful, too brutal, too ruthless, now I warn you on ridding of these things, for without them, you are nothing more than the weaklings you seek to protect."
"I understand," the boy said softly, "But still. I want to try. Even if it is doomed to fail, I want to try," he grimaced at his own words, "Merlin, I sound weak."
The knight chuckled.
"As long as you understand, my lord, then I will say nothing more. Remember that no matter what path you choose to take, I will always walk it alongside you."
The boy nodded faintly. Both he and the knight remained silent for a while, staring off into the night.
"So," Harry finally said and turned towards his companion, "About that dancing."
The warrior's eyes shone with amusement.
"Again, my lord, I do not know how to dance. But perhaps there is another way."
A flicker of interest developed on the boy's face. He smiled.
"Well," Hate said matter-of-factly, "You could always ask the dragon."
As soon as the words were uttered, a faint, caterwauling yowl erupted from the distance. The boy's smile disappeared quite quickly.
The whoosh of beating wings was heard as the Hungarian Horntail soared towards its target. The dragon's immense form circled the lake twice before landing, disturbing the tranquility that had settled with its eager calls. The wet loam that surrounded the lake softened its descent, but did nothing to dampen the sound of the beast's heavy bulk colliding with the ground.
The dragon shook its body to clear the splotches of mud that had showered it from its abrupt landing, and began crawling towards the two lone figures by the lakeside.
"Damn," the boy said again.
If there was one thing that Guera Steeljaw could never understand about humans, it was their desire for opulence. Not the wealth part, of course. Becoming wealthy was something all beings should aspire to in the opinion of goblins. It was the lavishness that set Guera on edge. The extravagance. The foolish need to possess things that should never have been worth anything in the first place.
Sitting here now, in the guest room of the mansion of his client, Guera was reminded of this fact ten times over. The walls were adorned with pieces of art worth small fortunes alone. Sprawling landscapes painted on magical canvases that made the streams within them flow, the forests within them sway, the clouds within them move on skies so blue that they couldn't possibly be real. Portraits too. Of pureblooded ancestors centuries old, whose proud faces were set in frames of solid gold. A few of the faces turned their noses up at him. Guera sneered back, showing his sharp canines, and delighted in the way the portraits drew back in disgust. Massive statues, erect on bases of sparkling rubies and winking sapphires, caught the goblin's eyes next. They stood four to each wall, figures of faultless marble, positioned in heavy, brooding poses. Each bore the heraldic emblem of his client's family over their sculpted chests, complete with twisting, winding laurels that made the goblin's mind spin. Guera estimated that each statue was at least equal to the contents of an average wizard's entire banking vault plus his life's wages.
The wizened wardmaster slid a gnarled finger over the steel rings that dangled from his jowl, and scowled at the extravagance around him. He could see no point to it, nor could the rest of his kind. To Guera, the beautiful landscapes were made ugly by the exorbitant paper it was painted on, the portraits marred because the gold that made up their frames was now useless as currency, and the statues forever obnoxious because marble and gemstones should never be used in any other form besides bartering.
The door to the guestroom slammed open, and in strode Augustin Montague, his heavy features set in an unmistakable scowl. A second later, another man stalked in, wooden cane tapping lightly against the floor as he walked leisurely behind his colleague. Steeljaw recognized him almost instantly, and dipped his head slightly in grudging respect. The man smiled, and stood to the side as Montague slid behind an imposing desk.
"You let her go," the accusation came immediately after the pureblood had settled in his seat, "You let her go."
Steeljaw clicked his teeth together disapprovingly. Humans. Such a crude species. What did they hope to gain by repeating their words over and over again? Not economical that way. Wasted seconds meant wasted money.
"I heard you the first time," Guera replied with a grin.
"Do you have any idea," Montague either ignored the mocking ring in the goblin's tone, or was too angry to notice it, "how much time it took to gather ze resources for zis plan to succeed? How much funds were wasted? People had to be bribed. Your own kind, even. Ze goblin zat let us loan its emblem. Its supervisor, who had be given extra so it could turn a blind eye. Galleons zat could have been used elsewhere were wasted! Wasted! And for what? So you could abandon ze plan halfway through?" the pureblood pounded a heavy fist into the table. The resulting tremor knocked over an open container of ink and spilled its contents all over the desk. Montague's companion eyed the mess with distaste, "We were almost zere! Ze hardest part of ze plan had already succeeded! Ze dragon was loose! All you had to do was capture ze girl while her bodyguard was occupied and bring her to us! Do not try to worm your way out of zis, mercenary! I do not want to hear your pitiful excuses! You let her go," the last sentence escaped Montague's lips in a low, threatening growl.
Guera spread his arms wide in a disarming gesture.
"Guilty as charged."
Montague sprang halfway up from his seat. A calming hand placed on his shoulder forced him back down. The man with silver hair smiled silkily.
"Relax, my friend. Let us hear Master Steeljaw's explanation before we begin laying the blame."
"Zere is no explanation!" Montague thundered, "It," he pointed an accusing finger at the goblin, "let her go! It wasted our time, our money, and our chance of reigning in Sebastian! It broke ze contract we agreed on! It lied to us!"
"If we are speaking of lies," Guera remarked dryly, "then perhaps we should mention the biggest lie of all? The one the two of you made that nearly cost me my life."
Montague glared in the wardmaster's direction. His friend's smile grew.
"We have no idea what you are talking about, Master Steeljaw."
"Oh I think you do," the goblin sneered, "When I took the contract, I asked for details. Specifically, who was guarding the girl. The two of you were curiously hesitant about the subject and merely said that she would be well-protected. That set off alarm bells in my head, but I will admit that my greed overtook me, and I accepted the job," Guera grinned nastily at both purebloods, "You didn't mention that the one who was doing the protecting was Templar."
"Zat shouldn't have mattered!" Montague snarled, "He is only one man!" the Frenchman spat the words out as though they were something foul, "One boy, even! He is nothing!"
Steeljaw shook his head at this willful ignorance. Another facet of human behavior that he would never come to understand.
"There are two simple tenets for a bounty hunter to live by if he wants to survive in the mercenary world," the goblin spoke deliberately slow, as if talking to a small child. That provoked an angry growl from Montague, which Guera enjoyed enormously, "One, don't go near the Puppetmistress. She's a cruel creature, that one. Very frisky, too. Stray too near and she just might find reason to add you to her collection. The second is don't mess with Templar's job. If you're lucky to be on the same side of him, then you just sit back and relax while he annihilates the opposition. If you're on the opposing side of him, well, you had better run, because there's nothing else in this world that's going to save you from him," Montague looked utterly disinterested while Steeljaw ploughed on. His silver-haired friend, on the other hand, was the direct opposite. The man's eyes gleamed as he drank in Guera's words, "That's what I did by the way. As soon as I saw it was him and his knight that came to save the girl, I destroyed the traces that linked the wards to me, and made my escape."
"You didn't even try to fight!" Montague exploded, "You ran as soon as you saw him! What kind of bounty hunter are you?"
"The kind that is smart enough to stay alive," the goblin said with a leer, "I may love gold, but I am not stupid. Foolish, maybe, in taking the contract, but not stupid enough to stay so that Templar can kill me. And he would have killed me. Butchered me, more like. And if he didn't do the work, then his knight would have. Ending up spitted on that thing's blade is far from what I want in my immediate future.," Steeljaw traced the metal rings that adorned his chin again, though this time it was done more thoughtfully, "Make no mistake, gentlemen. I am no coward, but I know when a fight is futile. And getting in Templar's way is exactly that. A fight you've already lost," Guera shrugged, "Facing him and his knight makes cowards out of us all."
"You over exaggerate," Montage sniffed imperiously, "If he is zat skilled, his name would have come up. We would have known him beforehand. He is nothing but a boy whose luck will eventually run out."
Guera mentally scoffed at the thought.
"You keep on believing that," he said airily, "I'm sure you'll be in a rude awakening sometime in the future."
Montague was about to argue further when his friend tightened his grip on his shoulder. The Frenchman swallowed down whatever he wanted to say and resorted back to glaring at the goblin.
"What I want to know," the silver-haired man said softly, "is how? How did he become this good? How did he obtain his skill? How did he get all this… power?"
"You ask the question everybody wants to know," Steeljaw grinned, "Some have tried to ask nicely. Templar has never told. Some have tried to take the information by force. Templar sent them to their graves prematurely. No one is certain how he wields his magic, but the consensus among us is that it has something to do with the knight. Whenever it appears by Templar's side, he fights harder, lasts longer, and becomes more ruthless in his casting. Maybe it's some sort of magical battery providing Templar with energy. Maybe it's an arcane creature that Templar chained into a suit of armor. We don't know. What we do know, is that together, the two are incredibly dangerous, and it would be wise to keep a wide berth from both."
"If he is zis good," Montague grumbled, "zen his reputation would have preceded him. We would have known about him beforehand," the pureblood repeated.
"We mercenaries like to keep our little world a secret," Guera shrugged, "Keep it far from prying eyes as possible. It helps that many of your governments wish to keep it a secret as well. After all," the goblin smiled, "word can't get out that the most dangerous tasks are taken care of by us and not a nation's auror force. What would the public think when their tax galleons are going to bloated organizations who have to rely on mercenaries to get the job done?"
"Sebastian Delacour must have been desperate indeed to open up such a world to save his daughter," Montague's friend suggested coyly, "It means that our methods are finally getting to him."
"But it worked, didn't it?" Steeljaw bared his teeth at the two men, "He has hired the best in the business, and whereas Templar's reputation doesn't precede him in your world, it certainly does in ours. I daresay you'll find it very hard to find mercenaries willing to take your contract from now on. And those who do are the ones so desperate for money that they're willing to risk their own lives for a galleon. Templar will cut through them like a hot knife through butter."
Montague's friend raised an elegant eyebrow.
"You seem to hold this Templar in very high esteem."
"Not only me," the goblin grinned, "But the rest of my kind as well. He is honored in Gringotts."
"Gringotts?" the man said with interest, "Gringotts knows of him as well?"
"He has undertaken several contracts for Gringotts of significant importance and succeeded."
The man caressed the top of his cane thoughtfully.
"What possible need does Gringotts have for mercenaries? Their vaults are all underground, and the entrances to all their banks are heavily guarded."
"Gringotts do not require mercenaries for protection," Steeljaw replied with a nod, "They need them for debt collecting."
Montague let out a mocking laugh.
"So ze boy is an over glorified tax collector, is he?" the pureblood guffawed, "If you are trying to intimidate us with tall tales about him, it isn't working. I will not be frightened by someone who is chained to a bank."
The goblin rolled his eyes.
"Take a lesson from your friend, Montague," Guera sneered, "Stay silent when you know nothing of the matter at hand. Your arrogance does you no favors."
Montague's friend cut in before the Frenchman could explode again.
"Please, Augustin," he said mildly, "Let Master Steeljaw continue his story. We can decide if it is a fabrication at a later date."
Guera felt a faint stab of annoyance at the man's words, but pushed it aside. Whereas Montague was all bluster and swagger, his comrade was of a more cunning type. That suited the goblin just fine. He could play both games if they wished.
"The goblins who work for Gringotts cannot harm humans themselves, as the laws signed after the Goblin Wars dictate. That means there is next to nothing they can do to threaten debtors and the likes. As a rogue goblin outside of Gringott's jurisdiction, such laws do not apply to me," Steeljaw shrugged, "But those who are not so lucky as me are often flummoxed by humans unwilling to pay their loans. As a result, they have to resort to hiring mercenaries to do the threatening for them."
"And Templar has done this sort of work before?"
Guera smiled at the question.
"Yes, but as always with Templar, his case is a bit different. He doesn't take the contracts for ordinary debtors, you see. The people who have fallen on hard times and can't pay. These aren't the ones he's interested in. What he looks for are the ones who are already rich, but have gotten wealthy through much more sinister means," the goblin grinned at the blank gazes he was being given, "It is amazing how much suffering humans are willing to inflict upon their own kind, all just for a little coin. In that, you have us goblins beat. We are all more than ready to turn a profit, but enslaving your own kind and selling them overseas? Or just selling their body parts and harvested organs? That sort of cruelty is something we goblins could never dream of. I would say Templar agrees. Every one of the contracts he's taken with Gringotts have been aimed at these parties, which is good for Gringotts and bad for them. Good for Gringotts because they only have to hire one man to return a significant portion of their investment. Bad for them because you don't have to be returned alive for the debts to be lifted from your vault. All that is required is some of your blood. Or when Templar's done with you, a whole lot of it," Guera sighed in ecstasy as bloody memories filled his mind. When he relapsed back into reality, he noticed that both men were staring uneasily at him, "We have a name for him in our tongue. The Dal Torbak. He Who Slays Monsters."
The man with silver hair stared at Montague warningly before smiling at the goblin.
"There are no monsters here, Master Steeljaw."
"Now that is up to interpretation, isn't it?" the goblin let out a dry chuckle, "On one hand we have a man who is willing to do anything for power, which includes kidnapping his enemy's daughter and setting loose a dragon on an innocent crowd. On the other we have a man who is willing to sacrifice anything for his lackey to obtain said power, which includes allowing his own son to sit in the very stands where the dragon was set loose. Not monsters, perhaps, but close. Oh so very close."
"My son was perfectly safe," the man replied evenly, "The first thing Dumbledore would have done when he saw the wards collapse would be to protect the children. The old fool is loathsomely predictable."
"Perhaps. But see, that's the thing. It's not me you're going to have to convince. It's Templar."
"Is that so?" the man's face didn't waver a bit at the hidden threat, "And pray tell, Master Steeljaw, if we are monsters in his eyes, then what exactly are you? After all, it was you that ultimately set the dragon loose, and you that endangered the life of the girl. We merely provided the means to. If Templar would seek to eliminate us, it would be you that he first targets."
Steeljaw's eyes shone with newfound respect. If the man was any more cunning, he would have made a worthy goblin. Too bad Guera already had a retort in mind, and a well-planned one at that.
"It is strange, how the bounty hunting business work," the goblin replied without losing pace, "at least to an outsider. The relationships between us mercenaries, particularly. One day you may be fighting for your life alongside a man, and the next fighting for your life against him. Lasting friendships are rare. Money has a tendency to prevent that from happening. But," the goblin held out a wagging finger, "whereas our field inhibits friendships from forming, it does create a whole lot of respect. For the ones fighting next to you and for the ones fighting against you. That respect is what keeps a lot of us in line. You don't want to try and murder your contract's opposition when you know he can kill you without blinking an eye. That same respect is also what makes us want to be forgiven towards those we have wronged. You don't want to get on the bad side of the same person who can kill you without blinking an eye. In Templar's case, I respect him, and he respects me. Most likely not as much as I respect him, but he is still appreciative of my warding talents. I have wronged him, this much is true. As a result, I will have to do something for him when he asks of it, so the respect between us is maintained. Favors, if you will."
"Oh?" Montague's friend stroked an elegant hand across his chin, "And what kind of favor will you give to him?"
"Why, when he comes looking for revenge, I'll just show him how to get in," the goblin cackled at the dawning look that was slowly seeping onto Montague's features, "You really didn't think I would sit through your insufferable blather and answer your inane questions for no reason, did you? During all this time, while you ranted and yammered, I was memorizing the keystones to all the wards over your delightful home. The protective enchantments. The Notice-Me-Not charms. Even the secret stash of dark artifacts you've hidden with arcane runes," the Frenchman's face went pale with anger and shock, "When Templar comes for me, all I have to do is tell him how to pay you a little visit. I'm sure I'll be forgiven, then."
"Why you little-" Montague reached for the wand hidden in his desk drawer, but the goblin had already snapped his fingers. There was a blinding flash as various transportation wards designed to move objects under duress activated simultaneously. Both men flung their arms in front of their faces to avoid being blinded. By the time the flash subsided, Guera was long gone.
All that remained were the echoes of his mocking laughter.
Augustin Montague rubbed at his eyes angrily to bring back his sight, his wand temporarily forgotten. He blinked blearily in his comrade's direction when his vision returned slightly.
"What do you make of all zis, Lucius?"
Lucius Malfoy dispelled the small Shielding Charm he had casted just in time to avoid the worst effects produced by the goblin's disappearance. He eyed the empty chair where Steeljaw had sat just seconds before with mild distaste.
"I think, my friend, that you could have been a tad more subtle."
Montague snorted and leaned back in his chair, still rubbing at his eyes.
"I will not be talked down to by a goblin. Vile creatures zey are. Only good for keeping our vaults safe and tidy."
Lucius's lips curled slightly at this blatant insult.
"Hmmm," was all he said.
"Don't just stand zere," the Frenchman growled after a minute of silence, "Zink up of something else. Ze plan with ze dragon was yours, after all, and it failed spectacularly."
Malfoy raised an elegant eyebrow.
"As opposed to yours, my dear friend? I had thought I've seen the worst excuses of wizarding society hanging about in Knockturn Alley, but the thugs you allowed the Russian to hire surprised even me. I've never seen so much dirt and stupidity crammed into one room in my entire life."
"It would have worked," Montague said sulkily, "I just needed to hire more men."
"And allow the boy a higher body count?" Lucius replied airily, "You sent two dozen to go after the girl. None of them have shown themselves since, except for that Japanese woman, and from what my son tells me, she's serving Templar," the man smiled when Montague glowered at him, "Good job, Augustin. I daresay you've given the boy another ally."
"Enough of zis, Lucius," the Frenchman grunted, clearly having lost the argument, "Let's not waste time. We need to find another way to bring the girl to me," the pureblood looked up hopefully towards his companion, "What would you do if you were in my shoes?"
"Well," Malfoy said thoughtfully, "the first thing I would do is obtain some new wards. The best kind. Set them up all over my mansion and double the security runes. At the very least."
Montague gave him an incredulous look.
"You really believe what zat goblin said? It was clearly bluffing. Zere is no way the boy can be zat powerful. And even if he is, ze wards at Montague Mansion have held for centuries. He won't get in, with or without ze goblin's help."
"The goblin did have a point, you know. Your arrogance really does you no good, my friend."
"It is not arrogance," the Frenchman snarled, "It is pride," he grimaced, "I won't speak of zis anymore. I will not change my wards over ze words of a goblin, and zat is ze last I will say about ze matter."
"As you wish," Lucius bowed his head slightly, "I was merely suggesting a course of action."
"Zen suggest a course of action zat involves us capturing ze girl!"
Malfoy tapped the top of his cane with a thoughtful finger. His smile grew ever-so-slightly.
"Perhaps our Italian friends can be of help."