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Oblivion by Slide

Format: Novel
Chapters: 58
Word Count: 357,660
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Contains profanity, Strong violence, Scenes of a sexual nature, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Drama, Romance, Action/Adventure
Characters: Albus, Rose, Scorpius, OC
Pairings: Rose/Scorpius, OC/OC, Other Pairing

First Published: 01/02/2015
Last Chapter: 12/19/2015
Last Updated: 12/19/2015

Summary:




'Long is the way, and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.' - John Milton, Paradise Lost

It's been two years; two years of grief, of pain, of hardship, and Rose thought it was all, finally, over. But the end is only just beginning.

Part 3 of the Stygian Trilogy, and sequel to 'Ignite' and 'Starfall'. Dobby 2017 winner for Best Description, runner-up for Best Dark Fic and Best AU

(Banner by Slide)


Chapter 1: Through All This Tract of Years
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Through All This Tract of Years


The wolves had followed him for an hour now. Paved Muggle roads turned to well-trodden paths with signs he couldn’t understand, and when he stepped onto the dirt-tracks they saw him. Gleaming eyes of gold amid the clustered trees, bobbing lights in the shadowy intricacies of twisted trunks and branches and roots. The wind made the dying leaves dip and dance, made boughs bend and bark creak, but the eyes were steady, constant.

They were just wolves. Mere beasts, nothing more, or so he told himself as he picked up the pace and kept his wand in hand. In a way, he was grateful for their presence. Grateful for the way they made his gut twist in knots, grateful for the way they kept his every other thought focused on their movements, on their loping gaits as they moved about the shrouded undergrowth to stalk him. Moonlight trickled through the canopy of falling leaves to cast flashes of silver across their hides, all rippling stars and lean muscle. But he was a wizard, he had studied at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and he was not going to be cowed by some mere beast. But so long as he worried about them, he wasn’t worried about seeing his brother.

The path stabbed downhill, winding through the gloomy woodlands with the chirping undergrowth, and the sound on the breeze changed from the whistle in the leaves to the bubbling of waters. This was the place. Golden eyes followed as he plunged onward until the bubbling became a rushing, and there it was, the surging river with its waters rippling at the starlight above. Like sentinels stood the granite parapets of the bridge, and when he trod on the masonry the wolves did not follow. He stopped and looked to the other side. Nothing waited but these unfathomable woodlands as shrouded by day as they were by night. He pressed on until he was exactly halfway, and his hand brushed along cold stone until he found the carving.

Nobody had told him exactly what to look for, just that he’d know it when he saw it. When the carved face of a wolf looked up at him from the capstone, he had to concede they were right. His wand tapped against each eye, and he held his breath.

If this was a practical joke, I’ll wring someone’s neck. Practical jokes were more fun when he was the instigator.

There was no rushing of wind, no creaking of trees, no chiming of illumination. Yet when he looked to the far side of the bridge, he did not see darkened woods at all, but the outskirts of a village. Houses were wooden and solid, with broad, dark beams and painted white walls, and firelight crackled from every window, from the lanterns hanging off posts along the paths winding between the buildings. He crossed the bridge, and when he looked behind him, the golden eyes were gone.

Voices babbled in a language he didn’t understand, and curious, though not distrusting eyes turned on him as he walked down the street. It had taken some time to get here. Outsiders were likely not common, and so when a middle-aged man with arms like tree-trunks stepped alongside him and said, ‘You will want to come this way,’ he wagered they had the measure of him right enough.

The man’s English was fractured, but he led him down the main street to the heart of the village, a broad square dominated by a granite statue of a cloaked wizard. At the base of the plinth was carved the old, worn triangle of the Deathly Hallows, and he was so sick of seeing that sign he didn’t care why it was there. By the time he had steeled his expression, his attention was drawn to the tavern.

Golden light spilt from the windows like there wasn’t enough space for it inside, and when his guide gestured that way, the door swung open for a pair of young men to stumble out. They looked deep into their cups and cheerful for it, and so he chose to assume their words when they brushed hard against his shoulder were drunken apologies. Out here, there was nothing he could do about it. His guide left there, and so he tromped up the wooden stairs and stepped into the firelight.

The air was all revelry and hope, but his gaze swept across the well-stocked and well-attended bar, the thick tables around which witches and wizards gathered in jovial clumps, the central spectacle of light and joy and music. He knew where to look. He needed the shadows.

He found the shadow he wanted in a far corner given a wide berth. The locals did not avoid it with an air of apprehension, as he had expected, but simple, calm respect. And so he won more than one suspicious, protective glance as he crossed the tavern and approached the table, more than one mutter of distrust as he drew out the stool and sat opposite the lone occupant. ‘You’re not an easy man to find.’

Green eyes he hadn’t seen in so long watched him, framed by hair darker than he remembered, a face more lined than he remembered. ‘I didn’t want to be found.’

‘Then your better angels tricked you, since I found you because you helped people. The Polish government sent a Dark Creature Hunter here; he reported this morning that the feral werewolves had already been dealt with.’

‘You came all this way because some werewolves were already dead?’

‘I was right, wasn’t I?’

A sigh, the lowering of the tankard that had barely been touched. ‘What do you want, James?’

James Potter narrowed his eyes at his brother. ‘It’s been over two years, and that’s all you’ve got to say to me?’

‘If I had anything more to say,’ said Albus in a low, measured voice, ‘then I would have come to Britain to say it.’

‘You’ve missed two Christmases. Lily’s seventeenth, to say nothing of my birthdays, Mum’s, Dad’s. All your friends leaving Hogwarts -’

The tankard slammed on the table. ‘Not all of them.’

So that’s still a raw wound. ‘Instead you’d rather be out here. In dark corners of the world, doing what, exactly?’

‘Trying to make them a little less dark.’ Albus didn’t look at him as he sipped his drink.

Running. This isn’t healing, Al, this isn’t having a life, this isn’t getting over your grief. You might be wallowing in the Australian outback, or the Amazonian jungle, or in the middle of bloody nowhere here in Poland, but it’s wallowing all the same. You were hurt, and you wanted to run, and Mum and Dad let you run but this has to stop, Al. Two years.’

‘Two years, four months.’

James thumped his hand on the table and didn’t care that the locals gave him unhappy looks. ‘Mum let you go because she thought you needed time to sort yourself out. She thought you’d be gone weeks, maybe months. Not this long. She thought you’d actually be back!’

‘I never said I would be back.’

‘So this is it? Your life? Drifting from place to place, righting wrongs like some sort of knight errant, fixing magical problems for magical people in exchange for a roof over your head, a drink at the end of the bloody day?’

‘What makes prancing on the Quidditch pitch inherently more purposeful?’

‘Because I do it with friends!’ James tossed his hands in the air. ‘Because I have Grandma’s Sunday lunch round the Burrow most weeks. Because I love the game I play, and I love the people I play it with, and I love the life I live outside of it. Sure, the press can bugger off and they cancelled the World Cup thanks to the sodding Council of sodding Thorns, but all that’s been dying out now.’

‘Dying out.’ Albus snorted. ‘Raskoph and his people have most of South America. A continent in the hands of deranged dark wizards with their anti-Muggle, traditionalist ways. Is the IMC going to ignore him now? Does the Grindelwald loyalist get a free pass because he’s not pestering the western world any more?’

‘The IMC doesn’t do anything any more. You’ve been paying this much attention; you know that. The Americans are dealing with Raskoph and Brazil and all that, and the Council of Thorns elsewhere are just skulking dark wizards that local authorities can deal with. We don’t need an international organisation with its far-reaching powers to deal with them. The bastards are dead, Al; they didn’t die with a bang, they went with a whimper, slowly strangled after they lost their weapons, but they are history. And that’s thanks to you, in great part.’

Albus wore a frown so unlike the sort James expected from his brother. He had always been serious, sombre, good-hearted, and his frowns were of concern, or thoughtfulness. The light in his eyes now was only bitter. ‘Then my reward is that I want to be left alone.’

‘Bloody hell, Al. I know Malfoy was your friend. I know you were close. And I can’t guess what it’s like to lose him. But two years. Rose has moved on. Why can’t you?’

‘I’m not Rose. Rose can do whatever she likes.’ But the big shoulders hunched up, and now concern did enter those honest green eyes. James had, for the longest time, been jealous of his brother’s eyes. He looked so much like their father, so much like the hero, that whenever the press talked about the heir to Harry Potter’s mantle, they always talked about Albus. Even before Phlegethon and the Council of Thorns and the burdens that had racked and broken Albus, until James couldn’t feel envy any more, only pity.

When Al continued, the falseness of his indifference was nearly tangible. ‘How is Rose?’

James shrugged. ‘I’ve not seen her since she left Hogwarts. Got a job at Gringotts, Curse Breaker. I think she’s in Egypt right now.’

‘Is she happy?’

‘I don’t know, Al. I’m not the one she speaks to. That was always you. You’d have to ask Hugo.’

Albus scrubbed his face with his hand. ‘And Selena? Matt?’

‘Er, Doyle might be out there with Rose. I know they got the same graduate scheme with Gringotts, couldn’t swear they’re on the same dig. Rourke’s working for The Clarion, I think. I don’t really know. I do know none of them are my brother, and none of them have been gone for two years, and none of them have been making Mum cry herself to sleep on a regular basis.’

Albus looked down. ‘I can’t come home, Jim. I can’t deal with everyone expecting everything to be how it used to -’

‘Nobody’s expecting anything of you, Al. Look, Mum and Dad don’t know I’m here, I didn’t tell them you were here, I didn’t want to get their hopes up and if Dad knew then he’d come drag you home by your ankles and I know that this has to be your choice…’ James slumped, all the pent-up steam now leaking out the gaps. ‘They just want to see you. To hear from you. To know you’re okay. And you’re obviously not okay. What the hell’s going on, Al?’

‘My best friend was murdered.’

‘Except the way you’ve been acting, it’s like you killed him.’ James was being facetious. He didn’t expect a flinch in response.

‘I might as well have.’ Albus looked away. ‘James, don’t think I don’t appreciate you looking for me. But stop. Turn around. And leave. If I come back, it’ll be because I choose to come back, and there’s nothing you can say to change how I feel. You’re my brother, but you don’t understand, can’t understand.’

‘Maybe you’re right. Maybe there’s nothing I can say.’ James pulled out the folded envelope.

‘What’s this?’

‘I do hope fighting obnoxiously evil things all over the world hasn’t sapped you of the power of literacy, but I’ll make it easy. It’s an invitation. To Teddy and Victoire’s wedding.’

Albus froze halfway to reaching for it. ‘Oh.’

‘Yeah. Oh. It’s next month. And I know it would mean an awful lot to an awful lot of people if you could be there. That’s why I started looking for you. I thought - you can show up, and the day’s all about them, and it doesn’t have to be about you, and maybe if it’s terrible and awkward then you can leave again.’

‘I don’t want -’

‘To hurt people by showing up and leaving? Al, you’re hurting people right now by being gone and staying gone. I don’t think you could make this any more painful.’

Albus picked up the envelope with slow, deliberate fingers, like it might turn to ash in his hands. ‘How are they?’

Now he asks. ‘Dad’s been busy. Council of Thorns and all. Mum keeps busy, she did a spate in Morocco for the African Cup. And Lily’s started her NEWTs. She wants to be an Obliviator. And they’d all do a hell of a lot better for seeing you.’ James blew his fringe out of his eyes. ‘As would Teddy. He’s the only one who knows I’m here; nobody else knows you got an invitation because we didn’t know how to get you one… but he asked for you specific, Al.’

Albus dropped the envelope like it burned. ‘I can’t, James. They’ll be better off without me.’

‘I really doubt it.’

‘Everyone will sort out their own lives soon enough. And anyway, when did you stop being a puffed-up git more interested in Quidditch, girls, and fame?’

James was used to people trying to hit him where it hurt. He was not used to it from Albus. When they’d butted heads, it was on principle and belief; it was the job of him, James, to make cheap digs. Not Albus. Never Albus. He got to his feet, and drew his cloak around himself. The roaring fires were suddenly not quite so warming. ‘When I lost my brother. You’d understand that.’ This stunned Albus into silence, and he waved a hand at the envelope. ‘Keep it.’

‘James -’

Al was rising, too, but now the heat was stinging his eyes and he turned away. ‘You just be careful, running around as an international do-gooder. If something happened to you, we’d never even know.’

James didn’t wait for an answer. The locals were still giving him cautious, suspicious look as he stomped out of the tavern, into the chilly autumn air, down the darkening streets loomed over by houses shrouded in night. It was without a second look that he left, headed for the bridge and back into the forests which were soon enough all-consuming. The Portkey back to Warsaw was a long hike away, and he didn’t want to be home too late.

The wolves followed him most of the way back.

* *


‘Almost four thousand years old,’ Matt hissed as sandstone shattered overhead, raining a fine powder down on them, ‘and he’s breaking it.’

Rose Weasley ignored him. The spells came thick and fast, and she still wasn’t sure how many Thornweavers had burst into the tomb. That Castagnary and his men were breaking things was not as big a concern to her as that they were trying to kill them. She risked a glance around the ornately carved pillar. ‘I see five. Castagnary at the back.’

‘Is that five with Castagnary -’

Yes.’

‘Well, of course he’s at the back.’ Matthias Doyle reached for the sword hilt at his hip, nestled in a scabbard no more than an inch long. When he drew the blade, it was as long as his forearm, and the adamantine edge glistened against the lantern-light. ‘Why would he be at the front when he can send his flunkeys?’

Again, Rose didn’t answer. She could see the other two of their team, not fighters but researchers, cowering behind Ranisonb’s sarcophagus as spells thudded into ancient walls and ruined the hieroglyphics and intricate markings so badly she could imagine Matt’s future rants. But it was the spells themselves she cared about. Exclusively Stuns, three wands only. Suppressive fire. Which means there are two not firing, which means -

She swung out from behind her cover into the alcove against the wall, not into the line of heavy spell-fire. ‘Stupefy!’

As anticipated, there was a Thornweaver there to flank them. He managed to bring his wand up and block the bulk of the spell, not the whole effect, and staggered. His movements went sluggish, desperate, and so the next flash from her wand took his legs out from under him, leaving him a bundled, unmoving mess on the cold, stone floor.

‘Cover me,’ she told Matt, and lunged for the next column. The three Thornweavers throwing spells from the doorway hadn’t realised she’d foiled their flanking action, and so she moved from one pillar to the next, keeping low and in the shadows. Matt was in no position to offer covering anything, as spells still thudded into the air around him, the masonry he was hidden behind, but so long as they thought someone was there

A spell whizzed an inch past her ear. She was almost to the left of the doorway, but they’d seen her, and she ducked low to avoid the salvo of spell-fire. Bellowed commands came from deeper into the passageway, and she recognised Castagnary’s voice, knew enough fractured French to understand. She was closer. She was the priority. After all, if she got too close, Castagnary might actually be in danger.

Rose allowed herself a thin smile, and her wand shot out. Matt’s going to kill me, she thought, and hurled a pile of four thousand year-old pottery out of the corner and at the trio of Thornweavers trying to blow her to smithereens. At the yelps and crackles of protective spells, she ducked out the side, lashed out thrice at the staggering wizards. One more went down, another blocked, the third -

And the world turned upside-down as a Stun cracked through her Shield and into her shoulder. Her limbs didn’t lock up, but they did stiffen, and she fell with a thud to the ground.

Ennervate. Ennervate! But concentrating through the effects was hell even without turning her wand on herself, without her heart trying to thud its way out of her chest at the knowledge she was a sitting duck. Light sparked at the tip of her wand, but it did nothing more than cast illumination along the wall of Ranisonb’s tomb, sending jagged shadows along the hieroglyphs and reliefs retelling as-yet unknown secrets of his life, his work, his magics.

She wondered if they’d ever finish unravelling this puzzle that had consumed them the last two months.

Swithefy!’ That was not a spell she’d heard before, but she knew Matt’s voice, heard his footsteps thudding on the sandstone slabs underfoot, and realised he’d charged the Thornweavers. Alone.

Ennervate! Her wand jerked at her command and she could move, think, breathe - roll to one knee, wand braced before her, just in time to see Matt crash into the enemy. The one in front had lifted a shield and looked dismissive, unperturbed that he was being charged by a man with a sword - except that sword cracked into the magical barrier, which didn’t so much as sputter before the adamantine broke it.

And the blade kept going, with a force so redoubtable Rose realised Matt’s spell had not been cast at the Thornweavers, but on himself. Metal met flesh and bone and the wizard who’d Shielded himself didn’t manage more than a scream and a gurgle before he dropped. Even then Matt’s wand, in his other hand, was moving, whipping up at the second Thornweaver with a wordless spell that blasted him into the wall with a crunch.

But Matt was out in the open doorway, and realisation bubbled in Rose’s throat as she flashed her wand at him to bring up a Shield, more or less -

It was more, because the slashing curse that barrelled from the passageway didn’t kill him. But there was an impact, a spurt of blood, the slashing sound of magic on flesh. Matt staggered, hand coming to his shoulder - or was it his throat - and fell like a sack of sand.

Rose didn’t remember moving. The next thing she knew, she was stood over his bleeding, only weakly-stirring form, hurling a volley of spells down the tomb’s passageway, the long, winding corridor that burrowed through the sands towards daylight. But down here there was only darkness and magic and death, and the only light in the corridor came from her onslaught as Adhemar Castagnary parried spell after spell with waning efficiency.

This wasn’t the first time they’d met, wasn’t the first time they’d crossed wands, and he had challenged her more in their pursuit for Ranisonb’s tomb than in combat. An unremarkable wizard of no distinguished features and a face as bland as Rose’s own cooking, she never would have taken him for one of the Council of Thorns’ foremost expedition leaders. They’d learnt the hard way, over the last few months, that he could be ruthless in his choices and his tactics, but she still knew she could take him in a fight, and she was full of fight.

Castagnary swished his wand to knock her spell to one side, but his next words weren’t an incantation. ‘Weasley! Every second you spend trying to kill me, he’s losing more blood.’

She froze, wand in a low guard, dark eyes locked on the man who’d hounded them throughout this hunt, and would hound them again if he fled. ‘You’re lucky it was him you fought in the Theban Necropolis, Castagnary. He didn’t want to kill you when you were at his mercy.’

‘Which I’m sure you would regret a great deal if you allowed that wound to be fatal. I have no doubt that, if you pursued, you would catch me.’ He took slow steps back, deeper into the shadows of the passageway. ‘But how long would it take?’

Her lip curled. ‘Give my regards to Raskoph when you tell him we got to Ranisonb’s tomb first.’

But Castagnary was too sensible to rise to the bait, and so all Rose got was a cheery wave of the wand in farewell as the agent of the Council of Thorns fled. She could hear his footsteps thudding down the passageway, and only when they faded did she let her wand drop. Then she rounded on Matt, and her throat closed up as she took in the growing pool of blood he lay in, only weakly stirring.

Matt -’

She didn’t care that she was getting blood on her trousers, on her hands as she flew to his side, and her only source of relief was that she saw the wound had indeed been to his shoulder, not his neck. His jaw was a knot of tight muscles as he gritted his teeth through the pain, eyes wide, and when she touched the bloodied gash a choke escaped past his lips. ‘Don’t -’

‘I’ve got you, it’s not too deep, it’s nowhere vital…’ Healing spells she’d summoned to mind a thousand times came for the thousand-and-first as her wand waved over the injury. Flesh knitted together, bringing up pink skin instead of vivid red blood.

‘I’m okay, it’s not too…’

‘Nejem, Lowsley, get over here!’ To her relief, her voice came out commanding, not shaking, as she beckoned the rest of their Curse Breaker team.

Twin heads popped out from behind the sarcophagus. They were three, maybe four years her senior in age and employment by Gringotts, but they still came when called like students answering Professor Stubbs at Hogwarts, all but falling over each other to cross the tomb.

‘Er, we were just, er -’

‘Cowering,’ Nejem cut Lowsley off. He was always the more frank of the two.

‘Good. It means you didn’t get your fool heads blown off.’ Rose didn’t look up from her work on Matt’s wound, letting the magic sink deeper to the root of the injury. She had dealt with the bulk of the sliced muscle and flesh and veins, but would have to root out the curse to make sure it didn’t wriggle these seams open. ‘Lowsley, get me my bag; Nejem, stop the bleeding one from dying and tie them both up - and stay still, Matt.’

Her hand on his shoulder tightened as he tried to sit up, and he gave a low groan. ‘How’d they find us?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Is Castagnary gone?’

‘Ran. As ever.’

‘You don’t think he’s going to block the passageway?’

‘This tomb and its complex have remained intact for the last four thousand years. There is no way Castagnary can bring them down in a matter of minutes. Besides, my understanding of Ranisonb’s protections is far superior to his.’

Matt gave a low, pained chuckle. ‘You say that with such certainty.’

‘Castagnary’s a parasite; he just followed our trail.’ Her gaze met his, the grey eyes which were gaining more focus at the healing. ‘What were you thinking, charging them?’

His expression hardened. ‘You were Stunned. I wasn’t sure I could bring them down before they finished you off. The advantage of a charge is that it not only confuses wizards, it distracts them.’

‘And left you open to be dropped by Castagnary.’

‘It would be embarrassing if he’d killed me.’

But then mousey Lowsley put her bag down, and she reached into the magically-extended pack and didn’t look at either of them. Lowsley ran a hand through his mop of dark hair, until the sharp voice of Nejem broke his hovering. ‘Come, Lowsley, good chap; we’ve got ne’er do wells to truss up like the scoundrels they are.’

Rose liked Nejem more than Lowsley, even if both young wizards were more research assistants than great minds here to push their work forward. Nejem had some grasp of social nuance, and so he had granted her a few moments where she didn’t have to fend off the gaze of a near-stranger before she found the solid case in which she stored her bottles, found the Blood-Replenishing Potion she pressed into Matt’s hand. ‘Drink. Now.’

He sat up with less difficulty, and drank the potion because he knew better than to argue. Colour rushed into his complexion within moments, though she was intent on administering at least one more before the end of the day. He coughed as he lowered the bottle and wiped his mouth. ‘I’m alright, Rose. Really.’

‘You will be, and only if you do as I say.’ She got to her feet, swept her gaze across the four Thornweavers being wrestled into magical bindings by Lowsley and Nejem. That would be a final indignity for their failure, to be tied up by a pair of hapless academics. ‘We’re going to have to send word to the Cairo office.’

Matt struggled to his feet. ‘We’ve got work to do here -!’

‘The Council of Thorns knows about this location,’ Rose said. ‘We can re-establish some of Ranisonb’s protections, but once breached they’re never the same again. This isn’t research to be conducted by a four-man team; now we’ve confirmed we’ve found something, Gringotts needs to send a full expedition, complete with security.’

His expression pinched, but he didn’t argue. He looked at the Thornweavers. ‘We hand these over to the authorities in Cairo?’

Rose shrugged. ‘I say we hand them over to Gringotts. The goblins will be less kind.’ She didn’t trust the magical authorities in Egypt. She wouldn’t have been surprised if the government had handed their team’s travel details to Castagnary in the first place. Gringotts weren’t above corruption or bribery, but they wanted Ranisonb’s tomb.

Matt sighed. Ranisonb had been one of the greatest wizards of the court of Amenemhat I, and they’d been chasing his burial tomb almost since arriving in Egypt. The main Gringotts dig site was in el-Lisht, but records had given them a lead which Matt had pounced on, and the head of the expedition had granted this little team the right to chase what had been assumed to be a wild goose chase. They’d suspected they were on to more when they found records in Swenett. They’d known they were onto something when they’d been attacked by the Council of Thorns at the Theban Necropolis, and what had started as a desire for Rose and Matt to make their names as new Curse Breakers for Gringotts had turned into a familiar, deadly race against followers of Colonel Raskoph. She still wasn’t sure why they wanted Ranisonb’s tomb, but Rose took the firm stance that if the Council of Thorns wanted something, it was a duty to the world to make sure they didn’t get it.

‘I was looking forward to exploring this place,’ said Matt, adjusting his now-torn jacket.

‘We still can.’

‘Like hell. If Cairo’s got to send in a whole team, or if Ainsley’s going to redirect people from el-Lisht; now this is a find, not a nothing, they’ll give this to a fully-qualified Surveyor. Someone with experience. Someone who’s studied Ranisonb for more than a few weeks.’

Lowsley looked up. ‘He’s right. Sorry, Ms Weasley, but we could have explored this place while waiting on Ainsley to send us more people. But if we’ve got to get security down here to keep the Council of Thorns at bay, we’ll be on assistant work.’

‘As ever, Lowsley,’ mused Nejem, nudging his dusty glasses up his nose, ‘you manage to find the cloud in every silver lining.’ He looked to Rose. ‘But they do have the right of it, I’m afraid. We’ll be relegated to the rank-and-file before you can say “Tutankhamen”.’

Rose noticed how they apologised to her, when it was Matt who was looking forlorn. She’d done her part. Thwarting the defences of Ranisonb’s tomb had been her achievement, the challenge she had wanted to test herself against. While no doubt there would be untold secrets in this burial site, and whilst the idea of being the one to discover them did bring a small, unusual surge of anticipation to her gut, the idea of reading someone else’s analysis and findings was not much less exciting. It was Matt who would want to write the papers, head the expedition, uncover all the secrets. She only cared because he cared.

‘Bundle up the Thornweavers,’ she said instead, ‘and take some pictures. We need to be in Cairo within the hour, and it’ll take me a little time to re-seal the tomb behind us.’

Matt looked across the tomb of Ranisonb, the both of them scarred and battered from the fight. ‘One of the biggest finds of this expedition, our first find as Curse Breakers, from a search across Egypt, thwarting Adhemar Castagnary and his Thornweavers, no less… and I bet that prick Ainsley’s going to dock us pay for letting this place get damaged.’

* *


The lights of night-clad Cairo twinkled like treasure submerged in the ocean. Gringotts unofficially owned one of the magical hotels by virtue of always filling its rooms, and from her window Rose was high enough to get a good look at the city. Once she would have found it entrancing, full of opportunity and secrets. But now it was just another city, and she’d seen dozens of those all over the world.

She closed the shutters and turned back to the papers on the small writing desk. Nejem had been right; Ainsley and their superiors at Gringotts were sending a new team to Ranisonb’s tomb, complete with security guards and expert surveyors with long years under their belts. Their team had the choice: they could continue as mundane excavators, helping with the research, or they could take the bonus for finding the resting place of one of the Twelfth Dynasty’s greatest wizards and go home. Rose didn’t care; either was work, but she knew Matt’s pride balked at the idea of becoming a flunky on ‘his’ dig-site.

The fan whirred overhead, a buzzing interloper in her thoughts as she rifled through the missives from the office. It was a small, cramped room, the paint peeling away from the walls like it was offended by the masonry, and when she’d first stayed here in the summer, the muggy heat had been almost choking. Now they were marching onto November, and there was a pleasant breeze through her window. Which meant there was a crack somewhere, but that would be the next occupant’s problem.

She rubbed her eyes. Bureaucracy was her job in the team, not because Matt or Nejem or Lowsley were lazy, but just because she’d always done it. For once she couldn’t concentrate and her gaze drifted to the door. Matt had been put to bed two hours ago with strict instructions to sleep, though she knew she was fussing more than his injury necessitated. She got up and headed for the corridor anyway. The lantern hanging from the ceiling flickered, the charge in the magical light drained and in need of replenishment, and so heading for Matt’s room was like moving in stop-motion, every other second a jerking advance.

You should let him rest, she told herself, and knocked on his door. If he didn’t answer, then he was resting too deeply and needed it, but it was only nine o’ clock, it was possible he’d napped -

The door swung open after a hasty scraping back of the chain, and there he stood, skin pale against his dark, dishevelled hair, but his grey eyes were bright, alert. He gave an anxious smile. ‘Hey.’

‘Hey.’ She clasped her hands together. ‘I’m not interrupting?’

‘I woke up about ten minutes ago. You’re never an interruption.’ He stepped back and let her in, his room identical to hers except the papers on the desk were research notes, not Gringotts bureaucracy. ‘You okay?’

‘I confirmed with Ainsley and the head office we’ll be taking the finder’s fee and returning to London. I assumed you wouldn’t have a problem with that.’ She perched on the edge of the desk, looking to the window. His room overlooked the outskirts of the city, so there was a harsh line where light succumbed to darkness, and the stretching oblivion of Egypt beyond Cairo. He hadn’t turned on the fan, so the room was filled with the city, the warmth and sound and scent like a blanket of a world so different to Britain and Hogwarts and home. But then, he wore the rest of the world like a part of him in a way she never did.

‘Of course not.’ Matt slipped the door back on the chain. She knew the locks would include all manner of additional magical protections, because she’d taught him hers. ‘Ainsley’s a hack, he’s just in it for the money. I’d rather blast myself in the foot than be his excavation monkey.’

Rose swallowed a memory and nodded. ‘Then we’ve got a Portkey to Britain tomorrow. We can let Griznak know the situation.’

‘I think he’ll be pleased. And I’m pleased, Rose, don’t get me wrong.’ He leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets, watching her with the faintest knot in his brow. ‘Ranisonb’s tomb on our first proper assignment? Ainsley didn’t believe us and now it’s egg on his face. He won’t get a reprimand for it, but we’re establishing our credentials. I bet we can get our own team out of this.’

‘You’d rather have that? Chasing leads and then dropping them when we find the dig-site, letting someone else do the long-term work? I thought you love poring over Ranisonb’s tomb.’

‘I would. But Surveyors are ten a knut in Gringotts. People who’ll chase the leads, do the homework, dance through protective traps and spells, even though nothing might come of any of it? Much less competition in those departments. Once we make our names, we can pick our assignments. And let’s face it, Rose, we’ve got a better idea of what it takes than half of the department.’ She would have been satisfied doing the grind, taking her time, but Matt wanted it all, and he wanted it now. Considering he’d cut his teeth on one of the greatest finds of the twenty-first century, even if they’d then lost the Chalice of Emrys, she couldn’t blame him. And she certainly wouldn’t stand in his way.

She tucked a strand of red hair behind her ear. It had escaped the tight braid she wore these days, no-nonsense and out of the way, but today had been a frantic occasion and she hadn’t cared for her coiffure. ‘Do you want to keep Lowsley and Nejem? It sounds harsh when they’ve got years of experience on us, but I bet Griznak would let us call the shots.’

‘I like them.’ Matt nodded. ‘Lowsley does what he’s told and Nejem’s down-to-earth, in a ridiculous academic sort of way. They’re bright, I like doing research with them, and I think they’re learning of the spirit of adventure.’

‘Adventure. Sure.’ She stared at the motionless fan, lips thinning to a fine line. ‘How’re you feeling?’

‘I’m fine.’ He shrugged - then winced, and had to smirk. ‘That wasn’t smart of me. But seriously. Castagnary doesn’t have enough mojo in him to make me more than flinch.’

‘He flattened you and had you bleeding out.’

‘It was a sucker punch!’

She didn’t move, her voice remaining flat. ‘I don’t care. That sword still makes you move out of cover.’

‘I couldn’t down them at range; their Shields were too strong, but nobody expects someone to come at them with a sword and collapse their magic.’

‘And if that doesn’t work, you’re in the open, up close, and usually against superior numbers.’

‘I didn’t have a choice. They were going to pick you off at their leisure.’

Only now did she straighten, chin jerking up half an inch, jaw tightening. ‘I didn’t ask you to expose yourself like that.’

‘Of course you didn’t.’ His eyes followed her as she started pacing, stalking closer to the door, closer to him. ‘But I thought we were way past asking things like that.’

‘You should have been more careful.’ Her throat was closing up, a familiar, bitter taste rising, and this time she couldn’t fight the quaver in her voice. ‘A few inches to the left and Castagnary’s spell would have been -’

‘But it wasn’t.’ His hand caught her elbow and she froze, teetering on the brink. ‘I’m okay. You’re okay. Today was a win.’

‘It almost wasn’t.’ She couldn’t meet his gaze, so studied the paint peeling on the wall behind him.

‘Almost doesn’t hack it. Hey. Look at me.’ She did, and found those grey eyes, like a sea she could swim in. The corner of his mouth curled. ‘You can let go. It’s done. We’re okay, and we can worry about Castagnary and all that -’

Later, she finished silently, and the word unlocked something in her chest. Relief and anguish melded together in that eternal bittersweet cocktail, the closest she got to feeling anything which didn’t punch a hole in her. But with him she could let herself drown, and so she cut him off.

Not with more arguments. But when she fell into his arms, they were open, hopeful, shrouding, and his lips on hers were like a chaser that beckoned her into the intoxicating depths. Her hand ran over his shoulder, her touch delicate as it traced the wound, and she knew the dark magic would guarantee yet another scar. But he had survived to be marked, and could once again be her harbour, the safe ground.

He cupped her chin in his hand, tilted her mouth up to deepen the kiss, and his touch drew the bubbling in her chest out as a small, involuntary noise at the back of her throat. She had to break the embrace, had to gasp for air, and words spilt out the moment they could, rushing against his lips. ‘I can’t lose you…’

‘You won’t,’ he breathed, his hold on her tightening, pinning her against him, and she was all-too happy to be helpless in his arms. ‘I promise you, Rosie, I’ll be careful, I promise…’

He’d been waiting for this, she realised as she smothered his promises with another kiss. He’d known she would need to steel herself before she came to him, and he’d waited, because Matthias Doyle would wait a hundred years for her. He’d waited almost two, waited through the grief of her shattered world, helped put the pieces back together, and though he’d said nothing, expected nothing, she knew he’d hoped. And now they were here, and he could silence the screaming shards of that shattered world.

Afterwards, when she lay bundled against him and staring at that motionless fan hanging above, he nuzzled her loosened hair and murmured, ‘I didn’t mention, with everything. I got that flat in Cambridge.’

She frowned at the fan. ‘You say, “that” flat…’

A flat.’ His breath caught. ‘Dad helped find it, but he’s paranoid on security these days. And probably souped it up. But I’m gainfully employed in a job which tries to kill me; I don’t fancy living with my parents when we get back to England. The papers were waiting when we got here. Contract’s signed, deposit’s paid, the place is mine.’ She could see where the path ahead wound, but couldn’t bring herself to take leaping steps down it. So she waited until he led her further, murmuring, ‘I know you don’t like staying with your parents much if you can help it…’

Even though uncertainty was her stock in trade, she despised relying on it, and had to shift to look him in the eye. ‘Is this an invitation for me to have drawer space, or…?’

‘Or more. If you want. It could be our place.’ Matt winced. ‘I know, it feels fast after just a few months, but I don’t care about the normal rules; there’s not a damn thing about our life together that’s been normal. And when weeks racing across Egypt being hunted by a crazy Frenchman is par for the course, that’s saying something.’

He was starting to babble, so she silenced him with a kiss, and had to mirror his smile when she drew back. ‘Cambridge. I like Cambridge.’

‘I thought you would,’ he murmured, and she reflected how this was as much an in-depth discussion as they ever gave these matters. The most important topics were never dissected as much as the magical protections of tombs of wizards dead for thousands of years. The decision was made, and that was that.

The beds in these hotel rooms were all creaking springs and threadbare sheets, but for a time she slept as deeply as he did, nestled in his arms. The ventures of the day, physical, emotional, psychological, were enough to exhaust her beyond dreams. So it was almost dawn when they came, as they always did, as they especially did after Matt had silenced them for a time, twisting visions of falling shapes and grey smoke and shimmering veils, and she woke like she always did, choking back sobs.

Matt slept too deeply to be woken, and for once she was glad of this, because she didn’t want to see the shadow in his eyes which came every time he saw her torment. He meant nothing by it, was as patient as a man could be, but after over two years, she couldn’t fight the guilt that she could go to bed with Matt’s name on her lips and rise with a dead man’s. It was better he rested. For her scars as well as his.

A full night’s sleep was a fantasy after all this time, and so she greeted the dawn like she always did, sat at a desk with some book or another before her, consuming words about something, anything, so long as they chased back the shadows of her loss.


Chapter 2: Truth is This
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Truth is This


The Old Rectory always did its utmost to look like it had fallen out of a postcard. In autumn the house preened, limestone walls in dazzling contrast to the opal shades of dying leaves. The season’s Midas touch turned summer’s green to shimmering gold, and the view from Rose’s old bedroom window of the back garden was like staring into a Gringotts vault.

But she couldn’t care about the view at the best of times, and right now she wasn’t even going to pretend. She had to deal with her father.

‘Eight months!’ he was saying, stood in her door with his arms folded across his chest. ‘Don’t you think it’s a bit soon?’

She unfolded another box, spellotaped it together, removed her cat Artemis upon her immediate lunge into said box, and looked at her bookshelf. There was a lot on those shelves she would never read again, but she couldn’t bring herself to throw them away. Even if they might as well have belonged to someone else. ‘If you count how long we were together the first time,’ she said, stacking dusty volumes, ‘it’s about a year. How long were you and Mum a couple before you moved in together?’

Ron Weasley scowled. ‘Four years. Ha.’

Damn. ‘That’s only because you had a bachelor pad with Harry. And I’m pretty sure parental disapproval shouldn’t deliver its victorious blows with smug laughter.’ He looked guilty, the way he did when she implied he was being a bad father, and shame flooded through her. Thankfully, Artemis was back in the box, so she could hide her expression behind the extraction of an indignant cat.

‘I’m just looking out for you, Rosie. I know nothing’s been normal. And I’m not really worried about it being too fast, I know you’ve known Matt for years and if it’s right, it’s right.’ She didn’t want to point out that this advice from a man who’d married his first and only love was not particularly well-informed, but then he’d sat on the bed, hands clasped before him, and she couldn’t bring herself to be any more sarcastic. ‘But nothing about this is simple.’

Artemis was dropped. ‘Why does everything have to come back to Scorpius? It’s been over two years -’

‘And you still miss him,’ Ron said, voice level. ‘And it still keeps you up at night. And it’s still changed you. I remember when my little girl used to laugh.’

She stood. ‘I’m not a little girl any more. I haven’t been a little girl since long before Scorpius died. And I’m a graduate of Hogwarts, I’m a Gringotts Curse Breaker, I’m nineteen. You weren’t a kid when you were nineteen.’

‘I suppose it doesn’t count for much if I say that I’d wanted something different for you.’

Rose wilted at the creasing in the corners of her father’s eyes. ‘I’m sorry the world didn’t work out that way, Dad.’

He stood and crossed the bedroom to wrap large hands around her shoulders. ‘I want you to be happy. I wouldn’t care if you’d known Matt five minutes if he made you happy, really happy. I just don’t want to see things go sour for you.’

‘Matt doesn’t hurt me. He won’t, he couldn’t.’

Ron watched her for a moment, blue eyes trying to pierce her masks, but people who knew her better than he had tried and failed to breach her defences. ‘I sometimes wonder if that’s the problem.’

It was more astute than she was comfortable with, and so she pulled away, turned to the wardrobe. Artemis followed, keen at the prospect of invading dusty corners. ‘I’m not leaving because of you or Mum. I want my own space, Dad, you can get that?’

‘I get that. It’s just a father’s job to worry.’

‘If you’re going to worry,’ she said, rifling through old clothes she’d never got around to throwing out, ‘worry about international terrorists.’

‘That’s my other job. But when they’re coming for you, I take my work home. I’m still looking into this Castagnary fellow.’

‘Raskoph is a loon. An intelligent, diabolical, dangerous loon, but he’s a loon nevertheless, and he’ll take any bid for power he can get. Gringotts has had dozens of run-ins with Thornweavers competing for old magical artifacts, either for their powers or the money they can make as a result. He wasn’t chasing us because it was Matt and me; I bet Raskoph doesn’t bloody care about the remainder of the Hogwarts Five. But he’d love anything he could get out of Ranisonb’s tomb, and Castagnary’s like a dog doing tricks for his master. He’s amateur league.’

‘I don’t care if he’s the Chudley Cannons of Thornweavers, he’s still been coming after you.’

Rose gave her father a suspicious look. ‘Did you just concede the Cannons are terrible?’

‘I’m that determined to make a point, yes.’ Ron nodded sombrely. ‘Though if I ever hear you say anything like that ever again, I’m disowning you.’

She sighed, and started to toss clothes out of the wardrobe and into a box. She could sort them on the other side. ‘I’m careful, Dad. I’m always careful. Even you would struggle to get through my security wards.’

‘I promise I won’t stage a fake break-in at your new house to test this and make sure you’re taking safety seriously.’

‘Thank you,’ said Rose, ‘for not being a complete freak of nature.’ She bit her lip. ‘Is there any news about Albus?’

Ron flinched at the change of topics. ‘The same as usual. Reports a few weeks old; if Harry chases them up, he’s long gone. He was in the Azores last we heard. Mermaids haranguing ships.’

‘How’re Harry and Ginny?’

‘Tense. Worried. Harry keeps busy, and there’s always Council activity to deal with. Even if it’s quietening down.’ Ron shrugged. ‘It sounds like Al’s okay, but he’s still gone, and after this long… I mean, everyone thought he would be back by now.’ He shifted his feet. ‘They don’t say it. But they wonder if he’d speak to you -’

‘I’d have to find him,’ Rose said quickly. ‘And if Harry can’t find him, how am I supposed to? Besides, he won’t talk to me.’

‘You both -’

‘No. What’s going on with Al is different.’ I think. ‘And I can’t begin to unravel it. Only he can sort this out, Dad. And he will.’

‘After two years?’

‘Time heals all injuries,’ said Rose, and proved the world had a sense of irony when she reached to haul Artemis out of the wardrobe and instead pulled out the green knitted jumper.

Colour drained from the world once more, reverting faded shades to cold, stark black and white, and for a long moment she could only stand there, blood rushing in her ears, heart clawing its way out of her chest to scream and gnash its teeth and tear the world asunder.

I’ll come back every time -

She shoved the jumper back in the wardrobe, expressionless, and prayed her father, the professional Auror, hadn’t spotted this. ‘What’s the news on Raskoph?’

Ron took so long to answer that she knew he’d seen. ‘Brazil, still. He’s got full control of the Council of Thorns, though these internal power-plays have gutted the organisation. It’s like they’re eating their young, vying for power so wildly they’ll kill themselves. They’ve lost so many big names that there’s nobody to compete with Raskoph any more.’

‘It’s not just internal power-plays, though, is it.’ Rose closed the wardrobe slowly, deliberately, and stared at it until grey turned to sepia to faded mahogany. At her feet, Artemis looked up, whiskers dusty, but she couldn’t bring herself to scold the cat for her irksome explorations. ‘It’s Prometheus Thane.’

‘We don’t know that Prometheus Thane isn’t working on Raskoph’s orders -’

‘He tried to kill Raskoph in April. I saw those reports, Dad. I don’t know what that man’s up to these days, but he’s been murdering his way through some of the biggest names of the Council of Thorns, and Raskoph was almost on that list.’

Ron sighed. ‘It is the opinion of the Auror Office and the IMC that Prometheus Thane has gone rogue, yes. He gutted the higher echelons of the Council, and it looks like it was only dumb luck that saved Raskoph in Panama. Then again, he also killed Romano Vida in May, so he’s clearly not on our side if he’s going to target major faces in the IMC. We’re still treating him as just as much of a threat as the Council.’

‘No, you’re not.’ She turned to face him, and by now her chest was still and silent, the howling only an echo. ‘You’re not going to pour as many resources into hunting him down so long as he’s doing your job for you and fighting the Council.’

‘Don’t say “you” like that,’ Ron admonished. ‘Thane’s not been spotted in Britain since Phlegethon. The Auror Office has nothing to do with hunting him. Hell, the IMC doesn’t have anything to do with hunting him any more. Believe it or not, Rose, things are starting to return to normal. Lillian Rourke’s talking about disbanding the IMC come the year’s end if things continue in this vein. The International Magical Convocation’s become nothing more than a means of governmental liaising, and at this stage it’s better if it’s the law enforcement bodies coordinate than legislative branches.’

‘So we’ll let Thane run riot? Let Raskoph warp South America -’

‘We will not,’ said Ron. ‘But my entire job, your mother’s entire job, the entire Ministry, has spent the better part of three years with one focus: fighting the Council of Thorns. The security legislation, the extensions of Enforcer and Auror authority, the restrictions on international trade and travel - that’s not as necessary any more. The Council of Thorns will be brought down and brought to justice, but we can manage to not live and breathe them in everything every government in the world does.’

Her shoulders sagged as his words thudded into her, and she hid her expression by setting about closing and labelling every one of the boxes now littering her old bedroom.

Ron watched her, and gave a guilty sigh. ‘I’m sorry, Rosie. I don’t mean to snap. But the world’s moving on.’

‘I know it is,’ she said. ‘And I’m trying to, too, but you’re questioning that!’

For a moment he didn’t say anything, and she heard the shuffle of his feet. ‘Your boss was pleased about Egypt?’

‘In so far as a goblin can be. Yes. We’ve got a few weeks off, but Matt’s putting in the request for us to get our own team. I think Griznak’s going to go for it.’

‘Good. We’re really proud of you, you know, Rosie.’ Her father sounded gruff, awkward, like he always did when he was trying to be affectionate and wasn’t sure if he was being overbearing. ‘And I know I fuss, but I’m your father, I’m supposed to. If you’re good in your work, and if Matt makes you happy, then I’m not going to question that. I’ll support you, whatever you do. And I’m glad your job’s giving you these weeks off in Britain. Victoire really wants everyone together for the wedding. It’s been too long.’

‘And I’m looking forward to it. Really. I’ve not seen Victoire in - God knows how long.’

Ron brightened at that. ‘Then come to Sunday lunch at your grandmother’s. She and Teddy will be there, and Harry and Ginny, and I so said we’d come - I bet they’d love to see you. Bring Matt. Scare him with the wider family.’

‘Grandma is the least scary wider family imaginable.’

‘Yeah, I know. It’ll lull him into a false sense of security so I can corner him.’ Her father grinned toothily, and she couldn’t help but return the smile, even if the reflection lost power. ‘It’s the least I can do if he’s trying to sweep my little girl away to some sordid pad of depravity.’

‘It’s Cambridge, Dad.’

‘Fine. Some swanky pad of depravity.’

She had to laugh, because her father could always make her laugh, and that brought colour creeping back into the world, even though her gaze kept flickering back to the wardrobe in which sat, shoved to the back of the closet like it was shoved to the back of her mind, the knitted green jumper.

* *


‘If there is anything more we can do -’

‘No. Thank you. All has been good.’ They both spoke Russian, and neither of them very well, because the Elder’s Russian was better than his English and Albus spoke absolutely no Polish. ‘You have been very kind.’

The corners of the Elder’s eyes creased, and he shook his head. ‘You were here before the government was. More would have died without you. Food and somewhere to stay is yours, for as long as you need.’

‘Thank you,’ Albus said again, because it was one of the phrases he could pronounce with any reliability, and because he wasn’t sure what else to say. It had been three days since James’s visit, and he had yet to leave the village magically hidden in the depths of Poland’s Białowieża Forest. Normally he didn’t linger so long after a job. Normally he did what he came to do, rested as long as he needed to recover from injuries, and then moved on. Else the gratitude of the locals would feel too much like making roots. ‘But it is time for me to go.’

The Elder inclined his head, and cold autumn sun shone through the single-paned window to paint his grey hair silver. Albus had paid for this room in the inn for the first two nights, even if it was a prison of cold, creaking wooden boards. Once he’d hunted down the first feral werewolf, the innkeeper had tried to refund him; Albus had refused that, but he’d accepted free board so long as he was doing the village the service it needed. Scorpius’ money remained abundant but wouldn’t last him forever. Still, he’d only take these kinds of offers so long as he was doing something to earn his keep. Now he was threatening to out-stay his welcome.

‘Where will you go?’ said the Elder at last, and Albus winced.

‘South, I think,’ he blurted, and paused to gather his words. ‘I will go to Africa. Starting at Turkey.’ Rose is in Egypt, he remembered, and resolved to not go to Egypt.

‘There is need of you?’

Albus looked to the window, to the depths of the Polish forest that sprawled with darker and deeper horrors than even he’d expected to see. Rural eastern Europe was no easy place for witches and wizards to live. He understood why the villagers took precautions to protect themselves which made Diagon Alley look like it was on the main London maps. ‘There will be work. There is always work.’

The Elder crossed the room to grasp his hand, part-clasp, part-shake. ‘You are always welcome here, Albus Potter. You always have a place here.’

I have a place nowhere. But he shook the Elder’s hand with both of his, forced a smile, and said, ‘Thank you.’ Because it was the easiest thing to say.

The Elder left, ostensibly so he could get on with his packing. Albus had spent the last two years living out of the battered leather rucksack he’d picked up in Montenegro, and he wasn’t Rose. He could only magically expand it a little. It was still big enough to contain all of his worldly belongings; the battered and heavy clothes which provided protection as much as warmth, the smattering of books on magic, monsters, and rituals which came in handy in his line of work, the few pieces of equipment to augment his magic. The road was no place for a full set of luggage.

He was already packed, but instead of leaving he crossed to the window, draughty with the cool autumn breeze dragging itself through the cracks, and in the mid-morning sun he for the umpteenth time read the wedding invitation.

It was just a wedding invitation. They were never long and they were rarely personal, and this one was not. The calligraphy was perfect, though, and that said as much as Albus needed to know. This was no contrivance, no trick from James. Maybe Victoire had known and maybe she hadn’t, but Teddy at least had sat down when the invitations were arranged and made sure there was one made just for him. The unwritten message was as plain as the ink.

Come home.

Albus sighed and shoved the envelope back inside his leather jacket. ‘I’m sorry,’ he breathed, and jumped with an instinct that had his wand in his hand and levelled at the door when there was a knock. It took him a moment to slow his breathing, to slip his wand up his sleeve in case he’d still need it. ‘Come in.’

The innkeeper, at least, spoke English, and wore an apologetic expression. ‘I’m sorry, Mister Potter. But there is a visitor for you.’

Albus’ expression pinched. ‘The same man as before?’

‘No. Another. My height, red hair.’

That narrows it down exactly not at all. He sighed. ‘That was inevitable. Send him up, please.’

He was expecting a cousin, though he wasn’t sure which one. The innkeeper was too short for it to be Uncle Ron, who was the most likely person after his father to come to drag him back by the ankles; Ron would at least do it with an apology and a smile.

Uncle George was not the last person Albus expected to walk through the door. But Uncle George wasn’t someone he ever really thought about. He ducked into the gloomy, dusty bedroom, shoved his hands in his pockets, and gave that half-smile Albus recognised from James sometimes. ‘Hullo, Al.’

‘What’re you doing here?’ Albus blurted before he could stop himself.

‘A fine welcome. Top manners. Your mother would box your ears.’ But George’s voice was light, airy as he wandered in and shut the door behind him without invitation. ‘Jim told me. Good lad, Jim. Conscientious.’

Albus gritted his teeth. ‘He said he wasn’t going to tell Mum and Dad.’

‘And he didn’t. Like I said, conscientious lad. But you know, he’s become a bit of a suck-up the last couple years. He always used to be up for a laugh. Now he runs around like he’s got to be all responsible. I think your dad’s finally getting to him.’ George looked about the room, and in the end settled for perching himself on the edge of the creaky bed. His jacket was worn, his boots muddy. He had to have taken the long hike to find the bridge. ‘This is a nice place. I can see why you’ve stayed.’

‘I’ve only been here a week or two. I’m not staying.’

‘Oh, the life of an international man of mystery never can wait. I take it you’re not back to Blighty, though?’

Albus leaned against the window-frame. ‘There’s nothing for me there.’

‘No, you’re right.’ George clicked his fingers. ‘Just your family. Who miss you. My sister, who’s terribly upset. Your dad, who’s been running around like a bear with a bad head, and while that’s made him a right terror against the Council of Thorns, that’s not fun and games for the Potter household.’

‘My family has never been the picture of sweetness and light everyone, from the Weasleys to the Daily Prophet, likes to pretend it is. I’m not responsible for everyone’s damage.’

‘You’re not. I think they’re responsible for your damage, actually. It’s what your family does when there’s trouble. You cut and run and you go to other people, instead of sticking together.’ George reached into his coat and rustled about the pockets before he pulled out a packet. ‘Boiled sweet?’

‘What? No. Why’re you here?’

‘To see you. I don’t tromp around the forests of Poland for my health. I hear there are feral werewolves out here. Terrible business.’ George unwrapped a sweet noisily, and looked him up and down. ‘I see it’s done wonders for your health. You’ve got muscles on top of muscles now. Though you forgot how to shave and your hair’s a mess. I don’t care, me, I’m just saving you a right telling off from your mum.’

‘Mum -’

‘Would tell you to stop dressing so shabby and to get cleaned up. Your Gran would have a fit; you’re lucky Ginny grew up with Fred and me, or she’d have ended up just as wound up as her.’

Albus exhaled slowly. He’d never known how to handle Uncle George. The Weasley family had forever seen a strong divide between the serious-minded and the pranksters, and the latter was both larger and more united. George was their commander-in-chief, so he’d always had a closer bond with James, with Lily and Hugo, with his son Freddie. He’d never been cruel, had always been good-natured in his jokes and his mockery and never pushed it too far, but all Albus had known to do for years was just laugh along. Not join in or joke back.

Of all his family, George was the one who had least reason to come for him.

‘I’m not going to the wedding,’ said Albus. ‘Aside from anything else, I don’t want to distract from the day by showing up and causing a calamity.’

‘Poppycock.’ George popped a sweet in his mouth. ‘That’s a good word. I should use it more often. Teddy and Victoire would be pleased as punch if their wedding was punctuated with the calamity of your return. And even if they weren’t, you’ve got weeks until the wedding. You could come home sooner and get all of that drama over and done with. So nobody’s going to gasp and fall over when you walk in at the ceremony, as they’re supposed to do that at the bride.’

‘It’s not a -’

‘The only reason you’re staying away, Al, is you.’ George stabbed a finger at him, gaze sobering. ‘Your fear, your hurt. Not for other people. And that’s fine, but don’t act like you’re martyring yourself by staying away. They want you back far, far more than they’re angry at you. They’re angry because they’re afraid and because they’re upset, and even if they do yell, they’ll probably burst into tears and hug you halfway through.’

Albus looked away, back to the sprawling dark forests beyond the village outskirts. A man could lose himself in those forests, he thought. Run with the wolves for a time.

It was tempting.

When he returned his gaze to George, his uncle’s expression was firm, hard, though the effect was ruined a little by his voracious sucking on the boiled sweet. ‘Why did you come here?’

‘To see -’

‘Why did you come? Why did James tell you? Why not Ron, or Bill?’

George paused at that, breaking the silence by crunching on and swallowing the boiled sweet. ‘I was enjoying that,’ he muttered, but his gaze sobered. Apparently this answer was too important for sweets. ‘James came to me because out of everyone, I’m the one who understands what you’re going through.’

Albus frowned. ‘I don’t -’

‘Fred was my brother. My twin. The other half of me.’ George stood, and then he wasn’t the funny uncle who owned a joke shop and always gave the best Christmas presents and seemed to like Al’s wittier, more light-hearted siblings more. He was a grieving man with war-wounds as rough and raw as they’d been twenty-five years ago. ‘We did everything together. Opened a business together. Made every joke together. Losing him was like losing a part of myself.’

Albus dropped his gaze. ‘Scorpius wasn’t my brother.’

‘Yes, he was. Because there are brothers and there are brothers. I love Percy, but he’s no Fred, and that’s a terrible thing to say but it’s true and I’m not ashamed of it.’ George padded across the creaking room to join him slumped against the window. ‘You take after your father, but in the ways which make you a pain in the arse. I know you struggled to find your place. James was the poster-child for the new generation. Full of hope and humour. But you walked around like you had the burdens of the bloody world on you, even when you were eleven, and it didn’t help that you were a terrible twosome with Rose, who was the fussiest child I ever met. And I know that cut you off from the rest of the family.’

‘I love James.’

‘And I love Percy, but you’ve seen us at Sunday lunches.’ George shook his head. ‘You should have seen Ron when your first letters from Hogwarts came and you gushed about your new friend Scorpius. I mean, he was fine, but he plays up how much of a big deal it is, and I think he was being melodramatic to wind your dad up. Harry, of course, fussed about it. But I, and all of them, saw a different kid come back for those first Christmas holidays.’

Albus frowned. ‘You did?’

‘You had a place. A best friend who was all yours, not part of this wider family, not part of our baggage and our craziness.’ George shrugged. ‘Sorry. I might be the joker, but you know what divides a good joker from a great joker? Knowing how to read people. A joker who’s only amusing himself becomes obnoxious. A joker who knows his audience will become astonishing.’

Albus ducked his head. ‘You lost your brother, your twin. I don’t -’

‘There’s no competition on grief.’ George punched him on the shoulder. ‘There’s no entitlement. You lost your best mate, and Rose lost her boyfriend, and Draco Malfoy lost a son, and I care about two of those three people. I don’t know how to help Rose.’

‘But you know how to help me?’

George hesitated. ‘There are no magic words. You will miss him. Rose will move on; she will love new people and marry some toff and she’ll always hear his jokes at the back of her mind, but it’ll be different. You’ve lost a part of you, and you will miss him every fucking day, until it chokes and drowns you and you think you’ll die, but you know what? You don’t die.’

Albus slumped. ‘I know I don’t die.’

‘And I bet that running across the world doesn’t make you choke less.’

‘It doesn’t -’ It means I don’t have to face the people I failed.

‘There was only one thing I found which worked,’ said George in a low, sombre voice. ‘Living. And family. I wasn’t the only one grieving. Mum and Dad and all my siblings and Angelina - maybe I was the centre of that storm, but we were all caught in it. We didn’t get better. When you lose a leg, the leg doesn’t grow back. But you maybe get a peg-leg and it’s pretty shit but you learn how to hobble around, and sometimes you can dress up like a pirate and have a good laugh.’

‘It’s not -’ Albus stopped, then the words tore up his throat. ‘It’s more complicated, George, it’s not just that I lost him, I got him killed -’

George’s hand clasped his shoulder. ‘The Council of Thorns got him killed -’

‘No, no, you don’t understand, nobody gets it, they found us because I trusted her and he wouldn’t be dead if I hadn’t been such a stupid, useless -’

‘Hey!’ Both hands came up, and now there was none of the joker in George’s eyes or demeanour, but the harsh, firm voice of a survivor. ‘They did it. Not you. You were his friend, you were his brother. And you can survive this, but hiding out here doesn’t make it better, and I can promise you - I can bet you the next ten years of my profits - that your parents want to see you way, way more than they want to be angry with you.’ Albus hesitated, and a small smile tugged at George’s lips. ‘If James can get over being jealous of you enough to beg you to come back, I think your parents can forgive you. You didn’t do this, Al. The Council did this. But the more this goes on, the more this is you hurting everyone. Including yourself.’

Albus couldn’t meet his eyes. ‘What the hell am I supposed to do? Just walk up to the door and knock?’

And pretend like it’s not my fault, like I didn’t as good as kill him, like my stupid sense of honour didn’t hand him over to the Council and sign his death warrant…

‘Yeah,’ said Uncle George, and clapped him on the shoulder. ‘It’s easy. I’ll even give you a good knock-knock joke.’


————————————

A/N: The Białowieża Forest is a real place (like, my Polish is so non-existent I would not make up that name). It spans the borders of Poland and Belarus and is one of the largest ancient woodlands in Europe. I figured somewhere that vast and undisturbed would make for a pretty logical place for magical settlement, especially for the stereotypical ‘things which go bump in the night in Eastern Europe’ sort of environment.

I feel lost and forlorn without my lengthy, self-indulgent Author’s Notes on my butchery of history. It’s like we don’t talk any more, guys. Er, I promise we get Selena next chapter? Will that do?


Chapter 3: Barren Ribs of Death
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Barren Ribs of Death


‘So when you were looking for a place to live, did you set up a contest for “most twee city in Britain”?’ John Colton stopped at the flower stand, blooming bright and colourful even on this drizzly October afternoon. ‘We’re at a market, Matt. On cobbled streets with people wearing silly hats. Those shops over there have dangling signs. House which are all black-and-white…’

‘Timber framing.’ Matt tightened his scarf and tugged on his black gloves. Even at this time of year, Egypt had been warm. Returning to England was like plunging into a cold bath, and a fit of childish conviction that he was an adult had seen him throwing out all his old winter clothes and blowing a sizable chunk of the finder’s fee for Ranisonb’s tomb on a new wardrobe. He wasn’t a dandy. He just liked looking good. And there were some matters on which John wouldn’t judge him. ‘Besides, Cambridge is one of the oldest wizarding cities in the country -’ John arched an eyebrow, and he pressed forward. ‘I mean it! Before the Statute there was a significant magical community here.’

‘Hence why this part of town looks like Diagon Alley threw up all over it. I blame the university.’

‘Yes - University Hall originally had quite a lot of wizards in attendance, though of course as the Statute came in and the college changed… you don’t care.’ Matt threw a hand in the air.

‘On the contrary. I grew up with this place as synonymous with intellectual excellence; it’s rather satisfying to know both my worlds colluded to create it. I’m more surprised you care.’

‘I’m a Curse Breaker. History’s now my profession.’

His friend pulled his wide-brimmed hat low against the rain-scattered breeze as they stepped out of the row of stalls. The market had looked promising from the outside, but didn’t sell much more than flowers and fruit and veg and stands offering pig in a bun, and Matt realised that what was a quaint novelty to him was of very little excitement to his Muggle-born best friend. They were better off cutting this rather damp walk short and returning to the new flat.

John wasn’t as tall as him, but was a little broader. He cultivated his body and looks more, from the black hair swept back from his face to accentuate dark eyes, high cheekbones, a small beard he’d had to grow into, to the somewhat foppish clothes he made sure he filled well; even to his cultured, upper-class tones. But after eight years of friendship, Matt knew to not take the flighty appearance of an uncaring dandy at face value.

‘Your father’s a good egg for sorting this place out for you,’ John said as they left the broad square to proceed down slippery cobbled streets flanked by tall buildings so old Matt could almost smell the history.

‘Dad’s gone a bit security mad. The moment he heard I was interested, he took the entire thing over. Checked the flat out, paid the deposit, got his own people in to soup it up. I can’t argue with him, though, can I, not when I was attacked in Egypt.’

‘Does rather guarantee paranoia, doesn’t it. But I thought they were more vexed by your work, than after you personally.’

‘They were. But I’m not the one you need to convince.’

‘Either way, I’m certain Rose will like it.’

‘I hope so.’

John gave him a sidelong glance. ‘So everything’s hunky-dory with you two, I take it? Moving in together, hrm? Awfully serious.’

Matt drew a deep breath. He could read between his best friend’s lines. ‘I don’t need any more of this.’

John slowed a little, letting Matt lead the way as they reached a crossroads. This had the convenience, Matt observed, of letting John fall half a step behind so he couldn’t see his expression. ‘Any more of what?’ The innocence was not convincing. ‘All I’m ever doing is looking out for you, you know that.’

‘We’ve been through this -’

‘Yes, except that was then, and this is now, and now you’re asking her to move in with her. Something that outrageous, I thought it would only be fair if I warned you.’

Matt stopped at the rain-slicked corner and turned back. ‘Warn me?’

John halted, too, and glanced around as if they were about to discuss deep, magical secrets - but this was a quiet road, the rain driving people, magic or Muggle, inside unless they had dire need to venture out, and it had certainly killed the market. ‘She’s changed.’

‘We’ve all changed -’

‘Since you came back. Not from Egypt, from everything. You remember what she was like; it’s what made you so maddeningly mad about her. How she’d more-or-less hum with enthusiasm and, well, a certain pompous self-importance, but she was growing out of that and she only berated me sometimes. Then Malfoy happened.’ John looked unusually serious, brow furrowed at Matt.

‘Yes. She lost someone important to her.’

‘She lost more than him, Matt. She’s not the same person she was when you two were fifteen and stupid and, yes, God take me, happy.’

‘I never said she was! I’ve changed, too!’

John gave him a look Matt could read well. It said: You poor fool. ‘I still recognise you. Rose, I hardly know at all, and I’ve been living with her the past two years, too.’

Matt squared his shoulders, stabbed an accusing finger. ‘Just because she’s different doesn’t mean this relationship doesn’t work -’

‘It appears to work, I just worry if it should,’ said John, as airy and calm as ever, even in the face of frustration. ‘Or how long it will. She’s quieter, more withdrawn, more controlled, less feeling. And she clings to you like flotsam in a storm.’

‘I’m okay with that. I’ll support her. I’ll stand by her - I’ve done that all along.’

John’s gaze flickered to Matt’s hand. ‘Does she know about that?’

‘About what -’

‘About that ring, about why your father funds where you live, about the letters you write, about the trips you take which aren’t for Gringotts. Please don’t pretend I’m a fool as well, Matt, we don’t insult each other like that. But she is singularly distracted.’

Matt’s jaw tensed. ‘I don’t see what that has to do with us.’

‘I’ll take that as a “no,” and if you don’t see a problem with keeping a vast and dangerous secret from your girlfriend then there’s honestly not much more I can say.’ John let out a slow breath. He didn’t seem frustrated, but considerate, like he knew he was going to have to reassess his strategy. ‘I should put this more simply. Do you love her?’

‘I do. I always have.’

‘Well, yes, stupid question.’ Being a good friend, John didn’t comment on the melodrama. ‘Does she love you?’

Matt flinched as if struck. ‘She hasn’t - she needs time -’

‘It’s been two years; what were you waiting for, an ice age? And now you’re moving in together.’ John watched as Matt worked his jaw wordlessly, then took a step forward. ‘I know you, and I know where this is going; you’re going to hitch your star to hers until she goes supernova, and you’ll be a damned fool and let the blast obliterate you.’

‘I really don’t need,’ Matt spat, ‘advice on women, especially from you.’

That did stop John short. His expression barely shifted except for the slightest raising of an eyebrow, and that’s how Matt knew he’d gone too far. ‘You need to remember that I’m trying to help you, even if you don’t like what I’ve got to say.’

Matt swallowed. ‘Look, I’m sorry, that’s not how I meant it -’

‘I got enough of those funny, funny jokes from Hedley and Willoughby last year, which you know full well. You’re tired, you’re stressed, and you know I’m bloody well right. So I’ll let you get to your new home and wait for her. I just have one more thing to say.’ John took a step forward. ‘Is she where I think she is right now?’

‘John -’

‘I’ll take that as a yes. You better head off home, Matt. Before I actually get angry.’

He never raised his voice. That was what Matt remembered most, other than his own ill-considered words to the friend who had been so perpetually patient with him. But while John was slow to anger, Matt knew his fury was all the worse for it, and when he went cold like this he was particularly upset. So Matt left, sloped down the slick cobbled streets of Cambridge, headed for the new flat.

It was a stately, red-bricked building, the entire complex owned by wizards who kept interests in the city of Cambridge when the Statute had forced them to change their ways. Ivy crept around the trellised windows and door-frame, and he could see the window to the new flat, the one his father had ensured with professional diligence was warded and secure beyond anything the Council of Thorns could easily throw at him.

It was pretty, and so was Cambridge, but Matt realised with a sinking feeling that this was not why he’d selected it. As he’d read more, he’d found the history interesting, but he was a Curse Breaker. He always found history interesting. There were all manner of places in the country he could have lived, and if he were alone, he wouldn’t have minded staying at his parents’ house while his work continued to fling him about the globe. It meant he’d have somewhere warm to come back to.

But he’d wanted a space with Rose. And so he’d chosen somewhere he’d thought she’d like.

The problem was, he was less sure these days what she even liked.

* *


After his death, there had been a debate whether Methuselah Jones should be buried at Hogwarts. It would have made him the first student to be buried on the grounds. Many had been slain there in the wars, but Methuselah Jones had consciously and willingly sacrificed himself for the sake of the school and everyone in it. But before the arguments could swing too far either way, his parents had made different arrangements to avoid any conflict, and so he was laid to rest near Glastonbury, in one of the oldest magical cemeteries in the country.

His was a simple tombstone, devoid of intricate decoration, because a boy like Methuselah Jones was never going to be from a family prone to ostentatious displays. But after almost three years, the granite was worn and weathered, especially on a day like today, when the wind howled in from the tor and the rain lashed at her face.

Rose lingered by his grave, like she always did. He deserved her respects, her tribute, even if he was not the reason she was here. Even if she had never been close to Methuselah, even if she’d only shed tears once in shock and horror and then squared her shoulders and moved on with her life. At the least, she could pay him her respects for the sake of Selena, whose world had been turned upside-down by his death.

But she righted it. So it can be done. Can’t it?

She lingered because Methuselah deserved it, she lingered because he had been her friend, and she lingered because his death had shaken those close to her. But above all, she lingered because it delayed those agonising moments where she’d take three brisk steps to the left, to the next tombstone.

This was not a grave. A grave required a body, and there had been no body. This was only a marker, a memorial, a fabrication so they could pretend there was something to see, to say goodbye to, to pay their respects to. She might as well have hammered a piece of paper to her wall bearing the name, for all this block of stone was worth.

Such a marker was the price they’d paid for being able to see it at all, for it not being nestled away in a corner of the grounds of Malfoy Manor, where only the ‘right’ people could see it. She, the half-blood daughter of his father’s enemies, would have never been the ‘right’ person, and the fact that Scorpius would have burnt down the Manor before she was stopped from seeing him would not have mattered one jot to Draco Malfoy.

It was more ostentatious, of course, because his father had paid for it. Twin snakes carved in granite wound together at the top of the marker, bracketing and protecting this memorial to their fallen son, above whose name was the family sigil and the words, ‘Sanctimonia Vincet Semper.’

Purity Will Always Conquer.

But she didn’t reflect long on the Latin, because her gaze landed on the name, the name that sent a shattering hammer blow into the walls around her pain every time she saw it, heard it, thought of it.

Scorpius Hyperion Malfoy.

November 19th, 2006 - June 12th, 2024


The wind howled down from the tor again, and brought with it a gust of leaves from the cemetery’s trees that scraped along the rows of tombstones like the grasping fingers of the dead, ardent to be heard one more time. Except that was just her imagination, because the only one who could do the talking here was her.

‘Hi,’ she breathed, and her voice felt for the first time in months like hers. ‘I’m sorry I’ve not been around. I was - there was work. Egypt. With Gringotts. It took a while. And the Council were there, and - I’m okay, we’re okay. We beat them. Of course.’

Scorpius’ tombstone said nothing.

‘It’s tough work, and they don’t take us seriously yet, but they’re going to. And I like it. The work, I mean. It keeps me busy, it’s not uninteresting, and I feel useful. I need to feel useful. I need to be useful. Maybe it’s not my first choice of job, but it’s as good as anything and it’s familiar ground and I -’

The excuses stuck in her throat, and she could almost imagine the quirked eyebrow, the amused lip-twitch at her evasion. Only in her mind’s eye there was a hint of accusation, and she couldn’t look at his name now, wrapping her arms around herself and dropping her gaze. ‘Matt asked me to live with him. I’m moving in. We’re - it’s going well. He’s patient. He listens. He gives me space. He’s letting me work through this. He wants me to be better, and I - and I want to be better.

‘I mean it.’ Her gaze flickered back to the tombstone as if it scoffed at her words. ‘I can be happy with him. I can be myself. He doesn’t judge me, he doesn’t push me.’

And that’s a good basis for a relationship.

‘What else am I supposed to do?’ she demanded of the silent, judging lump of rock. ‘Keep on walking around like I’m cut in half? At least I’m not Al! I’m not still running and hurting the people I care about! I’m doing the best I can but you’re not here, so what the hell am I supposed to do except try to get on with my life?’

She’d thought she was done shouting at the tombstone, but she hadn’t visited in months, since just before she and Matt left for Egypt. She’d thought getting away from Hogwarts, from her old life, might do some good. She’d been able to steel herself, reform herself into something more professional, more in control.

Only everything had been waiting for her when she came back.

No. You’re better than this. You’ve been better than this for months now, find that. Rose drew a deep breath, brought in all the ice in the cold winds around her, and scrambled to rebuild those walls which no longer just kept the world at bay, but filled her bones and heart to keep her upright.

‘I have no choice,’ she told the tombstone of Scorpius Malfoy. ‘I have to live. I, unlike Al, choose to live. And I refuse to feel guilty for living. You’re dead. You’re gone. And I… need to stop coming back here to justify myself to a lump of rock.’ That springy lock of hair had lunged its way free in the tugging grasp of the wind, and, expression setting, she tucked it back into her plait. ‘I’m moving in with Matt. I’m moving on with my life. And I think it’s best I stop coming back here, because this is wallowing as certainly as Albus’ running is wallowing. And I refuse to wallow.’

She took one step forward, reached out a hand that was, for once, steady, and brushed her fingertips against the carving of his name. ‘Goodbye, Scorpius.’

She left with the words still tingling on her lips, and locked the quaver in her voice away with the quaver in her heart, behind the walls she’d so diligently built up for two years and refused to see undone by five minutes in a cemetery.

The wrought-iron gates were warded to shroud the site from view and attention of nearby Muggles, so saturated by the inherent magic of the region that after a thousand years they barely needed maintaining. But those protections meant she couldn’t Apparate directly from the grounds, so there she headed, coat wrapped around herself as if she could ward off the cold just as effectively as she was warding off the grief.

The rain and wind made her keep her head down, so she didn’t see the other visitor until she’d almost walked into them. And then she wished she’d had enough warning to dive behind a mausoleum, stopping short with surprise choking her throat until she managed a stifled, ‘Mister Malfoy.’

She had not seen Draco Malfoy since the initial dedication of the tombstone, and they had not talked. The crowds had been large, because the press had sensationalised Scorpius even more after his death, to the extent the rest of the Hogwarts Five might as well have not existed - for which Rose was grateful, as without Albus around she knew she, the daughter of war heroes, would have received the lion’s share of attention. They had stood at opposite sides of the ranks, Draco next to his estranged wife and his mother and further cohorts of the extensive ranks of pureblood society who came because a scion of the House of Malfoy had fallen.

Across from him, flanked by her mother and Matt, she hadn’t paid him much attention. But she’d seen enough to now realise he’d aged maybe ten years in the last two, his hairline in full retreat, his face gaunt and eyes sunken. He had not just lost a son, but the continuation of his line, and what little attention she’d paid to mentions of him over the last two years, four months, had suggested he’d spent most of the time out of the country, worrying about his business interests.

And now he was here, and looked no happier to see her than she was him. ‘Miss Weasley.’ He managed a stiff nod. ‘I presume you were paying your respects.’

‘I - just got back from Egypt.’ Why she was explaining herself to a man who had been nothing but rude to her, she wasn’t sure. Courtesies drilled in by her mother rose to the forefront in times of uncertainty. ‘I thought it appropriate, one last time.’

Something in his expression twitched. ‘Last?’

She swallowed. ‘It’s been so long that regular visits aren’t… so necessary.’

She would have sworn he relaxed. ‘I see. You have that luxury, of course.’

Luxury- Indignation was walled up with grief and guilt, and the ice set her expression to neutral. ‘This is not a grave, but a memorial. I don’t need it to remember him.’

Draco inclined his head. ‘As you say. Your life goes on.’

Rose didn’t care about the contradiction of resenting his accusation that she was moving on, when she’d just yelled at Scorpius’ tombstone that she was moving on. ‘We have our own ways, Mister Malfoy. This tombstone is, of course, your way, because he would never have approved of such a memorial.’

Draco’s brow knotted. ‘He was my son -’

Purity Will Always Conquer? You think those are words he would want stamped above his name for all eternity?’

‘You can choose to believe you knew him better because of a short, childish tryst, but my son would have remembered his duty -’

‘His duty was to his friends, and the world, and that was the duty he died for, Mister Malfoy. Not for you. One olive branch extended before his death isn’t his forgiveness for what you did to him over the years, and I know what you did to him, I helped him through that crippling self-doubt!’ She kept a tight rein on the anger, harnessed it like she’d learnt to over the years, and could not stamp out the flash of satisfaction at getting to unleash it.

And then Draco Malfoy’s face sank as she battered him with all of his sins against his dead son, and satisfaction snapped back like a snake to sink its vicious fangs of guilt into her gut. He did not retaliate. He did not defend himself. He simply inclined his head once again and said, in a gruff voice, ‘Good day, Miss Weasley.’

Then he left, marching through the wrought-iron gates in the depths of the cemetery, though he took a sharp left instead of the route to Scorpius’ tombstone, walking off anger and hurt before he would pay his regards.

Rose’s breath hissed between her teeth, furious and regretful and then furious that she was regretful. But there was nothing for it. She didn’t want to discuss this further, and she needed to go, Apparate to Cambridge, spend her first proper evening in this home Matt was trying to build for them, and let his efforts pay off for them both. Two years had passed. Somebody needed to be happy.

She just wasn’t sure if anyone was.

* *


‘Victory is mine, and all should pay tribute of at least one delicious cupcake,’ Selena Rourke crooned as she walked through the main office of the Clarion. Jealous gazes of lesser journalists were dismissed with a wave of the hand brandishing her blazing, condemning papers, for they were not worth her time. Despite her march of triumph, there was only one person she really needed to talk to.

The editor’s door was pushed open with much fanfare and no knocking. But she was the star of the moment. He could make time. ‘Oh, Toby…’

Tobias Grey, editor of the Clarion, thinned his lips as he killed a Floo conversation mid-sentence to regard one of his newest hirelings. ‘Selena. You know, traditionally, junior reporters - in fact, anyone - doesn’t barge into the editor’s office…’

‘I am unbound by tradition. I am a storm of success and hard-hitting journalism.’ She waltzed to his desk and tossed the papers down. ‘Also, I know you were only on the Floo to your wife, and I figured you’d want to see this.’

Grumbling, Tobias went to his desk and picked up the stack. ‘I told you before. I need something utterly condemning before I can put in print those accusations against Pudley Limited.’

Selena lifted a mock-ponderous finger to her lips. ‘Oh. Yes. How about three separate sources confirming bribes were paid to the customs officers in Italy, corroborated by some very dubious shiftings about their finances?’

The frown fled her boss’s face, and he nudged his glasses up his nose, eyes brightening with genuine interest now. ‘You got to the accountant?’

‘I got to the accountant’s incredibly bored assistant. We went shopping. In Milan. I’m putting the expenses through to you.’ She sank onto the hard-backed chair across from his. ‘I admit that I don’t know what it means, but Pudley Limited have been opening up all sorts of curious warehouse spaces off the books and bribing customs officials to get something into the country.’

‘And in bulk, too.’ Tobias rifled through the papers. ‘There’s not a whiff of what?’

‘Unfortunately, disgruntled customs officials and an accountant’s assistant know about unmarked boxes and money passing through the hands of people it shouldn’t. It’s harder to get solid facts on the hows and the whats.’

‘It is.’ The editor of the Clarion was a tall, distinguished-looking wizard, blond hair going grey at the temples, sharp features weathering from age, though he gave off the air of an exuberant, distracted academic when presented with some sort of intellectual puzzle. ‘Which is why I can’t publish this yet.’

Selena sat up like a shot, hands planting on the desk. ‘Toby, this is my big break -’

‘No, right now, this is some accusations without conclusions. If I publish this right now, then Pudley Limited deny everything, and hide whatever it is they’ve been smuggling before we, or the Italian or British authorities, can find out what they’re up to.’

‘Bad things! Bribing customs officials isn’t enough?’

‘I want to know why they’re bribing them.’ Tobias lifted a hand to forestall the flow of blonde fury in killer heels. ‘This isn’t a “no,” Selena, it’s a “not yet.” Find me what they’re smuggling. And this will be an even bigger coup for you, I promise.’

Selena wrinkled her nose. ‘I just got back from Milan -’

‘Which is awfully close to Venice, the magical transportation hub of Europe. Curious, isn’t it, that they’re importing something in bulk so close to the one location on the continent where they could move something across the globe in hours?’ He tilted his head down, looked at her over his glasses. ‘You can do the legwork on their British offices. It’s originating from here, after all.’

The papers were extended to her, and with a sigh she took them. ‘Alright. But I want an advance for this. This is publishable, even if it’s not a fizzing wand yet.’

Tobias’s lips twitched. ‘How about I process your expenses requests from Milan and we call it even?’

She stopped at that. ‘You drive a hard bargain.’

‘You’re doing well, Selena. Really. This is good stuff, but it can be better. With time, your instincts will lead you to these conclusions for yourself. I really didn’t figure this was going to spiral into something this big, or I wouldn’t have given it to a green reporter like you… but you’re proving yourself.’

‘Weren’t you my age when you were writing angry articles about Voldemort from exile?’

‘And it almost got me killed, so I’m going to make sure, in an age of the Council of Thorns’ machinations, that none of my reporters walk the same road.’

Selena’s gaze flickered to Tobias’ leg, injured by Death Eaters in the Second War and never the same since. Today he walked stiffly, but more or less fine. Still, he took stairs one at a time, on bad days needed a cane, and she knew pain-subduing potions sat in a cabinet by the wall.

Some scars never go away.

‘There’s more,’ said Tobias, and her eyes snapped up to his as if she hadn’t been gawping. The look on his face made it clear he knew, and she wondered if he got used to it after over twenty-five years. ‘I did a little looking into the British side of Pudley while you were gone. About eight months ago, their director lost control of majority shares of the company. Now there’s no one majority shareholder, but there’s a lot of cooperation between this new half-dozen or so names.’

‘You think they might be behind Pudley’s new illicit activities?’

‘Possibly. But I also want you to take a look at these companies.’ He handed over a fresh sheet of parchment. ‘Some are British, some aren’t, but they all underwent similar takeovers at around the same time. Some hostile, some not, but whoever was calling the shots before isn’t calling the shots any more.’

Selena’s eyes flashed. ‘A smuggling network across multiple companies -’

‘You’re getting ahead of yourself.’ He lifted a hand. ‘Let the evidence lead you. And focus on Pudley most of all, but if you see anything which links in with these other names… bear this in mind.’

‘I will.’ She got to her feet, clutching the parchment, and only then did the tremendous responsibility he’d tossed to her sink in. ‘I know you only took me on to do some societies events -’

‘That’s what you applied for, and I won’t lie, I thought your name would open doors for you.’ Tobias gave a wry smile. ‘You’re the one who chose to chase up a spot of gossip at that gala and stumbled onto this. But if you enjoy reporting of more substance -’

‘There’s nothing insubstantial about society events.’ Selena stuck her nose in the air. ‘After all, it’s about the people who do these kinds of things, isn’t it? All of this, all of what we do. It boils down to people.’

His smile remained. ‘We’ll see how this story goes. And then we’ll talk about your future with the Clarion, hm?’

She returned the smile, for once genuine and pleased, for once feeling like a teenager with a cool prospect before her instead of a woman wrestling hydras of disaster and death. ‘Yes, Mister Grey.’ It never hurt to be formal when she was in the mood for gratitude. ‘Thank you, Mister Grey.’

Tobias nodded, and waved a hand at the door. ‘You’re welcome. Now go get your cupcake tribute.’

The bullpen gave her curious looks as she returned, still holding the papers. Somewhere in a corner someone snickered, assuming her alleged triumph had failed. Selena ignored them. Her rocket ship to the top was still loaded with fuel. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and sauntered to her desk, sat in a corner as befit someone of her junior status. It was near enough to the coffee machine to be disturbed by its choking sputtering and periodic explosions, not so near as to be able to lean over to anyone getting a drink and go, ‘Ooh, get me a refill.’

In her absence, her desk had been turned into the tip. Anything nobody wanted to deal with was dumped here, any paperwork anyone wanted to hide. So, the heady glow of the rocket ship fading from her mind’s eye, she slung her bag - Milanese - by the table and set about tidying. Or, more accurately, consigning everything that looked boring to the bin.

Back issues, memos, long-lost interview notes; it was all here. Selena paused only for a moment to scrutinise a loose fifth page from a months-old Clarion which announced the long-overdue marriage of former Quidditch star Caldwyn Brynmor and once-hero of the Phlegethon crisis Nathalie Lockett. ‘Wasn’t this six months ago?’

The very bored eyes of Jemima Carnihan, junior office assistant and the only person at the Clarion less important than Selena, lifted from her copy of Witch Weekly. ‘What?’

‘The wedding.’

‘Oh.’ Jemima might have strained something if she tried to care less. ‘I guess? Who cares? Has-been Quidditch star and washed-up Potioneer.’

‘Has-been Potioneer who saved Hogwarts.’ Selena pursed her lips. She wasn’t used to defending Nat Lockett. She was used to pointing out why everyone shouldn’t be worshipping her. But hearing her efforts dismissed by some random girl was a reminder that her former Potions Professor had won the Order of Merlin for a reason.

And then disappeared off the face of the planet when everything went south with Scorpius. Nobody had thought much about it, or at least, nobody of Selena’s acquaintance. It wasn’t that Lockett’s disappearance wasn’t a cause for concern, but everyone had been too caught up in their own issues. When Lockett had re-emerged some eight months ago, she hadn’t bothered to get in touch. Her disappearance was a concern for her fiancé and family, and if she’d sorted it out and finally got hitched, then all Selena could think was, ‘good for her.’

‘Never mind.’ Selena tossed the paper down and judiciously shoved the rest of the stack into the bin. ‘Jemima. Catch me up. On everything.’

Jemima paused like a mouse with one paw on the trap. ‘Which everything? Office gossip?’

‘Has there been any office gossip? Our boss doesn’t sleep with his assistant; which sounds like a waste of a perfectly good assistant.’

‘I see Milan did you good.’ Jemima sighed. ‘Er, Robert and Roberta broke up…’

‘Is that because they realised it was creepy for two people with such similar names to be a couple?’ Selena waved a hand. ‘Never mind. Real politics. I’ve been in Italy for weeks -’

‘We know, you keep telling us -’

‘So what’s been going on in Britain?’

Jemima gave her copy of Witch Weekly a forlorn look. ‘Minister Halvard has been re-establishing control of the Department of Magical Transportation and loosening up regulations on transport…’

‘Riveting.’

‘…and then facing opposition from the MLE because of concerns about security. Which is making the DIMC throw strops because they need to set new guidelines on travel… doesn’t your Mum tell you all this?’

‘She writes.’ Selena admired her empty desk, and set her papers from Tobias to the side. ‘I can’t lie, I assume her complaints about the Ministry are the same as they’ve been. She’s always called the office of the Minister an incompetent and inefficient system of government.’

‘Interestingly, more people seem to think that way. Polls came in the other day. Your mother’s approval ratings are rocketing sky-high.’

‘Of course they are, she doesn’t have to do anything, and people can go right back to blaming the Ministry of Magic for everything which goes wrong -’

‘No, no. The public thinks the International Magical Convocation was efficient, more efficient than anything they knew from the Ministry. With Minister Halvard’s restoration of power as the IMC’s drawn back its sweeping authority, the public’s been reminded of how much the Ministry bickers, politicks, gets nothing done. They’re already sick of it.’

And here I thought it was just Mum’s bellyaching. But before Selena could comment, Jemima clicked her fingers and rustled about for a folded letter. ‘Oh, I forgot. This came in for you this morning. I rescued it from the pile.’

Selena’s heart sank as she recognised the handwriting, but she kept her expression schooled as she broke the seal and read the contents.

Selena,

Heard you’re back in the country. Rose and I just got back ourselves. Funny how these things work out, isn’t it? I thought it might be nice if we got a drink some time. Caught up. You can tell me all about Milan, and I’ll make sure to only tell you the interesting bits about Egypt.

Thinks about it? It’s been a while.

- Matt

‘Jemima,’ said Selena, brow ponderous as she lifted her wand and set fire to the letter. ‘You’re actually quite good with politics, aren’t you?’

Jemima looked from the burning letter to her. ‘Um. I’m just here to do the coffee and the paperwork and then I get time to read Witch Weekly -’

‘Yes, but that’s not why you got this job, is it.’

‘I don’t want to be a reporter. I hate writing.’

‘But you like nosying, and you get people, and you get politics.’ Selena glanced over at her. Jemima was small and she was pretty and she liked brightly-coloured nail varnish, and even though Selena didn’t entirely approve of that shade of lipstick and those earrings, not everyone could be blessed with her impeccable fashion-sense. The fact remained that anyone would take one look at Jemima and assume they had her figured out, from blonde highlights to religiously-followed Witch Weekly. ‘I need someone to help me nosy.’

Jemima watched the final scraps of the letter turn to ash which was brushed into the bin without another thought. ‘Um…’

‘Or you can go back to making tea for Roberta while she weeps about how she’d picked out a wedding dress even though they’d only been together three months, and you’ll have no idea what to say to something that crazy and creepy.’

Jemima sighed. ‘Alright. The boss got you something?’

Selena fanned out the paperwork and smiled. She’d need some help for the leg-work, and if she could give Jemima a makeover of her fashion as well as her career prospects, then so much the better.

And under no circumstances did she have to think about a boy named Matthias Doyle.


--------------

A/N: I've been over it a thousand times and I bet I've still got the dates wrong on Scorpius' birth and death.

Chapter 4: Trouble of the Rain
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Trouble of the Rain


‘Do you want me here with you?’ asked George, the two of them stood before the Potter family home in Godric Hollow.

Albus drew a deep breath and nodded. ‘Yeah. It might stop Dad from killing me.’

‘He’s not going to kill you. He might shout. He’s really good at that, but he gets over it.’ George nodded at the door. ‘You knock. It’s that simple. I’m not actually giving you a joke.’

A muscle in the corner of Albus’ jaw twitched. ‘I could really do with one.’

‘I’m a professional purveyor of magical entertainment, not a street-magician with -’

‘Oh, bloody hell,’ Albus muttered, and slammed the door-knocker to drown out George’s ramblings. But there was a tight smile on his uncle’s lips, and he suspected George knew what he was thinking: he’d been reminded of Scorpius’ antics, just for a moment. And even though his throat was dry as the desert, his palms sweating, for once the reminder wasn’t a punch to the gut, because it brought with it the memory of a smile.

But after all that, there was no answer. The knock echoed through the house, Albus chewed on the inside of his lip so hard he knew he’d get an ulcer when this was done, and the two men waited in taut silence for twenty seconds. Forty. A minute.

‘Did you do it right?’

‘It’s a door-knocker,’ said Al. ‘How do you do it wrong?’

George frowned and bashed the knocker for himself, to no avail. ‘Where the bloody hell are they?’

‘Work?’

‘It’s a Sunday -’ Realisation dawned. ‘Oh. There’s only one place they might be on a Sunday if they’re not at home, isn’t there.’

Albus rounded on him. ‘No -’

‘It’s perfect!’

‘We are not going to the Burrow! Everyone will be there!’

‘Not everyone, because I wasn’t invited. If your Mum and Dad have gone, then I bet it’ll be with Teddy and Victoire, maybe Bill and Fleur. I think it’s perfect. Your Gran will go ballistic and she won’t let it turn into a row, and by the time your Dad has the chance to get pissy, lunch will be over and he’ll have gotten over it.’ George tugged on his sleeve. ‘And I get fed. Come on.’

Summer had wept golden tears of grief at its own demise all over Godric’s Hollow. Dead leaves dragged up and down the road like kids chasing the ball in street football, and the mere sight of home at the threat of winter started to warm something small and afraid in Albus’ heart. He’d spent his first Christmas away from home in Australia, thinking the warmth might stop it from hurting so badly, haunted by the ghost of the year before - of that huge feast in the Great Hall of Hogwarts with the five of them together and a glimmer of proper happiness and hope. Last year he’d been in Alaska, and wondered if he could freeze with the ice and snow.

He had not looked forward to a third. But neither did he relish the prospect before him.

You did this. To Scorpius, to your parents

Then George was Disapparating them and there they were a cracking heartbeat later, at the rickety wooden gate before the Burrow. The cold wind was cut off by the steep hills and trees that sheltered the ramshackle house from the eyes of the Muggles of Ottery St. Catchpole, but the chimney puffed away merrily and lights glimmered from inside, and so he was under no illusions. Outside was the cold, and inside, where his family waited with all the hurt he’d inflicted on them, was the warmth.

George grabbed him by the sleeve and jerked him, still disoriented from the Apparition, into the front garden. Before Albus could complain or pull himself free, George called out in a loud, clear voice, ‘I hope you’ve got space for two more!’

‘What -’ Albus yanked his sleeve back, frozen on the gravel path, and clutched the shoulder-strap of his bag with whitening knuckles.

‘I thought you might run,’ said George, unapologetic. ‘This is a much better -’ Then the front door of the Burrow swung open so hard it was almost knocked off its hinges, and Albus’ breath caught as he saw his mother.

She looked paler and older and more worn, or so he thought, and he knew that had to come from two years of not knowing where in the world her son was. He took a step back before he could stop himself, felt every muscle coiling in a fight-or-flight reflex, and his dried throat closed up.

‘Albus?’ Ginny’s voice quavered as she trudged onto the gravel path, cautious like he was made of glass that might shatter if she rushed.

George took one look between them and blurted out, ‘Look what I found!’

‘Well, not just him,’ Albus says in a rushing mumble. ‘But I got the wedding invitation and I spoke to Uncle George and then I thought - I mean, you weren’t at home so we came here and I can - I don’t want to interrupt your -’

But he was cut off by a muffled sob escaping Ginny’s throat, and she hurled herself at him, a red-haired blur of upset and hugging. He’d felt like his shoulders were made of stone, tense and carrying such burdens, and though his mother pulling him into a warm embrace wasn’t enough to undo that, he felt the impact chip away. It took all he had to not collapse there and then, to just bury his face in his mother’s shoulder - no mean feat since he was, these days, so much taller than her - and grit his teeth against the wave of rising emotion. ‘I’m sorry.’ His voice was muffled by control, guilt, her jumper, and it was probably for the best this stopped him from saying more.

The next minutes passed in a rushing blur. Ginny didn’t let go of him easily, not even when Grandma Molly showed up and joined in the enormous pile-up, and for long, thunderous seconds all Albus knew was that there were people who desperately wanted, needed him back, and it was almost, almost enough to fight back the fear. It kept him going long enough for him to untangle himself from his mother and grandmother and be corralled into the house to shake Granddad Arthur’s hand, get a clap on the shoulder from Teddy, a less-tearful but still tight hug from Victoire, while in the background George was assaulted just as much by the Weasley matriarchs.

So he didn’t have time to think, didn’t have time to panic, didn’t have time to consider bolting until Victoire faded from in front of him and then there was his father, looking as paralysed as Albus had felt at the sight of Ginny.

He realised this was the moment he’d feared the most. Because Harry Potter had saved the world from Voldemort and never broke, and if ever there was proof Albus was just playing at hero then surely running scared after taking a hit was it. If anything made him a failure -

‘Dad, I -’

Harry Potter crossed the distance to pull him into a backslapping embrace, and for the first time in over two years, Al thought that maybe everything would be alright, after all.

‘James - you should thank James,’ Albus managed to choke once they’d broken apart, everyone swarming around him. ‘He was the one who found me, he got me the invitation…’

He waved a hand at Teddy, who beamed, but George gave a sniff of mock-indignation. ‘Scions of the Potter brood taking credit for my deeds, again…’

‘Oh, George, don’t be like that -’ Molly swatted his arm and dabbed back tears. ‘Everyone should sit down, there’s more than enough dinner for everyone and we can catch up.’

‘Roast beef sounds like a good reward for a good deed…’

If he’d been less frazzled and tense, Albus might have put more thought into the fact that even when he and George were sat at the dinner table, there were two empty places. But food wasn’t ready yet, and Arthur cracked open some good Muggle ales he’d been harbouring for a special occasion. Flanked by his parents, across from Teddy, Albus found himself beset by innocuous updates and yammering about the wedding as everyone took great pains to bring him up to speed while neither prying into his adventures or making it seem contrived, and he was satisfied to listen until there was a fresh knock at the door.

That, he gave no thought, as Victoire and Teddy were mid-anecdote about wedding cake shopping, and the innate barbarism of making the animated figurines atop the cake edible, which ran the risk of making the reception end in a brutal blood sport. So it was only when Arthur returned from letting in the latest arrivals with a jovial explosion of, ‘And look who’s here!’ that he glanced to the door.

Matt was helping Rose out of her coat, and all three of them froze - but it was Matt who rallied first, with a nervous but certainly pleased grin. ‘Al!’

But his hand came to Rose’s shoulder in a gesture Albus couldn’t possibly mistake, and his spine was like granite once more as he got to his feet. ‘Rose. Matt.’

Rose worked her lips wordlessly for thudding heartbeats as everyone fell to silence. ‘When - when did you get back?’

‘Just now. I didn’t know you’d be here.’ Albus looked up and down the crowded table with the now-apprehensive eyes of their extended family. ‘I should - I’m crowding in here, I bet Ron and Hermione are coming, too -’

Molly almost dropped a cooking pot. ‘Don’t be ridiculous! Two more mouths is nothing at this rate -’

‘And I can go,’ said George, and Albus felt a ridiculous wave of affection for his uncle, so willing to sacrifice one of his mother’s legendary Sunday roasts on his behalf.

‘This is family,’ Matt blurted, hand dropping from Rose’s shoulder. ‘If anyone should go -’

‘Nobody,’ exclaimed Molly, ‘is going! And you’re certainly not, Matthias, you know you’re always welcome here.’

Rose coloured at that, eyes not moving off Albus, and when she spoke again her voice was hoarse. ‘Where’ve you been?’

She might have meant it as a casual conversation-starter. It still came with a stab in Albus’ gut. ‘Lots of places,’ he said, not taking his seat again. ‘I’ve been busy. And I can see you’ve been, too.’

Matt winced. ‘Er -’

‘Gringotts,’ said Rose, cutting him off. ‘Curse Breakers.’

‘I hear. Both of you.’

George leaned towards Teddy, eyes frantic. ‘Teddy! I think you should make the cake figurines edible but also flying.’

Victoire gave him a look despairing both at his interruption and his suggestion. ‘That’s going to make a small child cry when they escape,’ she pointed out. ‘And then I’ll blame you.’

‘You’ll be too loved-up to be angry -’

‘We had a lot of time at Hogwarts to think about what we wanted to do,’ Rose was saying, her chin tilting up that familiar, defiant half-inch. ‘It was a decision a long time coming.’

Albus’ gaze flickered between her and Matt, who looked like he wished he were somewhere else. ‘Yeah.’ His throat grated. ‘You two clearly took your time.’

The table fell silent. Rose narrowed her eyes. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

Matt slowly, deliberately, put Rose’s coat down on the nearest armchair, and took a step towards the door. ‘I’m going to -’

‘How long was the bloody grieving period?’ Albus hadn’t expected this anger. It had bubbled inside him on some level since James had mentioned Rose and Matt were working together. The suspicion had worked away only to be confirmed now, and with it came blossoming resentment mixed in with his guilt. She’d begged him to stay, only to forget about Scorpius and then got on with her life while he wouldn’t, couldn’t

Her eyes flashed. ‘How would you know? You weren’t here.’

Matt pulled his coat back on. ‘I’m leaving you to this. Molly, thank you very much for inviting me.’

Rose at last looked at him. ‘Matt -’

‘This is a family affair,’ said Matt in a low, tight voice as he turned his collar up against the impending wind and rain, ‘and I don’t need to be here for you two to have an argument about him!’

Molly had looked like she was going to try to stop Matt, but at that last she fell into the same stunned silence as the rest. Rose lifted a hand but couldn’t summon words before he’d stormed to the door, taking great care to not slam it behind him. She whirled on Albus, eyes flashing. ‘You don’t get to judge me for how I coped -’

‘Enough!’ The snap, at last, came from Harry, roaring to his feet with his hands slamming on the table. That made everyone jump, including Rose, and Albus’ eyes swept to his father with the cringing instinct that came whenever an authority figure was angry with him. It didn’t happen often. He wasn’t used to it.

Harry’s eyes dragged across the table before landing on them. ‘This family,’ he said, voice lowering, ‘has been broken up for a long time. You two went through so much, and this is how you’re reunited? Is this really how you want this moment to be remembered?’

Albus found his feet taking a catapulting step to the door. ‘I can -’

‘Al.’ His father’s voice softened. ‘Please, don’t.’

Albus was facing away from the table, and knew when his eyes slammed shut that the only person who could see his expression was Rose. He’d started this, he’d jumped down her throat, and it was as much from jealousy as it was rage. But he’d ruined this reunion. Still, his father’s words made him stop, though his shoulders squared and for a moment he couldn’t do anything but take a shuddering breath to try to steel himself.

Rose was staring at her feet when he turned around to face the dining table, and he couldn’t look at her. ‘Mum. Dad. Maybe we should go home?’ Albus said. ‘Talk properly. This was maybe a bit… much, to drop on everyone.’

Harry hesitated, but he and Ginny exchanged glances and then he nodded and turned to his mother-in-law. ‘Molly, thank you, but we’ll… we’ll do this next week?’

And then there was a renewed array of crushing hugs and back-slaps and hand-shakes, and that at least killed the awkward hum in the air and took some of the edge off Albus’ apprehension. But all the while, through the tearful farewells from his grandmother, and the reassuring smiles from Teddy and George, he still couldn’t look at Rose, and the two of them parted, once again, without a word.

* *


Selena arched an eyebrow when she saw the drenched figure sat on her doorstep. ‘I thought not replying to your note was pretty self-explanatory.’

It was raining hard in London. She’d brought an umbrella, but Matt’s coat hadn’t protected him from doing a drowned rat impression, the fabric sodden, his hair plastered against his sunken, drawn face. When he got to his feet without an iota of a defensive, plaintive air about him, she realised something was up.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, voice a low, strained mumble. ‘I know I don’t deserve this.’

Selena headed to the door and extended the umbrella so it covered them both. Not that this was worth much considering how sodden he already was. ‘What’s happened?’ Did you and Rose finally explode into that unhealthy fireball that’s been in the making since you got together?

‘Albus is back,’ said Matt.

It was not the reply she’d expected. ‘Back?’

‘We went for Sunday dinner at her Gran’s. He was there. Looks like it was unexpected for everyone.’ He stared at her front door. She wasn’t about to open it. ‘They rowed, of course.’

‘Of course. Two years apart and the first thing they have to do is have a blow-out. I assume about Scorpius?’

‘About Albus abandoning her.’ Matt’s gaze tensed. ‘And then he implied me and her wasted no time getting together -’

Selena’s throat tensed. ‘Why did you come to me? Why not John?’

‘I don’t know. You always understood it the most. And John and I argued.’

Selena swallowed undiplomatic words, then remembered she didn’t give a damn. ‘Gee, about the fact that your relationship is a horrible, unhealthy rebound that’s fucking doomed, and you refuse to see it?’

Matt took a step back like he’d been beaten about the face with a second hammer. ‘I didn’t - Rose and I -’

‘You know what’s going on, Matt!’ Selena jerked her umbrella back. He didn’t deserve it. ‘This has been going on for months; you didn’t just support her, you waited and you chased her! You two only got together because Rose is bloody well trying to feel like there’s something real and reliable in the world and she’s got so used to it being you that she can’t make sense of her feelings!’

‘It’s not like that!’ Matt barked. ‘I know you’ve been saying it for -’

‘Months? And then you decided you didn’t like me telling you the truth, so you stopped paying me any attention because I pointed out things you didn’t want to hear?’ Selena’s lips thinned. ‘Why do you think we stopped talking? Why do you think I didn’t answer your bloody letter?’

‘Selena, we’re friends -’

‘Friends don’t ditch each other because they want to dedicate more of their time to the woman they’re obsessed with who will never, ever love them back.’ The cool, calm, collected part of Selena Rourke’s mind knew this was the cruelest way she could make these points. The hurt, angry part of her didn’t care. ‘Friends don’t ditch each other because they’re being told truths they don’t want to hear.’

‘I didn’t ditch you -’

‘No. You just gave Rose more of your time, because a part of you hoped she might love you when she was done grieving. You just talked to me less, because I pointed out, and will keep pointing out, that it is never, ever going to work, Matt.’ She tightened her grip on her umbrella to stop her shaking hand from turning her into a water-spout. ‘And I couldn’t stand around and watch you destroy yourself, and watch you ignore me.’

‘Selena -’

‘And have you even told her about half of what you get up to? With your father, with de Sablé, with the Templars?’ She stalked back to him, reached out to yank the glove off his right hand, and her thumb brushed against the ring. ‘Does she ever ask about this? Or does she pretend it’s just a trinket, even though you both bloody know better, but the two of you don’t even talk honestly about a damned thing?’

He snatched his glove back. ‘That has nothing to do with this. I’m talking about you and me -’

‘What were we, Matt?’ Now her voice quavered, and she hated herself for it. ‘What was I? A distraction? Something you could play with and then put down when Rose needed you? We had something. We had a deal. And then Scorpius died, and you saw your chance.’

For a moment, he looked like he might fall over by the pummelling impact of her accusations. Then something in his gaze steeled. ‘You pulled away from me! I was trying to help Rose, because she was our friend, and you drifted away, back to Miranda, back to Abena!’ He stabbed an accusing finger at the house she shared with her old friends. ‘You’re damn right we had a deal! I tried! I tried to spend time with you, with you both! I didn’t ditch you, you kept avoiding me! I had to help Rose, and how could I help her and chase you while you ran? What was I supposed to think, other than that you’d discarded me like the nerdy distraction I’d been during the hunt for the Chalice, to be disposed of once everyday normalcy came back?’

I was protecting myself, she wanted to yell. But that was an admission of weakness, and she’d already blurted more than she’d meant to. She drew a slow breath and found the steel inside her again. ‘Why did you come here? To make me second choice again?’

His hand dropped with his expression, and his shoulders slumped. ‘Because you… I…’

‘Because I tell you the truth,’ she finished for him, voice chilling with the wind. ‘And you were hoping I’d tell you a truth you want to hear. Newsflash, Doyle. Truth doesn’t work like that. And it sounds like you’ve worn down even John’s patience.’ She stepped into her porch, the height of the townhouse blocking her from the rain, and closed her umbrella. ‘Go home, Matt. I didn’t answer your note for a reason: we could not be more done.’

‘Selena!’

But she ignored him, jammed her keys in the door and left him outside without another word, without so much as a look over her shoulder, because she could imagine the lost and forlorn look on his face. She’d seen it a thousand times before and didn’t need to see it again, because she hated what it did to her resolve.

She was home. She was away from him, away from her mother, away even from the hijinks of the Clarion’s office; it was a Sunday and she was with her friends, friends who would take one look at her, know she was upset, and do what they always did. Not ask questions. Not pry. Not make her face up to issues she was determinedly trying to not think about. But make a cup of tea and absolutely divert her from anything and everything which could be distressing.

Or important.

* *


Rose Apparated home alone after the most awkward Sunday lunch of her life. Her parents had arrived about five minutes after the Potters left, and everyone had managed to gush about how Albus was back, and wasn’t it lovely, while acting like they stood on a bomb about to go off. She would have preferred they either didn’t talk about the topic, or talked about it like absolutely nothing was wrong, but instead there had been this stilted, terrible middle ground.

It was George who’d saved the day. George who’d taken one look at her face and changed the subject back to the wedding, and Victoire and Teddy - bless their souls - were both conscientious enough to realise the day needed saving, and loved up enough to want to gush about the plans. Like happy, normal people.

She’d left as soon as was diplomatic, hugged her grandmother with a silent apology for causing the spectacle, and got a squeeze back which made her feel a little better. But there were other obstacles ahead, and so the knot in her stomach remained, iron-tight, as she climbed the wooden stairs in the converted old house which homed her new flat. They were not yet in the Floo network, thanks to Matt’s father’s obsession with security. So she’d had to Apparate down a back alley and tromp through the front door, which would have been fine except she had no idea if Matt had gone home or if he’d gone for a drink with John.

But she felt the heat of the fireplace when she stepped into the flat, saw his shape silhouetted against the flames, and wondered how long he’d been there, waiting for her. The flat was a tidy, modern sort of place by magical standards, refurbished despite the old-fashioned charm of the building, and she was still getting used to it as a home. She’d thought that coming back with Matt there would help.

Right then, it just made her gut twist into familiar shards of ice. She closed the door behind her, and drew a wavering breath. ‘Hey.’

He glanced over his shoulder, sharp features angular against the shadows of the flickering fire, and his pained frown looked all the deeper and more anguished for it. ‘Hey.’

She rested her back against the door and realised she had no idea what she was supposed to say. ‘I’m sorry.’ That was always a good start. ‘I was startled, and then he got accusatory -’

‘You don’t need to be sorry. He was accusing. It’s not fair. He wasn’t there all this time; he really doesn’t get to judge.’ Matt turned to face her, hands open by his side, an invitation for her to approach he obviously didn’t want to push in case she rebuffed him. ‘He abandoned you. How can he think he knows what happened while he was gone?’

Her heart swelled as he confirmed what she’d told herself time after time. This was why he was her shelter; he always knew what was on her mind, always knew what to say to calm the demons that clawed at her guts. He’d silenced them for so long; Albus couldn’t undo that with just one row.

His hand on hers was a rope mooring her to his harbour when she came to him, and though melting the ice in her gut only revealed the stone underneath, no flesh and blood left in her, the nothing was always better than the cold. ‘He wasn’t here,’ she murmured, tilting her face up to his. ‘You were. All along.’

The corners of his eyes were crinkled, and there was a tension to his brow she knew, because she could read his every move and every instinct, and she knew there was something worming away at him. But she didn’t ask, and he lifted a hand to cup her cheek, touch gentle, coaxing, and distant troubles didn’t matter as much as the fact that he was here, now, warm, close. ‘Like I told you,’ Matt breathed against her lips as he leaned in. ‘I will wait for you.’

I’ll come back every time. The words were like a stab in her heart, slashing through her walls and defences, making the stone bleed, and so she did all she could do, all she could ever do when the past reared its head and scrabbled against scars she’d promised herself were healed.

She clung to Matt. She kissed him, let him hold her close in their new home, the first step of their new future, their new life, and reinforced that age-old promise that she was no longer beholden to the past.

* *


It was late when Harry finally sank into an armchair opposite his son, and passed him a glass of firewhiskey. ‘Your mother’s gone to bed.’

Albus nodded, hunched his shoulders and wrapped his hands around the tumbler of the amber liquid that tried to melt him as he swallowed it down. ‘It’s been a big day. I’m sorry I showed up like I did…’

‘Don’t be sorry for that.’ Harry winced. ‘That’s not what I mean. You don’t ever need to be sorry for coming back. You don’t ever need to be sorry.’

‘I do.’ Albus tightened his jaw. ‘You and Mum let me go, because you thought I needed time and freedom. You didn’t fight me, you didn’t try to make me stay. You let it happen, and I repaid you by staying gone for this long.’ He frowned into the glass. ‘And… truth be told, I don’t even know why I’m back.’

His father tensed. ‘If you need to go again…’

But his voice trailed off. Albus could hear the rest of the sentence, an assurance that he was free to do what he needed - but they both knew how hollow that would be. To go again would be to inflict fresh wounds. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, Dad. I don’t - I don’t mean that I’m going to go, I just… I have no more idea what I’m doing or what I’m feeling than I did two years ago.’ He swallowed a thick mouthful of whiskey. ‘Which does make the argument that running away hasn’t done me a damned lick of good.’

‘There is that point of view.’ Harry shifted his weight. ‘Your mother and I want you to be happy. And yes, we’d like you to stay. But we’ll - we’ll do whatever you need, Al. I know you don’t know what that is, but how about you stick around and we try to figure that out together?’

‘It sounds like a start.’ Albus looked to the stairs leading into the further depths of the Potter house. ‘I think that… I think that tomorrow I’m going to get that trunk out of the attic.’

His father’s expression creased, and he nodded. ‘I can help you with that, if you like.’

‘Yeah. Yeah, I would.’ He swirled the firewhiskey in the glass. ‘Invite James for dinner, too?’

Harry looked surprised. ‘Of course -’

‘He found me. He was looking for me, all this time. He and Teddy conspired with the wedding invitation to try to welcome me back, and when he couldn’t get through to me - though he tried - he sent Uncle George, because he realised Uncle George was the guy who’d be able to get through to me best because he’s lost…’ Albus slammed his eyes shut. ‘But he brought me back. And he should know that he was the one who brought me back.’

‘I’ll Floo him in the morning. And Neville, so maybe he can let Lily come down Saturday to see you…’

Albus’ throat constricted, and the firewhiskey managed to burn its way through. ‘Yeah. Yeah, that’d be - yeah.’ He coughed, and lowered his glass. ‘What’s the news with the Council of Thorns?’

Harry watched him for a moment before he accepted the topic change. ‘There are still attacks in Europe. Some blanket terror strikes just to keep them in the public eye, or thefts. They still make their money off the black market, but really, they’re more South America’s problem than the world’s.’

‘And Prometheus Thane?’

‘We’ll find him. He’s not working with them any more; he might have his own team, but he must have fallen out of favour and now he’s hated by both sides. He might not be our top priority but the man is a murderer and a danger and we will find him, Al. I promise you that.’

He looked at his father. ‘I believe you. And I know it’s not - if I wanted to go after him, Dad, I’d have been doing it. I don’t know if I’ve got that sort of fight in me any more.’

‘You don’t have to. You don’t need to fight any more.’

Do I know how to do anything else? Albus drained his glass. ‘I guess I should figure out what I do need to do.’

‘For now? Take it one day at a time.’ Harry hesitated. ‘Maybe, when you’re a bit more settled… maybe you should talk to Rose.’

‘I… should. Yeah. I owe her an apology. That was shitty of me.’

‘You were surprised. It’s been a heavy day. But she really hasn’t had an easy time of it. To hear Ron and Hermione talk of it, honestly, she’s spent most of the last two years shut down. Everyone was surprised when she and Matthias Doyle got together, a bit, but… she’s healing. She’s allowed to heal, she’s got to heal -’

‘I know,’ said Albus, a little sharper than he meant, and his father fell quiet. ‘And it’s a stupid, selfish sort of objection that I’ve got; this sort of defiance that I miss him the most. And it’s my own damned fault that she and I couldn’t heal together, because I left, but I…’ He bowed his head, and his shoulders hunched up. ‘She’ll move on. She might always remember him, but she’s moved on. I don’t know how I even begin to do that.’

‘One day at a time,’ Harry repeated, awkward.

‘He was my brother, Dad. I love James, and I want to make things better now with James, but Scorpius was - in a family like this, we’re so big, and everything is everyone’s, and - it sounds so childish to say that he was my friend, and that made him special ‘cos he was mine. And he didn’t give a damn who I was; he wasn’t there because we were related or because I was famous, and he was…’ His throat closed up again, the words choking, and he lifted his hands to scrub his face as if he could push the rising wave back. ‘I don’t know how I even laugh without his jokes…’

Then his father was knelt before him, his hands on his shoulder like he was eleven years old and again terrified he wouldn’t find a place at Hogwarts - and he had, because he’d found Scorpius, and the rest was history, but for a moment it was enough to know his father was going to love him anyway, whoever he was and whatever choices he made. ‘You tried time,’ Harry murmured, his hold tight, warm. ‘Or, time on your own. Try time with your loved ones, and remember, he would want you laughing…’

Albus burst into tears on his father’s shoulder.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried. Had he? Not on the two year anniversary, or the one year. Had he cried when Scorpius was gone? Had he ever actually unleashed all of his agony and anguish, or had he just decided to lock it away and run?

It didn’t matter, because he’d never cried like this, clutching at his father like he was that scared eleven year-old again, and the grief came in waves that threatened to overwhelm him, drown him, wash him away. But his father held him firm, and he wasn’t lost to it, and when it subsided - eventually, after sobs racked his body and every inch of him until he didn’t know he had the strength or even grief left in him to weep more - he was still there.

And could believe, for the first time, that maybe feeling every inch of grief wasn’t letting loose a tide that would wash him away, but a wave which might, inch by inch, begin to cleanse, and heal.


Chapter 5: Of Day and Night and Death and Hell
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Of Day and Night and Death and Hell


Rose was only a little surprised when Selena appeared at her door with a bottle of wine and declared, ‘We’re going out.’

Matt had left the flat to meet up with John and the rest of his old Gryffindor friends half an hour ago. She’d expected to spend the evening at home with a thick book and the research notes Griznak had forwarded her about the findings from Ranisonb’s tomb. It was, after all, a Tuesday night. Nothing that exciting was going to happen on a Tuesday night, even if she wasn’t technically working right then.

‘If we’re going out,’ said Rose, ‘then why did you bring a bottle of wine?’

‘Pre-drinks! The fancy kind, not the “I’m cheap and think being drunk is the sole purpose of a night out so will chug crap vodka in my room” kind.’ Selena waltzed past her, a flurry of blonde hair and red wine, her heels clip-clopping on the polished wooden floor. ‘I like the place. Swanky digs.’

‘Yeah - how did you know where we live?’

‘I have my ways, darling. Where are your wine glasses?’

‘Er…’ Rose hurried into the kitchen, glad that she and Matt kept the flat in gloomy lighting of just a few sconces in the evenings so Selena wouldn’t see her cheeks colouring. ‘I don’t think I actually own wine glasses…’

‘Classy. Start as you mean to go on, Weasley. But fetch us something, even if we must be tragic and drink Beaujolais out of a chipped tea mug.’

Rose rummaged about cupboards before she found the box, and with a growing sense of guilt and mischief, brought that over to where Selena had artfully draped herself across one of the armchairs. She opened the box. ‘How about these?’

‘Cut glass whiskey tumblers. I assume those are Matt’s.’ Selena smirked. ‘That’s somehow worse than not having any wine glasses. That’s not being poor, that’s just being uneducated. Get them out.’ So they sat before the fireplace in silence as Selena wrangled with the cork and Rose set out Matt’s favourite whiskey glasses for them to drink red wine out of.

‘It needs to breathe, dear,’ said Selena, as she topped up a tumbler of red wine.

‘What does that even mean?’

‘I don’t know how it works, but I know I’ve drunk wine before it’s breathed and after it’s breathed and, I guarantee, with some wine, you want to drink it after. It’s why people slosh wine around in a glass so much. So, get sloshing.’

Instead, Rose looked over and said, ‘so how did you know to find us here?’

‘Like I said. I have contacts.’

‘Except Matt’s dad is famously paranoid and has set us up with all security.’

‘Security. Pah!’ Selena had a swig of red wine. ‘Fine. John told me. He’s very angry, you know.’

Rose raised an eyebrow. John Colton was one of the most infamously patient people she knew, despite his flippant demeanour. ‘At what?’

‘Oh, you know. Matt. I’ve never seen him more happy to have a grumble. When we’re done with this bottle, we’re going somewhere…’

Rose thought one bottle of wine between two women was an evening well on its way, but the manner in which Selena threw back glass after glass was putting pay to that. ‘Selena, what’s wrong? We haven’t seen each other in months and this is how you show up -’

‘Yes! It’s lovely to see you!’ Selena put down her tumbler to lunge at Rose in an all-encompassing embrace, which meant there was a lot of hair everywhere.

Rose tried to extricate herself as judiciously as possible. ‘And you - and it is, it really is, but something’s wrong.’

‘Not with me. But if something were wrong with you, I wouldn’t know, would I, because you don’t get in touch -’

Indignation flashed in Rose’s gut. ‘I didn’t know you were back in the country. I thought you were still in Milan.’

‘Hmph.’ Selena picked up her wine glass anew. ‘Matt knew.’

Now Rose paused. ‘When did you see Matt?’

‘Sunday. After Albus showed up at your Gran’s. He didn’t tell you?’

Rose flinched. ‘Don’t do that.’

‘Do what?’

‘That. “He didn’t tell you?” You clearly know he didn’t. Don’t play me, Selena, I’m not other people.’ She put the tumbler of wine down on the coffee table. ‘What do you think is going on?’

Selena didn’t answer for a moment, leaning back in her chair, firelight dancing in her long, golden hair. Rose had always been jealous of Selena’s good looks; how she could be the most distinguished woman at a fancy occasion, or the most effortlessly, casually gorgeous girl at a party. Once, she’d let herself be overshadowed by her friends like Miranda and Abena, more forthright or more quietly confident, with Selena as the melodramatic and less-intelligent tag-along. But if long years of hardship and suffering had done anything, they’d carved chunks out of her insecurities, and when she combined her natural beauty with the rod of iron now running through her, she could be anything. Sophisticatedly gorgeous. Dressed-down but pretty. Haunting, lonely, beautiful.

‘I’m going to ask my favourite question, Rose,’ she said after a long silence, and green eyes locked onto her. ‘Are you happy?’

Rose sighed. ‘If I say, “yes,” you won’t believe me.’

‘I might. Are you going to say yes?’

Rose stared into her glass, the wine shimmering in the firelight. ‘I still get nightmares,’ she said at length. ‘I still wake up thinking of Scorpius. I still get punches in the gut like I’m betraying him. And I don’t know how to make them stop. It’s been over two years and he wouldn’t want me grieving forever.’

‘No.’ Selena sipped her wine. ‘No, I dare say he wouldn’t. He’d joke that he’d rather you weren’t moving on with Matt -’

A flinch. ‘He’s not here to make that joke, and Matt and I are working -’

‘So you are happy?’

‘I have a job!’ Rose exploded to her feet, clutching the glass. ‘I have a job which I’m good at, where I have prospects, which uses my skills and experience and doesn’t get me treated like an idiot child! I have a lovely flat where I live with a boyfriend who loves me, and I have a huge and supportive family -’

‘But your last boyfriend was also murdered by international terrorists, and your adored, close cousin ran out on you without offering you any support, and now he’s back to throw all of the choices you made to survive in your face.’

‘Albus is - I don’t care what Al has to say.’

Selena did her the courtesy of pretending to believe this. ‘You’ve listed very good reasons to be happy. But they’re all about your quality of life and the people around you. I haven’t heard you talk even once about your feelings.’

Rose narrowed her eyes. ‘We’ve talked about this. I know full well you disapprove of Matt and I -’

‘I don’t disapprove of you and Matt,’ said Selena in a calm, level voice. ‘I disapprove of people lying to themselves.’ She got to her feet, drained her wine, and stepped over. ‘My rule is the same rule it’s always been. If you can look me in the eye and say with absolute honesty that you are happy and fulfilled by this relationship with Matt, that you love him or at least feel you’re well on your way - that he, and your job, and your life, are what you choose, not just what feels like the most stable and comforting option in a life which has beaten you about the face with a bat - if you can just look me in the eye and say, “I am happy,” then I will take your word for it and we will finish this wine.’

Selena was too close for Rose to do anything but look her in the eye, that emerald gaze piercing but not unkind. This was not the first time Selena had done this. They’d talked just before the Gringotts job started, and just after she and Matt had finally got together, and even though she knew that Selena and Matt had devolved into blazing rows over time, Selena had never been accusatory at her. Because Selena was smart enough to know that Rose would get defensive at the first opportunity, just to deflect the questions, when all she wanted was the truth.

Rose looked Selena in the eye, and said, ‘Let’s go get drunk.’

‘Good,’ said Selena. ‘I say we leave these half-empty glasses here for Matt to find and weep over. Merlin, he’s got pretentious.’

‘He has, a bit,’ said Rose. The stab of guilt from criticising her boyfriend when he wasn’t there turned to a twist of girlish glee at doing something so deliciously petty and adolescent. ‘He’s taken to smoking cigars on occasion. I don’t mind the smell, but I think he’s trying a bit hard to look all academic and fancy.’

Selena laughed, and it was a good, normal laugh as they grabbed their coats and headed for the door, and for once this didn’t feel like an inquisition, or an occasion to put on a mask and play the good little worker or girlfriend or daughter. As the wine started to buzz its way around Rose’s head, she reflected how Selena was the person who made her feel most honest with herself.

‘So where are we going?’ she asked as they emerged into the crisp, cold night air of Cambridge in autumn, and without thinking her gaze went to the starlit sky. Orion, as ever, stared down at her, and she blinked the vision back.

Selena smiled an impish smile. She did, Rose reflected with a jolt of genuine pleasure, smile a lot more these days. ‘Let’s try Hogsmeade. Three Broomsticks. It’s been a while.’

Rose nodded, and they walked for the side-alleyway from which Apparition was possible. ‘I didn’t ask how you’re doing.’

‘Me? I’m fine, darling -’

‘Come on, at least do a proper evasion instead of the stock line. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?’

Selena looked at her, and something pinched in her gaze - awkward, but not insincere. ‘I don’t usually have nightmares,’ she said in a low voice. ‘I don’t usually wake up gasping his name, or wake up and think the world’s set to rights before I remember it isn’t. It’s feeling normal to be alone. Is that called getting better?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Rose, lips thinning. ‘I’ll tell you when I get there.’

The Apparition brought them cracking out of the blackened streets of Cambridge and onto the cobbled roads of Hogsmeade in a chest-thumping heartbeat that was the only indication they’d travelled nearly the length of the British Isles in one moment. Selena staggered and let go of Rose’s arm, fanning herself with a hand. ‘You’re out of practice at that, dear.’

‘Are you going to be sick?’

‘No, no.’ Selena put a hand to the wall. ‘Just when it’s not a matter of life or death, I’ve discovered I rather despise Apparition. I’ll be right as rain in a moment.’

‘You’ll be righter and rainer with another glass of wine,’ Rose said, and helped the two of them limp into the main street of Hogsmeade. ‘Come on.’

‘You know the magic words to inspire me.’ Selena was brightening already. ‘So, tell me about Egypt, and skip the boring parts. I hear Raskoph’s flunkies continue to make a sport out of trying to brutally murder you?’

The story of Egypt took them all the way across Hogsmeade and to the Three Broomsticks, which was comfortably busy but not thriving on a Tuesday night. Lights glimmered from the windows of most houses, plenty of people went about their evening business, and they could meld with the crowd as just another two young witches out for a casual drink.

When they got to the bar, Selena looked over Rose’s shoulder and swore. ‘Hector’s here. I have miscalculated.’

Rose didn’t hesitate as she leaned towards Madam Rosmerta and said, ‘Then we’ll make that a bottle of eau-de-vie and two glasses.’

‘A Beaujolais and then eau-de-vie, evidently we’re having a French sort of night,’ said Selena with approval, and cast another discreet glance across the bar. ‘It’s fine, he’s just here with his Tutshill teammates, the brigade of neckless wonders -’

‘I appreciate you ragging on my ex-boyfriend as a form of moral support,’ said Rose, and still didn’t look to the relevant corner. ‘But I’m fine, seriously.’

‘Of course you are, dear.’ Selena grabbed the bottle and poured two shots as soon as Madam Rosmerta delivered. ‘That’s why we’re drinking this. Chin chin.’

It burnt on the way down, but not like Firewhiskey, which kept burning and which Rose had no stomach for. That was a constant effort to try to warm up her insides, which she resented on principle, while the French drink was more like a shot of flames that scalded and, if you survived, you felt better for it. ‘Hector and I don’t argue. We don’t fight. We’re not hostile exes. We’re ignoring each other exes. Trust me, in the Daily Prophet of problems in my life, Hector Flynn doesn’t even feature in the lifestyle section.’

‘Well,’ said Selena, ‘the Daily Prophet is a biased and terrible rag.’

Rose laughed. ‘That’s your cue to tell me about Milan.’

‘It was wonderful; you’d hate it,’ Selena gushed, full of self-awareness as she launched into a well-rehearsed and ridiculously over-the-top regalement of her wars against corporate bribery and possible international smuggling, and Rose could perch on her bar stool and drink the burning drinks and listen and try to ignore Hector.

Despite herself, there was something comfortable about trying to ignore her ex-boyfriend. She could hear him, of course, because Hector was a loud man surrounded by other loud young men. He was a Reserve Chaser for the Tutshill Tornadoes these days, and a small part of her was pleased for him but the rest of her couldn’t care less about anything. Tonight, avoiding him felt like the kind of thing normal young women did. They could worry about awkward run-ins and avoiding embarrassing confrontations, and not about the perils of their relationship while they grieved for dead men.

‘So how’s your mother?’ Rose prompted the moment the Milan story was over. The show had to go on.

‘Oh.’ Selena rolled her eyes. ‘We don’t talk a lot, because she’s so caught up in winding back the IMC. She’s been complaining for months about being tired and busy, but the world doesn’t really need her to be the mad dictator controlling everyone’s lives and security, and it really is for the best the Convocation shuts down. She knows this, she’s just going to be melodramatic until the last.’

‘Mothers, melodramatic? Surely not.’

‘I know. She keeps bellyaching about the Minister, and I agree that he’s a complete donkey. But I think if the IMC’s done any good - aside from keeping us generally safe from the Council of Thorns - then it’s showing people the Ministry needs some serious reforms. Mum made sure she recruited people of talent and competence into the positions of power in the IMC, while the Ministry is still such an old boys’ network.’

‘Mum’s been saying similar things,’ Rose reflected gloomily. ‘I think she’s trying to put forward all manner of reforms, possibly see about Department Heads being electable positions or the like. The IMC wasn’t perfect, but they got the job done, and I think people are pretty sick of the Ministry’s outdated eccentricities after they’ve been governed by a more efficient, modern sort of organisation for the last two years.’

‘Yes,’ said Selena, ‘but France and Germany and America don’t need to be governed by my mother and her cronies. Which she knows and accepts, but I think I’m going to have the most bored and interfering mother in the world clamouring at me for news or distractions once it’s all over.’

‘Isn’t that our life, though?’ Rose sighed and had another swig of eau-de-vie. ‘Distractions.’

Morbid, you nerd.’ Selena clinked their glasses together. ‘Now, come on, half a bottle in and are you going to talk to Al?’

‘I should. Though he’s not got in touch. But we did row.’ Rose sighed. ‘I don’t know if I’m angry with him or if I want to make up with him.’

‘It can be both things. What’re you angry at him about? Leaving?’

Rose refilled both their glasses. ‘Lisa. Saida. Whatever her name was.’

Selena started, and put a hand on her arm. ‘Oh, dear, you can’t -’

‘She betrayed us, she sold us out. She’s as responsible as Raskoph or Thane or any of them. And let’s face it, Selena, we’d have left her in Kythos, or Syria, if it hadn’t been for Al!’

‘What about Brillig or Cat Island?’

‘We can’t predict that. So much happened in so many different ways. But she told Thane to find us in Venice. Everything that happened after then was her fault.’

‘Including giving us what we needed to break out in Ager Sanguinis?’

Rose slammed the glass down. ‘Are you defending her?’

Selena opened and closed her mouth. ‘No. I’m really not. I don’t… I admit it, Rose, I don’t care about Eva Saida. She’s a symptom of bigger problems, and I can’t understand her because I don’t know enough, so I’ve refused to lose sleep over her. But I appreciate it’s different for you, and it’s certainly different for Al.’ She took a swig from her drink. ‘Blegh. Has it occurred to you he left because he blames himself for that, too, though?’

Rose furrowed her brow. ‘I don’t understand why he left.’

‘And I reckon,’ said Selena gently, ‘that’s what you’re most angry about.’

It was a difficult point to argue. Al had left with mumbling, half-baked explanations of a man in too much pain to want to justify himself, and she’d been howling in her own agony too much to put herself in his shoes. They’d parted with rifts and breaches cracking open, not just between them, but in themselves. So Rose had another drink, and instead said, ‘I might not have time for any of that, anyway; I need to talk to my boss at Gringotts about our next assignment.’

‘I thought you were sticking around for this wedding?’

‘Well, yes, but there’ll be prep-work in Britain for that, and once it’s over, we can get going -’

If there was a sound, it was lost to the clinking of glasses and the laughter of the Three Broomsticks, and certainly no such sound cut her off. What did cut her off was a sudden creeping sense, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up, those years-old survival instincts stirring before a rumble ran through her bones, a rumble she knew all-too well. Something’s happening.

Selena had put her glass down, too. ‘Did you hear that?’

‘No,’ said Rose.

‘Me neither,’ said Selena, and they stood and reached for their wands in unison.

Just as the screaming from outside started.

‘Check the back,’ Rose said without missing a beat, and then her voice was ringing out across the pub, clear and commanding. ‘Everyone, stay down and stay quiet! I’ll take a look!’

Wizards twice her age, the landlady, her ex-boyfriend, all gave her a gormless stare and remained unmoving and silent as she padded to the front door. She didn’t know if they were that desperate to be told what to do or if she, a girl of nineteen, really did have the necessary presence to command them. But they were behaving, so that would do.

The lights in Hogsmeade were dimmer as she creaked the door open. Plenty of houses had been plunged into darkness, and the flames of the street lanterns glimmered to send shadows rippling across cobbles and clawing up walls. The screaming came from the north, and within heartbeats there were thudding footsteps and about a dozen people sprinting in a blind panic down the main road.

‘What -’

But they ignored her, bellowing to one another to run - wizards, families bundling children, some in their night-clothes, driven from their homes by whatever was approaching from the north side of Hogsmeade.

Then a sliver of white slashed through the darkness in a loping gait, lumbering towards her and the fleeing townspeople, and the sensation which settled in Rose’s gut was at one moment blind terror, and the next comforting recognition. She slammed the door shut and turned to the stricken patrons. ‘Inferi.’

Selena was returning from the back door, and something cold and calm seized her expression. ‘Oh,’ she said in a soft voice. ‘It’s that time again.’

‘Hector!’ Rose bellowed at him because he was the most useful person she recognised. ‘Get your boys and start barricading the doors and windows; we want to keep those things out. Selena, set up some anti-flame wards on the building; fire’s our friend but it’s no good if we burn ourselves to death. Madam Rosmerta, I need you to check the Floo. See if you can send word out or start to get people out of here.’

‘Got it.’ Selena lifted her wand as the screaming outside reached a whole new pitch. ‘What’re you doing?’

‘Checking if they’ve blocked off Apparition.’

‘They?’

Their eyes met. ‘Those Inferi were bone-white.’

‘Oh,’ said Selena again. ‘It’s that time again.’

Inferi were corpses animated by Dark Magic, and most of the time this made them shambling, rotten figures of grey skin and bone. This had been something different; human once, but warped and twisted, and Rose had only seen one thing which did that to an undead before: the Eridanos plague, the Council of Thorns’ weapon two and a half years ago. But Eridanos had been wiped out, the infection sites cleansed and the Council’s source destroyed. They had intended on a successor, as virulent and dangerous and letting Thornweavers control the Inferi better, but Lethe had died with Scorpius Malfoy.

Hector Flynn was on his feet, grabbing a table with one strong hand, his wand pulling others towards him. Outside there was the sound of breaking glass, a scream cut off at a sudden, high-pitch with a low growl. ‘Aren’t we going to block people out?’ he called at Rose.

‘Yes.’ She swished her wand through the air, detecting the flows of space-warping magic she would need to tap into if she was going to attempt Apparition. ‘But if those things get in, then everyone here is dead.’

‘You’ve gotten cheery,’ her ex-boyfriend observed as he and his Quidditch teammates piled up tables in front of the windows. ‘Then aren’t we just boxing ourselves in to die?’

He was doing what he was told even as he voiced objections, she noticed. She lowered her wand as it sparked its results. ‘They’ve blocked out Apparition, so I’d bet we can’t Floo out, or even send word. But this is Hogsmeade; even if nobody gets word out, Hogwarts will notice something’s wrong, and then we’ll have reinforcements from the Ministry, and then we live. I assure you, we cannot fight these things on open ground.’

‘You don’t know how many of them there are.’

This is the Council of Thorns. It’s not just going to be one. ‘I do,’ said Rose. ‘Enough.’

There was a thud of something heavy hitting the front door, and her heart lunged into her throat twice: first at that, then at the voice calling, desperate, ‘Please, please open -’

And then a growl, and a shriek of pain and terror, and the sound of flesh and bone tearing. Hector took a sharp step back, his face white, but Rose shot her wand out to drag a heavy oak table before the front door. ‘They’re here,’ she said. ‘You open that up for anyone, anyone, and you kill us all.’

Hector rounded on his teammates. ‘Guys! Check the back!’

‘And the upstairs!’ chipped in Selena. ‘Those things can climb and jump, too.’

‘Madam Rosmerta! How’s that Floo coming?’ Rose bellowed at the landlady stood before the hearth.

‘It’s blocked off, no messages or travel -’

‘Then we fight.’ Rose lifted both hands to the gathered, wide-eyed wizards. ‘Those things out there are Inferi. They will kill you; rip you apart, bite you, claw at you. The best weapon against them is fire; failing that, destroy the heads. Watch the entrances, stick together, and do not panic. We are in a defensible location. We can keep safe. We can keep them at bay until the Ministry gets here.’

A rumble ran through the crowd at her words, fear mixed with a certain kind of reassurance that came from the desperate knowledge that they didn’t have a choice. Selena slunk next to her, voice dropping. ‘So, just like old times.’

‘Except,’ said Rose, ‘I’m a bit drunk.’

Then there was another impact at the window, and the shrieking sound of unnaturally strengthened and elongated nails on glass, and the murmur of the patrons turned into a low moan of fear.

‘I’m not drunk enough,’ Selena muttered.

A window smashed near the corner, and a burly Quidditch player drew back with a look of fear Rose would never have expected from someone so large. She nudged Selena. ‘Watch the front door; I’ve got this.’ She pushed her way through the crowd that was happy to let her pass and reached where the piled up tables blocked the shattered window.

‘They’re cunning, like animal instincts,’ Rose said, because it reminded her and because it was oddly comforting to educate as she went, ‘but they’re not the brightest of creatures.’

Growls came with the clawed hand that grasped the corner of the barricade. The skin clung tight against the bone and was just as white, sinewy and with unnaturally elongated fingers that ended in clawed nails inches long, curved, sharp, vicious. Without hesitating, she put her wand to the flailing hand and murmured, ‘Incendio.’ The skin went up like old parchment, and the scream was high-pitched, quavering, not inhuman enough and with a childlike quality which made her flesh crawl. But the hand was jerked back.

And then it started in earnest.

Windows smashed, clawed hands tried to struggle their way through the gaps, and Selena started to rally the patrons at the other side of the pub. Rose peered through the gap she’d left as the Three Broomsticks was given over to panicked defending, and jolted as she saw the pitch-black, deep-set eyes in a sunken, white, skull-like face peering back at her.

She blasted fire in its face. ‘Take them down whenever you have a clear shot! They may pick an easier target if we give them a tough time!’

And kill everyone else. It was easy, as a Hogwarts alumni, to think of Hogsmeade as nothing more than the series of shops and distractions she visited once a term. But there were more than businesses here; this was the only fully-magical settlement in the country. People lived here. Families. Children. The screaming outside was mixed with the growling shrieks of the Inferi, and she could only imagine the chaos out there. A golden glow crept through the holes in their barricade, and Rose knew something was on fire. Perhaps a ploy to fight them. Perhaps something was going wrong.

A window smashed from upstairs, joined by panicked yells, and Rose’s head snapped to the door. ‘Selena! Reinforce them!’ She reflected, as Selena darted for the stairs, that her friend was a truly unremarkable witch in terms of magical prowess. And yet experience and determination made her one of the most valuable people in this room.

Another crack of breaking wood, a whole chunk of a table broken away by grasping hands, and then there were three Inferi trying to pull themselves into the pub through the tiny hole. Beyond them, Hogsmeade was a sea of blazing flames, bone-white figures loping up and down the road, and more and more the witches and wizards Rose could see were still, unmoving. She shoved the implications of that from her mind, and send a gout of fire at the foremost Inferi. It curled at the edges around the anti-flame wards Selena had set up, though she saw that magic crackle and knew it wouldn’t hold forever, and the first monstrous corpse fell back with a howl.

The next lunged, clawed hands swiping only inches away from her when she jerked back, then another wand sliced down to crack through flesh and bone and the arm was severed at the elbow.

‘We’ve got to block that!’ Hector yelled as he lowered his wand and brandished a shattered length of table like a shield. As if breaking a defensive line of Chasers, he charged the oncoming Inferi, slamming into them with the broad barrier of wood, and sent them all falling back into the street. He kept his shoulder there, pinning the wood in place as Rose and a couple of his Quidditch teammates began to tether it to the rest of the barricade, block the gap. But before the last side could be secured, another clawed, white hand punched through, and scraping nails scoured a bloody length across Hector’s back.

Rose’s heart lunged into her throat as he screamed and fell, and then she was there in the breach, her wand sending blazing energies through flesh to the Inferi’s bone. The spell was so forceful that the fire ran the length of the arm to consume the whole creature, and then they were slamming the wood into place again, and the breach was blocked.

Hector collapsed on his front onto one of the benches, groaning. His shirt was ripped and soaked in blood at the four, perfect gouges cut through his flesh. ‘Bastard things!’

The wounds were not that deep. But then, Matt hadn’t been wounded at all on Brillig, just exposed to the Inferi in enough up close and personal fighting to be infected. It’s not Eridanos. It might be different. But Rose couldn’t imagine why the Council of Thorns would make their plague less infectious.

‘Rose!’ That was Selena, thundering down the stairs, as white as one of the Inferi. ‘We’ve got a problem. There are Thornweavers out there.’

Colonel Raskoph was a complete lunatic, but there was one thing to be said for his particular brand of zealotry. An adherent of the hundred year-old teachings of Grindelwald, as he’d risen through the ranks of the Council of Thorns he had organised them, turned them from rag-tag mercenaries into something disciplined. That included their new names, and it included the masks.

These were not the distinctive, stylised masks of the Death Eaters, where rich purebloods took pleasure in making themselves unique even while they were anonymous. These were black, with wide, round, dark lenses at the eyes, and the only colour and decoration came from the white symbol at the forehead, the five-spoked sun-wheel. With the robes they wore, long and dark and flowing, they made for a shadowy, impressive sight. Rose was glad Castagnary had operated too much with the pretense of being a regular member of society for him and his subordinates to dress like that. But it meant they had their final confirmation of what was happening here, tonight.

‘That’s impossible,’ Madam Rosmerta snapped. This was apparently the last straw as her pub was wrecked around her. ‘They’re just backward idiots squatting in South America!’

‘You’re free to tell them that!’ said Selena.

There was a thud at the front barricade, quite unlike the impact of an Inferi’s body on wood. Then another, and another, and Rose realised someone was knocking.

‘There’s a Muggle story,’ came a woman’s voice from the other side. There was a slight accent Rose could not place, and the moaning of the Inferi around them continued, but they sounded calm, collected. ‘I will spare you the specifics, but for those of you familiar: “Little pigs, little pigs…”’

Get back!’ Rose yelled, just as the barricade was blasted in. Shattered wood sprayed her, the impact forcing her staggering back. She would have fallen, but Selena was there, keeping her up and dragging her away from the worst of the wave. Other patrons were knocked over, faces and arms scratched by the splinters, and then came the gust of the cold air of Hogsmeade at night as there was no barricade or window to keep it out. It came with the gagging stench of rotting, of burning flesh, of the metallic tang of blood, and brought with it the moans and screams on the breeze. And with that, the Inferi lunged through the broken barricade, and into the Three Broomsticks.

Rose fought to keep her footing and lifted her wand, but Selena grabbed her shoulder and dragged her back, away from the thronging of people and towards the rear exit. ‘It’s done!’ Selena snapped. ‘It’s over!’

‘But these -’

‘Every bugger for themselves!’

And she was right. The Inferi had not been discouraged by the barricades of the pub; they seemed enthused by the challenge, and all the more bloodthirsty and willing to unleash their fury. The echoes of the shattered barricade were soon enough replaced by gut-wrenching screams.

‘We can fight -’

‘And die!’ Selena swept the barricade at the untouched back door away with a slash of the wand and then the two of them were falling into the alleyway that ran behind the Three Broomsticks, dark and, for now, empty. ‘We need to go.’

‘Hogwarts.’ Rose looked up and down the road to get her bearings. ‘This way!’

They ran, shoulder to shoulder with wands brandished. Some of the patrons from the Three Broomsticks had followed them, but not enough, not nearly enough, and Rose didn’t look back. They ducked into another small alleyway, and another, but wherever they went they could see the glows of spot-fires from blazing buildings, hear the moans of the Inferi, the sounds of battle, and the screams of the dead and dying.

‘We’ve got to cross a road,’ Rose said at last, and at the next narrow alleyway corner, she almost tripped over the body. It was still and small, clad in night-clothes, and she didn’t want to think how young this child was. But the moment of stumbling, of Selena hauling her onward with a gasp of surprise which was almost a sob, meant they were for that critical moment distracted from their defences.

Which was when the Stuns slammed into them from the main road.

Stars flew in front of Rose’s vision as she hit the wall and fell like a sandbag. By the sound of it, Selena was no better off, and then the tall, looming shapes of the Thornweavers were above them, wands extended.

‘Get her - the blonde one, it’s her he wants.’ It was the woman who’d broken the Three Broomsticks’ defences, and Rose gritted her teeth and tried to fight through the Stun, but she’d dropped her wand and didn’t have a chance.

She heard the muffled protest from Selena, saw the bigger Thornweaver pick her up and sling her over a shoulder, then they turned to the woman. ‘What about her?’

‘She’s useless.’

‘She’s the Weasley girl -’

‘So killing her here sends a message. Get Rourke out.’

Tromping footsteps, a shadow disappearing, and Rose tried to stop her vision from spinning long enough to focus on the Thornweaver stood over her, wand levelled at her face. She didn’t want to see her own death, exactly, but it would be nice to not die utterly witless.

I’ll come back…

A fizz of magic. A yelp from the Thornweaver. And then spells flew through the air, a frantic and angry duel, and the Thornweaver was being pushed back, back. Then a fresh spark of magic, a slashing spell she saw crack into the Thornweaver’s throat with a spray of blood.

The woman fell, and still Rose could not move, but then there was a new shadow over her, a gloved hand at her shoulder. ‘You’re alright,’ they hissed, words too low to be more than breath. She couldn’t see their face, hidden under the shadows of darkness and a hood, and then there was a new voice from behind them, a voice she did recognise.

‘Leave her there,’ said Prometheus Thane, stood in the alleyway behind her saviour. ‘The Ministry’s on their way; she’ll be fine.’

The Stun was not lifted as the figure got to their feet and bounded off with Thane. Shouting from around her was changing its pitch, screams of fear turning to bellowed spells and commands, the terror subsiding, the growling subsiding, the sound of slaughter turning to battle turning to nothing.

And so that was where the Aurors found Rose, ten minutes later: in a dark alleyway in a corner of Hogsmeade, alone save the body of the dead Thornweaver, and with neither Selena Rourke nor Prometheus Thane in sight.


————————

A/N: And finally the plot kicks down the door!

I should have more ruminations. Possibly about the proper way to decant a Beaujolais and what sort of glass it should be drunk from (spoilers: not a whiskey tumbler). Selena's using shorthand; specifically she's brought a Beaujolais Nouveau. A Beaujolais's a very light-bodied red wine from the Burgundy region, though it's distinctive enough to not be lumped in with other Burgundy wines. The Nouveau is commonly the first French wine to be released each year, and you drink it young, generally for easy drinking rather than Heavy Wine Appreciation.

Yes, I'm taking the piss out of myself and my usual historical addenda here. But I do like wine almost as much as I like history.

I
’ll settle for talking about the symbol worn by the Thornweavers, the five-spoked sun-wheel; that is indeed meant to be at least similar to the Black Sun design, which has ties to Nazi occultism. ‘Cos I’m being super subtle in painting Raskoph as a bad guy.


Chapter 6: Again to Come
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Again to Come


Dawn brought smoke and death.

She picked her way down the main road of Hogsmeade, her father next to her, and watched as the Ministry relief squad extinguished the last fires, tended to the townsfolk, and cleared away the bodies. Bone-white monstrosities lay next to the bundled forms of witches and wizards who had not run fast enough, red blood mingling with corrupted black ichor and trickling together in the gaps in the cobbles.

Rose looked at her father’s face as they entered the main square, dominated by the huge white tent of the field hospital, and knew he, for all his war experience, had never seen anything like this either.

‘Hell’s teeth,’ Ron Weasley muttered. ‘They really did a number on this place.’

‘Not just here.’ Harry was detaching from the main thronging of Ministry workers in the middle of the square, and headed over to join them. He looked pale and worn, and Rose would swear more grey hairs had sprung up at his temples overnight. ‘This was a coordinated strike. The Council simultaneously hit locations all over the world.’ He handed over sheafs of paper.

Rose’s gut remained numb and calm as she looked at the staring, motionless picture of Joachim Raskoph, Colonel of the Thule Society, leader of the Council of Thorns and the Brazilian magical government, and now the scourge of the international wizarding world.

‘Today is a day of reckoning for all your sins, all your weakness. None shall doubt our power or resolve. From the ashes of your decadence, a new world of purity shall rise,’ she read, and realised her guts would rebel if she tried to swallow any more of the venomous bile.

‘A handful of capital cities,’ Harry was saying. ‘Other magical hotspots. Avignon. Old Charleston. Trier. But Moscow, too. Countless more. They’ve been raising Inferi and striking with Thornweavers alongside them, marshaling their movements. The magical town they struck in Sicily’s actually been wiped out. This is not over.’

‘This is the point where I’m meant to look at you, all serious-faced, and say something like, “it’s only just beginning,” isn’t it.’ Ron’s eyes bore no humour, only a dull kind of determination, and he put a hand to Rose’s shoulder and kept his grip firm.

‘How many people are dead?’ said Rose, voice tight.

Harry gave her a look like he didn’t want to answer, and then seemed to remember who he was talking to. ‘Eighty-three dead, a hundred more wounded.’

‘Those were Inferi like with Eridanos, you need to burn the bodies, you need to quarantine -’

‘Hogsmeade is under quarantine; Hermione got her team back together and they’re clamping down on this area. The same old procedures. They know what they’re doing. Nobody else comes in or leaves, and Professor Lockett’s on the scene trying to figure out this new illness.’

Rose looked between them with twisting horror. ‘And you’re here when you might be infected -’

‘It was a scramble,’ said Ron. ‘Attacks on Hogsmeade, that’s all we knew. Only volunteers with experience were shipped in once we realised what was going on. So while your mother and Lockett and their people worry about Eridanos or whatever this is, we’re making sure there’s no more trouble.’

She hadn’t heard that, ‘we might be doomed but in the meantime let’s get on with it,’ sentiment in years, and she certainly wasn’t used to hearing it from her father. He and her mother and Uncle Harry had probably mastered this decades ago, but it was another incident of being treated like an equal by her parents, and the fact that this happened most often during threats to life and limb was not comforting.

‘There is no trouble,’ sighed Harry. ‘Fires are put out. Bodies are being cleared. Survivors are being found and checked out. We’ve got a whole line of Enforcers at the quarantine perimeter, keeping people out, and Apparition, Portkey, and Floo remain locked down. We’re gathering reports, but all we can do is wait.’

‘Speaking of reports,’ said Rose, ‘I assume there’s nothing yet on Selena.’

Ron grimaced. ‘We’re sending out word as discreetly as possible, but the Council of Thorns aren’t yet bragging about capturing the Chairman of the IMC’s daughter.’

‘We’ll put the pressure on, at home and abroad,’ said Harry, ‘and we will find her.’

‘Does her mother know?’

‘Hermione told her. Right before she came down with the task force. She’s… apparently dealing with it by calling an emergency summit of the IMC. I get the impression that their disbandment has come to a sudden halt.’

‘We’re going to need them,’ said Ron stoutly. ‘Minister Halvard’s a bloody pencil-pusher with no idea how to handle a crisis. The Ministry’s become a dog-and-pony show under him - we need some decisive leadership and if the Council are striking internationally, we need international unity.’

‘Which makes me all the more concerned,’ said Harry, calmer, ‘that the Council snatched Lillian Rourke’s daughter the same night as they made this strike.’

‘It’s not the most opaque plan in the world,’ Rose pointed out, then drew a deep breath. ‘What about Thane?’

‘I have no idea what he was doing here,’ said Ron, tense. ‘His ties with the Council of Thorns are well-and-truly severed.’

‘His people killed that Thornweaver who was going to kill me; she was in charge of the break-in at the Three Broomsticks. She clearly had some smarts, if not authority. They most absolutely were not here to work with the Council.’

‘And yet they were here before the Ministry was.’ Harry shook his head. ‘It doesn’t surprise me Thane still has contacts in the Council. You don’t become that successful a murderer of their leaders without really good intelligence.’

‘We’ll look into him, too, Rosie. I promise.’

Rose glanced at her father. ‘The Council of Thorns has kidnapped Selena Rourke and are making terror strikes with an army of Inferi all over the world. Prometheus Thane will forever be your second priority.’ They looked like they’d argue, even if it was fruitless, so she pressed on. ‘Do we know where they got the bodies from?’

‘For the Inferi?’ said Harry. ‘Reports are coming in of a Muggle village about twenty miles north of here being… not there any more. A really small place in the Highlands, but it would account for the forty or so Inferi.’

A fizzing, light-headed feeling crept behind Rose’s temples. ‘You need more information to know the incubation period -’

‘Rose.’ That was her father again, his hand still on her shoulder. ‘It’s okay. The professionals are on this. They’re checking it all out, they know all the procedures, and for anything we don’t know, they’re going through the process to find out. All you need to do is wait.’

She spotted a figure behind them, emerging from the snow-white medical tent that stood in such stark contrast to the ruins of Hogsmeade village, and decided to not argue. ‘I… I’m going to the medical tent. I want to check the casualty lists.’

It wasn’t really a lie, and her father and uncle let her go, probably so they didn’t have to explain more of these world-shattering facts to her. It was nothing new, nothing she hadn’t faced before, and her lack of shock and horror, her acceptance of this descent back into the days she could understand, was likely unsettling them.

She didn’t care. There was a fire sparking in her bones, like she’d just downed a week’s worth of coffee and parts of her that had been asleep forever were waking up. Chaos was come again, but Rose Weasley knew how to deal with chaos. It was peace that had been so troublesome.

‘I see you’ve swapped vices,’ she said to the figure stood outside the medical tent as they sparked up a cigarette.

Nat Lockett looked guiltily from cigarette to Rose - and then had a long, satisfying puff. ‘I’d offer you one, but your father and uncle are right there and that would be the least classy thing.’

‘I have to put up with Matt’s cigars. No thank you.’ Rose looked her up and down. ‘How’ve you been?’

‘Oh, don’t indulge me, Weasley. Ask the questions you want to ask.’ Her shoulders were squared, stiff, and she looked like she’d been dragged across the cobbled streets of Hogsmeade face-first for hours. Emergency research on a plague responsible for countless deaths and which could inflict countless more was probably a similar experience.

‘Alright.’ That was better. Rose didn’t really care how Nat Lockett was doing. She was just another person who’d run away from their problems, and though she didn’t feel abandoned by someone she’d never turned to for support in the first place, that shred of resentment that she’d lost Scorpius, too, and had faced the music, wormed away in her. ‘Is this infectious?’

Lockett had a drag on her cigarette. ‘On a par with Eridanos. In fact, it’s almost identical to Eridanos. Almost.’

‘What’re the differences?’

‘It protects the minds of the Inferi better, stops them from rotting away, but also includes a mental compulsion element. They’re smarter, but that makes it easier for witches and wizards with the right spells to control them. Like reports are saying the Thornweavers were doing last night.’

Rose drew a deep breath, and their eyes met. ‘So this is Lethe.’

Lockett blew out smoke through her nose. There was a long pause before she answered. ‘Based on the information extracted from those few members of the Council of Thorns captured in Ager Sanguinis, and the research notes dug out of there… yes. Yes, it’s Lethe.’

She had to look away. ‘So they found another way.’

‘It’s been over two years, Weasley. There was always going to be more than just the Chalice to let them -’

‘Is there a cure?’ As quickly as control had wavered, she grabbed it again, snapped it back into place as she looked Lockett in the eye.

‘It took about three months,’ said Lockett, ‘but we got the Resurrection Stone off Brillig Island. It’s being put to work. By midday, I’d expect everyone here to be clear. We’ll begin some decon procedures and letting people out of quarantine within the hour.’

‘You say “we” got the Resurrection Stone out of Brillig.’ Accusation slipped into her voice, but this was not hot, overwhelming emotion - just cold, hard fact. ‘Except you didn’t. You were gone.’

Lockett’s gaze didn’t leave hers. ‘The Stygian Plagues were wiped out. I had no responsibility to anyone. I was free to go anywhere, do anything.’

‘How does your husband feel about this?’

A cool, calm drag on the cigarette. ‘I don’t think that’s any of your business.’

Rose brushed errant hair, escaping its plait after the night’s chaos, out of her face, her eyes flashing. ‘If Lethe gets the better of the world, if this continues,’ she said, ‘then he died for nothing. You know that?’ Maybe control had not been snapped back into place.

Lockett flicked her cigarette on the ground and stomped it out. ‘I’m going back to work,’ she said, voice devoid of inflection. ‘Hector Flynn’s alive, by the way. Apparently he crawled under a table and the Inferi ignored him while they had moving people to chase. He’s beat up and infected, but we can deal with both of those things.’ She slipped her pack of cigarettes into a pocket, then hesitated. ‘A lot of people in the Three Broomsticks got out. The main bulk of the Inferi and Thornweavers had moved on to softer targets by the time they broke through your barricades, if I’m judging the reports properly. You and Rourke did well.’

Rose’s throat went dry as her accusation was met with reassurance. ‘I just told you…’

Lockett clasped her arm. The gesture was the awkward move of someone unaccustomed to overt displays of affection, but the sentiment was unmistakable - at the least, Nat Lockett never did something like that out of a sense of obligation. ‘It’s okay. And things are going to be okay, you know that?’

She’d been told that a hundred times before, but somehow, this time, the words started to settle that gathering storm. She did not find an answer before Lockett gave her a tense half-smile and returned to the tent. So all she could now was wait. Rose sighed, turned around, and walked flat into Albus.

‘Woah -’ He reached out, strong arms steadying her, and already guilt crept into his gaze. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to sneak up.’

She gawped. ‘What’re you doing here?’

‘I broke in,’ he said, and the words seemed so alien on Al’s lips that she just stared at him. ‘There’s no evidence that our immunities don’t work -’

‘We have no concept of this new illness,’ Rose blurted out. ‘Our immunities could be useless.’

‘Are you clean?’

‘I - yes, but -’

‘Even after this pitched battle?’

Rose let out a slow breath that quavered with the lingering anger. ‘It’s still irresponsible.’

‘Maybe.’ Albus released his hold, eyes roaming over her. ‘I was woken up by this in the middle of the night, and when Mum said you were here as well, when the news came in with the Council’s strikes, I came up.’

Why?’

‘Because I’m not losing anyone else.’

His words were low but ardent, and held that streak of honest determination bordering on naivety she hadn’t realised she’d missed. She looked up and dropped her voice. ‘The Council has Selena.’

He tensed. ‘Leads?’

‘I don’t know. They grabbed her and almost killed me. They would have done, if it hadn’t been for -’ She caught her words before the wave got away from her. ‘Thane was here. He saved me. I don’t know why.’

‘I don’t pretend to understand anything Prometheus Thane has been doing for the last two years. That man follows his own agenda, and I’m starting to suspect his agenda is “money” if he’s targeting Council members and IMC representatives alike.’ Al shook his head. ‘The criminal underworld isn’t all enamoured with the Council. They could be paying him.’

‘Maybe. But what’s he doing here? What did he know was going down, and what was he trying to achieve, if he’s no friend of the Council’s?’

‘I don’t know. But are you okay?’

‘I’m fine.’ Rose gave up on her patch-jobs on her hair, setting about tying it back afresh just to get the errant strands out of the way. ‘I was Stunned, which I’m really sick of happening to me, and fell over, and had some wrangles with Inferi, but I’m uninjured.’ The shock at seeing him was wearing off, and the rifts they’d torn up over the years started to loom once again. She took a step back. ‘Your Dad’s going to be pissed.’

‘I think I’m beyond mundane disappointment from him. I wasn’t going to wait at home.’

She tilted up her chin. ‘So now you come for me.’

Albus’ expression creased, but he cut off his first reply with a long, steadying breath. ‘There’s a big crowd at the outskirts of the quarantine. Matt’s there. I avoided him or he’d have wanted to break in with me -’

‘How did you get in?’ she asked, because it was easier than thinking about Matt.

He shrugged his broad shoulders, more toned after two and a half hard years than they’d been from just natural size and Quidditch. ‘I’ve got a bit more experience in being places people don’t want me to be.’

‘You still have the Invisibility Cloak, don’t you.’

‘Well. Yes.’ He winced. ‘But, Matt’s out there and he looked… worried. I mean, of course he’s worried, but…’

It was a peace offering and an apology and an acceptance of her relationship, and even after two years of separation she knew Albus well enough to recognise it. But she wasn’t ready to answer, so instead said, ‘We’ll need to go through decon to get out.’

‘Then let’s go,’ he said, ‘and I can avoid Dad knowing I did this.’

She gave Harry Potter’s tall, broad-shouldered, highly recognisable son a long look, and decided to not break his heart and point out someone was going to recognise him and mention it. Instead she said, ‘Decon will be ready soon. We can head for the perimeter.’

The southern parts of Hogsmeade were in a less terrible condition. The Inferi had come from the north and so that was where the bulk of the devastation was, where most of the fighting had taken place. The fires had started as wizards panicked and used the weapons they were told to wield against the Inferi, only for flames to get out of control. On the one hand, it had likely contained a large part of the onslaught.

On the other, it had left its mark upon the village. By fire or by incursion, houses sat in ruins, at best with their windows broken, at worst as smoldering ruins and most somewhere in between. The Inferi had tremendous, monstrous strength; enough to rip off doors, rip apart wooden walls, but the desolation was less and less the closer to the perimeter they got.

It was another half-hour before the task force had the decontamination procedures in place, and that took an hour, much like the old Eridanos procedures. Rose and Albus went through it in a stiff silence, but they could hear the crowds on the other side of the tent, the Enforcer-manned perimeter barrier making sure the quarantine held strong.

And it was into that crowd they were released after a mind-numbing hour - a crowd of panicked relatives, concerned onlookers, but press, too, and too many people who could recognise them and decide they were worthy of their attention. Rose squinted as the flashing of bulbs from the press began their onslaught. She took a step away from Albus as he looked like he was going to put a protective arm around her shoulder, and pushed on. ‘It’s been a long night,’ was all she called to the reporters, ‘and I’d really like to go home. I’m sure official comments will be issued.’

Al, for his part, had a harder time of it; his absence had left at least a flutter in the media, though nothing headline worthy. But timing his return with the sudden resurgence of mass-violence from the Council of Thorns was worth the press’ attention, and he had to wave off question after question until they were intercepted by a formidable figure that swept the journalists away with an angry wave of the hand.

‘You have received the official pronouncements from the Department of Magical Law Enforcement,’ Hermione Granger snapped, taking both her daughter and nephew by the arm and leading them through the crowd towards yet more of those dour white Ministry tents. ‘Chairman Rourke is due to speak here in five minutes, and I’m sure you can get your answers then!’

This didn’t silence the jackals, nor did it stop the staring of the masses kept at bay from Britain’s only fully magical settlement, now the site of Britain’s biggest magical catastrophe since the Second War. But Hermione was followed by Enforcers who helped bully them through the crowds and to the tents, and Rose burst inside yet another white canopy with a sense of release and relief like she’d just surfaced after drowning.

‘You should have told your father you were leaving!’ Hermione said. All around, Ministry officials checked charts, papers, talked to worn survivors, and Rose caught a glimpse of a world map with more red markers on it than she wanted to count. This place was command and control for responding to more than just the Hogsmeade crisis. ‘He would have given you an Enforcer escort to avoid that!’

‘He’s busy. I didn’t want to bother him more,’ Rose lied tiredly, but her mother was rounding on Albus already.

‘And I don’t know what you were doing in there!’

When she’d turned on him, Albus had initially taken a step back - as was common for anyone confronted with Hermione Granger’s tired fervour - but he squared his shoulders as she snapped. ‘I know exactly what I was doing; I’m not a child.’

‘You broke a quarantine set up for your own safety, and for what? What were you going to do inside?’

‘Make sure the people I care about are alright, because the IMC and the Ministry of Magic have done such a bang-up job of that in the past?’ He pointed at the smoldering silhouette of Hogsmeade visible through the flap of the tent.

Rose watched her mother jolt as if struck, and she stepped over. ‘Enough!’ she snapped. ‘Both of you! Albus, you were being bloody silly, but he’s right, Mum, we’re not children!’ They subsided with expressions of indignation and hurt, and she looked around the command centre again. ‘This is global?’

‘It is,’ said Hermione, thin-lipped. ‘They have to have been planning this for months. Lethe - they’ve confirmed that name - has to have been shipped globally, stored in Council-aligned locations. They’ve synchronised its release on communities, usually isolated Muggle settlements, in order to kill and raise them as Inferi they can control, and they’ve unleashed them all, the same night, on the wizarding world.’

Albus looked to the world map. ‘And not just in sheltered places.’

‘To say the Statute of Secrecy is strained is an understatement. Most attacks have been in places like Hogsmeade, the small wizarding communities. But in Avignon, for instance, the Inferi were drawn from urban Muggle populace and released on the magic district. It wasn’t a lot of them, but it didn’t need to be in that confined a space, and a couple of Inferi went on to escape into the broader populace.’

‘Has the Council gone completely mad?’ Rose asked. ‘I mean, mass murder, sure, they did that with Eridanos for months. But that was always in isolated places, and that wasn’t as much about killing people as it was spreading fear.’

‘The death toll’s still coming in,’ said Hermione. ‘But I would be astonished if the results were less than a thousand dead witches and wizards. And that’s before we factor in how many people died to become Inferi in the first place.’

Rose’s throat tightened. ‘And we’re dealing with Hogsmeade because we have Lockett, and the Resurrection Stone - most of the rest of the world doesn’t have a cure.’

‘The Resurrection Stone is not unique in its qualities - at least, in the qualities which mean it can provide a cure for Stygian Plagues. Avignon isn’t as bad as it could be, because they have Glanis’ Spring in Glanum nearby; those waters have provided a base for the French cure, and they can and have been distributing those waters across Europe. But… people will be dying while that’s happening.’

Albus’ brow furrowed. ‘I don’t see what they expect -’

He was cut off by a new voice, agitated, determined. ‘I don’t care - look, I’m fully prepared to make your life difficult if you don’t let me in -’

Rose turned, and her heart lunged into her throat to see Matt stood in the entrance, squaring off against the tall shape of an Enforcer blocking his way. Before she could do anything, Hermione stepped up, lifting a hand. ‘It’s alright! Let him in, thank you.’

Matt didn’t thank or acknowledge the Enforcer when he moved. His gaze locked on Rose and he flew across the distance to drag her into an embrace which was as smothering as it was comforting, and all she could do was clutch at him for long, foundation-shaking moments. ‘Thank God…’

‘I’m okay. I’m okay,’ she murmured into his shoulder, voice muffled, because for several heartbeats she couldn’t say anything else. And then the throat-clenching terror rose when she realised what she was going to have to tell him, and it took an effort for her to pull back enough to look him in the eye. ‘Matt… they took Selena. The Council has her.’

She hadn’t realised she’d dreaded this. The relationship between Matt and Selena was one she’d never understood, and she knew she’d never asked the questions because everything remained calm and stable for her. It had been too much to handle when she’d been grieving; shouldering someone else’s woes was beyond her, and by the time she was in a state to be a friend to either of them about it, whatever rules were established had sprung up. They were unspoken, and they kept them apart, and all she knew was that there was a deep, deep sense of hurt and betrayal on both sides.

All colour drained from Matt’s face. ‘What?’

‘They had Thornweavers in the streets; they intercepted us, Stunned me, took her.’ The fact that she’d almost died sounded like a hollow thing to say then. She hadn’t. Selena was in danger, possibly dead, certainly with no kind fate in store at the hands of the Council of Thorns and Raskoph.

A roar came from the crowd outside, a mixture of enthusiasm, fear, hunger, and Hermione looked to the flap. ‘That’ll be Lillian Rourke starting her speech.’

‘Speech?’ Albus looked blank.

Hermione’s lips thinned. ‘She’s the Chairman of the IMC. The IMC is going to see a resurgence in power, authority, control - it’s the best organisation in the world to fight the Council of Thorns now this has happened. I know Lillian Rourke. There’ll be a call to arms, to remind people that we have the pieces in play to fight this war.’

Matt looked to the tent flap, grey eyes going hollow. ‘She knows about Selena?’

‘She does. But it’s not being made public, and the Council aren’t bragging about it yet - investigations will be made, but we’re not going to -’

He didn’t wait for Hermione to finish, just let go of Rose and turned to the tent flap. ‘I’ll be back. I’ve got to - I’ll be back.’

Rose felt her fingertips tingle with emptiness as he left, that harbour slipping away, but then someone in the command tent - too entrenched in their work to even step outside and watch a speech, needing to stay linked to the affairs of the day - turned on the wireless. Lillian Rourke’s voice, a faint, incomprehensible noise at this mundane distance, was amplified and echoed by the transmission.

‘…may be a grim day. But I remind you all that this is nothing our country, our people, our world, hasn’t faced before. We will bury our fallen, grieve for the lost, clear our ruins. But we will rebuild, we will reinforce, and we shall fight. Darkness falls, but it has fallen before, and each and every time the light has prevailed. I promise you that it will prevail again. ‘Before I arrived, I called for an emergency summit of the International Magical Convocation. I had thought our work was done. I see now that I was wrong. So long as threats like the Council of Thorns challenge the world, the International Magical Convocation shall remain, and it shall remain strong. People from across the globe will come together, will unite, and will - as one strong force, with one clear voice - bring down those who threaten our way of life. ‘They call us decadent. I say we are united. They call us weak - I say that we will change to face every evil, rise and rise again against all opposition. They say a reckoning has come, and they are right - but when the dust settles, it will be they…’ ‘She likes these,’ Albus murmured wryly.

‘People need a strong example.’ Rose frowned. ‘The Ministry’s in no state to fight this in Britain, let alone the world.’

‘And her daughter’s been kidnapped,’ Hermione admonished. ‘I assure you that there is nothing here Lillian Rourke likes.’

The speech carried on in much the same vein, no doubt being piped across the world by the wireless, and Rose suspected that if she could get past the thunderous memories of a dark alleyway in Hogsmeade, Selena’s struggling shape being dragged off, the Thornweaver looming over her, she would have found it inspiring. The crowds roared with questions and cheers when she was done, so Rose reasoned the rhetoric had to work, had to encourage, and if politics were giving people hope in these times, she couldn’t argue.

The press threw their questions, Lillian answered them, and within ten minutes she was leaving the roaring crowds. There was a strange moment where the wireless sounded like it was narrating their existence, as a reporter spoke of her leaving the podium and returning to work, just as Lillian Rourke stormed into the command tent.

‘Updates,’ barked the Chairman of the International Magical Convocation.

‘Avignon is distributing the waters of the Glanis Spring across Europe,’ Hermione rattled off. ‘Old Charleston is being supported by the Greengrass Network…’

Al frowned and leaned in to Rose. ‘The Greengrass Network?’ he whispered.

‘Astoria funds and manages a relief program in North America,’ Rose mumbled, and watched his expression set. He didn’t need it explaining why Scorpius’ mother had taken a suddenly more active role in the dangers to the world.

‘But we suspect,’ Hermione continued, ‘several Inferi may have bypassed their perimeter and are on the loose in the general -’

‘For God’s sake.’ Lillian stalked to the map on the wall. ‘Get Potter and a team over to the US, show those Yanks how it’s done -’

‘Harry’s still in Hogsmeade. As is Ron.’

Someone competent in the Auror department right now, then. Savage, Cole, Proudfoot, and Potter can be over there as soon as he’s out. That needs containing.’

Another Ministry official looked up from their paperwork. ‘Is it still legal for us to dispatch British Aurors to a foreign state without request -’

Lillian rounded on the unfortunate bureaucrat. ‘I’m reactivating all of the emergency powers of the IMC, and if anyone wants to argue with that, we can debate it once there aren’t Inferi roaming around South Carolina. And at worst I will Floo the Department of Magic and tell them to invite our Aurors over.’ She turned back to Hermione, and immediately her demeanour was calm, cool, in control again. ‘Continue.’

But before Hermione could press on, the tent flap was shoved open and in strode Matt Doyle. ‘Ms Rourke! You’re aware of the situation with your daughter?’

Lillian’s gaze turned on Matt, icy. ‘Of course I am.’

Matt stood tall, unperturbed. ‘And what’s your plan for getting her back?’

Her eyes narrowed. ‘It’s highly unlikely she’s in Britain still. So information’s being passed on to the European authorities, especially the German Shattenjägers, to monitor movements -’

‘There’s not a law enforcement body in the world as good as Britain’s Aurors; this needs Potter, this needs their best -’

‘Britain’s best need to stop Inferi in South Carolina from killing wizard and Muggle locals and breaking the Statute -’

‘And the Americans can’t deal with that?’

Lillian’s nostrils flared. ‘Apparently not! But this is an international crisis and so we must pool our international resources, and I must assign them in the most efficient manner.’

‘Which means not rescuing your daughter.’

Rose flew to Matt’s side and grabbed his elbow. ‘Matt, this isn’t - we should go.’

Lillian was glaring daggers at him, but Matt didn’t bat an eyelid, and just gave Rose a jerking nod. ‘Yeah. We should. Al, we can catch up, too.’

It was an odd thing to say, but nobody seemed opposed to the grouchy nineteen year-olds leaving IMC’s Hogsmeade Command Centre. Albus looked nonplussed, but went at Hermione’s nod, and the three of them trooped out of the tent, into the lowlands outside of Hogsmeade.

The majority of the crowd was dispersing, becoming nothing more than friends and family waiting on those inside the quarantine, and only the dregs of the press lingered. They had more fish to fry, at home and abroad, with the implications of Lillian Rourke’s speech, and so the trio received only fleeting glances as they left.

Matt led them towards clumps of trees further south, away from enquiring eyes and listening ears. He’d changed, Rose noticed, into his long waxed coat, the hilt of his sword a metal gleam at his hip, and altogether walked with a tension in his shoulders she hadn’t seen in a long time.

Her heart thudded in her chest as she followed. ‘Matt, that really wasn’t fair -’

‘To hell with the IMC,’ Matt growled. ‘Lillian Rourke’s a bloody politician first and foremost; you heard her, she’s worrying about the fate of the world, not the fate of Selena.’

‘She is the head of the IMC -’

‘Yes, and fine. That’s her job. The Council probably abducted Selena to try to divert Lillian, to make her a less effective leader, and she’s not letting them get to her. She’s doing her job, she’s worrying about the USA instead of her daughter, and that’s fine for the IMC, but it doesn’t do Selena much good, does it?’

‘Does yelling at her?’ Rose pointed out, Albus trailing behind with the awkward air of one being dragged in as a third wheel witness to a domestic row.

‘I wanted to be sure. Now I’m sure.’ Matt stopped under trees dripping with early morning drizzle, and turned to them. ‘The IMC can’t afford to treat Selena as a priority. So we must.’

Albus and Rose exchanged glances, then Al looked to Matt. ‘What’re you saying?’

‘I’m saying we need to take action.’ His jaw clenched. ‘Yes, I’m asking the two of you to gear up again, grab your wands, and throw yourselves face-first into danger, because we all know that nobody is going to take care of one of ours as well as we will.’

‘Hunt the Council ourselves, again,’ said Rose, voice going numb.

‘Find Selena. To hell with the Council.’

Albus drew a slow breath, then gave a short, jerking nod. ‘Fine. I’m in.’

‘Good.’ Matt looked at Rose.

‘I can’t be in,’ said Rose, scowling, ‘on some half-baked, idealistic blathering about how we’re going to take the fight to the Council of Thorns, attack them ourselves, rescue Selena ourselves, when we don’t have the slightest idea where she is, what they intend, or what their resources are.’

‘We don’t know those things,’ Matt conceded, ‘yet. But we can find out, I promise you. I’ll explain everything. But first I need to know if you want this. If you want to take action.’

Rose jerked at the hot flash of indignation in her gut. ‘Don’t you two dare stand there like I’m not the only one of us who’s been a consistent bloody friend to Selena the last three years. Of course I want her back. But I will not ride off without a plan.’

He extended a hand, and her anger subsided as she saw the relieved creasing at the corners of his eyes. ‘Then come with me,’ said Matt, ‘and not only will I explain why we stand a chance, but you can also make sure this isn’t half-baked.’

‘Just because I’m on board,’ said Albus, ‘doesn’t mean I’m doing this group hand-holding thing, as that’s a bit desperate.’

Times change. Once, he’d have been the first for us to do that team-bonding, Rose reflected as Matt gave a low, wry chuckle, and instead pulled out his wand to conduct this mass, side-along apparition to wherever these answers lay.

———————————

A/N: I did more world building! First things first, ‘Shattenjäger’ is not a cool name for German Aurors I can take credit for. It means ‘Shadow Hunters’ and I plundered it liberally from the old Gabriel Knight adventure games seriously (they may have had a source, but I don’t know what it is). I’m normally so cheap in my references, but it’s an off-hand mention and I wanted to give them a cooler name.

Glanum is a real place in Provence, France; it is supposed to be the site of a healing spring associated with Glanis, a healing God of the Gauls.



Chapter 7: Heard the Call
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Heard the Call


‘This is your father’s warehouse,’ said Rose as they appeared with the spinning-crack of Apparition in the wide open space. She’d been here before, even if the memories of that day were murky at best. When they’d been rescued from Ager Sanguinis, she hadn’t cared to look at her surroundings. But back then it had been a haphazard sort of operation, equipment and people gathered in a frantic mess. Today, the warehouse reminded her of the training and equipment rooms in the MLE’s main headquarters down on Canary Wharf. Half-walls partitioned the expanse, and from the low buzz of activity, they were not alone.

‘It’s not just that,’ said Matt, and gestured for them to follow him out of the sectioned corner. A pair of wizards sat at a nearby desk, and had observed them keenly until they’d seen him. ‘I had to come here first to arrange you clearance.’

Clearance?’ Al raised an eyebrow as they tailed him.

‘This is one of my father’s safehouses and operations centres,’ said Matt, working his way through the winding network of training rooms, equipment rooms, and desks. ‘But it’s also the headquarters of the Order of the Knights Templar.’

Rose’s heart sunk even more. ‘This is going to take quite the explanation.’

‘I know.’ He sounded apologetic. ‘In good time.’

‘De Sablé,’ said Albus. ‘He was there, at Ager Sanguinis.’

Matt nodded, but he didn’t say more until they reached the middle section. The wall panels were taller and thicker, adorned with all manner of maps and charts with marks that constantly changed as new information poured in. In the centre was a huge, circular table, at which stood the tall, greying figure of Matt’s father, Gabriel Doyle.

He lifted his dark eyes from the papers in front of him and sighed. ‘So, you just had to.’

‘Dad, I’m not going to sit by. I’ve been doing that for too long.’

‘And you’ve still been more involved than I’d like.’ Gabriel folded his arms across his chest. ‘I don’t want this getting back to the big guns.’

Albus blinked. ‘The big guns?’

‘Your parents.’

Rose drew a deep breath. ‘What is “this”? What’s going on? What the hell do you mean about the headquarters of the Knight Templars?’

Gabriel gave his son a reproachful look. ‘This is not -’

‘You fund this, Dad; they do the work.’

‘I fund this, I provide the intelligence -’

‘And de Sablé and the others act on it.’

Rose stalked to the table and planted her hands on it, glowering at the Doyles. ‘This is still not an explanation.’

Gabriel kept his eyes on Matt. ‘You really haven’t told her anything, have you.’ He sounded disapproving.

Matt ignored his father, and gave a slow exhale. ‘My father has for years been an information broker of the magical world -’

‘I started after the Second War,’ Gabriel interjected. ‘Through underground contacts and moving in the same social circles, I provided magical law enforcement at home and abroad with intelligence on the Death Eater Remnant. And, after that, sympathetic political entities. Before the Council of Thorns sprung up, I’d had very little to do for about fifteen years.’

‘Dad restarted everything then, reforged his international connections to chase information the IMC couldn’t or wouldn’t gather. It’s why he had people at his disposal for the rescue at Ager Sanguinis.’

‘Including Reynald de Sablé,’ said Rose.

Gabriel nodded. ‘After you woke him in Tomar, I sought him out. The Knights Templar historically had a tremendous amount of resources and knowledge at their disposal, resources and knowledge the Council would clearly jump at seizing. I offered de Sablé funding and support to seek any inheritors of the Templar mantle so they could gather it, and keep it out of the Council’s hands.’

‘The IMC’s power - before today - has reduced,’ Matt continued. His eyed sparked with enthused light, as if he was talking about some great historical find, but Rose couldn’t find it as endearing as she usually did. ‘Magical nations have been fighting the Council of Thorns on their own terms for months, because they’ve thought they don’t need the IMC’s oversight. So we’ve been here - a united, international front. Gathering information, making strikes.’

‘Mostly against their efforts to gain unusual weapons, like their gambit for the golem-dragon in Tomar,’ Gabriel said. ‘But as we’ve gathered information, I’ve made sure it ends up in the right hands. We’ve had a freedom the IMC hasn’t, and so I’ve used that.’

Albus raised an eyebrow. ‘So what now the IMC’s power is going to expand again? Even greater than before, if Lillian Rourke’s pronouncement is to be believed?’

‘Then I will help them. Lillian Rourke’s a politician, but she’s sick of walking softly,’ said Gabriel. ‘The IMC was limited before because countries clung to their own power and resisted international oversight. If today’s done anything, it’ll make people care more about defending themselves from the Council than clinging to their sovereignty. We can worry about that when we’re not being butchered.’

Rose watched Matt, whose gaze was on the table. He had to feel her eyes on him, though, because he barely shifted when she said, ‘And what’s been your role in this?’

He stiffened. ‘I’ve fed information to Dad and de Sablé while we’ve been with Gringotts -’

Gabriel grimaced. ‘Matt…’

She’d thought it was a discouragement to talk, but Matt straightened at the reproof and looked at her. ‘I’ve done work for and with de Sablé and the remnant Templars he gathered. He’s been reforming the order as people who will guard this sort of power and knowledge from being used for the wrong purposes. And I’ve helped. With research… in the field…’

Connections formed in Rose’s mind and her gut twisted. ‘You didn’t just get lucky with the lead on Ranisonb’s tomb, did you.’

‘I was lucky.’ Matt grimaced. ‘But it leapt out at me because I knew it was something the Council of Thorns had looked into.’

‘We used our connections,’ said Gabriel, ‘to get the Curse Breakers to dispatch a team of people we could trust to beat them to it. You.’

‘You knew the Council would be after us, all along?’ Her eyes locked on Matt. ‘You didn’t warn us?’

‘You,’ Matt corrected, sombre. ‘Lowsley and Nejem are de Sablé’s people. Our people.’

Albus mumbled, ‘Okay,’ and took a step back.

Rose spent a moment staring at the wall behind Matt so she didn’t scream. Eventually she drew a slow breath and said, ‘How long has this been going on?’

Matt’s expression sank. ‘Since we got back from the Chalice hunt.’

‘And you never told me?’

‘At the time, you were - I didn’t want to bother you with it. I didn’t think you’d care. Then I didn’t want to burden you with it, worry you with it. Then… then it felt like I’d kept it secret for too long.’

‘So you kept it secret for even longer.’ Her gut was no longer twisting. Instead, her expression and voice were blank as she looked back at Matt and said, ‘You have some sort of plan.’

‘What?’

‘Right here and now. About Selena.’

He looked suspicious, but nodded, and gestured to his father. ‘The IMC is caught up doing IMC stuff. Even Lillian Rourke’s too caught up with these responsibilities to go after Selena, her own daughter. So I say we go after her ourselves.’

Albus returned to the table now he’d gauged there was not going to be an explosion. ‘I assume you have a lead.’

Gabriel took a map down from the wall and spread it across the table. ‘Not directly. But this event is only hours old. I have contacts all around the world who might know of Council prisons and the movements of their teams.’

‘You have people inside the Council on your pay-roll?’ said Albus.

‘Some,’ Gabriel said without pride. ‘I don’t have a first move yet. I would imagine whoever took Selena is still in transit; the more Portkeys they use, the harder it is to trace them to the source. They’ll probably be bouncing across the world, and we will pick up that trail somewhere.’

‘There’s been no public pronouncement,’ said Al. ‘That bothers me. If Raskoph’s snatched the daughter of the IMC’s Chairman, why isn’t he proclaiming this to the world?’

‘They might not know we know,’ said Rose. ‘I was supposed to be dead. If Thane hadn’t shown up and saved me, Selena would just be not yet found in the chaos of Hogsmeade and I’d be an extra body who couldn’t tell anyone anything. There were supposed to be no witnesses to her abduction.’

Gabriel nodded. ‘Maybe they’ll make a pronouncement when they’ve got her bundled up somewhere secure. Maybe they want to manipulate Lillian Rourke without the world knowing. They’ll have an angle.’

‘That gives us time before they do something with her,’ said Al. ‘So what we need is one of your people on the inside.’

‘The Council of Thorns operates on a very tight cell structure,’ Gabriel said. ‘They compartmentalise information, and they’ll have all been busy last night. I’d bet every active Thornweaver’s been out causing murder and mayhem across the globe. If none of my contacts have reported information, then we don’t have it. So we go to a different information broker. You know him; you’ve worked with him before.’

Rose frowned. ‘I don’t remember -’

Albus squinted. ‘Baz?’

‘Yes. Balthazar Vadimas, who kept the secret that you were alive after Kythos even though he would have been handsomely paid. Just in case you were wondering if you could trust him.’

‘Scorpius trusted him,’ said Albus.

‘He’s the biggest fish in the underworld; at least, the underworld that isn’t working for the Council of Thorns. I can’t guarantee he knows anything, but he’s where I’d start investigating,’ said Gabriel. ‘International communication is going to be heavily monitored by the MLE from now. I would recommend heading for Moscow and talking to him.’

Matt raised his eyebrows at his father. ‘You’re not going to tell me this is a stupid expedition and I shouldn’t risk my neck?’

‘It is, and you shouldn’t,’ said Gabriel with a matter-of-fact shrug. ‘But I was your age when I fought in the war. And I didn’t do that for principles, I did that for my friends. I could be a hypocrite, or I could be pleased that my son has principles and stands by his loyalties.’ His gaze swept to Al and Rose as Matt tried to not look too touched. ‘I don’t trust your parents to not be hypocrites. At the least, they’re adherents of law and order and them knowing about my operations here forces them to either reveal me to the IMC, or lie to their superiors. I would appreciate your discretion in this matter.’

Albus shifted his feet. ‘I’ve been lying a lot to them lately…’

‘Then one more lie won’t make a difference. And, not to put too fine a point on it, you owe me for Ager Sanguinis. Your parents and the valiant law-and-order of the IMC didn’t rescue you from the clutches of the Council.’

Matt tensed. ‘Dad…’

Rose swallowed the wave of rage at Gabriel Doyle’s audacity, squeezed Al’s arm as she saw him tense, and instead said, ‘So when do we go to Moscow?’

‘I can have a Portkey ready for you by six o’ clock tonight. Direct, untraceable.’

‘Legal?’ said Albus.

Gabriel’s dark eyes locked on him. ‘As legal as your travels and activities over the past two and a half years, Mister Potter.’ He dusted off his hands. ‘I’ll start getting the charms in place. You’ll Portkey from here; bugger the Ministry’s security.’

Then he left, and it was just the three of them in the middle of the humming buzz of the warehouse, with Matt rather awkwardly looking at the wall next to Albus. Rose knew he wanted him to go so the two of them could talk, but she wasn’t ready to do anything but catch Matt’s eye and say, ‘Can you get us out of here? We’ll need to pack and come up with appropriate lies for our families.’

They’re going to love this.

Matt nodded and returned them to the Apparition section of the warehouse, and soon enough they were in the copse near Hogsmeade again. He agreed to pick them up at five and, with a pointed look at Rose she didn’t return, whisked back to his father’s lair of secrets.

Leaving Rose and Albus stood in a damp copse near the smoldering stones of a Hogsmeade wounded so deeply it would take a generation to heal the scars. Albus had his hands shoved in his pockets, an indolent air about him she’d never seen before, and it was with unusual resentment that he said, ‘Two and a half years and he never told you about this?’

Now something snapped inside her. ‘Is this how it’s going to be? You waltz in after abandoning me for two years and decide to pass judgement on me and my relationship?’

‘Somebody has to! Is everyone just walking around like this is fine? Like you leaping into bed with your ex-boyfriend is the normal way of moving on?’

Selena didn’t…

She’d been awake for over twenty-four hours, got drunk and sobered up, almost been murdered, and was now facing another mad-cap dash across the world to fight dark wizards. The lingering shreds of control, not to mention dignity, shrivelled up and died. ‘What about acting like you abandoning us for two years is normal? Everyone else might be so happy you’re back they don’t want to explain how badly you hurt us, but you did, Al! You hurt your parents, your siblings, and you hurt me! When I needed you, when we could have helped each other, you hurt me! You abandoned me, again!’

‘You’re still pissed at me because of the Sorting? Grow up, Rose, not everyone’s choices are about you!’ Albus’ voice rose too, a rumbling anger she wasn’t used to seeing from him. ‘Everyone rallies around the girl losing the guy she loves. He was my best friend, my brother! But I’m supposed to put your problems first?’

‘We could have handled them together! Grieved together!’ Her throat started to close up, and that brought more anger, because she didn’t want to be sad, weeping, broken. She wanted the fire. ‘We set a gravestone with no grave and no body and you weren’t there.’

‘I did what I had to do,’ snapped Albus, ‘for me. So I could survive.’

‘And that excuse doesn’t work both ways? I’m not allowed to do what I had to for survival?’

‘So that is what this relationship is: a coping technique. A way to forget.’

‘Forget. Forget?’ The world narrowed until it was tight and dark, pain filtering everything out except what she could identify as the cause - and right then it was him. She stalked over to jab her finger in his chest. ‘It’s been over two years and I still wake up choking with the thought of him. I can’t smile without thinking of him, I can’t laugh without thinking how he’d make me laugh ten times more. I haven’t had one positive thought in two years which wasn’t soured by remembering he’s not here to share it with me.’

Albus’ expression twisted. ‘Not even Matt?’

Her heart thudded like it wanted to break out, weeping blood but pumping harder than it had in years. ‘With Matt, I’m trying to feel something other than pain. I’m trying to feel good without hating myself, I’m trying to feel hope without being swallowed by guilt and by grief, and to hell with you for throwing that in my face like I don’t deserve that! Because it doesn’t work!’

He jerked like her words were a blow against him, not her, and through the haze she could see the flicker in his eyes of the old Albus, the boy who tried to help and comfort anyone and everyone - until he’d burned alive for it. ‘Rose…’

‘I’m with him, I feel guilty. I kiss him and at best, at best, I feel nothing. That is what he gives me, and that nothing, that void, that is the best thing I have felt since I lost Scorpius. So maybe he’s been lying to me, maybe he’s been hiding things from me, and I will deal with that, but if you think I should rain down fire on his head for it, then you have no clue, Albus Potter, absolutely no clue, because I don’t have any fire left.’

He stepped forward, extended a hand towards her, but she shied away like he’d tried to hit her. ‘I don’t -’

‘We don’t have time for this.’ As quickly as it had descended, the veil of fury and pain was lifting, because whenever she felt that agony these days it always burnt out and left her more drained and empty than before. ‘Selena needs us, and we’re not going to lose someone else, so we have to… how did you once put it? Saddle up.’

Albus’ shoulders sagged. ‘I was an idiot kid back then.’

‘And this was just a conversation between two dead people, but she needs us anyway.’ Rose reached for her wand, her breathing slowing, and raced through the preparations for Apparition. ‘So let’s see if we can bring back the living.’

And before he could answer, she was gone with a crack between them as fresh as the crack of the Disapparition.

Packing was easy. She’d kept her magically enlarged bag, the one she’d dragged across the world hunting the Chalice. She’d made sure it still had what she wryly referred to as ‘emergency essentials’ in it, like a full array of life-saving potions, the tent, a whole slew of reference books. Not to mention food, other supplies. So long as she had this backpack she could sling over one shoulder, Rose suspected she could sustain a five-man operation in the middle of nowhere for the better part of a month.

Normal people didn’t make preparations like that. She’d accepted a long time ago that she was not normal. The main problem now was making everyone else accept this.

She considered, just for a moment, not telling her family anything. Then she realised that was callous and cruel, and considered lying to them, saying she and Matt were taking an emergency assignment from Gringotts just to get out of the country. Then she sighed, went to the Floo which Matt’s father had finally connected, and messaged her mother.

It took two hours before Hermione Granger, Deputy Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement on the biggest day of crisis in magical Britain since the outbreak of Phlegethon, had a mere ten minutes. Rose was pretending to read a book with a cold cup of tea by the time her mother burst through the fireplace. Even if she’d expected her, it took effort to not lunge for her wand by instinct.

‘Are you alright?’ Hermione said at once, and Rose was relieved to see no frustration. Sometimes her mother could be so caught up in work that she’d assume any interruption was a waste of time.

‘I’m fine. I would have talked to Dad, but I figured you’d probably want to yell about this, and I didn’t know how I’d get in touch with him if they’re sending him to Old Charleston…’

‘They are; he and Harry left a few hours ago.’ Hermione frowned as her daughter stood up. ‘What am I going to yell about?’

Rose took a deep breath. ‘Matt, Al and I are going after Selena.’

Her mother flinched, but looked unsurprised. ‘You know that the government is going to -’

‘Do everything they can, yes. But you’re right now up to your eyeballs in a crisis and it would be unprofessional for you or Lillian Rourke to redirect notable resources to chase one woman, when there are Inferi on a global rampage.’ Rose shook her head. ‘We’re not needed elsewhere. And we’re going after her.’

‘Do you have any idea where to look?’

‘We know places we can start our enquiries.’

Hermione sighed. ‘This is Gabriel Doyle’s little scheme, isn’t it.’

‘What -’

‘Oh, the man is not as subtle as he likes to think. I remember his post-war spy days, I wasn’t surprised he restarted everything when the Council of Thorns came. And then there was the Ager Sanguinis gambit; like he was going to stop?’ She shook her head. ‘Until he crosses a line, I am prepared to remain wilfully ignorant of the details.’

Rose frowned. ‘Why? I don’t like it; he could turn these resources to the Ministry, to the IMC.’

‘He could. And I could make use of them. Great use. But Gabriel Doyle is not a team player, nor is he a particularly good follower. If I set him to work under IMC guidelines, he’d lose a good deal of what makes him valuable. Besides.’ Hermione sighed. ‘I understand the value of a group operating outside of the government. Even if I am the government.’

‘The Order of the Phoenix was necessary because the Ministry was weak against Voldemort -’

‘And I would imagine the Ministry thought itself perfectly strong and capable, and thought of the Order of the Phoenix a rogue element making their lives harder. We’re not that Ministry, though I fear Minister Halvard inadequate for this challenge. So we’ll see more of International Magical Convocation, whose power is only going to grow to fight the Council of Thorns. And we need that authority if we’re going to be effective, but there’s one thing we’ll lack: accountability.’

Rose raised an eyebrow. ‘You’ve let Gabriel Doyle run around without accountability, either. What, so he can be your watchdog?’

‘The man is an arrogant braggart who thinks that a Seer’s powers make him wiser than anyone else, even if he’s reportedly not had a vision in years. But for the most part, he and I have shared goals. Should that change, should he start pulling in a completely different direction, I’m going to need to take a long, hard look at myself.’

‘I keep forgetting you learnt how to be in government by watching people screw it up.’ Rose bit her lip and looked away. ‘Is Lillian Rourke going to screw this up?’

‘You need to remember that this is the woman who started the Convocation. She saw, before anyone, that the Council of Thorns was a global threat needing a global response. And she’s been opposed every step of the way by people who cared more about clinging to their own power than sharing it for the good of everyone. I know she reacted badly when Doyle rescued you all from Ager Sanguinis, but I know Lillian. Of course she was delighted her daughter was safe, but she was afraid it would be used by her enemies to undermine the entire IMC. And if the loss of Lethe and the Chalice hadn’t crippled the Council, allowing the IMC to roll back its power, her enemies might have moved.’ Hermione crossed the room to put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. ‘She has always been as dedicated to fighting the Council of Thorns as me, your father, as Harry. She might be more of a politician about it, but I trust her.’

‘It’s just…’ She gritted her teeth. ‘If it were me, if the Council had snatched me - would you wait until the proper authorities could sort it out? Even if you are the proper authorities?’

Hermione sighed softly. ‘No,’ she said. ‘But Lillian Rourke doesn’t regularly have Sunday lunch with veterans of the Order of the Phoenix or Dumbledore’s Army. Most people don’t have a large contacts list of people who could go toe-to-toe with the Council of Thorns. So she has to do everything a bit more normally.

‘I’m not sure what that word means these days.’

The corners of her mother’s eyes creased. ‘I never wanted this for you, dear -’

‘It’s okay.’ Rose lifted a hand. ‘I’m not - I’ve got to find Selena, though, you understand? If something happened to her and I was sat in Britain feeling sorry for myself, I genuinely, I genuinely don’t know what I’d do.’

She didn’t get any further before Hermione made a small, muffled sound, and pulled her into a fierce hug. ‘You know that I’m so proud of you,’ she murmured, voice tight. ‘But I want you to be happy. I know you’re not, I don’t know how you can be, but I just - I wish you were happy.’

Rose’s heart tightened. ‘I don’t think “happy” comes when the Council of Thorns have staged their big comeback.’

‘Happiness can come under any circumstances. You have to work harder to seize it at times like this. But you must seize it.’ Her mother pulled back to hold her at arms’ length, and sighed. ‘I know that’s easier said than done.’

‘Mum, I do appreciate it - but I have to go save my friend.

Hermione nodded. ‘Is Matthias alright?’

‘He’s been and packed and gone. We need to talk about some stuff. But Selena comes first.’

‘He cares for you a lot, that boy.’ Somehow, her mother made that sound like a warning, not a reassurance.

‘And he means a lot to me. And Al’s back, and I… I do feel better for that.’ It was easier to make that confession to her mother. She knew she wasn’t done being hurt to Albus’ face. But the thought of facing Thornweavers was less nerve-wracking with the idea of Albus stood beside her. Even if she wasn’t sure who Albus was in a crunch any more. She wasn’t sure who she was in a crunch any more. ‘I’ll let you get back to work,’ Rose said instead.

Hermione nodded and stepped towards the fireplace. ‘Stay safe. And if you need help… to hell with Lillian Rourke. If you need us, Rose, I’ll bring Dumbledore’s Army, I’ll bring the Order of the Phoenix, and I’ll bring the whole bloody Department of Magical Law Enforcement to give you backup.’

Rose gave a thin smile, not insincere but strained. ‘Thanks. But I think this one’s just us and Raskoph.’ Again.

Only an hour after her mother left there was a knock at the door, and she wasn’t due to meet Matt for a while yet. So it was with wand in hand that Rose slunk to the door, and she peered through the peephole before opening up.

‘Matt’s not here,’ she told John Colton, damp and tired.

‘And good day to you, too, Rosemary; so pleased to see that you’re not dead!’ John gave her a broad smile, whimsical tone in-place to keep any sting out of his words.

‘You know my full name isn’t Rosemary.’

‘I know, but I have nothing else to call you in a condescending and superior manner when you’re being just a tad shirty.’

Rose sighed as she opened the door wider. ‘Sorry,’ she said, and meant it, because at the least they’d been Gryffindors together for eight years. It wasn’t that she disliked John. But he was Matt’s friend, and she’d never had reason to believe his loyalties lay anywhere else. ‘I’m okay. Just a bit tired.’

‘Chaos come again is tiring. Matt and I were at our third pub when news of Hogsmeade came in, and would you know he didn’t even finish his pint before chasing off? So I thought I should check in with you both.’ He padded in, eyebrows pointedly raised.

Rose watched him as she shut the door. She could see the slightest knotting of his brow, despite his usual whimsical indifference, a sign of serious thought under the surface. ‘Matt’s okay. He’s with his father.’ Their eyes met. You knew, she thought. You knew what was going on with Matt and his father and de Sablé, at least a little.

‘Outstanding.’ He glanced at the door. ‘Truth be told, I can come back another time -’

‘I’m tired, I’m not injured or dying or sick. You don’t usually have a problem speaking your mind to me, John.’

‘I beg to differ; I spent a year with you as the shoutiest prefect in Gryffindor.’

And then I gave up my prefect’s badge for Cheryl, because who cares about school discipline? ‘You came here for Matt, but I can read you. What is it?’

‘Even I think there’s a time and a place for everything, and sometimes it’s not the time.’ But he squared his shoulders and faced her head-on. ‘Matt’s my friend. I don’t want to see him get hurt.’

‘You say that like I’d do something to hurt him.’ She was supposed to be indignant, she thought.

‘I don’t think you’d do something. Quite the opposite.’

‘My relationship with Matt isn’t your business -’

‘But Matt’s wellbeing is.’ Dark eyes narrowed. ‘You have my heartiest respect, Rose. You’ve been through a lot, but I think people, including me, including Matt, have given you the benefit of the doubt over and over because of this. Perhaps you deserve that. But Matt doesn’t deserve to suffer because of it.’

‘He’s hardly suffering -’

‘If you whistled, he’d come running. If you told him you’d never love him, but wanted him by your side forever, treated only to the scraps of affection you could spare, he’d smile and follow you. And I say, “if”. That’s what you’re doing, it’s just unspoken right now. And it’s killing him.’ He kept his gaze on her, expression calm and level, and as she fumbled for words, he pressed on. ‘Maybe you know that. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you just don’t want to think about it. But he’s been yours all along. He deserves better.’

Her chin tilted up. ‘Better than me?’

‘Better than you’re treating him.’ He looked away, and finally his voice went utterly serious. ‘Again, I respect you, Rose. I respect what you’ve been through. I believe you don’t want to hurt him. But I think you are, anyway. And I think someone needs to point this out to you.’

Maybe. But if right now isn’t the time to think about Matt lying to me for two years, it’s sure as hell not time for me to think about if I’m mistreating him. She reached for the door. ‘I know I asked, John, but I also got attacked by Inferi last night.’

He inclined his head, and stepped towards the door. ‘But of course. I truly am glad to see you’re alright, Rose.’

‘I’m alive,’ she confirmed. He left, obviously rather shamed even if, as she’d said, she had pressed him to speak his mind. Then there she was, alone in the flat, waiting on a time to meet Matt so they could get to the business of rescuing Selena.

And so she could get to the business of adamantly not thinking about what John had said.

* *


Albus saw his mother’s heart leap into her throat when he entered the living room with his rucksack. ‘It’s not what you think.’

Ginny got to her feet, gaze tight. ‘Isn’t it?’

‘Mum, I’m not running. I know now there’s nowhere to run to.’

‘But you have to go, anyway?’ That was a new voice, and Albus whirled to see James stood in the kitchen door, arms folded across his chest. ‘That’s sounding like an excuse, little brother.’

They hadn’t seen each other since the village. He’d hoped their reunion would be better, that he could be properly grateful. But now he could see the tension in his brother’s eyes, the doubt, and knew this was not the time for a reconciliation. ‘Selena Rourke’s been abducted,’ Albus said, trying to keep his voice low and calm, trying to sound like the boy they remembered, while the man he’d become wanted to point out lives were on the line. ‘And I have to go find her.’

James arched an eyebrow. ‘Don’t you think that’s a job for the government?’

Ginny lifted a hand. ‘James.’ He fell silent, and she looked at Albus, though doubt rang in her dark eyes. ‘He has a point, though. Why does it have to be you?’

‘Because she’s my friend. Because she needs help. Because I can help her.’

‘You know,’ said James, ‘those are all really good arguments you could have used on yourself over the last few years.’

Albus squared his shoulders as the calm boy they all remembered faded to dust. ‘So this is how it is? I get understanding for my choices right until you decide we’re done with that?’

‘More like, you come back and act contrite right until you have a chance to be a self-indulgent brat again!’ James stormed towards him.

‘Brat?’ Al clenched his jaw. ‘I’ve seen things that would curl your toes and leave you weeping in a corner for ten years, big brother; don’t you dare act like -’

‘Oh, spare me the “I did what I had to do,” spiel, complete with grating deep voice!’ James tossed his hands in the air. ‘I don’t know if you’re lying to us or lying to yourself, but your place isn’t running off in the world again, pretending like you’re making a difference. Your place is here! War’s starting again, and your place is with your family!’

‘I am pretending nothing; I’m doing something more bloody useful with my life than throwing around a Quaffle -’

Stop!’ Ginny’s voice broke through the air like the crack of a whip, and both boys had been raised with a healthy respect for their mother’s anger, springing apart like fighting dogs who’d had a bucket of water hurled over them. When Albus looked at her, she looked less tired and pale in her anger. ‘This family has been apart for too long,’ she continued, her voice dropping to something low and dangerous.

Albus grimaced. ‘I’m not leaving, Mum - I mean, I am, but I will come back -’

‘You said that last time,’ James growled.

Both fell silent at their mother’s renewed glare. ‘I am never going to tie either of you to my apron strings. Or I’d pull Lily out of Hogwarts. But she doesn’t want to leave, and Hogwarts remains the safest place for her. So I will just have to deal with that. Al, you say you’re going to find your friend. Look me in the eye.’

Albus stepped over to his mother and lifted his big hands to her shoulders. ‘Mum. I’m not kidding myself. I’m not lying to you. I’m not even going alone; this is Rose and Matt and me.’ James scoffed, but he ignored it. ‘I’m not going off to do good just so I don’t have to be here. I need a few days to do this, that’s all.’

Ginny grasped one of his hands, then extended her other hand to James. ‘I’m going to be trite at you boys,’ she warned. ‘The family being together doesn’t mean we all stay at home. It means we trust each other and we back each other up. It means we’re here for each other. I know you’re both hurt, and you’re both afraid, but you have to stop fighting like this. You’ll just drive each other apart.’

Albus looked at James, and saw that familiar, resentful glimmer in his eye. ‘Jim - you brought me back, Jim. I’m not going to forget that.’

The surly glint about his brother faded for a more apprehensive, guarded edge. ‘I don’t know if I can bring you back another time.’

Al clasped his shoulder. ‘You won’t have to. I promise you both, I am not running. I’m doing what I should have done a long time ago; I’m being where my friends need me. I can’t make up for what I did, but I… if something happens to Selena, after we lost Methuselah, after we lost Scorpius - we can’t. I know Matt and Rose will go with or without me. I have to go for me, I have to go for Selena, and I have to go for them.’ He saw James scowl, and pressed on. ‘Of course that doesn’t mean I put them before you. But you don’t need me sat at home, agonising and worrying.’

‘We need you safe,’ James said.

‘And I will be careful.’

‘Yes,’ said Ginny. ‘Do be careful when you charge after Thornweavers selected to capture and detain the daughter of the Chairman of the International Magical Convocation.’

But her lips twitched, James snorted, and then Albus was laughing, too - a small, nervous laugh, tinged with apprehension, and Ginny pulled him into a hug which he returned fervently. James was dragged into it too, and the three clung to each other for a long time, as if Ginny could squeeze her message into them - or set into him an anchor which would make sure, this time, he came back soon.

He had no intention of letting them down again.


Chapter 8: The Lawless Perch
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The Lawless Perch


It wasn’t snowing in Moscow, and Rose felt a little cheated. With the time difference and the intricacies of taking an illegal Portkey, it was late and dark by the time they stepped into the streets, and the cold bit through her coat and jumper. She hadn’t realised she’d shivered, but then Matt put an arm around her shoulder. She ignored Al’s look.

‘What’ve we got, hotel rooms?’ asked Albus.

‘No way. We don’t want anyone to know we’re in the city, and we have no control over who’s got access to a hotel, magical or Muggle. Dad sorted us a safe house near here.’ Matt looked up and down the street, then picked a direction.

‘We couldn’t have taken the Portkey there directly? Instead of into a back alley?’

‘If someone traces this Portkey, all they know is that we’re in Moscow. If the Portkey went right to where we’re staying, they’d be able to find us.’

Rose tuned out the bickering and turned her gaze to this run-down district of Moscow. She’d anticipated more of a culture shock, but if it weren’t for the Cyrillic script on signs and shops, she would have struggled to tell she wasn’t in some decrepit industrial region of London. That, and the cold. It was a good ten to fifteen degrees colder than it had been in England, and while it wasn’t beyond what she’d expect deeper in winter, it was a sudden change.

They weren’t in a magical district and there weren’t many people on the street, so they made the fifteen-minute walk without incident. Matt had to stop a few times, pull a map from his pocket, consult the signs with a furrowed brow as he tried to match up symbols he didn’t understand, before they reached what looked like an abandoned block of workers’ flats across from an empty refinery. He pulled his wand, tapped it twice against a dead nearby lamppost, and murmured something Rose couldn’t hear.

‘There we go.’

Albus squinted as the building made the transition from empty and run-down to illuminated and run-down. ‘Your father doesn’t take style as seriously as security, I see.’

Matt glared. ‘It’ll be fine. It’s warded and nobody will spot any lights or signs of life inside, wizard or otherwise. What were you expecting, a five-star hotel?’

Rose pushed past them to get the door and was relieved when Albus followed instead of taking the bait. The safehouse Gabriel Doyle had arranged for them proved to be more comfortable on the inside; plain and simple, but it was warm, clean, furnished, and well-stocked with food. Only the top floor of the building was usable, with two bunkrooms, a kitchenette, and a seating area boasting an impressive table from which one could presumably plot an international strike.

‘We’re meeting Baz at ten at his place,’ said Matt. ‘Local time, of course. It’s only a four hour difference but I suggest we don’t get a late night.’

Albus gave him a sidelong look. ‘If we’re being all motherly, then I’ll cook us a nice dinner, shall I?’

He did. It was garnished with resentment, but for a few moments, with the three of them sat around the huge table, Albus rattling back and forth with plates of what glorious things he could do with a few tins of essentials, everything felt like normal. Or, like the last meal Rose could remember counting as “normal”, which was a sunlit evening on a terrace in Venice eating dinner with her friends.

But once the silence of eating passed for the silence of tension, Albus’ eyes flickering between the two of them with an accusatory air she wasn’t used to, normalcy faded for anxiety. Rose pushed back her chair. ‘I’ll clean up, then I’m turning in. I’ve only had cat-naps after last night.’

‘No, I’ll do it.’ Al pushed to his feet. ‘You need your rest.’

She gave him a look, then nodded and stalked to one of the bunkrooms before she could give the matter much thought. How can you tear strips off me for how I live my life, then go right back to being the guy I remember?

Despite being bone weary, fifteen minutes later she was no closer to sleep than lying on a bunk and staring at the ceiling, and so the knock was no interruption. With a sigh, she got up and opened the door to see a sheepish-looking Matt.

‘This is awkward,’ he said. The living room around him was gloomy. ‘I didn’t know if you’d rather I just bunked with Al.’

‘Oh.’ Rose rubbed an eye. ‘I didn’t mean to do that. I’m pretty tired.’ But she stepped back from the door, and he followed with a nervous, grateful smile.

‘I know, and I get that we need to talk, and I get that now might not be the best time, so if you want to stick a pin in it until all of this is over, or at least until you’ve had some sleep -’

She lifted a hand to cut him off. ‘I don’t want to be angry with you, Matt.’

‘Oh. Good?’ He stood in the middle of the bunkroom, wringing his hands together. ‘I don’t have many better explanations than what I said before. I fell into this after the Chalice hunt. You clearly wanted nothing more to do with the Council, I didn’t want to land this at your door, and by the time I thought you could cope with it, I’d been doing this for ages. There was no good time to turn around and say, “by the way, I’m working for the Order of the Knights Templar.”’

‘Your father seemed cynical on that point.’

Matt shrugged. ‘Dad’s funded Reynald de Sablé. But de Sablé - you should meet him, properly meet him, Rose. If Raskoph is an ancient relic come back to spread his words of hate, then de Sablé’s like his opposite number. Even aside from the Council of Thorns, there’s work to do with these lost bits of knowledge and magic scattered around the world, and someone has to be responsible for them.’

‘And Gringotts aren’t the people for the job?’ she said wryly.

He snorted. ‘My point is that I didn’t get into this just to fight. We know the Council would use all manner of ancient weapons. They were prepared to snatch options other than the Chalice - God knows what they found to reform Lethe, after all. I didn’t want to go toe-to-toe with them and look for trouble. I wanted to help keep the wrong things out of their hands.’

Rose looked to the window. They were not so high up that she could see anything but the dull concrete of the opposite building, and for a heartbeat she missed the view they’d had in their rooms in Cairo. Even that felt like a lifetime ago, a time of dull, plain nothing in contrast to the present tension, fear, hate. ‘I understand that you weren’t done, after the Chalice. But I was. And if it weren’t for Selena, I’d still be done.’

‘Would you prefer I’d told you?’

‘I don’t know.’ Her throat tightened as she looked at him. ‘I know that I’ll worry about something happening to you. But if you think I don’t worry about that when you walk down the street -’

Matt flew to her side, grabbing her hand in both of his. ‘I’ll be fine, I promise -’

She flinched so hard she jerked her hand free, and he stepped back, startled. ‘Don’t promise. You can’t promise anything. God, Matt, we’re chasing down the Council of Thorns, possibly Raskoph himself, and we’ve never done that before, we’ve never gunned for them directly. Even Selena’s hunt for Thane turned into a hunt for the Chalice. We can’t promise that any of us are going to be alright.’

He stood frozen for a moment, grasping at the air where she’d been. ‘Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. Even if I’m not sure what else I was supposed to do. But you know, now, and so I suppose the question is, what does this mean for us? Do you want me to… stop this work?’

She looked at him, and something crumpled inside her. You would, wouldn’t you. Even if you clearly love this, even if you clearly need to do this, you’d stop if I asked you to. So she shook her head. ‘We have to focus on Selena. I can’t think about the future right now.’ But his expression flickered, and she dug deep in herself to find the steel to ask the question. ‘What happened between you two?’

Matt blinked. ‘What do you mean? Nothing happened -’

‘Like hell.’ She shifted to face him head-on. ‘I’m not accusing you of anything, Matt. I’m saying that you two went from being friends and confidantes to… I don’t even know what. I never got around to asking. By the time I could think about taking on someone else’s problems, there was a wall between you two.’

His shoulders tensed. ‘We were… I don’t know what we were. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a… a thing when it was all coming to an end, when we’d found the Chalice, when we were in Venice. But then - then everything went wrong, and you needed us, needed us both, and we didn’t really have the time. And then she started to pull away from me. Hung out with her old friends, avoided me, and so… I don’t know. I suppose we might have fought, but you needed us both. And I wasn’t going to spend time chasing her if she didn’t want to be around me, and…’

Rose lifted a hand to her temples. ‘And I needed your attention more.’

‘That sounds more blaming than I meant it.’ He approached her again, gait ginger. ‘I figured I could focus on someone who actually wanted me around. And not someone who’d suddenly decided I wasn’t worth the time of day.’

She raised her gaze, searched his face. ‘Except you’re like a cat on a hot tin roof now she’s in danger.’

Matt paused. ‘Is this - Rose, I don’t -’

‘I’m not accusing you,’ she repeated, and it was the truth. There was no jealousy, no fear, just a low curiosity mixed with a dull realisation of things she’d let slip by her, willingly or otherwise, over the last two years. It was like she’d finally stepped away from the jigsaw puzzle of her life, and not only was she seeing the bigger picture, she was finding pieces she’d had all along and was slotting them into place.

But the image was still only black and white.

Matt drew a deep breath. ‘I love you,’ he said. ‘But I can’t stand by and do nothing for Selena, not when I have the resources to hand. Even if she’s… no matter what’s happened… I have to do what I can. Everything I can.’

‘I know. And I’m right there with you. We’re not losing anyone else.’ She paused, then extended an awkward hand towards him. ‘I’m not saying I’m angry with you about this Templar business, or that I’m over it. But I can’t think about this right now. I know it’s harsh for me to ask if we can put it on hold until it’s all over -’

‘It’s not harsh,’ he said, hurrying to her and taking her hand again. ‘I understand. This is more important.’

She dug deep in herself and found a smile. After all, she knew he would take whatever reaction she hurled at him, and so she figured he deserved that smile, and that idea of understanding, rather than the blank numbness whose residence in her gut had yet to shift. Even with him.

* *


‘Moscow’s a pretty modern city, even the wizarding parts,’ Matt was saying as they walked the network of alleyways leading to the magical district of the city. ‘There was a lot of rebuilding in the fifties, a lot of old places - especially religious sites - knocked down, and replaced with huge skyscrapers and those soulless housing blocks like where we’ve stayed.’

‘Except for those really colourful buildings?’

‘Pre-Soviet,’ Matt told Rose. ‘And a lot of them were heavily restored. But the Muggles of Moscow have been worse for conserving historical buildings than a load of other places. European places, at least.’

Albus wasn’t paying much attention. He’d bowed to the cold by putting another thick coat on over his leather jacket, which he wasn’t about to abandon, and trailed behind Rose and Matt. Matt was up to his eyeballs in historic ramblings, and Rose was paying at least cursory attention, so Al felt somebody had to worry about their security. There was no sign anyone was after them, or even cared about their travel, but he’d spent two years being on his own and pissing off all manner of different people. Watching his back had become second nature, so it wasn’t difficult to turn this into watching all their backs.

‘We want the Morena Gate,’ Matt added.

‘That name’s ringing a bell,’ said Rose.

‘Morena was an old Slavic deity, with different associations in different places. Also called Mora, or Marzanna -’

The laugh choked in Albus’ throat before he could stop it, surprised and bitter. The other two looked back at him, and his expression twisted. ‘Marzanna’s what they call her in Poland, yes. They drown an effigy of her as a symbol of evil at the end of winter, to ward off death, disease, pestilence.’

Matt’s eyebrows raised. ‘You saw the festival?’

‘No. I did kill a dark wizard trying to invoke her power at the winter solstice, though.’ He ignored their curious gazes and went back to checking nearby windows. His wand occasionally swished, hidden up his sleeve, to detect unusual magical signatures.

‘A Thornweaver?’ said Rose.

‘Just a dark wizard. They happened before the Council came along and they’ll keep happening.’ Albus shrugged. ‘We’re close, I can feel the magic.’

Matt gave him an uneasy look, then returned his gaze to the route ahead. ‘Yeah. There have been bricks on the way to tap in sequence, then we turn what I think is this next corner, and…’

And instead of another narrow alleyway in eastern Moscow, there was a huge, broad street that couldn’t possibly fit. If Diagon Alley was a throwback to old London, this was the opposite: modern, with simple brick masonry, narrow windows with well-decorated arches around them, all sharp corners and straight lines. It was in much better condition, better maintained and the paint no longer peeling, than the alleyways they’d come through, and from the long, sweeping robes of the public, it was obvious they were now in the magical district.

‘We’re going to be recognised,’ Albus grumbled, and went through the familiar motions. He pulled up his hood, shoved his hands in his pockets with a good grasp on his wand, and slumped his shoulders, all the better to fade into a crowd.

‘We’re not that famous, Al,’ Rose said.

‘We are that hated by the Council of Thorns. Trust me. We’ll draw attention for being foreign, then people will ask questions, then -’

‘I think they’ve got bigger fish to fry,’ Matt said, and nodded down the road. The crowds at this end were sparse, people moving quickly from place to place with an air of determination and fear, but about a hundred metres down the street, Al could see them clumping together, tall barricades set up. Witches and wizards in long robes bearing the insignia of the Russian Magical Federation went to and fro, blocked the way of people coming closer, and moved in and out of nearby buildings whose windows and doors had been heavily reinforced.

‘Moscow was hit yesterday, too,’ Rose said. ‘Looks like they haven’t cleared the region out.’

‘They might still need a quarantine,’ said Matt. ‘Baz thought meeting here was a discreet option?’

‘If everyone’s attention is drawn, then this works for us,’ Albus pointed out. ‘Where’s this bar?’

‘It’s at this end. I wouldn’t think it’s open, we may need a back entrance,’ said Matt, and led the way deeper into the magical district. Albus scowled at his back, noting from here how plain it was that Matt had his wand up his sleeve, how his long coat bulked out around the hilt of his sword. An average person on the street wouldn’t notice, but he wasn’t worried about average people on the street. He was worried about professionals.

‘I think this is the place,’ Matt said as they approached one of the buildings on the street - the door closed, the shutters closed, only a sign out front in a language none of them could read. ‘The Lone Bogatyr, is how it was translated to me…’

Albus drew a sharp breath. ‘If you spent half as much time preparing for this journey as you spent indulging in your obsession with history, we might have answers by now. Are you going to knock, professor, and introduce us to your vaunted contacts, products of your father’s hard work, or are you going to keep blathering on?’

Rose bristled. ‘Al -’

‘I’ll knock,’ said Matt, his expression going tense, but blank. He rapped sharply on the door.

It took long seconds until a hatch in the door slid open, a lone eye peering out at them, and something was rattled off in rather fast Russian. Matt grimaced. ‘Er, I don’t speak - we’re here to see Baz.’

Albus sighed heavily at the fast greeting, but he’d caught half the words, and when he spoke, it was in his own, rather broken Russian. ‘We have a meeting. Tell him to look out of the window. He will see us. He will want to talk.’

There was a pause, then the hatch snapped shut. Albus glanced at the other two, and shrugged. ‘I’ve been around the last few years. A lot of time was spent in Eastern Europe. Yes, I speak a little Russian.’

‘You could have mentioned that before we got here,’ Matt grumbled.

‘I assumed you’d done your homework.’

‘My homework doesn’t extend to reading Cyrillic - look, I speak French and a little German and Arabic, don’t you be smug -’

‘Will you two both shut up?’ Rose hissed. ‘Don’t complain about not keeping a low profile and then start bickering in the street.’

Albus grunted and fell into silence, but he failed to hide a smirk at the sound of bolts scraping back, and a thin-faced man opened the door to usher them inside. ‘Baz is upstairs,’ he said, now in the English Albus had known, from his reactions, he’d understood all along. ‘My apologies. We are closed because of the attack.’

‘I understand,’ said Matt, now magnanimous, and led the way into the bar. With the many wooden chairs and table bereft of patrons, the fireplace on the far side dead, the shutters down over the bar itself, it was a gloomy, unpleasant sort of place, and he wasted no time in heading for the stairs. Their threshold guardian slammed the door shut behind them, and the hairs on the back of Al’s neck went up as the bolts slid back into place. This wasn’t just a metal locking, but a magical one. If this went sour they were trapped, and there was only one reason Albus had any faith in Baz as their contact - not that he’d met him before, relied on him before, though that helped. But Scorpius had trusted him, at a time when they barely trusted anyone.

The door to the office upstairs was open, and Albus heard the Russian’s voice before he saw him, when Matt was at the top of the stairs. ‘Ah, Mister Doyle, I assume. Come in, come in.’ Albus let himself relax, ushered Rose up before him, and almost walked into the backs of both of them when they froze in the doorway.

The office was large and well-lit, with a narrow window offering a good view of the Morana Gate, and the hubbub around the barricade. The walls sported peeling paint, old metal filing cabinets, a wide, battered desk at which the short, sallow-faced shape of Baz sat, wearing a smile frozen with confusion at their reactions.

And then he spotted the woman in the far corner. She was tall, her black hair shorter than he remembered, her features more sharp, severe, and still marred by that scar which scraped across the skin on the left side of her jaw. But she could have worn the best disguise and still he would have recognised her, with those eyes and that stance burned into him for all eternity.

His throat went dry. ‘You.’

Eva Saida straightened, and drew an awkward breath. ‘This wasn’t -’

Then Albus wasn’t stood in the doorway anymore. His legs propelled him across the room, and Baz gave a squawk of surprise while Rose and Matt just stared, dumbstruck. Even Saida didn’t get time to react before Albus’ hand shot out, grabbed her by the throat, and slammed her against the wall.

‘I said I’d kill you if I saw you again,’ he snarled.

‘I -’ She tried to speak, but her words failed to choke past his hold, and for a moment all she did was claw at his forearm, powerless against his strength.

‘Albus! We don’t - let her go!’ That was Matt, baffled and desperate, and he might as well have not spoken for all his words did to pierce the red veil that had wrapped its smothering grasp around him.

‘This isn’t - what the hell is going on?’ Baz demanded from the safety of the other side of his desk.

He saw something flicker in Saida’s eyes, saw the shock and fear shift to something else, and for half a heartbeat he was glad, because something deep and old inside of him, beyond the reach of the spectre of fury, howled in protest at making her afraid. But he didn’t have long to reflect on that, because then there was the gust of magic thudding into his gut and sending him flying across the room to crash into a filing cabinet.

Stars exploded in front of his eyes, but he’d taken a worse beating and was on his feet in moments, wand extended. She had hers up, too, but her stance was defensive, taut. ‘Al, you have to listen -’

‘Don’t you call me that.’ His voice tore his throat open with its thunderous shake. ‘Don’t you dare -’

Matt stepped between them, both hands raised. ‘We’re here to talk! Not here to fight!’

Albus glowered at him, then his gaze snapped to Rose, still frozen in the doorway. ‘She got Scorpius killed; are you just going to stand there -’

‘Will someone please tell me what’s going on?’ Baz stamped his foot and was promptly ignored.

‘I’m here to talk, too,’ said Saida. ‘But I’ll lower my wand when he does.’

Albus shifted into a fighting stance, and wondered how best to hurl Matt out of the way without harming him too badly. ‘Like hell will I -’

He’d been so busy contemplating how to remove Matt that he didn’t expect him to strike. Not at Saida, but him, his wand moving with impressive speed to throw out a Stun which Al, by instinct, shielded against. But Matt was still acting, his sword in hand for a swipe which cleaved its way through that magical barrier, and with his back to a filing cabinet, Albus couldn’t move away for more space. The blow was well-aimed, because after collapsing his shield, the blade only sliced through thin air, and Albus was still reeling when Matt’s Disarm knocked his wand out of his hand.

Now the instinct to kill Saida wasn’t as strong as the instinct to defend himself, unarmed against a man with a wand and a blade. Reflex made Albus step forward, inside Matt’s swing - and punch him in the face.

There was a crunch at the impact, a spurt of blood, and Matt gave a bellow of pain as he fell back, dropping his weapons to clutch his nose. But it broke the moment, at least, and Al stood there for a moment, blinking owlishly as Rose dived to Matt’s side, as Baz kept shouting, and as Eva Saida kept her wand trained on him and didn’t move.

‘You dupid badtard!’ Matt slurred through streaming blood and a broken nose. ‘Ng, Bose, could you…’

Rose was already casting, and there was another crack and a howl of pain from Matt, but he could lower his hand. Blood covered the lower part of his face, dripped onto his coat, but the nose was intact now, and he gave Albus a baleful look. ‘We’re here for Selena, not your problems! Is it possible for you to ask questions before you open fire, so maybe we can get some answers and stop somebody else from dying?’

Baz had given up, pulled up a chair, and lit a cigarette. Rose pulled away from Matt, and moved to Albus’ side, lifting a hand to him like he was a horse who might bolt - or go berserk, and he didn’t hesitate to turn his glower on her, too, even if the red veil was lifting. ‘Al. Let’s find out what’s going on.’

His lip curled. ‘How can you -’

‘I swear, Al, if you try to play the “my pain is worse than yours” card and don’t listen to me, I will break your nose.’ Finally, something cracked the steel screen that had been across her face since he’d come back, and it was that, not her threat, which made him subside.

He grumbled and retrieved his wand, but slid it up his sleeve, ready to hand. Then he leaned against the filing cabinet he’d been flung into, back aching. ‘Alright.’ He gave Matt a jerky nod. ‘You can start your blathering.’

‘Did you go on a two-year mission to find your inner arsehole?’ Matt sneered. He’d pulled out a handkerchief to mop himself up, but his coat and scarf kept their speckles of red.

Baz blew a smoke ring at the ceiling. ‘This is the best meeting I’ve had all week. You come in, kick off on one of my people, and then start fighting each other. Do I get an explanation now?’ His glance included Saida, who, at his nod, did lower her wand.

Matt retrieved his wand and sword to sheathe them both, before he nodded at Saida. ‘Do you know who she is?’

‘Eva Saida. Worked for the Council of Thorns, most specifically, Prometheus Thane. Then she stopped, and now she works for me. Happens all the time.’ Baz took a drag on his cigarette. ‘I take it you know each other.’

‘I infiltrated their team when they were hunting for the Chalice,’ said Saida, voice neutral. ‘That was my last mission for the Council of Thorns.’

‘Now that’s a thing. You didn’t tell me that.’

‘You’ve asked me about the work I did for the Council when it was relevant. It’s never been relevant until now. If you’d told me who this meeting was with, I would have warned you about this,’ said Saida. Her voice was as he remembered, that wry, matter-of-fact tone. Only Albus had attributed it to a wounded young woman called Lisa Delacroix, not a sardonic, cold-blooded killer.

‘I suppose we all keep our secrets.’ Baz stuck his cigarette in the corner of his mouth. ‘Saida is one of my most trusted people,’ he said to Matt. ‘She has, for the last two years, helped me in my operations to keep the criminal underworld out of the hands of the Council of Thorns.’

‘So, from the Council into good work, I see,’ Albus sneered.

Baz’s eyebrows raised. ‘You’re here for my help; don’t get judgemental about it, Mister Potter. I’ve been working with the Russian Federation and the IMC since the Council of Thorns became a threat. Perhaps I’ll go back to fighting law and order when all of this is over, but in the meantime, there’s a world to save, and we’re all on the same side.’

‘We are not -’

‘The Council of Thorns staged an Inferi attack within eye-shot of my place of work. They would have killed me as surely as they killed the hundred or so others. Dozens more have been infected with this new plague, this Lethe, and Russia doesn’t have its Resurrection Stones, its Nathalie Lockett. The cures which are out there cannot be everywhere at once.’ Baz stubbed out his cigarette, eyes tightening. ‘Joachim Raskoph is a madman who won’t stop until the bodies are knee-deep worldwide. That’s why I fight him, that’s why Saida here doesn’t work for him any more. Now, I haven’t thrown you out because Gabriel Doyle and I have done good work together the last couple years - he liked that I helped you in Athens - and because you were Scorpius Malfoy’s friend, but if you keep glaring at me with those judgemental eyes, I won’t give you a thing, boy.’

Matt gave Albus a warning look which only inspired greater anger, but Rose was at his side again, and squeezed his elbow. ‘Al, please,’ she murmured. ‘For Selena.’ That, at least, worked, and he subsided into an unhappy silence, settling for glaring at the floor if he couldn’t look at Baz in a civil manner. Saida he didn’t look to at all.

Baz nodded, and reached for the pack of cigarettes on the desk. ‘Smoke, anyone?’

Matt nodded, and pulled up the chair across from him, accepting the cigarette and the light. ‘What happened the other night?’

‘The same thing that happened everywhere else. We don’t know where they got the bodies from, or how they got the Inferi into the city centre so suddenly. But then they were here, on a rampage and a slaughter, along with the Thornweavers. Would you believe the Federation shut down the wards to stop anyone getting out of Morana Gate? Even us.’ Baz puffed on the fresh cigarette. ‘Fucking bloodbath.’

‘What can they want?’ Rose frowned. ‘All they’re doing is killing a lot of people and making everyone hate them.’

‘I doubt we’ll see more like this,’ said Baz. ‘This is to remind us they’re here. This is to scare the hell out of us. Then they’ll start targeting heads of state, topple weakened governments like they did in Brazil. I bet every government’s got Thornweavers in place, waiting in the wings, ready to seize power when people stop being angry at the Council, and start being angry at the people who didn’t save us from the Council.’

‘You don’t think this is about Raskoph?’

‘I think the Council of Thorns is a pack of lunatics who all want different things. Raskoph might be the biggest and the baddest and the one they’re all listening to right now, but he’s trying to please a dead Grindelwald and that means turning the world’s rivers to blood. The question isn’t what he wants, the question is what’s going to happen when he’s beaten, and how much damage he’ll do before we get there. But you know all of this.’ Baz puffed on his fresh cigarette. ‘You came here for a reason.’

‘Raskoph is the reason. If this isn’t him, then it’s some of his most important people who’ve pulled off a job for him.’

‘Your father said this. That’s why I asked Eva to be here. Which I see was a decision with no drawbacks.’

Matt took a drag on his cigarette, visibly steeling himself. ‘The Council of Thorns has abducted Selena Rourke.’

Albus heard the hissing intake of Baz’s breath, but he couldn’t stop himself from glancing to Saida to gauge her reaction - and there was one, a slight widening of the eyes. He looked away sharply. Of course that got a reaction. Selena’s Lillian Rourke’s daughter. It’s a big deal.

‘They’ve made no public pronouncements,’ said Matt. ‘But this is going to have been some of his best people. We need to find them, and we need to find her.’

‘There’s more,’ said Rose, her voice hoarse. ‘Prometheus Thane and his people were at the attack on Hogsmeade, which is where she was grabbed.’

Saida’s eyes narrowed at that. ‘Really.’

Albus bit back a comment, but Matt nodded. ‘It’s possible,’ Matt said, ‘they were trying to foil the abduction. The Thornweavers almost killed Rose, but Thane’s men got there in time to stop them, just seconds after they’d got away with Selena.’

‘Prometheus Thane is the wildcard,’ said Baz, speaking around the cigarette in the corner of his mouth. ‘He goes from Raskoph’s favourite pet, then eight months ago he starts killing the biggest names of the Council of Thorns?’

‘He’s killed members of the IMC, too!’ Rose said.

Saida shook her head. ‘Every person Thane assassinated in the IMC was in the Council’s pocket.’

‘Don’t get us wrong; he’s marching to the beat of his own drum, and I don’t know why he suddenly went rogue. Maybe he saw, like so many others, that Raskoph is deranged.’

‘He had all the evidence to see that two years ago,’ said Saida, derision creeping into her voice. ‘He didn’t turn his back on Raskoph then.’

‘While this is all interesting,’ said Matt, ‘it doesn’t get us any closer to where Selena might be.’

Baz looked at Saida. ‘Eva? Got any theories?’

She shrugged. ‘I still have contacts in the Council, people who like a little money, or aren’t all that fond of what the Thornweavers are up to these days. But this is the first I’ve heard of the abduction of Selena Rourke. Raskoph will have used his best men for the task, absolutely trustworthy people. Nobody who’d talk would know a thing about this.’

‘So that’s it?’ Matt squared his shoulders, that same fury and frustration creeping into him as when he’d kicked off on Albus. ‘You have no leads? They can’t have just disappeared into thin air!’

Baz gave Saida a look Albus would have sworn was pleading, and her lips thinned. ‘I have an idea where to look,’ she said, ‘but it’s risky.’

‘I’ll take anything,’ said Matt.

Something else flashed across Saida’s face, an emotion Albus didn’t dare read into, and she turned to him, walking over. He squared his shoulders and grasped his wand tighter, until Saida said, looking at a point just past his left ear, ‘I need that cabinet.’

‘Oh.’ He slid to one side, closer to Rose, but still trapped between them as Saida opened a drawer and rifled inside. He was close this time without being in a murderous rage, and could see she was as taut as him. He knew the signs from the short months of their acquaintance, their relationship - except all of those had been lies, hadn’t they? He hadn’t really read a damned thing, and she just knew how to play him…

She pulled out a map and returned to the desk with a haste he knew was because of him. ‘There is a lead we - and the IMC - have known about for some time, but they didn’t want anyone to interfere. We know where they manage, enchant, and supervise all of their illegal international portkeys.’

Rose frowned. ‘And the IMC don’t want anyone to interfere?’

‘This is something the Council will do anyway. Knowing of this location means we can monitor them, the odd portkey. If the base was hit, then the Council would set it up somewhere else, somewhere nobody knows about.’

Baz flicked ash off the end of his cigarette. ‘Saida…’

‘If ever there was a time to get their full portkey records, it’s now, after yesterday,’ she said flatly. ‘And whoever came from Hogsmeade with Selena Rourke will have needed a portkey off the Naglfar.’

Naglfar,’ Matt repeated with a sigh. ‘Of course that’s what it’s called.’

‘So it’s a ship,’ said Rose. ‘A mobile Council command centre to control their magical comings and goings.’

‘Most portkeys go to the Naglfar, we think, and then the teams travel on from there,’ said Saida. ‘If it wasn’t working overtime during the unleashing of Lethe, I will be surprised. There’s only one problem.’

‘Just one? In hitting one of the Council of Thorns’ most valuable bases?’ She arched an eyebrow.

Saida grimaced. ‘One first problem, then. We’re not sure where it is.’


——————————

A/N: Naglfar is a ship from Norse mythology, made entirely from the bones and fingernails of the dead. In Ragnarok it will ferry the forces who will do battle with the Gods. This is how Rose and Matt pick up right away that the Portkey base is, in fact, a boat.

I have been getting some upset from readers, all very worried about the fate of the characters without Scorpius in the world. I will only say three things: If I had something planned, would I honestly admit it? On the other hand, would I do an ‘easy’ resurrection? And, finally, I remind you: ‘Trust the fuckhead.’

On an unrelated note, I love how you guys all react differently to the characters. If everyone loved everyone, if nobody was hated or found irritating, I wouldn’t be doing my job right. Rose is a hypocrite, Matt’s a liar, Albus is naive, Eva’s a bloody traitor. Even Scorpius was petty and cruel and childish, and some of you rightly condemned him for it.

Except everyone seems to love Selena. I mean, I love Selena. But I love all of them. But Selena has lied and manipulated, she is hypocritical and tells people to sort out their own lives without sorting out her own, she can be superficial and cruel. And yet she appears to be the one character all of my readers get behind. How? Is there someone out there who dislikes her? It’s weird if there isn’t! Everyone has their detractors and I refuse to consider I have made the ‘perfect character’.

Otherwise, the plot marches on.


Chapter 9: In Nightblack Arms
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In Nightblack Arms


‘Dad can get us a portkey to Denmark, if it is in Denmark,’ said Matt, bent over the map laid out on the table in their safehouse. ‘But from there we’re on our own.’

‘We can call reinforcements, surely.’ Rose furrowed her brow. ‘We have a lead -’

‘We’ve got nothing,’ said Albus. ‘We think the Naglfar is in Denmark. Even if Baz’s people can get us a more definite location, that’s nothing conclusive. There must be dozens of reports of Thornweaver activity worldwide over the last two days. The IMC can’t chase them all.’

‘Your father had a team to us in Ager Sanguinis within twenty minutes.’ Rose looked at Matt. ‘You’ve got a whole operation which acts independently of the IMC.’

‘An operation which is, right now, as thinly-spread as the IMC. Your fathers are running around North Carolina because the Americans need their help. De Sablé’s up to his eyeballs trying to find out what the hell the Council got their hands on to create Lethe. We’re not a large group, and most people are helping him.’

‘We can put the call out,’ said Al, ‘but who’re we going to bring? People who haven’t waved their wand in earnest in years? People whose only experience of a fight is a classroom? And even if we get a definite lead, you heard them. The IMC might not even want the Naglfar hit.’

Rose frowned at him. ‘You’re saying we shouldn’t tell anyone we’re doing this, because they might stop us?’

‘I’m sure Lillian Rourke wouldn’t. But Lillian Rourke is subject to her advisers, an international team of experts, whose operations might be disrupted by hitting the Naglfar before they’re ready. I don’t care, but I think it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.’

Matt nodded, jaw setting. ‘It’s just us,’ he said. ‘Like always.’

She looked between them, trying to not glower. Of course this is the topic where you decide to team up. The part which requires us to be macho loners lunging into an abyss. ‘It’s never just been three of us. And unlike you two, I haven’t been running around looking for trouble these past two years -’

‘You did fine against Castagnary and his goons. Don’t pretend you’ve not kept up your skills. We’re not little kids any more. We’ve probably got more experience than most professionals.’

‘Maybe we do.’ Rose looked between them. ‘But I don’t want to get killed; I want to rescue Selena -’

Matt scowled. ‘We want that too -’

‘Not as much as either of you wants to prove something!’

Her voice echoed in the small room, with its bare walls which made her anger reverberate around them, and it was enough to make both Matt and Albus straighten. But before either could summon a response, there was a knock on the door, and Matt turned. ‘That’ll be Baz with a location. Hopefully.’

But he opened the door with his wand in hand, and it came snapping up when he saw Eva Saida stood there.

She lifted her hands, one of which held a manilla folder. ‘I come in peace. With information.’

Matt grimaced. ‘Did Baz have to send you? I’d rather not break up another fight.’

Albus didn’t move from the table, broad shoulders still squared. ‘I’ll behave if she does,’ he rumbled.

Saida stepped inside as Matt let her, and moved to the opposite side of the table to Albus, next to Rose. ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that I was wrong about Denmark; the Naglfar left Copenhagen almost twenty-four hours ago.’

‘Tell me the good news is a lead,’ said Matt.

She nodded. ‘Rotterdam. I had to check discrepancies in their berth logging system and reports from Muggle dock-workers with minor confusion and inconsistencies which match the effects of the charms the Naglfar uses to disguise itself. All very discreet, if you don’t know what to look for.’

‘Does the IMC know what to look for?’ asked Albus, gaze tight.

‘You were just suggesting we rush off without telling the IMC,’ Rose pointed out. ‘Let’s do what we have to and worry about the wider world later.’

‘Agreed,’ said Matt. ‘If they’re in Rotterdam, we can get transport there easy. We locate the specific berth, check the place out; repeat what we did with the Rabbit’s Foot if we have to, snatch a guard and Rose interrogates them. From there, we cook up a strike plan -’

‘There might not be any guards disembarking,’ Albus said. ‘Rose’s Legilimency is rusty, and it took us a week to form the Rabbit’s Foot plan, with recon. If the Naglfar left Copenhagen for Rotterdam, it might stay on the move.’

Matt grimaced. ‘What’re you suggesting; we jump to Rotterdam and hop on board, wands blazing?’

‘No, I’m pointing out that you’re leaping to conclusions.’

‘I am trying,’ snapped Matt, ‘to find Selena. You, on the other hand, are being an obstacle at every turn.’

Rose lifted her hands, chest thudding. ‘If you two are going to keep at each other’s throats, then I’m out. I want to save Selena, but if we’re fighting amongst ourselves like this, we don’t stand a chance against a Council command centre.’

Albus’ expression set. ‘We cannot be naive about this. We must prepare for every eventuality, and be ready to deal with the Council’s best people.’

‘And you think the three of you can take them on?’

All eyes snapped around to glare daggers at Eva Saida, who remained impassive. She shrugged. ‘I mean you no offence. I’m aware of your competence. But you’ve never made a strike against a Council stronghold before.’

‘And you have?’ Matt arched an eyebrow.

‘Yes,’ she said simply. ‘And I spent a long time with the Council, with their people. I know how they work. I know the wards and defences that they use.’

‘Then tell us,’ said Rose.

She shook her head. ‘It’s more complicated than that. You know magical defences are. They could use a dozen different configurations; I couldn’t tell you what they’re doing until it was in front of me.’

Matt’s jaw dropped. ‘Are you asking to come with us?’

‘Absolutely not!’ Albus slammed his palms on the table. ‘I’ll tolerate your presence and your help if it’s going through Baz, because people I trust have trusted Baz. But to have you at our backs? No way. No bloody way.’

‘Do you want Selena back?’ Saida challenged, and Rose noted how she still couldn’t look Albus in the eye. ‘Because you can’t do this, just the three of you.’

‘I accept that likelihood,’ said Rose, and her stomach began to clench into an old, familiar knot. ‘But you betrayed us to the Council. I don’t care that you got cold feet and then let us go; you betrayed us in Venice, and that got Scorpius killed.’

The look Saida threw Albus for a heartbeat was oddly accusing, then she turned to Rose. ‘I didn’t betray you in Venice.’

‘So you say,’ Albus growled.

‘It’s the truth!’ She gritted her teeth. ‘I got into the job to spy on you, yes, and report back on what happened in your search for the Chalice. But I was given that job by Prometheus Thane; Raskoph was responsible for the strike on Kythos. I realised then that if I gave reports to the Council, there was a good chance that Raskoph would kill me to wipe out the lot of you. The last time I had contact with Thane was after Tomar, and that was telling him I was going off the grid until I had the Chalice itself.’

‘So you stayed quiet until Venice.’ Rose folded her arms across her chest.

‘Think about everything that happened. I killed Elijah Downing, yes. And that was partly because, if we caught him, you’d have used Legilimency on him and I’d have been outed. But you know what Downing wanted? He wanted to kill you on Brillig and take your research and continue the hunt himself. It was a good argument. An argument someone loyal to the Council’s cause couldn’t object to. So I had no choice.’

Rose grimaced, but before she could find a retort, Saida had continued. ‘Then there was Cat Island. I risked my life to buy you time to get the Chalice. I didn’t have to do that.’ Her voice was low but firm; impassioned without fire, a cold sort of determination. ‘I intended to leave in Venice,’ she continued, and didn’t look at Albus at all now. ‘You had the Chalice. You’d be home soon. I was going to slip away in the night and be long gone before either you or the Council realised I was missing. I literally ran into Thane and his men when I was on my way out.’

‘And ran back to his skirts,’ said Albus.

Now she did throw him a defiant look. ‘I lied to save my neck. If I hadn’t done that, you would all probably be dead. There was nothing in the world, not one thing, compelling me to betray Prometheus Thane and Raskoph in Ager Sanguinis and help you break out. Why would I do that, if I’d given you to them with a bow on top?’

Rose fell silent. The words struck true, but they were thudding against a conviction which had sat in her bones for two years. She hadn’t hated Eva Saida, because hate was for those capable of feeling, and certainly the blame for Scorpius’ death had fallen more heavily on Joachim Raskoph and Prometheus Thane. But Saida’s betrayal had been a truth for all this time, and when it came to the details surrounding Ager Sanguinis, Rose’s usual logical thought was not as fluid.

‘If you changed your ways,’ Albus said, glaring broadswords at her, ‘then why didn’t you hand yourself over to the IMC?’

‘So they could lock me in prison, throw away the key, and pester me only to loot my brain for intel on the Council?’ Eva Saida raised an eyebrow. ‘I said I didn’t want to be on the side of Raskoph’s lunacy or Thane’s using of me any more. I didn’t say I’d become an idiot overnight.’

‘Facing justice isn’t idiocy.’

‘Whose life would be better by my being punished? Who would be safer, who would be happier? Who would be brought back from the dead?’ She shook her head. ‘Nobody. But Baz doesn’t care about my background. Lots of people are in my position; we worked for the Council of Thorns until we realised quite how insane they are, and now we want out, but we don’t fancy jail-time.’

‘So you can pretend you’re absolving yourself of your sins while conveniently avoiding consequences,’ sneered Albus.

Eva Saida’s expression didn’t change. ‘I said I’m not an idiot. There is no absolution. There’s only the time I have left, and what I do with it.’

‘Poetic, but -’

‘She can help,’ said Matt.

Everyone fell silent, stunned - including Saida. Rose fought to find words before Albus could explode again, throat tight. ‘I’m not sure I can give an opinion on this.’ It wasn’t the most helpful contribution, so she pressed on. ‘I do believe that she didn’t betray us in Venice, though. Which is a problem.’

Albus made a face. ‘That was two years ago -’

‘And if she didn’t betray us, then who did, Al? Who knew where we even were? We went there explicitly to avoid detection.’

‘While I agree that’s important,’ Matt said, lifting his hands, ‘it’s a problem for after we’ve rescued Selena. And this isn’t about her story, this is about her working for Baz for the last two years. Baz isn’t an idiot; he knew this meeting was important, and he wouldn’t have brought her if he couldn’t rely on her. We trusted Baz with our lives before, didn’t we? Scorpius trusted Baz when we couldn’t trust anyone else. I say we trust her, through Baz.’

Rose bit her lip. ‘We are going to need help. Even if that help’s just an extra wand-arm, we can’t call in backup.’

Albus didn’t move, hands still planted on the table. She could see how stiff he was, see the tension in the sinews in his powerful arms. ‘There is no way,’ he said in a low, deliberate voice, ‘that I’m going into a fight with her by my side.’

‘Then I guess we’ll see you back in Britain,’ said Matt bluntly.

Al looked up. ‘You’re -’

‘We need her.’ Matt straightened to his full height, which meant he still had to lift his head to look Albus in the eye. ‘And I dare say we need her more than we need you. I owe you nothing, and getting Selena back is absolutely more important to me than your feelings. Selena’s your friend, you say? You ran out on us. On her, on Rose, on all of us. Now is not the time for you to play the card of being “one of us” so we value your opinion. You’re not one of us, Al. By your own choice.’

Rose knew she’d win no prizes in self-awareness for noticing she’d grown colder over the last two years. But it was only now when she looked at Matt, saw the steel in his grey eyes, saw how tall he stood, that she realised he’d grown, too, and grown harder from experiences she’d never seen, never known, never understood. While she had wilfully ignored all the signs that he was hiding something from her, he’d been becoming a new person, and she had to wonder if she even knew that man.

Albus stared at Matt for a moment, then his gaze went to Saida. Rose would have sworn he flinched before he said, ‘Why do you even want to help us? It looks like you’ve got a good gig here with Baz.’

‘If I told you,’ said Eva Saida coolly, ‘would you believe me?’

Albus grimaced. ‘Probably not.’

‘Then I think I’ve issued enough self-justification for one day. It’s decided?’

Matt looked at Rose, who managed a stiff nod despite herself. ‘It’s decided.’

‘Good.’ Saida reached for the file to rifle through more papers. ‘I know which berth they’re at. I agree with - with Potter, I’m not sure we’ll be able to snatch a member of the crew for Weasley to interrogate. But this is a location which relies heavily on secrecy; too many people and they won’t be able to keep a low profile. I don’t think the Council knows we know about the ship, so a full assault isn’t the worst plan in the world.’

Rose took a deep breath, and felt warmth cram in with it as her mind started to rattle along, cogs whirring which had been still for years. She had looked at intellectual challenges, magical and research-based, and done fine. But this was people, problems, life and death, and old instincts were rearing their heads. ‘Then we want to find a way to cut off their communications and ideally their portkeys. Stop them from calling in reinforcements, and stop anyone from dropping in.’

‘Swiftness will be key,’ said Saida. ‘They’ve got to be able to raise the alarm, and if we sneak on board we can get the drop on them.’

‘And if they have security charms,’ said Rose, ‘we can turn their spells to our advantage.’

Saida grinned, a flash of satisfaction like a knife cutting through her mask - then smothered it almost as quickly. It was, Rose acknowledged with a grimace, no different than the surprised, pleased smirks Lisa Delacroix had given them.

‘Rotterdam it is,’ said Matt. ‘I’ll get on the Floo to Dad, see what he can do for us.’ He looked at Saida. ‘Pack your gear; we’ll be gone in two hours.’

‘I’d expect three, under the current circumstances of international travel,’ she said, ‘but very well.’

They both left, Saida without a look behind her, Matt to the closed room for Floo communication and transit, leaving an array of maps and scribbles on the table, and a motionless Albus.

Rose took a slow breath. ‘You’ve seen her since Ager Sanguinis.’ It wasn’t a question.

He planted his hands on the table, shoulders squaring. ‘Berlin. A couple weeks after I left Britain. She sought me out.’

‘And you didn’t think that’d be important?’

His expression twisted. ‘Why would it -’

‘We spent two years thinking she was the traitor!’ The words bubbled up from her throat, catapulting Rose around the table to grab Albus by the arm. She had to stop herself from trying to shake him; not that she’d have the strength. ‘I thought she’d sold us out and then got cold feet!’

‘How can you believe her -’

‘She freed us, and then left the Council! There’s no loyalty to them! No manipulation of us! Why would she lie?’

‘Because that’s what she does!’ He turned to her with a snarl, lip curling. ‘She lies, she tricks, that’s who she is. I can’t believe you and Matt are okay with her being here!’

‘This isn’t about that! She didn’t explain anything in Ager Sanguinis, but she came to you after, professed innocence. I’m not saying all is forgiven, but at the very, very least, you owed everyone back home a warning that someone else sold us out to the Council! Or of the possibility!’

‘There was no possibility,’ he rumbled, ‘because she’s a liar. They were empty words.’

‘I don’t think they were. Which means somebody else who knew we were in Venice told the Council. Doesn’t that scare you?’

‘Does it matter?’

Nobody knew! Except - oh, shit.’

He frowned as she put a hand to her forehead. ‘Except what?’

The hand slammed on the table. ‘Scorpius wrote to his father before we left Andros Island. He wanted to talk to him after what happened with his mother - but had to write some things down first. I think that letter might have mentioned Venice. I’m not sure; I didn’t see it, I don’t remember what he said.’

Albus hesitated. ‘You think Draco Malfoy sold out his own son? They used him for Lethe!’

‘How is that harder to believe than that Eva Saida risked her own neck over and over for us, sold us out, then decided to help us escape?’ She watched him flinch again, watched his jaw tighten. ‘I cannot believe you’ve sat on this for two years, letting Malfoy, or whoever betrayed us, get away with this. They are as complicit in Scorpius’ death as Thane, as Raskoph, and they have walked away from this!’

‘All I did was refuse to pass on her lies. You’re making a huge mistake in trusting her.’

She folded her arms across her chest. ‘Or is it too hard for you to consider she might sometimes tell the truth?’

‘I don’t -’

‘Because then you might have to accept the possibility she really did love you?’

Then he was right in front of her, looming and red-faced. ‘You have no clue - no right -’

‘I have every right.’ He was huge, using his bulk to intimidate like he never used to, ruthless in using every weapon at his disposal. Rose’s voice came out like granite nevertheless. ‘Because I was the one who stayed. You’ve been a coward for two years, Albus. Matt’s right; you don’t get to lecture us.’

Matt’s right?’ A mocking tone crept in. ‘Maybe, but have you noticed how he’s just about ready to set the world on fire to get Selena back?’

He had mastered, Rose thought, Scorpius’ art of hurting everyone else when hurt. ‘I’ve noticed,’ she said in a low, flat voice, ‘and that’s none of your business.’

‘And Eva Saida and I,’ said Albus, ‘are none of yours.’ With that, he turned on his heel to stalk into the bunkroom.

Rose let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding, loosened the grip on her wand she hadn’t realised she’d taken. She was almost certain that Albus wouldn’t hurt her, but ‘almost’ wasn’t good enough when she saw how much he’d changed in two years, and when all of her survival instincts were fired up.

So she almost blew Matt’s head off by reflex when he stepped out of the Floo chamber, his expression so wooden she knew he’d heard the key points of the argument. ‘Dad can get us to Rotterdam in a few hours,’ he said, voice bland. ‘I didn’t tell him why. What he doesn’t know, he can’t be implicated in. But he did have some news.’

She raised an eyebrow and accepted they were all going to pretend nothing had just happened. ‘News?’

‘Selena was looking into a magical corporations who were suspected of smuggling unknown goods into and across Europe; this was her latest story for the Clarion. Turns out that these corporations have all been bought out by the same coalition. And, based on the locations of the warehouses… Dad reckons that he knows what they were smuggling in: Lethe.’

That wasn’t what she’d expected. ‘You’re saying Selena was chasing a lead on how the Council got the virus into countries in the first place?’

‘Makes me wonder if she was grabbed for reasons other than being Lillian Rourke’s daughter. Maybe she knew something she hadn’t passed up the chain.’

Rose’s brow furrowed. ‘If so… I don’t know, it would have to be something she didn’t know was important. Selena’s got a great poker face, but we were having drinks together, nothing about a huge secret at work - I don’t know. Who’s behind this coalition?’

‘We don’t know, yet,’ Matt admitted. ‘But Dad’s on the case. Lot of Ministerial records on corporate buy-outs - they get legal oversight on this - which he’s going to have to get his hands on, and the Ministry isn’t exactly being forthcoming right now on handing out information.’

‘But this could be about Lethe.’

‘Could be. It’s just a theory. And this is the Ministry; are you surprised? Halvard wouldn’t dare sneeze if it might make him look weak. And I bet from now he’ll have to ask Lillian Rourke for a tissue.’ He scratched his ear. ‘I also told him to keep an eye on Draco Malfoy.’

She nodded, and didn’t let her expression change. ‘Good. It’s just a theory.’

‘It makes sense.’ He shoved his hands in his pockets, then glanced to the bunkroom. ‘And - I’m going to do some training while we wait. Unless you wanted the room.’

That she was not invited to join him couldn’t have been clearer. Rose shook her head. ‘No. I’ll read a little out here. I may need to brush up on my Legilimency techniques.’

‘Not volunteering for playing guinea pig.’ His smile, while trying very hard, didn’t reach his eyes, and he turned, awkward, to leave for the bunkroom.

She didn’t stop him. Selena’s abduction was bringing them together, dragging Albus to them and forcing secrets past Matt’s walls. But with every step, Rose could see more and more how that closeness was in sore danger of ripping them apart with its honest truths.

* *


Rotterdam gleamed against the darkness, a reflection of the stars above amplified a thousand times and speckled with gold. The daily business of the harbour had quietened down, the only activity from ships which had no choice but to come in at a later hour, and there were none of those at the derelict section of the docks Eva Saida had led them to.

Apparition and charms got them past the security measures without trouble, and they’d had the good fortune to find an abandoned guard post overlooking their target. It hid them from sight as effectively as it sheltered them from the cold, and it made an excellent staging post when they had only a few hours of prep-time.

‘Those anti-incursion charms are going to be a problem,’ Saida was saying to Matt and Rose, the three of them around the table on which sat their diagrams of the area and the Naglfar. ‘They’re going to need to be down before we’re within twenty metres of the ship, or everyone on board is going to know about us.’

‘Those have to be detecting magical signatures,’ said Rose. ‘Or they’d go off every time a seagull came close. They have other ways of keeping Muggles back; this has to be for security against wizards.’

‘I agree, but transfiguring ourselves into seagulls isn’t going to be enough.’

Matt leaned over the diagrams. ‘How far down do the detection wards go?’

Saida shook her head. ‘It’s a bubble, so far as I can tell. No way of breaking in from above or from under the surface.’

‘That’s going to give us a hell of a time of getting past them without being noticed,’ Matt said.

Rose furrowed her brow. ‘If they detect magical signatures, not physical presences, we might be able to do something to reduce that. Like not having our wands when we cross the threshold.’

‘That would still send up a ping,’ said Saida.

‘It would. But what if we combined it with a false alarm? Use illusions to have something which looks big but turns out to be innocuous approach from one side, and slip in from the other just after. They’ll investigate, see our diversion, and assume that’s what we were, too.’

Saida raised her eyebrows. ‘What kind of false alarm?’

‘Nixe,’ said Matt. ‘Local water spirits. They could detect the magic around the boat, get curious. I bet you don’t get many in the harbour, but they do sometimes wander this close to shore. At worst, if we fake them coming from the opposite side, we can draw the attention of the crew long enough to slip on board and take them out.’

Saida gave a slow nod. ‘It depends on what Potter has to say.’

Albus himself didn’t arrive for another ten minutes. The door burst open with nobody in sight, until it slammed shut and he appeared all of a sudden, yanking off the Invisibility Cloak. He’d stripped down to swim, and was sopping wet and shivering. ‘Charms,’ he gulped, grabbing a towel off Rose gratefully, ‘only do so much in the North Sea in October. It’s fucking freezing in there.’

‘Good,’ said Saida, who hadn’t lifted her head at his arrival. ‘It’ll make the Thornweavers less willing to investigate the waters.’

‘What did you see?’ said Rose.

He dried his hair, then wrapped the towel around himself. Warming charms came from his wand, but they would take a few moments to kick in. ‘Six on the deck. Regular patrol routes.’ He paused in his charming to tap the wand on the diagrams, leaving moving markers. ‘I couldn’t get below deck, no doors out of sight and none of them were open. I think we’re only looking at another six or so below decks. Could be more, probably isn’t less.’

Saida nodded. ‘So, twelve to fifteen or so Thornweavers, possibly more. We absolutely don’t want an open fight. Even four against six on deck could be vicious. We have to take them out before they can report to those below.’

‘There’s more,’ said Albus, his expression taut. ‘I overheard two of the Thornweavers talking. Erik Geiger’s running this operation.’

They all fell silent. Even Rose, who had kept the least up-to-date with the affairs of the Council of Thorns, knew the name. Geiger had been one of Acosta’s right hand men in the administration in Brazil, but was credited with helping Raskoph’s takeover. Theorised to be a descendant of a Thule Society member who’d fled to South America after the war, his was a formidable reputation.

‘I guess that means they’re taking this place seriously,’ said Matt.

‘I would say this guarantees the Naglfar played a key role in the Lethe attacks,’ Saida said. ‘And it guarantees we are going to have to do everything right.’

‘Then it sounds like we have a plan,’ said Rose, and brought Albus up to speed.

* *


The Naglfar was a long, ugly freighter, very old and very battered, and having already snuck on deck, Albus knew that wasn’t an illusion. Magics kept it going, magics kept it reinforced, and magics even kept it from drawing too much attention, though its derelict appearance helped. It was larger a dozen crew needed, though he presumed the enchantments to prepare Portkeys to transit someone across Europe and through all international transportation barriers would be big and probably had a power source. But it was a distance from the harbour, and he could walk across the pier without fear of being spotted. Even if he was, he was just a figure walking on the shore a distance away, no threat to them.

Saida had gone to double-check the wards while they rounded off the plan, and so Albus only had three out of their four wands on him. He could see her sat atop one of the shipping containers abandoned on the dock, overlooking the harbour.

His clamber to join her was not quiet. He was a big guy and the container was metal and she was a professional. The tension in her shoulders as he pulled himself up was visible, and he heard her slow exhale as she lowered her wand. ‘It’s time?’

‘Unless you found something specific.’ His voice came out gruffer than he meant it, habitual by now.

‘No. The wards haven’t changed. They didn’t notice you slip on board.’

‘If they could detect the Invisibility Cloak, we’d have a world of new problems.’

She stood, dusting herself off. ‘No. Just the problem in front of us.’

His jaw tensed. ‘You’re not in the habit of looking at the big picture, are you?’

Eva Saida lifted her dark-eyed gaze to meet his, calm, emotionless, and he fought to not flinch. ‘The way I hear it, neither are you these days.’

‘You don’t know -’

‘I know you went, and I know you stayed gone.’ She sighed. ‘I don’t expect you to forgive me or trust me. Maybe work with me on this mission, but that’s the choice all of you have to make. So don’t assume I have an ulterior motive when I say this…’

He cut her off. ‘I will always assume you have an ulterior motive.’

‘So I see. But you shouldn’t hide from a truth, just because it makes you regret your past choices, just because it makes it uncomfortable for you to look at yourself. I know.’

His lip curled. ‘I don’t know what -’

‘You left because of me.’ Now she looked away, and her voice had dropped from the cold, professional tones to that softer uncertainty he remembered from the Caribbean, from Venice. ‘Scorpius made you grieve, but I made you run. Because by trusting me you hadn’t just hurt yourself, but got him killed. You weren’t ready to hear me profess my innocence two years ago. But you are now, except that if you believe me, you have to accept that you ran away for the wrong reasons.’

‘That is not the problem,’ Albus said, only half-lying.

‘Not only. But you’re ignoring a possible traitor in your midst because it makes your personal life uncomfortable.’

‘Are you here to help us free Selena, or to play my therapist?’

‘You could all do with it,’ she said. ‘It’s like looking at completely different people. The three of you are held together by piano wire; it’s bound you tight but you’re straining hard, and you’ll get sliced up if you’re not careful.’

‘You didn’t have to come with us.’

She rolled her eyes. ‘And you are all far more interested in being defensive than getting the job done. Except for Matt, who’s got the look of a man who’ll let us all burn if it gets him to her. If you really want to help Selena, you could listen to me and acknowledge that your issues and problems are getting in the way of, yes, I’ll say it, professionalism.’

We’re a renegade group hunting down the Council of Thorns because we don’t trust the proper authorities to get the job done. There is nothing professional about this. But that point, however valid, wouldn’t prove her wrong. It would only add fuel to her argument. ‘Then why aren’t you lecturing the others?’

‘I think they know this already. Telling them won’t change it. You, however, are wound up so tight by your own damage that if you’re not careful, you’re going to explode and kill us all.’

He scoffed. ‘At last, we get to the truth of your concern: risk to you.’

‘If I was worried only about my own neck, I wouldn’t be here, Albus,’ she replied, eyebrow arched.

‘Then why are you here?’

She turned away, back to the Naglfar, and her voice was, while low, firm enough that he knew he was supposed to hear. ‘Because I owe you, all of you, including Selena, my unconditional help. And because I couldn’t live with myself if I let you walk into this alone.’ He faltered, and she looked back at him, gaze unwavering. ‘I was going to do you the courtesy of not repeating things you clearly don’t believe and don’t want to hear. But stop digging for some justification for my actions which fits the image you’ve built up of me. That woman doesn’t exist. Maybe she did, but she died somewhere down the line, on Brillig Island or Cat Island or Ager Sanguinis; I’m not sure, but I know that you killed her.’

Something in his chest broke. ‘I didn’t ask you to be here. But Matt’s calling the shots, and maybe you’ll be useful, so here you are. Don’t think that means I am even beginning to believe you, let alone forgive you. I will be watching. And if you betray us, if you give me the slightest reason to doubt you, I will kill you quicker than you can blink.’

Her lips curled, that confident smile he remembered, the one which reminded him what she was. ‘I didn’t betray you. And I haven’t forgotten you. But I’m not defenceless.’

‘Except that you’re going to give me your wand. Because that’s the plan.’ He stuck his hand out, jaw setting, not ashamed of using their plan to exploit her weakness.

She did flinch at that, and his gut churned like the deepest waters of the harbour. ‘Then I guess we’ll see what kind of man you are.’ She twisted her wand in her grip and extended to him, pointed back towards her.

He all but snatched it off her, and didn’t say another word as he clambered down from the shipping contained before stalking away. They didn’t have much time. They had to get to work.

And he had to get her words out of his head.

My whole life, you have been the only thing that’s real…


Chapter 10: Confusion and Illusion
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Confusion and Illusion


Armand Corentin wasn’t sure who he’d upset, but he knew it was someone important. Possibly it was one of his superiors; possibly some cosmic entity.

It wasn’t that he explicitly wanted to be part of the teams striking across the world. He was a professional, not a man eager for bloodshed, and he had little fondness for the eerie shock-troopers of the Council of Thorns, the raised corpses of the Lethe-infused Inferi. Business was business, so he had neither reservation nor desire for the vicious attacks.

But he had even less desire to be stuck on the creaking, leaking freighter Naglfar. And he had an active hatred for being on the night watch while docked at Rotterdam in late October.

‘Tell me we’ll be going somewhere warm next,’ he groaned, watching the light-show of the Muggle city squatting against the night sky.

Reinhardt, on watch duty with him, lit his pipe. ‘In Europe? With winter coming? No.’

‘We could go to the Mediterranean -’

‘Only less cold. Not warm. No, we get no warmth until we transfer to Africa.’

Corentin brightened. ‘They’re swapping us with the Gjallerhorn?’

‘No.’ Reinhardt puffed on his pipe. ‘No, we stay here. In the cold. Waiting. Without hazard pay.’

Corentin let off a stream of French curses which had the corners of Reinhardt’s lips curling, but he was cut off by the rumbling at his breastbone. The two men exchanged glances, before they fished out the lockets hung about their necks, flicking them open to show the mirrors within.

‘Contact,’ came Erik Geiger’s gravelly voice, dark eye gleaming through the mirror from where he was bundled up, warm and dry, in the command centre. ‘Starboard side. Something breaching the wards.’

They were at the prow of the ship, but if there was an incursion, reinforcements would be needed. Wands in hand, the two hurried across the deck to where Eisenhorn and Bertonelli stood at the railing, peering into the darkness. Neither looked particularly concerned.

‘It’s nothing, sir,’ Eisenhorn was saying into her mirror as they got there. ‘Just some water spirits. They must have been attracted by the magic from the portkey enchantments.’

Geiger frowned as Corentin looked at his mirror. ‘That’s the bulk of them. One or two approaching from port. Drive them off if they get too close.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Eisenhorn said. She sounded as disinterested as she usually did. ‘But they’re not approaching further.’

Corentin went to the railing and peered at the darkness. He could barely see the shapes breaking the waves through the gloom, but then a figure surfaced at a patch engulfed by the lights of Rotterdam. There was a shimmer of gold on gold hair, on pale skin, and he gave a crooked grin. ‘It makes the evening nicer.’

He’d been careful to speak away from his communication mirror, but Eisenhorn rolled her eyes. ‘Not if they’re interfering with the detection wards.’ She looked at the reflection of Geiger’s eyes. ‘We’re on it, sir.’

‘A few spells will drive them off,’ said Reinhardt. ‘You two can handle it?’ He was already grabbing Corentin by the sleeve and pulling him back towards the prow of the ship.

‘A few water spirits?’ Eisenhorn looked insulted at the implication.

‘It’s good they pay us so well,’ Corentin muttered as Reinhardt led him around the deck, back towards their patrol sector. ‘Or they wouldn’t have professionals who can handle some water spirits.’

‘They don’t usually come this close to land.’

‘Like Eisenhorn said. Attracted by the magic. And maybe our pretty faces?’ Corentin grinned and elbowed Reinhardt.

And Reinhardt fell over.

Corentin’s wand was in his hand before his partner hit the deck, but as he spun he could see nobody. Not an attacker, not one of the other teams - they had gone too far around the ship - and so when the next Stun came spitting out of literally nowhere, he wasn’t ready. It hit him dead on and he collapsed to the deck with a solid thump that rattled his bones and made his head spin.

Which meant he couldn’t do more than gawk as the shadows shifted and a tall, broad, dark-haired man appeared out of literally nowhere, dripping wet, wand in hand. He stared, trying to work his jaw, lift his own wand, but it was all for nothing at the fresh spurt of magic, the sparks rocketing towards him.

Then darkness.

* *


Eva Saida was accustomed to suffering. Physical suffering, emotional suffering, psychological suffering. She had endured it, she had inflicted it, she had attempted to ease it. The last had been her least successful. But there were moments she thought she’d endure all of it all over again if it meant she didn’t have to spend another second clinging to the hull of the Naglfar, engulfed in the freezing waters of the Rotterdam harbour. Warming charms only lasted so long, and she didn’t have her wand. This was going to get dangerous if it lasted much longer.

So when a rope flew over the side, she didn’t stop to question if it was smart to clamber up; she was too damn cold. With a speed that surprised her, she scrambled up to the railing, and her heart lunged into her throat when she saw Albus stood over her.

It was all part of the plan. But she’d spent so long trying to scrub him from her mind, from her guts, that to see him again when all of her senses jangled with professional alertness was jarring.

And he’d changed. They all had, including her, but none as much as Albus. He no longer exuded that warmth, and his encouraging confidence had turned inward, a sharp and steely determination. It had been his greatest virtue that his power and strength spread outward, wrapping over others as protection and a reinforcement, but no more did he reach out.

You. You did this to him.

Forget Rose’s echoing grief, forget the fire that threatened to engulf Matt, and she wasn’t stopping to wonder what had happened to Selena these past years. This was the man who’d made her turn on her whole world, and in return she had shattered his.

‘All clear?’ she said as she grasped the railing.

‘Matt and Rose are at the aft. Starboard still not clear.’

She nodded, bracing her feet on the deck. ‘My wand?’

He pulled her wand from his belt. Under the shroud of the Cloak of Invisibility, he had got the wands through the Naglfar’s wards undetected, minimising everyone’s personal magical signatures as they approached. And once on deck, an illusion of mermaids and water spirits to confuse the wards as to what was actually approaching was child’s play. But they had no idea what lay beyond the decks of the Naglfar, and she didn’t want to be unarmed.

His grip on her wand was tight as he levelled it at her. It wasn’t a proper grip of a man who meant to use it, but she still had a wand in her face, and for a moment their eyes met, blazing dark against green as hard as jade. Her mouth went dry. ‘Albus…’

He could kill me here, lie to the others, say the guards found us. They’d never know. They probably wouldn’t ask.

Then a shadow shifted over his shoulder, and she moved without thinking. His wand was in his other hand, near the rope he’d conjured, and it was for that she reached. He was too startled, locked in his hesitation, and then she had his wand, was raising it, letting off a Stun -

- which hit the Thornweaver guard who’d just rounded the corner to see them.

Albus’ head whipped around as the Thornweaver hit the deck, and the hesitation left his face for shock and, she thought, something softer around the edges when he looked back at her. Shame? He let out a deep, quavering breath. ‘Good eyes.’

Eva swung over the railing, and flipped his wand back to him, handle-first. ‘You need to keep your eyes on the mission. You can kill me later.’

There was no point in pretending he hadn’t considered it. If only for a heartbeat. Colour rushed to his cheeks as they swapped wands, and for a moment he was the young man whose ideals had infected her, whose good nature had choked to death the woman she’d once been. ‘I don’t -’

‘This op goes better if we stop pretending, and if we focus on the enemy. I promise you’ll get your chance once Selena’s safe. In-fighting in the meantime is a great way for everyone to wind up dead.’ She looked up and down the deck before she met his gaze. ‘When this is over, find me. And we’ll finish this.’ If she was honest with herself, she had no idea what would happen at that finish. But it would get them through tonight.

He turned away without an answer, sent another spell at the fallen Thornweaver to keep them unconscious, and raised his wand up in a ready guard. ‘Let’s get to the others.’ She followed him down the deck, watching their backs, and soon the question of how Rose and Matt’s sweep was going was answered with the sound of magic. ‘Come on!’ Albus urged.

They rounded the corner to the open middle section of the freighter and burst into a firefight. Spells rocketed across them, and she had to grab the back of Albus’ sopping wet jacket to pull him out of the way of a Stun. But at least they could see both sides of the fight.

Everyone was spread out. One Thornweaver had Matt pinned down behind a packing crate, spells thudding into the wood and sending splinters flying while all he could do was reinforce his cover with magic so it didn’t shatter. Rose was in a better position, out in the open and up to her elbows in a pitched duel with the other Thornweaver, magic flying between them so quickly that even Eva couldn’t see whose spell was whose.

‘Stick with me,’ Albus said before she could offer input, and ran along the side of the cargo container they’d emerged from behind, keeping in its shadow with the hope they hadn’t been noticed yet. She was of a mind to split up and reinforce both allies at once, but she knew better than to argue once the call had been made. And she’d trusted his combat instincts once. She followed.

The Thornweaver on Matt was too focused on trying to blast his cover to smithereens to spot them, but it wasn’t to him that Albus went. He led her to a cargo contained on the port side, to the flank and behind the Thornweaver, and glanced to Eva as their shoulders hit metal. ‘Give me a boost up,’ he whispered.

She wasn’t sure why he was keeping his voice down under the spray of spells, but without a word she Levitated him up. He could have climbed, even if he’d be noisy and slow; they weren’t about to be noticed, and it was only when she heard the gurgle and thud of a body hitting metal that she realised.

There’d been a third Thornweaver on a vantage point up high, probably waiting for a clear shot before they struck and revealed themselves. She hadn’t even spotted them.

Albus’ head stuck over the edge a heartbeat later. ‘I got Matt. Go to Rose.’

There was a firefight between Eva and Rose, so that took looping around the back again. Matt was still pinned down, but she could see Albus settling for a clear shot on the Thornweaver raining spell after spell down on him. Al would be timing his strike, making sure he could get a Stun off in a lapse in the Thornweaver’s concentration so it could break through any Shield in one go. But that wasn’t her priority now, not her fight to assess.

The fight she had to assess was brutal.

Rose and the Thornweaver she fought had given up on niceties of Stuns. Both women were now hurling slashing strikes that ripped clothes and threatened lethality. Blood streamed down the side of Rose’s face from a cut at her cheek, and the Thornweaver’s left arm hung useless by her side, the bone broken. This had become a fight of kill or be killed.

Eva’s instincts approved. The crumpled embers of old memories curled up inside her gleamed a strange sort of distress; not compassion, but grieving for something long gone.

It was those embers, not her instincts, which won as Eva ducked behind a wooden crate and hurled spells to reinforce Rose. The Stun rocketed at the Thornweaver, but sheer bad luck had the woman spin away from the magic. Eva had to duck at the counterstrike -

Then a heavy, metal shipping container flew through the air and thudded into the Thornweaver. There had to be the most exquisite precision to its movements, because the container stopped the moment it sent her flying, and while the Thornweaver hit the deck hard, she was still breathing. The sparks of Rose’s spell barely died at the tip of her wand before she finished it off with a Stun.

Eva let out a string of involuntary curse words in her native Arabic, and that had Rose reel around, wand raised before she saw her.

‘Thanks for the distraction.’

Eva stood, blinking. ‘That crate could have easily killed her.’ The impact alone could have been enough, but the slightest miscalculation in its flight would have kept it going, turning anyone into a smear.

Rose lifted a hand to the cut on her cheek. It had not sliced through her cold, impassive mask. ‘I knew what I was doing. But I wouldn’t have been that sorry. She tried to Avada Kedavra Matt.’

I would have once thought that to be a good reason to not hold back. Now, she just didn’t know what to say, but the reminder of Matt prompted her to turn to the rest of the fight. Just in time to see Albus launch a spell with surgical precision to take down the last Thornweaver standing.

‘There’s no telling if they’ve raised the alarm,’ said Rose in a calm, matter-of-fact manner, like she hadn’t just almost turned a human being into a bloodied smear, when the four of them reconvened in the middle of the deck. ‘They’ve got two-way mirror lockets to communicate below decks. I don’t know if they got the chance to send a message.’

If her lasting legacy to the Council of Thorns was popularising that form of instant communication, Eva was going to scream. ‘We have to assume they did raise the alarm, and move fast.’

‘I say we split up,’ said Matt. ‘It’s confined space below decks; neither our numbers nor theirs will make much difference. We might find records in the command centre, or we’ll need the Portkey rituals to get the transport histories at the very source.’

‘Then I’m on the rituals,’ said Rose. ‘I’m the best at unpicking those. Which means I should take Al or Saida; you two are the best fighters, you should be split up.’

No arguments here. Eva looked between them. ‘I’ll go with Matt to the command centre. If there are additional Council wards or mechanisms there, I’ll have the best chance of figuring them out. And that’s where Geiger’s most likely to be; I know him, I know how he fights.’

‘I would prefer to avoid Geiger entirely,’ said Rose.

‘So would I. But we might not have that luxury. He’s one of Raskoph’s personal favourites; do not underestimate him.’

‘We’ve got the plan,’ said Matt. ‘If they raised the alarm, we might see reinforcements from elsewhere. So we’d better move fast.’

They split up, Eva leading the way to the aft stairway, the closest access point to where the magical signatures of the wards converged below deck. All of the ship’s defences had to be controlled from there, and if the Council was keeping any kind of records of what happened on board the Naglfar - which Eva wasn’t convinced would be the case - that was where they’d be.

The stairway was dank and gloomy, the air stagnant and salty, the walls dripping and mouldy, and they couldn’t advance quietly on metal steps. But it was empty, and so Eva kept her wand up and watched the hatches ahead for of the slightest twitch of movement, Matt close on her heels, sword in hand. She approved. In these close quarters, that could make all the difference.

But still she had to speak. ‘When did the lot of you become willing to kill?’

Matt took a heartbeat longer to answer than he should have. ‘We’ve not killed.’

‘No, but if Rose had twitched in the wrong way, she would have turned that Thornweaver into paste.’

‘You do what you have to in a fight. She didn’t kill anyone. And suddenly you’re passing judgement?’ His voice was tight. ‘I’ve seen your file, Eva Saida. I know how many people you’ve killed.’

‘Like hell has my every kill been identified in official records,’ she said without pride. ‘You didn’t even know I worked for Baz, and I assure you I’ve killed Thornweavers for him in the last two years.’

‘And you’re getting uppity about us?’

‘I would need to be truly delusional to judge. But it’s -’

Then his hand was on her shoulder, and she clamped down with iron control on the instincts which told her to blow a hole in his skull just for touching her without her permission. ‘Let me make this clear,’ Matt hissed in her ear. ‘I didn’t want you along because I like you, or because I forgive you, or because I think you shouldn’t be thrown in the darkest, dampest cell when this is over. You know about the Council. You’re a good fighter. That is it. So I don’t need your ethical opinions on people ten times better than you.’

She didn’t look at him, because then she wouldn’t be looking at the corridor ahead. ‘You want Selena back more than you want to indulge your personal issues,’ Eva said, voice calm. ‘That means that you’re the last person here I’m afraid of.’

‘Maybe,’ Matt grumbled, letting his hand drop. ‘But I’m the person here with you.’

She could have blasted him against a wall, proved that even with her back to him, she could drop him in a heartbeat. Once, she would have, just to make a point. But they had work to do, more important concerns than their group dynamics, and even though Eva wasn’t convinced the collective damage of the remains of the Hogwarts Five wasn’t going to get them all killed, she kept silent and carried on into the belly of the beast.

* *


‘If we see Geiger,’ said Rose, ‘we need to open fire as quickly as possible.’

Albus led the way as they advanced down the stairway to the cargo bay. ‘You kept up your fighting skills.’

‘The Council of Thorns spent the last few months trying to kill me. Again. You think I had a choice?’

‘You’re better than you were. More vicious.’

I don’t know if that’s better. Getting a look of shock from Eva Saida for her recklessness with lives was not an accomplishment of which Rose was proud. Then again, nothing made her feel proud these days. Certainly very little made her feel guilty, and almost killing a Thornweaver who would have slain her and Matt without batting an eyelid didn’t come close. ‘I want to get through this with all of us alive and safe. Including Selena.’

They cleared a doorway to the next stairwell down, saw nothing but gloomy metal and heard nothing but an echoing drip. Albus frowned. ‘The alarm can’t have been raised. There might not be many crewmembers left, but we’d have seen them by now.’

‘Unless they’re reinforcing key locations.’

‘Except we could just blow this whole boat up and cripple Council operations. No, they’d be intercepting us if they knew we were here,’ said Albus, and swung out into the corridor ahead of her. Then he froze. ‘Shit.’

‘What?’ Rose darted after him, wand ready. Then she, too, stopped. ‘Oh.’

‘That wasn’t us.’ Further down the corridor lay a pair of bodies, unmoving, their own blood pooled around them. They had the same kind of worn garb as the Thornweavers up top, and they were definitely dead.

‘Someone else is here,’ said Rose, voice dropping.

‘And they’re ahead of us.’ Albus gritted his teeth. ‘Forget subtlety. We need to move fast,’ he said, and pointed his wand down.

‘What’re you doing?’

He glanced up at her before the tip of his wand sparked. ‘Shortcut.’

She was reminded of the time they’d broken into the Headmaster’s Office in Hogwarts, three years ago now, inspired by the Marauders’ Map and the echoes of his grandfather and his friends. But back then their pressing concerns had been possible danger of possible death, and the teen-aged woes of her romantic tangling and mishaps with Scorpius.

Not definite death, definite abduction, and the grief of earth-shattering loss. The memory felt like it had happened to someone else.

But the principle held firm, and within seconds Albus was clambering through a hole in the deck onto the level below, clearing the way before he helped her down. ‘Three decks until the cargo bay.’

Searing through the floor made short work of those decks. ‘Let’s not break into the cargo bay like this,’ she said as her boots hit metal for the third time. ‘From the schematics, it’s about five metres high. We might not get an uninterrupted levitation down if someone is in there.’

‘Except that every wand is going to be pointed on the stairway,’ said Albus. ‘We attack like this, take them by surprise.’

Rose frowned at him. ‘You never used to be this foolhardy.’

‘And you used to be less cavalier with lives.’ Albus flourished his wand at the deck. ‘People change. Get ready to move the moment the way’s clear; element of surprise only lasts us so long.’

They were supposed to be the level-headed ones. The calm, thoughtful members of their family, the ones who didn’t do foolish, risky things. People did change, Rose had to concede, as the floor burst out from under them, and she dragged Albus down with her, casting a frantic levitation along with a shield. She could protect them, get them to the deck, and he could -

Stupefy!

- hurl down fire at anyone objecting to their rude entrance.

The cargo bay was a huge metal chamber, dimly lit, devoid of any actual cargo. But it was all the brighter for the ritual markings etched directly into the metal, permanent enchantments woven into the hull itself which could grant the power of a Portkey to anywhere in Europe, maybe even further. They ran across the deck and up the bulkheads, crawled along portions of the ceiling, and gleamed a vivid blue to cast everything with an ethereal, unreal light.

Including the three Thornweavers who stood with wands pointed at the empty stairway.

The good news was that they hadn’t expected someone to come through the ceiling. The bad news was that there was no cover, and when Rose and Albus hit the deck hard, the levitation stopping bones from breaking but the impact still enough to rattle them, they were out in the open. One of the Thornweavers gave a bellowed warning in German, and then the air was thick with spells. Albus’ Stun on their descent had staggered one, but not dropped him, and so it was three on two. And one of them was Erik Geiger.

He was a big man, about the size of Albus, grey-haired and in long, traditional wizarding robes where his comrades wore plain, hard-wearing Muggle clothing. There was barely a flicker in his eye when he parried the first spell she flung, and when his counter-strike thudded against her shield, it was enough to knock her back a few steps.

‘I’ve got him,’ she hissed to Albus. ‘You take the others.’

He only grunted his assent, and like clockwork they moved. They’d not been back to back in a fight in over two years, but old habits died hard, and so there they were, spreading out so the Thornweavers couldn’t focus their fire, close enough that she could help him parry a spell, or so he could fling a distracting blast at Geiger to give her a spot of breathing room.

Her plan wasn’t to go toe-to-toe with one of the Council of Thorns’ most formidable wizards and win. But she reckoned she could hold him off until Albus dealt with the other two, and then together they could drop Geiger. It was an ambitious plan, Rose had to concede as she was forced to move twice as fast, cast twice as fast, duck and weave and parry with more effort than Castagnary and his goons had ever dragged out of her, but it was the best plan they had.

And there were heartbeats, as the magic hummed through her veins and the spells shot past her and rattled off her shields and the air crackled with death and power, where she felt more alive than she had since bursting into a chamber in Ager Sanguinis with an iron-clad resolution that failure was not an option.

She’d failed anyway. She would not do so again.

Magic fizzed past her ear, Albus let off a spell which dropped one of the Thornweavers, and the odds were shifting to even out, if not favour them -

Then two figures in the black robes and masks of Thornweavers emerged from the stairwell, and Rose’s heart caught in her throat. Geiger called reinforcements. We’re fucked.

The new arrivals sprinted across the cargo bay to line up with Geiger and his remaining crewmate. Their opening volley of spells were not subtle, were not sudden, and shields could easily be raised against them in time. But still the magic thudded into Albus’ protections, then through them, then into him, and then Albus was hitting the deck and Rose was stood alone against four Thornweavers.

Geiger let out a rattling exhale, worn and tired but triumphant. ‘Surrender,’ he said, ‘and I won’t -’

Then one of the masked arrivals shot him in the back, and chaos was come again.

What the hell is going on?

Geiger wasn’t dropped, but he and his comrades were turning on one another in frantic confusion, and for a moment nobody was paying Rose any attention. She turned to sprint towards Albus’ fallen form, but then the one who’d shot Geiger pulled off his mask, and a familiar voice rang out, one she’d never forget and had heard not all that long ago.

Prometheus Thane.

‘Weasley! Return the favour and give us a -’

It wasn’t conscious hatred that made her stop halfway to Albus and turn her wand on Thane. Even if he’d saved her in Hogsmeade, even if she wasn’t sure if Albus was alright, she couldn’t stifle the wave of sheer hatred which turned everything into a narrow, focused tunnel with only one, simple goal.

Kill him.

And now it was a three-way fight. Thane was forced back as he had to parry the blasts of Geiger and Rose, with no choice but to go on the defensive, and Geiger and Rose remained happy to take pot-shots at each other. Red and gold and green gleamed against the blue tinge to the metal, shrouding them in a kaleidoscope of spells and pain, and Rose knew that this moment was now the most alive she’d felt in years.

With vengeance at her fingertips.

There was a blast from behind her, and she was only dimly aware of Geiger’s ally dropping to the deck. Thane parried her Stun with gritted teeth, and looked to his counterpart. ‘Get her off me!’ he ordered. Even as she broke off from Thane to round on his masked ally, she couldn’t help but give a twisted grin of satisfaction that she’d left him that frantic, that hard-pressed. With or without Geiger’s help.

But then Thane’s ally was in her face, black mask too dull to reflect the spells flying around them, not even his eyes visible under the dark lenses. He was no Thane, no Geiger, and she could feel magic and hatred bubbling through her veins like a drug, enough to turn his spells aside, enough to hurl blow after blow down on him. He was using Stuns, but she had no such compunctions, and he was forced back, parrying and Shielding and barely able to hold his own.

Thane and Geiger were entrenched in their fight, and Albus still wasn’t moving, and a small part of Rose’s mind wondered where Saida and Matt were, if they were running into Thane’s men or Geiger’s. But even the concern for Matt didn’t override the fire in her, and so it was with grim satisfaction that she watched her opponent dive to one side to avoid her next spell, his shields not holding. It meant her reflexes were sharp enough that when a shadow loomed to her right, a new assailant she hadn’t expected, she was ready for it, reeling around to hurl her magic at -

Nothing. An illusionary opponent, just a shape who dissipated at her blast, a diversion. And then a spell from her masked enemy’s wand cracked into her side and sent her flying. She hit the deck hard, head spinning at the impact, and though she kept her grip on her wand, the world didn’t even out enough to let her regain control of the fight. The masked figure advanced, magic sparking at the tip of his wand, and had she been in his situation, she’d have fired right away, finished her off.

He didn’t, and she had to exploit that error. Not with a spell at him, because he’d be ready for that. Instead, magic burst to his left, hitting the bulkhead with a harmless crackle, and he hesitated. Until the engravings she’d hit, not with a hex but with a spell to unravel that section of the ritual, sparked - and exploded as the enchantments destabilised with a burst of now-uncontained power.

The world evened out for her as he went flying, hitting the deck with a shout of pain, clutching at his face. He wasn’t, she reflected with dissatisfaction, dead or unconscious, and she rose with her wand in hand, advancing to finish him off. He was lucky he’d worn the mask, she saw as he pulled the charred, smoldering remains away, because otherwise it might have done serious damage to his-

And Rose stopped when she looked down into the face of Scorpius Malfoy.

His eyes, more blue than ever in the shimmering lights of the portkey rituals, widened as they locked onto her, and there was that familiar twist of the lips of the wry, sheepish smile that had been etched into her dreams. He drew a raking breath. ‘I told you I’d come back every time.’

Blood rushed in her ears, hatred howled away for echoing, cavernous loss, and the tiniest shard of her that could still think screamed at her to act, to cast, to Stun him, to destroy him - that this was a trick, a manipulation from Thane, that she was playing into his hands.

She didn’t move. And that shard screamed that she was a fool when ‘Scorpius’, realising she wasn’t going to act, rolled onto one knee, lifted his wand -

And blasted Geiger with a spell that sent him flying through the air, only to be struck by a finishing blow from Thane. Magic echoed through the bay into oblivion, until there was only the gleam of the rituals, the blood pounding in Rose’s ears, and Prometheus Thane and the man who looked like Scorpius Malfoy turning to face her.

‘Well,’ said Thane, grimacing. ‘This is a bit of a pickle.’

‘Rose.’ The man who looked Scorpius lifted his hands, twisting his wand in his grip so it was pointed down, unthreatening. ‘It really is me, Rose, I promise -’

‘Not helping,’ snapped Thane, advancing. ‘This isn’t the time to -’

Don’t move!’ Her voice came out creaky, nearly hysterical, and now her breathing was harsh, ragged, air suddenly insufficient. ‘Thane, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but I’m going to kill you -’

‘You’re not,’ said Thane, sounding rather tired. ‘Because we outnumber you. You could let us patch up Potter, take the information from the ritual, and then go…’

The impostor looked at Thane, his brow creasing. ‘It’s not -’

‘I am not blowing this operation because of her!’ Thane snapped.

They all turned at thudding footsteps on the metal stairway, and Rose felt so light-headed she thought she really might pass out when Eva and Matt, who had a folder tucked under one arm, burst into the cargo bay with wands brandished.

They, too, froze. And Thane let out a deep breath. ‘Eva. It’s always lovely to see you.’

Eva Saida’s dark gaze flickered between the two men. ‘The feeling isn’t mutual. This is sick, Prometheus, even for you.’

‘I really am -’

Okay!’ Matt’s voice rang out to interrupt the man who sounded like Scorpius, authoritative despite the shake. ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but Thane, I’ve got you covered, and… whoever the fuck you are, Rose’s wand is on you. Saida, make sure Al’s alright.’

‘He’s breathing,’ came Scorpius’ voice. ‘I checked.’

‘You’re not talking,’ Matt continued. ‘We don’t have time to stick around. Geiger called in reinforcements; we could have more Thornweavers on us at any moment. But we’ve got the ritual records, so we’re going to get Albus up, and we’re going to go. And I swear, Thane, you’re going to get yours some day…’

Something flashed in Prometheus Thane’s eye - then he barely twitched, magic flew from his wand, and Matt was knocked into the stairs with a clattering of metal and a yelp of pain. Eva, stood over Albus, rounded on Thane, and Rose knew she was supposed to do something but wasn’t sure what -

Enough!’ That was Scorpius, and it sounded like him, not like a decoy breaking identity, even though his wand lashed out for a spell to disarm Eva - then, a split-second later, Thane, too. Leaving only the impostor and Rose with wands, and she had no idea what she was supposed to do with hers.

Thane scowled. ‘Malfoy, this is -’

‘This is my operation, Thane.’ The man who looked like Scorpius gave Rose a quick glance, noted the wand she couldn’t bring herself to point at anything, and turned to Albus’ fallen form. ‘Ennervate! Now…’

‘This is a trick,’ said Eva in a low, flat voice, gaze going to Rose. ‘This is what Prometheus Thane does. He finds your weak spot, he exploits it -’

‘We didn’t know you were here,’ the impostor cut her off. ‘We certainly didn’t have any of my hair lying around for a convenient Polyjuice Potion so we could… what? Manipulate you into cooperating? We’ve been doing perfectly fine with our own people for the last eight months.’

Matt sat up with a stiff groan. He’d dropped his wand, but Rose saw him reach for his sword, even if he was a long way away and had no chance of closing the distance. ‘I don’t care to theorise what Thane and his goons -’

‘Doyle; you decided to make a pass at Rose on San Salvador. I decided to forgive you on account of you getting yourself a little bit killed after exposure to Eridanos on Brillig Island to save us,’ the man who looked like Scorpius reeled off with Scorpius’ calm, dismissive superiority. He turned to Eva. ‘I… have nothing to prove to you. I don’t care if you believe me.’ Then he looked at Albus, who had sat up with a groan only for them to lock eyes, and there was a long silence cracked by the sound of a leak somewhere dripping onto the metal deck. Scorpius drew a slow breath. ‘We were mates since the Hogwarts Express. I once short-sheeted Oakes’ bed with linen made of Forever-Folding Thread and Professor Tully had to be called in to get him out. We won our last ever Quidditch match against Hufflepuff four-sixty to two-eighty, and you scored thirteen of those goals and I scored eleven, except I’m sure it’s twelve ‘cos it bouncing off Bellamy’s arse and through the hoop should really not count as his goal…’

She could see his throat tightening, hear his voice starting to tumble over itself, and it was like she’d fallen into a dream when he turned and his eyes fell upon her. ‘And you… and you and I… we stood in a jail cell in Lisbon and I…’ But his voice trailed off, the words lost, and for long seconds they could only stare at each other.

And you said you loved me.

Then Albus was standing, advancing with thudding footsteps, and grabbed the man who looked like Scorpius - to pull him into a bear hug. ‘What the hell - how the hell -’

‘I’m sorry - it’s a long story, I’m sorry…’ Scorpius all but collapsed against Albus, clutching at his jacket with white-knuckled fervour, and that was the moment where Rose felt something other than numb shock. Seeing how he turned to Albus, seeing how he returned the embrace, hearing the grief in his voice, she couldn’t help but lower her wand.

There was too much of a chance this was real.


———————

A/N:

‘Don’t screw around with the fuckhead! Trust the fuckhead!’

‘Heh, yeah. Trust the fuckhead.’

- Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis


Chapter 11: I Trust Thee to the Death
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I Trust Thee to the Death


They sat in a tent, wayward friends and lovers and traitors and enemies, and gathered to listen to the tales of a dead man.

Rotterdam had been abandoned in a mass of arguments and uncertainties, but so long as Matt held the file with the Naglfar’s records and Prometheus Thane wasn’t surrendering to the justice of the International Magical Convocation, they had travelled together. It was a confused cease fire of Eva, Matt and Thane clutching their wands, of Scorpius Malfoy wearing a stupid, exhausted smile, of Rose looking further from an emotional reaction than ever before.

And Albus feeling like himself for the first time in years.

‘I’m not the person to talk about… you know, the complicated bits,’ Scorpius was saying, and flashed him a grin as Albus put a cup of tea in front of him. It was the same tent they’d travelled in two and a half years ago, the same mugs, tea made just the same way - milk and two sugars, and for a heartbeat it was like they were hunting Thane again, not sat across a dinner table from him. ‘Thanks, mate. But, yeah. Prometheus could explain it better. Maybe we should start with him.’

All eyes turned, with less kindness or confusion, to Prometheus Thane. He’d kept his wand because nobody broached the subject of taking it off him, and it was peculiar to see him in such a humble environment. He looked more worn than when Al had last seen him, his chiselled features pale and gaunt, and his eyes glinted with cold calculation. ‘The death of Scorpius was an enormous setback for the Council of Thorns. They - we - lost the Chalice of Emrys and our chance at Lethe in one fell swoop. You all saw how they fell from grace without either. Raskoph stopped trying to harness weapons and turned to harnessing power, wrestling control of the Council’s assets off Acosta in South America. And I was given a new assignment.’ He looked at Scorpius. ‘I had to do what nobody had ever done before: bring a man back from the dead.’

‘Resurrection - true resurrection - isn’t possible.’ Rose didn’t lift her eyes from the table, Matt stood at her shoulder like a jealous shadow. ‘The Chalice brought back Matt within an hour of his death; that’s just a more powerful version of what medical magic can already do. And that nearly didn’t work. But beyond that? Even the Resurrection Stone couldn’t -’

‘You can’t bring back someone who’s died, no,’ Thane agreed. ‘That’s the trick.’

Scorpius focused most of his attention on Albus. Al knew this was likely so he didn’t have to look at Rose, but it didn’t stop him from giving a wry grin. ‘Don’t get me wrong. I was dead. Passing through the Veil was to enter the Otherworld. But I wasn’t killed. And I had the Chalice with me.’

Matt’s frown deepened from caution to curiosity. ‘It’s an object of both realms -’

‘And it can pass between the realms,’ Thane said. ‘If appropriately summoned. Which took a long time, a considerable amount of expertise, and no small expense, but we did it. And because Scorpius crossed into the Otherworld with it, his soul was tethered to it, and so he came back with it.’

Albus furrowed his brow. ‘Your body?’

‘As a physical object it existed in the Otherworld, with the Chalice. Which is part of how it was possible,’ said Scorpius. ‘But this is starting to get into technical stuff, and it’s not really the point, and I don’t understand all of it anyway.’

‘No,’ Matt agreed, ‘and there are other questions. Like why, if you’re Scorpius Malfoy, you’re working with Prometheus Thane.’

Scorpius looked at Thane, who drew a deep breath and said, ‘The Council asked me, as an expert, to recover Scorpius. They didn’t care about him, but they cared about the Chalice, and they cared about what was in his body: Lethe. Once they had both, they were prepared to kill him again. Which was the point, eight months ago, I decided to go rogue.’

Eva narrowed her eyes. ‘Because you just couldn’t stand the thought that they’d hurt him?’

Thane gave her a smile that didn’t affect her expression one bit. ‘Because the Council of Thorns are led by Joachim Raskoph, who is mad. I’d had enough. Scorpius, I, and some of my oldest associates went renegade, and we’ve been fighting the Council on our own terms ever since. Just like you’ve been fighting the Council on your terms, Eva, in Balthazar Vadimas’ company. And, like you, I don’t fancy being locked in the deepest, darkest cell the IMC can give me.’

Albus’ lips thinned, and he glanced at Scorpius. ‘Why’d you stay with him?’

Scorpius looked at his tea. ‘It’s - you understand how I have to stop the Council, especially now? They have the Chalice again, they have Lethe again, because of me. Here, I could fight. And there wasn’t a whole lot of reason to come back. This way, I could do the job. No distractions.’

I was gone. Rose had moved on. Your father would never have been enough to bring you backGuilty, Albus dropped his gaze, but Scorpius cleared his throat and kept talking.

‘We did what we could, when we could,’ he said. ‘We had word that something was coming the night of the Lethe strike, and that’s why we were at Hogsmeade. If we’d had any idea how big it was, we’d have warned the IMC.’

‘I did suspect an abduction of Selena Rourke was in the works, now she was back in Britain,’ said Thane. ‘But I didn’t realise that was a secondary objective to unleashing hell.’

Rose dragged her eyes up from the table to look at Scorpius’ shoulder. ‘It was you,’ she said in a low, dull voice. ‘In the alleyway in Hogsmeade, that was you.’

He grimaced. ‘Yeah. But we were too late to stop them from getting away with Selena. Which is why we made the attack on the Naglfar, once we located it in Rotterdam. Looks like we all had the same idea; trace where that team portkeyed to.’

‘Why?’ asked Matt, scowl intact.

Scorpius blinked. ‘To rescue her -’

‘Why did you care?’

Albus saw Scorpius’ eyes flash, but it was Thane who spoke, his aristocratic drawl wry. ‘It didn’t sound especially good to let the daughter of the Chairman of the International Magical Convocation languish in the hands of Joachim Raskoph. Not when we are enemies of the Council of Thorns. But Scorpius was right when he said in Rotterdam that this was his operation. She’s his friend. She’s in trouble. We have the resources to locate her and do this extraction.’

Eva’s jaw tightened. ‘There are more of you.’

Thane nodded. ‘I might conduct a discreet war, but not with a two-man team. There are more of us.’

‘The plan on the Naglfar,’ said Scorpius, was to stage an incursion, block off possible reinforcements, and arrive as fake reinforcements; hence the masks and robes. We had to step it up when your strike happened. But once we had the location, yes, we were going to rendezvous with the rest of the guys and probably not break into wherever Raskoph’s holding Selena just the two of us.’

‘I’m assuming,’ said Thane, leaning back in his chair, ‘that the four of you were here to rescue Selena Rourke. Or, well, the three of you.’ His gaze landed on Eva. ‘I don’t know why you do anything anymore.’

‘Certainly not because you tell me to,’ came Eva’s flat, taut voice, and Albus could see the tension in her shoulders, that mixture of control, fear and anger he could recognise even after all this time.

‘Yes, you’re positively your own master these days,’ Thane drawled, then glanced at Albus. ‘Do you come when he whistles, or does he have to at least call your name?’

Then Eva was on her feet, fists clenched, eyes wide. ‘This is ridiculous,’ she snapped, and looked to Albus and Matt. ‘He’s a killer, he’s a monster -’

‘As much as you are,’ said Scorpius calmly.

Pity crept into her gaze. ‘Oh, you poor fool - if you are who you say you are, you’ve just let him crawl in your head and play hero, but that’s what he does -’

Matt planted his hands on the table, shoulders squared. ‘I don’t care. I do not care about this. Who trusts whom, why he’s back, the history of Thane and Saida - none of this is bringing us closer to our objective: getting Selena back.’

Albus drew a slow breath. ‘He’s right. There are a hell of a lot of questions and issues, but that’s our mission, and we have to look to her first.’

‘I agree,’ said Scorpius. ‘So I suggest we combine forces. You have the records from the Naglfar, you can see where the team from Hogsmeade jumped with her on the night of the attack. Prometheus and I - and it’ll be just us, no need to bring in the rest of the team - have expertise and experience of the Council of Thorns’ operations; we know how to fight them.’ Thane looked pained at what appeared to be Scorpius’ unilateral decision, but he didn’t protest.

Matt looked troubled, but it was Rose who answered, Rose who peered at Thane through a veil of hair so thick it could have been another gateway to the Otherworld. ‘Or we Stun them both, call the IMC, and hand over them and Selena’s location.’

‘You are assuming, Miss Weasley, that I’m of any mind to come quietly,’ said Thane, his hand still firm on his wand. ‘If you strike for me, we will fight back, we will take those files, and we will go. And you will have no leads on Miss Rourke’s location. You might beat us, but is that a risk you’d have to take. I assure you, I’m no more thrilled about this cooperation than you are -’

‘We can’t stand on the outside forever, Prometheus,’ said Scorpius. ‘I wasn’t planning on coming out any time soon, but our hand’s been forced.’

Albus stood, and the next breath he drew came with a wave of warmth and calm that was like coming home. ‘Then let’s look in the file, and see where Selena is. The longer we wait, the more likely it is the Council will realise we know, and they might move her.’

Matt hesitated, then he put the folder on the table and opened it. ‘This is raw data,’ he said. ‘The Council wasn’t in the habit of keeping meticulous records of all their comings-and-goings, so this is just the output from the rituals.’

Rose reached for the papers, expressionless. ‘Then I’ll be the person to decipher it, won’t I.’ Once, she might have been wry. Now there was nothing in her as she rifled through the pages, eyes roaming over the lines of numbers and words which Albus knew included locations but which was otherwise nonsense to him.

As she read, he looked at Scorpius, whose gaze had fallen on her now her head was bowed. ‘What do you do when this is over?’

Scorpius faltered as he met his gaze. ‘I don’t know, mate. Do you go back into hiding once you come out of it?’

Albus’ expression twisted. ‘I don’t know.’

‘The Brocéliande Forest,’ Rose said abruptly, and looked up. ‘Near to somewhere called Saint Annard.’

Reactions came from both Matt and Thane. The latter sucked on his teeth, while Matt swore and said, ‘Raskoph, you sick bastard.’

‘Explain,’ said Albus.

‘Saint Annard was an all-magical French village until a hundred years ago,’ said Matt. ‘Then Raskoph and the Thule Society happened to it, when France was under German occupation in the Grindelwald Wars.’

‘The witches and wizards were accused of harbouring Magical Alliance agents, and were ordered to give them up. When they didn’t - they didn’t actually have any - the entire village was wiped out,’ said Thane. ‘It’s been a ghost town ever since. Nobody can say Raskoph doesn’t have a sense for the dramatics.’ He paused, and looked around. ‘And the war crimes. I simply mean it’s “dramatic” under these circumstances.’

Scorpius glanced to him. ‘A site of a massacre, and it’s where Raskoph’s had a prized prisoner taken. This can’t be a random location. This has to be important to him.’

‘You think it’s where Raskoph himself is hiding out?’ said Albus.

‘He moves around a lot,’ said Scorpius. ‘If he’s there, he won’t be there for long. But he’s got something he can’t just leave lying around, which is at its safest and most stable if it’s somewhere the barriers between the realms are weaker: the Chalice of Emrys.’

‘Then we have our heading,’ said Matt, straightening. ‘We get the maps, plan some apparitions to Brocéliande, and we’ll be there by dawn -’

‘No,’ Albus found himself saying. ‘We’re not moving right away.’

Matt’s jaw set. ‘The longer we wait, the likelier they’ll move her -’

‘Except we broke their transportation hub for Europe, and they have no idea what we know,’ said Albus. ‘Moving Selena is more likely to get them noticed, under the circumstances. More pressingly, we are worn and tired and in no condition to stage a strike on one of Raskoph’s most valued bases. We need a night’s sleep, at the very least.’

‘I agree with Potter,’ said Thane. ‘We need to be at our best if we’re going to succeed. None of you look at your best.’

‘I could say the same to you,’ sneered Matt. ‘Scrapping with teenagers took it out of you?’

‘Or do you want a few hours so you can drop your associates a line and then we wake up with wands in our faces?’ said Eva.

Scorpius grimaced. ‘We’re not going to do that.’

‘You might not,’ said Matt. ‘I’m surprised you trust him -’

‘This isn’t up for debate,’ Albus cut them off. ‘We need rest. And if we’re going to work together, we have to trust that we do, at least, have aligned goals for now. Most of you look dead on your feet. Get some bloody sleep. I will go check the wards, make sure communications and apparition are blocked off. Does anyone have a problem with that?’ Thane looked at Scorpius, who shook his head, and none of the others said anything. With no desire to belabour this point, he turned to leave the tent, ducking out from the flap and into the chilly air of north-eastern France at night.

There had been a certain irony to using the Council of Thorns’ own ritual to let them cross international borders. But Thane had assured them that it would work - and that his parting charm would completely unravel the Naglfar’s magics, taking time to be rebuilt if it was even possible. Albus suspected Thane had come to the Naglfar with the intention of destroying the ship, along with everyone on board, but this suggestion had not been made in their shaky alliance. Nevertheless, he remembered the slain Thornweavers he and Rose had found. This wasn’t a bloodless operation.

The wards were intact, but he pumped more power into them anyway, because it gave him an excuse to be out of the tent for a little longer. The sky was overcast, and the plain field they’d hopped to cast in such absolute darkness that he couldn’t see any sign of life out here, and certainly no indication anything was going to challenge their protections. But old habits died hard, so when he heard a crunch of a footstep behind him, he’d whirled around, wand in hand, before he knew what he was doing.

Eva had her own wand half-raised before she stopped herself. ‘You’re jumpy.’

‘Do I have any reason to not be?’ Only slowly did he drop his wand.

‘No. Keep up that paranoia.’ She looked up, dim light from the tent spilling across her face to cast the scar along her jaw into darker shadow. ‘It might keep us alive.’

‘Does that mean I should be wary of you, too?’

‘If it keeps you cautious.’ Eva thinned her lips as she slipped her wand away, and glanced to the tent before she pressed on. ‘You truly believe that’s Scorpius?’

He flinched. ‘I do. Maybe I’m a fool, but he knows so much, it looks like him, sounds like him, walks like him. Why would Prometheus Thane have planned this to infiltrate us? Or have a fake Scorpius up his sleeve just in case he ran into us? If we were at home, in a secure environment, I might press this more, but I can’t afford doubt right now.’ Albus rolled a shoulder. You can call me an idiot -’

‘I don’t think you’re an idiot for believing. Prometheus - Thane - he is manipulative and he is cunning, but he’s also efficient. He’ll use theatrics if it serves a purpose, but this would be… melodramatic for him.’

‘So he’s the one you think I should be wary of? I suppose you’d know him best.’ It was impossible to keep a sneer from his voice, even though he knew it wasn’t helpful.

She didn’t react to that. ‘Then trust me when I say that Prometheus Thane is very adept at earning and manipulating loyalties. Maybe that is the real Scorpius. Maybe he’s not been reprogrammed with Legilimency or mind-altering potions. But he’s still chosen to work with Thane for the last eight months, fighting the Council, assassinating people.’

‘If that’s Scorpius, if there’s even the slightest chance that’s Scorpius, then I’m not turning on him, I’m not turning away from him,’ said Albus, with a sudden heat in his chest he hadn’t expected. ‘And not for you -’

She flinched. ‘I am telling you to be careful, Albus, for the sake of this mission, Selena - for Rose, for Matt, for yourself. He’s not telling us everything.’

‘I suppose you would recognise a liar.’

‘I would. I know obfuscation when I see it. Why he’s with Thane, why he stayed away? Maybe he just wanted to fight the Council without dealing with personal problems, but that’s doesn’t sound like the whole story. I think he’s hiding something. And if he’s not lying, then I worry he’s not dancing to his own tune. For whatever reason, Scorpius trusts Prometheus, and he shouldn’t. He might be your friend, he might care for you, but there is a very real risk that he has become Prometheus’ play-thing, and you cannot assume that you have his loyalty like you used to.’

‘You’re right,’ said Albus. ‘I don’t assume I have people’s loyalty any more. You taught me a very good lesson.’

That made her stop short, the first flash of true frustration entering her eyes. ‘You want to talk about lessons on loyalty? Prometheus Thane has a talent for inspiring people to follow him to the ends of the Earth. It’s a very rare talent. I’ve only met one person better.’ She met his gaze, undaunted and without shame for once, and before he could answer, she pressed on. ‘Except that you didn’t do it through lying or manipulating, and that’s why you’re better. Or, were better. I’m not sure what you are any more.’

‘Neither am I,’ said Albus. ‘But whatever I am, you made me.’

‘Then we made each other, Albus, but this is still not the point. I’m not here to reminisce. I said I’d help you get Selena, and I will. Consider this my help: making sure you don’t get stabbed in the back by Prometheus Thane, or by whatever loyalty he’s inspired in Scorpius Malfoy. If that’s even who it is. Lots of people can know Quidditch scores.’

Then a new voice rolled across the darkness, and the sound as still enough to make Albus’ heart close into a fist. ‘Aw, c’mon, how many people knew about short-sheeting Oakes’ bed?’ said Scorpius, emerging from the gloom between them and the tent. ‘She’s still a smart girl, Al. You should listen to her.’

Albus looked at Scorpius - that rumpled blond hair, longer than he remembered but still artfully unruly, like he’d spent hours perfecting how little attention he gave it. That straight nose, the nonchalant manner with which he walked, hands shoved into pockets, the lopsided grin that reached his blue-grey eyes. It was him, every inch of him, and while Albus couldn’t pretend he understood, he knew the mere sight of his friend was breaking up the chunks of stone embedded in his heart and guts.

‘I could answer more questions, if you wanted,’ said Scorpius. ‘But I don’t know if that’s going to make much of a difference.’

Albus’ expression creased, but Eva took a step back, expression closing into her emotionless mask. ‘I think I’ve said all I can.’

‘Good night, Saida,’ said Scorpius amiably as she turned and headed for the tent, and he waited until she was gone before looking to Albus and continuing. ‘I wouldn’t be too hard on her, mate. And I say this as a guy who threatened to kill her last time we met.’ His gaze went wry, but the two fell into silence, staring into the horizon of black sky against black land. ‘I don’t - I’ve thought about what I’d say for a long time.’

‘I bet I’ve thought about it longer.’ Albus felt his throat tightening up, and he frowned into the night, voice coming out more rumbling than he liked. ‘If you’ve only been… back, for eight months.’

‘Yeah, I - I don’t mean…’ Scorpius sighed. ‘I wanted to come back. These past few months, I mean. I really did, I just - I thought it would complicate things.’

‘And working with Prometheus Thane is simple?’

‘In a way. Find the bad guys. Fight the bad guys. Sometimes, yes, kill the bad guys.’

‘Except he is one of the bad guys, Scorp -’

‘And she isn’t?’ Scorpius pointed at the tent, incredulous. ‘But you brought her on board to find Selena.’

‘That was Matt’s call!’

‘You two seemed like you were getting pretty honest with each other here! Not exactly a professional-only relationship.’

Albus drew a deep breath that quavered more than he’d have liked. ‘I believe she’ll help us find Selena. I believe she has no love for the Council. Truth be told, I believe the same of Prometheus Thane. That’s all I need out of those two. But you - I don’t -’ Words he would have once spoken without thought now sounded presumptuous, or even dangerous, like they opened up whole new chasms he wasn’t ready to stare into, and he glared at a spot in the darkness above Scorpius’ head. ‘You’re back, and it’s been so long, and I worry what he’s… done.’

‘Listen to me.’ Scorpius stepped in, hand coming up to grab a fistful of Albus’ jacket, but the emotion in his voice was fervour, not anger. ‘I am not Prometheus Thane’s man. This is all one bloody long story, and some of it I don’t know how to explain, and some of it I can’t explain, and right now really isn’t the time. I wanted to come back. I couldn’t. He didn’t stop me, I chose this, I just… didn’t have a choice, if you know what I mean. We’re allies of convenience, and I do owe him, but he’s not - and you’re -’ His expression crumpled, the determination fluttering from his voice, and their eyes met. ‘It’s me, Al. And I don’t just mean it’s not a trick, I mean I’m still me.

‘I know,’ said Albus, the words bursting out unbidden. ‘I know it is, I knew on that bloody freighter, I knew it was you…’

Scorpius grinned, really grinned, his eyes brightening with that twinkle which had always made him look younger, before bashfully letting go. ‘You’ve no idea how damn good it is to hear you say that. You’ve no idea how damn good it is to see you.’

Albus bit his lip and clapped him on the shoulder, keeping his hand there. ‘I reckon,’ he said, ‘I actually do.’

* *


Matt was still stood at the dining table, the lights dim but enough that he could read the maps and papers, when Eva ducked back inside. ‘Rose has turned in,’ he said, not looking up, ‘so I’d ask you to be quiet when you go to bed. She needs her rest.’

Eva glanced at the bunkroom door and she sighed. ‘I’ll sleep on the couch. You go be with her.’

He opened his mouth to argue, then decided he really didn’t want to share a room with the resurrected Scorpius Malfoy and Prometheus Thane. He frowned at the map. ‘Thanks.’ She didn’t answer, heading for the back room, and with a sigh he shut the folder and looked over at her. ‘Do you really think it’s him?’

‘You knew him better than I did.’ But she paused, her back to him as she thought. ‘A trick like this isn’t Thane’s style. He likes to paint himself as a good guy. This would just be sick. Then again, if he hasn’t changed these past two years, he’s the only one.’

‘Right.’ Matt frowned at the folder, then straightened. ‘I’m going to bed.’ She didn’t answer, which suited him fine as exchanging pleasantries with Eva Saida wouldn’t have felt trite so much as psychotic. He ducked into the bunkroom, keeping his footsteps light, only to find the candles still alight and Rose most certainly not asleep. She was a bundled shape at the foot of the bottom bunk, knees drawn up under her chin, still fully dressed. The candlelight played fire in her hair but darkness in her eyes as she looked up at him, flinching as badly as she might if he’d come in swinging his sword, and he stopped.

‘Hey. You’re - you’re not okay.’ Astute observation out of the way, he hurried to kneel at the foot of the bed, hands on the sheets. This pattern was well-rehearsed from when he’d find her in the dorms at Hogwarts on a bad day, coming to give comfort but knowing it was best to keep his distance until she reached for him. That hadn’t been needed in over a year now.

Her eyes fixed on him, dark and cavernous, but boring right through him. ‘It can’t be him. He’s gone, it can’t be, how can it be?’

‘I don’t know. He knows things, certainly, and Al seems to believe him.’

‘He fell, I saw him fall…’

‘Yeah. But it’s a big world, Rose, and I don’t…’ Matt extended his hand to put it next to hers, the old code of offering affection, the one she always took.

Instead, she shied back, and whispered, ‘I’m not going to leave you for him.’

Oh, fucking hell. Matt blinked. ‘I didn’t think -’

Now she grabbed his hand and hauled herself to the edge of the bed. ‘I don’t care what John says, I don’t care what Albus says, I need you, you can’t go. I can’t do this without you -’

‘Hey.’ He lifted his other hand to her cheek, breath catching. ‘I’m not going anywhere. We’ll get through this. We’ll get Selena back, we’ll get to the bottom of everything, and we’ll be okay. You hear me?’

She was shaking under his touch, but nodded, fervent - and then she was pulling him to her, and he knew this fire, he knew this desperation. He’d seen it in her darkest moments of grief, but never before had she poured it into a kiss, because he’d been so sure, so sure she was moving on before anything happened with them. But now he could taste the grief and anguish on her lips, strong enough to make him falter.

‘Matt, please.’ Her plea was a whisper against his mouth, crumpled and desperate. ‘Please, I want you, I need you…’

If she can’t tell you she loves you, now of all times, when will she? The thought sliced through the haze of habit and instinct which howled at him to pull her closer, and it brought with it a cold, cruel clarity to fill the gaps. He pulled away. ‘We don’t - we should rest,’ Matt said, and felt a coward. ‘We make a move tomorrow, we need to be at our best. Or we’re no good to Selena.’ Selena. You have to get Selena back. The rest of the world can wait. ‘And you need to sleep.’

Rose drew a shaking breath, like she was half-drowning still, but she did slide back. He saw colour rise to her cheeks, and couldn’t meet her gaze. ‘You think I can sleep right now?’ There was a wry stab in her voice, but she at least sounded a bit more like herself.

‘No,’ he conceded. ‘If you want, I’ll charm you.’

She looked away, eyelashes fluttering before she nodded. He’d never used a Sleeping Charm on her before, because that sounded like a great way to start down a slippery slope when she’d been in the fits of her grief. Normally, he would have refused to use it on someone in the field, but he preferred the possible risk of her being drowsy in the morning - which he could still use spells to counter - than definitely strung out and exhausted in battle.

But he was, himself, not sleepy any more. He waited until she was still under the blankets, her breathing deep and peaceful, before he stood and stalked out of the bunkroom. Eva was a silent bundle on the sofa by now, and he could still hear the rumble of voices from outside. That was where he went, fists clenched, jaw tight, into the darkness and towards the tall silhouettes of Albus Potter and the man who claimed to be Scorpius Malfoy.

Al saw him first, and his brow knotted slightly. ‘Hey, Matt -’

Matt ignored him, grabbed Scorpius’ collar, and kicked him in the back of the knee. There was a yelp, but down Scorpius was forced, and Matt shoved his wand in the other man’s neck. ‘Oh, good, you’re not some master fighter -’

Scorpius gave a hiss of pain. ‘You’re attacking a man from behind and bragging about it?’

‘Matt!’ Albus’ heavy hand fell on his shoulder, voice rumbling with surprise and warning.

‘Don’t worry, Al.’ Matt didn’t let go of Scorpius, kept his wand firm at his neck. ‘I’m not going to hurt him unless he gives me a good reason. So if you’re picking this guy, who could be an impostor, over me, who’s definitely on your fucking side, you need to take a serious goddamn look at your life and choices.’ He felt Al’s hand falter, and shrugged it off.

‘So,’ said Scorpius between gritted teeth. ‘You’ve become more charming in all this time -’

‘If you’re some trick,’ hissed Matt over him, ‘if you’re some agent of Thane’s here to manipulate us, I strongly suggest you admit now. It’ll go better for you. Because if you’re fucking with us, if you’re lying, if you have done this to her because of some greater scheme, then I am going to boil that face off you, I swear to all the Gods.’

Albus took a step back, stunned, but Matt could see Scorpius’ lips twisting into that accusing smile of his. ‘Oh, you’d love that, wouldn’t you? Brave Matthias finds the scheme, keeps the girl -’

‘You think I’m kidding?’ Matt snarled, ramming the wand into a soft spot in his neck. ‘You think this a fucking joke?’

Scorpius growled with pain, twisting his head back to look him in the eye. ‘I think I’ve lived this too long to not be able to laugh at it. And I think you’re not angry about the idea I’m a trick so much as you’re terrified by the idea I’m not. So, bad news, Doyle. Be afraid. I’m me.’

‘Yeah, you said, real convincing -’

‘Does Rose still have those freckles across her shoulders if she’s been out in the sun? That mole on her right shoulder-blade? Does she still do that flicking thing with her tongue when -’

His ribcage tightened enough to stop his breathing, stop his heart, turn him into a solid block of anger as he planted his foot in Scorpius’ back and kicked him face-first into the dirt. ‘You son of a bitch…’

Albus stepped between them, hands raised, jaw tight. ‘Enough. This isn’t helping anything.’

Matt’s eyes flashed, but he stepped back, lowering his wand. ‘You’re right. Guess it is him. Guess he’s still a prick.’

‘Guess you’re still a prickless wonder,’ Scorpius muttered, clambering to his feet.

Matt stabbed a finger at him. ‘I stand by what I said. Mess with Rose, and I will make you pay,’ he said, then turned on his heel and stalked back to the darkness of the tent. Perhaps some things couldn’t wait until we got Selena back. The thought was treacherous, accusing, and he couldn’t make it shut up. Without thinking, he grabbed the file off the dining table before returning to the bunkroom where Rose still slept, oblivious to the world, magic bringing her a peace he could not.

He stared at her, and knew he should join her. Curled up on the bunk, even in these hard times, was a place where he could hide from his woes, will back the trials and tribulations before him. But the folder hung heavy in his hand, and with a groan he clambered onto the top bunk, sparked up a Lumos with his wand, and started reading. He would be a hypocrite not to sleep, to spend the night studying all the information they had on the Council of Thorns, on the Brocéliande Forest, on Saint Annard. But he knew he’d be a failure if he didn’t spend every minute between now and their operation making ready for it. Because if they didn’t get Selena back, then all of this was truly for nothing.

And if they didn’t get Selena back, he didn’t know how he’d live with himself.

* *


She knew the darkness, because she saw it night after night. But since she’d woken, darkness had been her morning and her noon, a darkness broken only by the occasional footsteps of her captors. A metal door scraped open, food shoved in. The diatribes of a madman, just the once, because all men like that had to reaffirm their control, their victory, even if she was just a tool in someone else’s war.

But otherwise there was the darkness. And the cold that came more from cool stone underground, the chill that seeped into her bones and her soul and she knew so well, so very well, because with it came the whispers.

Ages gone by. Aches that were by now like scars carved inside her, their marks eternal; these days, they were part of her. Pains that were still recent and raw and like flesh scraped on bone.

And then the new. The torments she thought were just in her head. Only here, in this darkness, in this place, they were as much her prison as the cold stone walls or the hard metal door or the madmen that had abducted her in the first place. And not a single one of her captors cared when she screamed, but she didn’t do it to try to make them stop, because when had screaming ever made anything stop?

Selena Rourke screamed anyway, because that was all she could do in the darkness.


———————

A/N: The Brocéliande Forest is a place of true legend in French mythology, said to have played a major role in several Arthurian legends.

The ‘Annard’ in Saint Annard is derived from Annard Noz, which is one name for a Breton myth derived from the Celtic traditions of triple goddesses. Les Lavandières, as they are more commonly called, are three old washerwomen who wash the graveclothes of those about to die.


Chapter 12: Man Was Less and Less
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Man Was Less and Less


‘I don’t want to worry people,’ said Scorpius as they advanced through the shrouded woods of the Brocéliande Forest, ‘but I think we’re being followed.’

Matt gritted his teeth. ‘What makes you say that?’

‘Because there’s an Inferius behind us.’

Between the scant maps of the area and deep concentration, Rose had mass apparated them a way into the woodlands, but they still needed to get to Saint Annard by foot. If it really was a Council stronghold, there would be wardings and protections all over the ruined town, and nobody fancied getting spliced as part of their rescue plan. So they’d arrived a good distance away, all the better to check their advance and conduct recon before charging into danger.

Except it seemed danger was closer than they’d anticipated.

Sunlight streamed through the trees, the leaves turning to gold and drifting to cover the path. So when Matt glanced over his shoulder he could see the bone-white, skulking figure some fifty metres behind them at once. On the one hand, the Lethe-created Inferi were not discreet creatures. On the other, who knew how long it had been following them?

‘Shit,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ Scorpius agreed. ‘And it’ll stalk us until it can strike, and run if we try to take it down now. Just like Brillig.’

Matt glanced at Rose and saw her lips thin. ‘Where there’s one,’ she said, voice low and flat, ‘there’s always more. Is this a perimeter defence?’

‘Probably,’ said Thane. ‘And possibly storage. The Council deployed scores of Inferi across the world simultaneously. We know where they got their Hogsmeade corpses, but it was less obvious elsewhere. They might have been gathering an army.’

‘And making these woods their bloody barracks?’ said Matt.

‘Can you think of a better place?’

‘Enough,’ said Albus. ‘We need to plan, and move.’

‘There’s no plan to make,’ said Eva. ‘Intercepting it will take time and string us out. We need to press on, and now, and fast, because they’re probably stalking us until they can gather their numbers and strike as one. We need to make as much progress as possible in that time.’ She turned on her heel and picked up the pace, leading them tromping through the woodlands which would have been picturesque, shattered gold in autumn, were it not for the ghost of death behind them.

‘And then what do we do?’ said Rose.

‘Simple,’ said Albus. ‘We fight, we run, and we try to not die.’

‘Al, keep the cloak to hand,’ said Matt, keeping his hand on the hilt of the sword as they advanced. ‘If it goes wrong, you’re going to have to wear it and slip away, make for Saint Annard while we keep them occupied.’

‘And, what, stage the break-out of Selena myself?’

‘Then give me the cloak and -’

The matter was made abruptly easier by three Inferi lunging from the woodlands at their flanks. Eva didn’t break pace to spin and send a shimmering blade of magic energy scything through the air. It thudded into the Inferius’ throat and knocked it back, head at an angle and the creature downed at once.

‘Go!’ bellowed Albus, turning and pointing his wand at a tree behind them. There was a thunderous cracking as the bark splintered, and with the sound of shattering thunders it fell, crashing through branches and falling leaves and sending up a deluge of dirt and echoes on impact. Anything it didn’t take out, it would at least slow down. The last was sent flying by a blast from Thane, but it didn’t stay down, and then there were more pinpricks of deadly white light in the shadows.

Rose was by Matt’s side before he could blink, hand at his elbow. ‘Run,’ she hissed, and set off at a pace where she was almost dragging him through the trees, the northwards course they’d been holding so far.

‘I don’t need to be told twice,’ he said, breathing ragged through surprise and shock, and his hand remained on the sword-hilt.

Rose smacked it away. ‘Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare -’

‘What -’

He stumbled, but it wasn’t just Rose who kept him upright, but Eva, on his other flank, grabbing his shoulder. ‘She means everyone else here is immune, and I’m not repeating Brillig.’

Matt looked at her, shocked, only then remembering the two of them fighting their way across the island. It hadn’t occurred to him until that moment that she had been perfectly safe from infection - though not disembowelment and horrid death - when they’d staged that rescue. And she sounded sincere and she sounded determined, and in the last two years he’d never thought he’d have Eva Saida looking after his wellbeing. Especially not out of guilt.

‘We can’t be far!’ Rose called to the others as they ran, jumping over patches of undergrowth, scrambling over fallen logs, weaving in between the trees.

‘Then what?’ snapped Albus, hurling magic behind him as they came in their wake, a swarm of white shapes in the woodlands. ‘We just run into Saint Annard with this lot on our heels?’

‘There’ll be perimeter guards,’ huffed Thane, vaulting over a tumbled tree-trunk. ‘Take them down, and get us some distance from this lot. I know what I’m doing.’

They couldn’t keep it up for long, but they were all of them ready for this, fit, agile, and accustomed to running for their lives. Any shame Matt felt in keeping flanked by Eva and Rose faded for a tight focus on keeping his footing, keeping up the pace, and the knowledge of what came ahead.

Save being manly for later. For now, get the job done. Get her back.

The trees became patchier almost before he realised it. He lunged over the overgrown rubble of what had once been a wall, and then ahead of them weren’t more thick trunks, but sandy ruins.

Saint Annard.

The Inferi remained on their heels, tens of metres behind and perhaps twenty of them, but now they were moving into sandy old roads, crumbled remains of pale stone buildings a hundred years old, dust kicking up to paint everything in a hazy light.

‘Intruders!’ A shadow loomed ahead as they ploughed down the road, and Matt put his head down, shoulder out, and barged flat into the Thornweaver whose alert was cut short at the tackle.

Down they both went, and Matt was faintly aware of another Council guard being taken down by Albus and Scorpius with the zap of magic. Without thinking, Matt had his wand in the other man’s gut, a wordless Stun leaving him motionless, and he rolled back onto his feet. Rose and Eva had the road ahead covered, gazes alert, but there were no more words from deeper into the village, just the thudding footsteps from behind.

‘We’ve got to keep moving,’ said Rose.

‘No!’ Thane bent over the Thornweaver at Albus’ feet, reaching for the man’s hand. ‘We can stop this, we can -’ With a noise of triumph he lifted something that gleamed in the hazy light, a ring which he slipped on his finger. ‘Slow them down, give me just a moment…’

‘Are you kidding -’

The Inferi were like racing ghosts in the rising dust, but Scorpius didn’t run, and so neither did Albus. As the two turned to face the oncoming horde, Eva and Rose exchanged long-suffering looks and moved in front of Matt, spells hurled outward. Matt gritted his teeth and stood behind them. All their focused fire and volleys could bring down the first half-dozen Inferi charging while Thane tapped his wand against the ring and muttered incantations to himself.

‘Done!’ he barked after a moment. ‘Step back! Away!’ He lifted his hand, ring glinting through the dusty veil, and the next rank of Inferi that loped at them slowed, stumbled, and slumped to a halt.

Matt suppressed a shudder as he watched them. A heartbeat ago they’d been like beasts lunging with primal killer instincts, but now they stood motionless as statues he knew could be deadly. ‘What the hell -’

‘This is what Lethe does, Mister Doyle,’ said Thane. ‘Bends them to the will of the Council, makes them an army. I helped develop this; do you honestly think I didn’t also learn how to control them, too?’

‘They’ve changed things,’ said Scorpius, his wand not leaving the motionless ranks of corpses. ‘Tried to block us out from influencing them, and we haven’t had a chance to test if we could do it until now.’

‘And I didn’t want to let them know we could before now,’ said Thane. ‘But the moment they try to give this lot new instructions - I assure you this swarm in the woodlands will not all be controlled by this one, sorry perimeter guard - then it’s going to get messy and at least some of them will turn on us. Conflicting orders will turn this into chaos.’

‘So we need a plan,’ said Albus.

‘Also,’ said Scorpius, ‘we need the Chalice. If it’s here, we can’t pass up this opportunity to snatch it.’

‘Rose,’ said Matt in a firm voice. ‘Legilimens one of these two. Find Selena - and if he knows anything about the Chalice, so much the better.’

‘On it,’ she said, and bent over one of the fallen Thornweavers.

Thane clicked his tongue. ‘Very good, but do be quick, I don’t like how they look at me.’

‘Then maybe you shouldn’t have helped develop the fucking illness,’ said Matt, and turned to them all. ‘Here’s how it’s going to go down. If we find the Chalice location, then Al, Scorpius, and Eva are going after it.’

Thane opened his mouth. ‘I should -’

‘I’m splitting you two up,’ Matt pronounced. ‘So you don’t get the Chalice or Selena and then run off with either. And I bet you care more about the Chalice, and I trust Albus to stop Scorpius from absconding with it, and Eva’s a strong extra wand-arm for them. Which makes you a strong extra wand-arm for Rose and I going after Selena.’

Scorpius gave a low whistle. ‘Blimey,’ he said. ‘It’s almost like you’ve thought this through. And don’t trust us.’ He sounded amused and approving, not bitter.

‘I don’t fucking care,’ said Matt. ‘We’re getting this done, and we’re getting her.’

Rose straightened. ‘She’s in the town hall, west side of town. Chalice is north. I bet none of you will miss that magical signature.’

Thane nodded, lips thin. ‘Then what do I do with this merry band? I was thinking of telling them to go on a rampage against all Thornweavers they find. It’ll cause chaos, not least because the Council will have to fight to get them back under control.’

Albus frowned at that. ‘We’re going to use them -’

‘Then that’s a plan,’ said Matt. ‘And I don’t give a damn if you like it or dislike it. Get to work.’

* *


There couldn’t have been more than a dozen or so Thornweavers in Saint Annard, and it became quickly apparent that if there was anything to the north, they were not physically guarding it. Eva downed one Thornweaver before Scorpius or Albus even saw them, and then it was Al’s turn to Stun a would-be ambusher hidden amongst rubble of a shattered home, but that was the last living soul they saw.

Plenty of Saint Annard remained. It had once been a typical French village, the walls of pale brown stone, some even older with faded timberwork. Broken pale shutters hung off hinges, ancient metal signs lay twisted in the remains of the road, and any building which still had a roof lacked at least one wall. Behind them, they could hear the sounds of the Inferi as they sought out any remaining Thornweavers, the crash of combat and their inhuman hissing alongside screams of pain, but they had not come north. It seemed there were no targets there.

A shiver ran up Albus’ spine as he checked the corners, the few gaping windows that remained amongst the ruins. Or, perhaps, even they won’t come this far.

‘Did you hear that?’ said Scorpius, stopping short in the middle of the road.

Eva grabbed his elbow and pulled him into the cover of a nearby wall. ‘No, but I’d like us to live long enough to see what caused it.’

‘I’m not going to get sniped,’ he said, indignant. ‘There’s nothing here. Well. Nothing living.’

‘If you’re about to tell me that coming back from the dead gave you strange mystic-sensing powers -’

‘No,’ Albus interrupted. ‘There’s something here. I can feel it, too.’

She looked between them, frowning. ‘That’s called your survival instincts telling you that you might get your heads blown off at any moment.’

‘Yeah,’ said Scorpius, sweeping his wand up and down the street. ‘But by what?’

‘And if the Chalice is here, why isn’t it guarded?’ said Albus.

Scorpius shook his head, and cautiously advanced down the road, the paving patchy and broken. ‘That doesn’t wholly surprise me,’ he said. ‘If the Chalice isn’t kept somewhere which is really prepared for it, like the tomb in the Parisian Catacombs, it can start to… warp things. That’s why it’s best keeping it somewhere close to the dead. If a place is already disturbed, it breaks down fewer walls. But it does… feed them.’

‘That’s a great choice of words,’ said Eva in a flat voice, checking their rear as they followed.

‘What do you mean, feed?’

‘I mean,’ said Scorpius, and pointed his wand down the road ahead, where the dust was so thick as to almost be a fog, ‘if there is already the chance of ghosts, then that chance will become a guarantee.’ Which was when Albus heard the weeping.

Eva gave a long-suffering sigh. ‘I didn’t have to put up with this shit with Baz.’

It wasn’t sobbing, it was wailing, and then another voice joined it, and another; then there was the sound of magic fizzing in the air, and Albus jerked his wand up in a low guard until it cut the wailing short and he realised what it was. ‘Hells,’ he breathed. ‘This is the massacre.’

When they rounded the corner, before them stood the barn, and the fate of Saint Annard. Wide double-doors were open, hanging off their hinges, and in the yard and inside the shadowed building were the shimmering shapes. Some were more distinct than others. Those inside the barn - some standing, some kneeling, some lying on the ground and writhing in agony, probably fifty in total - were the translucent, white shapes Albus recognised as fully-formed ghosts. Those outside were different. The dust formed into humanoid shapes, like figures formed in the tumbling sand of an hourglass. There was a dozen of them, though at the outskirts of the courtyard were wispy shapes, the impression of more beyond this immediate moment. While the ghosts wore simple robes Albus would guess were a century old in fashion, the dust-figures wore robes which were more like coats, with square corners and identical lines of a uniform pattern.

‘Thule Society soldiers,’ murmured Scorpius next to him.

Eva’s breath caught as she looked at one dust-figure, not lined up with the rest but stood to the side, taller, more imperious. ‘Raskoph.’

Albus stopped himself from jumping when he realised what she meant; that they hadn’t been intercepted by Thornweaver forces, that they were trapped in a moment of death and despair, and the architect of this moment had been Joachim Raskoph a hundred years ago.

He was talking in accented French, and Albus and Scorpius glanced at Eva, whose brow furrowed deeper and deeper as she listened, until she translated. ‘He’s ordering his men to shoot them in the legs so they can’t run, so they’ll die slower,’ she said, voice grating, and as they watched, the lined Thule soldiers did as directed, with vicious slicing charms that felled the ghosts of the villagers of Saint Annard. ‘And now he’s - you sick bastard…’

‘The Chalice must be here,’ murmured Scorpius. ‘These are the ghosts of the people Raskoph killed a hundred years ago, but the Chalice’s magic is so powerful it’s not just making them re-live their deaths, it’s making facsimiles of their killers, too, it’s bringing back the whole moment of death. Not just the dead.’ His expression had gone very still, tight and controlled like Albus had rarely seen.

‘They’re accused of harbouring agents of the Magical Alliance,’ Eva continued as Raskoph spoke on. ‘He says the women and children are in the church, that his men are searching the village. That the villagers must give up those agents. If they don’t, the men here will die first. And if those agents are still not found, or surrendered, then the women and children will be killed, too.’

One ghost of the villagers threw himself down on his knees, speaking in choking, anguished words Albus didn’t need to speak French to understand. He knew a plea for mercy when he heard one.

There was a ferocious crack as the memory of Raskoph flicked his wand, and the ghost screamed as his legs were broken. The Colonel’s shape just nodded at his men, spoke in German, and turned away.

‘Jesus fucking Christ, I wish we’d killed that bastard in Panama,’ Scorpius hissed as the soldiers advanced, downing more of the ghosts but not yet slaying them, and they dragged them into the shadows of the barns. More pleas and begging could be heard, and despite the screams of pain, it seemed nobody was being killed yet. Raskoph’s shape outside became more indistinct, and Albus guessed that the full scene of despair and death was now contained inside the barn, with the memories of the dead.

‘You think this is bad,’ murmured Eva, ‘remember that to unleash Lethe, they have wiped out entire villages to convert into Inferi. Not to mention the body-count from the following attacks. This is insane, and evil, and things like this are still happening.’

A low noise of pain escaped Scorpius’ lips, and Albus couldn’t tell if this was just horror at the sight or something else, something only a man who’d been to the realm of death and back could see of this anguish. But then he couldn’t think about that any more, because he heard the wailing of the villagers hit a whole new pitch at the sound of crackling flames.

‘He had their legs broken and blasted,’ Albus murmured, mouth dry, ‘had them dragged into the barn, then had the barn burnt. Fucking hell.’

Scorpius straightened with a jerk, expression set. ‘These aren’t even proper ghosts. Proper ghosts don’t just re-live their deaths. This is a memory of death, an echo of death, and it can only be here for one reason: the Chalice must be inside.’ He stalked into the swirling dust, echoes of Thule soldiers bursting as he brushed past them, shoulders squared as he headed for the barn.

More and more could Albus see the blackened stones, the building showing its true, gutted form as the memory marched on. He glanced at Eva, whose jaw was set in that pained, determined way he recognised, before they followed. He could understand why even the Thornweavers didn’t come here. Saint Annard was protected by secrecy and by the Inferi; without their raid on the Naglfar, without Thane’s understanding of Lethe, they could never have got this far. That this resting place of the Chalice had no final protection did not surprise him.

The figures of dust were collapsing as the memory went on, as the living walked amongst them, and Albus’s shoulders slowly relaxed as the screaming from inside the barn subsided. Even if he knew it was stopping because the ghosts were too far gone to make a sound, at least he didn’t have to hear them. They found Scorpius stood in the shrouded, gloomy barn, cast in darkness by the tall, blackened walls even if the roof had burnt out. He was frozen in place, staring at the remains of an internal stone wall upon which sat a silvery cup.

Albus had seen several resting places of the Chalice of Emrys, but this was by far the least impressive - and yet the one which made his skin crawl the most. ‘I hate that bloody thing.’

‘Not as much,’ murmured Scorpius, and the shreds of sunlight that crept through the ceiling reflected off the silvery surface of the Chalice to cast pale angles across his sharp face, ‘as I do.’

* *


‘This is an upgrade,’ said Selena, and tugged at the bindings that kept her tied to the chair, hands behind her back. ‘Do I get room service now?’ It was easier to joke now she was out of the prison cell, and so she was going to make the most of it. Perhaps to annoy her captors. Perhaps to distract herself while she still could.

Joachim Raskoph stood with two of his masked guards. The town hall was one of the few parts of the village - not that she’d seen much of it - which was still intact, and it was where the Thornweavers had established their base of operations and barracks. She’d been dragged out of the cellars only minutes ago to hear the screams of death and shouts of combat, and bundled into the office that was Raskoph’s sanctum here.

She’d seen him before. He’d come down into the darkness and the whispers of her cell, just the once. Conversation had been neither stimulating nor enlightening, and she had no idea how long she’d been there or what was going on. But if someone was killing Thornweavers, if she was being moved closer to be guarded better, it was a good enough reason to hope.

Raskoph gave her an emotionless look. ‘You think you are being funny.’

I think this beats being in a dark, tiny, cold room and having to shit in a bucket.’

‘I could gag you.’

‘And I was just starting to enjoy our talks.’ Again, she tugged at the bindings. Again, she concluded this rope was magical. ‘I do love your rhetoric about how you’re going to destroy the world’s corrupt, depraved ways, and especially how you’re going to destroy my mother. We could bond on that.’

Raskoph hefted the cuffs she’d been transported in, removed when they’d bound her to the chair. They were large, enchanted shackles that had attached themselves to her wrists and ankles with just the flick of a wand and made it hard to think, let alone move or walk. The Thornweavers had all but carried her out of her makeshift cell, through the echoing and ruined town hall. ‘You are very bold,’ he said, voice still without inflection, ‘for a girl at my mercy.’

‘If you were going to kill me, you wouldn’t have abducted me,’ said Selena with a shrug. ‘I’m the daughter of Lillian Rourke. You want to use me, probably to manipulate her - which, newsflash, won’t work. I don’t think even a Killing Curse would crack her these days. But you’ve gone to some effort to abduct me, so you won’t just finish me off for being annoying.’

‘True,’ said Raskoph, and rested his hand on the wand sheathed at his hip. ‘But if this is a rescue effort that might succeed, I could kill you to stop the IMC from recovering you.’

The thudding fear that buzzed through her veins and thudded with her heartbeats hit a new, faster tempo. Selena licked dry lips. ‘Yeah, okay,’ she said, and the whimsical voice of a defence mechanism was no longer defiant. ‘You might do that.’ At this point it seemed judicious to fall silent.

At this point, the wall was also blasted in by Matthias Doyle.

Heavy stone rubble flew through the air to crash into one of the Thornweaver guards, who collapsed with a gurgle, countless somethings probably broken. Selena’s heart lunged into her throat as Matt stormed in through the gap, sword in one hand, wand in the other, hurling curses and covering fire - and behind him, already beginning an onslaught at the standing Thornweaver guard, came Rose -

Then Prometheus Thane marched in with them and Selena was really confused.

‘Get Selena!’ Matt yelled at Rose, taking her target.

Thane rounded on Raskoph, aristocratic features twisted into a superior smile. ‘Hello, sir. It’s been a while.’

Raskoph barely batted an eyelid, but then his wand was in his hand and levelled at Thane, so fast Selena wondered if she’d blinked and missed it. ‘Traitor,’ was all he said, still without inflection, and then magic flew through the air like wildfire.

Selena swore and tugged at her bindings, then Rose was at her side, wand tapping on the rope. ‘What the bloody hell is going on, Weasley?’

‘Rescue mission! You’re welcome.’ Rose muttered incantations, needing to break down the enchantments on the rope before she could untie it.

‘With Thane?’

‘There are so, so many stories to tell you when this is over. You’re not hurt?’

‘I’ve been stuck in a cellar for the past few days, so tell me the truth: how bad is my hair?’

‘I’ll take that as a no…’

Selena had seen many fights, and she’d seen them all with a barely-contained panic at the knowledge that she was never the best combatant on the field. She always stuck with someone, helping shield them, focusing on their target, making sure she could watch someone’s back and have hers watched in turn. It was terrifying and a little embarrassing when one stood beside formidable fighters like Albus Potter, but it was nothing like being bound and helpless and only being able to watch.

Matt had closed the distance, like he always did, moving with a magically-enhanced speed to bring his sword into the equation as he clashed with the standing Thornweaver. Spells flashed through the air along with the edge of metal, and the fight was as much physical as it was magical, both men in a back-and-forth dance of striking, evading, retaliating.

What was happening between Thane and Raskoph was a completely different game. Neither man hardly moved, wands swishing with ultimate efficiency, but the energy crackling between them was enough to make the hairs on the back of Selena’s neck stand on end. One would flinch, then the other, and with no incantations given, barely any kind of magical light show, she had to guess the spells were mental more than physical. Then Raskoph gave a grunt of pain and staggered back, and that made Thane move. He lunged forwards, Raskoph’s wand snapped up, and then it was a fight the like of which she recognised better - albeit on a whole new level of speed and terror.

Blue energy crackled from Raskoph’s wand-tip, Thane caught it with his left hand and hurled it harmlessly into a wall before making the floorboards under Raskoph’s feet buckle and surge. Raskoph seemed to step upwards into thin air and hovered for a moment, his footing not remotely threatened, then swished his wand for a spell which howled as it sliced through air, through thought, through space itself. Thane ducked that one, and sheer stone in the wall behind him shuddered at the perfect, narrow, straight slice that appeared in it.

There was a yell of pain, and Selena’s head snapped around as she thought it was Matt - but he was still standing, sword gleaming a trail through the air, Thornweaver falling with a spray of blood. She couldn’t tell if that had been a lethal blow. I remember when he tried like hell to not use that to kill. But then Matt was turning on Raskoph, moving to join and reinforce Thane.

‘Rose, this is dumb; go help and the three of you can take down Raskoph,’ Selena hissed.

‘We’re not planning to win. We’re planning to run. Thane’s not sure he can take him -’

And Raskoph broke Thane’s guard, just in time to prove that suspicion right. The spell didn’t do much; Thane had deflected most of it, his shields absorbing the rest. But it did make him stumble, and in that stumble, Raskoph struck. By magic he hurled not a weapon at Thane, but the magical shackles which had bound Selena on the way up here.

Rose swore as the shackles found Thane’s wrists, then dragged him jerking forward so they could snap onto both hands, his ankles, trussing him up as they were enchanted to do. There wasn’t more than a gurgled curse from Thane before he fell to the floor, hog-tied, wand spinning out of his grip. Matt lunged over Thane’s fallen form, sword in a low guard before him, wand in his left hand, held back and ready for defence. ‘Rose!’ he bellowed. ‘Untie Selena and go!’

Then he threw himself at Joachim Raskoph for a fresh bout he couldn’t possibly win, and it was Selena’s turn to swear. ‘Did he go absolutely mental when I wasn’t looking?’ But Rose didn’t answer, redoubling her efforts to unlock the magical bindings keeping Selena in place. ‘You’re not actually listening to this stupid plan?’

‘I’m almost there…’

Almost, thought Selena as she watched Matt and Raskoph clash, might not be good enough.

Matt wasn’t letting Raskoph get any distance, because if he had one edge, it was the sword that could slice through magical protections. He’d been training with it, Selena thought as he even lifted the blade to deflect a spell Raskoph hurled at him, the metal glinting as it absorbed the magic that would have likely killed him. For his age, Raskoph was not at all slowed. But he was pressed back, for no barrier he raised could block adamantine, and so he had to evade physically, not magically. Matt kept his wand ready to defend himself, sword-blows the bulk of his attacks, body already surging with those charms he used to make himself stronger, quicker. Still Raskoph ducked, sidestepped and weaved. Once he sprouted a long blade from the tip of his wand, parried and attempted a riposte, but Matt was quicker, and on the second clashing of sword on sword, the Templar blade shattered his summoned weapon.

‘You know,’ said Selena, eyebrows raised, ‘he’s actually not doing too badly.’

She should have known better than to curse him like that. Raskoph leapt backwards from the latest swipe, expression set. ‘Adeptly done, Mister Doyle,’ he said. ‘But those old ways are long gone for a reason.’

Matt’s voice came ragged, exertion getting the better of him more than his enemy. The charms which reinforced his body also took their toll, in time, and the battle stretched on. ‘They’re doing me alright for now.’

‘Enchantment’s down,’ muttered Rose, and clicked her tongue with satisfaction. ‘I’m just getting the rope.’

‘Indeed.’ Raskoph swished his wand at his free hand, conjuring another blade, this one to be held instead of produced at wand-tip. ‘Sometimes it is worth revering them.’

Matt glanced at the edge. ‘You know adamantine will break that.’

‘I know,’ said Raskoph, and lashed out with his wand again. Three spells in quick succession, so swift Selena couldn’t guess what they were, and Matt blocked the first two adroitly. The third was further to his right, and the sword swept out, parried the blast, his blade outstretched to the side, which was when Raskoph struck like a snake. He closed the gap in one bound, and wand-magic met wand-magic in his blast and Matt’s defence.

Then metal met flesh as his conjured blade sliced through Matt’s wrist.

There was no noise of impact save the scream that tore from Matt’s throat and through Selena’s chest, and black pinpricks sprung up at the corner of her vision as she watched him fall. Blood surged from the stump, his wand dropped so he could clutch at it in agony and instinct to staunch the bleeding. And Raskoph just stepped back, expression impassive.

Rose was crossing the gap before Selena could blink, and had she been capable of speaking, Selena would have yelled at her for leaving her still bound. But then Rose was by Matt’s side, voice stumbling over healing incantations that would never regrow a limb, but might stop him from bleeding out, and the note of panic in her friend’s voice was so very, very familiar.

‘Now would be time for you to surrender, Miss Weasley,’ said Raskoph, and Selena jerked her hands to tug at the bonds that had been only partly loosened. ‘Lay down your wand, and I will let you live, girl.’

Rose didn’t answer, still bent over Matt’s fallen form. Either he’d passed out or she’d charmed him into blissful unconsciousness, and for a moment Selena was afraid Rose wasn’t responding because she’d gone too far away inside to have heard Raskoph. Then she stood. ‘Girl,’ repeated Rose in a whisper that somehow still stretched across the room shattered by magics. ‘If nothing else, do not forget that I am still a witch.’

Oh, Rose, you fucking idiot, was all Selena could think as her wand lashed out for a fresh flurry of spells. Raskoph had just beaten Thane, just beaten Matt, and while she rated Rose over him, that didn’t mean she thought this was a fight they could win. She went back to struggling at her bindings, and watched the inevitable defeat unfold.

Rose had never been their best fighter. That had always been Albus. Scorpius had been excellent for sheer unpredictability, and over time Matt had proved himself a solid opponent. Rose was not especially inventive in combat; while she might use an obscure spell, it would still be entirely by the book. This at least meant her shields were always the best the Hogwarts Five had to offer. Raskoph’s spells crashed against them, and Rose hurled back the odd retaliation, jaw tight, eyes bright with concentration, every wand move conservative, precise. But though she stood steady, there was no way she wouldn’t be worn down.

She’s stalling for time. Selena blinked - then realised she was the only possible cavalry that could come and save this rescue from calamity. Rope tore at her skin as she tugged, but this wasn’t the worst pain she’d suffered, wasn’t the worst fate she could hope for, and she struggled and yanked and then -

Freedom. Free hands, and she could pull the rope away from herself and the chair, stand, and…

And do absolutely nothing, stood in the middle of the battle-scarred room while Raskoph and Rose clashed spell on spell. They either hadn’t noticed her, locked in their fight, or they were ignoring her because she was harmless and useless and -

‘Rourke…’

Prometheus Thane’s voice was a low growl. She knew how hard it was to do anything with those bindings on; they didn’t just tie up the body, they tied up thoughts, too, and to speak must have taken a supreme effort of will. She turned to face him, saw those blue eyes that still thudded hatred through her heart, and saw his gaze flicker from her to a point on the ground. ‘Wand.’

His wand. Of course. She ran, scooped it up, turned on Raskoph, and hesitated. He could take them both in a straight fight, probably with one hand tied behind his back. She was not a great addition to combat. If she was going to do anything, she had to do it now, take him down, take him by surprise. There was only one spell she knew for sure would do that.

Selena lifted Prometheus Thane’s wand, narrowed her eyes at Raskoph’s unprotected back, and drew a deep breath. ‘Avada Kedavra.’

The air was sucked from her lungs, from her ears, and Prometheus Thane’s wand shuddered in her grip at the eruption of green light. A distant part of Selena’s mind mused that she’d never seen the Killing Curse used, but it still seemed like the light was bursting too soon, dissipating too soon, and sound came crashing back into the world too soon. Raskoph spun at her words, eyes wide, trying to hurl himself back - but the spell hit, and at once Selena knew that she had not cast successfully. You have to mean it. That was what Professor Tully had said in her NEWTs, that was what her great-uncle Barnabus had grumbled about when he got too far into drinks and work over family dinners. And despite all Raskoph had done, despite all she knew he was going to do, she’d hesitated.

The half-spell, the ghost of flawed hate and uncertain pain, still thudded into Raskoph’s side and sent him staggering back. His robes and skin smoked on impact, and there was a yell of pain as the green-hued light rippled across him.

Rose lifted her wand, but looked too startled to exploit the opening, and in the chaos Selena scrabbled around the room to join her. Two wands were better than one for Shielding them from the inevitable onslaught and retaliation.

Raskoph had a hand to the struck cheek, but when he lowered it the skin was smoldering, blackened with a greenish hue, and tugging at his lip to give him a sneer. ‘Go, then.’ His voice was a rasp on granite. ‘Just know you are saving nothing.’ Then he swished his wand, turned on the spot, and with a crack he disappeared.

‘Bloody hell.’ Rose’s wand dipped, and she looked at Selena. ‘Did you just - did he just -’

‘I screwed it up.’ Selena’s brow pinched, and she turned to Matt. ‘Is he -’

‘Alive.’ Rose hurried back to his side. ‘I’ve staunched the bleeding, but we want to get him to a hospital as soon as possible - once the others are here -’

‘The others - and what the hell is Thane doing -’ It seemed neither of them was going to finish a sentence, as that was the moment three figures burst through the hole in the wall: Albus Potter, Eva Saida, and Scorpius Malfoy.

‘We saw the green light!’ said Albus, eyes wide, wand hefted before him. ‘Is everyone okay?’ Then his gaze found Matt’s crumpled form and he swore.

‘He’s alive,’ Rose said again, lifting a hand. ‘We drove off Raskoph.’

Albus nodded. ‘We got the Chalice. The Inferi are fighting each other out there now; looks like conflicting Thornweaver orders. But whichever side wins is going to come for us soon.’

Selena stared at Scorpius. ‘What the fuck is going on?’

‘It’s a long story,’ said Rose, but she, too, watched Scorpius as he hurried across the office to the side of Thane, still on the ground, still bundled up by the magical bindings. ‘Don’t let him out of those.’

Scorpius stood over Thane, and gave her a sidelong look. ‘We just helped you -’

‘Yes,’ said Rose. ‘You did.’ Then she lifted her wand. ‘Stupefy.’

Scorpius - or whoever the hell it was - didn’t have time to give more than a garbled oath before the spell thudded into him, and he fell like a stone next to Prometheus Thane.

Albus strode forwards. ‘Rose -’

‘Are you a complete idiot, Al?’ Rose’s voice was low and flat. ‘I heard what he said on the Naglfar. In the tent last night. But there is no way, no way I am letting whatever this is walk away from here. Neither him nor Thane. Even if it’s just so I will have answers.’

Selena kept gawping at Scorpius’ crumbled form. ‘So that’s a crazy illusion? Polyjuice?’

‘We’re going back to Britain,’ Rose said, ignoring her, ‘getting Matt to a hospital, and giving those two to the DMLE.’ Then her gaze fell on Eva Saida, who had barely moved except to shift her wand into a low guard. ‘You…’

Eva grimaced. ‘Do I get double-crossed, too? I don’t have enough moral high ground to get indignant about that.’

Rose flinched. ‘Get out of here. Go wherever you damn well please. You - you helped us in Ager Sanguinis. We wouldn’t have got to the Naglfar if it weren’t for you.’

‘True enough.’ But Eva bit her lip, her gaze flickering from Thane’s fallen form, to Rose, then finally to Albus, whose expression was pinched, pained. Then she straightened, and flipped her wand in her hand, extending the grip towards him. Emotion fled from her face and her voice. ‘Be sure to tell the British government that.’

Albus stared. ‘What are you doing?’

Eva drew a raking breath. ‘Surrendering.’

‘You could -’

‘Run? And keep running? And run for the rest of my life and never see -’ She stopped herself. ‘Just bring me in with them. We’ll see where judgement falls.’

Rose’s expression hadn’t changed. ‘Then let’s go, before Matt has to wait any longer. We can Apparate to the border, French authorities in Calais can pick us up and get us routed straight to London…’

Selena’s jaw remained dropped as she looked at the trussed-up Prometheus Thane who’d helped rescue her, the Stunned Scorpius Malfoy who’d come back from the dead, the disarmed Eva Saida who’d just surrendered, and the bewildered Albus Potter who was holding the Chalice of Emrys, and swore. ‘Not that I’m not grateful for the rescue,’ she said, ‘but I’m really confused.’



——————————

A/N: The notion of the massacre of Saint Annard, and the specifics of how it happened, are derived from the genuine, historical massacre of Oradour-sur-Glane by SS forces in 1944. For however comic-book evil Raskoph can seem, in this incident he has been no worse than genuine monsters of genuine history.

There is a spot of headcanon at work with Selena’s Killing Curse misfire. The Killing Curse cannot be easy, or it would be the bread-and-butter of every single ‘bad guy’ attack if they had no reason to hold back. My thinking is that it takes concentration and focus, which is not always available in the middle of a rolling scrap, and that it takes - like the Cruciatus - true belief, hatred, meaning on the part of the caster. The further headcanon is that something like that might not be a spell you’d want to throw around with the risk of it going wrong; either backfiring or possibly doing nothing. So more reliable if less-lethal spells like Stuns or general slashing/cutting/combat magics would be more bread-and-butter in a fight.

Basically, Raskoph hasn’t just survived a Killing Curse. Selena screwed it up and hit him with something nasty but absolutely non-lethal.


Chapter 13: Blasted and Burnt
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Blasted and Burnt


‘Potter, they got the job done -’

‘Begging your pardon, Chairman, but I had people pursuing the Naglfar. We were going to have it monitored and then track the movements of the Council of Thorns.’ Harry planted his hands on the desk, as angry as Rose thought she’d ever seen him. ‘Now the Council have abandoned the ship, and they’ll set up their transportation network somewhere else, somewhere we don’t know about.’

‘What’s that even worth, Harry?’ Rose said before she could stop herself. ‘You didn’t anticipate the attacks, you didn’t find where they sent Selena. Were we supposed to leave her there on the off-chance you set up a surveillance op?’

Harry flinched, jaw tight. For a moment he didn’t say anything, just scowled at his office door. Their return to Britain had been in a hail of chaos and acclaim, but there was a lot of judgement that had yet to be passed, dangling overhead still like a sword of Damocles. Lillian Rourke had come right down to the MLE office, as had Hermione, and the three of them stood on Harry’s side of the desk before Albus, Rose and Selena, like a Greek chorus of disapproval that stuck in Rose’s throat.

It took a moment before Harry spoke, and his voice grated when he did. ‘I don’t blame you. I understand you did what you had to do -’

‘And I, for one,’ said Lillian, ‘am grateful for what you did.’

‘But it still disrupted a slew of our operations, losing the Naglfar. I cannot believe that Gabriel Doyle gave you information and support for such a strike; he should have known better! If I’d known you were working with him -’

‘You were in America,’ retorted Rose. ‘Nobody was doing anything, and we had to act.’

‘We had people in America,’ said Lillian, ‘but that did lead to last night’s raid in Chicago which has gutted the biggest Council cell in the US. It’s crippled their operations in North America, and that came about with your uncle’s work and help.’ She cast a glance at her daughter. ‘It was the strategic priority.’

Rose could hear the pain and apology in Lillian’s voice, and the part of her that was still calm and patient winced in sympathy. She’d seen the reports as they’d returned; Lillian Rourke had marshaled Aurors and Enforcers from Europe and the Americas and overseen the cooperation of intelligence and manpower that had led to the first major blow against the Council of Thorns in this new outbreak of hostilities. Kicking Thornweavers out of the USA was no minor coup for the IMC, or for Lillian herself, or for her uncle, who had been up to his elbows in the operation.

But, strategic priority or not, it still hadn’t broken Selena out.

‘We didn’t tell any of you,’ Albus chirped up, ‘because we knew you’d stop us. And I, for one, am not sorry.’

Rose shot her mother a pointed look, and Hermione drew a slow breath. ‘I knew they were working with Doyle.’

Harry gave her a betrayed look. ‘You knew? He has been an utter liability -’

‘Something needed to be done,’ said Hermione, voice tightening.

‘He still gave them illegal Portkeys to conduct operations which have disrupted official operations,’ said Harry with finality, and straightened. ‘Ron!’

Somehow the bellow passed through the door to summon Rose’s father. He stood in the doorway, expression studied and blank, and she could appreciate that if ever there was a time to run to professionalism, it was now. ‘Sir?’

I have never, thought Rose, heard Dad call Harry, ‘sir’. This is a disaster.

‘Get a team together,’ said Harry, hands planted on the desk, ‘and arrest Gabriel Doyle. And when I say “people”, I mean Proudfoot, I mean Savage. Suspend Bell and Cole.’

Albus straightened. ‘Dad, what the hell -’

‘We are at war, and I cannot have the left hand not knowing what the right is doing. If Gabriel Doyle wants to fight the Council, he can do so with us. No more of this independent work.’

‘Surely you should be arresting us. We were the ones who hit the Naglfar, we were the ones who disrupted your operations -’

‘You didn’t know better,’ said Harry. ‘He did.’

Rose looked over her shoulder at her father. ‘If you want to find him,’ she said, voice arch, ‘he’ll no doubt be at Saint Mungo’s, with his son.’

Ron ducked out of the room without a word, and Hermione glared daggers at Harry. ‘This is setting a dangerous precedent -’

‘Enough.’ Lillian Rourke moved to the side of the desk, turning the lines of judgement into a semi-circle of discussion. ‘Bringing in Gabriel Doyle is the Auror Office’s right. At the least, conversations need to be had. We’ll have plenty of time to discuss what comes next. For the moment, I’d like to know more about what’s happened, and what’s going on.’

Selena exhaled. ‘If Raskoph didn’t get in touch with anyone, I don’t know why he captured me. I wasn’t questioned. I wasn’t mistreated. I was just thrown in a cell for a couple of days. If he had something in mind, I saw no sign of it. Either it was going on beyond what I could see, or it hadn’t happened yet.’

‘He didn’t try to blackmail me privately, he didn’t try to use your abduction publicly. If Rose hadn’t witnessed it, we might still not know, and assume you amongst the dead at Hogsmeade.’

‘He fled,’ said Rose. ‘No idea where, though he may have a tough time leaving Europe without the Naglfar. But I bet he’s gone to ground. In the meantime, we have the Chalice of Emrys.’

‘And Prometheus Thane,’ said Selena.

‘And,’ said Albus, ‘Scorpius Malfoy.’

‘Or someone who claims to be him.’ Rose’s lips thinned.

‘You heard him in Rotterdam, Rose -’

‘I heard very convincing stories.’

‘So convincing you had to blast him in the face?’

Rose turned to Albus, throat tight. ‘From the conversation last night, I wasn’t sure he’d come quietly. I thought he and Thane might slip away. And whatever I think of this Scorpius, I know I don’t trust Thane. Would you rather we’d let them go, so you had nothing more than your faith to reassure you? If he’s here we can get answers.’

And if it’s him, she told herself, because she had to, then he won’t get locked up. Coming back to Britain was letting churning fear and spinning confusion form into the beginnings of firm thoughts, firm feelings, and while there was apprehension and bewilderment, there was, somewhere deep inside, a glimmer of hope. It was small and it was terrifying, and she had to work hard to not smother it with her old habit of cold indifference, but with each fact that came in, it gleamed a little brighter.

That. That’s why I Stunned him, brought him in.

Lillian lifted a hand again. ‘We also have Eva Saida. I have been contacted by Russian authorities, and it seems that Balthazar Vadimas is not seeking her release.’

‘That was on the cards?’ said Selena.

‘We’ve made deals in the past,’ said Lillian, ‘to not prosecute former Thornweavers, even if they’re working with figures like Vadimas. It’s meant that Thornweavers would switch sides. But apparently she’s not valuable enough to the Russians, so we get to keep her.’

At last, Harry glanced to Albus, who just said, ‘She helped us in Ager Sanguinis. We wouldn’t have got Selena back without her help. That’s all I’ve got to put forward. Do what you want with her.’

‘There are a lot of debates to be had. She’s not the first of her kind,’ sighed Lillian. ‘But she can provide us with information and the big questions can wait until after the war.’

‘Does any of this apply to Prometheus Thane?’ said Rose. ‘He has turned on the Council, and if Romano Vida was actually a traitor to the IMC, a man on the inside -’

‘We didn’t want to advertise Vida’s true affiliations,’ said Hermione. ‘It would make the IMC seem weak. Not that one of our national representatives being murdered was a great display of strength. But it’s certainly true that Thane has only been focusing on Council targets since he left them.’

‘However,’ said Lillian, ‘Thane has made no deals, come to no governments, cooperated with us in not one single way. He is an utter renegade, fighting his own private war against the Council, and that man is a danger to everyone. We are under no legal requirement to forgive him, and I, for one, would like to throw him into the deepest, darkest dungeons.’

‘Done,’ said Harry.

‘After,’ said Hermione, ‘we question him.’

‘Soon,’ said Lillian. ‘There’s still the matter of the Chalice.’

Rose’s jaw tightened. ‘There are few experts on the Chalice of Emrys,’ she said. ‘Thane is likely one of them. Another is Reynald de Sablé, but he’s an associate of Gabriel Doyle’s and so you might want to throw him in jail, too.’

Hermione grimaced. ‘Rose -’

‘The last is in Saint Mungo’s with his hand cut off,’ Selena finished for her. ‘He’s also the person most likely to know where de Sablé is and most likely to be able to get him on-side, after his father.’

‘Then for the moment,’ said Lillian, ‘I suggest we entrust the Chalice to Ms Granger’s Task Force.’

‘I can use it for curing Lethe abroad.’ Hermione nodded. ‘And get Lockett to work on it, too.’

‘Which brings us to the last topic,’ Lillian said. ‘Who, or what, is in our cells wearing the face of the late Scorpius Malfoy?’

‘Every disenchantment charm has been run on him,’ said Harry. ‘It’s not a Polyjuice or an illusion or anything of that ilk. His face has to have been changed using permanent magics, or Muggle methods -’

‘It’s him,’ said Albus.

A glint of pity entered his father’s eye. ‘That’s not possible, Al -’

‘How many impossible things have you seen? Have you done? I know him better than anyone in this world, and I’m telling you, that is Scorpius Malfoy.’

Hermione stepped forward. ‘We can run tests on his blood. More reliable than Legilimency or Veritaserum; if he is a decoy, it’s entirely possible that he doesn’t know, so I’d rather not test his mind. Those won’t take long, and then we will know for sure.’

‘And when we prove he is,’ said Albus, ‘does he get thrown into a jail cell with Thane and Gabriel Doyle?’

Lillian winced. ‘I think that will depend on what Thane has to say, and what “Malfoy” has to say. I’m not committing to anything yet.’

‘That,’ drawled Selena, ‘and it’ll look terrible politically if the hero who gave his life to defeat the Council came back from the dead and was promptly locked up. If you have no more questions for me, I’m going to the hospital. Matt’s going to have a bad enough time waking up as it is.’

As she left, Rose didn’t budge an inch, even though she felt Albus’ eyes on her. She looked at Harry, still taut and angry, to her mother, tense and apprehensive, to Lillian, oddly calm and in control, and drew a deep breath. ‘What now?’

‘Lockett should have brewed us up the Veritaserum by now,’ said Lillian, and turned to Harry. ‘So I suggest you see about the interrogation of Prometheus Thane.’

‘I want to be there,’ said Rose and Albus in unison.

‘You can watch,’ said Harry. ‘I’m not bending the rules any more than that.’

‘And I look forward to the report.’ Lillian straightened. ‘In the meantime, I need to make a lot of Floo calls. You’re right about one thing, Mister Potter; we can’t have the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.’

Hermione raised an eyebrow. ‘You’re going to call for a total state of emergency?’

‘I will not, in these times, have even more of our efforts at fighting the Council get waylaid by internal politics. This is a time for one single, strong voice to lead the world in this war. The Lethe attacks have left a lot of governments rattled, but I need to make sure they will not try to run from a strong voice in their fear.’ She sighed. ‘I’d hoped to give all of this up. But needs must. And I am truly sick of politics getting in the way of saving lives.’

* *


Prometheus Thane sat cuffed to his chair in the interrogation room, unconcerned gaze fixed on Harry Potter. Even on the other side of the one-way glass, Albus could almost feel the tension radiating off his father.

‘He’s wound up too tight,’ murmured Hermione. ‘I don’t like this.’

‘That’s two minutes.’ Harry’s voice was piped magically through the glass, crystal clear. ‘The Veritaserum will be in effect now.’

‘Indeed,’ said Thane. ‘So you probably want me to tell all? I’ll start from the beginning, then.’ He leaned forwards, cuffs rattling as he rested his hands on the table. ‘The history of the Council of Thorns. Raskoph. Phlegethon, Eridanos, Lethe. The lot.’

‘Who recruited you into the Council of Thorns?’

‘A man named Gerald Wakefield, but you killed him last year. It doesn’t matter; I was hired to do menial tasks at first, tracing certain historic sources on necromantic rituals. Those needed begging, borrowing, stealing. It was information which eventually led to the creation of Phlegethon.’ Thane tilted his head. ‘Ask me about the origin of the Council.’

‘This is powerful Veritaserum,’ murmured Rose as Harry did so.

‘It wouldn’t compel him to be helpful,’ said Hermione. ‘I don’t like this.’

‘He’s an enemy of the Council,’ Albus said. ‘Perhaps he knows it’s in his best interest to cooperate.’

‘The Council of Thorns didn’t start with Raskoph, but it might as well have,’ came Thane’s voice through the glass. ‘After the Grindelwald Wars, a lot of the Thule Society fled Europe. They went to South America, just like their Muggle counterparts, hiding out in Bolivia and Chile and the like. And there they’ve lurked these past eighty years, lunatic relics.’

‘Did they -’ Harry stopped himself. ‘Who formed the Council of Thorns?’

Albus heard Hermione give a relieved exhale as Harry stuck to asking open questions.

‘They did. Krauser, Horn, Voigt. They were the first; Krauser propped up Acosta in Brazil. You’ll notice they’re all dead now, and that Voigt, at least, was removed from power by Raskoph, out-manoeuvred by him and surrendered his authority in Panama,’ Thane said. ‘But I’m getting ahead of myself. They were the first, but people like Raskoph were amongst their followers. I say “followers”; those three were more moderate, more reasonable. Even if Raskoph was closer to Grindelwald, more trusted by him - he liaised with the Muggles, after all - Krauser and the others were the ones capable of putting such a group together.

‘The Council of Thorns has rather disguised its Thule Society roots,’ said Thane, ‘or it did, before Raskoph. Even mercenaries think twice about working for those kind of Dark Wizards. So Krauser and the others presented themselves as a group looking to restore order in a desparate world, champion old traditions and principles left by the wayside, and if they happened to have some relics amongst them, if they happened to be relics, well, that was all a long time ago. But this facade allowed them to gather hirelings, followers, associates.’

‘What do you mean by “associates”?’ asked Harry.

‘People like Vida. Those in governments, those in powerful corporations who harboured traditionalist sympathies. The Council had wealth from everything the Thule Society stole from Europe, but this gave them more wealth, more influence, more power.’ Thane leaned back in his chair. ‘It was in these early days that I joined the Council, which was when I met Raskoph.’

‘Under what circumstances?’

‘I didn’t develop Phlegethon. I did develop the infection method, the massive ritual at Hogwarts and it was my idea to use the site of… well, your death, as a power source. But Phlegethon - and from it Eridanos, Lethe - are older. Far older.’ He shook his head. ‘Raskoph provided the roots with what he called ancient texts and ancient research. I don’t know what these texts were, but there was a reason he was given the assignment for the Chalice of Emrys. He is an expert in all things old, and he was the one who knew the Chalice could be used to create Lethe. It was “perfect”, he said, and while I assumed he was on board because we thought it might be in an old Thule or Nazi holding, his knowledge of the Templars and the magics of the Chalice went far, far deeper.’

‘Do you have any theories on the origin of Phlegethon?’

Thane grimaced. ‘I think it might have been something the Thule Society looked into in its heyday. I don’t know if they dug it up, developed it, derived it from something. But the Thule Society wanted the Chalice of Emrys back then, too. I think that the Chalice’s use in creating Lethe is more than magics which happen to align. It’s possible they share an origin.’

Harry nodded, and looked down at his papers. ‘Alright. Tell me about your separation from the Council.’

‘I was paid very well, well enough to look the other way on their misdeeds - to a point,’ said Thane. ‘It took me a while to realise how deep the Thule Society roots went, that we are talking about an organisation that is truly, truly evil. Like I said, they presented themselves as being traditionalists, not ancient villains of old. And by the time I saw them for what they were, I was too entrenched in a project to get out.’

‘What project?’

‘Project Osiris. The recovery of the Chalice of Emrys and the resurrection of Scorpius Malfoy - and, through him, the reclaiming of Lethe.’

Albus heard Rose’s breath catch.

Harry met Thane’s gaze. ‘Did you really resurrect Scorpius Malfoy?’

There was a slow nod. ‘Absolutely. It took the summoning of the Chalice of Emrys from the realm of the dead, which required eighteen months of researching necromancy, finding locations which connected and tethered the Chalice to our world, and then finding somewhere the gap between the realms was thinnest. Which was expensive and time-consuming, but Raskoph was determined this would happen. He was prepared for the rest of the Council to flounder without Lethe, while he spent the last two years supplanting them, taking over, and biding his time until Lethe was back in his hands. And he wasn’t the only person who charged me with this job.’

‘Who else?’

‘The same man who gave me the location of the Hogwarts Five in Venice.’ Thane’s brow furrowed. ‘Draco Malfoy.’

‘Son of a bitch,’ Albus hissed through gritted teeth.

Harry remained silent for a heartbeat, then scribbled something onto a fresh piece of paper. It folded itself into a plane and floated out under the door. ‘Draco Malfoy is associated with the Council of Thorns?’

‘He is. He was one of those corporate types who jumped on board when the Council was just a “traditionalist” movement. He’s invested a lot of money into it, and it was through subsidiaries of his company that the Council managed to ship Lethe internationally. He’s probably the most powerful person in the organisation who’s not Thule Society.’

‘Is the man you were brought back to Britain with really Scorpius Malfoy?’

‘Yes,’ said Thane. ‘We resurrected him with the Chalice, and Raskoph immediately had Lethe extracted from him, contained. Raskoph spent the last eight months studying it, perfecting it, and then using Draco Malfoy to get it distributed worldwide. When that job was done, I had no reason to stick around with the Council.’

‘Why did you wait that long?’

‘Because the job was going to get done by somebody. I’m brilliant, but I’m not the only brilliant person out there.’ Thane shrugged. ‘Someone else would have brought him back, and then I wouldn’t know how it happened, where, when. So I waited until it was done, which means I know an awful lot about Lethe, and it meant that when I left the Council, I could bring Scorpius Malfoy with me, along with those loyal to me.’

‘Why did you bring him with you?’

‘He didn’t want to work for the Council. He hates them, and he’s hardly thrilled by his father’s role in all of this. That’s why he wanted to leave. I wanted him with me because… well, I like the boy, but I can’t lie. It’s given me a certain insurance against his father. Raskoph would happily kill us all, and Thornweavers who want to please him will try. But Draco Malfoy would rather get his darling boy back, and Thornweavers who would want to please him will thus try to take at least him alive. Which made them hold back, which gave me an edge.’

‘And Scorpius Malfoy didn’t want to return home?’

‘You’d have to ask him about that,’ said Thane.

Footsteps thudded to Albus’ left, and he turned to see Rose storming from the room. He exchanged startled glances with Hermione, but otherwise followed in a flash, bursting into the corridors of the MLE prisons to see her striding off. ‘Rose…?’

She stopped in the corridor, brought her hand up to her temples, and when she turned it was with a pained, anguished expression that was still the most honest he’d seen her in two years. ‘It really is him, isn’t it.’

‘It…’ Albus swallowed. ‘It looks like. You could see him -’

She closed the distance in three quick strides, threw her arms around him with such an impact he staggered. But he didn’t hesitate before returning the embrace, close and tight. ‘I’m already being a shit for not going to see Matt,’ Rose whispered. ‘He might be in Saint Mungo’s a while, but I have to be there when he wakes up.’

‘Okay. I understand.’ He didn’t even disagree, but he did know he didn’t envy Rose this snarl. He pulled back and tried a smile. ‘We did it, Rose. We got Selena back.’

‘Yelled at our parents together. And the IMC Chairman.’

‘It needed doing.’ He squeezed her shoulder. ‘Give Matt my best, will you?’

‘Sure.’ She bit her lip. ‘And - just see if he’s okay. If it’s him, he can’t stay here.’

‘I know. Don’t you worry.’ Albus let her go, keeping his smile in place. ‘It’ll be okay.’

‘It never is,’ said Rose as she left, but she was, for once, dry rather than fatalistic.

It was another hour before Harry emerged from the interrogation room, an hour of Albus and Hermione sat in the listening chamber, drinking coffee, watching as Prometheus Thane rattled off reams and reams of information on the Council of Thorns’ operations. Some of this seemed already known to the IMC. Some of it had even Hermione writing frantic, scribbled notes.

As Thane did nothing more interesting than reel off dates and names, Albus glanced at his aunt. ‘So, Dad’s become a whole lot colder these past two years.’ He was too angry to be guilty.

Hermione’s gaze tightened, and she nodded. ‘It’s been hard. Not just with you gone, but with the Council, with everything. He’s been overworked for too long.’

‘You don’t agree with how he’s handling it.’

‘I think it’s Harry’s job to worry about fighting the Council. I think it’s my job, and Lillian’s, to worry about how we make the whole world fight the Council,’ was the diplomatic answer, and she looked at him. ‘It’s good you’re back. I think it’ll help him.’

‘Mn.’ Albus grimaced. ‘I’ve obviously been away too long.’

But then Harry was wrapping up, gathering his papers and leaving the interrogation room, so he bounced to his feet and went to the corridor to intercept him. ‘I cannot believe you’re arresting Gabriel Doyle.’

Harry stopped, frown deepening. ‘He’s stolen government information, and he’s acted without our knowledge to disrupt our operations. Just because we have the same enemy doesn’t make us on the same side. I have offered, again and again, for him to work with us, but he’s refused.’

‘Have you considered why?’

‘Ironically,’ interjected Hermione, appearing in the door behind Albus, ‘it’s because of the politics which slow down the process. The politics Lillian’s now trying to clamp down on by giving the IMC more worldwide power. I can’t say I don’t sympathise.’

‘This isn’t the old days, Hermione,’ said Harry. ‘This isn’t a corrupt Ministry failing to fight the real threat. We’re doing everything we can, but I can’t have a rogue element undermining my efforts. Nobody thinks Thane was a hero for fighting the Council on his own terms, and background aside, he’s no different to Doyle in this!’

‘I think background’s pretty damn important,’ said Albus, fists clenched. ‘And I think that Gabriel Doyle allowed us to take action to save Selena when you couldn’t. When you didn’t.’

Harry flinched. ‘I have a lot of responsibilities and can’t be everywhere at once.’

‘I think you’re pissed at him,’ snapped Albus, ‘for doing what you should have, and now you’re punishing him because if he did something wrong then you can convince yourself you couldn’t have done the exact same thing.’

‘Albus!’ Hermione’s voice was both shocked and warning, but Harry just straightened, having to lift his head to look his son in the eye.

‘I sent orders for the arrest of Draco Malfoy; I need to see how that was resolved,’ he said, voice veering into calm professionalism. ‘Someone will see about the release process for Scorpius. That’ll take a little time; enough for you two to talk. He’s in cell 3B.’

Then he turned on his heel and marched down the corridor, leaving Albus with a sinking gut and the disapproving gaze of his aunt.

‘That was very -’

‘Correct?’ Albus turned on her, scowling. ‘You don’t even agree with him, not if you knew we were working with Doyle. And Uncle Ron’s clearly going to do what he’s told. But Dad’s -’

Hating that he has to do everything by a process, and that he has responsibilities to a whole slew of people, and wishing his own son didn’t have to hurl himself into danger to do what he thought needed doing.’ Hermione’s voice remained low and firm. ‘I doubt Doyle will be in jail long. He does need to cooperate with the IMC, and if this scares him into being a team player, then perhaps that’s what has to happen. But you’re not IMC. You’re not Auror Office. And he doesn’t need this from his own son.’

‘He needs it from someone,’ Albus snapped. ‘And you’re right, I’m not IMC or Auror Office. I actually get things done.’

‘We’re trying -’

‘Then how about you stop lecturing me and either check up on your daughter, or go help Lillian Rourke make the world stop screwing around? If that’s what it’ll take to make the proper authorities more useful than one lone rich man?’

Hermione’s lips thinned to the sort of disapproving expression he was used to getting from Rose. ‘You might have come back, Albus,’ she said, ‘but you can still work with your family, not against. Talk to them.’

‘Talking to my family,’ said Albus, and turned away, ‘is exactly what I’m going to do.’

Either his father had told the cell guards to let him through, or nobody was going to get in the way of Harry Potter’s son. He was unimpeded leaving the interrogation rooms for the jail, and a dour-faced Enforcer escorted him down the line of barred cells until he was there.

Scorpius sat on the bench, head resting against the stark, grey wall. His eyes were shut, but one slid open at the footsteps, and the corner of his lip twisted. ‘I guess if they’re letting you see me, they’re not about to lock me up and throw away the key.’

‘They’ll want a debriefing. And I bet they’re going to keep a close eye on you.’ Albus stood in the corridor, suddenly awkward, and wrung his hands together. ‘But they believe you. The blood tests; Thane’s admission under Veritaserum… I guess it really is you.’

Their eyes met. ‘I thought you believed me?’

Something stuck in Albus’ throat. ‘I did. But I’ve seen how leaps of faith can be wrong.’

Scorpius’ brow creased, and he got to his feet. ‘I am so, so sorry how things have gone down the last few years, mate. I mean - I couldn’t control any of it, I just…’

‘Why didn’t you come back?’ Albus glared at a spot just above Scorpius’ head. ‘When Thane busted you out of Council hands. Why did you stay with him, why didn’t you come back to, to… us…’ To me.

‘I tried.’ Scorpius’ expression fell. ‘I wanted to, I mean… I almost did. Thane warned me it was all different, and I read the papers, got some intel… I knew Rose was with Matt. I knew you were gone. What was I supposed to come back for? You’ve seen the chaos I’ve caused by being around for less than a day.’

Albus grimaced, but nodded. ‘And then there’s your father.’

‘Thane told you about that. Good.’ Scorpius’ lips twisted. ‘I knew - I mean, they told me in Ager Sanguinis. He’s the reason Thane handed the Resurrection Stone over to me in Hogwarts, he’s the reason they found us in Venice, he’s the reason Thane had the funding and the mandate to get me back. So I guess I owe him that, except fuck him.’

‘Dad’s ordered his arrest.’

‘Good,’ Scorpius said again, but didn’t look much reassured. ‘Bloody hell. If he’s being brought in, if Thane’s locked up, if I’m not staying locked up… what happens next?’

‘I don’t know,’ Albus sighed, and extended his hand through the bars. ‘But I do know we can handle all of it like we always have, mate. Together?’

Now Scorpius smiled, now he grinned that grin that lit up his eyes and made the world that happier, more fun place which was only a hazy memory, and he clasped his hand for a firm shake. ‘Together.’

* *


He’d plunged his hand into fire, and it wouldn’t stop burning. He writhed, twisted, tried to pull it back, but the skin seared away, blackened and charred until it was just bone, and even if he lashed out, it wouldn’t stop burning -

‘Matty!’

When Matt’s eyes flashed open, his throat was so hoarse he realised he’d been screaming. But he wasn’t stood in fire, he wasn’t stood before Joachim Raskoph, he wasn’t in France; he was in a white bed with white walls under white light, with the dark eyes of his older sister gazing down on him. Her hands were on his shoulders, lips pursed with concern, and she drew a deep breath as he saw her. ‘Matty, you’re alright.’

‘Annie…’ His voice came parched and cracked, and he slumped on the bed, eyelids drooping. ‘What happened - where - Raskoph, Selena -’

‘You’re home, or, I mean, you’re in Britain.’ Annie Doyle let go of him as he stopped struggling and reached for a small bottle, which she lifted to his lips. ‘Drink this. Your friends got you back. Everyone’s safe, and you’re… you’re okay.’

But she looked pale and worn, and her voice creaked, and his hand still smoldered. With a groan he pushed himself up with his left elbow and drank the acrid substance. He squinted around the room as he tried to ignore the taste. Annie was not alone; Rose stood at the foot of the bed, exhausted and worn, and in the corner sat Selena. She was a silent bundle, a blanket around her, bags under her eyes, but her gaze was locked on him with a quiet blaze he didn’t understand.

‘We got Selena out,’ said Rose in a small voice. ‘And Thane and Saida and - and Scorpius are in jail. Uncle Harry’s sorting all of that out. You did it, Matt, you pulled it all off…’

Even sitting up was tiring, though, and Matt slumped back. ‘What’s happened?’

‘I don’t…’

‘Rose -’

Annie’s hand was at his left shoulder, touch gentle. ‘The Healers have done everything they can. You’re going to be fine, and there are long-term options we can look at, but what happened was - I don’t know if you remember it…’

Pain. He remembered pain, and blood, and a soul-wrenching fear that went even deeper than his terror they would fail their mission. With shuddering breath he looked down at his burning hand, only to see white sheets and the white bandage-wrapped stump of his right arm.

‘Oh,’ he said, voice bland because there was no emotion which fit. ‘Shit.’

‘There are options,’ Rose reeled off, a little fast, like she was relaying answers in a stressful test. ‘Magical prosthetics, but first you need to rest and recover and the Healers will talk about things.’

‘Sophie’s going to be here, she’ll be pulled out of Hogwarts tonight; Mum would be sorting that out but she’s got…’ Annie’s face creased. ‘Matty, I don’t want to put too much on you -’

‘What else has happened?’ His mouth felt like he’d swallowed a carpet.

Annie managed to not give Rose a reproachful glance as she said, ‘Dad’s been arrested by the Aurors. They think he’s been stealing information from the Ministry, interfering with IMC operations, and undermining the war with the Council of Thorns.’

‘Oh,’ Matt said again, and when he coughed it came with a rueful laugh. ‘I guess he has been doing that.’

‘They’re also investigating Uncle Toby on suspicion of helping him…’

‘Hell’s teeth…’

‘And - look, you should rest.’ Annie looked down at her hands. ‘You really are going to be okay.’

I don’t have a hand, Matt thought, his gaze going to the ceiling. That’s a textbook definition of ‘not okay’. The blazing in his wrist remained, a dull throbbing sense that threatened to make any rest impossible, but he was too worn, too exhausted, to feel anything other than slow-dawning acceptance.

What use would any other feeling be, anyway?

‘I’ll check in with Mum,’ said Annie after a pause, and got to her feet, brushing herself down. ‘I’ll just be outside.’ He croaked an answer, then she was gone, and all he had was Rose’s awkward gaze and Selena’s blazing stare, and the burning in his hand.

It was Rose who spoke, still in that tense, quick voice. ‘Matt, I’m so sorry…’

‘Don’t…’ Don’t look at me like that, was what he wanted to say, but his voice did him the mercy of cracking before the words could come. ‘Did we get the Chalice?’

‘We did - there’s lots happening, but you don’t need to worry about it for -’

‘Can I just - I think I’d like to rest. Just for a bit.’

Rose stared at him for a moment, then nodded. ‘Okay.’ She padded to his side, reached out to smooth the sheets on the bed like he had no hands instead of one, and bent down to give him an awkward peck on the forehead. ‘I’ll check in with things, but I’ll be back, okay?’

He just nodded and slumped back, eyes shutting, and heard her walk off, heard the door to his room creak open and shut. His jaw tightened in the silence as his chest did, a choking sense to cut off all breath, all thought, as the fire in his hand - no, in his wrist, in his stump - spread along the arm, into his lungs, smothered him -

‘I can go,’ came a low voice and the scraping of stool legs, ‘I just wanted to - to -’

Matt’s eyes snapped open to see Selena pulling up the stool next to the bed. She was pale, her hair a state, worn and exhausted, with sunken cheeks and dark eyes. When her fingers reached for his left hand, he could feel the tremble in her touch, and squeezed back. The fire in his throat subsided, and a drained smile came to his lips, unbidden. ‘Hey - you are okay, aren’t you? They didn’t hurt you?’

Her breath caught and she shook her head, mute for a moment. ‘No, no. I’m fine, don’t you worry about me, don’t you dare worry about me -’

‘I do…’ Then their fingers were entwined, and she’d bowed her head for golden hair to trail over the white bedsheets, along the back of his hand. The fire faded to dull embers, and its absence made his head spin and dip and dive amongst the blazing light of this white sanctum.

‘I know,’ she breathed. ‘They told me what you did, how much you did to get me back.’

‘We all -’

‘They told me how much you did.’ Selena’s gaze snapped up to meet his, clear-eyed and anguished. ‘And I saw you in Saint Annard, I saw how you fought, you stupid, stupid man…’

But the reproach was grief-stricken rather than admonishing, and he pulled his hand from hers to raise it. His fingertips brushed across her cheek and she tilted her head to press it against her palm, breathing unsteady. ‘You’re okay,’ Matt whispered, and without the fire holding him down, he could float, or so it felt. ‘You’re okay, and that’s all that matters, and I’d lose a thousand hands for that price if it meant you could keep spinning gold all over me with your hair…’

Her gaze flickered, then the tiniest smile of wry realisation crossed her face. ‘Oh, Merlin.’ Guilt faded from her voice. ‘Those anti-pain draughts are really kicking in, aren’t they.’

Maybe. ‘I mean it,’ he said instead, thumb running a line across her jaw, like he could brush away the tarnish coating the silver and gold he knew was underneath her pain. ‘You’re okay and that’s everything, and you don’t look at me like I’m saving you from drowning and you owe me for it… and I didn’t mean to run to Rose over you, I didn’t, I really didn’t…’

Her touch at his wrist tightened and her lips parted, but he carried on before she could cut him off. He was floating, but all of this was holding him down, pinning him down, and if he didn’t shrug off these burdens then the fire he could still feel thrumming through his right wrist would consume him whole.

‘I had to help her,’ he croaked, ‘but I thought you were running from me. I thought you were pushing me away, and I tried and tried, but I couldn’t. I wanted to chase you, but I had to help Rose, and I couldn’t do both, so I helped her when she was in pain and I thought you… I thought you ran from me.’ Her face sank as he rambled, but now she wasn’t interrupting him. ‘I don’t know if I got too close, or if you thought I’d hurt you, and I’m sorry. So when it mattered, I had to do this, I had to… to save you. And I always will, if you - let me save you…’

Every word took a chunk out of her veneer of control he had never been deceived by. When his voice trailed off, she was staring at him with a sunken expression of grief and guilt, until she pulled away to stand, and the absence of her touch was like fire again at his fingertips.

‘You need to rest,’ said Selena in a low voice he’d never heard her use before. With only a moment’s hesitation, she bent down to kiss him on the forehead, and that was enough, for now, to douse the flames. ‘You stupid, stupid, dear man.’

He wanted to catch the gold that dangled at him as she bent, but then it was gone and so was she. Let me save you, he thought, drifting amid the white sheets and the white walls and the white lights of his hospital room, with the faintest embers at the stump where his right arm ended.



————————

A/N: They say “write what you know”. I assure you that the amount of sense Matt’s making while high on anti-pain drugs is about as much sense as I’ve made in hospital doped up on gas and air. It really does make you super-honest and utterly nonsensical.

Chapter 14: Some Ten Steps
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Some Ten Steps


‘So there’s nowhere you’d guess he might have gone?’

Scorpius shrugged across the desk at Ron Weasley. The two of them had been sat in the processing office down in Canary Wharf, arranging his release, for a half-hour now. Neither was thrilled with the situation. ‘Auror-Captain, there are about a gazillion places my father might have gone to ground. He has more business premises across the world than I can count. And I can count pretty high.’ He leaned back, which rattled the obligatory cuffs. ‘He owns a boat, I’m sure. And I think he was investing in developing magical airplanes, to be better than the Muggle ones. But his infrastructure might have grown. My information isn’t that up to date. I’ve been out of the world a while.’

He was rewarded with the faintest grimace from Ron, who dutifully noted this down anyway. ‘We have to ask, Mister Malfoy.’

‘I know. And I wish I could help more. But I didn’t involve myself in my father’s affairs at the best of times. These really haven’t been the best of times.’

‘Of course. If you think of anything -’

‘I’ll let you know.’

Ron scribbled something down. ‘You’ll be at the Manor?’

‘No. I’ll get a hotel room somewhere. I imagine your men need to go over the place anyway.’

‘We do, but that won’t take long.’ Ron shrugged. ‘Leaky Cauldron?’

‘I have some standards.’

‘Way I heard it, you don’t have money.’

‘Albus is going to pay.’ Scorpius sighed. ‘Because he’s a good egg. I mean, he’s calling it my money, but it’s still his. Even once I sort out being legally not-dead - again - it doesn’t roll back a will. It’s complicated.’

‘I’ll have some Enforcers escort you to wherever you go,’ said Ron. ‘I’m sorry, but it’s -’

‘It’s fine.’ Scorpius gave him an apologetic, lopsided smile. ‘I’m a man back from the dead to associate with Prometheus Thane. Honestly, I’m just glad I’m not in jail.’

‘Can’t lie,’ said Ron. ‘If you were anyone else, you probably would be. But you’ve seen the headlines.’

‘I have, they were good enough to let me read the paper. “Hero Returns. Not very imaginative, but I’ll take it.’ Scorpius sobered and looked away. ‘You’re choosing to trust me, and I get that you don’t have a lot of reason to. I won’t abuse that trust. If there’s anything I can do to help, I will.’

‘Good. A word of warning?’ Ron’s gaze went serious. ‘And this isn’t about me trusting you or not trusting you. Don’t screw around. If people get reason to doubt you, they’ll to drop a tonne of bricks on your head. They will bury you. Political mess, rifts between families, or not.’

‘I know.’ He grimaced, and intently studied Ron’s shoulder. ‘How’s - how’s Rose? How’s she been?’

Ron flinched. ‘I’m not sure I’m the man to -’

‘You’re her father, you’d know.’ Guilt rose in Scorpius’ chest, and he waved a hand. ‘Sorry. I’m not asking you to spy, or anything. Just, I mean - is she happy?’

‘She had a hell of a time after losing you…’

‘But now? Or, at least, before I came back, with her new job and Matt and all. Is she happy?’

When Ron hesitated, Scorpius had his answer. He didn’t know if it made him feel worse or if it was kindling something ancient and powerful that had come back with his bones. He did know that, despite asking, he didn’t want to think about it too much. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Stupid question. Not my business.’

‘I reckon it’s your business.’ Ron scratched his nose. ‘I just reckon it’s not my business to play go-between.’

Scorpius gave a stupid, self-conscious grin. ‘Ron Weasley playing go-between for his daughter and her ex-boyfriend, the son of Draco Malfoy back from the dead.’ The unspoken twisted in his gut, made his smile feel sour.

Ron couldn’t smother a short bark of laughter. ‘Bugger me, our lives aren’t half complicated.’ He sobered after a moment. ‘I’m sorry about your father. Never liked him, but I thought he was done with being an evil bastard.’

‘I’ve known this a while. But thanks. I know you’ll catch him, and then he can carry on the fine, upstanding family tradition of life imprisonment. It’s a bit worrying, though. He disappears just as Thane and me are brought in? That sounds like a tip-off. I promise it wasn’t me. Cross my heart and hope to die again. I was too busy being blasted by Rose to tip him off.’

‘We’re on it.’ Ron sighed, and stacked up his papers. ‘If you learn anything, if you change hotels, make sure you tell us. Or next time we meet, I’ll probably be turning blasting you into the Weasley tradition.’ He stood. ‘We’re done here, barring you lending us a hand with the last little thing.’

Scorpius nodded, and lifted his wrists. ‘Happy to help. And happy to get these off.’

Ron removed the cuffs, and gestured for him to wait before he left the small, cramped processing office. Scorpius kicked back on the chair, rubbing where the metal had chafed, and let his eyes shut. Soon. He’d be out of here soon and, so long as he kept in touch with the authorities, so long as he cooperated, wouldn’t have to go back to a cell.

He didn’t know how long it was until the door opened again, but he almost fell over when he saw the woman stood at the entrance, dripping trepidation. ‘Professor…!’

Nathalie Lockett stared at him like he was an apparition, stared at him like she thought he might disappear if she averted her gaze even for a heartbeat. ‘Scorpius - we talked about this…’

He drew a deep breath and swallowed bile and shame. ‘Nat…’

Then she’d crossed the room to drag him out of his chair into a white-knuckled embrace, and all he could do was clutch at her, the first person who hadn’t looked at him like he might be a lie or a trap or both, the first person to take him at face value. But still the words rose like they always did, desperate and pleading. ‘I’m real,’ he whispered, almost a head taller than her and still letting himself be held. ‘I’m real, I promise, I’m not a trick…’

‘Christ, I know. I know.’ When she pulled back to hold him at arms’ length, her eyes were shining. ‘I mean, I heard the reports - in the papers, around the office, from Granger. They wouldn’t let you out if they weren’t sure. And you’re here, right in front of me. It really is you. I didn’t fail you -’

Fail - Professor - Nat, no.’ He clutched her arms. ‘How could you have failed me…’

‘You were my responsibility, all of you. I had to make it right…’

‘You’re making it right.’ Scorpius grinned the grin he knew could make anyone smile, and she returned it, broad enough to banish this guilt he couldn’t comprehend, to banish the shine in her eyes. ‘It’s so damn good to see you, it really is. How’ve you been, what did I miss…’

Her eyes roamed his face for a moment, like she was drinking in every inch of him as if searching for an imperfection, and his heart swelled as nothing cracked the awe and delight in her expression. ‘I’m sorry. I went and got married without my Chief Meddler.’

He gasped with mock-horror. ‘How could you…’

‘It was just small! I was away for a while, after you - you died. I did more international work, I didn’t want to be in Britain, but I knew I couldn’t run forever, so I came back, and Cal and I got married this year. Everything’s okay.’ Her smile softened, stopped being a mirror of his and became her own. ‘It’s really okay.’

Scorpius’s throat tightened. ‘The Council of Thorns is rising again. They’ve got Lethe because I’m alive again. So many people are dead from that, it’s not okay…’ He cut himself off, or he’d say more, and he didn’t know how to.

She lifted her hand to grasp his. ‘They have done this. Not you. You think they didn’t have other projects, other ways of remaking Lethe, or making something else? They were going to find a way. If they had the resources to bring you back, they had the resources to make some sort of move. Something was going to happen, and it’s on their heads, and the people who brought Lethe back. Not on you. You didn’t choose this.’

‘It’s because of me -’

‘It’s because of them.’ Her voice was a slap to bring him to his senses, surprisingly vehement for someone who could detach like Nathalie Lockett. ‘They were going to do something. They were going to kill people. At least this way… at least this way, you’ve got another chance. And that’s everything.’

Confessions rose in his throat, but he knew he wouldn’t form them into words, couldn’t begin to express them, not with that hope and fire in her eyes. He let out a shaky breath. ‘That’s why I’m still here, isn’t it? And why you’re here.’

‘You don’t have to see him. I can do this myself.’

‘I’ll need to do it some day. And this shows good faith, which I could do with. And I’d rather have backup.’ Which won’t judge me.

Lockett nodded, and pulled up her own chair next to his. ‘He’s being brought up.’

It was five minutes of a silence that was refreshingly relaxed before the door scraped open at last and another Enforcer brought another prisoner in.

Prometheus Thane did not look at all reduced by his day of incarceration. His eyes were bright, and despite remaining scruffy and dirtied from the fighting in France, not even the cuffs at his wrists and ankles, the way he was dragged about by the guard, damaged his aristocratic poise. He cooperated as he was sat in a chair and shackled to it, and kept a mild, polite smile on his face while Lockett dismissed the Enforcer.

Only then did he speak, gaze landing on Scorpius. ‘You’re free?’

‘So long as I cooperate.’

‘There’s no need to be guilty,’ said Thane, and Scorpius internally cursed. He had not meant to be so transparent. ‘I had all the choices in the world, and made them willingly. You have had so few, and you deserve a life.’ He looked to Lockett, and something danced in his eyes. ‘And this must be the vaunted Professor Lockett. It’s so delightful to make your acquaintance at last.’

‘We met,’ Lockett drawled. ‘I was just unconscious at the time. It made for a much more pleasant meeting.’

‘Now, now. I assume you want my cooperation, so we can keep our manners, can’t we?’

Lockett pulled out a notepad and pen, expression set. ‘You’ve been told the deal. Cooperate with all of our efforts against the Council, and it will be taken into account in your sentencing.’

‘Yes,’ said Thane. ‘Assuming I’m sentenced by a British or IMC court, which I know France and Greece wouldn’t be thrilled by. And in Britain, it’ll make no difference; I get life imprisonment either way, because you don’t use Dementors any more.’

‘Then cooperate with us here, and maybe you get to stay in Britain, or maybe we make sure France doesn’t get you Kissed.’

Scorpius drew a raking breath. ‘Prometheus - we’re still fighting the Council. I thought it was what you believed in?’

Thane looked at him, eyes still bright, unconcerned. ‘You know, neither one of us would be here if you hadn’t been so intent on rescuing Miss Rourke, on cooperating with your old team. Does that please you?’

‘This wasn’t a double-cross -’

‘No, you just acted as your conscience dictated, and it so happens that you walk free and I stay in a cell.’

‘Maybe,’ said Lockett sharply, ‘that’s not about his choices so much as the two of you getting what you deserve.’

Scorpius rubbed his bare wrists. This, he thought as Lockett’s words stabbed his chest, is not what I deserve. ‘We had questions.’

‘Yes,’ said Thane, still in that calm, amiable voice. ‘How can I be of service to the IMC?’

‘The Chalice of Emrys,’ said Lockett. ‘You chased it. You wanted it. Why?’

Thane stared at her, eyebrows raising a half-inch. ‘You’re actually asking that.’

‘What did you want to use it for? To cure Lethe? Or just to deny the Council a weapon?’ Her voice remained low, clipped, and she twirled the pen in her fingers as she spoke.

Thane went to lift his hands to his face, but the cuffs stopped him with a rattle so sudden it made both Scorpius and Lockett jolt. ‘This is incredible,’ he declared, and promptly burst out laughing.

The pen was slammed down. ‘Thane -’

Scorpius’ gut surged. ‘Prometheus, if you can just talk -’

‘I don’t know anything you don’t know, Scorpius!’ Thane shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, you must have thought I was holding out on you, that I had more secrets. I needed the Chalice to figure out the next step. I wish I could help you; feed me some more of your very good Veritaserum, Professor, and I’ll say the same.’

Lockett looked over Scorpius. ‘What’s he talking about?’

‘We knew what we’d do with the Chalice,’ said Scorpius, throat as tight as his voice. ‘I just wondered if there was another way; if studying it would show…’

‘There is no other way, Scorpius. You know that. The question isn’t what, the question is how.’ Thane sobered, handsome face contorting into a grimace. ‘I’m sorry. I know nothing more.’

‘Is someone going to answer this question?’ said Lockett.

Thane’s lips twisted. ‘Yes, Scorpius. Let us raise the Professor from her ignorance.’

‘I don’t know why you find this so funny,’ Scorpius growled.

‘I’m doomed, one way or another, by your naivety and your lady love’s commendable cynicism. I must find amusement where I can, and for reasons which defy explanation, I find most of this very amusing.’ Thane met his gaze briefly. ‘Most of this.’

Scorpius looked away; truths blazing in the eyes of Prometheus Thane were nothing he wanted to be reminded of. ‘We wanted the Chalice,’ he began, ‘because we knew we could use it to stop Lethe. The plague is intrinsically tied to it, it’s continuously powered by it. Take away that power, and every source of the illness will disappear, every infected person will be cured. The Inferi would remain, but… they would just be smarter, controlled Inferi. Not contagious. They wouldn’t be able to make more.’

‘So you wanted to cut off the power?’ said Lockett.

‘Fiddling with the magics on how the Chalice works is phenomenal, likely impossible work,’ said Thane. ‘I know that much from studying it - albeit from this side of the Veil - these past two years. No, there’s only one way to cut the Chalice off as a power source for Lethe.’

‘It’s simple,’ said Scorpius, mouth tasting like it was full of his own ashes. ‘Or, the how is probably very complicated with something of the ancient power of the Chalice of Emrys, but the principle’s simple: destroy it.’

* *


Healer Dwyer had been Head Boy at Hogwarts in Matt’s fifth year. He’d been a Ravenclaw, a competent organiser, but truly terrible at talking to people. Matt could remember sitting as a neonate prefect in his first briefing on the Hogwarts express, with Dwyer stumbling over words. He hadn’t improved much.

‘Your stump’s healing up well, Mister Doyle,’ he said as he whisked into the room, without any of the officiousness he was trying to project. ‘The one perk of that kind of magic is that the wound was at least simple, clean.’

‘Oh, good,’ Matt drawled. His head was not entirely clear of the painkilling drugs. ‘A simple, clean dismemberment. I’d hate to have had a complicated, dirty dismemberment.’

Dwyer’s face pinched. ‘It means you have a much higher chance of the possibility of us maybe being able to fix a prosthetic.’

‘Chance. Possibility. Maybe.’ Matt stared at the space where his hand was supposed to be, and saw only linen sheets. ‘What manner of prosthetic?’

‘There are, uh, living metals. Over time, they’ll bond with the flesh and react almost exactly as how a real hand would; that’s why it’s good it’s been a clean cut,’ Dwyer stammered. ‘Less trauma to the nerve-endings. If it’ll take, we should be able to apply the prosthetic directly instead of needing some vitality magic procedures to -’

‘I get it.’ Matt did not look up. ‘What do I do to maximise these chances?’

Dwyer brightened. ‘Ah! We have some exercises for you to do, keep the muscles active and all of your instincts as intact as possible, not to mention various potions to maintain the connections in your nerves. And, of course, dull the pain.’

My favourite thing. Matt nodded, his expression unchanging. ‘What do you need from me today?’

‘Oh. I was just checking up on you.’ Finally, Dwyer got to his actual reason for being there, and lifted his clipboard to read the questions that were becoming part of the daily routine of being trapped in this wretched corner of Saint Mungo’s. Only after he was done did he finally look to the door and blink with recollection. ‘Ah, and you have visitors.’

‘I was expecting Mum to be -’

‘It’s Miss Weasley, actually. Your girlfriend.’

Matt wasn’t sure if Dwyer was being awkward, or if he thought it was worth specifying which Miss Weasley in particular had shown up. This was not an unreasonable precaution.

But his heart just pinched at the prospect of Rose showing up, to again stare at him with those apprehensive eyes. It was typical; she was looking more alive than she had in years, which he’d told himself was what he wanted. But now he wanted to be far away from it, and he didn’t want to think about why.

Dwyer took his silence as a dismissal and presumably as a prompt to send Rose in, because once Matt closed his eyes, the Healer was gone, and when he opened them, Rose was perched on the stool next to his bed. Or, possibly, several hours had passed. With these potions, it was hard to tell.

‘Hey,’ she said, and now that her eyes weren’t empty, the honest pain was stifling. ‘They say you might be able to come home in a couple of days -’

‘But they’ll want to try fitting a prosthetic first,’ he said, voice like a desert. ‘Yeah. Dwyer said.’

She forced a weak smile. ‘I’ve started to sort the flat out so it’ll be ready when you come home -’

‘What’s ready?’ His jaw tightened. ‘You’re going to make everything operable with just the one hand?’ But he saw her gaze flicker and, with a groan, slumped back on the pillows. ‘Sorry. That sounds nice.’

Her hand came to his left arm, squeezing gently. ‘I’m trying. I know this is going to be awkward, but I’m really trying.’

I don’t need much out of you. Just don’t look at me like I’m a bomb that might go off. Even if he knew being stared at like that made him more likely to snap. ‘Have you heard anything about Dad?’

‘They’ve arrested Tobias Grey, too -’

What?’ The world spun as Matt shot upright. ‘What the hell, your uncle’s locking up newspaper editors, too -’

‘On suspicion that they’ve been working together to steal Ministry information. Which they did do, Matt, we can’t get outraged about this. Your father had all sorts on the Council operations, and now they’re talking about Ministry corporate oversight documents which they bribed an official to get them.’ Rose’s expression sank. ‘They’re talking about multiple operations he’s interfered with.’

Frustration bubbled in his chest, but the throbbing in his stump sawed at its fire. ‘Hypocrites,’ he hissed. ‘The whole bloody IMC, the Aurors. How dare they -’

‘We have to have some form of unity in this, Matt -’

‘You didn’t think that when we went after Selena!’ he snapped, dark spots of anger creeping into his vision. ‘You didn’t think that when Dad rescued us from Ager Sanguinis.’

‘I wasn’t,’ Rose said a little coldly, ‘thinking anything after Ager Sanguinis. And you need to rest.’

Her hand was gentle at his good shoulder, but anger was as exhausting as pain, and he flopped back onto the bed. Even that small movement made his stump throb, and he clenched his jaw. When his vision started to level out, he could see her expression, that shut down mask of dead control.

He knew it well. And he was sick of the sight of it.

When he spoke, his words tasted like gravel. ‘Have you seen him yet?’

She took too long before she said, ‘Who?’

‘Who do you think?’

She flinched. ‘No. No, I haven’t.’

‘You can’t hide from him forever.’

‘I’m not hiding.’

‘It’s been a day. Your ex-boyfriend’s back from the dead -’

‘And my boyfriend has just -’ She jerked a hand at his stump, and he knew he was going to despise people talking around his injury more than it being discussed frankly. ‘This is more important.’

‘I appreciate your support,’ he lied, ‘but there’s not much for you to do here.’

She glared at him, for the first time in an age. ‘Why do you want me to?’

‘Because it’s inevitable. Because it’s something you need to do.’ Because you’re using my bedside as a place to hide. He had to concentrated to extend his left hand and touch her arm. ‘Because right now, I could do this, and I’m still not reaching you.’ It wasn’t anger he felt. Anger was still diverted by the throbbing stump. But it certainly wasn’t sympathy that fizzed through his veins.

The ache in his arm subsided a little as she dropped her gaze, and shame flickered across her face. ‘I don’t - I’m sorry, Matt. I’m trying. I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do.’

‘Let’s start with giving up our pretending. Scorpius is back, my Dad’s in prison, and I don’t have a hand.’ His hand dropped. ‘You can say it.’

She stared at the stump, but the door swung open before she could summon a response. Matt didn’t know if he was relieved to see his mother, or jarred at the interruption, but either way Rose shot to her feet as if stung.

‘I should - I’ll let you talk,’ she mumbled, and fairly fled the room with little more than pleasantries.

Jen Doyle didn’t stop her, but seemed thoroughly nonplussed as she shut the door behind her. ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say she looks worse off than you.’

‘Losing a hand. Boyfriend coming back from the dead. It’s much the same.’ Somehow, with his mother, it was more natural to make light of it than be frustrated, but still his expression creased with worry. ‘Are you okay?’

‘In this day and age, there are worse places for your father to be than in jail.’ Her expression flattened as she sat next to him. ‘Unfortunately, the case has been taken out of the Auror Division’s hands.’

‘Why’s that unfortunate? By all accounts, Potter’s going authoritarian as hell.’

‘He is,’ Jen conceded. ‘But this has been passed right up to the office of the Minister. Because, I don’t know, Halvard needs to pretend he’s relevant while Lillian Rourke runs the world.’

‘This isn’t just about scapegoats? You think they’re trying to keep Dad and Toby out the way?’

She sighed, and smoothed his sheets. ‘I don’t know. I can only do so much. It’s not appropriate for my office to handle my own husband’s case. It’s not like there isn’t plenty of other work for me to do.’ She met his gaze. ‘And you have better things to worry about.’

Other things to worry about, I grant you,’ Matt said wryly, and twitched his stump. ‘I’m not sure they’re better.’

Her expression folded with guilt. ‘I’m not going to be around as much as I’d like. Lillian - I expect she’s trying to be helpful - is seconding me to the IMC as she has to get swathes of reforms of international law pushed through. I won’t be out the country all the time, but…’

‘You really need to keep working while Dad’s in prison?’

Jen tensed, gaze dropping. ‘Sophie’s back in Hogwarts. Annie’s back at work. You have Rose. If you need me, I will refuse to go. Otherwise, I would like to stay busy.’

Matt watched his mother - the one who’d never approved of his father’s work, the one who’d fought a war so the rule of law meant justice instead of oppression, and pretended he couldn’t see how fine the strings which held her up really were. ‘Oh,’ he sighed, and closed his eyes. ‘That’s where I get it from.’

* *


‘Savage, Jennings.’ Albus gave the Aurors sat at the end of the corridor in the Caelestis Hotel false smiles. ‘Best job in the department right now, huh?’

Savage was an old hand at Auror business, so his idea of surveillance on a cooperating Scorpius Malfoy was to sit with his feet up, reading the paper. ‘Beats fighting Yank zombies. Which I’ve been doing, so don’t get sarcastic, kid.’

Jennings was a bit too new to make cracks at her boss’s son. ‘Everything’s all quiet, Mister Malfoy’s settled into his suite, except -’

Savage elbowed her. ‘You don’t report to him, Merlin.’

‘I was just going to -’ Jennings flapped, and gave Albus a plaintive look. ‘His mum showed up. She’s in there now. Thought you might want to know and not interrupt.’

Albus looked at Savage. ‘See? That’s good investigating by the Auror Department.’ He did not want to intrude on a reunion between Scorpius and his mother, so he perched on the table, arms folding across his chest.

‘Hellfire,’ Savage swore. ‘You got uppity while you were away. If you were my boy, I’d have dragged you back by your ear months ago.’

‘If you were my father, I’d have done a better job of disappearing.’

‘Your father’s doing the best he can right now. People like Doyle and Grey are liabilities -’

‘I get enough of these arguments at home. I don’t need them from Dad’s flunkies.’

Jennings opened her mouth, looking like she wasn’t sure what she was going to say - then Scorpius’ door swung open, and out stepped Astoria Greengrass, dark hair tied back, red-eyed.

‘Look alive and polite, girl,’ Savage muttered to Jennings, and they all rose as Scorpius’ mother walked down the corridor.

But she ignored the two Aurors, and turned to Albus with a watery smile. ‘Al; you didn’t need to wait out here.’ He hadn’t seen her since the Chalice hunt and he’d never had much interaction with Scorpius’ parents, but Astoria hugged him anyway. It was an emotional day, he reasoned. She probably needed a lot of hugs.

So he mustered his best, polite smile as he pulled back. ‘I’d hate to interrupt you two catching up.’

‘It’s a miracle, isn’t it? I’m still struggling to understand…’ Astoria’s voice trailed off, and she shook her head. ‘Anyway, you go see him. I’m sure you’ve missed him terribly, and I’ll be back.’

‘You’re staying in England?’

‘For a time.’ She glanced at Savage. ‘I’m due to help the hard-working Auror Department trace my ex-husband. I’m not sure how much use my input will be, but I’ll try.’

Savage shrugged. ‘This is Captain Weasley’s case, ma’am.’

‘Can your relief teams in America spare you?’ Albus raised his eyebrows.

‘Everything’s ticking over, thanks to the IMC’s swift response to the Council threat. They can handle the mopping up.’

Savage looked at Jennings. ‘Take her to the office to see the Captain, would you?’

Jennings was too junior to object to being talked to like that, and sprang to her feet with a helpful smile. ‘Ma’am, if you’d come this way?’

Astoria was led off, and Albus had no desire to linger with Savage, so he went down the corridor and rapped on Scorpius’ door, entering at the summons. ‘I can come back later, mate, if you need a moment…’

It was a big suite that Scorpius had booked at one of the more expensive, modern hotels on Diagon Alley; several rooms, sunlight streaming in through the tall windows onto polished wood and opulent furnishings. Scorpius stood at the balcony doors, arms folded across his chest. When he turned, he looked pale, worn, tired, but his smile reached his eyes. ‘It’s okay. I’m alright, that was just… a bit draining.’

‘Yeah. I can imagine.’

‘I mean, what do I say? Yes, I’m alive. Yes, I’m here. Yes, I’m happy to see you. Oh, you’re crying. Lots. And I still have very complicated abandonment issues, but this isn’t the time.’ Scorpius’ brow knotted. ‘It’s mental.’

‘She… seemed to take it hard. I mean, she’s your mum, of course she did.’ Albus opened his arms for a big shrug. ‘But setting up relief charities, getting involved with the IMC… I think she was inspired to make a difference, to do something.’

‘My mother isn’t a leader. She isn’t a planner. She isn’t a problem solver.’ Scorpius rubbed his temples. ‘But she can throw really good fundraisers.’

‘Speaking of funds…’ Albus shoved his hands in his pockets. ‘You can afford this place?’

‘You barely spent my money, and some was in various investments and stuff. I think I’ve made money by being dead for two years. Also, now I’m legally not-dead, and now my father’s a renegade on the run in some unknown corner of the world, there’s only so much they can stop me from getting at the family wealth.’

‘It’s very you.’

‘It’s a big suite. You want to crash somewhere, there’s a room with your name on it.’ Scorpius frowned as he wandered over. ‘Figuratively. I didn’t carve “Al” into the door. That would be creepy.’

Albus grinned, but felt guilt tinge the smile. ‘I appreciate it, mate. Maybe sometimes, but… one step at a time. I don’t know how my parents would react if I left right now, and I’m trying to keep things on an even keel.’

‘Yes, those icy looks with your Dad look like progress.’ Scorpius grasped his shoulder. ‘Is everything alright?’

‘No, but look at this world,’ said Albus with a shrug. ‘What is alright?’

‘Being alive. Breathing. Having friends.’ Scorpius gave a thin, but not insincere smile. ‘Being dead makes you appreciate the little things.’

‘Have you spoken to Rose?’

A wince. ‘No, not yet. What’s the etiquette here?’

‘For the “back-from-the-dead” boyfriend? I have no clue.’

‘Is she - I mean her and Matt, they got together, like, how, and how serious are they…’

‘I’ve been gone almost as long as you. I have no idea.’ I know they lie to each other. I know they hide things from each other. I know Rose has been walking around half as dead as a Lethe Inferius. All of that felt like spying, though, and Scorpius looked too anxious to be given half-baked theories and hearsay. ‘I’ve not been back long enough to get the scuttlebutt from her or my family.’

Scorpius sighed at that, anxious about him, now, rather than his return-from-the-dead anguish. ‘Your family cares about you.’

‘You know as well as I do that “caring” isn’t enough, and…’ Al sighed. ‘Dad’s… I don’t know what Dad is. Angry. Frustrated. Taking it out on the world. I can’t agree with what he’s doing, how he’s handling this. Arresting Matt’s father? Pushing for all these powers for his Aurors and the international teams?’

‘The war’s been driving lots of people in lots of ways.’

‘It doesn’t make it right.’

‘No.’ Scorpius blew his fringe out of his eyes. ‘But you’re being a bit selective in what you care about.’

Albus looked at him, startled. ‘I don’t -’

‘These past eight months, I have killed fifteen people.’ Scorpius’ voice dropped, low and taut. ‘Three of them were in cold blood, but I remind myself that these were either ringleaders in the Council of Thorns, or members of governments or the IMC who were betraying the world to the Council. They weren’t going to get locked up, and they had to be stopped. So we - Thane, me, our team - stopped them.’

Albus’ throat went dry. ‘You didn’t have to do that.’

‘Maybe not. And, yet, I did. Because what was the alternative? Ask them nicely to stop?’

‘You could have come home.’ It was hard to say it. It was the truth, and it was a truth he felt in his bones, but the last thing he felt prepared to do was accuse Scorpius.

‘First, that would mean someone else held the wand. Thane’s war might not have been pretty, or legal, or even very moral, but it needed to happen. Even if I hadn’t been fighting it, it would have gone on. Second, I… I couldn’t come back. I’ve got to be in the action, Al. If I weren’t alive, they wouldn’t have Lethe. Coming back wouldn’t have let me fight.’

‘You’re back now,’ Albus pointed out. ‘And this is sitting in a hotel room, not fighting.’

He hadn’t meant it as an accusation, but Scorpius pulled away, stalked over to the counter of the suite’s kitchenette. ‘I’m still figuring that out. It’s easier now the IMC has the Chalice, but this wasn’t the plan. I was meant to stay gone.’

‘Until the war ended?’

Any answer was cut off by a knock on the door. Scorpius swore and stomped over. ‘This train of well-wishers can sod off. I’ll get rid of them.’

No, thought Albus when he saw Rose Weasley stood there with a cardboard box. You won’t.

‘Er.’ Rose looked between them, expression remarkably taut and calm. ‘Is this a bad time?’

‘No,’ said Al quickly, moving to the doorway. ‘Not at all. Ever. I’m going to go.’ Somehow, a man as big as him could slip past Rose into the corridor and flee.

Because of all the things he’d shared with Scorpius, this reunion was not going to be one of them.

———————

A/N: I may have said this before, but I’m rejecting Word of JK on the fate of Lucius Malfoy (look, Word of God is a valid literary issue, but mostly I just don’t agree with this bit). I cannot believe that Lucius would be able to get out of prison time by selling out other Death Eaters. The man lied his way out of Azkaban after the First War, and was twice a member of Voldemort’s Inner Circle. He might not have been one of Voldemort’s raving psychopath Death Eaters, but he was a mass murderer and a major figure in the movement. I don’t care how many changes of heart he had - only when out of favour and when his own family was in danger, any administration with any sense of justice could not let him, ostensibly the highest-ranking surviving Death Eater after the War, walk away. It’s insane. Maybe by cooperating and with the little good his family did he might be looking at reduced sentence, but to get away without imprisonment? Any punishment? Not buying it.

Also I think I mentioned Lucius being imprisoned in Ignite or Starfall and then Pottermore happened. *shakes fist at sky*


Chapter 15: Take Me, Cast Me Away
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Take Me, Cast Me Away


‘Do you want a coffee?’ Scorpius blurted the moment he’d shut the door behind Rose. ‘Because I don’t know how the coffee machine works but if you want a coffee I’ll make it work or Floo room service -’

This is our back-from-the-dead reunion and you’re talking about coffee.

She walked past him, and he couldn’t see her expression as she went to the kitchenette counter and put the box down. He could, however, see how straight she held herself, how tense her shoulders were. Her clothes were more plain, practical than he remembered; her hair kept in a tight plait she’d only worn in the past when she was stressed or expecting a fight, but they were days past the do-or-die moments and she was still in what he remembered as crisis mode.

‘I thought I’d bring you your stuff,’ she said without turning around, her voice too firm, too calm. ‘It’s been in a box for a few years. I didn’t know who’d want it. So I kept it.’

Every movement felt clumsy, undignified, like he was smashing his way through a glass shop as he went to join her. ‘Oh,’ was the stunning response he eventually summoned. ‘Thank you.’

He saw her shoulders clench even more when he got close, saw her chin jerk up and her expression sink into an emotionless mask that made her almost unrecognisable. ‘Your wand’s in there. And your guitar. And some of your clothes.’

‘Thank you,’ he said again, and his voice was as clumsy as his body. She didn’t move, staring into the box, and the suite felt bigger in the silence that stretched out. He flailed for words, eventually settling on, ‘How’s Matt?’

Another flicker of the mask. She still didn’t look at him. ‘Still in hospital. They’re talking about prosthetics.’

‘Prosthetics. Merlin.’ Not liking Matthias Doyle very much didn’t make him unsympathetic to a case of missing appendages. ‘I’m - I’m glad he’s okay. I hear you two live together now.’

‘Yes.’ The word could not have been uttered more emptily. ‘You’re living here?’

‘For now. I can’t live in a hotel forever. I’m not staying at Malfoy Manor, and anyway the DMLE are still going over the place to see if they can find any clues about my father…’

‘I’m sorry,’ she blurted out. ‘About your father, I’m sorry he’s even worse than you thought.’

She was as clumsy as him, another rampaging bull in a china shop. ‘It’s okay,’ he told the counter, because that was easier to look at. ‘I’ve known for months, I’m… I’m sort of sorted with it. As much as one can be.’

‘It’s still - I’m sorry,’ she repeated, and he couldn’t tell if she was trying to apologise for more than his father, or if she didn’t know what else to say. Or both.

He drew a slow breath, fished for words that wouldn’t break glass - then stopped. If she was being as clumsy as him, if she was stumbling and cracking thing, and it wasn’t hurting him, then maybe there wasn’t glass to break. Maybe they were just staggering in the dark, and the only things they’d damage were themselves if they crashed into walls.

He shut his eyes. ‘Rose…’ He heard her voice catch and still didn’t look at her; wasn’t sure what he’d do if he saw her mask shift. ‘I am so, so sorry. Sorry I left, sorry I didn’t come back -’

Her exhale ended with a muffled quaver, and he opened his eyes to see her turn away, press the back of her hand to her mouth. ‘You don’t need to apologise.’ Her voice wasn’t empty any more; pain rolled off every syllable.

‘I didn’t want to come back in case it screwed up your life, and now I’m here, and - if you’re happy, if you’ve got a life now, the last thing I want to do is complicate that.’ Before he could stop himself he’d stepped up, lifted a hand by instinct towards her shoulder - but apprehension of all the unspoken billowed in his gut, and he froze.

‘Happy.’ Her voice was thick enough to lose himself in, and though she tilted her head only an inch, he could see the shine in her eyes. ‘You were gone, how could I be?’

‘I’m back now, but it’s not - so much is happening -’

Then she turned to face him and the words shrivelled and died in his throat. The mask was down, but he didn’t recognise this Rose either, this creature stood before him of grief and pain and wonder, soft dark eyes shimmering but locked on him with utter focus. It was like she was afraid of blinking in case he disappeared, and he couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, could hardly breathe.

Her fingertips quivered as she lifted a hand, and it took all of his self-control to remain still as her touch brushed across his jaw, his cheek. He was like rock before a sculptor, formless without her, and yet there under the stone all along.

‘Scorpius…’ She whispered his voice like a prayer and an answer, and the unspoken howled inside him in response, a wolf that would not be denied.

But deny it he did, his hand coming to hers, fingers running along her palm, her wrist. ‘I didn’t want to come back and ruin what you’d rebuilt, but then my hood was off on that ship and I was too weak to lie or run…’

‘Don’t run. Don’t you dare run.’ She reached for his shoulder like he wasn’t real if she couldn’t feel him, and with a fresh quaver in her voice, her fist clenched in his jacket. ‘I’ve just got you back…’

‘Which is why I didn’t - the war’s not over, it’s still dangerous, I don’t… nothing is certain…’ He needed to make her understand without saying, but he could see she was barely listening, and he didn’t really want to talk either.

She was clinging to him for comfort, holding him to make sure he was real, tethering to him like a storm would blow her away, and he could feel the abyss stretching out beneath him, too. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she breathed. ‘Whatever happened, it doesn’t matter. You think I could hold a grudge, pass judgement…’

It’s not your judgement I’m afraid of. Her eyelashes splashed a tear to her cheek and his hand was there, thumbing it away. ‘I’ve hurt you too much,’ Scorpius whispered, and, like he hadn’t just admonished himself, he bowed his head to hers. He could feel her breath on his lips, see her eyes flutter shut, saw her shoulders slump with release - and then she turned her head to one side like a snap.

‘I…’ The one syllable grated past her throat, and she pulled back as if stung, eyes widening. ‘Scorpius - I’m sorry, I…’

‘No, I’m sorry.’ He stepped away, too, clasped his hands together as if he could wring out his guilt. ‘You - and Matt - and this is crazy…’

‘It’s not crazy.’ Her mask was gone, but so was the shock and awe, and she looked more like the Rose he remembered as she rubbed her temples - if terrified and guilt-ridden. ‘It’s rather like this is a moment I dreamt of for years, so I suddenly forgot reality…’

‘And Matt.’ Scorpius nodded firmly. ‘And, you know, the Council of Thorns trying to kill us all.’

‘And you’ve got to worry about - the Manor, and your money, and what you’re going to do…’ Another step back, and her expression creased. ‘I should go.’

‘Yeah, I… thanks for the stuff.’

She only paused to open the door, frozen there a moment, a silhouette of fading past in the threshold. ‘I’m just… glad I was only keeping it for you for a little while.’ But she didn’t look back, and she didn’t wait for an answer before she was gone. Leaving him alone in a room made for a new life he didn’t know how to use, with a box of an old life he knew could never possibly fit him again.

* *


…the rout from North America speaks for itself. United, this world can fight the Council, and root out their evil wherever it rests. We responded to the Lethe Attacks swiftly and decisively, and cut our enemy off from an influence on an entire continent.

Even if her mother was a good public speaker, by now Selena heard her words as little more than a predictable drone. The usual rhetoric, the inspiring of confidence, the determination to rattle down the wireless and invade all their ears; every bit of it was there, the role the Chairman of the International Magical Convocation needed to play.

I believe this validates my call for emergency powers to be granted to the IMC, and to me. My envoys led the way in North America; Director Potter was in overall command of a multi-national force, and he produced results. In the past, departments have clashed over jurisdiction and authority and this has left us weak. I want to compound our success in Chicago, and the lesson learnt is unity. Leadership.

From her mother’s office in the DIMC, hearing the speech piped from the press conference down in the atrium through the wireless, Selena could almost picture the sight. But it was old and tiring to her mind’s eye, not inspiring.

Perhaps familiarity did breed contempt. Or perhaps the fact that she was coming to see her mother for the first time outside of their frantic reunion, and she’d been asked to wait like the average visitor here on bureaucratic business. Not family.

But soon enough the wireless was dictating her mother’s descent from the podium in the atrium far below, and within five minutes Selena could hear the hustle and bustle from the main DIMC office outside the door as Lillian and her staff swept into business. She had to know Selena was there. And still she stopped to give instructions, still she sent her minions packing with specific orders, because heaven forfend the world be left to cope by itself for ten minutes.

‘I’m not giving you an exclusive,’ said Lillian as she swept into the office, but she was smiling, and Selena remembered that she didn’t actually want a mushy conversation with her mother.

They hugged anyway, Lillian keeping the embrace close a fraction of a second longer than usual, and Selena had to return the wry smile as she turned back. ‘I don’t work for the press any more. You locked up my boss, remember?’

That was Potter,’ said Lillian, wagging a finger. ‘And now it’s Halvard.’

‘And it’s not like you don’t outrank them both.’

‘Maybe, once the next wave of reforms is in, I can tell them to stop being scared little children, terrified of a man who’s not under their control.’

‘And to think you were the one so angry at Gabriel Doyle two years ago.’

Lillian’s expression sank. ‘I didn’t use my actual power in response. I just… shouted, a lot. I’ve had to learn how to deal with these sorts of problems since then.’

Selena fiddled with her sleeve. ‘Yeah,’ she mumbled. ‘Sorry that my being in danger beyond the reach of the formal authorities has become a regular sort of thing.’

‘Don’t you apologise. Especially not for this latest. Really, I should have had a security team assigned to you -’

‘And then how was I supposed to do my job?’ Selena’s expression creased. ‘Let’s face it, Mum. We do our thing, and just take the consequences as they come.’

‘Except these were the consequences for my choices, and I couldn’t even put them right…’

Selena was not accustomed to seeing uncertainty from her mother. All her life, Lillian Rourke had been a storm of control and determination, roaring into any situation like a tornado of organisation and leaving everything Handled in her wake. But now she could hear the apprehension in Lillian’s voice, and that was perhaps more scary than an army of Inferi. She grabbed her mother’s arm. ‘Mum, it’s okay.’

‘The Council of Thorns abducted you to get to me and I had to order our best men to tackle a completely different problem. How is that okay?’

‘Gee,’ said Selena, ‘it’s like they coordinated their plans in order to fuck you over to the maximum degree, and it worked because they’re competent, deranged professionals. I don’t blame you.’ Her mother’s gaze dropped, but this was as much as Selena actually wanted to talk about her abduction with her mother, because otherwise Lillian was going to start worming her way into truths, and that wouldn’t do. ‘It was a good speech.’

‘It was a routine speech. But I need to remind people of our successes. Lethe is controlled in Europe and North America; east Asia’s getting in-hand, the Council are losing men -’

‘And for every cell you wipe out, two more pop back up,’ said Selena with a grimace.

‘Which is why we need better cohesion.’ Lillian gave her an apologetic look. ‘Which means I’m going to be leaving the country soon.’

‘A world-tour of domination?’

Lillian smiled a little. ‘The IMC needs to be centralised if we’re going to get anything done. The Convocation needs a permanent meeting place, task forces need permanent offices. So it’s Switzerland for us. If you need me, just Floo, but I’m sorry I won’t be around while all of this is going on…’

‘It’s fine. I’ll see you all the time, right under the headlines.’

‘Your sadness at our parting is touching.’ She reached out to brush Selena’s hair back, an affectionate gesture recalling bygone eras when they’d had time for more than fly-by-visits and talks. ‘Are you alright?’

‘They didn’t hurt me, Mum.’

‘They still locked you up -’

‘And I’m doing a valiant job of not thinking about it.’ Or how much getting me out cost. ‘So I’ll thank you kindly to let me keep on repressing.’

‘I hear mothers should discourage that.’

‘You’re a busy mother.’

‘I’m a busy politician. My motherly duties are apparently very light.’ She sighed. ‘But my staff will hang me if I delay my afternoon meetings any more…’

They parted ways as quickly and dismissively as ever, never ones for overt displays of affection. Her father had left the family when she was rather young, and the consequent closeness between mother and daughter was unspoken, unassuming. They didn’t need to hug and profess their love at every turn. It just was, in the same way a sunrise was. Anything melodramatic was simply Not Done.

And so Selena returned home, because there she could focus on more pleasant prospects than the week behind her. A nice cup of tea. Playing some music in her room. Returning to some sense of normalcy. Or, that was what she told herself could happen when she let herself in the front door, and was greeted by the unmistakable sounds of a conversation coming to a sharp halt.

Frowning, Selena pushed open the living room door to see Miranda Travers sat across the coffee table with Rose Weasley, and realised she’d blundered into the world’s worst Ex-Girlfriends Convention. ‘Oh, crap on a stick.’

No wonder Abena was nowhere in sight. She’d be hiding upstairs, away from it all.

‘Have you been at work?’ Miranda got to her feet at once, eyes wide. ‘I can’t believe they’ve got you back on the job so soon -’

‘The office is shut,’ said Selena, numb. ‘I was just off to see Mum and shall I get you two some tea and get out of your -’

‘Rose came to see you,’ says Miranda, far too firm. ‘I’ll get out of the way.’

Miranda had never been very adept at Disapparition magic, but she vanished from the living room within a blink anyway, leaving the pale, subdued Rose in an armchair, hands cupped around the mug. She had tea already. Of course tea had already been made. Tea was the very first step in trying to handle a disastrous conversation.

Like, our mutual ex has come back from the dead, how about that.

‘You’re probably the last person who wants to hear about this,’ Rose told her mug. ‘But, help.’

It took all of Selena’s effort to not crumple, and with a sigh she went to Rose’s side, knelt by the chair. ‘What are you talking about?’

It’s so hard,’ Rose said in a mocking, twisted voice that tumbled over itself. ‘The man I loved died and it broke me but now, horror of horrors, he’s back.’ Her nose wrinkled. ‘How do I complain to you about that tale of woe.’

Selena drew a shuddering breath. ‘Then why are you here?’

Rose kept staring at her mug like she was trying to divine from the tea leaves. ‘Because you’re the only person who could even begin to understand.’

‘I think “begin” is about right. Rose - oh, no, you don’t think I’m bitter because Scorpius is back and - and Methuselah isn’t?’ Her voice caught, and she grasped Rose’s wrist.

Rose looked up. ‘Aren’t you?’

‘I am far, far too busy going, “what the hell?” to think anything that complicated,’ Selena confessed. ‘Have you two talked?’

Colour streamed into Rose’s cheeks, red enough to match her hair, and her voice came out in a tumble. ‘I - sort of - we - I went to his flat and…’

Merlin’s beard. Selena’s eyes widened, but she knew better than to leap to conclusions. ‘You…’

‘We spoke for less than five minutes and that was all it took for me to almost kiss him.’

Selena’s heart rate slowed. ‘How much almost?’

‘Almost - there was leaning and then I realised what the hell was going on and pulled away, and - and that’s crazy!’

‘Yes,’ said Selena, tilting her head this way and that, ‘but when I thought I had a second chance with Methuselah, we had metaphysical sex in a metaphysical world, so… crazier things have happened.’

Rose’s nose wrinkled again. ‘But Matt.’

Selena sucked on her teeth. ‘How is he?’

‘He -’ She hesitated, then she pushed herself to her feet, stalking about the cramped living room like a caged animal. ‘I hardly know. He takes his potions, he speaks to the Healers, he’s getting a new hand and will figure out how it works, and we don’t - I don’t know how to ask him about the hand, and I don’t know how on Earth I can talk to him about this. But he’s not an idiot, of course it’s going to be a thing that Scorpius is back…’

‘I understand it’s more than a little awkward, but you kind of have to talk about it. It’s not going away.’

Rose gave her a sidelong look. ‘You think I should tell Matt that I almost kissed Scorpius?’

Selena winced. ‘I… almost isn’t…’

‘So, we’re off to a good start, then.’ Rose’s lips thinned, and she glared at the dreary autumn greyness beyond the window. ‘Let’s talk about some of how I feel, but not all of it. Let’s talk about some of how he feels, but not all of it. Because I know he’s got to have more to say about his hand, about his father, about you, but he doesn’t talk, and I don’t ask!’

It seemed judicious to pretend the ‘about you’ part hadn’t happened. Selena kept her gaze studied. ‘There are fifty gazillion problems here,’ she decided to say in the end, ‘and there’s no one solution to any of them, but I do know that nothing dooms a couple like not communicating.’

Like you two haven’t ever since you got together.

‘It’s not just about my relationship…’

‘But you and Scorpius impacts you and Matt, impacts everything.’

Rose’s shoulders slumped, and the look she gave Selena was so forlorn it could have inspired a thousand depressing paintings. ‘He’s alive, Selena. I didn’t want to believe it at first, I didn’t dare, but it’s him, it’s still him, and he’s back. And part of me wonders what’s happened to him these past few months, and another part of me doesn’t care, and another wants me to run away and never look back…’

‘I don’t think,’ Selena said delicately, ‘that ignoring a problem ever made it go away.’

‘My issue isn’t that I’m trying to ignore these problems. My issue is that I don’t know which problem to even think about first.’

‘But you are thinking. Keep thinking.’ Selena let out a slow breath. ‘I’ll give you the one bit of advice which hasn’t yet backfired in anyone’s face: figure out what makes you happy, and do that. And be honest about it.’

Rose gave her an uncomfortably astute look. ‘Are you following that bit of advice? Being open about what happened?’

‘Nothing happened -’

‘Let’s start, at least, with being honest with each other.’

Selena met her gaze, and thought of Matt, high on painkillers, regretting his choices. No. Let’s not be honest with each other. ‘Fine,’ she said instead. ‘Being locked up by the Council wasn’t fun. Matt losing his hand to save me isn’t thrilling. And, to top it all off, I could have ended this war if I could cast the Killing Curse properly. But we have nowhere near the time to go through all of this. I’m getting there.’

Rose watched her for a moment, then nodded. ‘Let me help you. We’ll go for drinks, we’ll have dinner, we’ll - bloody hell, Selena, who else can we turn to as allies in all of this madness?’

On the one hand, it felt two-faced to sign up for this alliance, considering what Selena knew she wasn’t saying. On the other, Rose’s repression didn’t make her a fool. And on some third, mysterious, additional appendage…

Selena sighed. ‘You know what’s stupid? What’s really, really stupid?’ Rose raised an eyebrow at the question. ‘I’m freaking out. You’re freaking out more. And I feel more like myself, and you look more like yourself, than either of us have in years.’

Rose snorted softly, and Selena felt vindicated. Wry, self-deprecating humour had not been on the cards in a while. ‘Yeah, great,’ she muttered. ‘Chaos comes again, but it brought colour back into the world with it.’

* *


Albus was used to the Auror Offices in the Canary Wharf MLE Headquarters being a bustle of activity. What he didn’t expect was a desperate, pained bustle at the back of the bullpen, everyone steering clear of his father’s office, because that way they could pretend they couldn’t hear the shouting.

The only person who hadn’t moved out of the blast radius was his uncle, sat at his desk just outside Harry’s door, sipping his tea with a long-suffering expression. When Albus approached and recognised the second voice inside as Hermione’s, he understood.

‘They’ve been at it about ten minutes, now,’ sighed Ron in greeting.

‘What’s the problem?’

‘Sit down, you’ll get an earful.’ Ron gestured to the opposite chair. ‘In summary, they’re trying to pull Thane out of our custody.’

‘How come?’

‘There’s the rub. Which is a weird saying. I don’t know where it’s from. What are we rubbing?’ Ron shrugged. ‘Centralisation of the IMC marches on. International law enforcers want Thane somewhere they can all poke him until the information comes out.’

But he’s a British citizen!’ came Harry’s whip-crack from the other side of the door.

Ron nodded as if his assent could weigh in on the argument. ‘A good point.’

Albus squinted at the office. Hermione spoke more softly, but this close in a row this agitated, he could hear her rebuttal. ‘But most of his crimes have been out of the country. Germany and France are pretty furious for everything he pulled during the Chalice of Emrys chase. The Greeks want to try him for Kythos. Amongst others.

Then the Greeks can get in line. He’s my prisoner, Hermione. I don’t see why you’re bowing to what Rourke wants.

This morning you were cheering on Lillian Rourke for being so firm on the American success!

And you were criticising her for wanting to move everything to Niemandhorn!

Albus grimaced. ‘This sounds like it could go on a while.’

‘It could.’ Ron sipped his tea. ‘And on. And on.’

‘That must be fun for you.’

‘I do my job. I keep out of it. We know how to handle this. I mean, sure, they’ve not had wedges between them like this in years, but…’ He frowned. ‘They don’t draw me into it. I just wish I could help.’

‘What do you think?’

‘Ouch, dangerous question.’ Ron shook his head and gave a self-deprecating smile. ‘I’m the sidekick, remember? Hermione’s trying to play watchdog for everyone. Don’t run too fast, don’t wield too much power, don’t upset too many people to win. It’s hard as hell to argue with her, because I don’t disagree with the idea, just in practice you’ve got to crack some skulls sometimes, you know?’

Albus sighed. ‘I know.’

‘On the other hand, Harry really wants to crack every skull. I think he -’ Ron cut himself off with a grimace.

‘You think he what?’

Ron groaned. ‘I don’t blame you, Al. But he’s been rattled. Almost losing you in Kythos, Jones dying, Scorpius dying, you taking off like you did. There are times I worry he’d burn the world if it’d keep the family safe.’ He shook his head. ‘It’s not like the Second War. He didn’t have as much to lose then. He’s not used to being bloody terrified for someone else every single moment.’

Albus opened his mouth, not sure what he’d say - and was saved by Hermione bursting out of the office. ‘I won’t be home until after eight, dear,’ she reeled off to Ron as she stalked past, agitated but somehow affectionate.

‘Ha, I won’t be back until nine, you get to cook,’ was Ron’s retort, and he got a flash of a smile over his wife’s shoulder before she left the bullpen.

Harry stood in the door to his office, arms folded across his chest. ‘I’m glad you can keep your spirits up.’

‘It’s that,’ said Ron, spinning around on his chair, ‘or I’m in the domestic from hell.’

Harry harrumphed, and looked at Albus. ‘What - what can I do for you?’

Al knew he’d stopped himself from saying, ‘what do you want?’ Frustration was knuckled down, partly for Ron’s sake. Now was not the time to get defensive at his father, and he was nervous enough already. ‘I don’t know if this is appropriate, but I’d like to see a prisoner.’

Harry turned his eyes skyward. ‘Doyle and Grey aren’t being released any -’

‘It’s not them I want to see.’ Albus hesitated, but when his father’s face slumped, realised he’d been figured out. ‘Yeah. I don’t know. I just feel I should.’

‘I don’t know about should.’ Harry grimaced. ‘I’ll take you down there.’

‘Uh,’ said Ron, ‘You need to see Trevithick about the Indonesia task force -’

‘Oh, for -’ Harry tossed his hands in the air. ‘Can you run him down?’

Despite the gesture, Al was relieved that it was Ron, not his father, who took him from the office bullpen and down into Canary Wharf’s jail block. The situation was going to be awkward enough without Harry either trying to be supportive or questioning his choices.

‘She’s been cooperative,’ said Ron, voice taut as they descended into the gloomy stone passages. ‘But there were a lot of arrest warrants that predate the Council. France are keen to get their hands on her.’

‘Thane’s being possibly transferred, but not her?’

‘Thane comes with political baggage. She doesn’t. You know, it’s your dad who’s been digging his heels on keeping her in Britain…’

‘If he’s doing that to please me, he needn’t bother.’ Albus hesitated as his voice grated more than he intended. ‘I mean - I don’t know what should be done.’

‘Damned if I know,’ said Ron, and stopped as they reached a corridor junction of the cell block. ‘She’s down there, third on the right.’ He gave an uncertain smile. ‘Good luck.’

Al just nodded as he advanced into the gloom. The cells in Canary Wharf were quiet; most successes against the Council had happened outside of Britain, lately. That was for the best right now, as the last thing he wanted was an audience. An audience might have expectations. And as Albus stopped in front of Eva Saida’s cell, he knew he had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. She was lying on the bench, reading, but she’d looked up at the footsteps and froze at the sight of him.

‘Good book?’ It was all he could think of saying.

‘I’m not much of a reader. But there’s little else to do.’ She put it down and sat up. ‘I didn’t think I’d see you here.’

‘I didn’t think I’d come here.’ His brow knitted. ‘Do you know what’s going to happen to you?’

Her lips twisted. ‘For now, they’re holding me as a confessed Thornweaver, so that means they can lock me up without charging me or giving me a trial or anything like that for as long as they fancy. You’d have a better idea.’

‘Dad’s stopped you from being extradited to France.’

She nodded. ‘I’d say that’s good of him. But maybe he thinks they’d be soft.’

‘No, it’s…’ Albus looked away. ‘If he wanted to bring hell on your head, he’d have done that by now.’

‘I’m getting that impression.’ Eva gave a rattling sigh. ‘How’s Scorpius? I mean, it is him?’

‘It is. He’s…’ He bit his lip. ‘Free. Figuring things out. I guess we all are.’ He put his hands to the bars, and found himself gripping them so hard his knuckles went white. ‘Why did you surrender?’

‘I didn’t think you’d ask that.’

His throat tightened. ‘I’m asking.’

Eva’s jaw clenched, and she studied the floor for long moments before she answered. ‘I wasn’t surprised Baz cut me off. He put on a show in Moscow, but he wasn’t pleased I’d not told him about my history with you all. If I’d left Saint Annard on my own, I was going to have to run. And keep running.’

‘And this is better? You’ve got how many counts of murder under your belt?’

‘I know.’ She put her hands on her knees, shoulders taut. ‘But that’s justice, right? For all I did?’

‘I thought you said you didn’t fancy justice. I thought you said you weren’t sorry enough to want to be locked up for the rest of your life.’ He wasn’t sure if he was confused or bitter.

Eva gave a rueful, empty laugh. ‘There is nothing, nothing going on here that I want.’

‘But you could call this the worst of all evils.’ Albus clenched his jaw. ‘Bloody hell, if France extradite you, they still have Dementors, you will get the Kiss -’

‘And if I ran,’ she said, voice dropping, tensing, ‘then at best I would become another wand for hire, another instrument of someone’s power over others. Another dealer of pain and death. People with my past don’t find gainful employment, they find dark corners of the world and then they make them darker.’

‘Except you’re a survivor. So why surrender?’

She hesitated. ‘Why do you want to know?’

‘Because -’ Frustration caught in his throat, and he slammed the bars with a rattle. ‘I spent the last two years loathing the very idea of you,’ he growled, and the old hatred he’d nursed split his voice. ‘But if it was your fault Scorpius was dead, then it was my fault for trusting you. Only he’s not dead. And you didn’t betray us like I thought you did.’

Eva looked away, hair falling across the side of her face, blocking her expression from view. When she spoke, she was apprehensive, awkward. ‘I meant to leave that night in Venice before anything… happened.’

He flinched at the memory, his mind in the habit of sheering away from the slightest thought of her - his lips on hers, every inch of her under his touch… ‘I don’t want to talk about -’

‘I was weak,’ she blurted, like if she didn’t spill the words in a rush, they would never come. ‘I knew when I left, Lisa Delacroix - the fake Lisa Delacroix - would stop existing, and this is who I’d be again. Eva Saida.’ She stood, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her, hair shimmering in the gloom, shoulders hunched and taut, vulnerable like he’d never seen. ‘Eva Saida’s a monster. Eva Saida’s a killer. Eva Saida deserves to be shipped off to France, given the Kiss, and thrown into the deepest, darkest hole I can imagine. The fake Lisa Delacroix was like her, except the fake Lisa Delacroix changed. She turned from her past and her bad choices and tried to be someone better, and you - you felt something for her, and when you looked at me, it was like you believed I could be her. That it wasn’t too late.’

She padded to the bars of the cell, and all he could do was watch. Instinct told him to shy back, pull away like a dog who’d been kicked, but his limbs wouldn’t react, kept him pinned as she approached. ‘We were wrong,’ she whispered. ‘It was too late. I couldn’t be Lisa Delacroix. The girl you wanted was a myth, a lie. I knew that all along. But then I was in Ager Sanguinis and I didn’t want to be Eva Saida, either. So I betrayed them, so I did what I could for you, so I left. So I went to work for Baz, fought the Council, because…’ Her voice trailed off, and her eyes were on him, drinking in every inch of his face like she was trying to commit the sight to memory. ‘I was an idiot. I thought I could stop being Eva Saida. But once Baz knew, he wanted nothing more to do with me. Once you knew I wasn’t Lisa Delacroix, already reformed, but Eva Saida, lying to you…’

He opened his mouth, but no words came out, and she looked away.

‘You and I both spent the last two years running from our lives. And you and I both realised we can’t escape them. You belong here, with your friends, with your family. And it doesn’t matter if I pretend to be someone else, I am what I am. I’m Eva Saida, and I am a murderer.’ She hesitated, then her hand came up to the bars, inches from his, and he couldn’t pull away even though parts of him screamed the command.

‘I didn’t do this for you,’ she said at last, voice throaty, grating. ‘I didn’t try to change so maybe you would look at me like you used to. But it happened because of you. Because you put the idea in my head that maybe I could be something else. And I wanted so badly, so badly for it to be true that I lied to myself all this time, told myself it was possible.

‘I surrendered because it’s that or become something worse. I surrendered because I’m deluding myself if I pretend I have other, real options. And I surrendered because that slimmer than slim chance you could ever forgive me for lying to you would vanish into nothing if I’d run. And that is the one thing I think I can be forgiven for.’

From what he knew about her and believed, open confessions like that, risky, exposing, did not come naturally. But her eyes blazed as they met his, and as her hand ran up the bars for her fingertips to brush against his knuckles, he understood she could only be so daring because she had nothing to lose.

‘I’ve hated my life, Albus,’ Eva whispered. ‘I’ve been lied to, I’ve lived lies, I’ve been used and I’ve used. I suffered, and I decided the way to cope was to make others suffer. I’ve tried to run from all of that, and discovered that was a lie, too.’ Her breath caught. ‘My whole life, you have been the only thing that’s real.’

The old pain howled in his gut, and now it couldn’t be ignored, now he wasn’t too trapped to be deaf to it, and he jerked back with a gasp, skin crackling when their hands broke apart. ‘I don’t…’ His voice grated, and he swallowed hard to command it again. ‘I don’t know what you want from me.’

She recoiled with a flinch, then visibly steeled herself, and couldn’t quite look him in the eye when she murmured, ‘I’m condemned whatever happens. All I can want is whatever you can give.’

Pain. Torment. Hate. That’s all she gave you, that’s all you can give -

But he’d loved her once, or it had been the glimpse of love, and that joined the vortex howling in his gut to rise to his throat, choke him, spin him around, and in the end the only thing Albus could listen to was the carnage of confusion. He didn’t answer. Didn’t look at her, didn’t speak, just turned on his heel and stormed away from the cell, away from the darkness, away from her, and didn’t dare look back in case he broke.


———

A/N: ‘There’s the rub,’ is, well, an idiom, but the earliest source I can see is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Ron probably picked it up off Hermione.


Chapter 16: The Shadow of Any Lie
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The Shadow of Any Lie


‘You should only keep it on for an hour or so at a time,’ said Dwyer, looking at the prosthetic hand like it might explode if Matt did the wrong thing. ‘Do those exercises when you first put it on, do them before you take it off, don’t put it back on within six hours.’

Matt stared at the lump of grey metal that had been attached to his stump. While it had the shape of a hand, at that moment he could no sooner move it than fly to the moon. ‘Those exercises,’ he pointed out, ‘require me to have some manipulation of the living steel.’

‘It will come!’ Dwyer assured him. ‘The magic will start to plug into the impulses from your brain. That’s partly why you should wear it for an hour or so; let those connections form, and also, it’s most likely to work for the first time when you’re not thinking about it. You’ll act on automatic, try to move the hand that’s not there, only you’ll move the prosthetic.’

‘Isn’t that going to hurt?’

‘Excruciatingly!’ Dwyer faltered. ‘Um. You know, I could go sort out that discharge paperwork…’

‘That’ll take a while, I imagine.’

‘A couple of hours, Mister Doyle. But then you can go home; you have your appointment sorted for tomorrow -’

‘And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,’ Matt sighed. ‘Please be about it.’

Dwyer left the stale hospital room that had been Matt’s world these past few days, but even though he was eager to leave, the idea of returning to his flat gave him nothing but a chill in his gut. He’d tried to convince himself it would be home. That Rose would be there, that he could go right back to -

To pretending everything was fine. It wasn’t fine. It hadn’t ever been fine.

‘I’ve got bad news, Matt!’ His eyes flashed open to see John Colton sticking his head around the door. ‘You’ll never play the violin again.’

At least, Matt thought, he was still capable of laughter. ‘You’re a funny guy, John. A funny, funny guy.’

‘I know, I’m a beacon of hope for the world.’ But John’s brow furrowed as he waltzed in. ‘How are you, old bean?’

‘Oh, you know. An absolute pacifist. ‘armless.’

John narrowed his eyes. ‘You’re a very bad man.’

‘I’m a little high.’

‘When do they let you out?’

‘This afternoon. I’ll be home.’

‘In the tender care of the lovely Rosemary?’

Their eyes met, and Matt couldn’t ignore the guarded glint that usually he disregarded when he and John discussed his relationship. Maybe the drugs were chipping away at his delusions. ‘She’s been - she’s been good.’

‘I’m glad,’ said John, unconvinced but playing along. ‘You don’t - oh, hell, Matt, I’m really sorry this has happened.’

He slumped against the pillows. ‘I made my choices.’

‘Lose the hand, save the girl?’ John jerked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘Speaking of “the girl”, she’s outside. Selena, I mean. Not Rose.’

Matt sat up like a shot. ‘Why didn’t you say?’

‘She said she’d let us talk first. That she’d wait. I thought maybe you’d want to bear your heart and soul to your best - fine, fine.’ John tossed his hands in the air, his frustration exaggerated. ‘I know how it is. I’m only chopped liver compared to the parade of beautiful women here to weep at your bedside.’

‘That’s not what I meant -’

‘No, no. Obviously I’m not welcome if I’m not going to beat my chest and fall on my knees beside you. Though I could go find a petticoat and sob on your bedsheets -’

Matt’s lips twisted. ‘I hate you.’

John laughed, and turned for the door. ‘Feel better. Drop me a Floo when you’re out and about; we’ll spend time together. You know, go to concerts which deserve raucous applause. Play golf. Juggle.’

It felt good to grin, but he still yelled, ‘Get out,’ at John’s departing form, and John was laughing when he left.

So his smile was intact when the door swung open again, and in stepped the apprehensive form of Selena Rourke. ‘I thought this was a hospital room, not a comedy club,’ she said, voice low, cautious, but wry.

His gaze softened. ‘Hey, I didn’t expect you to stop by…’

‘I figured it’s the least I could do. How are you?’

Matt lifted his right arm and waved with the utterly still prosthetic. ‘I can’t go near magnets.’ But her expression creased, and he remembered this wasn’t John, there to make him feel better by making light of this. Nor was it Rose, here to fuss as if he was made of glass that her hammering guilt would shatter. ‘Sorry. It’s kind of a reflex.’

Selena stared at the hand for a moment, then went to sit on the stool by his bed. ‘If you need to take it off, don’t worry about being awkward in front of me. Do what you need to do.’

She was concerned without undertones of apprehension, and it went a way to soothe the twist through his gut. ‘I need to wear it for about another hour. It’s stupid and rotten, but…’ He let out a deep breath. ‘It is what it is.’

Her gaze dropped. ‘It is what it is because of me.’

‘I’m blaming Raskoph.’

‘You wouldn’t have fought him if you hadn’t -’

‘Hadn’t what? Tried to rescue you? Maybe I should have left you alone. Avoided you. Left you in prison.’ He couldn’t keep the deprecating tone from his voice, and she looked at him, surprised. ‘I made my choice, and I’d do it all over again. And it could have been a lot worse. Are you alright?’

She tossed her hair over her shoulder. ‘Don’t you worry about me, Matt; they didn’t do anything to me -’

‘I do worry, and just because they didn’t injure you doesn’t mean you have to be bouncing after the Council of Thorns locked you up.’

He was studying her face, knew her masks well enough by now that he could almost see the gears shift when she looked back at his prosthetic. ‘Does it hurt?’

His eyes narrowed. ‘I’ve figured out how you do that.’

‘Do what?’

‘Evade. You say something which isn’t really an answer, and then you make people talk about themselves. People love talking about themselves. So you ask, and all of a sudden we’re talking about my hand.’

‘There’s not much to say about me.’

‘Even if you don’t want to talk about the Council,’ Matt said carefully, ‘You and I haven’t spoken since we rowed at your doorstep, and before that we didn’t talk about things. I think there’s a whole lot to say.’

Her eyes narrowed, and this didn’t look like a mask. ‘This isn’t my first visit here.’

Matt frowned, thinking back to that haze of white sheets and fussing faces and drifting through swirling lights of white and gold. Eventually there was a snippet of something solid, the thought of her hand on his. I thought that was a dream. ‘Oh, yeah,’ he said. ‘I was… pretty high.’

Selena snorted. ‘Yeah, you were.’

‘See.’ He pointed his fake hand at her. ‘You’re doing it again.’

‘When did you get so bloody-minded about me?’

Matt’s breath caught in his throat, and he could see the flicker of apprehension about her gaze. He drew a deep breath. ‘If I answered that,’ he said quietly, ‘then I’d be letting you evade some more.’

‘What if I don’t want to talk about how I feel? About what happened?’

‘Then say so.’ He ducked his head in acknowledgement. ‘If you really don’t want to talk about it, then I’ll drop it. But I’m here if you want to talk. I’m here if you just want to sit with someone and say nothing. Day or night.’

Her gaze dropped, blonde hair falling across her face, a physical veil to fall over the crumpling mask. ‘I came to check up on you,’ she said quietly. ‘Not to talk about me.’

Instinct made him want to reach for her hand, but she was sat on his right side and that was awkward even if she’d been near his good hand. In the end, all he did was shift his bad arm, prompting a throb of pain, and he winced. ‘I’ll be okay,’ he said. ‘And I don’t want you feeling guilty about this. Raskoph did it.’

There was a long moment where she stared at his prosthetic. Then she straightened and brushed her hair back, and she was Selena again, poised again. ‘How’s Rose?’

He flinched. ‘Do you really want to ask?’

‘Do you really want to tell me?’

Bitterness rose in his throat. ‘How’s your work?’

‘Not happening,’ said Selena, not missing a beat to the change of topic. ‘On account of the paper being shut down.’

‘But you had a good story,’ he said. ‘The corporations? The smuggling?’

‘Oh,’ said Selena, ‘you mean the fact that I was accidentally right on top of the conspiracy that allowed the Council of Thorns to ship Lethe worldwide, and didn’t even know it?’

‘You don’t feel guilty about that -’

She shrugged. ‘Only sometimes. Only the normal amount. In so far as there’s a “normal” amount. I’m irritated I didn’t find more, but I don’t know what I could have done. After all, everything was formally by the books. The companies were all bought out by the same conglomerate. It was all done legally; with Ministry corporate oversight, even. Which it turns out was amongst the information my boss and your father apparently stole from the Ministry of Magic.’

Matt grimaced. ‘I had heard something about that.’

‘I think it’s the Ministry being rather pissy because all of this happened directly under their noses - the corporate buy-outs which led to the smuggling of Lethe. Your father’s thieving. And now it’s the hot-button topic.’

‘Isn’t that closing the gate after the horse has bolted? To care about it now?’

‘It is,’ said Selena, but she gave him a quizzical look. ‘They do have reason to fuss, though. Didn’t you hear?’

‘Hear what?’

‘The conglomerate that bought out all of those companies on behalf of the Council, oversaw the smuggling of Lethe internationally. It was just one man, operating through proxies: Draco Malfoy.’

* *


The hammering at Scorpius’ door was like rolling thunder drilling into his brain, so by the time he’d yanked the hotel door open, all he could do was yell, ‘What?’

Any guilt he felt at yelling at Selena died with the flash in her eyes. Of course she could take it better than others. ‘Being a resurrected hero is no reason to abandon your manners, Scorpius.’

‘I - sorry.’ He stepped back to let her in, running a self-conscious hand through his hair. ‘Though you could have knocked like a normal person.’

‘Didn’t you get the memo? You came back and nothing’s normal. Not me, not Albus, certainly not Rose and Matthias.’

Scorpius chose to ignore that, and the piercing look she gave him. ‘I thought you were doing well for yourself.’

‘Apart from being the daughter of a world leader and recently abducted by the Council of Thorns?’

‘Yeah.’ He shoved his hands in his pockets. ‘Apart from that.’

Selena tossed her hair over her shoulder. ‘Well, if you put it like that, I’m okay, I guess.’ Their eyes met, and her expression softened. ‘I hear that you made Prometheus Thane come help rescue me.’

‘I’m aware of the irony.’ He kicked at the floor. ‘I didn’t know what the others would do. I didn’t know Albus was back, and I didn’t know how deep Matt’s ties to his dad’s work went, but I did know the IMC was up to its eyeballs in too many crises to be able to go after you easily. And I know we were too late to stop the abduction.’

‘Scorpius Malfoy, back from the dead for me.’ She was drawling her indifferent drawl, but her gaze flickered to a spot above his head. ‘But not for anyone else. Let me guess, you’d hoped to rescue me without me ever learning of your existence?’

He winced. ‘More or less.’

‘So then you could go back to fighting the Council with Thane. Letting us all believe you’re dead. Your mother, Albus, Rose. What the hell were you thinking?’

He’d known he was due a yelling match, but he’d expected it from Albus or Rose. On reflection, he should have anticipated Selena was the person who’d be close enough to be angry, but detached enough to be capable of fury. ‘What was I supposed to do; waltz back and slip into my old life? That’s going so well right now, isn’t it!’

‘So instead you decided to, what?’ She glared. ‘Assume some mantle of duty you never gave a damn about before? Make a deal with the devil, the man who got Tim killed -’

‘I know!’

‘Who got Methuselah killed - and don’t say “the Council did it”, he could have given us the solution to that ritual when he gave us the Resurrection Stone! You let him be your ally and let us all stay ignorant?’

Scorpius took a step back, then drew a deep breath. It would be too easy to go to pieces in the face of her anger. ‘I had the opportunity,’ he said slowly, ‘to fight the Council. If I came back, what would I do? Join the Enforcers? Or be where I am right now; stuck in a hotel room, without a next step?’

‘Yes,’ snapped Selena. ‘Much better to murder your way through the Council of Thorns’ command hierarchy. Or, not better, but easier?’

‘Easier -’

‘You were afraid, you bloody idiot! Coming back was too scary for you, so you let them keep suffering, keep grieving -’

‘I’d been dead for two years! I couldn’t fix that. I could try to make the world a better place -’

‘How about you actually made the most of having a second chance? A second chance nobody else has had!’

Her voice quavered and now it hit him. Scorpius’ shoulders slumped. ‘Selena, I…’

‘No - don’t you dare try and wriggle out of this because I’m upset! If Methuselah were alive, even after all this time, there is nothing, nothing I wouldn’t suffer to know that, and it wasn’t fair for you to take the chance away from Rose and Albus!’ She had to thin her lips to push back the emotion he could see shining in her eyes. ‘And it wasn’t fair for you to throw away your chance.’

Scorpius stepped forward, lifting his hands and dropping his voice. ‘Selena, you should know I… I don’t remember.’

She tensed. ‘I don’t -’

‘You were going to ask if I saw him. Methuselah.’ Scorpius winced. ‘I remember falling into the Veil. I remember waking up in a Council-owned facility somewhere in Tibet. That’s it; nothing in between. And even after that, everything’s pretty hazy for the first few weeks.’ He looked at his feet. ‘This is going to sound like a dumb thing to say, but I’m sorry I’m back and not him.’

Selena took a moment to reply, drawing a deep breath. ‘You’re right, that is a dumb thing to say. There’s nothing to even say to that.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Oh, you little - you were dead. Now you’re alive. Forget how that’s impossible; do you have any idea what that means?’ Her gaze hardened, not unkind but determined. ‘Don’t you dare waste that, Scorpius Malfoy. Don’t you dare keep away from people because you think you know what’s better. Don’t you dare think you’re expendable because you died once, or think it would be better if you’d stayed dead. You’re alive. Live. Or I really will hate you for being here when others aren’t.’

Her words hammered into his heart and gut like hailstones in a storm, but the churning vortex of the unspoken was enough to make him nauseous, not inspired. Scorpius schooled his expression into a controlled, if guilty mask. ‘What if I don’t want to hurt people more than I already have?’

‘People get hurt all the time. It’s the time in between that matters.’ Selena’s eyes narrowed. ‘They need you. Rose won’t say it, and Albus is pretending he never broke, but they both broke, and unlike me, they stayed broken. Don’t you dare stay away because you think it’s for the best.’

Secrets rose with bile in his throat, and the mask collapsed. ‘What if it is for the best? What if?’ He faltered - then broke. ‘Selena, I’m not -’

That was, of course, when there was another knock on the door, and Scorpius slammed his eyes shut. Shadows returned to their corners, to squat and hiss from afar. ‘That’ll be Albus,’ he croaked. ‘We were going to do lunch.’

Selena looked between him and the door, then rolled her eyes. ‘Merlin knows I’m not getting in the way of your furtive reunion rituals.’

Albus looked wary as he stepped in, like he could smell whatever fizz the air still held of tensions and truths, but Selena swanned over to him like a tea party had just ended, laying a hand on his arm. ‘And it’s lovely to have you back, too, Al,’ she said, and kissed him on the cheek.

Albus grinned at that, and the twist in Scorpius’ gut managed to contort tighter and somehow ease in other places. It kept his mouth shut until Selena had left, but then it was just him and his best friend stood in the hotel suite, and the fizzing in the air hadn’t stopped.

‘Something’s up,’ said Al.

‘About a gazillion somethings,’ said Scorpius, and the obfuscation felt like a lump in his heart. He grimaced and looked away, running a hand through his hair. ‘Al…’

‘What is it?’

‘It’s time we got answers. I need to look for my father, and… I think the first place to look is the Manor.’

Albus straightened. ‘Do you want me with you?’

Guilt and relief burst and mingled like a kaleidoscope inside his chest. ‘To the end.’

Scorpius handled the Apparition, because even if he’d barely been to Malfoy Manor since getting his license, he still knew the place best. Soon enough Albus stared through the wrought-iron gates, up the long drive through the overgrown garden to the shuttered windows and imposing heights of the house and said, awestruck, ‘I’ve never been here.’

‘What?’ Scorpius looked at him, gobsmacked.

‘No, seriously. Remember how we never hung out in the holidays, except for Diagon Alley trips?’

‘We’ve wasted so much time, haven’t we?’ Scorpius sighed.

Albus elbowed him. ‘Then let’s stop wasting.’

The gates opened at the swish of Scorpius’ wand, and something caught in his throat at the creak of metal, so familiar. ‘I thought he’d have taken me off the wards.’

‘I guess if he was funding the job to get you back…’ Albus grimaced as they crunched up the drive. ‘Maybe he kept hope?’

‘I mean before. When I left home. After Phlegethon.’ Scorpius sighed, studying the upstairs windows, the imposing masonry of Malfoy Manor silhouetted against the bright but grey sky. ‘Dad, you messed up bastard.’

‘You can ask him when you find him.’

‘I’m not looking for him so I can ask him questions and put my mind at ease.’ Scorpius shook his head. ‘I’m looking for him because he’s the final piece of the puzzle with the Council of Thorns. There must be so much he knows about their operations, their plans. The Malfoy family has helped this new age of chaos happen, both him and me, and I have to set this right.’

‘You didn’t choose to be brought back with Lethe,’ Albus said roughly. ‘You can’t feel guilty for -’

‘I can use the knowledge I have, the resources I have, to bring in the one of us who did have a choice, though.’ They reached the double doors, and Scorpius considered knocking before he just tried the handle and bellowed, ‘Rigby!’

There was a crack from the other side of the door, right before the Malfoy family House Elf swung it open, eyes wide and dark. ‘Master Scorpius is -’

‘Alive, yes - nobody told you?’ Scorpius’ expression twisted.

Rigby shook his head. ‘Master Draco left abruptly! Then Aurors came, and they looked all over the house - and Rigby couldn’t stop them, Master Scorpius, they had papers -’

‘It’s okay! It’s okay. Bloody hell.’ Scorpius raised his hands to calm down the frenetic House Elf, and he and Albus stepped inside. ‘You did right. You did what you were supposed to. It’s been just you in the Manor, all this week?’

‘Weeks, sir. Mostly. Master Draco spends much time abroad. Not much time here. Rigby sees to the Manor, sir! And now Master Scorpius is back, Rigby can make the bedroom -’

‘That won’t be necessary.’ Scorpius blew his fringe out of his face, pondering. ‘Okay. Rigby, help Al and I look around today. But when you’re done, I want you to close this place down properly, put things in storage and all that, and then you’re taking a holiday.’

Rigby’s big dark eyes filled with tears, and the House Elf tackled his ankles - then let out a wail of despair. ‘A holiday? What has Rigby done wrong -’

‘Nothing wrong! Rigby!’ Scorpius tried to shake off the House Elf’s agonised grip without kicking him into a wall. ‘A paid holiday, Rigby! And I’m raising your pay in compliance with House Elf union guidelines.’

Union -’ Rigby reeled back like Scorpius had just uttered the most vile of curses. ‘No, no, Rigby hates the unions, they undermine the rightful place of the masters…’

Scorpius looked at Albus as Rigby sobbed into his hands. ‘In case you were wondering,’ he sighed, ‘this is a great example of reasons to hate my father. Do you know where Harley’s up to?’

Albus shrugged, visibly torn between sympathy at Rigby’s distress, and faint, guilty amusement at how melodramatic the little House Elf was. ‘I’ve been away.’

‘Right. Of course.’ Scorpius hunkered down so his face and Rigby’s were level, and drew a deep breath. ‘Rigby. Rigby, look at me.’

At the direct order, of course Rigby looked up, still tearful. ‘Rigby is a good elf -’

‘You are. You always have been. And…’ Scorpius sighed, and reached up for the scarf around his neck. It was one of his old ones from school, returned to him by Rose in the box. He pushed that thought to one side as he looped it around Rigby’s neck. ‘You’ve been a free elf all along, I know. But you really are, now. You will always have a job with the Malfoy family so long as I’m around, and now it’s going to be a job with a fair wage, you hear me? And you get that holiday. But I’d like it if you’d see about speaking to Hermione Granger -’

Rigby gave another, distraught sound at the name, but Scorpius saw how his hands curled around the woollen scarf anyway.

‘…and tell her I asked you to speak to her, and that I’d like her to help you. She’ll help you, you know?’

Rigby was still playing with the scarf when he gave a slow, sombre nod. Scorpius knew there was no magic in giving this House Elf clothes; by law, House Elves in Britain were still free, but freedom required choice, and his father had made sure that the family kept things as close to how they’d once been as possible, paying elves who didn’t know better an absolute pittance. There was a strength in the gesture, or so he hoped.

Scorpius smiled at him. ‘Thanks. Now, if you could help us, we’d appreciate it. Is there anywhere in the house the Aurors didn’t go, didn’t find?’ Rigby shook his head silently, and he fought a grimace. ‘Okay. You said Dad hadn’t been here the last few months. Do you know where he was?’

Another shake of the head, and it was Albus who spoke next, voice gentle. ‘Do you know of any jobs he was doing? People he spoke to, work he was doing, things he was… interested in?’

Rigby’s forehead creased. ‘Only one thing, sirs,’ he croaked. ‘Rigby doesn’t know if it’s useful.’

‘Anything you can think of, Rigby.’

‘Well… Master Draco did dig out family records and portraits from storage. Said it was urgent. Important. Only a month ago.’

Scorpius exchanged a glance with Albus, then nodded Rigby onward. ‘Let’s see them, then.’

‘Oh, no, sirs, the room they’re in is so dusty; if Master Scorpius and guest would make themselves comfortable in the parlour, Rigby will bring down everything…’ And without waiting, Rigby turned on the spot and disappeared with a crack.

Albus exhaled in the sudden silence as they tromped towards the dusty parlour. ‘You know what’s messed up? Aunt Hermione really can help him stand on his own two feet, introduce people to show him the whole new way for House Elves. But he’s only going because you’ve asked him to, which in his mind is as good as an order.’

‘I’m ordering him to be free. I’m aware of the irony.’ Scorpius sighed and glanced over. ‘Did you talk to your dad, by the way?’

‘Only a little.’ Albus shifted his feet. ‘I was busy.’

‘Busy?’

‘I spoke to -’ He caught himself, then frowned at the shuttered window. ‘I went to see Eva Saida.’

Scorpius raised an eyebrow. ‘Damned judicious full-naming there, mate.’

‘What?’

‘You call her Eva, that seems intimate. You call her Saida, that seems forcibly cold.’ But Albus flinched at that, and Scorpius winced. ‘Sorry. Are you okay?’

‘She - I don’t know. They’ve locked her up, they’re going to keep her locked up, and if she gets tried and sentenced then she’ll be dead, or Kissed, or in prison forever. And I have no idea how I feel about that.’

The wince deepened. ‘Yeah, that’s a tough one. She was a spy.’

‘And even if she didn’t sell us out to Ager Sanguinis, she still lied and manipulated us for weeks on end.’ Albus’ expression tightened into a mask of conflicted pain. ‘Not to mention all of the shit she did to people before she signed on with us. With the Council, with Thane, with others…’ He caught Scorpius’ expression, and lifted a hand. ‘Don’t you dare, I know what you’re thinking.’

‘What?’

‘You might have been doing shit these past eight months, but you were doing it to fight the Council. I’m not even judging things Eva - Saida - did since Ager Sanguinis, I’m talking about everything she did before that. That wasn’t fighting bad guys, that wasn’t for a cause.’

‘No,’ Scorpius conceded awkwardly. ‘It was just when she was a teen-aged girl overawed and used by Prometheus Thane, who’d never known anything better.’

Albus flinched. ‘That doesn’t make the people she killed any less dead.’

‘No,’ Scorpius said again, and looked away. ‘I guess it doesn’t.’ There was another silence, but he could feel the guilt rolling off Albus in waves. He drew a deep breath. ‘She used to make you smile.’

Another flinch. ‘Don’t -’

‘I mean, I can make you laugh, and grin, but she made you - I never saw you smile like you did with her. This soft, stupid little smile, even if you did it when she’d just blasted a Thornweaver across the room without breaking a sweat…’

‘That was then -’

‘And this is now, and in the now she’s been trying to fight Thornweavers and you’re still torn up about her -’

‘What are you saying?’ Albus rounded on him, voice raising enough to make Scorpius take a step back, even if he knew it wasn’t about him. ‘That I forget she hurt me, I forget she killed people, and I just, what, break her out of jail and sweep her off her feet?’

Scorpius gritted his teeth. ‘I’m saying just what I’ve had drilled into me today; this is our life, here we are, make it matter, make it count, be happy. Maybe you can’t forgive her and I get that. But not letting yourself forgive her because you think it’s not proper is, is…’ His voice trailed off, and the two of them stared at each other while he clutched at thin air for words and points.

Why is it so much easier to tell other people how they’re living their lives wrong?

Crack! Rigby appeared in the middle of the parlour atop a large wooden crate. ‘Rigby has found the records!’ he declared with a beam, oblivious to the tension.

Scorpius looked away from Albus’ hurt, conflicted gaze, and rubbed his temples. ‘Great. Thank you, Rigby, you can - that’ll be all for now.’

Rigby bowed, and Scorpius didn’t have the heart to tell him not to. ‘Rigby will start to close down the Manor, Master Scorpius,’ he said, and disappeared with another crack.

At least that had changed the subject. Scorpius’ lips thinned as he approached the crate and reached to haul it open. ‘Guess we see what Dad was interested in.’

There was clearly quite a lot in the crate, because the portrait was almost at the top. But it was big enough to obscure the rest of the contents, and blue-grey eyes so much like his own peered up at him through oil and canvas.

‘At last,’ declared a voice which didn’t sound that dissimilar to Scorpius’, but was a good deal more cultured and cultivated in its accent. ‘You have no idea how stuffy it is in here.’

Scorpius blinked at the portrait of a blond man with good cheekbones in fine robes. ‘…if you’re not a Malfoy, I’ll eat my hat, but I have no idea who you are…’

The Malfoy ancestor harrumphed. ‘Of course you don’t. Neither did the last one. Let’s always overlook old Cass, hm? Forget all the work he did, toss him to one side as a rake and a fool and assume there was nothing more to him? I know it’s been, what, eighty years almost to the month, but I wouldn’t have thought I’d be that easily tossed aside…’

‘My father spoke with you?’

‘Older fellow, bad hairline, pointier face than you, attitude sour as brimstone? He was most upset I couldn’t help him. I don’t know what he thought I was going to say. I am just a portrait.’

Albus popped his head over Scorpius’ shoulder, peering down at the painted figure. ‘What did you say your name was, again? Cass?’

The portrait straightened to what passed for its full height, looking rather indignant. ‘Friends can call me “Cass”. You can call me Cassian Helios Malfoy -’

And something very familiar but very painful exploded in Scorpius’ skull.

* *


‘This is stupid.’ Matt glared at the stuffed bear on his flat’s coffee table. ‘I feel like a child.’

Rose, stood over him, shifted her weight. ‘We need something you won’t break -’

‘Because picking things up is too hard.’ He extended his arm, the metal prosthetic shimmering in the afternoon light. He’d only been back home for a couple of hours, and already he wanted to break something. ‘So let’s not give the man anything delicate…’

‘You need to practice this.’

‘I know.’ He gritted his teeth, concentrated hard, and managed to force the hand to make a fist. It was strange, having to think about moving. Every other muscle flexed and moved as nature intended, but making this magical prosthetic react as it should took a strange mixture of focusing, and trying to make instinct kick in. Moving individual fingers, subtle manipulations, were beyond him yet, but for the moment, he could grab stuff. And then -

The bear dropped. ‘Son of a bitch -’

‘It’s okay!’ Rose rushed to pick up the toy. ‘It’s fine, Matt, it’s fine, you can take your -’

He got to his feet quickly enough to rock the table, and she stepped back, lips thinning. ‘I know it’s fine - but it’s not fine, this is stupid and embarrassing and I don’t need you watching me while I fail to pick things up.’

She straightened, jaw tightening. Her eyes were less guarded these days, he thought, and he could see the flash of hurt across her face. Good, he thought without guilt. I didn’t think I could hurt you. I didn’t think you cared enough. ‘I’m trying to help.’

‘You can help by not hovering over me like I’m going to fall apart if I walk across the room. My hand’s gone, not my legs. I can still pick up a toy with my left hand.’ Defiantly, he snatched up the stuffed bear, and then he realised this was an achievement for his wasted body. ‘Fuck’s sake, I’m not an invalid!’

He hurled the bear at the wall, though there was no satisfaction to be drawn from throwing a stuffed toy around. There was no clatter, it just hit the floor and lay there, betrayed and abandoned, and so he had to give Rose a reproachful look. The glint in her eye didn’t help, not with the unspoken answer it held.

You are an invalid.

Fine,’ he spat. ‘But I don’t need your pity.’

‘I don’t pity you -’

‘Yes! Yes, you do, that’s exactly how you’re looking at me.’

Rose drew a slow breath, and he was gratified to hear the edge of frustration. ‘I’m trying to help,’ she repeated.

‘I didn’t ask you to! And I certainly didn’t ask you to by supervising my exercises, like I might fall over if I did them wrong!’

She opened her mouth - then shut it, sighed, and that old mask descended, dragging away all emotion. ‘I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention to be coddling -’

‘No -’ His throat tightened, but anger reigned more than disapproval. ‘Don’t shut down like that, don’t give up - I’m furious, I’m hurt, I’m unreasonable, and you’re just backing down, and - and keep yelling, damn it!’

Rose stepped back with a startled look. ‘What?’

‘When did we last argue? Yell?’

‘You’re saying that like it’s a good thing if we have an argument while you’re hurt, recovering -’

‘I am not made of glass!’ he snapped, throwing his hands in the air. The gesture was genuine, but felt clunky with the metal prosthetic. ‘Nor are you. But we’ve acted like that for years, haven’t we, like if we raised our voices or got upset or frustrated with each other, then the sky might fall in…’

Her eyes widened - then she closed the distance, reached out for his good left hand. ‘Matt, this isn’t about us. You don’t need to pick a fight or stand your ground or - or do something stupid to make a connection. You have my attention. My focus. I want to help you, support you…’

His shoulders slumped, stump throbbing. ‘I know,’ he sighed. ‘This is just… frustrating.’

She tried a smile, and it was awkward and hesitant in a way she hadn’t looked in years, because her gaze had stopped being that honest unless it was honest anguish. He couldn’t feel comforted by that. He was not the one who had summoned her sincerity. ‘And I’m here for you. Every step, you know?’

Matt swallowed. ‘Have you been to see him?’ He didn’t really want to know the answer.

Rose’s gaze dropped, a response and admission of something all at once, even if that something was a mere thought. ‘I gave him his stuff back. It’s his, I guess. Not mine.’

‘Did you talk?’

‘A bit. What’s there to say?’

Thump thump thump thump -

‘Is someone trying to beat the door off its hinges?’ Matt lunged to his feet at the knocking, good hand reaching for his wand, but Rose waved him down.

‘I’ll get it,’ she said, but the hammering didn’t stop until she pulled the door open.

Albus stood with one fist raised to knock, other arm slung around the dazed and barely-standing form of Scorpius Malfoy. ‘We need your help.’


Chapter 17: In Mine Own Realm
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In Mine Own Realm


Albus didn’t wait for a response before he dragged Scorpius in, gaze sweeping around the flat in a calm, authoritative manner. ‘Nice place. Nice sofa,’ he decided, and dumped Scorpius on it.

‘What the hell is going on?’ Matt hadn’t put down his wand as he stalked over. ‘What’s happened?’

‘This should look familiar to you,’ Albus said to Rose like Matt wasn’t there. ‘Because it’s a lot like what happened after you partially undid that rough Obliviation on him three years ago. I think something’s triggered buried or erased memories and it’s having an effect.’

‘The effect being he falls over?’ Matt looked critically at Scorpius, who was conscious but pale, stirring only weakly.

‘M’not fallin’ over,’ he slurred. ‘Al carried me - you don’t need to -’

‘We could fuss around with potions again,’ said Albus, talking over him. ‘Or I thought I’d take him to an accomplished Legilimens who might be able to deal with this in a more sophisticated manner.’

‘A Legilimens - Al, I’m massively out of practice!’ Rose said. ‘Why aren’t you taking him to Saint Mungo’s, or Mum, or…’

‘Because he’s worried what a Legilimens is going to dig out of his memories,’ said Matt, expression flat. ‘Scorpius has been allowed to walk free on trust and politics, and a Legilimens is going to get every opportunity to look into the last eight months, the last two years. And if there’s something in there he should be locked up for, a Legilimens in authority might make that happen.’

Albus’ expression didn’t change, his eyes still on Rose. ‘I came to you because I trust you.’

‘So, what I just said,’ Matt muttered.

Al’s gaze snapped over. ‘I’m not asking anyone to make promises or guarantees -’

‘But you don’t have to,’ Matt retorted, ‘do you? Not with her, not when it comes to him.’

‘I think that’s her choice.’

Matt eyeballed the ceiling. ‘Choice,’ he mused, ‘isn’t the word I’d use.’

Rose’s jaw tightened. ‘Will both of you shut up? He’s here, he’s clearly not alright, so I’m going to take a look at him.’

Scorpius’ eyelids fluttered open as she knelt by the sofa, and he lifted a hand to clumsily grab his wrist. ‘No,’ he croaked. ‘Not you.’

She looked up to Al. ‘I’m not doing this without his permission.’

Albus stepped over and caught Scorpius’ eye, stony-faced. ‘Mate, you need help, you flipped out when you saw that portrait, when you heard that name…’

‘What portrait?’ said Rose. ‘What name? What was the trigger?’

‘We found a portrait of an ancestor of his that Draco Malfoy had been looking into, someone called Cassian Malfoy…’

That seemed to send a fresh wave of pain through Scorpius, and he inhaled sharply through his nostrils, clenched his jaw. ‘Bugger it,’ he groaned after a moment. ‘You just need to - if I’m blocking you out of certain things, you stay out, alright?’

Rose’s lips thinned. ‘If I can tell what’s you blocking me out and what’s something else blocking, I will respect that. But if you want me to help you…’

His hand at her wrist let go, and Scorpius slumped back on the sofa, eyes shutting. ‘Fine,’ he grunted. ‘Let’s get this done.’

* *


The grey wasteland was as dreary and bland as ever before. No wind howled, no dust stirred, and on the horizon was nothing more than the hint of jagged peaks that promised to be impassable.

Rose didn’t care. Nothing was impassable to her here. She looked across the chessboard at Scorpius, sat in a tall-backed leather armchair that matched hers, an eyebrow quirked. It was like a strange dream turned to reality; surreal as her subconscious, and yet nowhere near as haunting.

When he’d been in her dreams, they didn’t include boardgames.

‘I thought we agreed we weren’t going to try chess again.’ Scorpius no longer looked pained, drawn, and he wore a flash of a smile as he leaned forwards. ‘It didn’t go well last time.’

‘It went very well,’ said Rose, remembering a lazy afternoon after the Phlegethon Crisis where very little of the game had been played. ‘For me. There are two ways this goes. You surrender, and I see everything. Or you resist, and I beat you, and I still see everything.’

‘You say that like there’s no other option,’ Scorpius said, and moved a pawn. ‘This was Albus’ idea.’

Her jaw tightened. ‘I’m not going to force myself in. I’m trying to help you. Why are you keeping me out?’

‘Maybe there are things you shouldn’t see.’

‘Things I shouldn’t see?’ She moved a piece. ‘Or things you don’t want me to see?’

‘Aren’t those one and the same?’

She looked up to meet those blue-grey eyes, breath catching in her throat. Except it wasn’t, because she had no breath here, because this wasn’t real. All of this was a construct of their combined imaginations, a framework around which she could pierce his defences and get to the memories underneath.

Which meant she wasn’t really testing her chess skills against his.

‘You’ve been trained in Occlumency,’ she said, looking at the board.

‘Yes.’ He sounded apologetic. ‘I’m not entirely trying to keep you out. There’s instinct at work, too. Occlumency wouldn’t be much good if you could only defend when you were thinking about it.’

And you’re hiding stuff you don’t want me to see.’

Scorpius inclined his head. ‘That too.’

‘How am I supposed to help you if you’re fighting me?’ She scowled. ‘I didn’t ask for this. Trust me, delving into your mind is not my idea of a good time.’

‘You’re right. I’m sorry.’ Scorpius stared at the board, then moved a pawn again - a place where she could easily take it. ‘I’m only partly trying to be difficult.’

‘I suppose if you weren’t trying to be difficult,’ she said as she took the pawn, ‘you wouldn’t be you.’

A dark room. Cold stone walls. Somewhere gloomy. Grey skies. Rain thudding down on the roof. A kitchen?

‘We couldn’t have anticipated this,’ Prometheus Thane says, arms folded across his chest, face etched in rock as harsh as their surroundings.

‘Really?’ says Scorpius, voice dripping with tension. ‘Because we knew they’ve got Lethe, we knew they’d use it. We should have seen this coming.’

‘I didn’t think they’d make abducting Selena Rourke a secret. I thought they’d want the world to know -

‘Well, they didn’t! So now we’ve got to do something.’ Scorpius rounds on Thane, bristling, anger and frustration and guilt and helplessness flowing through his veins. ‘Nobody else is going to.’

Thane looks at him, impassive as ever. ‘We’re in this business to stop the Council of Thorns. Not rescue -’

‘The daughter of the Chairman of the IMC?’

‘Your friend. This is personal. You left personal behind.

Scorpius steps back, chest heaving. ‘Yeah. But the world’s bloody changing, isn’t it.’

‘I don’t know what we can do to -’

‘You’re under the impression,’ Scorpius snarls, ‘that I’m asking for this operation. I’m telling you. We can’t stop Lethe worldwide, but it’s for the good of so many people that Selena Rourke’s free. At the least, we can find out what Raskoph wants from her, and maybe finding her finds us Raskoph. We’re doing this.’

Thane arches an eyebrow. ‘When did you get the impression you could tell me to do anything, Malfoy?

‘I’m not an idiot. You broke me out for a reason. You let me help you for a reason. Maybe you reckon you can manipulate my father, maybe there’s something with the Chalice, but I’m not some tag-along. So I’m calling in whatever this is. We rescue Selena Rourke, or I promise you, Thane, I will not help you with a bloody thing again.

And the grey rushed back in with a gust of air, and no more was she behind Scorpius’ eyes.

He dropped his gaze. ‘I was supposed to stay away. I would have done, if it weren’t for Selena. But we had resources, contacts; it’s one thing to stay away and fight the Council, it’s another thing to not help when I can.’ Only awkwardly did he look up. ‘Like in the Hogsmeade alleyway.’

Rose’s chest tightened. ‘I didn’t thank you for that.’

‘Since when,’ said Scorpius in a low, sad voice, ‘did you have to thank me for that kind of thing?’

‘I don’t know. You did manage to stay away, after all,’ she said, not meeting his gaze.

When he answered, his voice was low, gravelly. ‘Yeah. It wasn’t easy.’

She took another pawn.

Platform Nine-and-Three-Quarters. Warmer, now, a soft breeze bringing the fumes of London amid the fumes of the trains.

He stands at the edge of a crowd, a body he can feel isn’t his own, watching with eyes that aren’t his own. And he can see them, see them for the first time in the flesh, so close, though he’s invisible to them. A face they have no reason to linger on.

But he lingers. He lingers as he sees all that’s there and all that isn’t; no Albus, and no eyes searching for him, nobody wondering if he’ll be there, if he’s running late. That Albus won’t board the Hogwarts Express is as accepted as the fact that Scorpius Malfoy won’t, either.

Scorpius Malfoy is watching, unseen. Watching as his old housemates wave goodbye like it’s business as usual, trials and losses swept to one side by the average student. Watching as Oakes, Bellamy, Hollis descend the train and trundle to their families, the only Slytherin boys their age left.

Then there’s Selena, stood next to Miranda and Abena, all as beautiful as ever, poised as ever, perfect as ever. He can see the distance in her eyes, hear the echo in her voice when she tosses her head back and laughs. It’s not the repression and denial of the weeks after Methuselah’s death. She’s healing around the hole still in her. And she keeps her distance from them.

Them, Matt bounding off the train with a wistful look in his eye, reaching up to help Rose clamber down even if she’s perfectly capable of doing such by herself. But she takes his hand, and Scorpius can tell in that moment it’s not about misplaced chivalry as they don’t break contact, as their fingers entwine, and he tugs her back before she can head off to their families.

He can’t hear them, can’t hear what Matt murmurs to her as he leans in, but the meaning of the kiss afterwards is clear. It’s a more private goodbye before they’re back to families and home life and that separation, and he does it as easy as breathing.

She kisses him back like she needs him to breathe, and Scorpius turns away, away from the friends who don’t need him, away from what’s blossomed in his absence, away from the rifts he’s left behind. He shoulders his way through the crowd, gets to the exit, and once back on the Muggle station he tromps for the street.

There’s a car waiting for him, its enchantments invisible to the average man, and he sits in the passenger seat and slams the door. ‘Fine.’ He’s got a while before the Polyjuice wears off, but it’s relieving, for this minute, to not be Scorpius Malfoy, because Scorpius Malfoy is burning inside. ‘We’ll do it your way.’

The look Prometheus Thane, sat in the driver’s seat, gives him is actually sympathetic. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘You were right. I knew you were right. Now I’ve seen it.’ Scorpius waves a hand. ‘Let the dead man fight for the living.’

Thane keys the ignition. ‘It’ll be easier.’

‘Yeah.’ Scorpius slumps against the car window, watches as King’s Cross drags away from view. Easier, he thinks. For them.

Rose could taste his pain and bitterness, fresh in her mouth as on that day, and she had to pull away from the chessboard. ‘You watched us.’

Scorpius’ expression was pain etched into granite as he stared at the pieces. ‘I was always free to leave Thane. I think he wanted me on-side so he could use me against my father, if it became necessary. But he told me I had nothing to go back to. I didn’t disbelieve him, but I needed to see for myself.’ His gaze flickered up, colder and greyer in this land, so much more his father’s eyes. ‘I did.’

‘Matt and I - I didn’t rush into -’

‘You don’t have to explain not draping yourself in mourning black forever, Rose.’ He moved a pawn. ‘So which of my secrets do you try to pop open next?’

Her lips thinned, and she looked at the board. ‘This would be easier if you just let me in. I’m not here for what happened since you… woke up. I need to look deeper.’

‘If I don’t control this search, you get everything.’ His shoulders sagged, and he moved a bishop to a dangerous place. ‘This might help you understand.’

Heart in her throat, her knight took it.

Blood on his knuckles, blood on the desk, blood trickling from the corner of Holga’s mouth. Pain throbs through his hand, but it has to be worse for Holga, whose head slumps forward. No more does he struggle at the bindings keeping him trapped to his desk chair.

‘You know, we’ve done this dance a lot, I’m getting really tired of the steps.’ Scorpius hunkers down to be at eye level with the other man. ‘Can we have a new beat? Something a bit jazzier?’ He waggles his hands.

Holga spits out a tooth. ‘Fuck you.’

‘That’s not how you turn a fellow down when he asks for a dance.’ He slams his fist on Holga’s wrist, tethered to the armchair, and Holga hollers and swears as already-broken bones grind together. ‘Go on. Let it out. Your privacy wards will make sure we’re not interrupted.’

‘You’re… you’re in trouble.’ Holga’s breathing comes ragged, hoarse once he gathers himself. His eyes slam shut. ‘Thane’s gone too far. I’m a Counsellor of the IMC -’

‘You’re a comedian, then!’ Scorpius smiles with false delight. ‘As well as a bad dancer. But you’re not a Counsellor of the IMC. Real Counsellors of the IMC don’t give information to Thornweaver Erik Geiger. You’re a spy.’

‘And what the fuck are you, then?

‘I’m the guy asking the questions.’ The smile fades, and Scorpius leans in. ‘I’m the guy who can ask what the IMC won’t, how the IMC won’t. They’ve got all these rules, you see. The people I work for? We’re a bit more… how shall I put it? Footloose and fancy-free.’

Holga’s gaze met his, dark, blazing. ‘You’re crazy.’

‘That would make this easier, wouldn’t it.’ Scorpius turns away and reaches for the black duffel bag he’s brought in with him. He doesn’t need many tools for this job, but the wand’s out of the question, so work has become crude. ‘For both of us. But it doesn’t matter. You’re going to tell me exactly what you told Geiger.

He makes a farce of dangling his hand over the bag, letting Holga cook over what he’ll bring out, and his sense of theatrics - the whimsy that has been his mask for so many problems in his life and is now helping him keep his nerve, not throw up, and do the job - says it’s time to be anti-climactic. He can ratchet it up later.

So he only pulls out a small knife.

The nausea in Rose’s gut was definitely not just borrowed, and she fell from the chair this time, on her hands and knees, gulping huge lung-fulls of false, imaginary air. It only did so much to settle the churning in her stomach, heart, mind. ‘What the hell -’

‘Victor Holga, Danish Counsellor to the IMC.’ Scorpius’ voice was bland. ‘He passed on information about a relief mission going to the Azores after the strike in April. The Council was going to hit the team, wipe them out, compound the loss with despair and fear - make it clear people couldn’t even be helped. But we didn’t know that at first. We’d been watching Holga a while, we knew he’d leaked something to Geiger, and we knew the Thornweavers were rallying a team for something, but we didn’t know what. So we had to ask Holga.’

‘You beat him, you cut him…’

‘IMC security can be amazing sometimes.’ When she looked up at Scorpius, his gaze was distant, detached. ‘We could get me in, but we couldn’t extract me with Holga. And the security wards around his office would give us privacy, but they’d go off the moment spells started to fly, especially Legilimency. So I did it by hand.’

‘By “it”, you mean torture.’ Rose clutched the chair to get back to her feet. ‘I don’t need to see the rest, I can feel the rest -’

‘What else was I supposed to do?’ Scorpius shoved himself upright, expression twisting. ‘Even if I had a wand, I’m no Legilimens. Should I have asked him nicely? And if he said, “no”, let the twenty members of that relief team get slaughtered?’

‘The IMC -’

‘Did not suspect him. Even if we tipped them off, we didn’t have enough of a smoking gun to make them act quickly enough. There would have been fuss and procedure and then it would have been too late!’ His shoulders slumped. ‘It’s not their fault. They’re supposed to play by the rules, but the Council exploits that. It’s why they recruited Holga, he was in a good position and above reproach. But someone had to do something.’

‘Someone who didn’t care about rules.’ She couldn’t look right at him, just his shoulder. ‘Someone like Prometheus Thane.’

‘You didn’t care about rules when you went after Selena. You didn’t care about rules when we all went after the Chalice.’

‘I didn’t torture and then murder a man - yes, I read about Victor Holga being found dead in his office!’

Scorpius’ lips thinned. ‘What was I supposed to do after that? Hope he didn’t mention to the Council that their information was compromised, so they made a different attack a different day?’

‘You weren’t supposed to be as bad as them! We’re supposed to be the good guys, we’re supposed to have a moral high ground -’

‘And so people like me, people like Thane, could do what the IMC wouldn’t, shouldn’t. What I did was efficient. I don’t pretend it was right. But someone needed to do these things, and who better than the dead man?’ He sat down, expression again like granite. ‘I told you there were things you shouldn’t see.’

‘And what was that, a taster?’ Rose sank onto her chair across from him, jaw tight. ‘Scaring me off now? It gets worse?’

His gaze dropped. ‘Yeah. It gets worse.’

None of this is getting us closer to Cassian Malfoy, though. So you can cooperate, or -’

‘Like hell.’ Scorpius moved a knight. ‘Let’s play.’

He doesn’t know how long he’s been in this cell. It’s been his life and death and day and night, ever since he woke up.

Woke up. It’s easier to think of it like that, like he’s been sleeping. Not brought back from the dead by Council lunatics.

They’ve ripped Lethe out of him and cured him and he’s still here, this research centre, this prison, to be poked and prodded, because he’s done what nobody’s ever done before - come back from the dead after all hope was lost. Brought back to give them a weapon. Brought back to languish in their ‘care.’

When the door swings open and in steps Thane, Scorpius is on his feet in a heartbeat, fists clenching. He knows it’s useless, but defiance is all he’s got left. ‘You -

Thane lifts his hands, expression flat. ‘Be quiet. I’m not here to hurt you.’

‘I’m not answering questions. I’m not cooperating. I’m not weak as a kitten any more -’

‘If I wanted to make you do something, I could. Don’t deceive yourself, boy, you are the prisoner of the Council of Thorns, and nobody, nobody is coming for you.’ Thane’s jaw is tight. ‘So you can clench your fists at me all you like and pretend you’re making a difference, pretend going down fighting makes you any less dead, or you can sit down, shut up, and listen.

‘Why the hell should I listen to anything you’ve got to say?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe because I’ve resurrected you?

‘So you can get the fucking virus out of me -’

‘There is so, so much more at play than Lethe. Not that Raskoph can see that. But Raskoph is mad and Raskoph is a fool and Raskoph really does want you dead now he’s got Lethe, so you can listen to me, or I can go and you can deal with him.

Being dead’s been like the deepest sleep with the most intense dreams, except he can’t remember more than a whisper of them. Or perhaps this is the dream, this half-life he’s had dangled before him, which he knows they can take away at any moment and it’ll be all for nothing.

He lowers his fists. ‘Talk.’

‘I am not so cruel as to give a man a second chance at life and then put him down like a dog just because I don’t need him any more.’ Thane speaks in a low, grating, urgent voice as he steps over. ‘And speaking of dogs, I am not Raskoph’s dog.’

‘You did this for him, this impossible, insane, brilliant magic.’ Scorpius jerks a thumb at his chest. ‘My breathing again is your trick for your master. Does he give you treats?’

‘This wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the Chalice of Emrys. Your death was a perfect storm; this feat cannot be repeated. It didn’t happen just because I’m brilliant, it happened because it could. If I hadn’t done it, someone else would have, someone for Raskoph, and that someone would obey the kill order on you he just gave.’

Scorpius narrows his eyes, his heart thudding in his chest like it wants to make the most of this second chance. ‘Are you here to convince me you’re not so bad a guy before you put me down? That it makes you feel really bad? Because, I gotta tell you, it makes me feel bad, too.

‘I’ve done my job. I’ve brought you back. I’ve given them Lethe, and the Chalice of Emrys. They don’t need you any more.’ Thane meets his gaze. ‘And I don’t them any more. So.’ He stalks to the cell door and yanks it open. ‘You can leave with me and live, or stay with the Council and die.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘I’m leaving the Council. Raskoph is insane, you know this, and the world has got worse since you’ve been out of it. I got into this job for a lot of reasons, but those have all dried up. I stuck it out to finish Project Osiris, to get you back. My service to them is done. Now comes the war.’

‘You’re turning on the Council?

‘That doesn’t wholly surprise you. I gave you the Resurrection Stone back in Hogwarts.’

‘My father ordered you to do that -

‘I got into the Council for people like him. Moderates who would pay me. Those moderates don’t call the shots any more. The Council is of monsters. I’m not a good man, but I am a man, and men fight monsters. Come with me. Fight.’

Scorpius’s hands drop by his sides. ‘This is insane.’

‘It is. And we can talk about the rest later. But, for now, all you have to do is trust that I’m going to get you out of this place alive. Or you can take your chances with the men in this place who are loyal to Raskoph.

‘Me. Trust you.’ He has to laugh. ‘Since when was that going to happen?’

‘Since you don’t have a choice.’ Thane jerks a thumb at the door. ‘Right now, the guards are my men. We’ll leave this place together and figure out what comes next, next. Lethe’s come back, and it’s going to hurt people. If you don’t leave with me, you’ll just come back and die and nobody will know, and a lot of people will suffer. In five minutes, the shift changes, and you’re a dead man. Again.’

Scorpius’ jaw tightens. ‘I don’t have a choice, do I.’

‘You will. When we’re gone from here, I promise you’ll have a choice. I intend to fight the Council. You can join me, you can go home, you can disappear. But that’s about living, and that comes later. For now, let’s focus on surviving.’ Thane extends a hand. ‘Come with me.’

It was less nauseating to return to the grey landscape this time, but Rose still closed her eyes as she took a deep, cleansing breath. ‘He really did break you out of Council hands.’

Scorpius nodded, slumped in his chair. ‘We were in Tibet. There was a location like Ager Sanguinis there - a place where the walls were weaker, but there wasn’t a Veil. The mountainside was covered in Dementors when we broke out. But we left the Council, and never came back.’

‘And you trusted him?’

‘I trusted him more than I trusted Raskoph. Raskoph clearly would kill me; he’d got what he wanted out of my resurrection with Lethe back. So I didn’t have much of a choice.’

‘What about when you did?’

Scorpius looked across the chessboard at her. ‘We covered this. I believed he wanted to fight the Council. I couldn’t go back. This seemed like the best compromise.’

Rose’s hands threatened to shake, not from anxiety but anger. ‘And then what? When the war’s over, you were just going to waltz back -’

‘I figured that there was a damned good chance I’d get killed, actually,’ said Scorpius without inflection. ‘But Lethe is back in the world and killing people because I’m still breathing. Yes, I decided that the most important thing I could do was fight the Council.’ He leaned forwards, hands on the edge of the chessboard. ‘Were we going to play?’

She moved her bishop, he backed off his rook. ‘I’m only feeling the slimmest thread to Cassian Malfoy.’

‘I can’t help you with that. I don’t remember the guy.’

‘The thread goes back. Further and further.’

‘You’ve gone almost as far back as you can. I wasn’t in the Council facility for that long before Thane broke me out. I sure as hell didn’t study a Malfoy family tree inside a cell.’

‘Then maybe,’ said Rose, moving a knight, ‘this is from before.’

Scorpius’ jaw tightened. ‘I don’t - I don’t remember anything from when I was dead. I didn’t want to say this to Selena, but I’m not sure there is anything.’

Rose gave a small sigh, and remembered her Uncle Fred. ‘There’s something.’ Then she frowned at the board. ‘What are you doing with that rook?’

‘I told you,’ said Scorpius. ‘You don’t get to see everything.’

‘If I’m going to figure out things about Cassian Malfoy -’

‘This has nothing to do with him.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because I know what it is. Or do you want to see the bad shit I’ve done again?’ Scorpius ground his teeth together. ‘Do you want it rubbed in your face that I’ve changed?’

Rose planted her knight in prime position to threaten his rook. ‘So have I.’

Scorpius stared at the board, stared at the rook in danger, and sighed. ‘I suppose we’ll see,’ he said, and his bishop took her knight. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘You wanted - hey, what’s this?’

Of course the view of the stars atop the Astronomy Tower is perfect. Of course Orion’s shining bright tonight. Of course it’s worked out like this. But she turns away from the tapestry of loss and memories, looks to the stairway where Matt’s just appeared, bewildered.

‘I… I wanted to talk to you.’ Rose pads over, wringing her hands together. ‘I owe you some apologies. And explanations.’

Matt’s expression creases, shoulders tensing as she approaches. ‘I think I can figure out the explanations. And you never need to apologise to me. I should apologise to you, I didn’t mean for things to go so far.’

‘You didn’t do anything.’

‘I almost…’ Matt sighs and stomps past her, goes to the railing and grips it tight. ‘I’m your friend, forever, and I’m always here to help you. Whatever you need.’

‘I know.’ She forces her feet to move, and every step thuds with a whispered word, traitor. ‘You’ve always been here when I needed you. You’ve always done what I needed.’ She reaches to put a hand to his arm when she joins him, feels him tense under her touch. ‘Like wait for me.’

His grey eyes lock on her, but they’re a darker grey than Scorpius’, a rock to his gemstones. ‘This isn’t about that,’ Matt whispers. ‘It can’t be.’

He tugs his arm back, cautious but not cruel, and her fingertips ache at the absence, an ache that’s been in her for so long she doesn’t know how it’s not drowned her yet. And in all this time, he’s the only thing that feels like fresh air; not salvation, not yet, but flotsam in a storm.

The storm’s not over, but he’s been the only thing which makes her think she can survive it. ‘There’s only one thing you’ve done wrong, Matt.’

‘Yes,’ says Matt, and he can’t look at her any more, just glare at the night-sky beyond the Astronomy Tower. ‘And it’s called almost kissing you last night.’

‘You’re right.’ He tries to step back, but she grabs him by his jacket, locks him in place, and she closes the distance. ‘I didn’t want you to almost kiss me.

And he’s frozen when her lips touch his, a statue that only melts when her hands run across his shoulders, pull him closer, coax and lure him. Only when he’s no longer ice does a shudder run through him, a shiver of ache and pain and shock and want, and then he’s kissing her back, kissing her like he’s stood atop a crumbling wall; he wants to be careful, gentle, but he also wants to kiss her like she’s never been kissed, kiss her like he’s dreamt of doing a thousand times, kiss her like he can make one kiss as perfect as a kiss can be.

It’s not perfect, because the wind still howls in her, the pain still stabs in her chest. But she’s not drowning any more.

The storm rages on, but he can be her anchor. The storm rages on, but the skies are clear, and Orion shines down.

‘You -’ Rose rocked back in her chair as the grey barren wasteland came rushing back, and she clutched her chest. ‘You had no right -’

‘You’re in my head, turnabout is fair play,’ grunted Scorpius, ashen-faced.

‘I’ve been asked to do this! To help you! But I can’t help you if you fight me, and I didn’t sign up so you could -’

‘So I could see you move on? Trust me, that was not top of my wish list.’

Rose drew a slow, shaking breath. ‘Can we just get this done?’

‘Sure,’ said Scorpius. ‘Move a piece.’

Trying to take that rook was all she could do, the only tactical move that made any sense. But he still snapped the rook away, protected it like it was a queen, and she pursued, encircled, drove him back and back, until -

‘Fine,’ said Scorpius. ‘There’s only one way this goes, isn’t there?’ And he moved his king so that her most sensible move wasn’t to pursue the rook, but to slide her knight into checkmate.

Rose stared at the rook. ‘This makes no kinds of sense.’

‘It does,’ Scorpius said. ‘You just don’t get to see every little bit of me any more.’ And he toppled his king.

Rushing darkness, a swirling void of shadows and voices and feelings and thought, pain and laughter and joy and loss, and for so long he’s been unaware of it, just lived in it, been part of the vortex like a single drop is a part of the ocean. Only now he’s taking form again, being dredged out from the abyss -

- no, it’s not an abyss, it’s everything, it’s every feeling and every bliss, shared and combined and -

- he has a body again, and he’s tumbling upwards, out of the ocean, back towards the light -

‘Wait.’

Voices call out to him, some he knows, some he doesn’t, and he flails as he’s dragged out of the sea, grabs at hands that are half-formed of feeling.

‘Tell her -’

‘Tell them -’

‘I’m sorry -’

‘Just one more -’

But they belong here, the voices and the feeling, and so they’re a million different thoughts and regrets that envy him his ascent. He knows there’s joy here, satisfied reflection and acceptance, but it’s sunken at the bottom of the ocean, settled, content.

His tumble back to light is stirring only the regrets and loss.

‘I can’t!’ he bellows into the void. ‘I can’t tell them, I’m sorry!’

Then his hand hits something solid, and he knows the irony of this. The only solid things in here are incomplete, because they can’t surrender to the ocean while they wait for a part of themselves.

‘You’re going back,’ says a voice that sounds familiar, though he’s never met them in his life or death. He knows those eyes, he knows that face; when he was alive, he saw them in the mirror every day. ‘You have to -’

‘I can’t do the whims of some bloody Malfoy ghost!’ Scorpius yells into the abyss.

‘You’re going back to fight,’ urges the shadow. ‘The Council, Raskoph - part of me’s back there, trapped there. You have to stop him, you must stop him -

‘What the hell -’

Find me!’ hollers the shadow. ‘It was his doing, finish my work!

‘Your work -’

‘Raskoph, the war. Free me, let me finish my work, find me!

Cassian, murmurs the mouthless voices of the abyss. Cassian Malfoy, scion of his house, a soul trapped here because too much of him lingers in the light.

The light, the light dragging Scorpius up, up, out of the ocean, out of the vortex, and now he’s not falling up, he’s climbing, clawing while the vortex howls beneath him, because nobody escapes. Even when it’s quiet, even when he’s not a regretful soul, even when he’s adrift in the ocean with his joys and his victories and his peace, nobody escapes.

Except Scorpius Malfoy.

Come back,’ calls a voice from above, and it’s a voice of warmth and trust and conviction, a voice of safety, and Scorpius scrabbles upwards because no son can ignore his mother’s call.

Stay,’ urge the masses below, the envious wanting to be in his place, the peaceful urging him to let go his burdens, the hateful wishing him pain.

We need you,’ call the voices above, Albus and Rose and Lockett and others, even his father.

‘You’ve earned your rest,’ chimes the chorus below, Methuselah and Tim and the rest.

His foothold in his climb slips, and Scorpius grits his teeth. ‘Up,’ he whispers to himself, seeing the light glimmering ahead, hearing the voices. ‘Up, you’re going, move…’

For those calling. For their need, for their belief, to see them again, to laugh with them again, to love them again.

For Rose. Rose, Rose, and her name becomes a mantra with every dragging foothold as he clambers up from darkness to the light.

Bright light, blinding light, all-consuming, and then he’s not in the vortex any more, he’s cold and he’s still and he’s somewhere white and sterile and quiet, without a thousand clamouring voices or a thousand soothing feelings. Air rushes into his lungs and it feels like dust is kicked up with the breath, and Scorpius plants his hands on solid ground, feels muscles quiver across his body, muscles he’s not used to needing.

Hands grab his shoulders, firm and warm, and he collapses into them because he’s not used to needing his body. He’s slumped on his back, dead weight in a firm embrace, and the voice that calls to him is still that mingling of his mother, his loved ones, even though he knows it’s not real.

‘Welcome back, Scorpius.’

A rumble ran through the grey wasteland, and Rose jerked up, breath catching. Scorpius’ hands gripped the armrests, knuckles white, and even as the ground quaked, for long moments they could only stare at each other.

‘Cassian Malfoy,’ said Scorpius. ‘He’s still a ghost in this world? And he knew Raskoph? Maybe -’ Then the ground quaked again, and the chess table tumbled over. He lunged to his feet. ‘You need to go.’

Rose nodded, pushing the chair away, standing. ‘We’ve got what we need.’ But her feet didn’t move, nor did her will stir to drag her from this place, not yet. ‘Scorpius -’

Go!’ yelled Scorpius, and the grey landscape exploded into blinding dust and shards of rocks as he finally ejected her from his mind.

It was not a smooth exit. It was all tumbling thoughts as the magics connecting their minds broke down, and Rose had to scrabble her way through to keep track of what was hers and what was his, to extricate herself with the least damage to either one of them now everything collapsed.

Which wasn’t easy when so much of what she had to drag herself through to get out was her.

‘I’ll come back every time -’

‘You’re in my head, under my skin - in every thought, in every breath, and I protected myself because if you left you wouldn’t be tearing away from me, you’d be tearing out of me.

‘I love you. That’s what I should have promised I’d say, so I’m saying it now, before the next disaster happens, before the next interruption -’

‘I’m not just being cute. To hell with arguments. To hell with it all. To hell with golem-dragons and Prometheus Thane and Eridanos itself if it comes to it; nothing will keep me from you.

‘I’ll be okay. I’ll come back. Every time.’

She could breathe, maybe, feel her own body and her own lungs and feel reality instead of the echoes of them rumbling through Scorpius’ mind. ‘You can’t promise that,’ she remembered saying, almost the last thing she’d said to him.

‘Don’t care. It’s a promise.’

And then she was in the flat she shared with Matthias Doyle, knelt with only inches between her and Scorpius Malfoy. His eyelids fluttered open, eyes bluer in the light, and his expression was barely more focused than it had been when Albus had dragged him in.

‘I promised,’ he croaked, throat parched. ‘I’m sorry…’

She flew back like she’d been stung, lunged to her feet and tucked her wand away, and stumbled for composure when she looked at Albus and Matt. ‘I - we have answers.’

Chapter 18: O Earth That Soundest Hollow Under Me
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O Earth That Soundest Hollow Under Me


‘I’m not sure why I’m here,’ said Selena, looking around the flat with a guarded expression.

‘If I said,’ started Scorpius, looking a lot better now he’d had a sit down and a glass of water, ‘that I needed your help, and that it was important, what would you say?’

‘I’d ask for an explanation,’ blurted out Matt, and despite the flash of aggravation, Rose had to accept it was a sensible answer.

‘Maybe we should all sit,’ she said, spotting Albus’ frustrated expression. ‘I get the feeling there’s a lot of catch-up we need to play. All of us.’

‘I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this.’ Scorpius rubbed his temples. ‘I guess I’d been hoping the IMC would deal with the Chalice, the Council, Lethe. Raskoph. Everything.’

‘Why were you trusting them now,’ said Matt, stiff-backed in an armchair, ‘when you didn’t trust them while you worked with Thane?’

Scorpius’ lips thinned, and he didn’t look at anyone in particular. ‘I’m not sure I trust them any more than you have. It’s possibly just been wishful thinking. But I need to stop fooling myself.’

Rose watched the wall while she made sure her expression was schooled. Her gut and mind still swirled with being inside his memories, his thoughts, and separating her very real present from fuzzy pasts and someone else’s feelings was no small task.

‘The Chalice,’ continued Scorpius after a moment’s thought, ‘is more-or-less in-hand. The IMC knows everything I know about it, presumably everything Thane knows about it, Rose’s mum’s Task Force and Nat Lockett are on the case.’

‘You and Thane were determined to get the Chalice,’ said Matt. ‘I assume you had something specific in mind once you had it? Not just denying the Council one of its toys?’

‘That was part of it, but yes.’ Scorpius scowled at his hands. ‘From our research, we believe that if the Chalice is destroyed, it will stop fuelling Lethe, and eradicate the virus everywhere in the world. It’s the plague’s power source.’

Matt’s brow immediately furrowed. ‘You can’t just destroy something like that; it’s bound together by magics more ancient than we know. How on Earth were you planning on doing it?’

‘I don’t know,’ Scorpius admitted. ‘Neither did Thane. I don’t know if the IMC knows. That was part two; most of our time was spent trying to get the bloody thing in the first place.’

Rose watched as Matt got to his feet, setting about pacing as he always did when he had something intellectual to chew on. ‘The most rational way of handling that,’ he mused, ‘would be identifying the actual magics which it’s built by and undoing them, if that’s theoretically -’

‘I’m sorry to interrupt,’ said Scorpius, not sounding sorry at all, ‘but that’s the one problem which is out of our hands.’

‘I’m not especially perturbed by whatever histories in your family are rearing their ugly heads, Malfoy…’

‘These monstrosities might give us more on the Council, Doyle. So unless you’ve stopped caring about the war now you’ve gone and played hero for Selena -’

‘Hey!’ That was Albus, and Rose felt a wave of gratitude that he was intervening in an even-handed manner, getting to his feet and glaring at both men. ‘Let’s stay on topic. We all care about beating the Council. We can leave the personal stuff at the door.’

Matt was glowering at Scorpius, but he sat down again, jaw tight. ‘Who’s Cassian Malfoy?’

A flinch. ‘Honestly, I’m not sure. I mean, the records were in the storage container, and he was my great-great-uncle. There’s not much on him. Slytherin House, apparently unremarkable student, was nothing but a social dilettante through the Grindelwald Wars, not in the country much. Died in a hunting accident in 1946.’

‘Except,’ said Rose, ‘that might not be the truth.’

‘Yes.’ His lips thinned. ‘I think I - it’s possible I spoke with a part of him, an echo of him, when I was… dead.’ Rose watched as his gaze locked on the wall, not looking at anyone. ‘He made it sound like he knew Raskoph, that he’d fought Raskoph. He said I had to find him, whatever that means.’

‘I think he’s a ghost,’ Rose said. ‘I think that wherever he died, a bit of him’s still haunting.’

‘And if my father was looking into him, if there’s any truth to what this shadow of Cassian told me… it’s possible he’s very important. It’s possible he knows something.’ Scorpius shrugged stiffly. ‘I don’t know.’

‘There’s one thing which bothers me.’ Albus paused. ‘There’s one more thing which bothers me. In his interrogation, Thane implied that Raskoph wasn’t just a supervisor in the Chalice hunt, but that he’d been selected specifically for the quest, and that he had provided information which led to the Stygian Plagues. I don’t think that chasing the history of Raskoph is a wild goose chase. If the Thule Society had something to do with the magics from which it was made, then I think the past of Joachim Raskoph, his work a hundred years ago, is very bloody pertinent to stopping Lethe.’

‘Agreed,’ said Matt. ‘Which is why we’re here and talking as just us, I imagine. You can accuse me of bias, but I don’t trust the IMC.’

Everyone looked at Selena, who raised an eyebrow. ‘What, just because my mother’s running the thing means I should defend it? I don’t see Rose and Albus getting on their high horses.’

Albus rolled a shoulder. ‘My father’s getting pretty gung ho authoritarian. I don’t trust the IMC either.’

‘I trust my mother,’ said Rose. ‘But Scorpius is right, it’s a big organisation, and big organisations have holes. We might have been impetuous to try to rescue Selena ourselves, but we had our reasons.’

‘And forgive me, but they’ve arrested my father because he didn’t march to the beat of their drum. That might be the IMC being over-eager, or we know the Council has its fingers in some parts of them,’ Matt said.

‘So I suspect you’re going to like what I have to say next.’ Scorpius looked at him. ‘I want to find my father.’

Matt just frowned. ‘Why would I like that -’

‘The Auror Office isn’t handling the investigation of your father any more; that’s being done by the Ministry itself. Which is a bit odd, but then, one of the things your father was arrested for was looking into Ministry secrets it turns out were to do with Draco. Draco was the biggest Council fish in the British Ministry. You’re a bright guy. I assume you worry if your father was getting too close to some uncomfortable truths for someone’s liking.’

Matt watched him a moment. ‘So finding your father might get mine out of prison, is what you’re saying. Why do you want to find him?’

Scorpius wrung his hands together. ‘Because he’s a traitor. Because he’s an asset to the Council. Because it could help end this war a lot sooner.’ He glared at the coffee table. ‘Because I need to start putting right the things my family has done.’

Selena turned her gaze skyward. ‘As ever, we have well-reasoned and rational motivations to stick our necks on the chopping board.’

‘We could leave this to the IMC,’ Scorpius continued. ‘But what if some people in the IMC don’t want him to be found?’

Albus let out a slow, grating breath. ‘Oh, bollocks.’

‘So that’s two projects,’ said Selena. ‘Hunting down an international fugitive, and looking into secrets a hundred years old which someone is going to be sitting on if they’re any use at all. Just like old times.’

‘And I,’ said Matt, voice tight, ‘will be lucky if I can do a full day’s research.’ He tapped his metal hand on his armrest.

‘I need to look into Cassian Malfoy,’ said Scorpius with simple conviction, then he looked to his left. ‘So I have to ask something of you, Al, mate.’

Albus’ brow furrowed. ‘You want me to find your father.’

‘We all have our part to play,’ said Scorpius.

Matt’s expression crumpled, and Rose had to fight the instinct to go to him. If there was one evil in the world none of them knew how to handle, it was helplessness. ‘I’ll do,’ Matt said, ‘whatever I can to help you. But that’s not a great deal.’

Then a fresh thought hit her, and sympathy for Matt dropped off the top of her priority list. She looked sharply at Scorpius. ‘I don’t disagree with this plan, but if you’re looking into Cassian Malfoy, who probably didn’t die in Britain, who may have had dealings with the Thule Society if he lived a hundred years ago and knew Raskoph, you certainly can’t do that alone.’

‘I don’t even know what’s coming next. It’s a bit early to make plans.’

‘If this has something to do with the Magical Alliance, then we’re talking conflicts which crossed Europe. We know old Thule Society sites can be dangerous; you got stabbed in Badenheim -’

‘Technically, I got slashed in Badenheim. And choked.’

‘Oh, Merlin.’ Selena’s eyes turned skyward. ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’

That prompted silence, and Rose bit her lip as colour soared to her cheeks. Scorpius didn’t look at her, Albus intently studied the table, and Matt’s expression had gone rather flat. She drew a deep breath. ‘If Albus is going after Draco,’ she said slowly, carefully, ‘then Scorpius needs backup if he’s going into danger. And we can have him turning to Thane’s goons, or I can go with him.’ She looked at Matt. ‘It’ll help your father, too.’

The look her gave her was the most unconvinced in the world, but he sighed. ‘It’s logical,’ he said.

‘So, I guess Albus is going after Draco Malfoy, who might be sat in the middle of a secure Council bunker, on his own?’ said Selena. ‘I mean, I could go with him. Or he could throw limp spaghetti against Thornweavers. That’s as valid a tactic.’

Matt looked at her with a frown. ‘You’re not bad in a fight -’

‘Being “not bad” in a fight against professional soldiers sounds like a super way to get killed, and to get Al killed when he tries to save me,’ Selena pointed out. ‘Frankly, if I’m going to be helpful in our third crusade, I’ll be best off returning to a place of comfort: playing second fiddle to the brainy researcher.’ She nodded at Matt.

Albus drew a deep breath. ‘I’m prepared to do this,’ he said. ‘And I can handle myself.’

‘I have,’ said Matt, ‘a better idea. Because there’s one more person we’ve trusted before, who’s a hot hand with a wand, has a lot of knowledge of Council matters, and a lot of international contacts. Of course, Al would have to ask his father to let her out of jail.’

Rose stared at Matt. ‘Are you crazy?’

‘Why,’ said Matt, voice dropping. ‘Because it’s awkward? It is. I’m not telling Albus to do anything. I’m just pointing out that there aren’t many people who match our parameters, and Eva Saida is one of them.’

‘So you thought you’d recommend Albus’ ex, who lied to and manipulated him and is now God knows what?’

Albus cringed. ‘Can we not - this is my business.’

‘Oh, don’t stop on my account,’ drawled Selena. ‘I haven’t had entertainment this good since my subscription to Witch Weekly lapsed.’

Scorpius looked around the room, brow furrowing. ‘Merlin,’ he sighed. ‘This used to go more smoothly.’

‘You died, dear,’ Selena told him. ‘And the world apparently lost its fucking mind.’

Rose’s lips thinned. ‘This is from the woman who conned us into waltzing unprepared to an isolated corner of Germany where we might have been murdered by Prometheus Thane.’

Matt lifted his hands. ‘Hey, let’s not -’

‘Oh, sure,’ Albus snapped at him. ‘You casually suggest I involve Saida in this, and then get sanctimonious when that idea doesn’t go down so well?’

‘Do you have any better ideas?’ Matt snapped. ‘I’d love to make the most of your experiences from when you were away, but we don’t know anything about them!’

Albus bristled, but Selena let out a slow breath. ‘Oh, there it is,’ she drawled.

Rose glared at her. ‘Would you stop acting like you’re so above it all?’

Her eyes flashed. ‘I’m not the one kidding myself. “Oh, I’ll help Scorpius!” Be more transparent, Rose.’

Fucking hell!’ Scorpius slammed his hands on the table, then froze. ‘Ow, that really hurt. But would you all shut up and listen to yourselves? Did you go nuts when I was gone? Did you forget why you liked each other?’ They fell into silence, gazes dropping as his grey eyes dragged across them. ‘We ended Phlegethon together. We robbed the Rabbit’s Foot, we found Ager Sanguinis, we defeated a golem-dragon, we saved Nat Lockett and Harley on Brillig, and we found the Chalice of Emrys. And we have sniped, but Merlin’s beard, we did not target each other like this.’

Selena arched an eyebrow. ‘And now you come waltzing back to -’

‘Now I’m standing here, looking at my friends, and seeing them in nine kinds of pain, Selena.’ Scorpius’ eyes locked onto hers. ‘I’ve been imprisoned by Joachim Raskoph before, and I know it is not a pleasant experience. And unless something changed while I was away, I don’t remember you being dangled in physical danger like that before. Not alone. So I reckon you’ve got some stuff to work out, too.’

Selena’s mouth snapped shut, but Scorpius’ eyes kept sweeping, landing on Matt. ‘Like hell am I going to tell you how to live your life,’ he said, voice rough. ‘But I’ve met men with a Cause before, and you’re looking a lot like them. You know what they’re really good at doing? Getting other people killed.’

Matt’s expression folded into a frown, but he took a moment before he replied. ‘I lost a hand for this cause. I’m not asking anyone to take risks I wouldn’t take myself.’

‘Sure,’ said Scorpius. ‘But we can look out for each other.’ He looked away from Matt, and his gaze only brushed Rose before he turned to Albus. ‘Mate…’

Albus pushed away from the table, jaw tight. ‘Don’t you - a lot’s happened, Scorp.’

Scorpius looked like he’d been bludgeoned about the face as his best friend launched to his feet. ‘I’m trying to - my exact point is you can’t handle shit alone…’

‘I’ve been doing it a while!’ Albus snapped, bolting for the door. ‘And I don’t need you telling me I was wrong.’

Rose sagged as Albus slammed the door behind him. ‘…do we need to talk about anything else, or is it time we went our separate ways and reflected on how fucked up we are?’

‘I vote the latter,’ said Selena, for once without any wryness. She, too, got to her feet and started for the door - until she paused, turned, stalked back, and threw her arms around Rose.

Rose rocked at the impact, blinking, but she squeezed Selena’s hand, the unspoken apologies exchanged before Selena pulled back. She passed Scorpius on her way to the door, and brushed her fingertips against his arm. He’d been looking pale, withdrawn, but his lips twitched at the silent touch, and they exchanged a glance before Selena left.

Scorpius clapped his hands together. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’m not staying here.’

She cleared her throat. ‘Check the records of the Magical Alliance in the Ministry,’ Rose managed to say. ‘As a relative, and a hundred years on, there might be more about Cassian Malfoy available to you than the family would have seen at the time.’

‘Yeah.’ He didn’t meet her gaze. ‘I’ll let you know what I find. Who knows, it might be all we need.’ He nodded awkwardly, then left without another word.

Leaving her and Matt alone in their home, which had never before felt so unwelcoming. She turned to him, throat tight. ‘Are you -’

‘I need to talk to some people,’ was all he said, expression shutting down. The blandness of his voice was a chaos in itself. Until these past few days, his heart had been on his sleeve so much; if she’d been ignorant to what was going on in his mind, it had been a wilful ignorance on her part. Now she couldn’t read him, and the uncertainty was like the world falling away from under her feet.

It didn’t really scare her.

* *


‘This family has an awkward obsession with history,’ said Scorpius, stopping in the doorway to the Ministry’s records office when he saw Victoire Weasley sat at the front desk.

‘You’re thinking of every pureblood family, Mister Malfoy.’ She raised an eyebrow at him and got to her feet. ‘Though I didn’t expect to see you here.’

Oh yeah. We’re not friends. He was used to treating most of the Weasley family with a level of charm that left them confused. Victoire, however, looked guarded. Perhaps it was him being a Malfoy. Perhaps it was him coming back from the dead. Perhaps it was…

‘How’s Teddy?’

Her eyes narrowed a fraction, and he nodded to himself. It’s definitely about Teddy. ‘He’s fine,’ she said. ‘I assume you heard about the wedding.’

‘I did! Congratulations. I should send him an owl. And flowers. Though the flowers would traditionally be for you, and I’ve just said I’m going to send flowers, so that’s somewhat lost the charm - when’s the wedding?’ He diverted himself before he rambled too badly.

‘We’ve pushed it back,’ she said, voice still clipped. ‘With the war and everything. Mid-December, now.’

‘Ah. Good. Winter weddings. Very nice.’

Victoire gave a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. ‘Can I help you, Mister Malfoy?’

‘Yes! Yes, I didn’t just come down here to be weird at you, though I concede it is my speciality. Word of advice: don’t die, it makes everything really awkward, including paperwork, and -’

‘What can I help you with?’

He let out a deep breath and approached the desk. ‘Correct me if I’m wrong: if Ministry files were declared classified eighty years ago, the law’s lapsed on upholding that, right?’

‘Unless for some reason the law was renewed. And you need to provide a valid reason for requesting the files. Really, I could explain better if you’d tell me what the files are - and I can’t fetch you the files unless you tell me.’

‘Right, right.’ Scorpius scratched his nose. ‘I’m looking for files the Magical Alliance might have on British citizens involved in the Grindelwald War. I’m only assuming they’re classified because I’ve heard nothing about -’

Victoire pushed her chair rolling down the room towards a row of filing cabinets. ‘Name?’

‘Malfoy,’ he said. ‘Cassian Malfoy. So I can invoke family history as a reason.’

She opened a draw and pulled out a reference list. ‘I didn’t think it was the Malfoy family style to fight for the Alliance. Maybe against it…’

So Teddy picked the most charming Weasley he could find. He planted his hands on the desk. ‘Maybe that’s why I had no idea who this guy was before the other day, let alone that he fought in the war.’

‘I’m sure he was very heroic in doing filing for the -’ Then Victoire reeled back as the paper in her hands turned bright red. It folded itself up, twisting into the shape of a horn, and gave a deafening blast that had Scorpius - even five metres away - clamp his hands over his ears.

‘Bloody hell!’ he yelled over the sound, while Victoire shoved the paper back in the cabinet and slammed the door shut. Silence fell. ‘What was that!’

She stood with wide eyes, and took a moment to smooth her ruffled hair. ‘That,’ said Victoire Weasley at length, ‘was a notification that the files of Cassian Malfoy are still under the highest levels of security.’

‘Huh.’ Scorpius furrowed his brow. ‘Who do I have to see about getting past them? Office of the Minister?’

‘No, this isn’t sealed under British law.’ Her chair rolled, wobbling, back to the main desk. ‘These are old Alliance security restrictions. Which means it needs to be lifted with the authority of the Magical Alliance.’

He stared at her. ‘The Magical Alliance was dissolved after Grindelwald’s imprisonment…’

‘No, it wasn’t. It was downscaled, but they continued to hunt remaining Thule Society members. And there remains a small office of surviving caretakers of the records and information; old wizards who ensure these matters don’t fall into the wrong hands. You’d have to go to them directly.’

‘Okay. Where are they?’

‘The old Alliance headquarters, the most secure place in Europe. You might have heard for it; it’s where the IMC is shifting its central operations, for the exact same reasons. The castle of Niemandhorn.’

‘Switzerland.’ Scorpius gave a low whistle. ‘Could be worse.’

Victoire nodded, then plastered a fake smile across her face. ‘Was there anything else, Mister Malfoy?’

He furrowed his brow, opened his mouth to say something to dismiss her frostiness - then remembered all the reasons that was a bad idea, and sighed. ‘No, Miss Weasley. Thank you for your time.’ Perhaps it would be best if she remained Teddy’s protective guard-dog. Keeping him at bay was not the worst thing someone could do right now.

The return to the Caelestis was without incident; it was easy to get from the Ministry to Diagon Alley, even when the streets were as subdued and fraught as they were now. But he wasn’t in his suite for more than a minute, eyeballing the coffee machine like one might regard a diabolical nemesis, when there was a knock at the door.

Albus, surely; they had to talk, they needed to talk -

‘Selena.’ Scorpius froze in the doorway. ‘If you’re here to yell at me -’

‘For deciding to waltz back into everyone’s lives and point out unpleasant truths like you’re me?’ She arched an eyebrow, and he couldn’t tell if she was being facetious or not.

‘Er. Do you want coffee? I can’t promise it won’t kill you.’

‘No. I’m just stopping by.’ She looked him in the eye. ‘This is your five minute warning.’

‘My what?’

‘You have five minutes until you have to leave this hotel room.’

Scorpius bit his lip. ‘If my life’s in danger, this is the worst heads up -’

‘It’s not. Well, probably not.’ Selena waltzed past him and let the door swing shut behind her. ‘In five minutes, Bellamy, Oakes, and Hollis are stopping by. And you’re going out tonight.’

‘They are? I am?’

She huffed. ‘You’re back from the dead and you’re still mooning around over Rose and freaking out about the Council and your father, and these are sincere issues, but I think you could stand to be back in the world a little bit.’

Scorpius winced. ‘I -’

‘…and let’s face it, if you’re weird and screw up with Bellamy and the others, this is hardly the worst thing in the world. But you want to throw truths at me? My truth at you is that you’re going to explode if you keep on walking around this bundled up.’

‘Is this retribution for what I said? Inflicting Bellamy on me?’

‘You lived with him for five years -’

‘So I know what he’s like!’ But Scorpius smiled, a small, sad smile, and he kicked at the carpet. ‘Thanks. Are you okay?’

She sighed, turning her eyes up. ‘Rose looked through your memories.’ It wasn’t a question, so he waited. ‘Did you - was there -’

‘…it’s not, mostly, like having a conversation.’ He stepped forward, reached to take her hands. ‘It’s like - it’s like drifting in a sea of everything that makes up everyone, and mostly you’re in the depths where it’s still, and calm, and content. Like you’re in everyone’s good dreams. And so it’s not really precise, but I did get snippets.’ He caught her eye, though could see her struggling to keep his gaze. ‘Methuselah’s there. He’s at peace. He’s happy. And he loves you.’

Her eyes slammed shut as the guilt stirred in him. It wasn’t that he was lying; these were all things Scorpius believed, though he had to admit to himself a lot of it was extrapolation more than fact. Treating it as fact was not the worst thing he’d ever done.

‘I don’t…’ Selena’s voice wavered. ‘I don’t wake up missing him any more and, you know, the dumbest thing is that Rose makes me feel so guilty because she never put herself back together after losing you. So I look at her and I think, I think, should I be like her? Should I be so broken -’

Scorpius wasn’t sure what to do with the description of Rose as broken, but he did know what to do about the tears pooling in Selena’s eyes. He pulled her closer, wrapped his arms around her. ‘Let me tell you,’ he croaked, ‘as a guy who loved a girl and died. We want to be remembered, but we want you to be happy. Not mourn us forever.’

‘That’s what I tell myself,’ she said, voice muffled against his shoulder. ‘I just - I had to know.’

‘I know.’ He let her pull back, let her dab at her eyes, and drew an awkward breath. ‘You and Matt…’

Thud! ‘Malfoy! Open up before the staff realise we snuck past them!’

Selena’s composure was back in a flash, and Scorpius rolled his eyes at the ceiling. ‘Oh, Merlin,’ he groaned. ‘They’ve not changed.’

Her lips quirked in a smile as he padded for the door. ‘No,’ she assured him. ‘They haven’t. And I will not be sticking around for this.’

‘Traitor,’ Scorpius muttered, and reached for the doorknob, internally bracing himself for the sea of revelry and irreverence about which he suspected Selena was right: it was probably what he needed.

* *


The likelihood of travel meant Rose had to do what she’d been putting off doing for a while: requesting a formal leave of absence from the Curse Breakers. With the Council of Thorns on the rise, Gringotts weren’t starting excavations, but leave meant paperwork which took a while, which meant it was dark by the time she let herself into the flat.

To find Matt perched at the edge of an armchair, obviously waiting, his travel bag at his feet. It looked full.

Every inch of cold and stone in her rushed out from underneath, leaving her in free-fall. ‘…Matt?’

He didn’t look at her, staring into the fireplace. ‘When Scorpius came back, one of the first things you said was that you wouldn’t leave me for him. And I believe you. You resent so badly the idea that this - that you and me - is just a rebound that you’d fight tooth and nail against anything that would make someone say that.’ Matt stood, hefted his bag with his good hand. ‘But I’ve seen the way you two look at each other, and there is something there. Of course there is. You loved him and he’s back from the dead; a reaction’s inevitable. I don’t know what you’re thinking, I don’t know what you’re feeling, but there is something.’

Rose’s throat went dry. ‘And you’re -’

‘I’d wager even you don’t know what you’re feeling. Because you’re not letting yourself think about it.’ He looked at her, expression flat, voice holding a croak. ‘Because if you think about it, you might realise you love him. And then where does that leave you? Trapped with me, and you think of yourself as a good person, and a good person doesn’t run off with their ex after dumping their recently-maimed boyfriend.’ Only now did he meet her gaze, grey eyes dull. ‘So I’m leaving you.’

‘Matt -’ Her eyes widened and she flew towards him, but he stepped back, looked away.

‘Maybe you love him. Maybe you need to be with him again. Maybe you don’t, maybe it’s just a memory, but you need to know, you need to find out, and I - and I need you to find out.’ Finally, he quavered, drawing a shaky breath. ‘I will not live this life, wondering if you’re with me because you felt you should be. I’ve - I’ve done that for too long, haven’t I?’

‘Matt -’ She caught his good hand before he could pull away. ‘You can’t - you can’t make this call for me, you can’t just decide I’m going to want to be with him -’

‘No,’ he said, and looked her in the eye, tone firmer. ‘You need to decide. But you need to figure it out. Without obligation, without expectation. Not for me, not for him, not for what people will think of you. For you.’ He sighed. ‘Of course I hope that you’ll think about it. Decide it’s not him you want, let go of that memory you clung to for so long. And - without obligation, or guilt, or grief, return to me.’

Before she could reply he’d stepped in, bowed his head, and kissed her. Kissed her more softly than he ever had, a kiss full of regret and gentle acceptance, a kiss that lingered, and she knew why. This was possibly one last kiss, possibly one last goodbye, and he had to make the moment last.

But he pulled back soon, too soon, and the tumbling inside her spun around to rise in her throat, choking. ‘Matt - Matt, you can’t leave me, this isn’t - please, you can’t do this -’

The corners of his eyes crinkled. ‘Then tell me I’m wrong,’ he whispered. ‘Tell me you’ve let him go. Tell me you love me.’

A part of her howled and scrabbled and tried climbing through the darkness to do just that, but it was swallowed by the swirling cold, and fell into oblivion. Her lips parted, and nothing came out.

He let go and stepped back. ‘See? So I’ve got to do this. Because - I love you, Rose. I love you so much it is killing me. Even aside from Scorpius, the Council, I have to do this. Because if I stand around waiting for you, by the time you figure things out there might be nothing left of me. I have to let you go for you, and for us. But I have to leave you for… for me.’

Matt’s head dropped as he stepped around her, starting for the door, and the chill reached her skin as he pulled away, that sense of being incomplete that had defined her since Scorpius fell. She reeled around, reached for his jacket, but she was too slow and clutched only at air. ‘Matt, no - I need you - you said you’d always wait for me!’

He stopped at the doorway with his back to her, shoulders tense, and took a moment to draw a deep breath. ‘I was wrong. And we both know that was melodramatic posturing from a boy who thought he could say the right thing to make a girl love him. It’s more complicated than that. And yet, not complicated at all.’ He reached for the doorknob. ‘I’m going to Selena’s. You can stay here as long as you want.’

Then he left, left her in the cold and the darkness of the shattered husk of the empty world they’d built for themselves on illusions and denial, and even though she was more alone than she could remember being in years, the swirling vortex inside of her whispered that he was right.

They were neither of them, not him and not her, coming back.


-------------

A/N: Just a couple notes on this chapter. The 'Magical Alliance' is the unoriginal term that's thrown around for the worldwide magical forces that opposed Grindelwald's reign, though I would imagine British involvement was quite slim considering Dumbledore's presence kept Grindelwald away from the Isles.

Niemandhorn is a location of my invention, and we'll see more of it; yet another Unfindable Magical Place, in this case a mountain of the Alps. The name's a butchering of German for a meaning of roughly 'Nobody Peak' (in the same way that 'Matterhorn' means 'Meadow Peak').

On a final note, for those interested in my writing outside of fandom, my second book's kit the Kindlesphere. Links are on my Author's page for those curious.


Chapter 19: Descending Through the Dismal Night
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Descending Through the Dismal Night


‘I’ll put some leftovers away for your father,’ said Ginny, hauling the platter with the remains of roast beef off the table.

‘It was really good, Mum.’ Albus leaned back on the dining chair with a satisfied groan. ‘When’s Dad back?’

‘If he’s very very lucky, today.

Al looked at the wall clock. It was eight o’ clock; this would be an early return home by the standards of the MLE these days. ‘I may wait up. I’d like a word.’

‘You can do that,’ said James, pushing his chair back and getting to his feet. ‘But I’m going home.’

Ginny turned away from the fridge, eyebrows raised. ‘I see how it is. Your brother’s an excuse to swoop in for dinner and disappear before it’s time to do the dishes?’

James grinned and punched Albus on the arm. ‘I use him. Big brother’s prerogative.’

‘He does, I’m just a victim here. A well-fed victim.’

Their mother looked between them, a gaze that was both judging at their conspiracy and pleased they were getting on. ‘It doesn’t get you out of the dishes, James.’

Albus stood. ‘I’ll do them, it’s fine. Jim can go.’

James clapped him on the arm again. ‘I owe you one,’ he said, hugged their mother, and headed out.

Ginny glanced towards the living room and the front door, then back to Albus. ‘I’m glad you two are on better terms,’ she said, voice dropping.

Albus grimaced. ‘Hey, so am I. It makes things easier -’

There was a rap at the front door, and James called through. ‘I’ll get it, I’m putting my coat on anyway.’

Al looked at Ginny. ‘Expecting someone?’

‘Not me,’ she said, and they both looked to the living room at the sound of muffled voices, then what Albus was certain was muffled sobbing, then James calling again.

Al.’ He sounded urgent. Not a life-or-death urgent, but Al knew that tone. Emotional complexity is here. Help.

Albus hurried through to find James holding a sobbing Rose in his arms, and his heart lunged into his throat. But freezing in place meant it was easier for James to steer her over and more or less tip her to him, and she clung like a limpet just as readily.

‘I’m gonna go!’ James declared, and vanished through the front door before Albus could find a word. Leaving him with his cousin, more wretched and distraught than he’d ever seen her. Barring once.

Because you ran the last time she was broken. ‘Rose - what’s happened, is it Scorpius, is something -’

Rose drew a shuddering breath and pulled back, fighting to talk, fighting for composure. Her hair was wild, her cheeks tear-stained, and her voice a squeak. ‘Matt left me.’

Ginny spun in the kitchen door. ‘I’ll put the kettle on.’

‘I’m sorry for coming here, Al, I know we’re not - but he said he’s going to Selena’s, and I didn’t want to be alone, and I don’t know if Mum or Dad are even home right now so…’

‘No, no, of course. Hey, c’mere.’ Instinct took over, instinct that had him steering her to the sofa, guiding her down with his arm still around her. ‘Of course you’re welcome here, of course I can - what happened?’

Rose wiped her face with the back of her hand. ‘He said that… that Scorpius being back made things complicated, and that he wanted me to make an honest decision about my feelings. Not, like, stay with him because I felt obligated. But he also…’ Her shoulders hunched up, and Albus tightened his hold. ‘He said the relationship was killing him, that waiting around for me was killing him. That I had to think about if I really wanted him.’ Her eyes slammed shut. ‘I don’t think he expects me to come back.’

‘I… will you?’ It was all Al could think of saying, but it was the wrong thing, bringing a fresh wave of tears.

‘I don’t know! I don’t know what I do without him, Al, he’s been by my side for so long, I don’t know how I’m supposed to cope without having him to turn to.’

Ginny appeared in the living room to set two cups of tea on the coffee table, and spoke in a low voice. ‘You can stay here as long as you need, Rose; overnight, longer. Do you want me to Floo your parents, let them know what’s happened, let them know you’re alright?’

It was a gentle offer, one open to refusal, but Rose gave an awkward nod. ‘Thanks. Yes. I don’t - I’m okay to see them, but they’re busy and I don’t want them worrying, but they should know…’

‘I’ll tell them,’ Ginny said softly, and squeezed her shoulder before she left for the upstairs study.

Rose reached for the tea with shaking hands but didn’t drink it, staring at the surface. ‘I’m sorry for coming here,’ she mumbled again. ‘I didn’t know where else to go.’

‘Don’t be sorry,’ said Albus, not removing his arm. ‘I’m glad you could come to me.’ He frowned at the table for a moment. ‘You might not have Matt to turn to, but you have me, you know?’

She looked away. ‘I’m not… used to that.’

It was a comment made without accusation, a regretful statement of fact, and he didn’t know to respond to it. He settled for not trying. ‘It sounds like this is at least… progress? I know that’s a harsh thing to say, but he’s not gone forever.’

‘Progress? My boyfriend leaving me is progress?’

‘You admitted, after Hogsmeade, that he didn’t make you happy, he just made you… not-miserable,’ said Albus in a low voice. ‘Now everything’s changing. Scorpius is back. You do have a lot to think about.’

‘Maybe.’ Rose wrapped her hands around the warm mug. ‘But what kind of bitch dumps her recently-maimed boyfriend?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Albus, ‘but that’s not what happened. And I also remember a girl who refused to dump her plagued boyfriend, even though she didn’t want to be with him any more, and all that happened was it made a lot of people unhappy.’ He squeezed her shoulder. ‘Even though I get why you made that choice.’

She slumped, stared into the tea. ‘I used to dream of Scorpius coming back. It was always the most vivid dream, the worst dream, because it was so real and then I’d wake up and -’

‘And you’d remember,’ he whispered. ‘You’d remember you lived in a different world.’

Rose nodded, jaw tight. ‘It happened the night before the first Gryffindor-Slytherin match, two years ago. I dreamt like it had never happened, like I came down for breakfast and he was a brat, teasing me about split loyalties until you dragged him off… and then I woke up.’ She drew a wavering breath. ‘Slytherin played with black armbands for Scorpius, and their hearts weren’t in it, and Gryffindor smashed them and I never saw my brother look more miserable than the first time he captained his team to victory. He apologised to me for it afterwards. Nobody really cheered.’

Albus remained silent, arm in place, and she went on.

‘Of course, come the Slytherin-Ravenclaw match… business as usual. It was months later. People were used to the absences. They played like you two had graduated, or dropped out. And, er, still lost.’ Of all things, Rose sounded guilty for criticising the Slytherin Quidditch Team. ‘But nobody was embarrassed for beating them. Time rolled on. For everyone else.’ She rubbed her eyes. ‘I had a different point at the beginning of this. Scorpius coming back was once a dream come true. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still have those dreams even a fortnight ago. But now it’s real and it’s turned everything upside-down.’

‘It’s huge,’ Al said. ‘You’re allowed to be blind-sided by it. I think Matt had a point if he thought you’d wind yourself up trying to react how you’re “supposed” to, though. You need to figure out what you really feel. What you really want.’

‘I have no idea.’

‘Then…’ Albus drew a deep breath. ‘You’ve got me to help you.’

She looked up at him, and he could see the spark of pain in those dark eyes. Her expression creased. ‘Al… you…’

‘I left,’ he murmured. ‘And I - and I’m sorry.’ He saw her face start to crumble, and pushed on. ‘It was wrong. It was wrong to my family, to the people who cared about me. It was wrong to me. But - but you and I - we were supposed to be allies, always, weren’t we? Partners. I let you down.’ His throat tightened. ‘I failed you. And I’m sorry, Rose.’

She didn’t burst into tears, he suspected because she was all out. But she did give a strangled sob and threw herself against him, and he wrapped his arms around her for his own comfort as much as hers. ‘I missed you.’ Her voice was muffled against his shoulder. ‘You were the only person who’d get it, who’d understand; you left me and I missed you…’

He kissed the top of her head. ‘I missed you too,’ Albus rumbled. ‘I just - I felt too guilty. Too… responsible.’

‘Because of Saida?’

His shoulders tensed, but she reached for his hand. Her touch was warm from the tea, a warmth which spilt through him. ‘When I thought she’d betrayed us in Venice - I mean, she did betray us, but I thought she was why the Council found us, which was why Scorpius died, and I trusted her, I…’

‘Al.’ Rose’s voice was soft. ‘You still feel betrayed. You still feel like you trusted her, and had that trust thrown in your face. But she didn’t sell us out to the Council. She saved us in Ager Sanguinis. And we wouldn’t have found Selena without her.’

‘I know -’

‘You feel we were hurt because you trusted her. But your trust meant she chose to turn on the Council. She chose to help us. She chose to save us. We weren’t hurt because you trusted her. We were saved because you trusted her.’ Rose’s lips twisted. ‘Maybe it’s easier for me to say this now Scorpius isn’t gone.’

The tension that had broiled in his gut since their meeting that afternoon flared up. ‘You were more critical of her earlier.’

‘I was critical of Matt bringing it up like he did. Are you okay with - you and Scorpius…’

Albus closed his eyes. ‘I feel like I’ve fucked up the last two years. Which I probably have. But if he was throwing around harsh truths at Selena, at Matt, I didn’t - I couldn’t -’ The words clogged up his throat, and he had to fight through them. ‘I didn’t want to hear it from him.’

Her grip on his hand tightened. ‘I know.’

‘Are you going to be okay working with him?’

She shrugged. ‘There’s nothing to work on yet. We’ve got to find a lead first.’

Albus’ brow knotted. ‘You’ve got one. He talked to Victoire this evening. You need the Magical Alliance records in Niemandhorn.’

‘Oh.’ Rose blinked. ‘Maybe he sent me an owl or a Floo, I haven’t… I didn’t check. I’ll go see him in the morning. Ask.’ She looked up, corners of her eyes creasing. ‘Do you know what you’re going to do about Saida? Matt was out of line to throw it at you like that, but he…’

‘He has a point, yes.’ Albus grimaced. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what to think. At what point does her good outweigh her bad? At what point does her usefulness outweigh her crimes? She could help us do a whole lot of good, but does that mean she shouldn’t be punished? And if she’s punished, who does that help? Whose life does that improve? Merlin help me, I actually believe she’s changing, or wants to change, and regrets it. Is punishment then… cruel?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘And that’s just wider morality.’ He huffed. ‘I… you know me, Rose. You know I’m not good at letting people in. But I let her in and…’

‘You didn’t have long,’ Rose murmured, ‘but you were happy. I remember.’

‘She was like nobody I’d ever met. I guess I know why.’

Her thumb rubbed the back of his hand. ‘You can work with her without having to forgive her. You can work with her and then throw her in a cell again afterwards.’

‘That,’ Albus murmured, ‘feels an awful lot like using her.’

To his surprise, Rose smiled - a wide, genuine smile that shone in her eyes. ‘You haven’t changed that much, you know.’

‘I -’

‘You still have that sense of fair play.’

He grimaced. ‘Only because he’s back. It’s like a reprieve. It’s like I can breathe more easily again.’

She slumped, leaning against him, and once again he put his arm around her. For the first time in years, as they were silent for a few gathered heartbeats, everything felt normal. Cousins who’d been closer to each other than to their own siblings, to any of the extended family, allies against everything - and now allies against their own pain.

‘The tiniest part of me,’ Rose whispered, ‘feels like it was simpler when he was gone. But I know I’d rather have all of this complex pain and joy than simple, pure agony.’

Words rose to Albus’ lips, unbidden, and he couldn’t stop them. ‘Do you still love him?’

‘Of course I do,’ she said, oddly calm. ‘I don’t think it’s possible for me to stop loving him. But love isn’t the problem, is it?’ She gave a gentle snort, then glanced up at him, and there was a certain wry archness to her voice when she retaliated. ‘Do you still love Saida?’

Albus’ heart clenched - and then loosened, and with it came a fresh wave of that complex pain and joy. ‘I don’t know. But love isn’t the problem,’ he murmured. ‘Is it?’

* *


‘I thought,’ said Selena when she opened her door to see a damp Matt stood there, ‘we didn’t show up unexpected like...’ Only then did she see how he stood, shoulders slumped, expression utterly sunken, arm in a sling under his coat because even with the prosthetic fitted he still needed it elevated from time to time. Her insides fluttered. ‘Something’s happened - you - Rose broke up with you?’

She wasn’t sure how she knew, but his brow knotted. ‘Close.’ Matt’s voice was hoarse. ‘I left her.’

‘Holy shit.’ It wasn’t her most sympathetic reaction, but before she could think, she guiding him in, closing the door behind her. ‘Holy shit, Matt, what happened?’

He gave a short, hollow laugh. ‘I never saw you look so surprised.’

‘You show up at my door out of the blue and drop this, this bombshell, of course I’m surprised!’ She led him into the living room, where Miranda was sat with a magazine.

‘Bombshells?’ she drawled, lifting her eyes - which immediately narrowed as she took in the sight. ‘I’m on tea duty, aren’t I.’

‘This might be whiskey duty,’ said Selena, brow furrowed.

‘No, no.’ Matt waved his good hand as he collapsed onto an armchair. ‘I’m still on potions which might make me vomit and die if I drink alcohol.’

‘Tea it is!’ declared Miranda, and vanished. She was, Selena thought, rather good at that.

She turned to Matt. ‘Can I take your coat…?’

‘You didn’t think I’d do it, did you.’ He met her gaze, rather wide-eyed. She wondered how much of those painkilling potions he’d taken before he got here, or if emotions alone were leaving him swaying. ‘You thought I’d never leave her. You thought I’d be there until that toxic relationship killed us both.’

‘I… also didn’t think Scorpius would come back. That kind of changes things.’ She reached for his coat anyway, ushering him out of it. ‘Are you okay?’

He let her, mindful of his right arm, then collapsed onto the sofa. ‘I need a favour. Can I sleep on the couch? I’ve let her keep the flat, because it’s shitty to dump her and then make her homeless, but Mum’s abroad and I don’t want to face Annie, not tonight.’

‘We have a spare room. But yes. As long as you need,’ Selena blurted, and in the end she just tossed the coat over an armrest and perched next to him. ‘Matt, you’re not okay…’

‘You’re so smart with people. I just walked out on the love of my life, and though I said she had choices to make and things to think about, I know I’m never coming back to her. No. I’m so not okay.’

He was dry-eyed but his voice grated even through the wry humour, and she couldn’t help but put her arms around him. He slumped against her, drained and lifeless. ‘I’m so sorry, Matt,’ she murmured.

‘Don’t be. You were right. All along. But you knew that, didn’t you?’ he said miserably. ‘She didn’t love me, and maybe she could but she had to get over Scorpius first, and that… wasn’t happening. Maybe it never will.’

‘Ironically,’ Selena mused, ‘she has a better chance of getting over him now he’s back.’

‘Yeah.’ He frowned at his hand. ‘I just don’t know if I’m going to wait around to see if that happens.’ His shoulders hunched in. ‘That’s so fucking selfish of me -’

‘Matt -’ She squeezed his shoulder, careful of his bad arm. ‘You could stand to be a bit more selfish. A lot more selfish.’

‘I have been selfish, though, haven’t I? I wanted her so badly, I didn’t even pay attention to if it was right for us to be together. For her. For me. I thought having her in a terrible situation was better than not having her at all.’

‘You wanted to help her, that’s all you’ve ever wanted to do.’ Her hand came up to brush his messy hair back, and he closed his eyes, relaxed in the embrace. ‘But I think you were right to do this. I think this needed to happen.’

‘I know,’ he mumbled. ‘It just took me a long time to listen to you. And I wouldn’t have got here without you.’ He looked up, slate-grey eyes stormier than usual in the low light. ‘You know, I thought this - losing her - would be the end of the world. And now it’s happened, and I’m still here.’

‘Yeah,’ Selena murmured, still stroking his hair. ‘The end of the world’s sort of like that. It doesn’t kill you.’

‘What I said the other day…’ His voice went hoarse, and her chest tightened as he swallowed. ‘I meant it. Listening. Helping. I even meant the bit where you don’t have to talk about it. But Scorpius threw it in your face…’

‘You’ve had a horrid day, Matt, one of the worst,’ she said, and remembered him pointing out her evasion tactics. Her nose wrinkled, and she sighed. ‘Let me worry about you, instead?’ She saw his lips purse, and she leaned in to kiss him on the forehead. ‘Just for a little bit. I promise.’

He sighed, tension fading from him, but she could almost feel the ache in his bones taking its place. ‘Just for a little,’ he whispered. She heard Miranda’s footsteps as her housemate came tromping back, likely with tea, and pulled away - but he caught her eye for a heartbeat more. ‘I’m going to hold you to that.’

* *


Drinks with Graham Bellamy, Reuben Oakes, and Peregrine Hollis would not have been on Scorpius’ to-do list even under normal circumstances. Normal, pre-death-and-resurrection circumstances. It was made worse by Bellamy trying too hard to be normal, Hollis being incredibly awkward, and Oakes trying to compensate for this by being simply loud.

They’d started in the Leaky Cauldron, and Scorpius remembered why he hadn’t gone out much since his return when everyone stared at him.

‘Ignore them!’ Oakes boomed, and passed him a tankard of foaming ale. ‘They’re just jealous of your not-dead-ness.’

Fuck me, Scorpius groaned internally, and drank his pint.

‘So! So, what’re you doing these days,’ Bellamy demanded.

‘Oh, you know. Sitting in my hotel suite. Contemplating how to re-integrate with society. Watching my ex-girlfriend be emotionally distraught. Plotting how to bring down international mercenaries.’ Selena, this was a terrible idea.

‘Weasley wasn’t -’

Oakes judiciously cut Hollis off. ‘You and Weasley! That was something we never got to ask you about!’ He clapped Scorpius on his back hard enough to spill the ale. ‘How the buggery did that happen?’

Scorpius bit his lip. ‘Crises change people, guys. We were in a tough spot, it meant we saw and understood more of each other.’

‘Sure,’ said Bellamy, eyes widening with desperation. ‘It just - I mean, she used to be so uptight, and then Phlegethon happened, and then the break, and then we came back and she was just miserable…’

‘I couldn’t comment on that. I was dead at the time.’ Scorpius drained his tankard in record time, then wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. ‘Next pub?’

‘You were famous, you know,’ said Hollis as they weaved into Diagon Alley, the staring eyes of the Leaky Cauldron’s patrons left far behind. ‘During Phlegethon, when you were abroad, especially after you died -’

‘Leave it out, Hol, he doesn’t want to hear this,’ Oakes chided him.

‘No, you’re alright. Do tell why I can’t go down the street without being gawped at,’ Scorpius sighed.

‘I just mean - he were, weren’t he!’ Hollis looked indignant. ‘Famous sacrifice, hero, all that. And then now he’s back, there’s all that fuss about his father being a bloody -’

Bellamy clipped Hollis around the ear. ‘Merlin’s teeth, Hol, put a lid on it. Where’s the next pub?’

The One-Legged Hippogriff was a pub Scorpius hadn’t been in before, dingy and run-down and thoroughly unwelcoming. People didn’t stop staring at him there, either, and the ale tasted like it had been dragged out of the bottom of several barrels. The landlord did, however, serve some sort of Norwegian clear alcohol which burnt all the way down, and threatened to do so on the way back up.

That didn’t stop the staring and it didn’t make his companions shut up, but Scorpius found them a good deal more tolerable after several shots.

‘So tell me,’ he slurred as they staggered into their third establishment of the evening, the busier and more upmarket Nothing in Moderation, where he was much more easily overlooked, ‘how’d the Quidditch go?’

It was a guaranteed way to get Bellamy talking, and as Bellamy was the one Scorpius objected to the least, he knew he’d judged well. Ranting about Hufflepuff team - the wounds of the last defeat of Slytherin only six months old - were joined by Oakes bringing more, brightly-coloured drinks, and Scorpius was just starting to think he could get through the evening in one piece.

Then he felt the eyes on him.

He’d been stared at all evening; being stared at some more was nothing new. But this wasn’t the open gawping, this wasn’t accompanied by furtive whispering or discreet second glances. He’d fought for his life too many times to not know when he was being assessed. Analysed. Sized up.

Bellamy was allowed to rant on as Scorpius leaned back in his chair and let his gaze sweep across the bar. Packs of friends out for drinks of a weekend, teams of work colleagues out and about; Britain might be intimidated by the Council of Thorns, and nobody wanted to linger outside, but Nothing in Moderation still saw a boom in business with the Three Broomsticks out of action.

When he saw who was sizing him up, it came with a sinking and surprised recognition. He drained his drink and looked at the other three. ‘I’m going to get a refill.’

They said something, maybe asked for their own drinks, but Scorpius ignored them and weaved through the crowd, heading for the bar. He let his posture slip, let himself stumble more than the alcohol demanded, adopted the facade of intoxication - and kept his hand on his wand, slipped up his sleeve.

When he got to the bar, he all but fell against it, elbows on the side, and let his voice drop as he watched his target out of the corner of his eyes. ‘You don’t want to do anything here. Too many people.’

John Colton raised an eyebrow at this, and sipped his beer. ‘I wasn’t planning on it.’

‘What was the plan? Wait until I was gone? Hope to get me on my own?’

Lips pursed. ‘Honestly, I didn’t have much of a plan.’

‘You should. I’m tougher than I look. You want to turn around, go home, and I won’t tell anyone.’ He didn’t know John Colton very well at all; he’d barely paid attention to Matthias Doyle in school, and he’d paid even less attention to his loyal shadow. It would do nobody any good to learn the truth of Colton’s betrayal, but for now all Scorpius could think about was making sure the bar didn’t turn into a pitched battle with an undercover Thornweaver.

Colton’s perplexed expression remained. ‘Steady on, old chap. Didn’t mean to cause offence.’

Scorpius looked at him straight on, grip on his wand tight, and gave a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. ‘I get offended when someone’s looking to shank me.’

‘Shank -’ Colton put his beer bottle down. ‘What do you think’s going on here?’

There was a moment as Scorpius considered the situation, brow furrowed. ‘You’re… not a secret Thornweaver agent planning an attack?’

John Colton stared at him a moment - then burst into laughter so hard he doubled over, clutching his gut. ‘Attack? Lord, no! Oh, Christ, this - you thought I was…’

Scorpius was not accustomed to circumstances slipping away from him like this. He straightened, abandoning the veneer of drunkenness. ‘You were staring at me!’

John wiped the corner of his eye as he regained control. ‘I’d like to think I was issuing most discreet glances of positively understated attention!’

‘I’m sorry!’ Mortification was not, Scorpius thought, much better than being attacked. ‘I’m really sorry, I thought - old habits die hard!’

‘I’ll say! Can’t a fellow look across a bar without being accused of a completely different sort of ulterior motives?’ John gave a wry smile that made dark eyes twinkle. ‘Though, join me for a drink and I won’t hold it against you. No ulterior motives, I promise. You just looked bored out of your skull, sat there with those three.’

Realisation sparked embarrassingly in Scorpius’ brain, but all he could do was return the toothy smile and settle on a bar stool. ‘I’m remembering why I didn’t spend much time with them in school.’

‘Some men,’ said John, waving a hand at the bartender, ‘emerge from Hogwarts better, brighter, and enthused to take on the world. Others still can’t let go of absolutely turgid Quidditch matches. Slytherin were terrible without you and Potter, truly.’

‘Of all the things I denied the world, my Quidditch prowess is what I feel guiltiest about.’

‘You should. You made the games rather more engaging. Now, what’re we drinking? I wouldn’t recommend the beer, it tastes most fascinatingly of utter desolation.’

‘I don’t really fancy a pint of utter desolation,’ Scorpius mused. ‘Let me buy you a cocktail, instead.’

‘If you must, but I insist on it being a thoroughly fruity one…’

* *


The next morning came with a most necessary Floo to room service for breakfast and buckets of coffee. Scorpius sat in his suite in one of the hotel-issued dressing gowns, not at all ready to face the world, when there was a knock on the door. He groaned and slumped over, and when he opened up to see Rose stood there, every inch of him tightened into a tense, terrified knot. ‘What’re you…’

She looked tired. Pale. Worn, but he couldn’t think about this now, especially as she shrugged past him inside, because they were working together, weren’t they? They could talk. ‘I’m sorry, it’s early, but I saw Al last night and he mentioned you’d seen Victoire, and we’re going to Niemandhorn?’

Scorpius blinked at her. ‘What? Oh. Yes. That’s where we’ll find more on Cassian.’

‘We’ll need train tickets,’ said Rose, too quickly, and there was something detached about her, like he remembered when she was burying herself in study or contemplation so she didn’t have to think about a problem. ‘Everyone’s heading there now Lillian Rourke’s uprooting the IMC to use the castle’s old meeting halls -’

‘Yes, I’ll - I’ll handle it, Rose.’ He lifted his hands. ‘I’d have sent word sooner. I just didn’t have more than five minutes to myself after I got home from the records office. Selena coerced the guys to take me out for a drink, and I - well, I was going to tell you today.’

‘It’s not a problem,’ said Rose, still talking very fast. ‘I’ll just need to pack and make preparations and I’ll tell Mum, because she can help make sure we get tickets -’

‘I’ll sort it out -’

‘I’m sure we can travel on the Ministry’s knut -’

‘There had better be coffee,’ boomed the voice of John Colton as the man himself swanned out the bathroom door, adorned in nothing more than a towel, hair wet and swept back. ‘Because that shower was superb and if there’s coffee, this day is going to be better than sex.’

Scorpius’ eyes crashed shut, but he didn’t need to see the scene to picture it. John, the picture of unsubtlety, made worse by all that bare skin even darker against the bone-white towel. Rose, staring, jaw dropped. Him, wishing the world would swallow him up.

He could almost hear John floundering. ‘…which we absolutely did not have.’

Oh, Merlin’s tits.

When Scorpius opened his eyes, Rose was backing off for the door. ‘I’m - I’m so sorry, if I’d known, I wouldn’t have - I’m going to go!’

‘Rose, you’re not intruding -’ Scorpius extended a desperate hand.

‘I really am, and this is none of my business, and I’m so sorry - I’ll Floo you…’ Then she was gone, slamming the door behind her, and leaving the two men stood in the mid-morning sun streaming into the hotel suite.

John’s expression tensed. ‘Bugger. I didn’t know she was here.’

Scorpius pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘You weren’t to know. There is coffee, by the way.’

John didn’t move, and would have been a comical sight, so crestfallen with nothing but a towel to protect his dignity, had anyone felt like laughing. ‘I suppose it would have been telling if I had known and hid in the bathroom until she was gone.’

‘I didn’t say you should have done that.’ Scorpius turned, frowning.

‘No, but you obviously didn’t want her to know, did you.’

‘That situation,’ said Scorpius, pointing at the door through which Rose had disappeared, ‘is so complicated I don’t know where it starts or ends or what I’m even supposed to think. Shame, or anything like that, is so far down on the list…’

John watched him for a long moment, and Scorpius was so unaccustomed to him looking serious that he wasn’t sure what to think. Eventually, John drew a deep breath. ‘I’m going to find my trousers,’ he decided, ‘and then I’m going to have a coffee, and then I think I should go.’

‘Hey!’ Scorpius moved to intercept him as he headed for the bedroom. ‘That’s not what I meant. I didn’t - I wish Rose hadn’t seen that, but I wish about a billion things with Rose and none of them can happen, but you - I’m not regretting what’s happened.’

His hand came to John’s elbow, and John stared at it like he wasn’t sure what to do. Then the corners of his lips curled with that whimsical smile. ‘Don’t worry, Scorp,’ he said after a heartbeat. ‘I’m not looking for flowers or moonlit serenades or even a round two.’

‘Oh, so I was just a passing distraction?’ Scorpius tried to return the smile, bring back the levity which had lifted the whole night.

‘I think,’ said John, not unkindly, ‘that was the case for both of us. Considering how you looked at her just then.’

‘Hey,’ Scorpius said again, tightening his hold as John went to pull away. He tugged him back, slid a hand around his waist, bare skin warm against the coldness of Rose’s staring. ‘You’re right, my life’s a whole world of complicated, and I… thanks for getting that. But you have no idea how much I needed last night.’

John’s grin was a white slice of smugness. ‘You were knotted tighter than a sailor’s rigging once I got my hands on you. I have some idea how much you needed to unwind.’

It was hard to stop his own smile from being tinged with all the apprehension of the darkness he knew was coming. ‘Maybe I should hurl flowers at you next time I’m tense. I’ve even got a guitar somewhere for some serenades…’

‘Carnations,’ said John, not at all serious. ‘I’m fond of them. But not as fond as, right now, I am of my trousers and that coffee.’ And he slid out of Scorpius’ grip with that wry smile, sauntered to the bedroom with no shame of the view he was giving, and disappeared to find some clothes and dignity as the curtain fell on the theatre they both knew would have no second showings.


Chapter 20: The Old Order Changeth
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The Old Order Changeth


‘You’re hunting Draco Malfoy.’ Ginny looked at the papers Albus had strewn over the coffee table. ‘Did you try a fishing rod with money dangling as bait? A whistle which only particular kinds of arseholes can hear?’

He looked up at his mother with a wan smile. ‘I thought you’d disapprove.’

‘I do disapprove. I think you should let him rot in whatever hole he’s found.’

‘I mean, this is going to take me out the country. The IMC is technically looking for him.’

Ginny shrugged. ‘I think you should talk to your father, for reasons which aren’t just to do with Draco Malfoy. But I get why you’re doing what you’re doing, Al. You know, your father used to be a rebel.’

‘And now he’s championing law and order. I thought it’d be Aunt Hermione who did that.’

‘So did I.’ She sighed. ‘How was Rose when she left?’

‘Tired. I think she wants to get busy, too.’ Al scrubbed his face with his hand. ‘I do need to talk to Dad. Is he - I mean, how long has he been like this?’

His mother’s lips thinned. ‘He took your leaving hard, Al - I’m not blaming you for his choices. Your father’s always shouldered the burdens of the world. He does his best to keep everyone safe, to put himself in danger for everyone. And that was one thing when it was just him and his wand and Voldemort. Now he’s got the whole Auror Office to use to keep everyone safe.’

‘So safety trumps choice.’

‘It’s not an easy thing, to accept the helplessness in loss. Your father never mastered it.’

Albus grimaced. ‘Guess I can’t judge him there.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Ginny softly. ‘You came back. You helped your friends.’

He looked up - then there was a knock on the door, a particular rat-tat-tat-tat which had his head snap around. ‘That’ll be Scorp,’ he said, before he knew he’d even recognised it. ‘I guess he and Rose are off soon.’

Ginny hummed, but neither passed comment nor stuck around as Albus went to let Scorpius in.

He was wilder-haired than usual, clothes rumpled. ‘Al! Glad you’re in. Wasn’t entirely sure you are staying here.’

Albus let him in. ‘You alright?’

‘Yes, yes. Train tickets out of King’s Cross for Niemandhorn in two hours. You would not believe the paperwork for international travel these days. I’m far too used to travelling illegally.’ Scorpius waved a dismissive hand. ‘I came here for, um. You’ve got some of my stuff.’

Albus’ brow knotted. ‘Yeah, like - old clothes and the like, they’re in a trunk. Do you really want all that?’

‘No,’ Scorpius sighed, and it was a bizarre sight, him stood in the sitting room in Godric’s Hollow, hands awkwardly shoved in his pockets. ‘I just needed an excuse to come by.’

‘What, like, you flitting off for a few days, and I might be gone by the time you come back…’

‘I was an arse last time we talked,’ said Scorpius flatly.

‘You weren’t - I shouldn’t have run off like I did.’ Albus scowled. ‘Maybe I’m just an idiot.’

‘I doubt it, mate. You’re the smart one.’

‘I didn’t…’ Albus stared at the carpet, then kicked at the corner of it. ‘I thought you were going to tell me I was wrong to run away. And I know I was wrong to run away. I just couldn’t, right then, stand to hear that from you.’

Scorpius’ expression fell. ‘I wasn’t going to judge you. How the hell could I, the choices I made? And if it had been - I mean, if things had gone differently, if it had been you in Ager Sanguinis, not me…’

‘You’d have had Rose -’

‘And she’s not you.’ Scorpius padded over, lifted a hand - and then instead of reaching out, punched him on the shoulder. ‘You made me, mate. You saw something decent in me when everyone else had reached their conclusions. Rose made me want to be better, in all sorts of ways. You? You made me believe I could be good.’ He shook his head. ‘I can’t judge you. I’d have been lost without you, too.’

Albus swallowed hard, unable to meet Scorpius’ gaze. ‘Do you think Matt’s right? That Saida can help with finding your father?’

He saw the wince. ‘I believe she’s on our side. I believe she’s skilled. And I believe she could make a speech a lot like the one I just made.’

‘But the things she’s done…’

I’ve done things,’ Scorpius pointed out, voice tensing. ‘With Thane, these last few months…’

‘But I know you.’ Albus looked up, eyes blazing, and his words had to be more forceful than he’d meant, because Scorpius took a step back. ‘I know who you are, deep down, I know I could hurl my life in your hands and you would never let me fall.’

A muscle in the corner of Scorpius’ jaw flickered. ‘I can’t tell you who to trust, or who to forgive. I can tell you that her and I? We’re not that different. Just my sins never hurt you.’

Suddenly, this was the last topic Al wanted to discuss. He looked away. ‘Did you see Rose?’

‘Um. Yeah. She stopped by this morning, though it was only really brief -’

‘Did you two talk?’ He had no idea what ripple the breakup was going to make, but there would be waves, for sure.

‘Not really.’ Scorpius winced. ‘I confirmed Niemandhorn, and that was it. She, uh - it wasn’t really time to stick around…’

‘Did you fight?’

‘No!’ He rubbed the back of his neck. ‘It was just awkward, ‘cos, er, she showed up really early and I had company.’

Albus frowned. ‘Company?’

‘Um. Selena made me go out with Bellamy and the guys last night, I think she was trying to give me a slice of normalcy, but the guys are so boring, Al…’

‘So you ditched them.’ Despite the inevitable spiral of drama this had to cause, Albus couldn’t help but give a wry smile. At least this was normal drama, the kind of problem people his age were supposed to deal with. ‘Who is she?’

‘Ah.’ Scorpius cleared his throat. ‘Not, uh, she. Colton. John Colton.’

Albus’ jaw dropped. ‘Colton?’

‘Yeah, I know… super awkward when he’s Doyle’s friend, but in my defence, he was flirting first…’

‘But he’s - I didn’t know you -’

Scorpius squinted at him. ‘I didn’t think I was exactly subtle.’

Albus flapped. Facts he’d taken for granted about the past were now like mud slipping out from underfoot, and the more minor they were, the more unsettling they got. ‘But you kept throwing flowers and chocolates at girls…’

Presenting flowers and chocolates as gifts.’ Scorpius waggled his finger. ‘I do prefer girls, yes, but in case you didn’t notice I’m appreciative of all manner of fine traits.’

‘But - but- Rose!’

‘I think we can call my death a breakup, and she’s with Doyle, and you have no idea how good it felt to just unwind with someone where there were no issues, no guilt, no agonising over what’s next.’ Scorpius’ lips twisted, and he clapped Albus on the shoulder. ‘You should try it!’

Albus had watched Scorpius flirt wildly with girls for years. As a defence mechanism, as a means of drawing fire off him, and out of what he presumed was genuine affection. Only now, looking back, could he consider that pointed jokes had been thrown at boys just as much, and he had to wonder how much more had gone on in their school years beyond his notice.

As such, he didn’t clock that Scorpius didn’t know about Matt and Rose’s breakup.

‘My last girlfriend was a spy sent to destroy us,’ he managed to say blandly.

‘I rest my case,’ said Scorpius, then sighed. ‘Look, I’ve got to go. But I didn’t want you still pissed at me.’

Albus shook his head. ‘I was never pissed at you, Scorp.’

Scorpius gave a gentle, pleased smile. ‘And I couldn’t blame you. Not for a thing, you hear?’

‘I’ll find your father. I’ll get you answers. Whatever it takes, even if it takes her. I promise.’

‘I don’t want you doing something which screws you up -’

‘You’re back.’ Albus grabbed his shoulder, voice firm. ‘And there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.’

Scorpius’ smile faded, the ghost of emotion still on his face but tinged with sombreness. He clasped Albus’ wrist. ‘I wish you saw the effect you have on people.’

‘I didn’t have it while you were gone.’

‘You don’t need me for it. It’s all in you. It is you. She didn’t love you for me. Amazing though my cheekbones are.’ Scorpius patted the back of Albus’ hand, then pulled away. ‘I’ll see you when I’m back.’

‘When we’re both back. You stay safe, you understand?’

‘Same to you, you great lug -’

But Scorpius wasn’t more than a footstep away before they both turned back for a firm, backslapping hug. It wasn’t exactly fear that squirmed in Albus’ gut, because a trip to Niemandhorn was not enough to strike terror into anyone’s heart, but they both knew too well how fleeting these moments could be.

It was enough of a burning, overriding need to make the most of having Scorpius here, with him, making him feel on top of the world, that Albus didn’t even think about breaking the news of Matt leaving Rose to him until long after he’d heard the crack of Scorpius’ Disapparition from beyond the front yard.

Leaving him stood in his front room to shove his hands in his pocket and glare out the window for reasons which he didn’t quite grasp. ‘John Colton,’ he muttered, venomous despite himself. ‘Son of a bitch.’

* *


‘If you two are here for another argument,’ said Ron as Albus crossed the Auror offices, ‘then let me know so I can take lunch. A long lunch. Possibly lasting until dinner. I’m a growing lad, you know -’

‘I’m not here to fight.’ Albus slumped into the chair across from Ron’s desk, his uncle forever the guardian to his father’s office. ‘What sort of mood’s he in?’

‘Oh, he’s thrilled, positively thrilled that Scorpius is leaving the country. You’d think I’d be the more angry guy, seeing as Rose is going with him, but apparently not.’

Albus frowned. ‘You’ve not legally got Scorpius under any restrictions. He’s not charged with or suspected of anything.’

‘He’s not suspected because we know, but you’re right. It was a kind of implication that in exchange for his freedom, he’d cooperate with us. And he is cooperating, he’s keeping us informed, he’s staying in public territory…’ Ron shrugged. ‘I know, he’s digging into whatever his father was digging into. I’m not the one who needs appeasing.’ He sighed. ‘Fathers and sons, hey?’

‘I thought Hugo was doing fine?’

‘He is!’ Ron beamed. ‘Captained Gryffindor to another Slytherin defeat -’

‘I’m going in.’ Albus stood, trying to not grin. ‘Angry Dad will be better than this -’

‘You’re assuming he won’t crow about it, too!’ Ron called out as Albus rapped on the door and let himself into his father’s office.

Harry had papers strewn about his desk, papers he pushed to one side when he saw Albus. For once, he didn’t look tired, worn, or angry. ‘What am I crowing about?’

‘Quidditch. Gryffindor. Slytherin.’

Harry lifted his hands. ‘I was thrilled when you guys won the Cup in your fourth year. I was really proud of you.’

Albus tried to not feel reassured about a victory some five years old, even if he’d felt guilty for beating his own brother, his cousins, with the best friend his family had never been thrilled by. He was supposed to be past these everyday disappointments. He sat down. ‘I imagine you’re not thrilled with me right now.’

Harry’s expression turned guarded. ‘What makes you think that?’

The fuzzy reassurance died when Albus remembered there were lots of reasons his father might not be happy with him. ‘I was specifically referring to Scorpius.’

‘That’s his choice. Not yours.’

‘Not exactly.’ Albus’ lips thinned. ‘We want to conduct our own investigations, and while we’re not in the habit of keeping the IMC or the MLE informed, I’d rather make sure none of us get arrested.’

‘Which “we”? No, don’t answer that - you mean the Five.’

‘Really, I don’t know why they call us the Hogwarts Five. Methuselah died, Matthias was never in the Phlegethon team, and none of us are still at Hogwarts.’

Harry’s gaze cut like jade gems, unwavering. ‘What are you investigating?’

‘Scorpius is looking into what his father was researching. Family history, Draco seems to have taken an interest in it. We don’t know why, but you can’t argue that Scorpius isn’t the best equipped to look into it. But he wants me to look at the trail for Draco himself.’

‘Telling me this is - I can’t clamp down on one set of vigilantes but indulge another -’

‘Right now, we’re not taking anything into our own hands. We’re just researching things. We’ve not fought anyone, we have no plans on fighting anyone…’

‘Except looking into Draco Malfoy will probably lead to the Council. To Thornweavers who’ll try to kill you.’

Albus met his gaze, calm, level. ‘They probably will.’

Harry stared at him for a moment, then made a low noise of upset. ‘I appreciate you bringing this to me, but it puts me in an awkward position -’

‘And if I lied to you, you’d yell at me when it came out. And this isn’t explicitly why I’m here.’

‘Then why are you here, Al, other than to make my life difficult -’

Albus exploded to his feet. ‘Make? Dad, I have made so many decisions these past years for a whole menagerie of reasons. Not only have almost none of them been because of you, even fewer have been to piss you off, so will you, for once, stop looking at everything everyone does as an attack on you?’

Harry frowned as he rose. ‘I am the Head of the Auror Office, and right now we are one of the most professional law enforcement bodies in the world. I have to worry not just about Britain, because we take the lead on any international task forces which spring up, like America, like -’

‘Yes, Dad, you’re very competent, so perhaps you can trust that maybe other people are competent? That just because we see things differently to you, we’re not liabilities? That maybe Gabriel Doyle can conduct his own war on the Council without being a threat -’

‘I’m not talking about Gabriel Doyle; I will not discuss that, and we’re talking about me and you -’

‘It’s all the same thing, Dad! You are so screwed up by being afraid that anything not immediately under your control will go wrong that you just can’t conceive of trusting it! Me! Doyle! Scorpius!’ Albus’ chest heaved with the truths bursting past him. ‘And even if I come to you, now, needing you, you’re too damned pent up with your own tunnel vision!’

Harry flinched as if struck, then his expression closed up, and long, thudding heartbeats passed where the two Potter men stared at each other. At long last, Harry dropped his gaze. ‘What did you need?’

His voice had dropped, and Albus knew his father, knew pride well enough to know that he’d get no answer to his accusations right away. Albus thinned his lips. ‘I wanted to ask your advice, believe it or not.’

‘I won’t tell you how to conduct your extra-legal -’

‘It’s not about that. It’s not practical advice. No offence, Dad, but I know what I’m doing in the field.’ Albus let out a long breath through his nose. ‘It’s about forgiveness.’

Harry’s expression sank. ‘I’m not blaming you -’

‘Not me.’ But thanks for jumping to that conclusion. Slowly, Albus took his seat again. ‘You managed to forgive a Death Eater who’d killed and tortured people and even betrayed your parents. Forgave him so much you named me after him. ‘

His father looked nonplussed as he, too, sat. ‘The world’s done a fine job of condemning Severus Snape. Even if they know the truth, they remember what they saw better. They remember the Death Eater, they remember the Headmaster during Hogwarts’ darkest year, they remember the bullying teacher.’

‘Quite well, if Neville’s tales are anything to go by.’

‘I don’t blame or question someone who wants - no. Who sees the bad in Snape.’ Harry sounded honest, but unsure where this was going. ‘Especially when it was a badness that struck them personally. I can’t disagree with the world condemning him. But there was good in there, too. Virtues and courage and people who wouldn’t be alive without him. There’s a whole world to remember him as evil. Someone should remember the good.’

‘And you decided that someone would have to be you. And, in a way, me.’ Albus Severus Potter fiddled with his sleeve.

His father’s expression creased. ‘I think my Mum would want that. I’m not championing him. I’m not telling the people who hate him that they’re wrong. I’m just trying to make sure the world’s remembering the whole. Because it was more complicated than we like to think.’

‘It always is.’

‘I’m not sure I’d say it’s about forgiveness,’ Harry continued. ‘But if it is, it’s much easier to forgive someone who’s gone. Once they’re gone, they can’t hurt you as much any more. But when someone’s still around, forgiveness isn’t just about past pain, is it? It’s about pain she might cause you in the future.’

Albus stiffened. ‘I didn’t -’

‘I can’t tell you what to think about Eva Saida, Al.’ Harry’s gaze turned sympathetic, and he dragged his chair around the desk so they were sat together. ‘I don’t know what you’re thinking and I don’t know what’s right. I don’t think you should do anything because you think you owe her it, though.’

Albus dropped his gaze, stared at his hands. ‘Even I’m not sure what I’m thinking. I thought she was someone else, Dad, I knew she’d had a hard life but I thought she’d turned away from that. Only - who she turned out to be was so different and yet not. She weaved her lies so close to the truth…’

‘Lies are so much more believable when they’re honest,’ Harry sighed. ‘Did you ever see her full file?’ Albus shook his head. ‘I can let you read it. But, in summary? She’s a Muggle-born. So far as we can tell, she didn’t know she was a witch until she was found in Algiers by Prometheus Thane, who took her in, taught her, trained her - and used her in his operations as a weapon. A young girl’s easily overlooked. From when she was a teenager we’ve got reports indicating she’d been in missions with Thane which included lethal force.’

Albus slumped forward and scrubbed his face. ‘And as an adult she was on missions where she killed people, innocent people, yeah. I know she was the one who executed - murdered - the real Lisa Delacroix. In cold blood. And I know she was the one who broke us out of Ager Sanguinis. She didn’t have to, Dad, she could have stayed with the Council, left us to rot. It would have made sense. The IMC wasn’t going to take her in - we didn’t take her in, she’s in a cell right now - so doing that made her an enemy of both sides. All sides; she had to lie to Baz for him to employ her.’

Harry sighed, hand coming to Albus’ shoulder. ‘You can’t deny that was incredibly brave of her.’

‘One thing I don’t doubt is that she is brave,’ Albus rumbled. ‘Breaking us out of Ager Sanguinis. Holding off a swathe of spirits on Cat Island while we got the Chalice. Coming to rescue us on Brillig when she had to fight through a horde of Inferi. I could consider the last two were just doing her job…’

‘But Ager Sanguinis makes it harder to be cynical.’

‘And rescuing Selena. Maybe she knew Baz wouldn’t take her back, but she didn’t have to help us. And… and she didn’t have to surrender in Saint Annard.’ Albus’ shoulders hunched in. ‘This could mean her death, or the Kiss…’

‘Knowing all she’s done, or a lot of what she’s done, you don’t think she deserves that?’ Harry’s voice was gentle, without inference.

Bile rose in Albus’ throat, and he braced his elbows on the desk, looked away. ‘No,’ he croaked at last. ‘No, no, I can’t think she deserves it. I’d be dead without her, Dad; I think we’d all be dead without her, several times over. But then I think about the people she killed, and I think they’ll have loved ones who broke just as badly as losing Scorpius broke me, and I know when I was at my lowest I would have wrung Joachim Raskoph’s throat without a second thought -’

‘And there is a reason why victims and their loved ones don’t get to pass judgement. All they can see is their pain, when there’s a bigger picture to judgement.’

‘But it’s not a set of scales. Lisa Delacroix’s family doesn’t grieve any less because Eva Saida saved my life later.’

‘No, but Albus Potter’s family doesn’t grieve, because Eva Saida saved his life.’

Before he knew it, Albus had hurled himself to his feet, shoulders taut, and barely aware of his father starting at the sudden, angry movement. ‘What the hell am I supposed to do?’ he snapped. ‘What the hell am I supposed to think? She’s a killer, she’s a murderer, she deserves to be punished, but if I’m being fair then how the fuck do I overlook the good she’s done? To me, to anyone Baz helped these last two years! She destroyed her life to do the right thing. How do I decide that what little she’s got left needs to be destroyed, too, because of those times she did the wrong thing?’

‘Al…’ Harry got to his feet, hands raised. ‘You don’t have to judge this as an impartial observer. You don’t have to think or feel anything specific.’

‘I don’t want to be a hypocrite,’ Albus growled, stalking across the office as if it would burn out the flames that had smoldered for years and, in their way, singed him worse than Scorpius’ loss ever had. ‘It would be easy, so very easy to say that I forgive her for lying to me, because I can understand it, and say that she made it up to me with changing, with, when she had the choice, choosing the right thing…’

‘Is that what you feel?’ said Harry. ‘Because I don’t think you’re wrong to say that. Your other namesake once told me that it is our choices that show us who we really are. I don’t know how much choice she really had raised under the shadow of Prometheus Thane. And she still changed later. Do you know why?’

Albus stopped, spine stiffening, and he glared at the map on the wall like it had personally offended him. When he spoke, his voice was still that low croak. ‘Me,’ he said at last. ‘Because I tried to help her. Because I made her believe she could be a better person.’

Harry gave a slow, measured nod. ‘I’d say,’ he said quietly, ‘that you were right.’ Albus half-turned, but Harry was crossing the office to grasp his shoulder. ‘I can’t tell you what to do. I don’t think condemning her would be wrong. But condemnation is easy and it is also safe. To trust someone to be better, to have faith that they can be better? That’s a million miles from safe, that belief, that compassion. And I get that you put trust in her and feel like she broke it, and if you never wanted to see her again for that betrayal, not a person in the world and least of all me, would blame you.’

Albus’ jaw tightened. ‘There’s a “but” coming.’

‘I never had to do this. I only had to forgive people who were long gone, think well of people who couldn’t hurt me any more. My perspective hurts nobody. It’s safe.’ Harry sighed. ‘But to believe in her, and to be right? To turn something broken, hurt, cruel, into something good? I think that forgiveness, when it finds its mark, when it heals, is better than a thousand condemnations of evil.’ He paused, gaze on Albus, studying every inch of his expression. ‘But all of this - these higher questions, these moral questions which will torment man and wizard for thousands of years to come, are all irrelevant compared to one question: how do you feel about her? You don’t have to be a judge, looking at a bigger picture. You’re a man so close to this that your emotions can’t be dismissed.’

‘I…’ Albus’ voice trailed off, and he looked away. ‘Her rotting away forever, or getting the Kiss, it doesn’t - I once thought that was what I wanted. Now the thought makes me feel sick. The thought of hurting her, or her being hurt, makes me sick.’

Harry nodded, watching him a moment more. ‘I’m sorry she hurt you, Al. I have no idea what it’s like. Not to be betrayed like that.’

Al’s eyes slammed shut. Never in his life had he contemplated discussing this with his father, but now he wasn’t sure if he could discuss it with anyone, despite the honesty of his conversation with Rose last night. ‘I think I loved her, Dad,’ he croaked. ‘And I’m only using the past tense because that’s safe.’

Then both his father’s hands were on his shoulders, grip tight, and still Albus didn’t look at him. ‘I do trust you,’ Harry said roughly. ‘And so I’ll trust Rose, and even Scorpius, and the others. Gabriel Doyle’s out of my hands, now; the Minister’s office is looking into him. But I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt if you just don’t… don’t hide from me. We can do some of this together, yeah?’

Albus turned to face him, and his smile felt like it creaked with anxiety. ‘Yeah. Yeah, Dad, that sounds… we’ll try, yeah?’

He managed to sound honest, not awkward, but still his father sighed. ‘You used to be so full of hope. Belief in the world, determined in what was good.’

‘Someone told me, once, that it’s not true bravery if you’ve not known true loss. It’s easy to be courageous, it’s easy to champion goodness, when you’ve no idea of the true price of failure.’

‘Maybe I’m biased,’ said Harry, ‘because a father always sees the best in his children. But I think you sell yourself short if you think you’ve not been a great man in the past. If you think you’re still not a great man. You’ve got a big heart, Al. Don’t treat it like a weakness.’

Albus opened his mouth, unsure of what he was going to say - then there was a clatter at the door and Ron burst in, short of breath, hair wild. ‘We got a problem.’

Harry turned sharply, expression now cool, calm, professional. ‘Explain.’

‘Council takeover,’ Ron reported, voice ragged. ‘Greece. They’ve fallen.’

* *


‘It’s not that much longer than a Portkey,’ said Scorpius as they ducked through the barrier out of Muggle King’s Cross Station and onto Platform Six and One-Sixth. ‘I mean, sure, it’s an overnight train -’

‘Considering a Portkey is instantaneous, it’s considerably longer.’ Rose was doing that thing he knew so well, because she’d done it all the time when they’d been enemies: not looking at him when she spoke. There was also, he thought, the slightest hint of condescension, and with a sigh he wondered if he was going to get the cold treatment the entire journey. That should not have been his biggest problem. They had to make it to Switzerland to hunt clues about his errant ancestor which might lead to difficult truths about the Council of Thorns, and the clock was ticking. And yet the thought of Rose being angry or upset with him, beyond the natural bewilderment surrounding his resurrection, made him feel like crap.

‘Yes, but you can’t Portkey to Niemandhorn,’ he pointed out, more testy than he meant to be. ‘So that’s that.’

Rose tilted her nose in the air as they wound through the crowds of passengers. ‘Does the Ministry know you’re travelling?’

‘I told your father. Yes. Considering that we’re going to the centre of IMC activity, which is going to be positively crawling with security, he didn’t seem worried.’

She sniffed. ‘He wouldn’t.’

Scorpius kept his mouth shut as they reached the train doors until they’d passed their tickets to the conductor. ‘If you think I actually need security oversight, then why are you bloody here with me?’

She stared at him for a moment, then followed him on board. ‘I don’t,’ she said at last. ‘I’m just worried about what the Auror Office does and doesn’t have time for.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s why we’re taking matters into our own hands,’ he muttered, winding down the corridor. ‘Your dad’s keeping an eye on me because formally he’s charged with the hunt for my father. But he blatantly can’t make any bloody headway with that when the Aurors are going to go apeshit over Greece.’

‘Weakening the Council’s hold over an entire nation is a bit more important than one man.’

‘I’m not disagreeing with that -’ He stopped himself. The old habit of arguing her was, it seemed, set into his bones just as deeply as more affectionate impulses. He looked at the next door they came to, and sighed with relief. ‘Oh, here we are.’ As this was an overnight train, they couldn’t see into the compartments from the corridor, which made sense as soon as Scorpius gave it half a moment’s thought. But he’d not been thinking - not now, and not when booking the tickets, so they both stared at the small room. And its two bunks.

‘So I guess I’m next door,’ said Rose after a moment.

He stood in the middle of the cramped room, looked at the tickets, and said, ‘Um.’

She raised her eyebrows. ‘So I guess we’re sharing a compartment and what were you thinking?’

Scorpius waved the tickets wildly in the air. ‘Would you believe that I didn’t look, just blindly threw money at the problem?’

‘Of course you did! Of course that’s what happened! Scorpius Malfoy doesn’t think, Scorpius Malfoy just enjoys the finer things in life and his own whims!’

That took extra effort to not rise to. ‘This wasn’t a whim, this was our only bloody means of transport to Niemandhorn - and you volunteered to come with me on this trip! Insisted on it!’ Or maybe he was going to rise to it.

‘Well, yes, but that was before I realised my presence was getting in the way of your indulgent life! Going out with - with men while I’m…’

But she stopped herself and they stood in the narrow compartment for a moment, facing off. It was the first opportunity he’d had since coming back to properly look at her. The rest had been stolen glances or guilty eye-contact, because even looking at her felt like he was plunging a fresh knife into his heart.

She looked older. Not just in terms of two years; her face was more drawn, her brown eyes more sunken. Once, she’d let her shining red hair fall loose, satisfied with tying it back only in times which demanded practicality, otherwise prepared to battle with errant locks that were only more cooperative than her mother’s because there were herds of rampaging wildebeest more cooperative than Hermione Granger’s hair. But now the tight braid was the hairstyle for every day, and rarely did her eyes light up with curiosity or amusement or the fire he’d once loved provoking, her lips reduced to a thin, emotionless line.

He remembered her as a girl of passion and gold, but now he studied a woman of ice and steel.

You. You did this, and if you’re a fool, you’ll just do it again.

‘I’m going to the bar,’ he said, folding his arms across his chest. ‘You can get changed, or unwind, or whatever. I’ll try to crash in one of the communal spaces on board, so we can see each other as little as possible this entire bloody trip.’

And before she could answer, he’d turned on his heel and left the compartment, trying to not think about how going on a train trip with Rose Weasley was so much like old times it could choke him.


—————————

A/N: Recent canon mentions other magic platforms at King’s Cross, including ones for international trains. Platform Six and One-Sixth is just a blatant Marvel reference; ‘Earth 616’ is the designation for the main/real reality in the Marvel superhero comics continuity.

Chapter 21: Love Most, Say Least
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Love Most, Say Least


The Muggles had built the Gare d’Orsay over a hundred years ago, one of the latest stations built in Paris to play hub to the blossoming rail network. Wizards, as ever a little behind the curve on technology, had taken the fifty or so years of industrial development before they’d seen the merit of trains, and slipped their way into the building process to make sure another station was constructed alongside the Muggle works, deep underground.

The magical station had outlived its Muggle counterpart. No wizard cared if a station’s platform was too short; space, especially when folding space in the inner workings of one of the busiest cities of Europe was a common, simple for professional enchanters. So while the Niemandhorn Express started from London, within four hours it was pulling up in Paris. More passengers swarmed aboard, government officials and specialists in certain fields and the odd journalist, all winding their way to the new beating heart of the magical world: Niemandhorn Castle itself.

If the trip from London had felt to Rose like being back on the Hogwarts Express, then this felt like being on a rattling train dragging her from Athens to Aleppo to find Ager Sanguinis. Not that the Niemandhorn Express was anything like that run-down Muggle contraption. It was a handsome steam train, the carriage interiors all polished dark wood and imperial blue furnishings, keeping her in the lap of luxury while she sat alone in the shared compartment and stewed.

Walking in on Scorpius and John had been bad enough, an image which flared in front of her whenever she blinked and brought awkward jealousy and blossoming guilt. But now there was an overnight train to Switzerland, and this had her heart thudding in her chest. Not just because of sharing a room, but when arguing, what would have once been familiar irritation ballooned into anger and regret. Bickering felt so close to flirting felt so close to tumbling into his arms, and she still felt cold where Matt had pulled away. But Scorpius was right about one thing: she had volunteered for this expedition. So she reached deep into herself, sought cold logic over her feelings, and found them worryingly in sync.

Eventually she left the compartment and headed down the train. Paris and the fat gold of a setting sun swished past the windows when she reached her destination, the warm woods of the bar lit by low-hanging lamps. A mellow, jazzy tune drifted from a polished black piano playing itself as she walked to the counter and slid onto a stool next to her target. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I did volunteer for this job. Insist on it, in fact. So it’s silly for me to act like a brat, like us being in the same place is impossible.’

Scorpius had rolled up his shirt sleeves to show skin tanned and worn from long, hard labour outdoors. A new scar ran along his left forearm, and she idly wondered how much the parts of him out of sight had been changed and marked, too. A glass of Firewhiskey was in one hand, and he swirled it as she talked, ice clinking before he had a sip. ‘You need an apéritif,’ was all he said.

Rose hesitated. She wasn’t in the habit of drinking alcohol to deal with problems. It sounded like an addictive solution when her problems never stopped. ‘Uh. Not ouzo.’ She didn’t need to think of Kythos right now.

‘This is a train from France to Switzerland,’ said Scorpius wryly. ‘I’d have to go out of my way to order something Greek. We can go Italian. Campari?’

She’d drunk Campari on a balcony in Monaco with Matt and Alfonse Guerrier, who’d been murdered by Raskoph. There was probably no drink she couldn’t associate with something horrific, so it was as good a suggestion as any.

‘You might have volunteered for this,’ he continued once the lowball glass of reds and oranges was in front of her, ‘but it wasn’t a binding contract. This probably wasn’t a good idea anyway -’

‘You going on your own isn’t a good idea.’

‘I’m going to one of the most secure places in the world -’

‘Niemandhorn Castle might be safe. Sure, it’s the old headquarters of the Magical Alliance from the Grindelwald Wars. Sure, Lillian Rourke’s making it the new centre of operations for the IMC, which is a bloody political move if ever I heard one. But -’

‘It’s a wizarding castle that’s never fallen, with protections that make Hogwarts look like a holiday home. It’s not like I’m hurling myself into the abyss.’

Again. Rose sipped her drink. ‘I’m not worried about Niemandhorn. I’m worried about what Niemandhorn leads to. If there’s valuable information to be found, it won’t be easy and it won’t be safe.’

‘I can take care of myself.’

Her drink came down with a clunk. ‘How about we leave safety calls to the one of us who hasn’t died?’ He looked abashed, and she didn’t know if she should feel guilty or angry, so she pressed on, breezing past her feelings. It was an unfamiliar sensation. She wasn’t used to having feelings to breeze past. ‘Besides, if there’s a puzzle here, if there are secrets here, you shouldn’t have to face them alone. Even if all I am is an extra pair of eyes to look at a problem with you. And you were never the one for figuring out puzzles.’

‘I was a master at the Ravenclaw Tower riddles.’ Scorpius stuck his nose in the air.

‘You were an obstinate bastard at the Ravenclaw Tower riddles.’

‘And that was the solution. You had to accept the premise that the question was out to get you. It wasn’t about figuring out the logic, it was about finding the trap.’

‘Not everything’s a trap.’

‘My experience,’ said Scorpius, finishing his whiskey, ‘says otherwise.’ He tilted the glass in front of him, watched the low, golden lights of the bar refract through the cuttings, and sighed. ‘I really am glad you’re okay.’

Rose blinked. ‘What?’

‘You and Matt - I’m not bitter, I didn’t…’ Scorpius groaned. ‘Nobody wants to be forgotten when they’re gone, but you languishing in misery forever? I didn’t want that. I don’t want that. So - I might be horribly out of line, but I just thought I should say it. I’m glad you two found each other.’

It hadn’t been a conscious choice to not tell Scorpius about the breakup. Just with everything, she’d not got around to it. Now Rose was staring at the opportunity, it felt too on the nose an admission, too raw and too open to possibilities which were, right then, beyond contemplation. She needed to find her feet before she could find a path. So, instead, she had a swig of her drink. ‘I’m sorry I made this morning awkward. With John.’

‘Oh.’ His brow furrowed. ‘That wasn’t - he wasn’t going to stick around -’

‘It’s really none of my business -’

‘I was lonely and he was good company and - and it was a one-off thing,’ Scorpius blurted.

Good, came Rose’s treacherous thought. Instead she said, ‘You’re entitled to do whatever you like with whomever you like and you certainly don’t need to justify it to me.’

‘No, but I want to explain it. I owe you at least that much.’

He sounded guilty, like he owed her more. She remembered the game of chess in his mind, the rook he never let her take. Trying to forget, she sipped her drink. ‘I really shouldn’t be surprised you went and had a fling with a pretty boy, should I.’ She couldn’t keep the wryness out of her voice.

‘And I thought I was so discreet when I flirted with anything that stood still long enough,’ came his dry response.

‘Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think John would be your type, but I suppose the two of you can run around being sardonic at everything.’

‘Albus was surprised.’

‘Albus is shockingly oblivious to some things.’

‘I reckon I offended him.’

‘Well, yes. It’s not like I never had this paranoid wondering that you two would run off together.’

Scorpius goggled. ‘Are you - seriously, woman, are you just trying to make my life the most complicated thing it could ever be?’

She tried, and failed, to smother a grin. ‘Oh, because that’s too much. I’m whisking to the centre of IMC politics with my resurrected ex-boyfriend to look into the secret life of his mysterious ancestor and how that maybe connects to the deranged Nazi dark wizard who wants to take over the world. But pointing out you and Albus are occasionally dangerously and, let’s face it, homo-erotically codependent is the bridge too far?’

He was staring at her, staring more than her joke demanded, and again her heart was thudding in her chest, because there was no way a normal conversation could be a normal conversation between them. Not any more.

On the edges, everything felt like they were just two people with a connection, sat in a bar having a drink and a chat and a reminisce. But on the inside she could feel all that she couldn’t say and couldn’t think, and all she didn’t want to think, like the feelings she’d admitted to Albus, like the secrets he was locking away, like the fact he’d hidden his survival from her for months on end, months in which he’d tortured and murdered at least one man because of a cause that had killed him in the first place -

‘So I got some more information on Cassian Malfoy,’ he blurted after the long silence.

She paused to watch him, then sipped her drink. ‘I did think it was odd you weren’t familiar with him.’

‘Believe it or not, I wasn’t very interested in pleasing my father by memorising the family tree. And he’s one of the more inauspicious branches. Stumps.’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t get how he’s anyone of any significance to Raskoph or the Council. He was my great-grandfather Abraxas’ younger brother. The letters and records I found at the Manor paint a picture of Cassian as a wastrel, a rake, a disappointment to his family and his father who left Hogwarts and spent three years, not the traditional one, on his world travels. When he came back, he took an underpaid job as a talent spotter for the Falmouth Falcons, spending most of his time in Europe. Living the high life off the family funds, doing whatever he liked, or so Abraxas wrote. He lost his job with the Falcons when the Grindelwald War broke out. He spent a bit of time in America, but then went on a magic safari. Africa. And didn’t come back when the war ended. He died out there; records list him as perishing in a hunting accident on the Maasai Mara. What?’

She’d failed to hide the slightest nose-wrinkle. ‘Nothing.’

‘You’ve got a thought. You did that -’ His gaze flickered across her face. ‘There was a thought.’

‘Knowing your ancestors would paint any behaviour they considered inappropriate for a scion of House Malfoy in the worst possible light… I don’t know. Quidditch fan, cared little for what his family thought.’ Rose sighed, and sipped her drink. ‘I thought he sounds a bit like you.’

* *




‘How have you been filling your time in here?’

‘There are five hundred and fifty-three bricks in this ceiling.’ Eva sat up from her bunk to peer through the bars at Albus. ‘I wasn’t sure I’d see you here again.’

‘I wasn’t sure I’d be back.’ He’d aged more than two years since Scorpius’ death, in more than just mind and heart. His face was harder, any youthful roundness gone, more shadows cast across it by his longer hair. But it was his eyes that had changed the most and yet the least, staring at her with a coldness that could not hide the apprehension underneath. She didn’t know what it meant. ‘Don’t they give you books to read?’

‘They have. I’m not much of a reader.’ She gripped the edge of the bunk, forcing her voice to stay level.

‘I would have thought there’d be a lot of waiting around in mercenary work.’

‘There is. And prep-work for jobs, so I study. I wouldn’t have known how to beat those spirits on Cat Island otherwise.’ His expression flickered, and she looked down. She didn’t want him to think she was cashing in favours. ‘But I read magic theory when there’s a practical goal. And my life is far, far stranger than fiction.’

‘You could read something ordinary.’

‘Oh, yes. “Anita Bleasworth is twenty years old, works a job she hates, and her boyfriend just left her. But when mysterious and/or rich hunk Hypotenuse Bunk walks into her life, will she realise her true feelings before he slips through her grasp?” I think it’s a story that would really speak to me.’

He clearly didn’t want to laugh as much as he did. ‘Hypotenuse Bunk?’

‘I’ve met a Hypotenuse. Greek pureblood. Obviously hated by his parents.’

His lips thinned to a hard, awkward line. ‘You’re wondering why I’m here.’

‘I am. I accept you might not know the answer. I can’t say anything to make this easier, if that’s what you came for.’

‘It’s not.’ He didn’t tear his eyes off his hand, resting on the bars. ‘You’re familiar with the way law enforcement’s worked with civilians these past two years. Giving people of certain skills and affiliations a quasi-legal status. Protection under the law, support and resources, in return for duties performed. Both in fighting the Council and to reinforce everyday peacekeeping.’

‘It’s the deal Baz has with the Russian Federation and then the IMC as a whole. He likes to refer to himself as a civilian contractor when he’s being facetious.’

Oddly, Albus brightened, though his frown didn’t fade. ‘That’s a good way of looking at it. You were once protected by such a deal, because you worked for Baz.’

‘If you’re trying to find me a way out, I don’t understand why, but Baz will never -’

‘The Department of Magical Law Enforcement would like to offer you such a contract. You will receive amnesty for all crimes committed in the past until hostilities with the Council of Thorns end. In return, you will lend your expertise and experience to the war effort. The DMLE will take this into consideration upon your trial and sentencing.’

Eva narrowed her eyes. ‘What do they need me for?’

‘I assume you’ve heard what’s happening in Greece. If the Auror Office was stretched thin before, it’s translucent in places now. The hunt for Draco Malfoy’s fallen by the wayside, but he needs to be found. He’ll know more than anyone about Council influence in Britain, not to mention their wider plans. But he could be anywhere in the world right now.’

‘And why are you offering me this?’

Albus dragged his gaze up to meet hers. ‘Because I was going to look for Draco Malfoy anyway, only for once I get to do work like this with the authorities. And I can’t do this alone.’

‘What about the others?’

‘Scorpius has his own enquiries to chase up. Rose is with him. Matt’s not fighting fit and this isn’t where Selena’s strengths lie. If Draco Malfoy’s gone to ground under a Council nest, then I need someone professional, and while I can call in a squad of Aurors if I get a lead, getting that intel in the first place is going to be dangerous.’

Eva pursed her lips and tried to think through the hammering of her heart. Then she stood and approached the bars. She didn’t know if she should take it as a good sign when Albus flinched. ‘If I’m going to do this, then I need to know a few things.’

‘You get to be not in jail -’

‘Are you still going to think about killing me?’

His eyes widened. ‘Of course not -’

‘Don’t “of course” me, like you’d never think about it. You threatened it in Rotterdam, you thought about it on the Naglfar. I saw it in your eyes.’

He looked away. ‘I was angry then.’

‘And now Scorpius is alive, you’re suddenly, what, all better? Two years of loneliness and pain don’t disappear overnight. You might feel better. But that’s a million miles away from everything being okay.’

There was a furious flash in deep green when his gaze snapped back to her. It hurt to be right, often. ‘Like I said, you get to not rot in jail, you get to fight, to make yourself useful, to even earn your way out of prison -’

‘And all that proves is how justice is a system to be played. Nobody I’ve murdered is less dead because I’m less bad now.’ She jerked her chin up an inch. ‘I won’t do this if I’m watching my back all the time. That will get us both killed. Even when I was a mercenary, I only took jobs with people I trusted to look out for me. The last thing I need is for you to remember you promised to kill me.’

‘I wouldn’t be here,’ said Albus in a low, firm voice, ‘if I still wanted to kill you. And you don’t need to remind me that the last two years happened. When the hell did you become this zen adviser?’

‘Changing yourself,’ said Eva simply, ‘takes being honest with yourself. If you think everything’s okay now, you’re lying to yourself.’

‘I didn’t say everything was okay! But Draco Malfoy needs finding; Matt needs him found, Scorpius needs him found -’

‘And so you’ll do it for Scorpius, everything for Scorpius. He’s back, so you don’t hate the world any more, so you don’t hate me any more, so you’ll even work with me, because Scorpius needs you to. Do you even know why Scorpius, for whom you’d do anything, let you think he was still dead for eight months? Worked with the man who turned me into a weapon, who plagued Hogwarts and let people die, who murdered dozens of people to chase the Chalice, who almost killed you in Portugal? And before you try to turn this on me, I can promise you that Prometheus Thane does not regret the things he’s done.’

Albus’ jaw was tight. ‘I don’t think what Scorpius is or isn’t saying has anything to do with you and me -’

‘What do you do when your trust’s broken again -’

‘It won’t be!’ Hands slammed on the bars, the rattle deafening with his shout. ‘Not with him, never with him, and don’t you dare make out like he’s like you -’

‘There it is,’ she snapped, forcing herself to keep his gaze. ‘Don’t pretend you’re not angry with me, Al. What is it; you accept I helped you, that I didn’t betray you? You accept that I’ve been trying to change, so you think you shouldn’t feel personally hurt? I lied to you. I even, for a little time, manipulated you. I might not be the devil you told yourself I was, but I hurt you.’

‘I thought you said you wouldn’t work with me if you thought I’d turn on you -’

‘I worked with Elijah Downing for several years, and he and I despised one another. But I still trusted him to have my back when we did a job. He even trusted me the same way, right up until I stabbed him. If you’re still hissing and spitting and growling at me, if you’re that blinded by pain, I won’t work with you. But I don’t need you pretending everything’s alright, only to snap like this when pushed.’

Anger fled from his shoulders, his expression sagging like it was dragged down by his burdens. ‘You could be out of here already.’

Eva swallowed. ‘Before I came to your flat in Moscow,’ she said, voice low, ‘I told myself that if I was going to do this, I was going to do it right.’

His gaze flicked up to meet hers. ‘You are maddening.’

‘If it’s any consolation, my life made perfect sense to me until I met you.’

He drummed his fingers on the bars and drew an apprehensive breath. ‘You think Scorpius is lying?’

It was like he’d break if he more than whispered the doubt, and her heart was tight in her chest as she watched him. Before she knew it, her hand came up, brushing against his. ‘I don’t know,’ she said honestly. ‘I think there’s more than you know. Maybe he thinks he’s speaking the truth, and Prometheus really has got under his skin. He does that.’

Albus’ expression twisted. ‘I wish I were with him. But he needs his father found, and he gave me this responsibility. Asked me to do it, because he trusts me. I have to do this for him; I have to.’ He swallowed hard. ‘Will you help me?’

A part of her wondered if her cell would be safer. But Eva had lived her life for ruthless efficiency and she’d lived it for bitter regret; never had she lived it for safety. She wasn’t going to start now. ‘I’ll take the deal. I’ll toe the party line. And I’ll help you.’

He stared at her hand resting atop his, and when he pulled back it was a slow withdrawal, not a jerky escape. ‘Okay. I’ll go tell them, I just - I had to be the one to ask you.’

She nodded and he left, and then she was alone once again in the dripping cell in the belly of the DMLE Headquarters. She paced it once more, as she’d done a hundred times before; sat on the bench and counted the bricks overhead again for old time’s sake, and she was halfway through before there were fresh footsteps from the corridor.

Eva Saida had never properly met Harry Potter. He’d been front-and-centre when they’d returned to Britain from Saint Annard, but he’d barely looked at her. Orders had been given and the Enforcers had taken her away to this cell, and they had never so much as exchanged words. But he was a hero of near-legend and he was Albus’ father and he was the reason she hadn’t been shipped off for a Dementor’s Kiss in France, and she wasn’t sure which of these made her more apprehensive to look at him.

‘Ms Saida.’ He extended a roll of parchment and a quill through the bars. ‘You’ll want to read this and sign it.’

She took both, unrolling the paper and seeing the same standard agreement Baz had dealt with. She read it anyway, just to be sure. It was easier than looking at him. ‘This all seems in order,’ she said at last, and left her mark.

‘Note the paragraph which states that if you do not hand yourself into custody at the official end of hostilities or termination of this contract, upon your apprehension you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Regardless of any services rendered.’

Who in the world ever ran away thinking they’d get caught? But this wasn’t the time to be sardonic. She rolled the parchment again and returned it. ‘I’ve worked under these terms for Balthazar Vadimas the past two years. I have no problem with the same deal.’

Harry Potter’s expression was tense, set, and colder even than his son’s in the grips of his greatest anger. ‘You and I both know this is not the same deal.’

‘I handed myself in. I know what I’m getting into.’

‘You’re being trusted because Albus trusts you, in this at least. I accept and recognise you’ve helped my family…’ Harry’s voice trailed off, and his jaw clenched. ‘I will not see them hurt again. Do you understand?’

‘If you’re talking about my personal choices regarding your son, or even your niece, I have no intention of lying. If you’re talking about the dangers of the world, I will fight alongside your son and I will protect him to the best of my ability, but you know as well as I do that nothing guarantees safety. Not staying at home in a metal box, and certainly not hunting down Thornweavers.’

His eyes narrowed, those green eyes so piercingly like his son’s. ‘I don’t need a lecture on risks -’

‘No, sir, I know you don’t. And you know that personal safety at all costs comes at the expense of the safety of others.’ It had always, Eva reflected, been easier to kill a possible threat. Then they definitely couldn’t hurt you. ‘But if it’s any consolation, I would die to keep your son safe.’

Harry hesitated. ‘Why?’

‘I’m not sure you need me to go into great detail, sir.’ Somehow, this was easier; somehow, she could keep this like a debriefing from a tense employer. Brisk, professional. ‘But in ten years, your son will ideally be living a normal, happy, healthy life. The same can’t be said for me.’

Harry Potter stared at her for a moment. Then he sighed, and flicked his wand at the cell lock. ‘You’ll make regular reports to Auror-Captain Weasley,’ he said, and the tension of the moment broke. Now this really was just work. ‘Albus can make those reports, but if for some reason he doesn’t, that will fall to you. We will keep you both updated with any news we find about Draco Malfoy’s circumstances and whereabouts. If you’re in need of backup, we’ll provide what help we can. If you find the man, you have the authority to apprehend him, but you have to bring him in to the nearest appropriate authorities as soon as possible.’

Eva nodded, following Harry out of the winding maze of the DMLE HQ’s cell block. ‘I assume “appropriate” authorities means we can hang onto him if we suspect the locals to be corrupt?’

‘If you need to keep him trussed up in a bloody trunk all the way between Australia and this office, then you do that.’

They climbed the stairs in silence, and it was only when she heard the humming of an office, the sound of people and life and normalcy, that something stuck in her throat. ‘Sir -’ He stopped on the steps and looked back at her, brow furrowing. ‘I should thank you. I’m aware France wanted me extradited for trial, and I’m aware how that trial would end.’

His expression remained impassive. ‘It’s not British policy to allow prisoner extradition if a conviction will result in the Kiss. We’ve had to play politics during the years of the IMC, but you weren’t worth anyone rocking the boat for.’ Then he hesitated, and frowned at a spot over her head. ‘You rescued my son and niece in Ager Sanguinis. You helped them in Rotterdam and France. I know this is a big, complicated world, but I have no problem showing this kind of mercy. And the last thing I need is another reason for Albus to hate me.’ A muscle in the corner of his jaw flickered, and now he met her gaze, still cold. ‘If you betray his trust again, you won’t need a Dementor’s Kiss.’

Eva was entirely accustomed to being threatened. But even the threats of Albus at his most furious, or Joachim Raskoph at his most psychotic, had not thudded into her as hard as Harry Potter’s. She swallowed hard. ‘I understand, sir.’

This wasn’t dignified by an answer, and Harry led her up through the corridors of the DMLE, then out into the open office of the Auror Division. She could see Albus sat by a desk in the corner, manned by a red-haired man she recognised as Rose’s father, and it was to there that Harry led her, straight-backed, ignoring the eyes of all present that fell upon them.

Albus shot to his feet the moment they got there. ‘So, paperwork’s… done?’

‘It’s done.’ Harry tossed the parchment to Ron Weasley. ‘You have your consultants.’

Ron gave her a dubious look. ‘Welcome aboard. For the record, I hate working with civilians.’

‘It’s not my habit to work with the law, either,’ Eva drawled before she could stop herself.

To her surprise and relief, Ron’s lips twisted with a lopsided smile. ‘Then let’s hope we flourish out of our element, hm?’

Eva looked to Albus. ‘What comes now?’

He let out a slow breath. ‘We’ll get you settled, and then go over the case files, all the records we have, and figure out where we start in all of this.’

‘Great. Settled where?’

Albus blinked, and Ron and Harry exchanged glances behind him. ‘What?’

Eva raised an eyebrow. ‘Unless my assets in Russia have been unfrozen, I don’t have a knut to my name. I have no place of residence in Britain; I’ve barely been here.’

Ron let out a slow breath. ‘Hoo, boy. Good start.’

‘I… didn’t think of that,’ Albus admitted. ‘Dad, can we see about her assets -’

‘I’ll have to make some calls to the Federation. Who won’t be thrilled about us giving Saida this deal, so they’ll drag their feet.’ Harry grimaced. ‘We can arrange some Division funds, seeing as you’ll need it for the operations anyway.’

‘That’s never a quick job,’ Ron pointed out. ‘You’d think it would be, with the Office Head, but bureaucrats are evil bastards who make Thornweavers look fluffy. No offence intended.’

‘Technically, they didn’t call us “Thornweavers” when I was one of them. So, no offence taken.’

Albus sighed. ‘I’ll put you up in a room in the Leaky Cauldron, or something; Hannah can sort that out…’

‘Except the Leaky Cauldron has no security set up,’ said Ron. ‘No wards, nothing. But there is one house that’s safe as… er, houses, and if it’s just one night, it is an easier option. It’s just also like something out of a horror story.’

Eva saw Albus and Harry exchange looks, and closed her eyes. Somehow this had managed to get worse.

* *




‘What’s all this?’

Matt jolted at the voice, so lost in his reverie of times gone by and the siren call of ancient parchments that he wasn’t ready for an interruption. His metal hand jerked and almost upended his teacup. ‘Shit -’

‘I’m sorry.’ Selena shut the door to the spare room behind her. ‘Didn’t mean to startle you.’

‘No, I was - I should have been paying more attention. What time is it?’ He slumped back in the chair.

‘It’s about eleven. I was going to go to bed, I just saw the light under your door. I’ve barely seen you all day.’ She padded over and rested her hands on the edge of the table. ‘Are these the Guanahani maps?’

‘Yes. I’ve been going over everything we found on the hunt.’

‘Why?’

He let out a slow breath. ‘I went to see my father today. In jail.’

An inch of tension creaked from his back as he felt her hand at his shoulder. ‘How’d it go?’

‘Short. We only had five minutes. The Minister’s office is intent on nailing him to the wall, just so Minister Halvard can appear relevant while your mother’s kicking international arse…’ He scrubbed his face with his good hand. ‘He fussed. I updated him. And he told me that I was, under no circumstances, to do anything.’

‘Anything risky?’

‘Anything.’ Matt stared at the paper. ‘I don’t know if he’s paranoid I’ll be targeted to get to him. I don’t know if someone’s put pressure on him. But his instructions were clear. Don’t get involved. Let the IMC handle the Council.’

She frowned, gaze going to the papers strewn across the desk. ‘So of course you’re going over all of our old Chalice records.’

‘I… never looked at them before,’ he admitted. ‘We lost the Chalice. Scorpius died, and looking at it… hurt. The world was a whole lot darker without him. You should have seen us when we were together to go after you - I mean, Rose and Al and me. We needed one of the two of you, to point out just how incredibly stupid we were being. Sure, he’d do it with a joke at my expense, but…’ He shook his head. ‘Looking at all this was depressing. And made me feel guilty. I got a second chance. He didn’t. Except now he -’

‘You’re rambling,’ Selena said gently. ‘And I don’t believe you’re just looking at this for nostalgia.’

He looked down again. ‘Everyone else is racing after danger. My father’s been jailed for his work. I can’t stand by and do nothing. I just can’t.’

The corners of her eyes creased. ‘I don’t want to see you throwing yourself into something to avoid thinking about Rose.’

‘Trust me, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Rose this past week.’ Matt ducked his head. ‘I’ve been thinking so much that I’m sick of thinking, and thinking isn’t going to change a thing any more. So if I don’t do something else, I’m just wallowing. Wallowing in losing her, wallowing in what a fool I was to ever have her, wallowing in my father’s fate, wallowing in this.’ He jerked his prosthetic.

‘It is not useless for you to take time to recover.’

‘But my mind works, Selena. Most of the world’s experts on the Chalice are dead. Nobody but Prometheus Thane bothered studying it after it was lost. Professor Lockett’s a potioneer. I might be the last expert in the world, after Reynald de Sablé, and I cannot, I cannot do nothing!’ He brought his hand down on the table, only it was the metal one and it did knock over his teacup this time.

He swore, but Selena grabbed it without ceremony, pity, or reproach, and when she met his gaze, her expression was calm. ‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘You are one of the best-qualified people to work on the Chalice. So why, instead of rushing off independently like Scorpius and Rose, instead of going solo in secret like your father, don’t we go to the Ministry tomorrow and tell them you’re the best man for this project?’

‘We?’ His brow furrowed. ‘I’m not asking you to jump on board this with me.’

She hesitated, but then there was conviction in her eyes. ‘We can argue this tomorrow; it’s too late for this kind of debate. I’m going to bed. Don’t you stay up too late; you need your rest, and I will nag you if I must.’

He couldn’t suppress a small, pleased smile at her threat. Her hand brushed his shoulder, and then she was gone, leaving him with his paperwork, the throbbing in his wrist, and fading warmth. With a grimace, he disconnected the prosthetic, and set it down as a glorified paperweight. But now he could return to the world of Caribbean maps and lost ancient artifacts and not having to worry about anything more complicated than Selena’s evasion and trying to get over Rose. At least some things didn’t change.

He was still reading when he heard the scream an hour later.

Years of practice with the sword meant he was comfortable with his wand in his left hand. Matt flew into the corridor, weapon brandished, eyes darting about. Already there was the nervous creak of an opening door from Miranda’s room, and he lifted his stump at her. ‘Stay there!’

The scream had come from the other way, from Selena’s room. Matt didn’t need to kick the door open, but he couldn’t use the handle without dropping his wand, and if there was a threat -

He burst in to find no night-time attacker, no danger. Just Selena sat bolt upright, eyes wide, chest heaving with ragged breathing, bedsheets twisted around her, and he realised what had happened.

He lowered his wand. ‘Oh.’

‘…did you just break the door?’ That was Miranda, padding onto the landing, braver now she’d realised they weren’t being invaded. But as she reached him she gave him a questioning look, a silent, ‘Are you handling this or am I?’ and for the first time, Matt felt sorry for Miranda Travers, who’d woken up from Phlegethon to find she would never, ever be able to understand one of her best friends again.

‘I’ll fix it,’ he muttered, and gestured her away as he padded into the bedroom. Repair work was not front of his thoughts. Selena was.

She was still blinking, still getting her breathing under control. ‘Matt, I - it’s okay, I was just -’

‘Dreaming. I know.’ He slid his wand into his pocket and nudged the door closed, then went to the bedside and turned on the lamp. ‘Just a little something, just enough to make us all think you were being murdered.’

She covered her face with her hands. ‘Sorry, I didn’t -’

‘That was a joke.’ He hunkered down next to the bed, resting his good hand on the sheets. ‘Are you okay? Can I get you anything?’

‘No, no. I’m better now. I’m awake. It’s all gone.’ She was still a tight bundle, knees drawn up under her chin, and he could see the gleam of sweat. ‘You don’t need to come in and fuss -’

‘I’m invoking veto on being told to go away,’ he said, and tried to sound wry, gentle, despite the concern humming through his veins. ‘You look like the last thing you need is to be alone.’

Selena looked at him at last, and only now did he see the hollow shadow in her eyes, the haunted glint. ‘Oh, you dear, stupid man,’ she breathed. ‘Didn’t you realise? I’m always alone.’

She said it so casually, and yet it was almost enough to knock him over. He perched on the side of the bed, closer but not yet reaching for her. ‘You’re - you’re not -’

‘No, I’m - I’m just tired, Matt…’

He wasn’t convinced, but to tell her she wasn’t alone when he’d let her slip away, when they’d barely talked for months on end, felt empty. Even promises sounded empty, because they’d made them before, and even if they’d both failed them, they’d still been broken. So all he could manage to say, voice low and hoarse, was a gentle, ‘What did you dream?’

She looked away, hair falling across her face, shimmering in the low light. ‘I wasn’t surprised when it turned out they had the Chalice in Saint Annard. It does things to the area, doesn’t it. I was locked up in the dark for several days. I thought it was all in my head. Maybe it was.’ Selena’s breath quavered. ‘It wasn’t a dream, Matt. Dreams aren’t real. Shadows and death and ghosts? We all know, now, that’s real…’

She shuddered, and without thinking he’d slid across the bed to wrap his good arm around her shoulder, pull her to him, and the burst of relief when she didn’t pull back was almost palpable. With another shaking breath she curled in next to him, head on his chest, fingers tangling in his shirt. ‘You’re a stupid, stupid, dear man.’

‘I really am.’

‘But you came for me.’ The words were almost lost as they were mumbled into his side.

‘I had to.’

‘But the big gestures are easy, or, I mean, easy if you don’t count losing a hand…’ Her voice was tumbling over itself, dry as Selena’s arch humour always was, grieving and anguished like he’d only seen her in the darkest moments. ‘…and then we’re back in the small moments and those are the ones which break -’

‘They break, they do,’ he murmured into her hair, eyes slamming shut. ‘And I’m weak, and you’re weak, but we’re both here now, tonight, and tonight, you’re not alone.’

He wanted to tell her she’d never be alone, that he’d never go, but he knew how hollow the promises were, and so all he could do to ease her pain was reaffirm the present. The here and now.

And here and now, he wasn’t going to let her go.


--------------------

A/N: You may have heard of the Gare d'Orsay as the Musée d'Orsay. It was a Parisian train station before it was a museum but fell out of use partly due to the platforms being too short. It sounded like the sort of place wizards would sneak in their own magical platform, as it was built a little later than other Parisian stations and so I figured they would by then realise 'trains are handy' and stick their oars in with the construction of a new station than shove one into the Gare de Lyons or the like.


Chapter 22: And Fame Again
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And Fame Again


Avoiding romance meant Albus had missed some of the truly awful and fundamental moments of growing up. Sure, he’d fallen madly for a woman who’d systematically lied to and manipulated him, and had for two years believed the entire relationship hollow and meaningless only to discover it was painfully more complicated than that. But he’d never had a stupid public argument about what to do on a Hogsmeade trip, he’d never had petty jealousies and irrelevant miscommunications, and he’d never had to introduce a girl to his parents before.

But now the last was happening, only the girl was the one who’d lied to him in a very complicated way, and it was only his mother because his father had already met her when he’d let her out of prison.

‘Mum,’ said Albus, stood in the living room at the Godric’s Hollow house and wishing the floor would swallow him, ‘this is Eva Saida. Eva. This is my mother. Ginny Potter.’

‘Actually,’ said Ginny with a dangerous glint in her eye, ‘we’ve met. In Lisbon. Only she was calling herself “Lisa” back then. We didn’t talk much.’

‘I was hiding,’ Eva said, voice far too bland. ‘Trying to avoid too much direct contact with the authorities.’ Her hands were clasped in front of her, but Albus could see how hard she was gripping, could see the tension in her jaw, even if every inch of her was being forced into a calm, polite demeanour. She was a master of lies and identities, so he had to wonder if she was fighting the instinct to manipulate, or if she didn’t have a mask for being a guest in a quiet West Country cottage. Or she was genuinely too rattled to lie.

‘On account of that whole “spy and traitor” thing,’ said Ginny, too cheerful. ‘Yes, I can see why you wanted to keep a low profile.’ Albus shut his eyes, but then his mother was still talking. ‘The guest bedroom’s ready. My husband Floo’d ahead to tell me.’ There was a particular emphasis on ‘tell’ which Al didn’t like, but the argument between his parents about this was far too low on his priority list right then.

‘Thank you,’ blurted out Eva, and when Albus opened his eyes he found her staring at a spot inches above Ginny’s head. There was another, awkward pause. ‘You have a nice house.’

Oh my God, she really has no idea what to say. He fished wildly for a topic as his mother narrowed her eyes, and settled on the usually safe, ‘What’s for dinner?’

‘You don’t need to cook for me,’ Eva stammered.

‘Don’t be silly,’ said Ginny with a smile that wouldn’t melt butter. ‘If we’re putting you up for the night, you’re going to get fed. Dinner in this house is always something that can be reheated easily, because the Council of Thorns rampaging across the world, brutally massacring people, means my husband’s often back late. So we don’t wait for him. But I’m putting on a roast lamb.’

The points were so sharp even Albus felt them. He cleared his throat. ‘Please tell me James isn’t coming over.’

His mother gave him a look that said she wasn’t that cruel. ‘Sometimes, your brother fends for himself. Sometimes, he gives himself food poisoning, but there’s not much I can do about that.’

‘If you’re cooking,’ said Eva, stilted as ever, ‘can I help?’

The idea of his mother making dinner with Eva Saida’s help was enough to make Albus’ head spin, but mercifully Ginny looked like letting her into the kitchen would be an invasion too far. ‘No, no. It’s fine. I should get back to it. Al, you know where the spare room is. Make yourself at home.’

Her smile was still like a knife when she swept out of the living room and into the kitchen, and Eva shut her eyes, muttering something under her breath in Arabic that Al suspected was a once-forgotten prayer. When he approached, she looked up at him, expression flat. ‘She’s going to stab me in my sleep.’

‘No,’ said Albus firmly. ‘She’d kill you face to face.’

She let out a slow, controlled breath. ‘Then let’s see to this guest room. And if your father hasn’t sorted out the funds by tomorrow, I’ll just sleep in a ditch. Or a Dementor nest. You know, somewhere safe.’

‘My Mum is many things,’ said Al, leading her to the stairs, ‘but she’s not worse than Dementors.’

They climbed the stairs, past his bedroom, down the corridor to the guest room. He was at the door before he stopped and looked back to see her paused at the top of the landing, gaze roaming over every inch of the walls - at the pictures. Family photographs had waved on the way up, and they continued here, a gallery of memories in an eternal loop.

She jerked after a heartbeat of his eyes on her, and looked over apologetically. ‘Coming,’ she stammered, and hurried to catch up, but the stunned air about her remained.

‘This used to be James’. But he’s had his own place for years now. I guess with Lily still home for holidays and… and hoping I’d come back, James drew the short straw on whose room becomes a guest room,’ said Albus, not quite looking at her as he opened the door. ‘Thankfully they cleared out all of the Quidditch stuff. So many pictures.’

‘I’m not in the right house,’ mused Eva, ‘to say I don’t really care for Quidditch, am I?’

He thought that might be a worse admission than her entire identity being a lie. ‘You’re really not.’

She raised an eyebrow and he would swear there was amusement, but then she looked into the room and saw the clothes laid out on the freshly-made bed. ‘Oh, no…’

Albus grimaced. ‘I guess Mum realised you wouldn’t have a change of clothes, coming out of prison and all.’

Eva just stared. ‘I can tell when people hate me. Usually not hating me is the exception. She hates me.’

‘Maybe. But this family has made a tradition of taking in waifs and strays. I guess that’s some of her old stuff, though you’re a little taller, so maybe it’s been altered…’

Her gaze didn’t move from the bed. ‘Where’s the bathroom?’

‘Second door on the right -’

‘I think I’m going to shower before dinner. If there’s time?’

Still she didn’t move, so he stepped back, gave her space. ‘Probably. Yeah.’ There was no answer, so he left her to deal with the apparent trauma of a guest bedroom, and headed back downstairs. The sound of chopping wafted from the kitchen, and he stepped in to find his mother swishing her wand with unusual venom at vegetables.

She stopped when he came in. ‘You found everything alright? There are fresh towels in the bathroom -’

But then he’d crossed the kitchen to wrap his mother in a bear hug, burying his face in her shoulder. It was a thank you and a desperate plea for comfort and an admission of his utter confounding all in one, and she didn’t hesitate when she returned the embrace.

‘You’re mental,’ he whispered, shoulders shuddering with emotion and amusement. ‘You’re doing all of this and I don’t think she has a damned clue how to handle it, especially as you’re scaring the shit out of her…’

Good,’ said Ginny, and pulled back to press a hand to his cheek, her smile a thin knife-edge. ‘I can put up with you having as stupidly big a heart as your father, but you’ve got to let me have my fun.’

‘It’ll just be one night.’

‘So long as I can keep tormenting her,’ said Ginny, stepping away to return to the cooking, ‘she can stay as long as she wants.’

‘Yeah,’ said Albus, smile wry and pleased. ‘Just one night.’

* *


The situation on the Niemandhorn Express could have been worse. At least they had separate bunks.

Rose had slept poorly, not just because her veins were fizzing with the evening of drinks and dinner and trying to act like she and Scorpius were normal people. Not just because the thought of Matt sometimes reared up to stab her in the gut with pain and guilt. But because Scorpius was asleep just below her, and in the darkened silence of the cabin, she could hear him breathing.

It was the simplest, most essential thing. And if she slept, maybe this would prove another one of those dreams where she woke up and he was gone and the world was cold and colourless.

She did, of course, slip away eventually, and when she woke it was with a start, because with the trundling of the train, in the bright morning light of their ascent into the Swiss mountains, she couldn’t hear him any more. Rose clutched the side of the bunk, stuck her head over to find the bottom bed empty, and her heart lunged into her throat, spots appearing in front of her eyes -

But the bed was slept in, the sheets rumpled, and of course this wasn’t fake because she was going to Niemandhorn with him and -

There was the sound of a toilet flushing from the bathroom compartment, and running water, and then the door opened. Scorpius froze, fully dressed. ‘Um.’

She realised she was staring at him like going to the loo was the most shocking thing that had ever happened, and shook her head, blinking away fatigue. ‘Nothing. Sorry.’

He looked away and went to the cabin window, pulling the blinds up. ‘Huh. Snow.’

She glanced over, watched the Swiss mountains swishing past the train, peerless white peaks stabbing upwards. ‘I guess we can’t be that far.’

‘Train comes in at ten o’ clock, local time.’ Scorpius reached for his pocket-watch, the one Harry had given him, which had been amongst the effects she’d hung onto for the last two years. ‘So we’ve got a few hours. Time for breakfast and to freshen up.’ He glanced over, and something curled his lip with that secret, amused smile.

Her throat tightened. ‘What?’

He blinked, and the smile died. His gaze snapped back to the window, going cold as the peaks beyond. ‘Nothing. Sorry.’

She closed her eyes and imagined tumbling off the bed into his arms, and then her mind sheared away with the stab of Matt, of two years, of her guilt, of how she’d changed to something cold and broken and distant, to how he’d changed into a murderer and she still wasn’t ready to think about that, let alone know what to feel about that.

Idle daydreaming had been painful, once, but now it was at whole new plateaus of danger.

Scorpius scratched his chin. He hadn’t shaved, and she tried to not remember the scrape of stubble in his kiss, the way the mess took off all his sharp corners, and then she wished she could Obliviate herself. ‘I’ll go check out breakfast,’ he said. ‘You, er. Do your girly things.’

‘Yes, girly things. Like getting dressed.’ Not for the first time, she remembered why Selena was sardonic at everything. It made life easier. ‘I’ll be plaiting pink ribbons into my hair and worrying about my nails and -’

‘I remember how you used to leave the bathroom -’

‘Because men always leave them intact…’

I,’ said Scorpius, with what sounded like genuine, haughty offence, ‘care greatly for personal hygiene and appearance. I don’t know how some other men, less good-looking men who certainly have less-good hair, handle their ablutions -’

‘Oh, I remember what you’re like; you shouldn’t be passing judgement on me for…’

Stop. Flirting.

The thought seemed to strike them both at the same time, and Scorpius cleared his throat as her voice trailed off. ‘Breakfast,’ he said. ‘Go be girly.’

The old Rose wanted to throw a pillow at him as he headed for the door. No, that wasn’t strictly right; the old Rose wanted to pin him to the door and snog him senseless before dragging him into the bottom bunk, but she couldn’t do that, either, and so she just stared at the ceiling until he was gone.

‘You are a bloody idiot, Weasley, what are you?’ Rose muttered as she clambered out of the bunk, voice taking on the cadence of Selena’s wryness. At least she hadn’t internalised her this time.

It was naive to think this wouldn’t happen. It would be naive to pretend she hadn’t known exactly what was going on when she’d volunteered to go with Scorpius. She was playing with fire, a moth drawn to the flame, and she’d started this even before Matt left her. That had her thoughts spinning with the guilty cocktail of pain and relief and loneliness, but she knew it had done what Matt anticipated: freed her.

It wasn’t that Rose was intending on seducing Scorpius on their world trip. There were far, far too many problems, and that the freshness of her breakup was not the biggest obstacle spoke volumes. But she’d done this for him, come on this trip for him, and even if it was the stupidest, most dangerous thing she could think of doing to her broken feelings and crooked heart, she also knew it wasn’t possible for her to stay away. This wasn’t about a sophisticated plan. This was about following an instinct that had sunk into her bones long ago.

Despite the danger of pain, it felt good to take a risk. She hadn’t felt capable of that in a long time.

She found Scorpius in the dining cart, where they’d sat the previous night and somehow talked about nothing of substance for long hours. It was like he’d prepared for breakfast while he waited, ready with that pack of nonsense conversation that he’d shuffled and now dealt with expert ease.

How good the croissants were. Whether they were allowed more orange juice, or only the one portion which could be generously called a shot. How many times Lillian Rourke had likely used the word ‘united’ in her opening speech to the IMC. It kept them going until a murmur ran through the carriage, and Rose looked from Scorpius’ smirking face to the window as Niemandhorn Castle drew into view.

It was not at the peak of Niemandhorn itself, because Niemandhorn, the mountain no Muggle could ever find, stabbed right into the clouds, taller than any of the Alps. The castle had been half-built, half-carved into the cliffside, a towering success of magical architecture and masonry. Stone as white as the snow gleamed in the morning sun, the fortification which could hold a world council, their security, additional staff, and stand up to any invasion force which didn’t want to suffer earth-shattering casualties, still and serene and formidable as the mountains themselves.

Scorpius let out a low whistle. ‘Okay. I’m impressed. And I’ve really gone off castles.’

‘I can’t think of a place that’ll be safer from Council attacks.’

‘Attacks, sure. Infiltration?’ He grimaced. ‘Infiltrators arrive the same way we do.’

We needed major security checks at Paris. They almost didn’t let us keep our wands. And we’ve been vouched for by the DMLE.’

‘Because there’s no way we could have been replaced en route. This could be Polyjuice in my shot of orange juice.’ Scorpius faltered as she glared at him. ‘I mean, it’s not…’

That dampened spirits as they finished breakfast and packed what little had been unpacked, ready to disembark by the time the train pulled into the lone station. The Express was the one and only way to get to the mountain, let alone the castle, and so the platform was heaving with those waiting to receive additional staffers, experts, anyone come to give their input to the IMC.

Neither Rose nor Scorpius studied the crowd that intently, just tried to push through it, because the only people in Niemandhorn expecting them were Lillian Rourke and her staff, and she had far better things to do than receive them. So it was with great surprise that they reacted to a familiar voice piping from below eye level, ‘Mister Malfoy! Miss Weasley!’

They spun with wide eyes to see the short, stout form of a House Elf wearing a well-tailored suit, buttoned to the neck, tie perfect, buttons on his waistcoat gleaming, and Scorpius beamed. ‘Harley!’

‘I always knew Malfoys were sneaky bastards,’ Harley, former Manager of the House Elves of Hogwarts, declared with a glinting grin. ‘Coming back from the dead? Pretty sneaky.’

‘What’re you doing here? Don’t tell me you’re staffing for -’

Staff? You’ve been out of the world a while,’ Harley scoffed, ‘so I’ll forgive you your idiot little Malfoy-brain assumptions.’

Rose cleared her throat. ‘Harley heads up the World Elf Alliance these days.’

‘The what?’

Harley rolled his eyes and gestured for them to follow him off the platform, still exposed to the chilly mountain air, and into the depths of Niemandhorn Castle and its white, shining halls. ‘Britain leads the way on House Elf rights. But it’s not alone in the world, and the world’s being threatened by the Council of Thorns. Think of us as the House Elf equivalent of the IMC. We can fight, we can make ourselves useful…’

‘And you can play politics with world governments for more rights while you’re at it,’ Rose added.

Harley smirked. ‘I like to think we prove we’re as good, or better, than any wizard. Not that I approve of the idea we need to prove a damned thing, but it don’t hurt to put smug bastards in their place.’

‘So you’re here to represent the House Elves on the IMC?’ said Scorpius.

‘Yeah, I’m in the Convocation chambers in an hour,’ said Harley. Once they were in the sweeping halls of the main castle, the brisk breeze and clamouring crowds and trundling train far behind heavy, closed doors, he reached into his jacket and pulled out folded parchment. ‘Chairman Rourke told me you were coming; reckoned I’d want to know. I’d heard, of course, because the press went crazy, but I thought I’d give you the welcome. This place gets stupid busy.’ He handed the paper over to Rose, which she took with a small sense of satisfaction. Even if he was here for Scorpius more than her, at least he acknowledged she was the organised one. It was the little victories that counted.

‘Room numbers; you’ve got guest quarters for one night. Dining hours are on there, too; tables are in the main hall. Security is posted on delicate areas; it’ll be obvious where you’re not supposed to go. Otherwise, think of this place as a really important, draughty, hotel. Oh, and speaking of the press…’ Harley jerked his thumb over his shoulder. ‘They’re not allowed to linger on the platform. But we’ve got to pass through the welcome hall, and with the train coming in they are going to be thick there, and of course some of them have caught wind that you’re coming -’

Scorpius made a face. ‘They weren’t that mad for me in London.’

‘That’s because Dad kept them away from the hotel,’ said Rose with a sigh. ‘And we booked onto the train so last-minute I bet they didn’t know to find us at King’s Cross.’

‘This is the heart of the IMC,’ said Harley with a shrug. ‘Of course it’s up to its eyeballs in press. I mean, the non-Brits only care so much, you’re not exactly worldwide heroes, but coming back from the dead’s piqued curiosity.’

‘I’m used to press.’ Scorpius shook his head. ‘Let’s just get to our rooms, and then down to business.’

‘I’m going to be busy, no doubt,’ said Harley, ‘but if I can help, you let me know.’

‘Hopefully it’ll be easy.’ Scorpius grinned at the House Elf, and stuck his hand out. ‘I appreciate it, though. And it’s good to see you.’

Harley shook the hand, and gave Rose a respectful nod. ‘And you. Both of you. You kids try to stay out of too much trouble, now, you hear me? I’m this way, down to the Convocation, so… just tell the press to naff off.’

‘I tried that,’ Rose sighed. ‘It never works.’

‘Then I suppose you’re buggered,’ said Harley with his usual thoughtful regard, and swaggered off as best a House Elf could down a different corridor.

Scorpius stared at the doors to the hall, and drew a deep breath. ‘This is nothing we’ve not handled before.’

‘Just dump all questions on the DMLE,’ Rose suggested. ‘They’re used to that.’

‘Yeah.’ He grimaced, then opened the door and into the breach they went.

Niemandhorn sported many great halls of gleaming white stone, marble columns and buttresses, ornate carvings sweeping along walls and ceilings like something out of a winter fairy tale, but none of that could be appreciated when they were welcomed, along with the thronging of other passengers off the train, with flashing bulbs like lighting, and the babbling of voices the thunder to follow.

It wasn’t as if they were the most interesting story in Niemandhorn, but they were the newest, and they’d managed to keep away from the press since Scorpius’ return. This had only encouraged those who cared about the story, and the rest were picking up the scent, so trying to get through the hall was like trying to shoulder-barge a wave.

Most of it they could handle. Questions about Scorpius’ resurrection, about the past eight months, about his alleged association with Prometheus Thane were dismissed without real answers, the journalists told to refer to official DMLE press releases - of which there had been very few. The ones about Draco Malfoy were harder, but it was easy enough to say they knew nothing about his whereabouts and activities, because that was the truth.

But though Rose braced herself for the final, inevitable wave of personal questions, she almost fell over when a German journalist yelled over the hubbub, ‘Mister Malfoy! Miss Weasley! Is it true that your wedding’s back on?’

Was it progress that the question made her want to laugh? Scorpius’ stricken expression almost made that happen, so she grabbed his elbow and kept him moving, heading for the door to the stairway. ‘No,’ she said simply. ‘There is absolutely not going to be a wedding.’

Elaborating just gave them more quotes to twist, so she pressed on and then they were free, because the IMC couldn’t keep the press out entirely but they could stop them from following visitors to their rooms. Once they made it to the stairway they could move freely, tromping up in accordance with the directions Harley had given them, and it was only when they’d made it up one flight and turned a corner that Rose stopped, clutched her gut, and burst into laughter.

Scorpius just stared at her, which made her laugh even harder, and she had to lean on the wall. ‘Oh, Merlin,’ Rose croaked. ‘I’d forgotten that.’

‘Forgotten what?’

‘They decided…’ It wasn’t funny. It had almost broken her the first time someone hurled the rumour at her in public, and she’d thought her father was going to punch a journalist. But now it was so distant, so ridiculous, that amusement was her only option. ‘After you died, the press decided all sorts of things. One of them was that we’d been engaged before you died.’ There had also, she recalled, the briefest rumour she’d been pregnant, but that hadn’t been more than a whisper before her mother had muttered things into certain ears, something about beetles, and she’d only heard about that one months after it had been killed.

‘Oh, bloody hell. Are you alright?’

‘I can’t breathe.’ After a moment she straightened, sobered, and rubbed her pained stomach. ‘But you’ve got to laugh, don’t you?’

Do you?’

‘Oh, come on. You’ve been back a week; of course you and I fell madly into each other’s arms and decided, hey, there’s a war going on, the situation’s super complicated, but let’s plan a wedding.’

He wasn’t laughing. He wasn’t even smiling; he just reached for the parchment and, with a stabbing guilt at her mirth she couldn’t understand, she let him take it.

‘Yeah,’ Scorpius grunted, turning away. ‘Yeah, that sounds like the sort of crap the press loves.’ Before she could summon a response, he’d pressed on, following the directions on the paper and tromping back up the stairway. ‘Let’s just get to the Alliance records and get the fuck out of here.’

* *


A clean bed. A hot shower. A warm, home-cooked meal. All of it perhaps under the most awkward circumstances of her life, but if Eva Saida had survived ambush and torture and betrayal, she could cope with a bit of social discomfort.

Or such she had told herself through dinner at the Potter household. She didn’t know if she was relieved or not that Harry Potter did not make it home before she’d decided on an early night, genuinely tired and genuinely keen to avoid the chit-chat at the table with Albus and Ginny. She’d stayed mostly silent while the two had discussed politics in a rather bloodless manner, avoiding anything resembling controversy.

The food was superb. No wonder Albus knew how to cook. So she’d eaten while wondering what normal conversation around a dinner table was like for normal people, and knew she’d never be able to even pretend this far.

Sleep had not come easy, despite the comforts - or, more likely, because of them. By instinct she woke early and, feeling too penned in, found some clothes fit for exercise and slipped through the house bathed in the pre-dawn light to sneak out for a run.

Eva didn’t really know Britain. She’d never done a job in the country; the Ministry’s low tolerance for dark magic and formidable law enforcement made it a bad place to find work. She’d worked with plenty of Brits but always associated them, all of them, with the hustle and bustle of London. Godric’s Hollow was something else: quiet, sleepy, a slice of wizarding life pushed up against Muggle ignorance, and so peaceful that the perils of the world might have been a million miles away.

People were up at this time, and she wasn’t sure how many were Muggles and how many were wizards, heading out to walk their dogs or pick up the paper or milk, and all moving with a similar lack of care. They nodded. They waved. They said, ‘good morning,’ as if she were some well-known acquaintance instead of a new face.

It was all very suspicious.

But it was invigorating to get out, to breathe the fresh, cold November air, to feel leaves crunch under her feet and remind herself that there was a world beyond chilled cell walls. Even returning to the razor-sharp hospitality of the Potter home was not so daunting as she finished, trotting up the path and trying to keep quiet as she slid through the front door.

‘Tea?’ called a voice from the kitchen immediately, and Eva fought the instinct to swear and shoot. Ginny Weasley appeared in the door, holding a steaming mug, and her gaze landed on the wand half-drawn. ‘Most people don’t go for a morning jog armed.’

‘I’m not in the habit of going anywhere unarmed,’ said Eva, and didn’t worry too much about being polite because she knew she was being fucked with.

‘Oh, yes. Lots of dangerous ambushes in the shrubs of Godric’s Hollow.’

‘There were dogs. Big ones. They could have been spies.’

Something flickered in Ginny’s eyes. Eva wasn’t sure if it was approval. ‘Did you want that tea?’

‘Er, do you have coffee, please?’

Ginny just huffed and returned to the kitchen. Eva trailed, because she wasn’t sure what else to do. ‘So you’re not going to be here very long.’

Eva tried to pull out a chair at the kitchen table without making much noise. ‘Hopefully Director Potter will have the funds arranged. I really don’t - I appreciate you being hospitable -’

‘It wasn’t my choice.’ Ginny flicked her wand at the kettle and seemed to decide the best thing to do while waiting for it to boil was stare at it with cold judgement. ‘Neither my son or husband is particularly good at asking when they want to bring criminals under our roof.’

‘I’m sorry -’

‘Let’s not,’ said Ginny. ‘I’m sure my hospitality is the least you need to apologise for.’

Eva’s jaw tightened. ‘It’s something I can apologise for.’

There was a long pause, broken only by the whistle of the kettle. Ginny moved to the cupboards. ‘Milk? Sugar?’

‘Black, please. No sugar.’

‘I should have guessed.’

Eva half-rose, words thickening in her throat. ‘Mrs Potter -’

‘I don’t care,’ said Ginny flatly, turning around with a fresh, steaming mug. ‘Explanations, apologies, confessions; what I think of you is irrelevant, isn’t it?’

‘It should be,’ Eva conceded.

‘My son will make his own decisions. He’s good at that. I don’t -’

‘I think making decisions without regard for the ones we care about is a pretty good way to let more hurt into the world.’

Ginny stopped short, and Eva wasn’t sure if she was affronted by the interruption or struck by the words. ‘He doesn’t need my approval for his actions. He does need my support, and he has that, unquestioningly.’ She slid the mug across the kitchen table.

‘Mrs Potter…’ Eva hesitated, then grabbed the mug. It was the easiest next step, but now she’d done it, she had to find a new next step. ‘I don’t pretend my role in this ends anywhere but a grave or a cell. But if I can help your son in this, or in the meantime, I will. If I can do something good in the meantime, for once, I will. I’m not here to corrupt Albus or distract him -’

‘Saida, you might be beyond even my worst nightmares as a girl for Al to bring home, but I’m more worried by the Council and the world than you.’ Ginny tilted her head as she sipped her tea, brow furrowed. ‘Of course, if you hurt him again, I’m going to hex your kneecaps off.’

‘That’s - I can’t argue with that.’

‘Damn right, you won’t. Drink your coffee and then you can help me with breakfast.’

* *


‘This is going to be awkward,’ Matt muttered as he let Selena draw ahead of them down the corridor in the Ministry offices.

‘The latest phase of a worldwide crisis has just hit,’ she admonished, heels like gunshots on marble. ‘I’m rather sure Hermione Granger has more things to worry about than giving her daughter’s ex-boyfriend the evil eye.’

‘She’s a smart woman.’ His shoulders hunched in. ‘She can multi-task. Or delegate.’

‘If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my mother, Hermione Granger never delegates anything she can do herself.’

‘I thought you were trying to reassure me?’

Selena gave him a wispy smile over her shoulder. ‘I’m capricious.’

Somehow, that did reassure him, and he resisted the urge to clutch his bad wrist as they stepped into the offices of the Contagion Task Force, off from the side of the main floor of the DMLE. The stump was starting to burn when he was stressed, so these days it burned all the time.

Hermione Granger stood in the centre of the storm, a map shimmering with changing markers spread before her, staff racing to and fro. When she saw them, her eyes narrowed and Matt’s breath caught. ‘I don’t have time for social visits -’

‘I didn’t know we were on terms for social visits, Ms Granger,’ Selena pointed out as she led Matt over. ‘I know you’re busy -’

‘Very busy.’

Matt squinted at the map. ‘Why? I mean, has the Council unleashed more Inferi?’

‘Not yet, but holding Athens and other magical sites in Greece allows the Council to use them as staging grounds for more attacks. They’ll have an easier time harvesting corpses for their Inferi. We can’t do anything about that; that’s a job for the IMC as a whole, but we have to make sure we have a decent distribution of cures and have the international situation under control…’ Hermione’s voice trailed off, and she pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘I don’t need to brief you.’

‘It was very interesting, though,’ said Selena politely. ‘Really, we should be given security clearance by now.’

‘It would save a lot of trouble,’ said Hermione through gritted teeth. Then she looked at Matt, who took a step back, and something softened around her eyes. ‘How are you, Matthias?’

‘I, er -’

‘I haven’t spoken to Rose, if that’s what this is about. She was with Al. Which is something, at least.’

Matt tried to not feel relieved. He knew Rose was now with Scorpius, and he honestly didn’t want to think about that. But knowing she’d had Albus to turn to, when one of the things he’d worried was if he was taking her support structure by going to Selena, was comforting. ‘I’m glad. This really isn’t about that.’

‘To avoid beating about the bush, we’re getting back in the game,’ said Selena flatly. ‘And we need the Chalice of Emrys.’

Hermione looked unsurprised, pushing herself upright. ‘You want to put it on your mantelpiece.’

‘She means we want to help studying it. Prometheus Thane reckons that if it’s destroyed, it’ll take Lethe with it,’ said Matt.

‘So let’s trust Thane,’ said Hermione dryly. ‘Lockett disagrees with him; did you know that? She thinks that it might deny us a cure. She’s trying to find another way.’

‘I’m not racing to fetch a hammer. But, with all respect to the Professor, she may know Lethe better than I do, but not many people know the Chalice better than I do. And I, in fact, have the one man who does.’

‘De Sablé.’ Hermione’s brow furrowed. ‘Don’t play games with me, Matthias. I’m not going to let you strong-arm me the way your father -’

‘I’m not doing things like Dad; I’d rather not get arrested for doing your job better than you,’ said Matt, nose tilting up. Selena shot him a warning look, but he ignored her. ‘What you really need to do is give me a job.’

‘Working for the team dealing with the Chalice -’

Leading the team dealing with the Chalice. Or, leading a team. I have people I know, people I can trust, people who’ll get the job done. Including de Sablé. This has the added bonus of freeing up Lockett to work on Lethe, not the Chalice. Which it seems you need her to do right now.’ Matt shrugged. ‘You know I have my father’s resources. Maybe he couldn’t cooperate with Harry Potter or Lillian Rourke, but I’m not in the business of intelligence gathering or vigilante action. But understanding the Chalice, making it work for us? With you, doing that, I can do business.’

Hermione watched him for a moment more, then harrumphed. ‘You’re so like him, you know?’

‘And to think for years I was told I take after my mother.’

‘You have to, a little, as you’re actually trying to work with us.’ Her lips thinned as she thought. ‘Alright, Mister Doyle. You’ve got a deal. Are you working out of that blasted warehouse of your father’s?’

‘It seems the best place to do it. Off the beaten track.’

‘You get to pick your team, but at least one will be from a list of candidates I will supply; don’t ignore the experience my people have accumulated.’

‘Understood, but I won’t have a spy or a liaison. I report directly to you.’

‘Agreed.’ Hermione glanced at Selena. ‘Are you formally in on this?’

‘Oh, yes.’ Selena gave her chirpy smile that didn’t reach her eyes. ‘I’m the official cheerleader for smart guys who need to save the world. I fetch them tea and buoy up their tragically low self-esteem.’

‘Your mother’s going to kill me,’ Hermione sighed. ‘But at least you’ll be at home. Very well, Mister Doyle, Ms Rourke. I’ll get the paperwork filled in. I need to be in about five different places at once right now, so you’re going to have to excuse me, but in the meantime, welcome to the team.’ She didn’t say another word before walking off into the crashing waves of chaos in the Contagion Task Force’s office, leaving Matt and Selena at the centre with the command table.

‘So,’ drawled Selena. ‘You walked in and demanded your own team leader position in an official Ministry task force. That’s a little different to what we talked about last night.’

Matt grimaced. ‘It made sense once I was talking; I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to ambush you with this -’

‘Oh, please.’ Selena waved a dismissive hand. ‘Like I didn’t know this was where it’d end up. I just didn’t think you’re be so bloody outrageous.’

He pursed his lips. ‘This feels weird. Why does this feel weird?’

‘Because we’re being legitimate, for once? We’re used to being scrappy, independent operators who care nothing for the rule of law.’ She shrugged. ‘I’m more scared that we’re actually qualified for this. When did that happen? When did we become responsible?’

Matt looked down at the still, motionless shape of his prosthetic hand, his arm still in a sling. He could twitch it occasionally, or make a fist, but nothing more complicated, yet. So there it sat, a lump of metal, a reminder of all he’d paid and the looming menace to come.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, and looked up to force a smile for her. ‘But I’m blaming you.’

Chapter 23: A Hundred Winters
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A Hundred Winters


What had once been a bustling centre of international travel, espionage, and operations was now a gloomy and dusty warehouse, but still Matt stood in the centre of his father’s old base and saw what could be.

‘We can’t keep the Chalice here for long,’ he told Lowsley, who handled the solid wooden box containing it like a bomb that might go off. ‘But we can keep it hidden and under lock and key. ‘

This was not the staff once summoned here. But then, his father had used DMLE officers, former and present; Ministry officials, experts in various fields. He’d paid them handsomely to do dangerous and illegal work. The Doyle family was getting back into business in a far more legitimate and narrow manner, which meant Matt only needed a handful of their past employees, and now he had some of Hermione Granger’s people, to boot.

Not many. They had to worry about Lethe, about outbreaks in the Grecian area, about continuous Inferi hostile activity in South Africa, suspected to be the Council’s next target for a takeover. Hermione’s people were experts in illnesses, not necessarily the artifact which had spawned the plague. They were all elsewhere.

‘Doyle!’

Almost all elsewhere.

Matt turned at the familiar voice, eyebrows raising. ‘Professor, glad you could be here -’

‘I cannot believe you managed to strong-arm Granger into this.’ Nathalie Lockett’s lips were a thin, angry line as she stalked into the warehouse. ‘I had the Chalice research entirely under control…’

‘Respectfully, Professor, you’re a potioneer -’

‘And you’re nineteen.’

Matt paused. ‘Twenty. Just.’

‘Oh, I take it back, that makes you eminently more qualified -’

‘For the past two years, nobody - except maybe Prometheus Thane and his people - have been studying the Chalice of Emrys. The foremost expert on such an artifact was murdered by the Council. I, however, chased this object. Read every historical record we could find; worked with Reynald de Sablé, who harboured the Chalice for centuries.’ Matt stabbed a finger at Nejem and Lowsley, who were sidling towards the secure underground access point. ‘I’m one of the closest things to an expert we have left.’

Lockett opened and shut her mouth, looking like she was biting back a retort with supreme effort. Matt stayed silent, in part because he never knew how to handle Nat Lockett. He’d never had a high opinion of her as a teacher; she’d treated students as an occupational hazard, not the job. But then she’d cured Phlegethon, and kept him personally alive long enough for Selena and the others to find the Chalice of Emrys on Cat Island.

‘My understanding of the Stygian plagues leaves me perfectly prepared to study the Chalice and figure out how to disconnect it from Lethe -’

‘You’re good, Professor, I’m really not doubting that,’ said Matt. ‘And I’ve got your notes on your work so far, and it’s looking great. But there’s a worldwide danger of Lethe, to wizards and Muggles alike, and there is never enough cure to distribute fast enough. Surely, surely you’re better off freed up to either find a way to save them, or to continue your brilliant potions which keep them alive long enough for one of the cures to get to these people?’

Lockett folded her arms across her chest. ‘You’ve got my notes?’ She sounded guarded.

‘Ms Granger forwarded me everything the research time had -’

‘Then you know I disagree with Thane’s theory that the Chalice must be destroyed?’

‘I saw that.’

‘If he’s wrong,’ said Lockett, stepping forward, ‘then all we’ve done is remove a source of a cure -’

‘I’m not jumping down that road, Professor, I agree it shouldn’t be done lightly. But I don’t even know if it’s possible.’ Matt let out a long breath. ‘The priority is to sever the tie between the Chalice and Lethe. It’s powering Lethe; it’s part of why it’s so much harder to cure or delay than Eridanos. I do see no reason why destroying the Chalice won’t work.’

‘Surely it’ll be easier to just break that tie -’

‘I don’t know! It’s too soon! I will look at this. Not through Lethe - you’ve studied the connection between the virus and the Chalice enough. I’m going to go back to the Chalice’s roots. Once I understand more of the intrinsic magics which created it, I will understand how it fuels a plague.’ Matt drew a deep breath. ‘And I’ll know better how to destroy it, if it comes to that. Understand, Professor, I will take no joy in destroying something of this much cultural -’

‘I’m talking about saving lives -’

So am I.’ Matt’s jaw tightened. ‘Professor. With respect. This was Ms Granger’s call, not yours. She trusts me. I hunted this thing. I know you were there at the final leg of the search, but to Syria, to Portugal, to the Caribbean, this was my research. I know what I’m doing.’

Lockett stared at him for a moment, then turned away, running a hand through her short, greying dark hair. ‘You bloody kids…’

‘The others respect you a great deal. You saved my life twice. I will of course listen to your counsel. I’m not eager to destroy the Chalice; Thane might be wrong. But he was under Veritaserum and understood the Chalice enough to summon it from the Otherworld. I have to give this theory proper consideration.’

‘Hmph.’ She looked no less discontented. ‘You’ll keep me appraised of your progress?’

‘As a professional courtesy. I answer to Hermione Granger.’

‘That’ll have to do.’ Lockett looked across the warehouse, expression flat. ‘At least you’re doing this with the Ministry.’

‘At least the Ministry are listening to me.’

‘It’s a novelty.’ She shrugged, and turned away. ‘I’ll let you get to work.’

Matt rolled his eyes as she left. His father would throw a fit that Lockett, not assigned to this team, could wrangle its location out of the Task Force, but she had the rank and respect that he himself wasn’t surprised. He turned as Lowsley padded up next to him, bare-handed; the Chalice had been stowed, for now.

‘Shall I have our ongoing research notes forwarded to the Professor?’

‘Like hell,’ said Matt. ‘I answer to Hermione Granger and Lockett’s going to South Africa. I’ll tell her whatever she damn well needs to hear to leave me alone.’ He pointed at Lowsley’s chest. ‘We’ve got everything we need to get started, but there’s one more thing you have to do: wherever in the bloody world he is, bring me de Sablé. He and I have a lot to talk about.’


* *


‘It’s useful to rescue the daughter of the Chairman of the IMC,’ Scorpius mused as he led them past the security checkpoint and into the deeper chambers of Niemandhorn Castle. Most people couldn’t get down here, not under the current arrangements, but they’d shown up, identified themselves, and been waved through. ‘Not to mention international fame. What’s even down here?’

‘This castle is centuries old,’ said Rose, following down well-lit marble halls that wound right into the mountain. ‘And it’s always been a centre for European magical affairs. Often as a point of neutrality, or unity. I believe the first construction here happened under the Carolingian kings -’

‘Please, no,’ Scorpius growled. ‘I’m struggling with history eighty years old, let’s not go eight hundred.’

‘Actually more like twelve hundred.’

Exactly.’ He kept advancing, because that way he didn’t have to look at her, and still he felt guilty for cutting her off. It was a lie that he didn’t want to hear; he’d never brimmed over with enthusiasm for the ancient tales their work often brought them into contact with, but he didn’t think he could stand to hear her gushing such. It was too endearing.

They proceeded the rest of the way in silence, until Scorpius came to a halt outside a heavy, dark wooden door next to a plaque which simply read Alliance Archives. ‘So that looks promising.’

Inside was a huge chamber, dimly lit by flickering sconces that could only cast so much light down here, even on the bright white stone of Niemandhorn. Stacks of shelves stretched deep, going so far that he couldn’t see where they ended, thick with boxes and crates and leather-bound volumes. Dust filled his nostrils, like history itself had a smell, and while Scorpius had never cared much for that, today he could taste the apprehension which came with it.

Maybe this was how it always felt to Rose and Matt. ‘Excuse me?’

Several desks were pushed up at this end of the chamber, and a head popped up from behind it - a young, dark-haired man with wonky glasses and a perpetually hangdog expression. ‘Huh? Oh - visitors and tourists aren’t allowed down here…’

Scorpius lifted his hands. ‘We’ve got permission from Chairman Rourke to be here.’

The attendant pushed his glasses up his nose. ‘That’s great, but Chairman Rourke doesn’t have any authority over Alliance records.’

‘She has authority over security -’

‘We just want to ask some questions,’ said Rose, stepping up with an encouraging smile. ‘It could be important. It’s to do with Colonel Raskoph.’

The young man got to his feet, and Scorpius spotted the security pass hanging around his neck, the name ‘Lorenz Mueller’ visible. ‘Everyone wants to know about Colonel Raskoph. We have released all the records we have on Colonel Raskoph…’

‘It’s not just about him,’ said Scorpius. ‘Look, this might be a bit of an odd query, but I really want to know about someone who - well, I tried looking him up in England, but I hit Alliance security obstacles and was told to ask here. I don’t know if he was an enemy of yours… Cassian Malfoy.’

Mueller sighed. ‘I’m an archivist, and the Alliance Archives is not in the habit of giving out -’

‘That’ll do, Lorenz.’

All three spun at the voice from the stacks to see a looming shadow. But it diminished as the figure drew closer, monstrous tricks of flickering firelight fading to show nothing more than an elderly witch, straight-backed and clear-eyed despite her advanced years. The dust and shadows of the archives hung around her like a shroud, but when her gaze landed on Scorpius, he had to take a step back as they pierced straight through him.

‘My name is Adeline Bachelet. I am the Keeper of these archives, and while my young associate is correct in that we do not simply hand out our old records, this knowledge is kept for a purpose.’

Scorpius felt his throat tighten as she advanced towards him, and straightened. ‘I hope we come with a good purpose. I really don’t know for sure. I want to check up on someone - look, I should start from the beginning, my name’s Scorpius -’

‘Malfoy. Isn’t it?’ She was in front of him now, and a wrinkled hand came up to his chin. He fought the instinct to pull back, and she turned his face this way and that, bright gaze still piercing. ‘What are you? His brother’s grandson?’

‘Great-grandson,’ Scorpius creaked. ‘You knew him? I’m right, aren’t I, he did have something to do with the Alliance…’

A creased old face folded even more with pain. ‘Cassian. Yes. He was one of us.’

Scorpius felt a wave of relief as Rose piped up. ‘We have reason to believe finding more about Cassian might find us more about Joachim Raskoph.’

‘Ah.’ Bachelet pulled back, gaze pinching. ‘So suddenly the Malfoy family cares.’

Scorpius blinked. ‘What do you mean?’

She walked to a desk and pulled up the chair behind it. ‘Cassian died eighty years ago. Would you believe that you’re the first Malfoy to come here and ask questions?’

‘Our family records say he died in a hunting accident -’

‘A lie circulated by Abraxas.’

Rose frowned. ‘Cassian’s records in Britain were sealed -’

‘That is the default for all agents of the Magical Alliance. Except I know Cassian’s brother knew the truth, and he never sought to unseal those records. While there are specifics and operations which remained sensitive for long years, the simple fact that Cassian Malfoy was one of our agents did not need to remain a secret. But Abraxas let the world think his brother lived and died a rakish, irresponsible fop.’

Scorpius thinned his lips and shoved his hands into his pockets. ‘I guess fighting Grindelwald’s ideology wasn’t a very popular move for a Malfoy back then.’

‘And times have changed?’ The old lady tilted her nose in the air.

Mueller stepped towards her, taut. ‘Madame Bachelet, we can kick them out -’

‘Oh, no. I’ve waited a long time to hear these justifications.’

Scorpius glanced at Rose, who shrugged haplessly, and turned on Bachelet. ‘I’m not going to defend Malfoy family bullshit to you, Madame Bachelet. I’ve been at the receiving end of too much of it. But I need to know the truth about Cassian Malfoy, and I need to know how and where he actually died.’

Bachelet’s eyes narrowed. ‘Why does it matter where he died?’

‘Do you know?’ said Rose softly. ‘He died after the war, and if he was an Alliance agent I bet it wasn’t a hunting accident.’

‘He -’

‘I understand,’ said Scorpius, seeing her shoulders tense, ‘that I have been lied to about there being even one decent guy in my family tree. I know the Malfoys never stuck their necks out in the fight against Grindelwald; I know Abraxas was even investigated to see if he was bloody funding the Thule Society. I don’t know if it was the truth or just vicious rumour, but it wouldn’t bloody surprise me. But this isn’t about that. I’m not going to try to justify what my great-grandfather did. I reckon I can’t. But if Cassian knew anything about Raskoph, knew things we don’t, then I need to know the truth.’

Bachelet watched them with a tense, guarded air. ‘I say again - why do you care where he died?’

Scorpius bit his lip. ‘I’m not -’

‘Scorp, I think you should tell her.’ Rose’s voice was low.

The elderly witch looked between them. ‘Tell me what?’

‘Okay. This is going to sound mad.’ Scorpius lifted a finger. ‘I have reason to believe Cassian Malfoy’s a ghost. Of the “trapped in this world, tormented by unfinished business” type. I believe that this ghost might be able to give me important information about Raskoph.’

Bachelet drew a short, sharp breath. ‘Why do you think that?’

‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. But I -’

‘You clearly cared about Cassian,’ Rose chirped up, stepping forward. ‘So isn’t taking the chance we’re right more important than vengeance against his family, when the family who wronged Cassian are long dead?’

‘If there’s something to look into about Cassian’s death, then I will do it myself. I see no reason to share his secrets with the great-grandson of the man who denied him -’

‘I understand hating the Malfoys,’ Rose snapped. ‘I understand what it’s like to watch them fail to see the worth in a cause, in morals, and to fail to see the worth in a person, in one of their own. But if Cassian was a man who said to hell with his family, if he decided to do what was right anyway, then this man, then Scorpius, is absolutely the keeper of that Malfoy legacy. We want to look into Raskoph because we have fought him, over and over, and we want him stopped.’ Her shoulders slumped, expression sinking. ‘And isn’t it about time Cassian was remembered by his family in the right way?’

Bachelet was silent through this, piercing gaze flickering between Rose and Scorpius, and even when Rose was done she didn’t say anything for long, aching moments. Then she glanced at Mueller. ‘Lorenz, could you bring us coffee?’

The attendant gave a quick nod and scurried to the door, and only after he was gone did Bachelet press on, eyes resting now on Scorpius. ‘You do look a lot like him,’ she murmured, and then looked away. ‘You should understand how our operations worked. The Magical Alliance came into being at around the same time as the Thule Society, but it was not the great organisation history remembers; not then. It was not always popular to oppose Grindelwald, especially on the continent. We were well-meaning witches and wizards trying to cut off their shadow war at the pass. From as early as 1923, we fought Thule wizards across the world, opposing Grindelwald’s rise to power.

‘British wizards were particularly unusual. Britain remained isolated from European matters until the Muggle outbreak of war. But Cassian worked on the continent for his Quidditch team. He saw much of the Thule Society’s actions in Berlin, in Warsaw. For whatever reason, he did not think like his family, and he was approached by the Alliance to work as an agent, operating freely in those cities under the guise of his formal work. He accepted and sent us information, kept close tabs on Thule operations.’

Bachelet got to her feet and reached for her wand, swishing it down the stacks without a word. Nothing seemed to happen, and she kept talking. ‘The Quidditch league was suspended in 1936, as tensions rose, and Cassian stepped fully into the Alliance. Across Europe, the US, the whole world, we fought against Thule Society agents seeking more power, more influence. We tried to cut them off at their roots.’

Scorpius swallowed hard. ‘You two worked together?’

She nodded. ‘I knew Raskoph, but it was Cassian who fought him the most. They had become enemies in Berlin in the Thirties. As hostilities opened, that only became worse. The Magical Alliance grew, we became the formal wizarding opposition to Grindelwald. Fought them in a war as vicious and bloody as the Muggle conflict, and Raskoph was only one of many. The two hated each other, though. So much that when the war ended, and Raskoph was unaccounted for, Cassian could not accept that he had died.’

‘I thought Raskoph went to South America?’ said Rose.

‘Not at first. He only surfaced there in the Fifties. Before Berlin fell, Raskoph went to ground, and Cassian was convinced he needed hunting. That he was still seeking great power, that even if Grindelwald had been defeated by Albus Dumbledore, Raskoph was still a threat. Most of the Alliance was disbanding. Going home. Cassian did not get the support from our superiors he wanted, and he continued his hunt himself.’ Bachelet stared into the stacks. ‘He did not come home.’

‘Where did he look?’ Scorpius pressed. ‘What did he think Raskoph was doing?’

‘Raskoph, like many of the Thule Society, was obsessed with ancient power in the world. The first time they fought was in Tibet; Raskoph had accompanied the Muggle Ahnenerbe Institute out there. In particular, Raskoph was fascinated by the idea of long-lost wizarding cultures. He was convinced there had been stand-alone magical societies thousands of years ago who had lost much of their power come integration with Muggles. Purer people, purer magic. But he searched all over the world.’

‘And -’

Rose cut Scorpius off, voice softer. ‘Cassian didn’t tell you where he went?’

Bachelet’s expression tensed. ‘The last time I saw Cassian Malfoy, we argued. The war was over. Men like Raskoph would surface. This wasn’t about fighting a threat, I thought. This was about a vendetta that would get him killed.’ She smiled humourlessly. ‘I suppose I was right.’

But there was a rushing noise, and Scorpius turned to see a wooden box hurtling down from the stacks straight at Bachelet. The elderly witch didn’t move, not even with it coming right for her head, and it stopped only inches away, hovering in thin air. She swished her wand and moved it to the desk.

‘What’s this?’ Scorpius asked softly.

‘His records.’ Bachelet’s wand hovered over the box, hesitating before she swished and unsealed it. ‘I can’t tell you where to find him. But after he died, there were no leads on Raskoph. Everything was put in storage, like all the rest of the Alliance’s secrets. Here, so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.’

‘Like the Council of Thorns?’

‘They’ve tried to come down here, though not in a while. We know about all sorts that they would no doubt adore to unleash on an unsuspecting world.’ There was a flourish to the old woman’s wand before she slipped it away into her robes. ‘They were unsuccessful.’

She had to be over a hundred years old, Scorpius thought, but he wouldn’t be eager to cross wands with her. ‘Listen,’ he said quietly, padding over. ‘I started this trail on Cassian because I thought it might tell me something about my father, and then something about Raskoph. But if he’s out there, if his ghost is trapped here, the ghost of one Malfoy ancestor I would have actually liked to meet some day… I intend to find him.’

Bachelet stared at him, bright eyes again cutting like she was seeing not just through him, but through time. ‘There is one thing in there you may find useful, though I never could.’ She reached into the box and pulled out a leather-bound book. ‘It’s his journal. But I never knew his cipher. Nobody did but him.’

Reverently, Scorpius reached for the journal. ‘I’m assuming you tried to break it.’

‘It took twenty years before I gave up.’

‘Oh.’ He looked at it. ‘So, easy job.’

Rose joined them, looking into the box and the files within. ‘Are these his full operation histories?’

Bachelet nodded. ‘I will confirm your records with the IMC before they are released into your care. But it should paint the picture you need of Cassian. And of his vendetta against Raskoph.’

‘I wonder if that’s what he bloody meant,’ Scorpius muttered, rifling through what indeed was turning out to be page after page of gibberish. ‘Raskoph, I mean, he was saying something in Ager Sanguinis about it being so apt it was me… I knew Thane had something in for me, but maybe this was why Raskoph picked me, maybe this was some last vengeance…’

‘Then maybe,’ Rose said gently, ‘we should bring some Malfoy family vengeance down on him.’

Bachelet drew a sharp breath. ‘If you find Cassian - if you find a lead, and if there is anything of him, if he is trapped… you will help him, I know. But if you could tell him -’

She stopped herself, and Scorpius froze, anxiety trapping his throat, but it was Rose who answered, corners of her eyes creasing, voice low and gentle. ‘We’ll tell him. I understand.’

Oh.’ Awkward realisation sparked in his mind. ‘Uh. Yeah. Of course.’

Bachelet watched them for a moment, then turned away, shuffling towards the desk. ‘Let’s get you some security clearance,’ she said, voice much clearer. ‘And then you can get out of my archives.’


* *


‘So this is becoming a room of crazy,’ said Selena, stood in the door to the guest bedroom in her house. ‘I’ve almost missed it.’

‘The warehouse is almost up to spec; these are just copies,’ said Matt, magically affixing more notes to the giant corkboard he’d propped up along the wall. ‘Soon enough I can get a bunk set up there -’

‘And, what, sleep in there? You’re not at full health, Matt. You need to be somewhere warm and dry -’

‘I’m not a packet of crisps! But I need to work.’

Her lips thinned. ‘I know you don’t want to think about Rose -’

‘It is not that.’

‘Okay. I know you want to get your father and godfather out of jail.’

Matt had his back to her, and took a little longer than strictly necessary with the next scrap of paper. ‘That’s a motivation. Look, I didn’t quit this job even after Ager Sanguinis; I’m not going to quit this now.’

‘Except you’re getting that glint in your eyes of the crazy man who’s not going to stop.’

He glanced back. ‘You don’t need to be dragged into this.’

She glared. ‘Don’t. Don’t give me that “I’ll do what needs to be done” crap and then tell me I can walk away. As if my commitment has ever been less than yours.’

‘I didn’t say that!’ He turned, stump and wand raised, a map of the Caribbean hovering between them. ‘I just don’t want you to feel like you don’t have a choice.’

‘How come you can have a lack of choice, except with you it’s gritty obligation dragging you back into the furnace again. But when I don’t have a choice it’s because I’m a weak-willed girl who’s holding your coat and self-respect for you?’

Matt’s eyes widened. ‘I didn’t say that. I didn’t even think that. I don’t want you with me because you’re - how did you put it? - a cheerleader to the smart guy.’

‘Alright, then.’ Selena folded her arms across her chest. ‘Why do you want me here?’

‘…what?’

‘You heard.’

‘Are you just asking me to list your qualities?’

‘Consider it rent.’ He was working his jaw wordlessly, and she tilted her nose in the air. ‘Come on, smart guy.’

‘I’m smart, I’m not smooth.’

‘I’ll say.’

‘You’re -’ He waved his wand haplessly, and sent the map flying into her face. ‘Oh, God.’

Slowly, she pulled the sticky paper down, fighting to keep her expression impassive. ‘Really smooth.’

Matt tossed his wand to one side, ran his hand through his frustratingly messy hair, and said, very fast, ‘I could talk about how you keep me grounded and clear-sighted because you don’t get caught up in bullshit, but, really, that’s painting you as a cheerleader again. When I say you support people, that sounds so fucking demeaning, when it’s actually integral. But with more time you might have seen Lethe coming, which nobody else even came close to spotting. And, I mean, you’re hilarious, but you also understand people and politics which, let’s face it, none of us are really any good at -’

‘Okay, stop, stop.’ Selena lifted her hands. ‘I was teasing you and now you’re hyperventilating.’

He was so crestfallen his hair flopped. ‘I don’t want you to ever think I need you around to buoy me up. Sure, you help me see the wood for trees and you keep me focused, and you listen when I’m working through a problem, and that is all essential, but you… I mean, I thought the world had fucking stopped when Rose told me the Council took you. We’d rowed and I’d let you slip away, and the thought that this was it…?’ His voice trailed off, and suddenly the papers he’d plastered across the room were more looming because the walls were closer, the sounds of London outside the windows were muted, and her world narrowed to just his crestfallen, ardent expression.

Selena drew a sharp breath. I entirely brought this upon myself. ‘I was teasing,’ she began, but her voice sounded small and weak, and before she could clear her throat, the door was flung open.

‘Sorry,’ gasped Miranda, looking more breathless than apologetic about her interruption. ‘But we’ve got a Kenneth Alert downstairs.’

Matt’s jaw had snapped shut and he looked like he’d bitten his tongue. ‘A what?’

‘Oh,’ said Selena in a low, detached voice. ‘My father.’

‘He’s in the sitting room because I couldn’t fob him off, and do you want me to make him tea or arsenic?’ Miranda sounded perfectly serious.

‘It’s fine. I imagine he’s upset I haven’t spoken to him since my abduction.’

Matt cleared his throat. ‘I didn’t know you don’t get on.’

‘We don’t not get on. We don’t anything, because he’s nothing.’ She tossed her hair over her shoulder and turned to the door. ‘Put the kettle on, Miranda, darling, and Matt? Don’t worry, and get back to work.’

She suspected he’d do no such thing, but so long as he stayed in his room, she didn’t care. Her father was one part of her life where Miranda knew more than anyone else, and anyone else could remain in ignorance.

Kenneth had settled in the living room, because boundaries were something that happened to other people unless they’d been made literally impassible, and hopped to his feet like an excited Labrador when she stepped in. Miranda tried to drift, invisible, to the kitchen. ‘Selena! Dear -’

She shut the door behind her and forced her expression to a studied one. ‘Hello, Kenneth.’

Kenneth Allerdice had once been young, fit, burly. Time had softened him, turning his muscle to a slight paunch, his golden locks to a receding hairline, his winning smile to desperation. It was that smile he turned on her now, oblivious or uncaring of her reaction. ‘Come on, you can’t “Dad” me now, after all this?’

‘I’ve not called you “Dad” since I was eight; emotional trauma’s no reason to start. What do you want?’

The smile took a chip. ‘My only child’s been abducted by terrorists and subjected to who-knows-what of torment while your mother stood by the wayside and did nothing, caring far more about her precious career than her daughter’s wellbeing. You think it’s unreasonable for me to stop by?’

Her lips thinned. ‘I got back a week ago. You were hardly chomping at the bit out of concern.’

‘Lillian refused to update me -’

‘And you clearly know where I live and the press made no secret of my rescue, so I don’t see what the delay was.’

Kenneth gawped. ‘How come your mother gets the free pass while I -’

‘I’m not discussing Mum with you. We tried that, it didn’t end well, and you should be grateful because you’re not going to come better off out of that conflict. At least Mum had a world to save.’

‘I’m sorry I’m not a crazy soldier or a powerful politician; I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything to save you, and so that makes me worse than the person who could but didn’t out of, what, duty -’

So I guess I am discussing Mum with you. She wasn’t surprised. This always happened. ‘I’m going to ask again, Kenneth - what do you want?’ She saw the kitchen door creak open an inch, saw Miranda peer through the gap, and then the door shut again. That was going to require an apology later. At least she didn’t mind apologising to Miranda. ‘Is it money?’

His jaw dropped. ‘I have never asked you for money -’

‘Only because I’ve not had any. You asked Mum for money plenty of times.’

‘I thought we could go for a walk. Talk about stuff. We’ve missed so much, Selena -’

‘Why not talk here?’ Her back straightened. ‘Or are we more likely to be spotted by the press outside, so they can snap some pictures of you and you’re back in the public eye? Are they sick of you dishing the dirt on Mum, have they realised that you’re a sad and pathetic man trying to bring her down just to get attention, so now you want to exploit me? Drum up some attention for your latest business gambit or -’

You are my daughter and you almost died!’ Kenneth thundered at last. ‘Maybe I haven’t been a perfect father, but what kind of monster do you think I am to not care about that?’

He was bigger than her, broader than her, and once Selena might have shrunk back from the anger. Not that she’d ever feared him truly, and these days she’d faced worse. ‘You disappeared after the Phlegethon Crisis once your fifteen minutes of fame were over. You didn’t even show up after Ager Sanguinis -’

‘Your mother kept me away.’

‘And I can’t imagine why!’

He jabbed a finger at her. ‘She’s flitted off to Switzerland, fussing about the world and her standing, and yet I get all the criticism -’

‘It’s not complicated, Kenneth, so I’ll keep it short,’ she interrupted. ‘Mum might have a whole load of responsibilities which sometimes stop me from being her priority, but I accept that. It’s the price of her work, it’s the price of her duty, and honestly, the idea that she’d neglect the wellbeing of hundreds of people just to kiss my boo-boos is terrifying.’

‘Yes, your “boo-boos”; she would have you think about traumatic attacks in such a dismissive way, she would have you downplaying everything you suffered, because then she can justify leaving you alone, can’t she? She is just as bad as me; the only difference is your mother’s manipulated you into accepting this.’

Selena’s chest tightened. ‘When Methuselah died, it was Mum who came to me. You used me, my pain, my grief for cheap attention -’

‘And she used it to seize political power.’

‘If you have to justify everything you’ve done by arguing Mum’s just as bad, that’s bullshit, Kenneth!’

‘I’m not! I’m trying to point out that you let her get away with things you hold over my head for years!’

‘Except she’s actually there when I need her,’ said Selena in a low voice that came from somewhere deep inside, tight and angry. ‘And when she’s not there it’s because she’s trying to help people. You were never there when I might have needed you, and only show up to benefit yourself. I think it’s time you left.’

‘You’re clearly not alright! And she’s got you convinced she should be elsewhere, because it’s convenient for her to be elsewhere! You want to pretend she cares about you more than I do; that she cares about you beyond a political kick -’

‘Okay!’ The hallway door swung open and there stood Matt, jaw tight, shoulders squared. ‘She told you to leave.’

Kenneth rounded on him, expression pinched, indignant. ‘Who the hell are you?’

‘The guy who’s telling you to go.’ Even if his right arm was in a sling, even if his wand was tucked away, Matt still strode over to Kenneth and grabbed him by the arm. ‘Now.’

Selena’s breath caught. ‘Matt -’

‘We can do this the easy way, Kenneth, or the hard way, and I’m sure I can have your companies investigated and audited by the DMLE’s Legal Affairs…’

The threat struck home, or Matt was stronger than he looked, or Kenneth just plain knew when to quit. He grumbled, he yanked his arm free of Matt’s grip, but he was still ushered, bullied, shoved out into the street, and the door behind him slammed shut. When Matt stomped back into the living room, his face was a mask of anger. ‘The audacious bastard -’

‘I didn’t ask you to do that,’ said Selena, voice low and cold. Her heart thudded in her ears, but her stomach was a block of ice, and still her father’s words echoed through her. ‘I had that under control.’

‘He was ignoring you and talking shit about -’

‘I can handle myself, Matt!’

His eyes widened, indignant now. ‘I didn’t want to just stand there and listen -’

‘You didn’t have to listen -’

‘Shouting carries through floors!’

‘Then get earplugs!’ Selena snapped. ‘Or just ignore it, because that was none of your business, and I don’t need you riding in like the knight in shining armour to fight my battles for me uninvited, as if that makes everything okay!’

The door to the kitchen had creaked open once more as Miranda tested the waters. In the thudding silence that followed, she heard it creak shut again.

Matt’s chest was heaving. ‘What do you mean, as if that makes -’

‘You’re all the fucking same, aren’t you?’ Her head was spinning, Kenneth’s accusations in her mouth and tasting of bitter truths. ‘Ignore me when I’m inconvenient, let me downplay my problems, swan in like saviours when it suits you! Show off with the big problems but never, ever go out of your way for me in the quiet times and always, always leave me! Kenneth! Mum! Albus fucking abandoned us, Rose’s pain is always worse! You!’ That was to Matt, but then she jabbed a finger at the kitchen door. ‘And you, Miranda, I know you’re listening!’

The kitchen door swung open slowly, Miranda’s expression collapsed. ‘…I was more a captive audience than an eavesdropper -’

‘Methuselah died, my boyfriend died, and you let me piss around in tea shops pretending it was nothing - did you really think that was fucking nothing, Miranda?’ Emotion burst up in her chest and she felt the tears spilling, those frustrating tears which would make people, especially men, try to shut down when she didn’t need comforting. She needed anger, and she needed to be heard. ‘Did you really think I was a monster who screwed around with a guy and then didn’t care when he sacrificed himself for us?’

Miranda looked beyond shocked to have wounds almost three years old torn into. ‘I… thought you didn’t want to think about it, so I let you -’

Bullshit! You didn’t want to deal with my awkward grief, so you let me keep on lying to myself!’ She rounded on Matt next, and jabbed him in the chest. ‘And you. The world can look like it’s ending when I’m in risk of dying, but when precious Rose needs you, you’ll let me “slip away”?’

His expression twisted. ‘You ran from me, Selena! I made my fuck ups, but this was both -’

‘I ran from you because you were going to ditch me as an inconvenience for Rose, because that is what people fucking do to me!’

He reeled from that, and Miranda did too, both of them wide-eyed, appalled, and even Selena didn’t know if she was bursting with truths long locked up or just the sort of pain and bitterness her father always stirred in her. She didn’t wholly care. ‘And then you find your balls and leave Rose, and, what, waltz in, hoping I’d forgive you -’

‘No! I - I did come to you hoping, I just mean -’

‘And if she decides she doesn’t want Scorpius, she wants you, you’ll disappear -’

‘I will not,’ snapped Matt, squaring his shoulders, ‘because she and I will never be anything -’

‘So, now, you’re here. With me. Spending time with me. Because you’ve had your revelation and realised everything you did was wrong.’ Her lip curled. ‘Maybe I don’t regret my actions that badly.’

His jaw dropped. ‘Selena -’

‘I think it’s time you went the fuck home, or to your precious warehouse of your precious - your precious crusade!’ Selena snarled. ‘I’m going out. You better be gone by the time I’m back.’

Miranda tried to slip closer. ‘Hey -’

‘And don’t you even start,’ she snapped, then turned on her heel, stalked to the door. Her wand shook in her grip as she left, bursting without a coat into the freezing November air of London, but she had a way to go until she could find the alleyway she could safely Disapparate from, and that gave her enough time to get it under control.

Control. Control. Always control.


Chapter 24: Of Blood and Custom
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Of Blood and Custom


‘It’s a bit bare, but it’s at short notice,’ said Ron, gesturing across the flat the DMLE had mercifully arranged for Eva.

‘It’s fine. I don’t need creature comforts. A bed and a kitchen and Floo and I’m fine.’ Eva looked at the threadbare furnishings, the plain floorboards, and decided she didn’t care if it was a bit cold. She was out of Ginny Potter’s house, and that was what mattered. ‘So, that briefing.’

Ron glanced to Albus. ‘I thought I’d let you settle in.’

‘Not necessary.’ Eva moved to the window that had blinds, not curtains, and clasped her hands behind her back. She knew she was lapsing into the old body language she’d assumed as a merc before a job: professional, detached. Old habits loaned the illusion of control. ‘I’m here to work.’

Albus sat on the nearest hard-backed chair. ‘She’s got a point.’

Ron rubbed the back of his neck and nodded, also pulling up a seat. ‘I suppose. And we’ll be mobilising to Macedonia soon.’

‘Taking the fight to the Council in Greece?’

‘Getting into the country’s difficult; they’re setting up detection wards on all the major Muggle transport routes and of course Apparition and Portkeys are as much a pain as ever. There’ll be hiking, and we’re meeting up with locals who want to fight, equipping and training them. It’s a start. I’ve not had time for the Malfoy hunt.’ Ron grimaced as he reached inside his robes and pulled out a folder that looked too large for the pockets.

‘He might be an important man,’ said Eva, ‘but he is only one man.’

‘And chasing him doesn’t necessarily stop people from dying.’ Ron opened the folder and put it on the coffee table. ‘We had no idea of his affiliations until Prometheus Thane pointed the finger at him. Thane was under a Veritaserum as brewed by Nathalie Lockett, pretty much the best potioneer in the business, so we’re taking it seriously.’

Albus looked up at Eva. ‘Has Thane ever demonstrated any ability to bypass Veritaserum?’

‘There’s only one trick to bypass Veritaserum. It’s called “don’t drink Veritaserum”.’

Ron nodded. ‘He said Malfoy got involved with the Council a long time ago, in its formative years. Back then it was a group of idealists and surviving Grindelwald followers trying to get traction by ranting about the “old ways”, which got more of a following abroad than it did in Britain. The Second War did a good job of purging such bastards or driving them underground; it’s why Britain’s never really been at risk of direct assault by the Council of Thorns. Lethe strikes and Hogwarts aside.’

‘Pretty big aside,’ Albus pointed out.

‘Hogwarts was a test-bed and the Council of Thorns’ coming-out parade,’ said Eva. ‘Britain’s resilience in recent years to dark magic and pureblood supremacist movements is why it was selected. If you can be hit, anyone can. And everyone was hit in the Lethe assaults.’

‘Yeah,’ said Ron. ‘Anyway, Malfoy clearly didn’t let go of his old opinions that much, and so he got tangled up with the Council of Thorns back when they were smaller. His company has enough international interests that he probably met them when out in South America, or the like, which is why we never picked up on it. At the least, he was involved with the Council during the Phlegethon Crisis, because by Thane’s reports it was Draco Malfoy who ordered him to let the Resurrection Stone go.’

Eva felt Albus’ eyes on her again, and she shrugged. ‘I only suspected Prometheus wasn’t beaten by Scorpius. Prometheus isn’t easily beaten - Raskoph struggled against him.’

‘We don’t have much intel on what, if anything, Malfoy had to do with Eridanos,’ Ron continued. ‘Maybe he was part of the bankrolling. We do know he was the one who sold you all out in Venice. Scorpius wrote to him before you returned.’

Now Eva could feel Albus specifically averting her eyes. ‘Which makes Ager Sanguinis odd,’ she said, turning from the window. ‘They openly implicated Draco Malfoy as an associate, but they still used his son for the creation of Lethe. I was under the impression they thought it would be more easily incubated in a pureblood, but what about Matt? Selena?’

‘There are purebloods,’ said Ron, ‘and then there are purebloods. Apparently. Like, you could trace Scorpius’ lineage back to the Norman Conquest and everyone in that tree would be a pureblood - though I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s the odd, scrubbed over exception. The Rourkes? I don’t really do this lineage thing, but I know reputations. While every Rourke in living memory’s been born to a wizarding family, one of them’s going to have married some girl whose grandfather was a Muggle, you know?’

‘So if blood mattered, even ideologically, Selena wasn’t the best choice,’ said Albus. ‘But Matt? His family’s pretty old.’

Ron shrugged. ‘Then maybe they risked Draco Malfoy’s son just to bully him under control. Scorpius makes good leverage.’

‘And Thane said that it was Draco as well as Raskoph who ordered Project Osiris, the recovery of the Chalice and the resurrection of Scorpius,’ said Albus. ‘Maybe Raskoph was after Lethe while Draco was after getting Scorpius back.’

Eva frowned. ‘When I was in contact with Prometheus during the Chalice hunt, he implied he took his orders from someone other than Raskoph. The two never liked each other. I wasn’t very surprised when I found out Draco Malfoy was in the Council; it explained why Prometheus wanted to avoid killing the Five in general and Scorpius in particular - though he definitely tried to kill you in Tomar,’ she added, nodding to Albus.

He grimaced. ‘I remember. But if Thane’s loyalties were truly to Draco Malfoy, not Joachim Raskoph, I don’t understand risking Scorpius’ life.’

‘“Loyalty” is an awkward word to use for Prometheus Thane,’ said Eva. ‘I don’t think I’ve met anyone he’s truly deferential to. He’s a professional, but he knows his worth and it makes him arrogant. I can’t see him respecting a man like Draco Malfoy; he wouldn’t want to march to the beat of his drum. I think it’s possible that he risked Scorpius with, like Raskoph, the intention of leverage. To make them equals.’

‘It would explain why he brought Scorpius with him when he left the Council. Dangerous game to play. But, back to Malfoy, it makes it clear that he’s not exactly ruling supreme in the Council of Thorns,’ said Ron.

‘Not if Raskoph, outranking him, wanted to use and even kill his son. Not if Thane, working for him more directly, was also willing to manipulate and exploit his son,’ Albus mused.

‘One thing’s clear,’ said Ron. ‘Malfoy knew when the Saint Annard mission went down, because he as gone by the time Thane implicated him. He knew we’d be coming for him.’

‘Is it possible,’ said Eva, ‘that he’s just been killed by the Council? He’s been cut off from his resources, and it seems like they was using him more than following him. He likely knows a lot about their operations. He might be a loose end they’ve tied off. Permanently.’

‘We have no indication he’s dead,’ said Albus. She suspected he was being stubborn because he didn’t like the implications, rather than disagreeing with her logic. ‘So we have to get into where he might bloody be now.’

‘There are two options,’ said Ron wryly. ‘Either he’s in hiding with the Council or he’s in hiding from the Council.’

‘Either one takes money,’ said Eva.

‘His accounts have been frozen or are in Scorpius’ hands - and yes, we’re monitoring Scorpius’ spending,’ said Ron shamelessly. ‘No activity we can’t account for.’

‘He’s a rich man.’ She shrugged. ‘He’ll have hidden money in all sorts of places. But there’ll be a paper trail - look, he could be anywhere in the world. We can ask our various contacts, but until someone hears or sees something, we have to track him through infrastructure.’

‘I’ve gone through his company,’ said Ron. ‘I’ve gone through his ex-wife. Every scrap of money, account or project or holding, that they know of, is accounted for.’

‘What about the companies he secretly bought out for the Lethe smuggling? He had to have diverted funds for that. Presumably he hid his runaway funds in the same way,’ said Eva.

‘The buyouts were overseen by the Ministry; I’ve had their records of the background checks and the entire oversight process.’ Ron shrugged. ‘Not found a thing.’

‘They obviously can’t have been that competent,’ Eva said, ‘seeing as they were tricked.’ She looked at Albus. ‘I say that’s where we start. If we know how Draco Malfoy obfuscated his wealth that time, at the least we’ll find out all manner of his secrets and illicit dealings. And I expect that if we follow the money, we’ll find him.’

‘There is the possibility,’ said Albus, ‘that if he gets offered a deal, he’ll talk in exchange for protection.’

‘It’s a family habit,’ said Ron with a curled lip. ‘I reckon Scorpius is a good bloke, but I’d happily fire the rest of his bloody family into the moon.’

‘Speaking of,’ said Eva, ‘where’s his mother?’

‘Headed for the South Africa relief. Contactable by Floo. You think she knows something?’

‘I don’t know. I got a vibe off her two years ago. She’s got secrets.’

‘Every investigator needs to trust their gut.’ Ron got to his feet. ‘I’ll leave you with the file, which covers a lot of the financial checks and questioning of his associates we did, but they were all dead ends. If you want to check the Ministry buyouts, the paperwork’s in there, but you may have to go to the source to double-check their work.’

‘They’ll love us for that,’ drawled Albus.

He nodded to them both. ‘Good hunting.’

Eva watched him leave, then turned to Albus. ‘I won’t lie. When you said you needed help, I assumed you were closer to blasting people with wands than going through background checks.’

‘So was I,’ Albus admitted. ‘But what can I say, you have a devious mind.’

She shrugged. ‘I wasn’t just hired as muscle. We should see about getting in touch with the Ministry -’

‘No,’ said Albus. ‘If we want to find about the buyouts, the companies he bought, the smuggling process, then we need to go to the person who blew the whistle on this in the first place.’

‘You mean Gabriel Doyle and that newspaper editor?’

‘I mean the person who put them on that in the first place.’ His lips thinned. ‘Selena.’


* *


‘I was supposed to be done with this place,’ said Selena, except she was sat on wet grass under lashing rain in a gloomy, foggy graveyard, and she knew deep down that she would never be done with this place. Nobody had yet removed Scorpius Malfoy’s gravestone. It loomed near her, a vicious reminder of life and its twists and turns, right next to the resting place of the earthly remains of Methuselah Jones.

Her hair hung limp across her face, and dimly she was aware she was shivering. She didn’t care; couldn’t care. Let the rain fall and the wind howl; there was no place which mattered on this Earth. Not more than here.

She stared at the gravestone, stared at the name etched in the rock with all the permanency of death, and tried very hard to not resent the ongoing reminder that was Scorpius Malfoy’s name so nearby. But it wasn’t as if she needed to concentrate. She’d run out of things to say here, run out of thoughts, even with her father’s words hammering through her heart, even with all the roiling anger and betrayal inside her.

They were new things to bring to Methuselah’s grave, but she didn’t want to come here and talk to him. She just wanted to come here and sit in silence with the one person who had needed her all the time. The one person who had been afraid she would leave him.

The wind whipped soaked hair into her face, the howling chill slicing through her clothes to bite to the bone, and almost drowned out the voice rolling across the graveyard. ‘You’re going to die of exposure out here.’

There were several people she’d thought might come after her. Some were more likely than others. She had never imagined the first would be Eva Saida.

It was an instinct to pounce to her feet, to go for her wand, but she slipped and fell to her knees in the mud. Through the veil of her matted hair she could see Eva, tall and still in the lashing rain. Selena’s lip curled. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’

‘Looking for you,’ said Eva flatly.

‘Matt sent for backup -’

‘No, Albus and I came to your house to see you. Only we heard from your housemates that you’d gone. Albus went to see Matt. I came here.’ Eva tromped forward. ‘In part because Miranda Travers implied Albus might not be who you’d want to see right now.’

Selena clambered upright, ignoring the extended hand. ‘So you’re a much better option -’

‘I’m an impersonal option.’ Eva let her hand fall, impassive.

‘What do you even bloody want from me; I don’t know anything about where Draco Malfoy’s gone -’

‘But you know more than anyone about Draco Malfoy’s corporate buy-outs to facilitate the smuggling of Lethe. I need more information on it, because it might lead to Malfoy’s resources and thus to Malfoy.’ Eva looked her up and down. ‘But now is clearly not the time.’

‘No,’ Selena growled. ‘It is bloody not -’

‘So you should come in out of the rain and then we’ll talk later.’

‘What if I don’t want to talk? What if I don’t want to be on-call for everyone’s bullshit the moment they decide they need me?’

‘Ah.’

‘Ah, what?’

‘Ah, I realise why you’re out here and why you’re upset.’

‘You don’t know me.’

‘I spent a good deal of time observing - and underestimating - you. I do have quite a grasp -’

Pain had turned to tension had turned to nausea in her gut, but it flashed back to white hot rage at Eva’s impassive reaction, and so Selena pounced. She went for her wand even as she tried to tackle Eva, and so the confused, angry attack was never going to work. Eva simply side-stepped and, easy, as breathing, flipped Selena over to crack her back down into the mud.

The world spun as breath was knocked out of Selena’s lungs, and she gasped for air as Eva stepped back, wand in hand. ‘I am not your enemy. Not in this.’

‘In other things?’

‘I don’t want to be your enemy at all. But I know better than to ask for forgiveness.’

‘Oh,’ snarled Selena, rolling onto her hands and knees, and only as she saw the mud rising between her fingers, felt the rain lashing on the back of her neck, did she realise she had to be an absolute state. She didn’t care. ‘You know you were a psycho-murderer; I guess that makes it all better.’

‘I’m not talking about this.’

‘Why?’ Selena rose only to her knees, tilting her head back as if the rain could wash away the pain along with the mud. ‘Because I’ll be right?’

‘Because you’re not angry at me.’

‘I am. I’m just angry at lots of things right now. Did you come to talk some sense into me? Because you can fuck off.’

Eva sighed. ‘I came to find you. And then to try to stop you from catching pneumonia. And then to dodge your attack. But combat fatigue isn’t something to be ashamed of -’

‘I am not ashamed,’ Selena thundered. ‘I am furious and I am tired.’

‘If you think those people,’ said Eva, ‘are taking you for granted, then you didn’t see them when they came to Moscow. They were lost and they were broken, but the one thing they could agree on was that they had to find you.’ She stepped forward, mud squelching underfoot. ‘You have always kept them honest, rational. Since I met you, you have been the voice of reason, the heart.’

Selena really didn’t want to cry in front of Eva Saida. But her throat collapsed with the wave of rising emotion, and so she didn’t get her wish, bursting into tears and doubling over in the mud and rain before the gravestone of Methuselah Jones, a man killed by the conspiracy Eva had worked for. ‘I don’t want to be their heart any more. I don’t want to be picked up and discarded…’

She heard Eva mutter an oath in Arabic, and then there was a firm hand at her shoulder, awkward but sincere. ‘I am the last person to help you,’ came the honest words. ‘But they saved you -’

‘When it’s life or death, they’re there. When it’s the aches and pains of everyday bloody life…’

‘Trust is - trust is hard.’ Eva’s voice now sounded strained, pained. ‘I don’t want to tell you what you should do, because I don’t know and I’m in no position to guess. I do know you should come in from the rain.’

Selena slumped, burying her face in her muddy hands. ‘I don’t want to go home,’ she mumbled. ‘I don’t know where I want to be…’

‘Okay. Well.’ Eva tried to haul her upright, and by now Selena was too far gone to care or fight back. ‘How about you come to a place where your family isn’t there, where Matthias Doyle isn’t there, and where I can make Albus Potter keep his distance. Start with a shower, and then we’ll talk work, hm?’

‘Work. Right.’ She didn’t have a better idea than to keep being pathetic at Methuselah Jones’ grave, and at least this alternative didn’t require making decisions. ‘Fine. Shower.’

‘And try to not die,’ Eva muttered, slinging an arm around her and half-steering, half-carrying her towards the graveyard gates.

Selena let her, stumbling and staggering with her limbs weakened by grief and probably the biting cold, letting the continuous murmured curses in Arabic wash over her. Knowing she was being such a pain in the arse was oddly comforting, but still she couldn’t help one squirming curiosity within her. ‘Saida?’

‘Hm?’

‘How do you know Al isn’t going to just discard you into prison once he’s got what he needs off you?’

There was a long silence before Eva answered, her voice throaty. ‘I don’t know. If you can prove it, it’s not trust, and you can’t prove a damn thing about people. Besides…’ Another long silence. ‘If I can help him along the way, it’s worth it.’

‘Worth being discarded? Or worth the uncertainty?’

‘Both.’


* *


‘We need someone,’ said Nejem, ‘who’s better than any of us at rituals and arcano-theoretics in general.’

Matt gritted his teeth and tried to not think of Rose, who had always been the one to handle such on their expeditions. Though at least he wasn’t thinking about Selena, who was God-knew-where and under no circumstances wanting to talk to him. ‘We will,’ he conceded, looking at the papers pinned up on the wall of his warehouse office. Because he could think about work, and do something good instead of standing around dolefully. ‘But in the meantime, we need to know more about the Chalice in general.’

‘We’ve got Thane’s notes, Lockett’s notes, and our own analysis.’ Nejem handed him a folder. ‘None of it’s looking promising.’

‘Lockett seemed convinced we shouldn’t destroy the Chalice. Thane is convinced we have to destroy the Chalice.’ Matt brought up his clunky metal hand to nudge the folder open, and glared at Nejem when he reached out to help. ‘Start with Lockett’s notes. Was there any indication there was another way?’

‘She looked. Hard. And she brought us a lot more knowledge of Lethe than we had, which is valuable, because that helps us understand the ways in which the Chalice is powering it.’

Matt flicked through pages. ‘Almost. It’s almost like the Chalice is connecting Lethe to the Otherworld.’ His eyes flashed. ‘I get it. Phlegethon was made on the site of Harry Potter’s death in the Forbidden Forest. Eridanos was made on similar ritual sites all over the world. But once they used up what was made on those sites, that was it. Limited dosage.’

‘But with Lethe, the creators have got a permanent connection, through the Chalice, to the power-source. It’s like a permanent version of those rituals,’ said Nejem. ‘Lethe is feeding off the Otherworld itself for the necromantic energies.’

‘But this means that if we cut Lethe off from the power source, then they can’t infect anyone else. The Inferi won’t even be infectious any more.’

‘And might die completely. Might.’

Matt nodded, heart thudding in his chest at the implications. ‘So severing the connection might not be possible, because Lethe is already - shit! I know why we have to destroy the Chalice.’ Nejem stared at him, and he tossed the folder onto his desk, grinning. ‘It’s not about the Chalice, it’s about the Chalice being a constant bridge! Lethe isn’t using the Chalice itself, it’s just going through the door the Chalice makes with its very presence.’

Nejem’s eyes lit up. ‘So if we destroy the Chalice, it closes the bridge to the Otherworld, and that cuts off its power!’

‘Yes!’

Nejem paused. ‘So how do we destroy it?’

Matt pursed his lips. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is an excellent question.’

There was a knock at the door, and Lowsley stuck his head in. ‘Um. Matt? Albus Potter’s here to see you.’

Matt had no idea why Lowsley would know this to be awkward. Perhaps he was just feeding off the tension in the air with unusual astuteness. He let out a deep breath. ‘Show him in.’ Making this operation a by-the-book Ministry research project had really killed his father’s secrecy. Then again, Matt could put up with his father’s discontent so long as he was a free man to be angry.

Albus was square-shouldered when he strode into the office, and neither Nejem nor Lowsley stuck around. ‘Hey.’

Matt lifted his eyes, pursing his lips. ‘Al.’

Albus watched him for a moment, then sighed. ‘I’m sorry -’

‘If this is about my hand -’

‘It’s not. I mean, it is. But I was coming here for a reason and now I hear that reason’s not really necessary…’

Matt narrowed his eyes. ‘You’re babbling.’

Albus grimaced. He moved for the chair across from Matt and rested his hands on the back of it. ‘I was looking for Selena -’

His throat tightened, worry and guilt squirming away. ‘She’s not here and I don’t know where -’

‘Eva found her, they’re together. Apparently she was quite a state.’

‘I hope you didn’t come here to lecture me -’

Albus straightened. ‘Why would I -’

‘I know I’ve fucked up -’

‘Matt!’ Albus raised his hands. ‘Eva found her. I thought you’d want to know. That’s it.’

Matt stopped and turned to his wall-chart, the corkboard of notes and scribbles and diagrams he’d hope, hope, hope would transform into a means of destroying the Lethe plague forever and justify all of his hard work, sacrifices, stupidity. His jaw tightened. ‘Why did you want Selena?’

‘The corporate buy-outs Draco Malfoy was doing. Eva’s pointed out - it’s a lead.’ Matt could feel Albus’ eyes on his back, and still he didn’t turn. ‘Are you okay?’

‘I lost my hand to Joachim Raskoph and these days I can just about pick up a cup -’

‘You were brave as hell and I’ve been an idiot.’

Albus’ voice was low, but it was a small office. Matt stayed stock still for long seconds, and drew a deep breath before he turned, seeing for once the big, well-meaning guy he’d travelled the world with. Not the angry arsehole he’d staged a rescue mission with. ‘I couldn’t be there for everyone, Al.’

Albus blinked. ‘I don’t -’

‘Rose. Selena. You left, and you had your own pain, but I - damn it, Al, I couldn’t carry them both!’

He stepped away with a jolt. ‘I’m not saying you should have.’

‘Selena pulled back and Rose was so raw with pain that I went to her instead of chasing… and that left Selena alone.’ Matt slumped onto his chair. ‘And I knew it was wrong, but I let myself be blinded, and then she was abducted and I had to find her, I had to - I had to make up for it, but she’s right, what does it fucking matter if I can save her life if I can’t be there when she’s here?’

Albus was staring like he’d just been catapulted into a world of problems he was neither prepared nor equipped to handle. ‘What happened between you two?’

Matt’s jaw tightened. ‘She remembered that everyone left her by the wayside when it was convenient. And that this included me. And decided that she was sick of indulging it, and I didn’t have a good answer.’

Albus pulled up the chair, movements rather careful and gentle for such a big guy. ‘I’m… not sure any of us have done right by each other. Not one hundred percent. But I think it’s possible you’ve come closer than anyone else.’

‘I hurt her -’

‘We’ve all hurt each other. Look…’ Albus sighed. ‘I’ve known Selena a long time. And I grant you, most of that time, I didn’t really know her. Because she is so good at putting on masks and false fronts that I think she even tricks herself a lot of the time. And I don’t know what that’s about, and you seem to have a much better grasp of who she is and why she is her. I’m not going to say you’ve been flawless these past two years, because I wasn’t there, but I do know Selena is really good at doing things to herself. And it’s not fair for her to be angry at you for not saving her from herself.’ The corners of his eyes creased. ‘That would be like me blaming you guys for not coming after me when I disappeared. Maybe I did need someone to. But I still did it to myself.’

Matt stared at his metal hand, jaw tight. With a furrowed brow he lifted it, and slowly, achingly, he managed to flex it into a fist and then open again. ‘When did we all get so messed up? Was it Scorpius’ death? Or were we too far gone by then anyway?’

‘I don’t know,’ Albus murmured. ‘I do know I… would kind of like us all to be able to stand in a room together and not tear strips off each other.’

‘We don’t need to stand in a room together.’

‘Maybe not.’ Albus shook his head, expression folding up with sadness. ‘But it would be nice if we wanted to.’

Matt gave a bitter laugh. ‘Yes, I’ll hang out with Scorpius, because we were always good mates, and Rose, now, fresh off the breakup -’

‘Okay, point made.’ Albus faltered. ‘I think you did the right thing. With Rose, I mean.’

‘I didn’t just do it for her.’

‘Good. Sometimes we have to be a little selfish.’

‘I think we’ve all been a lot selfish lately.’ Matt bit his lip. ‘I hope she’s forgiven you. I always thought you - you could have helped her.’

‘She came to see me, after you left her. We talked. It was - it was good.’ Albus’ shoulders hunched up. ‘Merlin. We really have fucked each other up.’

‘Each other. Ourselves. Look…’ Matt forced himself to lift his gaze from the desk. ‘I’m sorry for being an arse about you and Saida. Inflicting her on you, I mean. I’d like to pretend it was to make you confront something you needed to confront, as I mean, you seem a lot more relaxed about it right now. But I really didn’t give a shit how bad it was for you. The jobs needed her, and I dealt with it by being a blunt arsehole.’

Albus shook his head. ‘Bygones. I’ve been dealing with a lot of stuff by - well. Isn’t that everyone’s speciality? Making their pain way more important than everyone else’s?’

‘Yeah.’ Matt pinched the bridge of his nose with his good hand. ‘I need to somehow prove to Selena that I’ve stopped doing that.’

‘I’d let her calm down first. I don’t know if Eva’s the right person to talk her through it, but for all of Selena’s issues with Eva, abandonment isn’t on the list. And then you can, I don’t know. Flowers.’

‘Flowers?’

‘You can tell I’m not good with girls, huh?’

Matt laughed, a genuine laugh without mockery, and was rewarded with the corners of Albus’ lips curling self-consciously. ‘I don’t even know. What to do, what we are, what she’ll listen to. She ran a mile and I couldn’t chase her and help Rose, or so I thought, and… when someone locks themselves away, it’s hard to know when you’re helping and when you’re just intruding, you know?’

‘I know.’

‘And Selena’s straight-talk can sound a lot like her evasion. Because she’s tricked herself into believing it, so she thinks she is being honest…’

‘Then be honest with her.’ Albus shrugged. ‘That’s all I can suggest. That’s all I think any of us can do. Try to be honest, try to be sorry, and try to not fuck it up again. And… try to forgive.’ He sighed and shook his head. ‘Speaking of, I meant what I said. You were brave as all hell on the rescue mission. Before that, even, on the whole damned quest…’

‘You don’t… bygones.’ Matt shook his head, then his gaze landed on the bottom drawer of his desk. ‘If Selena’s with Eva, I suggest you don’t go see them yet. She’s pretty pissed at you, too, for running off.’

‘I did get that impression from Miranda.’

‘So. In the spirit of trying to be less fucked up…’ Matt reached down to open the drawer and pull out the bottle of his father’s good whiskey, stored there for special occasion, and the two glasses. ‘Drink?’


* *


Eva shuffled through the papers on her coffee table. ‘I can’t believe the Ministry could have oversight of this buyout and there are no clues.’

‘I thought you make a living off counting on the government to be incompetent?’ Selena was under a blanket, hands wrapped around a steaming mug, curled up on the sofa. Once she’d been cleaned up and warmed up, Eva had set to work, else they’d have to make smalltalk and she couldn’t imagine anything she’d like to do less.

‘I try to not underestimate my enemies. And governments get sloppy with lives; they don’t get sloppy with money.’

‘Maybe.’ Selena stretched. ‘There’ll be something here. It’s a good idea. But I’m not an accountant, and I’m tired as hell.’

Eva bit her lip. ‘Alright. Then come by tomorrow morning and we’ll go through it fresh?’

‘Let’s try the afternoon.’ Selena put down the mug and stood, fuzzy blanket in hand, brow furrowed. ‘Look. Saida. Thanks,’ she told Eva’s left ear.

Eva didn’t even try to make eye contact. ‘I needed your expertise.’

‘Yes, but I mean…’ Selena sighed. ‘Yeah, that’ll do, won’t it?’ she said, and turned to the door.

Just as it burst open for Albus Potter to stagger in. He had to catch the door handle to not fall, swaying on his feet, hair messy, gaze unfocused, and his eyes widened as he saw her. ‘Oh! Selena! You’re still here!’

Selena narrowed her eyes at him. ‘Are you drunk?’

‘No. Yes. Maybe. Yes? It’s allowed.’ Albus tilted his chin up defiantly, then ruined the effect by hurrying over to her like an upset puppy. ‘Are you okay? I know you’re all frantic and -’

Frantic. Great.’

Despite herself, Eva shuffled over, just in case this turned into an argument as Albus’ sense of diplomacy was smothered under a wave of Firewhiskey. But Selena pressed on.

‘I’m fine, Albus. Just peaky. Obviously not doing as well as you…’

‘I spoke to Matt, and he - and we went through quite a lot of whiskey…’ Albus rubbed his temples. ‘He’s really worried about you…’

‘Worried enough to do something?’

‘You know,’ he slurred, ‘when you tell people you want to be left alone, sometimes they believe you.’

She stopped short at that, and tossed the blanket onto the back of the sofa before looking at Eva. ‘Tomorrow morning. Might be best if it’s just you and me.’

Eva gave a stiff, mute nod, but Albus moved to block the door, big hands raised placatingly. ‘Not what I meant. I mean that he’s really sorry.’

‘Did he tell you to tell me this?’

‘No! No, he doesn’t know I’m here, I thought you needed to know -’

‘I don’t want to hear about Matt.’

‘Then I’m sorry,’ Al blurted. ‘I left you all. And I know there was Rose but it doesn’t mean I didn’t hurt you by leaving.’

Selena’s expression shifted, then set. ‘Don’t flatter yourself, Al. You and I were never close enough for me to go to you.’

‘Then maybe I should fix that.’

She quirked an eyebrow. ‘What are you doing? Boozing with Matt, coming to paw at me for forgiveness? You’ve suddenly decided you need to play supportive keen puppy for everyone, not just Scorpius?’

Albus’ gaze flickered back and forth drunkenly. ‘Pretty much.’

Selena stared at him for a moment, then shook her head and headed for the door. ‘Good night, Al.’

‘He loves you, you know,’ said Albus, then span on the spot and waved his hands. ‘I mean, we love you. We all do.’ Eva tried to back off as she saw Selena freeze in the doorway, and before she could respond, Albus had padded over, brought his hands up to her shoulders. ‘You’re awesome and we love you and we’d have died for you. But I guess you want us to live for you? Maybe not for you, maybe with -’

‘Al, stop.’ Selena turned, lifting a hand to his lips, and they all stopped short for long moment. Eva wondered if she’d need to dive out the window. Eventually, Selena’s shoulders slumped, expression softening. ‘But thank you,’ she murmured, and before he could say anything else stupid, she hugged him.

‘M’sorry,’ Albus mumbled into her hair, but was answered with nothing more than a kiss on the cheek before Selena pulled back.

She looked at Eva. ‘Tomorrow.’

Eva gave a wispy smile. ‘Afternoon.’ Then Selena left, and she was in the room with a drunk Albus Potter. With a sigh, she turned to him. ‘Why are you here in this state?’

Albus cringed. ‘Oh. I wanted to - Matt and I talked about stuff and I figured there was no time like the present, you know?’

Stuff?’

‘Like - like Selena. Making things right.’

Eva looked him up and down critically. ‘Are you sure you’re safe to Apparate?’

‘I got Floo’d into the block. Okay. It took me two tries. I really upset a -’

‘You’re not taking yourself home in this state.’

He grinned a broad, silly grin. ‘Did you have any better ideas?’

He must be really drunk. Eva glanced at the window and murmured Arabic curse words. ‘I think you should start with sitting down.’

‘Yeah. Good idea.’ Albus slumped over to the threadbare sofa and fell onto it with a grunt. ‘Unf, this is more comfy than I thought.’

‘As if I needed more proof you’re drunk.’

He lounged back, arms splayed out, eyes fluttering shut. ‘M’just gonna stay here. ‘Til the world stops spinning.’

‘Sure. Sleep on my couch. See if I mind.’

‘You don’t mind,’ Albus slurred.

Eva rolled her eyes, but despite herself she was already moving, retrieving the blanket and sweeping it over him. ‘Yes, because when you think of me, you think hospitable.’

She wasn’t expecting him to move. But his hand shot out to grab hers as she was draping the blanket, and she froze by instinct. His eyes fluttered open. ‘…no. Not the word I’d use.’ His gaze was still bleary, but she’d never found his green eyes anything but piercing, tearing at her masks and control, and even when he was drunk it was no different. ‘I’ve got better words. Better thoughts.’

Eva tried to tug her hand free. ‘You should sleep -’

‘I forgive you, you know.’

She closed her eyes, and when she found her voice it was like it came from far away. ‘You shouldn’t.’

‘Don’t I get to decide that?’

‘I hurt you.’ She forced herself to open her eyes, forced strength into her voice. ‘I’ve hurt others, I’ve killed others -’

‘You’re changing.’

‘I can’t change what I did.’

‘Then why are you trying to be different?’

Eva’s throat tightened, and her gaze flickered down, down from his honest bright eyes to the rise and fall of his chest, trying to block out the feel of his hand still holding hers. ‘I suppose I have to try.’

Albus nodded, and squeezed her hand. ‘I want to help you,’ he mumbled. ‘When I’m scared, or hurt, I’m angry at you, but if I’m thinking clearly, I…’

Her heart lunged into her oesophagus, and she yanked her hand back. ‘You’re not thinking clearly right now,’ she said, speaking very fast. ‘You’re drunk, and I - I will get you a bowl and let you sleep.’ He slumped back, lulled into inactivity by the siren-call of whiskey, and so she hurried into the safe house’s kitchenette to find a bowl.

By the time she got back, he was already asleep. And snoring like a freight train.


Chapter 25: The True Old Times Are Dead
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The True Old Times are Dead


Scorpius had been left in a sombre silence for the rest of their time at Niemandhorn, and Rose was at first prepared to take that as normalcy. So everything remained at that detached, civil level, the unspoken lines harsh between them, even when they boarded the Niemandhorn Express. This time, Scorpius stopped when he got to a compartment door and handed her a ticket. ‘I got us two compartments. Traffic out of the Castle’s a lot less frantic than going in. There was space.’

Rose kept her expression studied as she took the ticket. It should have been a relief. It wasn’t that she wanted to torment herself with another sleepless night so keenly aware of his presence. It wasn’t even that she wanted to play with fire, see what she couldn’t have dangled in front of her. But it was another line, more distance. ‘Do you want me to take the journal?’ she said instead. ‘No offence, but without knowing the cipher, I’m going to have a better chance of cracking it than you.’

His expression pinched, but he reached into his jacket and pulled out the leather-bound book. ‘Yeah. Alright.’

She could understand his reluctance at parting with such a connection, so she tried to give him a reassuring smile. Once, he would have trusted her with something this important. ‘We’ll talk about what I’ve found over dinner?’

He paused. ‘Yeah - well, the dining cart won’t be as crowded so -’

‘So we can eat alone?’ She forced her smile to remain, to soften. ‘You know how I was being crazy on the outbound journey, pushing you away? We’ve been doing fine this trip, Scorpius. If we’re going to find out what Cassian Malfoy knew, we’re going to need to do this together.’

He flinched and stepped back, but nodded before she could press the point. ‘Alright. Sure. We’ll catch up over dinner.’

Then he fled down the corridor, and with a sigh she slumped into her compartment, sank onto the bottom bunk, and buried her face in her hands. Once, she’d lived and died on the thought of never seeing him again. Right now she was living and dying on whether he’d so much as look at her again.

Of course, came a small, treacherous voice at the back of her mind, you still haven’t told him about you and Matt. It had been an omission to try to make matters less awkward. But perhaps it was at the root of the problem. After all, it wasn’t like their first, proper reunion, in his hotel suite, had been a superb demonstration of self-control. Keeping Matt between them as an unspoken barrier still felt easier and safer. Falling right back into Scorpius Malfoy’s arms, so soon after he’d come back, so soon after Matt had left her, sounded like a recipe for a disaster she didn’t dare court.

And yet it would be so easy.

Niemandhorn and its castle were far, far behind the train chugging towards sunset by the time she unfurled herself from her ball of self-pity and cracked open Cassian Malfoy’s journal, only to be greeted by the now-familiar nonsense in which he’d encoded all of his private thoughts. She grabbed pencil, parchment, and got to work, because work was always the best distraction. By the time she raised her head to look out the window, she couldn’t see the white peaks of the Alps any more, just the black of night, and she had made absolutely no progress in deciphering the sheer babble.

It was time to stop beating her face against a brick wall. In every possible way.

Long years of working alongside Selena had taught her certain things about packing. Some of those things included, ‘Bring a whole wardrobe even for a walk down the street,’ which was not a lesson Rose had adopted. But other lessons were, ‘Always, always, always pack a little black dress.’

‘Pretending everything’s normal,’ Rose told her reflection, as she conducted the exciting task of getting ready and applying makeup in a bathroom cubicle she could barely fit into, ‘isn’t helping anyone. Time to stop obfuscating.’ It wasn’t that she was trying to mess with Scorpius’ head. But looking good made the thudding in her gut fade, made her fit in more with the high class of clientele on board. And she wasn’t going over the top, but she was entitled to look nice for no particular reason, she told herself.

When she knocked on his compartment door after a frantic half-hour, which had included a battle with her hair about which epic ballads should really be written, she had to wonder if she’d gone overboard. When he opened the door, rumpled in jeans and a button-down white shirt, she was pretty certain she had. But at least he could be on the back foot for once.

‘I thought we were getting dinner?’ she said, with the slightest hint of a superior smile.

He blinked. ‘Give me ten minutes, and I’ll meet you there.’

It meant she had half a glass of the table wine down her throat by the time he wandered into the Express’ dining cart, in the same shirt but dark trousers, a well-tailored jacket, his hair not so much tamed as brushed back, still rumpled in that way she’d always found distracting.

She wasn’t sure if he’d thrown things on or if he was trying to beat her at her own game. So she deflected by putting Cassian’s journal on the table. ‘I’ve got nothing.’

Scorpius grimaced and grabbed the journal like it was precious. ‘How do you make progress with breaking a code, anyway? I mean, without the actual code…’

‘Cipher,’ said Rose with a distracted sip of her wine. ‘A code would be a seemingly-innocuous phrase with a predetermined meaning. A cipher is the substitution of letters for others. I tried the more obvious methods - inverted alphabet, that sort of thing, though of course if it was going to be that simple, I’d imagine the Alliance would have figured it out by now. Then I tried to brute-force it.’

Scorpius raised an eyebrow. ‘Brute force?’

‘Oh, you know. Assuming it’s in English, then there will be certain patterns to it. There are only so many three-letter words, only so many single-letter words. So you find a three-letter word, start by assuming it’s, I don’t know, “the”, and then from there try to find a pattern, try to see if you can fill in other words with the same letters. Move on to “and”, or “are” or the like, if that doesn’t work.’

‘And that didn’t work?’

Rose grimaced. ‘It didn’t. Of course, if it’s a cipher into a different language, then that’s going to be a lot harder. Or it’s a completely different trick.’

‘So this could be worthless.’ Scorpius slumped back, expression crumbling so badly she wanted to reach for his hand.

She reached for her wine instead. ‘You found a lot of stuff in Malfoy Manor about Cassian. It’s possible there’s something there.’

‘Or it’s possible the cipher died with him. And even if we figure this out, there’s no guarantee there’s anything in it.’ He rubbed the back of his neck. ‘I went through some of the files Bachelet gave us. Did you realise the two worked together? Like, a lot?’

Rose failed to smother a sad smile. ‘I got that impression.’

‘They had a whole long-term operation out in Finland in 1941, and then another in Russia in 1943, not to mention countless little missions. All of them trying to foil Thule Society activities out there. Most of it was chasing Raskoph, who clearly had some sort of agenda, but I don’t see the pattern in any of it.’

‘I can take a look,’ she said gently.

‘Yeah.’ He looked away, across the half-full dining cart, resplendent in polished dark wood and those handsome imperial blue furnishings. ‘And, I guess, Matt should, too. He’s the historian. He knew about Saint Annard.’

Rose swallowed hard, then reached for the wine to top up their glasses. ‘We’ll do that when we get back, tomorrow. Was it nice to see Harley again?’

He brightened despite himself. ‘Yeah. I’m glad to see he’s doing okay. There’s something he said to me, way back, about proving how I’m not like my father.’ He sat up. ‘That I should use the Malfoy family wealth and influence to actually improve things for House Elves, rather than just not making things worse.’

‘I don’t think you need to prove to anyone you’re not like your father.’

‘I spent eight months with Thane. My father’s on the run from the IMC. There are more similarities than I’d like.’ He shrugged. ‘I was thinking, if Harley’s trying to do things for the House Elves as a whole; they could do with wealth, property. Somewhere they can organise themselves, someplace that’s theirs. Income. Prestige.’

Rose’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’re talking about Malfoy Manor? Giving them Malfoy Manor?’

Scorpius gave a crooked smile, that vicious grin that was as much teeth as it was charm. ‘Can you imagine my father’s reaction? His father’s reaction?’

‘But - it’s your home.’

‘It’s not,’ said Scorpius hotly. ‘And I won’t need it. I don’t need it. I have no desire to go back there. If I spend even one night under that place’s roof, then that’s one night too many, I don’t -’

‘Okay.’ She lifted a hand, smiling. ‘I understand. If you’re sure, I think it’s a great idea.’

‘I might as well do something worthwhile with my life, hm? Now I’ve got it back.’

‘If we find something about Cassian, if we find what he knew about Raskoph, that is going to be worthwhile,’ Rose said gently. ‘And you can make a difference without needing people like Prometheus Thane.’

His gaze flickered down. ‘It was - it was what I had to do at the time.’

‘And that time’s passed.’

It was his turn to go for the wine. ‘Has it?’

‘Lillian got her laws. You know she can order a full investigation of any IMC Councillor at any time? That Harry can do the same? There’s going to be no need for people to take things into their own hands, because the system is going to work.’ She tried another smile, even if this one was more serious. ‘It’s not an ideal sacrifice of liberty, but when Prometheus Thane was doing a better job of fighting the Council of Thorns and keeping us safe, something needed to change. I know what you were doing, Scorpius.’

He tensed, chin jolting up an inch. ‘You do -’

‘You and Thane, you saw yourselves as the necessary evil to protect us from the greater evil. You don’t have to be that any more.’

Scorpius’ gaze dropped. ‘You think a man can stop being that? You saw what I did to Holga, you know how that ended.’

‘You’re talking like I don’t know you.’

Their eyes met, and she held firm, unwavering, staring into the blue-grey gaze she knew so well. When he was warm and smiling, there was so much more blue to his eyes. When he was cold or angry, the steel won, and he looked more like his father than she would ever admit. ‘I think,’ said Scorpius after long heartbeats, ‘you knew me two years ago.’

‘Just like,’ said Rose calmly, ‘you’re assuming I’ve become no more astute in all that time. Or realistic.’ She reached for the wine bottle yet again, and pretended it wasn’t providing tonight’s courage. ‘I assume you checked how the Falcons have been doing the last two years.’

His expression made it plain he thought this was cheating. ‘It’s just Quidditch -’

‘If they don’t cancel the season,’ Rose continued, ‘I still don’t think they’ve got a shot at the Cup.’

‘But -’ Scorpius sputtered. ‘Neatherby has come on in leaps and bounds the last two seasons! Even James has, too! No Keeper can save against them!’

‘That doesn’t count for anything if Shafiq isn’t going to catch the Snitch.’

‘He did, the last two matches -’

‘One of those was against the Cannons…’

It was a cheap tactic, and Rose knew it left a lot churning under the surface. But it broke the furrow of his brow, that new frown she didn’t yet understand and didn’t know how to ease. It could be hidden for the moment, and she could set him ranting - rather begrudgingly - about how good James was playing for his favourite team, how well they’d come along.

And from there it was onto music he’d missed, and yet again he grumbled about the passivity of wizarding bands. But in return he asked her about Gringotts and her job, and for the first time she found she could talk about Egypt as a place she’d ever want to go back to. She’d been incapable of caring when she’d been there. But he grinned when she mentioned the excavations, how they’d outwitted the bureaucracy of their superiors to get their own team, and the incidents became a tale in her past, not a trial.

The night chugged on with the Niemandhorn Express, and their plates cleared and the wine bottles - definitely plural - emptied, until Rose succumbed to a yawn that had been growing for a half-hour.

Scorpius drained his glass. ‘We should probably turn in. If I have any more, I’m going to be a grouchy as hell travel companion tomorrow.’

‘Because we’ve both been rays of sunshine this trip.’ But she smiled and stood, and the two began their comfortable, fuzzy-headed meander back to the compartments.

‘I’m sorry,’ Scorpius said, but she was going first and she couldn’t see his expression. ‘I just - this is awkward, and I was trying to not make it awkward.’

‘Like I once told you, long ago,’ Rose mused. ‘You and I have never been friends.’

She got to her door and turned to find him paused in the corridor, that knot back in his brow, shoulders slumped. ‘You’re right. We never were. I should -’

‘Wait.’ Each heartbeat was like a tremor through her body, tightening her throat, but she couldn’t stop. ‘I wanted - there’s something I need to say.’

That did not make him frown any less. ‘We shouldn’t -’

‘Can you at least come in?’

He followed into the compartment like a skittish cat and stayed near the door. Rose had to draw deep breaths as she brought the dim, orange glow of the lamps to life. She did not need another incident of Scorpius Malfoy fleeing her presence. Even if once she’d have given her right arm for him to be able to.

He folded his arms across his chest. ‘What’s going on?’

‘You’re hiding something from me,’ Rose said, trying to keep her voice gentle, even if the accusation thudded through her. ‘I know this from Legilimency, yes, but I also know this from how you’re acting, because you’ve not changed so badly I can’t read you.’

‘I don’t -’

‘And you can’t chase this Cassian Malfoy lead alone; you shouldn’t, not if you want to get results, not if you want to be successful, and I can see this burning in you. You want to find some shred of your family that’s worth a damn as much as you want to fight the Council.’

The comment on his family made him stop short. ‘I knew you coming was a bad idea…’

‘And yet, you let me anyway. Maybe you’re a weak-willed idiot, or maybe you remember that you and I used to actually be pretty good at figuring things out. Fights. Problems. Each other.’ Gentleness was fleeing her voice for bluntness. ‘We make a good team, and this investigation matters to the world and it matters to you, but we will do even better if you’re frank.’

He stabbed a finger at her. ‘I didn’t ask you to be here. Like you said, Rose, we’re not friends. You’re with Matt; do you really think you and me being close is a good -’

‘Matt left me.’ The admission almost stuck in her throat.

His shoulders squared like they’d been turned to stone, his gaze thunderous. ‘He what?’

‘The night after we made plans to go. The night you were out with - with John. I came home, and Matt was there, and he’d packed a bag and said that he was going. Because he wanted to give me space to think about me and him, about you, to make sure I wasn’t staying with him out of a sense of obligation, or…’

One moment he’d been by the door, stunned and apprehensive; now he flew over and grabbed her arms. It was the first time he’d touched her since that near-miss in his suite, his grasp so electric she almost pulled back. ‘You cannot leave him for me, Rose, you cannot -’

I haven’t done anything,’ Rose pointed out, trying to stop her voice from wavering. ‘But it’s not just about you, Scorpius - we weren’t happy. I didn’t love him, I was just with him because - because it was better than being alone, because I was so broken without you and being with him was the closest I came to being in one piece…’ She pressed on, because too much honesty was right now better than too little. ‘And it wasn’t fair to him, and he realised that. Even if you hadn’t come back, Scorpius, we shouldn’t have been together. It wasn’t right. And technically it’s sort of a break; he told me I should think about what I wanted, and that if it was him, I should tell him that…’

‘Then tell him that!’ Scorpius’ hold was tight enough to hurt, but she didn’t pull back. ‘Rose, you can’t -’

‘I don’t want to tell him that! I don’t want to be back with him!’ The words choked past her throat, and with them came a wave of release, the confession so pure it almost made her bend double with the ache of it. ‘Even aside from you, Scorpius. Look, this is why I didn’t tell you…’ Though she’d never imagined he’d react like this.

His face fell, slumping like there were parts of him being dragged back to the Otherworld, and when he spoke his voice was a low croak. ‘I wanted you to be happy. That’s all I ever wanted for you. Maybe I wasn’t thrilled that you were with Matt, but he loves you…’

‘He once did. Now he loves… a memory, a dream.’

It didn’t look like Scorpius was hearing her, but he let her go and stumbled towards the door. ‘You have to fix this, Rose -’

‘I think the breakup is a fix -’

‘No,’ he snapped. ‘I cannot come back and ruin your relationships, your life. I will not. We’re home tomorrow. Stay away. And fix this.’

And with that he turned on his heel, opened the door, and disappeared into the shadows of the corridor, leaving her not entirely surprised that she now had more questions than answers.


* *


Selena hadn’t stormed out of the house with her coat, and taking a long, scalding shower in a creaky bathroom while Eva took cleaning spells to her clothes had only warmed her a little. So standing before her front door, late at night, was a question of determining if her hesitation outweighed the cold.

Hesitation was powerful enough that she was shivering by the time she let herself in, and closed the door louder than intended. She froze, but nothing happened in the gloom of the hallways. She took to the stairs, and lurked first to the guest bedroom. It was shrouded in darkness, but a peer through the half-open door made it clear that Matt had taken her instruction seriously. All of it was bare.

‘Shit,’ Selena whispered, and slunk to her bedroom. ‘Shit, shit, shit.’ And she swore even more when she stepped in and found Miranda passed out in the armchair by the window.

‘Gah!’ Miranda jerked awake, lustrously long dark hair wild. ‘You’re back! I wasn’t sure you…’

‘Miranda! Merlin, you scared me - were you waiting?’ Selena stared, then turned on the lights so they didn’t have to be startled in the dark.

‘You make it sound like that’s an unreasonable thing to do,’ said Miranda, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. ‘After you stormed off in tears.’

‘I wasn’t in tears.’

‘They were coming,’ said Miranda. Selena was reminded this girl had kept up with Scorpius Malfoy for the long months of their relationship. ‘And I wasn’t sure if you were coming back, but I knew I couldn’t go after you and… are you alright?’

She cringed as she spoke, and with a sigh Selena perched on the edge of her bed. ‘I’m… better,’ she decided. ‘I’m sorry for yelling at you, though. That wasn’t fair.’

Miranda brushed a stray lock of hair back, skin porcelain-white against dark tresses and pale moonlight. ‘If it were true, it would be. We never let you hide because it was convenient for us, Selena.’

Selena sighed, and scrubbed her face with her hands. ‘It’s been pointed out that if I tell people I want to be alone, or that I’m okay, they might do crazy shit like believe me.’

‘After Phlegethon, when Methuselah died…’ Miranda grimaced. ‘We didn’t believe you. I mean, I didn’t think it had been a big deal between you two, I took that at face value, but I didn’t think that meant you were indifferent. You were just - you get very convincing, Selena, you know that? You tell everyone you’ve got it under control, that you’re alright, and even if we don’t believe you, we don’t know how to challenge you.’

‘I suppose I’ve had a lot of practice at that. Lying, I mean.’

‘We see through you. You just don’t let us join you there.’ Miranda hesitated. ‘You haven’t let me, not these last three years.’

Selena jerked her head up. ‘I…’

‘Methuselah. The “holiday”. Even after, even when Scorpius died; it’s not like he meant nothing to me, and you never once acted like I’d understand -’ She stopped herself, mouth clamped shut for long heartbeats until it seemed she could trust herself to continue. ‘We’re your friends. Let us help.’

Selena went back to staring at her hands, and drew a raking breath. ‘I’m not sure how,’ she murmured.

‘Talk, maybe? And talk like you trust us to listen, not judge, not ditch you… because we won’t?’

Selena pulled her legs up, wrapped her arms around her knees, and gritted her teeth before she managed to give Miranda a guilty look. ‘I’m not sure where to start.’

Miranda joined her on the bed, put an arm around her with more of the casual ease and understanding closeness that even Rose had ever managed - because while Selena knew Rose understood her more, had walked with her through fire, there were some simple affections that came only from time, and from not being an emotionally-stunted Weasley.

‘How about,’ Miranda Travers said gently, ‘you tell me about Methuselah Jones?’


* *


‘If de Sablé isn’t in this warehouse by dusk,’ Matt yelled out the door of his office at his frantic team the next afternoon, ‘then I want us to cook up a fucking summoning ritual!’

Lowsley looked up from his desk, on which teetered a large pile of dusty volumes he’d been poring through. ‘Last reports said he has a Portkey in from Venice at five o’ clock. Which is technically after dark this time of year and he won’t be here until six with customs investigation -’

‘Bloody hell.’ Matt scowled. ‘Send word down to the DIMC, tell them we need this man as soon as possible and to fast-track him.’

‘They hate processing de Sablé; where the hell do they file an eight hundred year-old immigrant?’

‘You’re saying this like I give a damn. So long as he’s -’

‘Doyle!’

Matt snapped upright at the familiar voice, and tried to not glower as he saw Scorpius Malfoy striding down the line of desks, jaw tight, eyes blazing. It was an old instinct which made him resent the sight of the man, and deep down he knew he still wasn’t used to seeing him walking. In some ways he wanted to marvel at the miracle that had brought him back, but that was a lot more complicated than an old, nurtured, irrelevant grudge. ‘Scorpius,’ he said, much more amiably. ‘I didn’t know you were back.’

‘Just half an hour ago and we need to talk.’ Scorpius looked pointedly at his office.

‘Oh,’ said Matt. ‘By all means. Make yourself comfortable.’ He rolled his eyes as he let Scorpius in.

Scorpius approached the corkboard, brow furrowing as he stared at the papers, the intricate timeline of the Chalice’s history which Matt was desperately trying to untangle so he could find a starting point on his research. It would be easier once de Sablé was here. ‘…you’ve made progress?’

‘I’ve confirmed what we need to do,’ said Matt. Despite himself, he walked to the desk and began unbuckling his prosthetic hand. His stump ached when stressed, and Scorpius Malfoy was walking stress. ‘I need to figure out the how.’

‘Right,’ said Scorpius, nodding to himself. ‘Right.’ Then he turned, jaw set tight. ‘You broke up with Rose.’

Matt blinked. This was not what he’d expected, and so he took his time finishing his removal of the prosthetic. ‘I did. You seem angry about that, so forgive me if I’m a bit confused.’

‘You can’t do that. ‘She needs you -’

‘Have you been paying any attention?’ Matt set his prosthetic on the desk and stared. ‘She doesn’t need me. She actively needed to be out of that relationship, and so did I!’

‘You can’t let her go, hoping maybe she’ll return to you -’

‘That is not why I did that.’

‘Or, then, being a self-sacrificing idiot and hoping she’ll come back to me!’

Matt drew a deep, calming breath, because this was as confusing as it was infuriating. ‘I left Rose for Rose’s own good,’ he said in a slow, measured voice, ‘but I also left her for my own good. Because she is never going to love me, and we both deserve better. I thought you’d be pleased.’

‘If you think she and I can swan back to being together…’ Scorpius’ expression twisted, and he turned away, waving his hands in the air. ‘Don’t be an idiot!’

‘I wouldn’t think it’s just that easy,’ said Matt, brow knotting. ‘But I did suspect the two of you would work something out. Did something happen in Switzerland?’

‘No,’ said Scorpius flatly. ‘And nothing ever will.’

Matt had envisioned all sorts of awkwardness arising between Rose and Scorpius from the breakup, mostly out of guilt. But none of his calculations included Scorpius losing his shit like this. ‘Scorpius.’ Matt’s voice was cold, tight, controlled. ‘Why can’t you be with Rose?’

He spun around, grey eyes steely. ‘It’s not that simple; we’ve been apart for two years, she’s changed, I’ve changed, and I wanted her to be happy, not needing me…’

‘You’ve barely been back a fortnight; maybe you two will find each other again and maybe you won’t, but I do know it’s too early for you to write it off -’ Matt stopped, breath jerking in his throat as the mental equations spat out an answer, and it was like a punch to the gut. He stared at Scorpius. ‘You’re dying.’

Now it was Scorpius’ turn to reel. ‘I’m - I’m not -’

‘Or your return isn’t permanent, or -’ Matt flew across the space, and grabbed Scorpius’ jacket with his good hand. ‘What the hell - shit! This is why you didn’t come back, this is the real reason you stayed away, isn’t it! Your resurrection isn’t permanent, so you stayed away, you worked with Thane, and you used the time you had to try to fuck up the Council of Thorns, whatever it took!’

Scorpius slumped. ‘I wasn’t supposed to come back - we didn’t know you’d be on the Naglfar…’

Matt just tightened his grip. ‘How do we stop this?’

Scorpius’ head jerked up. ‘You said you’ve confirmed how to destroy Lethe. Is it by destroying the Chalice?’

‘That’s - yes…’

‘Then you can’t stop this. The Chalice is what’s keeping me in this realm; I’m supposed to be in the Otherworld, I’m not the first bastard to die from passing through a Veil. I’m only here because the Chalice dragged me back. It’s my anchor. It gets destroyed, and back I go!’

Now Matt let go, staggering back to slump against the desk. What had a moment ago been the fizz of a problem to solve running through his veins was now ice and horror. ‘There has to be another way…’

‘You think Thane didn’t look for another way? Even he didn’t want this. But he studied the Chalice, he brought it here in the first place. He created and recreated Lethe. There is not a man in the world who has more understanding of the Chalice of Emrys, and this is the only solution he’s figured out.’

‘He could have been lying -’

‘He said this under Veritaserum,’ Scorpius said bluntly. ‘Sure, that means it’s only what he believes, not an absolute truth, but he’s had months on this, you’ve only had five minutes, and he is convinced.’

‘So I will look,’ snarled Matt, ‘for another way.’

No,’ snapped Scorpius. ‘You will continue this line of research, the most sensible and effective line of research, and you will find a way to destroy the Chalice of Emrys. And the moment you find how to do it, you will destroy it.’

‘Even if it kills you?’

‘And if you wait, if you piss around trying to find a third way, how many people die to Lethe?’ Scorpius was yelling now, red-faced, voice echoing off the thin wooden walls. ‘People have already died because I was brought back to bring that plague into the world again! That is the price of my resurrection, and I won’t…’

But his voice was tumbling over itself, and as Matt watched him choke on his words, it was like this man - the man he’d hated, resented for so long, who had always swanned around and got whatever he wanted, smiled and joked his way out of every hot spot, got the girl and cheated death - was a puppet with his strings cut, and with a strangled sob, Scorpius slumped against the wall, eyes shut tight.

Despite himself, Matt approached, jaw clenched, and put his good hand to Scorpius’ shoulder. ‘I will continue to try to destroy the Chalice. But research is a complicated road, and to find out how to destroy the Chalice I need to know more about the Chalice. And if I see so much as a hint of another way, I will find it.’

Scorpius stayed silent for a long moment, chest heaving, but when he spoke again it was with more control, taut and pained. ‘If you delay, and that causes the death of even one person,’ he said, voice grating, ‘then that is too high a price to pay.’

‘We’re not there yet,’ Matt pointed out. Scorpius nodded, bringing up his sleeve to swat at his treacherous eyes, and Matt bit his lip. ‘Do they know?’

‘Of course not,’ said Scorpius thickly. ‘I was a weak fucking idiot to come back; you think I’m strong enough to break their hearts again?’

‘They need to know. Albus, Rose, they need to know…’

‘I know.’ Scorpius groaned, and brought his hands up to cover his face. ‘Rose… I didn’t want to hurt her again…’

‘You dropping dead all of a sudden is going to hurt her too; this being kept from her would - it would be worse.’ Matt locked his gaze on Scorpius’ as the other man drew his hands down. ‘And if you don’t tell them, I will.’ He shoved him free and walked back to the desk with a groan, running his fingers through his hair. ‘I knew this had to get worse before it got better.’

‘It’s almost like the world fucking hates us,’ Scorpius muttered.

Matt leaned on the desk, glowering at his prosthetic hand. ‘Here’s the plan. You’re going to tell them. Albus and Rose and your mother and whoever the fuck needs to hear it from you personally, and this stops being a secret.’

Scorpius nodded, still slumped against the wall. ‘Yeah. Yeah, I know. I really didn’t -’

‘It’s done.’ Matt jabbed his index finger at him. ‘You just try to be honest. And I will try to find everyone a way out of this pigfuck of a situation.’



--------------

A/N: I'm going to be away for all of next week, beyond the internet. Hopefully I can get some writing done, but I digress. At present, the queue won't have this chapter out until I'm already away, in which case there might be quite the break until there's another update. So, bear with me and be patient on the next chapter, it will be out as soon as I am physically capable of posting it, but circumstances may conspire against me!

But this doesn't feel a bad chapter to have a mini-hiatus on!


Chapter 26: Halfway Down the Slope to Hell
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Halfway Down the Slope to Hell


Emerald flames twisted, twirled, and faded. The Old Rectory’s living room burst into fresh life before Scorpius’ eyes, and he let out a deep breath. The moments he took to brush soot from his shoulders were prolonged like the last breaths before a plunge, then he lifted his head and tried to give Rose and Albus a smile that wasn’t strangled. ‘Please tell me your parents aren’t in.’

‘Dad’s in Macedonia. Mum doesn’t manage mundane challenges like leaving the office.’ Rose got to her feet. ‘And you need to explain.’

He met her gaze only for a heartbeat, and saw barbed wire wrapped into a coiled spring. It was the same taut accusation as last night, the same guarded air she’d held since the start, but now it was joined by apprehension. She could see a change like a shift in the wind, smell the storm even if she didn’t know its nature yet.

Before he could speak, Albus stood like he was to sally into a breach. ‘What’s the matter? Did you two find something in Niemandhorn?’

‘That’s not what this is about.’ Scorpius stared out the living room window, because the dying autumn was easier to look at. Vibrant green life had rusted, but the seasons, at least, would be reborn anew. ‘I need to tell you both something. You should sit down.’

They did, and still he watched over their heads. ‘Rose knows there are things I haven’t said. Some of those things aren’t secrets so much as… so much as I’m not sure how to explain everything that happened and everything I did working with Thane. But there’s one thing I haven’t told you because I didn’t want to hurt you, and it’ll make everything make more sense.’

He looked down at them to see Albus taut with apprehension, Rose’s expression rather blank, like she could see the oncoming train and could do nothing. He closed his eyes. ‘My return is not permanent.’

‘What?’

When Scorpius opened his eyes again, Rose’s expression had barely changed; he could see the furrow of her brow, the bracing of pain, but he knew that all he’d done was confirm a deep, unspoken fear.

Albus, however, was back on his feet. ‘What do you mean “not permanent”; you mean you’re going to die -?’

‘I mean my soul is tethered to the Chalice of Emrys. I wasn’t brought back; the Chalice was, and I’m just along for the ride.’ Scorpius forced his voice low and flat, calm and factual. ‘When the Chalice of Emrys is destroyed to end the Lethe Plague, nothing will tether me to the world of the living, and I will return to the Otherworld.’

‘Who says we’re going to destroy the Chalice of Emrys?’

‘Experts, Al. People who know that this is the most effective way to destroy a weapon the Council are killing hundreds of people with.’ Scorpius’ jaw tightened. ‘Right now, they’re unleashing it on people in southern Africa. Witches, wizards, Muggles; they are creating an army of corpses that will leave more devastation in their wake. The Chalice must be destroyed. Thane knew this, Matt knows this…’

Albus staggered back like Scorpius had punched him in the gut, ashen-faced. ‘I can’t believe this - you didn’t tell us? Tell me?’

Scorpius’ expression twisted. ‘I didn’t - I’m a weak coward, Al. I didn’t come back because I knew my return was only temporary, so I tried… I tried to make the most of the time I had. If I was a dead man walking, I could be a dead man fighting monsters. As coming back was otherwise just… just doing what I’m doing now.’ He tossed his hands helplessly. ‘Tormenting you.’

Rose looked up at him, and her voice was low, rasping. ‘This is the secret you hid from me in Legilimency?’

He nodded, throat trying to close up. ‘Maybe I should have lied on the Naglfar, or run away, or got away sooner, but I - I was weak. I was so happy to see you both again, after all this time, and then I didn’t want to twist the knife. If you’re wondering what my plan was, then you’d be assuming I had a plan…’

‘I can’t…’ Albus brought his hands to his head. ‘I can’t do this, Scorp, I just got you back…’

I’m here, right now, he wanted to say, but that would be twisting the knife, that would be denying the whole reason he’d stayed away in the first place. So all Scorpius could say instead was a throaty, ‘I’m sorry.’

Albus stormed over to grab him by the shoulders. ‘There has to be another way. Some alternative to destroying the Chalice -’

‘To somehow destroy or contain all sources of Lethe in the world,’ said Scorpius, not pulling away. ‘Or to spend time studying the Chalice to find a different way to use it to end Lethe, when we know the route of research we should take. Or to capture or kill every single Thornweaver and Lethe-based Inferius. How many more people will die while we piss around with those alternatives, Al? You saw what Lethe did to Hogsmeade, has done to so many parts of the world. It is killing people, and it needs to be destroyed.’

‘Whatever the cost? Even at the cost of you -’

‘My life has already been bought with the deaths of everyone the Council killed with Lethe!’ Scorpius grabbed Albus’ arms, the words thudding through them both like knife blows. ‘Every single person they murder with an Inferius or by unleashing that Plague, that is a person who is dead because I am alive!’

Rose was on her feet now, hurrying to them. ‘That’s a person who’s dead because they killed them; you can’t take responsibility for this. You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t do it -’

‘No,’ Scorpius agreed, gaze moving between her dark eyes and Albus’ blazing green. ‘But if I do anything but support the most effective means of stopping them, even if it means my death, then it is on me.’

He felt Albus’ hands curl in his jacket, grip iron-tight. ‘So you’re giving up?’

‘Al.’ He grasped his best friend’s arm, met his eyes. ‘I’m not supposed to be -’

Albus pushed him away, and had it not been for Rose’s hand at his shoulder he’d have fallen. Like a beaten dog Albus stalked away, shoulders hunched, face twisted. ‘Not supposed to be here. Right. I get it. So everything goes back to -’ His voice cut off, and he turned to the fireplace. ‘I’ve got to go.’

Scorpius sprang forward. ‘Al -’ But he was too late, and Albus disappeared in a puff of green flames and smoke, leaving him there with Rose’s hand on his arm. They stood in silence for a long moment, until he dared turn to her, gut tense. ‘You knew?’

She shook her head, and oddly he was relieved to see the crease in her brow, the anguish in her eyes. He didn’t want to hurt her, but if he’d met that blank mask he’d seen in Rotterdam, that would have been worse. ‘I knew you were hiding something. There was the Legilimency, and just your behaviour, and…’ Her voice caught. ‘Like it would ever be so simple as you’d come back and everything would be okay.’

He closed his eyes. ‘I’m sorry. I should have said sooner.’

‘Yes,’ said Rose, voice shuddering, and when he opened his eyes, hers shone with unshed tears. ‘You should have come back and told us. You should have admitted it in Rotterdam, or to the DMLE. You should have admitted it last night. You should have absolutely not have hidden it until you were found out.’

Scorpius turned, reached out a hand. ‘I didn’t want to hurt you -’

She pulled back, jaw tight. ‘You bloody idiot. It’s the secrets that kill us; it’s always been the secrets. Were Albus and I supposed to think we’d got you back right until you keeled over? Would that have hurt us less, or was that just a pain you didn’t have to look us in the eye for? Like staying away?’

‘Rose -’

‘And you say this like it’s fact, like it’s unavoidable.’ She folded her arms across her chest, tilted her chin up a half-inch with that defiant blaze he knew and loved. ‘So you tell me you’ve changed. I guess you have. Because the Scorpius Malfoy I knew, the Scorpius Malfoy I loved, never gave in, never accepted defeat, and always looked for the way out.’

‘You think I haven’t looked? You think we didn’t go over and over this? You think I should try to dodge death at the expense of someone else’s life?’

‘We’re not there yet, Scorpius! We don’t even have a means of destroying the Chalice and you’re acting like it’s inevitable! You remember what you used to do when faced with an unwinnable situation?’

Yes,’ Scorpius thundered. ‘I died.’

That made her step back with a taut jaw, then draw a slow, quavering breath. ‘I was going,’ she whispered, ‘to say that you cheated. When you died, you cheated, as proved by the fact we can have a bloody conversation. You never cared for the rules in your life, Scorpius. Don’t start now.’

She turned away, towards the bay window beyond which her parents’ front garden wept gold, and he took a step forward. ‘I don’t want to peddle in false hope -’

‘Then go,’ Rose said in a strangled voice, not looking at him. ‘If you’re just a walking dead man who’s not going to fight, go.’

Scorpius stopped short, heart thudding in his ears. ‘That’s… well. That’s exactly my point, isn’t it?’ He stalked to the Floo and left, and the swirling chaos of blazing green fire was somehow more soothing than the thudding accusation and loss of her words.


* *


‘I have only two questions for you,’ said Matt as Reynald de Sablé walked into his office, ‘and the answers don’t need to be long. Have you read the briefing packet, and what the hell was in Greenland?’

De Sablé stopped in the doorway, eyebrows raising. He looked bizarre to Matt’s eye, for even though he’d learnt twenty-first century fashions, he didn’t look like he belonged. He should have done; his black hair fell to his shoulders raggedly but in a modern cut; his tanned, weather-worn face sported stubble now, not beard. Perhaps it was his eyes, nut brown and gleaming with more caution and awareness than anyone Matt had ever met; perhaps the jacket hung from his shoulders wrong, perhaps Matt just knew better, but the world still fit the man poorly.

‘Yes,’ de Sablé said, voice with that slow, mellow accent. ‘And I hear it is from you I should now be taking orders. Much has changed in my absence.’

‘If you want to continue fighting the Council of Thorns, undermining their work, then yes,’ said Matt, and stood. ‘You work for me.’

‘I heard of your injury. And your father. You have my commiserations.’

‘Neither of us is dead. I’ll take that. And I say again, Greenland?’

‘I had heard reports,’ said de Sablé, moving to the chair across from Matt’s, ‘of a dig-site managed by the Gringotts of America. An underground cave network which contained decorated stonework and masonry. The first tales spoke of carvings akin to the markings of the Chalice itself.’

‘In Greenland?’

‘It proved inaccurate.’ De Sablé slid a folder across the desk. ‘Similar, but different. I do not understand the relationship.’

Matt frowned, and flipped the folder open rather than picked it up. Photographs of stone and ice leered up at him, but the swirling patterns were not the same. He shut it. ‘We’ll put that on the back-burner. We have work to do.’

‘Yes,’ said a fresh voice at the door, and Matt’s heart lurched into his throat when he saw Rose there. ‘We do.’

He’d expected her to be worn, grieving, reduced. That collapsed figure he knew so well after all these years. But although her hair was still tied back tightly, although she still looked tired, there was a fire in her eyes he hadn’t seen for so long. He didn’t know if he was pleased to see it, or anguished that he’d never been able to summon it. ‘Rose, you’re -’

‘Here, and here to work.’ She took a few steps into the office, then inclined her head with a hint of deference. ‘If you can use me, that is.’

De Sablé looked between them. ‘I shall take my leave -’

‘Not on my account,’ said Rose quickly. ‘If Matt wants to talk shop, he’s going to need you, isn’t he?’

Matt drew an apprehensive breath. Because this isn’t awkward at all. ‘Are you sure you want to be -’

‘I’m sure. At least let me catch up on what you know. I promise I won’t go spreading it to the papers.’ She gave a wry smile.

It was de Sablé who broke the détente with a hint of impatience. ‘I hear we are granted the Chalice, at last. We must shatter the Council’s power.’

‘That’s right,’ said Matt, trying to not stare at Rose. ‘We need to find a way of severing the Chalice from Lethe -’

‘You have the way,’ said de Sablé. ‘The reports said so. All research is focused that way. The Chalice must be destroyed.’

Matt paused, and filled the silence by picking up one of the folders of the latest reports and handing it to Rose. If she was going to be here, she might as well be brought up to speed. ‘I thought you’d hate that -’

‘Because I have spent so much time protecting the Chalice? I protected it because I knew it was capable of great evil. I spent a century watching it warp Ager Sanguinis. It fed on a site of great tragedy, on a place where so many of my brothers-in-arms perished. Yes, great good has come from that Chalice, but I have concluded that it cannot be the Lord’s gift to us.’

To Matt’s surprise, Rose just looked intrigued when she glanced up from the folder. ‘Why not?’

‘Because of that great evil,’ said de Sablé simply. ‘Only one being is capable of both such extremes: man. The Chalice is powerful, truly, but it is the work of men, and nothing more.’

Matt said, ‘What if I told you a man has to die to destroy it -’

‘Then I would call that man a hero, and be sure he will receive his just reward.’ De Sablé stood again, and Matt had to look up to meet the tall, broad-shouldered knight. ‘We do what we must to fight evil.’

‘No, we remain good people to fight evil. If I have to kill a man to save the day, then what am I?’

‘And if a man clings to his own survival over the lives of hundreds? What is he?’

Matt let out a deep breath. ‘This is all hypothetical -’

‘He’s right,’ said Rose, and Matt stared at her. She shrugged, and leafed through the folder some more. ‘This is looking like the most logical way forward. You can’t afford to ignore this line of research.’

‘You know what we have to do. We’ve talked of the Chalice many a time.’ De Sablé walked to the corkboard on the wall, and shook his head. ‘You know the Caribbean is not the answer.’

‘Really?’ Matt’s jaw was tight. ‘Tell me more of what I already know.’

He faltered when de Sablé looked at him, eyes blazing. ‘Either you have the conviction I know burns in your heart, Matthias, or you do not. You are one of us, a keeper of knowledge, but knowledge must be used. Speak of our next step.’

Matt hesitated. ‘Emrys,’ he said at last. ‘We have to look into the Chalice’s creation. If we know how it was made -’

‘Then we may discover how it is unmade.’

Rose flipped the report shut. ‘There would have to have been a power source, a creation ritual, to weave all of that magic together. If we find that, or at least more on the construction of the Chalice itself, then we can use it to unravel that same magic.’

Matt pursed his lips. ‘Okay. I’m just going to have to blunt. Rose, why are you here?’

De Sablé frowned. ‘I would presume she is lending her expertise to -’

‘I can help you with this stuff,’ said Rose, waggling the folder. ‘But no, I’m not planning to commit to destroying the Chalice. You should, though. You’re the ones who can do this, and you can save lives. But the more we all learn, the more we all study… the easier it’ll be for me to find the other way.’

‘Oh,’ said de Sablé, and then looked a little ashamed as apparently the knut dropped. ‘Scorpius Malfoy will die if we destroy the Chalice.’

Rose’s lips thinned. ‘He has made it clear that he doesn’t want this team to look for another way, because more people may die in the meantime. And I understand his choice. I ask that we all respect his choice. But I refuse to treat him like it’s a done deal, like he’s already dead, and that’s my choice.’ She straightened, tilting her chin up half an inch. ‘And I don’t care if you disapprove -’

‘I do not disapprove,’ said de Sablé, blinking. ‘I do not see why you think I would.’

She raised an eyebrow. ‘All that talk just then about how a man is a hero if he sacrifices himself, and a coward if he doesn’t…’

‘I should have spoken more plainly. If you asked me whether I would lay down my life to avert the bloodshed, I would agree in a heartbeat. If you asked me if I would slay another, an innocent? If I would sacrifice a kinsman for such? It would never be so simple.’ De Sablé inclined his head. ‘I respect your choice, Rose. And I respect his, and I agree that Matthias and I should hold to our purpose, and pray that God grants us another way.’

Matt watched as Rose’s expression softened throughout the conversation, even as she held the folder close to herself. When de Sablé was done, all she managed was a low, quiet, ‘Thank you.’

‘It is no ill thing to wish to live,’ de Sablé said. ‘I have spent centuries on this Earth, even though I slumbered, and now I am returned I regret that wasted time. There is never enough time. There are wonders to be seen, people to know and love, glories to behold and kindness to bestow. We should save as many as we can, but you do right to not accept Scorpius as already lost. Else there would never be hope. This world deserves the best we can give it.’

‘The world is a fine place,’ murmured Rose, ‘and worth the fighting for.’

‘Said one wise man,’ Matt added. ‘Another once added, “I agree with the second half.”’

She looked between them, and he saw her breath catch. ‘Destroying the Chalice - does it endanger either of you? It brought you back, or kept you alive…’

‘Matthias, at least, will be safe.’ De Sablé looked at him. ‘The Chalice saved you, but your heart is your own, your blood is your own.’

‘And you?’ said Matt.

‘I have not drunk from the Chalice in seven centuries. Neither one of us faltered when the Chalice was lost through the Veil. I believe my longevity is now my own, just as your life is your own. Scorpius never drank from the Chalice, and so his bond is different. But if it comes to it, we must sacrifice. There is never victory without sacrifice.’

‘I don’t know about never,’ said Matt, ‘but I take your point. The bit which bothers me about sacrifice, though, is making sure there’s something left to be victorious.’

De Sablé looked between them. ‘I will speak with Nejem and Lowsley, take stock of our resources,’ he said, and turned to the door. It was clearly a flight to let them talk, but when he was gone, only silence reigned for a few long moments. Matt fiddled with the straps on his prosthetic, but she was the one to speak first.

‘I’m sorry for bursting in,’ said Rose, lips thin. ‘I should have probably opened with that. But de Sablé was already here…’

‘It’s okay. Are you okay? I mean, of course you’re not okay…’

‘I will be.’ She put the folder down and wrapped her arms around herself. ‘I’m genuinely trying to not be in denial, here, Matt. He doesn’t want anyone to “waste” time trying to save him when it might come at the cost of lives, and I understand that. But I have to look for a different way…’

‘I understand. And I’ll do what I can. You’ll have full access to all of our research. I know that if there’s anything to be found, you’ll find it.’ He perched on the edge of the desk, still not quite able to look at her. ‘I know this sounds crazy, but you look better.’

Rose drew a slow breath. ‘I have something to fight. And fight for.’ She shifted her weight. ‘I, er, I’m moving everything out of the flat. It’s your flat. You shouldn’t be sleeping on a cot in here.’

Matt closed his eyes. It wasn’t that he’d expected her to come back, or even indulged the idea that she might. He knew he wouldn’t take her back even if that happened, not now. But there was a finality to her words that twisted his gut nevertheless. ‘Thank you,’ he said quietly.

‘No, I… thank you, Matt.’

‘If you’re going to thank me for the breakup,’ he blurted, eyes snapping open, ‘or thank me for helping you these last two years, please - don’t. I couldn’t have ever done anything else. For you. For me.’

She gave a small, apprehensive nod. ‘Then - and please don’t reject this I’m sorry. I’m sorry it couldn’t be different. I’m sorry I couldn’t be different, because you deserved better than I gave you, and don’t look at me like that, like you’re going to tell me I had a right to my grief.’ Her words picked up momentum as he opened his mouth. ‘Maybe I did. But I still hurt you. And I’m sorry for that. I really do want the best for you.’

Matt nodded slowly. ‘I want the best for you. I don’t want you… clinging to false hope with this, Rose. But it’s good to see you fighting.’

‘I’d be lying,’ she said, ‘if I said I knew what I’m doing. But I have to try.’ She hesitated, and her eyes landed on a spot above his head. ‘Are we - I know we’re not okay. But I’d like us to get to be okay.’

He smiled, and to his immense surprise, found it to be a genuine smile. ‘Bloody hell, Rose. We broke up only days ago, and now we’re pooling resources so you can try to save your ex-boyfriend from death while I work at killing him to save the world. How can we not be okay?’

But she laughed - a bitter, sincere laugh, and he had to join in. Even if he’d never been able to make her laugh like that on lighter matters, more jovial matters.

They had not, Matt supposed, been as important.


* *


‘So I went through all of Toby’s records, the ones he dug up legally and… apparently less-legally.’ Selena spread the paperwork across the coffee table in Eva’s flat. ‘It’s been easier to figure out which corporate buy-outs we examine, because we now want the companies the Council used to smuggle Lethe abroad.’

‘The ones we’ve identified,’ said Eva, chewing on a pencil. ‘Are we seeing anything particular from this?’

‘You mean, does it include a bank account, in the vault of which we’ll find a treasure map leading us to Draco Malfoy?’

‘I’d settle for a clue.’

Selena huffed, blowing a lock of golden hair out of her face. She was less of a state than she’d been the previous day, but then, that wasn’t hard. Eva had never cared for her looks; so long as she could be taken seriously, being pretty was not the priority, and her scar had long ago made her give up on vanity. But she could see how Selena used her appearance as a mask - a shield, and now, in the evening light with a job in front of her and all scrubbed up, Eva wasn’t sure she could tell something was wrong if she didn’t know better.

‘The guy who handled this is one of the Minister of Magic’s own staffers,’ said Selena. ‘Amadeus Candlestone. It was his job to specifically make sure nothing like what happened, happened.’

‘The smuggling?’

‘Draco Malfoy buying a dozen companies under multiple false identities. There are complicated monopoly laws in Britain, and then there are complicated trading rights for these non-British companies operating in Britain, and basically it’s all there to try to cut down on tax evasion. It’s riveting stuff.’ Selena wrinkled her nose. ‘This is why I buttered up the accountant.’

‘But this Candlestone didn’t notice anything wrong?’

‘No.’

‘Why’s nobody seen this since?’

Selena shrugged. ‘Because Draco Malfoy’s a proven traitor? And nobody’s that excited by how he bought out the companies, or if he was dabbling in tax evasion. This is incredibly boring stuff and if I hadn’t been sniffing into it for smuggling, I could not care less about it. So Candlestone fucked up -’

‘Or he let this one slip by.’

Selena made a face. ‘Oh, bollocks. That would make sense, wouldn’t it. I suppose I’m too used to Minister Halvard’s office being painfully bloody useless.’

‘You people don’t seem to have much faith in your head of state.’

‘Let’s face it; my mother is the head of state. Minister Halvard was only in power for a year before the Phlegethon Crisis, and Hermione Granger handled most of that while my mother handled the international reactions, especially when the Council of Thorns went public. Halvard won the election with lots of talk about economics and very little talk about a strong defence plan in the face of international crisis.’

‘An international crisis he didn’t really have the power to combat,’ Eva pointed out. ‘The Council managed to do pretty well for itself because wizarding states were too busy bickering about their own sovereignty, or insisting that investigating suspects too deeply would be a breach of their individual freedoms, or -’

‘I’m really not here to debate global politics,’ Selena said. ‘I leave that to my mother, and I really don’t care so long as we all make it through this in one piece. So, what do we do with this? Report Candlestone?’

‘To who?’ Eva rubbed her chin. ‘Director Potter and Captain Weasley are in Macedonia. I don’t -’

Then the door was thrown open to show the tall, ashen-faced shape of Albus Potter. Eva jumped to her feet instinctively, but she stopped short at the sight of him. His expression had collapsed, the glint in his eyes faded away, and while his hands were clenched into fists at his sides, she could see he was shaking. ‘Al…’

‘Holy shit.’ Selena got up, raising her hands. ‘Al, what’s happened -’

‘Scorpius,’ said Albus, and his voice sounded like it had been flogged. ‘He - he’s going to die, he’s not come back properly…’

Eva felt absolutely no surprise, but her gut still clenched as she saw how even the admission tore chunks out of him. ‘He’s on a time limit?’

Selena took a step towards Albus, but he shrank away, slinking around the edge of the room. ‘The Chalice needs to be destroyed to destroy Lethe,’ he said. ‘But destroying the Chalice will kill him.’

‘I see,’ said Eva, and she didn’t, but she’d never been the expert in these things. ‘So that’s why he stayed away.’

‘Why come back,’ shuddered Albus’ voice, ‘if you’re just going to go away again?’

‘Albus,’ said Selena quietly. ‘Where is he?’

‘He’s - I don’t know. He was at Rose’s. Bet he’s not there any more.’

Selena gave Eva a look, and she nodded. I can handle this, she tried to say with her eyes, and Selena hurried towards the door, closing it behind her. So now it was just Eva and Albus in the close, bare flat, and he was quivering like he’d been frozen and staring like he’d just plunged into the abyss.

At least, I think I can handle this.

‘Al…’ She kept her gait slow as she padded towards him. ‘Is nobody at home…?’

He flinched. ‘I - Mum, probably, but I… I don’t know, I had to get away, I just couldn’t…’

You ran, because that’s what you do when you’re hurt, Eva realised, lips thinning, and she tried to calm her thudding heart at the next revelation. And you ran to me. She reached out, a quiver in her touch as her fingers brushed against his taut knuckles. ‘It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.’

He didn’t react to her touch, but his eyes lifted to lock on hers, voice hoarse. ‘How?’

Good question. ‘Because it’s not over. Because nothing, nothing in this world is certain. Because…’ Her mouth dried up, and she licked her lips to no avail. ‘Because you’re not alone.’

Then he moved, and so quickly it was her instinct to flinch back. But he was faster, like his grief had wound him into a coiled spring ready to strike, and she was helpless when he snatched her wrists, dragged her to him -

And kissed her.

It was a kiss unlike any before, even if they didn’t have many for comparison. There was none of his gentle hesitation, his careful affection, his caring warmth. His lips were chapped, his stubble was a sandpaper scrape on her chin, and his grip was iron tight, refusing any escape. But there was one thing in the kiss she’d never felt before: need. It rushed across her, humming through her every inch until it was met with the echo of her own, resounding in her emptiness, and for thunderous moments all she could do was clutch at him, let herself be helpless, let herself be washed away.

Her mouth opened under his, desperate, hungry, and she felt a fresh shudder run through him as his hands moved to her hips. He did not surrender one inch of control, pressing forward, backing her into the kitchen counter with a thud that rattled the washing up and would have hurt if she cared.

He could hurt her. He could hurt her, use her, just so long as he needed her, just so long as he could reach inside and find that gulf she’d thought would never be filled. There was no more quaver to her touch as she slid her hands under his t-shirt, no hesitation from him as he hoisted her onto the counter, and she wrapped her legs around his hips, pulled him against her.

Albus’ lips tore from hers to trail across her jawline, lingering at the scar for just one moment that made it feel like he’d healed the wound, then his mouth was hot against her neck, his breathing ragged and desperate. She gasped at the scrape of teeth on bare skin, a throaty mumble that might have been his name, or begging, or just a wordless sound of need.

His body was solid and warm against hers, flesh hot under her hands, and she could feel the shuddering rise and fall of his chest with every breath, every gasp; felt it rise before one word tore past his raw lips, one word, one name. ‘Lisa…’

The abyss howled inside her, alone and unanswered, and now she was freezing cold. Her hand on his chest was firm, not needy, and she pushed him as she drew back, scrabbled away, spider-like, until her back hit the kitchen wall. ‘No - no -’

He stumbled, eyes wide, breathing ragged - and then realisation flashed in his eyes. ‘I - shit

‘This is wrong.’ Her heart thudded in her chest, echoing into the emptiness within her. ‘You’re running, Al, and you’re running to me and you don’t even mean this…’

He lifted his hands, expression folding up. ‘Eva - I’m sorry -’

‘For which bit?’ She had to clench her jaw for a moment so her voice didn’t waver, and she slid off the side of the counter, keeping her back to the wall. Old instincts were rising, the old, familiar mantra of don’t touch me, don’t touch me, that rule which had never applied to him until now. ‘For being so hurt you forget I’m not her? For being so hurt you were willing to use me? Even if - even if I was, for just a moment there, so happy to be used?’

‘It wasn’t about using -’

‘You were running.’ She was on her feet, now, still with her back to the wall, and despised her instinct which noticed he was between her and the door. ‘Like you ran years ago, only this time you ran to me, and you can’t keep doing that, Al.’

He didn’t move, hand at his temples, breathing still deep. He couldn’t look at her.

She wrapped her arms around herself, and stared at the window past him. ‘You need to be somewhere else. With your family. With Rose, maybe, I bet she needs you. But you sure as hell need to be not here.’

Her voice betrayed her on the last, quavering and almost choking her, and that he couldn’t look at her served only one good purpose, because it meant he didn’t see the tears rising. He just mumbled something, turned on his heel and fair ran out the door, and once he was gone, once the door slammed behind him, she let herself fall.

Eva Saida couldn’t remember the last time she’d cried. She’d thought she was beyond tears, too hollowed out, too broken, but now her legs collapsed under her, she slid to the floor in a corner of her bare, barren safehouse, wrapped her arms around herself, and sobbed alone in the fading daylight.


————————

A/N:

‘The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for (and I hate very much to leave it),’ is a Hemingway quote, from For Whom the Bell Tolls. Matt’s addition of, ‘I agree with the second part,’ is a commentary on the quote as offered by the film Se7en. Apparently Rose vomits Hemingway all over my works (I DON’T EVEN LIKE HEMINGWAY THAT MUCH) and Matt indulges in edgy Muggle films. I’m weak with my quotes sometimes.

Chapter 27: Our Hearts Are Great
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Our Hearts are Great


Once again Selena stood in front of Scorpius’ hotel room door and hammered on it. She’d been doing this for about twenty seconds with no response, though the concierge confirmed he was in there. She could understand why he might not want to see anyone. But understanding was not, as she suspected they’d all be learning in the days to come, the same thing as acceptance. So she kept hammering. ‘Scorpius! It’s not Rose, it’s not Albus, it’s not someone here to be creepily codependent at you, so open up!’

In a few seconds the door was yanked open. How long he’d been in his suite she wasn’t sure, but the lights were dim and he looked a state, so she reckoned he’d been stewing there a while already.

‘You have got,’ said Scorpius in a low, grating voice, ‘to stop coming to see me like this.’

She could have been sardonic, but threw her arms around him instead. He staggered at both the impact and the wave of emotion, but a heartbeat later he was hugging her back, his embrace fierce, needy. ‘This is why you didn’t come back, isn’t it,’ she murmured. ‘This is the real reason.’

He just nodded and bowed his face into her shoulder, and they stood there for a long while, the two realists of their group confronted with facts they didn’t know how to fight. He let her go first, bleary-eyed, and shut the door. ‘I didn’t want to hurt them more by telling - yes, I know, it would have come out eventually…’

‘I’m not here to yell at you,’ said Selena, then wrinkled her nose as she looked at the suite. ‘Except that this place is a tip and you cannot sit in here, maudlin and alone and in the dark.’ She swished her wand to bring the lights to life and close the curtains, and flapped a hand at him. ‘Sit down. Have you even eaten?’

‘Not since we got back,’ Scorpius admitted, flopping onto the sofa. In brighter light, his skin had taken on a pallid shade of near-grey. ‘Not been much point.’

She raised an eyebrow at him, then sauntered to the internal Floo chute to find the room service menu. ‘Yes, because you might as well starve to death in the time you’ve got left.’

‘I thought you said you weren’t going to yell at me?’

‘About the terrible way you’ve handled this knowledge. I’ll yell at you for being melodramatic and morbid. It’s what I do.’

‘It’s not fair to them. To come back and then to go, but - I was too weak to lie to them in Rotterdam. I should have. I should have pretended to be a trick and run, but I was too happy to see them, and I knew that would hurt, too, to lie…’

‘Is it me,’ mused Selena, reading the menu, ‘or does lying to people for their own good never work out okay? And yet we keep doing it. I’m ordering us some sandwiches.’

‘You just came here to mooch off my room service, didn’t you,’ drawled Scorpius as she fired up the Floo to send the order down.

She ignored him until she was done, then joined him on the sofa, an arm around him. ‘I have no amazing answers for you. This sucks. But I know that Matt and the others will absolutely look for another way -’

He stiffened. ‘I don’t want them to find another way.’

‘First, you do. Of course you do. It’s just felt selfish for you to want to live, so you’ll never ask them to do that.’ She squeezed his shoulder. ‘And no matter what happens, we’re all here for you.’

Scorpius slumped. ‘Albus is furious and hurt. Rose is furious and hurt.’

‘They’ll come around. You know they will.’

He collapsed against her, head again on her shoulder. ‘I’m sorry,’ Scorpius creaked. ‘To you, too.’

Selena sighed and rested her head on his. ‘Why me?’

‘You wanted me to make the most of this second chance. You wanted me to live like - like Methuselah’s not had the chance to. I can’t. I’ve fucked it up so far, and I’m not going to get the chance, but… I know you’re right. I know I’m luckier than so many people, I know I should be using all of this time to be with Albus, even with Rose, but I haven’t been doing that and I don’t know how to, and…’ His shoulders started to shudder, and she pulled him to her, both arms wrapping around him again. When he finished, his voice was a hoarse, pained whisper. ‘I’m scared.’

Her throat tightened, and all she could do was hold onto him, stroke his hair in a futile effort at comfort. ‘You don’t need to be sorry to me,’ Selena murmured at last. ‘Because I’m a bloody hypocrite if I tell you off for not making the most of things.’

They stayed like that for a while, and it was perhaps for the best that room service knocked soon. She answered and probably mortally offended the staff by not tipping, as she suspected Scorpius was a sufficiently generous tipper that they’d be fighting in the kitchen to get these deliveries.

He looked a bit more alive when she put the plate in front of him. ‘I guess I don’t have much choice,’ he said after he’d swallowed a mouthful of sandwich, ‘except keep going.’

‘That’s kind of all any of us can do,’ said Selena. ‘I promise I won’t organise you more guys’ nights for your own good, though.’

His cheeks coloured, and she rolled her eyes. Bellamy and Oakes were useless, but they weren’t so useless she hadn’t heard how his night ended. ‘Yeah,’ Scorpius mumbled into his food. ‘That didn’t quite work out.’

‘It did,’ she pointed out. ‘Just not in the way I planned. I’m glad you had fun.’

‘It was… a good way to remember I’m alive. And can have fun. Even in snippets. And I didn’t then have to agonise about how it was a moment gone forever, because even without - without this, it wouldn’t have lasted…’ Scorpius shook his head, then glanced over at her. ‘What did you mean about your hypocrisy?’

Selena chewed on her sandwich while she considered if she was going to lie. It probably wasn’t the time for that. ‘At what point,’ she said instead, ‘do you decide if it’s worth trusting someone?’

‘Depends,’ said Scorpius. ‘But the thing about trust is that if you’re waiting for a guarantee, it’s not trust. Is this about Matt?’

She grimaced. ‘Yes. And Miranda. And Rose. And Albus. And my parents.’

‘Oh,’ said Scorpius. ‘So just little problems.’ He popped a chip in his mouth. ‘If it were me, I’d hide and blame everyone else and ignore all accusations of hypocrisy. But since it’s easier to tell someone else what to do, I’ll remind you it’s safer to not trust, but life’s a whole lot better if you take the risk and let people in.’

‘But which people?’

‘The ones whose intentions you trust. The ones you care about. The ones who are worth it.’ He gave her a wan, tired smile which was nevertheless sincere. ‘The ones who come running when everything’s dark, just so you know you’re not alone.’

She dropped her gaze, not for his sentiment but for the memory of thudding fear in her chest, swirling darkness rising up at her. And only one person who could pull away the nightmares and then keep them at bay. But Matt was, of course, the person she was most furious at and hurt by, even more so than her father. Because she’d accepted her father failing her again and again. The memory of Matt failing her was harder to swallow.

‘Bugger,’ muttered Selena, and threw a chip at him. ‘I just came here to bum room service off you, not get all twee and affectionate.’

Scorpius grinned. It was a small and tired grin, but it was all the more sincere for how it shone through his pain. ‘It’s the Slytherin way. Bribe each other into consideration.’

* *


‘I came up to check if you needed anything,’ said a guarded Hermione Granger, hovering in the threshold to her daughter’s bedroom to see that Rose had moved in with the force of a bomb. ‘And now I’m wondering if the answer is “an exorcist”.’

Rose bit off another strip of spell-o-tape and pinned more scribbles to her wall. ‘If you don’t understand the value of a good Wall of Crazy for sorting through a problem, then I swear we’re not related.’

Hermione stepped inside, staring at the two walls which had been given over to the notes, to the copied references from Matt’s team, to the duplicates of old records and diaries. ‘I know the news is hard…’

‘Yep. It’s hard and it’s terrible and so I’m going to fix it.’ Rose stepped back and rubbed her chin. ‘I really need Scorpius here.’

Hermione blinked. ‘So you can talk -’

‘No, I need to experiment - to try to figure out the nature of the tether between him and the Chalice; if it’s anchoring him here, then that needs to be understood if we’re going to work out how to separate them without losing him.’ She glanced over her shoulder at her mother. ‘I do know what I’m doing. Honestly.’

‘You can’t run yourself ragged on this -’

‘And I can’t just accept that he’s going to die, again, and do nothing. Not while there’s uncertainty. Not while I have a chance. I am done being the victim of circumstance.’

Hermione stared at her daughter for a long moment. Then she sighed, and said, ‘I’ll put the kettle on, shall I?’

Rose gave her a grateful smile. ‘I’m going to need a lot of tea. Oh, and a meeting with Prometheus Thane.’

There was another stare, then Hermione turned around. ‘We’ll discuss that later.’

‘Sure, it doesn’t need to be tonight,’ Rose said absently as her mother left, and then went right back to pinning every scrap of paper she could get to a wall.

It wasn’t that she would stare at it and the answers would fall into place. But dealing with each clue, each fact, individually, was helpful. It made her contemplate each piece. While Matt was set to look into the history, she had her eye set elsewhere; magics about the Otherworld completely apart from the Chalice, magics about life energies and how they worked. He could look into the artifact and how it was made. She just needed to cheat at life.

When there was another knock on her bedroom door five minutes later, she didn’t look over. ‘Just put it on the desk…’

But the footstep on the floorboards was too heavy to be her mother, and there was an irrational moment of combat instincts taking over as she spun around - but it was Albus. Albus, looking an utter state, and clutching two mugs of tea like her mother had decided this was the best way to arm him against the oncoming storm.

It wasn’t the worst idea she’d ever had.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, and he was stammering, words slurring. ‘I had to come back, I tried to hide, it didn’t work, I did it again and I’m sorry…’ She had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but then Albus dropped both mugs and burst into tears, and Rose froze like he was a ten-tonne truck bearing down at her.

‘Al - don’t -’ She flapped wildly, then hurried over to him, ignoring the fallen mugs - one had survived, the other hadn’t, and tea was everywhere - to grab his arm. Hugs seemed a bit overwhelming right then. ‘It’s going to be okay, I promise -’

She didn’t get a choice about that hug, because he grabbed her and pulled her into an embrace, huge shoulders racked with sobs. She clutched at him because it gave her a chance of not being smothered, and kept her own breathing slow, level. While her insides fizzed with determination and ideas and plans, she knew there was a serious risk of her reaction to Scorpius’ mortality turning not so dissimilar to his.

‘I didn’t know how to be without him,’ Albus sobbed into her hair, because there was no way he could reach her shoulder. ‘So I left and I did such things, Rose, things I didn’t want to think about, especially not when he was back, but he’s - we’re going to lose him again, aren’t we? And I don’t want to go back to that. I don’t want to go back to feeling like that.’

Her heart warped to the size and hardness of a nut, because this was a feeling they could share. ‘I’m going to find another way, Al,’ she whispered into his ear, holding him closer now. ‘I promise I am not going to give in, I am not going to let him give in, I am not going to let you give in…’

That just made him cry harder, so she guided him to the bed and they sat on it together while she tried to comfort a weeping man twice her size. He took a while before he calmed down, with big, gulping breaths and heavy swallows of sobs, until he could talk in a way which was halfway coherent. ‘I tried being angry, but I didn’t know what to be angry at, and I didn’t think this would help, either.’ He slumped back, just enough to wipe fiercely at his eyes, recovered enough for his embarrassment to be plain. She didn’t cut him off, but she did grab his hand. ‘I thought we could be better. I thought we’d be better, with him back.’

‘Maybe we can be better,’ said Rose gently. ‘But that doesn’t undo the last two years. That doesn’t mean we didn’t feel what we felt, did what we did.’

He bowed his head, eyes closing. ‘I left you. And I left my family, and -’

‘We’ve talked about this, Al; I forgive you. Hell, I’d have run if I’d had the wits…’

‘I tried to help people.’ He licked dry lips, lifted his gaze forlornly. ‘Like some pretentious wandering idiot, righting wrongs and moving on. But I killed people, too - it was always in fights, in parts of the world where there wasn’t anyone to hand them over to. Dark wizards, the odd Thornweaver but usually just… just people who hurt other people, not because of some conspiracy but because this is how the world works, and maybe I could have held back, but I chose not to. Three times.’

She squeezed his hand again. ‘Like you said. If they were dark wizards who’d been acting freely because there were no proper authorities to stop them, if there were no proper authorities to hand them over to, you were stopping them from acting again.’

Albus gave a bob of a nod, shoulders hunched up. ‘I tell myself that,’ he whispered. ‘And it’s partly it. But also, I just didn’t care like I used to.’

Rose hesitated, though it was not with judgement. Yeah, she thought. I remember that feeling. Eva Saida, of all people, had challenged her on how willing she was to risk killing her enemies, in the fights on the Naglfar, and Eva Saida, of all people, had been right. ‘It’s a time that’s been and gone, Al.’

‘But it doesn’t undo what I did.’

‘Then remember it. Accept it. And be better because of it. Carry it with you so you remember how much it hurts people when you leave them, how much it hurts you when you try to stop feeling, and… and be stronger for it. We lost Scorpius before, and you and I let it kill us in all but heartbeats. I’m not giving up, but I don’t want to be dead again, either.’

Albus watched her for a moment, then again rubbed at his damp cheeks with his sleeves. ‘To think,’ he began, voice hoarse, and he had to cough. ‘I came here because I was so ashamed at letting you down, and I wanted to try being here for you.’

‘You did try to bring me tea. That counts for something.’ Rose looked to the door. ‘You lose points for dropping it.’

He winced. ‘Sorry -’

‘I’m kidding.’ She pulled her wand and waved it at the mess, scooping the lot up into two undrinkable mugs of tea. ‘Thank you for coming. It does help. Really. You’re the only person who’s not going to look at me like I’m crazy, or like you pity me, if I say I’m going to fix all of this.’

He looked to the wall, and she saw it sink in. As she’d predicted, his gaze turned to wonder rather than anything else. ‘You really think you can save him?’

‘I think that I’d rather kill myself trying than lose him again and die. I think Prometheus Thane didn’t give as much of a damn about finding a different way as he’d say. And I think I will encourage Matt and de Sablé to continue their work, like Scorpius wants, but if there is an alternative, I will find it.’

Albus gave her a sidelong look, lips twisting. ‘I like you better like this.’

‘What,’ mused Rose, ‘crazy determined and kind of terrified?’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but also hopeful.’

‘Oh, yeah. Hope.’ She sighed. ‘That thing which makes you sign up, again and again, to get hurt.’

‘We tried the other way. Didn’t much care for it.’

But he shifted his weight, and she looked over. ‘What is it?’

Albus wrung his hands together. ‘Your first question will be “how the fuck was that possible”, but I made things worse with Eva.’

Rose’s brow knotted. ‘Actually, I don’t know what constitutes “better” or “worse” for you two.’

‘How about I kissed her, and then called her Lisa?’

‘Fucking hell, Albus, you don’t screw up by halves, do you?’

‘I know.’ He groaned and buried his face in his hands. ‘Like I said. I was hiding. Or trying to. So I tried to… hide with her, if that makes any sense.’

‘I did that for eight months in a relationship with Matt. It makes sense, even if it shouldn’t. Is she okay?’ Rose hadn’t expected to feel concern for Eva Saida. It was an odd sensation.

If possible, his shoulders got even tighter. ‘She pushed me away, kicked me out. Which I deserved. But I’d…’ He dragged his hands down his face. ‘I hadn’t really gone there caring what she wanted in the first place, I was… that was using her.’

She sighed and remembered throwing herself at Matt immediately after finding Scorpius was alive, a desperate gambit to feel something tangible and certain. ‘I can understand that,’ Rose said carefully. ‘But at the risk of being a hypocrite, you understand every way in which that’s not okay?’

He winced. ‘I wasn’t thinking.’

‘And you and I both have to start thinking. And we need to stop hurting everyone around us just because we’re hurt.’ She watched as he gave a ragged, guilty nod. ‘What are you going to do?’

‘I don’t know. Apologise?’

‘It’s… a start.’ She reached for his hand again. ‘Do you know what you feel about her?’

‘What does it mean,’ Albus rumbled, ‘when you’re in pain and your first instinct is to run to them?’

‘It means you’re in danger of ignoring what’s really hurting you, and smothering everything you feel with that person’s presence.’ Rose sighed. ‘Or it means you feel safe with them. Like you can put your heart in their hands and they won’t break it, or break you.’

Albus met her gaze, green eyes dulled with his guilt and hurt. ‘Or both?’

‘Yeah. Or both.’

* *


‘Shit,’ muttered Matt as he fumbled the flat keys in his good hand and dropped them. ‘Shit, shit, shit…’ So now he had to bend down, which made the bag on his right shoulder swing down, and then he was scrabbling in front of the door. ‘Bloody -’

‘I thought you were a little ambidextrous?’

Selena’s voice made him try to jerk upright - and bash his head on the doorknob. ‘I don’t - shit!’

‘Here -’ She scooped up his keys and unlocked the door. ‘Do you want me to take the bag?’

‘I can carry a bag,’ he grumbled, feeling heat rise to his cheeks. Shame was enough to override anxiety at her presence, and so they sloped into his old flat together. Rose hadn’t lied; she’d packed and gone. They hadn’t been there long, but this did mean an entire bookshelf along the far wall was bare, and a couple of framed photographs were gone. Everything else had been left behind, because it was either his or theirs and she hadn’t touched it. Their lives hadn’t intertwined so thoroughly her departure left the room barren.

But there was a finality to it which made him let his bag slip off his shoulder to the floor. ‘Shit,’ said Matt again.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Selena. ‘How about you sit down and I’ll put the kettle on?’

They hadn’t talked since she’d stormed out of her own house, but now she was here and offering tea. He was too swept away by the his relationship’s cadaveric spasms to press the issue, so he slumped to the sofa. His stump throbbed. ‘How’d you know to find me here?’

‘I stopped by the warehouse,’ Selena called from the kitchen. ‘They said you were going home. They also said de Sablé showed up, and Rose. Lowsley is such a gossip.’

‘He gets scared by social interactions between normal people, so he blathers.’ Matt leaned back on the sofa, eyes closing, and began unbuckling the prosthetic’s straps along his forearm. He’d worn it so he could grasp his bag strap - making a fist was something he could do - but donning it for more than a couple of hours still proved awkward. ‘I assume you’ve heard.’

‘I have. I went to see Scorpius.’

‘How is he?’

‘Terrified. Dying.’ Selena emerged from the kitchen, holding two steaming mugs, and he lifted his head to look at her. A long moment passed where neither of them spoke, then she drew a slow, hesitant breath and padded over. ‘Reminding me that life’s short. And that we should be grateful we’re alive, and that we should make the most of the time we have.’ She sat next to him, and he saw she’d made him coffee. He always preferred coffee.

He still wasn’t sure what she was driving at, so he just mumbled a ‘thank you,’ and made a conscious effort to pick up his mug with the hand he actually had.

Selena drew a long breath, but when she spoke it sounded like she’d meant to say something else. ‘He wants you to keep on trying to destroy the Chalice. Even if it kills him.’

Matt’s throat tightened. ‘Even Rose wants me to keep on trying to destroy the Chalice. She’s looking for another way. But if there isn’t one, I have to hold the course. Destroy it. Destroy Lethe. And kill him.’ He wanted to scrub his face, push back the rising emotions, but he was holding a mug and only had one hand. Instead he lay his head back and closed his eyes. ‘Why does that job fall to me?’

‘Because Rose will want to tell herself she tried her best, even if she fails. And if she fails, it has to happen,’ said Selena in a low voice. ‘Because you’ve become the guy who does what needs doing, without letting emotions get in the way.’

He looked up at her. ‘I’m not that guy.’

She only barely met his gaze. ‘I know.’

Matt tore his eyes away, let the gloomy ceiling become his world. ‘I want to tell you I’m sorry,’ he croaked, and clutched the mug tighter because its warmth was something he could hold on to. ‘But I’ve said it a lot. And it’s not that I don’t mean it. It’s that words aren’t enough. But I don’t know what else to do -’

‘Kenneth left us when I was pretty young,’ said Selena, voice still low, but her words were enough to knock him into silence. ‘So it was just me and Mum. Except Mum worked, a lot, so it was Mum, me, and carers. She used to say it was her and me, a team against the world. But she only had so much time, and so we got in the habit pretty quickly of not talking about the bad stuff together. Because otherwise we’d spend all that limited time just talking about the bad.

‘So we made sure the time we spent together was good; having fun, or talking about the good things. And it wasn’t lying, because we both knew - I mean, I figured out within a few years - that not everything was okay all the time. We knew it was there, and we loved each other, and we gave each other support by being respite. Breaks from the bad. It just made me really, really good at pretending nothing was wrong.’

He sat up slowly as he looked at her, kept his voice gentle. ‘And that didn’t change at Hogwarts.’

‘I was never in the habit of talking about my bad things with anyone. Not even people I cared about, because that’s not how I wanted to spend time with them. I wanted the time together to be happy. So it carried on with Miranda and Abena, and it carried on with Mum during the holidays, and somewhere down the line I became a teenager who didn’t talk about anything serious with anyone. Until Phlegethon.’

‘And Methuselah.’

The corners of Selena’s eyes creased. ‘I don’t know. I didn’t tell him any of this. I don’t think I knew I was doing it back then. But he never acted like he expected me to put up a mask or open up to him. He just was. And he treated me not like something vapid and superficial to be played with and put down, or some broken bird to be fixed…’ Her shoulders hunched in. ‘I only really knew him for five months. We were only together for about a month. Six weeks. I finished falling in love with him when he died, because I couldn’t fall in love with him.’ She stared at her hands. ‘I was very different when I met you.’

‘After Badenheim, anyway.’

‘I couldn’t pretend nothing was wrong after that manipulation. Or after slapping Scorpius.’ She brushed a lock of golden hair behind her ear, and he wished the sconces were lower so the light would be less stark on her pale skin. It made her look more worn, more tired, and he didn’t dare yet reach out to comfort her. ‘And then I had to turn to people for help, because I couldn’t hide it any more and you all knew. Rose was - I only started speaking to Rose during Phlegethon because she was in more need of blunt truths than anyone, and I can’t lie, I was bored. But then she turned the tables on me - except every once in a while she had to run to Scorpius, or look to herself. And then more things happened and then there was a wedge between us.’

Matt winced. ‘She wasn’t in much of a condition to help anyone after Scorpius died.’

‘She wasn’t,’ Selena agreed, still studying her hands. ‘But that wasn’t the wedge. The wedge came from the one thing she and I can never talk about.’ It was like her eyes were weighted down, such was the slow difficulty with which she lifted her gaze to him. ‘You and me.’

His throat tightened. ‘Selena…’

‘You, the other person I could turn to. You, the person who was there when Rose wasn’t, and you had your burdens but they didn’t drag you away, we shared them…’ She shut her eyes, and he had to move closer, because the idea she had to block him from all her senses caught in his chest like a heartbeat that burned. ‘Do you remember when we sat over wine in Venice and said without saying it that we were something?’

He put down his mug. ‘I wasn’t leaving you after Scorpius died and Rose -’

‘You were,’ she said quickly, but she did now look at him. ‘Because it was easier for you to go to Rose, who wasn’t shy about needing you, and let me go.’

‘I’m -’

‘And it was easier,’ she said in a firmer voice, like getting the words out was akin to climbing a mountain and took the same dogged determination, ‘for me to go. Because I’ve been so used to not needing someone I didn’t know how to fight - no, that’s not right.’ Her lips thinned, and she took a moment before she pressed on, anchoring herself. ‘I knew how to fight. I didn’t dare fight. All my life, I’ve not dared. And Kenneth reminded me how many people relied on my not daring, encouraged me to not dare. You let me keep on not daring, because it was easier, and that’s your fault. But I kept on being too scared, because it was easier. That’s my fault.’

Her eyes were on his, and the only reason he hesitated in reaching for her was because his instinct was still to use his right hand. ‘I’m willing to learn, and move on,’ said Matt, his voice a low rumble, like it was from somewhere deep inside himself he’d not gone to in a long time, ‘if you are.’

The next breath was a flutter. ‘I don’t know,’ Selena whispered. ‘I don’t know what moving on is.’

His left hand felt clumsy when he lifted it, and he was pretty sure that wasn’t because he’d never favoured it. Fingers felt stumpy as they brushed against her cheek, as his thumb traced along her jaw to her chin, but she didn’t pull back. ‘We’ve never been good at specifics, have we?’

He felt her tense under his hand. ‘I don’t want to be the space between the lines any more.’

For years he’d held Rose’s grief in his hands, and he’d told himself that was the same as her heart, and never soothed it into oblivion because then he would be holding nothing. She’d told him she needed him, she’d turned to him when in pain again and again, but never had she implied he could hurt her. That he needed to be careful. That he could break her. One admission from Selena, one vulnerability, and he almost trembled at the implication, because he knew it was her heart he held. And his thudded in his chest with a fervour he’d forgotten, because it wasn’t panic or some gut-churning hunger he’d called need, but something higher, soaring, enough to fill his head and set it spinning.

‘Okay,’ Matt whispered, and leaned in so her breath was a tickle on his lips, his nose just a brush against hers. ‘What if you get to pick the word?’

Another flutter of her breath, a quiver at her throat. ‘You left Rose days ago…’

‘Not really,’ he murmured, and put his forehead to hers, touch gentle but close. ‘Because I was never really hers.’

‘Are you saying -’

‘I’m saying I want to be with you.’ Fingertips coaxed her chin up and he tilted his head down, only breaths between them now. ‘I’m saying I want you with me, with everything that’s coming. I want you with me in the chaos. I want you with me when the dust settles. I want you with me in all the choices we’ll have to make.’ His lips quavered, because now he’d spilt his heart into her hands, and with Rose that had been easy because he’d known in his bones it would never mean anything. Now, hope was joined by uncertainty, by fear. ‘I don’t know what the word is for that.’

She didn’t lean in to him, but her fingers curled in his jumper and as their breath mingled, he realised they’d never have this moment again; dangling at the precipice, the rapids rushing below to drag them away, but ready to fall. And he had to smile, his laugh no more a sigh, but it was a laugh she caught with a whisper’s kiss. The touch lingered, gentle, until her hand released him to slide up his shoulder. Fingers buried in his hair, and he had only a heartbeat in which to despise having the lone hand with which to hold her before her lips were on his again.

And together they fell.

Chapter 28: Through the Dim Dawn
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Through the Dim Dawn


Dawn dragged its golden fingertips across the rooftops of London, a haze of light and hope to stream through the windows of his hotel suite, but no warmth could find Scorpius Malfoy. He’d sat in his armchair and watched the lights of Diagon Alley and beyond wink out as night drew on, then stared at impenetrable darkness. Alone. In silence. But the knock on his door came not long after light crawled across the floorboards, and it was enough to jerk him from his reverie.

‘Come in.’

The door swung open, and he stood at the sight of Rose, shrouded in the shadows. ‘I didn’t think I’d wake you.’

‘I didn’t sleep,’ he admitted. ‘It wasn’t - I don’t -’

‘You should have rested,’ she said, and turned on the lights. Then she wasn’t a pale, haunted figure, but tall and determined, sweeping into the room with a bag slung over her shoulder, red hair a wild trail behind her. ‘We’ve got work to do.’

Scorpius blinked. ‘Work?’

‘Come on, Malfoy, you’re not that lazy, you know the word -’

‘But I don’t -’

‘Cassian.’ Rose tossed the bag onto the sofa, then turned. One hand on her hip, her eyes dragged over him. ‘You look terrible.’

He folded his arms across his chest. ‘As we covered, I’m dying.’

‘So am I.’

His heart tried to impersonate his Adam’s apple. ‘What?’

‘We all are. Aren’t we.’ Rose flipped her hair over her shoulder. ‘We all only have so much time. So let’s make the most of this time. That’s what you want, isn’t it? To use the time you’ve got to take chunks out of the Council, to make all of this worthwhile? We still haven’t finished chasing Cassian Malfoy’s leads.’

‘We’re assuming there are leads. We can’t even read the diary.’

‘Did you have a better idea?’

Scorpius blinked. ‘I’m only saying I don’t know where to start.’

‘No, you’re not.’ Rose padded over, chin tilted up a defiant inch. ‘You’re running and hiding. Letting your fear and pain overwhelm you. I refuse to let you wallow, because that’s not what you want.’

His expression creased. ‘There are so many things that aren’t what I want -’

‘So reject them.’

‘What?’

Her jaw tightened. ‘I refuse to accept that this is inevitable. That the Chalice must be destroyed, or that this must kill you -’

There was a flash of angry fear in his cold gut, then he’d seized her arm. ‘You will not delay a solution to Lethe just to save me -’

‘Depends on which “you” you mean,’ said Rose, meeting his gaze. ‘If you mean the research team? Sure, they’ll do what they have to. Even if it means sacrificing you to stop Lethe. I understand the reasons, and I understand your wishes. You’ve made that clear to Matt, I’ve made that clear to Matt.’

You’ve made it clear -’

‘If you think,’ she pressed on, with only the slightest quaver in her voice, ‘that I am going to stand by and accept this without even trying to find another way… if you think I will not do everything in my power to save you, then bloody hell, Scorpius, you never knew me at all, did you?’

He stared at her, eyes roaming over every inch of her face to find some hint of trepidation or madness. He found only fiery determination. ‘We - we looked, Rose -’

‘You didn’t have the Chalice when you looked for another way. It was all theoretical. Though speaking of theory, I’m getting Mum to set me up a meeting with Prometheus Thane to talk about his research. If you want to be there…’

‘Hang on.’ Scorpius lifted a hand. ‘If you’re researching the Chalice, if you’re trying to cheat death, why are you here about Cassian?’

She gave him another look, and only now could he see the bags under her eyes, hidden as they had been by her fire. ‘I can do two things, Scorpius. Even if I don’t accept that your time is this finite, even if I’m going to spend every spare hour working on cheating death, then I’m not walking away from this. Away from you.’

Another silence, and this time he had to fish for a whole new topic rather than answer that, answer the vigour in her voice. ‘Did you get any sleep?’

Rose huffed, and pulled her arm free. ‘As much as I ever do.’ She went back to her bag on the sofa. ‘I thought we could head to Malfoy Manor.’

He froze. ‘Why?’

‘Because your father was looking into Cassian Malfoy’s records and belongings and I don’t know how thorough you guys were. Because I have no idea how to decipher the diary, and maybe something in Cassian’s belongings will give us a clue. Because I don’t have any better ideas.’

‘Rigby’s shut the place up -’

‘We can open a door, Scorpius. I want to look in a box and maybe some old rooms; I don’t want to sleep there.’ She slung her bag over her shoulder, but her gaze softened when she looked back. ‘I know you don’t want to go. But I really don’t have any better ideas, I can’t get in without you, and I wouldn’t know where to look without you. Did you want to get breakfast first?’

He hadn’t even agreed to go, and yet she was assuming his cooperation. It would have been frustrating had he been capable of frustration. Or if being frustrated by Rose Weasley didn’t bring with it an old, familiar warmth he hadn’t let himself feel in a long, long time. Scorpius let out a deep breath. ‘I couldn’t eat anything.’

‘Then we’ll eat after. Maybe progress will help you unwind.’ She returned to his side, and finally there was hesitation when she extended her hand and spoke, voice lower and more gentle. ‘Apparate us?’

He stared at her hand for a moment, touch careful when he reached out, then drew his wand. Only circumstances this bizarre could make him bring Rose to Malfoy Manor. ‘Hold on, then.’

The corners of her lips curled up. ‘Like you can stop me.’

He couldn’t tell if his insides twisted from her or the Apparition, but soon they were stood in the cold, dewy morning light before the looming shadow of his family home, and Rose stopped being his biggest concern. Rigby had done his work well. There was not a window that had not been shuttered, and with the sun this low in the sky, Malfoy Manor squatted like an enormous gargoyle, grey and ugly and leering down at them.

He glanced at Rose. She stared at it, eyes wide with that gleam of curiosity he knew so well, and he knew she was thinking, analysing. He cleared his throat. ‘Let’s get moving.’

She blinked at his tone, but followed without argument when he crunched up the drive to the front door. He still had the keys, could still let himself into the shadowed halls of dust and memories, and was relieved to see Rigby had placed sheets over all of the paintings. ‘The crate should still be in the drawing room. There were a few boxes of Cassian’s old belongings in there, I just didn’t know what I was looking for.’

‘I still don’t,’ Rose conceded, but let him lead down corridors and through the door. The room was dark with the closed shutters, everything covered, but still he could see her soaking up the sights, especially the crate in the corner.

Despite his better judgement, he flicked his wand at the sconces and fireplace. ‘Everything’s in that crate, Rigby said,’ Scorpius explained. ‘Including a portrait of the man himself. Do you think it knows anything?’

‘A portrait needs a lot of interaction with its subject to learn anything, to properly emulate them. Otherwise it’s just cheap mannerisms. It might have picked up what people expect the portrait to be like. They’re mimics, really.’ Rose headed for the crate, while by instinct he slunk to a darkened corner and ignored the memories of echoed yelling. ‘I mean, you remember the issues with finding an appropriate portrait for communication in Hogwarts -’

‘I remember,’ he said shortly, and felt a flash of shame when her lips thinned and she turned to the crate. He’d been too blunt.

She didn’t say anything as she pulled off the lid, but then there was a rustle and the voice of Cassian Malfoy’s portrait. With his memories of the Otherworld dislodged by Legilimency, it sounded now like the spectre with which he’d conversed.

Finally. I was wondering if anyone was going to let me out of this turgid place -’

‘Maybe we will,’ said Rose, reaching in to pull out the portrait. She propped it against the crate. ‘If you can help us.’

Cassian Malfoy’s portrait rolled his eyes. ‘Didn’t anyone tell you? I’m not the helpful sort.’

‘We know there’s more in your head than Quidditch scores and girls.’

He looked her up and down. ‘Not much more. Maybe a fine account of the best bars across Europe. There’s not much point in living this life unless you’re going to have fun - but speaking of girls, what’s your name, darling?’

‘Rose,’ she said as Scorpius rolled his eyes. ‘Rose Weasley.’

‘A Weasley, hm?’ Cassian’s portrait looked over to Scorpius. ‘No wonder you’re skulking in the corner; I bet they hate you bringing a Weasley girl here! You sly dog -’

‘I’m a half-blood,’ Rose added, and he knew she was just being provocative.

Cassian laughed. ‘Is that why everywhere’s closed down? Did he bed a Weasley half-blood and the House of Malfoy fell to immediate ruin out of raw indignation? Are we going to see angry ancestor ghosts bearing down to rip you apart for having an independent thought?’

‘We’re really not here to talk about this,’ said Scorpius. ‘Do you know anything about the Magical Alliance?’

Cassian Malfoy’s portrait frowned. ‘Those interfering do-gooders? I heard they won their war.’

‘Did you work with them?’ Rose asked.

The portrait narrowed its eyes at her. ‘That sounds like a fine way to get killed, my dear Miss Weasley -’

‘He’s no use,’ Scorpius blurted. ‘Cover him up, he’s just a portrait of the cover identity…’

‘I am not -’

But she didn’t argue and tossed a drape over the portrait, which subsided into a low grumble. ‘Maybe there’s something in his stuff,’ she said, and rummaged in the crate.

‘Yeah,’ Scorpius rumbled, shoulders hunching. ‘Maybe.’

‘You don’t need to feel bad, Scorpius. It’s not like I didn’t know this about your family. And their opinions.’

‘You don’t - I wasn’t being a rebel -’

She looked over her shoulder and pushed back the cascade of red hair, brow furrowed. ‘I never thought we went through all that fuss so you could make a point -’

‘But I didn’t want you to see this place. To have to see this place, I mean. Ever.’

She turned around. ‘It’s just a house, Scorpius. A big, old, creepy house, but it’s just -’

‘I hate it,’ he blurted. ‘I hate it for me, because I come here and all I can think about is hearing my parents argue, listening to my father tell me I’m not good enough; all I can remember are the shitty times. It’s like someone’s taken all of my dark thoughts and dark memories and turned them into halls and rooms, a shrine of the failures of Scorpius Malfoy.’ He hadn’t meant to say any of this, but now the words were flowing. ‘And I hate it for my family, because it’s been built on the backs of our being shits to people, and it’s been built as a memorial to our bullshit ideals, bullshit attitudes, bullshit principles. The Malfoy family has a long and vaunted history of being on the wrong side of every argument, every war, because even if they won they were wrong to win, and I don’t want this place to mean anything to me. Because everything it means is bad.’

His chest was heaving, his blood rushing in his ears, and he’d thought simple problems like resenting his family were past him, because what did a dead man care about his heritage? But the old, bubbling feelings came up anyway, and so he had to fall into silence, fighting to get his breathing under control.

Rose padded over like he might bolt. ‘Cassian Malfoy wasn’t on the wrong side of his war.’

‘Sure. Except his family wrote off his achievements, ignored the principles he fought and died for. Told the world that he was nothing more than a flippant youth chasing indulgences who would never, ever grow up!’ He heard the echoes in his words only as they spilt past his lips, but she didn’t seem surprised.

He was still frozen in place when she reached for his hand with careful reverence. ‘We can find the truth about him. So whatever happens, both of you are remembered for who and what you really are. So the world sees the good the Malfoy family is capable of.’ Her fingers ran over his knuckles, the touch exploratory as much as it was reassuring.

He closed his eyes, hand tightening on hers by an instinct so deep in his bones he didn’t stand a chance of fighting it. ‘It’s not - I didn’t think I cared about my legacy. But staring death in the face makes how I’m remembered suddenly seem a lot more important.’

‘I am not,’ said Rose, with just the slightest quaver, ‘going to only have to remember you. I promise you, Scorpius -’

Don’t,’ he snapped, and pulled back, heart in his throat. ‘There’s - there’s one more thing I didn’t tell you, one last reason I didn’t come back, and it’s not about facts or truths or… it’s about me…’ She stayed put and now he’d started he had to continue. ‘Please don’t promise you’ll fix this. You don’t know if you can. Maybe you can find another way - I don’t know, I didn’t think there was one, I don’t think there is one, but…’

‘But you refuse to hope?’ Rose frowned.

‘Hope - hope -’ The word tried to choke him. ‘I’m going to have to die, Rose. I’m going to have to make sure I die, because that’s what I have to do, that’s the decent thing to do, and I am a monster if I let others keep suffering. And I - and I…’ His voice trailed off, and Scorpius tore away, turning to the shuttered window so he didn’t have to look at her, because the mere sight of her made this harder. ‘And it’s easier to do that if I stay a dead man.’

A long silence met his words, and he knew he needed to explain more, but he couldn’t find the words. Her footsteps were soft as she approached, but she didn’t reach for him yet, and he didn’t know how near she was. ‘So you stayed away because it was easier for you?’

There was no accusation in her voice, but still he bowed his head, hunched in his shoulders. ‘Fighting with Thane, doing horrible things with Thane - it didn’t matter. I was going to die, again. It was just - a reprieve. A cheat. A fluke. It wouldn’t last, so why… so why…’ Scorpius swallowed hard. ‘Why remind myself of everything I want to live for? Why try to make a life I won’t want to leave?’ He felt her hand on his arm and that sent a jolt through him. He jerked away and turned to her, eyes blazing. ‘How the hell could I come back to you and then leave you?’

She stared at him before a flash of old determination entered her gaze. ‘I told myself I would go through the pain of losing you a thousand times over, if I could get one more day, one more second with you -’

‘Maybe you’d take that deal,’ said Scorpius, stepping forward, head fizzing with her presence and fire in every way he wished it wouldn’t. ‘But I’m the one who has to then walk away, die. I’ve tried dying. It was pretty shit. If I have to go again, I want to go as a man embracing the sacrifice, not a man clutching the woman he loves saying, “Please, no, I don’t want to go!”’

That hit her like slap. ‘Scorpius…’

‘I have lied to you for your own good and for myself,’ he admitted. ‘Because this was hard enough when you were just a memory in my mind and in my heart and in my bones, but now you’re in front of me and all we’re doing is talking, but if someone told me I had to walk away from you again, I’d tell them to go to hell.’

Rose drew a deep breath. ‘Then tell them that. Don’t give up, Scorpius; there are things we can do, measures we can take, research we can do, and then you don’t have to walk away!’

‘And what if you’re wrong?

She paused. ‘Then it hurts.’

‘Hurts. That’s an amazing -’

‘And I would rather try. I would rather put everything I have into the slightest chance, I would rather dash myself against these rocks and break myself upon this hope, than stand somewhere safe and secure and watch you die.’ She stepped forwards, defiant again, and he had to tilt his head down to look her in the eye and she was close, too close.

‘We - we came here to look at Cassian Malfoy’s things,’ he blurted, and strode to the crate, pulling the journal out of his jacket.

She was silent until he was rummaging in the files his father had gathered, and when she spoke it sounded like her voice was coming from a long way away. ‘Scorpius…’

‘That can be your choice,’ he said, and tried to fight the quaver in his throat. ‘But I think I’ve shown, time and again, especially with this, that I’m a coward. Because I could have lied to you on the Naglfar, pretended to be a trick, but I was too pleased to see you, to see Albus, and I’m a coward. Because, having proved I was me, I still couldn’t bring myself to tell you the whole truth, because I’m a coward. And now, with all before us, I could fight, and I won’t stop you doing what you’re doing, but I won’t believe in it. Because I’m a coward.’

‘You are not a coward,’ Rose snapped in that voice she always used when he tore himself down. ‘You’re one of the stupidest, bravest men I’ve ever met, but you are also your own worst enemy. And when you are your worst enemy, you destroy your value and destroy your hope, and I don’t think it’s possible to be brave without some glimmer of hope!’

He didn’t look at her as she joined him by the crate, just set the journal on the side as he pulled out a small wooden box. ‘I need a bit more than being told to have hope.’

‘And I’ll give you more,’ Rose snapped. ‘Whatever it takes, I will prove to you that this can be done, and I will do this. But you have to be prepared to listen to me.’

‘So far, you’ve given me nothing but blind conviction,’ he retorted, and flipped the box open. ‘So how about we get back to chasing down the dead ends of the secret life of Cassian Malfoy?’

‘They aren’t dead ends,’ she said, and a part of him hated how winding her up like this, settling into discourse that was more bicker than conversation, was comfortable and warm. She opened the journal, leafed through the pages of nonsense. ‘We’ve barely looked.’

‘I’m looking,’ he said, peering into the box, ‘and this looks like his toiletries, stored for eighty years. Riveting! Maybe the secret is in Cassian’s shaving kit?’ He pulled out a razor, peered at it, then tossed it back. ‘Or his little cuff link collection? Nice gemstones. Oh, or his secret stash of drugs.’

Scorpius wasn’t sure what the small leather pouch was, but facetious irritation and the desire to argue rather than confront real problems made him theatrical. It was thus against his better judgement that he opened the pouch and investigated with a big sniff.

Dust - of some sort - shot up his nose, filled his nostrils and his head, and he dropped the pouch to let out an almighty sneeze.

Rose coughed. ‘Lovely; yes, let’s snort what at best are herbs a century old…’

But her voice trailed off, and when he wiped his eyes and nose, he found her staring at the open pages of the journal. He hadn’t sneezed on it - not much. But that dust had gone everywhere, and a little of it had sprayed across the pages of incomprehensible babble they had failed at deciphering.

Because it seemed like it was babble, lines and lines without meaning or sense. And in between those lines, gleaming now in a purple ink where the dust had fallen, were new words. English words.

Rose let out a deep breath. ‘Give me the pouch,’ she said in a hushed voice, and he passed it over. She took a pinch, sprinkled it over the page, and in between every line of the gibberish there was a second line that revealed itself and was most certainly not gibberish.

‘Cass Malfoy,’ Scorpius breathed. ‘You sneaky little bastard.’

She glanced over, smile curling back into her pleased, successful grin, and he couldn’t help but return it at the surge of victory and just at the sight of her so pleased. ‘Feeling any hope yet?’

The journal wasn’t an answer yet, or even a clue. They would have to go through lines and lines of records to find something, anything, which might lead to wherever the spirit of Cassian Malfoy rested with apparently more knowledge that could help them defeat Joachim Raskoph. And that might do nothing for his survival.

But it was something, and even through the aching pain of his words, the bleak blanket this house of his ancestors cast over him, Scorpius Malfoy couldn’t help but look at the book, look at Rose Weasley’s smiling face, and feel a dash of something light inside.

* *


His hands were empty, and that felt wrong. A gesture was needed, surely; something more than himself and his mumbled words. But a physical peace offering felt so superficial, and so Albus had to accept that he could not possibly bring enough as he hammered on the door to Eva’s flat.

There was a long pause before she answered, and when the door swung open he was greeted with a determinedly plain expression. ‘Albus.’

He wrung his hands together. ‘We need to talk.’

She turned away. ‘We really don’t.’

‘Last night was -’ He had to hurry inside to follow her if he didn’t want to shout across a room. ‘I was wrong. And I’m sorry.’

‘Thank you. But we don’t need to talk about this.’ Eva went to the coffee table, voice completely without inflection, and picked up a manilla folder. ‘We need to talk to a man named Amadeus Candlestone; he works in the Minister’s office and either he screwed up checking after the buyouts or he let it happen. Either way, he should know more of the financial details used by Draco Malfoy to -’

Albus braced himself before he interrupted. ‘Are we going to talk?’

She looked over the folder at him, impassive. ‘We are talking. I’m briefing you.’

‘I mean about -’

‘I’ve been let out of prison to help the Auror Office hunt down Draco Malfoy. You’ve been hired as an independent contractor to work with me for that purpose. We have a job to do.’

‘You’re just going to pretend like -’

‘I am stopping all pretence.’ There was only the lightest pressure to her voice, but on her flat expression it was like a wave of emotion. ‘I am here because of my skills and my knowledge. Because my track record now implies I will cooperate with the proper authorities. You are here because Scorpius Malfoy asked you to be, and because of your moral compass, such as it is these days.’

Albus stopped. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

She tossed down the folder, jaw tight. ‘It means that Al and Lisa might have had something once, but not only am I not Lisa Delacroix, you’re not that same Al any more either.’

He took a step forward. ‘I am trying -’

‘No. The world has just done what it does; it makes you forget that other people are people.’

She wasn’t looking at him, and he stomped over to the coffee table. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘It’s not a criticism. It’s normality. But this wouldn’t have happened two and a half years ago.’

‘Of course it wouldn’t, but things are different -’

‘Exactly.’ Now she lifted her gaze, dark and guarded and yet with a glint of accusation. ‘Most people put their own needs first. Sometimes, all they need of someone else is for them to go away. That’s real cruelty. I didn’t kill people because I hated them, I killed people because I needed them to not be a problem.’

‘You’ve changed -’

So have you,’ she snapped, feeling cracking through every inch of reserve, but her eyes immediately dropped and she took a step back. ‘Because when I met you, you were someone who would always think of others, of their needs. You saw me as a person and you believed there was something good in me even if I couldn’t believe that, and you kept that up - that belief, that consideration, even when it was inconvenient.’ Eva turned away, and from the tension in her shoulders he wondered if her expression would betray more than it ever had. But she kept it hidden, stalking to the window. ‘And then last night, you saw me as an escape, and nothing more. I’m not angry. The world just did to you what it does to everyone.’

Albus frowned. ‘Bullshit, you’re not angry. You’re -’ Realisation stabbed him in the gut. ‘You thought I was the guy who doesn’t hurt you, doesn’t use you like you’ve been used.’

‘And then Scorpius died, and all you see is your own pain. It’s normal. It’s h