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Chapter Thirty-Nine—Ablaze

"Harry. We need you in the drawing room."

Harry shut his book and sat up with a snap. He could feel Greg tensing up behind him. Greg had let Harry's friends look after him, including guarding his rooms, for a few days, but he had become so unhappy that Harry had to let Greg spend time with him.

But it was Hermione who came through the door into the library, and she didn't look panicked. Not quite yet, Harry thought critically, studying her. She did walk with her chin up and her hand closed around her wand as though she might need to curse someone. Harry decided that only one thing would have made her look like that.

"Who came through the fireplace?"

Hermione stared at him, but recovered herself. "You heard the Floo chime, of course."

Harry hadn't heard any such thing, and she ought to have known that, since he was in the library, practically miles away from the Floo that must have chimed. But it showed how shaken she was, and scolding her would make the matter worse, so he nodded and waited, while Hermione shook her fist at nothing.

"The Aurors," she said. "I thought they were just here to move Zabini somewhere else, but they said that the Ministry…" Her voice trailed off.

If she couldn't bring herself to say it, then Harry would have to. "They want the trials to begin as soon as possible," he said. Greg gave a grunt behind him, but Harry couldn't interpret it, and the bond was quiet in the back of his head, the way it was more often now since Harry had mastered it. Well, and since he had decided that he didn't want to spy on the emotions of his vassals. "All right. We'll go."

"My lord."

Greg had stepped in front of him and knelt down. Harry stared at him. Greg was crossing his arms in front of him, the right one, with the shield mark of the bond, on top. It was a posture that Harry had never seen someone adopt before, and although he'd been reading more about the relationships between Lords and vassals so that he would have some idea of what he could demand when they went in front of the Wizengamot, he didn't recognize it from the books, either.

"What does this mean?" he asked, catching Greg's eyes and waiting for some kind of explanation.

"It means I'm begging a boon." Greg stared up at him with eyes so intent that Harry swallowed. But, well, he had agreed that he would accept Greg into the bond and keep him with him no matter what, so that meant he had to listen and even agree when Greg talked like this.

"All right," he said. "What kind of boon do you want?" It was hard to think of it, really. Greg had wanted to have a Lord who would order him around, and he had that, with Harry. What else was there?

"That you keep me with you," Greg said. He seemed to think that was enough, but maybe he read Harry's expression and saw it wasn't, so he added, "All the time."

"The Aurors won't let you stay together," Hermione interjected, before Harry could say something. "They'll put you in separate holding cells. They already think that you spend too much time together. Well, probably," she added, when Harry glanced at her curiously, wondering how she knew what Aurors thought.

"They'll have to," said Greg, with the secure, simple way he had. Sometimes Harry envied him, Slytherin or not, bully or no. He seemed to know everything so well, and once he had made a decision, he had stuck to it, unlike Harry, who kept changing his mind because he learned new things about the bond and the Slytherins involved with it.

Then Greg's eyes came to his, and Harry blinked. There was something firm under the surface there, something more than the desperate clinging he could say that Greg had done to him in the past.

"Is this really important?" he asked. There were other things he wanted to ask, but they might be beyond Greg's comprehension—not even because of his intelligence level, but because Harry didn't have the words for them and Greg had grown up hearing about Lord bonds and Harry hadn't.

"It is." Greg didn't waver. He hadn't even wavered since he crouched down, Harry thought. Well, maybe being so big gave him some extra support in the knees and ankles or something. "I need you to stay with me."

Harry glanced helplessly at Hermione. She shook her head. She didn't know what this meant, either, then, although Harry knew she had been reading day and night, including some of the time he had been taking naps or meditating.

"All right," Harry said, and turned back to Greg. "I promise that you can stay with me all the time, no matter what."

Nothing happened, including Greg rising to his feet. Instead, he looked up at Harry with eyes that shone like Knuts. "You have to touch your bond mark to mine. That's the way the Lord accepts the begging for a boon and promises to pay it back." There was a singsong note to his voice that Harry thought probably came from the way his mother had told the story or the ritual to him.

Harry took a deep breath and nodded, and extended his right arm downwards. This was something he couldn't remember ever seeing Voldemort do with his Death Eaters, and it seemed weirdly intimate.

But then, Voldemort isn't a good role model for anybody.

Their bond marks brushed, and Harry immediately felt as though he was in the center of a lightning storm. All the hair on his body stood on end at once, and his teeth chattered with a strange mixture of fear and exhilaration. He tossed his head back and stared around. No, there was no lightning in the air. Nothing but the staring of Hermione's eyes, and Ron's, where he had come to the door behind her.

And then Snape, striding in so fast that he seemed to body-block Hermione and Ron out of the way instead of shove them. "What did you do, you foolish child?" he hissed at Harry. "The bond is ringing."

"Don't call my lord a foolish child."

Harry suddenly couldn't see Snape anymore. That was because Greg had stood up between them, and he was facing Snape, putting his broad back between Harry and Snape as if he thought another bondmate might be a danger. Harry touched Greg tentatively on the shoulder. It was like trying to shove a hill out of the way.

"I don't think Severus wants to hurt me," Harry said, remembering to use Snape's first name just in time. "And we really need to get down and to the fireplace if the Aurors are coming to take us to the trials."

Snape was looking at him, Harry just knew it, even with Greg between them. "You are nervous about the trials, when you have spent so much time trying to prepare us for them?"

"I think the trials need to begin," Harry said, stressing the word as much as he could when he couldn't see Snape's face and didn't know how this was affecting him. He supposed he could have tried to feel through the bond, but he had already taken too much from Snape. And anyway, Snape's emotions had been dimmed through the bond lately, as though he had retreated even further. "So we'll go down and they'll begin." He shoved a little at Greg's shoulder. "I appreciate what you're trying to do for me, but we need to go."

Greg turned and looked at him. "No one has the right to insult my lord," he said simply.

Harry could see Snape now, and caught him rolling his eyes. He was glad that Greg didn't see that to react to. "Okay," he said. "I'll remember that. As long as you remember that not everyone is going to know about me or treat me the same way you do when we go to the Ministry."

Greg considered that closely enough that Harry wanted to shake him. Not that it would do any good if he did. He remembered that as he had remembered that it would do no good trying to shove Greg when he was standing like a bulwark in front of him, and he caught his breath and waited.

"Okay," Greg finally said, and went in front of Harry, down the stairs. Harry shrugged at his friends and followed. He didn't know the exact consequences of the promise Greg had extracted from him, but so far, it didn't seem to be doing any harm.

"What did you do?" Snape muttered between his teeth as Harry passed him.

"Promised him that I would let him stay with me at all times," Harry said, and he knew the next question before Snape could ask him. "A promise that I sealed by touching my bond mark to his."

Snape got the most peculiar expression on his face. Harry shook his head and kept walking down the stairs. He knew that expression from the time that Snape had refused to explain Occlumency to him beyond barked instructions about clearing his mind. He was going to leave it alone now.

Greg was calm and happy, now. He thought the only thing that would make him happier was seeing his Mum, but he knew she couldn't be here, and that was all right.

His Lord was here.

Greg was content to just walk in front of his Lord all the way to the drawing room where the Aurors lined the corridors. A lot of them were tall, but none of them were as big as Greg. Greg looked them over. He saw some he could defeat, and some he could take wands from. He found them watching him. They thought he was dangerous.

They were right. That didn't mean they would be able to stop him, if they tried to hurt Lord Potter and he had to hurt them.

They came to a halt in front of the Auror woman Greg had seen once before. Auror Stone. She looked at Lord Potter and shook her head. "You do realize that you'll have to bring all your vassals along with you, right?" she asked.

"If you mean Blaise Zabini," said Lord Potter, his voice filled with that confidence Greg admired so much, because it was better than Draco's confidence, "then he's no longer my vassal. I've released him from the bond."

The Auror woman stared at his Lord. Greg didn't move, because there were big Aurors on either side of her. But if she took out her wand, then he would take it away from her. There were ways to do that.

"I did inform you of that," Lord Potter added, and he sounded a bit sorry.

Greg could understand, when he thought about it. Blaise had been part of the bond. Now he wasn't. His Lord would feel that was something to regret. Greg thought Blaise should go if he wanted. No one should stay near his Lord who didn't respect him.

"So you did," said the Auror woman, and maybe she had relaxed a little. She nodded to Lord Potter. "But you will come with us now."

"So the trials can begin," said Lord Potter, and held his hands out in front of him. Greg blinked in confusion. Was he going to swear to the Auror woman? It was his choice, but Greg didn't see why he had to.

The Auror woman conjured chains that bound Lord Potter's wrists, though. Greg took a quick step forwards.

"No, Greg," said Lord Potter, and he didn't sound surprised, only weary. Greg hesitated. He didn't want to tire his Lord out. "This is something we agreed to. The Ministry has to hold us prisoner in order to make its point." For a second, he looked the Auror woman in the face, and she bobbed her head in a little pecking motion.

"But they're going to hurt you," said Greg. He thought of a worrying idea. What if Lord Potter didn't care if people hurt him? That would explain some things, and it would hurt Greg.

"I care if people hurt my vassals," said Lord Potter, and he seemed to be talking to Greg down the bond, because no one else was moving or gaping or rolling their eyes, the way they did a lot of times when people talked to Greg. "I would fight back if they tried to kill me. But they're not going to hurt me physically. I promise."

Greg looked warily at the Auror woman. He didn't think he could trust her. But he didn't trust many people. That was another thing his mum had taught him. He wasn't to trust all the time. He was to hold back and hang back and see who could command and who would lie to him.

She would be happy that he had found a Lord so worthy, Greg thought, but she would also say that he couldn't be forward. He nodded and stepped back. "If you say so," he said.

Lord Potter gave him a faint smile, as if he liked Greg, and shook his head. Then he turned back to the fireplaces. The others were entering the room. Professor Snape and Pansy and Draco and Mr. Malfoy and Mrs. Malfoy.

And Blaise. He came in last, and stood by the doorway as if he thought he could run out again and no one would come after him. His hand was clenching the doorframe. Greg studied him, but Blaise wasn't dangerous without a wand.

"You, too, Mr. Zabini," said the Auror woman, and reached out her hand.

Blaise came to her, but he was frowning. "I'm not one of them," he said, nodding at the rest of them.

Lord Potter didn't look at him, but Greg saw Lord Potter's shoulders tighten. That was how Greg figured out what Blaise meant. Otherwise, Blaise could be talking about just anything, and Greg wouldn't know. Blaise was mysterious like that.

"You should be honored to be a vassal," Greg told Blaise. He didn't open his mouth much, because that would attract the attention of the Aurors, and he didn't really want their attention. He wanted to walk out of here under his own power, and being loud about it would make the Aurors angry.

Blaise flashed him a flat look and turned back to the front with his nose stuck in the air. Greg watched him. He didn't have a wand, and there were two people between him and Lord Potter.

That probably meant he couldn't attack Lord Potter. Still, Greg was glad that he had begged that boon. Lord Potter really needed protection, and Greg was the one who should stay with him.

They went through the fireplace. The last thing Greg saw was Professor Snape's eyes. They were locked on Lord Potter's back, and there was anger in his face, tight lines that Greg didn't really understand.

Greg tensed his shoulders. Well, Professor Snape could look like that all he wanted, but if he tried to attack Lord Potter, then he would learn about the boon. Greg was afraid of Professor Snape, but he would fight him to protect his Lord.

Harry came out into a deserted area of the Ministry. He took a quick look around and decided it was part of the Auror Department. There were empty desks and chairs all around them, and cubicles that still had some paperwork with ink that looked wet.

"You decided it was best if you didn't march us through the Atrium?" he asked Stone, who had taken charge of him personally. She was the only reason he hadn't stumbled when he came through the Floo, really.

Stone glanced at him. "The Ministry is trying to get back to a normal state of operations, Mr. Potter. That means that marching you through the middle of the Atrium would cause a disruption to ordinary working life. And that is something we do not need." Her hand tightened on his arm for a second.

Harry just nodded in resignation. It seemed that Stone had found some Aurors she could trust, if the numbers that came with her were any indication, but apparently Harry was too dangerous to appear in front of other people.

They'll see me anyway, when I'm in front of the Wizengamot and they have to ask me questions. Lots of them will come and watch that.

But Harry didn't say the words, and let Stone draw him along. They passed quickly through the Auror Department and to a set of lifts that Harry had never seen before. When he glanced at Stone, her shoulders rose and fell. "These are the lifts that we use for transporting prisoners to the courtrooms, most of the time."

Harry just nodded, and relaxed only when they were all in the lifts and the doors had closed behind them. In the lift with him were Stone, two of her Aurors, Greg, and Snape. The bond pulsed on his arm, and he could feel the others on the lift beside this one.

All except Blaise.

He would have to get over that loss sooner or later, and to distract his mind from it, Harry turned his mind away to Snape. Something was different with him, too, but Harry couldn't figure it out. He certainly looked the same from the outside. His arms were folded, and he ignored the two Aurors with their wands held on him as though they were Potions ingredients he had no need of yet. He was staring at the side of the lift with fathomless dark eyes.

He turned his head and abruptly captured Harry's gaze, and his smirk broke out. "Ask what you have to ask, Mr. Potter."

Greg twitched, probably because Snape hadn't given Harry a title. Harry hoped that boon wouldn't be too much of a problem. "Why does your presence in the bond feel different?" Harry asked, realizing the difference as he gave words to it. "It feels light and drifting and—like you suddenly turned to dandelion fluff or something."

Snape's face snapped taut, and he shook his head. "That is an unflattering comparison," he said.

Which meant it was an insult. Ignoring the curious gazes of Stone and her two companions, Harry cocked his head at Snape. He was the one who had asked Harry to talk about his presence in the bond, and if he wanted to keep it a secret, he should have been silent. "I know. But that's what it feels like. I can still feel Draco and Greg and Pansy normally. But you've withdrawn from me."

"What about Mr. Zabini?" From the sound of his voice, Snape was no more than mildly interested in the comparison, but Harry could feel a warning tingle from the shield mark on his arm. Greg was looking intently back and forth between them, as if trying to figure out whether Harry would need any protection from words.

"You know that Blaise isn't a part of the bond anymore," Harry said. None of the Aurors started, which meant everyone in the lift knew about that. Well, Harry had warned them. Perhaps they hadn't removed Blaise just because they had known that the trials were due to start soon. "I need to figure out what happened to you. You're not gone, the way he is. You're there, but—I feel like I can't defend you as well."

Snape sneered at him. "Sometimes I forget that this intrusion into my thoughts and corruption of my mind began with an attempt to defend me."

Harry opened his mouth to retort, but the lift jerked to a stop, and the doors softly jangled open.

Auror Stone gave Harry a warning glance. Harry clamped his mouth shut again and shot Snape a brooding look. Snape gave him the most smug look that Harry had seen from him yet, and strode off the lift, following the Aurors.

Harry followed him, staring at his back. Greg was at his shoulder, a reassuring source of strength—even though he hated to think that, because he was the one who was technically in control of the bond. He should be the one who was providing Greg with comfort and reassurance, not demanding them from him.

"Lord Potter?"

Harry turned his head at the unexpected address. He had thought it was only Greg who called him that. And Greg was crowding up to his shoulder, as if jealous that someone else would want to use the title.

It was even more of a surprise that it was Rita Skeeter. The Aurors were glaring at her, but she ignored them serenely, with what Harry thought was the ease of long practice. She held up her Quick-Quotes Quill, in fact, and gave him a winsome little smile.

"Do you have a moment to talk to a faithful reporter?" she asked.

Harry choked back his protest, and inclined his head. "If my guards here will permit me," he said, and turned to them with a small smile, too.

Auror Stone made no objection, but did give him a stern look. Harry understood that. He had taken advantage of Skeeter's desire to report on him once before, when he was locked up in the holding cells. This time, the situation was a lot more delicate, and he could upset someone in the Wizengamot. That wouldn't be a good idea right before the trials.

But Harry still owed Skeeter something for her help last time, and he nodded and said, "What did you want to ask me?"

Skeeter simpered and bent closer to him. Harry saw her lips moving, and thought he caught the edge of a meaningless question about his friends and the war.

But under the words, moving through them somehow, he heard a hissed warning. "The Wizengamot held a vote already, prefatory to the trial. Two-thirds of them don't believe in your innocence."

Harry knew he stiffened, but he hoped that would seem to happen because of the question Skeeter was asking on top of her warning, using a spell that Harry didn't know, but meant to learn. He managed to pull his head back and just nod. "I think the answer is more complicated than I can explain right now, when the Wizengamot is waiting for me," he said. "Can I speak to you after the first session and see what happens?"

Skeeter looked straight at him, less like a darting lizard than Harry had ever seen her. Harry nodded again, and this time, Skeeter bowed to him and pulled away.

Harry wondered for a second why she was being so helpful, then felt like hitting himself. Of course. She was waiting for the drama that would come out of this, and it was better drama if he walked into the courtroom prepared than if he didn't know anything about it. He would fight harder, and give Skeeter more to write about.

Besides, she might want him to come out free so that he could pay his debt to her.

Harry winked at her with a confidence he didn't feel, and stepped forwards. The Aurors scrambled a bit, then fell in around him. Snape strode ahead, distant, and Greg was a comforting presence at his shoulder. Draco and Pansy were beyond them, in their own ring of Aurors, but their presences felt normal.

He couldn't sense Blaise, of course, but he couldn't sense Ron and Hermione either. Seeing them there would have to be enough.

The doors opened, and they stepped into the courtroom.