“This way,” Harry said, leaping lightly out of the goblin cart and holding up the lantern in front of him. He could have used his lit wand, but part of his contract with Gringotts for the year stipulated that he use as little magic as possible. “Mrs.—“ He glanced back at her as if he’d forgotten her name. It was better than embarrassing himself by mispronouncing it. He had enough embarrassment to live with on a daily basis.
“Zkladjubinoffer,” said the witch trotting behind him, who blinked in the light of the lantern as if she’d been underground the vast majority of her life. The goblin who had ridden behind her, and who had come along mostly to make sure that Harry escorted the witch to her vault without any undue tampering, folded his arms and grunted. His name was Vinharsh. Harry didn’t mind him so much. He was certainly a better supervisor than the insufferable Griphook.
“Right,” said Harry, and shone the lantern on the vault door, 615. Vinharsh came forwards and used the key, then remained at Mrs. Zkladjubinoffer’s side as she went in with a small sack to scoop Galleons into. The goblins weren’t even subtle about excluding Harry from the vaults. Harry stretched his arms above his head and looked away, trying to pretend he didn’t care.
And maybe he didn’t. He couldn’t say he’d learned the lesson the goblins wanted to teach him when they requested that the Ministry put him on this contract, but he’d learned some tolerance.
The witch came out again, and might have climbed into the cart without even noticing Harry. Vinharsh, though, said, “Thank you, Mr. Potter,” loud enough for her to hear. She jerked towards him, and then her eyes rose to his forehead, where Harry’s scar still shone, and widened.
“Harry Potter!” she breathed.
Harry gave her a small smile. His contract also specified that he had to be pleasant, but that part wasn’t so hard; it wasn’t as though the people who visited their vaults had caused his servitude to the goblins. “Yes. Quite a change from the days when I was running about and fighting Voldemort.”
Mrs. Zkladjubinoffer flinched and glanced away. “I suppose that I’m not quite used to hearing his name, even now,” she murmured, flicking gray hair from her eyes. “The Daily Prophet still won’t print it.”
Harry nodded in understanding. “Sorry, Madam. But I work in Gringotts now, at least for a short time more.” He darted a glance at Vinharsh, who looked displeased. But then, like most of the goblins, he hated it when wizards lied. He would just have liked Harry to omit the truth a little more often.
“You did make a good escort down, dear,” said Mrs. Zkladjubinoffer, and patted his hand. Then she leaned in, apparently under the impression that Vinharsh couldn’t hear or understand anything she said to Harry. “But isn’t it rather hard to be surrounded by them all the time?” she asked.
Harry smiled again and smoothly sidestepped the question. “It depends on what definition of difficulty you use,” he said. “Shall we go up again? Or was there another vault that you needed to visit?” He glanced at Vinharsh. The goblins didn’t always tell him when visitors had more than one key.
The goblin made the complex hand gesture that meant “no, and I’ll need to talk to you later.” The one piece of worthwhile practical knowledge that he’d carry out of here, Harry thought as he leaped back into the cart, were the hand signals that the Gringotts workers used among themselves. He might not ever come back here again when his term was up, except to visit his vault, but it was something no other Auror could contribute to the Ministry.
How bad does it have to be, he thought, leaning back as the cart began to accelerate but making sure that he didn’t bump into Mrs. Zkladjubinoffer, when I’m hoping I have something to contribute to the Ministry?
Of course, the Ministry wasn’t the same since Kingsley Shacklebolt had taken over. Harry knew that, even if he didn’t know exactly what else had changed, since the contract he’d agreed to to make reparations to the goblins for breaking into Gringotts confined him to bank property and forbade him to read the Daily Prophet. Harry still wasn’t sure why that last provision had been included, except that perhaps the goblins imagined it would frustrate him.
He still had his friends to visit him once a week and tell him scattered bits of news, though, and after six months, his frustration at not knowing anything else had largely ceased. Maybe it was just as well that he’d been out of the public eye for almost a year; Rita Skeeter would have made up far more compelling bits of gossip about him if he was working in the field as an Auror.
Almost a year.
There was just a day left, and Harry had obeyed all the terms of the contract: remained in Gringotts, helped to contribute to security and rebuilding the bank, not read the Daily Prophet, saw his friends only once a week, and not attempted to run away or steal anything else. The goblins had put him through the most boring and humiliating duties they could think of, and still he was there. He caught grumbles and hand-signals behind his back sometimes that indicated they weren’t happy with that.
He shrugged it off as much as possible. Would they really prefer that I act like a thief? They would get another year of service out of me if I did, but they’d also lose the public trust. Not the best situation for them.
The cart slowed down again as they neared the surface, and the witch wobbled gamely out, bidding farewell to Harry but only looking past Vinharsh, despite the fact that he was the one who’d let her access her vault. Harry folded his arms and leaned against the pillar nearby. Sometimes he could see the point of the half-wary, half-contemptuous attitude that most goblins maintained towards most wizards at all times.
Vinharsh motioned to him again, a slight flicker that Harry had nevertheless learned to watch for. If he ignored the goblins, they could claim he was being rude, and that would be time added to his contract. He followed Vinharsh into one of the carved, cave-like rooms that the Gringotts staff used as insurance against any wizard overhearing them. The roof made it hard for him to stand upright, and of course he wasn’t offered a chair, so he simply sat on the floor. Vinharsh perched on an unfinished block of stone.
“You know that you’ll go in a few days,” he said.
“Yes,” Harry said. July fifth, and it’s in one day, six hours, and thirty-two minutes, according to that permanent Tempus charm I have. But who’s counting?
Vinharsh remained silent, his gray fingers turning slowly over and over again. Harry waited for him to finish. That was another thing his year away from the sun—or at least any sun other than what fell through the bank doors—had taught him: patience when people around him were playing games. That was certain to stand him in good stead back in the Ministry, he thought wryly. Despite Kingsley’s efforts, Ron had warned him that plenty of the elements of the bad old Ministry were still in place, and still playing their games.
“We have one more task for you before you leave,” Vinharsh said, though from the sound of his voice, he was giving in with bad grace.
“One task that’ll take the entire day?” Harry asked suspiciously. He hadn’t had anything like that before. What he had was boring hours of waiting when he was on security duty, and long, queasy rides back and forth to the surface when the goblins wanted to show him off to visiting wizards.
“Yes.” And Vinharsh fell silent again, and motionless, save for the turning, turning, turning of his fingers.
Contrary to what he knew the goblins thought of him, Harry had learned to read individuals. In someone like Griphook, that turning would have meant he was pleased with himself and slyly plotting. In Vinharsh, it meant he was worried about what came next, or at least didn’t think it was the best plan.
“Can you tell me what I’ll be doing?” Harry asked finally, and was surprised at how gently his voice had emerged. Well, there’s no point in being rude, when I’ll be leaving in one day, six hours, and twenty minutes.
Vinharsh started. Harry felt his eyes narrow. Goblins never forgot a wizard was sitting in front of them; they never went that deeply into thought, except the mathematicians, who remained in the lowest levels of the banks and constantly went through magical counters representing piles of Galleons to make sure that the money in all the vaults was as it should be.
Probably realizing that he had made a mistake, Vinharsh cleared his throat and tried to talk in an absolutely normal tone. “The wizarding world is due to make its final reparations to us on the day of your release. An artifact is arriving, escorted by an Auror from the Ministry—an old piece of artwork that your kind stole long ago and has only recently released to us.” He paused, but Harry had learned not to react to accusations of theft after the first week he was in Gringotts. Reluctantly, tasting the words for a long time before he let them out of his mouth, Vinharsh went on. “It’s a painting of a goblin victory, The Battle of Ar-jash-arsh-ra. There is—suspicion that the pure-blood family who held the painting for a century may try to steal it back during its transfer to the bank. You are to make sure it reaches the vault designated for it without any undue incident.”
“Once it passes the doors of Gringotts,” Harry said.
“Yes. Of course.” Vinharsh looked down at his fingers again.
“May I know the name of the pure-blood family who held the painting?” Harry asked. “And which vault I’ll be escorting the painting to?”
“Twyller,” said Vinharsh. “And it’s Vault 1000.”
Harry caught his breath. He’d never been deeper than Vault 900, where the security was so tight that he had to have five goblins with him before they’d admit him. But he knew the rumors of traps deeper in the bank. They’d strike if they sensed the merest intention on the part of a wizard to steal an object, the least covetous desire.
“I’ve never heard of the Twyllers,” he said, because he couldn’t voice the suspicion that Vinharsh’s words had started growing in him.
“They’re a very old and very reclusive family,” Vinharsh said, jumping to his feet. “Never even sent their children to Hogwarts during the last fifty years. And they kept well out of your war with the Dark Thief.” Harry had to appreciate the name they’d tagged on Voldemort after his death. “Of course you wouldn’t have heard of them, with as little appreciation of history as you have.”
Harry let the words slide off him. “Do you think they might have agents in the bank?” he asked, standing so that he could duck out of the door behind Vinharsh.
“I don’t know.” The goblin was walking briskly away from him towards the corner of the upper room where people waited to be escorted to the vaults. “The rumors that we have about them are vague and undefined. For now, Potter, familiarize yourself with the security precautions that you’ll have to undertake, and the limits of your duties. There are books about the painting and the battle it depicts in your rooms.” He paused after he said that and gave Harry a significant look.
Harry bit his tongue to stop himself from complaining that books about the painting wouldn’t help him much if he were to protect it. He just nodded and ducked around the pillars, heading towards the far inner wall of Gringotts.
The wall was honeycombed with pentagonal doors which blocked the entrances to private goblin rooms. One reached them by climbing up ladders or series of steps that stretched from the floor up the sheer blank face and stopped at the ledges outside the doors, then continued on until they halted at doors easily a hundred feet up. Harry, of course, had been assigned rooms on the very top story. More than once, he’d been grateful for his good head for heights from broom-flying.
Flying. Will I still know how to do that, I wonder?
Harry shook his head as he stretched the protesting muscles in his calves out and then unlocked his door with the one key the goblins did trust him with. He’d stopped whinging on and on about injustice a few months after he arrived. He’d just have to trust that he would find out all the things he wondered in a few days, since he’d be free and could do them.
He groaned when he saw the large pile of books waiting on the edge of his single table. Wearily, he sat down and began sorting through them, laying aside the ones filled with runes instead of ordinary words. Despite a year of practice, he still didn’t read them easily.
“I trust that I don’t need to remind you how important this is, Malfoy,” Kingsley said in the rumble that he only adopted when he was serious—or maybe just when he was talking to Draco. He’d never been sure of that. “If you deliver the painting to its rightful owners—“
Who are no goblins, Draco thought, but he kept his eyes straight ahead and only nodded slightly to show he was listening.
“—then you stand a good chance of convincing those who still distrust you that you aren’t a poor wizard’s Auror any longer.”
Draco smoothed out his grimace. He had better self-control than his father had, after a year of insults and reminders like this that he still wasn’t fully trusted and never would be. “Poor wizard’s Auror” was what they called everyone, Weasley and Granger included, who had been admitted to the Auror ranks out of desperate need, without the full three years of training, but most of the people tagged with that name had proven themselves. Only Draco still heard it regularly muttered at him, along with insinuations that the Ministry should never have admitted him at all if they didn’t like knives poised at their backs.
Draco had done what he could to prove them wrong. It never seemed to be enough. They looked at his hair and his face and saw his father. Draco would have liked to tell them about his mother, who had considered the survival of her family before service to any snake-faced idiot, but of course that was too private for him to share.
“Why this specific painting?” he asked. It was the first time Kingsley had paused and let him ask questions since he’d summoned Draco to the office to explain his mission.
“Because it’s rumored to be the most powerful expression of goblin art in the world.” Kingsley shrugged, not seeming interested as he leafed through a thick pile of parchment. Of course, Draco seethed to himself, he had had the advantage of reading all about the picture before he summoned Draco. “It’s changed possession so many times that that makes it important in and of itself. The goblins attach more importance to those works of art they fought for, I understand.”
“And I only have to escort it from the doors of the Ministry to the doors of Gringotts?” Draco asked. “Or down inside the bank itself?”
“Down inside the bank itself,” Kingsley said, and looked up at him with a stern expression. That made Draco burn with quiet resentment inside, but by now, that was almost a banked fire. If he got the chance, he would take vengeance on Shacklebolt along with all the rest of them—but he had come to accept that the best vengeance was remaining in the Auror ranks and doing what they didn’t want him to do. “You’ll have help once you pass the doors and start on your way to Vault 1000, of course. Harry Potter has been working for Gringotts the past year in order to make reparations for the break-in during the war. He’ll join you as part of the on-site security team.”
Draco was glad he hadn’t had anything in his mouth but air, or he would have started coughing, and he couldn’t afford the loss of dignity in front of Kingsley.
He’d almost forgotten about the git, truth be told. When Potter wasn’t in front of him every day to brag about his defeat of the Dark Lord and remind Draco of everything he couldn’t have again—security, prestige, an unquestioned good name—it was easier to bow his head over his paperwork, do it better and faster than anyone else in the Ministry, and then go home and make plans to do even better tomorrow.
On the other hand, the thought of Potter forced to join him in escorting the goblin painting back to its place on the wall of a Gringotts vault was ridiculously amusing.
“Of course, sir,” he said, when he realized Kingsley was still watching him. He knew some of the murmurs behind his back were envy; he was the only Auror who received his assignments directly from the Minister himself. Of course, the wiser Aurors knew that Draco got them that way because Kingsley still didn’t trust him, and they sniggered about that. Draco fed the gossip and rumor mills of the Ministry kilograms of grist all by himself. “Will that be all?”
“Review these files,” said Kingsley, and floated them towards Draco with a swish of his wand. “You’ll pick up the painting in the Atrium of the Ministry at noon tomorrow to escort it to Gringotts.”
Draco nodded, and caught the files expertly. It didn’t take him long to make his way back to his office—shared with no partner, and warded so heavily that no one else but the Minister himself or the Head of the Auror office could enter—and settle down with them. He promptly began to read them with the productive skimming method he’d developed: look for subheadings, for long paragraphs, for important ideas, and note them. If something was boring, skip on to the next subsection. The people who wrote the reports and filed the majority of the parchment at the Ministry all learned to write in basically the same way. That meant important nuggets of information were unlikely to be scattered in subsections that dealt with other knowledge in turgid, unfathomable prose.
Draco smiled slightly to himself when his wards hissed and cracked like embers with sand poured over them. There was at least one test, every day, from someone like Weasley, who thought Draco would have to lower his guard sometime.
He never had. He never would. Even the unremarkable photographs on the walls of his office, which looked to be pictures of suspects from the cases he’d worked, were disguised with heavy glamours. Revealed, they would be images of the Manor, of Draco himself as a child, of his parents, of the Malfoy wealth undiminished and gleaming as it had been before they’d been ordered to pay war reparations in turn.
But Draco wasn’t foolish enough to leave such images visible to any naked eye that wanted to see them. It would get him no end of teasing from the other Aurors.
He protected his life. He was cautious. He was cunning. He flourished in the dragon’s mouth, in the very territory of the enemy.
Despite the difficulties of the last two years, one as a seventh-year Hogwarts students and one as a poor wizard’s Auror, Draco had arrived at the age of twenty with a drive and experience that would do credit to many older wizards. And sometimes he enjoyed the challenge.
He would have given much for a friend, or even someone he could trust the way he had been able to trust Professor Snape, to give him guarded praise in between handing out insults and false information. But he had done all right without one. He’d even learned to keep his tongue in check, and let his sarcasm flourish in the middle of his brain.
He wrote the best bits down, of course, and then burned them. It wouldn’t do to leave them either without an appreciative audience—of one—or lying around for an unappreciative one.
“But that’s not fair.” Harry could hear the dull, leaden tone in his own voice that meant he’d already given up. He’d sounded like that in his head after he saw Snape’s memories, and realized there was no way around his own death. He looked down at his hands, spread open on his lap, and sighed.
“It may not be fair, but it’s what the goblins demand.” Kingsley shuffled the parchments on the desk in front of him with a soft hissing sound. He was too embarrassed to look Harry in the eye as he explained the arrangements Gringotts had asked for, which was something, Harry supposed. “Your attack and escape did enormous damage to the bank, and also damaged goblin prestige in the eyes of wizards. They’ve mostly rebuilt the vaults and their security systems, but even so, some of their old clients won’t trust them. This is political, Harry, more than it’s fair or just. The goblins see how the whole wizarding world honors you, and they’ve concluded that your working in the bank, saying by your very presence that you believe in making amends for the injustice you did, would restore the trust of customers.”
Harry closed his eyes. He’d already mustered every argument against Kingsley that he could think of.
This wasn’t how he’d envisioned spending his first year as an Auror.
On the other hand, he reminded himself, in normal times he would have spent his first year in training, and the two after that, as well. The ranks of the Aurors had been so depleted during the war, and the trials that followed it and revealed several important Ministry officials to be Death Eaters, that Kingsley had promoted raw recruits into the full positions usually left to more experienced wizards. They were supposed to receive training on the way. But in the meantime, they were left up to the usual fate of exceptions everywhere and had to do whatever they were told to do.
And Kingsley had explained why this was so important. The goblins might shut down the bank altogether if they didn’t get their way. And that would be a disaster for the wizarding economy—already fragile and struggling to recover from a war that had preyed on its resources and killed or exiled many of its best workers. There didn’t need to be distrust between the species and the threat of another goblin rebellion on top of everything else.
Harry nodded, and looked up. “What do I have to do?”
Harry snapped his eyes open, gasping, just as Kingsley handed him the contract. He shook his head and stood, stretching his arms wearily over his head. He’d Transfigured the cramped little bed that came with the room into one nearer human size, but his back still seemed unconvinced that he had room to stretch out now. Harry bent double at the waist and swiveled from side to side to loosen the knots.
He had to do it carefully. The arched ceiling and the absolutely flat walls and floor gave him room for the bed, the table, a chair behind the table, and the door that led to the loo. Harry had put the new broomstick he’d bought for his seventh year at Hogwarts and the trunk that contained his clothes in the corner, and brushed up on his household charms until he didn’t need a house-elf. And that was all. Even the books on The Battle of Ar-jash-arsh-ra made the place appear more crowded.
Harry went to the loo for a quick shower, musing on the dream. He tended to dream about whatever was stressing him most at the moment; when he’d been assigned to guard the Lestrange vault, his nightmares were full of the moments when it seemed as if they’d never find the Hufflepuff cup. Now, he knew he was dreaming about the contract because of his fear that something would happen in the next day to nullify it, or change it so that he’d have to spend another year cooped up among the goblins.
Nothing will happen, he thought as he ran foamy fingers through his hair and grimaced at the grainy feeling of the water—pumped through stone, it seemed to retain a mineral texture when he used it—and then ducked his head to let the spray have its turn at the shampoo. I’ve been so careful so far. Why would I be less careful at the last moment, when I finally have a chance to go free?
It was true that the books he’d read about the painting didn’t reassure him much, he thought as he stepped out of the shower and reached for a towel. The room was so small, and so caged-in with all the stone, that Harry had enchanted the wall immediately in front of him to a mirror-like sheen. He moved carefully, to avoid bumping his elbows or knees, as he dried himself.
The painting had been stolen so often that there were rumors it actually moved itself about, rather like the Sword of Gryffindor—but The Battle of Ar-jash-arsh-ra had no particular affinity for any one kind of person, from what Harry had read. It went wherever it was most desired. One page had shown a replica of it. It was an impressively ugly painting, with a wild sweep of grays and purples and browns and muddy reds in the best goblin tradition. It didn’t show the flailing and dying wizards and goblins so much as it showed the artist’s impression of their pain. The division between sky and land was barely clear, or else the replica Harry had looked at was bad.
Harry didn’t think anyone would have bothered about it if not for its immense age—over a thousand years old, surviving thanks to multiple preservation charms—and the fact that some of the paints were mixed with chimera and manticore blood.
Of course, I’m not an art critic, he thought, as he made his way out to his meager dinner of lightly toasted bread, gray cheese, and heavy goblin ale, sitting on a precariously balanced tray next to the books. Some goblin magic landed the meals in Harry’s room overnight or while he was bathing, and nobody Harry knew at Gringotts would explain how.
Probably something embarrassing, like goblin-sized rats running it up in their mouths, he thought, and then managed to sit down and enjoy the dinner anyway, while he did his best to absorb a book that would have made Hermione tired.
It really was quite the most disturbing picture Draco had ever seen.
But that didn’t matter, because it belonged to wizards, not goblins. Draco knew the Twyllers only by reputation. That didn’t matter, either. They were pure-bloods, and whatever means had been used to make them give up this painting, Draco was sure they had been nothing less than coercive.
The gilt frame carved with swords and wands was the most eye-catching thing about the painting at first. Then one realized that the image was full of dying figures—people being stabbed, cursed, hexed, and trampled by the elephant-like beasts the goblins were riding—and human eyes didn’t know where to go first.
An enormous swirl of blood-purple occupied the center of the painting, and splashed out to dim the impressions of other struggling wizards. Draco didn’t understand the point of that. A goblin might.
It didn’t matter. Wizards had stolen it long enough ago that might should have made right and the painting should have stayed with the Twyllers. But back The Battle of Ar-jash-arsh-ra would go to the deepest Gringotts vault, and Draco supposed it might stay there this time. The bank had installed new security spells that made the ones it had used before look pitiful, from the rumors Draco had heard.
He tapped the bottlecap, a modified Portkey, that would get him past the wards around the painting and give him complete control of it. A wobble, and it rose into the air, floated over the restored Fountain of the Magical Brethren, and then settled in front of him. Draco nodded and turned away.
A cloaked figure stood in front of him. Draco clenched his hands together behind his back, around his wand. If someone interfered with his mission at this point, it was likely that he would never gain the respect of anyone in the Department. “Who are you?” he asked, and shuffled his body in between the stranger and the painting when the wizard responded by staring past his shoulder.
The man—Draco thought it was a man from the lines of the body—snapped himself free as from a trance and looked back at Draco. “Beware, young master,” he whispered, and leaned close. His breath smelled of rotting meat and made Draco nauseated. “That painting has the ability to take itself away from where it’s not wanted or desired to a place that it is wanted or desired.”
Draco stiffened, but managed to produce a smile. “Well, the goblins want it, so it’s going to them,” he said aloud, while in his head he critiqued the implied threat. Not quite as impressive as Knossos’s hints about what my mother’s fate should have been, but more impressive than Weasley’s attempt to trip me down the stairs. I give it three Galleons and nine Sickles.
“Not as badly as other people want it,” the cloaked wizard said, and shuffled closer. “What can they know of the blood shed at the real battle of Ar-jash-arsh-ra, the sacrifices wizards made to have their history and the truth preserved? Nothing. And yet you take it to them, as if you did not care about history yourself.”
Draco raised an eyebrow and made a subtle gesture towards his own white-blond hair in answer, which everyone who was worth knowing would realize was an emblem of the Malfoys. Let this old man look to his own deficiencies before he accuses me of not caring about history.
“Traitor,” the wizard said, and his tongue flickered out like a worm from the mouth of a corpse. “I name you traitor to your own kind, and the more likely to die horribly because of it.”
A bit more impressive. A four-Galleon threat, that. Draco showed another thin smirk. “Tell me who stood by my family,” he said, barely moving his lips. “Tell me where the Twyllers were when the Malfoys and the Lestranges and other families were stripped of their monies and their pride to become martyrs to the war reparations, if you care so much about pure-blood history.”
The wizard hissed, as though Draco had said something forbidden. “This is larger than a single family,” he said. “This is about the history of all pure-blood wizarding kind. Have you looked at this picture, Draco Malfoy? Do you know what it depicts?”
Draco felt a brief tug of curiosity, an emotion he’d usually had to surpass outside his cases since he came to the Ministry. If he listened too closely to everyone around him, after all, he was only likely to find them insulting or laughing or sneering at him. He lifted his head and lifted his eyebrows with it, then said, “I know that it depicts a goblin rebellion,” and stepped past the wizard.
“More than that!” the man shouted after him, his voice cracking. “More than that! It shows something that you would have to travel miles and years and abysses of the soul to see otherwise, the truth of where pure-bloods came from, the real source of the division between our kind and the Muggleborns! If the secret of this painting were ever to be unleashed, it would cause chaos in the wizarding world! That is why they want you to take it away to an underground vault where no one will ever see it again, because without it, we have less proof of our grand position!”
Draco bit his lips, and didn’t turn around. The old man was probably crazy, and Draco had been warned that the Twyllers could try to seize the painting. Besides, he didn’t see what this had to do with him. He’d chosen his side, and it happened to be the side with Muggleborns on it.
He secured the spells that would tie the painting to him for the Apparition to Gringotts—it was too big to simply carry in a Side-Along—and then passed beyond the Ministry’s wards and vanished.
Harry concealed a yawn behind his hand as he stood at the bank’s entrance, well back from the stairs so that the goblins couldn’t claim he’d violated his contract by stepping outside. He’d been awake since six, when he’d had to rise, eat, and shower in ten minutes, all so that he could accompany another urgent visitor down to a vault three hours beneath the earth. Luckily the return journey had gone faster, or he wouldn’t have been in place to greet the Auror escorting the picture, who was supposed to arrive at noon.
He saw a flash as someone Apparated onto a large circle of white stone in front of the bank, and straightened. There could be no mistaking the huge gilt frame that floated there, or the figure moving towards Gringotts with a swift stride in front of it.
Harry hissed under his breath, feeling his lungs billow with his outrage. Malfoy! Of all the Aurors in the Department, they had to send Malfoy here to sneer at me and revel in my humiliation—
And then Harry calmed himself. He remembered constant subtle humiliations from the goblins. They had requested that he use his wand as little as possible to avoid making their clients “nervous.” They had a habit of cutting into Ron and Hermione’s hour-long visits and making it clear that they were no longer welcome. They sneered at him and dared him to attack them or complain too loudly about his treatment, which would have resulted in another year added on to the contract.
Compared to that, what was Malfoy’s probable reaction to the sight of him here?
Nothing, that was what.
Harry nodded to Malfoy while the man mounted the steps that led up to the bank. “Welcome to Gringotts,” he said, his voice as cool and featureless as the stone pillar he stood in front of. “My name is Harry Potter, and I’ve been detailed by bank security to help you protect this painting. Do you know the number of the vault you will be visiting today?”
“I know who you are, Potter,” Malfoy said, with a sneer that almost warmed Harry’s blood, just because it was so familiar. “Forgive me if the shock of being near you again has temporarily driven the number from my head.”
Harry’s lips twitched. Malfoy’s words could be taken in a different way. Ordinarily, Harry would have let the chance slip past in silence, because he wasn’t to offend visitors, but this was no ordinary visitor and no ordinary occasion.
“Why, Malfoy,” he said, and dropped his voice, “that’s nothing to be ashamed of. I know I’m rather striking. I would be more concerned about the effect on you, since you’ve apparently joined the legions of my adoring fans. That must be disconcerting.”
He turned away before Malfoy could come up with a retort. “It’s Vault 1000, as it happens. Now, pass partial control of the wards on the painting to me, or we won’t be able to bypass the Gringotts security spells.”
Draco stared at Potter’s back. He was caught off-guard—not, he reassured himself, because Potter’s retort was worth that many Galleons, but because he hadn’t expected Potter to flirt with him. Ever. Despite the news of his orientation having reached the public ear during his time at Hogwarts. Despite the fact that Draco’s preferences tended the same way.
Draco had carved himself out a place in the new world, but in any world, new or old, Potters did not flirt with Malfoys. That simply was not on.
Which meant that Potter was playing some other game, and Draco was probably lucky he had endured a relatively mild round first.
He set his teeth and followed Potter into the bank, while making his voice as calm and sweet as possible. “I’m sorry. Since I’m the Auror of record on the case, I must maintain full control of the painting until I am inside Vault 1000. Of course I’ll be happy to join you in repelling spells as we might need to.”
Potter gave him an amused glance. Closer to him, Draco recognized the sharpness of his expression, the weathered cast to his face. He had endured his own round of humiliation inside the bank, it seemed, and adapted to it even as Draco had adapted to his own trying circumstances.
In short, he looked more Slytherin than he had ever done before, and thus also more handsome.
Draco gave a tiny shake of his head. What he was thinking? Nonverbally, he recited the incantation that would cancel the Confundus Charm. Either Potter had cast it on him, or someone had done it before Draco left the Ministry, in the hopes of making him fail this mission.
Draco tightened his lips. He wasn’t about to fail this, or allow someone else to make him fail it. He was in control of his actions and his sensations and his emotions. He was master of himself.
“Then I’m afraid that we’ll stand here in the middle of Gringotts until you change your mind,” Potter said, the flick of his head indicating the cavernous room filled with tellers and chattering wizards come to deposit or remove money. “You have no idea what the security spells are like, Malfoy. You have no authority to bypass them. I do.”
“Because of your slavery here.”
“Some of us call it slavery, and some call it indentured servitude. Or honorary goblin-hood, though they hate that.” Potter gave him a slashing grin. “So, Malfoy. What’s it to be? Public embarrassment, or private?”
Draco was uncomfortably aware of stares already coming their way. Some of them were from goblins, and a reverent murmur was rising. If they edged forwards to look at the painting, or demanded the chance to do so, then Draco could imagine how long they might be here.
He would rather face Potter’s disturbing smile and hardened face and perverse flirting than hours of forced politeness—because of course he couldn’t disparage goblins or refuse them the right to look at a goblin treasure on their home ground.
He spoke the necessary incantation that would give Potter a share in the control of the painting. When he did, he briefly brushed against Potter’s magical core; it was a part of the process that made sure the wizard who received the spells was strong enough to bear the burden.
Draco stared, fascinated. Most magical cores showed as a faint blaze, like watching a setting sun in the distance. Potter’s was like standing next to a dragon’s mouth. A shimmer of attraction ran down Draco’s spine, and he was happy to let it.
Potter could likewise feel him. He was staring with wide eyes. Draco smirked at him, loving the expression.
“Are you sure that you don’t want to join the legion of my adoring fans?” he asked, in that soft voice that he knew made some of the other Aurors lean towards him to hear better, in spite of the barriers that disgust and his name put between them. “It’s not as large as yours, but for that very reason, the benefits are spectacular.”
He didn’t know which reaction he wanted to see more: Potter’s jerk away from him or the expression of involuntary intrigue on his face.
He did not expect to see a wide smile.
“It’s too bad that you weren’t around this past year,” Potter murmured, as the transfer completed and the connection between their magical cores cut off. “I would have enjoyed your company in more ways than one.” He pivoted to face the far corner of the room. “This way. We have to take a specially modified lift part of the way down before we can fit this thing in a cart.” A wave of his wand, and The Battle of Ar-jash-arsh-ra bobbed after him.
Draco followed, blinking, and unexpectedly wondering how long it would be before Potter’s contract at Gringotts was up.
A year apart had done them good, and a year among the goblins had taught him something. Draco liked the sarcasm. He wondered what else there might be to like, and didn’t scold himself for the way his eyes lingered on Potter’s backside, moving efficiently and temptingly under the robes.
He still postures, but now he does it in more entertaining ways.
Harry didn’t like the feeling of the painting tugging at the spells around him. He didn’t like having it at his back.
Or, maybe more precisely, he didn’t like having Malfoy at his back.
The insults seemed mild compared to those he had hurled at school, however. Or maybe they were simply mild compared to the gibes that the goblins had offered Harry. He rolled a shoulder. He wouldn’t figure it out by thinking about it. He had accepted that he figured out very little by thinking about it. He had to do something, and then see what the reaction would be.
He darted a glance at Malfoy as they arrived at the doors to the lift and Harry tapped his wand on them. The message that combined information about his magical core and his wand had to travel down to the deepest levels and then back up; the note on his table that morning had said so, anyway. They had several minutes before the doors, which were made of steel and three times Harry’s height, would open to admit them.
He might as well talk to Malfoy and try to soothe his curiosity.
Before he could, however, Malfoy asked, “Why are there no goblins coming with us on our way to Vault 1000?”
Not exactly the tone of the conversation I hoped to set. Oh, well. Harry let his lips twist as he answered. “This is a final test of me. My contract ends at midnight tonight. There are a few goblins—especially Griphook, the first one I tricked during the war—who would like to see me break it so that I’ll be condemned to another year of service. If this painting doesn’t arrive at its vault on time, that would count.”
“They’d rather risk losing this ugly thing than helping you?” Surprise flecked Malfoy’s voice.
Harry dared a little chuckle. It seemed that he and Malfoy had similar tastes in art. “There are goblins beside the vaults, since they’re the only ones who can actually control the carts. And I’m sure they would take it on themselves to make other arrangements if they thought there was a danger of the thing vanishing.” He jerked his head at the gilt frame, glad he wasn’t facing it. “But—Malfoy, I broke into Gringotts. The goblins take that seriously enough that they wanted to execute me. Minister Shacklebolt wouldn’t allow that. But they can make my life here as difficult as possible. And they have.”
“You don’t look tortured to me, Potter.”
“So nice of you to notice,” Harry said, flirting again as he’d wanted to, and noticed an answering flicker in those gray eyes. He grinned and faced the lift doors as they cracked open. “Anyway, it isn’t like that. They’ve settled for tormenting me subtly instead, in hopes that I’ll do something rash and stupid and break my contract. I haven’t so far. This is their last chance.”
“Suddenly I feel less comfortable descending to the vaults with you,” Malfoy muttered, even as he helped Harry guide the painting into the lift. Harry caught a glimpse of the colors that dominated it as it floated past, and wrinkled his nose. Suddenly the constant gray and white and black of the bank’s stone and metal looked good. Goblins seemed to go for monumental and imposing or violently clashing, with no happy medium. “How do you know they won’t attack me even as they try to get to you?”
“I don’t know that, actually,” said Harry, and made sure the edge of the canvas wasn’t clipping the doors. They slid smoothly shut, with the faint acidic tingle and smell of vinegar that Harry knew marked goblin magic, and the lift lurched and started to fall with a creaking of chains. Harry leaned on the metal wall and tried to look as if he did this every day. In reality, the speed of their descent made his stomach jump and nearly shed the bread and cheese he’d choked down that morning. “Except that I think your status with the Ministry protects you. They probably don’t want to pay the fine that would result if they killed you.”
“I see that you’re just a master of comfort, Potter,” Malfoy said, and sneered. The sneer was a work of art. Harry had to admire it. It was designed to give the impression that Malfoy’s contempt was as weak as a schoolboy’s and that he was really in awe of the person he was sneering at, and conceal the workings of its owner’s intelligence and malice. Harry recognized it because he had practiced constantly in front of the mirror, trying to attain that perfect balance so he could silently insult the clients who thought it hilarious that Harry Potter was working at Gringotts for lodgings and food but no pay.
“Enough people have said that to me that I believe it to be true, despite this one exception,” said Harry, and stretched, because Justin Finch-Fletchley had once told him that he had nice arms. He was amused to see that Malfoy’s eyes followed the movement before he snatched them away.
Draco was currently experiencing a sense of keen regret that this Potter hadn’t been around when they were still in school. He wasn’t quite as confident as he was pretending—the way he watched Draco from the corner of his eye instead of just trusting to his charms said that—but he was close to it. And Draco could admit the effects of those charms.
And this is the last day of his contract, he said.
Draco braced one shoulder on the lift wall, so that he would be ready if they suddenly met the ground, and replied, “I haven’t received any complaints either, though my partners prioritize other things than—comfort.”
“How interesting!” Potter said, with a chirpy tone that would have made Draco frown if he’d heard it in the Ministry. But this time, the falseness made it more endearing, because Potter wasn’t trying to hide how false it was. He cocked his head at Draco and fluttered his eyelashes, then broke into a derisive grin Draco knew was aimed at himself. “That’s exactly what I tend to prioritize!”
“Hm,” Draco said. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d enjoyed himself this much when interacting with another person, as opposed to composing sarcastic comments in his head. “And I don’t suppose you’d also be—gay, would you?”
“However did you know?” And then Potter dropped the chirpy tone and started laughing.
Draco wasn’t quite ready to go that far yet, but he could wear a faint smile when he watched Potter. Why not pursue this when he emerged from Gringotts? Draco might finally have the respect of his Ministry colleagues now that he’d completed this mission Kingsley said was so important. And Potter would need someone to inform him of the year of Ministry gossip he’d missed and what the alliances were like in the Auror Department. Who was sleeping with whom, for example, and who hated whom.
He could do worse for a guide than Draco. And Draco could do considerably worse for a reputation booster than acting as Harry Potter’s protector. Just for a little while. Just until he found his feet. He wouldn’t want to overstay his welcome.
He hadn’t expected to gain this much from his venture into Gringotts. Draco was pleased.
Abruptly, with a jolt that made Draco shiver and open his mouth quickly to avoid biting his tongue, they landed. Potter aimed his wand at the doors and muttered something under his breath. They opened to a shimmering blaze of torches and more eerie lights, which Draco assumed came from wards.
Potter stiffened, though, and didn’t move. Draco sighed and tugged on the spells that tied him to the painting.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. If Potter’s sarcasm had sharpened while he spent time among the goblins, his caution also seemed to have increased. Draco reconsidered his evaluation of the other man. He wouldn’t want to spend time with someone so committed to considering his every move that he couldn’t take a gamble.
“There should have been goblins waiting here,” Potter said tightly. “They’re the only ones who can control the carts we need to get further down. We’re on the level of Vault 870 now, but—“
And then a roar echoed down what Draco, peering over Potter’s shoulder, could see was an unworked stone cave, and something with a human head and far too many limbs jumped straight at them.
Harry recognized the manticore at once, mostly because they were also part of the security force used at Gringotts and he’d fought beside them. But from the way this one snarled and leaped ahead, lion paws lifted and scorpion tail curling down over the back, no goblins were controlling it, and it was more interested in eating them than escorting them to their destination.
And it was aiming at the painting. Or them. But mostly the painting, Harry thought, even as he drew his wand and used one of the few spells he knew to be effective against manticores.
A glinting shield of clear light formed between the painting and the manticore. It slammed its enormous human forehead into the light and collapsed to the floor, momentarily stunned. But the tail was moving independently about, stabbing down towards Malfoy.
Harry waved his wand. Manticores were so well-defended in the body against charms that he didn’t dare just hex the tail. And Malfoy either didn’t know the right spells or was too occupied with his dodging to concentrate.
“Accio manticore venom!”
The stinger on the end of the tail quivered and then tore away, carrying two bulging sacs of venom straight towards Harry. He raised his hand and whipped his wand in a circle, concentrating on the incantation he wanted to use; it was one of the small group of spells which was more effectively used nonverbally than when spoken aloud.
The sacs tore open, and the venom flowed out, dividing into two smaller streams, then four, then sixteen, then thirty-two, as each stream halved itself and halved itself again. The Dissolving Curse was meant to disperse the poison into such small droplets that it wouldn’t be harmful when it made contact with stone or metal or human skin.
Harry whipped back to face the manticore, knowing that it would have recovered from its collision with his shield by now. He was in time to see Malfoy flicking his wand through a fourfold compass rose pattern Harry knew well, while the manticore growled and struggled to climb to its feet in the crowded lift.
“No!” he shouted.
Malfoy twitched and made the wrong motion, ending the spell, then rolled under a lashing paw with a Seeker’s grace. The manticore’s bellow a moment later drowned most of his words, but Harry could make out, “—have to kill it, Potter!”
“No!” Harry repeated, and then sprang back, nearly colliding with the gilt frame of the painting, as the manticore’s teeth snapped at him. They were ordinary human teeth for the most part, but in a head three times the size of his, they could still do damage. “If another member of the Gringotts security force dies on my watch, I’ll be stuck here for another year!”
“Gringotts security force?” Malfoy repeated, and Harry could hear his eyebrows rising. He didn’t care, though. He had another idea in mind. He tugged hard on the spells that bound him to the painting, as the manticore staggered, trying to recover from the strikes it had made in several different directions. Malfoy staggered in turn, and scowled at him.
“Out, now!” Harry called.
Thank God, Malfoy either read his mind or had a share of the good sense that Harry wouldn’t have attributed to him, and knew what he meant without further explanation. The manticore was hammering its head against the clear shield, and cracks seamed the light. It would break through in a moment.
Malfoy lifted his arm, and the painting rose like a leaping gazelle with it, clearing the shield and catching up with Harry. Together, they ran out of the lift, The Battle of Ar-jash-arsh-ra safely between them, and then Harry turned around and hit the lift doors as hard as he could with his wand.
Once recognized, the message about his wand and his magical core did not have to be confirmed again. Even as the manticore scrambled to its feet, the lift doors shut on it, and the enormous cage rose. Harry could hear it scratching and yowling as it went, but goblin spells were worked into the stone and metal of the lift. Good luck getting out again, you bastard, he thought, with a victorious grin.
“Won’t it attack the people in the main room of the bank?” Malfoy asked, sounding out of breath.
Harry turned around again, and paused. He had to admit that Malfoy looked damn attractive with that flush in his cheeks and with his perfect hair mussed just a little, falling in ragged strands down his shoulders. He let his appreciative gaze linger until Malfoy flushed more deeply and turned pointedly away.
“No,” Harry said then. “Goblins can control it, and it’ll be around hundreds of them up there.” He turned to look down the tunnel that he knew led to Vault 1000, his glee fading. “I’m more concerned with why our escort wasn’t waiting for us.”
“Someone ambushed them?” Malfoy asked quietly, staring into the bowels of the bank. “Or someone’s decided that they’d rather have you break your contract even more than they want the painting back?”
“Or someone’s decided against having the painting reach its vault at all,” Harry said. “The manticore was trying to tear the canvas, not us. Or, at least,” he added, when Malfoy spared him a disbelieving glance, “we were only a bonus. It had been commanded to destroy the painting, I think.”
Malfoy’s mouth tightened. Then he nodded once. “I’ve run into such interference a time or two,” he said. “From people who didn’t really care what happened to the public image of the Ministry, as long as mine was ruined.”
“Did you let them get away with it?” Harry asked, genuinely interested. Ron and Hermione didn’t usually mention Malfoy except as footnotes in their visits. He had very little idea what else the man had done besides enter the Auror program.
Malfoy tossed his hair over his shoulder. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”
Harry bared his teeth. “Then why should we let them get away with this? We’ve still got a painting to transport to its vault, don’t we? Lumos.” His wand glowed, and he aimed it further down the tunnel. “Let’s go.”
Draco swallowed. It was one thing to defend himself in the Ministry, on ground he understood, and another thing to venture down under Gringotts among dangers he couldn’t even name, with only Potter at his side.
On the other hand…
It would be letting them win if he didn’t deliver the painting to its rightful place by midnight tonight, Draco told himself; that information had been in the files Kingsley gave him. And this mission was important for numerous political reasons, not least of which was the public sign that the wizarding Ministry was willing to consider goblin claims on historic art treasures as being worth something. Draco had to complete it. He would win renown if he did, but condemnation if he didn’t.
“Let’s go,” he repeated, and stepped forwards.
Potter flashed him a swift grin, not exactly friendly, but—companionable. That might be the best word Draco could find for both the showing of his teeth and the dark edge that underlay it. Then he led the way, his wand held out before him, the tunnel falling away before them like a black cascade.
Draco wondered at first if they would need the wand, since so many torches and light spells clustered around the lift, but he discovered quickly that those were left behind. He lit his own wand, then stopped and conjured a lantern. He noticed that Potter watched him enviously, but made no move to imitate him.
“Don’t know the spell?” he asked. He kept seventy-five percent of the taunt out of his tone, which was reasonable.
Potter shook his head. “I’m supposed to avoid using as much magic as possible under Gringotts. The goblins claim it makes their clients nervous.” He snorted. “I think it’s wand-envy. But I used more than enough spells defending the painting from the manticore. I can excuse that in the name of duty, but not the nonessential things, especially when I have a wizard traveling along with me.” He shrugged and turned to look ahead.
Draco nodded and did the same thing. No sign of the tracks that traditionally guided the carts down to the deeper vaults appeared. The dark gray stone on either side of them remained unworked, seamed with spots and cracks that seemed to be the product of natural formations. Draco shoved away the thought that the stone might give along those cracks and fall on them. Potter looked untroubled by such thoughts, and Draco was not going to be the weaker one.
“Do we know this is the way to Vault 1000?” he asked, when they’d marched on the downward slope in silence for some time. “After all, if we don’t have a cart to guide us there, how are we going to find it?”
Potter gave an enormous smirk, and then turned theatrically in a circle, making the painting rise so that he could see the tunnel behind them. He slid a hand into his cloak and removed a parchment, which he tapped with his wand. The words he whispered didn’t sound like an incantation, however. Curious, Draco crowded close.
Lines of ink were spreading across the parchment, snaking into small round spots and long trails, which in turn became perfectly detailed representations of vaults and cart tracks. Draco gasped in delight. It was a map of Gringotts, and on the upper levels it showed a confusion of human and goblin names, shifting in and out of each other—presumably as they moved—and vanishing when they left the bank. On the lower levels, theirs were the only human names. A few unpronounceable combinations of letters lingered down the tunnel. Draco tried not to think about the guardians they probably represented.
“Where did you get this?” he whispered.
“Made it,” Potter whispered back, seeming to appreciate the reverent tone Draco had taken. “Modeled it on a map my dad and his friends made of Hogwarts when they were young. It took a while to discover the proper spells and then how to cast them on the parchment, but it gave me something to do during those long hours when all I did otherwise was wait for goblins to fetch me.”
“If they knew you had this map—“
“Oh, they’d be upset, no doubt,” Potter said casually. “And I didn’t ever really intend to use it. Most of the time one was there to guide me, so why did I need to see where we were going? But now I think it’s time. Its only major limitation is that it can’t show any guardians or goblins inside the vaults themselves.” He stabbed a combination of letters that waited about two bends from the dots labeled “Draco Malfoy” and “Harry Potter.” “Do you know what that is?”
Draco squinted. The dominant letters in the mess were s and f and x. He bit his lip, thinking, and a scrap of old knowledge from a conversation with his father came back to him: wizards had named the creatures they created after the usual sounds they made.
He nodded. “Sphinx.”
Harry let out a long breath. “I’ve faced one before—“
“You have?” Draco cursed his voice for going high with surprise. Potter had been on the run for a year before he defeated the Dark Lord. He could have done anything during that time. He’d certainly made a production out of showing up at Malfoy Manor and breaking into Gringotts.
“During the Triwizard Tournament,” said Potter, apparently unconcerned with Draco’s display of weakness. “But its riddle was relatively simple. I hate to think of what puzzles a sphinx lying in front of a deep Gringotts vault—this one says 910—will make.” He glanced out of the corner of his eye at Draco. “How good are you at riddles?”
“Oh,” Draco said, thinking of the way he’d trained himself to think in knots to survive the Slytherin common room and the years around the Dark Lord and the Ministry since he became a poor wizard’s Auror, “relatively.”
And Potter gave him another dark companionable grin, and said, “Well, then what are we waiting for?”
With his better judgment, Draco smiled back.
They met the sphinx on the ledge closest to Vault 910, where the smooth slope suddenly dropped away into rough, choppy darkness. Harry froze with his wand held above his head, the light just showing the edge of a shaggy, off-gold coat. The painting bobbed behind him, and tugged at the strands of spells embedded in him. Malfoy had halted, then, for the artifact to be affecting him just this way. Harry made a little scoffing sound under his breath and looked back.
“Come on,” he said.
“It’s a sphinx, Potter.” Malfoy’s mouth was pinched tightly shut, and there was a spot of faint color in his cheeks. Harry blinked. He would have said that the git was afraid if he didn’t know him better. But he couldn’t be, could he? After all, he’d always been looking for opportunities to show off in school.
But we aren’t in school, and we haven’t been for a long time now.
Harry bit the inside of his cheek to calm himself, and then said gently, “She already knows we’re here, I think. We haven’t made any attempt to hide. And the sphinx I met in the maze during the Third Task was actually very polite—“
He broke off into a grin when he realized Malfoy was staring goggle-eyed at him. It was nice to know that some things hadn’t changed, and he could still surprise the prat.
“Come on,” he coaxed, and waited, his patient, hopeful gaze fixed on Malfoy, until the other man stepped forwards. Together, they made their way around the last corner and confronted the sphinx, who lay solidly across their path.
That struck a chord of wrongness with Harry, too. He couldn’t imagine that the sphinxes normally obstructed the area where anyone might walk. She should have been lying in front of Vault 910, or whichever other one merited the high security around here. She gave them an amiable nod, and then swished her tail, showing more clearly than a snarl would have that she was there to guard the path.
Someone wants us to fail, Harry thought as he gave a little bow of his head to hide his frown. Badly.
“Greetings, lady,” he said, because he reckoned it was smart to be as courteous as possible. “My name is Harry Potter, and this is Draco Malfoy. We’d quite like to get by.”
“Oh, dear,” said the sphinx, and blinked at them. Her human head was framed by dark hair, and she looked a little like a mixture of Ginny and Hermione in the face. Harry told himself not to be ridiculous, or distracted by that. “Then I’m afraid there’s a problem. I was told not to let you by under any circumstances, you see.”
“Unless?” Harry asked, cocking his head.
“Unless,” said the sphinx, her smile growing, “you can answer a riddle.”
“Either one of us?” Harry demanded, just to be sure. He wasn’t growing to rely on technicalities when his freedom—and, probably, a good portion of Malfoy’s standing in the Ministry—rode on their success.
“Yes.” The sphinx stretched, the muscles in her leonine flanks rippling, and sat up like an attentive cat at a mousehole. “It’s quite a good riddle, if I do say so myself. Of course, fail to answer it and I’ll rip out your throat. But I do it quickly. I’m told it hurts very little,” she added, as if anxious that they shouldn’t think her impolite.
“This is insane,” Malfoy muttered next to him.
“I’d rather not kill her,” Harry muttered back, then stepped out of the way. Malfoy made his way forwards, his gaze on the sphinx oddly intent. Harry didn’t think it was a way that he’d look at a human, even one trying to kill him.
The sphinx bowed her head, her eyes glowing brilliantly golden in the wake of their Lumos charms. Then she began to recite the riddle. Harry told himself it was his imagination that each syllable was flecked with blood and spit and sweat and stone dust.
“Each of these by what comes first.
List them all, or I do my worst.
First is what comes of breaking the unbreakable oath.
Second is the bird that flies for Thoth.
Third is how long you’re bound by that vow.
Fourth is what I will never give you now.
Fifth is what makes of its pain its pearl.
Sixth is when you will be able to change the world.
Seventh is the creature hardest to tame.
Eighth is what you feel when you end the game.
Eight in a row—come, tell me each,
And as the final reward for what I have to teach,
Tell me what they spell, the child of mud,
The stones that men love more than their blood.”
The sphinx folded her paws beneath her when she was done and lay down, blinking now and then. Once she raised her paw to her mouth and licked her claws contemplatively; they shone when she laid them on the floor again.
Harry had no idea what the answer to the riddle could be, but that was all the more reason to keep quiet and let Malfoy work on it. He darted little glances at the other wizard—he couldn’t help it—but he did stay silent, and looked at his hands instead of him whenever possible.
Draco relaxed his breathing, and frowned slightly.
Each of these by what comes first…
Well, that was easy enough. He had to name the eight things, and the first letter of each would combine to spell out another word, the ninth answer, the “stones that men love more than their blood.”
And he knew some of the answers immediately. Death came of breaking an Unbreakable Vow—his mind seethed with bitterness for a moment, as he remembered the year when those vows had controlled his life—and the ibis was the symbol of the god Thoth, a connection that Egyptian Muggles had lifted from wizard mythology. The fifth word must be oyster, and the seventh dragon.
D, I,..O,. D, .
And that meant the answer must be “diamonds,” of course. But he still had to find answers to the other four parts of the riddle.
He had already shut his eyes, but he closed them more tightly now, and reeled into the complicated darkness of his own imagination. He made himself forget that his own life and Potter’s hung on the answer, and his career, and Potter’s freedom. He made himself consider this in light of the puzzle games that his father had given him as a young child, which were meant to train his mental muscles for the future. If he failed one of them, no worse consequence would come about than knowing that he’d have to work the same puzzle tomorrow.
Third is how long you’re bound by that vow—must begin with A. A measure of time.
Draco fought not to let a smile cross his lips. The other answers might not be so easy.
As it happens, though, I know the sixth one. A measure of time. Must begin with N. When will I have the power to change the world?
And the other two? his imagination asked in the voice of his father.
Deeper and deeper, Draco went, drawing on all his mental power, rejecting answers out of hand that began with the right letters but were obviously wrong. What did murder have to do with the fourth word, even though it began with M? The sphinx would be more than happy to kill them, and the fourth word had to be something she would never give them—
And the eighth, Draco? his mother asked, demanded, whispered, in the tone that she had used when he told her of the Dark Lord’s choosing him to complete the task of killing Dumbledore in his sixth year.
An emotion. What you feel when you end a game. Must begin with S.
Draco’s eyes opened.
“Death, ibis, always, mercy, oyster, never, dragon, satisfaction,” he said. “Those are the eight. And the stones that men love more than their blood are diamonds.”
For a moment, the light in the sphinx’s eyes dimmed. And then she sat up and drew back with a wry, familiar smile. It was the way his mother looked when Draco beat her at a chess game, which happened rarely enough to be a great event. Always, she looked this way because she thought she ought to have seen the gambit he employed against her and countered it.
“True enough,” she said. “You may pass. I shall have to devise another riddle—a harder one, the next time.”
Draco took a few steps forwards before he thought to turn and see what Potter’s face looked like.
It was shining, and the admiration in it was so fervent that Draco found himself arching his neck, showing off his own assets, his profile and the slant of his shoulders. He could be confident, when it was warranted. He sent Potter a look that was its own kind of flirting, and promised a great reward when they got out of here.
At least as good as his mother’s hot chocolate when he beat her at chess, Draco thought contentedly.
He had never had anyone believe in him like that whose name wasn’t also Malfoy.
It made a difference.
Harry studied the map doubtfully. They had passed Vault 990, and he knew they must be close to 1000. But the disturbing thing was that the map showed no monsters ahead.
And yet, he couldn’t believe that the goblins would have left the closest approach to this vault undefended. Even if Vault 1000 was empty and waiting for the picture, they would have wanted to protect whatever the others immediately around it sheltered.
Harry started. Malfoy’s voice was closer at his back than he had realized; the last thing he knew, his fellow Auror was on the other side of the tunnel, examining the carvings that spelled out the less arcane curses due to fall on trespassers. “Yes,” he said, and shoved the map back in his pocket. “There’s no visible threat there. I think we’ll just have to chance it.”
“Not comforting,” Malfoy said almost into his ear. The breath and warmth close by made the hairs on the nape of Harry’s neck rise pleasantly.
“No,” he agreed, and lifted his wand higher. “But I’m afraid that I don’t prioritize comfort, Malfoy, as I already told you.”
He started to step forwards, but a hand on his shoulder caught him. He looked back in curiosity. Malfoy cleared his throat, staring straight at him.
“Do you think,” he asked, “that when we get out of here—“
“If we survive,” Harry felt compelled to point out.
“Well, yes,” Malfoy muttered, looking annoyed. “If we survive, would you—“ He broke off and shook his head.
“Yes,” said Harry, taking pity on him. He knew how hard the words were to say. Every boy he’d tried to ask out during his disastrous seventh year at Hogwarts had forced him to say the words, just so that they could turn him down flat or brag that they’d had the honor of the Savior wanting to date them. Harry would prefer to avoid any scene like that with Malfoy, for both their sakes.
Malfoy gave him a half-smile that made him look much handsomer than any amount of sneers or smirks, fascinating as those were. “Really?” he breathed.
“Yes,” Harry said again, and squeezed his arm briefly before he moved forwards. Malfoy was beside him in instants, so that the spells connecting them to the painting wouldn’t lag and force them to walk too heavily. Harry felt a private thrill of pleasure that they could move so well next to each other.
They passed Vault 991, and 992. Harry peered ahead, expecting a dragon at any moment, or some other monster that just happened to be invisible because it was hiding in a vault.
Nothing, and nothing, and nothing.
And then he halted, staring. The door of Vault 993 was open.
Inside, he could see the glitter of piles of Galleons and Sickles, but even as he watched, his perception of the silver shifted, and he realized he was looking at figurines and cups and necklaces, and shining steel swords with rubies in the hilts, and a Time-Turner with a delicate chain. More and more treasures appeared, multiplying as a shadow in the vault seemed to withdraw, revealing them.
Harry licked his lips and fought off a sense of rising nausea. This was magic, he knew it. But he wasn’t sure why the goblins would want to show a passer-by what lay in the vaults, even if wards defended them. The wizarding families who sheltered their monies down here wouldn’t appreciate the goblins infecting other families with desire—
This, Harry was almost certain, was the result of the spells he had heard about, the ones designed to destroy a thief if he experienced the least spark of covetousness.
“Keep your eyes straight ahead,” he said tightly, clenching one hand around the back of Malfoy’s neck. “Don’t look at what’s in the vaults if you can help it.” Even as he spoke, though, he found that his eyes were being drawn irresistibly to Vault 994, which was full of glittering glass vials that looked as if they contained potions. “And if you have to look, don’t want.”
“You’re not making any sense, Potter.” Malfoy’s voice was strained and hoarse. Harry looked at him and saw that his eyes were wide as with fever.
“I am,” Harry said grimly. “These are spells, designed to lure you into the vaults by showing you treasures you desire. Keep walking.” He steered his own body and Malfoy’s forwards at the same time, though it felt like manipulating a pair of puppets. Longing prickled at him with salamander claws, even though he wasn’t someone who would want potions just because. Malfoy might be, though. He clung to sanity against the pull to step sideways, because Malfoy would need him.
Malfoy’s breath was coming in huge, hoarse gulps of air. They were opposite Vault 995. Harry looked out of the corner of his eye, and lost his own breath in surprise.
What looked like the entire Auror Department had gathered there, with Minster Shacklebolt at their head. Ron had his head humbly lowered, and Hermione was waving one hand, grinning madly, her soft gaze directed not at Harry but at Malfoy. Kingsley was nodding slowly, an expression of approval on his weary face.
This is what Malfoy wants most of all, Harry thought, even as the man tugged sharply away from him and towards the vault. The painting anchored them both for the critical moment it took Harry to wrap his arms around Malfoy. Respect from those people he chose to make his way among. He can’t get any from his parents’ world, since that world was destroyed with the Dark Lord. He’s been fighting to secure this for at least a year. Can he resist?
If he can’t, it’s up to me to resist for him.
“I know you’re stronger than this,” he whispered into Malfoy’s ear. “I know there are things you want more. Your own dignity. Your freedom. The ability to walk down the Ministry corridors and fool them all into thinking you don’t care. Come on, Draco.” His first name might work better than the last, which he would have heard sneered or drawled at him in contempt on every occasion. “Come on.”
Draco could hear a voice talking to him from an immense distance. He knew the voice spoke sense. There was no way that the entire Auror Department would turn out simply to congratulate him on a job well done—especially because the painting wasn’t in the vault yet, and so technically he hadn’t completed the mission.
But this was—
He wanted it so much.
He had chosen the winning side—by default, maybe, but he’d still chosen it. And then he’d labored to follow the Department’s every rule, and to show that he wasn’t just a poor wizard’s Auror, while people who didn’t have half the knowledge of defensive spells he did and never completed their paperwork on time were moved past him to the top of the ranks.
But now those people—
were standing with their eyes averted, unable to bear the sight of his shining glory. Draco felt a sneer wrinkle the edge of his lips. He only had to take a few steps forwards, and he would have everything he wanted.
He tried to take a step, and found arms around him, and a warm voice murmuring into his ear. He barely heard the words, but he found himself clinging to them when he did. This person, whoever it was, thought he had dignity and freedom, and more, that he deserved to have them, that he wouldn’t just have them when he managed to receive his assignments from the Head Auror like everyone else.
And then the voice said, “Come on, Draco,” and he knew it must be Harry Potter’s voice, because that was the way his voice had said Draco’s name in all the dreams Draco had had as a child, before he realized that it was impossible to have the friendship of the Boy-Who-Lived and that he would have to resign himself to not owning some things he wanted.
For one thing he wanted, he could forsake another. With an enormous effort of will, he forced himself to close his eyes and turn away from the waiting Auror Department. He breathed in the scent of sweat and spent magic and the flex of muscles instead. Potter clutched him closer in response, murmuring, “That’s it, that’s it,” until Draco thought he would go mad if he had to hear the words again and spoke to cut them off.
“How close was I to going into the vault, Potter?”
“Call me Harry,” the other man said, smoothing his hands up and down Draco’s spine. “It’s only fair. And you had your foot on the threshold before I stopped you. But the painting held you back, along with me.”
“Oh,” Draco whispered, and squeezed his arms around Potter—Harry—one more time before he stepped away again. Keeping his eyes from the temping glow of Vault 995, he fastened his gaze on Harry and asked, “Do you think I’ll see anything that pulls at me like that again? Or do you think I’ll have the chance to see you unmanned?”
“It wasn’t unmanning you,” Harry said, shaking his head. “Just—unnerving me.” Then he glanced down the corridor and closed his eyes.
“And from the sight of the door to Vault 996,” he muttered, “you might get your wish.”
Draco turned. Sunshine, the quiet, drowsy gold light of a summer’s day, streamed into the corridor ahead of him. He smelled fresh air, and flowers, and high grass radiant with the songs of insects.
He put his arms around Harry in preemptive caution, and they went forwards like a pair of men struggling against a heavy wind.
Harry could feel the breeze on his face. He could sense the warmth of the sunlight on his eyelids even when he turned his face away. The sun was shining right in front of him no matter where he turned.
What was the pressure of the arm around his ribs, compared to that?
His legs trembled and turned sideways no matter how hard he tried to keep them on the straight course. Malfoy—Draco—jerked and pulled him back towards him. The painting pulled, too. Harry panted. He reminded himself that he had only a few hours left in his contract, and then he could depart for good. Why should he risk breaking it for the sake of a sun that couldn’t be shining here in the darkness, anyway, under tons of stone and metal?
He could do this. He could. He wanted to complete the mission and fulfill his contract properly more than he wanted to go outside.
He felt the desire growing, yanking on his ribs, constricting his breath and the beat of his heart. He did the only thing he could think of, turned with a grunt to the left, and buried his face against Draco’s neck.
Draco went still with surprise. Then he lifted a hand that trembled—trembled? That was interesting, Harry thought with the part of him that was still sane—and stroked the back of his neck, working into his hair. Harry sighed, and concentrated on the idea that he might go on a date with Draco Malfoy.
If they got out of this alive.
And they wouldn’t if he ran into the vault in pursuit of the sunlight.
Carefully, they shuffled sideways, not looking up, until Harry felt the warmth and the lure of the open air fall behind him, and knew they must be at least opposite Vault 997, if not further down the corridor. He lifted his head and smiled a little, weakly, in Draco’s direction. He was so close it was hard to see the expression on his face, but Harry thought he knew what it must be.
“Thanks,” he said quietly.
“It’s what you did for me,” Draco said, and for a moment Harry thought he would kiss him. But that evidently waited for later, because he just hooked his arm through Harry’s and turned them up the corridor again.
Harry found nothing in the other vaults to tempt him; the spells on them evidently functioned to tap different desires in the brain. Vault 996 had probably contained a spell that stimulated the desire for freedom, and Vault 995 for respect. Vault 997 was full of cool darkness that Harry didn’t understand—perhaps a spell that drew on the death wish, which he no longer had—and Vault 998 of crawling things that he had no desire to understand.
Vault 999 made his mouth water. Two barely visible shapes were tumbling about on a bed in a hazy, red light, and the moans that wafted up from them were hard to hear, but that only meant Harry strained all the harder to hear them. If he walked close enough, he knew, one of the figures would wear his own face.
And the other—Draco’s? The limbs of the second figure were long and slim, and Harry thought he could see fine pale hair if he squinted—
“That looks nothing like me,” Draco said flatly, affronted. “And I certainly hope that you aren’t that ugly naked.”
Harry laughed, and the spell was broken. They walked past Vault 999 with some confidence, and turned the final corner to Vault 1000.
Vinharsh stood just inside the doors, waiting for them.
Draco didn’t know what was wrong. He only knew that Harry had gone still at the sight of the goblin, and that there was an ugly expression on his face. That meant there was something wrong.
Oh, good, he thought wryly as he took up a defensive stance next to Harry, braced so that he could move sideways or to cover his back in an instant. Since we had an easy enough time getting down here.
“What do you want, Vinharsh?” Harry asked calmly, his wand swinging at his side. Draco smothered a grin. It was quite an interesting stance, as though Harry had learned exactly how far he could motion with his wand before the goblins would remember that he could do magic and shriek that he was breaking his contract. “Why wasn’t there an escort waiting for us at the lift? And why are you standing in front of the vault that I have to open?”
“I’m afraid that you won’t be allowed to complete your task, Mr. Potter,” said the goblin, though he was wringing his hands as if he were uncomfortable. His eyes went to Draco. “Neither of you will be allowed to complete your tasks, in fact.”
Draco’s lips tightened. The files he’d received said that he had to put The Battle of Ar-jash-arsh-ra into Vault 1000 in order to complete the mission. If it didn’t get there, or if it was left outside, or if was destroyed on the way, he would be considered to have failed, and God knew what the Auror Department would do to him then, with the damn painting supposedly able to start a war.
From the look on Harry’s face, he had also been told that he had to put the painting into the vault in order to fulfill his contract. For just a moment, he closed his eyes as though someone had told him his best friend was dead.
And then his chin came up, and an expression of fierce stubbornness filled up his jaw and hollowed out his cheekbones. Draco approved. He did wonder if Harry would wear that expression when Draco insisted on paying for their dinner, the way Malfoys always did on the first date.
“I understand now,” Harry said, voice jagged. “I can’t kill you and go free, but you’re in the way. And Draco can’t kill you, or we’ll start a war with the goblins. And if the painting’s destroyed, then the goblins are able to request even more in the way of reparations from the wizarding world.”
Vinharsh nodded. The worried motions of his fingers grew stronger.
Harry closed his eyes and swallowed, once. To Draco, he seemed to be swallowing all of his frustrations. When he looked at the goblin again, he asked, “Why is someone trying to interfere with Draco’s mission? Why was he assigned to this? Why is it so important that he fail?”
Draco opened his mouth to tell Harry that his failure was quite as important to some members of the Wizengamot as other Aurors’ successes, but the goblin was already answering, his voice eager, as if he thought the answer to his question would give them all a way out somehow. Draco shut his mouth and listened closely.
“They gave this mission to the most untrustworthy Auror they have. No one will be surprised when he fails, and there is even a perfect excuse in the knowledge that he was given suddenly before he arrived, that the picture held the secret of the difference between pure-bloods and Muggleborns. Everyone knows the beliefs of the Malfoy family on the matter, and will accept easily that he held the painting back to study it and destroyed it in the process—“
“What’s in the vault?” Harry interrupted quietly.
Vinharsh smiled as if this had been the question he was waiting for, and removed a pendant of stone that hung on a chain from his neck. Draco squinted as the goblin turned and pressed it against yet another, interior vault door, but he couldn’t make out the symbol on the pendant or what the chain it hung from was made of, though he thought it might be platinum.
The interior door flared once, and then simply vanished. Inside hung an enormous, familiar, and very ugly painting. Draco found himself gazing at The Battle of Ar-jash-arsh-ra.
“It’s a replica?” he murmured.
“No,” Harry said, and his voice was fierce. “I read about this. The books you gave me said the painting could move around, didn’t they? And that it would come to the call of those who most desired it? I can’t imagine anyone wanting this thing more than the goblins do. If a wizarding family really owned it, it would have vanished from their possession and come back to this vault.”
“Quite,” said the goblin, and gave them a faint smile. Even that was enough to make Draco wrinkle his nose at the amount of stained and yellow teeth it showed. “The painting the Twyller family owned for so many years really is a replica, made for them by an expert goblin painter.” He nodded at the canvas Draco had risked his life to protect, and which he was suddenly much more inclined to find ugly. “But now that it’s here, my people want to pretend to the outside world it was destroyed, and sell it back to them in secret. A way of making more money. Of making reparations for what should have been ours, and was stolen—even if this time the theft was not in reality.”
He fell silent, staring intently at Harry. Draco wondered if he could read the message in the goblin’s eyes. Draco doubted it.
But he could. It was the same look he had seen aimed at him for a year in the Ministry, and by teachers at Hogwarts—a desperate wish for a problem to go away, if only the person involved was smart enough to make it go away.
Draco’s colleagues and professors had wished for him to remove himself from their presences, or at least stop acting Slytherin. He had refused. This time, though, he thought he could give Vinharsh what he wanted.
He stepped forwards and cleared his throat. “If you don’t move out of the way immediately,” he said, “and allow us to complete the task of putting this painting in the vault, then I will immediately withdraw all Malfoy monies—such as are left to us—from Gringotts.”
Harry watched Vinharsh’s face change, and knew that, while this was along the lines of what the goblin wanted, it was not enough. The bank would suffer from a loss of prestige if one of their oldest clients walked away, but the gesture did not have the force it would have before the war. The Malfoy name was too diminished in power.
He swallowed. He had to do something, too. If only he knew what it was! He was horrible at reading silent messages like this.
“I suppose it is a start,” said Vinharsh, bowing his head. “But I’m afraid that my people would rather lose one vault than the reparations they’ve demanded in the past few years from the wizarding world. On account of Mr. Potter’s break-in, especially.” Again came the sidelong glance at Harry.
Harry understood, then.
He’d promised something to Griphook, two years ago. He had made an effort to trick the goblin, and paid the price for it, both at the moment and in the contract since. But there was no way to wash out the stain of the crime, or Griphook’s animosity—unless he managed to fulfill his true, original promise.
To make reparations.
He closed his eyes and held out his palms in front of him, wishing with all his heart. He wanted this for an unselfish purpose, he reassured himself. If he didn’t get it, there was every chance that another goblin rebellion would start. Or else Draco would charge ahead, because there was no way that he would let himself be used like this, and kill Vinharsh, and that would be even worse.
A heavy weight made his palms sag. Harry opened his eyes, and found himself gazing at the familiar gleam of the Sword of Gryffindor.
He smiled wryly, remembering the way Neville had summoned it to cut off Nagini’s head, and the legend Scrimgeour had confessed to him when he handed Dumbledore’s bequests to Harry. According to reliable historical sources, the Sword may present itself to any worthy Gryffindor. He hadn’t been sure that it would work without the Sorting Hat, but perhaps his need had been great enough—or perhaps it mattered that he had held the Sword of Gryffindor twice before, and that he had proved his courage in retrieving it the second time, and killing the basilisk with it the first time, and over and over again (he thought) in the times between and since then.
Or perhaps it was simply that no one else needed the Sword at the moment, and so it had come to the first worthy Gryffindor who called for it.
Harry didn’t plan to make a habit of calling for it. He held the Sword towards Vinharsh and asked, quietly, “Will this do?”
“The treasure that we first requested two years ago, and which was unfairly stolen from us, returned again of his own free will by the man who tried to trick us?” Vinharsh’s hands were reverent as he took the Sword. “Combined with the threat that we might lose one of our oldest clients—I think that even Griphook would rather have honest reparations than false ones. And it is not as though many pilgrims will come to look in this vault, as far beneath the surface as it is, and realize there are two paintings here—for the short time before we can sell the Twyllers’ replica back to them. Sometimes the wonder is more in the possession than in the looking.” He moved away from the vault door with a little bow.
Harry stepped inside. Draco followed him at once, and together they released the spells and hung the replica next to the real painting. Harry glanced at the first one doubtfully. He didn’t know how someone could tell the difference, or why anyone would want to look closely enough at the two pictures to do so. Perhaps the coloring was less violently ugly in one. Probably the replica. Harry couldn’t imagine that a wizarding family, no matter how eccentric, would really want the original hanging on their walls.
Then he remembered that they didn’t send their children to Hogwarts, and reconsidered his opinion of their sanity.
“A pleasure doing reparations with you, gentlemen,” Vinharsh murmured behind him. “I’ll take you back up by cart.”
Harry turned and stepped away from the vault.
He knew he wouldn’t be able to cross the threshold of the bank until midnight, but already he thought he could taste fresh air on his face.
Draco looked at Harry as they both walked out through the bank’s front doors and down the steps that led into Diagon Alley, together. Harry had said that he could go back to the Ministry and didn’t need to linger until midnight in order to see him go free, but Draco had said that he wanted to, and he did. And then he’d helped Harry to get his trunk and broom down the stairs from his goblin-assigned rooms, purely for the pleasure of laughing at the expression on the other man’s face when he did so.
Harry was standing with his face turned up to the full moon now. Though it wasn’t the sunlight that had flooded through the vault of his desire, Draco didn’t think he was enjoying it any less. The expression of peace on his face was indescribable.
It was that expression, or remembrance of the way Harry’s face could harden, or simple curiosity, that made him reach out, slip his hand beneath Harry’s jaw, and turn it towards him.
Harry was the one who actually opened his eyes and kissed him, though, and Draco was the one who let him. He could feel Harry’s tongue exploring his mouth with thoughtful care, but no shyness. Perhaps, in the bank, around goblins who might not be honest but were rarely less than blunt, he had lost any shyness he might have had.
And then Draco lost the thought, in turn, because really, when he was having a brilliant snog, there were much better things to think about.
Harry pulled back at last, and stretched his arms above his head. Show-off, Draco thought, but he was still tasting the heat Harry had left in his mouth, and the thought was affectionate.
“I’ll need my own place,” said Harry. “And after I’ve found a flat as far away from Gringotts as possible while still being in London, then we can consider where to go on that date. There’s a new restaurant called Belladonna’s, Ron told me—“
“Which is three months old now, as you might not have realized, given that you didn’t get out much. Besides. You gave me the first kiss,” Draco said, “but you needn’t think you can make all the decisions around here.”
He was caught off-guard by the grin Harry gave him.
“And why would I want to?” Harry asked. “We do fairly well when we make choices together, I think.”
Draco didn’t have to agree, but there were worse things he could do than smile.
Especially when he considered what was going to happen when he walked into the Ministry tomorrow, to tell Minister Shacklebolt that he’d completed his case, with Harry Potter at his side.
As it should be.