“How far does that edge reach—bloody hell! Be careful!” Harry just barely brought his wand up in time, a quick spell protecting him and his protégé from the thick pulse of magic. Laura Madley’s hands shook, cradling an empty space as her breath shuddered.
“Oh. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just… I was trying to figure out exactly how far it went along this wall and then it just…” She looked up at him, soft brown eyes puppy-wide and sorrowed. “It went boom.”
Boom, that was a good word for it. Harry sighed, pushing at his fringe with his fingers, tugging it out to see if it was longer, and praying that this time it wasn’t blue. “Nothing bad happened, Laura. It could’ve been one of the big ones, but this one seems to have been benign.” He hoped it was, anyhow. Might be that when they got home they’d find strange colours on skin that was still under clothing, or one bloke had found webbing on his toes just two days before. The gills three days ago hadn’t been half-bad; Harry’d gone swimming quite a bit before those wore off.
Laura waited patiently for him to tell her what to do next. To her credit, her hands hadn’t moved a bit from where she’d stopped. “It’s not all gone,” she said softly. “I can feel more of the magic here, next to my little finger.” Her pinkie twitched slightly. “And that bit is one of the bad ones. When I set off that pocket, it exposed this one.”
“What you’re saying is, setting it off helped, or we’d have contained them both together and it might have gone off,” Harry translated, making a mental note of it for his report.
She smiled weakly. “If you could phrase it that way, it’d be better for my record.”
protégé wasn’t the best word for Laura Madley. protégé would imply that she was good. Special. Someone that he wanted to nurture into a position where she could take his place. No, Laura was his trainee, and Harry couldn’t help but wonder if his standards were skewed because he’d entered the DMLE straight out of a war. She just seemed so helpless. Those few years made such a difference in attitude and experience.
He tried for patience. “Since you’ve got your hands in it, how far out does the edge of the new bit go?” He gestured beyond her pinky finger.
She closed her eyes. “About one meter to my right, then a solid meter up and down as well. About a third of that is above my hand, and two thirds is below. I can’t tell what the spell was meant to do originally, but it was definitely a curse of some sort, and it feels like it’s just gotten darker with time.”
In the three years since the war had ended, pockets of extraneous magic had been growing in Hogwarts. At first, they had no impact on daily life, but in the spring two students had stumbled into a pocket and it had exploded around them, enveloping them in a bubble from which they had to be extricated. The school had been immediately shut down for the sake of the students, and the Ministry was tasked with spending the summer removing every last trace of leftover magic from the war.
The trick was that some of it was benign, simple hexes that had shifted into strange oddities after the war. But the potent curses cast during the final battle had lingered in the walls, feeding on Hogwarts’ own magic until some bubbled up, bursting into explosions that were potentially fatal.
Removing this minefield of magic wasn’t a simple task, yet Harry was expected to train his young Auror apprentice and ensure that she survive at the same time. There were days when he wondered if it were possible to accomplish both tasks at once, as well as clearing the castle in time for fall classes to begin.
“All right, I’m going to cast the containment spell.” It wasn’t up to the Aurors to break the curses they found, merely to contain them and mark the spot for the curse breakers to take care of later. It was delicate, careful work, and Harry took it slowly, feeling his way around the edges as he expanded a small bubble of protective magic and placed it over the curse.
Laura’s breath was a thin whistle in his ears as he worked, barely exhaled before she gasped in again, trying to stay perfectly still. He jostled her arm and she went rigid, helpless if something exploded, relaxing only when it didn’t.
“Almost there,” Harry murmured. He expanded the spell slowly, settling it down over the top edges of the curse. He tugged it into place. All that was left was to connect it at the bottom, and he hoped the curse didn’t go into the floor, else there might be—KABOOM!
The floor shuddered beneath them, rippling in a wave of curled stone before falling back into a place with a thump, leaving Harry and Laura on their bottoms.
Laura looked at her hands, then patted down her body. “Two hands, ten fingers, everything else seems fine,” she said quickly. “I don’t think that was ours exploding.”
Then what the bloody hell was it? It had shaken the entire castle. Harry stood, wand out, and did a quick check to make sure his own containment field was in place. Satisfied that he wasn’t going to cause an explosion of his own, he held out one hand to Laura and helped her up. “Come on.”
Shouting drifted up the stairs, gaining volume as they raced towards it. As soon as they set foot on the top step, the stairs flattened, creating a ramp, and Harry and Laura slid rapidly downwards, towards the noise, yelling, and a whole lot of dust.
“I’m fine.” Draco slapped the helpful hands of his assistant away from the tattered remains of his robes. His lip lifted in a snarl. “I do believe you’ve been quite enough help as it is. After all, if it weren’t for that last twist of your fingers—“
“I’m sorry,” Creevey blurted, hands held up. “I did everything you said. It’s not my fault that the spell zigged when it should’ve zagged.”
“Spells do not zig nor zag on their own,” Draco snarled. “You arsed this up, Creevey. I had that curse in hand, and it is entirely your fault that this corner of the castle is in ruins.”
Creevey turned on his heel, scrubbing dark hair back from his forehead. “Oh, I don’t know. I think it looks a bit better. Not nearly so dingy as it was.”
“Creevey!” Draco snapped. His wand leveled at the younger man, tip just brushing his nose. He might have hexed him, despite the fact that it would have meant a reprimand and quite possibly being written up (again), but he was interrupted by two people tumbling out of the stairwell to land at his feet, knocking into him. He shifted, wand pointing down, tip touching a forehead, slipping between tousled dark fringe and resting against an all too familiar scar. Draco rolled his eyes. “Potter. Of course. Come to make my day better, have you?”
Potter’s partner—Draco had no idea what her name was, nor did he care—scrambled to her feet with the help of Creevey, who seemed to take far too much pleasure in brushing the dust and dirt from her robes. “We heard the explosion,” she offered. “We came down to see if you needed help.” She cast a glance at the stairs. “Apparently the stairs thought you needed help quickly.”
“I see,” Draco said dryly. “And Potter, do you believe I need help?”
Potter gently nudged Draco’s wand away from his face before pushing to his feet. “I believe you’ve blown apart this corner of the castle, and that you’re lucky not to be injured,” Potter said easily. “I should still send you off to the Healer, though. Since I’m in charge of operations today, and you might have something we’re not seeing.”
“Should we go to the Healer as well?” Potter’s partner piped up. “After all, we—”
“You’re fine, Laura,” Potter interrupted. “We didn’t have anything on this scale. You’re just bloody well lucky no one else is working on this level.” He jabbed a finger at Draco’s chest. “You brought half the dungeon down. What if someone had been inside—?”
“No one else is willing to go near the dungeon,” Draco said dryly. “You know that as well as I.”
A long low sound caught their ears, and they turned as one towards the entrance to Slytherin, wands out.
“It’s the Baron,” Draco said.
“It doesn’t sound like the Baron,” Laura offered.
“I’ll go in and take a look.”
Draco caught Dennis’s arm before he managed to take two steps into the wreckage. “No, you won’t. I can’t work the curses and watch you at the same time. Go up and report the explosion. I’m going to determine the extent of the damage.”
“And I’ll be checking to make sure no one’s down there and trapped,” Potter said quickly. “Laura, go with Dennis upstairs. Report in both this explosion and what happened for us. This is escalating, and it looks like every time one of these magical mines blows, something worse comes after. I don’t want the next one to level Hogwarts.”
“I don’t need your help, Potter.”
Potter smiled, polite and bland and the expression made Draco’s blood boil. “I’m not helping you, Malfoy,” he said. “I’m doing my job. I’m in charge of operations, and this seems to be one hell of an operation.”
The low call was clearer this time, words still indistinguishable but pain evident in the tone. Potter waved his wand. “Go on, Malfoy. I’m with you.” He glanced back at the younger witch and wizard. “Go!” he ordered. “Upstairs. Report in. Then take a look at the curse we contained earlier. I don’t want Dennis touching it without his mentor, but he can make notes so you can be better prepared tomorrow.”
The two hurried off down the hallway, searching for stairs that were still stairs while Draco stared at Potter.
“Are you insinuating I wasn’t prepared?” he asked snidely.
“I’m saying Dennis Creevey is still a green curse breaker, and as good as you are, I think he shouldn’t be here. You need someone better working with you,” Potter said mildly.
“Someone like you?”
“I’m not a curse breaker.” Potter shrugged. “But I’d bet I’m less likely to set something off than he is.”
Draco glared. This was an irritating job, full of dark memories and the guilt of knowing that some of these curses that had set into the walls were his own. He despised being here for this, and it was only made worse by having Potter by his side. “Fine,” he said sharply. “Come.” Robes snapped around his heels as he turned and strode into the wrecked halls of Slytherin, in search of a voice he doubted was even real.
Pain infused these walls, after all. Draco suspected that was all they heard, as the very castle itself cried out against the damage done to it in the name of war.
Harry moved carefully down the hall. One step, then another, fingers trailing lightly in the air just above the walls. The curses had embedded there but that didn’t mean that was the only place they could be touched. They created bubbles. Pockets of magic, one resting up against another. His fingers swayed and stopped, mid-air, and he paused to take a closer look. Benign. Something simple. Easy. But the question was what lay beyond it, what else it could set off in a chain reaction.
At the yell, Harry’s hand jerked and he felt magic grab around him. Tingling sharply, it bit into his finger and he cried out at the sensation of pins jabbing into the soft flesh of his hand. He felt the bubble pop, then the sensation of another blooming and growing beyond, then another, then another yell of, “Bloody hell, Potter! You’re more bloody dangerous than Creevey!”
“I wouldn’t have had a problem with it if you hadn’t startled me,” Harry muttered. Louder, he added, “And what the bloody hell do you think you’re doing, rushing in like you’re a bloody Gryffindor? I thought you were supposed to be the cautious one, watching out for your own skin. Do you want to run headlong into a curse, Malfoy?”
“I can tell where they are without having to touch every bloody one of them.” Malfoy came back into view, his pale hair stained an unbecoming shade of pink, offset by pale luminescent spots on his skin. “Do try to keep your hands to yourself, Potter.”
Harry tried. He pressed his lips together, teeth clenched, but the laugh bubbled up anyway, anger diffused at the humour of Malfoy’s appearance. The answering scowl only made Harry laugh harder.
“What?” Malfoy snapped.
“Pink,” Harry finally managed to say. When it became clear that Malfoy had no idea what he meant, Harry waved his hand and tried to ignore it. “Doesn’t matter. We’re both all right after that one. Let’s keep going and find out where this chain reaction ended.”
“Because it’s quite likely that whatever’s at the end of it is even worse.”
“Exactly.” The one thing Harry knew was that no matter how little he liked Malfoy, and no matter how terribly they got on, they at least respected each other’s knowledge and skill. The years since the war had been spent in training, and while Harry might be the wunderkind of the Auror world, Malfoy held a similar rank among the curse breakers. Years spent among the Death Eaters meant there were few curses he had never seen, and of the ones he knew, few that he couldn’t break. It meant they were perfect for this job.
And likely perfect to be working together at this moment.
That knowledge didn’t improve the situation any, however, as Malfoy scowled and turned away before stalking down the corridor. Malfoy was still Malfoy, and wouldn’t listen to a word Harry said.
Harry threw his senses wide open, casting a detection spell that he could carry with him. It wasn’t delicate, but it should warn them if Malfoy were about to barrel into something. But at the same time, it looked as if Malfoy moved with a purpose, head cocked as they drew closer to the voice Harry could still hear echoing every so often, shivering into his ears. It was eerie. Pained. As if someone lay buried under the rubble.
Malfoy stopped as they reached the edge of the damage, just outside the sixth year dormitory. “That’s what I thought,” he said softly. “Of course it came here.”
“What’s here?” Harry drew up close behind him. He felt Malfoy stiffen, then saw him relax as Harry took a step to the side. “Other than the other end, and something potent.”
Malfoy’s smile was thin-lipped and humourless. “You don’t want to know. Suffice to say, even Slytherin was not a pleasant place to while away the days of that last year of the war. And this place bore witness to things I shouldn’t like to remember.”
The wail was louder, and Harry’s breath caught at the sound. There was no one trapped here. No one alive that is. “It’s a ghost.”
“A new one, I suspect, or something needing to be released.” Malfoy closed his eyes, wand in hand, and Harry felt the energy around them rise as Malfoy sought out the edges of the spell. “Repeated curses,” he murmured. “Repeated pain. Lining the dungeon with the essence of that horror. Even you can likely feel this, Potter. They’re quite fortunate that it hasn’t exploded out on its own before now.”
Harry didn’t like to think of this lingering in a dormitory with students in residence. No matter that they were Slytherin; they were still children. “Do you think you can take this apart, or should we contain it and come back to it when there’s someone—”
“Are you saying you don’t have faith in my ability?” Malfoy raised one eyebrow in inquiry. “I assure you, I’m more than competent enough to handle this curse. But you might wish to settle in, as it could take some time.”
Harry winced. “We ought to contain it and return later then,” he said. “It’s getting late.”
“I’ve nowhere else to be tonight.” Malfoy’s hands moved carefully, and Harry watched as he mapped the edges, leaving them glowing in the air. It was a slow process, and it grated on Harry’s nerves that he’d have to sit here, minding Malfoy like a wee child through hours of this.
“Well, I do.”
“A shag, Potter?” Malfoy drawled, light sliding into the air from his fingertips. “Are you trying to tell me that your prick is more important than the safety of those who attend Hogwarts?”
Harry flushed. “It’s dinner with Hermione and Ron,” he said. Maybe a shag, too, but that depended on how the evening went. Harry wasn’t entirely certain where he stood with his best mates. Sometimes it seemed that he was a part of a trio, and sometimes it seemed as if it were the two of them and he was waiting on the outside and let into the warmth occasionally. He’d dated others a few times since the war, both men and women, quite quietly to stay away from the papers. But when those relationships were over, he’d go back to Ron and Hermione again, and they’d take him in, at least for a little while.
Lately, though, he’d felt as if he were intruding on their time together, and he had the feeling it was time for him to move on again. Ron had told him he was hunting wedding rings, and Harry suspected that meant his relationship with them was done for anything more than friendship. Which meant tonight might be their last night, which he was going to miss because he was standing here watching a prat work spells far too slowly to get anything done in a reasonable amount of time.
“If it’s that important to you, then help,” Malfoy ordered. “If I can trust you to have steady enough hands to map this, then do so, rather than staring at me. I can feel your eyes boring into my shoulders and I assure you, I’ve done nothing worth worrying about.”
“It’s not you I’m worried about,” Harry muttered. But he stepped up closer, moving to the other side. As his fingers brushed the edges of the spell he felt sorrow burrow deep into his bones and he shuddered at the sense of it.
“That’s it, Potter,” Malfoy said quietly. “Don’t let the pain upset your equilibrium. We can’t afford to have your hands deviate even the smallest amount from the path of this spell. Let it seep into you, but do not let it control you.”
Harry took a deep breath and settled in to the work. He didn’t like it. He could hear the screams in his mind from repeated Crucios cast on this spot. He felt the tickle of something deeper. Darker. He wondered if a killing curse was done here. He wondered if it were only once, or more than that.
“So what are you worried about?” Malfoy asked, tone as light as if they discussed the weather. “Afraid your Mudblood and Weasel will shag without you?”
“Don’t call them that.” Harry grit his teeth. “They’re worth ten of you, Malfoy.”
“I’m hurt.” Malfoy sighed. “And here I thought you loved me. You spent all that time pining after me sixth year.”
“I also almost killed you,” Harry snapped.
“As if I could forget,” Malfoy responded. “I still carry those scars, among others. But I assure you, you are not even close to being the person who damaged me the most during this war. And you did choose to save my life in the end.”
“I can’t think why.”
Malfoy smirked. “You couldn’t imagine life without me. No matter what I’ve done, where I’ve been, or what I’ve seen, your life would be dismal without me in it.” He shrugged, somehow keeping his hands moving perfectly on target despite the motion. “Much like I saved you.”
“Because your life would be dismal?” Harry rolled his eyes. “I doubt that.”
Malfoy paused, fingers spread, one hand high and the other low, cradling the edges of the curse between them. “After all the things I had seen, Potter, I knew we needed you.” His voice was low. “If anyone was to stop the torment, I was told it had to be you. Thus, you were saved.”
Harry’s hands stilled, breath coming too quickly. He could see it, could imagine Malfoy standing nearby, watching other students tortured here in this place. “You watched this happen?” He couldn’t keep the fury from his voice, and he saw the answering tilt of Malfoy’s head, stubborn and proud despite his role in the war. “You watched this happen and you didn’t stop it?”
“How could I?” Malfoy spat. “What was I to do, Potter? The Dark Lord held my parents against my good behaviour. Were I to step even the smallest amount out of line, he would have had them killed. Should I have sacrificed them to save a student? Should I have sacrificed myself? Where does the line fall between right and wrong? Would the course of the war of changed, or would I merely be dead, another ghost to haunt these halls?”
Potter’s breath caught in his chest. He wanted to reach out, to yell, to strangle. His hands jerked.
He felt the bubble thin, split, the tiny hole expand until it burst, showering over them.
Pain. Crucio. Again and again, the sounds of screaming in his hears, high and thin and repeated until his throat was raw and ears were bleeding. He fell to his knees, hands pressed over his ears, trying to shut it out. Body curled, falling onto the stone floor, then pain again, sending him into a rictus, back bowed as he cried out.
He heard them.
He heard all of them.
He heard the castle scream and felt it shake, felt the floor cave in.
Harry had no hands to grab the floor with, no way to move as trapped as he was within the curse repeating itself. He was helpless as the floor fell to land among the rubble below.
He fell with it, longer than he thought possible, as if time elongated.
He felt himself impact the floor, sharp and hard with a new, fresh burst of pain.
Then everything went black.