The sword of Gryffindor has hung on the wall above the fireplace in Neville's chambers for six years.
"I've never liked it in my office," McGonagall told him on his first day back at Hogwarts. "It belongs with you." She was smiling, but her tone brooked no disagreement.
In the first few months, Neville tried not to look at the sword, as though avoiding the gaze of someone he was nervous about meeting. The glint of its rubies seemed to taunt him, daring him to be worthy of it.
Later he looked at it all the time, thinking of that day, and of those lost. In his dreams, flames engulfed him, and he felt the staggering weight of the sword in his younger hands.
Years have now passed, and Neville no longer looks at the sword, nor away from it. It is simply a part of the room.
He sits in his armchair, a book open in his hands. The blade gleams fiercely in the firelight, unseen. As the book falls gently from his slackening fingers, the fire senses his sleep and extinguishes itself, and the sword and the room fade into darkness.
Filius walks into the Hog's Head as though he knows exactly what he is doing, back straight, face calm. His heart is beating a frantic staccato and he is intensely aware of the scrap of parchment that is stuffed in his pocket, a note written in a terrifyingly familiar hand.
"Can I get you something?" the barkeep asks, narrow-eyed, but Filius shakes his head and waves him off.
In the very furthest corner of the place, there is a man in a long, hooded grey cloak that is too large for him. The light on the table is put out, leaving this corner even more shadowed than the others. Filius hoists himself up onto the seat across from him, trying not to check if anyone is looking at them — it is looking, he knows, that makes others look.
"I wasn't certain you'd come," says a dry, crisp voice from beneath the hood.
"You've got some nerve contacting me like this," Filius hisses, leaning across the table. "After all this time."
Griphook pulls his hood back a bit. There is the line of a deep scar below his eye. "And yet," he says, "here you are."
Filius hesitates — Griphook has spoken Gobbledegook, and it takes a moment to shift his mind into processing it, like cracking open a book that has lain closed on the shelf for many years.
"Come, don't you know your mother tongue any longer?" Griphook's teeth show in a slight teasing grin. The sounds of this language roll deep in Griphook's throat, harsh music as beautiful as the darkest night. Filius draws in a breath, fingers tightening on the grimy tabletop.
"What do you want?" he asks at last, wincingly aware of how much he's forgotten, how few things he remembers how to say. It puts Griphook at the advantage, and they both know it.
Griphook's eyes are sidelong on the barkeep, who could not understand them even if he could hear. Nonetheless, he answers in a whisper: "Ragnuk's sword."
"It is the sword of Gryffindor that you mean?"
Griphook's hand snaps into a fist and he makes a move as though to strike the table, but instead draws it back, places his hand down firmly, quietly.
"I have it from a reliable source," Griphook says evenly, "that the wizards no longer keep it under such tight security as they used to." His eyes are hard as stone, and when Filius searches them for some friendship, some love, he feels lost.
"Your note said that you wanted to see me," Filius says in English, shaking his head bitterly as he moves to get down from the chair. "Write again when you want to see me as a man, not as an accomplice."
Griphook grabs him by the wrist, stopping him. Filius stares down at the meeting of their hands, unable to look Griphook in the eye. His touch seems to burn.
"No one can steal what is already his," Griphook whispers. "This is no crime."
It is not reason that makes Filius say what he says next. It is not logic. It is the heat of Griphook's hand upon his, the stark music of his voice. He shuts his eyes tightly, and lets out a breath through his teeth.
"I know the one who holds the sword," he says at last. "He's an honourable man."
When Filius opens his eyes, Griphook is wearing the maddening smile he's seen on his face so many times, the smile of someone who knows he has won.
Filius knocks at the door, and when Neville answers, his wide eyes go to Griphook with surprise and wariness that can't be concealed.
"Good evening," Filius says. When he doesn't know how to handle a situation, he has always fallen back on politeness. "May I present a friend of mine — Griphook."
"Oh." Neville hesitates, then sticks out his hand. "Pleased to meet you." Griphook looks at Neville's hand as though it is something rotten, and Neville quickly withdraws it. "Er... what's this about?" he asked, turning to Filius pleadingly.
Filius's rational mind is screaming objections, that this will never work, but Filius merely says, "We'd just like to speak to you about a matter of some importance. May we come in?"
"Oh! Well, yes, of course." He opens the door and beckons them in, never taking his eyes of Griphook as they enter. "Would you like some tea?" Neville gestures to his own half-drunk cup on the desk. "I can get the elves back."
Griphook's stare lowers the temperature of the room a couple of degrees.
"No, thank you," Filius says quickly. "I think we'd better just get to it."
Neville sits down uneasily in the armchair, nodding to the sofa across. Filius boosts himself up onto it with the ease of years of practice; Griphook manages it only awkwardly, having to dig his heels into the upholstery to push himself up.
Griphook's eyes, squinting in the bright wizard-light of the room, are already fixed on the sword on the wall, behind Neville's chair. Neville glances back behind him, as though thinking Griphook must have seen something creeping up on him.
"So, what's this about?" Neville says, fumbling with his teacup, eyes moving from one to the other of them.
"It is about," Filius says, pointing to the weapon above the fireplace, "that sword."
"The sword of Gryffindor?" Neville asks in surprise.
Filius shuts his eyes for a moment, not wanting to see Griphook's reaction, but he can feel it like a wave of frost coming from an open door in winter.
"You know it by that name," Filius says, trying to tread carefully, wanting his tone to be neither too accusatory nor too conciliatory. "It is also called Ragnuk's sword, for the goblin who forged it. Did you know that?"
When Neville's brows knit in worry, he looks much like the boy he once was. "Can't say I did. It hasn't got some sort of goblin curse on it, has it?"
Griphook lets out a bitter scoff and looks away.
"No," Filius says patiently. "But as the sword was forged by goblins, my friend Griphook believes it would be more appropriate for it to be kept in the vaults at Gringotts."
"Why? Surely it's just as safe at Hogwarts as it is in a vault."
"It is not so much a matter of safety as... heritage. The sword is a part of ancient goblin history. It represents the life and work of the man who made it."
Neville looks faintly baffled, as though this is the last thing he ever expected to hear. "Doesn't it represent the life of Godric Gryffindor as well? And — well — not to pat myself on the back, but the lives of those who were saved by this sword during the war?"
Filius rubs his eye beneath his glasses. "It is difficult to explain. Goblins believe that what is made by goblins can only be lent to wizards, never truly given or sold. By goblin tradition, Godric ought to have willed the sword back to Ragnuk's family when he died."
Neville places his teacup down. His gaze shifts round the room as he gathers his thoughts. "Well... perhaps he didn't do that because he knew how important the sword would be one day. Saving people's lives has got to be more important than any tradition. I mean, if Godric had given it back to them, where would we be today? Not sitting here calmly having a chat about it, I'm pretty sure of that."
Filius shakes his head. "You know its enchantments as well as I. The sword presents itself when it's needed. It would do so even if it were locked in a vault a thousand feet below the earth."
"Then why does it matter if the goblins have it or not, if it could just disappear at any moment? If the sword appears to whoever needs it, then the goblins mustn't need it very badly or they'd have it already."
Griphook is still as a statue, his nails dug deep into the sofa's upholstery, shining eyes on Neville like a tiger after prey. Neville is talking as though he isn't there or can't understand, and every time he calls the goblins they, it is like a knife in Filius's heart.
"It only works for wizards," Filius says, forcibly calm. "If it had been a goblin facing down Voldemort that day, the sword wouldn't have appeared at all, and just as you say, we would not be sitting here having this most pleasant conversation."
Neville chews his lip, looking worried. "What about a compromise?" he asks, leaning forward and clasping his hands together. "This sword means a great deal to me, and I believe Godric Gryffindor meant for me to have it. But what if I left it to them in my will? To Ragnuk's heirs?"
There is silence for a moment, but for the crackle of the fire. At last, Griphook draws breath to speak.
"For centuries," he says, "wizards have asked us to wait. To be patient. They have assured us that change comes slowly. In our rather long experience, change never comes at all."
Neville draws back a bit, as though surprised Griphook can speak. "Well, I can't justify what other wizards may have done or not done," he says, as though this is obvious and quite reasonable. "I'm only speaking for myself. I'd give my word, of course."
Griphook laughs bitterly. "How little the word of a wizard is worth."
"That doesn't seem very fair—" Neville starts, but Griphook cuts him off.
"Ragnuk was my ancestor," he says fiercely. "It's as though you took my father's skull and mounted it upon the wall like a trophy, and when I politely asked for it back—" His lip curls. "—you refused, as you might someday need it for an ash tray."
"That seems a bit extreme," Neville says; he's gone rather pale, now.
"Ask him if it's extreme," Griphook shoots back, jerking his head at Filius. "Ragnuk was his ancestor too, come to that. Ask him what he thinks of what you've done to his memory."
The words crash down like thunder. Filius stares in disbelief at Griphook, who has revealed a secret kept for half a century, the secret that has made Filius's life possible — so easily he has done it.
Neville is wide-eyed. "You mean... you... Is that true, professor?"
A cold stone in the pit of Filius's stomach is making it difficult to speak.
"That Ragnuk was my ancestor?" Filius feels dizzy, as if this is a dream and he will soon awaken. "Yes, that is true. That Griphook's beliefs are extreme? No, that is not true at all."
Neville looks as though he's trying to read answers on the wall, but none are there. "You've made some good points," he says finally. "I'll think about it."
Griphook gets up abruptly and heads for the door. "What a waste of fucking time," he says crisply, in Gobbledegook.
"What did he say?" Neville asks, half-rising as though expecting to have to defend himself from some attack.
"I'm sure I haven't the faintest idea," Filius says coolly. "Good night, Professor Longbottom."
Filius uses his wand to dim the lights in his chamber. He holds it in his fingertips, this thing that has been an extension of himself since he was a child, and for a mad moment his hands want to snap it in two.
Instead he places it down carefully on the chest of drawers, with a click that sounds sharply in the quiet room, and turns his back on it.
"Why have you done this to me?" he asks.
Griphook is sitting on Filius's bed, feet on the floor, gazing at him levelly.
"You needed me to do it," he says, so damned cocky, almost taunting. "Were you going to spend your entire life hiding?"
Filius's hands are clenched tight at his sides. "What would it matter to you if I did? You're miserable, so you want everyone else to be as well?"
"I'm not miserable," Griphook scoffs. "I am myself."
"So am I," Filius says, though he has never believed it less than at this moment.
Griphook doesn't answer. He just looks at him, eyes like obsidian, a look that seems to read him like legilimency — always has. Filius wants to stay angry, but anger has never come easily to him, and it slips away, lost when he looks at this man.
"I actually thought he would give it to you," Filius says. It sounded so calm in his mind, but when he speaks it aloud, it sounds like heartbreak.
"I know," Griphook says quietly. "This is what I've been trying to tell you, since the first day I met you." A faint glint in his eye, like a gemstone. "Do you remember that day?"
"I was barely out of school," Filius murmurs, gazing up at the deep blue wallpaper, twinkling with stars. "I had my first job, and... I'd avoided Gringotts for years, but I couldn't any longer."
"You couldn't hide anymore," Griphook suggests.
"I couldn't keep my money under my mattress anymore," Filius returns with a sidelong grin that makes Griphook chuckle. He approaches slowly as he speaks, closing the distance gradually. Moving closer to Griphook is like coming nearer to a roaring fire, hands and face becoming hot. "When I first saw you, I thought you were unbearably beautiful..."
"When I first saw you, I thought you looked like a half-melted candlestick," Griphook says shortly.
Filius gives a yelp that is half laugh, half hurt, and raises his hands as if to strike him. Griphook stands and takes Filius's hands in his, pulling them to him, examining them.
"You've cut your nails short," he observes. "You must have to file them every day to get them to look like this."
He thinks he ought to pull his hands away, but he also wants this touch, more than anything. "Every hour, it sometimes seems," he says.
They are inches away from one another, and he can feel Griphook's breath as he speaks.
"Has there been anyone since me?" he asks, smiling, twining his fingers into Filius's and letting his nails scrape along his skin. "Do any of these wizards want you? Or will they even look at you that way?"
Instead of answering, Filius kisses him — a soft brush of mouth upon mouth, the way wizards kiss. Griphook flinches, and then bites Filius's lower lip with sharp teeth, as goblins do.
It is so right, and desire slides heavily into place within him; he pushes Griphook down onto the bed and rakes his teeth, blunt as they are, hungrily across the side of his neck. And Griphook laughs, as though to say yes, you've got it, you've got it at last.
What they do together is as much fight as fuck, and Filius comes back to it like slipping on an old, familiar garment. Griphook is shockingly strong, able to bruise and strangle like a vise. He holds Filius down because he knows he likes it, still, and struggling against it drives him mad with desire. Griphook is a wolf while Filius is a dog, soft and domesticated, but he can bare his teeth and show claws too. Griphook's nails draw blood, and Filius remembers the exhilaration of pain entwining with pleasure, wonders how he could ever have forgot.
Griphook says filthy things to him, uses words Filius isn't sure he ever knew. He finds he can't think in Gobbledegook and do this at the same time, it is too much — a foreign language, and yet not foreign — the language of his blood.
When Filius sleeps, he dreams of his mother, black hair wild about her shoulders and black eyes full of fierce love, clawed hand sweetly caressing his cheek — more clawed in the dream, perhaps, than it was in reality. He dreams, too, of his mother holding him and telling him they are fools, those bullies, fools who know nothing.
He dreams of home, the way a child remembers it. The house below the roots of the poplar trees, cool and dark. Mushrooms that grew from the damp walls after a rain, that could be picked and eaten just as they were, tasting richly of the earth.
How bright seemed the wizard's world, his father's world, full of blinding bluster and stiff formality. The only dark place in it was Ollivander's, the place where he first tasted the magic forbidden to his mother, his grandmother, and all of their kind.
He awakens to a pounding at the door.
"It's gone!" Neville is still in his nightshirt. "It was there when I went to bed, and now the sword is... it's gone." He trails off at the end, from high alert to a growing awareness that perhaps he shouldn't have come.
Filius turns back to the bed's rumpled sheets, only confirming what he already knows.
Griphook is gone, too.
The vault where Griphook takes the sword is cool and dark; here it can be seen as it ought to be, not gleaming harshly, not blinding in the light.
He places it down in a space that has been saved for it for centuries, between the shields and axes that were Ragnuk's life. As soon as it is there, the sword makes the picture clearer, like removing the grime of ages from a master painting. Griphook steps back and admires the arrangement with a tight smile of satisfaction. Ragnuk is here now, entirely here, his voice speaking proudly alongside the other great artists of ages past.
This is what the wizards will never understand: Gringotts is not a storage pit for riches, but a mausoleum for the dead. This is how Ragnuk lives on after his bones are turned to earth and his spirit to dust. The beauty of a man may bring pleasure for an hour, but the beauty of a blade is eternal.
His work done, Griphook turns to go, and lifts a hand to wipe the water from his eyes.