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Ignite by Slide
Chapter 34 : Freeze Out
 
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Chapter 35: Freeze Out


This is a really stupid idea.

It was a cold morning but it was, at least, bright and clear and crisp, and the Forbidden Forest stretched out below Scorpius for miles and miles as he and his new broom whipped above the treetops, feet occasionally brushing the wintry leaves and sending snow skidding from boughs.

'You do know he's just gonna beat the tar out of you, free me, an' then probably kill you,' said Downing, strapped onto the broom behind him so he couldn't fall off. Scorpius regretted not gagging him.

'I'm sure he's a man of his word,' Scorpius lied.

Downing just cackled.

Dawn was beginning to peek over the treetops ahead of him, the sky only now starting to turn from ebony to gold in streaks across the clouds that had been invisible at night. He was just about on time. A quick consultation of his map had him losing altitude as he spotted the clearing to the south, sweeping his broom in a wide loop to try to get a glimpse of the surrounding areas. All he could see was snow and trees, the canopy far too thick for him to spot the ground under.

The clearing was dominated by the pool which he thought, at first, had turned to ice. It was certainly cold enough for it to do so, but as he swept down and overhead he saw the water ripple and realised it wasn't frozen, merely still as glass before he'd disturbed it. At the edge of the pool were large, smooth rocks set into the earth, a natural stone ring against which the waters lapped gently, and it was by the tree-line that ringed the largest patch of open rock that he aimed his broom and landed.

All was quiet and still save the grumbling of Downing. Scorpius hopped off the broom and levitated Downing to his feet, his hands bound together and his ankles with only enough leeway to let him shuffle. Checking his pocket-watch - and feeling the snake of ice melt in his gut when he looked at it - Scorpius decided he had a couple of minutes, if they were being precise about the time of dawn.

'He's going to gut you, y'know,' said Downing.

Scorpius rolled his eyes. 'Oh, shut up.'

'You're just gonna try an' wing this? You're dealing with professionals, boy.'

I am, a little bit, "winging this", Scorpius had to concede, lips thinning. 'I know what I'm doing.'

Downing just snorted. But then there was movement on the far side of the clearing, and Scorpius squared his shoulders as he saw the tall, dark-clad figure of Prometheus Thane emerge from the tree-line. One moment there had been nothing - then he was striding across the slick stones at the side of the pool. He looked cold, austere, pale blond hair almost as white as the snow, but unlike the chilly Scorpius seemed more at home in the winter freeze, as if it was from the ice itself that he had been carved and given form.

He stopped a distance away, a few metres short of a wide, open slab that jutted out across the pool, and lifted a hand. 'Mister Malfoy.'

Scorpius forced himself to stand taller and look more confident than he felt. 'Mister Thane.'

'I suggest we both put our wands down where we are. And talk in the middle, as men. Bring Downing with you.' There was an unmistakable edge of disapproval in Thane's voice as he looked over at his man. Downing just gave a toothy smile.

Blood pounding in his ears, Scorpius drew his wand and set it down carefully on the stone, watching Thane do the same. Then, gesturing curtly for Downing to go first, they all approached one another, stepping up to the wide, open slab of rock.

'I must commend you,' said Thane once they were only a couple of metres apart. 'Downing is fast with a wand, I fancy it wasn't easy to apprehend him.'

'There were five of them,' spat Downing, and Scorpius felt his gut coil at the use of the past tense.

'Five schoolchildren. You must be getting sloppy, Downing.' Thane looked back to Scorpius. 'You had something in mind for his return, I take it.'

'You can have him,' said Scorpius. 'You just need to give me the Resurrection Stone.'

Thane cast Downing another glance, this one somewhat baleful. Downing had the good sense to look sheepish. 'Veritaserum, sir.'

'I should have known Nathalie Lockett would be able to brew up a batch.' Thane sighed. 'You know it won't bring that young boy back.'

'That young boy isn't only dead, he became an Inferius, as you bloody know,' said Scorpius, voice tight. 'You don't get my reasons along with Downing.'

Thane's expression flickered. 'That wasn't supposed to happen,' he said. 'We did not anticipate what Professor Lockett's efforts at fighting Phlegethon would do in the short-term -'

'Don't drop a plague that dumps the bodies of schoolchildren full of necromantic magic and then get pissy when it happens to have fatalities,' Scorpius snarled. 'You're murderers nevertheless.'

'Yes. Perhaps.' Thane just sounded tired, wistful, but he reached into his pocket and pulled something out. It was a square, cut rock, which could have been a gemstone but Scorpius couldn't see it clearly, and for a long moment Thane just stood there, looking down at it. 'I have the Resurrection Stone,' he said. 'But I imagine my employers would be most discontent if I just handed it over to you. Even for a man as useful as Downing.'

'Then you don't get him back,' said Scorpius tightly.

'Oh, I think I do.' Thane gave him a sad smile. 'You see, the contract we signed said nothing about how many people I could bring to this meeting. And so I'm sorry to say that I brought reinforcements.'

Scorpius felt no surprise at the rustling of the bushes at the tree-line, as the undergrowth parted to his right to show four more tall, robed figures emerging into the clearing, clutching their wands. He made a show of his shoulders sagging. 'That's a really good idea,' he said. 'I wish I'd thought of that.' Then he looked up and clicked his fingers. 'Oh, wait. I did.'

Which was about the time half a dozen House Elves burst out from the undergrowth.

Harley was first, and ploughed into the midriff of one of Thane's men with enough force that Scorpius suspected he'd magically enhanced his density and weight, the same way he had when pinning Scorpius down in the kitchens. The mercenary went down and into a bundled fight with a tiny powerhouse. All around him other House Elves also lunged forwards, most of them flinging their powerful, innate magic across at the mercenaries, and within a heartbeat the air was full of chaos, magic, battle.

Thane's expression barely flickered. Downing, for his part, turned and immediately began to scurry towards his comrades, shouting for one of them to break his lashings. 'Impressive loophole, Mister Malfoy,' said Thane, as if Scorpius had just sat on command rather than scuppered his ambush. 'I suppose by legal definition they're not "people".'

'Not yet. Thank backwards society.' Scorpius smirked.

'So now it's merely you and me. But I do have something else up my sleeve.' Thane reached for his wrist, and pulled out a long, thin stick. 'A backup wand.'

Scorpius winced. 'I didn't think of that.'

Thane's spell hit him dead in the chest, and for a heartbeat Scorpius thought this would be the end. But the impact didn't hurt so much as knock the air out of his lungs and send him flying backwards, soaring a good few metres through the air to hit the rocky ground around the centaur pool, hard. That hurt.

But it also brought him closer to his wand and his broom.

Scorpius groaned and rolled onto his front, assessing the situation quickly. The House Elves were falling on Thane's men with their magics which, when actually brought to bear on wizards, could be phenomenal indeed. Harley had jumped with glee at the opportunity before him and selected five of his most modern elves who wouldn't cringe from scrapping with humans. Indeed, although the mercenaries were giving as good as they got, sparks of magic bursting through the wintry morning, it had been enough to cancel the ambush.

But then Downing was freed and tossed a spare wand, and then the numbers were more on the mercenaries' side, and though that meant for more of a stalemate it meant nobody was in a position to stop Thane. Thane, who'd turned on his heel after hitting Scorpius and was pelting for the tree-line.

Scorpius snatched his wand from where he'd dropped it and rolled to his feet. 'Harley!'

Harley hauled up the mercenary he was pummelling with impossible magical strength, and spotted Thane bursting into the woodlands. 'Go get him, Malfoy! We've got these bastards!' Then he turned to his mercenary and punched him in the face. 'This! Is not! A person! Beating the tar out of you!'

Thane was already disappearing into the tree-line and so, instead of running, Scorpius bounded over to where his broom was and swung onto it, kicking it into action before he was even properly secure. The lunge of the broom, fastest new model available, was almost enough to pull his arms out of his sockets, almost enough to send him toppling off - but he didn't.

On a broom, at least, he knew what he was doing.

He shot directly over the still waters of the centaur pool and plunged into the undergrowth where Thane had disappeared, shooting in and out of close-knit trees, trying to make as much ground as possible before the woodlands got so close a broom would be more an impediment instead of a speed-boost.

Then he saw Thane ahead, running down the slope away from the pools, and kicked his broom faster even as he let off a spell, knowing there was no way he could take the mercenary by surprise. He wasn't shocked to see Thane fling his wand over his shoulder and cast a quick Shield against which the Stun splashed harmlessly.

But then the broom caught up and all Scorpius could think to do was fling himself forwards. He flew through the air, arms outstretched, and slammed into Thane's back. The two went tumbling forwards, Scorpius doing his best to wrap his arms around the other man's back to pin him, but then they hit the ground and they were rolling down the hill.

An elbow drove itself into Scorpius' ribcage and suddenly all air left him. His grip slackened and, even as they rolled, a hand grabbed a fistful of his coat and slammed him hard against the ground every time he struck it, battering him. When they reached the bottom of the slope and rolled to a halt, Prometheus Thane had him pinned against the ground, dazed and bruised, a wand pressed against his throat. Scorpius knew his was in his hand, but he could barely bring his arm up, let alone aim straight.

'That was a very foolish move, Mister Malfoy,' said Thane in a low, taut voice. 'All out here on your own. Your backup from your clever loophole far behind. You, alone, against a seasoned fighter. And you're not technically a child any more, so you must be wondering, do I have any qualms about killing you?'

Then the hold on Scorpius' front was released and Thane pulled his wand back and stood. 'So it's just as well you took me by surprise, then,' he said. And lowered his wand.

Scorpius goggled upwards, the world still spinning. 'What...?'

'Struck me unexpectedly. The Resurrection Stone went flying, of course.' Thane reached into his pocket and pulled the stone out before tossing it casually to one side, where it landed in the undergrowth. 'You had the choice of going after me, or the Stone. Obviously the Stone was the priority, but I slipped away. Nevertheless, a heroic effort against the odds.'

Finally the world became still enough that Scorpius knew he could sit up without falling off it. 'What are you talking about?'

Then Thane was over him again and slamming him down against the ground. A booted foot landed on Scorpius throat and pushed hard enough to make air-flow a real problem. When Thane spoke his expression was twisted into a rictus of fury, his voice a low, tense growl.

'That is the story you will tell everyone. Everyone who asks, everyone who doesn't. Everyone in Hogwarts, outside it. Man, woman, child, elf. If you tell anyone, if you even breathe what has happened here between me and you, then I will find you and I will kill you. But not before I've killed your father, not before I've hunted down which corner of the globe your pathetic mother is hiding in and killed her, not before I've tortured Albus Potter and then killed him right in front of your eyes. If you tell anyone anything other than this story, I will find, brutalise, and murder everyone you've ever cared about. Am I understood?'

Scorpius gave a gurgle that was supposed to be an assent, his heart pounding in his ears. The boot was yanked back almost as suddenly as it had been landed and he lay there, clawing at his throat, gasping for breath. Thane just continued to watch him and so all he could say, eventually, was a hoarse, 'Why?'

'Because my employers did not pay me enough to wipe out a generation of wizarding Britain. Because Nathalie Lockett wasn't supposed to devise a failed cure that accelerated Phlegethon. Because it was supposed to be a year before anyone died and a cure was supposed to be out by then. The situation changed. Their plans changed. My choices changed.' The anger was gone from Thane's voice and gaze, but he still spoke with the same determined tension.

Again, Scorpius tried to sit up. 'Who are your employers?'

'Dark wizards, a cabal of the world's most powerful, going by the name of the Council of Thorns. Do not underestimate them. I do not, which is why they are not going to know what I did here today. I value my reputation enough to dislike the idea that I was beaten by a child. I value my life enough to prefer this story to the truth.'

'Why? Why Hogwarts? Why Phlegethon?'

Thane hunkered down next to him, cold blue eyes impassive. 'Understand that while you may rejoice at your cure, today is only a victory because we have allowed it. Phlegethon in Hogwarts was always going to be cured. Because this was only the start. The world has seen the power of the Council of Thorns, has seen them bring Britain to its knees in a matter of months. More will come. And the world will tremble.'

'I assume I'm going to have to keep this knowledge to myself, too,' said Scorpius, rubbing his throat.

'Very soon,' said Thane quietly, 'you won't have to.' He stood and slipped his wand back into his robes. 'I will leave you now. My men and I will be pulling out of the area. Thwarted for now, but our mission was a success on the very first night. You will have a long few days ahead of you if you want to turn that trinket into a cure.' He gave Scorpius a short, grudgingly respectful nod. 'I bid you farewell, Mister Malfoy. It was a pleasure to match wits with you. Remember everything I have told you. And know this: next time we meet, my employers may well have made it worth my while to murder you and your friends in cold blood.'

'It can't be only money you care about,' Scorpius rasped. 'Or you wouldn't have done this...'

But Thane didn't answer, simply turned and headed off into the woodlands, and then he was gone, lost between the trees within moments. Scorpius just sat there for a while, slowing his breathing, rubbing his throat - and then after a minute pounced into the undergrowth, scrabbling about before he found it. His fingers curled around his prize and triumphantly he lifted it, the dull gemstone that was, supposedly, the Resurrection Stone.

He was still sat staring at it when there were little footsteps behind him and the bedraggled mob of House Elves arrived. Shirts were torn, lips were split, and Harley had even loosened his tie and lost a button on his waistcoat, but they were all upright, walking.

'They scarpered,' he said with much discontent. 'I see Thane did too.' Then his gaze landed on the Stone, and his breath caught. 'Is that it? You got it off him?'

'Yeah,' said Scorpius, voice thick. 'I beat him.'


* *



'How d'you turn a rock into a cure -'

'I don't know, but seems like Lockett does...'

'I thought the legends say you just, you know. Wave it at the bodies.'

'Except they're not dead, this is different, and still, Lockett will know...' Scorpius prayed his faith in the Professor was not misplaced as he, Harley, and the other elves trotted up the stairs towards the castle, up to the main doors that would lead to the Great Hall. It was just past nine, and he was eager to make it back before the morning briefing from Hermione Granger was done, eager to share the good news.

Only five pairs of eyes snapped in his direction when he and the elves burst into the Great Hall, and one of those pairs belonged to a translucent otter. Scorpius' heart sank without him realising it to see Rose was not present - of course she wasn't, it would take an insane recovery for her to not just be past the danger her injury, but up and mobile too.

So he forced a victorious smirk and hefted the Resurrection Stone aloft. 'I got it.'

Everyone's faces, barring the otter's, creased into smiles of varying breadth - and exhaustion. The otter didn't smile because it couldn't, but also looked bemused. 'Could someone elaborate -'

Before Scorpius could do so, there was an Albus-shaped blur and his best friend was throwing himself across the Hall at him to wrap him in a bear hug. 'I know you'd do it! I wanted to stop you, you damn fool, but I knew you could do it!'

'That's a terribly contradictory expression of faith, mate,' said Scorpius, but patted him on the back anyway and tried to un-peel Albus, who looked rather fragile from the past twenty-four hours and like he might burst into tears at any point. He turned to Lockett, and tossed the Stone over. 'Catch.'

She caught it, smile thin but infinitely pleased. 'Your gambit worked, then.'

'We beat the shit out of them, Professor.' Harley paused, then turned to the patronus and, to Scorpius' immense surprise, actually bowed. 'Er, begging your pardon for the language, Mistress Weasley.'

'If I'm not "Mrs Weasley" I'm definitely not "Mistress Weasley". "Ms Granger" will do, Foreman. But, thank you.' The otter paused. 'This still isn't an explanation.'

'We captured and interrogated one of Thane's men yesterday,' said Scorpius, deciding to gloss over the unpleasant bits. 'Professor Lockett reckons the Resurrection Stone could be used to cure Phlegethon and we learnt that Thane had it. So we set up a meeting to exchange the man for the Stone. It was a double-cross, of course, but I brought the House Elves as backup and it turned into a fight. Thane ran, but I pursued him, managed to knock him down. He dropped the Stone and scarpered rather than fight for it.' The lie came easy, Thane's real words, real threat, echoing in his ears.

Hermione's patronus blinked, and she turned to Lockett. 'You believe you can use the Stone to cure Phlegethon?'

'I do,' said Lockett, and explained the basis of her theory again. 'As I don't need to use the whole power of the Stone,í she continued, Ďas this isn't a resurrection, simply using its rejuvenative qualities on the bodies of the living, I believe I can syphon the energies of the Stone off into a minor gemstone. Either something that could be dissolved within a potion, or which could be consumed as a component part of a spell.'

Hermione nodded. 'How long do you need?'

Lockett pursed her lips. 'Days? It's hard to say at this point. I will have a better idea once I've assessed this further.'

'Very well. I will return in six hours, three o' clock. You can give me an update then and anything you need off the Ministry, I will provide.' Hermione paused and glanced to Scorpius. 'Does he know?'

'Know what?' The icy snake in his gut stirred, then coiled tighter in its sleep. Rose...

Selena's lips were a thin line when she handed him a folded copy of the Daily Prophet. 'Main headline,' she said needlessly.

He looked at it. DARK WIZARDS CLAIM HOGWARTS PLAGUE. 'ďA group of Dark Wizards have claimed responsibility for the affliction of Hogwarts School with the Phlegethon illness. Last night, a series of posters were placed in the Ministry and along Diagon Alley containing a message signed the name, ďThe Council of ThornsĒ. In these they identified themselves and claimed responsibility not just for the Phlegethon illness, but also dark magic strikes that have occurred across the world over the last six months, from violent crime right here in Britain to the theft of the Le Fey Staff in Paris in November. They went on to state that their intention was the unity and empowerment of all wizards across the world who follow the old ways and that Hogwarts was only a first strike against the established magical orders of the world...Ē'

His voice trailed off, brow furrowing. 'Ms Granger, at what time did the first of these show up?'

'About eleven o' clock last night.'

'All of half an hour after they saw our message asking for a meeting.' Scorpius looked at Lockett. 'I think they knew the game was coming to an end, one way or another, and decided to tip their hand of their own accord.'

This is why Thane told me all he did. It was coming out anyway, had come out anyway.

'It will come to an end,' Lockett said firmly. 'We don't let outside politics distract us from what we're doing.'

'I think, from what Thane said in the forest, that he and his men will be pulling out of the region,' said Scorpius, trying to keep his voice light. 'I think they know they've lost.'

'Why?' said Albus. 'What did he say?'

Scorpius hesitated for such a fraction of a moment that only Albus seemed to notice. 'Like I said, just an impression.'

'Let's not make assumptions,' said Hermione. 'As for this "Council of Thorns", let the Ministry deal with it. I assure you it is being taken very seriously. There are already talks being had with other powers internationally, headed by your mother, Miss Rourke, to share information now that it seems recent happenings have been linked.'

'She's been calling them linked for months,' said Selena.

'And it seems she was right,' said Hermione, with a slightly snippy tone which made it clear she had been a naysayer of such a theory until now. 'But I don't want you distracting yourselves with this. You have Hogwarts to focus on.'

Lockett nodded. 'You're right. We'll get to work.'

'One last thing.' The otter stiffened. 'Where's Rose?'

Oh God, they didn't tell her. The snake of ice hissed and stirred in Scorpius' belly.

Lockett went very still. 'She was injured in the apprehension of Thane's man yesterday. She's still in the Hospital Wing recovering.'

A long silence met her words, before the otter said, 'Is it serious, and why didn't you tell me?'

'She took a slash of dark magic across the abdomen,' said Lockett, in that too-controlled voice of hers. 'We have applied what salves we could and right now are seeing if she can cleanse the dark magic lingering on the wounds to keep them open. She is, so far, doing better.'

'So far. I repeat my second question.'

'I was going to tell you, then Scorpius arrived -'

'And what were you doing sending children on a mission to capture a mercenary?'

Albus stood up. 'I was the one who -'

Lockett didn't even look at him before she cut him off. 'They're not children,' she said flatly. 'Some not by law, the rest certainly not mentally. They're not children. They stopped being children when they became responsible for a whole school. They stopped being children when they chose to step up to fight. Your daughter has made her choices and all I have done is respect them.'

'Respected her right to go into a fight she was not prepared for -'

'She was prepared. Qualified. Trained,' said Lockett. 'I may have not made the ideal judgement but I had to make a judgement and I stand by it. If you want to string me up for being reckless when this is over, go ahead. But I have not had to force anyone into anything they have done. I also see you're not criticising me for allowing Malfoy to make the meeting with Thane - speak to me as the Task Force Director or as a mother; don't muddy these waters.'

Hermione went silent for a long moment, the otter's expression inscrutable, not mobile enough to accommodate the range of complicated human emotions going on here. When she at last spoke her voice was eerily calm. 'You will inform me via the Professor Lillyvick portrait of any updates. Please.'

'Prognosis is good,' said Methuselah at last. 'That she survived the night -'

Selena took his hand. 'She's fighting, Ms Granger. Slowly, but she's getting there.'

'Yes. Thank you.' The otter paused. 'I will speak with you again at three.' Then it winked out of existence.

Albus shifted his feet and looked at Lockett. 'You shouldn't have done that.'

'It makes life much easier for everyone involved if she blames me,' said Lockett without apology. 'She's used to it. Besides. You did absolutely the right thing, Albus. The information we got off Downing might well have saved us.'

'The right thing.' Albus faltered. 'Even if Rose dies?'

Lockett didn't answer that. 'I will take full responsibility for what happened. As I should have been doing all along.' Her gaze swept across the four student. 'You've done tremendously, you all have. And I have been remiss - I -' She stopped, turning her eyes skyward, and to Scorpius' surprise he saw her blinking quickly.

'I failed you,' she said at length, voice tense. 'And I'm sorry. And you all deserved better. Not just because you're in this awful situation. But because you've risen above it so splendidly. You've probably done better than you would have if I'd been around, I would have never allowed that ambush. But I stand by what I said. It was the right thing to do.' She lowered her gaze and looked at each of them in turn, strength returning. 'And I promise you that I can cure this illness. And I will cure this illness. Soon.'

It was Albus who nodded first, of course. 'You just tell us what you need, Professor,' he said. 'And we'll be here.'

'Confirm if Thane's people are gone,' she told him. 'Jones, I need to work with you, we need to take that ritual into account. Rourke, monitor Rose, please.'

'I can do that,' said Scorpius quickly.

'You are getting some sleep,' Lockett told him. Then her gaze softened. 'Wrestling the Resurrection Stone off Thane? We let that go overlooked in all the excitement. Well done, Scorpius. You might have just saved everyone.'

And so they all went off to their various responsibilities, leaving Scorpius to get to his room where he knew he would sleep no better, and instead of jubilation, the ice in his gut had been joined with sickening, cloying guilt.

'Mister Malfoy.' He was at the door out of the Great Hall before he heard the voice and he stopped, bemused, thinking everyone had gone. He turned around to see Harley following after him.

Scorpius winced. 'Sorry, Harley. I didn't mean to just walk off then without thanking you, that wasn't decent of me.'

Harley lifted a hand. Scorpius now saw that the House Elf bore a split lip and the area around one eye was swelling, going a bruised shade of brown. 'You're worried about Miss Weasley. I get it.'

'But, thank you,' Scorpius said. 'I mean it. I couldn't have pulled that off without you. I don't want people saying "Malfoy got the Stone". I want it to be "Malfoy, Harley, and"..' His voice trailed off. 'That's awful. I don't know their names. But the point is, we got the Stone. Wizard and House Elves.' The thought went a long way to easing the tension in his gut. Taking acclaim for something he didn't do went a lot better if he shared it with people who had been heroic.

Harley gave a thin smile. 'I reckon the papers will still, when they describe how this went down, put the scion of the House of Malfoy front and centre of the events.'

'I won't,' Scorpius said sincerely. 'Any time I'm asked.' He hesitated again. 'And I don't - that gambit. About you not being people. I don't think that. That was just part of the trick.'

Harley nodded. 'I appreciate that.' He, too, hesitated. 'Iím a House Elf. But I'm also man enough to admit when I'm wrong.' He stuck his hand out, much to Scorpius' surprise. 'I was wrong about you, Mister Malfoy.'

Scorpius goggled, before he reached to shake the little creature's hand, his touch numb. 'I should, er. Also thank you for what you did. Helping me get in to see Professor Lockett yesterday to stop Albus.'

'Maybe, but you persuaded her. I call that one a team effort.' Harley's dark eyes glinted. 'And I reckon it wasn't easy to take action like that against your friend.'

'It was the right thing to do. For him, as well.' Scorpius pulled his hand back. 'What you said, then. To Albus. About this being "your" school...'

Harley winced. 'Some House Elf perspectives don't die out. I just like to adapt this one.' He straightened. 'You never noticed me before. Not because I wasn't allowed to be noticed. But because if I was noticed, I wasn't doing my job right. Making this school run smooth. Making sure beds were made, dinners were on tables, halls were cleaned. This place gets hard enough for kids as it is. It's my job to make it easier.' He looked away, and to Scorpius' astonishment the expression which tugged at his face was something approximating shame. 'When I refused you in the first place, down in the kitchens... we didn't know how bad the illness was. If I'd known, I'd have never refused.'

'Why did you?' said Scorpius, trying to not sound accusing.

'Because for years, for centuries, wizard-kind presumed they could tell me and mine what to do. Everything was at their behest. I really thought this was nothing more than a bad spot of the flu and you were being melodramatic. And I resented the idea that this meant the House Elves were going to be expected to swan after some sick children. And that a student was the one telling us to do this. Not a teacher. Not a Ministry official.' Harley shoved his hands in his pockets. 'I don't stick to the letter of my contract to be a prick. I do it because the day I do anything for a wizarding employer that's outside that contract, the day I give an inch, I will open myself and my people up to a mile being taken. And we spent the last twenty years clawing back those miles.'

Scorpius' expression sank. 'I don't think that's true of every wizard. And we weren't demanding an obligation of you when we came to you, Foreman. We were asking for help. We couldn't have done this without your people. The students would be dead without you.'

'And half the world will say,' said Harley in a soft voice, 'that the professor was brave, the students were brave, that they went above and beyond in what they've done here. But the House Elves? We might not even get mentioned. And even if we're mentioned, it'll be implying we just did what we were supposed to.'

'I won't,' said Scorpius, though he knew Harley was right.

'I know that now. I apologise, Mister Malfoy, for what I've said tarring you with the same brush as your father. You didn't deserve that from me. Don't.' Harley straightened his little jacket and frowned at his waistcoat. 'Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go sew a button on.'

'All right,' said Scorpius, and then he paused as something niggled at him when Harley went past. 'Oh, and Harley? You don't have to call me "Mister Malfoy".'

Harley stopped, glancing over his shoulder, and smirked. 'ďDonít have toĒ, Mister Malfoy? Havenít you been paying attention? Thatís the point.'

Scorpius couldn't help but smile to himself as the House Elf sauntered on, whistling a tune to himself, and despite the worry rocketing about his insides, felt a little better.

Then he heard the unmistakable clop-clop of Selena rattling down the stairs behind him and, remembering she'd been sent to check in on Rose, his heart lunged into his throat and nearly choked him as he whirled around. 'What -'

But Selena was beaming, even if her eyes were lit up with worry, hair wild. 'The - dark magic. It's gone, the potions worked, Methuselah's stuff worked, she's going to be okay - but I need to find Methuselah or the Prof, she'll still need the open wounds patching up, but -'

Then Selena gurgled as Scorpius bound over the gap to wrap her in a fierce, relieved hug, and struggled to keep on talking. '-she's going to be all right! But! She'll be better if you let me go, Scorp, and let me get Methuselah!'

So he let her go and she bounded off, and Scorpius let her, face by now splitting into a beam, the snake of ice in his gut beginning to uncoil at last. The sun had risen higher in the sky by now, its rays spilling in through the open doors across the hallway before the Great Hall, and so finally he could look at it, look at the light, look at the warmth and, somewhere within himself, begin to hope.


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