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Polaris

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The Hogwarts contract was seventeen hand-written pages long, with numerous sub-clauses and conditions. Harry signed it almost without thinking, then nicked his finger with a dull kitchen knife and squeezed until there was enough blood to touch underneath his signature. The writing glowed brightly for a moment then faded entirely, leaving a perfectly blank sheet of parchment. A moment later, a letter appeared in front of him in a formal black envelope. There was a single, small card within, which read simply, “Welcome back, Mr. Potter,” in McGonagall’s precise, slanted cursive. A moment later, everything disappeared, replaced by a tidy list of required materials, three recommendations for tailors who would bill Hogwarts directly for formal robes, and the title of a portrait, along with a pointed recommendation that Mr. Potter familiarize himself with “Portraiture in Hogwarts: A Reference and Compilation,” copy on reserve at Flourish and Blotts.

“And to think, they say you can’t go home again,” Anathaxia said, dryly.

“Shut up,” Harry replied, absently.

“What, we’re taking this because we like the life-binding blood magic?” she taunted, flashing fangs.

Harry held out a hand, letting her climb up to his shoulder, wrapping around his neck. “We’re taking this because it’s better than the alternative,” he said, firmly, and went to find the directory to look up the first tailor’s address.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Hogwarts Express ran three times per week, although every time it pulled into a town or hamlet, Harry was reminded of the fact that “Express” only applied a few days a year. The train seemed different somehow, shabbier, with smudges on the compartment doors and chewing gum stuck underneath the seats.

“You can’t expect that level of maintenance all year,” Thaxia said, primly, and waited for Harry to open a compartment before she leapt up the footholds near the doorway to the shelving near the top of the compartment, with portholes.

It was well past dusk by the time the train pulled into the station. Harry levitated his trunks behind him, resisting the urge to heave a sigh at the lack of carriages. He had taken the option of coming well ahead of the students, he reminded himself, and unwrapped his broomstick, making sure his things were in order before binding everything together and starting up the path.

It smelled like the beginnings of autumn in Scotland, the omnipresent dark smell of the forest blending with chimney smoke from Hogsmeade. The castle rose out of the fog in front of them, wrapped in the shadowy curtain of the lake. The gates swung open beneath them, larger than Harry had remembered, and he saw the wards snaking up them and along the wall, glimmering to let them through and then fading back into nothingness, or perhaps – something quiet and sleeping, the sort of power Harry knew no one would want to wake.

The front doors did not swing open so easily, but they cracked with a push, and Thaxia went bounding ahead, disappearing into the flickering candlelight.

Harry found her scolding a portrait daemon a moment later, a hound by the looks of it, and a moment later its human darted back into the frame. “Dreadfully sorry,” he said, almost taller than Harry. “We weren’t told to expect anyone tonight.”

“Oughtn’t the train schedule tell you the requisite information?” Thaxia demanded, tail going stiff. Harry bit back a sigh as he saw the hound’s hackles rise.

“She’s particular about these things,” he said, by way of apology. The steward shrugged then straightened, as if he was used to it. He consulted a book in the portrait, looking at Harry’s trunks.

“Shall we direct you to your rooms, Professor Potter, or would you prefer to dine first?”

Dinner,” Harry said, firmly, before Thaxia could interject. “My rooms are behind ‘The Lady in The Moonlit Garden.’”

Thaxia’s flattened ears told him that he wasn’t imagining the steward’s look of surprise, but before he could comment, the man bowed. “We shall ensure your belongings are delivered with haste. I believe the main course tonight to be roast boar.”

“Thanks,” said Harry, watching as his trunks disappeared down a corridor, and headed toward the Great Hall.

The long tables were empty, a few being carefully polished, and the dais Harry was used to was instead a round table with plush chairs set around it. A woman was sitting at it alone, paging through a book. Her hair was pinned at the nape by her wand, and her dark green robes were perfectly tailored in the latest Diagon Alley fashion. A Siamese cat sat at her elbow, delicately grooming gravy off its whiskers. The food smelled so good that Harry was willing to risk the encounter. No one could be in a particularly bad mood with that in front of them, even a Slytherin.

“Parkinson,” he said, sliding in beside her, which was when he noticed a shimmering form next to her, a petite blonde woman he didn’t recognize covered in a cloaking charm.

“Malfoy, actually,” she said, barely glancing up. “And you needn’t bother, she’s reading the tea. If we’re unlucky, she’ll emerge before dessert, but you never know, it’s been known to take hours.”

When Parkinson looked up a second time, meeting his gaze evenly, he realized the low purr wasn’t coming from the cat at all, but from a very, very large – something or another, hidden in the black underneath the table. All he could see was a large, yellow pair of eyes.

“You’re, ah, married?” Harry managed, ignoring Thaxia’s nip to his ankle as he took a seat.

“Nothing so blasé,” Parkinson said, coolly, then looked him over. “So I suppose the rumors are true, then. You turned down Chief Auror for –“ The corner of her mouth pulled up. “Teaching Care of Magical Creatures to eleven year olds. Care to explain that decision?”

“It’s complicated,” Harry muttered into his plate, which was starting to fill itself.

“I really don’t remember her being such a sanctimonious bitch in school,” Thaxia said, glaring. “In fact, I really don’t remember her at all. But then again, I suppose you’d have to be one, to marry Malfoy.”

The purr beneath the table took on a distinctly different tenor, sliding into a growl, and Harry was starting to wonder what on earth had possessed him not to order food in his rooms when there were footsteps on the stairs to the dais.

“There was a rather limited supply of female Weasleys,” a male voice said from the doorway. “I rather think Potter cornered the market. It’s rather tragic for Pansy that I was forced to look elsewhere, but, well, here we are.”

“Hello, darling,” Parkinson said, and Draco Malfoy leaned over the table to brush a kiss against her temple.

“Malfoy,” Harry said, then tried not to jump at the sudden, sheer size of the silent wolf padding up the steps behind him.

It had been years – years Harry had spent happily living his life with Malfoy occupying absolutely no portion of his daily life whatsoever - but somewhere along the line, Draco Malfoy had grown from a somewhat scrawny seventeen year old into a man, and his daemon… well, she nearly cleared the height of the table. She was different than he remembered in school, not a petty attack dog but a play of light and shadows, with both savagery and grace in the clear lines of her face. He’d never wondered why a wolf, but somehow -

“You’re staring, Harry,” Thaxia said, irritably.

“He ought to,” Lethe said, low and smoky, voice nothing like Harry remembered, either. He nearly put a hand out to touch her enormous skull before he swallowed quickly and caught himself, reaching for the salt instead.

He’d hated Draco Malfoy, hated him, but Harry had learned over the years that there were far worse things than schoolboy grudges. You couldn’t choose your parents. As a child, Draco had favored his father, but Harry could see the Black in him now, Narcissa’s cool grey eyes and Sirius’ stubborn mouth, the sharp cheek bones and pale skin that spoke of power and wealth. His hair was cut short, still blonde, but he’d grown, too. Harry’s sole consolation was that he was probably far too tall to be an adequate Seeker, these days.

“You’re staring,” Thaxia repeated, and Harry ducked his head.

“I hear congratulations are in order.”

“On what,” Draco said. “The position? You’re a bit late, Potter, I’ve been here for four years. Then again, I don’t suppose the aurors pay all that much attention to anything that’s not trying to eat London.” He buttered a roll.

“Um,” Harry said. “Your marriage?”

“Oh, that,” Malfoy said. “We’re contracted. Since after the war.”

“Engagement?” Harry tried, suddenly feeling as if he was underwater in a strange, horrifying nightmare.

“Contract,” Parkinson said, with a sigh. “You may congratulate us on our binding, Potter. I can’t suppose we ought to expect a half-blood to know these things.”

Half-blood -“ Thaxia growled, putting her front paws on the table, and Lethe bared a single tooth, looking at her sideways. Then Harry felt his chair shoved out of the way and found himself being stared down by a large, black panther.

“It’s all right,” he said, finally, at the same moment Parkinson sighed, “Oh, fine, Kit.”

“Kitcaron, Anathaxia,” Malfoy said. “I highly doubt you’ll enjoy her company, she’s a -”

“Bitch?” Thaxia supplied, still bristling.

“Fisher,” Draco finished, innocently. “Not quite the same degree of carnivore.”

The panther stared at Harry a moment longer before moving so close that he was nearly touching noses with Thaxia, who bared her teeth, fur standing on end.

There was a low rumble, and Malfoy laughed, pouring himself a cup of tea. It had been a long time since Harry had been around daemons who didn’t speak aloud. It was old magic, magic that had gone out of fashion in London long before he’d even been born, but it somehow didn’t surprise him to find it here.

“I hear you’ve gone off the deep end,” Malfoy said, while Thaxia turned, pointedly ignoring him to groom her tail. “Do try to keep any students from being savaged by hippogriffs.”

“Look,” Harry began, then realized from Lethe’s loose body language and Thaxia’s focus on her furious grooming that it probably wasn’t meant as a slight.

“I’ve no intention of tackling those until next term, at least,” he said, with a sigh. Malfoy laughed.

“She’s the one with the lofty Defense position,” he said. “I’m teaching the eleven year olds not to set off the shrieking stonecrop.”

Harry paused, then bit back a laugh. “Herbology?” he said. “You?”

“Care of Magical Creatures?” Malfoy responded, raising an eyebrow. “You?”

“Something different,” Harry said, finally.

“More interesting than you’d think,” Malfoy responded.

Parkinson sighed. “Lovely,” she said. “If you’ve finished measuring your wands, Draco, this NEWT class proposal is rubbish, and I’ve no idea how to fix it. Her foundational charm work is abysmal. How on earth she managed an ‘Outstanding,’ I’ll never know.”

“Oh, no,” Malfoy said. “You’re not getting me anywhere near charms. Not even for your precious seventh years.”

Harry suddenly found five sets of curious eyes on him. “I assure you, you really don’t want my help.”

Parkinson literally threw her hands in the air, a gesture Harry had thought was reserved for figurative hysterical women in romance novels. “That’s the entire problem, I’ve no idea why she’s set the foundation this way,” she said. Harry finally sighed, taking a bite of potatoes. They spent the next few minutes in silence, with Parkinson sneaking the occasional glance at him.

“Give it here,” he said, and Parkinson slid the scroll across the table to him, looking smug.

“That’s odd,” he said, after a moment, then frowned, ignoring the fact that Thaxia was poaching the majority of his boar. “What’s she been reading, Thelonius Merrick?”

Parkinson snorted. “That’s the most logical explanation I’ve heard from anyone so far, but no, look at the second section, that’s straight out of –“

“Miyaki,” Harry said, suddenly a bit fascinated. “They’re utterly incompatible works, you couldn’t –“

“I don’t think she did,” Parkinson said. “At least not intentionally. I mean, if you’d just –“

“Christ, academics,” Draco interrupted, mildly. “You sound like Granger.”

“Granger’s doing quite well for herself,” Parkinson said, mildly. “I nearly owled over this.”

“Well, fortune has delivered Potter to your table instead,” Malfoy said. “I’m off to check the singed salvia, it ought to be going to flame tonight.” He took a final bite of custard. “Very practical, salvia.”

“Practicality is for gardeners and Hufflepuffs,” Parkinson said, rolling her eyes.

Draco snorted. “I might fall into the first category.”

“Yes, yes,” she said, waving a hand. “Potter, look here.”

Draco lifted a hand as he left, Lethe soft behind him, but Parkinson’s head was already bent over the scroll.

“Were you always so –“ Harry said, searching for a word. Noticeable came to mind.

“No one cares about that, Potter,” she said. “Do you think if she tried using cardinal principles instead of arithmancy, this might be feasible?”

“No, it’s going to come down like a ton of bricks and take out half the castle with it, you can’t ward like that,” Harry said, then considered. “But there’s an article on Argiope stabilimentum in the Journal of Magical Creatures, I think last fall’s print edition, really brilliant –“

Spell-weavers,” Parkinson breathed, then pulled a quill out of her sleeve and started scribbling notes in the margins. “If you fed them the bound charms, then set the web as the focus….”

“It’s no use for wards, but it would be a very interesting –“

“Trap,” they said, simultaneously, and the sudden grin on Parkinson’s face made him miss Hermione fiercely.

“Can you get them?” she demanded. “The spiders, I mean.”

Harry considered. “A few weeks, if I call in a favor. And if you want to keep them in the castle, you’d better build them the proper habitat, they’re sensitive to drafts. And there’s a bitterant spell to add to the wards, otherwise they’ll eat your wards and spin any magic they can get their hands on.”

“Yes, of course,” Parkinson said, as if he were a complete idiot, tucking a stray piece of hair back behind her face, and if Harry had been so inclined, he’d have thought he’d caught a glimmer of what Ron saw in Hermione.

“You’ve already borrowed that trouble,” Thaxia said, curled between Kitcaron’s massive paws, and Harry tried not to choke on his dessert. “Let’s not go there again.”

“Not hardly,” he said, firmly.

“You’ll owl me the article?” Parkinson said, eyeing his plate as the custard appeared. “And a book on care and keeping?”

“Yes,” Harry said. “Though I suppose you could just stop by the cottage, once I’ve cleared it out. My books will be along on the train with the students.”

She glanced at him, a little strangely. “I don’t suppose you’ve sat down with McGonagall yet, have you?”

“Not as such,” Harry said. “I, er –“ He glanced at his plate. “Gather I was something of a last minute hire.”

“I don’t think anyone thought you’d consent to the job,” Parkinson said, looking as if she was trying to stifle a laugh. “Hogwarts isn’t quite the same these days.”

“What?” Harry said. She swiped his custard, standing up and stepping aside as her daemon rose to his feet.

“No point in spoiling the surprise,” she said. “Ta, Potter. I’ll look forward to the spiders. And don’t mind her.“ She gestured to the woman that Harry had all but forgotten about. “Lisse. Divination. Doesn’t get out much.”

“She’s a bit odd, for a Slytherin,” Thaxia remarked, from under the table. “I didn’t hate her.”

“My God,” Harry said, dryly. “An entire Slytherin you don’t despise? We’ll have to owl Hermione straight away, there might be something wrong with us.”

I wasn’t thinking about her -“ Thaxia began, and Harry rolled his eyes.

“’I’ve already borrowed that trouble,’” he mimicked. “We’re not seventeen.”

Thaxia jumped for his shoulders. “She took your dessert.”

“I’m sure the elves will send another portion your way.”

Something like two hours later, Harry was very certain that the house elves would not be sending anything custard related to Thaxia, given that he still had no idea where he was, the Marauder’s Map and six other advanced direction finding spells had left them somewhere up two staircases in what he was reasonably certain was the dungeons, and every portrait he’d asked had directed him to entirely different corners of the castle. The Fat Lady was apparently in Denmark for magical restoration, so the Gryffindor common room was being guarded by a particularly recalcitrant sailor, and Slytherin’s had a very scantily clad woman with a fortunately rather large cobra daemon. “You’re not a student,” she’d purred, “but I might let you in, if you ask particularly nicely.” Harry had found another hallway in a hurry.

“Really, the book didn’t give any instructions?” Thaxia asked, snippily, for what had to be the thirtieth time.

“McGonagall said she had more papers for me when we met,” Harry gritted out. “Perhaps she’s gone for the evening. Or, I don’t know, uninterested.”

“It can’t be invisible.”

“With our luck, it only appears during the waxing crescent moon on irregular Tuesdays,” Harry said, with a sigh.

“I’d ask what an irregular Tuesday is, but I’m fairly certain I don’t want to know,” a familiar voice said, and Malfoy rounded the corner, holding an enormous planter of – well. Fire. When Harry looked more closely, he realized they were flowers, and that at least a few of them were starting to sputter out.

“Singed salvia?” he hazarded.

“As if it would be something else,” Malfoy said. “Though the burning belladona is due to come in next week. You wouldn’t confuse those two, though.”

“What are you doing in the dungeon corridor?” Lethe said to Thaxia, polite enough that Thaxia didn’t even start in, creeping closer until the wolf bent to touch noses, somewhat to Harry’s surprise.

“My rooms are behind a portrait that I’m fairly certain doesn’t exist,” Harry said, with a sigh. “And yes, I checked the book the Headmistress recommended.”

“Well, that was useless, it doesn’t have any maps, you’ll have wanted Burbot’s second edition,” Malfoy said, dryly. “Granger ought to have told you.”

“Hermione doesn’t know we’re here,” Thaxia said, still standing on her toes.

Harry rubbed his forehead. “I don’t suppose you know anything about a moonlit garden.”

“Really?” Malfoy said, and Harry was about to tell him that it was none of his business when he continued, “They’ve put you there?”

“Intriguing,” Lethe murmured, bending her head even further. “Would you like a ride?”

Harry blinked as Thaxia only hesitated for a moment before jumping between her shoulder blades.

“I’ve no idea,” Harry admitted, “but all I’d like is a bath and a bed, and at this rate, we’re going to have to sleep in the hospital wing.”

“I’m going there once these burn out,” Malfoy said, “but I suspect you’d rather your own rooms.”

“Please,” Harry said, still trying not to look askance at his daemon, whose front paws were propped on Lethe’s enormous head.

Malfoy lead him down a corridor and over, down at least three more sets of staircases, and took a torch out of a wall socket, lighting others as he went down the hall. “There’s a magical dead zone,” he explained. “Nothing works here. This is a rather old part of the castle. Built back when Slytherin thought the others might turn on him, I suppose.”

“Slytherin?” Harry said, dubiously, and Malfoy laughed.

“He had rather a lot of chambers, so don't worry, I don’t expect you’ll be sleeping in his bed.”

“Exploring Salazar Slytherin’s Chamber of Secrets,” Thaxia said, cheerful for once, and Harry sighed as Malfoy bit down on a barking laugh.

“Really?” he said. “I’ve never much gotten the impression you had a sense of humor.”

Anathaxia,” Harry said, before she could even start, but she only licked one paw, eyeing him. He supposed the two of them were used to screaming insults at one another.

“I was only going to say, you’ve barely any impression of me at all these days, don’t you think?”

“I suppose burying the hatchet after this long would be a bit anticlimactic,” Malfoy mused. “Potter?”

“We did work well as mortal enemies,” Harry replied, then paused, a little uncomfortable with the levity. “Though given the war –“

“They’ll want proof,” Lethe said, flatly, as they continued further down.

“Yes, well, in due course.”

“Draco,” she murmured, eyes suddenly flashing gold in the reflection of the fire flowers. “Remember what your father said.”

Draco paused, long enough that Harry was tempted to interject that any and all relationships could be determined in the morning, so long as his bed didn’t contain any Dark Wizards, but Draco finally set the box down, crouching, and unbuttoned his cuff, jerking his sleeve up. “I never took the mark, Potter, and I suspect you’ll find that intolerance isn’t particularly savored under this particular Headmistress.”

“If that’s a glamor, it’s a very good one, if there’s no magic here,” Thaxia said, inching closer down Lethe’s head, and Lethe huffed a sigh.

“Clever tree fox,” she said, almost as if she approved, and Malfoy gritted his teeth, pulling out a scalpel.

“That really isn’t –“ Harry began, but Malfoy nicked the base of his thumb, rubbing blood over his inner forearm. He held his arm up in the torchlight, and what Harry initially mistook for a snake, he recognized a moment later as a vine, flowers opening sleepily and tilting toward the light. The tattoo was made up of perfect, tiny sigils and old calligraphy, a script older than Harry (or, he suspected, even Hermione) would have been able to read, so dense they looked like pure ink. The vine was black, but the flowers drew in the blood, turning a deep, dark red in the light.

“Blood and magical light,” Draco said. “Though don’t think Lumos will cut it. Are you satisfied?”

Harry realized after a moment that the remark was directed not at him, but at Lethe.

“Perhaps the binding,” Lethe said.

That,” Draco said, “is none of their business.”

“What is it?” Harry said, finally. “Ah… the tattoo.”

Draco’s laugh was almost surprised, then he shook his head. “Look before you leap, the unofficial Gryffindor motto,” he said. “It means that I belong here.”

“No, I mean, I recognize the flower but I can’t remember what it’s called,” Harry said, awkwardly. He really wasn’t sure about any Slytherin tattoos.

“Blood lantern,” Draco said. “We’re still between moon cycles, but when it’s new, the petals pull together and float.” He cleared his throat. “It smells like – oh, I don’t know.”

“Everything you’ve ever wanted,” Lethe said. “All the things you’ve never imagined you wanted, but you want. Ambition. Desire. The corners of his mind I’ll never step into.”

“She thinks she’s a poet,” Malfoy said. “It smells like musk. And it’s toxic as hell, so don’t go eating any if you find it, which you won’t, because it only grows one place in the forest, and I’m not telling.”

“Oh,” Thaxia said, suddenly, and leapt to bite Harry hard on the thumb.

Ow,” he said.

“Your arm,” she said.

“What, am I proving I’m not marked?” Harry said, irritably. “I rather think the scar covers it.”

“Your arm,” she said, baring her teeth, and he swiped his thumb quickly, before she could bite again.

Harry had never been particularly fond of tattoos, especially not magical ones that wandered about, and so it was a surprise to see a glimmer of something in the shadows, until he held his arm down to the light of the flowers. It was a bird, wings spreading across his forearms, with perfect, exquisitely written feathers, and as a drip of blood slid further downward, it twisted, flaring briefly before it burst into flame.

“A phoenix,” Lethe remarked. “Rather fitting.”

“That’s not mine,” Harry said, finally. “I didn’t –“

“Oh, but you did,” Draco said. “You signed in blood, didn’t you? You’re hers, now. After the war, McGonagall stopped appointing professors and started putting all the candidates in the Sorting Hat.” He considered. “She said once that sometimes things came back that she wasn’t expecting. I don’t suppose you were on the applicant list.”

“No,” Harry said, slowly.

“Like I said,” Draco said. “You’re hers. You belong to the castle.”

Harry swallowed, and Thaxia snorted. “I suppose they’re thematic,” she said. “What’s the female Malfoy’s?”

“You can ask if she’s interested in showing it,” Draco said. “But don’t bank on it. I’ve only seen it once.”

“I will,” Thaxia said, before Harry could stop her, and leapt into the darkness down the corridor.

“Parkinson said things were different,” Harry said, finally. “D’you know what she meant?”

“I’d be lying if I said yes, and I’d be lying if I said no,” Malfoy replied. “But it’s late, and you’ll see at least some of what I think she means in the morning.”

Harry felt the familiar tug that meant Thaxia was drawing close to the end of their range and followed it, finding her examining a large portrait of closed water lilies and irises.

“Where’s –“ he began, and then caught a glimpse of razor sharp teeth and scales, fins camouflaged in the stems.

“She’s very beautiful under the full moon,” Draco said, mildly. “She’s quite good at singing the Gryffindor sailor away from his post.”

“A siren,” Harry said, fascinated.

“Not particularly ladylike, most of the month,” Draco said. “It’s a rather misleading title, if you ask me.”

“No, she’s beautiful,” Harry said, letting go of the strange feeling at exploring a part of Hogwarts he’d never seen before, following around Draco Malfoy.

“You’ll be able to cast in your chambers,” Draco said. “If you double back this corridor, we’re on the right. Look for the centaur.”

“Goodnight, Malfoy,” Harry said, lifting his hand to the portrait, and then turned, wondering whether what he was about to say was a terrible idea. “Pax, I suppose?”

Malfoy’s face changed for a moment, and Harry could see Lethe there when he laughed. “Now that you’ve seen my distinct lack of Dark Mark?”

“Now that you’ve failed to murder me in the dungeons,” Harry said, dryly. “On multiple occasions.”

“Pax, then,” Malfoy said. “Though you might want to get inside quickly. I might change my mind.”

Harry had always suspected the Slytherins would be hiding the best quarters in the castle, and while he had no idea why McGonagall had chosen to put him here of all places, he had to admit that his suspicions had been correct. As soon as he and Thaxia had stepped across the threshold, the rooms had begun rearranging themselves. Titles blinked in and out on the bookshelves, and what had previously been a series of rather large benches turned into a twisting tree with perches to surround the picture window, pitch black with the occasional dull flash of fae light. Harry realized they had to be far beneath the lake. A fire lit itself in the hearth as the woodened floors warmed to a dark reddish oak, and the bed looked like the most comfortable thing Harry had seen in years. His trunks had been unpacked in a deep closet and onto an overly large desk beneath the window, his personal books stacked primly on the nightstand.

“Custard!” exclaimed Thaxia, at the exact moment Harry realized he heard running water and felt steam, and if he had to be in the dungeons – well, the dungeons and Slytherins alike seemed more welcoming than expected.

The next morning, he was half way through a plate piled high with eggs and sausage, when a note appeared next to his plate.

“Ah, the summons,” Thaxia said, wolfing down a sausage. Harry could hardly argue with her wording, since McGonagall had requested his presence in her office “at his earliest convenience.”

Harry finished his cup of tea and headed toward the headmaster’s office, only to find himself tugged in a different direction, up an adjacent stairwell. The door was the same, of course, but Harry could have sworn Dumbledore’s office had been at least two flights down. And the portrait, of course, was subject to the selection of the current Headmistress. Harry found himself being stared down at by a woman astride a horse, balancing an enormous falcon on her forearm.

“I’m afraid I haven’t the faintest idea what the password is,” he said, apologetically.

“Not to worry, we’ve been expecting you,” she said. “And for this week, it’s ‘golden snidget,’ though don’t think that’s on your account.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Harry said, with a smile. She swung open to reveal a flight of stairs.

McGonagall’s office was nothing like Dumbledore’s, with the possible exception of thousands of books lining the walls. Where Dumbledore had liked trinkets, McGonagall’s tasted seemed spartan in comparison, though it was clear that the furniture was perfectly crafted and the mantle above the large fireplace was lined with photographs – one, Harry was surprised to notice, was of him, Ron and Hermione, laughing over a deck of cards in the Gryffindor common room. There was another of a young couple on their wedding day, probably younger than he was now, and he was startled to realize the smiling bride was McGonagall.

“Mister Potter,” she said, interrupting him, and he turned, a bit embarrassed, but she waved a hand.

“I suppose you would be curious, after all these years.”

“Please, call me Harry, Professor,” he said. Thaxia was noticeably quiet; McGonagall had always been one of the very few people she was willing to hold her tongue around, perhaps because McGonagall’s lynx was not known for being particularly verbose.

“Only if you’ll call me Minerva, Mister Potter,” she said, and Harry had to crack a smile.

“I suppose the terms are a bit different than a decade ago,” he said, watching a pot of tea pour itself. McGonagall’s face grew contemplative.

“A little,” she agreed. “Though I’m afraid I must admit to luring you here under somewhat false pretenses, Harry.”

“I’m reasonably certain the job offer was real,” Harry said, dryly. “I’ve got a rather impressive tattoo to prove it.”

McGonagall looked a bit startled, then laughed. “I thought you’d take some convincing on the subject of Dr. Malfoy, but perhaps I underestimated you.”

“Doctor?” Harry said, puzzled.

“Yes, her doctoral defense was certainly worth the trip to London,” McGonagall mused. “Granger was always the brightest witch of your time here, but some of us take a bit longer to come into our own. Pansy has certainly demonstrated that much.”

“Oh, no,” Harry said. “It was Draco, actually,” he said. “Well. More like Draco’s daemon.”

“Sometimes it bears repeating that they are one and the same, Harry,” McGonagall said, sounding amused. “I must admit to some sorrow at having been away last night, if Draco Malfoy was educating you on the particulars of the castle. Though I do hope that blood wasn’t drawn in a duel of some sort. I don’t tolerate that sort of animosity amongst my professors. We haven’t the time for it, and no one is here whom the castle has not chosen herself.”

“I think perhaps we’ve agreed to let bygones be bygones,” Harry said. “The war was a long time ago.”

“A decade at most,” McGonagall said. “But sometimes youthful perspectives aren’t entirely without merit. Tea? Still two sugars?”

Harry took the cup that floated across the room. “Somewhat false pretenses?”

“An answer for an answer,” McGonagall said, drawing a cover off of what Harry had thought might be a bird cage – it proved to be a large glass dome with seven or eight red envelopes floating around inside. “Would you care to explain why Ms. Granger-Weasley has been sending you howlers since approximately twelve o’clock yesterday?”

“Oh, fuck,” Harry said, then covered his mouth with his hand.

“Watch your language,” hissed Thaxia, appearing on one wing of the chair, glancing around the office as if McGonagall’s hidden daemon might appear.

“You’re one to talk,” he muttered, then cleared his throat. “Sorry. I’m afraid Hermione doesn’t know where I am.”

“That would explain the addressing,” she said. “Harry Potter, Hogwarts Express, Two Kilometers North of Hampshire,” she read. “Harry Potter, One Hundred and Seventeenth Southwest Corridor, Nearest the Statue of Rowena Ravenclaw, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry –“ McGonagall paused as another letter appeared with a pop, crashing against the glass before falling back with the others. “Harry Potter, Headmistress’ Office, Northernmost Turret. They do get rather specific.”

“I’m wearing an anti-tracking device,” Harry said, pulling out a small bead on a chain around his neck. He laughed, without much humor. “She invented the thing, so her tracking charms can’t find a way around it.”

“Clever, if deceitful,” McGonagall said. “Though one wonders at the necessity.”

“You’ve been to London,” Harry said, finally, quietly. “Nothing’s the same, since the war. Most of the Death Eaters got taken out in the first few years, but I think there’s a nostalgia for something that’s never going to exist again. Voldemort left more behind than just a body count. I know –“ He held up a hand. “You went through it. My parents went through it. But I’m not sure it’s the same this time. And my job – well, my former job… there’s an awful lot of darkness in the world, Professor. When I was a child, it was easy enough to boil it down to one source, this unspeakable evil, but then you grow up and find out that the every day acts of ordinary witches and wizards might be worse.” He closed his eyes. “We went on a case, oh – a month ago – a witch and her children hacked to pieces in their beds, though he could have used a wand, made it fast.” He laughed, bitterly. “Do you know what the worst part is? Because they weren’t killed with Unforgiveables, it’s not Azkaban. He’ll be eligible for parole someday. Because he used a butcher’s knife, and there weren’t any Muggleborn jurors.”

McGonagall’s lips became a thin line, one Harry recognized as resolve. “And Ms. Granger-Weasley?”

“Hermione sees me as the beacon of light I was to many people for many years,” Harry said, finally. “’I’ve been trying to explain that that particular darkness is long gone and that people have turned to other comforts, but she won’t have it. And I very much needed a change of scenery.”

“Well,” McGonagall said. “I’m afraid you’ve come to a place that’s unlikely to give you much rest.”

Harry laughed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m well aware of the horrors of first years. I suspect I’ll survive.”

McGonagall smiled, though it was faint. “Not that, though kindly refrain from setting them loose with anything too dangerous,” she said. “What do you know of magical architecture, Harry?”

“Just about nothing,” he admitted. “Though I’ve found my fair share of strange staircases that lead to the wrong house and cubbyholes that don’t seem to have bottoms.”

“Correct,” McGonagall said. “Some wizards, when building, like to… incorporate tricks. A sleight of hand here, a slip of magic there – your home becomes something different. It’s usually not a particularly dangerous pastime, but magic wasn’t always so neat and tidy.” McGonagall waved a hand, and a chalice appeared on her desk, glimmering behind what Harry recognized as a stasis spell. It was gold plated, with jewels the size of coins inset around the rim. He sighed.

“This is going to involve destroying a magical object, isn’t it,” he said.

McGonagall laughed. “Quite the contrary, Harry,” she said. “This is a magical object that must never be destroyed. Only the Headmasters and Mistresses may view it, though even we will never know the location of what you’re looking at. This is Hogwarts.”

“It’s a cup,” Harry said, flatly. “A very fancy cup, but it’s still a cup.”

“A cup full of blood,” McGonagall corrected, and Harry stood to glance over the edge, trying not to gag. It was indeed filled with a dark liquid, dull and lifeless against the shimmering gems. He didn’t find it hard to believe.

“A long time ago, Salazar Slytherin thought he had built something,” McGonagall said. “He thought he had created the most magical castle in the world, a place of rock and iron, perhaps an impenetrable fortress, but the truth that he was blind to was that he hadn’t built something. He’d planted it.”

“He’d planted it,” Harry echoed, numbly, wondering slightly if McGonagall had gone off the deep end in his absence and that had been what Malfoy was warning him about, but she pushed her glasses up her nose and pinned him to the chair with her gaze.

“He planted it,” McGonagall repeated. “Hufflepuff realized, of course, and Ravenclaw came to know in the end, though I suspect her metaphorical perspective was a bit different. The point is, the castle is alive, and it has been since the first stone was drawn from the ground, because Slytherin’s magic went into the making of the thing, and as I suspect we have learned these last long years, it is very difficult to make something so large and requiring so much power without giving something of yourself.”

“So Hogwarts is a horcrux?” Harry said, flatly. “My day just keeps improving, Professor.”

“You might think of it that way,” McGonagall said. “But you must understand, it’s not a horcrux in the sense that you’ve known them. Hogwarts isn’t borrowing pieces of anyone’s soul. It’s constructed solely on magic. And our magic is a reflection of ourselves. At first, it was unbalanced, and then, through Ravenclaw’s insistence, became balanced once more. This chalice is a power source, the four founders putting themselves equally into the school. In the beginning, you might think of each brick as divided into quarters, but Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff never thought to limit their spell. Or perhaps they never meant to. One can only speculate.

“Hogwarts has become an amalgamation of the magic of every witch and wizard who has ever passed through her doors. And their mistake, or choice, became their grace, the making of her, because with so many personalities, so many types of magic with different strengths and weaknesses, she fell into harmony. Of course, sometimes a particularly strong wizard might cast a ripple in the pond, but the lake has always been smooth.”

“But,” Harry said, slowly.

“But, ten years ago, Hogwarts was severely wounded,” McGonagall said. “And although the towers have largely been rebuilt and the dead no longer line the Quidditch pitch, in the wrong parts of the castle, stone is merely stone. And the damage was hardly even. The dungeons were nearly untouched, while Ravenclaw Tower was nearly obliterated. It has left an imbalance. She can only grow so quickly, Harry, and there is only so much magic you can pull from children, particularly when the children are fewer and fewer in number each year. Most of us have forgotten the old ways, the pagan spells of blood and death and the places in the world where you might find untold power. We are not what we once were, Harry. None of us are a Salazar Slytherin or a Rowena Ravenclaw. Even at his finest, Albus Dumbledore only held so much. The castle has been fighting a very good fight, but she tires. And in her exhaustion, Potter, I am afraid things are going to get much worse before they get any better at all.”

“None of this explains why I’m here,” Harry said, finally, and McGonagall smiled.

“The dark creeps in, but it is hardly hopeless,” she said. “I suspect you may find horrors here, but I also suspect you will find what it is that you have been looking for. Professor Malfoy knows some of the oldest, purest magic there is, and he’s a far stronger wizard than anyone – perhaps myself included – ever gave him credit for, though his skills lie outside the realm of what many would consider traditional magic. Dr. Malfoy shares a bloodline, however distant, with Rowena Ravenclaw. And you –“

McGonagall smiled. “Hogwarts was not left entirely defenseless, Potter. The Sorting Hat is more than just a silly game for children. It knows what she needs. And though I didn’t believe that you would say yes, when I put in the applicants for this position, it returned your name alone. Singularly and exclusively qualified. You were a ripple in her power, Harry, and Slytherin needs balancing.”

“You do realize I was almost sorted there,” Harry said, flatly.

“No,” McGonagall said. “Although that provides an interesting twist. Perhaps Hogwarts needs a magnet, to draw Gryffindor and Slytherin together. Or perhaps the choosing of a House means more when it’s challenging.” She shrugged. “We have far too few faculty and far too many students without even the fundamentals that growing up in a wizarding household would have afforded them. Hogwarts has kept the danger out, so far, but I fear that if we do not restore the balance, she will start to crumble. We must –“ She laughed. “As Mr. Malfoy suggested, build trellises to bridge the gaps and coax her along.”

“Christ,” Harry said. “You sound more like Dumbledore than you.”

“Headmistress’ prerogative,” McGonagall said, with a smile. “It’s good to see you home again, Harry. Now might I suggest you owl Miss Granger with your sincerest apologies. We’ll be needing her. You may tell her it was urgent and that I requested you not notify others of your plans, if you wish.” She frowned at the case. “And please do request that she stop filling my office with howlers.”

“Right,” Harry said, feeling a little relieved that McGonagall sounded much less like Trelawney. “And my class tables? And the keys to the cottage?”

“You aren’t the groundskeeper, Harry, you won’t need keys,” McGonagall said, then winced. “The cottage, however… Hogwarts has always kept the Forbidden Forest in check. But she is distracted. I suspect you would not want to teach courses there these days. But never fear, the Professors Malfoy and myself have created a wing off the greenhouse that I suspect shall be to your liking.”

“A decade, and you’ve managed to turn up two Slytherins and me, when you need fewer Slytherins and more Ravenclaws, or whichever?”

“I rarely find that arguing with the Hat offers much success, Potter,” she said. “Now come along, you’ll need to be shown the restored Potions wing. As we’re currently without an advanced instructor, yourself and Professor Malfoy will be teaching the sixth and seventh years NEWT courses.”

“Potions?” Harry managed. “I’m awful at Potions.”

“Luckily for you, Mister Malfoy is quite adept,” McGonagall said. “Come along, Professor Potter. There’s work to be seen to.”

“That was interesting,” Thaxia said, when she’d heard the portrait door swing open, and Harry jumped when McGonagall’s lynx leapt from a deep shelf above her desk, landing silently on the bannister.

“Always the penchant for understatement, Anathaxia,” he said, and started down the stairs after his other half.

After lunch, Harry went to find Malfoy. It was extremely pathetic, he thought, when he was hoping that an afternoon spent with Malfoy might prove better than his morning, but seeing as how his morning had involved all that with McGonagall and a horrifying trip down memory lane in the Potions dungeon, Harry thought there might be a small possibility that this couldn’t be worse, even if it involved Malfoy. Malfoy had been perfectly reasonable, last night, when he wasn’t flashing about scalpels.

“It’s going to be awful,” Thaxia said, and Harry sighed.

“Most likely,” he said, but paused when he reached the greenhouses. They weren’t anything like he remembered, though he supposed there might have been more advanced buildings for the upper level students, but this was different, somehow. There was a low, stone building tucked against the castle wall, covered in ivy, and next to it a door through the wall. It looked like a perfectly charming iron gate, but when Harry glanced at it askew his eyes nearly watered with the sheer number of protective wards crawling over it. It was placed in the thickest section of the wall, a part of the wall itself, and Harry realized abruptly that he could see a path into the Forbidden Forest over the top of the gate, which was right over the wall.

The greenhouses themselves had grown together somehow, almost like a spider web, connected by tunnels, and they’d grown old, with lead paned glass and moss covering the foundations. The largest one, with stained glass and soaring roof peaks, looked nearly like a cathedral. Harry paused for a moment to offer grudging admiration to the beauty of the layout. If this was the house that Malfoy had built, Harry wasn’t quite sure what it said about him, but he wasn’t entirely sure that he disliked it.

“Awful,” Thaxia repeated, with a put-upon sigh. Harry firmly jerked open one of the wooden doors to the smallest of the green houses and heaved a sigh of relief. This was recognizable, at least, with the long benches and perfectly paired gloves, though Malfoy kept things in much better shape than Professor Sprout apparently had. Each spot at the bench had a pot full of soil, a trowel, and a small cup of seeds. “Introduction to Herbology,” was written in cursive across the blackboard, with a number of rules beneath it. Harry very carefully didn’t touch anything and went through the passage to the next greenhouse, which was a larger version of the first, though the tables were smaller and there were far more gardening implements. Harry paused at a pair of shears that looked as if they might take a man’s leg off, then moved on to a third classroom, with benches for two. He felt the faint brush of a cleaning charm as he stepped through the door, and realized that his boots were suddenly spotless and any dust he’d picked up along the way was long gone. The first few rooms had had innocuous plants around, garden herbs even Harry could recognize and things like Johnny Jump Ups that had a tendency to move pots, but this room was barren with slate floors. Even the benches were granite and metal instead of wood.

The next several buildings were full of plants, most of which Harry didn’t recognize, though the faint rustle and sway of leaves was comforting. He finally came to the door to the cathedral, for back of a better term. The door was some sort of stone crossed with iron, with runes carved into the metal, but there wasn’t a window. Harry sighed.

“Maybe he’s not here,” Thaxia said, a little doubtfully.

“The map says he is,” Harry replied. “And it’s not as if I can come up with lesson plans without him.”

Harry pushed open the door, ignoring a sudden rush of magic, and suddenly found his hand pinned to the flat surface by a bright red tendril. He stared in vague horror as large black spikes began to appear, dripping with clear liquid, and the vine started to wind its way up around his forearm.

“Malfoy,” he said, in as even a tone as possible given the circumstances. “I really hope you’re in here.”

“Potter?” he heard, then, in an equally level voice, “Please, please, for the love of all that is good and intelligent in this world, tell me you did not just try to walk into my level seven greenhouse.”

“Technically, I’m not inside,” Harry pointed out.

“Hold on,” Malfoy said, sounding a little strangled, and Harry heard a low hiss. It wasn’t a spell he knew, but the plant responded as if it had been slapped, recoiling and whipping back through the crack in the doorway.

Malfoy pulled the door open, glaring. “Firstly,” he said. “That was thirty seconds from killing you and eating your bones for the minerals. Secondly, she’s going to sulk for the next month, and I needed that venom for a potion. Thirdly, what on earth possessed you?”

“I don’t know, it’s not as if you have a warning sign up,” Harry snapped. “’Lethal plants within, stay out, Potter.’”

“You didn’t notice the four thousand wards?” Draco demanded. “How on earth did you even get in here?”

“I walked?” Harry snapped. “The front door was open.”

“The only open door was to the first year classroom,” Malfoy said. “Even you can’t do much damage with succulent trimmings and creeping catmint seeds.”

“They were all open,” Harry insisted, and Malfoy made a strangled noise.

“What on earth are you carrying?” he said. Harry turned out his pockets, feeling significantly more like a scolded schoolchild who was about to have points taken away from Gryffindor than a colleague.

“I will bite you,” Thaxia informed Malfoy. “It will hurt.”

“It will hurt a lot less than dying,” Malfoy snapped, and then cast several spells at Harry in quick succession, mouth going flatter. “Lethe!”

“Stop being melodramatic,” she said. “He’s a Potter. Half of his blood is older than yours. You can’t make perfectly good things out of earth and plants and not have at least a little talent in your blood.”

“I’m not being melodramatic,” Draco said.

“Well, see if it eats him,” Lethe suggested. “He really oughtn’t have made it past greenhouse five, you know, there’s an entire bed of alluring asphodel in there.”

“I’m perfectly aware,” Malfoy said.

“I’m not entirely sure how I feel about getting eaten,” Harry said, warily.

“Shut up,” said Malfoy and Thaxia, at the same moment, and that was enough to startle him into compliance.

Draco pushed the door open a crack, pitching his voice inside. “Firstly,” he said, “this is my guest, and anyone who so much as stings him will be on the receiving end of a freezing curse so nasty you’ll wish you’d gone to seed while you had the chance. Secondly, it is not entirely his fault he is stupid and knows next to nothing about you, so try not to take it personally when he falls face first into you or trips over your roots. The first rule still applies.”

If there was a tone to the rustling, Harry might almost have described it as sulking, but when Draco pushed open the door fully, he caught his breath, because it really was a cathedral, the sort of thing only a Malfoy would build. It was wild but beautiful, with a draping canopy of trees and every plant imaginable, from low beds of thyme to horrific looking vines looped across the low branches of a tree that Harry recognized from a muggle book as being – well, particularly lethal.

“Oh,” he said, staring. There was a very tentative curl at his wrist, and he turned his hand, examining it. It had never occurred to him before that plants might be, well, alive.

“Hello,” he said, politely, and this time the vine didn’t put out any spines, merely exploring his sleeve cuff, then creeping up his arm. By all rights, Harry ought to have found it threatening, but it was oddly curious.

“I’m sorry I opened your door and got you in trouble,” he said, because it seemed like the right thing to say, and the plant… huffed and then resettled, her leaves turning from bright red to a dull purple. Harry tentatively reached his other hand up to let a tendril wind around it. “You seem… very lovely. Excellent at guarding things. Doors. You know.”

“Are you seriously trying to charm a leeching liana with flattery, Potter?” Malfoy said, sounding highly amused. The plant flushed red again, whipping a tendril around at him. If Harry hadn’t known better, he’d have said she was glaring.

“No, no, by all means,” Malfoy said, sounding as if he was about to start choking with laughter, or possibly as if he wanted to strangle himself. “Let him admire you. He’s very famous, you know.”

The plant settled again and caressed his cheek. “I don’t suppose you’d let me talk to Malfoy if I promised to come visit,” Harry tried, tentatively. “I’ve no idea what you like, but if I can, I’ll bring some.”

“Human skeletons,” Draco said, mildly.

“Er,” Harry said. “I’m sure the house elves might give me some beef bones. They’d at least be a snack, I suppose.”

The plant seemed to consider, then settled back in its position draped across the doorway, drawing its tendrils back.

“Potter, you are a marvel,” Malfoy said, with a sigh. “Marvelously stupid, really, but then – oh, don’t,” he continued, as several plants suddenly crowded in around Harry. “He’s not going to spoil you. You know I won’t let him.”

“I hadn’t thought, ah,” Harry said, suddenly well aware that they weren’t somewhere so private, after all. “I suppose missing advanced herbology has left me a bit unaware.”

“It probably wouldn’t have done you much good, to be honest,” Malfoy said, rummaging in a crate for a spade and passing it over. “This is considered a bit too advanced for even seventh years. Here. You can help me transplant the vines-of-steel-and-binding.”

“Those sound charming, I’m sure,” Harry said, then paused. “Very charming. Lovely plants. I look forward to meeting them.”

Draco snorted. “If they didn’t understand sarcasm, I’d probably be dead by now. Though you ought to be. It’s generally not a particularly good idea to go wandering through the greenhouses alone. Or without me, frankly. The things here –“ He paused. “Let’s just say that I won’t go rummaging through your workroom if you don’t go rummaging through mine.”

“You might put locks on,” Harry repeated.

Draco laughed. “Potter, there are hundreds of them. Do you think I want fifth years looking for a good spot to snog getting eaten by something? But the plants let you through. Pansy will have some sort of field day with it.”

“Your magic smells different than most people’s,” Lethe said. “Like wild things. Growing things. You’ve never had to work at it, with magical creatures, have you?”

“I rather thought it was a side effect of the parseltongue,” Harry admitted, a bit awkwardly.

“Oh,” Draco said, brightening suddenly. “I’ve got a bed of sansiveria that needs scolding. Perhaps it would respond to that.”

Harry saw the glint of a large pond, turning the corner of the path, and sat on the edge, carefully reaching to stroke a lilypad. “Don’t tell the ekwensu I’m here,” he said, dryly. “I’d rather not get bitten again.”

“Thank god, there’s nothing in there but the plants,” Draco said. “And they’re harmless. Useless, they won’t produce the tubers I need, but harmless. What in on earth is an ekwensu?”

“An African water demon,” Harry said. “Well, not literally a demon, they’re in the same family as grindylows. Less nasty, they’re largely vegetarians, but they’re a commensal species with most of the African lilies.“ He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “They farm them. The tubers. I mean, not literal farming, they’re not advanced enough for that, but they cache them like squirrels do nuts.”

“Interesting,” Draco said. “Could, if one so desired, procure –“

Harry laughed. “I’m already ordering spiders for Parkinson. All right. They’re sentient, so there are stricter protocols, but I rather imagine you might get at least a few families who would be very willing to live in here, particularly if you offered them fish. They’re utterly terrible at fishing, no skill whatsoever, but they scavenge them sometimes.”

“Done,” Draco said.

“Speaking of Potions,” Harry said, suddenly feeling a bit awkward. “I talked to McGonagall.”

“Exclusively about Potions?” Draco said.

“And the whole part where she’s starting to sound like Dumbledore and Hogwarts is a horcrux and there was a very strange chalice of blood,” Harry muttered. “What is it with me and magical objects?”

“I rather thought you were fond of Dumbledore,” Draco said, neutrally. “Jolly old chap. Fond of giving away sweets to small children. That sort of thing.”

“I mean, he did save the wizarding world,” Harry said.

Harry jumped at a low growl from Lethe.

“Oh, please,” Draco said. “You saved the wizarding world. Granger saved the wizarding world. Weasley saved the wizarding world. Half our class at Hogwarts and a large number of very respectable witches and wizards saved the wizarding world. But Dumbledore?” he snorted. “He let eleven year olds take risks I’m not sure I’d take in my late twenties. And he didn’t gain their consent.”

“Well,” Harry said, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Come on,” Draco said. “Lupin’s son – your godson, isn’t it? My nephew. He’ll be starting next year. He’s ten. See him every Christmas, don’t you? I visit sometimes. He’s into, oh, I don’t know, trains and dragons and Quidditch and turning his hair purple to annoy Aunt Andromeda.”

“Yes,” Harry said. Draco had surprised a laugh out of him. “Though last time it was convincing Melinoe to turn into an elephant in the dining room.”

“He’ll be eleven next spring,” Draco said. “Eleven. How would you feel if I’d sent him into a dungeon after Voldemort? If… I don’t know, he had to fight a basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets next year? If I just kept doing that, over and over, to a child?”

“I don’t know,” Harry said, quietly. “I’d never thought of it that way.”

“Monsters can be well-intentioned,” Draco said, with venom. “That doesn’t make them anything other than what they are.”

“And your parents?” Harry said, quietly. “Forcing you to let the Death Eaters into Hogwarts? Putting that on your head?”

Draco paused, putting a hand on Lethe. “It doesn’t make them anything other than what they are,” he repeated. “I don’t speak to them much, these days.” He laughed, hollow. “In fact, Pansy – I suppose I could have gotten significantly better revenge, but tying the family fortune up with a witch whose pedigree only goes back four generations on her mother’s side?” His smile was cold. “Scandalous.

“Do you love her?” Harry said, suddenly. “Parkin – Pansy, I mean. Not that politics is the worst reason to get married.”

“Spoken like a Gryffindor. And we’re not married, we’re contracted,” Draco said, again, as if Harry understood, then considered. “Very much. But just because you love someone doesn’t mean you can’t be useful to one another.”

“Spoken like a Slytherin. She’s very –“ Harry said.

“She makes him miss Hermione,” Thaxia said, suddenly, dashing out of a flowerbed, pursued by seedlings. “I may require assistance.”

“I’m not giving it to you if you spill all my secrets,” Harry said, then scooped her up.

“I’ll give it, I’ve been looking for those,” Malfoy said, bending down to scoop them up. “She’s not Granger, Potter, but you might find you like her all the same.”

“I’d better,” Harry said, darkly. “I’m supposed to be saving Hogwarts or the wizarding world or god knows what else. Again.”

“Now who’s being melodramatic,” Malfoy said. He tucked the plants into an empty bed alongside the pond. “Stay put. You’re worse than last year’s duckling weed.”

“You didn’t see the chalice,” Harry said, glumly. “It was very –“

“Gauche?” Draco replied. “Yes, I’ve seen the chalice.” He brushed off his hands. “Potter, the castle’s wards are failing. Things that oughtn’t be able to come in are coming calling. Very few people are smart enough to understand. Those who understand don’t necessarily want to end up knee deep in sewer muck seeding new wards.

“McGonagall is very firm about only involving those who ought to be involved, because Dumbledore thought himself above asking the castle what it needed and ended up knee deep in blood, which I can assure you is significantly worse than sewer muck. It’s not the end of the world and it’s not the end of Hogwarts, the castle will find its way. But it might find its way in a direction no one’s particularly keen on, and that would be problematic, now wouldn’t it?”

“She could have just said that much,” Harry said. “Minus the knee deep in blood bit.”

Draco bared his teeth in a smile that looked far more feral than civilized. “I hope you realize you’ll be expected to learn blood magic,” he said.

“I hope you realize I once blew up the entire Potions classroom” Harry replied. “No, wait, I believe that was on multiple occasions.”

Draco’s eyes narrowed. “I rather thought that was Snape trying to sabotage you. You know, Slytherin snubbed for Gryffindor prick, offspring proves horrifically offensive, that sort of thing.”

“The blood magic’s probably going to be the easy part,” Harry said, dryly. “And you’re not chopping up any parts that aren’t freely offered or discarded from my creatures.”

“Just so long as there aren’t any goddamned skrewts,” Draco said, and Harry laughed.

“God, Hagrid really was awful,” he mused.

“Good lord, Merlin’s turning over in his tomb, a Gryffindor has admitted Hagrid was a less than proficient professor,” Draco said. Harry snorted.

“I was thinking of starting with sphinxes for the second years,” he said, keeping a straight face. Draco paled, then sighed.

“You’ve quite honestly the worst sense of humor, Potter,” he said.

“I’ll probably start with luduan,” Harry mused. “The inability to tell lies in eleven year olds is much less disastrous than when they’re all sixteen and idiots. The older ones can get the shang-yang and their uses in agriculture, though I’ll have to figure out how to keep it from raining for a week in the castle. McGonagall says I’ve got a shed, but they’re moody.”

“A shed?” Draco said, incredulously.

“Somewhere around here,” Harry said, with a sigh. “She said it was near the greenhouses.”

“A shed,” Draco muttered. “As if Pansy and Martingale would have constructed you a shed.” He paused. “I helped, but I wasn’t certain what you’d be importing, so the habitats are rather generic. You’ll have to ask for more specific plants.”

“Habitats,” Harry said, dubiously. “In my shed.”

“It’s not –“ Draco said, then slapped a vine that was creeping toward his head and waved a hand to open a set of glass doors.

“Anathaxia,” he said, gesturing in front of him. “Potter.”

“I suppose it might be a nice shed,” Thaxia said, since apparently she seemed inclined to like Malfoy. Harry followed after.

They walked through a woven arch of birch trees, faces peeking out from amongst the branches, and Harry stopped dead when they fully rounded the corner. The buildings in front of him were no less magnificent than the greenhouse, just larger.

“Right now it’s divided by species type,” Draco said. “But there’s a setting to switch the habitats around – geographically, you know, and there’s one for nocturnal creatures, if you’d like. And an aquarium, though we haven’t filled it.

“McGonagall said there have always been issues with importation, and Pansy was going on and on about a conservation aspect, and to be honest, I’ve built you an entire enclosure just for a boomslang because our Potions stores have nearly run to the ground. It probably won’t be big enough for anything humanoid, but Pansy said that –“

“Shut up,” Harry said.

“What?” Malfoy said, frowning. “It’s state of the art. Modeled after the Jersey Zoological – something or another, Pansy says it’s very good for a Muggle institution.”

“Malfoy, shut up,” Harry said, opening the first door, and it was every habitat a reptile could ever dream of, down to the tiny flowers scattered in a perfectly random pattern across the sand behind the glass. Harry couldn’t remember what they were called – geodesic something or anothers, but he had to press a hand to the back of his neck.

“If it’s not to your standards,” Malfoy started, sounding put off, and then Lethe leaned heavily against his side.

“He’s grateful, you moron,” Thaxia said, hopping up onto Lethe’s shoulders to see down into a pit underneath a bridge that was clearly meant to be filled with water. “Leave him be, he doesn’t know how to say it.”

“Oh,” Malfoy said, finally.

“Shut up, Thaxia,” Harry said, but there wasn’t any real sting to it, because she was right.

“Thank you,” he said, finally. “It’s quite a bit nicer than a shed.”

Thaxia sighed. “It’s exquisite and he’s overwhelmed with gratitude,” she translated. “We thought we’d have to be shipping things back and forth to the continent constantly.”

“Boomslangs aren’t particularly territorial,” Harry said, just to interrupt her. “I suppose three or four might make for better success at nesting. And, anyway, the younger ones shed quite often if you feed them enough rats.”

“Perfect,” Draco said. “Show yourself around, all the buildings are keyed to you.” He laughed. “Though I might suggest checking Pansy’s wards. ‘If’ clauses aren’t her strong suit.”

“Thank you,” Harry repeated, and Draco lifted a hand, already on his way back up the path.

“I’d say I’m speechless, but I’m never speechless,” Thaxia said, grooming her tail. “The Slytherins give good presents.”

“We probably ought to stop referring to them as ‘the Slytherins,’” Harry said.

“Like ‘the Malfoys’ is much better.”

“That contracted thing,” Harry said. “Any idea?”

“Ask Hermione,” Thaxia suggested, and Harry groaned.

“I suppose I ought to owl.”

“Quite possibly,” Thaxia said.

“But not about that,” Harry said, firmly. Thaxia sighed.

The next two weeks passed in a blur. Harry couldn’t say he was the happiest he’d ever been, but life was – good. He thumbed through catalogues and put in orders for things he thought he’d never have been able to dream of keeping, and after quite a bit of floo negotiation, he found a witch doctor in Kinshasa who had two families of ekwensu who were willing to relocate in exchange for a regular supply of tinned sardines, which they’d apparently quite grown to like. He met most of the other professors as they arrived, nearly all of whom were at least twice his age. Malfoy passed him notes as they had tea, including comments such as, “excellent duelist, but more narcissistic than Gilderoy Lockhart,” and, “prefers tea leaves to people.” They were all, with the exception of the divination professor, solid to a fault, stoic and firm and –

“Not exciting,” Parkinson said, when he sat down in the professor’s lounge after dinner, pouring himself a tumbler of firewhisky.

“You need a foundation to build on before you start trying to make repairs, Pansy,” Draco said, and she made a face at him.

“Someday they’ll hire Granger and Penelope Clearwater and I’ll be amongst better company,” she said, and Harry nearly snorted his drink.

“Hermione?” he said. “Really?”

“Her articles on the biological origins of magic are fascinating,” she said, with a long sigh.

“I suppose I might invite her and Ron to visit,” Harry said, a bit doubtfully. Pansy Parkinson talking longingly about Hermione was akin to hell freezing over.

“No,” Draco said. “Absolutely not. We are not having a Weasley as a dinner guest.”

“Technically, Hermione and Ron are both Weasleys,” Harry pointed out.

“We are not having that Weasley as a dinner guest,” Malfoy corrected.

“Says the man who’s having drinks with Harry Potter,” Pansy murmured, propping her legs up on the back of the couch. Draco slid into a large armchair.

“Potter’s not a Weasley,” Malfoy said, as if that made some sort of logical sense.

“Fine,” Pansy said. “Weasley and Potter can act like ne’er-do-well Gryffindors, you can sulk in your rooms, and Granger and I will retire to The Three Broomsticks, where we shall discuss articles and theories the likes of which you peons will never even comprehend.”

“And have lots of incredibly raunchy sex,” Draco said, dryly. “Oh, Granger, do tell me more about your theory of magical luminescence – yes, there, ooh -“

“You’re just jealous you’ll never be invited for a threesome,” Pansy said, primly.

“Well, this is rather awkward,” Harry said, staring into his drink.

“If she likes Weasleys, Charlie’s coming for a lecture near the end of term,” Thaxia said. She sighed, happily. “With Chrysippia. I love Chrysippia.”

“The whole being contracted thing is probably going to put paid to any infatuation with Charlie.”

“Not necessarily,” Pansy said, brightening. “Is he bringing dragons? Do you think he might let me test some of the new Hogwarts wards against dragon fire? I’m fully willing to get naked for that exchange.”

“I will fight you for him,” Thaxia informed her, grimly. “His daemon is mine.”

“Yes, he’s bringing dragons, yes, I’m sure he’ll help you test the wards, no, I don’t think it’s necessary to get naked, and Thaxia, you cannot put claim to a daemon without my… involvement,” Harry said, refilling his glass.

“She’s beautiful,” Thaxia said, with a contented sigh, and Lethe laughed.

“Should I be insulted?” she inquired.

“She’s not serious,” Harry said, firmly, and Thaxia looked at him for a long moment, but she let it go.

“Look at Potter, ruining all your Weasley hopes and dreams,” Malfoy said, relaxing in an armchair.

“Intellectual curiosities, my love,” Pansy corrected. Kitcaron stretched and purred.

“Bed?” he inquired.

“Why, has talking about Granger got you both all hot and bothered?” Draco said.

“Obviously,” Pansy said, stretching until her skirt slid up, revealing a long expanse of leg. “I bet Potter would be nicer to me about this entire situation.” She tugged her blouse down, and Harry swallowed. “Wouldn’t you, Potter?”

“I suppose I could owl,” he said, doubtfully, and Pansy slid out of her chair, beaming, pressing a long kiss to his cheek. He suspected she was the sort of witch who didn’t charm her lipstick to stay put and that he’d be washing it off later.

“Potter, please stop trying to seduce my wife with connections to Granger,” he said, and Pansy laughed, flushed in the firelight, and met his eyes squarely.

“Not with connections to Granger,” she said, guiding Harry’s hand to her hip. “Look, darling, he’s all red.”

“Pansy, I highly doubt Potter is going to fuck you into the couch,” Draco said, sounding significantly more amused than irritated. “Though you’re welcome to try your feminine wiles on him.”

“I, ah,” Harry managed, trying to figure out a polite way to ask her to get off. Pansy let go with a laugh, leaning over the back of Draco’s armchair.

“You’re right, he’s rather fun to spin up,” she said, brightly, and this time it was Draco who flushed.

“That was taken entirely out of context,” he said. “Kit’s right. Bed, before you ruin his Gryffindor reputation for good.”

“What, do you think they’d be surprised to learn the Savior of the Wizarding World likes sex?” Pansy teased. “Oh, Harry, harder,” she began, pitching her voice high, and thankfully, Draco levitated her over his shoulder before Harry had to respond.

“Very manly, dragging me out of here,” she said, but she winked and waved as he carried her through the doorway, leaving Harry with a large fire and an overly full glass of alcohol.

“You know, I’ve no idea what to make of them,” he said, finally.

“You needed more friends,” Thaxia said. “Besides. No one flirts with you at Weasley family gatherings unless Percy’s date is having a horrific time. It’s very boring.”

“What, and I suppose you want me to flirt back with a married woman?”

“It could be interesting,” Thaxia said. “You know. Scientific curiosity.”

“I’m reasonably certain the hat nearly sorted us into Slytherin because of you,” Harry said, scooping her up, and headed back to his quarters.

The students arrived the next day, and Harry spent most of it in the dungeon with Draco, sorting ingredients and tolerating the occasional explosion of temper. “That’s wracked bladderwort, not crackling,” he yelled, and Harry paused.

“Yes, because the labels are exquisitely clear and they look quite different,” he responded, holding up two glass jars with identical contents and crumpled, yellowing slips of paper inside. “Would you like to start flinging hexes at me, or are you going to tell me why you’re so unhappy to have the students back?”

“Fuck,” Draco said, sinking down against the wall. By Harry’s count, it was his sixth tantrum of the morning. “Maybe we ought to be – I don’t know. Finding plants for your habitats. Introducing creatures into your habitats. Something.”

“You think I’m letting you and your horrific mood anywhere near the rainbirds?” Harry said. “They’ll wreck the humidity charms with all the lightning and thunder.”

“I’m nervous,” Draco said, finally, looking up at Harry from his spot on the floor. “Last year, the Hat only sorted four Slytherins. Four. The castle is trying to compensate for the imbalance in the magic. If we haven’t fixed anything – if it’s not getting any better –“

“You and Parkinson dragged me on the roof in the rain last night to trace some sort of Hopi growth charms for vine seedlings,” Harry said, patiently. “And now they’ve covered the entire east wall. It must be doing something.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Draco said, though he appeared slightly more satisfied. “Really? The entire wall?”

“They seem quite content,” Harry replied, dryly. “Now please tell me which of these I want before I blow up a sixth year.”

Draco stayed edgy all afternoon, though at least he stopped shouting, and he left abruptly a few hours before dinner, murmuring a spell so all the Potion stores went back to their proper places, wherever those were supposed to be. Harry, left holding an empty jar that he’d been half way through labeling, decided that protest was probably futile.

Parkinson made a face when he found her in her office, rearranging books. “Do you think seven texts is too many for the fifth years this term, or should I be asking for more essays?”

“You must be quite popular,” Harry said, leaning against the doorframe.

“Twelve inches of popular, Potter,” Parkinson said, with a smirk, pulling down a large text from the top shelf and twirling a long lock of hair around her finger. “That’s how long my first years’ essay is going to be. None of this coddling the children nonsense. Separate the wheat from the chaff and all that.”

Harry laughed. “McGonagall says you’re the most popular professor here. Horrifically long essays and all. You do have to grade them, you know.”

“Oh, but I don’t,” she said, cheerfully. “I’ve set up an algorithm, you know. It evaluates everything in a completely unbiased fashion and assigns a grade. Then I look over the terrible ones and add comments. It’s a win across the board.”

Harry shook his head. “You might be awful, but I think I respect you.”

“Ta,” she said, with a grin. “You’ll learn to love me soon enough. All the boys do.”

“You needn’t flirt so,” Harry said. Kitcaron laughed from underneath Parkinson’s desk, finally climbing out.

“There’s a first,” he said, and Harry realized that he wasn’t entirely certain he’d heard him speak before. “She’s going to wither and die without your undying affection.”

“I really will,” Pansy agreed, reaching to rub underneath her daemon’s jaw.

“I came to find out, ah,” Harry said.

“He’s concerned Malfoy is going to implode the entire table if there aren’t enough Slytherins, or something,” Thaxia interrupted, creeping around a loveseat toward Kitcaron.

“Oh, that,” Parkinson said. She straightened her robes. “We’ve been working hard for a long time, Potter. The Sorting is one of the few indicators we have of whether it’s holding or not.”

“Statistically speaking, though,” Harry started, and Pansy interrupted him with a laugh.

“I’ve a mean, median, and mode for every year since 1950,” she said. “Four is several standard deviations below the norm. And I’m Head of House. We had to combine the first and second year dormitories just to make the balance work. Though I don’t suppose you’ll be too sorry to see fewer Slytherins.”

“I might be coming around,” Harry said, finally, more serious than he’d meant it to be. “It all seems like such a long time ago, doesn’t it?”

“Sometimes,” Parkinson said. “I was very young and very frightened, and Slytherin doesn’t hold much with false courage. We care about our own.”

“So why now?” Harry mused. “Why here?”

Parkinson laughed. “Potter, Hogwarts is our own. There wouldn’t be an us if it weren’t for this place. It… shows you things. Being a Slytherin doesn’t mean anything like what people think it does. Maybe you’re cunning, or you’re ambitious, but I rather think Granger’s unparalleled on those particular subjects, and maybe it’s not battlefield, Gryffindor bravery, but it takes a certain sort to stand up to your parents and tell them to go fuck themselves, I assure you.

“I suppose,” Harry said, but he was thinking about it.

“I heard a rumor,” she said, tipping her book back up and turning to look up at him, “that you asked for Gryffindor.”

“I was young,” he said, finally. “And people had said things, and I barely knew anything at all, except that Malfoy’s father had insulted my friend.”

“’Pietas super omnia,’” Parkinson murmured, laughing softly to herself. “How ironic.”

“I’m terrible at Latin,” Harry said, dryly. “You’ll have to let me in on the joke.”

“’Loyalty above all,’” Kitcaron translated.

“The Malfoy family crest is quite horrific,” Parkinson said. “And Black’s not much better. ‘Purity Will Always Conquer?’ ‘Always Pure?’” She made a face. “We’re not those people, any more. So I had a new one made.” She pulled another book down, flipping through until she could hold out a page for Harry. “I’ll replace it when Draco takes the estate, or when an heir is born.”

It still contained the obnoxiously large M, but it was wrapped in vines and draped cloth, smoke curling around the edges. Pietas Super Omnia was sketched lightly beneath.

“I once asked Draco what he thought it meant to be a Slytherin,” she said. “When the Hat made me Head of House. I thought it ought to have been him, but he said he hadn’t wanted it. But he said –“ She tilted her head, smiling fondly. “He said it was about loyalty to your own, and defending the things that mattered, by any means necessary. Ambitious and cunning and darkness, that vicious streak you’ve seen in us… those are just means to an end.”

“The irony being?”

Pansy laughed. “Loyalty is for Gryffindors,” she reminded him. “Blind loyalty to someone who’s been kind to you, no matter how little you know them, I’d call it a Gryffindor trait.” She smiled, cutting, a little too like Draco. “Unless you’d both been sorted into Slytherin, and then I’d call it house values.”

“That’s a rather fine line to cut,” Harry observed.

“If someone was falling from a great height, would you save them?” Pansy asked.

“Of course.”

“That’s the difference,” Pansy said. “I’d save them if they were mine.”

Harry considered. “And Hogwarts?”

“Is mine,” Pansy said, firmly.

“Would you let me see it?” Harry asked. “Your – mark?”

Pansy laughed. “That means I’ll be forced to save you if you’re falling off a cliff, you know.”

“I’m willing to strike that bargain,” Harry said. “I’d save you, but of course, I’d save everyone. Sorry.”

Pansy blew out most of the candles and drew down a lantern, murmuring a spell. It glowed faintly yellow, shadows passing across the surface. She drew her wand up her arm, leaving behind a faint cut that barely bled, then flicked her wrist, holding her forearm beneath the lantern light. At first, there was nothing, but then, from the shadows, a dementor, cloaked and ragged, made of blood and things that Harry could not possibly name. Fear, he thought, but a sort of fear he’d never known, despite everything. And then, a small, glowing light, first one then many, simple silhouettes growing on the blank canvas of Pansy’s skin: a panther, a wolf, a cat, a snake, and, a little to his surprise, smaller than the rest, a fisher. They bit into the cloak, ripping pieces out of the darkness, until the dementor opened its mouth in a silent scream and disappeared, leaving behind stark, bloody outlines, muzzles stained in black. They stared at him then faded, and Pansy pulled her sleeve down.

“Oh,” Harry said, and Pansy laughed again, low.

“’Pietas super omnia,’” she said, with a smile. “Have you lost your fear of monsters in the dark, Harry?”

“No,” Harry said, honestly. “But I’ve learned that there are monsters in the light, too.”

“Three is much better than two,” she said. “If you’ll help us. I’m fully aware we’re not Granger and Weasley.”

Harry heaved a sigh. “I suppose if there aren’t enough Slytherins, the ends might justify the means.”

“Oh, good,” Pansy said, laughing. “Though I ought to warn you, we’re quite terrible company. We do awful things in the dead of night quite often, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say we were usually up to no good.”

“Someday, remind me to tell you about my father,” Harry said, dryly. “Have I mentioned I own a motorbike?”

“No,” Pansy said, leaning back the desk and letting her eyes go falsely wide, biting the corner of her lip, clearly trying not to laugh. “Why, Potter. I never.”

“Really,” Harry said. “A flying motorbike.”

“And a leather jacket?” Pansy said, leaning back against her desk and crossing her heels, with a smirk.

“Oh, somewhere,” Harry said, flippantly. “I have several wardrobes.”

“Well,” she said. “That, you may need to show me.”

“Please tell me you’re not attempting to seduce Potter with your Head of House charms,” Draco said, from the doorway.

“That was locked,” Pansy said, feigning irritation. “I’ll have you know we were only discussing his motorbike. His flying motorbike. That he’s going to show me.”

“How shall I ever compete,” Draco said, and Pansy laughed and straightened the collar of his robes, murmuring a spell to realign the buttons.

“Jealousy is unflattering, darling.”

“How about nerves?” Draco quipped, then met Harry’s gaze.

“I’m willing to help you fix the castle, but no death rituals or utterly creepy sex magic or horrific tarot readings,” Harry warned. “There are limits.”

“What about fun sex rituals?” Pansy said. “Are those off the table too?”

“If I didn’t know better –“ Draco said, mildly, and murmured something low in her ear, and Pansy threw her head back and laughed.

“After the feast,” she said.

“Right here,” Harry said, staring at the ceiling. “Very much still in the room.”

“Thank god, someone with common sense,” Kitcaron said, getting to his feet. Lethe stopped pacing, pausing to rest her muzzle against his shoulders, letting out a soft breath.

“Stop that,” Thaxia scolded, mildly. “It’s unnerving. I’d rather you try to eat me.”

“I never tried to eat you,” Lethe said.

“Says you,” Thaxia muttered, leaping onto Kitcaron’s shoulders. “I seem to recall differently.”

“Perhaps we might move on,” Kitcaron said, a little bit of a growl behind it, and Pansy laughed.

“Oh, don’t let them rile you up,” she said, pausing. “Potter, does your hair ever improve from that state?”

“No,” Harry and Draco said, simultaneously, and Pansy sighed.

“I had to ask,” she said, then set upon him with a series of spells, until Harry hardly recognized himself in the mirror above her desk.

“It is formal,” she reminded him. “At least for us.”

“Those were dress robes,” Harry pointed out.

“Those were hideously unattractive and profoundly unflattering,” Pansy corrected. “Besides. You can’t wear colors to the Sorting.”

“I’m reasonably certain those were green,” Harry said. “Also, it’s not as if you’re wearing black.”

“Head of House,” Pansy reminded him. “And your newfound allegiance with the superior house will just have to go unnoticed.”

“Allegiance?” Draco murmured.

“Later,” Pansy said. “I’ll have you know my charms appear to work quite well on Gryffindors.”

“No one’s naked, they can’t work that well,” Draco remarked.

“Yet,” said Pansy, cheerfully. “Come along.”

They weren’t, as Pansy had said, Ron and Hermione, but Harry found he didn’t mind being the third wheel again. Pansy flirted shamelessly all the way to the Great Hall, Kitcaron rolling his eyes most of the time, and Thaxia hopped between Lethe on the long stretches and Kitcaron on the stairs, watching them closely. Harry hung back, letting it wash over him, and for all that Hermione would probably have been giving a lecture on the Ministry’s policies for alliances with other wizarding nations, it felt familiar. The devil you know, he thought, dryly, and followed them into the Great Hall.

There was a gaggle of first years in the hallway, at least a few looking rather drowned, and Harry watched them eye Pansy, then Draco with awe, whispering to one another and their daemons, and then they turned to him. It was something different, he had to admit, but these children had been so young when the war ended, not even born at its beginning, and in their small faces, he saw what Draco had meant. This was no place for battles, just a school, and when they began to whisper about them, he offered a smile.

“Hi,” he said, to one group, with a brief wave at another, and by the end of the line, they didn’t look quite so terrified. Pansy rolled her eyes and motioned at him to hurry up, and he climbed to take his seat beside Draco at the head table.

“They don’t seem like absolute hellions,” Harry remarked, filling his goblet with wine.

Draco snorted. “They never do, and they always are,” he said, nodding at a Ravenclaw prefect as Pansy turned to talk to the professor on her other side – charms, if Harry remembered correctly.

“McGonagall’s a horror,” Draco muttered. “The wine turns to juice if anyone starts getting overly enthusiastic about the proceedings. So I can’t even drink myself through this.”

“It’s a smaller class this year,” Pansy remarked. “Not really much of a surprise if you think about it, though.” She laughed. “Next year’s ought to be enormous.”

“Yes, thank you, I’m so glad we’ve now all had to think about Potter influencing population demographics,” Draco said, taking another gulp of wine.

“Is he always this uptight about sex and babies?” Thaxia said, curled on a stool next to Harry’s chair, all feigned innocence. “Oughtn’t you be producing some grandiose Malfoy heir by now or something?”

“You are not improving this situation,” Harry said, sternly.

“Later,” Pansy said, waving a hand. “I’ve other things to do, and besides that, I haven’t the time to –“

“Do not say one single, solitary thing about pregnancy or babies and work-life balance, or Hermione is likely to appear and eat you alive,” Harry said, firmly.

“Oh, right,” Pansy said. “I read in the Prophet –“

“Would you all just shut up?” Draco said, as Professor Martingale carried in the stool and the Hat.

“Deputy Headmaster, teaches transfiguration,” Pansy murmured.

“Pansy –“ Draco said, but Lethe carefully laid her head in his lap, and he sighed and took another drink.

The song wasn’t particularly different from what Harry remembered, though he had to admit to having attended fewer than his fair share of Sortings. The Hat did seem much bigger than he remembered.

“Abernathy, Samantha,” went to Ravenclaw, with a cheer that Harry suspected was going to get very old by the end of the evening.

Pansy and Draco both heaved an audible sigh of relief when, “Crusie, Rosalind,” went striding with clear purpose towards the Slytherin table. Harry propped his head on his hand and looked at the rest, trying to decide if it was possible to predict where they were going to go. He was wrong more often than he was right, though it was at least a bit of an entertaining game to distract him from Draco’s tension at his side, though when he was sure, he was sure, even if he didn’t know why.

“Not this one, but the next,” he murmured, and the Hat had barely touched his head before “Greengrass, Joseph,” became a Slytherin, and “Harper, Saoirse,” followed him to the table.

“Still only three,” Draco muttered, but Pansy and Thaxia both rolled their eyes, and Harry grinned when, “Kelly, Declan,” and – with a few Ravenclaws and Gryffindors in between – “McLachlan, Catriona,” were sorted there too.

“It’s only forty, anything close to ten is good enough for government work,” Pansy said, firmly, then muffled a sigh when the Hat stalled out on, “Narrow, Timothy.”

“How often does that happen?” Harry murmured, when five minutes had passed, and Pansy shrugged.

“Once a year, once every other year,” she said. “Either he’d like to be in a house he’s not suited for and the Hat is talking him around, or he’s genuinely a good fit for more than one. I don’t know the name.”

“Slytherin!” the Hat proclaimed, finally.

Draco took another drink of wine. “Really? We had to get that one?”

“I thought we were grateful for anything,” Harry said, laughing. “Even Slytherins who might have been suitable for other houses.”

“I can’t believe Harry Potter is sitting up here cheering for Slytherins,” Pansy said.

“I’m politely clapping for everyone,” Harry corrected her. “I’m merely counting Slytherins.”

“Five for Hufflepuff, nine for Ravenclaw, eight for Gryffindor, and six for us,” Pansy said. “I keep track.”

There was a relatively long drought where Harry watched Draco try not to sink into his chair, but “Patil, Lakshmi,” went to Slytherin.

“Huh,” Harry said. “I wonder if she’s –“

“They had a much older sister, she was a Ravenclaw,” Pansy said. “You really ought to keep up with these things more, Potter.”

“Swift, Alastair,” became the eighth, at which point Draco had brightened considerably, and “Wakefield, Jessamy,” was the last to be sorted, and headed to the Slytherin table to thunderous applause.

“Ravenclaw’s got twelve, but nine isn’t bad,” Pansy said, sounding relieved in spite of herself. “Hufflepuff only has seven this round.”

“And we’ve plenty of girls,” Draco said. “Last year there was only one.”

“Mother hens,” Kitcaron commented from beneath the table. “I’m sure you’ll all meet the chicks shortly, then Pansy will be cursing their names for causing explosions and Harry will be tempted to feed them to ice lizards.”

“God, I hope it’s not that bad,” Harry said, laughing, and Draco made a face.

“There have been more muggleborns in the last few classes,” Pansy remarked. “Didn’t know not to have children, I suppose.”

“Thank you for that charming spin on the war,” Harry replied.

“I only mean, it’s a lot harder,” Pansy said. “Get used to talking portraits and moving staircases, all your work’s got to be done with a quill and you’ve likely never seen one in your life, ghosts are real and so is magic…”

“Yeah,” Harry said, finally, realizing that perhaps not every student might embrace such dramatic changes with the joy that he had.

“Three in our group,” Draco said. “You’ll ride the fifth years to keep it civil? They were the worst last year.”

“Obviously,” Pansy said, looking offended, and Harry paused.

“Really,” he said. “You really have changed. No – pureblood pride and all that nonsense.”

“If your House is on the verge of going extinct, Potter, it makes certain details seem a little less important,” Draco said.

“Loyalty,” Pansy repeated, firmly, meeting his eyes, and Harry smiled.

When Harry woke the next morning, it was to the smell of vanilla and ink and orange spice tea, a familiar combination that felt exactly like home, and when he opened his eyes, Hermione was lying on the other side of the bed.

“Morning, Harry,” she said, and Harry sat bolt upright.

“What –“ he said. “How –“

“McGonagall gave me special permission to floo into her office,” Hermione said, as if law-breaking exceptions were written all the time. Atticus was perched on Harry’s headboard, preening her hair, and she looked tired but happy. There was a tiny noise from inside her robes, and Harry reached out a hand when the baby grabbed for Hermione’s hair so he could wrap it around his finger instead.

“You probably should have owled, but I’m so happy to see you, I don’t care,” Harry said, reaching across the bed to crush her in a hug.

She laughed. “Please don’t squash the three week old,” she said. “Harry, what were you thinking?”

“I had to -“ he said, swallowing. “I couldn’t do it anymore. And I had to – try it on my own.”

She tilted his face up. “And you thought, if you told us that you wanted to come teach at Hogwarts, we wouldn’t support you?”

“Yes,” Harry said, with a sigh, and Thaxia crawled into his lap. “No. I don’t know.”

“Harry, we’ve been through everything,” Hermione said, her voice breaking, and Harry suddenly thought about what Pansy had said and pulled her in again, stroking her hair.

“You’re right, you’re right,” he murmured. “You know me. Cupboard under the stairs. Unable and unwilling to accept love. Childhood psychological trauma.”

Hermione laughed, brushing a hand against her cheeks. “You can only play that card so much, you know, Harry.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, meeting her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I should have trusted you.”

“I should have listened,” Hermione said, simply.

“About that,” Harry said. “There are a lot of things – the castle –“

“If no one has owled Hermione about that by now, I’m going to bite them,” Thaxia supplied, peeking into Hugo’s sling and nuzzling the tiny raven chick asleep against his chest.

“She’s all right, isn’t she?” Hermione said, a little anxiously. “Ron and everyone say she’s fine, but she’ll only take Atticus’ form or Tiphaine’s. Endymion wasn’t like that when Rose was this age.”

“She’s a baby,” Thaxia said, nuzzling the top of her head, then Hugo’s. “Babies are different. Look, bet she’ll mimic –“ she said, nudging her awake with a squeak, and then started to groom her. A few minutes later there was a tiny fluffball of a fisher in Hugo’s sling. Hermione looked noticeably relieved.

“Still learning,” Thaxia proclaimed, with a final lick to the top of her head, then jumped to nuzzle hello to Atticus, who was running his beak through Harry’s hair.

You’re all right?” Harry said, looking at her, and Hermione smiled.

“Second time’s harder, but it’s worth it,” she said. “Though,“ she laughed. “We’re really done with two. I’ve no idea how Molly managed.”

“Sheer force of will and possibly a healthy dose of insanity, but you never heard me say that.”

“The castle?” Hermione said, sounding intrigued, and Harry laughed.

“Like a bloodhound on a scent,” he said, fondly. “Ron’s at work?”

“Watching Rose,” Hermione said, with a smile. “I suspect they’re at the shop. He said if I was the one who couldn’t stop crying over you running off, I probably ought to be the one to fix it, and otherwise you’d come around again when you were ready.”

“Tactful, to the woman who just had his baby,” Harry said, dryly.

Hermione laughed. “Always.”

Harry heard a sudden pounding before the portrait swung open, and Pansy ran down the stairs from the foyer. “God, Potter, please tell me you’re dressed, I’ve class in half an hour and I think my boggart might not actually be a boggart, which would be a bit of an issue given that –“

She paused, and Hermione paused, staring at one another.

“There’s another woman in your bed, Potter,” Pansy said, looking ready to draw her wand.

“Yes,” Harry said, dryly. “And she’s all puffy because I’ve been a prick, but I rather think you might recognize her from the Chocolate Frog Card you’ve got hidden in your desk. Don’t think I didn’t know.”

“Oh God,” Pansy said, faintly. “Granger?”

“Parkinson?” Hermione said, dubiously. “What – she has a chocolate frog card?”

“Pansy, Hermione,” Harry said. “Hermione, Pansy. Thaxia, don’t you dare. Even if you like shiny black things. Atticus, this is Kitcaron. Kitcaron, Atticus. And the baby’s Hugo. Oh, Pansy’s a Malfoy these days.”

“There’s a baby?” Pansy said. “Oh god. I’ve – these are my fourth best robes, Potter, and you didn’t warn me.“

“Wait, wait,” Hermione said. “Pansy Malfoy?”

“Yes,” Pansy said, a little anxiously. “But he and Potter seem to be getting along, and I rather thought –“

“Oh,” Hermione said, sitting up. “I read your article last month, the one on snare wards with novel consequence spells, that was bloody brilliant.”

“You read my article?” Pansy said, going faintly pink.

“Yes, and the one on using pain infliction spells for healing, tricking the mind into undoing the damage, I think, that was you, wasn’t it?”

“It’s not my area of expertise, I was second author, but yes,” Pansy said. “It’s really an honor –“

“You do realize we had classes together for six years,” Hermione said, dryly, and Pansy flushed again.

“I – my life was very different,” she said, primly, and Harry climbed out of bed, grateful he’d decided on pajamas the night before.

“Hermione, Pansy’s teaching Defense Against Magical Enemies,” he said. “She and Malfoy are bearable these days, I think she might actually be able to talk magical physics with you.”

Oh,” Hermione said, as if Christmas had come early. “Really?”

“Yes, of course, but which branch?” Pansy said. “Because the theoretical underpinning –“

“Pansy,” Harry said. “Hermione is going to McGonagall’s office to – I don’t know, get shown that bloody chalice. I don’t care what the Hat says about it. And I’m going to look at your boggart.”

He was met with identical crestfallen looks. “Honestly,” he muttered. “Hermione, it’ll only take an hour, and then you can sit in on any class you want, and we’ll do lunch, and you two can talk – knit theory or something.”

“String theory,” they both corrected.

“Oh, well, lovely,” Harry said, ducking into his wardrobe and spelling on his robes over slacks and a sweater. “Whatever that is.”

They’d had two thirds of a conversation by the time Harry managed to change, and he had to physically drag Pansy out the door, shoving Hermione toward the Headmistress’ office. “Tell McGonagall I sent you,” he said. “And tell her to put it in plain English, please, or I’m letting Draco explain.”

“I can’t believe you just separated me from Granger,” Pansy muttered, as Harry took the stairs toward the second year classroom.

“Could you explain to me why you think this isn’t a boggart?” Harry said, firmly ignoring her.

In Harry’s opinion, the first morning of classes could – perhaps – have gone a bit more smoothly. Pansy’s boggart turned out to be a huldra, which spent nearly twenty minutes trying to convince him to do increasingly inappropriate things to him while Pansy watched, not bothering to hold back hysterical laughter, and once Harry had convinced her that twelve year olds were unlikely to be particularly susceptible to her charms and that she might have significantly more luck in the Forbidden Forest, Pansy was left with ten minutes to formulate a lesson plan.

“It’s all right, I’ll just lecture on shape shifters,” Pansy said, sounding sort of depressed, and Harry groaned inwardly. “Though I do hate to leave out the practical components.”

“Come on, we’ll just combine classes,” he said, which is how they ended up with Pansy’s second year Slytherins and Ravenclaws and Harry’s first year Gryffindors and Slytherins packed into Harry’s classroom.

“Second years, I’ll expect your best behavior,” Harry said. “Pick a brazier, I’ll be going around to watch you put on the safety gear, and then we’ll talk about the practical and historical implications of the luduan.”

Twenty points from Slytherin for showing an utter disregard for safety,” Pansy exploded, an hour later, as she sent a second first year to the hospital wing for burns because a Slytherin and a Ravenclaw had gotten into some sort of spat when one of them found she couldn’t speak about a missing necklace in front of the spirits and their daemons had knocked over an entire brazier.

“Blood traitor bitch,” muttered one of the second year Slytherins.

“And a hundred points from Slytherin for conduct unbecoming a representative of the house, and two weeks of detention with Professor Malfoy,” Harry said, calmly. “Not your Head of House, given that you seem to prefer the pureblood variety. Enjoy the greenhouses.”

Pansy was still putting out sparks furiously, and Harry turned down the fires, schooling his face to hide his irritation.

“Ten points to Ravenclaw for Miss Archworth’s excellent explanation of the Chinese dynastic succession process from the assigned reading,” he said. “Please read the chapter on Japanese folklore for Wednesday.”

“And ten points to Gryffindor for not blowing anything up,” Pansy added, glaring at the Slytherins.

“I’m not actually sure that’s a valid reason for points,” Harry said, finally, sending an owl to Bewick, who had his first years next, explaining that two of them would be late.

“Sod it all, I think this hole is permanent,” Pansy said, then paused. “Not really my finest pedagogical moment, was it?”

“Just send it to the house elves and bill me if it can’t be fixed,” Harry said, rubbing his head. “I’ve got fifth year Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors next.”

“Watch out for Prewitt, he’s a snot,” Kitcaron said. “Let’s hope Draco’s having a better morning than us.”

Prewitt, true to character, knocked over Harry’s tank of will ‘o the wisps, sending them scurrying for every dark corner, and it took almost an extra half hour to round them all up. Harry had to take points away three more times, and he assigned Prewitt detention moving mud into a new exhibit for hot spring hellbenders.

When he found the staff lunch room, Pansy, at least, looked like her day had improved – Hermione was sitting on a couch feeding Hugo while they talked about some sort of wand link they’d performed for Pansy’s sixth year NEWT class, and Kitcaron and Atticus were on the other side of the sofa, talking in low tones.

Draco, however, came strolling in with a literal thundercloud overhead, underneath a conjured umbrella. Lethe slinked in behind him, dripping wet. “I’m going to need someone to remove this bloody hex,” he snarled, and then stopped short when he saw Hermione.

“Oh, good,” he said. “Granger, here to brighten my otherwise magnificent day. Potter, you ought to have said we were having a reunion, I would have brought my dueling wand. Where’s Weasley? I’d so hate to leave a member of the Golden Trio out of the festivities.”

To Harry’s surprise, it was Pansy who stepped in front of an open-mouthed Hermione, while the other professors stared from near the door. “Don’t you dare,” she said. “Granger’s Potter’s and Potter’s with us, sort of, and she has some excellent ideas about transfiguring the granite into a substance with more magical conductivity, and if you so much as exchange one uncivil word with her, you will have me to contend with.” She looked him up and down and glared. “Tonight.”

“Well,” Hermione said, when a long enough silence had passed that everyone in the room felt awkward, “I suppose I could start the duel by taking off that hex, if you’d like. But if you return fire, I’ll get to you before Dr. Malfoy does, because my son is currently eating lunch underneath my cloak.”

“Bloody Gryffindors,” Draco said, but he held still as Hermione removed the spell and cast a series of drying charms on him and, when she stepped closer, on Lethe.

“Better, darling?” Pansy said, sweetly, and Draco stomped off toward the table of food.

“I don’t think the fourth year combined class is going to survive the term,” Draco said, finally, sitting down at a table Harry had pulled over to the sofa. “I had an entire bed of orchestral snapdragons and someone set every seedling on fire. Lorenson managed to save half of them with some sort of smothering spell, but honestly, we’re not even to dangerous plants yet.”

“The second year Slytherins aren’t proving promising,” Harry said. He paused. “One of them has two weeks of detention with you.”

“I saw that in the log,” Lethe said, with a sigh.

“Well, Pansy’s sixth years seem delightful,” Hermione said. “A very engaged group, actually.”

Pansy laughed around a fork full of food. “They were just showing off for you,” she said. “But I require outstandings on OWLs, so they’d damn well better be good.”

“What happened with the points?” Draco said. “Slytherin’s down two hundred.”

“Half of that was me,” Harry said, and before Draco could say anything, Pansy narrowed her eyes.

“It’s a good thing he got there first, or I’d have taken every point,” she said, a little savagely. “’Blood traitor bitch’ indeed.”

“I would have bitten him for you,” Thaxia offered. “But I don’t usually bite strangers. Or students. I suppose I ought to have a moral policy about students.”

“Oh, delightful, I’ve got them this afternoon,” Draco said.

“First day’s the best day,” Pansy said, suddenly cheerful. “Granger, I don’t suppose you’d give a guest lecture for my seventh years?”

“I suppose,” Hermione said, slowly. “Hugo usually naps most of the afternoon.”

“Don’t be daft,” Pansy said. “No one will mind if there’s a baby if it’s you.”

“Pansy, your intellectual crush is showing,” Draco said, dryly. “Granger, I think you’d best be careful, she might make off with the baby to tutor it in the dark ways of Slytherin kind.”

“I would do no such thing,” Pansy said, firmly, then glanced at Hermione’s cloak. “You might let us meet him, though. Once he’s –“ She gestured.

“Finished breastfeeding?” Hermione said, dryly. “Yes, you can hold Hugo. Nerida’s shy, though. She’ll probably stay with me or Harry.” She laughed. “She’s still a fisher. I think she likes it.”

“You know, for the number of times you insultingly called me a weasel,” Draco mused, and Thaxia bared all her teeth at him.

“I don’t have a moral policy against biting faculty members yet,” she said.

“Potter would be far worse off without someone with a temper to balance out his general placid, boring nature,” Draco said, offering her a piece of tart off his fork. “It wasn’t meant as an insult.”

“I can’t decide whether that was the best backhanded compliment my daemon’s ever received or an awful insult,” Harry said. “Brava.”

Hermione laughed. “Thaxia settled a bit late,” she said. “Our theory is that she picked a tumultuous time in Harry’s life.”

“Bite me,” Thaxia said, taking Draco’s pie.

“When wasn’t there a tumultuous time in my life as an adolescent?” Harry said, laughing. “You’re lucky she’s not a wolverine. Or a grizzly.”

“No,” Thaxia said, extremely firmly. “I am who he is, and he is who I am, and we match. I just say the things he won’t.” She leaned toward Draco’s plate. “Like that you ought to give me more pie.”

“I really wasn’t thinking that,” Harry said.

“It’s hardly my fault that you ought to have been and weren’t,” Thaxia said.

“You get used to her,” Atticus said. “Don’t start, you know we love you.”

“Ugh, sentiment,” Thaxia said.

“Childhood trauma,” Hermione said, solemnly, and everyone laughed.

After dinner – which Harry was nearly ready to put his face into, he was so exhausted – they retired to Draco and Pansy’s sitting room, where Pansy had several books that made Hermione’s eyes gleam. “Oh, anything you’d like,” Pansy said, pouring a glass of wine, and leaned over Draco’s shoulder to cast a series of flickering lights above where Hugo was very solemnly eating a bottle and Nerida was tucked in against his side, apparently willing to tolerate Draco.

Hermione sighed – a sigh that, to Harry’s knowledge, had only ever been elicited by books – and pulled out a quill and the smallest of the books she’d trailed her fingers over, starting to take notes in a notebook. Harry brought her a cup of tea, taking the seat next to her, and watched her write. Atticus was asleep with his head tucked under his wing, and Thaxia was watching the baby with the Malfoys’ daemons, jumping after the lights as they all laughed. After a while Hermione looked up and laughed softly. “You’re exhausted,” she said. “All those students.”

“Very,” Harry said, with a yawn. He glanced over at Draco and Pansy, who were talking in hushed tones so as not to wake the sleeping baby, and if it hadn’t been for Hugo’s red hair and Draco’s endless remarks about holding something with Weasley genes they’d have looked… content. The perfect family.

“I know she’s flip,” Harry started, a little awkwardly, and Hermione looked up at him with another laugh.

“No, she’s utterly brilliant,” she said. “She’s the best lecturer I’ve ever seen, actually, she makes Lupin look positively boring, and it’s on things no one ought to find interesting, let alone a gaggle of seventeen year olds.” Hermione glanced over her shoulder. “Sometimes people don’t want the attention of being serious, so they hide it. But don’t underestimate her, Harry. She’s a very powerful witch.”

“It’s strange,” Harry said, finally. “Being here instead of home. With you.”

Hermione smiled. “You’ll always have a home with us,” she said. “But you’re working on something important here. Something you need. The war – oh, I don’t know, Harry, it took your childhood and it took your adolescence and sometimes I think it took your ability to be happy with it. Do something you like. Be with your new friends. We’re not going anywhere.”

“My friends,” Harry said, letting the word pause in his mouth for a moment, and Hermione glanced over her shoulder again.

“Yes, I’d say so,” she said, dryly. “Malfoy never devoted much attention to anything he didn’t like.”

“So all the dueling and the name calling and the trapping me in train cars –“

“We were children, Harry,” Hermione pointed out. “And I doubt he’d been taught any different. Do you think Lucius and Narcissa loved him, the way yours and mine and Ron’s loved us? I know watching Ron was always hard for you, but you never doubted for a single moment.” She reached to tap his forehead. “Your mother’s love is written across your face. I doubt you can say as much for Malfoy.”

“No,” Harry said, finally. “They don’t seem to be on good terms. Something about his marr –“ He paused. “D’you know, is there much of a difference between being married and being contracted?”

“Oh,” Hermione said, putting her quill to her lip in an old, familiar habit. “Sort of, I suppose. I wouldn’t typically put the two together, although I guess they’re both bindings. Contracts were favored among purebloods who wanted house alliances, and they’ve usually got loads of clauses and rules. Marriage is –“ She thought for a moment. “As much as it pains me to admit it, marriage is a property transfer. I mean, of course, these days, it’s about loving and cherishing one another, but in the old days, marriage meant giving the bride and her ability to bear heirs to the groom in exchange for the responsibility of her and her magic. Contracts can be just as archaic, but with solicitors these days, they’re usually not. And marriage is between two people, and you only marry once at a time – a contract is a contract, it’s legally binding but you could have four hundred if you wanted. Why?”

“I think they’re contracted, but not married,” Harry said. “I keep getting corrected. But she’s taken his name, hasn’t she? They talk about heirs sometimes.”

“Interesting,” Hermione said. “I suppose if you were the Malfoy heir and you wanted an air tight bargain your parents couldn’t wriggle their way around, you might choose a contract. And it’s simultaneously a nod to history and a bit of a feminist fuck off, really. I’d have to read it, but I suspect it says she’s no one’s property but her own. And it’s a different sort of commitment. You can get divorced, but undoing a blood magic contract, if that’s what it is…” Hermione shook her head. “Next to impossible, even if both parties consent to the unbinding.”

“Hermione,” Harry said, patiently, and she looked up with a questioning glance, then laughed.

“Think of it as the Slytherin version of being married,” she said. “If, as a Slytherin, you wanted to tell your parents and everyone else to go to hell in the bargain.”

“Pietas super omnia,” Harry murmured, to himself.

“What’s that?” Hermione said. “You really have got to choose between having a conversation and getting my notes on this book, Harry.”

“Nothing,” he said, with a smile. “I’m going to go make sure they aren’t knitting the baby snake booties.”

“Ron would be particularly thrilled, I’m sure,” she said, dryly.

Hermione made her way through four books before the clock struck and she put her notebook down, looking regretful. “I’d better get home,” she said. “It’s past Rose’s bedtime.” She smiled at Hugo, who was still asleep in Draco’s arms. “And I’d better take them back, if you don’t mind.”

“We mind very much, they’re perfect and we’re keeping them,” Pansy teased, then leaned over the couch to kiss Hermione’s cheek. Hermione flushed, looking pleased.

“Thank you,” Pansy said. “Really. The help, the lecture –“

“I’ll do what I can,” Hermione said, face turning serious. “I do think Draco’s right, though. Your northeast wards and structures are the weakest, and they’re the closest to the forest. Leave the towers to McGonagall. The forest was nasty to begin with, and it’s only going to get nastier.” She considered. “And the lake’s not much better – you’ll want unbreakable barriers to section off the castle. Set them in the dungeons first, but every entrance, every hallway…”

“That’s going to take months,” Kitcaron said. “At least.”

Hermione shook her head. “The NEWT Defense students, NEWT Charm students, and NEWT Transfiguration students ought to have the castle covered in a week if you pair up one from each class with the others. And if it were me –“

Her face looked grimmer than Harry had seen it in a long time, maybe since the war. “Dark wizards… we ran those out quite a while ago. But magic has never been the safe picture the Ministry likes to paint, and one of the largest defenses against that darkness has a gaping wound next to a place that’s a siren song for things on the hunt for blood. I’d set traps, as many as you can, the sort that the wilder sorts of magic won’t have much effect on. Plants. Creatures. Make bargains, if you have to.” She paused. “Harry, I would not send my children here right now.”

“Do we need to evacuate the castle?” Harry said, bluntly.

Hermione paused. “McGonagall will know, if it comes to that. But be careful.”

“I’ll walk you to her office,” Pansy said, quickly, with a glance over her shoulder at Draco, a conversation Harry couldn’t quite read.

“I love you,” Hermione said, hugging Harry tightly, and after a moment’s consideration, she kissed Malfoy on the cheek as well.

“Well,” Draco said, after the women had left through the portrait.

“Fuck, I need a drink,” Harry said, following Draco’s gesture to the liquor cabinet and pouring himself a scotch. The ice appeared in his glass without question, and he chalked it up to it being Malfoy’s.

“As much as it pains me to admit it, Granger’s not wrong,” Draco said.

“Granger’s very right, actually,” Lethe corrected.

“I think we might seal the castle against the lake,” Harry said, sitting in one of the armchairs. “With wards to tell us if anything’s trying to get through. That would work with water.”

“But it won’t work with the forest,” Draco said, grimly. “And it won’t work with the tunnels through the dungeons. Goddamn Slytherin and his inordinate love of wandering mazes.”

“We can seal some of them,” Harry mused. “Wrap over it with bindweed.”

“Bindweed, sealsafe, and Pansy’s blanket stasis barrier,” Draco said. “That ought to keep just about everything out. We’ll boobytrap the rest. And alarm the hell out of everything.”

“Do we tell the students?” Thaxia said, quietly.

“They told us,” Draco said, flatly. “We owe them the same courtesy. At least, we’ve got to tell fifth year and above, and there aren’t any goddamned secrets in this castle. Much as I hate frightening children.”

“The power it’s going to take to seal that hole,” Harry said, with a sigh, and Draco laughed.

“A Gryffindor longing for power,” he said. “We ought to just start searching through the Room of Requirement, there’s probably some magical ward sealing device, passed down through Hufflepuff for twenty generations.”

“You know, that’s not the worst idea,” Harry said.

“No, that was a terrible idea, are you mad?” Draco said. “That scotch isn’t that strong.”

“Not that,” Harry said, rolling his eyes. “But blood magic. The founders’ blood. It’s still around, isn’t it?”

“Yes, thank you, the cup of disgusting liquid that’s hidden so well even the castle can’t find it,” Draco said.

“Not that thing,” Harry said. “McGonagall said Pansy had some Ravenclaw blood in her. What would it take to figure that out? A search charm? Could we use it to – even the score?”

“Probably, but no, you’d never get it that way,” Draco said, then considered. “Pedigrees, though. Some of the Twenty-Eight have pedigrees back that far. And I’ll bet vital records in the Ministry could do it, if you had someone to put the pieces together.”

“Hermione,” Harry said, firmly. “There’s no one else. Well, Pansy, but we can’t spare her. And Hermione has children, she’s much safer in a library.”

“You know she’d skin you alive for saying that, Potter,” Lethe said. “She had your back all along, don’t leave her out of it now.”

“But it’s no less true,” Draco said, firmly. “No more war orphans. Besides, Granger can get through that paperwork in – I don’t know, probably weeks, it’d take the rest of us years.”

“Then it’s because she’s best for the job, not because you’re coddling her,” Lethe snapped. “We do not wrap women in wool and lock them in attics, gentlemen.”

Harry blinked, taken aback at her sudden ferocity, and Draco inclined his head toward her. “All right,” he said. “No coddling. But I still can’t think of anyone better with that sort of thing than Granger.”

“Bill Weasley, actually,” Harry said. “I mean, Hermione’s better, but he’s nearly as good. And Fleur knows a hell of a lot of history.”

“Right,” Draco said. “Team Obnoxious Gryffindors and a Veela, in the Ministry archives.”

Harry snorted. “Leaving what, Team Obnoxious Slytherins and a Parseltongue in the trenches?”

“And someone to finalize rebuilding those towers,” Draco said, firmly. “It’s been a decade. That’s got to be finished. You can’t –“

“Transfigure something from nothing,” Harry finished, laughing. “Yes, I sat through all those classes too. I’ll talk to McGonagall in the morning. And floo Hermione and Bill.”

“Wasn’t your girl rather good at that sort of thing?” Draco said. “Building hexes into god knows what and all that? I thought she took a NEWT in History of Magic.”

Harry winced. “Let’s not involve Ginny,” he said.

“Lover’s quarrel?” Draco said.

“No,” Harry said, firmly. “She ended things and took up with Dean Thomas. I wasn’t right for her, and we both knew it, even if the fairytale compass was pointing in the right direction. Sometimes you just… outgrow one another. Sometimes the people you meet when you’re eleven aren’t the people you’re meant to be with your whole life.”

Draco took a long sip of wine. “But sometimes they are.”

“Sometimes it takes a while,” Thaxia said, from her spot on the back of the sofa.

“Takes a while to what?” Pansy said, letting herself and Kitcaron back in.

“Convince Potter to play truth or dare,” Draco said, mildly.

“No, absolutely not,” Harry said. “Exploding snap, maybe, but nothing that involves anyone disrobing.”

“Oh dear, Potter,” Pansy said, hanging up her robes on a hook near the door and kicking off her heels. “You Gryffindors do get so hung up on these things.”

“There’s a plan,” Harry said, watching as she advanced toward him. “Draco and I can fill you in. It’s basic, mind you, but I think –“ he trailed off as Pansy pushed the hand holding his scotch glass down against the table, sliding until she was straddling his lap.

“You’ve got secrets,” she said, quietly, her nose inches from his, almost a sing-song. “I want to know them.”

“Really –“ Harry said. Thaxia was utterly failing to come to his defense, draped across the back of the sofa. Pansy’s jumper was very soft, and he could smell her perfume. Different from Hermione’s, he thought. It was sharp and spiced where hers was sweet, and the only floral notes were thick and heavy. Harry thought about what Hermione had said, a very powerful witch, and Kitcaron suddenly made sense. Pansy was predatory, with all the easy grace and deep magic running just underneath her skin, and he swallowed. She was not, he was realizing, a person you wanted to cross.

“Would it really be so bad,” Pansy said, sliding her hands up his shirt, leaning in so close he could feel her body heat in the inches between them.

“Yes, I rather think,” Harry said, voice going up, and Draco cleared his throat.

“Pansy, there are a lot of things I’m willing to tolerate, but I’m not entirely certain my wife straddling another man in my living room is one of them,” he said.

“I could straddle you instead,” she said, climbing off.

“Or we could play exploding snap and no one would want to murder you,” Kitcaron suggested.

“Boys,” Pansy said, flopping down next to the coffee table and summoning a deck from another room. “You all get so ridiculously jealous when I test hypotheses.”

“And what, pray tell, hypothesis was that?” Draco said.

“Nothing,” Pansy said. “Really, nothing at all.”

“I really don’t know why I put up with you,” Draco murmured, tugging on a piece of her hair, and she looked up at him with a radiant smile.

“Because I’m very, very good in bed,” she teased. “Or I could be very, very bad, if you wanted. And I’m brilliant. And yours.”

“Seriously, do all of you spend this much time discussing your sex lives when we aren’t around?” Thaxia interrupted, hopping down onto a couch cushion. “Because as fascinating as it is, I’d just as soon you not kill him from embarrassment.”

No,” said Kitcaron, with a flick of his tail, and Lethe laid down beside him.

“I’d really rather we didn’t,” she agreed. “And don’t set my tail on fire again.”

“One time,” Draco said, with a sigh. “You do something one time.“

Harry was surprised at how little time it took. Hermione was already on maternity leave, and Fleur, five months pregnant, sounded a little relieved at the prospect of staying closer to London and at Bill coming home from a job in Turkey. Molly agreed to watch their girls and Rose, and with a little prompting from Ron, Bill agreed to postpone an extension of his contract and take a leave of absence.

McGonagall agreed that the repairs had gone without finishing for far too long, and Harry came out a week later to find a team of wizards carefully levitating stones up to fill in a gap in what had been the astronomy tower.

“Well, that just leaves us,” Harry said, with a sigh, and Thaxia snorted. “Admit it, you’re excited. Adventure! Traps! The Malfoys!”

“We see quite enough of them already,” Harry said, rolling his eyes.

“Says you,” said Thaxia.

Harry supposed that if Thaxia was hoping for more of the Malfoys, she was probably overjoyed when Pansy appeared in his room well after midnight, holding a lantern. “Potter?” she called. “Wake up. We’ve got to go to the forest.”

“What?” he said, sitting up and fumbling for his trousers. “Is something wrong, has there been –“

“No, no,” Pansy said. “Draco has to steal a sheep. And harvest something or another. I told him I wouldn’t let him go alone, and he said he wasn’t watching my back, so now we need you.”

“A sheep,” Harry repeated, sleepily.

“Yes, yes, it’s urgent, come on, Potter,” Pansy said. She was dressed differently than usual, in high boots and muggle jeans, with a coat buttoned nearly to her throat. “If we don’t get down there quickly enough, he’s liable to leave without us.”

“Right, because of the sheep,” Harry said, as if it made sense, and poked Thaxia.

“They’re being insane,” he said. “We’ve got to go to the Forbidden Forest at three in the morning.”

“I love this newfound partnership,” Thaxia said, with barely controlled glee, and bounded to wait next to Pansy.

“You are all utterly sick in the head,” Harry said.

Draco was already waiting by the greenhouses, pointedly tapping his food, and he looked them up and down in an insouciant sort of way. “You do realize I’ve been doing this alone for years.”

“Yes,” Pansy said. “And you kept having to petrify me to do it, so it wasn’t a good idea then, either.”

“Yes, well, now we’ve made it into a party,” Draco said. “A ‘come and eat me, lethal things in the forest’ party.”

“You still waited,” Pansy pointed out.

“At least Potter’s daemon isn’t the size of a small horse,” Lethe remarked.

Kitcaron bared his teeth at her, swiping a paw. “Potter’s daemon can’t eat a small horse.”

“Sizeist,” Thaxia muttered. “I could so.”

“Would everyone shut up,” Harry said, loudly. He cleared his throat. “Could someone please explain to me why we’re going into the Forbidden Forest at three o’clock in the morning for a sheep?”

“One, the smoking oleander is blooming in the poison garden, and I need it for the dungeons, and I’m going to get some jequirity while I’m in there for next week’s potion lesson,” Draco said. “Two, my vampire squash are starting to nip at everyone’s ankles, and last time I was in, there was an entire herd of sheep about a mile in that no one’s looking for. They like mutton. And if we can’t find them, Lethe and Kit can take out a deer.” He paused. “I’m sure Thaxia can help somehow.”

“I’ll have you know a fisher’s primary diet includes porcupines, and we’ve hunted lynx,” Thaxia muttered.

“Right,” Harry said. “Just one question.”

“Why not, we’ve got all night,” Draco said.

“Half of the things in your greenhouse are already lethal, why on earth do you have a poison garden?” Harry said.

“I’m a purist,” Draco said. “It’s the plants that are literally poisonous. Or, well, that will kill you instantly with no reversal. I can save you from things that would like to pin you to a wall and eat you, but if the angel’s trumpet goes for you, there’s no antidote.”

“And we’ve got this stuff at a boarding school why, exactly?” said Pansy.

“Potions ingredients,” Draco replied. “Besides, I like it.”

“Like everything here isn’t trying to kill everyone anyway,” Harry pointed out. “Let’s go.”

Draco held open the gate behind the greenhouses, letting Pansy duck through first, and then lead the way down the cobblestone path. If it hadn’t been the middle of the night and if Harry hadn’t known where he was walking, it might almost have been beautiful – autumn in Scotland, with fog from the lake dim between the trees, and a bright moon shining overhead. As it was, Harry found he couldn’t quite bring himself to enjoy the view.

“Pansy, stay here and watch the gate,” Draco said. “Potter, you’re with me, you’ve got steady hands.” He lifted a bag from his side, pulling out jars. “Cut a bunch of the flowers and get it into the preservation jar as quickly as you can. You’ve got to breathe through a bubble charm.” He handed over a pair of gloves and a very large scalpel. “These are sphinx-skin, they’ll nullify the sap, but they’re not particularly good against knives, so don’t cut yourself, or you’ll probably die. And yes, it’s necessary, the flowers won’t last long enough to get into the jars otherwise.” He paused. “Not everything in here is magical, but everything in here would sooner kill you than let you look at it, so be careful, all right? Thaxia and Lethe stay with Pansy.”

“Right,” Harry said, grimly, pulling on the gloves and taking the knife and several of the jars. Draco pulled out a key ring and physically undid a series of locks and deadbolts, then murmured several passwords at the stone behind the gate, which parted. He gestured Harry under.

Harry cast the charm over his mouth, biting back the feeling that he was underwater, and looked around. Most of the plants were protected by strong barrier spells, and Draco gestured him forward to a set of tall bushes. He pushed, as if through a curtain, and then Harry could see bunches of pale pink flowers, putting up tiny tendrils of white smoke.

He looked for a moment, fighting off memories of having to trim the hedges at the Dursleys, and found a spot where the stem of the flower was completely separate from the leaves. He unscrewed a jar, cutting firmly through the stem, and dropped it in, tightening the lid. The flowers inside shimmered for a minute and then looked exactly as before: still smoking. Draco gave him a nod of approval and disappeared around the other side of the bush.

Harry filled six or seven jars before his section of the bush began to look rather sparse, and Draco circled back, carrying the bag. He looked at each of Harry’s carefully, then tucked them in the bag, holding aside the charm so Harry could climb out again. Draco took off his charm. “Nicely done, Potter,” he said. “You actually did better than me, I couldn’t get a cluster in fast enough and they went out. A theoretical ten points to Gryffindor.”

“Very generous,” Harry said, dryly, and Draco laughed, undoing several locks on a small building and ducking indoors. “I wouldn’t touch anything,” he said, then walked down an aisle, finding a vine and pulling the gloves back on before he pulled out another, entirely different sort of jar.

“These aren’t very dangerous, actually,” Draco said. “Well, not to touch, anyway, unless you prick yourself on the end.” He broke off several seedpods, holding them up to the window, and put them in the jar.

“What are we doing next week?” Harry said. He’d largely let Draco draw up the syllabus on the grounds of having utterly no idea what sort of Potions the seventh years ought to be making; so far, he was handling the theoretical part of the lecture and Draco was handling the practical, which seemed to be working out rather nicely, since Harry couldn’t really screw up knowledge about the properties of selkie fur.

“Romeo and Juliet,” Draco said, then snorted at the look on Harry’s face.

“That’s very illegal,” he said. The Daemon Potion was, at least in Hermione’s opinion, practically an unforgiveable of the potion world – it locked two people together, regardless of consent, in a dizzying, wonderful love affair, but anything suffered by one partner was mirrored to the other. As she’d put it, “You’d very much hope no one gets hit by a bus.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Draco said. “They universally botched it last year, the timing’s nearly impossible, and if anyone’s successful, I’ll just confiscate it and give it to Lethe. You know it’s harmless with daemons.”

“Well, yes, we’re rather linked anyway,” Harry muttered.

“Or I could just slip it in your tea,” Draco said, cheerfully. “Teach you to keep drinking things in the Potions lab.”

Harry laughed. “I’m not sure Hermione would keep helping you with the wards if you poisoned me.”

“Well, she’d hardly know, would she?” Draco teased. “Perhaps our misspent youth was just repressed adolescent hormones.”

“I rather suspect Pansy would notice.”

“Oh, probably,” Draco said, a bit of a strange note in his voice. “Speaking of, come on, she’s probably about to have a fit at being left with only three carnivores to guard her.”

Harry snorted. “Are you kidding me? Odds on Pansy, every time.”

Draco smiled. “Yes, well, she doesn’t always know how very good she is.”

Draco locked them back out and cast the reversal spell, opening the stones again, to find Pansy waiting on the other side of the gate. She did, indeed, look rather peeved. “At least set up a linkage spell next time so you’ll hear me yell as I’m being eaten.”

“Won’t work across the barriers,” Draco said, then pulled out a jar to pass over. “But I have brought you some extraordinarily lethal flowers.”

“Huh,” Pansy said, suddenly looking more interested. “I remember these. The fragrance is fatal, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Draco said. “And I’ve convinced them they’re growing out of the nutrient solution in the jar lids, so they’ll hang there in bloom forever so long as I replace it every six months or so. Two air curtain charms and these on the ceiling and anything trying to break in will hit the floor before it realizes it’s dead.”

“Nicely done,” said Pansy. “Potter, I’ve yet to see as much creativity from your side of things, perhaps Gryffindors really are better at doing than planning.”

“I’m still milking venom from the taipans,” Harry said. “But I’ve got thirty or so hypodermic stakes. Draco digs a pit, we plant them densely enough that anything that falls in gets hit, and put on a false floor over the top.”

“Won’t work on anything that floats or flies,” Pansy retorted.

“Bioattraction field on the bottom,” Draco and Harry said, then grinned at one another. Harry found himself flushing; praise from Draco was relatively rare.

“And you, Dr. Malfoy?” he said.

“I’m working on –“ She paused, making a face. “Granger said she thought there was a decent chance that if this continues, the dead buried on the ground weren’t particularly likely to… stay dead.”

“So, zombies,” Harry said, laughing.

“Oh, don’t,” Pansy said. “There are three cemeteries and god knows what from the war. We only know they buried everyone, not where. I know I’ve got to go with an everburning potion, touch as the trigger. But at the moment I’m having a bit of difficulty because ghosts keep setting it off.”

“Probably ought to figure out some ‘if corporeal,’ charm clause,” Draco mused. “Have Harry spin it into some of your precious spider webs and coat the whole thing with them.”

“Interesting,” said Pansy. “That might work.”

“You know, we might be better off working on these together,” Lethe pointed out.

“We might be better off working on these after supper, in the delightful comfort of the castle,” Kitcaron muttered.

“I could probably kill a taipan,” Thaxia mused, and Harry scruffed her.

No,” he said, firmly. “You’re not a mongoose. Besides, now I’ve got to collect venom from them for Potions and this, I can’t spare any snakes.”

“Killjoy,” Thaxia said.

“You know, I was not under the impression the Forbidden Forest was an excellent pace for chit -chat,” Kitcaron said, irritably, and Pansy rolled her eyes.

“Let’s go find Draco his exceptionally stupid, probably mutated sheep.”

“This way,” Draco said. “But be quiet. You’ll scare off all the game, and besides, Kit’s right. There are things here we’d rather not wake.”

It was a long, single file walk, Harry’s wand hand itching with the sheer, unfamiliar magic of the place, and he found himself thinking far less charitably of the fog. It was damp and dark, and even Thaxia was quiet.

“There,” Draco said, about an hour later, gesturing to a clearing, and sure enough, it was a field of perfectly ordinary looking sheep, tucked down to sleep in the grass.

“I think Lethe and I ought to,” Kitcaron said, after a moment. “Predators aren’t extraordinary. And something’s telling me death magic isn’t a good idea.”

“It’s not,” Thaxia murmured. “Something, there’s something –“

“There’s something off about some of those sheep,” Pansy said, taking a step backwards, only a few inches off the path, and then she was screaming, cut abruptly short by a very well-aimed hit from Kit’s paw.

He crumpled, unconscious, and then she was hanging upside down in front of them, limp, feet wrapped in a noose.

“That’s my snare,” Draco said. “But it wasn’t here, and it wasn’t…“ He looked at the long length up the tree. “Harry, what is that?”

“Spider web,” Harry said, grimly. “Burn through it and get her down. Now.”

He slid his wand out of its sleeve, and tried not to gag. Pansy had been right, the sheep were merely wrapped in spider silk and the ones who weren’t were paralyzed, wide-eyed with terror. Nothing was moving, but nothing was moving, and Harry knew with absolute certainty that they’d been watching, listening – this had been a far more elaborate trap than he’d thought. He cursed, softly.

“Draco,” he said, quietly, as Draco cut Pansy down. “They know that’s gone off, and they know we’re here, and we’ve got maybe ninety seconds to come up with something.”

“This isn’t a particularly Gryffindor sort of plan,” Draco said. “But I think I know a place to hide.”

“Think you know, or know,” Harry said. “I can’t hold these things off, and they’re playing with us.”

“Know,” Draco said, firmly. He passed Pansy to Harry and slung Kit over his shoulder. Thaxia’s teeth were chattering.

“Lethe leads. I’m going to follow you,” Harry said. “Don’t stop, don’t turn around, don’t stumble, and for god’s sake, don’t look behind you, because there are going to be a hell of a lot of spiders who are incredibly pissed off that we’re in their forest.”

“Right,” Draco murmured, grimly, and Lethe set off down the embankment on the other side of the trail. Draco slid behind her with a lot more grace than Harry managed, through low branches and brush, but there weren’t any webs here, and Harry didn’t stop to think about why the spiders had stopped there, he just ran.

It felt like forever, but was probably closer to ten minutes, when Draco drew to a panting stop. “Where is it, where is it,” he murmured, hands up against the trunk of an enormous tree, searching, and then he paused.

“You won’t like this,” he said.

“Just do it,” Harry said, and Draco pressed his hand flat to a chunk of bark that looked a little different than the rest, and the whole world spun as Harry was thrown forward through trees that parted for him like water, but with no control over his body. He kept his grip on Pansy and tried to breathe, because it felt like forever, but then he was on his knees on flagstones.

“Fuck,” Harry said, and managed to put Pansy down before he was abruptly sick behind a bush.

Draco, the bastard, had somehow managed to land on his feet, but he was panting and pale. “Right,” he said. “I don’t care if they don’t like it, the squash can have their bloody mutton from the kitchens.”

Harry started laughing, the sort of hysterical laughter that started in the pit of his stomach and wouldn’t stop, and a moment later, Draco was laughing too, so hard he slid over against Kit and was gasping for breath against a bench.

“Fuck,” Harry said, again, shaking his head, and Pansy started to sit up.

“What’s the… joke,” she managed, fuzzily. “My head –“

“It’s all right, sweetheart,” Draco said, gently, and murmured a sleeping charm against her temple until she slumped back down against the stones.

“Here’s hoping Hermione feels like covering her classes tomorrow,” Harry said.

“I think she’s got a concussion, and this ankle looks wrong,” Draco said. “But Kit would be in worse shape if she were in any sort of danger.”

“I see a sudden upside to my daemon,” Harry quipped, then looked, finding her cowering under a bench, teeth still chattering.

“I looked,” she said. “I looked and looked, but Harry, they didn’t chase us. They didn’t chase us. They stopped at the path.”

“Oh, bloody hell,” Draco said. “So all that was for nothing–“

“No,” Harry said, quietly. “It means we got lucky. Because if it’s enough to scare an acromantula out of its territory, we didn’t want to meet it.”

Harry finally climbed to his feet to sit on the bench, looking around for the first time. They were much closer to the lake, almost on the other side of the forest, and there were arches and arbors, covering with plants that rustled faintly in the wind. It was, he realized, warm, warmer than it ought to have been. “What is this?”

“It’s a moon garden,” Draco said, climbing to his feet as well. “It was a wedding present from a herbology professor a few hundred years ago to his wife.” He cracked a somewhat weak smile. “I’ve gathered she probably wasn’t a werewolf.”

“Huh,” Harry said, and then he realized one walkway was covered with a familiar looking vine, red flowers shining in the moonlight.

“Half the plants here come alive at the full moon, the other half at new,” Draco said, quietly. “It’s really quite beautiful.” He looked a little rueful. “And until ten minutes ago, it was my very well-kept secret, so I’d rather you not tell anyone.”

“If you’ll bring me back when it blooms,” Harry said, looking at the arbor, and was surprised to find Draco smiling.

“All right,” Draco agreed. “We’re about a twenty minute walk from the lakeshore. Wait for morning, cut through and take the lake route back, which seems imprudent at best, or go back toward the castle and follow the wall?”

“Sunrise,” Lethe said, from where she’d laid down next to Kit, her muzzle tucked against his shoulder. “The forest smelled of death.”

“The sheep,” Harry said, and she closed her eyes and shuddered.

“Not dead things, Harry,” she said, sounding very tired. “Death.”

The morning sun felt good on his face, right, and even Thaxia relaxed a bit once the sun was up. There was a clear path through the woods to the lake, a path that looked utterly innocuous in the morning sunlight, and the lakeshore lead them to one of the castle gates.

“Coin toss for who’s with Pansy when she wakes up and who’s got to tell McGonagall?” Draco said, not sounding particularly hopeful.

“Not in a hundred thousand years,” Harry said. “She’s your wife. Besides, I can’t carry Kit.”

“Oh,” Draco said, looking a little surprised, and Harry snorted.

“I just assumed you’d touched him before,” he said, and Draco’s cheeks went red.

“It’s not as if either one of them is conscious,” Draco said.

“Excellent, I’ll put you down for lecturing the fourth years on the importance of consent,” Harry said, dryly. “’Do whatever you like, so long as they’re not conscious, that’s the important bit.’”

“You do know the whole sex thing is bloody stupid,” Draco informed him. “It’s not like that.”

It was Harry’s turn to flush. “I wouldn’t know,” he said, firmly. “And before you even start in with it, yes, I’ve had plenty of sex, but you’ve met Thaxia. It’s never been that sort of –“ He waved a hand.

“I thought you and girl Weasley were engaged,” Draco said, sounding a bit fascinated.

“There were… things,” Harry said, awkwardly.

“Oh, things,” Draco said. “The great downfall of every relationship in the land.”

“Ginny’s daemon is a complete and utter prick,” Thaxia said, sleepily, from where she was tucked inside Harry’s coat.

Draco bit back a laugh. “Right, I see why that particular liaison didn’t lead to any profound intimacy.”

“It’s complicated.”

“You know, it really isn’t, it’s just that –“ Thaxia said, and Harry clamped his free hand on her muzzle.

“Look,” he said. “Let’s just both go to the hospital wing, owl McGonagall and Hermione, and then drink ourselves into a coma.”

“Excellent plan,” Draco said. “She can only yell at one of us at once, really.”

“Want to bet?” Harry said, dryly.

As it turned out, Pansy had a broken ankle, three fractured ribs, a cut on her scalp that required stitches, and the expected concussion. And she was utterly furious – at Draco for nearly going into the forest alone, at Kit for knocking her out, and at Harry for carrying her about as if she were some sort of damsel in distress and not a witch.

McGonagall didn’t see the need to give them a dressing down – “You’re not schoolchildren, Harry, you’re professors, and the forest is no less a part of the castle than the Chamber of Secrets” – but the frown lines on her face tightened at Lethe’s description of the forest.

“I shall have to make some inquiries,” she said, looking them over. “Go to bed, Mister Potter, Mister Malfoy. I shall cover your courses for the afternoon.”

“I’m not bloody well giving up teaching my NEWT students –“ Pansy began, and Harry clamped a hand over her mouth.

“Hermione is going to come lecture,” he said, firmly. “You are going to stay here and rest.”

“Oh, all right, but only because it’s Granger,” she said, still sounding put out, and Draco levitated a bed next to Pansy’s.

“I’m not leaving,” he said. “I can sleep here. She’s my wife.” He glanced at Harry, sidelong, uncertain, and Harry cleared his throat.

“I’m not either,” he said, and, at McGonagall’s slightly surprised look. “They’re my friends.”

“You’re lucky the hospital wing is empty of students today,” was all she said, before heading off.

“You don’t have to, Potter,” Pansy started, and to Harry’s surprise, it was Draco who shook his head.

“He carried you all night,” he said, quietly. “And he – it’s all right, Pansy, he means it.”

Harry was about to add something when Thaxia hopping up on the foot of the cot where Kit was lying, looking drowsy but otherwise mostly all right. “It was awful, and I’m traumatized,” she announced. “I need larger carnivores for protection. And if you try to make me leave, I’ll –“

“Bite you, yes, we know,” Pansy said, sounding fond in spite of herself, and Thaxia huffed and tucked herself into the soft fur of Lethe’s belly, curling up. Draco levitated another bed over, and Harry kicked off his boots and crawled into it.

“You know, I’d forgotten how bloody uncomfortable these things are,” he said.

Draco snorted, and a moment later, they were all in a feather bed with far too many pillows and an enormous wool blanket.

“I’ll expect you to leave that the way you found it, Professor Malfoy,” the nurse said, sternly, when she came to give Pansy her Potions.

Harry and Draco set the traps that evening while Pansy did research with Hermione in the Restricted Section. The work was painstaking and involved more physical labor than even Harry liked, but Draco didn’t complain, so he didn’t either. They set one of each trap type in every tunnel, with Draco’s closest to the outside, then Pansy’s, then Harry’s, since there was a finite supply of snake venom. Harry had no idea how the spiders had managed to spin so much over the course of a day, but Pansy left him a note suggesting that they really needed more crickets, and by Harry’s calculations, they’d had a month’s worth. He just wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know how she’d encouraged them.

“Three tunnels down,” Draco said, panting, covered in mud from levitating dirt out of the last pit, at least a portion of which had proved to be beneath the water line. “What’s that, six to go?”

“That we know of,” Harry said, grimly.

“McGonagall’s had the NEWT students on the unbreakable barriers all day,” Draco said. “The dungeons are warded, at least, and the towers.” He paused. “Apparently Bellweather’s wife has some connection in the Middle East, he’s getting us a sphinx.”

“Oh, that’ll be a delight,” Harry said, with a sigh.

“It will,” Thaxia said, looking pleased.

“She likes them,” Harry said. “I’m convinced someone dropped her on the head at a young age.”

Draco stared for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Or, you know, you broke a killing curse with your head,” he pointed out, trying to keep a straight face.

“D’you know, I think that’s the first time anyone’s ever cracked a joke about that,” Harry mused.

“I live to make light of important events in wizarding history,” Draco said. “Come on. I want a shower. And alcohol. And we probably ought to make sure Pansy and Granger haven’t been eaten alive by books or actually become part of the library or something.”

“You’re sharing,” Lethe said. “I’m stiff as hell.”

“Professor’s bathroom it is,” Draco said.

“What, you don’t have something eighty times as grand in your suites?” Harry teased.

“The good bath is Pansy’s, and so help me if I touch a single tap,” Draco said, then paused.

“You did leave a vial of never fading ink directly next to her mascara,” Lethe said. “I think you’ve been fairly banned.”

“You know, I rather think I’m glad I avoided matrimony after all,” said Harry. “See you tomorrow morning to check on the pearl millet sharks? I know I saw at least one mermaid’s purse yesterday.”

“Yes,” Draco said, with a grin. “I knew that building was a brilliant idea. We can have all the nicest things if we just source them directly.”

“I’m not really sure I’d call dried shark egg shells, for lack of a better term, ‘nicest things.’”

“Yes, well, you try telling that to an entire castle of women whom I’ve got to keep supplied with contraceptive Potions,” Draco said. “You are going to start learning the basic medicinals, Potter, the commercial stuff is awful and we need about a hundred bottles of Pepper Up, everyone’s going to get colds next month.”

“Oh, I’ve made that,” Harry said, then paused. “Admittedly, it exploded, but I’m actually pretty sure that time you sabotaged me.”

“Don’t remember,” Draco said. “Though the time all your crickets started playing utterly inappropriate Wailing Banshees songs was absolutely me.”

“That was awful, and I’m going to kill you someday,” Harry said. “As it stands, theoretical twenty points from Slytherin for inappropriate behavior and interfering with another student’s work.”

“Yes, but theoretical ten points back because I got away with it, and theoretical ten from Gryffindor for you having absolutely no sense of humor.” Draco grinned. “Even.”

“In the morning,” Harry said, shaking his head, and headed toward the library to find Hermione.

As it turned out, Harry didn’t get to check on the sharks or much of anything else, since Hermione dragged him back to London with her that evening for a meeting with Bill in the morning. It was good to see Ron and to read Rose her bedtime stories, to sit around playing chess and laughing while Hermione read, but when Harry finally retired to his old room – the one he’d kept for years before getting a flat down the street when Hermione had gotten pregnant with Hugo, and the one Hermione refused to change – everything seemed less bright than usual, somehow. The lights of London were far too strong, and Ron and Hermione’s laughter from the kitchen as they finished up the dishes was warm and comforting and – different, Harry realized. He’d never outgrow them, but it had never occurred to him that it might be possible to want – to need – more than one family.

“Wa-ter?” Rose said, peeking around his cracked door, Endymion riding on her shoulder as a parrot; they’d been reading stories about pirates at bedtime.

“Yes, all right, one glass,” Harry said, laughing, and climbed out of bed to pick her up. “Then we’re going to play a game where I count to one hundred and you listen. It’s very important to learn your numbers, you know.”

“Yes, Uncle Harry,” Rose said, firmly, and Harry smiled. It was, at least, good to know that this family was doing well.

“So Bill’s really brilliant, actually, he figured it out,” Hermione said, the next morning, standing over a table with a tray on top. Bill was leaning back in a chair, his feet propped up on the table, and Fleur was at a mediwitch appointment that she’d insisted no one needed to go along to, since “ze research!” was more important.

“Careful, Ron will accuse me of trying to steal his wife,” Bill said, amused. “I just called in a few favors at Gringotts. Got a few vaults robbed, that sort of thing. Temporarily, of course. We’ll put everything back.”

“Of course,” Harry said, dryly. “So explain this stunning plan of yours to me. And tell me why on earth you needed me and not Pansy, she’s the academic.”

“Because of your blood, Fleur’s reasonably certain you’ve got Slytherin,” Hermione said.

“What, and we think Draco hasn’t?”

“Firstly, I didn’t want to put up with Malfoy all morning,” Hermione said. “And secondly, we need to see how many lines we can get down through. Malfoy’s will certainly be through the Blacks, but yours might be through the Potters, which go back differently, and –“

“For the love of God, Hermione,” Bill said. His fox demon, Iphinesia, muttered her agreement.

“It’s academic and important,” Hermione protested, and Bill rolled his eyes. “I’ve been stuck in here with her and my wife for days. Have you ever met a hormonal Veela woman, Harry? It’s utterly delightful.”

“Oh, knock it off, you were nearly shagging between the bookshelves the other day,” Hermione said. “Though, she is in the second trimester, it rather bears out your theory.”

Bill held his hands up. “And then I burned the garlic bread with dinner and she started hissing at me in a language I didn’t understand and her face changed shape. Literally.”

“Not like you haven’t been through this twice before,” Atticus pointed out.

“That was different,” Bill said. “I mean – the hormone thing, yeah, sort of, but not like this.”

“Well, you’re having a boy,” Hermione said. “And neither of us can find any record of that, so god only knows what it’s doing to poor Fleur.”

“Okay, one, didn’t know, congratulations on the diversity, I’m sure Victorie and Dominique are thrilled,” Harry said, dryly. “Two, Hermione, you’re the most unbearable pregnant woman I’ve ever met because you insist that no one’s allowed to mention your pregnancy while crying at… I don’t know, everything. You petrified me in a fit of rage for forgetting that you had a mediwitch appointment at ten fifteen and not ten, meaning that I was early, and three, before you hex me again, could we please get to the point of what I’m doing in London instead of working on securing the castle and educating fourteen year olds about what not to do with sea serpents?”

“Please don’t hex him, I need his blood,” Bill said.

“That was once,” Atticus said. “And you probably deserved it. Well, she thought you did, anyway.”

Thaxia sounded as if she was laughing, and Harry bit back a retort.

“Just sit there and roll your sleeve up,” Bill said, drawing his wand. “Still no good way to do this magically, so you’ll feel the antiseptic spell and then a stick. You’ve got to give your consent, though. Repeat this. Word for word.

“I, my little brother’s prat of a best friend, consent to give my blood for the purposes of determining whether I may be related to a Hogwarts founder and, should my blood show such evidence, I consent that my blood may be used to enhance, remake, or otherwise aid Hogwarts castle wards, grounds, and buildings. These shall be its sole purposes, and it may not be used for anything outside the purview of what I have consented to here without further express consent from myself or a designated party.”

“Really?” Harry said.

“Really,” Bill said, with a sigh. “Ask Fleur and Hermione.”

Harry repeated the consent back, shaking his head.

A moment later, he handed Harry a piece of gauze and held up a vial of blood that was labeling itself, ‘Potter, Harry J., collected 9/29/08, 11:02 AM, GMT, exact verbal consent acquired.’

“Hermione?”

“Right,” she said, pulling the cover off the table and lifting what looked like a cake topper off four objects: a necklace with more diamonds than Harry had ever seen in his life, a mother of pearl hair comb, a very plain China bowl with a few cracks running through it and a chipped edge, and a dented metal music or jewelry box.

“They’re found objects,” Bill explained. “All the Founders left heirlooms, of course, which we know about courtesy of bloody Voldemort, but what most people don’t know is that there are hundreds of objects they wanted… kept in the family so to speak.”

“They’re really mostly utter rubbish by now,” Hermione said. “It’s hard to find anything that’s survived so long at all, let alone the sort of thing we needed, but Bill’s pretty brilliant.”

“There you go again,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Look, the point is, the Founders and their oh-so-proud descendants made these things with the intention of never letting anyone outside of the family use them. It was really quite snotty, actually, the way they cast the spells means that even if you’ve married in, you’re not game. I bet the various Mrs. Slytherins down the line just loved having all those things they couldn’t use.” Bill gestured “They burn like hell when you touch them, if you haven’t got the right stuff.”

“The right stuff?” Harry echoed.

“Founder blood,” Hermione said. “But it’s actually even more marvelous than that, look.”

She pricked her finger with one of Bill’s needles, holding it over the music box. “This is Gryffindor, not that you need to know,” she said, laughing. “It’s a bit of a shame, really, the muggleborn witch doesn’t have the blood of great and powerful wizards running through her veins.”

“Neither do I, and I’m supposed to be all kinds of pureblood,” Bill said, laughing.

“Ready?” Hermione said, glancing at Bill, who picked up the glass cover and stood.

“Yeah, got it,” he said, and she squeezed a single drop of blood on top of the box.

Bill slammed down the cover, which Harry assumed had quite a few fortifying charms, and he watched with fascinating as Hermione’s blood sizzled for a moment on the music box and then exploded outward in a fine red mist.

“Fuck, I’d hate to see what they do to people they do like,” he said.

“See, nobody without the bloodline can touch the things, which you can imagine leaves a bit of a pickle for the goblins,” Bill said, casting a biocleaning charm on the glass. “So if they find these things in dead vaults, or anyone wants to put one in a vault, they’ve got to recruit a specialist, which is all very expensive and time consuming, and it’s usually over something the owner didn’t even know they had. So if you’re going to deposit one, you’ve got to sign about a hundred pages of goblin contract law that makes utterly no promises to the safety and security of the object unless you pay something like several thousand galleons extra, and…”

“Here’s the brilliant part, Harry,” Hermione said, beaming.

“And allows for removal of the objects from the Gringotts premises at any time.”

“The specialist removal team usually does haunted objects, but they’ve got a few people who specialize in these sorts of things,” Bill said. “One, actually. He’s a shopkeep in Diagon Alley, uses the extra money they pay him to take his wife on vacations. Don’t ask me how, but the lucky bastard ended up with the blood of all four founders in his veins. He doesn’t know it, of course, and I honestly don’t think the specialist removal team does either, just that for some reason the Goblins like him and want to keep hiring him back, but the Goblins know him like the back of their hand. So we’ve got these four, with a few back ups in case they start to fizzle out, and a few vials of his blood.”

“We’ve tested, oh, I don’t know, a few hundred people,” Hermione said. “I’m doing a new study on the geneaology of the founders and its impact on the magical architecture of Hogwarts, for the record, Harry, and Fleur’s assisting me with the historical recordkeeping. Bill’s just here to keep watch on his hormonal wife.”

“Thanks,” Bill said, dryly. “Try it, Harry.”

“Er, okay,” Harry said. “What’s what, then?”

“The music box was Gryffindor’s, the hair piece was Ravenclaw’s, necklace is Hufflepuff’s, and the bowl’s Slytherin.”

Hermione looked serious. “Now don’t feel badly if nothing takes, Harry, there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to who’s got it beyond the direct links we can find in the pedigree analysis.”

“I’ll be mortally offended if Ravenclaw’s hair pin blows me off,” Harry said, rolling his eyes, but he waited for Bill to pick up the case and pricked himself, drawing enough blood at the start to get a few drops at once. “Got it?”

“I’ve done this about three hundred times, really,” Bill said.

Harry reached his hand over and felt warmth, which meant that at least something wasn’t too keen on him, but he let his blood fall onto each of the objects, then stood back as Bill put the lid down.

“Excellent,” Hermione said a moment later, with some degree of satisfaction.

Harry paused. “It looks like a red explosion in there.”

“No, look,” she said, lifting the lid away and casting the biocleaning charm again. Harry’s blood was gone from the necklace, comb, and box, but the single drop had rolled down to the center of the bowl and was just sitting there, doing absolutely nothing.

“Maybe you came by the Parseltongue honestly, mate,” Bill teased. “Come over here so I can get another few vials from you. And see who you can round up at Hogwarts for an hour or two in London, Hermione’s got a few leads.”

Harry obligingly let Bill take more of his blood, still a little baffled, and followed Hermione to a series of humming wooden trunks with freezing charms cast on them.

“Here’s everyone we’ve tested who’s no good,” Hermione said. “Er, in terms of being a match. I’m sure they’re good people.”

Harry snorted. “That’s a lot, at least.”

“Slytherin’s actually a bit less valuable, it’s all over the place and we’ve found loads of people with it,” Hermione said, opening the second trunk to show vials of blood with green bands. She added Harry’s.

“So very shocking,” Thaxia said. “Utterly.”

“So much for all that keeping it in the family,” Bill remarked.

“Well, yes, but it means we’ve probably got a lot of lineages, which means different sorts of magic mixed in, which is good,” she said.

“Gryffindor’s nearly as bad,” she said, closing the Slytherin trunk and opening another, which had red vials.

“We’re so-so here,” she said, opening the Hufflepuff trunk, which was about half as full as the others.

She sighed. “But the one we need the most is, of course, the one we’ve got the least of. Three of those are Fleur, Victorie, and Dominique.”

The Ravenclaw chest probably only had ten vials or so; Harry could have done a count, if he’d wanted to.

“Well, it’ll have to do,” he said. “Maybe McGonagall’s right about Pansy and she’s got four hundred cousins or something, I don’t know.”

“It’s not just the volume, Harry, it’s the homogeneity of the source,” Hermione said.

Harry looked at Bill, who stuck his feet up on the table.

“Hogwarts gets all this power from magical diversity, right? Everyone’s good at something, everyone’s bad at something else, you’ve got parselmouths and metamorphmagi and veela, who knows. If you could look at magic as one of those godawful abstract muggle paintings with just the colors, everyone’s would be completely different,” he said.

“Yeah,” Harry said.

“So we don’t have the original blood and we don’t have the thousand years of magic from witches and wizards that fed into the castle,” Atticus said. “We have to get as many sources as possible.”

“Slytherin, we’ve got a solid mix,” Bill said. “Gryffindor too. Hufflepuff’s not exactly in steady supply, but Fleur’s checked and the lineages are different enough that she thinks we have enough. But Ravenclaw…”

“A third of our Ravenclaw sample is from one family,” Hermione said. “And the rest isn’t much better.”

“Well,” Harry said. “Get McGonagall’s consent and theirs and test anyone over sixteen at Hogwarts. You don’t need them, just their blood. And, what, St. Mungo’s has a blood bank, hasn’t it? Have we tried them?”

“The consent gets sticky,” Hermione said. “Mostly, their consent forms state that it’s to be used in transfusions.”

“Surely you can send out a survey,” Harry said. “The donor registry can’t be private.”

Hermione frowned, but she was biting the corner of her mouth. “Actually, there might be a way around that,” she said. “I believe in recent years they’ve been asking for research authorization – it’s all anonymous, but it’s the sort of anonymous where it’s keyed to a number and the number’s keyed to a person, we could test their blood for research and then ask specific permission if we get any hits.”

“There you go,” Harry said.

“I haven’t figured out how to get it into the wards yet, though,” Hermione, admitted. “We can’t take, I don’t know, pints of the stuff from people, and I’ve no idea how to cover Ravenclaw tower in blood without obliviating half the wizarding population.”

Thaxia snorted. “Are you a witch or not?”

“Thank you for the reminder,” Hermione said, rolling her eyes. “First year. Excellent times nearly losing my life to plants.”

“You got a bloody NEWT in Transfiguration and Charms, I can’t believe you haven’t thought,” Harry said. “Look, you don’t need Hogwarts. You just need something to be Hogwarts. Like a chalice. Or –“

“A model,” Hermione breathed, her face lighting up. “We can build a model, mimic the wards, someone can cast the Forbidden Forest magic in as well, that’s brilliant, Harry!” She stood on her toes and kissed his cheek. “It’ll take a lot of power, but with us and Pansy and Malfoy and McGonagall –“

“Hullo, I said it, before you go running off with all these modeling ideas,” Thaxia muttered.

“Yes, thank you, Anathaxia, I am a witch,” Hermione said, laughing. “All right. At least we’ve got something to start from. I’ll go to St. Mungo’s.”

“Or, possibly, we could owl Fleur, who’s already at St. Mungo’s,” Bill said. “Novel idea, really.”

“Shut up,” Hermione said, but she ran to a desk, starting to rummage.

“I think that’s my cue,” Harry said, laughing. “But let me know how it goes, all right?”

“Absolutely,” Bill said, suddenly serious. “We know how bad it is. How bad it might get. I might make fun, but I haven’t forgotten that. None of us have, Harry.”

“If she gets too serious, she turns into a book,” Harry said, grinning, and threw a handful of floo powder into the fireplace, spinning back to McGonagall’s office.

The rest of Harry’s afternoon was taken up with reporting back to McGonagall and marking all the fifth year essays, the majority of which actually weren’t rubbish. When he checked the map, Pansy was back in the Restricted Section and Draco was in the greenhouses. He contemplated finding one of them, but Thaxia was already yawning. He hadn’t exactly gotten much sleep.

He found dinner waiting in his rooms and fell asleep reading a book on remedial potion making, because he really did owe it to Draco to start pulling his weight in the dungeons –

He woke to Thaxia on his chest, her claws digging into him so tightly they were drawing blood. He knew instantly that something was terribly, horribly wrong.

It felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room, like he was trying to breathe in a vacuum. He realized suddenly that every light he’d left lit had gone out. His magic was still there, but something told Harry it would be a very, very bad idea to cast anything. In the darkness, there was no moonlight filtering down through the water. Tonight was the complete new moon. He gripped his wand tightly, pushing the portrait open, and even without much light he could see that his siren and every other portrait had abandoned their frames. The anti-magic field of the hallway felt a little better, but he could hear something laughing, laughter Harry shouldn’t have been able to hear, and it crawled down his spine and made him tremble.

He wrenched open Draco and Pansy’s portrait, trying to see in the dark, and thank god, the lantern from Pansy’s office was glowing in the middle of the room, but it was grey, casting darker shadows on everything. Draco was in a pair of pajama pants and Pansy was in a dressing gown, and they both stared at him for a moment before they lowered their wands.

“Potter,” Pansy said, and he could see that her hand was openly shaking.

“Something is wrong,” Thaxia managed. “Something is out there.”

“Something is coming,” Lethe said, all her fur on end, her pupils narrowed to slits.

“I think it’s the tunnel behind my rooms,” Harry said, but speaking was hard, like there wasn’t enough air, like he was too afraid.

“The barrier wards down the dungeons and to trap the children in,” Draco said. “Trip them. Now.”

“What if someone’s out –“ Pansy said, and Harry unrolled the map that he’d managed to grab off his desk.

“Nothing,” he said. “No one. Do it.”

Pansy pulled a box down from the shelf. An identical one had been given to every Professor, the Head Boy and Girl, and the prefects. She closed her eyes and felt her way through the slots, mouthing numbers and shapes. She’d done the same thing he had, Harry realized: memorized by shape and feel instead of color.

“This one,” she said, pulling out a circular piece of glass, so thin Harry could barely see through it, and though he couldn’t see the color, he knew it was green.

Do it,” Draco hissed, and Pansy looked at her wand for a moment before throwing it at the floor.

They all flinched at the sound, the sudden rush of magic, but a sudden shudder of relief ran through Harry: the children were safe.

Pansy pulled a second, larger piece of glass out of the box, a sphere filled with glowing liquid, though it was so faint in the darkness that Harry couldn’t believe it was meant to look like a will ‘o the wisp. He’d made the keys to the dungeons himself.

Pansy looked at the map again, then at Harry.

“There’s no one,” she repeated, quietly. “It’s only us.”

“Break it,” Harry said. “Break it, Pansy.”

“We could get help –“ she said.

“No,” Draco said, grimly. “We cannot let it into the castle.”

“It will kill them, Pansy,” Harry said, flatly. “It will kill anyone it finds, everyone it finds, and no one is going to get here in time.”

Pansy threw the globe at the floor, and there was the briefest flash of foxfire before it went out, fire that should have burned for days. The castle settled, as if into a sigh, and Harry heard it again, that high-pitched laughter, followed by a voice that crept into his bones, whispering in his ear as if someone had cupped their hand around it. It was as tender as a lover’s caress, but the opposite, somehow, the opposite of everything Harry had ever loved, and he ground his teeth down again against the sensation.

Come out, come out, wherever you are….

“Well, now we’re trapped in here with it,” Pansy said. “What do you propose we do?”

“Kill it before it kills us,” Kitcaron said, flatly.

“We’re going hunting,” Draco said, heading back toward the bedroom. Pansy ducked into another doorway, and it felt like an eternity before they both emerged, dressed and silent. Draco strapped a hunting knife to his leg, and Pansy tucked a second wand into her sleeve.

“The lantern, Potter,” Draco said, finally. “It won’t go out.” He laughed, a very hollow sound. “It’s set to the phases of the moon.”

Pansy pushed open the portrait, and they climbed out, Draco watching behind until the latch clicked, profoundly loud in the darkness.

“It got through the traps, or it came in through a tunnel we haven’t set yet,” Draco said.

“It came in through the traps,” Harry said, eyes on the long, dark hallway ahead of them.

“Through…” Pansy said, then flinched when she realized the implication.

“We ought to have left yours broken,” Draco said. “A ghost, Potter?”

“Nothing nearly so good,” Harry said, quietly. “I don’t – know what it is, exactly, but the list is limited, and everything I can think of is very, very bad.”

“Quiet,” Pansy hissed, and Harry heard laughter again, Thaxia gripping so hard he could feel the blood running down his shoulders.

Something wicked this way comes….

It was cold, so cold, horrifically cold, and Harry thought that if it was possible, he might die of fear. It was not a feeling he’d felt before, but the dull reflection in Pansy’s eyes told him it was getting to all of them. Tears were running down her cheeks.

“The third,” Lethe said, suddenly. “It’s in the third.” She growled, low and vicious. “I can smell it, hear it, I want to taste it –“

Harry watched Kit’s fur along his spine rise, saw him crouch and growl, and Thaxia was breathing hard against his neck.

Children, little children, won’t you come out and play…

“Potter,” Draco said, flatly. “What aren’t you telling us?”

Harry winced, spitting to clear his mouth. “I know what it is. And she eats daemons.”

“Like a dementor,” Pansy said, tentatively. “We’ve all – we’ve all dealt with dementors.”

“No,” Harry said, flatly. “She eats them.”

Pansy whirled around and was sick.

“Is there anything?” Draco said, finally.

“The killing curse,” Harry said. “She’s alive enough to be put down. But it’s – you can’t put enough power behind it, one of us isn’t enough. All of us casting simultaneously wouldn’t be enough. We need a power source, and we haven’t got one.”

“I thought –“ Pansy said, then cleared her throat. “Avada kedavra kills everything. And if it’s undead, it won’t work.”

“She’s alive enough,” Harry said, grimly. “She’s stolen enough life to be clinging to the edge. They like their daemons… young.”

I can play a counting game, can you play a counting game, hide and I’ll find you… one, two, three…

“Avada kedavra,” Draco said, rolling the words around in his mouth.

“You don’t understand,” Harry said, and it was getting colder. “We don’t have enough power.”

Draco’s smile in the lantern glow was feral, predatory. “Oh, but we do,” he said. “Potter, what are the base magics, the elementals.”

“Birth,” Harry said. “Death. Blood. Sex. Daemons.”

“Well,” Draco said. “We’ve got up to four of the five. It’s old magic, Potter. It looks different, feels different, but the power in it…” He tilted his head back. “It could work.”

Pansy brushed herself off, gripping the second wand, white-knuckled. “It’s going to have to work,” she said. “And we’ve got three of the five, darling. No one’s dying tonight.”

“What else, Potter,” Draco said, low.

“She’s playing,” Harry said. “Only trust what you can feel with your hands. And if she can lure a daemon out, she will. They’ll go half mad with blood lust if we get any closer. Or lust. I’m not sure it matters.”

You’ve been hiding far too long…

“Stay or go?” Draco said.

You’re not playing a nice game… you’re not playing a fair game, you really ought to come out

“Go,” Pansy said, quietly, as if she knew something they didn’t. “We have to move.”

I will find you, I will show you, oh, I will show you anything you like…

Harry took an unsteady step towards the door that lead to the hallway with access to the third passage, and Lethe and Kitcaron nearly shoved him out of the way, low and hunting. Draco and Pansy ducked through silently, and Harry held the lantern up, revealing the length of the corridor.

“That door,” Pansy said, swallowing. “Through that door.”

Are you afraid now? You know I wouldn’t hurt you…

The closer they got, the worse Harry felt, until they’d cleared the length of the corridor. Frost was forming around the edges of the door then thawing, dripping down in the darkness, and it was far too dark to just be water.

I can hear you, just a little closer, you know the rules… will you run from me, little children?

“This is not going to be pleasant,” Harry said, and jerked open the door.

She was at the end of the hallway, a beautiful woman, the most beautiful he’d ever seen, but she was wrong, with no daemon and no soul.

Come here,” she whispered. “Come here, little ones, just a little closer…

“No way in hell,” Pansy said, and spat between them.

YOU HAVE SOMETHING I WANT,” she roared, and Pansy’s barrier charm was suddenly the only thing between them. She’d come down the length of the tunnel in seconds. The daemons threw themselves at it, until Harry grabbed Thaxia, kicking and fighting, scruffing her to keep her tight against his chest. Up close, the spirit was nothing like the vision in the distance. She was horror itself, with flesh falling off her skull, the muscles of her jaw rotting away as she screamed.

MINE, THEY ARE MINE, I WILL TAKE WHAT IS MINE!

Draco sliced his palm open, murmuring something under his breath in Latin, and Pansy’s wand glowed for a moment before it plunged back into darkness, and the laughter, Harry thought the laughter might drive him out of his mind.

YOU THINK YOU CAN PLAY WITHOUT THE RULES,” she screamed. “CHEATERS, LIARS, THIEVES, LIGHT-BRINGERS, SOUL STEALERS, GIVE ME WHAT IS MINE!

“Sex or daemons,” Draco said, then paused. “Sex and daemons. A novel option. Potter, give Pansy Thaxia.”

“I really don’t think –“ Harry said, teeth chattering.

“Lethe won’t work well enough, I assure you,” Draco said, flatly. “And that shield isn’t going to hold forever.”

“I don’t really think…” Harry said.

Give her Thaxia,” Draco snarled, and Pansy stared at the thing through the broken glass reflection of the barrier.

“Draco,” Pansy said, softly.

“Look,” Draco said. “We are all going to die, I don’t care what your fucking Gryffindor morals are or if you’re taking his side –“

“I’m not arguing with him, I’m doing something,” Pansy said. “Harry, give me your hand.” She turned, meeting his eyes. “Trust me. And believe what you can touch.”

She reached, pushing Thaxia off his shoulder, and it was odd, so odd, an intimacy so foreign Harry didn’t have a name for it, at least until Draco reached out to catch her on instinct. Then Harry’s knees buckled and there was nothing else, nothing, as all the warmth suddenly came flooding back into his body.

“Harry?” Thaxia said, groggily, and Harry groped in the darkness for Lethe with his free hand, burying it in the soft, silken fur at the nape of her neck. Draco was staring, meeting his eyes, holding his daemon.

“Draco,” Harry said, and that was all he could manage before Draco cradled Thaxia against his chest, lifted a bloody palm to Harry’s cheek, and Harry pulled him down and kissed him hard.

He could breathe again but he couldn’t, gasping for air between kisses, frantic and heated and messy, wanting to take him, Draco pulling him closer with just a hand on his jaw, Lethe pushing them together with a growl that indicated a very different sort of hunt. In the background, he could hear screaming, an endless litany that was slowly degrading in coherence:

MINE MINE YOU CANNOT HAVE THEM THEY ARE MINE MINE THOSE ARE NOT THE RULES THAT CHILDREN PLAY BY THOSE ARE NOT THE RULES CHEATERS LIARS THEY ARE MINE!

“No,” Harry said, against Draco’s mouth, “mine,” and drew Draco up in another kiss, Thaxia crushed between them, Lethe shoving them together with all her weight, and through it all, Harry kept his grip on Pansy’s hand.

“I’m going to drop the barrier,” she said, voice steady, and Harry didn’t care, nothing else mattered but Draco’s mouth on his own and their bodies pressed together, and the heat, the way Draco’s fingers felt in Thaxia’s fur, as if he was touching places Harry had never even seen, never even known existed -

It was cold again, briefly, such a quick flash that Harry hardly noticed. He was warm. Draco was warm.

“Avada kedavra,” Pansy said, enunciating every syllable with perfect clarity, and the words poured through Harry, burning inside of his mouth, and then – then –

Then, it was over.

“Oh, my God,” Draco said, faintly, and stepped backwards hard, nearly knocking over Pansy, and when he saw what was at their feet he covered his mouth and doubled over, turning away before he started retching.

“The barrier charms,” Harry said, finally, still dizzy. “They’ll be trying to get in –“

Pansy’s lips were starting to blister, and her voice was so hoarse Harry could hardly hear her.

“Down,” she murmured, staring at him.

“It’s all right, it’s all right, I’m here,” Kit said, winding around her legs, pushing his head up into her hand frantically.

Thaxia was nuzzling Harry and making urgent noises, breath warm against his face, and Harry held her and breathed, in and out, until his heart rate finally started to slow.

“You bitch,” Draco said, finally, voice like a slap out of nowhere, and Harry whipped his head up to look at him. Pansy was already watching.

“Draco –“ she forced out.

“Oh, no,” he said, his voice dripping venom. “You thought that was all right? For either of us?”

He took a step forward until there were only inches between them. “’You’ve got secrets,’” he mocked, cutting. “’I want to know them.’”

“I didn’t –“

“That was not your choice,” Draco snarled. “You don’t get to make those choices for me.”

“Draco,” she said, finally, tears streaming down her face again, but she looked furious too, “I’m not prioritizing this mess over our lives.”

Hey,” Harry said, sharply. He didn’t understand the conversation, except to know that it was vicious, in a moment when it oughtn’t have been.

“You,” Draco said, turning to face him. “You – what, you thought it would just be all right –“

Harry met his gaze, even. “I’ve no idea what this is about, but if you thought I’d say anything about being interested, I’m human and I’m not a masochist,” he said. “You’re both married.”

“Sort of,” Draco said.

Harry took a step forward. “I’m tired of that,” he said. “You’re married or you’re not, you’re together or you’re not, and you can tell me a thousand times it’s a contract, but then you look at me like this and she flirts like that and I’ve no idea whether it’s some goddamned Slytherin joke that I’m not in on, or just a secret no one thinks I’m good enough to know.”

“It’s not like that,” Draco repeated, but his voice was less steady.

“Pietas super omnia,” Harry said, cold. “Super omnia, Malfoy. I gathered there was something to that.” He took another step forward. “So tell me again what I ought not to have done.”

“McGonagall’s coming,” Pansy rasped, suddenly, and Draco turned on his heel.

“I know how it got in,” he said, flatly. “I’m going to go fix it before something worse shows up.”

“Draco,” Pansy said.

Don’t,” he snapped, and slammed the door behind him.

“Well,” Harry said, a moment later, staring at the wreckage in front of them.

That was how McGonagall and Martingale found them, Pansy pale with shock and Harry’s mouth tight with anger about something he didn’t entirely understand.

“My God,” McGonagall said, with a hand to her mouth. Then Hermione and Ron shoved through the doorway, running to him, slamming into him. He caught them with one arm and finally held out a hand to Pansy, reaching around Hermione, pulling her into the warmth of their circle.

“Her too,” he said, softly. “Her too.”

McGonagall burned the remains with fire so hot it glowed white, until even the ash caught on fire and burned. Harry watched the dust blow away.

“I’ve heard of – one, maybe,” Harry said, later, in front of her fireplace, over a very large glass of scotch. Ron and Hermione had taken one look at Pansy’s mouth and throat and dragged her to the Potions dungeon for Draco’s personal stash of healing Potions. It was all right, Harry thought. He trusted them. “A sihuehuet, a siguanaba,” he said. “They call them a lot of things in different places.” He laughed, taking a long swallow of scotch. “I suppose we ought to be grateful I was looking through texts for Latin America for spring, though obviously I wouldn’t have brought one of those into the castle.” He paused, thoughtfully. Everything seemed very far away. “I do hope someone checked on the sharks.”

“We owe you a tremendous debt, Harry,” McGonagall said, quietly. “Though I think you may be in shock. We can talk about it in the morning.”

“If it’s all the same to you, Professor, I’m not sure I’m going to want to, and the details don’t matter,” he said, finally. “Pansy killed it.”

“Do you think we should send the students home?”

Harry laughed. “Well,” he said, trying not to laugh. “Maybe we ought to ask The Hat.”

“Go to bed, Harry,” McGonagall said, with a faint smile, rummaging in a cabinet for a moment before she pressed a bottle of firewhiskey into his hands. “Be with your friends.”

Harry didn’t particularly want to go back to the dungeons, but the torches were lit and people were about, seventh years walking the hallways with professors. The portraits had mostly returned. Though Draco and Pansy’s centaur was still gone, the frame was cracked.

Hermione met him at the door. Ron and Pansy were on the couch, Ron pressed against her side, doing some dramatic impersonation that had her laughing, though she stopped when Harry walked in. Maybe, Harry thought, Ron had moved on some since the war, too. The spot Hermione had abandoned was obvious – Atticus was on the floor, preening Kit’s fur while Tiphaine curled into a tight ball against his haunches, resting her red muzzle on his back. She looked at him without saying anything, and at the sight of her familiar irish setter form, Harry let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.

“I’m not entirely sure what happened down there, but she’s a wreck,” Hermione murmured. “And he still hasn’t come back.”

“I know,” Harry said. “He won’t, I think.”

He pulled her in for a long, hard hug, burying his face in her hair. Hermione kept her voice light, but it was shaking. “I don’t know what it is about you and this castle,” she said. “But if you wouldn’t mind avoiding nearly getting killed on a regular basis, I think your godchildren would appreciate it.”

“You know, I’d really prefer that,” Harry said, and set down the bottle of firewhiskey.

Ron was suddenly behind him, crushing him between them in another hug, but Harry found himself looking at Pansy.

“Do you think –“ Harry said, clearing his throat. “Do you think you might give us a bit to talk? My rooms are just down the hall.”

“His password is ‘faith,’” Pansy said, voice still rough and rasping but much better than it was.

“Yes, of course,” Hermione said, and Ron looked like he was about to say something, but he shook his head and thought better of it.

“She’s not so bad,” he said, with a wink for Pansy. “Killing demons and looking like that after.”

“Careful, Ron,” Hermione warned, but there was no bite to it. “Don’t flirt with Slytherins, they’ll flirt back.”

“I rather think she started it,” Ron teased, glancing over Harry’s shoulder at Pansy.

“Yes, that’s exactly what she wants you to think, scoundrel,” Hermione said, with a smile for Pansy and a glance at Harry. “That’s how they hook you, you know. Being smart and kind and brave and fanciable.”

“Why, Hermione, you’ve never said, we should really discuss this further,” Ron joked, with a wave as they ducked out the portrait.

“Well, I’m still really pissed off, but there’s time for that,” Harry said, and he crossed the room and gathered her in his arms for a long moment. Thaxia ran to groom Kit’s face a little frantically, as if she could make everything all right again.

“Oh, Harry,” Pansy sighed, and he cupped her face and kissed her forehead.

“You were brilliant,” he said, softly. “So brilliant, Pansy. So brave.”

Her lips still looked sunburned, but Harry suspected the tear she wiped away didn’t have much to do with the pain.

“Brilliant would probably have thought a bit more about that plan,” she said, somewhat bitterly.

“I’d rather be alive,” Harry said, simply. “There are things you can fix and things you can’t, and being dead’s rarely one of them. Though don’t think you get some sort of free pass. You’ve both lied to me, I think, and I don’t keep with that sort of thing.”

“No,” Pansy said, slowly. “Well, no, not that we haven’t lied, but that you wouldn’t. Would you understand if I said I was trying to protect something?”

“Possibly,” Harry said. “But you’re going to have to talk to me.” He looked her square in the face. “No charming me out of it, no flirting, no sliding around hard subjects, a real conversation, Pansy. I’d rather have it with both of you, but I don’t suspect he’s in any place to talk yet.”

“No,” Pansy said, wrapping her hands more tightly around her tea mug. “I suppose I owe you that much, though I don’t know if any of it –“ She choked back a laugh, sounding like she was on the verge of breaking down. “Harry, I’m not certain any of it makes sense to anyone, least of all us.”

“Try me,” Harry said, simply.

“We got married when we were seventeen,” Pansy said. “And yes, the contract’s a form of marriage, but you get prickly about it when your marriage isn’t much of a marriage, really.”

“All right,” Harry said. “I’m listening.”

“I love him,” she said, honestly. “I’m in love with him. He’s my best friend. My partner. But there are things we’ve never been able to work out.”

“I’m not going to judge you,” Harry said, finally, anger slowly fading.

“I don’t know if he feels the same way, or if he thinks something entirely different, and the fact that I can’t ask –“ She laughed, hollow. “And the sex –“ She made a noise. “It’s not anything, Harry. If he were gay, if I weren’t attracted to him, if something made sense… but it’s awful. I mean…” She ran a hand through her hair. “We wanted each other so badly, in the beginning. I think we still do, really. But every time we’ve tried, it’s like fireworks and this crazy lust until it suddenly isn’t, and we’re both so – oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s nerves or baggage or maybe someone’s hexed us, I don’t know. But it’s so fucking good until it isn’t, and then it’s grit your teeth and lie back and think of England awful.” She laughed, bitterly. “Isn’t that stupid? All this intimacy and passion and devotion and we can’t even fix that. We stopped trying years ago, honestly. Every so often we’ll get drunk and think it’s a decent idea, but it never is.”

“I don’t think it’s stupid,” Harry said, slowly. “A mess, maybe, but not stupid.”

“That night in the sitting room –“ Pansy said, with another bitter laugh. “He got so fucking jealous, and I was so… ready for it, and we both were so pissed off we forgot that we’re terrible at sex and almost had some that was good.” She managed a wry smile. “Of course, I don’t think it went so well in the morning when we both realized it was because we’d been thinking about the wrong person.”

Harry snorted. “No, probably not,” he admitted.

“I’ve tried being with other people and he’s never claimed to care,” Pansy admitted. “I just – he said it was all right, and I wanted this thing that everyone’s supposed to have in their marriage, but it’s never worked. I can’t compare anyone to him, no one’s ever going to measure up. But I think we’re both going to go completely and utterly mad if we don’t figure this out, because I can’t live without that intimacy, I don’t think I can get it from anyone but him and even if I could, I’d still want it from him, and he can’t give it to me. And it’s not as if he’s in much better shape over it. Probably worse, if I’m honest. His father – god, what I’d give to shove a dagger in the back of Lucius Malfoy and get away with it.”

“Well,” Harry said. “In the interest of total disclosure, it’s not as if I’m easy about this sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve fucked my fair share of strangers in bars, but it’s never what I’m looking for. And Ginny… we ought to have been perfect for one another, you know? But we weren’t, and we both knew it, and the more we tried to make it work, the worse it got, until we couldn’t any more. But I’m not –“ Harry shook his head. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the same situation. It wasn’t. The sex was about all we were any good at.”

“You kissed him,” Pansy said, finally, a little tentatively.

“I did,” Harry said. “And if I didn’t think it would be an utterly rotten move, I’d kiss you, too, just to even out the score.” He laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Please don’t ask me how I went from years of never seeing anything I liked to suddenly finding two people I’m crazy about, but you’re different. You’ve never treated me as if I’m special for something I did before I could walk. And I think I need to get close before I get attracted, though I suppose that sort of thinking leads to things like Ginny.”

He propped his head in his hand. “You’re stubborn and a complete flirt and every time you start in with that, I want to show you what an awful idea it is to mess with me.” He laughed. “And smart and funny and kind and stupidly attractive, although I’ve never cared about the last bit much.” He smiled. “Although you ought to know, that grey set of robes ought to be sent to Azkaban and burned, it’s that unfair.”

Pansy flushed. “And – Draco?”

“You know all the reasons I like Draco,” he said. “Although maybe there are a few that you don’t. But I think I ought to tell those to him.”

“Well,” Pansy said, finally. “This is, for lack of a better word, a total fuck up.”

“You probably ought to know,” Harry said, considering. “I like you, and I like him, but the two of you together, it’s better. I don’t think I’d want half of it. And if that makes me screwed up, well, I believe a witch once married a toaster, so I think I’m far from the worst out there.”

Pansy laughed, then shook her head. “No,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that you’ve just said nicer things to me than anyone has in years other than him. I’m his, and he’s mine, no matter how messy it is. I’ve no idea what that means about you, but I don’t think we’re going to find any solutions in one of us running off with you.”

“Well, I wouldn’t take either of you alone, so that’s all right,” Harry said, with a smile.

“You said alone,” Pansy said, curiously.

“Don’t think I’m going to fix you,” Harry warned. “And don’t think it’s going to fix it to try to add me to something that’s screwed up.” He smiled, finally. “But I’ve lived with Hermione for almost twenty years. If I’m not any good at getting people to talk about hard things by now, she ought to disown me. And something tells me you haven’t been talking.”

“No,” Pansy admitted. “We’re good at it with everything else. But sex? I get pissed off, and he gets embarrassed, and it’s just – we can’t.”

“Well, you’re going to have to, I think,” Harry said. “And if that doesn’t work, Thaxia can just bite everyone.”

“Damn straight,” Thaxia murmured, from where she was curled with Kit.

“I know where he is,” Harry said, finally. “And my gut says if we give him a chance to put all the walls back up, we’re going to get the world’s coldest and most perfectly composed Malfoy tomorrow morning, and it’s never going to get anywhere.”

“No,” Pansy agreed, finally. “Though cornering him when he’s hurt and angry is a relatively risky proposition.”

“What’s he going to do, eat Thaxia?” Harry said, somewhat dryly. He leaned to kiss her cheek. “Could work things out some, could go down in flames, but I’ll let you call it.”

“Please tell me he’s somewhere warm,” Pansy said, with a sigh.

“Sort of,” Harry said. “But I think I can make that better. I’m quite good at camping, you know.”

“You’d never say,” Pansy said, laughing.

“Let me tell Ron and Hermione to go home and to get some things, okay?” Harry said. “You put on something warm and comfortable.”

“That’s rubbish,” Pansy said, looking a bit stubborn. “You men have no idea how clothes and shoes and make up can be for yourself.”

“And with you, they’re walls,” Harry said, gently. “But I doubt anyone’s going to notice if you’d like to fix your mascara and put on lipstick. Or at least, Kit and Thaxia won’t say anything. And yes, you’re staying, Thaxia.”

“I knew that already,” Thaxia said. “Please don’t get eaten by anything.”

Harry packed a bag, stopping by the infirmary for more potions for Pansy, and finally grabbed his broomstick and went to get her. She was bundled up with a coat and scarves, pacing.

“Down this,” he said. “Fresh batch from the Restricted Section of potions, I doubt Hermione thought to look there. It repairs damage to your throat if you happen to smoke anything stupid.”

“Just channeled a hell of a lot of magic through a wand that wasn’t mine,” Pansy said, downing it then coughing furiously as black smoke poured out of her mouth.

Fuck, Potter,” she managed, finally, but her voice was more even. “That was even worse than what Granger and Weasley gave me.”

“Why’d you use a different wand?” Harry said, gesturing to the door. She followed him up.

“It’s a Malfoy heirloom,” she said. “And it rather likes casting very dark magic. I’ve been researching it.” She snorted. “Wouldn’t you know, the thing likes me. It won’t work for Draco.”

“I’d say the wand chooses the witch, but in this case, I think the wand chooses the casting power,” Harry pointed out. “You know, I talked to Ollivander once, years ago. He said sometimes a wand would just stop working. Refuse its owner. He said every time it had happened in memory, they’d brought it in, it had gone back on the shelves, and another one had wanted them.” He shrugged. “You might think about replacing your original next time you’re in Diagon. Or just use that one, it’s not as if it’s going to turn you into a Dark Witch.”

“You’re just distracting me,” Pansy murmured, but Harry had gotten them past the greenhouses. “We’ll take the broom. Kit and Thaxia can stay below. It’s not the safest, but we’re near the edge of the forest, against the lake.”

“And you’re sure?” Pansy said.

“Very sure,” Harry replied.

He’d hardly had time for flying lately, but it wasn’t as if he’d ever not known how, and he went over the wall and over the lake. The stars reflected out over the still water, unmasked by the darkness of the hidden moon. Harry kicked the broom down, just a few feet over the water.

“You’ll have to find Lethe,” he told Thaxia and Kit, who was curled around Kit’s neck like a stole, and she nipped him fondly.

“There’s a path, idiot,” she said. “He didn’t think to hide it again.”

“You’re still going to follow it straight to her,” Harry said, laughing softly. “And then shut up for a while, okay? Both of you.”

“Silent as the grave,” Thaxia said, then made a face. “Silent as something that’s very alive and well but being silent.”

“Thanks,” Harry said. Thaxia rode Kit to the garden gate, where she climbed down. Harry left his broom and cloak just inside, reaching for Pansy’s hand and heading toward the arbor.

“Which one of you is it?” Draco said, flatly, from inside, where Harry couldn’t see him.

“Both, actually,” Harry said.

“Lovely,” Draco said, and Harry ducked underneath the curtain of vines, tugging Pansy with him. There were hundreds of tiny glowing orbs, floating all through the air where they’d let go of the vine itself, and he laughed with sudden delight in spite of himself, reaching out to touch one. Draco was slumped against the furthest part of the arbor, with a bottle of whiskey beside him, but it was unopened. Thaxia found Lethe, who was lying on the flagstones, watching the flowers. Harry watched them twine together, Kit slipping in beneath them, then started unpacking.

“It’s refilling from the kitchen,” he said, pulling out a thermos of cocoa and pouring it into three glasses, and then added a generous amount of fire whiskey to each. He tossed the duvet from his bed down, casting a cushioning charm beneath it, and threw in a few pillows and some warming charms.

“Go on,” he said to Pansy, sitting down himself. “It’s sort of like a bed.”

“It’s nothing like a bed,” Pansy retorted, but she was looking up at the flowers, reaching out a hand to catch one. It unfolded slowly, leaving a glowing seed in her palm.

“Sit,” Harry said, firmly, and when Pansy did, with a sigh, he sank down next to her and found Draco glaring at them.

“What is this, some sort of camping party?” he demanded. “Cocoa and blankets, Potter? Really?”

“Shut up,” Pansy said. “He said he thinks he can help us. I mean – you and me. And then -”

“Oh, delightful,” Draco interrupted. “Gryffindor counseling while camping in the lack of moonlight, just what I’ve always wanted.”

“Draco,” Pansy said.

“Really, I mean it,” he said. “It sounds utterly fabulous. I’m sure Potter will fix everything and we’ll all live happily ever after and there will probably be red and gold streamers at the wedding.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Pansy said, finally, getting to her feet, and Harry realized with a start that she was pointing her wand at Draco. “You pretend you don’t care, but you do, and when it matters, you pull it all around you like the fact that you’ve never let anyone through doesn’t matter at all, and I’ve had it with all of it. You know how good I am at Imperius, Draco, you know this wand likes it, is that what it’s going to take to get you to stop running scared?”

“You know,” Harry said, mildly. “I just want to state for the record that I tried cocoa and alcohol before Unforgiveables.”

“Go ahead, make me,” Draco said, and Harry finally decided he’d about had it with both of them.

“Anathaxia,” he said, and a minute later Draco swore, far less elegantly, and held up a palm that was dripping with blood, staring at her.

“I told you I hadn’t made my mind up on biting professors, and I certainly don’t have any moral quandaries regarding people who are being utter prats.”

“Pansy, I’ll let her do you next if you don’t put the bloody wand away,” Harry said, through gritted teeth, and she glared at him before sinking back down.

“Wands,” he said, finally, holding out his hand. “Both of them, Pansy.”

Pansy turned hers over, and he turned to Draco with an expectant look, but he was still glaring.

Wand,” Harry said, in a term he usually reserved for Weasleys and idiotic students, and Draco finally gave it to him. Harry tucked them into a pocket in his bag.

“Whose side are you supposed to be on?” Draco muttered, and Harry looked upward at the arbor.

“I’m not,” he said. “Did you even hear a word she said?”

“Yes,” Draco said, finally. “No. I don’t know. I don’t know what you’re doing here, I don’t know why Pansy doesn’t seem to want to sort this out in the dueling wing like usual, and I’m frankly unsure what you’re supposed to be helping with, aside from perhaps getting everyone drunk.”

“It might be a decent start,” Harry said, dryly. “You haven’t a single thing you want to talk about from tonight? Not one?”

“Not really, no,” Draco said. “I’d rather not.”

“Well,” Harry said, “I’m not going to force you, but I think you’ve been choosing ‘rather not’ for a decade, and it’s not doing you any favors.”

“Draco,” Pansy said, and there was the barest note of desperation in her voice. “I know you don’t trust anyone, but – maybe he’s different. Maybe he could be different, just for tonight.”

“That’s not true,” Draco said, finally. “I trust you.”

“This is the part where I’m really going to fall down on counseling, so you’ll both have to deal with it, I’m calling you on your actions or lack thereof,” Harry said, flatly. “Because I’ve got to tell you, from an outside point of view, you’ve done an utterly rubbish job of showing or communicating that.”

“I didn’t think I had to,” Draco said. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“No,” Harry said. “I don’t think it is.”

“Well,” Draco said. “I trust Pansy.”

“That’s far from good enough,” Harry said, settling in. Pansy was watching him.

Harry knew, somehow, that pushing Malfoy too hard and too fast would be worse than not pushing at all, so he gave it a few minutes, letting them both drink the cocoa before he poured another round.

“Draco,” he said, finally. “Why’d you marry her? And don’t tell me it’s a contract.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Draco said, the usual flippancy, and then sighed when he realized Harry was asking a real question. “It seemed – I don’t know.” He frowned at his mug. “It solved more problems than it created.”

“Oh, that’s romantic,” Pansy muttered.

“You know I’m no good at that,” Draco said, flatly.

“Give him a minute,” Harry said, gently. “Draco, that’s the political answer. I want the other ones.”

“The other ones?” Draco said, then glanced at him. “The ones you’d give.”

“Yeah,” Harry said. “The Gryffindor version.”

Draco snorted, but there wasn’t any real venom in it. “I don’t know,” he said again. “Honestly. I went through every possibility, and you were the best one, so I asked, and you said yes.”

“Why was I the best one?” Pansy said, quietly.

“God, I don’t know,” Draco said, again. “I saw you, I don’t know, four or five months after the Battle of Hogwarts. Diagon Alley, you know. I’ve no idea what you were doing there, I didn’t say hello. But you looked –“ He swallowed. “There was something about you I’d never seen before. You were eating ice cream on the patio with a friend, I think, and you tossed your head back and laughed, really laughed, and I realized I’d never seen you like that before. Not in seven years. And I thought about it and wondered what else I’d missed, what else I didn’t know, and then those few times we saw each other before I asked, there was just… something in you. You slipped a few times, out of what you thought I wanted, and there was all this power and all this potential, and I wanted more of that.” He swallowed. “I wanted – I thought maybe I could give someone else something, instead of just myself, that if I were using the Malfoy money for something, I might buy someone else a chance. And you were the only one who was real.”

He tilted his head and smiled, looking a little sad. “And I was right, wasn’t I? All of this, all of you – I won’t take credit, it was always there, but now that’s you all the time, not just when you slip up.”

“Well,” Pansy said, swirling her cocoa. “You deserve some credit, I suppose. You made me feel safe. Like I could be whomever I wanted. Do you remember –“ She laughed to herself. “That night your parents were in Paris and we went in and broke all the China? I think you’d meant to show me the manor, but we ended up in the dining room, and you said, ‘Oh, this, I don’t care about this,’ and I knew what you meant, that you were so wealthy it didn’t matter and that was why I ought to like you, but it came out that you didn’t give a damn about two hundred year old plates, and we broke every last one.”

“That goddamned tea set, it wouldn’t shut up,” Draco finally said, laughing too.

“We were so, extraordinarily drunk,” Pansy said, fondly.

“On each other,” Draco said, after a long pause. “A little. I think. Too.”

“Yes,” Pansy said, simply. “That too.”

“Why’d you say yes?” Harry said, with a smile.

“Because I was stupidly in love with him, why do you think?” Pansy said, laughing.

“All right, why were you stupidly in love with him?” Harry said, grinning back.

“You ask all the worst questions, Potter,” Draco said, but he was flushed.

“I haven’t even gotten to those yet,” Harry said, dryly.

“Oh, great,” Draco said. “Pansy, did you really –“

“Because you were different, too,” Pansy interrupted. “Because you were just… in school, I don’t know, I thought you were like every other pureblood. But once you’d decided – I don’t know, whatever the hell you decided… you were different. You were awful, sometimes, and brilliant, sometimes, and just… you liked all these things I’d never known, like plants and potions and chocolate ice cream, and you were far less funny than you thought you were but there were times when you made me laugh so hard I cried, and you were always honest.”

Harry reached, to refill Pansy’s mug and his own. It really wasn’t his conversation.

“I wanted something else for myself,” she continued. “And I suppose they might have let me marry someone else, a Ravenclaw, maybe, they had some decent houses, but no one else got what it was that I wanted, and you did. And I thought there was enough of a chance that you might want the same thing that I was willing to risk it.”

“God, we had no idea,” Draco murmured, finally. “We were just children.”

“We were,” Pansy agreed. “Though I think we were older than we had any right to be.”

Draco finally stood, crossing to sit next to her.

“I’ve no idea where we screwed this up,” he admitted.

“Me either,” Pansy said, leaning against his side. “But it’s not as if I don’t love you with everything in me.”

“Me too,” Draco said, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “I’d rather have it be – wrong with you than right with anyone else.”

Pansy laughed. “Aside from Potter, apparently,” she said, but it was teasing.

“I meant it,” Harry cautioned. “About the both of you.”

“Great, you’ve been talking without me,” Draco said, dryly.

“You went and hid,” Pansy said, without any real bite to it.

“Do I even want to know?” Draco said.

“Yes, it was largely about sex,” Pansy said, the corner of her mouth curling up.

Pansy,” Draco hissed, and she laughed. “Come on,” she said. “How much worse could it possibly get?”

“That’s private,” Draco said, firmly.

“You shoving your tongue down Harry’s throat was most assuredly not private,” Pansy said, leaning back into the pillows. “Besides, he’s interested, and I suspect that if either of us wants to see what that looks like, we’re going to have to at least acknowledge that there’s something there.”

“There isn’t,” Draco said, firmly, glancing at Harry.

“Fidelity and loyalty aren’t the same thing,” Pansy said, fondly. “And I’m not really sure we’re talking about infidelity if we’re both interested in the same person.”

“I’m not, don’t say that,” Draco protested, again.

“Well, for the record, I am,” Harry said, honestly. “I told Pansy. And it takes a lot to get me interested, so don’t think that’s some simple thing or just about sex or god knows what else.”

“You are?” Draco said, sounding startled, and Pansy actually giggled.

“Subtle, darling,” she said. “Harry, I think this might be working, I’m finally warm. You ought to give me more.”

“Don’t blame me if you’re hungover as hell tomorrow,” Harry warned her, laughing, but he refilled her mug. “And yes, Draco, I am. But I told Pansy, the idea of splitting you two up isn’t going to work for me, so we’ll have to sort it out as the three of us or I’ll leave you be and we’ll stay friends.”

“What, some sort of threeway?” Draco said, incredulous, and Pansy finally dissolved into laughter.

“You’re so fucking traditional,” she said, fondly. “Yes, some sort of threeway, and I think Harry rather means it to be sort of a lot of threeway, so it’s your call, but I vote that it’s at least worth talking about.”

“Yes, because we’re doing nowhere near enough talking, and now you want me to talk about my sex life with Potter,” Draco muttered, holding out his mug. “I’ll take hungover over this any night.”

“Oh, come on,” Pansy said, downing most of her mug in one gulp and cupping his face in her hands. “You’ve never once even looked at someone else, then there’s him.”

“We’re married, I can’t,” Draco said, slowly.

“You know, I rather think if your wife says you can, you can,” Pansy said. “And for the record, darling, don’t think I haven’t figured out how much sex matters to you and how insane you’re going from never having any that says what you want it to.”

Draco flushed, looking at Harry again. “You’re sure we have to have this conversation here?”

“Yes,” Pansy said. “Because we’ve had it a thousand times ourselves and it’s gone nowhere, so I want to try with Harry.” She considered. “Also, quite possibly, because I’d like to try things with Harry.”

“You know, Draco,” Harry said, laughing. “I have, actually, had a decent amount of sex. And I don’t mind talking about it. Well, at least not with you two.”

“I don’t want to hear about you with other people,” Draco said, sounding vaguely horrified, and Pansy snorted.

“He’s got a jealous streak,” she said. “You’d never know.”

“I do not mind talking about sex in general,” Harry said, rolling his eyes. “Or your sex life. Or theoretical sex with you two.”

“Is this a Gryffindor thing? The – extra people?” Draco said, then suddenly looked horrified. “All this time, did you and Granger and Weasley –“

“Yes, thank you, Rita Skeeter,” Harry said, finally a little irritated. “Draco, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve really been interested in over the years, and you two are included in that number, for reasons I’m really beginning to question. No, none of those people are Ron or Hermione.”

“Interesting,” Pansy said, propping her chin in a hand. “And those people in bars?”

“I’ve come to realize over the years that I’d rather not be having sex than be having sex without intimacy and affection,” Harry said, simply. “Sort of got to know myself, really.”

“Sex with us isn’t likely to involve all that much intimacy or affection,” Draco muttered, sounding a little bitter, and Harry let Pansy settle back against him.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said. “Pansy said it wasn’t that neither of you was interested, so somebody tell me where it goes wrong.”

Pansy,” Draco said, again, flushed, and Harry reached out to run a hand through his hair, casually.

“Thinking about you two together isn’t exactly some sort of hardship,” Harry pointed out, laughing softly. “Is it easier if you frame it that way?”

“No,” Draco said, flinching back a little, and Harry realized he was genuinely uncomfortable.

“Hey,” he said, gently. “I care. You know I care. You know I’ll keep my mouth shut. So tell me what doesn’t feel right here.”

Pansy cleared her throat. “I mean, aside from god knows what with the Lestranges, there’s literally -“ She started to laugh. “Harry, there’s literally a book on sex for women of my, shall we say, social standing, and I can assure you, it’s not the kama sutra. It’s all very behind closed doors missionary position with the lights out.”

“Well, that sounds like utter rubbish,” Harry said, and Draco turned away.

“He likes men too,” Pansy pointed out. “And we’ve never been like that. I mean – I don’t think we’re the sort of people who would be satisfied with… it being… textbook. And Lucius Malfoy threw him into a door when he found out the first part.”

“My father didn’t really understand the concept of bisexuality,” Draco said, finally. “He just thought I was gay. So when I told him, he backhanded me into a door. I don’t even remember everything he said.”

“Yes, you do,” Pansy said, softly.

“He said it was too bad, what I wanted, what I thought I wanted, that purebloods didn’t take to that sort of thing. That I’d been mistaken, that he’d been too soft on me, that I’d get married and have children just like every other Malfoy. And if I couldn’t put it aside for the sake of the family, then I’d better keep my blood traitor mouth shut.”

Harry considered. “Well, aside from finding your father to be an intolerant, arrogant prick, what I’m gathering is that sex lives amongst people of your social standing are generally boring as hell.”

“They’re not,” Draco said, at the same moment Pansy said, “Yes, very.”

“Not on the same page there, are we?” Harry murmured.

“Oh,” Pansy murmured. “Harry, refill his mug.”

“I’m already sort of drunk,” Draco said. “Honestly, actually, I’m sure I’m drunk, if I’m talking about this with you two.”

“Is that a no?” Harry said.

“No,” Draco said, with a sigh. “Since you’re not going to leave be.”

“No, I am not,” Pansy said, sharply. “Because I want you, and you want me, and I’m so bloody tired of not being able to say what I feel in bed.” She looked up, flushing. “Also, for the record, I like orgasms, and that’s sure as hell not happening.”

Pansy,” Draco said.

“Okay, okay,” Harry said, gently. “We’re talking about it, not raking Draco over the coals about it, and it’s not as if you think he’s enjoying himself and leaving you out of the fun.”

“No,” Pansy said, with a sigh. “Sorry.”

“This is officially excruciating,” Draco said, and reached for Harry’s flask.

“It’s meant to take the edge off, not let you off the hook,” Harry said, gently, holding it back. “Draco, you know her. And me. Do you really think this is meant to be some sort of torture?”

“No,” Draco said, finally, softly. “But it’s not really pleasant.”

“At the risk of this being a dumb question,” Harry murmured, “do you want her?”

“Yes,” Draco said, then flushed. “Oh. That way. Yes.” He paused. “Very much.”

“You know, I’m going to make a point, and you’ll probably want to hit me for it, but bear with me,” Harry said. “It’s no one’s business what goes on behind your bedroom doors but your own.”

“Why would I want to hit you for that?” Draco said. “I don’t disagree.”

“Meaning,” Harry said, dryly. “You can do anything you want. Have anything you want. You could tie her up. Let her tie you up. Use potions, because god knows there about a million of them for every sexual thing you could ever come up with. Have sex for three days straight and never come up for air.” He grinned. “Have threeways with Gryffindors. And you know, unless you tell, no one’s ever going to know.”

Draco flushed, hard. “Oh,” he said.

“Oh,” Pansy said, too, then suddenly looked at him. “Draco, what do you think is going to happen if we let this happen?” She considered. “Actually, I probably ought to be asking myself the same question.”

“It would be a lot, I think,” Draco said, finally.

“Neither of us is particularly good at that sort of intimacy,” Pansy said, finally, softly. “And I think I might be scared. To show you how much I care. How badly I want you.”

“I’d probably run you off,” Draco said, joking, but Harry suspected there was more truth to it than he’d meant to let on.

“No,” Pansy said, sharply. “No, never.”

Harry cleared his throat. “I suck at it,” he admitted. “But I’m not afraid of it. You want me to fuck you through the mattress, I’m thoroughly willing, I don’t hide in bed.”

He was met with identical contemplative looks, and he laughed. “Should I ask for hands if you liked that idea?” he teased.

“Shut up,” Draco said, and Pansy elbowed him.

“I would really like that,” she said, very firmly. “From both of you, actually.”

“Now who’s had too much,” Draco said, and Pansy shoved him in the side.

“Come on,” she said. “Come on, Draco, tell me something you really want. I don’t care who from. Surely you’ve thought about it.”

Draco paused, flushing, but he met her gaze. “D’you remember that – ah, thing you kept joking about with the armchair? I – well. How much were you joking?”

“Oh,” Pansy said, flushing too. “No, I think that would be good.”

“Really, really bad at mind magic,” Harry reminded, teasing.

“Oh, I kept winding him up talking about how our armchair would be just wide enough for, ah,” Pansy said. “Me on top.”

Harry snorted. “I’ve had you on top of me in that armchair, I think we’ve all had that fantasy.”

“How can you just –“ Draco said, glancing at him. “Talk about what you want like that.”

“Because no one’s ever told me it was wrong,” Harry said, honestly. “And someone’s told both of you it’s something to be ashamed of, and I think you both bought it. Pansy plays with it significantly more than you do, but she’s got just as much trouble with the follow through.”

“Thank you,” she said, biting, but then sighed. “He’s right, you know. I talk a good talk and wear red lipstick, but it’s – it would be something else to be that person with you, when we meant it.”

“Draco,” Harry said, considering. “Me and Pansy. Which way’s it going to drive you crazy?”

“No idea,” Draco said. “Though – I think I hated the idea because I thought you might be… better with her than I was. That you could give her what she wanted.”

“Well, I can,” Harry said, with a low grin, but it was directed at Draco. “But so can you.”

“Again with the talk, Potter,” Draco murmured, but he sounded less uncertain.

“Do you care if I kiss her?” Harry said. “In front of you. Right here. Assuming you’re game, Pansy.” He grinned. “Just a kiss, though I want you in my lap and I’m making absolutely no promises not to put on a show for him, if you want to join me.”

“Yes, please,” Pansy said. “Draco?”

“All right,” he said, finally, sounding slightly unsure but not entirely uninterested.

“You can stop it any time,” Harry said, sincerely. “Sound fair, Pansy?”

“Sounds like you being a tease,” she said, but glanced at Draco with a smile. “Totally fair. You’re allowed to hate it.”

“I think –“ Draco said, clearing his throat. “I think I might not. Actually.”

“Look at you, liking untoward things,” Pansy teased, in a way that Harry was fairly certain Draco would have bolted from if it had been him.

“Oh, shut up,” Draco muttered, but his cheeks were red. “Can we get on with this experiment?”

“Yes,” Harry said, and settled back into the pillows, tugging Pansy’s mug out of her hand and setting it on the flagstones. “Hello, gorgeous. Come here.”

“Oh, Potter, false flattery’s so unbecoming,” Pansy sighed, laughing, but she slid a knee over him, sliding straight into his lap, and even if Harry was sure she was faking the confidence, it was still something he’d wanted for longer than he was willing to admit.

“You know,” he murmured, running his fingers up her spine, “I’m starting to think you like to play.”

“However did you guess,” Pansy taunted, suddenly pulling her jumper over her head and unpinning her hair. She had a thin shirt on underneath, but Harry let his gaze drift down anyway.

“Jesus, Dr. Malfoy,” he teased. “I might have to ban that along with the grey dress robes.”

“Oh, you like them,” Pansy said, flippantly, shaking her hair out as she slid closer, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Actually, I think you rather like this too.”

“Pansy, you’re in my lap,” Harry said, dryly. “If you can’t tell, I’m doing something wrong.”

Pansy glanced at Draco quickly, but Harry reached a hand up to cup her jaw. “No, here,” he said, firmly. He had a feeling if Draco found their focus on him, he’d stop watching.

“Right,” Pansy said, their faces a few inches apart. “Well, Potter? I thought you said you were good for this.”

“Oh, I am,” Harry assured her, pulling her down into a hungry kiss. He shifted, letting her get used to it, then deepened the kiss, sliding a hand up to tangle in her hair and wrapping an arm around her waist. He felt the moment when Pansy forgot about everything else, licking his lower lip, and he nipped hers back, laughing into her mouth when she arched to press against him, her breasts brushing against his chest.

“Come a little closer,” he murmured, coaxing, and Pansy made a low noise and kissed him hard, spreading her knees further to get closer, until she was nearly straddling him. “I can take your weight.”

“Oh, can you,” Pansy said, and settled fully in his lap. Harry let his head fall to nuzzle her neck, licking beneath a collar bone, and then went further down, sliding a hand up to cup a breast as he inhaled the smell of her perfume, breathing hard between her breasts.

“God, you are brilliant,” he said, utterly sincerely, and she tipped her head back and laughed.

“What did I say about flattery,” she said, fondly, running a hand through his hair.

“That it would be very effective in getting you into bed?” Harry hazarded. “And that I should be fully expected to try to do that right now, because I’m that turned on?”

“Hush,” she said, laughing. “Can I look at Draco now? He’s either run off or we’ve killed him.”

“I’m here,” Draco said, hoarsely. “Potter, I’m not sure whether to kiss you or kill you.”

“The first, preferably, though I’ll help convince you. Go on,” Harry said, gently, tipping Pansy towards him. “God knows it’s going to take both of us to keep up with her.”

Pansy was stiffer as she got close to Draco, for lack of a better word, but she looked thoughtful. “You think there’s any reason we couldn’t?” she said, meeting Draco’s eyes.

“Actually, no,” Draco said. “Well – I don’t think I can talk like him.”

“Well, we really needn’t talk,” Pansy murmured.

“Right here,” Harry said, fondly. “You two have to work this one out, but no shame in asking for a hand if you get stuck.” He grinned. “Unmentioned benefits of threeways.”

“Apparently if Potter hadn’t gone into saving the world, he could have been a sexuality counselor,” Draco said, dryly.

“Yes, well, the fact that you’re stuck with Harry is only because you wouldn’t go with me to one,” Pansy said, rolling her eyes. “You’ve really only yourself to blame for his Gryffindor method of fixing things.” She paused. “Well. Not that it’s entirely terrible.”

Harry snorted. “One, I’m not fixing anything, because nothing’s broken here. Two, I’m really only interested in helping you two and myself, so it’s not exactly altruistic.”

“You know, I think he’s right,” Pansy said, tentatively, sliding all the way into Draco’s lap and leaning to nuzzle his neck. Harry watched her swallow. “I’ve been thinking of this – this part of our marriage as utterly wrecked for so long, I think I forgot about why… why it hurt like hell that I couldn’t make it work in the first place.”

“I miss trying,” Draco said, quietly. “I don’t think – you’re my best friend, and I love you, and it’s not as if I don’t want you too. Surely there’s some way to put that together into something where we’re not –“ He laughed, bitterly. “Well. Where no one’s throwing anything at anyone else.”

“Pansy,” Harry said, laughing softly. “For the love of god, just kiss him. And I don’t think you need to hold back.”

“If holding back is the difference between what you just did with Potter and how it usually goes with us, blow that for a game of soldiers,” Draco agreed, firmly.

“Oh,” Pansy said, looking a little startled. “You like the flirting thing?”

“Yes?” Draco said, staring at her. “Obviously? I mean – not when you do it with people other than Potter.” He glanced at Harry. “He might be an acceptable exception.”

With you,” Pansy said, impatiently.

Yes,” Draco said. “It drives me insane. The good sort of insane.”

“Oh,” Pansy said. “I really only started it because you’re sort of fun to mess with.”

“So mess with him,” Harry said, a little exasperated. “You’re stalling. Come here.”

He leaned over to kiss Pansy again, ignoring Draco’s noise of protest, and licked into her mouth, sliding a hand to her lower back to nudge her closer against Draco.

“He’s bigger than I am,” Harry pointed out. “I’m reasonably confident he can take your weight too.”

“About the same, actually,” Pansy said, with a grin.

“You are incorrigible,” Draco said, and Harry pulled back, laughing.

“I know,” Pansy said, loftily. “It’s quite fun, actually. You ought to try it sometime. Also, I’m in your lap and you’re not hard, if you don’t fix that, I’m going to make Potter do something about it.”

“Or you could,” Draco said, looking up at her.

“I suppose,” Pansy teased. “Wifely duties and all.”

Pansy,” Draco nearly growled.

“Oh, all right,” she said, laughing. “Favorite pastimes.”

“You’re so –“ Draco muttered.

“Fabulous?” Pansy murmured, leaning in until their noses were touching. “Extraordinarily hot? Sexy? Excellent with a wand? Very Slytherin?”

“Talkative,” Draco said, laughing, and finally pulled her down for a kiss. It was tentative, and Harry could see Pansy’s shoulders tense, but he kept his hand on her back, stroking with his thumb, and a moment later he could see when it tipped over into instinct, because her eyes closed and Draco made a low, possessive noise, shoving Harry back so he could wrap an arms around her waist, tugging her in. He buried his other hand in her hair, pulling her closer, and there, that was what he’d been looking for.

Draco started to tense before Pansy noticed, and Harry leaned in. “My turn,” he said, nudging Pansy. “Though you stay put, someone’s got to give me updates on whether he’s enjoying this.”

“Prat,” Draco said, breathing hard, but he didn’t object when Harry leaned in to kiss him hard, wrapping a hand around the base of his neck.

“Yes, utterly,” Harry said, kissing him harder, and it wasn’t the same as earlier, but it was better, somehow, because they were choosing this.

He tangled a hand in Draco’s hair and just kept kissing him, drawing it out until he looked too wrecked and thoroughly distracted to start thinking again. Harry figured it was probably better to keep him that way.

“So,” Harry said, mildly. “Pansy, you did mention orgasms.”

“I did,” Pansy said, slowly. “Does this mean one of you is going to stop treating me like a delicate flower and make good on that whole fucking me into the mattress promise? Because I’m tired, but I’m not that tired.”

“This isn’t exactly a mattress,” Harry teased.

“Do I look as if I care?” Pansy demanded, laughing, still wrapped around Draco.

“So,” Harry said, dryly, and refilled both their mugs before Draco could protest. “Let’s play a game.”

“I like games,” Pansy said, laughing.

“All right,” Draco said, warily.

“Come here,” Harry said, renewing the warming charms, and tugged Pansy’s shirt over her head. He kept his eyes on Pansy’s face, but Draco didn’t, and Harry laughed. “You both promise to be totally honest?”

“Yes, as if I’ve been lying all evening,” Draco muttered.

“Shut up, yes,” Pansy said.

“Hot or cold,” Harry said. “Answer at the same time so no one cheats.”

“We were kissing,” Draco said. “The kissing was perfectly pleasant.”

“Yes,” Harry said, laughing. “And now we’re doing more than kissing.” He nudged Pansy, who settled back against Draco, looking up at him.

“You can feel me up if it’ll make you stop complaining,” she said, lightly. “Potter’s trying to be all gentlemanly, but I’m rather over that, and I like your hands.”

“Just to make this less totally unbearable,” Draco murmured, sliding his hands up to her breasts, and Pansy slid backwards, laughing.

“He’s not hating this as much as he says,” she said, brightly. “Ten theoretical points to Gryffindor.”

“I’m not responding to that,” Draco said. “Unless I can give ten theoretical points to Slytherin for how you look topless.”

“Totally fair,” Harry agreed, and Pansy flushed, looking pleased.

“Okay, one,” Harry said, stretching out, because there was no reason not to enjoy the view. “Pansy’s having mind-blowing orgasms in bed.”

“Frigid,” Pansy said, dryly, at the same time Draco murmured, “I don’t know, lukewarm?”

Harry snorted. “Don’t feel badly,” he said, before Draco could say anything. “You and every other bloke in the universe, myself included.”

“Two, this is an excellent view,” Harry said.

“Warm,” Pansy said, and Draco laughed. “Extremely hot.”

“This is an excellent view with both of you,” Harry said, dryly.

“Hot,” Pansy said, cheerfully. “Warm?” Draco said.

Harry snorted. “I’m not in this just for Pansy’s breasts,” he said. “Just so we’re clear.”

“Oh, all right,” Draco said, but he looked vaguely pleased.

“Three, Pansy’s having mind-blowing orgasms on her own,” Harry said.

“Hot?” Draco said, and Pansy made a face. “Cool. Okay, cold.”

Harry stretched, giving her a look. “Well?”

“It’s – I don’t like it that much alone,” Pansy said. “And – it’s never as good as I think it ought to be, because Draco’s not there. I mean, not that I think you need a man or something, but I’m just –“

“That’s you,” Harry said, simply. “Don’t apologize for you.”

“Yeah,” Pansy said.

“Four, same questions for Draco,” Harry said.

“Er,” Pansy said. “Lukewarm, and I’ve absolutely no idea? Warm, at least?”

“Very cold, colder,” Draco said, flushing a little. “And, honestly, about the same reason.”

“You always come,” Pansy said, a little startled.

“Doesn’t mean it’s any good,” Harry said.

“What he said,” Draco said, ruefully. “And no, I don’t always.”

“Oh,” Pansy said. She lifted a hand to his cheek, tugging him down for a kiss. “Well. We’re sorting that out too, then.”

“Okay,” Draco agreed, looking sort of pleased again. “I can live with that.”

“Five –“ Harry considered. “You know at least five sex spells and two potions.”

“Theoretically or practically?” Pansy said. “And what on earth are you considering a sex potion?”

Harry snorted. “That’s a cold for Pansy,” he said. “Draco?”

“Cold,” he said. “I mean – practically speaking. Theoretically speaking, it’s not as if I don’t know how to brew them.” He paused. “Or, you know, the crazy psychedelic aphrodisiac plants, but they’re mostly toxic, so I think that may not be the way to go.”

“Okay, six,” Harry said. “You think it’s a decent idea to help Pansy out with a spell while we watch.”

“Hot,” Draco said, slowly. “You can do that?”

“You’re going to watch?” Pansy said, a little dubiously.

“Yes, and yes,” Harry said. “You said you didn’t like not having him around,” he pointed out. “He’ll be right there. I’ll be right here. And I promise I can make it good.”

“Okay, tentatively warm,” Pansy said. “Do I get to know what you’re doing?”

“You can pick, actually,” Harry said, then held a hand up before either of them could say anything. “I had an adventurous ex-fiancée, and no, I’d really rather not talk about that, mostly because it’s over and done with, and also, not to ruin your moment or anything, but I lived in a house with thousands of books, some of them were relevant to the topic at hand.”

“I’ll have you know, I’m raiding the Restricted Section,” Pansy said, laughing.

“Or you could just, you know, borrow some of mine, I’m not sure the Restricted Section’s all that good for anything that’s not likely to kill you,” Harry said. “Any idea what you like?”

“Can I just – go with no?” Pansy hazarded, then brightened. “Tabula rasa. You don’t care if I don’t know, so I can say no even if I’ve some idea.”

“Ten theoretical points to Slytherin,” Harry said, laughing. “Oral sex?”

“No clue,” Pansy said, cheerfully, then paused. “Um, legitimately no clue. I’ve tried going down on Draco, but I don’t think he likes it.”

“I’ve tried going down on you, and I don’t think you like it,” Draco said. “Though I do, by the way. I mean – both ways.”

“Oh,” Pansy said, flushing. “Well. I mean. I’m honestly not sure. It’s… we tend to call it off, it’s awkward.”

“We really should have just gotten drunk and played truth or dare,” Harry said, laughing. “And, um, for the record, I’ll turn the tables and let you two at me soon, all right? I’m really not –“ He considered, rubbing the back of his neck. “I hope this is helping. I think this is helping. But it feels one sided, like I’m some sort of expert, and I’m not a fan of the feeling, so free pass on anything you want to know or do tomorrow or whenever we can manage this again, all right?”

“Thanks,” Draco said, softly. “I know you’ve had more sex, but that makes it easier.”

“That’s it,” Harry said, honestly. “That’s the complete and total sum of it. I’m not better at this, I’m not good at anything you’re not. I just don’t have a decade of frustration behind it, I’ve spent years around women who think sex is a breakfast table topic and I learned a lot from that even if I didn’t always want to, and no one’s ever told me what sort of sex I should or shouldn’t be having. That’s the entire difference.” He paused. “And for the record, I’ve had my share of really awkward, uncomfortable, can’t-quite-make-it-work sex. So I get what that’s like too.”

Pansy reached out to grab his wrist, tugging him into a hug. “Thanks,” she said. “I – you’re helping. And I don’t feel totally fucked up.” She glanced at Draco.

“Relatively tipsy,” he said, laughing. “But no. I feel okay.” He paused. “Which is a little odd, actually, every time we try to talk about this I end up punching walls.”

“Maybe the trick is having plants for walls,” Pansy teased.

“Or having Harry,” Draco said, looking at him.

“I’m giving you a hand,” Harry said, softly. “And I do want in. With both of you. But tonight’s not about that.” He paused. “Okay, all the kissing wasn’t entirely for you two.”

Draco snorted. “Who’d have guessed, you want things,” he said.

“I do,” Harry said, honestly. “And I don’t really fuck around about that. But if you think I’m the glue that’s holding you together, neither one of you is going to trust a bit of that, so we’re doing this the hard way.” He stretched. “Though I suppose it ought to be at least a little fun.”

He held out a blanket to Pansy. “Less clothes,” he said. “If you don’t have a preference, we’ll try the oral sex thing, and if you don’t like it, we’ll switch. Fair?”

“Okay,” Pansy said, stripping until she was – well. Very naked. Harry swallowed.

“Right?” Draco said, laughing softly. “You might see why I’m going bloody insane.”

“Shut up,” Pansy said, laughing, and wriggled into the blankets, murmuring more heating charms. “No point in denying you both the view.”

“I’m assuming you want him close,” Harry said.

“Yes,” Pansy said, and leaned to murmur something in Draco’s ear. He laughed.

“Yes, all right,” he said, then Pansy nudged him, and Draco rolled his eyes. “I’m okay with you up here too, and she asked if it was all right, so I assume she’d like us both.”

Harry snorted. “Just cast a duplicating spell on some of those pillows,” he said, stretching out on Pansy’s other side.

“I –“ Pansy said, flushing, and Harry couldn’t help but notice it went all the way from her face to her stomach. “I’m not much of a fan of doing this alone, and I’ve always wanted you there, but I hope you don’t mind if I’m starting to think I’d like him too. Not the same way, but maybe – in a few years, it’d be the same way.”

“No,” Draco said, gently, tilting her face up for a kiss. “As long as we both get to see him naked, I can hardly claim I’m getting jealous.” He paused. “Well. I can. But I’d probably have no idea which of you I was jealous of, so it seems like a rather pointless thing.”

Harry snorted. “Good to know I don’t have to figure out how serious we are,” suddenly finding himself pinned by two gazes.

“You didn’t already know, and I’m naked?” Pansy demanded.

“What she said,” Draco said. “I talked about sex with you.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “For the love of god,” he said. “Yes, I knew, but sometimes people have discussions about what page they’re on before making long term commitments.”

“Oh,” Pansy said, looking less murderous. “No, not Slytherins. Well. All right. Not us.”

“I know what I want, and I like to get it,” Harry said, with a grin, leaning down to kiss Pansy. “Not to worry.”

“No lack of self confidence there,” Draco said, dryly, and Harry slid in against Pansy’s side.

“Not these days, no,” Harry said, meeting his eyes. “That’s not going to be a problem, is it?”

“Stop doing that,” Draco said, irritably. “I ought to want to punch you, and instead I just want –“

“To fuck me?” Harry said, with a grin.

“Ten theoretical points from Gryffindor for Potter being an arrogant arse,” Draco muttered.

“Ten theoretical points to Gryffindor because we think it’s hot,” Pansy said. “Also, I’m naked and no one’s paying any attention to me, you two can get yours later.”

“Pansy, I assure you, I’m paying attention,” Harry said, mildly, pressing his hips against her side. “You want anything else? Muscle relaxing charm? Another round?” He leaned in for a kiss. “You’re not putting on a show for this one. We both need to know what it looks like when it’s real.” He laughed. ”Though please don’t mistake me, I can make you scream the castle down and I fully intend to.” He grinned at Draco. “So can you, and you fully intend to as well.”

“God, that sounds good,” Pansy said, flushing again. “And no, just – go on.”

“This one’s easy,” Harry said, for the record, and settled a hand on her stomach. “It’s not just oral sex, it’s, ah, oral sex from someone, so you’ve got to name a target. They’ll have had to consent to the spell if they’re not casting. You’ve got my consent, I assume you’ve got Draco’s.”

“Yeah,” Draco said. “Though honestly, I’m not sure you’d want to use it yet.”

Harry shook his head. “It’s not like – a set pattern,” he said. “Just how you’d do it. It’s responsive. So theoretically, the charm ought to respond to her and do what she likes. Please don’t ask me how it works, I don’t think I read that chapter. Though it was probably invented by seventeen year olds.” He laughed. “It’s not gender specific, either, so –“

“Absolutely,” Pansy said, then glanced at them. “What? You said you needed consent, I’m giving it.”

“Trade?” Harry said, with a low grin for Draco, who laughed.

“Trade,” he said. “Show me how this works.”

“My wand’s still over there, usually you’d use that, but whatever, we’re both good at wandless,” he said, with a shrug, leaning to kiss Pansy’s neck. He spread his fingers, nudging his thumb against her hip bone, and murmured the charm against her ear, loudly enough for Draco to hear.

“How’s it know – ah, the target?” she said.

“I cast it,” Harry said. “If you cast it, you tell it. Now shut up. Well –“ He laughed. “At least academically shut up.”

“Agreed,” Draco said, watching her.

Harry laughed when Pansy suddenly jumped, blinking up at him. “Oh,” she said, considering. She was starting to flush again. “That’s… interesting.”

“Damning with faint praise,” Harry teased, with a nudge for Draco. “Pretty sure she likes getting felt up.”

“It’s weird,” Pansy said, then tilted her head back, closing her eyes as Draco slid a hand to her breast.

“Potter, I’m not sure you’re winning this one,” Draco said, laughing.

“Shut up, I’d’ve said the same thing to you if I hadn’t been embarrassed. It is.”

Harry stroked his hand up her side. “You’re not going to hurt my feelings if you want something else,” he said. “But…” He laughed. “You’re really tense, I’m theoretically probably still trying to warm you up.”

“I still –“ Pansy blushed, then wriggled, tugging a blanket over herself, but she guided their hands back. “I’m okay with you watching, I just –“

“Pansy, shut up,” Harry said, fondly, leaning to kiss her neck. “No one cares.”

“I really don’t,” Draco agreed, then tugged his jumper off, settling in closer against her side. “You wanted to do this – uh, with me?” he said, sounding curious.

“I like everything better with you around,” Pansy murmured, eyes closing. “Plus then it’s – um, us, and –“ She paused, and Harry felt her arch her hips, spreading her legs between them.

“Yeah,” Draco said, swallowing.

Harry ran a hand up the inside of her thigh.

“Just enjoy it,” he said.

“Yeah,” Pansy said, turning to look at Draco, reaching up to cup his face. “It’s not that intense,” she murmured. “Just – distracting. Good distracting. And, yeah, a million times better with you.”

“You’re beautiful,” Draco murmured, leaning down to kiss her, then considered, glancing up at Harry for a second. “Do you like it if I mention I’m stupidly into you?”

Pansy laughed, gasping a little at the end. “Every girl hates that,” she said, but then smiled. “Yeah, yeah, I like that a lot.”

“Did I mention I’m stupidly into you,” Draco murmured, against her collarbone. “You really like this?”

“It’s really intimate,” Pansy admitted, flushing. “But yeah, I, ah. I do.”

Harry murmured something, and Pansy blinked. “What’d you just do?” she said.

“Switched the target,” he said, with a grin. “I was just getting you started, I figured I’d let him get you off.”

“You can tell?” Draco said, sounding a little hesitant.

“Yeah,” Pansy said. “But not – like that, or anything, just –“ She tipped her head back again, laughing. “He’s pushy, you’re thorough, it’s good both ways.”

Not a competition,” Harry said, firmly, holding Draco’s gaze. “Ever.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Draco said, with a sudden grin. “That could be fun.”

“Fuck no,” Pansy said, laughing breathlessly. “I’ve seen you two play Quidditch.”

“Point,” Harry said, grinning back. “Ten theoretical points for excellent ideas.”

Draco suddenly blinked, still meeting his eyes. “You’re really not just here for her,” he said.

“No, you bloody idiot,” Harry said, reaching to grab the back of his neck so he could pull him into a kiss. “You drive me fucking crazy in every way imaginable. What was it, ‘did I mention I’m stupidly into you?’”

“He’s very dense,” Pansy said, breathing going suddenly deeper. “Really – thick about things.”

“I’ll say it more later,” Harry said. “You’re going to make her come, want to watch?”

“I’m not sure that –“ Draco started.

“Seriously, Draco,” Harry said, laughing, and settled closer against Pansy. “Having fun?”

Yes,” Pansy said, breathless.

“Hot or cold?” Harry teased.

“You’re apparently a fucking tease,” Pansy muttered to Draco, grabbing his t-shirt and pulling him down for a long kiss.

Draco grinned. “Kettle, meet cauldron,” he murmured. “You like it.”

“I really, really, do,” Pansy said, arching her back. “We’re doing this with – people next time, then I can yell at you.”

Harry snorted. “You can save it for business trips,” he said, cupping her breast and stroking a thumb over her nipple.

“Do normal people talk this much during sex?” Pansy managed.

“Not in my experience,” Harry said, dryly. “But you two aren’t exactly known for shutting up. Ever.”

“I’m shutting up now,” Draco said, watching Pansy’s face. He stroked a hand through her hair, leaning to kiss up her neck, nuzzling against her jaw.

“Mm,” Harry agreed, drawing slow circles on Pansy’s stomach with his thumb, and he felt her breathe in, fisting a hand in Draco’s shirt as she shuddered and came.

Oh,” she said, then threw her head back again. “Fuck, Draco, don’t stop.”

Harry wasn’t entirely surprised that Draco would be persistent, and Pansy came three more times before she grabbed Harry’s shoulder.

“Really bad at casting without my wand,” she managed. “Ease it off?”

“Pretty sure he could do this all night,” Harry teased, but he switched the target back to himself. He was pretty sure he’d slow it down, and Pansy finally relaxed back against him, panting.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Pansy said, finally, laughing quietly. “I think I’m actually going to be sore tomorrow. From orgasms.” She sounded almost gleeful, reaching up to kiss Draco. “Can we do that a million more times?”

“Well, you’re not the only one who really liked it,” Draco said, laughing, flushed, and murmured a cleaning charm under his breath. “So yeah, if you don’t care that it’s going to take me a while to figure that out.”

Pansy waved a hand, falling back against the pillows happily. “That’s perfect,” she said. “I need stamina. Or something.”

Harry couldn’t keep himself from laughing, leaning to kiss Draco. “Fun?” he said.

“Yeah,” Draco said, sounding a little surprised.

“Um, yes,” Pansy said. “Hell yes. This is my new favorite activity. Fuck – writing papers and research and – all that. I’m never getting out of bed.”

“Okay, so,” Harry said, still laughing. “The trick is, that’s the entire fucking point.”

“Huh,” Pansy said, considering. “D’you know, I think he might be right.”

“We probably shouldn’t go around admitting that, he’ll get more ideas,” Draco said, pausing for a second before he pulled Harry in. “Um. Do you –“

“I’m good,” Harry said. “Really good.” He smiled. “I like orgasms. But I don’t have sex for them.” He nudged his nose against Draco’s. “My brain’s more about the connection thing.”

“Hey,” Pansy said, poking Draco’s side. “Potter’s like that. He likes the – connection thing.”

“I think it’s called emotional intimacy,” Harry said, dryly.

“Well, my point is,” Pansy said. “If you like that, and Draco likes that, and I like that, then it’s... okay, isn’t it?”

“Quit asking my permission,” Harry said, affectionately, but he could tell that she’d meant it. “Pansy, unless I’ve missed something incredibly weird in Draco’s greenhouse, and maybe even then, everything the three of us want is utterly, completely within the realm of normal. I mean –“ He laughed. “I’m pretty far on the bell curve of not even wanting anything to do with sex unless it’s with someone I really want to be with, but yeah.” He smiled. “It’s all okay.”

Draco let out a long breath. “I’m only saying this because I’m drunk and just had a pretty spectacular orgasm, but I think maybe – I needed to hear that.”

Harry kissed him again. “Don’t get too honest, you’ll have to keep me,” he teased.

“Like that’s not already a done deal,” Draco said, fondly, stroking a hand down his back.

“Good news is, we can keep doing that as much as you’d like, as long as no one falls behind on teaching their courses,” Harry said, laughing. “Bad news is, we do have to sleep at some point. And as much as I enjoy the great outdoors, I think I’d sort of like it to be in an actual bed.”

“All right,” Draco agreed.

“Harry?” Draco said, quietly, while Pansy got dressed and started packing Harry’s bag, yawning. “Can I borrow a question from tomorrow?” He smiled, though it was a little unsure. “You said we could ask.”

“Sure,” Harry said.

“Please tell me there’s something you’re really insecure about in bed,” Draco said, dryly. “Because otherwise I think I’m going to go home and be utterly mortified.”

“Loads of things,” Harry said, nudging his nose against Draco’s temple. “But – new partners, actually.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m good at the talking part. But opening up physically with somebody new? It’s…” He laughed. “If I use the words, ‘totally terrifying,’ you’ve got to promise not to judge.”

“No,” Draco said, slowly, and he leaned a little closer. “You mind telling me why?”

“It’s a little hard to explain,” Harry said. “No, hold on, I’m not putting you off, I’m just saying, if it doesn’t make sense, ask me until it makes sense.”

“Okay.”

“I have to really, really, really fucking care about someone before I want to go to bed with them, otherwise sex isn’t really my thing,” Harry said. “And by that point, my head’s so far past anything I think I can say with my body that I start worrying I’ll fuck it up.” He laughed. “Or get – too enthusiastic and show my hand, if they don’t already know how I feel.” He paused. “Or, frankly, just get too enthusiastic and come in ten seconds, that’s happened and it’s mortifying. I’ll probably be a mess about it even though I know we’re on solid ground, mostly because I haven’t said –“ He swallowed. “I haven’t said much about how I feel. So in my head, it’ll end up feeling more extreme than how you do, and I’ll worry it’s too much.”

Draco shook his head, laughing softly. “Pansy already asked you to stay permanently,” he pointed out. “I’m with her, you know.”

“Yes, and that doesn’t mean I still can’t utterly fuck up the sex part,” Harry pointed out.

“I somehow think we might be able to help with that one,” Draco said. “We might not have been so great at sex, but –“ He glanced over at Pansy with a smile as she woke up the daemons. “Utterly over the top commitment, we do well.”

Harry snorted. “Slytherins,” he said.

“And Gryffindors,” Draco pointed out. “Who’d have thought.”

It was nearly dawn by the time they got back to the castle, Pansy yawning every other word.

“Come on,” she said, once they’d gotten back, and rolled her eyes when Harry went to grab his cloak. “Like you’re not sleeping here.”

“No way in hell,” Draco agreed.

“Come on, before we all fall over,” Kit said, nudging him.

It turned out that Pansy and Draco’s bed was more than big enough for a third person, if Lethe and Kit conceded to sleep at the foot, and Harry would have thought about it further, how nice it was to have Draco tucked against his back, Pansy’s leg flung over them, but he was asleep before he could bother.

Harry woke up around dinner to Thaxia nudging him about the living room floo, and he pulled on what he suspected was Draco’s bathrobe and went to answer it before it could wake anyone else.

To her credit, McGonagall didn’t bat an eyelash at him. “Ms. Granger-Weasley, Mister Weasley, Ms. Delacour, and I have settled on a course of action,” she said. “But I’m afraid Professor Malfoy and the Slytherins aren’t going to like it very much.”

“All right,” Harry said, warily.

“It’s necessary,” McGonagall said. “The wards have gotten thinner, and with the new moon…” Her mouth was a thin line. “I suppose Hermione will explain.”

“Harry, we can’t let this go any longer,” Hermione said, softly. “We put patrols on the tunnels, and today was bad. Bill found a lethifold, they’re not even supposed to be here. And the Head Boy and Bellweather killed about a hundred acromantula hatchlings. Not to mention that we’ve found empty graves in the south graveyard, and there’s something in one of your traps that no one can identify. The venom liquefied it.”

“Fuck,” Harry said, softly.

“But Fleur thought of something,” Hermione said, sounding resolute. “We think we can fix the wards. Tonight.”

“But?” Harry said, because he had a sinking suspicion there was no way Hermione and McGonagall would look so grim if there wasn’t a serious catch.

“Well, there’s a caveat,” Hermione said, grimly. “We still don’t have enough of Ravenclaw’s blood. I’ve tested the students, the professors, the blood bank… Harry, I even went through the historic samples that we’d never be able to get consent for. There simply isn’t enough to tip the balance of power away from Slytherin.”

“So we can’t fix it,” Harry said, grimly.

“Well,” Hermione said. “We can’t fix the amount of Ravenclaw blood we have. But we can even the score on the castle.”

“How?” Harry said.

“We have to trick Hogwarts, Harry,” she said, a little sadly. “The only way to do it is to make it seem like Slytherin’s section of the castle is far worse off than it is. We’ve got to do nearly the damage to it that was done to Ravenclaw. We’re going to have to destroy the dungeons.”

Destroy them?” Harry repeated, dully.

“Pull down enough of the exterior wall to flood all the tunnels and dungeons, including the Slytherin chambers and the Potions wing,” Hermione said. “The Chamber of Secrets too. And we’ve got to rip the wards there to pieces. It won’t be safe.”

“And there’s no other way?” Harry said.

“We’ll find enough blood,” Hermione said, tiredly. “But it could take months, a year, maybe longer. It’s not forever, I suppose. They can be rebuilt, someday, like the tower. But for now, it’s our only decent option.”

“Right,” Harry said. “You’ll have to – buy us a little time. To move the Potions ingredients. Evacuate the students.”

Hermione shook her head, smiling. “It’s all nearly been done,” she said. “Anything of importance has been moved. The Slytherins are in the Astronomy Tower for now. McGonagall’s going to figure out a more permanent solution as soon as we’re done. The only thing left to do is move out the Malfoys.” She glanced at him. “We’ve moved you near Gryffindor tower, it’s cramped but it’ll do. And there’s room for them in the Defense Tower. We’ll just send their furniture and it’ll be done.”

“Right,” Harry said, hollowly, with a sudden awareness that he’d be much further than a hallway away from Draco and Pansy. “I suppose I’d better tell them.”

“Fleur’s built the model,” Hermione said. “I’m going to go collect the blood, and then we’ll need you in the Headmistress’ office. Bill and Ron will start tearing down the wall and the wards once you’re out.”

“All right,” Harry said, finally.

As expected, neither Draco nor Pansy took the news particularly well.

“It’s all well and good for you to say it,” Pansy said, near tears. “But it’s not as if it’s Gryffindor Tower. It’s not yours.” Kit was pacing behind her, growling under his breath.

“You don’t get it,” Draco said, quietly. “Most of the Gryffindors go home for the holidays. They’ve got people. But the Slytherins, these days… they don’t. You won. We’ve got more orphans than any other house, and this is their home. And you’ve just put them in the Astronomy Tower? As if that’s some sort of solution, as if they’re just movable pieces?”

“I know,” Harry said, fighting exhaustion. “I know. But there’s nothing else. And maybe we can rebuild. But it’s not safe.”

Pansy turned, finally, and straightened her robes. “I know,” she said, simply. “But it’s our home.”

“It’s not,” Harry said, softly. “It’s brick and mortar. Those children are what matters. I – that was me. A war orphan. And I would tear down Gryffindor Tower with my bare hands if it meant just one Gryffindor student stayed safe. Just one student stayed safe.”

“You’re right, of course,” Pansy said. “But I’ve got to go to them – I’m their Head of House, I’ve no idea why no one woke me, I’ve –“

“No,” Draco said, finally, gently, grabbing her wrists. “You go with Harry. I’ll go to the students.”

“Head of House,” Pansy said, sounding a little frantic.

“And, to be brutally honest, a far more powerful witch,” Draco said. “My magic’s not in casting. So go. Do it. And the sun will come up tomorrow, and we’ll all be tired as hell and they’ll probably want to kill one another from sleeping on the floor, but there won’t be any more things coming in through the tunnels to try to kill them. There’s been more than enough of that.”

In the end, it was both harder and easier than Harry had imagined. The stewards moved all of Pansy and Draco’s things to what was supposedly a near duplicate of their rooms on the other side of the castle. “I’ll see you after,” Draco said, Lethe following him toward the tower. “Don’t let them explode my greenhouses, please.”

“Not a chance,” Harry said, with a tired smile.

There was already a group of people in McGonagall’s office when Harry and Pansy arrived, and a moment later, Bill and Ron followed, looking exhausted and soaked.

“Fleur’s brought the model,” Hermione said, gesturing to a perfect replica set out on the table. She set a crystal decanter on the table next to it, pulling out a flask of blood from her bag and unsealing it. “Two from each house, I think.”

Two professors took Hufflepuff, Penelope Clearwater – surprisingly enough – and the Head Boy took Ravenclaw, and then Pansy stepped forward for Slytherin and Harry felt himself stepping in beside her. “I think I’m here tonight,” he said, quietly.

“Quite so,” McGonagall said, and stepped up to the table beside Hermione, her daemon at her feet.

“Thank god for advanced Potions,” Hermione quipped, “I can cast and pour,” but no one really laughed.

“There’s no spell,” Bill said. “Just feel it out. It’s going to pull your magic wide open, so if anyone can’t handle it, step back, and someone will step in for you.” He paused. “Hermione?”

“We all know the castle,” she said, softly. “Think of it like walking in the dark. Feel for rough edges and smooth them over. Shut any open doors and windows. Seal any cracks.”

“It’s easier if you shut your eyes,” Pansy said. Harry found her hand under the table and gripped it tightly as Hermione began to pour, closing his eyes.

It was, he found, a little like sleep walking, if the castle was calling him in a hundred directions in his sleep. Hermione had mentioned walking the halls, but Harry saw snitches, hundreds of snitches, and floating, perfect orbs. He grabbed the one in front of him and it crumbled to dust in his fingers, and Harry knew suddenly that there had been a tiny hole in a keystone of the main gate. Some were easier to catch than others, and Harry figured that these probably weren’t his alone. A snitch disappeared above him, caught by an invisible hand. He thought hard and summoned a broomstick, until he could grab and grab – the whole Chamber of Secrets, a book in the library, a chipped window in the Hufflepuff girls’ lavatory. Some took a lot out of him, and by the end, Harry was tired, so tired, but there was one more, near the ceiling, and he felt the staircase to the dungeons disappear beneath his fingertips and woke up.

Fleur had replaced the Head Boy, and Lisse’s cat daemon looked a bit faint, but the model was glowing, pulsing bright, and the nagging feeling of unease that had been hovering beneath Harry’s skin was gone. The sconces showed a little brighter. Hermione examined the decanter for a moment, sealing it, and then handed it to McGonagall, who sent it… to nowhere, with a flick of her wrist.

“Most excellent work, everyone,” she said, but she sounded tired herself. “I believe that will be all that is required of us tonight.”

It took a moment, but Hermione found Pansy, grabbing her wrist. “We’ll keep working,” she said, fiercely. “I promise.”

“Actually,” Pansy said, with a smile. “I think it’s all right. I’ll be glad to have them back, but for now, I think I’d just like a stiff drink and my bed. Wherever it’s gotten to.”

“It’s been a hell of a few days,” Thaxia said.

“Goodnight, Harry, Thaxia,” Hermione said, with a kiss to his cheek. “Pansy. Kitcaron.”

“Thank you,” Pansy said, softly. “For keeping them safe.”

“Always,” Hermione said.

“I’ll walk you back,” Harry said. Pansy and Draco’s rooms weren’t hard to find, at least, but Harry sighed. The bedroom was smaller, and someone had decided to shrink the bed, and there was only one washroom.

“Well, this will be cozy,” Pansy said, with a sigh. “For the record, Draco kicks, he’s on your side.”

“Absolutely not,” Harry said. “It’s been a bad enough day without me stealing your bed out from under you.”

“You can’t just unilaterally decide,” Pansy protested. “He gets a say. I get a say.”

Harry sighed. “Pansy, I can’t,” he said, gently. “There will be twenty Ravenclaws outside that door tomorrow morning going to Transfiguration, and I have no idea how Draco feels about that. I haven’t had a chance to ask him.”

“We could sleep in the Room of Requirement,” Pansy said, a little desperately, and Harry laughed, pulling her in for a hug.

“We’ll figure it out in the morning,” Harry said. “Kiss him goodnight for me when he gets back.”

“Yes, I’ll let you know how that goes,” Pansy said, dryly.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Harry said. “And on the bright side, we can be reasonably certain that nothing’s going to eat anyone in the night.”

“Thank god for small mercies,” Pansy said. “Goodnight, Harry.”