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Malfoy Manor

Wiltshire, England

Monday, November 24, 1991



Lucius Malfoy went to war on a Tuesday.

It began on the rainy Monday morning with a message. Reclined on their enormous bed, the remains of their mutual breakfast tray and steaming tea set aside, the man in question looked up from kissing his wife's pale, delicate neck to the sound of a small, determined cough.

"Yes, Kippy?" he inquired. "What can we do for you?"

"Kippy is very sorry to interrupt, Master Lucius," the house-elf said primly, eyes fixed firmly on the ceiling. "But Kippy is receiving a delivery that is needing special delivering. Straight to Master's hand and no others, without delays."

"Ah." Lucius  boosted himself up. Narcissa Malfoy sighed and arranged her pillows and lingerie, settling back and reaching again for her tea as the Lord of the Manor reached courteously for his abandoned sheet and held out his hand.

"It's alright," the Lady of the Manor said to the elf. "We're decent."

The elf muttered something that may or may not have been 'That is being rather a matter of opinion, isn't it,' but Narcissa ignored it. Beside her, her husband pushed back his loosed mass of pale hair and ran a long finger under the seal, unrolling the parchment. Narcissa sipped as he scanned the words within.

"Everything alright?" she asked. Lucius said nothing, just held out the parchment. Her eyes widened slightly as she leaned in and read over his broad, bare shoulder.

"Well," she said after a moment. "It's not surprising, really, is it. All things considered.'

"No," her husband said. "I suppose it isn't." He let the parchment roll shut again. "Tell Polly to tell her master that I will be there at five, Kippy. I'll apparate directly into his back room. In the meantime... Burn this, please."

"Yes, Master Lucius." Kippy summoned it; it snapped into her hand. She popped out. Lucius lay back and closed his eyes. Narcissa set her cup aside and lay beside him, twitching the sheet off of him so that she could survey him properly... At six foot four in his bare feet, she found the mature solidity of her husband's hard, broad-shouldered, long-legged body even more pleasing than it had been ten years ago, when he'd been quite as ripped as Master Lawrence Domitian Cartwright was now. The few pounds he'd gained since then had made a man of him, Narcissa thought; he'd always, with his height, been a bit raw-boned and gangly (the clothes he, or rather she, had chosen accommodating for the fact) but now, at thirty seven, he was just...

Powerful.

Powerful, with the kind of strong natural elegance that all of the European aristocratic elite aspired to, and very few ever achieved without considerable sartorial and magically cosmetic help... His lips tilted up at her. She draped her arm over his chest and stroked the line of his collarbone before trailing down to stroke the surprisingly thick, shining gold mat (several shades darker than his hair, and a near exact match for her own) on his chest with her fingers.

"It's not a coincidence," she said quietly. "It can't be."

"No," Lucius Malfoy said bleakly in return. "It is not."

She propped herself up on her elbow and kissed him slowly. He wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her hair. A soft tap sounded... Niss Black Malfoy sighed and detached gently, slipping out of the bed. Her husband watched her appreciatively as she went. Slight and delicate as she was, her own long sheet of hair fell straight and untangled down her back to the base of her spine, her ivory negligee skimming the tops of her slim, shapely thighs. She made her way to the window, opening it and retrieving the letter from the wind-blown, rather damp and cross-eyed long-eared owl perched on the sill.

"Poor thing." She offered it a scratch between the ears and a mouse treat from the dish. It hooted mournfully and spiraled off. Narcissa closed the window and returned to the bed, sitting cross-legged on the blankets. Lucius hoisted himself up and reached for his own tea. His wife snapped the seal on the letter and extracted the contents. He sipped, watching as her eyebrows rose higher and higher.

"May I?" her husband inquired, when she'd done scanning a second time.

"You may." She held it out. He took it and held it unfurled. His own eyes widened.

'Well," he said. "This does change things, doesn't it."

"Perhaps. Perhaps not. There is still the political to be considered, after all. Dobby?"

A beaming elf popped in: shining, groomed and immaculately clad in a crisp dark green tea-towel pinned elegantly with the crest of House Malfoy.

"Good morning, Mistress," Malfoy Manor's head house-elf said happily. Unlike Kippy, he seemed absolutely unperturbed by, or even cognizant of his mistress's scanty attire and her husband's unapologetic and complete nudity. "How may Dobby serve you this repulsive morning? Good morning, Master Lucius!"

"Morning, Dobs," Lucius greeted him amiably. Narcissa poked him reprovingly.

"Master Cartwright will yet be joining us on Wednesday," she said to the elf. "But he will be bringing his fiance. Tea for four, and if you would, send a note to the Weasleys' house elves to determine Charles Weasley's preferred refreshments. Discretion is paramount; we prefer to keep the matter from their humans till we are sure that Master Cartwright and Mr. Weasley have made the announcement to their families themselves."

Dobby's eyes widened hugely. He did not, to his credit, squeak.

"Yes, Mistress Narcissa," he said obediently. "Dobby will be happy to. Is Master Cartwright's engagement being a secret, then?"

"I'm guessing no," Lucius said. "But the announcements can be a matter of some delicacy. You will know when it happens - we all will - because we'll be able to hear Molly Weasley's rabid squealing from here to Ottery St. Catchpole."

"Luke, really. However true that may be..." Narcissa paused. Her husband grinned at her.  "Very well. The point is yours."

"Dobby is on it." The little elf snapped a sharp salute. "Is there being anything else, Mistress? Master?"

"Not right now, thank you."

Dobby cracked out again. Narcissa traced her husband's thigh as her mouth  twisted thoughtfully. Lucius mm'd, and was just about to set the letter aside when he read the signature and dropped his retrieved tea all over the blankets. It self-cleaned automatically of course, but...

"Really, Lucius? What on earth..." She leaned over and read the indicated words.

"Master-Adept Lawrence D. Cartwright?" she read. "Salazar's scrotum; they awarded him a Grandmastery?!"

"It would seem so," Lucius said. "A fact that deserves celebrating, would you not say?"

Narcissa arched an eyebrow at him. He lay back and grinned at her hopefully. She rolled her eyes indulgently. A slim silver bangle on her wrist (one of three, and shaped, as they all were, as snakes) uncoiled itself and slipped off, heading straight to its magically designated target... Lucius jumped, yelped, and moaned.

"Ah, Niss..."

"Hands up, my love. You were saying?"  

Lucius just gasped and raised his arms above his head, long elegant fingers curling tightly around the railed headboard as he threw his head back and squeezed his eyes shut: his fine, elegant patrician's features taut with anticipation and ever-so-slight, not remotely unwelcome discomfort. The gasp translated to a second guttural moan as the silver snake settled contentedly and tightened its coils just a little. Narcissa reclined comfortably, offering the snake a fond little look before proceeding to the rather obvious agenda. Lucius bucked violently, his hands slipping on the rail. The two remaining bangles - one of rose gold and diamond encrusted, and one a delicate, magically hardened and thinned strand of blown glass - sprang off of his wife's wrist and slithered up the bed to wrap themselves around his wrists and anchor him firmly.

"Niss, please!"

"Mmmmno." She adjusted her ivory negligee and sat up, slinging a long, pale leg over him and settling across his bare, muscled upper thighs. "You celebrate once I've celebrated, my lovely." She smiled at him beneath hooded, lazy eyes as the snake around the base of his cock tightened a bit more. "Then we celebrate together." She traced a finger down his gold-matted chest, and trailed a light hand over and around his long, pale cock, catching several pearly droplets and raising her hand to lick them off her fingertips thoughtfully.  "I must say, you do have excellent taste in proxies. As awkward a position as we are in... A triple International Master and a potential double Grandmaster, never mind one with such an absolutely delectable body to go with that obviously delectable mind, will make the inevitable social disparagement considerably less of an issue."

"Nothing but the best for you, my heart," Malfoy managed. He swore in agony as she raised herself, reached down again, positioned herself and slid down hard, all the way, in one hot, slick rush of pure sensation. She leaned forward to kiss him deeply, and without moving, clenched around him, hard and rapidly and repeatedly. He could do nothing but gasp.

"I've always had that," she informed him. "Why would you ever think I'd settle for less for you?" She flicked her fingers. The snakes around his wrists slithered off. "Up."

Lucius released the headboard and flexed neatly, wrapping his arms around her and burying his face in her hair. She pushed his own hair back and rubbed his bare back gently with both hands, not moving. Narcissa Black Malfoy kissed her husband's closed lids, and the jumping muscle in his jaw, and his lips again.

"Mine," she whispered against his mouth. Then... "Regrets?'

"No. Just a touch of abject fear. I will survive it, I am sure."

"Oh no," she said. "Oh no, my lovely. You will not survive it. You are to enjoy it."

"Niss..."

"Shh." She pulled back a bit and touched his lips with her finger. "However things fell out... Enjoying this will be our best retaliation. They cannot humiliate us, my love, unless we allow it. And insofar as that goes... We have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. If you had it to do over again... If you could go back; if we could go back... Would you trade in the curse for the experience of what we did to earn it?"

"No," Lucius Malfoy said immediately. "Never. Never."

"Nor I." She replaced her finger with her lips.  "So. No regrets. As for the details... They're my concern. You take care of everything else..."  She paused expectantly.

"And you take care of me."

"Always," she said, and pushed him on his back, bringing his lean, elegant hands to her hips and rising up above him as a goddess as she threw her own head back in pleasure and began to  move... The rain came down, and pale, shimmering blond mingled with brilliant gold, and they shone together.

Much later that day, Lucius Malfoy watched from the back room of Ollivander's as, just before closing, the front door opened. The shop was empty, and as if in anticipation, the lock clicked and the window darkened magically. Ollivander looked up from behind the counter. A black case, rather than a box, lay neatly before him. Beside it were two custom-made dark green and silver wand holsters, one designed for the wrist and the second for the boot.

"Mr. Weasley," he greeted the newcomer. Bill Weasley nodded. Malfoy's hand actually came to cover his mouth in dismay as he saw the young man before him. He looked sick and exhausted unto death: not just fragile, but frail. His blue eyes were dull, and his expression carefully schooled into neutrality. The old man came out to meet him as he sat in the chair.

"Would you like some tea?' he inquired gently. "You look a little tired."

"I'm fine," Bill Weasley said, and at Ollivander's raised eyebrow... "I will be. The curses that Master Cartwright removed from me were partial. A stop-job, till he can finish up tomorrow."

"You are sure there is nothing that I can get for you?"

"Just what I came for. They're waiting for me." He jerked his thumb in a vague gesture over his shoulder, across the street and again, vaguely, to the left. Ollivander nodded, but instead of waving him to the counter, brought him the case itself, sitting on the chair beside him and half turning to face him. Bill Weasley's eyes widened as he opened it. It was padded in midnight blue velvet. The wand within...

"What..."

"Ah, ah," Ollivander tutted, pulling the case away. "Not yet."

The curse-breaker withdrew his hand. Olivander actually looked a bit indecisive, and definitely uneasy, but in the end, firmed his mouth.

"I would be remiss if I did not warn you again, Mr. Weasley," he said. "The bonding... There will be a bit of blood involved - nothing Dark: it is merely how it attunes itself to your particular and unique brand of magic - and once the wand has tasted it, it will not spark visibly like another wand would. The spark you will sense will be inside your core. It will be, I am afraid, intensely painful, and is why I suggested we proceed in private. Once it is done, though... The wand will work for none other than you. It will not produce so much as a lumos for another, ever."

"Painful," Bill repeated. His mouth twisted a little with sour... Something. "So noted. What else?"

Ollivander extracted the wand carefully, and set the case aside. "Bloodthorn and phoenix feather. The wand itself is a single unbroken thorn, rather than carved wood. Twelve and three quarters of an inch, and the feather - half burned, half newly formed - was extracted from the ashes of a phoenix on its burning day."

"I've never heard of that before. Bloodthorn, I mean."

"You would not have. It is not a wood, or a plant, typically used by any wandmaker - not in Europe, Asia, or North America, anyway. It is native to South and Central America."

Lucius Malfoy watched as the frail young man - boy, really - processed that.

"Why the hell would I want a wand made from anything that grows there," he said roughly. "Place is cursed. Forsaken by God, if you believe in Him, which after this last week..."

He stopped, struggling.

"The curse is ended," Ollivander said gently. "Or will be, soon enough. You witnessed it yourself. And you were a part of its ending, which means in turn, that anything from that land can do nothing but bless, and be nothing less, than a blessing to you. I know it is hard now, but a phoenix must burn, Mr. Weasley, before it can be reborn, yes? If you can survive this... And I do believe you have that capacity..."

He hesitated, choosing his words carefully.

"I have always suspected," the wandmaker said at last. "Indeed, I told you, when you first came to me as a child, that there was a great deal more to you than meets the eye. Much more than your wand could account for, I thought, even as it chose you, and I suspected that I might very well see you again one day.  Now... Today... You are here again, and I have something more to tell you. I have sent many wands forth from my shop, young man, that were destined to do great things. There have been less than a handful of witches and wizards though, I would say, on the other hand, and I do mean that literally - who, upon bonding with one of those wands, have had the potential to become, not just great themselves, but utterly magnificent. You are... Not might be, but are... One of them."

"I don't..."

Bill struggled again. Ollivander just held out the wand silently, flat on his palms. It had not been hewn or carved in any way, but was the single unaltered thorn, pitch black and needle thin: the exterior surface not rounded, as per standard, but flattened like the blade of a sword. There was utterly no variation in colour, only the tip was bright red, as if dipped in fresh blood.  A delicate iron crosspiece had been attached, so that the wielder could hold the sharp-edged wand without risking his fingers slipping down the blade and cuts on his fingers... A hole had been drilled through a small knot above the crosspiece, and a fine black linked chain had been attached.

"What's the significance," the young man said finally. "What does it do?

"It depends on the wielder," Ollivander said. "And what the wielder considers important. It takes it into consideration."

"Uh?"

"It is a wand that signifies reinvention, when something so profound and painful has happened to you that everything you were, and ever imagined being, has been burned away, and you must perforce start over as a newborn. The bloodthorn represents the pain you have suffered, and the phoenix feather your near-simultaneous death and rebirth. It will do any kind of magic that you demand of it to start off with, but as you recover, or rather, re-evolve, it will learn to specialize according to your new passions and priorities. The flattened blade - let us call it what is is - represents the fact that your core will literally cut away at the wand's magical range, and will shape it as a weapon that channels your all-consuming passion. Eventually, it will be only good for one kind of magic. In short - it is not a wand for anyone with a wide variety of interests. You will eventually have to come back, once you have progressed past the point, to find a second wand - one that is a little more flexible and inherently understanding and patient of your single-mindedness, and that will oblige you in all of those other magical matters and endeavors that this one will eventually refuse to."

Bill looked at the wand, and at the wandmaker.

"Is it evil? I mean, is it Dark? Inclined toward Dark magic, I mean?"

"It is, or rather will be, what you are and will be, Mr. Weasley," the old man returned. "Completely and absolutely. If you are not inclined to Dark magic, it will reject it - and, as I said, no one will ever be able to wield it besides you, so you need not worry on another co-opting it in the hopes of replacing your focus with theirs."

"And what's the chain for?"

"To loop around your wrist so that you don't drop it." His lips quirked a little. "I imagine that if you plan to spend any amount of time working from a broomstick, it might come in handy?"

Bill reached out to touch it, and withdrew his finger.

"Can I get another now," he said. "To go with it?"

"No other wand would choose you now, Mr. Weasley. You are not an entirely blank slate... But you are still burning. Any yet unbonded wand you touch at this point  - any wand - would explode in your hand. Once you have cooled a little... Come back, and we will see what is what. I imagine I might find something for you in hornbeam. A wood inclined again toward the single-minded, but with an inherent understanding that no matter your passion, you must yet lead a life that demands you do something besides work. Hornbeam and unicorn hair, more than likely, for when it is time, you will need a bit of help healing. That time is not here yet, though, and in the meantime, the thorn will be all-purpose as you need it to be, until you are suited to bond with another."

Bill pressed his fingers to his eyes.

"How did you know," he said. "I mean..." His voice shook a little.

"Wands are not people," Ollivander said. "Well. Not the vast majority of them... But they are extremely emotive, nonetheless. They sense when a customer comes in, and, curious things that they are, will try to identify your magical 'scent'. As soon as you set foot in my shop with your brother this morning, Mr. Weasley... They all, every one of them, shrank down in their boxes and began a simultaneous novena that you would not go near them. That has happened only one other time in my lifetime, and the individual in question ended up crafting this one, and his own, as a result."

"Why wouldn't I be crafting my own, then?"

In the back room, Malfoy watched silently. Ollivander hesitated.

"I cannot answer that," he said finally. "One day... Not that far in the future, I think - you may meet this wand's maker. Perhaps he will tell you his story, and you will begin to understand how it is that you complement each other in your pain. That story, however, not mine to tell, and I will not betray his confidence, not for the world, do you understand? Not because I fear him, or because he has forced me to remain silent on the subject... But because he has earned my absolute and utter respect. Remember that, if  he ever reveals himself to you, Mr. Weasley. The respect of a true wandmaker - one who must create matches for every soul who passes through his shop, however dark or light they might be, and must, by necessity then, remain absolutely neutral on the subject of the human condition - is not easily won." He nodded to the counter. "The holsters, as is the wand itself, are his gift to you."

"I can afford it. Them."

"That is not the point. His point is that if you have arrived at this point... You have already paid more than anyone can ever afford."

Bill rose to his feet and went to the counter to examine the holsters.

"Green and silver," he said. "Is he a Slytherin, then?"

"I'm sure I couldn't say. And again, that is not the point. The point is that you are a Slytherin."

"Alright," he said. "I've been warned." He came and sat again, and held out his hands. Malfoy watched as the old man let the wand tilt down off his hands, dropping across the younger one's outstretched palms. Bill's fingers closed around it automatically. He swore a bit, jumping, as the sharp, razored edge of the thorn bit into his fingers. Blood welled, and immediately disappeared. The cuts healed over. He juggled the wand a bit gingerly, and, looping the chain over his wrist, took it by the crosspiece and adjusted his fingers a bit awkwardly. It took him a few moments for him to settle on a comfortable grip.

"Not exactly subtle, are you," he said to the wand, raising it before his face. "I can hear Mum now. 'Don't leave that thing lying around now, Bill; the children might hurt themselves on it. Honestly, what was Ollivander thinking!" He pointed the wand at the counter. "Accio holsters!" The holsters shot across the room toward him before the second half of the second word was out of his mouth, skidding to a halt in front of him. He lowered the wand and blinked at them.

"Okay then," he said, and to the wand again - "Good job."

Ollivander's brow wrinkled. "You're not in pain?" he said cautiously. "The cuts on your hand aside?" Bill shrugged as he fastened the first holster to his boot, and pushed up the sleeve to adjust the second.

"Little twinge," he said. "Nothing serious." He got to his feet, sliding the wand under his sleeve. The crosspiece folded up neatly, parallel to the sides of the wand, and slid as if greased into the slightly wide-mouthed holster.

"Iron that bends?" he inquired.

"Magic," Ollivander said. Bill's lips quirked a little.

"Thanks. Tell  the bloke I appreciate it, whoever he is."

He made his way out. The door chimed behind him. Malfoy emerged, standing in the door of the back room. Ollivander looked from him to the sidewalk through the window, and back again.

"You were unconscious from the pain of bonding for an hour," he said. "And he called it a 'little twinge'? What kind of curses did - does - he have on him, that have allowed him to build up such a tolerance?"

"He has at least one serious potions addiction," Malfoy said. "It is obvious." He came to the chairs and bent, picking up several dull, brittle red strands that had fallen from Bill Weasley's hands after he ran his fingers through his hair. He shook his wand out of his sleeve - not the match for the one that had just left the shop, but a longer, plainer standard - and lit the end, holding it up and examining the length and roots carefully. "Mm. The color of the hair shaft is stable, but the follicles are mottled black and indigo. Mycanthus."

"My..." Ollivander nearly swallowed his tongue.

"I will find a way to tell Cartwright before the treatment tomorrow. It will likely change his approach, and he has, after that, perhaps till the beginning of the weekend to get him to St. Dymphna's before the hallucinations and seizures start."

"How could he afford mycanthus? His family is certainly well off now, but..."

"I imagine the goblins funded him," Malfoy said. "He brought them in quite ridiculous amounts of treasure, and if, as Master Cartwright said on Thursday last, the curses were aligned toward the inducement of divining magics, controlling his pain would have been in their best interests. Before that... I do not know. But I intend to find out - and, if he had a dealer before he began work with the goblins, just who that dealer was. There is a reason that trafficking of the particular substance will net the convicted twenty five years in Azkaban without parole."

He conjured a small Muggle ziplock bag, deposited the hairs within, and tucked them into his pocket.

"I will analyze them later tonight," he said. "In my home laboratory, so that I might see what else the healers might be working with. Thank you, Garrick."

"I won't say it was my pleasure," Ollivander responded. "But the young man considered, it was definitely a privilege." He watched as Malfoy made his way back to the back room. "Lucius?'

Malfoy looked back over his shoulder inquiringly. Ollivander's eyes glimmered a little at him in sly, if quiet amusement.

"My congratulations," he said. "I look forward to fitting your future children with their wands in a dozen years or so. I imagine they'll be worth the wait, in all ways, to all of us?"

Malfoy's wand slipped out of his sleeve, faster than lightning. The old man yelped, hopping and stamping as his shoes smoked... Malfoy smiled at him pleasantly. The smoke ceased abruptly.

"Don't push your luck, old man," he said. "I like you, but Niss can be a bit sensitive, and you know how I live to make her happy. Too, I daresay that a certain man who holds a Grandmastery in Warding and a potential Grandmastery in Combat  Dueling might feel a little... protective... of the couple who are offering to provide him with those children you just mentioned?"

"To be honest," Ollivander admitted after a moment, "it's the dragon wrangler that would worry me most. Don't let the cheery, radiant beam fool you; that is one formidable young man, and surviving and internalizing a double blast of mated Horntail fire is bound to have a bit of effect on his temper and power levels if he ever were properly riled."

"Feel free to intimidate the general public with the prospect," Malfoy said. "It can only work toward the good. My good specifically, and you may call me a self-interested man if you like, but I think we'd both agree it's far, far better than the alternative?"

"Mm," Ollivander agreed, and watched as he strode into the back room and popped out with barely a whisper of sound or displaced air.









 

Chapter Text

Gringotts: London

Diagon Alley

Monday Night

7.20 pm

The high-walled, semi-private cubicles on either side of the main lobby of Gringotts: London were not actually designed to induce a sense of superiority in the Certain Quality of Client, but the coincidence made the results no less effective.  Lucius Malfoy shook the last remnants of the evening's rain off of his long black wool cloak, settled his exquisitely cut business robes, and seated himself in the provided chair. A sterling silver tea service appeared before him; the accompanying goblin poured him a dainty porcelain cupful before settling himself behind the desk to peruse the documents and permits set before him.

"Everything seems to be in order," he said as Malfoy  sipped his tea and examined the dubious selection of provided and accompanying biscuits. "We will assign a team to begin the magical expansions on your main family vault first thing tomorrow."

"Mm." Satisfied (if mildly disappointed; lunch was but a distant memory, and his accounts manager had forgotten - again - that strawberry creams were of the Muggle devil) Malfoy sipped the tea again before setting it aside and reaching into his robes.  "The week's receipts, for deposit."

The goblin took the envelope and slipped a thumb through the seal. The bundle of promissory notes within was impressively thick. Malfoy waited as he tallied them rapidly and efficiently before slipping the lot into a charmed drawer. Seconds later, the drawer slid open. The goblin extracted the twin copies of the receipt, checked them, initialed them, and passed them over. Malfoy examined them in turn, initialed both himself, and passed off the first as he tucked the second back into his robes.

"Second order of business," he said, and extracted his wallet, removing his auto-deduct card. "Reload with one hundred thousand galleons from Subsidiary Vault  Six, please, and..." He removed a second card. "Transfer twenty thousand to my son's trust fund, deducted from the today's deposits."

"Certainly, Mr. Malfoy.  May we place any orders for you this evening?"

Malfoy considered that, tapping his fingers lightly in the arm of his chair.

"No," he said. "I would, however, like you to send messages to Langley in Stratford, Shapiro in Los Angeles, Bhaer in Hamburg and Yurev in Minsk requesting that their International Level catalogues be sent to my home in Wiltshire."

Langley, Shapiro, Bhaer and Yurev were the four recognized leaders in Warding broom developments. The goblin was far too professional to allow his mouth to lemon at the implications there, but his aura was definitely radiating the equivalent.

"Of course, sir," he said. "Would you like me to schedule in personal consults?"

"No," Malfoy said, and that was all. The goblin inclined his head, rose to his feet, and slipped out, cards in hand. His client sipped his tea, grimacing. Even as he set it down, a small chime sounded on the desk... The goblin, perhaps six steps beyond the cubicle and still within Malfoy's range of sight, froze, the expression on his face one of unmitigated, constipated terror.

Curious, Malfoy tilted his chair slightly and craned his neck... All was immediately clear as he processed the identity of the individual now making his way across the lobby and toward the shortest line at the tills. The newly-minted and affianced Master-Adept Lawrence Domitian 'Ren' Cartwright, clad this evening in jeans, an unprepossessing jumper, a black leather bomber jacket and a brand new black and gold striped scarf, seemed not to notice the world skidded to a halt at his entrance. He just brushed a strand of light brown under his black and gold wool cap, smiled amiably at the woman before him in the queue, and stuffed his gloves in his coat pocket. He had just enough time to pull a paperback out of his second pocket and to flip to the marked page before the Head of Gringotts:  London himself appeared, hustling over with undignified haste.

"Master Cartwright," he said in a gravelly voice. Every syllable echoed off the marble walls. "This way, please."

"Uh? Oh. Really?" Cartwright's voice was mild, and just as carrying. "Are you sure? I don't mind waiting my proper turn, really, and I wouldn't want anyone here to be put off because I cut the line. Jumped the queue," he translated kindly. "It's rude no matter the country you come from."

"This way," the Head said between gritted, grinding  teeth. Cartwright stuffed the book back in his pocket and ambled obligingly after him. Malfoy, watching him from the far side of the lobby, accepted his renewed auto-deduct cards, slipped out of the semi-private cubicle, and ducked, unnoticed by anyone at all, behind a gigantic pillar. Seconds later, he was swinging neatly out onto, and under, the collar of the first of the small horde of hustling security goblins bolting out after the pair... Seconds after that , he was settling himself comfortably as his goblin took up position inside the Head's office. He watched as Cartwright crossed one leg over the other, and, tucking his cap away, shook his hair back. It fell neatly and impeccably into place, save for the cowlick of course... Lucius Malfoy, remembering suddenly the texture of that soft brown hair in his hands (and no matter his qualms on the potential situational specifics) had to resist the sudden urge to cast a line over that cowlick and reel its owner in. Given his current eight legs, it was not difficult to slap himself firmly in his efforts to refocus.

"Master Cartwright," the Head of Gringotts: London, Grabscale, was saying  again as another refreshment tray sparkled into being between them. "Thank you for coming."

He did not, the tiny arachnid observed critically from his perch, sound particularly thankful at all.  Given his situational specifics: that is, that he was sitting in front of the man who held the power to utterly destroy the entire goblin nation with the confirmed word that he had proof that they'd attempted to kill him, Malfoy couldn't help but think he might have put a little more effort into sounding sincere.

"Tea?" Grabscale was offering reluctantly.

"Sure," Lawrence Cartwright said amiably.  "Why not. Cream, two sugars, no poison, please."

Grabscale gritted his teeth as he poured... Malfoy, once recovered from his bout of wild, appreciative sniggers, sat up a bit as the cup was passed over.

"Thanks. So. What brings me by?"

"We would..." The teeth ground. "Appreciate.. . As concerns the wards on the Ministry vaults..."

The words stuck. Malfoy's tiny arachnid brow wrinkled.

"Ah," Cartwright  said delicately."Yes. I thought that might be it." He helped himself to a ginger biscuit from the tray and dunked it in his tea. "Go on.  You would appreciate... What, again?"

"Payday. Is. Tomorrow, Master Cartwright."

"Master-Adept Cartwright. And... Is it? Huh. That could prove a little problematic, couldn't it? You worked up a contingency plan yet?"

"Is it not enough to reassure you that the contract has been cancelled?"

"Nope." 'Brutally unsympathetic' swapped out with 'cheerfully, blatantly and insincerely regretful' so quickly it was dizzying. Malfoy, once he recovered, was more impressed - and amused - than ever - and that was before his sudden realization of what the Warder must have done... Oh, Master Cartwright, he thought, with wild, barely suppressed horror and mirth both. Securing the gates and forcing the bounders to buy back their own key? How very Augusta of you.

"I mean, it's nice to know and all," Cartwright continued blithely. "But I'd still like to know who had it in for me. Specifically, I mean: no need to go through the whole list, and badly enough to pay the premium prices you must have demanded for me too? Would you consider it crass I expressed my curiosity on how much you'd charge for someone of my particular skill set?

"We cannot just..." Grabscale tried to control his temper. "No. And yes. Client confidentiality , Master-Adept Cartwright. Measures have been taken."

Cartwright heaved an earth-shakingly sad sigh. A sad, disappointed, and wistful sigh... Helga Hufflepuff herself, Malfoy reflected, couldn't have managed a better. It would have had to be Helga; the rest of the Founders would have AKed themselves with their own wands before employing such blatant Emotional Droop toward any end.

They likely had thoroughly enjoyed watching their colleague at work there though, in cases where the Droop hadn't been aimed their way, anyway.

"Yeah," the young American said mournfully. "I figured. Unbreakable Vows are a real bitch that way, aren't they."

Grabscale gritted a small, patently fake smile at him. "I appreciate your understanding. Now, if you wouldn't mind..."

And just like that, the Droop dropped.  Malfoy cringed - actually cringed at the expression in those chilly, positively frostbitten eyes.

"Quid pro quo. What's the shit you've been feeding Bill Weasley?"


 

Lucius Malfoy watched as the sly, crafty expression of someone who thought they were once again in a position to negotiate spread over Grabscale's face.

"Mr. Weasley is no longer an employee of Gringotts, Master-Adept Cartwright, even peripherally. You destroyed the original contract yourself, and as that is the case, any obligation to pass on information to you, as subcontractor, has been legally and magically negated."

"I'm well aware. Which brings me to my second question; have you asked yourselves how I was able to do that, exactly? Destroy the contract, that is? It is supposed to be a bit impossible."

"A man of your talents..."

"I didn't," Cartwright cut him off flatly. "You did." He cut off Grabscale's affronted splutter with a curt, precise gesture and leaned forward.

"Let me make one thing perfectly clear, Mr. Grabscale," he drawled. His American accent was thick as paste - deliberately, insultingly thick. "I wasn't born yesterday, and I've never fallen off a broom in my life, much less a turnip truck.  I know exactly who was behind Gringotts: London's attempt to assassinate me, and why, and just how screwed you are as a result of failing. I'm also fully aware of the fact that your client - if you can call your equivalent king  your client - is probably a lot more pissed at you for your mishandling of Mr. Weasley's contract than he is of your failing your charge. It doesn't matter, when it comes right down to it, after all, that he's a human, does it? It only matters that he was, when you agreed to allow him to come to Brazil with me, still under official contract with you. It would have been one thing if you'd set that second portkey for the same coordinates as Wednesday's, but you didn't. You set it to expel us at ground level. Fair game for me - but I don't imagine your Big Boss was too thrilled when he realized that you sent one of your contracted extended family - a member of the family that you were magically bound to treat as one of the tribe as long as he was under contract - to his deliberate death on the premise that, since I'd removed the curses that so benefited you, he was no longer useful to you."

"He was unable to fill the terms of his contract!"

"His ability to bring in the amounts of treasure he did wasn't written into the contract, Mr. Grabscale. Your people simply became so accustomed to him exceeding the parameters of his pay grade as a junior curse-breaker that you assumed that the codicil 'to the fullest extent of his abilities' entailed him remaining permanently at that enhanced level. As for my removing the magics from him...  Did you actually confirm the fact that I'd removed them, or did you just assume on my word, and his, and his ability to throw a Patronus, that it had been done? Seems to me that your Big Boss might have pointed out that you'd need a bit more proof than that before you could rationalize throwing him in the discard pile. Never mind that you made the deal for his contract with me, not with Mr. Weasley himself- and that you at no point, and despite his request, agreed to pay him as an independent non-contracted hire outside the parameters of his original deal with  you. That means when he went with me, he was going in as a curse-breaker,  under the terms of your original agreement with him - the agreement that, while acknowledging the risks he took as one of your employees, guaranteed him - magically guaranteed him - that you would not knowingly send him to a site where he could not reasonably expect to survive."

The security goblins exchanged looks.

"You broke the terms of your contract with Mr. Weasley," Cartwright said precisely. "I was only able to burn that contract because you had already rendered it invalid. Under those circumstances, Mr. Grabscale... Gringotts owes him. Officially. We'll get to the terms of his recompense there in due course, but right now... Right at this moment... I would consider it a sign of good faith if you, unofficially, of course, were to tell me exactly what you have been feeding to my apprentice. Illegally feeding him: you saw me read that contract before I signed and burned them, and there was absolutely nothing in it about supplying him with medicinals toward the end of maintaining his ability to pad your vaults."

"You have only his word that we were providing him with anything!"

"Payday, Mr. Grabscale. Tomorrow. If I got in once, I can get in again - and then you won't just find yourself locked out of the Ministry vaults. You'll find yourself locked out of the bank as a whole, and tomorrow morning... Tomorrow morning, I'll start the tour of every other branch of Gringotts on the planet ."

Goblins, Lucius Malfoy observed, did not sweat prettily.

"Mycanthus," Grabscale gritted. "Cut with an infusion of Mongolian yak root. Two vials a week."

Malfoy closed all eight of his eyes. Cartwright sat back, tapping his  fingers on the arm of his chair.

"Mongolian yak root, huh?"  he said eventually. "Wow. Never mind the mycanthus, that's like, a life sentence in Azkaban right there for all involved. Maybe even the Kiss, if it's determined you were working with people who didn't just harvest it the illegal, but the immoral way.  How far up the hierarchy did you have to go to find someone who could pull that one off?"

The Head of Gringotts: London said nothing. His trapped, helplessly enraged expression, on the other hand, said everything.  Cartwright shook his head.

"He must have been bringing in a full three-quarters of your yearly treasure haul if your boss was willing to take that kind of risk to keep him functional, but what's the first rule again, on that level? Don't get caught? You talk about being bent over the barrel with your pants around your ankles; he must be absolutely shitting at the thought that the Supreme Mugwump will trace that one back to him. Tell me, Mr. Grabscale, what was Gringotts: London authorized to offer me to shut me up, were it to become clear during this meeting that I'm fully aware of how deeply you've all fucked up?"

It had been a long, long week, Lucius Malfoy reflected. A long, long, week that had acted as the culmination of a long, long decade, and in many ways, his entire life since the day he first entered Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry... As an eleven-year-old fly destined, by a perverse combination of nature and nurture, to catch the attention of the darkest, deadliest spider ever to prowl the snarled, shimmering and blood-soaked Euro-Magical socio-political web at any point in its history, he'd given no thought, by the time he was sixteen, to his future beyond how to escape.

The Patagonian glass spider had several curious characteristics. Tiny, it measured in at less than the eighth of the area of a grown man's smallest fingernail... Near-translucent, it blended in to the point of invisibility in any environment, save when under direct light or against a stark white background... It could jump immense, almost impossible distances... And the grown males of the species, unlike nearly every single one of its arachnid brothers of any variety beyond those in barest youth, were capable of spinning full webs of their own, rather than simple, uncomplicated strands of silk that limited their movements, and their efficacy, to those of pawns on a chessboard.

Lucius Malfoy, before he completed his Animagus training at the age of sixteen, had never seen, or heard of, a Patagonian glass spider. It had taken him months of furtive research to identify his own species. When he finally had done, the fly had retreated to his study, head spinning with the giddiness induced a world turned on end. When he had emerged again,  the world had righted (or wronged) itself sedately and as per the standard.. But with his eight newly shaped eyes and the promise of the associated perks, he saw more than differentiated angles and new possibilities.

He saw, for the first time, hope for more than mere escape.

He saw, as he was seeing now, embodied in the plain-faced, eminently ordinary and unprepossessing, absolute impossibility sitting before him, in of all things, its chosen colours of black and gold...

The possibility that things would... no, could ... be changed.

 


 

Lucius Abraxas Malfoy, born July 5th, 1954, first rode the Hogwarts Express to its destination on September 1st, 1965. Promptly sorted into Slytherin House, it took less than three days  for Horace Slughorn, his Head of House, to take note of the tall, ridiculously gangly eleven-year-old on four fronts - his eerily fast reflexes, his fascination with Potions, his natural prowess in Transfiguration, and, above all, his absolute devotion to his closest friend and fellow first year, Narcissa Black.

That last hadn't taken three days, but perhaps three hours. Slughorn thought the devotion rather adorable for perhaps six minutes after the two had entered the Slytherin common room for the first time; the two little blonds had crossed the threshold together, not clutching hands, but with Narcissa's slim, pale hand linked quite properly through Lucius' arm. Neither looked remotely nervous or intimidated, only appropriately curious and jointly intrigued at what awaited them. Yes, it had been adorable, alright... One or two of the older girls had even squealed a little at the sight, in properly Slytherin style of course. Then...

Then everything went right and properly tits-up. Gentlemanly manners were one thing, but Slughorn had watched with amusement and alarm as eleven-year-old Malfoy had escorted the girl, not to one of the best chairs, but to the best chair in the common room and seen her appropriately settled before slipping down without the slightest iota of embarrassment to lounge at her feet. Young Narcissa hadn't blinked, just tugged affectionately at the ice-blond ponytail and settled back to await the prefects' welcome speeches.  Instead, she'd been greeted by her sister Bellatrix's icy, disdainful sneer, while Lucius suffered a good hard kick to the ribs for his lack of dignity.

Or at least he might have suffered it in a world where his reflexes, again, weren't quite so eerily fast. In less than the time it took his future sister-in-law to draw her foot back, the freshly-minted first year was on his own feet, his new wand (elm and dragon heartstring: eighteen inches)  in his hand, and Bellatrix Black's right shoe was burning brightly as the fire in the hearth. Again, no one had time to blink before the wand was back in young Malfoy's sleeve, and he was returned comfortably to his former position.

"I would not recommend you try that again," he said to Bellatrix. "Miss Black."

Miss Black, not unsurprisingly, tried it again. This time, Lucius followed up the Hotfoot hex with a tripping jinx, followed by a tickling jinx, followed by a rousing triple round of Bat Bogey hexes, all within the space of thirty seconds and from the comfort of the floor this time. None were particularly overpowered, but all were quite effective, particularly given the blurred speed at which the incantations were delivered.

"Impressive !" Andromeda Black whistled admiringly as Lucius tucked his wand away, and hauled Bellatrix up, casting all the counter-spells briskly as she did so. "Oh, do stop screeching, Bella. He's practically family, you should be proud!"

"He is not family. How can you stand him?" Bellatrix demanded of her youngest sister, incensed. "He's got no pride at all; he just follows you around and pants like a bloody puppy!"

"Better a puppy than a bitch," Lucius said coolly. "Round three, Miss Black? I feel it only fair to warn you that next time, I aim for the robes, not the shoes."

Miss Black was nothing if not persistent. Sixty seconds later, Horace Slughorn was hauling apart the combatants, magically speaking, and though Lucius was missing his ponytail and sporting a faceful of bleeding boils and a pair of frenetically wagging crups' tails, Bellatrix' brand new school robes lay in ashes around her bare.... Everything. By breakfast the next day, Lucius' boils and tails were gone and he was sporting  a trim, neat cap instead of his beloved mane, but the foundations of his personal reputation was firmly secured in all four Houses... Bellatrix was not popular in any of them, even in her own. The covertly snapped photos of her rising, so to speak, out of the ashes of her own robes (and everything underneath), on the other hand...

The Black Pheonix, as some wit in Ravenclaw dubbed her, did not appreciate the particular brand of notoriety. She never managed to find the identity of the camera-wielder, but that didn't bother her; any self-respecting Slytherin could only have been expected to take advantage of such a brilliant opportunity, after all. The ensuing grudge she held against the individual who had provided the camera-wielder with their opportunity, on the other hand...

Six years later the Marauders would take Hogwarts by storm and their rivalry with one Severus Snape would become the stuff of school legend. The year following, Regulus Black would enter Slytherin House with a wand clutched firmly in each small hand and talent enough to set the world of dueling on its ear. From September 1965 to June 1970, though, Bellatrix Black and Lucius Malfoy reigned supreme on both fronts. Not even the professors were  inclined to intervene in their war, on the principle that as long as ThatCrazyBitch Black was aiming her wand at AllBallsNoBrains Malfoy, it wasn't pointed at anyone else. Lucius might have resented their policy, but he was too busy ducking, dodging, and writing letters to Bellatrix's aunt. Walburga Black, mother of Sirius and Regulus Black, was more than pleased to provide little Narcissa's friend with excruciatingly detailed written tutorials on all of the strange and bizarre spells and counter-spells that Bellatrix had in her arsenal; she'd taught most of them to the girl herself, after all, and was quite entertained by young Malfoy's resourcefulness, never mind his sheer bollocks. So very pleased was she with the reports back on the results of her efforts that she even sent him a few particular tutorials on spells-and-variants she hadn't taught Bellatrix...  Nothing life-threatening, of course, or even Dark for that matter - the Malfoys had never been inclined to make that kind of point publicly, and Walburga was, as always, respectful of the traditions of those families who proved themselves worthy of respect - but they'd always enjoyed those variants that induced abject humiliation. That particular family quirk would come back to bite Lucius Malfoy and his bride rather hard in the future, but in the present, relatively innocent moment...

The results were predictable. By the end of Lucius' second year, there was not a student at Hogwarts willing to take on the tall, gangly twelve-year-old in any kind of magical duel not strictly supervised by a teacher. By third year, he was taking private lessons with the school's resident All-European Dueling Champion, Filius Flitwick, and by OWL year, Flitwick had sent messages to three of his former colleagues, all of whom had come to Scotland expressly to see the boy in action... The second, an International Dueling Master, offered him an apprenticeship on the spot. Even at his tender age though, Lucius could sense which way the political wind was blowing, and knew, when it came right down to it, what would be expected of him. The night he was offered the apprenticeship, right before Christmas of 1969, he slipped away from the hordes. Narcissa followed him, and found him, long lanky legs pulled up to his chest and face buried in his arms, in, of all places, the History of Magic classroom. She sat beside him on the floor, tugging her robes around her, and pulled him into her and against her, till he was lying on his side with his head in her lap.

"What do you want, Luke?" she said quietly, as she stroked his hair. "Truly?"

"You," he said desolately.

"Aside from."

"I don't know," he said. She knew he was upset. He only contracted when he was upset. "Not this. Not... What is. What will be. Every day the options seem fewer; our world grows a little smaller, and soon there'll be nothing for it but for us to shrink with it, to fit, will there? I don't want to have to shrink to fit someone else's vision, Niss. To make someone else bigger, and he sounds reasonable enough, doesn't he? He even sounds right, if you squint, but you squint with your eyes not with your ears, so it's all wrong from the start, isn't it? It's just... Not right. They say he's right, but how can he be right, if it's not right?"

She traced his damp cheekbone.

"There's always ISEP," she said. "It's not too late to sign up."

"What?"

"ISEP. The International Student Exchange Program? Your father is going to have to say no to your becoming a professional duelist. To apprenticing. It's a great opportunity, but he has no choice either, does he?" She seemed to be considering her own words as she spoke. "It's a shame, really. He could have been proud of you for that."

"What's all that got to do with the Exchange?"

"He's going to have to say no to the apprenticeship, Luke. It'll hurt him more than it'll hurt you, but he doesn't have to know that, does he? And the exchange is only for a year, and sixth year at that. We'll be done our OWLs, and won't have started our NEWTs. And the world is shrinking, yes, but it's not..." She shifted a bit. "There's still a little time, you see? Year after next, the way things are progressing, politically speaking... There'll be no time left. So next year is our only chance."

He sat up at that.

"You want to run away together?"

"No," Narcissa said, not without regret. "But... We could get away. On a holiday of sorts, from all of it, for a year, anyway. If we play our cards right. It would be even more likely if we applied to different schools. They all want grandchildren eventually, but at this point, they might just  think the separation would be good for us. Pre-graduation pregnancies are just so vulgar."

Lucius rolled his eyes. She laughed softly, then sobered.

"It might be," she said. "At that.'

"How can you say that?"

"You know who you don't want to be," she said. "But do you know who you are now?" She'd pulled her own knees closer. "I don't. I think I'd like to find out, if I'm to be forced to risk losing it all for someone who'll never think I matter in any instance."

"There is that," Lucius admitted, and desolately again... "How can they all be so stupid ?"

"It's not that they're stupid," his beloved said. "Well, yes. It is. But this is how it goes, isn't it? How it's always gone.You'd think they'd have gotten that much at least, from Binns and his never-ending obsession with the goblin wars."

They sat in silence.

"So where would you want to go?" he asked finally.

"Uganda."

"What? Why?"

"Because that's exactly what Mother will say. 'What? Why? Africa is just so uncivilized, Narcissa, and the shopping is terrible besides!"

"Never mind all those lions wandering about," Lucius agreed. "She'll be terrified that you'll come home a Gryffindor."

They sniggered together.

"Brazil would be alright," he said judiciously. "I mean, yes, it's in the middle of the jungle, but that can only help my Herbology grade. And all the best Quidditch players in the world come from Brazil, and school's supposed to be covered in gold besides. Abraxas would definitely approve of that."

"Brilliant," she said. "Brazil for you, Uganda for me." She leaned in and kissed him softly, then swung about and settled astride his lap, tugging out the shirt-tail of her blouse, taking his hands and slipping them under the fabric.

"Niss," he said. "I don't..." He moaned as she rolled her hips a little. "I don't think this is a good idea."

"Why?"

"Because I really hate it when you tell me we have to stop. You know I will, that I always will, but... Sometimes it's easier if we just don't start at all."

Narcissa just bent her head and kissed him again, slowly. Despite himself, Lucius's hands tightened on her slender waist. She smiled against his lips as their mouths and tongues slid together, and his hands began to move, flattening and tracing the delicate lines of her back... His breathing grew harsh and ragged and loud in the silent classroom. The moonlight slipped through the windows and turned his pale platinum hair to a river of rippling silver.... The girl rolled her hips again, and slipped her robe off, and took his hands, and kissed the palms and his fingertips, and moved them to the buttons on her blouse.

"Narcissa..."

"Shh." She helped him, button by button, till it was open, and she shrugged it off. She wore nothing beneath, and took his hands again, and brought them to her slight, bare breasts. Lucius cupped them gently, stroking the tight, rosy nipples with his thumbs, capturing them between his long fingers and rolling them firmly. She gasped, and pushed into his hands.

"Ah, Luke..."

The room suddenly seemed very close. He caught her mouth again, then lifted her slightly, till she was kneeling lightly on his thighs, and his mouth, his fine gentle mouth, moved to  replace his hands on her breasts. He suckled and licked noisily, and breathed warmly and she bucked hard, and pulled his head closer. He slid his hands up her bare slender thighs and under the short skirt, fingers skimming the edges of her panties and tugging them down so they were around her thighs again...  She groaned deeply  as  a single gentle fingertip eased inside her, then stroked her carefully, gathering up silky, slick moisture and circling and pressing against the swollen little nub as he sucked even harder at her nipples. She pushed wantonly against his mouth and he rubbed her fully, flattening his hand and cupping and palming her smoothly as he did so. She gasped and reached down, seizing his fingers and holding them there as she rode them forcefully and hard to a strong, sharp climax. The sounds of his noisily working mouth, her wet, frankly squelching pussy, and their mutual gasps and groans were dizzying.

Finally, Narcissa slowed, easing off his hand and resting her forehead against his as she caught her breath, then kissed him hard... Slowly, Lucius brought his hands around to undo the button of her skirt, and the zip, all while waiting for her to stop him. She only bent her head and kissed him again.

The skirt fell. She stood, briefly, and kicked it aside, along with her little white panties. Her shoes and socks followed, and his light blue eyes widened and dilated, shifting to dark grey. She held out her hands and pulled him up, her small slim hands moving to his tie.

"Niss... The door..."

"I locked it." She tossed the tie aside and unbuttoned his collar. "Transfigure the desk, Lucius."

"What?"

"Transfigure the desk."

Unable to take his eyes off of her, his wand slipped into his hand. He pointed without looking, the incantation escaping from his dry, wondering mouth. The desk shifted. She took the wand from him and pointed it at him, and then he was standing, as naked as she. She locked gazes with him, and turned the wand on her flat, shallow pale belly, and traced a very specific pattern.

"Niss," Lucius said. "Are you sure?" He didn't wait for the answer, just stepped over, and picked her up in his arms, and carried her to the bed. She lay back as he lowered her, and reached up, and pulled him down and over her. He gasped, jolting as if burned, and moaned as she shifted till he was lying between her thighs, his flat boyish belly pressed against...

Narcissa reached up to touch his cheek.

"Luke," she said.  "Just for tonight... Just for tonight... I want you to take what you want."

"What?"

"I want you to take what you want."

"Niss, you are not a what. You are a who. You matter!"

"So do you," Narcissa Black said. "So do you, my love, and not just to me. You, Lucius Abraxas Malfoy, matter. In and of yourself, completely. What you want matters. The world will try to reduce you, but I will not allow it. You are not to allow it, do you understand?"

"It's really not that easy, you know?"

"It will be," she said firmly. "As easy as you decide it will be."

His lips tilted at her.

"If you say so," he said, and paused. "You know, this really wasn't how I pictured this moment?"

"No?"

"No. Shouldn't I be all sweaty and anxious and hormonal and completely lacking in finesse, much less the ability to carry on a coherent conversation?"

"It's not too late. Though it wasn't really how I pictured it either. I'm lying starkers on a bed in the moonlight, telling you to take what you want, and you're musing on the hypotheticals."

"That's only because I'm afraid of buggering it all up," he confessed.  "And the more I talk, the longer I postpone disappointing you."

Narcissa sighed. He wilted.

"Too late?"

"No. Luke?"

"Mm."

"I'm starkers. On a bed. In the moonlight. You're starkers too. On the same bed, and... " She jolted and cried out as he pushed her pale thighs apart and moved over her, reaching between them and fumbling frantically and awkwardly. Niss jerked hard, crying out again at the sharp pain as he thrust and pushed hard in turn, gasping and gasping as he heaved and shoved and worked and ground his way up inside her. He was long: nine full inches, if not overly thick, and no matter that she was wet, sodden really, and relaxed from the double orgasm -

It hurt. She hadn't expected it; he'd been using his fingers on her, and in her, for several months now, but...

"Lu...Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh...."

When he'd finished, he lay over her heavily and held her tight, heart still racing crazily as he pressed his face to her hair. She stroked his sweaty back gingerly, then pushed at him a bit.

"Sorry." He moved off her. "That was rather graceless of me, I know. I promise that I won't let it become a hab..." He caught her wince. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"A little," she said. "I don't mind, really."

"What? Only I thought, since I've used my fingers..."

"You're hung like a hippogryph, my love. It's bound to have an effect."

He looked mildly embarrassed. She laughed.

"I'll be fine," she reassured him, and snuggled up next  to him. He gathered her up and kissed her hair.

"I love you, Niss," he said. "So, so much. And not just because you finally let me shag you."

"I wanted it too, you know? I was just waiting for the right moment." She trailed her fingers over his forearm.

"And the moment when you found me blubbing in the dark in the History of Magic classroom was it?"

Narcissa Black propped herself on her elbow and kissed him.

"It's never been just about wanting," she said. "It's been about needing. You, needing me. I like you needing me. I like being able to help you. To take care of you. You're the kind of person who takes care of everything else. That's why this is all so... Pre-determined. He's going to see, he's seen already, because people will have told him.... that you're going to be the type of man who can take care of things. Make sure they happen the certain way; the way he wants them to happen. It's how you think. You see options that other people don't: possibilities, alternatives, outcomes..."

"It's not as uncommon as all that."

"No," Niss said. "But you are. You're beautiful, rich, charismatic, connected, magically gifted - not just talented, but gifted - and your family's got contacts everywhere. Throw in your skill with dueling, and let's face it, he'll want you to keep on with that for his own ends, whether you ever gain the title or not - the strategic mind is the extremely enticing icing on the perfectly raised cauldron cake."

Lucius was silent.

"I've heard he has his eye on Bella," he said.  

"Bella's not stupid. Crazy, but not stupid. Alright, maybe a bit stupid, but obsessive too, and if he has his eye on her, she'll have told him about you, Luke. All about you. and she might slag on you for your ongoing war,  but you've been holding your own against her since we were eleven, and mostly by out-thinking her, and he will remember that. And we're together, and I'm her sister, so it'd be all in the family."

"Bugger," he said unhappily.

"He's going to want you to take care of everything," she said again. "Until or unless you prove that you can't. And then he'll kill you."

The word rang. He said nothing again.

"That is not acceptable," Narcissa Black said quietly. "It is not acceptable, Lucius. I do not find it acceptable."

"Which part?"

"All of it," she said. "So you will find another way. I will take care of you, while you find another way. A way out. So you have nothing of yourself to distract you. While you are in my hands... Nothing will harm you. Nothing will hurt you. You will live ."

"Uganda's a long way from Brazil."

"It's your holiday, Lucius. Nothing can harm you while you're on holiday."

"No?"

"No. The jungle is the jungle, but what there could possibly be more frightening than the prospect of having Bellatrix as a sister-in-law?"

"Having him for a brother-in-law?"

"That will never happen, at least." she said. "She's just been betrothed to Rodolphus Lestrange. The announcement will come next week."

"Really? Rodolphus Lestrange ? Isn't he..." He made an indicative gesture.

"Mm."

"Solace?"

She snorted. "Wouldn't that be a mockery? It's a definite possibility though. He is an orphan, and..."

She didn't even have to finish the sentence. They sat up and looked at each other in absolute dismay.

"That," Narcissa said. "Would definitely not be acceptable. Lestrange, Black, Malfoy... and him ? Bound under Solace? He'd have power, money, contacts and social respectability , Lucius! And you ! To take care of everything !"

"With you, and any children of ours, as collateral against my cooperation." He buried his face in his hands. "And Bella, legally married to Lestrange, but mother of his legitimate children. Legitimate children. His children, with Black blood, heirs to Lestrange, and bloody buggering Uncle Head-of-House Malfoy. Salazar's scrotum. We are so, so fucked."

Narcissa pressed her fingers to the bridge of her nose. They sat like that for a long time, saying nothing. Finally, she Summoned her wand from her robes and cast a quick and thorough cleaning charm on both of them.

"We should get back," she said quietly. Lucius lifted his head. His face was pale, his smile wan.

"Must we?"

"Yes." She Summoned their clothes. "You're not contracting any longer. My job here is done."

He poked her. She poked him back. He thwacked her with a pillow. Feathers flew everywhere... The next day in class, he sat beside her, listening to Binns drone on and trying desperately to stay awake. She poked him again. He glanced over. She passed him a pamphlet under the desk. He took it, unfolding it and laying it openly out before him.

 

Discover the World With ISEP!

Apply for the International Student Exchange Program Today!

 

PARTICIPATING INSTITUTIONS AND SPECIALTIES

Uganda, Africa (Uagadou) - Astronomy, Self-Transfiguration, Wandless Magic

Brazil (Castelobruxo School) - Herbology, Magizoology

France (Beauxbatons Academy of Magic) - Charms

Japan (Mahoutokoro School of Magic) -Potions

Russia (Koldovstoretz School) - Elemental Magic, Alchemy

Scandinavia (Durmstrang Institute)* - Classics and Antiquities, Spellcrafting

Scotland (Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) - Transfiguration, Ancient Runes, Arithmancy

United States of America (Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) - Healing, Spellcrafting

 

* Only Students with Established Magical Genealogy May Apply

 

"Wandless magic?" he mouthed at her. She smiled sweetly at him, doodling on her parchment with her quill as she propped her chin on the other hand... Lucius turned the page of the pamphlet - and nearly fell off his chair as the sensations of a small, warm slick hand manifested in an extremely personal, and by some definition untoward, location. He shifted and bit his cheek, hard, thanking his lucky stars that he'd chosen the window seat this time, and that Niss was sitting between him and everyone else's view. Niss watched him, for all intents and purposes staring dreamily out the window behind him as his pale elegant features flushed, the deep strawberry stain flooding down under his starched white collar. His hands clenched and he adjusted his robes minutely...  The quill scratched. His glazed eyes flicked down.

Hands up where I can see them.

Lucius bit his cheek again, till he tasted blood, and placed his long, trembling hands on the desk, one clutching at his own quill, and the other smoothing the edge of the pamphlet compulsively. The small, invisible hand slid back and forth, back and forth inside his trousers. Magic, he thought in agonized pleasure (and not for the first time; Narcissa had learned the particular spell as his fifteenth birthday gift last summer, during his birthday dinner with all of her relatives and his),  was a wonderful and terrible thing...He glued his eyes to the page before him, and concentrated with all his might on remaining still and soundless. After a long, long, agonizing interim, the quill scratched again.

Now.

Lucius's lips parted slightly, his eyes closed... Across the room, everyone jumped and screamed simultaneously, startled out of their naps as the hinge on the blackboard snapped and the board crashed to the stone floor. By the time everyone had recovered, he was sitting back in his seat, his flush fading, and turning pages steadily again. Narcissa Black crunched the end of her peppermint quill loudly, the wafting scent masking the slight minted after-odor of the cleaning charm currently at work on her seat-mate's trousers. Lucius picked up his repaired quill and printed two neat, tiny letters.

TY

Narcissa said nothing, just sat back and leaned against his shoulder. He smiled down at her, and caught sight of her wrist, raising his eyes appreciatively at sight of the delicate silver bangle, shaped like a snake and glimmering just above the sleeve of her robe.

Lovely bracelet. Is it from one of your secret admirers?

No. Andie gave it to me. Isn't she sweet?

She is. I quite like her. Where did she get it, do you know?

She made it. Or rather, her boyfriend ordered it for her from a jewelry shop in Kent, and she charmed it.

Which jewelry shop? Wait, Andromeda has a boyfriend? Since when?

I have no idea. Pay attention to the lecture, Lucius. Those who do not pass History are doomed to repeat it, and Abraxus will likely refuse you permission to go to Castelobruxo if you get less than an E on the OWL. It would be an O, and will be in all of your other subjects, but... Binns.

Nine months, twelve OWLS, eleven Os and an E+ later, just-turned-sixteen year old Lucius Malfoy sat on his bed in the double dorm-room at Castelobruxo School, holding a small framed portrait in his hands. The exquisite golden haired girl smiled up at him softly, and blew him a kiss. He turned his hand, miming as if catching it, and pressed it to his heart before placing the frame carefully on the nightstand. It was made, as was the frame of the bed itself, of some fragrant silvery wood, subtly grained and carved. The walls were painted a pale, sunny yellow and the curtains, sheets and blankets were all pale ivory. All very pristine, and spelled, he presumed, to repel stains. 

Across the room was another bed.  Lucius glanced at the open door and made his way over, hands to himself, of course, but curious, nevertheless, at the sight of the odd items on the nightstand... There was a string of softly glowing white beads there, hung over the bed post - fifty nine in total: fifty set at regular intervals of ten, and separated by four individual pale blue ones. The last five branched off above a silver medallion, and ended in a small silver cross. On the table itself was a slim wand: eleven inches, Lucius estimated, and three scattered paperback books. One was in Spanish; the second and third were English. The one closest to him was white, with a silhouette of a child on the cover, and what looked like a pack of wolves around him. The title was printed in plain yellow: THE JUNGLE BOOK. Lucius' eyes moved to the next object - a tiny plaster statue of a woman in robes, holding a baby. There was a colourful card beside it. It attracted Lucius' attention immediately because the picture wasn't moving. Glancing over his shoulder again, and in spite of his own good manners, he picked it up. The image was of a winged man in armour, bearing a great sword. He turned the card over. There were words there too, in small letters: two sets of them, the first in Spanish, then English.

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle;

Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.

May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: and do thou, Oh Prince of the Heavenly Hosts,

By the power of God, cast into Hell Satan and all the other evil spirits

Who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.

Lucius Malfoy dropped the card as if it had burned his fingers and backed hastily away, for whatever reasons near excruciatingly uneasy and discomfited. He returned to his bed, sitting down on the edge again, looking around again as he collected himself. It was a very comfortable room, if a bit spartan: perfectly and thankfully normal, and not dissimilar to the dorms at Hogwarts if one took into account that it, like the rest of the sixth and seventh year student accommodations at Castelobruxo, was only sized for two. The other noted oddity (aside from the bland colour scheme) were the windows; at first glance they looked perfectly ordinary, but when he'd gone over to open them, realized that there was no way to manage it. The magically impermeable glass was smoothed seamlessly into the white stone walls, set into perfect arched alcoves. The detailing, unlike that at Hogwarts, was  immaculate shape: there were no cracks in the walls or stonework, no drafts, no crumbled corners or imperfections anywhere. Even the toilets were not immune from the perfection; upon using the facilities he'd gone to flush, and looked about, puzzled, for a lever or handle. Instead, he heard the distinct rush of a Vanishing spell, and when, startled, he'd looked down, the bowl had been sparkling and bland. Blinking, it had taken him a moment more, and a quick examination of the contents of the stalls, and yes, the showers and baths too, till he'd realized what he was, or rather wasn't, seeing.

There are no drains. No drains, and no...

"Shadows!" he said aloud from the bed again. He stood, turning, examining the floor and walls minutely, more astonished with each passing moment. Nothing, nothing cast a shadow. He bent and lifted the edge of the blanket on the bed. Pale magical light eased out. He opened the closet. There were not only no shadows, but not a dark, or even dim corner in the entire room.

"That's bloody weird," he said aloud. He went to the door, and looked out. No shadows, more light... Bewildered, overwhelmed, and not a little nauseated yet from the long series of international, never mind intercontinental portkeys, he nearly fell over when a soft chime sounded behind him. He turned. There on his night table was a thick green folder. He approached it cautiously. Printed on the front in elegant gold calligraphy was his name, current dormitory, and room number. Below were the words

CASTELOBRUXO SCHOOL

ISEP STUDENTS' ORIENTATION PACKET

Lucius seated himself yet again and flipped open the packet.

 

LUCIUS A. MALFOY, YEAR 6

HOME COUNTRY: ENGLAND

HOME SCHOOL: HOGWARTS SCHOOL OF WITCHCRAFT AND WIZARDRY

PARTICULAR ACADEMIC PROFICIENCIES: POTIONS, TRANSFIGURATION

REMEDIAL REQUIREMENTS: NONE

ADVISING PROFESSOR:  INEZ HERNANDEZ (Transfiguration)

ROOMMATE: RAMONE CARRIERA

His class schedule was next, and a map of the castle. He examined it with some interest - he'd manage a bit more, he knew, when the urge to sick up faded a bit - and flipped again. His mouth dropped as he read the next page.

Dear Mr. Malfoy,

We have received the results of your magical physical, forwarded us from Hogwarts, and as it has been determined that you are not one of the one-half percent of the Wizarding population with the allergy to the Mandrake plant, you are expected to join us in Transfiguration Lab 4 tomorrow night at 7 in order to begin your Animagus training. Your grades in the subject, as well as your professor's observations on your temperament, indicate that you are a prime candidate for our accelerated program. As such, you will be scheduled in for private tutorials four times a week on top of the mandated class sessions. They will, should you apply yourself there, facilitate your progress considerably.

Castelobruxo School offers these classes, and the private sessions, for vital reasons, and as such you are not required to obtain parental or governmental permission. There are no extra costs involved. If you have questions, please seek answers from your room-mate before the meeting tomorrow. We prefer not to waste valuable class time on questions that can be answered in advance.

Sincerely,

Prof. Inez Hernandez

Lucius read the letter again, bewildered.

Animagus training? Vital reasons? No parental or government...

The door swung open.

"Hola!" a raucous, cheerful voice greeted him. "Malfoy from England?"

"Erhm," Lucius said, standing automatically. "Yes. That's me. I mean, that is me. You  can just call me Lucius though. No country necessary; I am fairly sure that the accent will give me away."

The boy laughed. He was Lucius' own height: six foot two, thin, dark brown, loose-limbed with a flashing white smile and dark, dancing eyes.

"Carriera," he introduced himself. "Ramone Carriera, from Rio de Janiero, and that is all there is to be said about that. Welcome to Castelobruxo! Have you been sitting here since you arrived?"

"Thank you," Lucius said, and to his own embarrassment and self-disgust, rather piteously...  "Yes. They brought me here and left me."

"Well, you are from England. You are all so proper, they probably thought you would like to be sick in private before they introduced you about." He bounced cross-legged on his own bed, his eyes bright and curious in his bony, agile face. "The international portkeys, they are terrible, I hear. I have never taken one myself; are they as bad as they say?"

"Yes," Lucius said, with brutal honesty. Caught off-guard by... Everything... He could manage nothing else. "All six of them."

"Six?"

"London to Paris, Paris to Madrid, and Madrid to Sierra Leone. Those weren't so bad, or wouldn't have been if I'd had more than half an hour between, and I stopped in Sierra Leone overnight, but the trans-Atlantic jump to Guyana this morning nearly did me in. Then there was the final jump to Manaus - that wasn't horrid, for some reason, even with the distance, and there was the nearly six hour wait between, besides - and then the last jump here."

"Nossa Senhora! And you are sure all your parts are still with you?"

"First thing I checked," Lucius admitted, and couldn't help but laugh along with the boy.

"Good. This is good." Carriera settled more comfortably. "Well, then. I am here now, and I will help you, heh? You have your orientation packet, have you any questions?"

"Lots. First though... My schedule is here, as was arranged, but I am told in this letter here that I have an extra class.  Animagus training. I don't mind at all, but it says that it is mandatory, and for vital reasons. I was told nothing of this before I left, or did I miss something in all of the papers I was sent?"

Carriera's smile faded a little.

"Ah," he said. "That. Yes. The teachers are likely intending to tell you at the dormitory meeting later... But maybe it is best this way after all. Some things, they are easier to think on with a little advance warning, heh?"

"How do you mean?"

The boy collected himself.

"You have noticed," he said. "I am sure, even in these few hours... That certain things in the castle here... They are a little different from your home?"

Lucius frowned at him.

"If you're talking the drains, yes," he said after a moment. "And the windows. They don't open."

"No. They do not. The drains, they would lead outside, yes, and that is not safe, so ... And you have seen, I am sure, that there are no shadows here? And light, in the closets and..."

"Under the beds?"

"You looked. You are good." He did not sound happy. "Observant. This is good. Important."

"Thank you, but what do all these things have to do with Animagus training?"

"A very great deal, Malfoy-from-England. In truth... Everything. You are sure that the teachers have told you nothing yet?"

"No. I told you, they brought me up here and left me. Told me to rest, and that they'd be along soon after they saw to the second lot of incoming back in Manaus, but I haven't seen anyone since but you."

"Mm. And that is all there is to be said about that. So. There is nothing for it, then. We start from the beginning. Tell me, Malfoy-from-England, of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. What have you learned in your lessons of lethifolds?"


 

The word dropped from the young Brazilian's lips with the heavy, dead weight of a blank-eyed corpse. It sprawled limply between them on the pale ivory floor, casting, like all else around them, no shadow. All the light seemed gone suddenly too as it lay there, and all warmth in the room, and Lucius Malfoy recoiled from the word as he had from the prayer on the card... Ramone Carriera watched as the pale, elegant young man, without the slightest apparent conscious awareness of what his body was doing, pulled his long legs up and slid back toward the very center of his bed, away from the lit gap between the floor and the mattress above.

"Lethifolds," Lucius repeated slowly. His eyes defocused slightly, and he recited swiftly and mechanically, as if reading a passage directly from a book. "Lethifolds are Class XXXXX magical beasts: intractable and untameable, and considered, because they prey on, and feed on, humans, Dark.  Their appearance resembles that of black cloaks roughly half an inch thick, though they are considerably thicker while in the process of digesting a meal. They glide along the ground and other surfaces in search of their victims, attacking at night under cover of shadow, silence and darkness. They attack while their the target is asleep, seeking to enfold them, smother them, and absorb the still-living crushed and flattened bodies into their own.  Lethifolds cannot and do not die except as the victims of accidents: there is no known spell, including the Killing Curse that mortally injures  them. The only form of magical protection against Lethifolds is the Patronus spell; like their distant relatives, Dementors, they are repelled by the unmitigated positive energy embodied in the particularly channeled magic. The Lethifold is, fortunately, an extremely rare species, and can be found only in the..."

He stopped abruptly.

"Tropics," Ramone Carriera finished. "Welcome to Brazil, Malfoy-from-England. A very concise summary, heh, though not quite accurate on all points. Firstly, leths are not truly black. They adapt to the colours and varying tones of the shadows in which they lurk, rendering them, effectively invisible. If there are no shadows, yes, the eye translates them as black, but that is only because they have no true color of their own, and their biology cannot translate white."

He watched as that processed. As the young man before him put the pieces together.

"No drains," Malfoy said, almost to himself. "No windows that open." He looked up and around. "No cracks, and nothing in any kind of degraded condition.... No corner unlit, and no shadows allowed..."

"In a shadowless land," Carriera said rhetorically. "You ask yourself this. What is a shadow when you see one but no shadow at all?"

"So, what, you're saying that all those things are set up to repel... But..." The young Englishman looked genuinely bewildered and puzzled. "But all the books and experts say they're rare! Really, really rare! There are perhaps a half-dozen recorded sightings per decade, world-wide, so how much of an issue can they be, even here?"

"Some things are rarely seen," Ramone Carriera said. "But that does not mean that they are not there. Here. What is the first thing you were told about Castelobruxo, Malfoy-from-England?"

"Um.... Aside from the location? That it's built around the remains of an ancient temple, and glows as if coated in molten, lit gold."

"Very poetic. Yes, this is true, and looks very good in the adverts besides.  In truth, the glow was induced as part of the school's original defense system, and has been, since the school was first constructed, or rather adapted, from the ruins of the temple it was when it was built, over a millennia ago. Leths hate the light. If one can cast a Patronus, that is well and good, but if not...  Light... Light is yet life. Darkness is death. No pretty death, either. Here in Brazil, in the dark, you die with your eyes open: silent always as you are smothered and swallowed alive, crushed bone by bone - larynx first, always, so no one hears your goodbyes - and pulped down and rendered, not just as food, but toward the end of stimulating their magic development of your murderer's reproductive system.  Lethifolds embody the essence of the Dark, you see? Blood, death and stolen life is a requirement to sustain their effective immortality, both personally and in their production of the next generation."

Lucius could do nothing but stare at him.  Carriera waited.

"A millennia ago? You're... You are saying," his new roommate said carefully. His British accent was clipped, formal, precise. "What you are saying...Is that lethifolds are a real, longstanding problem here in South America? One that is severe enough, and has been severe enough, that even a thousand years ago, the defenses against them were the first thing to be taken into consideration when constructing the school itself?"

"They are the first thing that are taken into consideration everywhere, all across this continent. And as they do not die naturally and cannot be killed, though they continue to give birth, the problem has gotten progressively worse over time."

"But, if.. As..." Lucius corrected himself.  "As that's... that is ... true... Why has no one ... Why have we not... Why am I only hearing of this now?"

"A problem is only a problem for those for whom it is a problem, heh? If those to whom it is no problem cannot see it... If they cannot see the results of the problem, much less the cause... How are they inclined to believe that the problem truly exists?"

"What, all the dead people lying about don't count ?"

"You would think, heh? But they are not lying about. Those who are lost, simply... disappear. If a person falls to the lethifolds, Malfoy-from-England, and there is no one there to see it happen... And no body to recover, and no murderer to be found... Never mind the probability of another death, your death, were you to pursue the point at the source, where all proper investigations should start, knowing that there is no way to bring justice to the murderers even if all investigations, to that point, were to go as they should..."

He trailed off. Lucius Malfoy ran a hand over his blond ponytail.

"Someone has to know," he said. "Someone has to be told. If it really is that big of an issue... People should know."

"And if I were to tell you that people do know? That the people who you believe should know, again... Do?  What do you think they would do with this knowledge? This knowledge that the infestation has become so terrible that there is now not one family, not one person, in all of South and Central America and all of the tropical islands surrounding, that has not lost someone they loved to this unstoppable plague: this curse that leaves no bodies, no smoking wands, and in the case of the Nomaji - the Non-Magicals.. Not even the memories of the very existence of the people that they have lost?"

It took a moment for that last to sink in.

"WHAT?"

"Well, there is no way to explain it, heh?" Carriera said reasonably. "How do you explain such disappearances, in such numbers, to people who are not allowed to know of magic? How many hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousand - maybe even millions... of Nomaji can disappear over the generations before the only solution is to make sure that when they do disappear, because they will disappear, and there is no way to stop it from happening, ever... they disappear in a manner that will cause the least panic, and yes, the least pain?"

"You... they..." Lucius held his head, utterly overwhelmed at the implications. "You erase people? You... erase... People ? Not ... Not just the memories of their deaths, or of how they died... But the memories of the people altogether? Altogether? All of them? All of the memories of them, from everywhere, from everyone, as if they never existed at all?"

"Only the Nomaji. We Magicals remain untouched, as we must remain aware to survive."

"And you think that makes it acceptable?" He actually spluttered. Carriera grimaced.

"We are not talking of what I think, or of what the people who live here think, are we? We are talking of those others who do not live here, and would never have known the lost ones in any case. You know those others, so tell me the truth of them now, Malfoy-from-England, as you do know them. Who in your part of the world, of the people who make the decisions on what is made public and what is not, would think the erasure of the memory - not the memories of, but the memory of - those certain, already lost Nomaji an acceptable sacrifice  when the alternative would guarantee - not just risk, but guarantee - the exposure of the Magical world? Do you not think that those others might think  an acceptable solution to an impossible situation that stems from an issue that, truly, they reason...  is not their problem in the first place?"

A very unpleasant silence blossomed.

"Some might... But a lot of them wouldn't," Lucius said finally."More of them than you think. A lot more than you think."

"Yes? Even to the point of, as I said, breaking the Statute of Secrecy? These people, these Nomaji... It would not bring them back, after all. They would still be dead. So what does it matter if they are made a little more dead? Some... Some might even consider it more of a kindness, to erase the memory of them from those who would otherwise grieve so."

Lucius struggled.

"I am not saying I find it acceptable," Carriera said, relenting a little in the face of his obvious overwhelming distress. "Or that we here find it acceptable. There is simply nothing else that we can do. What we are allowed to do, for the problem is ours, but the problems arising should knowledge of the true extent of the problem be known and the Nomaji allowed to understand what is happening, and what will continue to happen...  Would be everyone's. The entire world's, heh, Magical and Non-Magical, and how many more would die then, if we were to tell all that we exist, and that the first thing we are offering them as a greeting is the awareness of a terrible, terrible nightmare to which there can be no solution, and from which no one can ever hope to awaken?"

Lucius opened his mouth, and shut it again. Carriera nodded.

"Problems upon problems upon problems. So we say nothing, and do as we must, and those away from us who do know - who may or may not think it an acceptable solution to an impossible situation say nothing to anyone either, anywhere, to lessen the risks.  And if it makes it easier for them to rationalize their dilemma on the principle that the problem is not their problem when it comes right down to it since it does not affect them, and the responsibility to help solve it not their responsibility at all, particularly since nothing can be solved ... Would you yet insist on informing those who will never be affected if the only thing you could say if they asked how they could help, is that they cannot?"

"So why participate in the Exchange at all?

Carriera offered him a small, whimsical smile at that. "As for that... How are we to excuse ourselves when there is officially nothing to excuse ourselves from? And we are, even here, as is everyone everywhere,  more than the sum of our problems. We have much more to offer you than fear, and if you are careful while you are here - and Castelobruxo is, of all places in South America, the safest, because we do, first and foremost and always, mind the dangers here - the horrors will not touch you at all, and you may go home with your memories of the rest."

"And what about you? What will you do, after you graduate and leave this place?"

"I will do what needs to be done," he said simply. "As all we Magicals do, who are born to this hell. I will stay on. It is our charge from God, many of us think. Every Nomaj who is forgotten... A witch or wizard must make it happen. First, of course, we strive to protect all, and each other, as ever we can toward the prevention of that day... To protect everyone equally as we are able, because lethifolds do not care if you are Magical or Non-Magical, heh? They only care that you are human. In what passes for their eyes, we are all one, so when we humans must deal with them ... That is the way that we see ourselves as well. As one. All of us. And so when we do what we must do, on those days when we cannot hold the night back...  We remember our charge, yes, from the great God, not just to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves - for those with whom we are one - but to remember and keep the memory of, and for, those lost, and who must forget."

Lucius said nothing. Carriera sighed.

"We become Animagi here," he said, "because leths do not eat animals, save as a last resort. If you can Change, you can sleep safely. You can travel safely, though it is not the only way. You have heard, heh, that Brazil, she makes the best Quidditch players in the world?"

"Yes."

"You play for your team at school?"

"Yes. Mostly Keeper, though I'm a fair Beater too."

"Good. No, very good. By the time you go home, you will be good enough to play for your country, in every position."

"You have not seen me fly," his guest pointed out. "You cannot know if I have that kind of potential."

"It is not a matter of potential. It is a matter of practice. Constant practice. No one walks in the rainforest; lethifolds do not just lurk in the shadows on the ground; they climb trees and walls to a point, so it is above that point that we fly everywhere." The young Brazilian examined him critically. "You are so golden, you are like the Snitch, and the leths, they would love to catch you and crush your wings" - he made a stomach churning little gesture.  "And you are tall, too, so I will teach you myself to ride standing. One half inch of too-long leg, it can make the difference when you fly low. The jungle, she is not so accommodating in clearing a path on the safe levels, and the wolves may have their laws, but we are not the wolves here, like in Kipling, heh? Here, we are always, always the ones who are hunted."

Malfoy understood that well enough, never mind the realities of Europe's version of the encroaching, unaccommodating jungle... He ran a hand over his ponytail, and pulled out the binder. His hair fell, shimmering as ice around his shoulders. Ramone reached out and touched a pale, cool strand.

"Lucius," he said in his accented voice. "'Light bringer'. It is a good name, even if the original did cause all of our troubles in the first place."

"Sorry?"

"Lucius, or Lucifer, the archangel. God so loved him, above all, and held him highest, so when he fell, he fell furthest. All the way to the floor of the jungle, we say, here in Brazil, and the shadow of his broken body - because as an angel he could not die - became the first lethifold. Now he eats us, this shadow, because he is angry and cannot bear that God gave us names just as if we are important to Him, so he swallows our names and our memories.  Without them, we are so lost that God cannot find us, Lucifer thinks, though we who are not yet gone believe... We must believe... That He, at least, never forgets. There is no shadow that can steal His Name, after all, nor swallow His Light."

Ramone Carriera released the strand of hair and smiled, and it was a real smile, if a bit damp about the eyes, and the defiant angle of his tilted head revealed a small gold cross at his throat that glimmered with magical light. Lucius Malfoy had only a vague idea of what he was referencing - he had not been raised on God any more than he'd been raised on Kipling, and those who practiced  active religion of any variety  at Hogwarts were typically Muggleborns or halfbloods who rarely, if ever, found themselves in the Snake Pit - but he could do nothing but nod in silent, bewildered agreement. His room-mate smiled at him again, and uttered a few phrases at him in flowing, melodious Spanish.

"I am sorry, I do not..."

"It is our goodbye here," Ramone explained. "On leaving each other, and on meeting too, for we never know what will happen next, whether we travel together or apart.  "There are none before you, and none after you, that can replace you," he quoted in English. "If you are lost, I will not forget you. I will remember you always."

Lucius looked down at the packet.

"Have you managed it?" he asked. "The Animagus transformation, I mean?"

Ramone grinned. "Hold out your hand," he directed. Lucius obeyed. Ramone covered his palm with his own and concentrated -  and suddenly the young Englishman was holding a tiny sapphire-blue frog: slender-limbed and bright-eyed with long agile toes and a brilliant splash of gold at its swelling throat.

"What the..."

The frog blurred, and Ramone was human again.

"It is a good form," he said proudly. "No, the best. Leths hate reptiles. No warm blood, and most of the the ones in the rainforest, they are a just a little bit poisonous, heh? Some, like me, more than a little bit, and so very bad for the digestion! And I climb well and quickly, and I glow too, in the night!"

"That," Lucius said wholeheartedly, "is brilliant. Will the teachers report my form if I manage it before I go home?"

"Only if you are seventeen before you leave. If you are still sixteen, you are expected to register yourself, on your birthday. Also, Malfoy... There is a trick here, in this letter. You are not required to ask for  permission to learn the Change, but if you write and tell your parents, they will have to write and give it. Would they give it?"

Lucius thought on that.

"I'm not sure" he said at last. "I think so... But it might not matter, in the end.  They would want to know why it is considered necessary, and as I am their only child.... They would tell me to come home."

Ramone sobered at that, and nodded. "You must be careful then," he said. "Very careful, if you wish to stay. There truly are none before you, and none after you who can replace you, and none to remember you either, from your family, if you are lost before you have children yourself. And if you do stay... You will learn our names. We are hard to forget, heh, once you know us? If you stay, Malfoy, till the end... You will go home, and we must stay, but we go with you too. If you remember us... We can never be lost."

"You make it sound like it's inevitable. Like you expect it."

"No one is safe," Ramone said soberly. "No one. You... You who come, and go... You are our 'just-in-case'."

Lucius Malfoy, long and gawky and raw-boned, but elegant in spite of it all, his shimmering icy hair around his shoulders, looked at the boy before him, and thought about what was waiting for him back in England, and inevitability, and expectations, and the darkness behind it all.

"No one is safe," he found himself saying. "No one. No matter where they are."

"This is true too," Ramone agreed, and shook himself. "Here, show me your wand."

Lucius let it slip out of his sleeve. "Elm and dragon heartstring," he said, holding it out.  "Eighteen inches."

Ramone took it and  turned it in his fingers, then took up his own wand and flicked it.

"LUMOS!"

The room was filled with blinding light. Slowly it faded... He handed the other boy his wand back.

"Show me," he commanded. Lucius took it. The room glowed softly. Ramone snorted with laughter.

"What is that ? My brother can do better, and he has no magic at all!"

"Your brother is a Squib?"

"No. He is a Nomaj. My mother and father too. I am the only Magical in my family."

"You're a Muggleborn ?" It slipped out disdainfully, automatically, on instinct, and he flinched back self-consciously, embarrassed at the proof, despite his genuine horror at the finer details of their conversation, of his own established prejudice.... Ramone didn't seem offended.

"They are very different," he said peaceably. "Your side of the world and mine. In yours, many of you are raised to see us as abominations, but here, in mine, we are seen as gifts. Gifts of God, who sends random angels to some families to protect them, so that even if the family is lost while we are away learning what we must to protect them, there is one who will always remember them. Who will not be made to forget them, while we adopt others to care for in their place."

Slowly, Lucius relaxed.

"My apologies," he said. "I... Had not thought on it like that."

"Of course you have not." Ramone patted his shoulder consolingly. "But did you come across the world to see the same way? To think the same thoughts? To go back, in the end, the same as you were when you left? If that is what you expect, and what you want, you should go home now." He eyed the other boy's wand again. "It is very long. Do all Englishmen have such long wands?"

"No. The craftsman who sold it to me said that it's the longest he's ever made."

"It is not everything," Ramone conceded. "And it dribbles so very little power at your hands! Your girlfriend must not be very impressed." He grinned as he nodded to the photo of the exquisite girl on Lucius's night table. "Or perhaps you just need a proper man to show you how to use it, heh, before you go back to her?"

Lucius did raise an eyebrow at that, automatically and autocratically reproving, though his face yet displayed a bit of his sixteen-year-old naive shock and uncertainty at the rather blatant innuendo. Ramone just smirked at him.

"I will remember your name if you will remember mine, heh?" he said, and it was suddenly sober again, and the young Englishman looked down at his extended hand, and up at him.

"Is that another way of saying hello?"

"No," Ramone Carriera said. "It is what we say when we meet someone we do not wish to forget. It is an offer of friendship, and a prayer too, that God will keep that friendship in His memory, and if we forget each other... He will remember for us, and when the Long Night is over, for us, if not the world... He will bring us back together and say "Ramone, you remember Lucius: Lucius, you remember Ramone," and we will say 'Ah, of course!" and we will go off and find dinner together, as we shall now, on this first night we meet."

Lucius hesitated. If Abraxas were to find out, he knew, that he was accepting a formal offer of friendship from a Muggleborn, lethifolds would be the least of his worries.

Did you come across the world to see the same way? To think the same thoughts? To go back, in the end, the same as you were when you left? If that is what you expect, and what you want, you should go home now.

"Very well." He took the offered hand, and said formally in his own turn... "I will remember your name if you will remember mine."

Ramone Carriera smiled radiantly. Lucius Malfoy nearly jumped out of his skin as he leaned in and boldly brushed his lips with his... The young Brazilian sniggered at his shocked expression.

"Europeans," he said. "So proper, always."

"Never mind that we just met," Lucius said austerely, "I have a girlfriend, Carriera."

"Mm," Carriera teased. "This is what you say when a boy kisses you, Malfoy-from-England? Not 'I do not like men, Carriera', but only 'I have a girlfriend'?"

"Let me rephrase that. I have Narcissa Black."

"And that translates as..."

"I may remember your name, but the only one I will ever call out, in the light or the dark, is hers. As such, and that being the case... Your gender is entirely irrelevant."

Ramone sighed sadly, then brightened. "There is nothing for it then," he said. "You must introduce us!"

"I... Beg your pardon?"

"She is not here," he said logically. "I am. England is very far: too far for even your longest-wand-ever-made to light her nights, heh? So you will tell her that she may find a friend while you are away, and perhaps..." He paused tantalizingly.

"I. Do. Not. Think. So."

"What, you are married already? You are far too young to make that kind of commitment."

"Engaged, anyway: effectively, if not officially, and I am far too intelligent, even at my age, not to make that kind of commitment. One does not turn down such an opportunity when such a woman as Narcissa offers it. And she's not at our school right now anyway," he added. "She's on an exchange year too, in Uganda."

"Very nice. They have letters in Uganda too, yes? You can write to her there as well as to England."

"Scotland. Hogwarts is in Scotland. And no."

"You will write to her and tell her of me anyway," he directed as he stood and went to the shadowless closet. Lucius caught the green school robes he tossed him, and pulled them on. "Here in South America, when we make a friend it is a commitment for life, heh? All here is a commitment for life, and to life, and so I will be her friend too, through you."

"Do you play Quidditch?" Lucius asked him as he rebound his hair. Ramone scoffed as he straightened the books on his night table.

"No. It is a silly game."

"What? It is not!" He looked genuinely affronted.

"It is. I am a speed racer instead. The fastest in the school!" the young Brazilian boasted. "I will show you the course we practice on on the weekend, and you will see for yourself."

"And so modest too!"

Ramone just waved him off. "Does she have any sisters, this queen of your heart?" he asked, nodding to the photo a. Lucius guffawed.

"Two," he said. "One has a boyfriend though, and the other... The other I would not wish on my worst enemy. Though, that being said, he seems rather determined to bugger himself with her anyway, with or without my encouragement."

"I will introduce you to my brother," Ramone said sympathetically. "He has truly terrible, terrible taste in women. I am afraid, always, when I receive a letter from him from university, on what he will tell me of the one he has met now."

"He is older than you?"

"Yes. He is twenty four. You will like him very much, when you come home with me to Rio de Janeiro to visit."

"I am not sure... That is very kind of you, but my father..."

"It will be fine," Ramone reassured him. "My mother, she works for the American Embassy there. We do not have to tell him that it is the Nomaj Embassy, or that she cleans the offices. Unless he will ask questions, and find out?"

"No. He assumes that I am like him, and that I would never voluntarily associate with Muggles or Muggleborns."

"And you allow him to think this?"

"Yes," his new room-mate said shortly. "He, and certain other people of our unfortunate acquaintance, have very specific plans for me. It would not be prudent - or healthy - to disillusion them on my true opinions of their political views."

Ramone Carriera turned to examine him closely.

"Lucius," he said. "Light-bringer. I will remember. You will remember too, heh? Not just my name, but your own."

"I intend to try," Lucius said. "But..."

He sank down on the bed. Ramone sat beside him again.

"We have just met," he said. "But this can be good too, Malfoy-from-England. It is easier, sometimes, to talk to someone who does not know you."

"Are you always like this?" Malfoy-from-England asked. "When you meet someone new?"

"No," Ramone admitted. "It is not a surprise, that I have had my own room till you came. Most people, they think, how do you say... That I am a bit much? But they told me that you were coming, and I thought, this is good! I will make him my friend before he has time to see how much I am, and then it will be too late for him!"

"Perhaps if you did not go about saying that Quidditch is a silly game? Or offering your tongue as an alternative to your handshake?"

"But it is silly! Do you know in Peru and in Sweden, they practice by playing with dragons? And we live in the jungle, with all the trees and vines and foliage!  Games, they can go for months, if the Snitch is in a bad mood, or in a good one!"

"Mm. And the tongue?"

"You are English. I have read much on the English and the traditions in the boarding schools there. You do not have to leave all your customs behind just because you are across the world now, and I have been assigned to help you feel at home besides, heh?" He smiled disarmingly, his dark eyes dancing suggestively.

"You are a most considerate host, Mr. Carriera," Lucius said dryly. "I look forward greatly to reading my girlfriend's response to your rationalization there, once I have written that letter to introduce you." He reached for his folder and sorted through till he found his map. "Alright. I feel quite acquainted with our room now, and the nausea has faded sufficiently. Shall we?"

Mr. Carriera just grinned, bowed with a flourish, and gestured him grandly toward the door... Lucius Malfoy gripped his map in his long, elegant hand, took a deep breath, squared his shoulders under the unfamiliar green robes, and stepped firmly out into (and he could only, despite the uneasy and utterly terrifying associations there, think it a hopeful portent) the bright and unshadowed unknown.


 

Gringotts: London

1991

Grabscale's razored teeth ground. Audibly. Malfoy waited with breathless anticipation. Cartwright sighed.

"Okay," he said abruptly.  "Okay. Here's the deal. I'm not going public. I'm not going to make any official confirming statements - to anyone - that you made any deals to assassinate me. I'm not making any  Unbreakable Vows to that effect; you're just going to have to take my word for it, but if you fulfill my terms, and relay my conditions to your Big Boss, and he lets me know that he accepts, this is as far as it goes, the details on the drug-dealing included."

Malfoy blinked. That, of all things... Of all things... He had most certainly not expected.

"What ?" Grabscale was genuinely shocked. "Why would you do that?"

"Because no matter how annoyed I am with  you right now, never mind astonished at your incompetence, your specific plans to kill me, Mr. Grabscale, however unintentional, resulted in enormous good. You're just lucky I am as good as I am. Half a million lethifolds, and half a million more in a month? How long do you think that the populations of South America and Central America could withstand that kind of onslaught? How much longer do you think that the people there could contain knowledge of that threat from the rest of this blindly and willingly  ignorant world, as they've been containing it for the last thousand years? I grew up in Brazil, Mr. Grabscale.  I know how bad it is. Just how bad it is, and has been, and that there is not one family, not one family, not one person there who has not lost someone they loved to that foul plague. And I know that no one outside knows, because till now, there has been no way to contain the threat, and no one from whom they could seek help, and knowing that... They've kept the horror to themselves, because they didn't want to frighten anyone when there was nothing they could do to reassure them."

Grabscale shifted uncomfortably.

"I don't often have cause to thank someone for trying to kill me," Cartwright said quietly. "And I'm not thanking you now. I'm not interested in holding this particular grudge, though. I don't owe you that... But insofar as that goes, I'm going to allow you to reap the benefits."

"In exchange for..."

"What I was promised. The bounties on those that I killed. There's no set price on lethifolds, I know, so... I'm asking you, man-to-man, Mr. Grabscale. What do you think my efforts are worth?"

Lucius sat back under the security goblin's collar as the Head of Gringotts: London stared at him, shaken. His expression was guileless, unguarded... Wondering, even.

Man to man? Oh, Master Cartwright. One word, one word and so goes the goblin nation, not to its grave, but to its knees.

"The ICW will be awarding you the International Cross of Service," the goblin said, after a long minute. It was almost... tentative. "We have heard that you have declined the monetary award?"

"Mm. Under the circumstances, it seemed rather crass to accept."

"Gringotts: London is authorized to offer you equivalent compensation," Grabscale said. His expression was still one of wonder, though muted now, and the grating harshness lacked rather in conviction. "Weasley did nothing but warm your broom, so there is nothing to be offered there, but in terms of the broken contract..."

The words stuck.

"Split the money into two vaults," Cartwright said quietly. "One under my name, and one under his. Add whatever forfeit you are obliged to pay Mr. Weasley into the second. Too, I want a Unbreakable Vow from your Big Boss that there will be no more contracts of assassination accepted on anyone, Mr. Grabscale, from any branch of Gringotts or any of its employees, regardless of race or nation, ever - and again, that the drug dealing will stop.'

"What?"

"I'm afraid that I can't be associated with any business that offers murder for hire," Cartwright said. "Nor can I encourage any of my relatives or familial associates to trust their assets with an institution that could very well stand to profit from their deaths. It rather goes against my code of honour, you see? I guard. I protect. I do not, and will not, ally myself, fiscally or otherwise, with killers."

There was a pause. The strained, apoplectic expression on Grabscale's face, Malfoy knew, was not so much a reflection of offense taken at the words 'murder for hire' or 'killers' as it was at the words 'nor can I encourage any of my relatives or familial associates to trust their assets with an institution that could very well stand to profit from their deaths'. Cartwright had, indeed, touched on the exact reason why the Head of Gringotts: International had assigned the hit on the young Warder in the first place. His obvious alliances with the now-ridiculously-wealthy Remus Lupin and always-ridiculously-wealthy Sirius Black and his relationship to Augusta Longbottom, now the third wealthiest individual in Great Britain thanks to the Lestrange's supplements of her family's already considerable vaults, would not have been enough to garner potentially fatal interest, but when one threw in Cartwright's ridiculous accomplishments and power levels, and the integrity implied in his seeking of his International Mastery in Warding...

Yes, Malfoy thought. The goblins would have realized as soon as Cartwright set foot in England that such a man, particularly given his connections to the Longbottoms, would have drawn Narcissa and Lucius Malfoy's attention as a prime candidate from whom to request Solace. The idea of such a man as that connective biological link between the now-three richest families in Great Britain... Three now solidly confirmed and Light families united by Solace, and forming in the aftermath a permanent alliance, and one with ties to America no less, that would effectively control the economy through their fortunes...

The thought would have horrified the goblins as much as the thought of a controlling alliance of Blacks, Lestranges and Malfoys via Voldemort had horrified the young Lucius and Narcissa - perhaps even more so, because the only power that the goblin nation had, anywhere, was economic. They relied, absolutely, on a balanced distribution of fiscal resources to maintain their influence. Voldemort had unnerved them, but when it came down to it, the goblins hadn't truly feared him a) because the Dark Lord appreciated the status quo - he would allow the goblins their power base because it would keep them in line, and b) because they knew that it was only a matter of time before he, and those he allied with, would self-destruct, leaving them comfortably back at square one.

Cartwright was an unknown. An unknown seeking his third International Mastery, and registered to obtain his Grandmastery in Combat Dueling. There was, within any given ten year period, only one International Grandmaster in the world - the acknowledged and proven best of the best. The competition was not large, but it was fierce - all on the levels of a Grindelwald or Dumbledore, though neither man had ever fought for the title - and the skills necessary to win were usually not acquired till a witch or wizard was at least seventy. Cartwright was thirty, and didn't just rely on his magical skill. He had youth, health, and defensive resources. If there was one near-universal weakness among duelists past the certain point, it was an over-dependence on their offensive abilities. The final matches of the Global Invitationals were inevitably a battle to see who could hit hardest, fastest. Namirembe Obonyo-Higgs, till October, was the favoured... That wand of hers, yew and Nundu spine, was  - there was no other word for it - obscenely powerful, never mind the woman herself. A youthful forty nine, the native Kenyan measured in at six foot eight inches and three hundred pounds of solid, utterly magnificent muscle... She wasn't the fastest among the contenders, but she didn't need to be. From the time she was fifteen, the precedent had been set - those who she knocked off their feet did not rise again, at least not to fight again that day. The general consensus among those who followed the dueling circuits was that if Voldemort had ever had the foresight (or ability) to recruit the woman, he wouldn't have bothered with recruiting the rest of the Death Eaters. He wouldn't have needed to. Malfoy wasn't prepared to go that far, but given that, he'd been very, very careful to subtly discourage any interest that Riddle had shown in her. Namirembe Obonyo-Higgs was not remotely inclined toward the Dark Arts, but she was still human, and the number of humans who could resist the Imperius Curse were few and far between indeed.

No, Malfoy wasn't prepared to say that she could have won the war for Voldemort, or for the Light, for that matter, on her own. Still, she was going to have a considerable job knocking a Master-Adept in Warding - one who had stood against an army of trained duelists and his own wands for thirty nine minutes and twelve seconds without casting a single offensive spell - off his feet. The goblins weren't prepared to take a risk on such a man knocking them off their economic feet, so the order had been sent out to dispose of him before he became too visible to dispose of - that is, before the Malfoys formally approached him, and the bookies (and the rest of the world) got the chance to see what they were dealing with. Not prepared to send in an actual hit witch or wizard against a man of such prodigious talents, they'd decided to recruit the one guaranteed unbeatable foe on the planet... The lethifolds, via a jiggered portkey.

"We do not," Grabscale said. Malfoy was struck - again - at the tentativeness in his voice. At his obvious need for this impossibility who had spoken to him, and addressed him - a goblin - as if he were a man - to understand. "No matter what you may think of us, Master-Adept Cartwright, accept clients on whim. A certain variety of individual... Their continued ability to function on the purely vital level is inadvisable, to the say the least."

"Uh huh. And what was it I did to anyone again?"

He was silent.

"Look," Cartwright said tiredly. "I know what you're thinking, okay? What you're all thinking. I'm not him. I have no interest in being him. Anything like him, or like anyone like him. Is it so hard to believe, really, that their are people who train themselves and hone their talents in order to help others? To protect them from that kind of individual?"

"On your level? Yes," he said bluntly, and now there was a bit of bitterness there. "You are unprecedented. You have the power, on all levels, Master-Adept Cartwright, should you wish it, to rule the world. The power, the connections, and the fiscal ability, through your associates again."

"I don't want to rule the world. It's too much goddamned paperwork."

"Then why the Grandmastery in Dueling?"

"Don't you people ever do something just for the joy of it?  I never ran the circuit; I've only ever employed my skills there for work, and now that I'm changing careers, I like the idea of having a bit of fun. And yeah, I guess I'd  like to see just how good I really am, but not to scare or intimidate people with it. After the point, it's been hard to meet people on my level, and the thought of actually breaking a sweat for a change is kind of a novelty in and of itself."

Grabscale sat back, eyeing him narrowly.

"We have not been able to find any information on your priors," he said. "And we have looked. On every level. It is very, very difficult to hide from the goblins, Master-Adept."

"Not when you're as good at wards as I am." He glanced at his watch. "D'you suppose we could get on with it? I haven't eaten yet, and my day's nowhere near over."

"You are willing to trust our word that what you ask will be done after you reset the wards?"

The lips quirked.

"Tomorrow's payday," he said. "D'you have a choice but to trust my word that I'm trusting you?"

Grabscale rubbed his ridged temples.

"I will send a note with your codicils," he said. "Beyond the payment of the bounties and the setting up of the two vaults, they are out of my immediate jurisdiction."

'Do your best. Take it from me, you'd be surprised at how well you can do when you've got the appropriate motivation." He got to his feet, and held out his hand. Grabscale snarled at him automatically.

"Don't be like that," the Warder said in accent-perfect Gobbledegook. "I'm only living up to your expectations, after all. You wouldn't take me seriously if I didn't threaten you at least a little."

Grabscale's eyes widened. The thud of jaws dropping sounded all through the room.

"Where did you learn to speak our language?" he demanded.

"Same place I learned everything else I know," Cartwright said. "Here and there. Correspondence can be sent to Hogwarts, for now anyway."

"Would you like us to have food brought in," he said reluctantly. "While you work on the wards?"

"No, no." He dug into his pocket, extracting a battered sheet of parchment. "Here you go. Specific vaults in the first column, original passwords in the second, my alternates in the third. Just go on down, reset the master wards - I've written the procedure on the back - and then it's just a case of re-keying each individually."

"You've been walking around with the keys and instructions on how to re-key the master wards of Gringotts: London in your trouser pockets?"

"Safest place in the world, I promise. Would you try to take them off me?"

The keys and instructions, Lucius thought, definitely not. The trousers, on the other hand...

"Your guy Griphook will have to do that, though," Cartwright continued. "I've keyed the verbals to my memories of his voice.'

"Griphook? The junior account manager's assistant?"

"Yeah. He wasn't involved, no worries. I just met him the first time I came in, and he made a good impression.  I liked - like - him a lot. You can put him on as my vault manager if you're inclined; he gave me some leads on a couple of local Nomaj companies as investment prospects, and when I checked them out, it was obvious that he'd done his research. Nice to see that kind of non-prejudicial initiative." He pushed himself up and retrieved his cap, settling it over his hair. The badger smirked as it sprawled over his left eyebrow... Lucius nearly fell off his goblin as out of the corner of his third eye, he caught...

Grabscale jerked back, nearly knocking over his chair as he scrambled to his feet.

"What the...'

"Uh? Oh." Cartwright held up his hand, spreading the fingers wide and examined the back. Juxtaposed over it, and slid out of his sleeve, a black scaly clawed forelimb - definitely draconic in nature - was now extending beyond the tips of his fingers as a flat, bizarrely extended tattoo, "That. Yeah, it's a little weird, isn't it? It happened when Charlie was healed by the Horntail wands. He's got one too."

"What is it?"

"A memento of the occasion. Very cool, really, like magical tats, but... Not. They wrap around our torsos and backs: not just the forelimbs, but the whole dragons. We're still figuring out the implications, but at the very least, we've realized that we can talk to each other like Horntails do, by projecting images and emotions at each other, if not words. Oop. Hold on. Incoming." He defocused. "Ah. Okay. I'm sorry, I gotta go. He's on his way to meet me here now, after his stop-off at Honeyduke's in Hogsmeade." He poked at the overlaid, flat forelimb. It retreated down his sleeve reluctantly. "Back you go. That's it. And would you please, please stop poking at my bio-runes? No, you can't hurt them, but that's beside the point. It's like walking into someone's house and putting your grotty fingerprints all over the glassed art on the walls. It's an analogy.  I know you know that one, even if metaphors are beyond you."

"You're saying that the souls of the Horntails are now... Inside you?"

"No," Cartwright said. "I think it's like post-mortem portraits-with-benefits. Whereever they are now, the souls that is, they left a bit of their reflected essence with us."

"Will it give you an advantage at the Invitationals?"

The pierced eyebrow raised at that.

"The question will be asked," Grabscale said, almost defensively. "Formally. Artificial enhancements are strictly forbidden."

"There's nothing artificial about them," Cartwright said. "But that being said... No. I'll be putting a bio-runic lock on myself that will temporarily immobilize them. They'll be effective Nomaj tattoos for the duration of the competition.'

"And they'll be alright with that?" It sounded rather dubious. "The dragons, I mean?"

"They're not actually alive, Mr. Grabscale. Portraits aren't. Insofar as their ability to move about on me, they do seem to work as magical tattoos do - the images borrow my magic to fuel their ability to pass over my body. The bio-rune will block their access to the flow from my core. Essentially, they'll go to sleep while I do my thing, and when I'm done, I'll erase the bio-runes and they'll wake up again."

"Are you sure?"

"Pretty sure, yeah. I'll have to experiment a bit with the inks, but I've done it before, in a way. I mentioned my ability to remove bio-runes that others had placed, well, before you can do that, you have to freeze the effects they project through the body, so that they don't activate while you're..." He stopped. "Sorry. It's dead dull if you're not interested, I know."

"I'm not uninterested," Grabscale said stiffly. "Or incapable of understanding."

Cartwright looked down at him.

"You know," he said. "There are no laws governing the use of bio-runics.  And there are quite a lot of them that don't require the use of a wand."

The goblin's eyes widened.

"You are saying that you would break the laws of humankind and teach us your magics?'

"Runes aren't magic, Mr. Grabscale. They conduct magic. Goblins might not be able to use wands, but there's nothing says you're not allowed to buy brewed inks, is there?'

Grabscale shook his head.

"So you buy the inks," Cartwright said. "You learn the runes. You inscribe them appropriately. And the magic in you does the rest. It's honestly, honestly, not nearly as complicated as people think. Or rather, seem to want to think." He quirked at him as he adjusted his scarf. "From my perspective, mystery, intrigue and untoward excitement are all very well, but best saved for books. Preventing messes isn't nearly as glamorous as fixing messes, but on the other hand, it's a job that allows you the luxury of getting home in time for dinner. Never mind the luxury of getting home for dinner at all."

Grabscale said nothing, just watched him go. Malfoy swung neatly onto Cartwright's collar as he passed, riding him out. The door closed behind him... He swung onto a pillar as he returned to the front lobby, launching himself toward the high ceiling and bounding across toward the loo... Less than thirty seconds later he emerged, human again, striding purposefully across the floor, slightly surprised smile intact, toward the two figures now standing beside the single man sitting on the marble bench by the front doors.

"Lawrence?"

Cartwright turned. The Weasley brothers followed his gaze.

"Malfoy," the Warder said, a bit warily. "Hello."

"Narcissa and I received your letter this morning," Malfoy said cordially. "We were so pleased to hear your news. All of your news."

"Good," Cartwright said, after a pause, and then. "Erhm. You were?"

"Yes, of course." He turned, bowing slightly to Charlie. "I am afraid there is no protocol for this type of situation, Mr. Weasley. May I simply then offer my congratulations, again on all fronts?"

"Sure," the young dragon wrangler said. "Why not." He held out his freckled, solid and sturdy hand. He fairly glowed as he pushed his winter hood back, the entire lobby seemed warmed with the ruddy, cheerful light of a blazing fire. He looked, the blond wizard thought, aggressively, almost rudely healthy, particularly next to his fragile, drawn brother. "Charlie Weasley. Ren's fiance."

"Lucius Malfoy," he returned, taking the offered hand. It was warm and dry and firm, and the brown, steady eyes meeting his, never mind the posture, projected the ease and native self-assurance and confident charisma of a man three times the boy's nineteen years. "Narcissa's husband."

"Our regards to the lady," Weasley said, and without the slightest iota of what some might think age-appropriate diffidence or embarrassment at all -  "Lucky coincidence, this. Listen, Malfoy; our schedule's really tight the next couple days. I'm not going to have time to do research along the traditional channels, so we'll just call this fate and go with it. What can I bring her on Wednesday?"

"She is very fond of black cherry truffles," Malfoy said. He felt, though he knew he didn't show it, decidedly off-balance as he recalled Ollivander's words - that is one formidable young man. "Dark, not milk, and leaf peppermint tea from Fortnum and Mason. Green tin, not red; they mix that lot with chamomile, and she's mildly allergic."

"So noted. Brilliant." The dragon wrangler caught Cartwright's bemused look and laughed. "I'll fill you in later. No worries, mate."

"You said something that you could bring her. Should I be bringing her something too, then?" Cartwright asked uncertainly. Malfoy smiled at him. It was odd, he thought. Young Weasley would not be twenty till February, and Cartwright thirty one in July, but next to each other, their ages, as portrayed through their body language, seemed definitively reversed.

Interesting.

"I am sure she would appreciate the gesture," he said. "But it is not expected. Please do not worry, Lawrence. Narcissa and I understand that you are still accustoming yourself to the Euro-American cultural differentials, never mind that this has all happened so very quickly and  unexpectedly, and adherence to what some might think traditional rules is really not an issue in our instance anyway, is it?"

Young Weasley's lips quirked at him in appreciative, wry acknowledgement. Cartwright just eyed him uncertainly.

"I suppose," he said finally, and ran his hand over his hair again. "Look, I..."

He stopped.

"Mate," Charlie said gently. "It's okay. Really. Trust me, alright? This is about as far from the typical situation as it gets, on all fronts, and we're all just playing it by ear as a result, yeah?" He glanced over at the bench. Bill was now leaning back against the wall, face pale and lips locked hard: his near-bruised eyes closed. The dragon wrangler's own lips twisted, and he seemed to make an abrupt decision. "You in a hurry, Malfoy?"

"Not terribly. Narcissa is out this evening with Andromeda, so I am not expected. How may I be of assistance?"

"I need to get Billy home to bed. Long day, and Ren's doing surgery on him tomorrow. He needs to rest up. Why don't you two -" He nodded to Cartwright - "Go for a curry or something, and get to know each other a little?"

"What?  Charlie..."

"Go on," Charlie lowered his voice a bit. "He needs a shoulder tonight, I can tell, and if you're there, he'll be too embarrassed to let it all out. Be a good mate, yeah, and let this work to all of our advantages?"

Cartwright looked over at the for-all-intents-and-purposes unconscious figure on the bench, hesitated, then nodded.

"Is there anything I might do to help?" Malfoy asked them again. "In all seriousness?"

"No," Cartwright said. "I don't think..."

"You got a med-elf?" Charlie asked.

"Yes, of course. Florry!" he called. A small neat elf, clad in a pristine white tea-towel and the Malfoy crest, popped in. "Go with the Masters Weasley, please. You are to obey Master Charles to the letter toward the end of caring for Master William, no matter what he may require."

"Yes, Master Lucius." Florry boosted herself up on the bench next to Bill, and petted his shoulder. "Poor Master William. Florry will take good care of you." Pale yellow light eased out of her tiny hand. Bill's face actually seemed to ease a little. "There. That is helping, yes? You is going to be just fine. Or at least, when we get you home you is going to be sleeping, which is probably being the best thing for you, and what it is looking like you should have been doing all day anyway."

"Brilliant," Charlie said. "Alright, we're off." He kissed Cartwright's cheek, chuckling at the mildly panicked, betrayed look of reproach on the man's face. Lucius had to bite back a smile himself. "Have fun, now."

Seconds later, he and Bill and Florry were gone. Cartright gazed at the spot where they had disappeared hopefully, as if willing them to reappear... When they didn't, he sighed, turned back, and shifted a bit awkwardly.

"I suppose I am a little hungry at that," he said. "Though I'm not really dressed for the kind of restaurant you're probably used to."

"You would be surprised. Are you up for a bit of a walk?"

"I guess. Wait." He dug into his pocket. "Arm?"

Malfoy held out his left without hesitation. Cartwright scribed neatly and quickly.

"Rain repellent," he explained. "Just a little one. It'll last a week or so."  

"You are a kind man, Master-Adept," the taller man said, and examining it... "I must say, your efforts are much more aesthetic than my former employer's."

Cartwright snorted. As they left the bank and descended the steps, Malfoy's robes shimmered, leaving him clad in a pair of boots, dark slacks, an oatmeal sweater, and a long winter-weight rain coat. He reached into an inner pocket and extracted a packet.

"You smoke?" the Warder said involuntarily. "I mean, beyond your cigars?"

"Now and again. A strictly psychological indulgence, I assure you." Malfoy tapped out a cigarette, tapped it alight, and inhaled deeply. "All harmful substances Vanished." He offered it over. Cartwright hesitated, shrugged and took it, dragging deeply and half-lidding his eyes in pleasure... They passed it back and forth as they made their way down the Alley towards the Leaky Cauldron, then straight through and out the far side into Muggle London.

"I smoked once," Cartwright said, apropos of nothing as they turned left down Charing Cross Road. "For about half an hour, anyway, till my wife found out. It was a very nice half hour. Relaxing, even without the ambient rain and the dark November night. Are there fedoras where we're going, then?"

Malfoy just laughed. He flicked the burnt-down cigarette and passed it back yet again. It regrew promptly. Cartwright tapped it to relight it. It could have been a trick of the light, but his companion could have sworn he saw a spark flick out from under the nail, and a swift dark shadow slither under the sleeve again.

"So can I be all American and uneducated on the finer points of society and ask what tea means, exactly?" the Warder ventured as they walked.

"Were these normal circumstances, yes." Malfoy blew a slim stream of smoke out of the corner of his fine, straight lips. "I would even owl you the book. Under the circumstances, I think it fairly safe to say we're writing our own. Within the now very loosely structured parameters... Tea is a euphemism. It will be on the tray of course, but there will also be a wide variety of alcoholic drinks in the informal sitting room where, if we forgo the niceties directly and simply admit to each other that we are all mildly terrified, things will proceed on the much more mutually comfortable level."

"You didn't seem that terrified on Saturday."

"Did I not? Excellent. If I managed to convince you, I more than likely convinced everyone else."

Cartwright actually laughed at that... They passed the now twice-renewed cigarette back and forth till they reached the corner, where, much to Cartwright's obvious surprise, the wizard gestured to the staircase leading down to the Underground.

"Don't take this the wrong way, but why aren't we apparating?"

"I am a strategist, Master Cartwright. Much of the important - everything, some might say - is based on the assessing of information found on the journeys between here and there, and is difficult to assess anything, at any point, when one is being squeezed as a tube of toothpaste to the point of violently sicking up."

"Apparating makes you sick?" He sounded interested, rather than condemning.

"Distressingly so. And yes, there are potions for that, I am well aware, but as they taste like absolute bollocks, I prefer to refrain whenever it is humanly possible."

Cartwright sniggered. Malfoy rolled his eyes at him.

"Yes, yes. Laugh away. I am hardly the only Magical who despises the particular form of travel, and for the particular reasons too. It is a real and surprisingly common problem."

"I'm well aware. I was just thinking that now I know exactly what to offer you as a Solstice gift."

"Oh?"

"Spoilers, man. You're the type who reads the last chapter first, aren't you?"

"Actually... I am the type who prefers to write the last chapter." Malfoy ground the cigarette beneath his boot as they descended the steps, turned the corner and entered the waiting train. Cartwright slouched in a seat and examined him as he seated himself opposite, and of course, elegantly.

"I get that," he conceded. "Though any books I wrote would be dead boring. People always want to cast me as the hero, and it's highly over-rated, you know? I'd probably project horribly."

"Pain, pain and more pain," Malfoy agreed. "And the compensation packet is never quite correlative to one's efforts."

A small, brief smile flickered over the pleasant, scarred features.

"Maybe we should just take own rewards as they present themselves?" he suggested. "Since we're stuck, when it comes right down to it, to living through the turning pages in the proper order just as if we really were ordinary people after all?"

"There are always sequels," Malfoy conceded in turn. "Very well." He stretched out his long legs, glancing about... The car was quite empty.  A fedora sparkled into being on his blond head. "Shall we consider tonight, then, the beginning of a potentially beautiful friendship?"

"So laying one on me on a dais in front of three thousand people was... What... The prologue? And... I gotta ask. Kipling is one thing, but you know Bogart ? He's movies, not books!"

There was a pause.

"I had another friend once," Lucius Malfoy said finally. "Who introduced us. Cinematically speaking."

"Sounds like there's a story there."

"There is. My story. My entire story, really, when it comes right down to it, or at least where it began, and ended, and began again."

"King's Cross." 

"Mm?"

"The train station." The small smile flickered again, with just a touch of whimsy this time. "It's where my own story began and ended and began again. Not the entire story though, it seems.  Now... Now I suppose, I'm on that sequel you mentioned."

"And how has it gone so far?"

"Death, pain, distraction, surprises, love, hope, renewal, second chances, revisited priorities and thoroughly, as you Brits would say, thoroughly buggered plans and plotlines. Also, Dark Wankers. Always with the Dark Wankers, in one form if not the other. For the record, and in my third book? I'm putting in the request right now. Absolutely no Dark Wankers allowed. Anywhere."

Malfoy laughed. Loudly, and rose. "Our stop. Shall we?"

"Sure. As long as you know where we're going, anyway. One of us should, yeah?"

"Two blocks down, half a block onwards. Beyond that, Master Cartwright, I have not a single clue. There will be excellent curry to fortify us for the road though: that much I can promise, and fair-to-middling lager, and pool tables in the back room to boot."

"Awesome. Though..." The Warder checked his watch as they stepped off the train. "I only have about three hours. Late job off the Alley; it won't take me long, but I can't go in till after closing, so..."

"I understand." Malfoy gestured him up the steps. "Once more unto the breach?"

"Yeah, yeah. Cry  'God for Harry, England and St. George!' and all that good shit. I don't know about God and St. George, but Harry, I promise you, wherever he may be, just wants a little peace and quiet."

"I will drink to that. With that fair-to-middling lager, yet!"

And they walked back into the rain-lit night together.

 

Chapter Text

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Tuesday, November 25, 1991

Breakfast

The owls were launched from the  Ministry of Magic at eight seventeen a.m. precisely. By eight forty five, they had begun (with a little magical encouragement to account for untoward distances) to arrive at their destinations. The responses, by and large, were less than positive.

"What the..." Sirius Black dropped the jar of marmalade he was holding as he leaned over his fiance's shoulder. "'Master-Adept Lawrence Domitian Cartwright (Juneau, Alaska) and Mr. Charles Septimus Weasley (London, England) are pleased to announce...' WHAT???"

"Their marriage," Neil Cartwright read, leaning over Remus' second shoulder as he wrapped a thick, golden wedge of honeycomb tidily in bacon. "As of eight this morning, at the Ministry of Magic in London. The ceremony was performed by Justice Horatia Peabody and witnessed by Mr. Weasley's brother, Mr. William Arthur Weasley. Master-Adept Cartwright (30) wore his best cargo trousers, a classic white t-shirt and a Hogwarts Hufflepuff House scarf in the traditional black and gold, all complemented by the now-trademark wool badger cap knitted for him by Miss Susan Bones, first-year fellow Hufflepuff and niece of Amelia Bones, Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Mr. Weasley (19) wore gold dragon-leather trousers (Peruvian Vipertooth), a 'Dragons Do It (And Everything Else) Dramatically'  t-shirt in dark brown and gold, and the tan cardigan jumper with the dark brown patches on the elbows that he inherited from his paternal grandfather, Septimus Weasley. The grooms' witness wore a Nomaj Brooks Brothers suit in charcoal, and his typical scowly expression.

The couple will be residing at an undisclosed location after their proper honeymoon, also at an undisclosed location. Pressed for details, Master-Adept Weasley-Cartwright was quoted as 'Shyeah, still strapped quite firmly on that turnip truck, thanks, never mind the broom. Three cheers for seat belts and sticking charms!' Congratulations may be sent care of Headmaster Neville 'Neil' Tiberius Cartwright (M.Potions, M.Herbology, Animagus: Giant, Feral and Perpetually Hungry  Alaskan Kodiak) at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  Master Weasley-Cartwright (IM DADA, IM Combat Dueling, IM (Adept) Warding - Runic and Spellcasting) respectfully suggests that you keep all Howlers on the subject to yourself.'

'Donations may be sent, in lieu of gifts, to the Janus Thickey Long-Term Care Ward at St. Mungo's Hospital, to the Mind Healers' Training Program at St. Dymphna's Hospice in Yorkshire, or to the Romanian Dragon Sanctuary (Horntails Division), care of the Romanian Embassy in London.' Huh." Neil set the announcement down and reached for the grilled ham. "Well, good for them, though if the little stinker thinks that means he's getting out of the congratulatory ball I'm throwing for him, he's got another think coming. Tea, Min?"

"Ta, Neil." Minerva McGonagall poured a little cream over her porridge as the Headmaster reached across and poured her a steaming delicate cup.  "And I would'na worry on the ball. Charlie's best friend at Hogwarts was Nymphadora Tonks, and the girl might not be able to cross a room without tripping on her own laces, but dancing's another story, and he was always her preferred partner. She was completely devastated by his diagnosis, Augusta told me - she spent every free moment she could away from the Auror Academy at his bedside, even while he was unconscious - and there's no way she's going to allow him to escape celebrating his recovery, never mind his wedding, in style."

"Mm," Professor Flitwick agreed. "There's no way he'd want to. The two of them got more detentions sneaking out to the clubs on London Muggleside their seventh year... Though we just left them to it for the most part; they never got into any trouble with it, and we knew we wouldn't get any familial support there from the Tonkses at least. Andromeda and Ted were just as bad in their day."

"And the Weasleys?" Neil asked with interest. Pomona Sprout  laughed.

"That was the year Fred and George started at Hogwarts," she said. "Charlie and Tonks' ballroom moves were the least of their worries. Also... Neil?" she repeated to Minerva as the Headmaster turned back to his mail. "Since when are we calling him Neil? And since when is he calling you Min, and pouring you your breakfast tea ?"

"Giant, Feral and Perpetually Hungry Alaskan Kodiak ?" Sirius was bellowing. "What am I, a chihuahua ? I am a Grim! I foreshadow DEATH! Which I'm foreshadowing now, because he went and got married WITHOUT US!"

"We've only known him for a few weeks, Siri," Remus said, pinching him in reproving warning under the table. "And yes, we get along with him well, but not quite well enough to insist that he take us into consideration when making his major life decisions."

"We've invited him to our wedding! We're even moving it to New Year's Eve so that it won't conflict with his investiture in New York on Christmas Eve! Do you know how long it's been since I've been to a proper wedding, Moonlight? When one counts the years I was rotting in Azkaban, that is, because I most definitely do? Nobody ever got married there because there would be Kissing involved!"

"Don't take it too hard," Neil counseled him sympathetically. "Given the memories of the fiasco that passed for his wedding the first time around, he probably panicked a little. Biggest circus you ever saw in your life, and they got through it alright, but it scarred him. Hell, it scarred me, and all I had to do was arrange the flowers."

Sirius just grumbled into his oatmeal... Down the table, Lily Potter, robbed of expression, was staring at the announcement in front of her as Snape leaned in and murmured quietly and inaudibly to her. Whatever he was saying was promptly drowned out by the clamour breaking out all over the Great Hall as more owls arrived with more announcements.

"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE !" The squeals from Parvati Patil, Lavender Brown and Hermione Granger's end of Gryffindor Table were only matched by the looks of dismay from Percy, Fred, George and Ron Weasley as they perused their own letter.

"Married?" Ron repeated. "Or rather... Eloped ? Welp, there goes Christmas, yeah?"

"Maybe they'll invite us over to their new place for the festivities so that Mum can have her foaming rabid fit in peace?" George suggested. "Where do you reckon they plan to live?"

"Far, far away." Fred slurped pumpkin juice. "If they have any sense whatsoever. Tibet should do it. D'you reckon it was Bill's idea?  Eloping, I mean?"

"Of course it was." Percy helped himself to an extra sausage to fortify himself. "And for the record? I'm offering him up my entire year's worth of points in the Intra-Weasley House Competition as a reward. Can you just imagine the train-wreck she would have made out of a wedding there, especially since we can afford it now?" The other three boys shuddered in unison.

"He can have mine too," Ron agreed. "Even if he has gone and ruined Christmas, the great git." A large tawny owl, obviously pre-warned, dropped a stack of pale envelopes high over Hufflepuff Table and made a  frantic beeline for the window... The envelopes drifted down as parchment snowflakes. The 'Puffs seized them, piling over each other to read the details eagerly. Eyes widened, mouths dropped...

"Oop," Tamsin Applebee said as the tall girl with short messy blonde hair and glass-sharp cheekbones perused the announcement she'd ungraciously and curiously seized from Yara Summersby. Said girl's jaw froze, then actually seemed to seize around her vigorous mouthful of black pudding as her eyes bulged... "Breathe, Rhodes. In... Out... In... Out... No. Swallow. Swallow, then breathe. It's not the end of the world, I prom..."

"Bugger that." Jessamyn Rhodes slammed the announcement down as she rose from her seat at Hufflepuff Table. "No. Bugger that! THIS. IS. NOT. ACCEPTABLE !"

"Don't look at me," Neil said, not particularly quietly as all the teachers looked at him hopefully. "I may be the Headmaster, but he's my grandson. Total conflict of interest."

"Coward," Pomona Sprout muttered, and rose to her feet. "Now now, Jessamyn. We've talked about this, dear; time and place, remember, and accepting the sadly inevitable gracefully?"

"SADLY INEVITABLE? SADLY INEVITABLE ? WHAT, YOU THINK THAT JUST BECAUSE I'M - WE'RE - HUFFLEPUFFS THAT WE HAVE TO SUCK UP EVERYTHING?"

"No," a disembodied Slytherin said. "That one's all on you, I've heard. We've all heard."

"MR. MARLEY !"

"It's okay, Professor Snape. I've got it." A sharp smack sounded, and a sharper yelp. "Shut your gob, Marley. And as for you, Rhodes... Give it over already," Rhonda Fawley said impatiently. "And grow a little self-respect and personal dignity while you're at it? Done's done when all's said and done, and you never had a chance there anyway. None of us did, if his wife was really so brilliant that he had to switch to blokes before he could get on with his life."

"That is not how it works, you moron. Also, not the point. The point is, that even if he is Weasley's now, and my personal feelings on the matter aside, he's still ours too. Hufflepuff's, that is. Helga entrusted him to us, and then he chose us, and HUFFLEPUFFS NEVER GRADUATE; it is a FACT, no a UNIVERSAL LAW, so  if he thinks he can just bugger off and get married without us, HE IS SADLY, SADLY MISTAKEN. His grandfather's Headmaster, and his brothers-in-law all go to school here, so he's got to come back sometime. And when he does..." Her brown eyes gleamed.

"PAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARTY!" the Hufflepuffs chanted. "PARTY, PARTY, PARTY, PARTY, PAR..."

"So," another of the Slytherins drawled, lounging back in the midst of the furor. "How d'you think this'll affect tea on Wednesday, Malfoy? Think your parents'll be able to manage one more on the sofa? Or in your father's case, over the back of it, or the arm of it, or..."

Sniggers ran around the table. Draco Malfoy sniffed loftily as he sliced into his sausage.

"If you're trying to suggest that I should be ashamed," he said. "Because my parents are the unfortunate victims of a curse that, for the record, they did not exactly lay on themselves, Bole, you will need to find another approach. I happen to be quite proud of them for refusing to allow  the particulars to prevent them from holding to a standard of honour and duty  that none of you can even begin to grasp. Never mind that the proxy involved would have all of your fathers on their knees begging for it, and your mothers too, if all their slags of daughters here at Hogwarts are any indication. Thirty nine minutes and twelve seconds, Bole, never mind the Grandmastery he was awarded for it, and the second one he's going to get in January for... What was it again... Combat Dueling?  The platinum wand there will look lovely on the family mantle next to the International Cross of Service, don't you think?"

"Counting your chickens there, Malfoy," Terence Higgs said. "He's a prime bloke, no doubt about that, but Namirembe's still got her yew and nundu, and he's out the Horntails now, isn't he?"

"He didn't have them when he got his International Mastery, and that's all anyone else competing has got. And your ox of a sister-in-law might hit like a falling mountain, but she's got to land on him first, doesn't she? And get through his police box, and they're not going to refuse to allow him to use that, are they? At the Invitationals..." Draco smirked. "Anything goes."

Across the room, at Ravenclaw Table again, Leanna Tovis seemed to be having a minor epileptic fit... Alicia Spinnet patted her on the back and leaned in to read the front page of the Prophet that she'd just unrolled.

COMPETITIVE FIELD CUT BY  A FULL QUARTER AS ALL SOUTH, CENTRAL AMERICAN AND PACIFIC ISLAND CONTENDERS ISSUE NOTICE OF COLLECTIVE WITHDRAWAL FROM THE 1992 GLOBAL INVITATIONALS

"What the..."

"Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God! Why?"

"What do you mean, why ?" Anthony Goldstein: Ravenclaw said blankly. "Do you really think that any of them would lift a wand against him after he went and fluffed and folded over a thousand years worth of their built-up dirty laundry for them? Never mind the mandatory international holidays and probable renaming of the Amazon River after him, you can't throw a lumos down there without hitting a Catholic! The entire continent-plus is going to be putting in the petition to their Pope to make a verkatke saint out him, and as for we Jews? Hello? Lethifolds? The prompting embodiments of the greatest Jewish curse of all time: 'may-your-name-and-memory-be-erased?' Even my bubbe got a little verklempte when she heard the news, and asked me if I knew anybody from that part of the world here at Hogwarts who could use a nice batch of rugeleh to help them through the cross-denominational overwhelming moment!"

"BUT IT'S THE INVITATIONALS !" Leanna wailed. "CAN'T THEY WAIT TO CANONIZE HIM TILL AFTER THE INVITATIONALS?"

"It's a good thing he didn't have that attitude last week," Gabe Truman observed from Hufflepuff Table. "On waiting to exorcise Brazil when everyone else was inclined to book the event into their schedules, wasn't it?"

"AHHHHHHHHHH!" She thudded her head on the table. "I HAVE FRONT ROW TICKETS TO SEE EVERY ONE OF THE GREATEST DUELISTS IN THE WORLD HAVE AT IT, AND TWENTY FIVE BLOODY PERCENT OF THEM AREN'T GOING TO BE THERE! ON MORAL PRINCIPLE !"

"Completely unacceptable," Rhodes agreed from Hufflepuff Table. "I feel your pain, Tovis, really. Come to the party with me, and I'll make you feel all better, I prom..."

"OI!" Alicia Spinnet roared indignantly. "MINE! PLAN YOUR REBOUND AROUND SOMEONE WHO ISN'T ALREADY TAKEN, YOU..."

"Fastest recovery time in all four Houses," Rhonda Fawley said to Melissa Wong, seated next to her. "Only reason they made her a prefect, she knows the shortest routes to every broom closet in the castle, though she probably only docks points from the people she finds in there if they won't let her join in."

"They'll be there," Goldstein said soothingly to Leanna. "Corner, you're right there, be a mensch and pat her back for me, would you? They just won't be fighting. Maybe they'll use some of their extra time to offer you pointers, wouldn't that be nice?"

Leanna just sobbed into her pancakes. Over in Wiltshire, seated at the breakfast table at Malfoy Manor, Narcissa re-read the announcement that had just arrived... Lucius went to the window and leaned out, tilting his head slightly south-west.

"What on earth are you doing , Luke? It's freezing out there!"

"Listening for the rabid screaming from Ottery St. Catchpole," her husband said. "Ah, there it is. Sound and fury signifying the absolutely nothing she can do about it now." He retreated, slamming the window shut and returned to the breakfast table. "Oh, you needn't give me that look. You despise her just as much as I do."

"I don't despise her. I just find her..." Narcissa searched for the appropriate word.

"Crass?" her beloved offered, pouring her more tea. "Vulgar? Strident? Completely blind and deaf to appropriate subtlety on any level? Despairingly ignorant of the fact that true class, in fact, is entirely free and therefore never out of the reach of those with even her till-now limited budget?"

"That last will do." Narcissa put down the announcement and sighed. "Still. As much as I do dislike her... The last few months have to have been hellishly difficult for her, Lucius. Charlie had a death sentence - the death sentence - hanging over him till this past week; she nearly lost her only daughter to the cabals, and now all these problems with her eldest? Never mind all the relative money in her world that she's had handed to her, it's come with the realization that none of it means anything without your children, hasn't it? I can scarcely blame the woman if she's upset for being denied, as she sees it, a way to celebrate the end of it."

"It's not over yet," Lucius said, suddenly sober again. "Not nearly over, Niss. Even if William recovers physically....That wand would not have bonded with him had there been anything left of him as he was. More to the point, it could not have bonded with him had he not been broken in the first place. Bloodthorn cannot take root in damp or fertilized ground, only places where the soil is dry and barren and cracked. And that he should take no note of the pain of its rooting in his soul... To shrug it off as a 'little twinge'... Never mind that he is, as Ollivander said, yet burning... If he felt nothing but that, he was surely cold ash already."

Narcissa absorbed, or tried to absorb, the implications of that.

"What could have hurt him so badly," she said, troubled. "Raised in that family, Lucius? They may be all those things you listed, but there can be no doubt that they love each other. Whatever victims of abuse Dumbledore overlooked at Hogwarts... They couldn't have been among them, or do you think it was the curses again after all?"

"The kind of curses that cause that kind of chronic pain - pain that required two vials of mycanthus a week, when a mere dozen drops is enough to kill the unaccustomed body... And infused with Mongolian yak root, yet... The provoking effects couldn't be overlooked, Niss. I can't understand it. Arthur Weasley is a good man. When it comes to his children... A great one. An immovable one. If he'd known his son was in that kind of pain, he would have come to us for help, on his knees if that was what we demanded, before letting the boy indenture himself to the goblins as he did. That can only lead me to one conclusion, that all these years, all these years, from what Cartwright said... He didn't know. That none of them did. And that makes absolutely, absolutely no sense. As close as they all are, someone in that family had to know. It's literally impossible that they didn't !"

His wife came around the table and rubbed his iron-tight shoulders, kissing his hair.

"You're contracting," she said gently. "Go to the hospital, Luke. They'll be gathering there now, to wait while Master Cartwright operates on him, and you can find a place to listen and observe. You know - I know - you'll have no peace till you have answers, and given the wand, and the implications that he is now in the condition you were when you returned from Brazil... I don't know that I will, either."

Lucius Malfoy buried his face in his long elegant hands.

"He's worse," he said. "A thousand times worse, Niss. How can he not be? A thousand years' worth of... And he knew. He's worked in South America as a curse-breaker again, so he had to have known. Everyone who goes there knows; you can't not know! To see them all at once, half a million of them, to physically see them... To see the unseen, the unimaginable, the unfathomable: to see that which no one, no one has ever seen, and all at once... And to act as a witness to the event that ended it..."

He struggled.

"He wasn't just seeing the murderers, he was watching them vomiting up the bodies, Narcissa. The bodies of the erased children of an entire continent. Maybe an entire continent's worth. Maybe... Maybe even of someone he'd known while he was working down there. And Cartwright had something to do to distract him, but when he volunteered... He had to know there was nothing he could do to help: that all he could do was watch. It's a miracle he's still sane! The only way he can be sane as if he already had the personal and associated context to make sense of it, and again... That makes no sense at all !"

"Go," was all she said again. "Find out what you can, for both your own sake and his."

He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. She came and sat down on his lap as he wept.

"It's over," she whispered to him, into his ear. "He's avenged, Luke. He's at peace."

"It's not over. It will never be over, because he's still gone. I miss him so much, Niss," he wept. "Why will it never stop hurting?"

"Because there were none before him and none after him who could replace him," she said. "So when he was lost, you could not forget him. You have remembered, and will remember, him always." She threaded her fingers under his crisp white shirt and pulled out the chain with the small gold cross on it that her husband had worn since the day he returned from Brazil, and that he'd never taken off (glamours notwithstanding)  for a moment since. It warmed and glimmered in her hand. "I am quite sure that Master Cartwright would understand, you know, if you were to tell him. He would not deny a son of ours the name of such a man."

"But would you want the reminder?"

Narcissa Black Malfoy tilted her husband's chin and wiped his eyes gently with her fingers.

"What, of the man that saved your life?" she said quietly. "Who sacrificed his own so that you might live, Lucius Abraxas Malfoy? For that alone, his name shall live through our line forever, even had you not loved him as you did, and do yet."

"I did not... I do not..." He stumbled. She kissed his lips.

"You did," she said firmly. "And you do. And you will not deny it any longer: not to me, nor to yourself. The time for hiding is past, on all fronts."

"I wish you'd met him. Even once."

Niss smiled down at him. "His letters, and your accounts of him, were quite sufficiently entertaining," she said. "I'm not sure I would have survived the actuality."

Lucius laughed a little soggily at that. "I know he wouldn't have," he said. "And I'm absolutely sure that there'd yet be bits of my own exploded head, never mind my other exploded bits, all over the jungle."

She laughed too, softly. He wrapped her up in his arms, threading his hand through her golden hair and pulling her head down to kiss her desperately, even as he began to weep again. After a moment though, he eased away. She wiped his face again, and pulled him close, rubbing his back.

"Ramone," she said. "Ramone Luis Malfoy."

"Ramone Antonio Malfoy," he corrected.

"We will have at least four more after the first," she said "Minimum. Antonio will come, but your two names should go together, as they always did."

"I love you," Lucius said to his wife.

"I love you too," she said, and rubbed his back again, once, before rising to her feet. "Now go."

He wiped his eyes one last time on his crisp white sleeve, and went.

 


 

Castelobruxo School

September 8, 1970

"Nomaj Appreciation?" sixteen-year-old Lucius Malfoy repeated dubiously as he examined the course booklet. Arithmancy, one of his two optionals, had been suspended for the term after the professor had had an unexpected (if thankfully non-fatal) encounter on the edge of the grounds with a posse of adolescent howler monkeys. It was not unexpected, Ramone had told him; the position seemed to follow the pattern of the DADA professors back at Hogwarts, though the DADA professors, Lucius thought, did not generally depart under quite such entertaining circumstances... The rainforest might be alarming, but the residents (lethifolds aside) were certainly providing some colourful episodes to share in his letters to Narcissa, and that wasn't even counting the musings of his new room-mate. "Somehow, I do not think that Abraxas would approve."

"Why do you call your father Abraxas?" Ramone asked, diverted from his homework as he sprawled on his bed. "It is not very respectful, heh? My papa, he would have something to say if I were ever to call him Estevan."

"It is a Malfoy tradition.  One that Niss and I intend to amend when we have our own children, I assure you, if only because it will annoy the bloody portraits at the Manor so completely." Lucius turned the page of the booklet and back again. "This entire syllabus seems to revolve around history, literature and music. Is there no emphasis on the knowledge essential to practical social integration?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well, at home, those who take Muggle Studies learn such things on how to employ non-magical currency, how to navigate their various transit systems, how to communicate across distances using their different types of devices, the styles of appropriate clothing to wear when out and about in different environments..." He caught Ramone's blank look. "And the cultural differentials strike again?"

"But those things are only common sense!" his room mate protested, sitting up amid his scattered books and rolls of inky parchment. "We Magicals are so few surrounded by so many; how should we avoid learning their ways when we must open our eyes and see them all about as we walk about?"

"Surprisingly easily, if you are that truly determined not to notice them, and are raised to believe that the perpetrators are naturally inferior."

"Mmf." Ramone did not sound impressed. "You will have to forget all that, heh, before I take you home and introduce you to Mama, or she will tell you what you may do with your broomstick from the Nomaj point of view, and I am not speaking of sweeping floors. Truly though, it is an excellent class, and the professor is very good. You will like him, I think, and you will meet him anyway, since he will be guiding you through your extra tutorials in Animagery."

"Antonio Silva," Lucius read, turning pages.

"Yes. And you will call him Father, if you know what is good for you."

"Uh?"

"He is a Catholic priest," Ramone explained, and at the young Englishman's odd look - "A wizard yes, but there are yet a few who choose the path since our faith in God is so much and necessary a part of our lives here, heh?"

"Ah. Wait, isn't there something in the textbook there about not suffering a witch to live? How does he rationalize that little contradiction?"

"On the principle again that in our lands, it is the witches and wizards who allow others their best chances to live? Also, he is rather crushing on the importance of applied context in all manner of things, and has stated that he personally believes that the individual who felt inspired to write that particular passage was a Magical with a hearty dislike of Divination. The list of forbidden subjects is very clear: no cards, dice, numbers management, or anything that might seek to predict the future in order to change it. Also," he added. "He believes that the reference is to Dark Magicals, not those of us who wish to live peaceful and socially productive lives."

"Sounds like a sensible chap. The inspired individual, that is. Though predicting the future in order to change it doesn't seem all that bad an idea from the certain perspective."

"Ah. Well, here is a prophecy for you, then. I predict that if you do not take Nomaj Appreciation, we will both regret it," Ramone said. "Since I am taking it too, and the shared notes and perspectives at examination time can do nothing but benefit both of us."

"I would have to get Abraxas to approve the change, though, and that is not going to happen in this or any life-time, I assure you."

"Talk to Padre Silva," his room-mate advised. "If you are truly interested in the subject, he will find a way to manage it."

Two hours later, Lucius made his way, not without a certain trepidation, through a maze of spiraling passages to the high and sky-lit chambers that served as his tutor's quarters. The door slid, rather than swung open at his knock. He peered in cautiously. There was a long narrow room that served as an office, and a closed door leading back to a second... It was all really quite beautiful, he thought as he took a single step over the threshold and looked around: scrubbed and austere, with spare, simple furniture, but the angular architecture was breathtaking, and the single window, taking up almost all of the left-hand wall, framed a spectacular riot of deep and richly hued foliage and bizarrely exotic flora outside. As he watched, a tiny, hairy arm plunged through, grabbing at a temptingly ripe round fruit that had been hanging in the upper left corner of the window's exterior. Lucius could almost hear the happy chittering as indelicately spat peel and pulp splatted and dripped down the magically reinforced glass.

After a moment, a man entered through the second door, closing it quietly behind him. Lucius tore his attention politely from the window at his assessing look, offering (discreetly) one of his own in return. Of moderate height and slight build, he could have been any age between forty and eighty, and his skin, the boy thought, was the precise shade of Honeyduke's finest chili-spiced chocolate.. His features were clean-shaven: narrow and sharp, and his unfashionably short hair was dark and lustrous as a crow's wing. It shone starkly in the white-lit room, as did his dark eyes, accented by surprisingly delicate winged brows that seemed poised to take flight off of his face. He wore a neat black buttoned robe with a peculiar round white collar, a long black cloth belt with an attached string of the same glowing beads that hung over Ramone's bed post, and a plain black wand holster strapped to the outside of each of his tight black sleeves.

He looked, not too fine a point on it...

Dangerous.

"Luis Malfoy?" the man said. It was not a question. His accent was so thick that it would have rendered his words incomprehensible had they not been so carefully enunciated. There was a near-musical intonation to his voice, stopping just short of a song in a definitively minor key.

"Yes, sir."

"Boa tarde." His greeting was not in Spanish, but the far more common national language, Portuguese. "Come. Seat yourself. Your room-mate is Carriera?" Again, it was not a question.

"Yes, sir."

"Poison dart frog. An excellent form, though limited in its ability to act near water." He seated himself at his desk chair and regarded the young man again as he sat awkwardly on the indicated sofa. "May I trust that he has informed you of the reasons why you are here?"

"Yes," Lucius said. "Becoming an Animagus will improve my odds of survival against the lethifolds."

"Mm. And do you, in fact, wish to survive them?"

Despite his determination to retain his neo-adult dignity, Lucius blinked at that. There was much more to the question than the apparent and absurd obvious, he knew, but...

He is rather crushing on the importance of context in all manner of things.

"I find that I am not particularly inclined to the alternatives," he said cautiously. "On any level."

"Mm. Levels, sim. The jungle here has four of them, did you know, each with its own specific beauties and dangers. How is it that your father allowed you to come to Castelobruxo, Senhor Malfoy?"

"I am sorry?"

"You are his only son. Do you really think that a man such as he would not know of the infection that poisons the very blood and body of our land?"

Ah.

Lucius sat back, crossing one leg over the other and tenting his fingers on his knee as he tossed his hair back and looked the priest over as coolly as he could manage it without actually being rude. It was a fine line - a very fine line - but one he'd been taught to balance as soon as he could stand upright and independently.

"And which infection would that be again? The one inherent in my assignation of a Mudblood as a room-mate" - his use of the epithet was deliberate - "who encourages me to switch my open option to Nomaj Appreciation, or the one where I lose myself to a carnivorous dark shadow who desires to swallow me whole, crushing my voice first and rendering my violated corpse as part of the vanquished, digested and nameless mass within that powers it in its quest for immortality?  I would go with option A myself, as the second describes only the fate that awaits me upon my return, and is one in which that father you just mentioned sees no horror. As he is willing to throw away his name for the cause, he sees no reason that I, as his son, should not desire to follow, as is my duty and yes, my honour, in his footsteps."

The room was very quiet.

"Duty," the priest repeated, sitting back in his chair. The legs scraped slightly as they tilted back off the stone floor. "Honour. An interesting choice of adjectives for a man who translates as bad faith."

"I have come half across the world only to learn, in my first hours here, the true and defining nature of what I left behind me, sir," sixteen-year-old Lucius Malfoy said. "And of that to which I will inevitably return. As I have been assigned a lethifold for a master, I will have no  qualms on embodying the implications of my names - first and last - in its service. As for my father... I do not believe that he does have any idea of the extent of the infection. He is not famed for his interest in that which does not affect him, and as my death would most certainly do that, he would not risk me. That being the case, I assure you, he would be absolutely delighted at the idea of an entire continent rid even of the memory of the existence of Muggles - and as I am expected to act as strategic advisor to the creature that wishes to make that happen in my own land, he would anticipate my using your misfortunes as my inspiration."

"And you are not feeling inspired?"

There was another small silence.

"I find such measures," the young man said in precise, careful accents. "Unacceptable. Imprudent. Dangerous, even. Magicals and Muggles share the same essential biology, though the small differentials there, of course,  make all the difference in determining position in the natural hierarchy - and for the most part, that which affects one may be used to affect the other. As there are always weak-minded blood-traitors among us who cannot, do not, and will not  understand the necessity of overcoming their childish and naive emotional instincts in the name of the Greater Good, the introduction and employment of such tactics that could be used by those traitors who find us unsympathetic to their misplaced ideals might prove... Problematic."

The black eyes traveled over him slowly.

"You are not," Antonio Silva said. "What I had been led to expect. This is good. That means that when you manage the Change, you will not be what they expect." The tilted legs of his chair resettled themselves firmly. "So. Again. Your father's awareness, or lack thereof, of our unpleasant little infestation aside... Why do you think he allowed you to come here?"

"He had to deny me my apprenticeship to an International Dueling Master. I presume he knew there was an equivalent, however untitled, on staff here, and is paying you to provide me with compensating lessons in order to ease my pain."

The priest smiled briefly at that.

"I am not quite that good," he said. "But I am yet better than you. We will amend that, in good time. For now, though... You are here to learn the more important lesson. You are right-handed?"

"Yes."

"Thus we begin." He pushed his chair back a little further. "Come here to me, Senhor Malfoy. Push up your sleeve."

Lucius eyed him, but could see no reason to refuse. He obeyed. The man before him tapped his palm gently with his right-hand wand, and murmured a few words. A curious numbness began to spread from the tips of his fingers to the wrist. Lucius tried to flex his fingers. They didn't move.

"You are now left-handed," the man informed him. "By necessity, and on my word. Your primary hand will remember its patterns and abilities; you will not lose any skills there, but you will not be able to employ them either, for the ten months you are here."

"WHAT?"

"'Let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing,'" the priest quoted. "Or in your projected context, where good and evil will be defined as each other... The reverse? Translated, it means do not let your baser side know of the good you do, lest it betray your secrets and lessen the value and effectiveness of the deeds. In dueling terms... A prudent warrior never goes to battle without an extra weapon. I have found, Senhor Malfoy, upon occasion, that it was not the expected second, but the third, hidden up the unanticipated and unadvertised sleeve, that made the significant difference." He pointed to the sofa. "Sit."

He sat again, even as he protested. "But I can't write with my left hand! I can't do anything with my left hand! What about schoolwork?"

"Motivation is everything, mm? And you will have a great deal of that here. I will tell you now, Castelobruxo is not Hogwarts. Here, the students' very lives - and the lives of everyone around them - depend on what we teach them, so we do teach them, and work them, toward that end. You, my fine young Englishman, will prove no exception to our rule, for all that your sense of duty and honour will carry you home to fight our version of your war on your own soil." He slid his wand back into its holster.  "We will work you here; you will work; you will learn, and there will be nothing that you bring home with you again that you will not be able to use as a weapon against the shadows there, if you employ your mind in the properly creative manner." He rose to his feet and went to a cupboard in the corner, returning with a large wooden crate. It was full of wands. "The wand you wield now will be suitable for your right hand's public and obvious show... Now, let your left hand meet its weapon." He shook his head as the young man stood, and made as if to reach in. "Nao. Do not touch them. Hold your hand over the box and offer what you have to give, and the one that hears your voice will come to you."

"Where did these all come from?" Lucius asked as he obeyed. "Did you make them?"

"No. Lethifolds cannot absorb wands. They are magical objects, and are automatically rejected on contact."

That took a moment to process. He looked up. The black eyes looked at him impassively.

"You're saying that all of these wands were left behind when their owners were eaten?"

"Their companions," the priest corrected. "We do not own wands here. We partner them. We are, as we are with the Nomaji - as I know Carriera will have explained to you - all one in this battle. And when one of us falls, his or her partner finds its way back here, one way or the other, to the place where our warriors are raised, so that it might choose another to wield it."

"All of the students here inherit their wands from your dead?"

"From those who were stolen away, sim. We have no real need of wandmakers in Brazil; there are always more that return here than there are warriors to wield them. They exist of course, though their customers are mostly travelers from away. These kind of veterans, though..." He nodded to the box. "Have their own sense of duty and honour, and will not bind themselves to those who will take them away from their homeland."

"But I'm not going to stay either!"

"The wand that chooses you will understand that."

Sincerely hoping that he did not appear quite as gormless and unbalanced as he felt (though sadly, rather doubting it), Lucius turned his attention back to the box, left hand leveled over it, palm down. Silva reached over and turned it firmly, palm up.

"Would you demand that those who have already lost everything release their very memories, my fine young Englishman," he said. "In your service? Or would you approach them humbly with open hand, and offer them your prayers and your gratitude for their sacrifices, and your good will as a brother in the unending battle? These wands are wounded, Senhor Malfoy, and you plan to return them to the front, where all whom they have chosen till this point have inevitably left them alone!  As such, the wand that chooses you must believe that you will be worth the pain that will follow your passing - and you must prove yourself worthy of such graceful consideration."

"You make it sound like they're intelligent!" He paused uncertainly. "Are they?"

"In a way. The wands you carry at home are newborns, designed with the ideal  of only one partner in mind. That makes them extremely limited in their ultimate understanding of the world and its potential, and human nature, and indeed of magic itself. The wands here... Most have, by the time they reach a student of this generation, passed through the hands of at least a dozen others, learning all they have to teach them and most importantly, the implications of our individual, and collective, completely unrelenting pain. They absorb it, they share it... They cannot help but do so, because it never ends, you see?  It is that which absolutely defines everyone born here. The more hands they pass through, the more they grow to understand that, as the same pain defines all, regardless of individuality,  the source must be  external... And once that happens, they become aware. Not quite intelligent as you might describe it... But aware, yes, that there is something beyond them that is affecting both them and the hand that wields them. And so they come to the conclusion that as it does cause pain, the source must be destroyed, and through that determination... The determination to become a part of the war... They become more."

"So what am I supposed to say, exactly?"

"I cannot tell you that.  The words must come from within, from your soul. Destined as you are to live among, and to serve, the very shadows in your particular far-fought war... What do you think you might say that that will prove your ultimate good faith to a proven, dutiful and honourable partner as you attempt to convince it to join you in a battle a half-world away from everything that everyone it has ever loved has died for?"

Lucius closed his eyes.

"There are none before them and none after them who can replace them." His young voice rang out strongly and surely, bright as a clarion bell: the words accented and precise and formal as the accents of any noble or king who had ever been called to stand and fight and live and die for his beloved England. "But I will remember their names, if you will remember mine!"

And the box rattled violently, and there was the hard, stinging slap of wood against flesh, and he curled the fingers of his left hand automatically and opened his eyes to see what lay within. The priest reached out to take that which had offered itself, and examined it silently. His expression was peculiar, to say the least.

"What is it?" Lucius ventured. "I mean... Do you know it?"

"I do." He handed it back. "Keep it well hidden, my fine young Englishman, when you return. If it is noted by the shadows, they will know what you are in an instant.'

"Erhm?"

"The Brazilian wandering spider does not spin webs. It prowls the darkest floor of the jungle, hiding where the light cannot go and seeking its prey among the basest spawn of the land. Its poison makes it among the most dangerous creatures alive, and certainly one of the most feared and reviled. The core of this particular wand is made from a forelimb of one of the species."

"But why would that bother the shadows?"

"Because despite its fearsome appearance, the wandering spider is not naturally inclined to attack. Its aggressiveness is largely a sham - a part of its natural defense system," Silva said bluntly. "And while its natural venom is there, the spider must plot and scheme on how it spends that venom, for it is not unlimited, and, once spent, takes a great deal of time to recover. How do you think that might translate to your so-called master, mm? How might he think you translate, when it comes right down to it, if he were to discover that a wand with such a heart has chosen you as its companion in war? You would either be labeled a coward and poseur, or revealed as a spy - one who seeks, as indicated by your true, God-given name, rather than the bastardized fallen variant, to bring light to the underbelly of hell."

"Ah." Lucius took it back, and a bit boldly, he knew, though only again to cover his unease... "And how do you think I translate now? Now that you have seen what has chosen me?"

"I think that you must be very careful," the priest said. "The floor of the jungle is the roof of hell, and life is the least of what even the most well-intentioned man might lose there." He carried the box back to the closet, and locked it. "God is surely with you, young Malfoy. With all of us. In His infinite wisdom, He has brought you to the one place on earth which can teach you what you need to know to help ensure the salvation of your country. And your country, as is mine, is most certainly in dire need of salvation if this particular spider, named for the land it inhabits, is convinced that the only way to save both is to leave all that it has ever known and place itself in the hand of one assigned to become not a victim of the shadows, but a shadow himself.'

"Wait; you think that what I fight there might affect the war here?"

"I would say that your wand believes it to be true. Only God knows for certain, and I would not presume to prophesy. The course of events is His to establish, not ours, and attempts to interfere do not typically, as you say, prove acceptable."

"But if good comes from it..."

"Something... Someone... Must inevitably pay the price," Silva cut him off, not just bluntly, but harshly. "To force change is inflict pain on that which is natural and divinely ordained. Change - and I am not talking on Animagery, though the lesson applies there too - comes through prayer and humility and through learning to bend and remold yourself in God's image of you, not through misplaced pride or by prioritizing yourself and your desires, however benevolent, before Him. You will not forget that it was pride that caused the fall of the one whose name you bear, and that it was that pride that inflicted him on us, mm? Pride, and the presumption that he knew best, and that his personal vision of how things should be was more perfect that God's. And perhaps he does not regret his choices, and is happy with the way things have ended for him... But what of those of us who continue to suffer for his presumption?"

"That's just a story," Lucius said, stung. "It has no basis in fact."

It was, he immediately realized, a mistake.

"Fact," Silva repeated into the awful silence that followed. "Facts, my fine young Englishman, rarely, if ever have anything to do with truth."

"I..."

"Sit."

Lucius Malfoy sat, with a decidedly inelegant thud.  Silva sat opposite. His black eyes looked the young man before him over, up and down, lingering on the pale skin, the elegant, aristocratic cheekbones, the icy, shimmering loosed hair.

"The fact is that there are but a few sightings of lethifolds a year across the world," the priest said. "That fact would seem to indicate that this means that there are only a few lethifolds in existence. But we here in South America, and our brothers and sisters in Central America... We know the truth. We have nothing of the facts that your world requires to prove their presence here. To those who come and say 'show us'... We have nothing to show them but our empty hearts. We have nothing to show them but that which cannot be seen - that is: those who are no longer with us. Nothing to see, nothing to hold, nothing to touch...  What kind of proof is that, to those who were never here to see what was here before it was taken from us completely? No proof at all. And so when they leave, we are left alone twice over: over and over and over again, and again with none of the facts you demand, but only with what we know to be true."

Lucius clutched his new wand in his clumsy left fingers. His right hand lay uselessly on his knee.

"You did not come here to learn of religion," the priest continued. "But you have said yourself that it is here, across the world from everything that you have ever known, that you found the truth of what you have left behind. I want you to think about that, Senhor Malfoy. Here, you are nothing. Here, you have nothing. All that is familiar, comforting, proven... All that you know to be familiar fact... Is gone. And here you are, with only the one true thing that yet remains when all else that you have ever known has fallen away... Your instinctive knowledge of the existence of the acceptable light, and the correlative existence of its unacceptable opposite. Knowing this one true thing... Does it truly matter whether the story I told you just now is factually accurate? Is proof of its accuracy necessary in your understanding and acceptance of the essential truths that lie within?"

Lucius just tried to move his fingers again.

"It will be difficult," Silva said, watching him. "This is not a method I use to teach everyone. Some find it too much, not because of the difficulty, but because of their pride. Spilled food, clumsy writing, slowed reactions, the inability to perform the simplest of spells till your fingers adjust... They are all small embarrassments that will teach you humility, and offer you the mental and psychological flexibility to accept and embrace the unalterable truth of your identity, whatever that may be, beyond the facts and facades that you will be forced to present - perhaps all of your life - to other people.  And you are of an age where your pride is everything. I know this. Here again, though, you are in a place where you are nothing to anyone, so you have nothing to lose among those who have no long lasting value to you. Perhaps it will make things a little easier?"

And that, as he'd thought it might, hit not a, but the nerve. The pale head lifted, chin jutting arrogantly, blue eyes glittering and framed by the shimmering wave that could only have washed in from a foreign sea.

"I am not nothing," the young man before him said vehemently. "I matter. I am Lucius Abraxas Malfoy, and what I am matters."

"What you are matters?" Silva repeated. "Or who you are matters? They are two very different things, my fine young Englishman, and I will not be the last to ask you the question, I assure you. In the world you return to, it will be the question."

Lucius opened his mouth, then closed it.

"My what is my who," he said defiantly, clumsily. "It might not be that way for everyone, but it is for me."

"And did you realize that of yourself before you arrived here? Before the hours that you arrived and your facts fell away, and you were left only facing the defined lie, and the defined truth?"

He said nothing.  Silva sat back.

"Cast me a lumos," he directed. Lucius gripped the wand firmly, and raised it.

"LUMOS!"

Absolutely nothing happened.  He glared at the wand, quite obviously offended. Silva's lips did not twitch, but had his student been watching, he might have seen a glimmer of amusement there.

"You will have to do better than that," the young man said to the wand severely. "If we are to work together. Where have you been wandering, exactly, where even the word is unfamiliar?"

"Perhaps it is waiting the remainder of your response to my question?" Silva suggested. "Before it accepts its own turn to respond? That is, do you think you might be better able to manage the necessary induced humility since nothing and no one here matters, in the end?'

"Ramone matters to me," he said defiantly. "As I matter to him now. He is my friend, and I am his."

"Already? And has he invited you to his bed yet?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Do not take it personally," the priest said kindly. "He invites everyone, in the belief that should he persist in his efforts, someone is eventually bound to say yes. He can be, as your saying goes, a bit much?"

"Certain people would say the same of me," the young Englishman said, not a little dryly. "Never mind the implications of the eighteen inch wand."

"Ah. Sim. The wand." He held out his hand. Lucius sighed, and shook it out of his right sleeve. Silva flicked expertly.

"LUMOS!"

"AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

Slowly, slowly, the nova inside the office faded. Lucius sat up, gasping in remembered pain as he blinked his eyes furiously.

"What the..."

"EXPECTO PATRONUM!"

He reared back, screaming again and very nearly falling off the sofa as an enormously hideous, and quite to his eyes demonic, figure reared up in front of him, legs curved like pincers as it hissed and spat at him.

"What the bloody buggering fuck is that ?" he demanded as he scrambled up in a most undignified manner.  "Your Patronus is a bloody acromantula?"

"No," the priest said. "My Patronus, like your wand core, is a Brazilian wandering spider. Rather oversized, yes, in comparison to the actual beast, but then, I too have been accused of having my melodramatic moments. Have you learned to cast a Patronus yet, Malfoy?"

"No." Malfoy settled himself again, pulling the shreds of his tattered dignity about him. "I have tried, but I have only started my sixth year."

"Ninety percent of the students here at Castelobruxo are capable of casting it by the end of their first year."

"First... Oh, come on! Pull the other one while you're at it, why don't you!"

"I am quite serious, I assure you. The processed prospect of seven years of near-guaranteed safety as they learn to defend themselves and others provides the necessary happy thoughts, and the prospect of being capable of casting the one spell that drives off lethifolds even as they enfold you provides their incentive. Coffee?"

"I do suppose it would, at that," Lucius admitted. "No, thank you. Not if you are going to be casting that at me before I have a chance to visit the loo, anyway."

Silva smiled, but again, only briefly. "Your particular wand is quite familiar with the concept of light," he said. "But, having determined your motives and incentives, and its duties, is not about to give the shadows the opportunity to discover it. You will have to reassure it, even as you cast the spell, that it is safe to do so."

"And what if I am caught out while I am here, in a situation where light is my best option for defense?"

"Wandless magic." The smile turned to an actual soft chuckle as Lucius' handsome, aristocratic features fell. "Ah. Are we needing a little extra work on that front then?"

"More like all the work. That is my girlfriend's area of expertise rather than mi..." He grabbed the wand suddenly at the rather sudden and vivid associated memory, and slashed down. "EXPECTO PATRONUM!"

"Nossa Senhora !" Silva said, startled, as a magnificent stallion reared up before him, tossing back its icy pale mane.  Lucius laughed in delight as it came to nuzzle at him, prodding at his robes, perhaps, for ethereal carrots... He patted the silvery muzzle clumsily, around the wand. "Let us hope that you are one of the ten percent whose Changed form is not represented by their Patronus. It is beautiful, but hardly subtle - the white charger for the white knight, perhaps?"

"Niss would love it, anyway. She would ride me everywhere." He looked up, distracted. "May I ask what your Animagus form is, sir? Or is it the spider too?"

"Nao. It is not. And nao, you may not. I know you are unaccustomed to our traditions, so I will tell you this - that is a question that one usually only asks an established friend."

"Ah." The stallion disappeared abruptly in the face of his obvious embarrassment. "My apologies."

"No need." The small smile returned. "All in good time, when we are a little better acquainted. I would not have not expected it, but I think that my brother would be most disappointed if I were to reject the possibility of reciprocating remembrances after you so graciously promised his partner that you would keep him in your memory. Perhaps I should tell you his name, so that you will have the greater means to keep your word?"

He could almost hear the mental click as his student made the connection between the core of his new wand and the priest's Patronus.

"Your brother owned this wand?"

"Sim," Antonio Silva said. "His name was Manuel. He was lost fourteen years ago. I prayed that it was not so when we did not hear from him for four months in the first year of those fourteen, but when the wand was returned to us... The traveler said he found it in a small hotel where Manuel had frequently stayed,  under an armoire that had not been moved for a decade. Manuel would have Summoned it, had he been able, had he merely misplaced it in the room, and it would have come when he called. There could only be one reason, then, why it was yet there."

Again, that mental click sounded.

"But you were not sure," Lucius said. "You were not yet sure - could not be sure - until it came to me today."

The deep jeweled foliage outside the great window brushed against the magical glass, and as the late evening sun broke through the dense tangle just for a moment and the magics that banished the darkness throughout Castelobruxo responded and took deeper hold, the room filled was suddenly and briefly, not with shadows, but with richly hued light.

"No," Antonio Silva said finally. "No. This is true. I was not sure."

Lucius Malfoy looked down at his feet.  

"I'm so sorry," he said. "I'm so..." He cut himself off, his shoulders tightening beneath the fall of shimmering pale blond hair.

"But I am not," the priest said quietly. "For now I know... I know ... That he is with God. It is the not-knowing that is hardest. The hoping. We hold onto it so hard, yes, even when it is what hurts us most? We are all alike in some ways, in those circumstances, no matter our country. We yet demand facts when the truth is more than we can bear."

"Was he a priest like you?" his student ventured. Silva snorted. It was not quite a laugh, but...

"Nao," he said. "Nao. If you wish to know what he was like, my fine young Englishman, you need look no further than his son. Carriera is his complete image, in all ways."

Lucius blinked at him. "Carriera? You're talking about Ramone? Ramone is... You're Ramone's... What ?"

"Uncle. Sim."

"You are telling me that Ramone's father was eaten by lethifolds?" He looked, quite frankly, as if he'd been kicked in the gut.

"And his mother too. She was lost a few months after he was born."

"But he said his parents are Nomaji!"

"He was adopted," the priest said. "Privately, by a new family. After Manuel disappeared, his son was delivered to me, his only remaining living relative, by the authorities, and I arranged it.  I was not equipped to care for him, and we may tell the Nomaji of the Magical world, you see, if they have a Magical child in their care, and of that which threatens us all. It is not uncommon at all, when one considers the numbers of Magicals who are orphaned, and is one of the ways we best protect, again, those who cannot protect themselves."

"Does he even know ?"

"That he was adopted? Sim, of course. We do not lie to the children here. Not on these matters. Those who are stolen deserve all the remembrances they are owed, even if they must be at the orphaned remove."

"He never said... I called him a Muggleborn," Lucius said helplessly. "And I was not polite about it. Why did he not correct me?"

"Because he is a bit much," Silva said matter-of-factly. "And thus does not have many who have ever promised to remember him. He has even fewer now, now that he has Changed. His form truly does afford him quite magnificent protection. Almost as much protection as it affords him jealousy from others, sim? Even the fact that his instincts help him avoid water... Lethifolds tend to gather in swamps and marshes. They must rest after they have ingested, and the water buoys and soothes their unaccustomed weight."

"I did apologize," Lucius said, even as he shuddered at the visual. "That is really not who, or what, I want to be."

"Then we will prepare you to fight your wars on all fronts. Not only so that you may help your country, but for your soul's sake. That will be, I think, the much harder task, considering the various temptations you are sure to suffer."

"You are not going to try and convert me, are you?" It was rather dubious. "Only I am fairly sure that my father would approve of that even less than he would approve of me taking Nomaj Appreciation."

The dark priest threw back his head and laughed.

"It is not my job to convert you," he said. "It is God's. I can only be that which I am, and if it is enough of an example to provoke your curiosity, well and good. If it is not, He will be with you anyway. He always is."

"If you say so, sir. I shall have to take your word for that."

"As you shall have to take it again," the priest returned, reaching over and removing the wand deftly from his awkward grip. "When I assure you that all of the pain that you will suffer at my hand this coming year is for your own good, my fine young Englishman. Stand and face me, please."

"Must you really?" Lucius asked rather plaintively as he obliged. "Inflict pain, that is? This is supposed to be my holiday !"

"Sim. I must. As the book says, 'It is better that he' - or rather you - 'should be bruised from head to foot by me that loves you than you should come to harm through ignorance.'"

"The Bible book?"

"Nao. The Jungle Book. Kipling?" he elaborated at the questioning look. "Nao? No Kipling? Truly? Magical or not, you have not even the excuse of being American! Nomaj Appreciation, Senhor Malfoy. Mondays, two o' clock. Second floor, west wing, Room 215. Do not be late."

"As I told Ramone, my father will have to sign off on that, sir, and I do not think..."

"Your father has already signed off on you. He is paying me quite handsomely to give you extra dueling lessons, as you surmised, and attendance there will now be part of your curriculum."

"Extra dueling lessons, extra tutorials in Animagery and wandless magic... You are aware that I have other classes, are you not?"

"Welcome to the jungle," the priest said. The smile was not there, but the eyes were dancing now, as brightly as his nephew's ever had. "That which does not kill you - and that, in this context, would be me - will only make you stronger."

"Hurrah," Malfoy said dismally. "Will there be tea, at least?"

"Now?"

"No. In your Nomaj Appreciation classes. Nomaji do drink tea, I know, and my soul, such as it is, will definitely require fortifying with both you and Ramone there to bruise me with your peculiar versions of love."

"How very civilized of you, Senhor Malfoy. You may bring your own if you wish. Far be it from me to force culture on you without the appropriate accompaniment. Now, shall we begin?"

Twenty one years and nearly three months later, Lucius Malfoy settled himself in a high, shadowed corner of the loo on the fourth floor  of St. Mungo's Hospital in London... The hours passed slowly as he sifted and drifted through his memories. Now and again he slept fitfully, waking with a start as the doors opened, peering down anxiously through all eight of his faceted tiny eyes. There were a great number of red heads passing through, he noted, though they were all frustratingly silent. Twice, he watched as Lawrence's new husband - he could not think of him as Ren; it was far too close for his mental comfort to Ramone, never mind the enunciated similarities between Cartwright and Carriera - entered to use the facilities, but he said not a word to anyone else there, just did his necessary, washed his hands, and made his way back through the door.

More hours passed. Lucius spun himself, not a web, but a tiny hammock, and settled in it, swinging idly back and forth. Early in the evening, after a long lull, the door opened and Arthur Weasley came in. He glanced around and pointed his wand at the door, locking it securely. Malfoy watched as he leaned against the sink, running his hand over his rumpled collar, and rubbing his hands over his bewildered, tired eyes. They came away leaving wet smears. He turned and washed his face thoroughly before straightening his collar and squaring his sloped shoulders. As he made his way out, his third son, Percy, entered.

"No word yet," he said stiffly to his father.

"He'll be alright, Perce," Arthur said. "Master Cartwright... Ren..."

He stopped.

"I'm going down to get tea," he said. "Crisps?"

"Dad," Percy said as he turned. Malfoy watched as Arthur turned back.

"Son?"

"How often do lethifolds hunt, d'you know? The books don't say.'

Arthur ran his hand over his collar again.

"I don't know, son," he said finally. "I don't... I don't know."

"D'you reckon Bill knows? He spent most of his first year with the goblins working in South America, before they transferred him over to Egypt."

"I'm afraid... I'm afraid that I'm sure that he does," Arthur said. "He's never talked about that year, Perce."

"He's never talked about anything," Percy said. "Any of the years. Only most of the time, I think now... It's not that he's never talked, is it? It's that nobody's listened. Can you find out for me, Dad? Only... I don't want to ask him, you see? Bill, that is."

"Find out... What?"

"How often lethifolds hunt. On average."

"Yes," Arthur said after a moment. "Yes, Percy. I will find out. I'm going down to get tea now. Did you want those crisps?'

"Yes. The malted vinegar, please."

The door closed. Lucius watched from his corner as Percy, in turn, leaned against the sink and pulled a scribbled napkin out of his pocket. Curious, he jumped over, and down, settling on the boy's shoulder. The napkin was covered in neat sums and numbers. He jumped high again, and watched as the boy folded it carefully and tucked it back in the breast pocket of his robes. The door opened again. A small red-headed girl peered in.

"Anyone else in here?" she said. "Only the girls' is being cleaned, and I really need to..." She gestured vaguely.

"Go on," Percy said. "I'll keep an eye out." The girl went into the stall.

"Perce?" she said from behind the closed door.

"Yeah?"

"Do you like him? Ren, I mean?"

"I don't really know him," Percy said. "What do you think?"

"He's very nice," she said. "I don't reckon Mum thinks so, though. She still thinks he threw her into that giant squid thing on purpose; it's the only thing in the whole duel he got marked down on because the judges counted it as an offensive spell, and he was so careful the rest of the time, so it couldn't have been an accident."

"Why would he have done something like that on purpose? He barely knows her. And you can't go by what Mum thinks anyway; her pin-up's that Gilderoy Lockhart bloke. Load of rubbish, his books, but he's pretty, so..."

"Ren's not pretty." There was the sluff of spinning bog roll. "He's got a really nice arse, though, doesn't he?"

"I've never taken note myself," Percy said, rather dryly. "But I have it on excellent authority - authorities, all the authorities - that that's an accurate assessment."

A giggle sounded.

"Luna likes him," Ginny Weasley said. "She said he's very kind. I wasn't awake when he came and rescued us from the blokes who killed her dad, but she said he popped in and she screamed, and he said 'gotta watch those wrackspurts, kid; they can really throw you off your game.' I always thought she made them up, but maybe they're real, if he knows about them."

"How does that make him kind?"

"It doesn't," she said. The toilet flushed and the door swung open. "But he picked up Mr. Lovegood and put him in his bed when he came back, so he wouldn't be cold in the snow. Luna said when they went back, he was all dry and clean, so he must have used a spell there too, before he came back to Hogwarts with the earrings that fell out of his pocket." She came over and washed her hands, peering at herself in the mirror. "What kind of animal d'you reckon he'd be as an Animagus?"

"No idea. A kneazle, maybe?"

"Uh?"

"All soft and cuddly looking, though not quite ordinary, really fast, incredibly smart, can smell bad blokes a mile off, and they swear up a storm at every opportunity. Oh, and they have those great tails too. I reckon that'd translates to his arse."

Back in his hammock, Lucius snorted with laughter. Ginny Weasley cackled madly.

"But kneazles are magical animals," she said, sobering. "Animagi can't be magical animals."

"If anyone qualifies for the exception there," Percy said, dryly again. "I think he would."

"Maybe he'd be a dragon!" she said excitedly. "His Patronuses are dragons, and ninety percent of Animagi forms imitate the Patronus forms! Ooh, Charlie would love that, he'd ride him everywhere !"

They left the loo together... Lucius snorted again, then sat up, his tiny arachnid brow wrinkling.

She still thinks he threw her into that giant squid thing on purpose; it's the only thing in the whole duel he got marked down on because the judges counted it as an offensive spell, and he was so careful the rest of the time, so it couldn't have been an accident.

He looked toward the door again.

Interesting. Perhaps someone in the family did know... Has known... After all. It would certainly explain William's ongoing feud with her, if he were aware that she has been aware, and had never informed anyone else in the family.

But that feud goes back since he was a child, so that could not be the primary agitator...

Or could it?

A very bad feeling began to grow in the pit of Lucius Malfoy's stomach. He transformed swiftly, and magically locked the door.

"Vinny," he called.  A tall (relatively speaking), extremely young house-elf popped in, practically palpitating with joy at his summons.

"Master Lucius!" he squeaked. "Vinny is here! What can Vinny be doing for Master?'

"Go back to the Manor," Lucius directed. "Check the pocket of my dark green winter cloak. There should be a small clear bag there, containing several human hairs. Take them to my potions lab, please, and begin the analysis of the concentrations of mycanthus in the follicles."

Vinny's eyes widened hugely. Lucius shook his head and put his finger to his lips.

"This is very important, Vinny," he said. "Very, very important. Please be careful: precise results are absolutely imperative."

"Yes, Master Lucius," Vinny whispered. He popped out. Lucius unlocked the door even as he transformed back, and bounded back up to his corner again. Another hour passed. He drifted off again. When he woke, the light outside the small window was gone. He stretched all eight of his legs and flexed, bounding down to the sill to peer out. The draft, he thought, was quite appalling, and he shivered violently. He slung a line behind him as he jumped to the faucet of the sink, preparing to make the leap to the warmer corner above the door. Scarcely had he landed on the tap, though, when the door opened again. He glanced up... And sat up at full, again anxiously anticipating, alert. The plain, if pleasant-faced young man in the cargo trousers and white t-shirt walked straight past him, closing the stall door behind him.

The bolt slid shut. Lucius fidgeted anxiously as he waited, fully intending to catch a ride atop that perfectly camouflaging cowlick before its owner returned to the operating room. He spun another line or two to soothe his own agitation, and nearly fell off the sink when the stall door opened again. Cartwright emerged, making his way over and turning the faucet. The water rushed; he scrubbed at his hands. He looked, Lucius thought, absolutely exhausted, and had to stifle the urge to transform right then and there, to scoop him up in his arms and carry him back to his bed at Malfoy Manor... The cargo trousers, he couldn't help but think, were unbecomingly loose, but on the other hand, would make it much easier to slip his own hands inside the waistband of both trousers and pants, to cup that really quite delectable rear, and haul its owner against him again as he bent his head to catch (and if Ren Cartwright couldn't exorcise the taste of cigars and spiced chocolate from his memory, Lucius Malfoy had had quite the equivalent difficulty erasing the taste of sweet treacle tart and double-creamed coffee from his) that desperately seeking, hungry - no, starving - mouth with his own. In his imagination, the trousers fell puddled to the smaller man's feet, the t-shirt abruptly disappeared, and a warm and extremely naked Cartwright was twisting in his arms, spreading his legs and jerking his hips forward as he rutted hard against  Lucius' own, much bigger and still-fully clothed thigh... Then the Warder's hands were coming up to wind their way into the masses of pale, loosened hair, and he was closing his eyes and throwing his head back to expose his throat, and Lucius was nipping and sucking not-quite-gently even as he turned him about and took him by the wrists and guided his hands to the railing of the footboard. If you would, Lawrence, he whispered, and there was another of those absolutely distracting husky little moans in response, and the slighter man was spreading his legs again, bracing himself as he lowered his head and curled his white-knuckled fingers around the...

Thoughts right, Malfoy.  All else aside, which it is most certainly not , and even if this weren't his bloody wedding night, the specifics of the curse are that specific. Lest you forget, he will not be the one turning and bracing and curling.

"Hullo," the soft, husky, mild voice said. Lucius jerked himself back, raising a fore-limb automatically to wave. He caught himself, of course, but... "Fancy meeting you here," Cartwright continued. Lucius blinked all eight of his eyes in alarm.

he can't possibly recognize me he can't

"Don't you have a cupboard to hang out in?" the Warder inquired, looking down at him. "Some other poor abused, closeted kid to bond with? You don't have to follow me about everywhere, you know; I'm all grown up now. Okay, even."

The last word was infused with such a wealth of acidic, sorrowful, purely weary bitterness that Lucius Malfoy fairly recoiled in shock. So shocked was he, in fact, that it took him a full three struggling breaths to process the preceding words.

Some... other?

Cupboard?

Abused?

Closete...

Lawrence Cartwright glanced about, hauled out his wand, and cast a quick spell or two. Lucius could actually feel the force of the raw magic slamming down and locking the loo as a fortress.

"Nobody's getting in, nobody's getting out," Cartwright said. He rubbed his eyes, leaning against the sink. "This should not be so hard."

Lucius just gawked up at him... And then, before his startled eyes...

The loo transformed. Or rather... Shrank.  Alarmingly so. It took less than fifteen seconds before the entire room was the size of a closet. A very small, close, dusty

(Cupboard)

"I do my best thinking in small spaces," the Warder informed him. "Don't like 'em, but there it is. You try being raised in an effective prison cell for ten years, and just see how many bad habits you have to break after." He slumped down on a suddenly conjured toddler mattress, tugging the single folded sheet out from under his hip and tossing a stray conjured, extremely small sock aside. "Welcome to my world. Or psyche. Whatever. It's all one, really. Question of the ages; what do Harry Potter and Ren Cartwright have in common? Besides the really nifty scars, of course."

Raised in an effective...

Ten years?

No. No. This is not happening. I am not hearing what I think I am hearing. Seeing what I think I am seeing. This is not

this is not

this is

The room shrank even further as Cartwright continued to talk. Even as Lucius Malfoy sat, dazed and helpless, the small cool part of him that had never retired,  much less died, in the aftermath of Voldemort's war, listened carefully, filing way every word, every detail, every fact, every name, every implication for future analysis and consideration. Single words, phrases, sometimes sentences hurtled themselves at him, all in that mild, slightly husky, ineffably old and weary, sheerly desolate, and worst of all, worst of all - Lucius had to very nearly sit on all eight of his legs to prevent himself from covering his eyes, his ears, his heart there -  horribly, horridly, resigned tone of voice. Then in the midst of all, he heard his own name, and his head cleared a little, and he sat up... The words, phrases, sometimes sentences, names and implications began to slot themselves rationally into place, neatly and methodically: backtracking over each other, shuffling themselves about into coherent, linear and sequenced rational patterns. By the time Cartwright's musings and revelations (and never mind the ones on Riddle and Dumbledore, Malfoy thought, that one on Neil Cartwright's dealings with Bellatrix Lestrange almost did him in; he would, in that instance of horrified, hysterically unbelieving understanding of what Cartwright was saying there, have happily, happily traded in every knut of his fortune for a time turner so that he could witness the event personally) were drawing to a close, his wildly careening emotions were firmly in check: iced over, even, and all that was left was the detached and distant objective. As he watched Cartwright Apparate out, a heavily accented voice sounded in his memory, as close as if its owner had appeared from the After and was sitting opposite him in the very moment.

All that is familiar, comforting, proven... All that you know to be familiar fact ... Is gone. And here you are, with only the one true thing that yet remains when all else that you have ever known has fallen away... Your instinctive knowledge of the existence of the acceptable light, and the correlative existence of its unacceptable opposite.

"This is not acceptable," Lucius said aloud, inasmuch as he could manage it in his arachnid form anyway. "It is not acceptable. I. Do. Not. Find. This. Acceptable." He sprang off the sink, transforming as he did so, and bent, even as he landed lightly on his feet, to retrieve Lawrence Cartwright's abandoned newspaper and to flip rapidly to the sports page.

"Well now, Master Cartwright," Lucius Malfoy murmured, his old instincts kicking in even as he studied the faces before him. Even after all the years, habit was habit, and any word spoken aloud, he knew, was a word that could be overheard and misinterpreted. He was quite sure no one was listening, but all things considered, and considering what was coming next, he was not about to risk his true emotions in the public venue. "Wasn't this a fortuitous little coincidence, and most enlightening too." He turned the page, and turned back again.

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Three days to the next full moon, and distracted as they may have been, all of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales know yet that after last month, those who remain in the cabals will be seeking their revenge and the public point. And you drop in my lap, all unbeknownst, the key to that which will bring them down for once and all.

Oh, Master Cartwright. If ever there were proof that you were born in an effectively different world, here it is. No telephone book needed; any and every child at Hogwarts would have been willing to talk your ear off on these four, however casually you dropped their names. They only represent the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of half the students there.

He reached into his pocket, extracting his not-phone.

Rest easy, my friend. This much solace I can offer you, in thanks for the gift you have given me. Not the world, but me.

This much... This war.... I can, and will, take care of for you.

The line rang once. A brisk, familiar voice answered.

"Amelia Bones."

"I have names," Lucius Malfoy said. "Yes. No. I have no sources. I never have sources. I have information. Yes. One codicil, you're to keep Cartwright out of it. No, I imagine he would be, but... No. It would not be strategically prudent. We may - no, will - have need of his talents in the future, and not just as a Warder, so we do not want to waste whatever non-related credit we have with him now. Too, he must be able to deceive himself that he may depend on the local constabulary after that fiasco with Moody, and it would not be healthy, either, for the general public to relate to him, particularly as an American, as the singular and prospective solution to its every problem. It is already becoming an issue, and this, at least, and those names considered, is a matter that we locals should be able to handle nicely. I will ensure that he is out of the country on the crucial dates, and in the meantime... Namirembe Obonyo-Higgs is visiting her husband's family in Kent this next week before she too begins her final push on training for the Invitationals. Her particular talents considered, she'll be more than delighted to assist as necessary, I'm sure. Of course. Keep me posted."

He disconnected, and glancing around and gritting his teeth against the incipient nausea, cracked out. Seconds later, he was skidding through the bedroom into the loo, falling to his knees, and  retching violently in the toilet. Narcissa sighed as she came through, conjuring him a glass of pink potion as he rose to his feet, spitting and gagging most indelicately.

"Use the Floo, Luke," she intoned. He rolled his eyes at her, gulping.

"Bleah," he said, shuddering convulsively. "Bleah bleah bleah bleah bleah ."

"Indeed," she returned. "Should I ask?"

"Oh yes, my heart," he said, and casting a breath-freshening charm, kissed her soundly. "You most definitely, definitely should. No, wait. Allow me. I. Have. Names ."

Narcissa Black Malfoy's eyes widened.

"Names," she breathed. "No. Lucius... No. You're saying..."

"I have to go. Scouting trip. I'll need more information that I've got; the full moon's only three days away, and the bloody fucking bollocking buggers have been holding try outs all week."

"Try outs?"

He tossed her the paper, Summoning a large crate from the closet, and unpacking the not-quite-ceremonial wizarding battle armour within neatly, piece by piece.  She unfolded the paper to the creased page and stared, looking down at it, and up at him.

"Quidditch?" she said in controlled tones. "The gambling cabals have been operating under the auspices of Quidditch?"

"The Junior Feeder Leagues," her husband confirmed. "I intend to rain down hell on them for that one alone."

Narcissa folded the pages precisely.

"Very well," she said. "I will..." She paused. "What will I be doing again?"

"Issuing the call to arms," Lucius said. "Discreetly. Very discreetly. Under no circumstances are Lawrence and Charles to know about this, Niss. They deserve their proper honeymoon after the months they have had, and we will ensure they get it."

"Mm." She considered. "Romania? I can make a call or two and arrange for a portkey tomorrow evening. Perhaps we might surprise them with it during tea?"

"Excellent idea. Clothes, accommodations, etcetera, all ready to go. They are bringing William to St. Dymphna's in the morning, but all things considered, he will likely not be conscious or allowed to receive visitors of any sort again till Monday at the earliest, so they will have fewer qualms on taking advantage of our offer."

"What of Cartwright Senior?"

"We'll give him the option, but only after Lawrence and Charles are safely away." He twisted his hair neatly into a bundle at the nape of his neck and pinned it magically firm. Niss kissed his cheek.

"Try, if at all possible," she said. "While you're out and about tonight, to find out which one of it them it was, exactly, who issued the order on Luna Lovegood? I imagine that Pandora will want to go in on the particular team."

Lucius grinned at her. "Whatever you say, my heart. Your wish, as always, is my command."

"Oh, you," she said. "Do be careful?"

"Always," he promised. She watched as he fastened his wand holsters to his vambraces and slid their occupants into place - the bloodthorn and phoenix feather into the right, and the Spanish oak and Brazilian wandering spider that had lain wrapped in silk for ten long years into the left. Narcissa eyed it warily. For obvious reasons, it and she had never quite enjoyed each other's company.

"Is there any way you can tell it about what has happened in Brazil?" she asked. "That it will understand?"

"I shall have to do a bit of research there." Lucius stuffed anti-nausea potions into his armour at random. "Alright. Off I go, then."

"Tally ho?" she offered. He pinched her rear. She swatted him.

"Pandora," she ordered. "Don't forget!"

He winked at her, gulped a second potion, and gagging, cracked out.

Chapter Text

Camden Town

London

Tuesday Night

"Two poun' six change from a fiver. 'Ave a nice night, luv!"

"Thanks, Lou-Ellen. You too." The door-chime sounded as the woman's customer tucked the three Flake bars he'd just purchased in his coat pocket, pulled up his hood, and let himself out of the dingy convenience store beside Ahmed's Floristry. Before him, Inverness Road stretched, the thin, wet snow falling and swirling in chilled, intricate patterns around the half-obscured bulbs of the street lights and shop windows.  Cars sped past, splattering his trousers with brown slush, and raucous music sounded from the pub on the corner.  

Ren Weasley-Cartwright turned left and made his way down towards Bolingbroke Court. A month till Christmas, and the first coyly suggestive strings of lights in the shop windows were starting to go up... The snow whirled, spackling his vision with tiny blurred halos of green and red. He blinked as a thick, damp clump of snowflakes caught in his lashes, melting and trailing down his cheek.

"'Ome late, arnchoo?" Another voice greeted him: coyly suggestive as the strings of lights. "Wanna make it a bit later an' come roun' my place for a cuppa?"

"Married," Ren said automatically. As an Auror, he'd had similar conversations more times than he could remember. "Sorry."

"'N this makes a diff'rence?'

"Yes. It does. Quite a bit, actually."

The voice, or rather the girl it belonged to, slouched sullenly against her telephone post. Ren eyed her, performed a quick surface mind scan to reassure himself it wasn't a set-up, and dug in his pocket. Extracting his wallet, he took out a pair of hundred pound notes, wrapped them around two bars of the chocolate and held the bundle out. The girl blinked at him. In the light of the bank opposite, Ren caught the angle of her profile, and realized that the girl was not a girl at all, but a thin, gawky boy of no more than sixteen: pretty in spangled tights and a striped mini, rather salty red rubber boots, and a completely inadequate hooded transparent plastic raincoat over a cheap pink camisole.

"What's 'is then?"

"Chocolate. Good for what ails you."

The smile flashed was uncertain and not terribly healthy looking: the extended hand delicate and red with chill. The boy unwrapped the notes, eyes widening as he processed the numbers.

"Go home," his benefactor advised him. "It's a horrid night to be out if you don't have to be. Now you don't have to be."

"An' you're sure you don' want to come roun' for a cuppa?"

"No. I'm expected, and I really am quite happy there besides. Go on now."

The boy tottered off, red rubber boots squelching. Ren continued on down the block, stuffing his hands in his pockets again. Half a block more, and he turned onto a narrow side-street, trudging past a second bank, a liquor store, a four-story block of student-rate flats, and three more sullen, heavy-lidded houses peering out at him through the scarred and dirty eyes of their windows. The bookshop was dark. The front windows of 259 Bolingbroke Court were softly lit behind drawn, definitely new curtains... From where Ren stood, he could see that the gate, half-off its hinges, had been rehung, and that the few steps past the edge of the sidewalk to the door were tidily cleared of snow and slush.

Married.

Firmly squashing all hints of further active, conscious thought, he crossed the street quickly. His right-hand wand slid out of his parka sleeve. He tapped the knob. It turned easily. Ren Weasley-Cartwright took a deep breath. Spelling his boots clean, he pushed the door open, stepped over the threshold -

And promptly stopped dead in his tracks.


 

"What the buggery fuck ?" he said blankly. "What happened here?"

"Dash!" Charlie waved a spoon at him as he appeared. Clad in blue sweatpants, a plain white t-shirt and his grandfather's cardigan, he held a huge pottery bowl in his second hand. It was piled high with what looked like cottage pie. "I thought I heard you coming in; welcome home, mate! What do you think?"

"I think you left the hospital less than an hour ago! How the hell did you get all this done?"

"I didn't." His brand-new husband offered him a fragrant, lamb-scented kiss. "Cousin Augusta and Professor McGonagall came by with Professor Flitwick on their mutual break and spruced the place up as a wedding gift. Left a note and dinner; innit nice? Sorry I went ahead and started without you; I was bloody starving. Here. Try." He scooped up a hearty spoonful and stuffed it in Ren's mouth.

Ren chewed at him in bemusement as he looked around again. The flat he'd left that morning had been  serviceable enough:  clean and neat  if a more than a bit shabby... Now, though, the flat was no longer a flat, but a full-sized house that obviously extended far beyond the square footage allowed by the two combined, purchased apartments. The tatty, stained carpet had been replaced with glowing wood floors, the windows  reshaped and set into huge, high cathedral alcoves (invisible, of course, from the outside of the house), and the furniture - a collection of garden sale and move-out castoffs inherited along with the subletting contract - had been replaced by elegant and comfortable equivalents in deep, quintessentially masculine shades of blue and green.  Too, there were several arched entryways leading off to various other rooms, and a  beautifully shaped spiral staircase in the far right corner of the front room where the  two men were standing... Finally, there was an enormous stone fireplace, complete  with old-fashioned screens, a rack of tools and a discreet brass hod loaded with self-replenishing wood and kindling. Ren could feel the warmth radiating all the way from the front door.

"S' really good, yeah?" Charlie said to him encouragingly of the pie. "Here, hang up your coat there, and I'll get you some.  You must be ready to gnaw the walls; did you stop to eat anything at all today?"

"'Mo'. Nrgh." Ren swallowed hastily. "No. I don't think so. Maybe? It's all a bit of a blur." He dug in his pocket as he unzipped his parka. "Here. Dessert."

"Mm. My favourite.You're such a good mate." Charlie took the Flake bar, stuffed it into the pocket of his sweatpants, kissed him again, and spooned up another overflowing mouthful of mashed-and-accompanying. "C'mon then. Come check out the kitchen. S' totally wicked."

Ren obeyed, bemused.  There was no art on the walls, he saw, but as they passed the fireplace, he caught sight of an item over the mantle. He turned back to look - and blinked back tears as he realized it wasn't a picture at all, but a page of a book, carefully removed from the whole and yet bracketed blue in the margin - the section of the Eliot poem that had held the last clue to the Horntails' last gift. It was neatly displayed not in a standard frame, but in the delicately transfigured, now-intertwined shells of the two wands that had held their ensouled heartstrings.

"That's from Billy," Charlie informed him. "He got up a bit early, before we did, and put it together. I found it upstairs on our bedside table with a note. He must have slipped it there right before we left, and the others didn't touch it when they were fixing things up here. I found it when I went up just now, and put it there. We can move it if you want."

"No. It's perfect." Ren tore his gaze away and followed his new husband into the enormous, state-of-the-art kitchen. "How did they get it all done so fast? The permits for the architectural extension spells alone should have taken weeks!"

"Pretty sure that saving the world qualifies you for a permanent spot at the front of  the queue. All of the queues. Everywhere. Ever. Either that or Madam Longbottom was the one to make the floo calls." Charlie put his bowl on the table and reached up in the cupboards to fetch another. "Nothing's set in stone, mind you; we can change whatever we like and they promised they won't be offended." He nodded to the table, where sat a sheet of parchment. Ren picked it up and scanned it.

"Augusta says here that we've been offered a house-elf as a gift? Really?"

"Apparently so."

"Huh. Vinny," he read. There was a pop, and a tall (relatively speaking) bright-eyed young elf appeared,  veritably vibrating with enthusiasm and excitement. He was clad in a green tea towel and a brown canvas carpenter's apron, sturdy leather boots, and, of all things, a gold hoop in one rakishly tilted ear... He held in his hand a pair of small, magically edged gold shears of the type employed in high-end potions labs, and a pair of miniature dragon-leather gloves were jammed into his apron pockets.

"Vinny is here! Is Master Charles and Master Master-Master-Master-Adept Lawrence needing something?"

"Erhm." Ren gazed, astonished, at the vision before them. Charlie grinned at him over his shoulder. "No, that's okay. We just wanted to introduce ourselves.  As far as forms of address are concerned, Master Ren and Master Charlie are fine. May I ask who sent you to us?" He had a sneaking suspicion he already knew: there was only one person, after all, who called him Lawrence now that Augusta had finally given over there. Sure enough...

"Master Lucius and Mistress Narcissa Malfoy!" Vinny beamed. "They is saying congratulations, and best wishes, and that they is looking forward so much to seeing you tomorrow!"

"You don't say. To clarify things, are you still of their official household, or ours? And if it's not too rude to ask... What's with the clothes? Are you a free elf?"

"Who, Vinny ? No, no." He scoffed, or more accurately, pfft' ed. "Vinny is having nothing against free elves; all things being equal, which sadly they rarely is, they is being perfectly entitled to their life choices. They is simply not being Vinny's cup of tea. And these is not being clothes, Master Ren; these is being mandatory safety equipment that Vinny is wearing when he is being sent to work in Master Lucius' potions lab. As for Vinny's current assignment... If you is wishing to accept Vinny's service, Vinny is being very honoured and pleased, but the transfer of affiliation must be done in person. Master Lucius is telling Vinny to tell you that if you is  wishing, we can be doing it tomorrow."

"And how do you feel about the idea?"

The house-elf, surprisingly, didn't faint, burst into tears, or fall into rhapsodies of gratitude.

"Vinny is being very happy at Malfoy Manor," he said matter-of-factly.  "Vinny is growing up there. But Vinny is being a big elf now: eighteen last summer, and Master Lucius and Mistress Narcissa and Vinny's father and mother is all agreeing that Vinny is being ready to take care of his own humans." He preened, but modestly and decorously. "They is all thinking that you is needing someone young, that you is being able to train up a little because you is just being married, and you can be learning about what you will be requiring of Vinny as you is setting up your house."

"Makes sense. You got any special skills?" Charlie asked, boosting himself on the counter.

"Vinny can do anything," the young elf said confidently. "Clean, cook, shop, run errands, take care of children, find contacts, make contacts, tend gardens, make potions..."

"Wait, you can make potions? You're not just assigned to clean the lab or prep ingredients?"

"Oh no, Master Ren.  Vinny is doing those things too of course, as they is being called for , but they is being just the beginning of his skill set there. Master Lucius is teaching Vinny to brew since he is being very small; he is saying that Vinny is having a real knack, and that if Vinny is being human, he would be making an excellent Potions Master one day. Vinny is not sure that Vinny would be going quite that far, but one thing is being certain, if you is requiring someone to set and watch your cauldrons for you, Vinny is your elf." He preened again, slightly less modestly this time. Ren's lips twitched.

"And how are you with dragons?" Charlie inquired.

"Vinny is never meeting a dragon, Master Charlie, so Vinny cannot say. There is never being a doxy yet born though, who is not fearing Vinny's name. HAI!" He struck a dramatic pose with the potions shears,  as and just as quickly recovered himself, ears blushing bright red as the two wizards laughed outright. "Excuse Vinny, please. Vinny's father is saying often that Master Lucius should never have given Vinny permission to be seeing Muggle films on his day off, because they is obviously being very bad for his inherent dignity. Vinny will try to keep it under control."

"Quite alright," Ren didn't even try to control his chuckles. "Well, just for the record, we have a third resident. He's in hospital at the moment, and likely will be at least till Christmas, but after that, he'll be moving in. Or rather staying. He's Master Charlie's brother, and my new apprentice. And speaking of which, how did you get past my wards here?"

"Vinny didn't. Vinny is only getting in because Master Ren is calling him first. You is being a very, very good Warder, Master Ren.  Vinny is thinking that there is never being a witch or wizard before who is being able to keep a house-elf out from where he is wishing to go."

"That's probably because there haven't been very many witches or wizards who have realized everything that house-elves can do," the reborn wizard said dryly. "And if they don't ask, you're not obliged to tell them, are you?"

The huge eyes doubled in alarmed size.

"Don't worry," Ren assured him. "Your secrets are as safe with me as mine are with you. I don't have any interest in people knowing what house-elves can do either, or in any other house-elves knowing that I know. Some elves have bad masters, and those elves will be much safer if they don't know certain things about the people that their bad masters consider their enemies."

"Vinny will be quiet," he promised. "Vinny will not tell anybody. Not unless Master Ren says it is safe."

"Good. Because right now, I'm telling you... It's not a good idea."

Vinny bobbed his head, his ears flapping vigorously. The little gold hoop glinted. Ren scratched his chin as he regarded it, and him.

"Vinny," he said. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course! Master Ren can be asking Vinny anything! That is not meaning that Master Ren is getting an answer he is liking, but as Mistress Niss is saying, asking is always being acceptable, unless it is isn't.  She is being rather strict on matters of the inappropriately personal, Mistress Niss is, and Master Lucius is giving Vinny a list there to help Vinny along. It is being very helpful; house-elves's ideas of what is being acceptable is not being like human ideas, as Vinny is sure Master Ren is knowing, and as Master Lucius understands. He is saying that the jungle is the jungle no matter where you is, and there is always the Law that must be followed for all the peoples, free or not. He is even making the list rhyme for fun, like in the book! Would Master Ren like to hear it?"

"Erhm." Charlie sniggered into his pie, as much at his husband's bemused expression as at Vinny's revelation.  "Yes, definitely, though not just now, thanks. Which brings me back to my question, though I think I have my answer already. Do you like Master and Mistress Malfoy? Are they good to you and the other house-elves?"

Vinny drew himself up immediately and proudly.

"Master Lucius and Mistress Narcissa," he said in ringing tones (not quite as ringing as Malfoy's clarion bell, his natural pitch considering, but a fair imitation anyway, Ren thought) - "is the best Master and Mistress ever . They is so good, they is understanding that house-elves is peoples! Not humans, but peoples. They is even telling Vinny that if he is not wanting to be coming here after he is meeting you, they is not making him. They is being very happy to have him always, they is saying, and Master Lucius..." He darted a look around, and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial, thrilled whisper. "Master Lucius is even saying that Vinny is being his friend !" The tone of the last word was a dramatic pose all on its own.

"Huh. Okay. Well, I just thought I'd check in before tomorrow. Only I've heard a lot of things, yeah?"

"Vinny reckons that there is being a lot of things to be heard," Vinny conceded. "Most of which is being rotting doxy dung. Vinny is recommending that Master Ren do what Mistress Niss is always saying: that is, use his sodding brains to make up his own sodding mind on peoples'  characters based on that which he is noting of their actual sodding behaviour rather than their sodding public reputations. Now, Vinny is having a very important project on the go back at Master Lucius' lab, but can Vinny be getting Master Ren and Master Charlie anything before he leaves?"

"No, we're good," Charlie said after he'd recovered. "Go on. Though you're welcome to come back tomorrow morning around seven to make breakfast. In the meantime, we just wanted to say hello, and to introduce ourselves."

Vinny beamed. "You is so nice, Master Charlie," he said. "And if Vinny may be so bold as to be saying so, we at Malfoy Manor is being very, very happy that you is feeling better. Pancakes, eggs or Raisin Bran?"

"Raisin Bran ?" Ren said involuntarily, even as Charlie said...

"You are, are you?"

"Yes, Master Ren. Raisin Bran. Master Draco is liking it when he is home, though we is not yet telling him it is Muggle food. Mistress Niss is saying that he would be like telling him that there is no Father Christmas all over again, and there is being none of us at Malfoy Manor who is caring for a repeat of that . Maybe by the time he is graduating from Hogwarts, she is saying.  And yes, Master Charlie." It was very firm. "We is. We is not knowing you, but there is being no one - in the Magical world - no one, no matter if they is being peoples or not  - who is wishing cancer on anybody . It is a nasty, cruel, vile sickness, and if it was being a doxy, Vinny would be squashing it flatter than Master Ren flattened those very, very flat... things ." He shuddered, not at all dramatically, and popped out. Charlie laughed.

"Bloody adorable," he said. "I think he'll suit just fine." He nodded to the untouched bowl. "Eat."

"Uh?"

"Eat. You're pale as a ghost."

Ren prodded at the contents of the bowl with his spoon, and shoveled in an unenthusiastic bite. Charlie frowned at him as he watched him chew slowly before returning to his poking.

"I really am alright with waiting," the dragon wrangler said. "Even if you're just tired, yeah?"

"It's not that."

"Then what?"

Ren shrugged. Charlie slid off the counter and reached for the kettle.

"I'll make tea," he said. "We can poke around the place later. Loo's upstairs to the left; go scrub off the smell of hospital, why don't you, put on something comfortable, and then you can finish that up along with a hot cuppa."

"I'm fine." Ren shoveled himself up, rolling his eyes at him. "Oh Big and Scary One."

Charlie just grinned at him over his shoulder again and set the filled kettle on the stove.


 

Thirty Minutes Later

"DASH! Where'd you get t... Ah." Charlie Weasley-Cartwright set the tea service on the exquisite pine trunk that had been their battered coffee table and smiled up at his husband as he descended the spiraled stairs.  Ren's cargo trousers were gone, he saw, replaced by a pair of flannel pajama pants and a soft long-sleeved shirt. He smelled, even from the distance, of soap and shaving foam, and though his hair was damp and combed neatly, his cowlick looked considerably refreshed. For whatever reason, Charlie found the sight of his scrubbed bare feet fantastically hot. "There you are. Thought I was going to have to come rescue you from the rubber Ridgebacks. Better?"

"Bit, yeah. Cleaner, anyway. I may or may not have set them to retaliate with inappropriate prejudice against the rubber Vipertooths though. You weren't joking about the Tasmanian Steel-Hides, were you? The two lots can't even share a bathtub without it turning to all-out war; I was lucky to get out with my bits intact." He leaned in for a kiss. Charlie laughed and pulled him into his arms. It only lasted for a few moments, though, before the dragon wrangler left off  his lips and nuzzled into his neck.

"Mm." He inhaled deeply. “You smell fantastic."

"Spruce soap," Ren said. "Or fir. Pine, maybe? Something involving trees, anyway." He disengaged and kissed him again. Again, Charlie returned the favour, but again, only to the point.

"I'm not a complete fragile flower, you know?" Ren said, not without humour. "Snogging is fine, really. Good, even."

"After you eat. Sit. Finish your dinner."

"I'm not really hungry, Charlie."

"And that has... What to do with anything, exactly? You need to eat, mate, after the day you've had, and if I have to sound off like the nagging wife, I will do it."

"You don't sound like a nagging wife. You sound like Remus." Ren accepted the bowl though, and curled up on the end of the sofa, tucking his bare feet up as he poked about the pie and silently Vanished the parsnips.

"Sensible bloke, him. I'm looking forward to getting to know him properly." Charlie poured the tea - ginger, with a hint of nutmeg. Ren's lips tilted at him as the fragrant steam rose.

"Custom blend?"

"Mm?"

"The tea. I thought you tasted a bit like nutmeg when you kissed me in the hospital earlier, and you're a ginger, so..."

"Oh. No. Harrods'.  Billy sent me a  box in a care package my first month in Romania the summer I graduated from Hogwarts, and now I keep it around all the time.  Packet in my pocket and everything; I don't know that you've noticed yet this go around, but most of the bagged Wizarding brands in this dimension are complete rubbish, and I don't often have time for the full ritual."

"I don't drink that much of it. Auror blood is a good half coffee." Ren poked at his cottage pie again. Charlie reached across, took the spoon from him, loaded it up, and shoved it in his mouth.  He chewed obediently. When he'd swallowed... "I guess there must be a lot of little differences like that here, yeah?"

"Probably. 'S going to take me a bit to sort them all too; I have only been back a week."

"What's it like? I mean, are you feeling more..." He waved his spoon vaguely. "Integrated?"

"I haven't had a lot of time to think on it," Charlie confessed, sitting down on the opposite end of the sofa. "Not on the mental level. I've been too busy enjoying being healthy again."

"Yeah. And it hasn't just been three months, has it? From your point of view, it's been more like five years."

Charlie just sipped his tea. Ren ate another spoonful and set the bowl aside, reaching over for his poured mug. His hands shook noticeably.

"It's okay," he said hastily at his husband's concerned look. "I'm okay.  It's just... A full day of that kind of precision work, and I just couldn't stop. One problem led to the next and to the next, and..."

"Shh." Charlie set his mug aside and slid over, taking his Warder's right hand and massaging it gently: the palm, the base of the thumb, the wrists, each finger, working out knot after knot before moving onto the left. Ren watched their hands move together. Once or twice, his new husband tried to catch his eye, but he didn't look up. "How's your back?"

"It's okay. I used muscle relaxing charms there, at least, but my hands were too close to the wands and the magics I was unraveling to risk a bad mix."

"Mm." He slid back to the corner of the sofa... Still avoiding his eyes, Ren blew gently on his retrieved tea.

"You want to talk about it?" his husband asked directly.

"About what? The operation? I told you..."

"No, mate.  Not the operation. The last fifteen years - thirty five, for me, if you count the last twenty here. And the last hundred plus for you. First time we've had to breathe since all this happened - first time we've been alone, really. 'S a good time to say what we never got to say to each other, then."

Ren just sipped his tea. Charlie watched the way he pulled his feet up, tugging the hems of his pajama trousers down as if to cover and hide the only exposed part of his body: his bare feet. The emotive link that they'd shared since the moment they'd emerged together from the flames seemed suddenly and firmly blocked.

"Do you remember the last month before you helped me pass?" he asked.

Ren said nothing.

"I don't," his husband said quietly. "Moments, sure. Sometimes hours. They kind of all blurred. I didn't mark time by moments or hours; I marked it by levels of pain. By the taste of medications, and by the absence or presence of your voice. Whether I could sense the heat of your body next to my bed... The smell of you... That last month all came down to pain, and you. That's all there was left."

Ren put the cup down, burying his face in his arms, now crossed across his raised knees.

"Yeah," he said, muffled. "I remember. It went both ways."

"I want you to know, mate, that I would have lived another hundred years," Charlie said quietly again. "In that kind of pain, to spare you the pain I left you with." He slid over and unfolded the tightened arms. Straightened Ren's limbs gently, then pulled him down and along the length of the sofa so his head was in his lap, and he was stroking the soft brown hair. Ren said nothing, just pressed his face into his t-shirt and cardigan, hiding his face again. "And you... You were willing to live those hundred years without me, rather than see me go on like that. There was just no way for us to win, was there?"

"I wasn't alone with it."

"Yeah. You were." He traced the cowlick with his finger.  "I know that. I, of all people, know that. And I feel like I should be thanking you for letting me go... But at the same time, I wasn't the one who lost his life in the end, was I? I'm just... I'm so, so sorry."

The fire crackled and popped.

"Can we not," Ren said into his cardigan, after another silence.

"Can we not... What?" The fingers trailed through his hair.

"Just... Can we not. We've turned the page."

"We have, but it's not that easy. We're still what our pasts made us. What we made each other. We can't ignore that, or pretend it didn't happen. We're here on this sofa right now because of the pain, not in spite of it. 'What's past is prologue', yeah?"

"Uh?"

"Shakespeare? The Tempest? Here. Up." The wrangler boosted him slightly till he was lying with his head on his solid shoulder.

"Never really had the chance to get to know the bloke. If he didn't have a file over the Aurors' office, he wasn't on my meet-and-greet list. This is a really nice jumper."

"S' very comfy, yeah. Didn't you ever do anything else?"

"What, in terms of work? Sure. Strategic Ops, Hit Wizarding... That was alright; they mostly had me working against Dark creatures. Didn't even mind working nights then, and it gave me a lot to work with in terms of my DADA Mastery besides."

"Was that when you learned all about lethifolds?"

"No. Well, the theory, yeah. Some of it. The finer knowledge there came much later, and it was a collaborative effort besides. A global project, like. Before that... I headed up the DMLE for awhile. They promoted me during a lull, but whenever the tide started rising again, and it always did: Dark Wankers are as sure a thing as death, sin and taxes, they'd send me right back to the field. On consult at first, nominally, but I was the best, right, and no one ever quite processed that just because you're the best at something doesn't mean you actually enjoy it. So it would always come back to "Well, Potter, we've taken note of the fact - again - that you really don't thrive behind a desk, and we want you to thrive; it's good for morale if the public sees you smile and enjoying your life, and if you can't manage that, oh well. We'll just book you in for the night shifts again over at Auror Central, and you can be miserable and productive; how does that sound?"

"All that while Hermione was in charge?"

"Dark Wankers are a chronic problem, yeah? And she would book me into the occasional big Warding project now and again when she saw me wearing down again or when Gin bitched enough about her cold and lonely bed, but when it came right down to it, she was the Minister of Magic, and it was her job to place the most efficient people where they could do the most good. I understood that. I didn't mind bringing them in. I just really resented having to be the one who did them in. That was part of the job too. My job, anyway. The public really sucked it up; they never quite felt as safe unless I was responsible for things from beginning to end."

"Plonkers," Charlie said disparagingly. "What a waste. Anyone can point a wand, but what you can do... I can't believe you put that entire fence up in the space of twelve hours. Billy said that it was the most fucking amazing thing he's ever seen in his life."

"I'd done it before, yeah?"

"By yourself? In twelve hours?"

"'S the difference between being good at what you do and loving what you do. And I had incentive."

"Mm." Charlie stretched out his legs and propped his feet on the trunk before them. "So how did that work back home? With the leths, that is? Did they get to be that much of an issue there?"

"No, not even close, but the writing, or rather math, was definitely on the wall. 2070, we got a new Supreme Mugwump from Venezuela, and she laid the issue on the global table. Pointed out that with almost fifty percent of the world population living in tropical regions by then that no one could lie to themselves on it not being their potential problem, so we'd all best get on finding an answer it before we couldn't." Revived a bit by the distracting particulars, Ren too sat up. He retrieved his tea again, not moving back to his corner, Charlie noted, but swinging around so they were sitting side by side. "It really did become the question of the ages: how do you kill something that can only be killed by accident? I don't remember who it was in the end who came up with the answer: when it's a side-effect of something that isn't actually intended to kill, but once they did, it was in the proverbial laundry basket."

"So it wasn't your idea?" Charlie stretched an arm out on the back of the sofa in silent invitation, behind the other man's back. Ren slid closer, automatically it seemed, and tucked his feet up again as he leaned into the crook of his arm.

"No. I was the one who solved  the issue on how to run the fence, though. It was all theoretical till I worked out how to incorporate the final piece -  bio-runic sequences that would allow the spells to identify the lethifolds as magically animate fabric, rather than living creatures- into the mix. Problem was is that we didn't actually have a lethifold to dissect at that point, right, in order to figure out the biology, and then I thought 'wait, yeah, we do, and one that's fabric yet', and I went and fetched up the invisibility cloak from the current Heir. By the time we were done with it it was pretty much useless, but it went for a good cause, yeah, and after seeing the real thing I wasn't really inclined to let anyone wrap themselves up in it again in any case. A few decades on the memories had dulled, so when I got this version back it didn't really hit me again what I'd been toting around in my satchel till Billy and I went back in, but now? Just... Bleh." He shuddered. Charlie's arm tightened around him sympathetically. The lean-in there at that was definitely conscious.

"You going to get rid of it, then?" he asked. Ren grimaced.

"I don't know. I don't know I can justify keeping it, morally, after all of this. I know it's a family heirloom and all, but never mind the story and glad acceptance of death, it's made of death. We did figure out a few things, yeah on how leths work while we were working on the project and afterwards too, when we had all the bodies to work with, and the major revelation there was that... Well. Past the point of reproductive maturation, leths aren't independent magical beasts anymore; they're purely rendered, magically animated human corpses. Every cell that they regenerate, physical and magical, is formed from the bodies of people that they digest: the physical from the recycled bodies, and the magical from their dissolved and twisted magical cores, because the dark magics around the fuckers ensure that the victims are rendered and digested alive, right? And when they give birth, it's the culmination of all that. Eliminating the very, very last of what was their own as the starter yeast for the next batch, till they in turn mature." He played with the hem of the cardigan a bit as Charlie processed that. "It was never proven, and nobody wanted to know anyway... But there was a theory going around that once a leth had given birth - once it had passed on the last of its own independent mortal nature to its offspring and became nothing more than stolen life - that it didn't just absorb bodies, but souls too."

His husband blanched.

"It was just a theory," Ren hastened to reassure him. "No proof at all. But still. Probably not a good idea to suggest that possibility to anyone right now."

He lapsed back into silence. After a moment, the arm around him squeezed lightly and a freckled hand took the mug away.

"Move up a bit here," Charlie told him. "Trust me."

Again, Ren obliged. Charlie rearranged him till he was lying back in his arms again, holding him securely. He traced a hand over his bicep, his shoulder, through his shirt. Pressed his lips to the soft hair.

"Dash," he said.

"Yeah?"

"No. Why Dash?"

"Uh? You know why, you..." Ren paused. "Right. I guess you don't, at that."

"Tell me."

"I managed the Animagus transformation when I was forty three. Dash was the name of my form. It's changed now, now that I have, but then..."

Charlie's shoulders began to shake with laughter.

"Don't tell me," he said. "A pretty, mincing little hummingbird?"

"Got it in one," Ren confirmed with a grin. Charlie threw back his head and roared. It went on and on, and when he finally collapsed, gasping, Ren couldn't help but laugh himself, just at the sight.... He pushed himself up a bit, and kissed him. There was no hesitation; Charlie just wrapped him up mid-chortle. An inadvertent elbow to the ribs turned to an impromptu wrestling match, that in turn again, degenerated quite quickly...  After a few moments, the wrangler tried to disengage. Ren shook his head.

"No," he said. "Don't. I'm fine, really." He caught his mouth again. It was slower this time... Lying half-pinned beneath him now, Charlie shifted a bit, his eyes closing and his ginger and gold lashes shining in the firelight against the ruddy brown curve of his cheek. Ren hesitated, then firmed his mouth and swung off him.

"Sit up," he ordered. Charlie obliged, eyes quizzical - and sucked in his breath as Ren straddled him again, this time sitting squarely astride his lap.

"Mate..."

"Shh." Ren ran his hands over his shoulders, warm beneath his t-shirt. They kissed again... When they paused for breath, Charlie's brown eyes were heavy and bright, his lips were slightly parted, and his  solid, sturdy hands were running  warmly back and forth over Ren's thighs. Ren could feel his desire radiating through the link, warm and direct and straightforward as the man himself, and intently focused as the eyes fixed on his face now. His stomach lurched. He felt the dragon around his torso shift restlessly. Waiting, and through the link again, there was suddenly the added awareness of a fourth party - Karrash, entwined around Charlie's torso. The distinct, heavy feel of active magic rose, not just filling, but saturating the room and his senses, all aimed toward the one inevitable end.

Ren closed his own eyes, struggling to breathe, acutely aware of his own body, and even more aware of Charlie's - the solid thick shoulders, the ropes of muscle, the flat, hard angles, the sturdy, powerful strength of his hips and thighs, the smell of him, the sound of his soft, aroused breathing... The palms of his hands, his fingertips seemed almost painfully sensitized as they rested on the soft, worn wool of the cardigan snugged around the other man's shoulders. Without moving them away, he curled his fingers inwards till the nails bit into his palms, dizzy to the point of fainting with a sudden rush of pure want that made the moments on the dais with Malfoy fade into nothingness. He began to shake, hard, in long full-bodied tremors. With every shudder, his own arousal grew exponentially.

"Mate? You still with me?"

"Yeah." Again he was struggling to breathe. "D'you... D'you think they'd back off if we asked them to?"

"Don't think so, mate." It was softer - positively gentle. "Our first time, whenever that is... It's part of the magic. Their magic. S'pretty obvious, yeah, that whatever happened in the dome... We're not quite done."

"What?'" Ren opened his eyes at that, startled back to awareness. "But you're healed! The horcrux is gone!"

"Yeah, but they're not, are they? The link... the tattoos... They're not just portraits or after-effects after all. We wouldn't be feeling them like this, as individuals, if that was all there was to them. Whatever gift they're leaving us... That we thought they left us... There's more to it."

"So what's going to happen?"

"I don't know," Charlie said honestly. "I do know, though, that they don't mean us any harm. That whatever happens... It will be born of their love, and their love for us, and ours for each other. And in all of that, there's nothing there that can harm."

Ren sat up and lifted his t-shirt, looking down. A black scaled head twisted to look up at him on a sinuous spiked neck... Eyes, red, orange and gold as flame gleamed demurely beneath. Charlie reached out and ran a hand over the taut, hard planes of his belly, along a half-furled, bat like wing.  The black scaled lids were hooded to bare slits now. Ren's mouth was suddenly dry as he looked down at the fingers now resting against his bare flesh, just above the waistband of his pajama trousers. In the stillness of the room, he thought he saw a shadow move under the white fabric of Charlie's t-shirt... Ringing in his ears were suddenly four heartbeats, not two. The air felt  tight and hot and expectant.

"Charlie." His voice sounded distant even to his own ears.

"Yeah, Dash." The rough, intimate tone was back. The fingers trailed slowly down, tracing the elastic of his pajama trousers. The fire crackled.

"D'you remember... I know you said you hadn't... That after you fell in love with me, you never... But d'you remember what to do? With another bloke?"

There was another pause.

"Yeah," Charlie murmured. "Yeah, mate. I reckon I do, at that." The finger traced its way up again, up his arm, over his shoulder, along the tendon by his ear, and down the length of his jaw. A thumb brushed his lips. They parted automatically. Ren  could almost- no, no almost about it - feel the wings unfurl, and the dragon wrapped around him stretch lazily in anticipation.

"And it doesn't make any difference to them that we're bent?"

"No. When they're not actually in their procreative cycle, all they care is that there's someone to give it and someone to take it.'

Ren's breath caught harshly at that. Charlie waited, one thumb now lightly rubbing the pulse-point under his jaw, his second hand splayed warm and fully over Ren's upper thigh. His fingertips moved in tiny small circles. Already hard as rock, Ren felt his balls tighten and spasm a bit, and his briefs dampen  correspondingly. A low, deep hissing echoed through his mind, and an answering one, from Charlie's. Charlie's second hand moved away from his thigh, up under his rucked t-shirt again till came to rest over his quick-beating heart. He smiled up at him a little crookedly. Beneath his rear, Ren felt him shift: the thick, rigid length of his cock surging and pulsing strongly through the sweatpants.

"How much of this is them," he managed. "And how much is us."

"It's all us, mate," Charlie said. "You, me, this moment, this time, this place... S'all there is, I reckon. And yeah, they're here too, through us, but when it comes down to it they're along for our ride, not the other way around. They can't force it. It has to be our choice, and I told you, didn't I, that I'm taking myself out of the equation there? It's your choice. Nothing will happen, nothing is going to happen, nothing will ever happen, Ren, unless and until you want it to."

It was solid, firm and immovably absolute, and not entirely directed at him either. Ren could actually feel the dragons sulking, and sense the emotional flint in the warm brown eyes through the link as the wrangler stared their souls down. He sat up fully.  Charlie's hands withdrew immediately. He swung off his lap and ran both of his hands through his soft brown hair.

"I think," he said. "I think... I'm a bit scared again, Charlie."

"Of me ?" It sounded genuinely bemused, and the tension was suddenly gone, and or rather translated to real and bemused mirth, and Ren looked over his own shoulder, startled. The brown eyes crinkling at him were shining and warm, framed by the familiar lopsided grin, round brown cheeks, and riotous ginger and gold curl, all complemented by the blue sweatpants and  white t-shirt, the ancient cardigan with the patches on the elbows and brand new white athletic socks already working a tiny hole at the left toe... The magic was still there, the arousal was still there... But...

Charlie grinned at him whimsically - then crossed his eyes and stuck his tongue out at him. Ren let out his breath in a whoosh and laughed, suddenly feeling more than a bit ridiculous.

"No. No." He scooted over, back into the crook of the comfortably extended arm again. "I'm just being a bit of a virgin, I guess." He pulled up his own t-shirt again and looked down severely. "Big drama queen. If you two bugger up my entry to the Invitationals, I will deactivate you permanently."

"Never mind you," Charlie said truculently, and prodded at the disgruntled Mola. "They'll bloody well have to deal with me . I can't wait to see you go all out, specially after missing you last Saturday."

"Mm. Not to change the subject, but I can't help but feel I'm cheating a bit there, yeah?" Ren confessed. "I mean, a hundred twenty five plus years of experience, never mind the twelve decades of extra spells to work with? Kind of a bit of an unfair advantage."

"No problem. On the subject changing, I mean. We've got all the time you want." He squeezed his shoulders. "Though that being said, I wouldn't go clearing the mantle just yet. You'll have a bit more of an advantage than you might have had if all the South and Central Americans hadn't pulled out, but you're still going to have to work for it."

"The... Uh?"

"At least five out of the top ten contenders in the Invitationals here always, always come from that part of the world. Professional athletes,  DADA experts - the jungle has more to be going on with than leths - duelists and Warders. They all come from either Brazil, Colombia or Venezuela: the three hardest hit countries, and they're all you ."

His husband stared at him.

"Seriously?" he said. "Seriously ?"

'Yup." Charlie reached for his tea again, flicked it hot, and sipped. "Mm. You may have twelve decades' worth of spells on them, but they... They have almost a millennia and a half, if you do the back maths to the first numbers, of incentive .   Creative incentive."

Far from looking put off, Ren just looked intrigued, half-turning to look at him. "Will they fight if I ask them to?" he asked.

"Uh?"

"If I send a letter asking them all to re-enter. And to have at it... Would they? I mean, it's not about Warding, is it, and that's how we got rid of the leths. Dueling is a completely different skill set, right?"

"Yeah," Charlie said. "And they're probably hoping you will. They're being polite and all, but you're their pin-up right now, and... What the bloody hell? Oi!  Oh for... Dash... Really? Now ?"

"I'll just be a sec with it; I just need a sec." Ren scribbled intently on a sheet of parchment by the window, and went to the floo, Summoning his wand. It flew down the stairs into his waiting hand. "There we go." He tapped the grate in an intricate pattern. A disembodied voice sounded pleasantly.

"You have reached the International Floo Network's All-European Calling Center. Please state the city, province, state or territory, country, name and specifics of the individual you are attempting to contact, in that order.

"Amsterdam: Holland," the Warder directed. "Master Gustavus Richards: Head of the International Masteries Board. "

There was a brief flash, then...

"Master-Adept Cartwright?" The Head of the International Masteries Board (IM Warding: Spellcast) looked genuinely startled as his head appeared in the fireplace. "Is everything alright? What can I do for you?"

"Hey, Master Richards. I need to get a message to all of the contenders who withdrew from the Global Invitationals. Do you know any of them?"

"Of course."

"Awesome. Can you give them all copies of this, please?" He held out the parchment. Richards' hand popped out and took it.

"Dear South America, Central America and the Pacific Islands," his head read. "I really  appreciate your lovely gesture, but honestly, the Invitationals just won't be the same without you. I'm therefore asking you, as a personal favour, to reconsider your collective withdrawal. I'm really good at Warding, but I've never had a chance to duel against anyone else on the International level  just for the joy of it, and I think if we're honest with each other, that most of you would say the same. I think it's time to amend that. I promise I won't be upset if any one of you kicks my ass, and I'll be even happier if any of  us manage to get past Namirembe Obonyo-Higgs. They go on about her over here like she's the Second Coming, and while I'm sure she's a perfectly lovely individual, it's really, really annoying. Nundus, pfft. You know how you get rid of a Nundu? You ride in on your broom, cast an expanded impermeable bubble head charm around it, suck out the oxygen from the interior, and watch it suffocate on its own bad breath. Fondest remembrances, Ren Weasley-Cartwright. P.S. I'll be happy to teach you all the modifications to the laundry spell and the adapted Scourgify that I incorporated into the fence. In turn, will you please teach them to everyone who needs to know; I'm pretty sure we got most of the fuckers, but one left is one too many, and the spells can be used on individual leths as well as groups (no Horntails or happy thoughts required). The associated runic/spell warding sequences I incorporated can be worked around the perimeters of any building, vehicle, or village/city border, and I'll be publishing those soon too. If you need an extra pair of wands for any of it, let me know. I am, as always, at your service. RWC.

Across the room, on the sofa, Charlie lay back, limp and howling with laughter. Gustavus Richards' expression was nonplussed, to say the least.

"Impermeable bubble head charm ?" he repeated.

"Yep. Works just like magic, once you get past the spikes anyway. See you in New York on Christmas Eve?"

"Of course. And thank you. I will deliver the messages.'

"Awesome. Bye now!"

Richards withdrew his head from the floo. Charlie gasped weakly.

"I love you, Dash Weasley-Cartwright," he said. "I love you so bloody much. Get over here. Now."

Ren grinned sheepishly, and came to sit beside him again as he struggled up.

"Sorry," he said. "I just..." He squawked and flailed a little as Charlie's mouth covered his again. After a moment, he relaxed into it, and opened his own mouth. The kiss was strong and firm, the laughter echoing through the link, and then the wrangler turned and cupped his face in both hands, and it went from strong to breathtaking, and the laughter stopped, and Ren was on his back, Charlie lying over him this time with his hands, as they had the first night they'd kissed in front of the entire family, tangled in his hair. The room went airless again, and when the dragons roused, it was with a roar this time, and...

"Will you two knock it off ?" Charlie said, irritated. Ren blinked, startled, as the other man lifted himself slightly and tugged the collar of his own shirt away from his throat, glaring down at his bare chest beneath. 'We are not your bloody proxies ! Also, whatever happens, it is not happening on this sofa. Arms around my neck," he said to Ren.

"Erhm. What?"

"We're going upstairs. Snogging, shagging, sleep... Whatever you want, but this sofa isn't cutting it. Put your arms around my neck."

Ren obliged. Charlie slid his hands under his rear and flexed, heaving and standing.

"Legs around my waist," he directed.

"Aren't I kind of heavy for this?"

'I wrangle dragons for a living, mate. I think I can manage you, yeah?"

Ren said nothing more, just locked his legs and threw his head back, closing his eyes as his husband carried him, kissing the exposed strong line of his neck and throat, up the gleaming spiral stairs and down the hall to their bedroom.


 

The master bedroom was not, in fact, a bedroom, but an entire semi-open suite: beautifully appointed with angled, high and raftered ceilings and not one, but two huge fireplaces. The bed was enormous, the head and foot-boards made of the same glowing wood in the furniture downstairs. It looked, Ren thought, near excessively enticing and intimidating both, piled high as it was with soft creamy sheets, warm blankets, thick hand-made quilts, and a small mountain of fluffy pillows... Candles shone and flickered everywhere, and the shadows of the snow fell outside the dimly lit windows.  

Charlie lowered Ren back on the bed till he was on his back, and slid in beside him. He arranged the blankets tidily as Ren tugged his own shirt off, then hooked his thumbs into the waist of his pajama trousers. Even as he began to push them down, Charlie reached and over stilled his hand. Ren looked up.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Not unless you want it, mate. Not unless you want me.  I told  you, no regrets going in or coming out, and I meant it. You have to be sure. And I have to be sure you're sure."

The fire crackled quietly. More snow drifted silently outside the windows.

"I'm as sure as I'm ever going to be," Ren said finally. "It's not about them. I'm nervous, yeah, but I'm going to be at any point. I'm not nervous about you, Charlie. I'm nervous of everything else, but not you. Or me and you. And that's all that matters, I think."

And it was as if the expressing of the words made it true, because he found it was true. Charlie said nothing more,  just pushed the blankets back again and helped him out of the trousers. He guffawed, startled, at the sight of his shorts beneath: black silk and with several pods' worth of frolicking fuzzy gold puffskeins in compromising positions.

"Shut it," his husband said, embarrassed.  "Sirius gave them to me, and it's laundry day besides."

"Uh huh. No offense intended to my sister, but you were obviously married to a woman too long. S'not laundry day till you have to go without." Charlie slipped the shorts off him. Ren  lay back, naked and more than a bit self-consciously, on the pillows... The wrangler, in turn, sat back on his knees and looked him over, eyes trailing over every inch of him from cowlick to toes. Ren shifted self-consciously, flushing all the way down to his hipbones at his near-awed expression.

"I'm not all that," he said, embarrassed again. "Just a bit harder and fitter than most."

"You're perfect," Charlie said quietly. "So bloody beautiful. You take my fucking breath away." Still he did not look away, just shifted, sitting with his knees half-raised and his arms resting loosely over them as he drank in the vision before him.

"We're married now," the vision ventured eventually. "With the papers and everything. You are allowed to do more than look."

"I know."

"Do you want me to help you take your clothes off now? Might move things along a little, yeah?"

"Yeah. It prolly would. And no. Not yet."

"Why not?"

Charlie just offered him that crooked little smile.... Ren shivered a bit,  acutely conscious now, not just of his own nakedness, but of the contrast of that nakedness and his husband's clothed body.

"You really like this," he said. "Don't you."

"Like... What?"

"Being in charge."

"Is that how you're feeling right now, Ren? Like I'm in charge?'

It was soft, but that rough, intimate tone was back, and the use of his name, rather than one of his typical terms of endearment, went straight to Ren's cock. He shifted again, his hand reaching automatically to pull the sheet over himself.

"No. Leave it."

Ren stopped.

"It's not really a case of liking it," Charlie said. "It's just how I am." He reached out and  ran a hand over Ren's pecs,  the backs of his knuckles brushing the dragon wrapped around his chest. "We stopped where we started, really, I reckon. You seventeen, me twenty five... I knew a lot at twenty five.  More'n enough so when I laid eyes on you when you came to the Romania, properly... Without the crowds, or distractions... I could see that you were the type of bloke that wants... no, needs ... a wrangler."

There was no way that Ren could think of to respond to that.

"So what do you want to do?" he asked instead.

"Told you before, didn't I? Absolutely nothing you don't, and absolutely everything you do."

"I mean, how would it work."

"What? Me wrangling you?" Finally, Charlie reclined beside him, though he still didn't touch him... He looked positively innocuous, Ren thought, in the sweatpants and t-shirt and the worn cardigan, but the hole in the toe of his sock didn't offer him a sense of security this time. It just made everything...  

Real.

"Yeah," he said. "I guess."

"You learn to trust me day by day, as I show you moment by moment that I can be trusted." He leaned in to press a soft kiss to his lips.

"And it doesn't... Doesn't it bother you that I'm a grouchy old coot in disguise?"

A soft chuckle sounded at that.

"I slept through that part, remember?" Charlie said. "Last I saw you you were only a couple of years older than you are now, and as for the other... You were a grouchy old coot when you were eleven. And fourteen, and seventeen,and twenty five, and thirty... Bit of a theme going on there, yeah?"

"That's just a state of mind, though," Ren persisted.  "The other... I'm a hundred and forty years old!  That's ancient ! Like, older than our Dumbledore when he kicked it ancient! We always said he had to predate bloody God, and you're saying that it makes no difference to you? How can it not?"

"Because I didn't see it happen," Charlie said matter-of-factly. "Last time I saw you, you were only a couple years older than you are now so my awareness of your chronological age is purely intellectual. The way I see it, you're not a hundred-forty-year-old coot in a thirty-year-old body, you're a thirty-year-old  bloke with a hundred forty years' worth of memories. Memories that affect how you feel and how you act and what you think and do, yeah, but as for the rest...  I wasn't there to internalize it. Honestly, I'm just as shallow there as anyone; what I see is what I process. And you might have problems with your age but you didn't ask me about that, did you? You asked me if your age bothered me . And how it couldn't bother me, and how I see you, and I've told you. Can you accept that ?"

The man lying beside him said nothing. Charlie sighed."Get over here," he said. Ren turned about and lay, facing him, his head on his shoulder. Charlie kissed his head.

"This is how it should be," he said. "Not should have been, but should be. Now, in the here-and-now." He ran a strong, sturdy freckled brown hand over the ball of his shoulder. "Given that... D'you have any memories in there of being seventeen, and me being twenty five, at the Reserves?"

"Yeah. A few."

Charlie's voice dropped, rough and intimate again. "Tell me."

Ren moved in a bit, rubbing his scarred cheek against his shoulder.

"You were a bit older," he said after a moment. "I liked that. I loved your self-confidence. Your comfort with your own body. Your burns and scars. You earned them. I just got nailed by flying Dark magic And I liked the way you called me mate, even then. It has a very specific connotation on the Reserves, yeah, and I probably projected there as much as you ever did, at least during those months. In terms of specific memories... You were sitting on the fence, once. End of the day. Sun was just going down. Near the Ridgebacks. And you swung around and faced me, and you just... Your arms were bare, and you were wearing this leather vest and beat up jeans, and boots. And there were four dragons right behind you. Bloody buggering bollocking dragons . Full grown ones. And you patted the rail and said "C'mon, mate. Up you get. S'not a sight to be missed, this one.' And I remember thinking, no, it sure as hell isn't. And I came and sat beside you, and I dunno."

"Yeah you do. Tell me."

"I remember thinking that the only thing that would have made the moment more perfect was if you leaned in and snogged me," Ren admitted. "Course, it was probably better that you didn't. I would've fallen off the fence at your feet and got back up, or to my knees at least, and blown you right there and then."

"Sounds about right," his husband said. ''Cept I was thinking I'd bend you over the rail, rip your trousers down and shag you."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. The Ridgebacks would've gotten a show of their own, I reckon."

"I still think of you as older than me, though." Ren tucked an arm under his head. "Because you died, but you stayed with me. You always looked the same in my head, but then I never grew up in my head, so it evens out."

"I reckon I'm alright with that," Charlie said judiciously. "Not the you not-growing-up part, but you-thinking-of-me-as-being-older-than-you part, on that psychological level anyway. 'Snot got to do with anything we went through, after all; it's the way we were right from the beginning, not only chronologically, but psychologically. And that seems to be the same here, so it's just something that we have in common now, not part of the past that we're hanging on to."

"So what do you want?" Ren asked again. "Specifically?

"Tonight? Ideally? For you to put yourself in my hands. Moment by moment, and we'll see how it goes. If you don't like something, I reckon we'll both know, and we'll stop and talk it out. And yeah, I reckon we'll know even without the words because of the link, but it's not enough. So before we do anything else, I'd really like you to tell me what you want, mate, not just what you think I want to hear or what you think you have to say because I'd like it."

Ren shifted again, facing him. The hand on his bare hip was warm and solid, the brown eyes looking into his gentle, but firm.

"That'd be okay," he said finally. "You taking charge, I mean. For tonight, anyway. You know what you're doing. I don't. So... Yeah, I reckon it'd be okay. Good, even."

Soft lips brushed his, and the hand on his hip stroked him gently... Ren couldn’t help himself, he lurched into his touch. Charlie took it as the invitation it was, pulling him closer and running his hands all over him... Ren jumped as one of those hands came around to cup and squeeze his rear. Charlie mmed with pleasure. They resettled, Ren astride his lap again, kissing him urgently - and he bucked and cried out as a sturdy, freckled finger slipped suddenly between them, tracing down his shaft, once.

"So nervy, you," his husband scolded him gently. "You were always such a nervy little thing. First day in Romania you were so jumpy it hurt to look at you. I wanted to drag you into the shed and blow you boneless in every way there is. Let's relax you a little, yeah?" Ren just clutched at him as that sturdy, calloused hand, suddenly slick, curved around him and began to pump him in a simple, strong rhythm... His mouth fell open as his head fell back, and a husky little moan escaped him. He lurched up into his hand, rising on his knees and pushing hard into the working fingers, over and over and over.

"Now that's sexy, innit," Charlie murmured, watching his twisted face appreciatively. 'Fuck, will you look at you? You're so... Mm. Tell me when you want to cum, mate. Just tell me when you're ready. You can do that for me, yeah? Sure you can. Not saying you can't 'less it's on my say-so, just a bit of advance notice is all, and maybe a nice 'please, Charlie'  to go with it. I'm a wrangler, yeah, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate nice manners."

"Nggh...” Ren just pressed his forehead to Charlie’s thick shoulder and shoved frantically. “Charlie...”

“Yeah. Right here, mate. Right here. That’s it. Feels good, doesn’t it?’

“Shouldn’t I be doing this for you too?"

“Not this time. This time... Let me take care of you. Mm. So, so beautiful. I could watch you like this all night."

“I don’t...” His breath hitched at a particularly deft maneuver. “Oh God. I don’t look anything like you rememb... Ahhh...”

“No,” Charlie conceded, not ceasing his movements. “You don't. But you sound just like I’ve always imagined.”

“Fuuuck,” Ren moaned and threw back his head again, not concerned with grace or delicacy now, but just... "Charlie... Please, Charlie, can I..."

"Good mate. Good. Yeah,' he whispered. "Yeah. Now, Dash. NOW!"

And Ren cried out sharply at the sharp, snapped note of command, his entire body arching in his near- violent pleasure. Charlie caught his mouth as he spent, cock throbbing and jerking in his hand. They kissed hard, tangling tongues and sucking and biting at each other’s mouths as Ren collapsed on his back, gasping.

*

“Bugger me,” the reborn wizard said groggily when he'd caught his breath again. “That was just...”

“Fantastic?” Charlie suggested helpfully as he lolled beside him, grinning, and still fully clothed.  “Brilliant? Wicked, even? “

“Quick,” Ren excused himself. “Sorry. All else aside... It’s been a long, long time.”

“Hundred twenty odd years and still no cure for old age, eh?"

“There’s a cure, and a potion, for everything.  More of a mental long time.” He rolled onto his side with effort, taking the tissue offered him. When he was tidied, Charlie hauled him in.

“Your cock any different now?" he asked curiously.

“Mm?”

“After you changed. Were changed."

“I dunno. I guess? Bit thicker, and a bit longer too, if you straightened it. Never had that little bend before. The real mind-bender is the lack of chest hair.”

“Yeah, you always had a bit of a mat. D’you like it?’

“I do. All of it. I feel safe like this. Ordinary. I’m not ugly, I’m just a nice, ordinary looking bloke. Nothing that stands out but the scar, and even then, most people don’t chalk it up to Dark magic. They just assume I picked it up in a dueling match somehow. Or a ward setting gone wonky or something. Typical work related stuff.”

“Brilliant." Charlie ran a hand over his chest. “Definitely fitter than you look under the clothes. All muscle and biceps and pecs. You could be one of those Muggle mod....”

"Can I suck you now?" Ren asked abruptly.


 

They rearranged the pillows neatly. Charlie lifted his hips a bit, sliding down his sweatpants, settling back firmly and spreading his bare legs. His thighs were thick and strong, his hips sturdy. His appearance of stockiness was deceptive, Ren noted. There was not a spare ounce of flesh on him, just pure, unabashed muscle everywhere. His eyes widened as he absorbed the full view. It wasn't that his cock was so very long - an inch or so above average, maybe - but the girth looked...

Intimidating. It was easily three times as thick as Ren's own cock, and Ren was in no way unendowed.

"Erhm," he said.  "How..."

"Do as you would be done by?"  his husband suggested. "You're a bloke too, mate. The reciprocal's really not that hard to figure out."

Ren pushed his hair back at that and set his jaw, slipping, not down between his legs, but to his knees beside the bed. Charlie smiled down at him and swung about, settling on the edge. Ren jumped again at the sudden fist in his hair, pulling his head back... The cardigan and shirt were suddenly gone. Ren watched as the image of Karrash slithered over Charlie's back, over his broad, sturdy shoulder, down his arm, past his hand and over the point where they were connected... He jolted, crying out as he felt the second tattoo slithering onto his bare body and over his around his back to entwine with the waiting Mola.

'Wha... Ohhhhh...' he moaned again, closing his eyes tightly. The long not-scar was livid, almost tortured against his flushed cheek. Charlie leaned forward to kiss him, hard.

"Take your time," he said, and traced his mouth with a finger, and the side of his throat, stroking the pulse-point.  "Bit of a lot there to work with, I know. Wouldn't want you to hurt yourself on it." He loosened the grip on the soft brown hair slightly, just enough for Ren to bend his head. A soft exhaled breath sounded, escaping Charlie Weasley- Cartwright's lungs as a hot, wet tongue brushed over, then around the head of his hard, pulsing cock.

'Good mate," he whispered. "S'good. Yeah, like that. Ah, Dash..."  Ren didn't answer, just licked warm, firm stripes from the base of his shaft to the tip, cupping his sack gently and fondling it as he did so before settling in to suckle him diligently, as best he could manage it. Looking over his back, Charlie could see the two Horntails coiling around each other, wings unfurling and sinuous bodies entwining. Then the four heartbeats were sounding again, and Ren let out a guttural cry as his back bowed sharply, and Charlie saw that his husband was suddenly slick and glowing with sweat, caught in ecstasy and utterly radiant in the candlelight. He watched him, entranced, holding his own near-painful arousal firmly at bay till his Warder's body relaxed, and he bent his head again.

"So bloody gorgeous," he murmured. "Look at you, kneeling for me." Fingers still entwined in his hair, his free hand ran over Ren's shoulders, his arms. "Mm. You like the way I feel in your mouth, don't you, Dash? Mm. You're gonna like the way I feel in your arse even more.  I can't wait to be inside you. I'm gonna ream you, deep and slow till you don't know up from down. You gonna beg me for it a little, maybe? I'd like to hear that, mate. You got this little husky note now, makes you sound like you just woke up, or maybe got a bit of a sore throat from swallowing my cock. Maybe both. Maybe you'll try that sometime too, yeah? S'nice way to wake up. Maybe I'll wake you up like that tomorrow morning. Would you like that, mate? Waking up with my mouth around your beautiful, beautiful cock, hot and wet and sucking you till you scream?" He trailed his fingers over the flushed, scarred cheek. Pulled his head back a bit, and ran his thumb over Ren's mouth. Ren caught it and sucked it deep, bathing it with his tongue. Charlie's eyes half-lidded as he looked down at him.

"You look bloody good," he said in that rough, intimate whisper. "On your knees, Ren Weasley-Cartwright. 'S'where you belong, innit?"

Ren's mouth slowed and stopped. Through their link, Charlie could feel his sudden uncomfortable tension... He pulled his thumb out from between his stilled lips and raised his chin.

"Too much?" he asked directly. Ren shrugged, then shook his head, not meeting his eyes. Charlie touched his cheek. Again through the link, he felt the other man's discomfort; clearer and more defined now that the wrangler was directly focusing on it, and radiating, not distaste, but Ren's acute, near agonized embarrassment at his own visceral and fiercely aroused  reaction to this new lover's blatant and unapologetically dominant words and behaviour.

"C'mon now," Charlie said gently. "There's nothing to be ashamed of here, Dash. It's okay to want what you want. It is, mate, I promise."

Still Ren said nothing.... Charlie tugged him up, and across to the pillows again, and arranged him astride his lap once more, running his hands ran over him, warming him.... So intense was their connection now that he could feel the other man's reactions as if he were experiencing them himself. A sudden distinct image broke through, and he responded immediately and instinctively. Ren shuddered from top to toe, rising up on his knees and crying out loudly in deep, convulsive pleasure as Charlie hauled his head back by the hair again and leaned forward to sink his teeth hard into the tendon of his mate's neck. Ren lurched forward, clutching at him and seeking out his mouth with mindless desperation, tugging at him and trying to haul him back, his projected emotions nothing now but a blazing choate of magically enhanced need.

"Shh. Shh now. Easy." Charlie caught his wrists and held him. 'What d'you want, Dash? Tell me." Ren just struggled in his arms, using his full and considerable strength to try to turn over on his belly and haul him over his back. Charlie's lips firmed... The wrestling match that ensued was brief and furious, and when it was over, Ren lay on his back, firmly pinned and moaning wildly beneath him. Charlie just caught his chin in his hand and forced his head around.

"Look at me, mate. Focus." Behind the now-obviously draconically induced haze of lust, he saw the light brown eyes, so blown and glazed they were black, struggling to obey, and deliberately slowed his words so that they were out of sync with the thunderous rhythm of the entwined Horntails' heartbeats. "Good. Good mate. That's a good mate. I see you. I see you, Ren. Shh. Ren. Ren. Listen to my voice, Ren. Follow it back. Come on, mate.  Breathe. Breathe. In... Out... Shh. Shh. Shh."

Finally...

"Please, Charlie." It was slurred. "Wan' you so much. Insi' me. Please?"

"I know, mate. I want that too."

"Then why're we stoppin'?"

"We're not. We're just going to mix things up a bit first. "

"Uh?"

"I'm too big," he said clearly. "Too big to take you without being in complete control of myself, Dash, and I'm alright now, but once we get going properly, I won't be. Pretty obvious what they want, right, and how they want it: how they want us, but again, they are not the ones in charge here. They want to come along for the ride, that's fine, but it's going to be on my terms. I'm stating those terms right now. First time, you do me. That way if we lose it, it won't be at your expense."

The hiss of affronted, thwarted shock at that, Charlie thought, might have been frightening had he not been quite so familiar with the incorrigibly melodramatic nature of the breed... He just rolled his internal eyes at them.

Drama queens.

"You want me to... Really?" Ren was fully aware again, looking at him uncertainly.

"Yes."

"Are you sure ? I mean...  You're a virgin too, yeah? That way, anyway, in this body?  It's not going to be any easier for you than it is for me; I mean, okay, maybe some, but there are accommodation spells you could use on me, right, that would take care of the physical differentials and difficulties, and..."

"There are, and we'll use them, but it's not just about the physical. I need you to trust me on this, Dash, okay? Can you do that for me?"

"But you don't like it that way!"

"When did you hear me say that I didn't like it? Don't like it? I may not be inclined to take it mentally, but physical sensations are physical sensations, and my prostate and I are well acquainted. Excellent friends, in fact."

"Oh." Ren still looked uncertain, but the haze was returning again. "Only I don't think it's what they have in mind."

"Too bloody bad. They're not in charge here, like I said. Put your hand on me. Anywhere. Doesn't matter."

Ren obeyed, touching his bare thigh... And Charlie reached through the mental  link and yanked. Both dragons roared in fury... But Mola was back around his chest again.  There was a sharp, disorienting surge as the mental, sexual dynamic shifted abruptly and dizzyingly - then Ren was suddenly sitting up, his movements sinuous and fluid and his light, hungry brown eyes boring through him. Charlie cast a hasty wandless lube charm, followed by the aforementioned accommodation charm. He felt his arse slicken and soften, and turned to braced himself, back to Ren, on his hands and knees.

"You sure? Like this? S'not very intimate.' The words were token though, as the Warder moved behind him. Wide strong hands positioned him,  anchoring themselves on his sturdy hips.

'We can do intimate later. Right now, there's only one way I want it. Hard, fast, and dee..." He threw back his head and roared, blinding pain searing through him as Ren, without warning, placed himself and rammed forward, all the way, in one long, grinding stroke. Charlie's eyes stung and burned half with sweat and half with tears, but then the accommodation charm took full hold and the pain subsided. Through their link, he saw the image of the two of them together, Ren's head thrown back again, face blank and tight, and his own body, slick and glowing now as Ren's had been when he was kneeling before him rather than behind. For a single long moment, Charlie struggled to resist the overwhelming pull of the magic, but then Ren began to move within him, and the agonizing pain was somehow transmuted entirely to pleasure, and then he was feeling that pleasure not just from his own perspective, but from that of three others as well... It went on and on, building and building, washing over him as a tidal wave or a runic dome's worth of dragon fire; he was lost in it, senseless with it, burning with it, dying with it, over and over and over...

And then the world snapped  in two, and it was if they were all surrounded by fire again, and (s)he was flying, taking flight, h(er) great wings unfurling and Karrash's over them, and they launched themselves up and up and up, higher and higher, roaring together, and the sky was folding around them, and there was - they were - nothing but wings and sky and the crowning, eternal, hottest heart of blue.


 

They lay, Ren snugged in Charlie's arms as the wrangler trailed his fingers over his bare back.

"Did I hurt you?" he asked.

A kiss landed on his cowlick. "I reckon I'll be feeling it tomorrow," Charlie said. "But not in any way I'll regret."

"It felt good," Ren ventured after a moment. "I mean... Really... Really good."

A soft chuckle sounded.

"Yeah. It did, didn't it." He shifted a bit. Karrash, lolling contentedly across Ren's back, smirked at him. Charlie scratched the scales between the tattooed eyes affectionately.

"Stop that," Ren said. "You'll get him going again."

"Hate to tell you, but I don't think he's actually stopped. He's just letting us catch our breaths."

The fire crackled.

"So it's got to go both ways?" Ren said. "The one way wasn't enough? With them here, I mean?"

"It's not up to them. It's up to us. If you're not ready for that, they're just going to have to wait."

"It's not that. I'm not... It's just that I hurt you. At first. I know I did. I could feel it. Not.. I mean, not directly, but... I could feel you hurting."

"And you're afraid that I'll hurt you?" Charlie rolled to face him. "Mate, why do you think I insisted you do me first?"

"To take their edge off?"

"Mm. Horntails in rut are bloody buggering maniacs, especially the females, because on the purely biological level the higher their active hormone levels, the higher the likelihood of conception.  They actually have magics that boost mutual arousal there, and the harder it is to conceive, the stronger the magics are, to boost the odds."

"They don't actually think I'm going to get pregnant, do they?" His expression, Charlie thought, was rather priceless, and he didn't even bother to try to stifle his roars of laughter.

"No, no," he said when he'd recovered. "They're quite aware as individual and intelligent beings that we're both blokes, but their magic only identifies us as infertile. They know that too, so  they had to assign one of as the female equivalent before things got started tonight, and after spending all those weeks with you, they obviously decided that you're a more appropriate choice than I am. Not because of any preferred or instinctive sexual dynamic on my, or your part," he hastened to reassure him. "But because of your job."

"Uh?"

"You're a Warder. You saw Mola around her eggs. She's Warder Incarnate at those times. So they've decided that between the two of us you're the more appropriate mother, because you've proven yourself absolutely unparalleled there, and they could see, all else being equal, our genders included, that any future children, however we get them, would be safest with you. It's a compliment, really. The compliment from their point of view, because when it comes right down to it, it's not just the major, but the only criterion they've got."

"So they told their magic, however they do that, that I'm the woman, and it scanned you and saw you as fertile and me not, and so the magic poured everything it had at me, and left you alone?" Ren asked.

"Pretty much, yeah."

"Oh. Okay. That makes sense.  Well... Why did you argue with them, then? On who did who first?"

"Because they haven't had a proper shag in decades," Charlie said dryly. "They're called Horntails for a reason, yeah? They may only lay eggs two or three times in their lives, but believe me, they enjoy their regular conjugal benefits. And we are both men, and even if I hadn't had a cock up my arse yet this go around, it just wasn't going to hit me the way it's bound to hit you on the emotional and psychological level, and I told you besides, didn't I, that I want you with me when I make love to you the first time? I reckon it'll still be a bit crazy, but now that they've got their edges off, like you said, they might just consent to go shag in the metaphorical corner rather than inside our heads when we do oblige them. Or at least on the far side of the bed. And there's no getting around it, I am big, and we're not dragons, and there's no way in hell I'm taking you the way dragons think it should be done. Even with the accommodation spells, there wouldn't have just been pain there, there would've be damage. Serious damage, even, and whether we can heal you up or no, that is not, and never will be, my kink."

"So it would have been worse if you'd let them have their way? Size differentials aside? That. Erhm. The intensity we had just now would have been more so, because their magic wouldn't have been confused and put off by who was who?"

"It was a possibility. And not an acceptable one." Charlie stroked his hair. "Pretty sure it'll be fine now, though. I've got them where I want them, and now it's all down to what you want, and how you want it."

The link flared at that, sharply, and was just as quickly clamped. Charlie propped himself on his elbow.

"Sorry, I didn't quite catch that," he said. "Something you want to tell me?'

"No."

"Let me put it another way." He turned Ren's chin firmly. "Is there something I need to know?"

"I don't...." Ren hesitated. "No."

"Then why are you Occluding? If you've got nothing to hide from me on the subject, mate, there's no reason to block me out. You don't want to let me in, that's fine, but let's get one thing straight, right now. I'm not going in, to you, that is, until I'm sure... Sure... That you're okay with it. And right now, I'm not convinced."

He removed his fingers, but remained propped on his elbow. Ren didn't turn his head away, but he avoided his gaze. Charlie waited, leaving his own side of the link wide open, projecting calm reassurance and love as best he could. Finally, finally, the shields lowered...Through the link, he felt, again, from the other man, that deep sense of  yearning, and inarticulate, frustrated emotion: embarrassment and irritation, not at his own desires, but at his own acute reluctance  - inability, really - to express himself. He lowered his mouth, tilting his head slightly so he could suck and nip softly at his lips and cheeks... Ren's breath hitched, hard.

"Just tell me," Charlie murmured. "There's something you want to tell me, isn't there? No, something you want from me. Is that it?"

"If you can tell that, you can tell what it is, yeah?"

"Not really, no. I mean, I could probably make a pretty good guess, but..." Ren felt his lips turn up as he nuzzled his neck. "Little tip for you on wrangling your wrangler, mate. I don't just appreciate nice manners. They kind of turn me on, yeah? So if you apply them properly, in the proper context... I reckon you're pretty much guaranteed to get exactly what you ask for."

Ren just tilted his head to the side a little more. The hot, damp mouth trailed down, down... The candles flickered. His breathing grew ragged and loud. he bucked violently and gasped as Charlie sucked at his nipples, suddenly and hard. The inarticulate sense of yearning grew deepened, matched only by the overwhelming, roiling sense of frustration.

"I like it," Ren blurted. "When you... When you..."

The lips stilled. He moaned again, pushing up desperately against him. Charlie could almost see him twisting and fisting his mental sheets as he struggled. He sent a warm flood of tender amusement and love flowing back.

"When I..." he prompted.

"Charlie, please! You know what! Can't you just... Do it?"

"I don't just appreciate nice manners, mate. I reckon I know how to employ them too. What's the phrase again... Oh, I remember! After you."

"I like it when you tell me what you're going to do to me," Ren blurted, agonized. "I like it when you talk, I don't like talking,  but I like it when you talk; please, Charlie!"

Ren rolled over and away burying his face in his embarrassment. A firm warm hand rubbed his back. Slowly, slowly, the emotions coursing through the link calmed a little.

"Still that seventeen year old kid at heart," Charlie murmured. "I reckon it's how I knew it was really you, yeah, never mind the new look.  The face has changed, but that kid's still in there, yeah? The one who came the Reserves: the one who couldn't take his eyes off my arse in my leathers, or my hands working a spell, or my mouth the rest of the time... Nothing the Room can do to chase him off, because you want what I want, don't you, mate, and you knew I'd want to see him again. That I'd want to see you again, because when it comes right down to it... That kid was always mine. Always was, always has been, always will be. And now it's official, innit? He's even got a name now, posted for the whole world to read and acknowledge. Lawrence Domitian Weasley-Cartwright, husband of Charles Septimus Weasley-Cartwright. Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine ."

The  jolt of pure, bemusingly shy, and radiantly boyish pleasure he felt at that simultaneously broke Charlie's heart and took his breath away... He rolled Ren over and moved deliberately and heavily to lie over him as he hooked his elbows under his arms and buried his hands in his hair, holding his head still and firmly as he took his mouth hard, plundering it with his tongue. Under him, Ren practically melted into the sheets.

"We'll get there," the wrangler promised, when he pulled away for necessary oxygen. "We're going to go back to the Reserves, to where we started, really started, and fulfill every single fantasy either of us ever had about each other those months we fell in love with each other.'

"Even the one where we shag on the back of a dragon?"

"Especially the one where we shag on the back of a dragon. Dunno that the Horntails would go for it, never mind all those spikes, but the Tasmanian Steel-Hides?  Sweet a ride as you could ever imagine.  Didn't exist on our world, but then... Everything's possible here." Their mouths met again. There was only a minute's respite however, before the link started up again.

"I'm sorry, I just... I want to, but..."

“Stop thinking ,” Charlie said firmly. “That's my job. Here.” He reached over and grabbed his wand, extinguishing all the candles. It was easier, Ren thought, with just the firelight, and they rolled about on the bed, and soon- very soon – it was feeling like home... After an eternal sweet interlude of hands and mouths, of  hot and wet, of widened eyes and surprised flinching followed by completely unexpected, crashing waves  of pleasure, Ren threw back his head and gasped as he felt the lubricant and accommodation spells take hold. He moaned violently as Charlie settled between his legs, arranging them over his broad, sturdy shoulders as he lay over him, propping himself on one hand as  he reached between them with the other and placed himself.

“Ready, mate?” he said softly.

“Nrgh,” Ren said. “Yes. Please,” and Charlie half closed his eyes and...

Shit." It was decidedly strangled. "Oh my God, Charlie, oh...”

“Yeah,” Charlie whispered. “Oh, mate...” and taking a deep breath,  pressed again. "Christ, so tight. Ahhh...." he hissed. Ren wound his arms around his neck, scar livid against his flushed cheeks, eyes wide and startled and not-quite- pained as he looked up at him, unable even to moan at the sensations. "Gorgeous. Just... gorgeous. You're amazing, Dash. Here, move a little for me, yeah? Push back for me,  just a little now. Can you do that for your Charlie? Yeah, you can. Sure you can. Don't worry, it'll feel good soon. Little more now. Look at you. I'm inside you, mate. Inside you. We're one. Always. Feel me inside you, filling you, taking you. You're mine, Ren. My Ren. My Dash. My mate. My pretty little mate." His voice grew tighter and rougher, richer... Slowly, the pain faded. Ren began rock his hips, tentatively at first, then harder and harder, and soon he was twisting and shoving up to meet him, stroke for slick, hot smooth stroke.. A sheen of sweat broke out over him, his eyes clenched tight, and he could do nothing but gasp, arms coming up to wrap tightly around the thick chest and shoulders as Charlie wrapped him up in turn, face buried in his hair, and then, then, in the back of his mind, there was fire and glory and triumph and yes, yes, yes, yes.

“There are dragons in my head,” he said, half-laughing, half-strangled again. “Charlie... There are dragons in my head! Singing!"

Charlie said nothing, lost in the magic as he threw his head back, bracing himself on his sturdy hands and slinging himself forward deeply and smoothly. Ren wrapped his legs around his solid,sturdy waist clenching his eyes again. The singing was building, and building.

<Harry?>

<oh for... not now, Gin!>

A laugh sounded.

<I have to go> Gin's voice said. < For good now.   It’s time. Be happy, my Harry.  Live well... Both of you. I love>

"Christ," Charlie gritted. "Oh Christ. I'm gonna cum, mate. I'm gonna cum inside you. Ren, Ren...Cum with me, cu...   AHHHHH!" The roar filled Ren's ears: three distinct voices and his own joining them, four heartbeats slamming as one, rising, flying, spiralling back into the endless hot blue...

And for the second time in three days, the world exploded in dragon fire.


 

They lay, bodies slick with sweat and exhaustion, and their hearts slowing and untangling as they returned to their singular steady paces. The flames withdrew slowly. When all was still and quiet again, Ren began to weep harshly, stunned. Charlie wrapped him up, unabashed in his own emotion.

"Did we... Are they..."

"Gone On," Charlie confirmed, wiping his round cheeks. "Bugger me, that was just..." He jumped as Ren caught his wrist. "What..." He blinked to clear his eyes. Around his wrist, spiraling past his elbow up to his shoulder, was a close, encircling strand of what looked like  finest black-scaled wire, flickering crimson and gold and orange and blue. Ren showed him his own, matching, right arm.

"What does it mean, d'you reckon?" he asked.

"That we really are married now. These are heartstrings, mate."

"Actual heartstrings?"

"Yeah." Charlie  touched his.  Shining, warm flames rose and wrapped around his fingers.  "I reckon they didn't burn out after all, just went straight from the wands into us, embodied in the tattoos maybe, and waiting for this moment to make the final leap On."

Ren reached out and flattened his palm against his husband's. The flames rose too from his wrist. Slowly, slowly, they faded, and the heartstrings along with them, till all that was left on both parts was smooth unmarked flesh.

"Where'd they go?"

"Dunno. Wherever it is dragon souls go in the After, I s'pose." Charlie turned him about. "Huh."

"What?"

"The tat's still there. But I think it is a tat now. A normal one.'

"Yeah? Here, let me..."

Charlie, too, turned. The tiny image of Karrash, hand-sized, perhaps, yawned up at Ren, stuffed his spiked nose under his wing and went back to sleep. A soft, not terribly delicate answering snore sounded from Ren's own back.

"Can we still..." Ren reached out mentally, tentatively, fumblingly, along their link. No images or distinct emotions returned, but a solid, comforting steady sense of thereness. He closed his eyes and placed his hand over his own heart. A strong double beat, not physical, but as the faint, but distinct echo of one note harmonizing behind the other, pulsed in a perfectly complementary rhythm that he knew that no healer would ever be able to detect. He took Charlie's hand and placed it over the wrangler's own heart, covering it with his own.

"Will it have any other effects, d'you think?" he asked. "I can still feel you, but not with pictures or emotions."

"We've got words to work with," Charlie pointed out. "In terms of communicating. They didn't. The other's not really necessary, yeah?"

"I'm not great at talking," his new husband said dubiously. "Well, about Warding, yeah, I can go on about that till the cows come home, but discussing my feelings is not my area of expertise."

"Lucky for us it's mine, yeah?"

"I suppose." Ren's shoulders tightened a little at that, and he sat up, pulling his knees to his chest. "Never mind expressing what I like when we're like this, I'm still a bit messed up, Charlie. No, a lot. Never mind the last hundred years, there's a lot I never told you about my life before we properly met. I mean, you know the basics, but... There are details. Stuff only my Mind Healer ever knew, and that was only because she could go into my head and see it."

"I figured. And there's no rush, mate. I know you'll tell me when you're ready."

"And if I never am?"

"Then you never are. I'm fine with either. Though, I don't think 'never' is a word that applies to our particular relationship."

Ren ran a hand over his hair.

"Just... Don't push, alright?" he said. "I don't react well to being pushed. At all. Just ask Sirius."

"I don't push. I wrangle."

"You know what I mean."

"I reckon I do, at that." Charlie leaned in and kissed him. "I won't push," he promised, and suddenly, cocking his head... "Dash?"

"Mm?"

"Question of the ages. You never told me; in revisited Animagical terms, what do you get when you cross a world-class Auror-slash-Combat Dueling-slash DADA expert forced to work his entire life in, and with, the Dark, and a Master-Adept in Warding with a penchant for wandering dimensions?"

"An answer that may make you entirely sorry you asked?"

"Ha ha. Hand me my wand there, would you?" He took the offered instrument and slashed swiftly. "EXPECTO PATRONUM!"

White light flared. Ren sighed as his husband gawked at the vision before him, half in fascinated delight, half in absolute revulsion.

"And now you know. I'm sorry."

"I do, and there's no need to apologize, but I'm not gonna lie to you, mate. I am almost entirely sorry I asked."

"Yeah. I get that. I still have to be careful when I'm passing a mirror, or never mind everyone else, I scare the piss out of myself." The Patronus crept over, scuttled around the bed and up over the foot-board, jumping down to poke at his foot under the blankets. Ren poked it back. It hissed at him and meandered off to investigate the underside of the night table. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't cast it again until after we get Riddle, not unless you absolutely have to. Only, it might help, you know? And well. He probably wouldn't be expecting it."

"Don't know how he could," Charlie agreed. "Far as I know, he's never been to South America." He set his wand aside and turned to offer him his full attention. "Show me."

"Now ?"

"Mm."

Ren shrugged, and blurred.  Charlie held out his hand. The creature before him, fully a foot and a half across (excluding legs) scuttled over, rearing up and waving at him in a most disturbing manner... Charlie shuddered, reaching out gingerly to stroke the hideous head with a single fingertip. The Great UnNamed nuzzled him affectionately. He shuddered again.

"Christ. Don't take this the wrong way, mate; you know I love you, but you're creepy as fuck like this. Hagrid would absolutely adore you."

The Great UnNamed reared again, hissed at him, then blurred again. Ren, human once more, lay back comfortably.

"It might help, actually," he said. "Once the specifics are made known, in terms of cementing my reputation as a not-Dark Wanker. We aren't naturally aggressive, after all; we come across as scary, but we only attack as necessary toward the defensive end. Sweet as light, really, and alright, we're a bit poisonous-"

Charlie snorted with laughter.

"But we have to ration it. The natural chronic vitriol just isn't there."

"Brilliant. I'm happy to hear it. No webs in the house, now."

"Brazilian wandering spiders don't spin webs. We're assigned by St. Michael the Archangel to wander the floor of the jungle, a.k.a the roof of Hell, where no light goes, where prowl the lowest of the low, and where every predator who escapes through the outer reaches of Below is fair game for lunch."

"That the story over there, is it? You're great hideous venom-spitting multi-eyed hairy angels in disguise?"

"More like angelic minions, but... Yeah." Ren shifted again, and blinked all eight of his eyes at him innocently before shifting back. "Bit bigger than the standard version, mind you - we're generally only five or six inches across, legs included - but that's not a problem, right? Probably just reflects again that people see me as larger than life, and that I've always known that you like the big scary ones best."

"Mm. Just remember to warn poor Ronnie in advance. Mind you, I reckon that Ginny - Niamh," Charlie corrected himself. "Is going to want to do nothing but cuddle you. And Fred and George will encourage her on the principle that if she hugs you hard enough, she'll squeeze out poison for them to collect and use  in their experiments."

“Dunno.” Despite his distracted agitation, a wave of fatigue, so strong it was dizzying, fell over Ren at that.... He fell back abruptly. "Don't take this the wrong way; but as we're both blokes...  It's okay if we roll over and go to sleep now, right?"

Charlie laughed and settled beside him, pulling the sheets and blankets up around them. The fires in the double hearths glowed softly.

"Bloody adorable," he said fondly. Tenderly, even.  "Yeah. It is. C'mere, mate. Cuddle up, that's it."  Ren rolled up against him, into his arms. His husband hugged him hard, then firmly rearranged him, snugging up against his back and throwing an arm over him.  Ren tilted his head back...  A thumb traced his lips.

"Regrets?" the wrangler asked.

"No," the Warder said around a huge yawn. "It was perfect. You’re perfect."

"Mm. I reckon I am a bit, at that, aren't I? No transforming in your sleep, now. You've got great legs, but I'm pretty sure  there was absolutely nothing in the fairy tale or the vows about having to kiss a great hairy neo-angelic minion of God."

"You got it. No Hairy here: just Ren."

Charlie Weasley-Cartwright snorted with soft laughter, closed his eyes and fell soundly asleep.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, November 26, 1991

7.00 AM

 

The morning after the night before dawned right on schedule, and at 7 a.m precisely, the door to the master bed-suite of 259 Bolingbroke Court, London, swung soundlessly open. A young house-elf, clad for the day's labours in a crisp, bright red tea towel, matching high-top trainers, a red bandana tied pirate-style, and a gold ear-cuff in the shape of a tiny, smoking and ruby-eyed dragon, slipped through, directing a hovering trolley over to the larger fire-place.

A quick inspection revealed that the coals of the fire itself had cooled to the point where they required active encouragement. A quick quiet snap of the fingers relit them. The elf snapped again, and a small breakfast table appeared, along with two comfortable chairs. Humming under his breath, he began to lay out the tea service... No sooner had the warmed plates and the sterling silver coffee carafe hit the linen table-cloth, though, than the enormous pile of blankets, quilts, sheets and pillows on the bed opposite exploded, revealing an extremely naked and tousle-haired Charlie Weasley-Cartwright. The dragon-wrangler  yawned, scratched, blinked, and squinted.

"Vinny?"

"Master Charlie!" The young house-elf waved at him. "Happy Wednesday! You is looking very bleary this morning; can Vinny be offering you coffee to be helping you along there?"

"Yes. Absolutely. Three lumps, please, enough cream to drown 'em, fill it to the brim, and send it  over with the spoon. No, don't stir it; I like to do that myself. Mm. Are those home-made crumpets ?"

"They is." The elf prepped a huge mug swiftly. "With Master Charlie's favourite: blueberry honey butter!" He sent the coffee spinning over. "Is you sleeping well?"

"Very well, thank you." Charlie set the coffee on the night table, patted the blankets, then lifted them and peeked under. "I seem to have misplaced my husband, though. Have you seen him? Perky hair, pretty eyes, intriguing scar, fantastic arse..."

"Master Ren is being gone for a run, Master Charlie. He is waking up early, and is leaving a note for Vinny asking him to be letting you know that he is being back...." The elf cocked his be-jeweled ear as the door below opened, then closed. "Now."

"A run? It's the end of bloody November! There's snow out there!"

"No rest for the wicked." Ren appeared, red-cheeked and chilled, catching the coffee spinning his way deftly in one hand, a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice in the other, and slurping from both in turn. "Or for those now in official training for their Grandmastery. The snow just provides resistance. Morning, Vinny! Nice shoes!"

"These is not being shoes, Master Ren," Vinny said reprovingly. "Master Lucius is saying that all peoples is having the inalienable right to warm feets, and that feet-warmers in shoe-shapes is merely being the fashion now. And as he is being the Head of House Malfoy and by very definition the glass of fashion, never mind the mould of form, Vinny imagines that he is knowing what he is talking about."

"Uh huh." Ren slurped his coffee again as Charlie sputtered with laughter. "And the not-hat?"

"It is being a hygienic necessity when cooking. Nobody is liking hair in their food, is they?"

"No," the Warder agreed, refraining from obvious comment. "They is not. Well, it's a good look for you anyway, so feel free to adopt whatever terms and conditions that Master Lucius has assigned you on the subjects while working for us." He mm'd as Charlie came over to offer him a kiss. "Sorry. I stink."

"You do," his new husband agreed. "What's the weather like out there?"

"November. London. That's all there is to say, really."

"No. It is not." His husband took the mug and the glass firmly from him and set them aside. "Thanks, Vinny.  Everything looks brilliant; now set everything to warm, will you, and then you can take a breather till we call you again. Feel free to raid the bookshelves at whim."

"Thank you, Master Charlie!" Vinny beamed at him, and cracked out. Thirty seconds later, Ren's clothes, too, were disposed of, and the Warder found himself propelled firmly into the steaming shower and shoved face-first against the wall, hands magically pinned above his head as his husband  pulled him back by the hair to kiss him hard.

"Good morning, mate," Charlie breathed.  A strong arm slid around Ren's taut, narrow belly, holding him tight  as the second dove down to grab and stroke deftly and hard...  Ren threw back his head as strong teeth sank into the tendon at his neck, and screamed till he was hoarse: rising on his toes, every muscle in his back and legs and arms bulging... Just as he was about to climax, a firm hand clamped round the base of his cock, leaving him bereft, disoriented and shaking.

"What are you... No, don't stop, don't... Why are you... Uh!” He gasped as he found himself spun around and arms magically pinned again. "Charlie, what..."

"Didn't I tell you last night how I planned to wake you up, mate?" his husband purred. "I was a bit disappointed, I must say, when I reached for you this morning and found you'd run off on me."

"Wha... Ohhh..." Ren clenched his eyes shut in anticipation as Charlie dropped to his knees before him, the steaming hot water parting neatly around his bright tousled head.

"Mutual consideration," his husband informed him. "Is the foundation of any good marriage, Dash-o'-mine, so let's get one thing straight now, yeah? If you want to get up early to train, that's fine, but you will ask me permission first - either before we go to sleep, or by waking me up and letting me know before you leave the bed. And if you choose the second option, be aware... You're going to have to work a bit harder ..." He inhaled deftly and strongly. Ren bucked and howled.  "To make up for the fact that you are waking me up. I'm no more of a morning person than I've ever been, in any world. S'why I like working with Horntails.  All that swooning about wears them right out, and they never get up before ten."

"Mnrgh," Ren managed. "Okay, I..." It trailed off into a most undignified series of cracked moans as Charlie began to tease him with his tongue and lips, drawing him in tightly inch by inch, releasing him, then sucking him in a little further each time. "Oh Charlie, that feels so good, oh..."

"Course it does," his husband said, releasing him with a wet pop. "Now. Suppose you tell me how sorry you are for abandoning me the morning after our wedding night, Master-Adept Weasley-Cartwright. And make it sincere now, because the more sincere you are, the more sincere I'll be. In the meantime... Let's call this..." He licked delicately, gently, his tongue barely brushing him. "Our baseline."

"Nrgh." It was nothing short of a whimper. "I'm sorry, Charlie, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, I'll never do it again, I promise, I swear,  AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, I'M SORRY I'M SORRY I'M SOR..." Then two fingers were suddenly sliding deep up inside him as Charlie swallowed him, hard, all the way. Caught in the rippling soft vise of his throat, and with the additional internal stimulation, Ren very nearly convulsed. Charlie rose quickly and caught him, easing him down to the floor of the tub, kissing his dazed eyes and then his mouth, slowly and deeply as he murmured and praised him and stroked him all over with his hands.

"That's it. That's it. There," he whispered as Ren's tortured breath returned slowly, slowly to normal. "There now. That was good, wasn't it? My good little mate. I love you so much. C'mere, you. C'mere. I got you, Dash. I got you."

Ren just turned and burrowed into the shoulder, climbing half in his lap... Charlie held him close, Summoning the soap, and washing him gently and thoroughly beneath the running water as he kissed his sodden hair and forehead and cheeks and murmured at him. Ren burrowed in further, mumbling back contentedly... Charlie couldn't help but laugh at him.

"Words, yeah?" the wrangler encouraged. "They're our friends!"

"Mm." Recovered, Ren sat up a bit and brushed the water off his face. "With friends like you, who needs words?"

"And here I thought you appreciated my essentially articulate nature. Up we go." Charlie helped him up. "Shampoo?"

"Yes please. I do. I was talking about me again. And now that we don't have two dragons heckling us, I'll be able to pay proper attention when you tell me what you want, as opposed to them telling me they want."

"There's that. Well then. Down you go again. Mm. Look at that. Now, when we last left off, I was just telling you how good you looked on your knees, and I reckon you were about to learn the fine art of accepting a compliment graciously when your mouth is full..."


 

Twenty Minutes Later

"So what's on your schedule for today?" Ren asked as they lolled by the fire, coffee carafe and toasting forks at hand and the plate of crumpets between them. "After we bring Billy over to St. Dymphna's, anyway?"

"You tell me." Charlie slathered his third crumpet with butter and raspberry jam and mmm'd. "So wicked. God bless the teenaged metabolism, and whoever invented butter. Just point 'em out and I'll kiss 'em. With tongue, even." He bit luxuriously.

"Slag. Well, I'm due up at the school for Jax's second surgery at ten, and am having my first meeting with Leanna afterwards, but you don't have to hang around for that."

"How long will the surgery take?" his husband wanted to know.

"An hour, maybe? Second's the shortest, now that the lower layers have set in the bones. Top layer takes the longest, that'll be three solid days of work what with the tattoo she's chosen, and it has to sink deepest to knit the three layers together besides. We're saving that one for the week between Christmas and New Year's, and she'll be ready to come back when the new term starts."

"It's gone well so far, though?"

"Yeah. Though I'm not too thrilled with her family, let me tell you."

"Uh?"

"They haven't been in to visit once. I asked Poppy about it, and she just said that the family business keeps them really busy this time of year. She wasn't excusing them, and I didn't go on about it, but still."

"They'll be in next week, probably," Charlie said practically. "Rush season'll be over then."

"Rush season? What's that? And wait, you know Jax’s family?"

"Who doesn't? Her dad is recruiting manager for the Anglesey Afancs, and her stepmum doesn't just recruit for, but owns, the bloody Wrexham Wyverns."

"The... Uh?"

"Cross-dimensional differentials again. Back home, remember, the Great Britain Quidditch teams would scout out the major Magical schools for hopefuls? Here, each of the four countries have what they call Junior Feeder leagues - formal training schools for younger kids who want to have a go there and want an environment to maximize their potential before their official tryouts."

"Sounds like fun. You ever think about it?"

"Nah. My second year at Hogwarts one of the guys from the Cardiff Turtledragons came through, saw me flying the pitch and offered me a scholarship on the spot - said I could play for England for sure - but Mum vetoed it. Said it was all very nice, but I needed the full formal education first - the league schools aren't that great on the academics, or at least not that comprehensive - and she didn't want me to limit my options besides. Said nobody knows what they really want at twelve, and if I did decide it was what I wanted, I could try out for the big leagues directly once I graduated, since I wasn't likely to lose my talent. I was upset at first, but then I took COMC my third year, and fell in love with dragons. Never looked back."

"Any of your brothers ever try out?"

"Fred and George did end of last year and made it to the second round, but they dropped out then because they were being recruited by different teams."

"Really? But they work best as a pair; they always have. Wouldn't the recruiters have recognized that?"

"They worked best as a pair back in our world," Charlie corrected. "They still play as Beaters for Gryffindor, but when it comes right down to it, Georgie prefers Chasing. Sometimes, some of the teams are only recruiting for one or two potential types of players rather than the whole spectrum, and the team the boys had decided on had already picked their Chasing candidates by the time their audition came up. They tried out together anyway, and they said they'd take Fred, and offered to hook Georgie up with one of the other recruiters who was still looking for Chaser candidates, but they said no, they wanted to be together. Just as well, really. Mum was dead set against the idea, but they whined at Dad enough so he snuck them in. She didn't talk to him for a month."

"What's she got against Quidditch?"

"Nothing. She's just not a big supporter of the Junior leagues. The idea of them, I mean. They train a lot of kids, they get their hopes up, they focus their entire hopes for their futures on them, and only a few ever make it, right? The rest... They crash out when they graduate, and haven't built themselves up any alternatives. Haven't even imagined any other alternatives. And with the substandard education that they get there, no good or realistic prospects."

"If that's all true, I  can't say I disagree with her objections."

"No," Charlie agreed, polishing off the last of his crumpet and sitting up to scrape up the last of his coffee-soaked sugar. "I reckon I get it now, but I didn't when I was a kid. One thing's for sure though, there's a reason she doesn't discourage Niamh from her obsession with speed-racing. They don't have schools for that, and if she did like Quidditch, she'd be the best of all of us, me included. She'd have every team in Great Britain holding lotteries to see who got her, and she's so stubborn and so much Dad's special that nothing Mum could say would stop her, or him from letting her, and wouldn't that be a waste? Bloody next Newt Scamander, that girl. Really, Castelobruxo is the perfect option for her, no matter which obsession she chooses to follow."

"We'll make sure she's settled, one way or the other." Ren, too, sat up. "So… Billy, surgery, Leanna ... I should be done by twelve-thirty. Lots of time to get dressed and ready and prep a nice little anxiety attack to be going on with before we have to leave."

"You worry too much, mate. Really. It'll be fine." He prodded him. "C'mon. It's Lucius Malfoy. I know I’ve said he’s decent enough, but you're telling me that you, of all people, don't get even a bit of a kick out of the thought of putting him at the disadvantage?"

"No," Ren said bluntly. "I don't. He might look the same as the Malfoy we knew, but that's it, that's all. And even there... There are differences. He's taller, for one."

"Is he?"

"Yeah. Our Malfoy was five ten, tops. He just wore platform boots to raise him up, and had that chronic poker up his arse to straighten his spine. This one's six four flat-footed if he's an inch, and his hair's different too. Lighter, more icy, and his eyes are blue, not grey."

"You remember him that well?"

"Some people you don't forget."

"Billy's hair is deeper red here too," Charlie conceded. "Actually, there's a lot more variation in the ginger in the family than I remember. Perce was like, blond till he was eight. S'weird, but it's the bagged tea again, I reckon. And you noticed nobody has a problem telling Georgie and Fred apart here?"

"No?"

"No. Georgie's left eyebrow is almost triangular, and Fred's is straight. And his- Freddie's - voice is a touch deeper. Not much, but when they're out of the room and you hear them laughing, you can tell who's who."

"You look just the same." Ren smiled at him a bit crookedly. "Down to the freckles on your ears."

"I just hope I still get those extra two inches." The wrangler sighed dolefully as he looked down at himself. "Blimey, I'm short. I caught a glimpse of myself in the bank window next to Malfoy again and I looked like a total kid."

"You are a kid. A teenager, even."

"Yeah, yeah." He poked him, and hauled himself up. "You finished? Only we need to get a move on."

"Yeah." Ren waved the dishes back to the table and accepted the offered hand. They made their way to the closet. "VINNY!"

"Master Ren called?" Vinny popped in.

'Yeah." He rummaged. "Is there anything in here that's even remotely suitable for tea?"

"No," Vinny said unapologetically.

"You haven't even looked!"

"Is Master Ren having a suit in there?"

"Erhm. No?"

"Is Master Ren having any wizardy robes in there?"

"Erhm. No."

"Then there is being nothing in there that is being suitable for tea."

"I'll go shopping, mate," Charlie reassured him as he tugged on a pair of dark blue wool slacks, a royal blue button-down and a short matching robe. "And pick you out something nice. Want to come, Vinny?"

"Oh, that is not even being a question," Vinny said grimly. "Vinny is not sending his new humans to visit Mistress Niss and Master Lucius on Vinny's first day of work looking as if Vinny is not being able to take proper care of them. Vinny would never be hearing the end of it from Vinny's parents. Ever."

"You don't get along with your folks?" Ren inquired with interest as he browsed his stacks of t-shirts.

'Vinny is getting on with his mother, Bindy, very well. Dobby, on the other hand..."

"Your father is Dobby ?"

"Yes," Vinny said. "Is Master Ren knowing him?"

"I may have heard Draco mention him once or twice," he lied.

"Ah. Well, Dobby is being a good father, but he and Vinny is often suffering from what Master Lucius is calling essential personality differentials."

"Oh? How's that?"

He sighed. "It is being so embarrassing. Dobby is ..." He lowered his voice. "Free!"

"Um. What?"

"It is not being hereditary," he reassured him. "And Vinny is thrilled that Dobby is self-identifying and happy and whatnot, and Mistress Niss and Master Lucius is certainly not caring; he is still being an excellent Head House-Elf, but he is just being so..." He growled. It was absolutely adorable. "All 'If the elf is wearing the clothes of a free elf, and taking days off like a free elf, and accepting pay like a free elf, then maybe the elf should just be admitting that he is not quite as not-free as he is pretending to himself, mm?" The growl repeated itself. "Vinny is not free. These is not clothes , and Vinny is certainly not taking pay . Master Lucius may occasionally be offering a little something-something as a token of appreciation for Vinny's hard work, but that is not being pay. Also, days off is not days off. They is psychological maintenance days. Everybody is needing those once in awhile, Mistress Niss is saying, and it is not counting even as that much if Vinny is going with Master Lucius to the Muggle cinema. Everybody is knowing that it is a Muggle law that you is not allowed to go to the Muggle cinema by yourself. Master Lucius says. You is only being allowed to be buying seats in pairs, after all."

"Mm," Charlie agreed. "Alright. Well, we're off to take Billy over now, and then I'll be back to pick you up and we'll head off while Ren goes up to the school and does his thing. Meet you back here at one, mate?"

"Sounds good." Ren nodded. "Oop. Hang on. Incoming." He went to the window. The burly tawny hopped in, ruffling his feathers as he handed off a package with an attached envelope. "Lemme just… Here we go. ‘Dear Master-Adept, I'm so sorry but Professor Black keeps assigning us ACTUAL HOMEWORK  for History of Magic, and my mother says that if I don't bring my grade there up to an E at LEAST by Christmas week, she won't let me go to the Invitationals. I'M DYING, I KNOW, CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? Anyway, I've enclosed two binders with all my notes on the top twenty contenders; study them in time for our meeting Monday next; I should be caught up  by then, and THERE WILL BE A TEST!  LOTS OF NOTICE, NO WHINGING. Also they published your note to the SA and CA and PI contenders in the morning Prophet, and you are now officially my favourite person EVER, you have made my LIFE.  Leanna Tovis. P.S. Congratulations from all of us in Ravenclaw on your marriage! We're so happy for you both, and don't worry about Rhodes. She's consoling herself with Flint over in Slytherin now, and he's thick as a wall of bricks, but he's also written up in every broom closet in the castle, so she'll be happy again soon enough, or at least busy, which comes out to the same thing with Rhodes, at least during the Quidditch off-season. TEST! STUDY! GO!'"

"Wow," Charlie said. "She's enthusiastic, isn't she?"

"Yeah." Ren set the package on the side table. "She is. Also, she's got excellent timing. Vinny?"

"Yes, Master Ren?"

"Would you mind delivering a quick message for me to the Malfoys while Charlie and I are taking Bill over to St. Dymphna's?"

"Of course!" He poked his head out of the closet. "What is Master Ren liking Vinny to say?"

Ren told him. Charlie sank down on the edge of the bed, staring at him. Vinny leaned against the door.

"You can be doing that?" he whispered. "You is.. actually, actually ... being able to be doing that?"

"Yeah," Ren said. "We've actually talked about it a bit, in theory, last week on the day of my first exam, and...  Oof!" He staggered as he was suddenly hit with an armful of sniffling house-elf. He patted his back, bemused. Vinny slipped down, wiping his eyes.

"Vinny is going now," he said. "Right now ." He cracked out, and cracked back in. "Go," he ordered. "Take Master William to the hospice. Vinny will be finding you as soon as he is having Master Lucius' answer. Which is going to be yes, or Vinny is going to be having something to say about it!"

And there was another crack, and he was gone.


 

Castelobruxo School

September, 1970

 

It took Lucius Abraxas Malfoy exactly seventeen days from the morning of his arrival in Brazil to confirm the fact that his host school, protected though it might be from lethifolds, was yet suffering a noxious infestation of great blithering arseholes.

It was all harmless enough, he told, or rather tried to convince, himself his first week out... The impatient sighs, the disdainful rolled eyes, and the constant whispers and sneers aimed in his room-mate's direction were certainly not inconsistent with anything that Hogwarts' more socially challenged individuals experienced on the sadly regular basis. As it turned out, though, those first, relatively innocuous few days were down to Lucius himself, for as undeniably imposing and intimidating and purely foreign as he was, Castelobruxo's native-born students were both intrigued by, and wary of, his presence. As soon as they processed, however, that the young English import was a) not simply tolerating the universally despised Ramone Carriera 's company till his better options came along, and b) had only his off-hand to work with, the gloves came off.

By the end of the second week, the sighs, eyes, whispers and sneers had evolved into an endless stream of not-quite-punishable magical jabs from all sides. The Bite-Me-Bag Hexes aimed at his new friend's satchel of books, the Festering Foot-Fungal charms aimed at his shoes, the Stink-Ink Jinxes that distributed entire conjured bottles' worth of indelible inks over his schoolwork and robes, and, of course, that ever-popular standby of the unrefined and unimaginative the world over: the Pernicious Wedgie Hex... None were particularly insidious (and the Pernicious Wedgie Hex, as Ramone proclaimed, was easily avoided in any instance, and saved on laundry besides) but that didn't mean they reflected restraint on the part of the casters.  Truly harmful attacks, after all, as Lucius was well aware, demanded the personal approach, and all of the incoming were carefully chosen so that they couldn't be traced back to any one individual in any given crowd.  

Ramone himself seemed not particularly bothered by the unrelenting barrage of disparagement aimed his way.  It was, he told his puzzled and alarmed guest when he probed for particulars on the apparent school-wide campaign (for even the youngest of the students, once they'd noted the way the upperclassmen treated the particular individual, joined in like piranhas-in-training) simple jealousy.

"I told you that I am considered a bit much," he said matter-of-factly. "We have that theoretical philosophy of solidarity here in Brazil, but even so. Every family has its crazy cousins, heh? Here at Castelobruxo, I am the crazy cousin. It is not so bad," he added comfortingly at Lucius' austere Look. "And my unnaturally discomfiting levels of personal charm aside, there is my Other Little Issue to take into account."

"And what Issue would that be?"

"You will see," Ramone predicted. "I am not very good at hiding it."

And within another twenty four hours, Lucius Malfoy did see. His first lesson in speed-racing that first weekend should have given him the hint, he reflected... His room-mate was, indeed, as talented there as he claimed. That alone should have been enough to make him a hero of sorts at any school, but therein lay the difficulty - insofar as the particular individual was concerned, it was not, and never would be, a case of 'that alone'.

For Ramone Carriera, as it turned out, wasn't just phenomenally gifted at flying. He was phenomenally gifted at everything . There was not a single class he'd ever taken at Castelobruxo where he'd  not achieved perfect marks, and his equivalent OWL results had resulted in, not the European pinnacle of twelve mere Os, but nineteen shattered national records. Most astonishing of all, and as impressive as the form was, Lucius' jaw had hit the floor with an earth-shaking thud when Ramone told him, rather sheepishly, that he'd managed his Animagus transformation at just-past- twelve: that is, three months before he'd finished his first year of formal magical education.

"I know they all find it annoying," he said plaintively as the two young men made their way to the dining hall at the start of their third full week of classes. "I would find it annoying too, if I were them. But these things we learn, they are so important! All of them!  Should I refuse to learn them, then, so that in the pivotal moment we may all die together in ignorant solidarity?"

"No," Lucius reassured him. "Most definitely not." He was gliding six inches above the ground on a half-sized broomstick, balanced in the standing position and satchel over his shoulder. Ramone had not been joking on teaching him to fly in what he deemed the safest local manner, and the young Englishman had thus spent the entire past two weekends and the few weekday evenings he'd not been spending with Silva with his feet magically glued to the provided trainer model. As they'd dressed for classes that morning, Ramone had held it to him out again, and gestured him aboard.

"You are doing very well," he told his student. "Your body is not distracting your mind any longer with the constant fear that it will fall, so now it is time to proceed to stage two. Immersion. You will ride this everywhere for the rest of the month, and we will see how you are doing then. I have set it so that the charms will release automatically on your verbal command in case of emergency, or to sit in your chairs in classes or lie in your bed, but whenever you travel in the halls or outside, step on, and you will be ready to go."

"Will the teachers not object?"

"No. They will encourage it because you are so tall. They all know the risks that come with each unreasonable inch of leg, heh?  And you will not be the only one; you are a trained athlete with excellent reflexes so you are a bit ahead of traditional schedule, but soon you will see many of the younger students, especially, practicing constantly."

"It all sounds rather like a recipe for disaster to me," Lucius said dubiously. "An open invitation, even."

"One would think, but this type of broom is enchanted only  for the one purpose, and is warded too, to prevent accidents, so they cannot cause trouble with them. You will see."

And again, Lucius did see. He also saw, at the breakfast that third Monday morning, now that the students had settled in and  the routines of the year were firmly established, quite the most awesomely efficient demonstration of organized ostracism he'd ever imagined.  He and Ramone had left their dorm early  so as to avoid the crowds in the halls, and the dining room had been completely empty when they arrived... Fifteen minutes later, every seat at every table was filled - with the exception of  their own.  Said table had no less than thirty chairs, and after another five minutes, every one of those chairs save for the two on which the boys were seated and the one beside them on which they'd piled their things had been unceremoniously Summoned and jammed in elsewhere.

"More coffee?" Ramone inquired brightly as he held up a steaming pitcher and pushed over a woven basket of small blue packets.

"Mm?"  Lucius, distracted, turned his face to look at him. "I am sorry? I did not catch that."

"I understand.  You are not a morning person." His room-mate regarded him sympathetically as he prepared them both their second cups in the manner that he himself preferred it: one packet of instant coffee stirred into heated milk, and a single heaping spoonful of cane sugar. "This is alright. Myself, I am crepuscular."

"Cre... What ?"

'Most active in the hours around dawn and twilight," Ramone translated. "As opposed to nocturnal or diurnal. Such tendencies often translate over to the Animagus form; I, for example, am inclined as a man there as I am as a frog. The traditional mid-day nap helps considerably. Cheese bun?" He gestured to the small, untouched mountain of fragrant stuffed rolls before them. "We are truly blessed; they are my favourite, and there are so many available for us today!"

"I do not mind mornings." Lucius perused a large pink ball of a fruit with barbed yellow  spikes that he'd selected at random from one of the huge bowls of exotic fruit before him. "Though I will say that I do not generally feel threatened by my breakfast."

Ramone laughed. The sound was blithe and loud, and carried through the hall.  He tipped his wand out of his sleeve. Seconds later, the edge was serrated, and he was slamming it neatly through the fruit.  Juice spattered everywhere... He Vanished the spray mid-flight without so much as a flick of his finger, and put half in a bowl before passing it over.

"It is called pitaya. Dragon-fruit. Try!" he encouraged.  Lucius picked up his spoon awkwardly with his left hand and dug at a bit of the pulp: white and spackled with tiny black seeds. It was deliciously fragrant, cool and fresh.

"Very nice," Lucius agreed.  "We eat very little raw fruit at Hogwarts."

"How sad." His room-mate peeled a huge banana and bit, alternating mouthfuls with slurps of coffee and large, happy mouthfuls of warm cheese bun. "That cannot be good for the digestion."

"One becomes accustomed." He had not intended it as an analogical jibe: sympathetic or otherwise, but...

"I suppose one does." For the first time since they'd met, a flicker of real unhappiness crossed the young Brazilian's face... Lucius watched as he braced his shoulders as if against an incoming blow, and, having obviously prepared himself for what he was about to say next, lowered his voice a little. "That does not mean that one should have to. They are sending you a message, Luz, that as long as you associate with me, this will be your lot as well. I will not be offended, I promise, if you wish to..." He trailed off and reached for another cheese bun, avoiding Lucius' eyes.

"Luz," Lucius repeated after a moment. "As opposed to Luis? Another equivalent?"

"No," Ramone said, still avoiding his eyes. "It is a variant. It means not 'Light-bringer', but 'Light', in and of itself."

Lucius scanned him deliberately from top to toe - then, lounging back in his chair, stretched out his legs equally deliberately into the aisle between the tables and slammed the heels of his boots down. Hard. Said legs were quite long enough to cross said aisle, and, unless politely pulled back, were positioned so that all passersby would be forced  to reroute, to inconvenience themselves by stepping over him, or to acknowledge his presence through their requests for him to withdraw.

"Malfoys," he informed his room-mate in his best bored (and projecting) drawl as startled heads turned. "Are not in the habit of sacrificing quality for quantity, Carriera, and while I do appreciate your concern for my social welfare, pandering to the unwashed masses results in nothing besides associative body odor."  Ramone blinked at him. Lucius just settled his bowl into the crook of his right arm and dug into the fruit again. It shot from the dish under the awkward pressure, skidded sideways across the table, and splatted in the aisle on the far side. He glared at his spoon. Ramone patted his shoulder and,  glancing over at the staff table, flicked his fingers. The pulp of the remaining half of the dragon-fruit diced itself rapidly - and he promptly yelped in pain as a dark hand seized his ear from behind and twisted.

"You are not helping him, Carriera," a familiar, heavily accented voice informed him. Lucius blinked as he turned his head. Antonio Silva, just come through the open doors of the dining room, was dressed not in his typical round-collared black robe, but a pair of soft, flexible boots, lightweight cotton trousers,  and a matching, damp and heavily sweat-stained cotton shirt, open-collared and untucked... He had obviously just come in from outside; he smelled, not unpleasantly of sweat again, but of  wild, deep and living things, and his nails were stained dark green. His wand holsters were attached to his belt, there was a battered satchel over one shoulder, and a lightweight, oddly narrow and flexible tri-sectioned broomstick was strapped to his back.   "His muscles will not learn without practice. Bom dia, Senhor Malfoy. I trust that you are enjoying your time with us here at Castelobruxo?"

"Very much so, thank you," Senhor Malfoy said. Again, his patently bored drawl was precise and projecting. "I am quite overwhelmed. Everyone has been so very, very warm and welcoming."

"I am so pleased," the priest said. His deeply accented voice was as bland as Lucius' was precise, and carried equally well. "I have an appointment off the grounds this evening, so you will remain after Nomaj Appreciation for your dueling lesson. In the meantime..." He reached into his trouser pocket and set a small crystal cube in front of him.

"What is this?" Lucius sat up and pulled his legs back as he examined the offering.

"A magical recording device. You will provide me with a comparative analysis of your impressions of the three compositions there as this week's assignment." Silva pressed one of the facets lightly. His new student sat up poker-straight as an abrupt and resounding full orchestra crashed like thunder through the dining hall. Antonio Silva reached for a clean cup and the basket of blue packets, and (spelling his nails clean first) began to prepare his  own morning coffee as a look of rapt wonder washed over the young Englishman's face. For nearly five full minutes, the music soared and rose, the priest making no move to stifle it, simply standing by their table and sipping as he waited. By the time he was finishing his first cup and had prepared his second (exactly as Ramone prepared his, Lucius couldn't help but notice), every resentful and irritated eye was turned their way. No one dared say a word, though, not with the most revered personage in the school standing right there.

"What was that?" Lucius Malfoy said incredulously as Silva pressed the facet again. His upper class English accent echoed through the hall in the wake of the abruptly silenced orchestra.

"Carriera will educate you. I must go bathe and change before my classes." He nodded to his nephew as he selected, again as Ramone had, a banana and cheese bun to go with his coffee. Turning, he raised his voice slightly at the eyes now universally fixed on their little tableau. " Adeus, children. May the great God be with you all today in your hearts and studies. Do not forget me, I pray? I will, I assure you, remember all of you." He bowed lightly around as everyone, students and teachers all, murmured back respectfully, then headed off back through the doors, peeling his banana as he went. As soon as he was out of eyeshot, every eye and back (on the students' parts at least) turned again, pointedly and deliberately and with a rather obvious scraping of chair... Ramone just polished off his coffee and stretched luxuriously.

"Well?" Lucius demanded of his breakfast companion.

"It is Nomaji music," Ramone told him. "The piece was composed by a man named Ludwig van Beethoven, several centuries ago. It is the last movement of his Ninth Symphony, called Ode to Joy."

"That is not music, Carriera. I have heard music, and that... That.Is.Not.It."

"You have heard what Magicals pass off as music," Carriera corrected. "When you live in a world, Malfoy-from-England, where there is no magic, you seek to emulate the wonders of God's creations in other, compensating ways." He wrapped a fifth cheese bun in a napkin and stuffed it in his robe pocket as he rose to his feet. "It is excellent music to fly by, heh?" He handed off the shortened broomstick from the chair beside him. Lucius dropped it, hopped up absently, and shouldered the bag handed off to him. His hair fell as a glowing white waterfall around his shoulders and his green robes. In the morning light streaming through the great windows, with his raised height and with the loose fabric flowing about him and hiding his adolescent gawkiness, he offered, in that one moment, a stunning vision of the powerful, breathtakingly formidable man he would become.

"Play it again," Lucius commanded Ramone imperiously as they maneuvered slowly toward the doors. "I wish to hear the  rest, and the other eight."

"The other eight... What?"

"Symphonies. You said this was his ninth?"

"Sim. Here, press it like so, No, no, not yet; I shall just..."

"OWWW! BUGGER!"  Attention focused more on the cube than on his direction, the young Englishman jumped violently as Ramone, now in frog-form, hurtled directly at his face. He windmilled frantically, feet glued firmly to the broom - and promptly slammed face-first into the door-frame, knocked flat on his back in a tangle of robes, hair, and flailing long limbs. Guffaws and howls of derisive mirth filled the dining hall. Ramone blurred, dropping to his knees beside him, trying to untangle him.

"Luz, are you alright? I am so sorry; I was leaping to your shoulder for the ride, and... Madre de Dios, I am such a fool!" He tried to haul him up - and fell back, clutching his own face, eyes wide and pained as Lucius' fist slammed squarely into his jaw.

Stone silence fell. Lucius heaved himself up, his handsome face smeared with red and his blue eyes icy, furious and glittering grey with humiliation. The bruises rose vividly on his pale cheeks as he glared down at the boy sprawled at his feet.

"I am so sorry," Ramone faltered again. He stumbled to his own feet and turned away, wiping viciously at the tears now falling freely. A derisive snigger sounded, then another, and another... A low, nasty hiss rose from one of the tables on the far side of the room, and was abruptly silenced. Lucius wiped at his nose again, the blood streaming thinly and steadily down his chin and soaking the front of his robes and the ends of his hair as he drew himself up and near-visibly rammed his dislocated dignity back into its proper position.

"I am not familiar with the customs here," he said into the silence. "Is it tradition at Castelobruxo to ignore an individual in need?"

No one - again, not even the teachers - responded.

"I am fairly certain that I have broken my nose," Lucius continued. "And, not to put too fine a point on it, but without the proper use of my right hand in repairing it, I will probably hex it right off. I would be most grateful for assistance."

Covert glances darted around - and still no one moved a muscle or touched their wands. After an interminable moment, Ramone turned, his face smeared with tears. Even from the distance and behind his dark skin, Lucius could see the swelling and the bruises rising on the left side of his jaw. He said nothing, and made no motion to reach for his wand, but there was a swift gruesome crunch as the broken bones reset themselves.

"Thank you, Carriera," Lucius said, and then, stiffly, as he made to turn away again... "My apologies. It was very wrong of me to strike you. You were just trying to help me, I know."

"You had every right to be angry with me."

"No. I did not. You startled me, but as I was distracted and not paying attention to my surroundings, the blame lies with me, not you." He lifted his chin and squared his shoulders as Ramone turned to face him again. His cheeks were still high with humiliated colour, his eyes still glittered, his jaw was yet locked and jutting arrogantly... but....

Ramone glowed radiantly at him. Lucius held out his hand, but instead of shaking it, the other boy turned it, holding the palm flat and face up as he covered it with his own.

"Our tradition is this, heh?"  he said to him.  "I forgive you when you ask me, brushing your sin against me away like so..." He dusted the palm and flicked his fingers. "And when I ask you for the same..." He held out his own hand, palm up. Lucius covered it, dusted, and flicked. Ramone nodded. "You forgive me. And then we shake on it, as men of honour and good will, and think no more on any of it."

"Done."

They clasped hands firmly and shook. Slowly, faces turned away. Lucius bent and picked up his satchel and the abandoned cube, examining the dark crimson stains on his shirt and robes as he did so.  "Thus is my humiliation made complete," he said loudly to no one in particular, with a great heaving sigh and more than a touch of Ramone's own melodramatic accents. "I shall have to write and tell my angel the sad truth - that my family's famed blue blood is simply a metaphor after all. I can only hope that my  vows of eternal love and devotion will be enough to carry my suit through."

"I will light a candle for you. And you yet have your eighteen-inch wand." Ramone patted his back consolingly, the disarming merry glint in his dancing eyes returned as if it had never left. "I am sure that she will take that into consideration as well. I know I would."

"I am much reassured. And that, as you are so fond of saying, is all there is to be said about that." Lucius stepped carefully back onto the training broom, resettling his satchel. "Now. Shall we try this again, Senhor Carriera?"

"Sim, Senhor Malfoy! Hola!" There was a whoop and a blur, and a small, bright-eyed blue frog leapt up on his shoulder, shining like a sapphire against the luminous fall of his hair... Lucius Malfoy placed his hand on his heart and bowed lightly and ironically around at the glowering crowds of students.

"I thank you all for your gracious provision of assistance to this stranger in need," he said, his voice ringing. "I will not, I assure you, forget it."

And with that, he exited the dining hall to the appropriate and accompanying thundering grand chorale.

Later that afternoon, he sat at his desk in the Nomaj Appreciation classroom, watching as the rest of the students made their way out. Ramone, his own bruises long gone and jaw back to normal proportions, offered him a sympathetic wink. When all had left, Silva returned to his desk and leaned against it, arms crossed and examining him up and down. Lucius shifted awkwardly.

"If you have a question," the priest said. "It is best you use words. I am an excellent Legilimens, but I am sworn not to use the ability save in extremis."

"Why?" Lucius blurted in frustration. "They have such respect for you! Why do they treat him so?"

"It is not my place to intervene, Senhor Malfoy. Here at Castelobruxo a student's assigned advisor attends to such matters, and then, only if they are able to definitively identify the perpetrators."

"But you are his uncle!"

Silva said nothing. Lucius looked at him, disconcerted. "They do not know you are related? None of them?"

The priest pushed himself and came over.

"Your right hand, please," he said. Lucius placed it in his palm automatically, his own palm up, bewildered.  The priest probed it delicately, rotating the nerveless stiff fingers, and turned it. A small dark bruise was on the knuckle.

"We shall have to take further measures, I think," he said. "To ensure that the lock holds.'

"Uh?"

"The Headmistress informed me that you broke through this morning, after I had taken my leave of you all at the morning meal. That in your rage and humiliation, you struck Carriera, not with your left hand, but with this, your right."

Lucius looked down, then up. The priest turned his hand over, and brushed his fingers over the palm. It tingled sharply, almost painfully. Lucius flexed his fingers experimentally. They responded easily and readily.

"What are you going to do?" he said, and only half-joking - "Cut it off?"

"Nao. If you feel that the lessons I have to teach you are worth knowing, my fine young Englishman, you will have to present your request for my continued assistance in the appropriately conciliatory manner."

"I do not understand."

"I think you do."

He returned to the desk, retrieved his satchel, and left. Lucius pressed his fingers to his eyes. After a few minutes, Ramone's head poked around the door.

"Luz?" he said in concern. "What is it? Are you well? I saw Padre Silva leave; you cannot be finished already?"

"He pointed out that I struck you with my right hand," Lucius said.

Ramone stared at him, then, pushing the door open, came to sit beside him.

"You did, sim," he said. "You did not realize?"

"Not till he pointed it out, no. It must have only been for a few moments; it was frozen again when we left. I did not..." He stopped. "Is that why the teachers did not offer to assist me?"

"They were very frightened, heh? I was frightened. Padre Silva... He is a priest, yes, but if he were not... He is a very, very powerful Magical indeed. More powerful than all of the other teachers at Castelobruxo put together. For you to be able to break the thrall he put on your hand, even for a few moments..."

Lucius buried his face in both of his fully functional hands.

"I cannot ... He said... This is so important, Ramone. The lessons... They are not just about..." The words stuck. "Will he truly refuse to teach me if I do not..."

"It is not a question of him refusing to teach you, Luz. It is a question of your ability to absorb his lessons." His room-mate hesitated. "May I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"Why did you apologize to me this morning?'

Lucius removed his hands and offered him a peculiar look. "What do you mean, why did I apologize to you? I struck you!"

"You did," Ramone conceded. "And I ask again. Why did you apologize to me? I am not questioning your regret," he hastened. "Or your sincerity. I am asking, is that the only reason you did it? Because you were sorry?"

"Ramone..."

He jumped slightly as Ramone took his chin in his hand and turned it. His expression was very sober.

"You are proud," he said. "So proud, Luz. And you truly hated me in that moment. No. Do not say you did not. It was your pride and your hate that broke that lock, both so strong that they overcame even Padre's will.  I bear you no ill will for the blow you struck against me. That is the truth. I understand hate too, you see, and ill will.  But you must see the deeper truth of what I am saying to you now. It is too important for you to refuse to look. To refuse to understand. I do not know anything of the shadows that await you when you return to England, but this... This I do know. You cannot hope to destroy them with the power that pride and hate provide you, my Luz. You will only destroy yourself. And I... For whatever it... I .... Am worth to you... I am telling you now that I do not wish you to be destroyed."

Lucius pulled his chin away and covered his face once more. When he removed his hands again, Ramone was gone. He got to his feet and retrieved his books, stepping on the portable broom. Slinging his satchel over his shoulder, he made his way through the spiraled passages to the high, sky-lit rooms of Silva's office, and knocked.

"Sim ?"

"It's Lucius Malfoy, sir. May I have a word?"

The door slid back. Silva was sitting at his desk, sorting through a stack of papers. Lucius stepped off the broom and placed it and his satchel by the door. Silva eyed him as he shook his right hand wand out of his sleeve, and set it on the desk before him.

"What is this?"

"If I do not have it," he said. "I cannot use it."

"I do not recall you using it this morning."

Lucius gritted his teeth. Silva waited. The young man came around the desk and held out his right hand.

"Bind it," he said. "I cannot..."

The words stuck. The muscle in his jaw jumped. Silva said nothing, did nothing.

Long minutes passed. Neither moved. Finally, finally, Lucius Malfoy lowered himself to his knees and bowed his head.

"Please," he said. "Bind it. Bind... Me."

Antonio Silva took the wand from the desk and slid it back into its holster, under the young man's sleeve.

"Tell me," he directed. "What you did. Why this is necessary."

Another long minute passed, and another.

"They disgusted - disgust - me. I  wanted to shame them," Lucius said at last. "To show them that I was better than they were." His eyes closed tight. "After I fell, and struck... I did not see that they were afraid. I was too distracted by my own anger and humiliation. I wanted only reduce and to crush them. To erase them, to make them realize - to believe - that they were nothing. To steal their names. And.." His mouth twisted. "I used Ramone to do it."

He braced himself for rebuke, as if for a blow... He felt, instead, a cool palm slip under his, supporting it, and the fingers of a second covering it, enclosing his hand.

"Senhor Malfoy," the priest said. "Look at me, please."

He opened his eyes.

"You have a good heart," Antonio Silva said in his heavy accent. "Nao, a great heart. I have seen how you care for my nephew, and I appreciate what you did, and have been doing for him, on the personal level. Do not think that I do not. On the moral level though, and as concerns your actions this morning... I cannot reassure you, as I might another, that your good intentions mitigate your culpability. As you have asked me to teach you to maintain your moral, as well as your political balance, I must tell you this. You suffer from truly crippling levels  of both learned and natural arrogance and pride.  This arrogance, this pride... If you do not rid yourself of it - not just learn to control it, but rid yourself of it entirely ... It will destroy you. It might very well destroy, all things considered... Everything. If you agree again to submit to my methods - and they must be extreme now that I see how truly you are crippled - these next few months will not just be hard. They will be quite nearly impossible, for you must not just learn to accept, but embrace your own insignificance. To voluntarily and joyously submit to that which reduces you. To become, not a shadow, but invisible and yes, despicable to all those whose good opinion you truly value. Only then, only then, will you become that which God may use to further His own ends. You must, as the Book says, decrease so that He may increase."

"But I do not even know if I believe in God!"

Silva laughed softly.

"Not quite 'I do not believe in God'... It is something, at least. Will you trust me?" he asked directly.

"I would trust you a great deal more if I knew why you do not protect Ramone from the arseholes who inhabit this castle!"

"Do you truly think that my interference would help him?"

"Yes, of..." Lucius paused. "No," he admitted reluctantly. "Probably not. I come from my own version of the castle, and am the de facto leader, whether I choose to personally practice or not, of our resident cluster of arseholes. I know how they operate."

"How very fortuitous. A man who can anticipate his enemies' movements is a valuable asset indeed, in any context."

Lucius eyed him.

"You have a great heart," Silva said again. "A beautiful heart. Your master will certainly know this, and if he does not, he will recognize it in you as soon as he meets you properly. It will not detract from his wish to keep you close - the opposite, rather, and he will use it against you, not just to break you, but because he will enjoy watching you fall. And he will use it by putting you in situations such as the one you found yourself in this morning - situations where you are not faced with the uncompromised unacceptable - so easy to identify and reject - but with those where you will tell yourself that you must either accept the lesser of two evils lest you lose all, or surrender to the even more insidious fallacy that doing evil is acceptable if it will result in what you define as good. These two scenarios are more of a danger to you than anything else, Malfoy, because they feed your most dangerous weakness: your wish to reshape the world as you would have it, to define the future according to your vision, via your own rationales that displace God's. They feed directly into your pride and arrogance :  into that which can only destroy you, and as such, and considering what is at stake... There are no circumstances in which you may allow yourself to compromise what you know to be the objective acceptable."

"So what do I do when he demands it of me?" It was not... quite... a wail.

"You find another way," the priest said exactingly. "There is always, always another way. You have but to ask God to show you. And above all, my fine young Englishman, you will not stand on your broom when doing it and advertise yourself as a lord addressing peons? Very impressive, admittedly, but rather lacking in subtlety, and that is what we are working towards here, mm? You must never, never, never forget that you are not seeking to become the power beside the throne, but the power behind it. Thus you will be positioned for the decisive thrust knife to the back should the opportunity present itself."

"That does not seem particularly honourable." Lucius said doubtfully. Silva actually rolled his eyes at that.

"Lethifolds are evil, Malfoy. Your duty is to destroy that evil. Your sense of honour as it is displayed in your inherent desire for a fair fight means much to you, I am sure, but in an instance where your ultimate enemy is presented to you back-first and you do have that knife in your hand, your hesitation will prove nothing again but a prideful and self-congratulatory hindrance to your greater charge of discharging your duty. Act first, self-flagellate later, when all those you defend are finally offered the ability to sleep safely?"

Lucius processed that. His lips firmed and he nodded.

"Very well, sir," he said.  "I will trust you. I will put myself in your hands."

Silva tapped his palm. Lucius felt the numb tingle spread through his fingers. It was oddly comforting.

"I will talk to Professor Hernandez," the priest said to him. "You will come to me now, as your staff advisor." He gestured him up. "We have talked enough for the one day, I think. We will discuss your schedule further tomorrow."

"Yes, sir," he said. He went to collect his things, before turning. "Sir?"

"Sim?"

"Do you prefer I call you by your title?"

"As you have absolutely no respect for your father, and, as of yet, no understanding of the context behind the honorific.... Nao. I do not."

"It is not..." Lucius looked awkward. "I do not wish you to think that I have no respect for you or your office."

"My office is not relevant to our relationship. Not at this point in time, anyway. If God wills that things progress there, it will, and in the meantime, you may continue on as you seem inclined."

Lucius inclined his head, shouldered his satchel, and stepped onto the broom. The priest watched him settle himself.

"Why are you yet wearing your shoes and socks?" he asked curiously.

"I am sorry?"

"It is not the custom to wear such things when riding in the standing position, however skilled one might be. They interfere with one's ability to maintain grip and balance. You will progress far more quickly if you simply leave them off, and if you are worried on what those here might think - no one will say anything, I assure you. They are accustomed to the sight."

"I am not worried." Lucius looked disconcerted.  "I did not know. Ramone said nothing of it to me."

"Nao? Ah well." He returned inside. The door closed. Lucius regarded it, puzzled, as he turned and maneuvered his way down the hall. Once back in his dorm, he closed the door to his room and dismounted the broom. The door to the private bathroom opened, and Ramone emerged.

"Is all well?" he asked, anxiously. Lucius held up his frozen hand again. The look of relief on the other boy's face was so profound it was painful.

"Praise God," he said, and sat abruptly, burying his face in his own hands. Lucius sat beside him.

"Ramone," he said.

"Yes, Luz," he said from behind his fingers.

"How is it that the most powerful Magical in the Western hemisphere is teaching here at Castelobruxo?"

Ramone lowered his hands.

"He teaches here because he is the most powerful Magical in the Western hemisphere," he said. "And those he teaches learn."

"And no one has made the connection between his talents and yours?'

His room-mate offered him a peculiar look... and his expression changed slightly, warily.

"He told you that he is my uncle?"

"Yes. And that no one here is aware."

"What else did he tell you." It was very flat.

"That it is not the custom to ride a broom while wearing shoes and socks, if one is standing."

Ramone shrugged indifferently at that. "Most do not," he said. "I do."

"Why?"

"Because it is how I learned. And as it is what I know, it is how I teach." He got to his feet and made his way back to the bathroom. "I am pleased for you, Luz.  Excuse me. I am not feeling well."

The bathroom door closed behind him. Lucius stared after him, puzzled. He rose... And his eye fell on Ramone's wand on the night table. He picked it up. It seemed oddly balanced. He glanced at the door, and flicked it. Nothing happened. He tried again. He frowned, glancing at the bathroom door a second time. Looked back at the wand in his hand and concentrated, murmuring. The door opened. Ramone stood there, unsmiling. He started guiltily.

"If you have a question for me, Malfoy-from-England," the young Brazilian said. "It is better to ask, heh?"

"Why do you wield a dead stick?" Lucius asked him bluntly.

"It is not dead. It simply does not work for anyone other than myself. It cannot. it is not the nature of the wand."

"I have never heard of such a thing."

Ramone Carriera came and took the wand from him. Flicked it. The sides seemed to pop out, forming the handle like that on a sword. He touched the tip. It morphed and changed, flat, needle thin, razor sharp. It was dead black, save for a bloody red tip.

"Bloodthorn," he said. "Tio Antonio grew the plant for me, and donated the core."

"Donated... I'm sorry?" His bewilderment grew.

"He has not shown you his Animagus form?"

"No. He said that we do not know each other well enough yet."

"Ah." Ramone folded the crosspiece down. The wand shimmered and returned to its innocuous shape. "Bloodthorn is rare. Almost unheard of, and grows only on this continent. It adapts to the needs of the Magical, and focuses its interests as does the Magical. Only to the one Magical, ever. It disguises itself for me because I do not wish anyone to know I carry one."

"Why not?"

"We do have a library here, Malfoy-from-England. I am sorry. I am not angry, but I am very tired." He transformed abruptly, and in frog form, burrowed under the pillow on his bed. Lucius stared down at him, or rather at the pillow, and retrieved his training broom. Twenty minutes later, he was sitting on the floor of one of the long aisles in the library, leafing through the index of an old and tattered book on South-American wandlore. He flipped awkwardly to the indicated page and read the contents carefully, several times, before returning to the final paragraphs.

The bloodthorn bush is a rare, nearly extinct plant that grows exclusively in the South and Central American continents. It is extremely and magically powerful, but even the best of wandmakers rarely work with it, or rather the thorns from it, because they bond so exclusively with one type of individual and will not function, as wands, on even the most minimal of levels with anyone who does not meet the prerequisites.  As most wandmakers will go their entire lives without meeting anyone who does qualify, there is simply no point in crafting such an item on anything but individual order.

Candidates

It is said that bloodthorn wands are drawn to those who have suffered trauma so profound that the tormented may only be described as those whose souls have passed over and returned to the land of the living by way of the long road through Hell. It is no way an exaggerated metaphor - while there are many who believe that they have suffered such pain, if they can yet find a wand to match them, they would not suit as a candidate to a bloodthorn wand. Such creations become literally, the only option left to the individuals in question.

History of the Bloodthorn Bush

Standardized botanical descriptives aside,  popular legend holds that when Christ was nailed to the Cross, the crown of thorns (shaped from an ordinary variety of plant) that had been placed upon His brow by Pilate's soldiers was cast aside by his followers, in a ditch beside the tomb where he was buried on Good Friday. On Easter morning, when He was resurrected, the light flooding from the opening tomb caught the discarded crown, transforming it into a live thorn bush - black as the sky over Golgotha at the moment of His death, yet forever too, stained by His blood. The newly born bush, though, was unable to hold its shape in such close proximity to the Holy; when He emerged in full, it immediately burst into flame and was destroyed. Upon seeing it perish, the Resurrected Christ touched the blackened remnants and turned them, not back to the flowered plant, but to seeds. It is said that when His disciples came to the Tomb at the word of the women who came to report His absence, those seeds caught on the crevices of the sandals of those destined to become the Apostles. When they took ships across the sea to preach His Word, the seeds were released and blown into the waters. Carried by the waves, the seeds landed on the shores of South and Central America - now the only locations where the bush is known to grow.

The resulting wands bond to one owner and one owner only in reflection of the truth revealed for once and all through the Cross: that as His pain was borne for each of us as individuals, each soul is, by definition, unique and precious and irreplaceable in the eyes of an infinitely loving God. When the owner dies, the thorn dissolves, returns to seed, and is blown on the breath of God to where it is intended to root, grow, and be discovered by those other dying souls who most need its fruit to guide them back to life.

Complementary Cores

Bloodthorn wands accept one core and one core only: phoenix feathers. The bloodthorn represents the killing pain of what the Magical has suffered, and the feathers embody death and rebirth. At the moment of bonding, the Magical suffers intense, near deathly pain - the pain of a tormented soul that, seeking only the peace and comfort of death, is directed back again by God's own Hand so that it might be transformed into something as beautiful as only that kind of suffering can make it.

Lucius Malfoy stared down at the pages, trying to process what he had just read.

Bloodthorn wands accept one core and one core only: phoenix feathers.

Tio Antonio donated the core.

He has not told you his Animagus form?

He rose, nearly jumping out of his skin as he turned the corner and saw before him Antonio Silva, a few feet away, reshelving a book as he talked quietly to a small, round woman with dark hair. The woman caught sight of him and waved.

"Senhor Malfoy!" Professor Inez Hernandez hailed him. "Padre Silva was just asking me if I would  consider granting him the privilege of advising you this year. What do you think? Would you like that?"

Lucius clutched at the book he held awkwardly.

"I would be honoured," he said. "But no more so, Professor, than I would be should you refuse him."

"Very diplomatic." She twinkled at him. "Truly, though - you will have a difficult time of it if you accept. He is hard on those he advises, Senhor Malfoy. He believes that God sends them to him for a reason, and thanks Him by attempting to forge them all into saints like himself."

Silva rolled his eyes at her fondly. She ignored him.

"I am serious," she persisted. "And with you, he will only have ten months, not seven years, so it is bound to be quite intense, mm? And one thing is certain; even if he does not make a saint of you... Once he is done with you, you will never be the same again."

"I did not come here, Professor Hernandez," Lucius said after a moment. "Only  to return the same man I was when I left. If that was my intent and desire, I would have heeded Carriera's advice and gone back to England the evening I arrived."

Inez Hernandez' smile faded a little. She looked him over, her dark eyes suddenly unfathomable and unreadable.

"I am glad to hear it," she said. "Very well, Padre." She nodded to the priest. "He is all yours." She bowed to Lucius.  He bowed back formally - and nearly jumped out of his skin again as she blurred, rearing up as a thirty foot anaconda before him. She flickered at his cheek with her tongue as a kiss before catching him up in her coils and squeezing him in a hug that very nearly made him sick up.  As it was, he was profoundly grateful he'd gone to the loo on the way down...  Antonio Silva just threw back his head and laughed at his wild-eyed expression as she transformed back.

"She has absolutely no sense of propriety," he said to his new charge, as his eyes danced at the grinning woman. "You see how she does not even have enough self-respect to ask for your remembrances before showing herself to you in all her glory?"

"And you are a poor excuse for a priest, Antonio Silva," she returned "Never mind the innuendo, if you require the selfish price paid before opening your heart to those God sends your way. You are a good boy, Senhor Malfoy," she said to the young man before her. "I will not task you with remembering me, you will have quite enough to manage retaining everything this one will throw at you, but if you remember that much at least, from all that I have taught you, I will be content."

She winked. Lucius shifted as she turned to leave.

"Professor Hernandez," he said. She turned quizzically.

"About this morning," he said awkwardly. "Carriera said that. Erhm. I  fri... Erhm. Unnerved a few people. With my bad temper. If you were one of them... I apologize. I'm working on it, I promise."

"I am glad to hear it," she said again. Her tone was austere to say the least... Silva laughed again.

"And this is why she is a snake, yes?" he said to Lucius. "Have you ever heard a woman so crushing?"

"Yes, actually," he said. "My Transfiguration teacher back at Hogwarts. She is not a snake; she is a cat, but that, I think, is only because she is a Scottish minister's daughter, and would consider it rude to display as an actual tiger."

Professor Hernandez stuck her tongue out at him. It came across more as a serpentine flicker... She disappeared around the corner.  Silva reshelved his second book.

"You are yet wearing your shoes and socks," he observed, eyeing Lucius as he remounted the training broom.

"Ramone said it was how he learned. I would have inquired further, but he did not seem to be in a mood to answer more questions."

The hand on the book stilled. The air shifted slightly as a wordless warding spell rose around them.

"He is in your room?" Silva said quietly. "Now?"

"Yes." Lucius said. "Under his pillow."

"Under... What did you say to him, that sent him there?" It was sharp - harsh, even. He spun and stepped forward, wands not quite out of the holsters, but crowding him back. "What did you do to him?"

"I..." The young Englishman stepped back and away, suddenly genuinely frightened.. The priest didn't just look dangerous, he thought; he looked... "No. No. I do not know! Nothing, I think? I came in, he confirmed the fact that you told me that you were his uncle, and he became tense, and asked me what else you had told me, and I said nothing. Of him, I meant, that you had told me nothing of him, only that one did not ride standing with shoes and socks, and then I asked him why he did not do so, himself, and asked him why you were teaching here, and why he used a dead stick for a wand, and he showed it to me, and told me what it was made of, and that you had donated the core, and I did not understand him, and he asked me if I had not seen your Animagus form yet, and I said no, we did not know each other well enough, and then he sent me down to the library after he said he was tired, not angry but tired, and ..."

"Stop." He put his hand up, and one to his temples. Lucius shut his mouth immediately, choking back the flood of words. Silva reached out and took the book from him, turning to the marked page. His lips tightened as he scanned the contents.

"This is not public information," he said to him."You will not discuss it, or the context that brought you here to research it, with anyone .   You will not discuss it , and you will ask him no more questions on the subject.  If he wishes to talk on it, he will bring it up, but again...  If I find that you have initiated any conversations there,  I will see you sent home on the next portkey, do you understand me, Malfoy? I will Obliviate you myself, of everything you have seen and learned here - everything - and you will be sent home."

Lucius nodded quickly, wide-eyed. Silva tapped the book. It Vanished as if it had never existed.

"You will come to the western steps," he directed. "Tomorrow at four. Bring your broomstick- not this trainer, but your own - your dragon-hide gloves, both of your wands, and clothes as similar to those you saw me wearing this morning as you possess." His eyes raked over him. "If you do not wish  to see your hair lying shorn on the steps before we leave, make sure it is secured firmly.  As it is, and where we are going... It could get you killed. "

"Four... In the morning ?"

"Sim. You have classes beginning at nine. You will miss none for the fact that you are now in my hands."

"Where are we going?"

"To build a tree-house," Silva said, and turned on his heel, and left.


 

Wiltshire, England

Wednesday, November 26, 1991

8.30 AM

"Luke? May  I interrupt a moment?"

Lucius Malfoy smiled as he turned away from the sterile white counter in his potions lab, holding his dragon-hide gloved hands away from his body as he bent to kiss his wife's upturned lips. She mmed, then slid back, boosting herself up on a stool.

"Have you slept at all? And... Dare I ask?" she inquired, glancing about at the even half-dozen burbling cauldrons, all covered and set to simmer in a neat row before him.

"No, but the results were well worth the sacrifice, I assure you. I shall catch a few hours before the meeting tonight. As for my current project..." He held up a sprig of copper-coloured berries. Narcissa's brows shot up. There was only one potion she knew of that required the particular ingredient. "All is fair in love and war, and when it comes down to it, we shall have but the one truly effective shot. Now, what may I do for you?"

"Vinny just brought us a message from the newlyweds."

"Oh?"

"Charlie has several errands to run today after they bring William to St. Dymphna's and before they arrive here for tea," Narcissa said. "Master Cartwright has only one other commitment, up at Hogwarts - young Jacia King's second surgery - and as he estimates it only taking an hour or two, is offering to come over early, or to remain later, at our convenience,  in order to remove your Mark."

"My..." Her husband  blinked down at her as he slipped off his gloves. "Mark?"

"Yes."

Lucius looked at her, then down at his right arm. It was, as always, covered, and cuffed decorously at the wrist. "Ah," he said, and sank on the stool opposite. Narcissa took his hands.

"You're the strategist, Lucius," she said quietly. "Only you can decide."

Lucius  rubbed his temple with his left hand.

"If I say yes," he said. "There's no turning back. And we've been so careful. Everything... Everything that we've done so far, Niss... Can yet be translated two ways. The way that we intend ... And the way I could convince him that we have intended all along, should it come down to it."

"I know," his wife said. They sat in silence. The thin, watery winter light streamed through the windows.

"What are you thinking, my love," Narcissa asked quietly.

"That I don't know if I can do it again," Lucius said honestly.  "I just... I'm tired, Niss. So tired. It's been ten years, and I'm still tired. But there's no one else to do what I did, is there?"

"Pride?" she said. "Or truth?"

"It's not pride. I'm not proud of anything I did. I did it because it had to be done. If I do it again, I will do it because it has to be done."

"The world has changed since then," she pointed out.  "The factors have changed. The players have changed. You're not alone this time, Lucius. We're not alone."

He said nothing, just turned on the stool, and lifted the lid of the cauldron. Inside, the smooth, glittering golden liquid burbled softly. She watched as he stirred precisely, twice, counter-clockwise, with his wand, replacing the lid and proceeding down the line before reseating himself.

"Liquid luck," he said. "He'd twist my ear for it."

"Why?"

"Because it epitomizes presumption. The desire to influence and shape the future as I deem fit, rather than trusting God."

"And we believe in God now?"

"We believe in what is acceptable and what isn't. We know that the things that Antonio Silva taught me worked toward the acceptable, and allowed us to reach this point. And there have been a rather bewildering numbers of miracles of late, all working toward the acceptable, and none of which resulted from my specific actions."

"Which translates as..."

"I would do my best," he said. "But I am not the man I was, my heart, twenty years ago or even ten. I simply cannot guarantee how effective I would be.  If there is a God, He would be well aware of my true  capacity there, and as that is true, and as none of the miracles worked lately do have anything to do with me, or with anything I have done... I would say that He is telling me that whatever is coming is best worked through other hands than mine."

"And if there is no God?

"It does not matter, really. Silva would tell me the same thing, and again... He never taught me anything, or told me anything, that did not reflect, and work toward, the truth."

"But you still feel obliged to leave the option open. And if you do... You will feel obliged to go back if the necessity arrives."

"And what would you have me do?"

"Knowing now, as I didn't - couldn't-  know then, on what would be waiting? I was only able to manage it the first time, my lovely, because of my ignorance.  If you feel that you must go again, you must go... And I will be here, always... But as I have promised all my life to take care of you, I cannot - not will not, but cannot - send you back there on order."

"And what of the rest of the world?"

"I don't care about the rest of the world," Narcissa Malfoy said bleakly. "I care about you."

Lucius  wiped his eyes. She rose, and came to sit in his lap. She pressed her face to his chest. He pressed his face to her hair. After a moment, he reached in his pocket and removed a single bronze knut, lying flat in his open palm. His wife reached out and touched it. It was warm from his body.

"Do we believe in God now, then," she said again. "Or fate, or luck?"

He offered her hair a small kiss.

"I truly, truly do not know, my heart," he said. "But I do know this one true thing. As neither of us seems to be equipped to make the objective decision, we are just going to have to pray that whatever happens next works towards the ultimate acceptable."

Narcissa sat up a bit. Lucius tucked her into the curve of his right arm, lifting his left hand and balancing the knut on his tucked left thumb.

"Heads, it stays," he said. "Tails, it goes."

"And the prayer to go with it? Just in case it's not down to fate or luck after all?"

"St. Michael the Archangel," Lucius Abraxas Malfoy said grimly. "Defend us in battle."

And Narcissa Black Malfoy rested her head on her husband's broad, strong shoulder as they watched the coin spin, shining, toward heaven.

Chapter Text

 

Castelobruxo School, Brazil

September 18, 1970

8:20 A.M.

The long, sunlit room that comprised the main dining room of Castelobruxo was, like the rest of the school, an exercise in the living aesthetic. Colorful exotic plants and ivy of every variety hung from high, white-washed rafters and scattered, slender white stone pillars, and the entire glassed eastern wall offered a stupendous view of the massive, descending tiers of steps that led down at perilous angles to the sprawling, magically temperature-controlled grounds below. It was all quite idyllic, Lucius Malfoy had thought his first few days in Brazil, never mind the deeply pleasing emerald green robes that abounded everywhere. He'd felt positively assaulted by the brilliance of sound, fragrance, light and colour all about him, and even after going on three weeks, he almost expected, when reaching out and touch any given surface, to bring his hand away stained and dripping as if with melted jewels.

His first four-hour foray into the untamed interior of the continent had, surely, left him stained and dripping, but that being said...

There had been absolutely no jewels of any variety, melted or otherwise, involved.

"Nossa Senhora !" The words slipped from more than one startled pair of lips as the two figures entered through the vast double doors. There they separated: the first, shorter one patting his companion's shoulder and heading off briskly toward the table reserved for the staff. The second, flushed and scarlet with heat as he was, and sweaty - no soggy - in his stained and tattered cotton shirt, trousers and transfigured light boots - staggered over to the table closest to the window, sliding down bonelessly and resting his cheek on his folded arms. Ramone Carriera stood hastily, shoving his books and breakfast aside as he Summoned a clean pottery mug and a pitcher of steamed milk.

"Are you alright?" he asked his room-mate solicitously. Lucius - rumpled, bedraggled, and not just caked, but iced in filth - just opened one bloodshot eye and offered him a weary look. Ramone said nothing else, just cast a conciliatory anti-odor and (largely ineffective) cleaning charm, and began to  prepare him his coffee. Lucius heaved himself upright with considerable effort, and was just reaching for the offered mug when his left hand froze. He blinked down at it, confused. Across the room, Antonio Silva nodded to the teachers and made his way back toward the two boys. The surrounding students watched covertly as the priest - his clothes no less filthy than his new student's, however more determined his personal cleaning charms - transfigured a cheese bun into a chair and seated himself comfortably.

"So, my fine young Englishman." His voice was pleasant and carrying, projecting via a silently cast Sonorus to the furthest corner of the dining hall. He selected a mango and began to peel it neatly with his left-hand wand. "Now you have seen a little more of our beautiful Brazil. It is not much like your own home, sim ?"

"No," Lucius examined both of his dysfunctional hands, trying, and failing to flex them rather obviously.  "No sir. I believe that that is a fairly safe and accurate assessment."

"The immersive experience is by far the most educational," the priest agreed, ignoring his gesture. "And what do you think of my little hobby? It is not every day you meet a priest who builds playhouses for the bandar-log, mm?"

Ears perked and eyes swerved all around.

"You are the first priest I have ever met, sir, so I am sure I could not say. As for the houses...  I quite liked the hanging curtains made of carnivorous sword vines. I shall have to recommend the fashion to my girlfriend's Aunt Walburga;  they would go very well in her drawing room."

Ramone sniggered into his coffee. Silva laughed, then tched .

"You are not eating," he scolded his newest student. "This will not do at a - Ah. I see the problem now. May I offer you my assistance?"

"Thank you, sir."

Lucius held out his left hand, waiting for the priest to brush his palm. He did not, simply took a cheese bun, tore it into pieces, pulled his chair up a bit and held a piece to his lips. Lucius crossed his eyes at it, and at him, pulling back slightly.

"What..."

"You have been up for many hours," Silva said gently to him. "And your day has only begun. You have been so kind, offering me your hands toward the end of my labours...  Now I offer you mine. Please." He held out the food again. "Eat."

Lucius pushed his chair back a bit more and stood. It scraped loudly. The priest said nothing, watching him with those soft dark eyes. Ramone looked from one to the other uneasily. The boy stared down at his teacher, cheeks slowly flushing with dull, high colour, his shoulders tightening.

"I am not hungry," he said stiffly. "Thank you."

Silva shrugged, ate the piece of the cheese bun and reached for his coffee.

"Carriera," he said, sitting back in his chair. There was a pause.

"Sim, Padre?"

"You will not provideSenhor Malfoy with food, at any hour. He eats from my hand or not at all." He flicked his fingers. "He will remain hydrated, so."

Lucius' face whitened, then flooded with colour again. Murmurs sounded. He took another step back, his chin lifting, the grey glitter flowering.

"Luz," Ramone said urgently, quietly. "Do not... Remember what we talked on, what..." He cut himself off, his eyes filled with worry and dread as he looked from one to the other. Lucius did not look at him. His lips were a taut, white line as he struggled, not with temptation, but his temper.

"I. Am. Not. Hungry ," he bit out.  Silva poured a bit more heated milk into his coffee mug. From the staff table, the teachers exchanged uneasy glances.

"I have three rules, sim ?" Silva said, not looking at him as he sipped. He made no effort to modulate his own voice, or to dismiss the Sonorus charm. "For you, Senhor Malfoy, now that you have accepted my authority. They are these. Firstly, you will not raise your voice to me  - you will honour your word, and treat me with the respect you yourself have promised me.  Secondly, if I am offered proof that you have lost your temper again, with anyone, you will have both hands returned to you at once. The apology you offered me yesterday - I will demand you repeat it to me, and to those you have offended, in front of the school. After that... There will be no 'after that'. I will offer you no third chances. Finally, if you ever strike another student as you did Carriera yesterday, there will be no chances at all, second or third. I will return to you to Professor Hernandez' care, where you will find her, I assure you, a great deal less merciful than I on the subject." Lucius' left hand suddenly relaxed. "Since you are not hungry, you may go bathe and put on appropriate robes. Pray do not forget me? I will, I assure you, remember you."

Lucius bowed stiffly, turning away.  The priest turned his eyes as he sipped his coffee and watched him go.

"Senhor Malfoy," he said as the boy reached the double doors. Lucius stopped, but did not turn. It was not petulance, Silva knew, but to hide the tears of rage and helplessness now slipping down his cheeks, behind his now-loosened curtain of hair. For a long moment, he struggled.

"Yes, sir."

"It was most pleasant to have your company this morning. You will join me again tomorrow."

Lucius said nothing more, just disappeared. Ramone fidgeted anxiously. Silva drained his coffee, rose, and bowed around.

"You will none of you enlighten him on the true nature of my hobby," he said to the students and teachers. "I should hate for any of you to have to explain your reasons to Jesus should any of the bandar-log fail to attain a good night's rest as a result. May the great God be with you today in your hearts and studies, children, and may we remember each other as He remembers us all."

He shouldered his broomstick, and, humming softly, made his way out.


 

Early Evening

Antonio Silva's Quarters

Lucius stepped off the training broom wearily. His satchel thudded to the floor. Silva examined him from his desk as the young man turned to face him, so tired he was fairly swaying on his feet.

"You look unwell," he observed. "Come here to me, Senhor Malfoy."

He came, wearily again. He held out his right hand on Silva's indication... The priest examined it briefly, patted it, and released it.

"Muito bueno. Please. Make yourself comfortable."

Lucius turned to the sofa. A soft tch sounded.  He turned back. Silva nodded to the floor beside his chair. Lucius pressed his fingers to his eyes.

"Please," the priest said again. It was not a request.

Lucius folded to the floor to  his knees in an ungracious tangle of limbs, bowing his head so that his hair covered his face.  Silva watched the way his long elegant hands, loose by his sides, trembled with fatigue and stress.

"You were at neither lunch nor dinner. You are sixteen, Senhor Malfoy," he said quietly. "You are yet growing. You must eat."

"I am fine."

Cool fingers touched his head. The long hair - it came nearly to mid-back - flew back and fastened itself in a neat, functional braid. A glass of milk, a bowl of fragrant stew, a soft brown buttered roll and a dish of sliced fruit appeared on the desk.

"It is hard, I know," Silva said to him. "I know how they all treated you today. You were hungry and exhausted, and afraid to defend yourself for fear of this moment... But you kept your temper when they tried to provoke you. I am pleased. So we will practice a little in private, sim, as your reward, and you will see it is not so bad."

Lucius just pressed his fingers to his eyes again. Silva took the bowl, and turning the chair a little, held the filled spoon before his lips. He turned his head away stubbornly. The spoon returned to the bowl and the cool fingers turned his chin back firmly.

"Some things," the priest said. "I will permit you to struggle with at your own pace. This is not one of them. You must eat. Open." Lucius' lips tightened to iron.  The fingers on his chin tightened in turn, not -quite- painfully.

"I am not offering you the option, my fine young Englishman. You  may only refuse me when you are able to bring the food to your lips with wandless magic."

Lucius Malfoy's glare was positively poisonous with hate and resentment. The priest's returned gaze was soft with compassionate understanding, and just as indomitable.

"We will remain here like this," Antonio Silva said. "Till you are finished this meal, if it takes till four in the morning. Then we return to the jungle, and return to the castle afterwards, and start again with breakfast. In the hall again, for this is, as I said, your single chance to accustom yourself in private. It will be difficult to help me build tree-houses without sleep, and of course, your other teachers will be quite disapproving if you do not finish your classwork, but..." He slid the spoon in deftly as Lucius abruptly opened his mouth. The stony grey eyes stared over his shoulder  as he chewed and swallowed mechanically... The milk was a bit more awkward, he flinched violently away as the priest re-positioned his chin to help him drink, half spilling down his robe.  Silva made no comment, reaching for a napkin to dry him rather than using a cleaning charm... When the last bite was gone, he Vanished the dishes, and turned in his chair. The satchel spun over.

"You may sit to do your homework," he said as he adjusted his stack of marking.

"Here? On the floor?"

"It will be most convenient, sim, if you have questions?"

He rearranged himself, removed books from his bag, setting them out. Silva began to grade quickly and neatly. Every now and again, a soft tch of dismay, and occasionally a snort of amusement, sounded. There was a knock at the door.

"Come," he called. The door slid open.

"Padre Silva. I..."

Lucius's jaw jumped as he felt the Headmistress of Castelobruxo's eyes fall on him. He did not look up, just continued to scribe his Charms assignment as neatly as he could manage it, pausing only to turn the pages of his textbook. She said something to the priest in Portuguese. It sounded decidedly terse. The words returned were mild, but... Not. There was a pause.

"Senhor Malfoy," the priest said.

"Yes, sir?" Lucius continued to write. Each line of each letter was a small, precise exercise in concentrated control of his fingers, complicated by the fact that he was using a Nomaj biro, or pen, as the locals called them. Quills, he had been informed in his first class, were messy and impractical, and parchment a purely romantic indulgence... The bottles of ink remained the same, but were used to fill the 'ball point cartridges' inside the pens via charm, not to dip one's implement. Ramone, of course, had been fascinated by the European alternatives, and immediately seized Lucius' imported supply to practice with when doing his homework. He always transfigured the results back to the standard before handing in his results, of course, but continued to enjoy indulging himself in private... After only three weeks, his calligraphy was already better than that of the purest of the purebloods back home.

"The Headmistress would like your explanation of why this is necessary," Silva said.

The biro stilled, then started up again. Lucius said nothing.

"Well?" the Headmistress demanded.

"Because Professor Silva says it is."

"I would like to hear it in your words, Senhor Malfoy."

Senhor Malfoy was abruptly and for whatever reason, far more irritated than he was humiliated. He lifted his eyes to look at the woman before him. She was beautiful, he thought - of a good height, with warm skin the color of a walnut, coiled dark hair, and a shapely figure under her robes. He knew, too, from her reputation that she was considered quite powerful, and an excellent duelist. His eyes flickered over her dispassionately.

Overbalances on her right foot. Elbow cocked a little too far from her hip.

One good tickling jinx slipped under that elbow and a simultaneous boomerang jinx to the back of her knee would bring her down like an ox.

"I asked him to help me," he said. "He was kind enough to agree."

"You are not worried on your father hearing of the details?"

"Are you planning on telling him?"

There was silence.

"I have a responsibility to your well-being, Senhor Malfoy," the Headmistress said. "You have had a most unpleasant day, I understand. Father Silva's methods as an advisor, are, I am sure, very effective, but if they are interfering with your ability to enjoy your time as our guest here at Castelobruxo, we must all review his approach together in order to minimize your personal and social discomfort."

"Who is Ramone Carriera's advisor?" Lucius asked as he returned to his careful printing.

"Senhor Carriera is not at issue here, Senhor Malfoy."

"His lack of personal and social comfort is contributing to my lack of personal and social comfort, and is interfering with my ability to enjoy myself here." The young English import's voice was precise and modulated, but perfectly respectful.  "Perhaps we could call him in, and his advisor again, in order to discuss the situation? In the meantime, however unpleasant my day... I consider myself well-tended."

The Headmistress' eyes bored through him, but in the end, she said nothing, just turned and left. Lucius felt Silva's eyes on him... Two hours later, he made his way slowly back to the dorm, and entered his and Ramone's room. Ramone was huddled under a pile of blankets, thrashing about restlessly. Lucius put his satchel down, and went to shake him.

"Ramone. Wake up."

"Luz?" He sat up, fisting his eyes, suddenly awake. "Are you alright?'

"Yes," Lucius said. "You were having a bad dream."

"Oh." He pushed back the blankets, and made his way to the bathroom, a long thin figure in pajamas, dressing gown, socks and slippers. Rummaging in his drawer for his own pajamas, Lucius loosened his tie and began to unbutton his shirt. Ramone emerged, averting his eyes. Lucius watched as he climbed, yet fully clothed, back into his bed and rolled himself tightly as a sausage in his blankets.

"Does the cold blood translate as well?" Lucius asked him.

"Uh?"

"You are always so warmly dressed. I asked you about riding bare-footed, but I do not think I have ever seen you without socks or shoes, at any point. This is, as you pointed out, the tropics." He pulled on the pajama bottoms and sat, shirtless, on the edge of the bed, reaching for the letter sparkling in on his night table. Made a face at the address, but opened it dutifully. Ramone rolled on his side, watching him as he read, read again, and reread a third time, expression fading further into impassivity with each paragraph. When he returned to the first of the two pages for the fourth time, the young Brazilian could no longer contain his worry. He struggled free of his cocoon, and propped himself on his elbow.

"Luz?" he asked tentatively. "What is it?"

"My parents are divorcing." He refolded the pages neatly and tucked them back in the parchment envelope.

"Divorcing," Ramone repeated, and sat up fully. "What? But... Why?"

"My mother is not a pureblood. Her grandmother, not her mother, was a Nomaj, but by European genealogical definition, the stigma there remains till the third generation of fully Magical descendants are born. She is, therefore, considered a half-blood, and there will be no place for her in the public, political eye as a spouse of the Head of a Noble and Ancient House such as Malfoy in future years." He placed the envelope inside the drawer of the night table. "My father has been advised by his superiors of the disadvantages of retaining her as his wife, and has accepted the recommendation that he arrange for her to remove herself from England."

"Are you in danger of disownment?"

"No. I am of that third descendant generation - a pureblood again - and as my father's only child, the last of the Malfoys besides. Too, I have skills that will enhance my House's status. Between that and my presumed and prospective marriage to Narcissa, I am at no immediate risk."

"But where will your mother go?" Ramone persisted. "When will you see her again?"

"I do not know. And I will not be expected to want to see her again."

"Not even at your wedding, or the birth of your children, or..." He stopped.

Lucius pulled the blanket over himself and rolled, face to the wall, closing his eyes tight against the unrelenting light. After a minute, he heard soft footsteps, and his bed shifted, and a long thin body lay, not under the blankets but behind him. Ramone put a tentative arm around him.

"I am so sorry," he said. "I am so, so sorry, Luz."

"It is why I am here," his new room-mate said to the wall. "It is why I was allowed to come here. Father Silva asked me, the first night we talked. Why Abraxas would allow it. I thought it was because he was providing me with a conciliatory alternative to the dueling apprenticeship I had to turn down, and that was the fact, yes... But now I know the truth."

"Mil perdoes. I do not understand."

"It was planned. Timed, to coincide with my departure, once I asked for permission to apply to ISEP. I am expected to accept, but she is my mother. I am yet her son. It will be expected that I compose myself before I return, to the point of public indifference at least."

The arm around him tightened. The chime sounded again. Lucius did not move. Ramone turned.

"It is from your angel," he said. Lucius turned, sat up and took it. His fingers were white and chilled as he opened it.

"She has heard," he said. "Of course. Her eldest sister will have told her to cause her distress, because we are apart and she cannot comfort me as she wishes to."

His face was taut and white, remote. Ramone took the letter from his fingers and read it silently.

My beautiful Luke-

You matter. Everything of you matters. All of you, including the woman who bore you, and gifted you to me. I will honour her always.

Be brave, my lovely.

Your

Niss

Lucius said nothing as the other boy set the letter aside and spooned again against his unresisting bare back. After a few minutes, the blond boy disengaged gently and slid off the end of the bed. Ramone sat, watching as he fetched his wand and went to the loo. He did not follow him. When he returned...

"Luz?" Ramone said uncertainly. Lucius just tossed the wand on the night table, and the long tail of ice white hair, twisted and hacked brutally at the nape, into the bin. "What..."

"It is a Malfoy tradition," he said. "We address our fathers by their first names, and we do not cut our hair."

"Ever?"

"Not once it has reached mid-back, no. After that... It is maintenance."

"It is not cut now," Ramone said after a moment, examining him judiciously. "It looks chewed.  As if by a lethifold with very bad, soft teeth, heh? A British lethifold. I was quite surprised by your good dental health when I first saw you; I had read that you all are very challenged there."

Lucius stared at him, bemused. Ramone slid off the bed, hauled over his desk chair, and retrieved his wand.

"Sit," he ordered.

He sat. Ramone transfigured his wand into a pair of scissors, and Lucius' into a comb, and began to flick and snip briskly.

"It is better this way," he told him. "When you next fall off your broom, it will not be because you trip on it."

"Sod off, Carriera."

"So pleasant." His wand gusted, blowing hair bits off of him and straight into the bin. "I do not think you are an Englishman at all, Malfoy. Good teeth, bad manners, no love for traditional schoolboy entertainments..." The wand gusted again.

"Where did you learn to cut hair?"

"Tio Antonio. He would come to visit when I was a child, to my family in Rio de Janeiro, and would always cut my hair like his when he arrived. A way for us to remember each other, heh? When I was eight, he let me cut his, and it was so terrible, he showed me how to do it properly." He trimmed carefully around Lucius' ears. "He was there for five days. Every morning and night he would regrow it magically and allow me to practice. It was very amusing for my parents, and my brother Pablo."

"Pablo?"

"Sim. After Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet." Ramone set the wands aside, and brushed him off a bit. "We will be studying his works in Nomaj Appreciation in November. He is Tio Antonio's favourite, and Mama and Papa's too.  He says that is why he chose them as my new parents, because though they have not much money,  they have obvious appreciation for the finest things, and so would properly appreciate me." He sat on his bed. "I will write them and ask if you may come home with me for Christmas. I do not expect that Abraxas will think your ability to maintain public indifference likely by then."

Lucius returned the chair to its position and slipped back under his blankets.

"I must sleep," he said. He pulled his pillow under his head. "Are you alright?'

"Me? Why would I not be alright?"

"You had said that you were not feeling well yesterday, and you did not look much better when I came in just now."

"Oh. That." Ramone flicked a hand. "It was nothing. The soup I ate for lunch, and I did not get a chance to practice on my broom today.  The lack of exercise makes me restless, heh? I do not like being locked up inside all day. The castle is big, but never big enough for me, even as a frog."

"I met Professor Hernandez in the library," Lucius said. "Speaking of 'big enough'. I have been reading your Kipling, but I was not aware that certain characters were based off of the teachers here at Castelobruxo."

Ramone laughed at that. "She is very nice though, not like Ka'a. Unless she is annoyed, or you do not do your homework. Then the jungle seems by far the better option, never mind what lies within."

"Mm. She and your uncle seem great friends."

"They are. They went to school together here." The young Brazilian returned to his comfortable cocoon as he mused on that.  "I often wonder about their past, if they were lovers as students, heh? They are so comfortable together, and always with the flirting and teasing too? Never too much, or inappropriately, but it is there sometimes. And before you say he is a priest... He was not always so, and did not begin to study as one till he was twenty two, besides."

"What does his being a priest have to do with anything?

"What do you mean, what does that have to do with... Catholic priests do not marry, Malfoy-from-England. Do you truly know that little of our faith?"

"It is not part of European Wizarding culture, Carriera-from-Brazil. As little as I knew of the niceties of lethifolds, I know even less of those that concern organized religion. "

"I understand this, but..." Ramone propped himself up, staring, flabbergasted, then sat fully, alert and happy suddenly, as he always was, at the thought of imparting information to the uneducated source. "Do you wish to know? To learn? I will be happy to teach you."

"No. I wish to sleep. I could also wish for a working right hand to help me along there, but it would seem neither is likely to happen."

Carriera sniggered and lay down again. "True incentive to improve, heh?"

"Mm," Lucius agreed. There was a silence, then...

"Luz?" It was tentative, and subdued.

"Mm?"

"Forgive me, but... Did you eat today? At all?"

Lucius pulled his blanket over his suddenly tense shoulders.

"Yes," he said shortly. "I did. And I do not wish to talk about it."

"Of course. I am sorry. I just..." He trailed off. "I am sorry."

They both shifted a bit.

"Carriera," Lucius said.

"Sim ?"

"What is the Headmistress' Animagus form?"

"She does not have one. Officially, she is allergic to mandrake, but I suspect, from what I have heard when traveling about as a frog, that she simply never managed it. Some do not. One may  be very powerful, magically speaking, but it is a question of temperament too."

"She is proud?"

"She is a politician, and worries far too much on what people think of her. She worries enough for herself and them, which is appropriate, since for the most part, they do not think of her at all." He rolled on his back. "She campaigned very hard to become Headmistress here, after the one before her retired. It is a safe place to work, when one cannot transform. Safer, if annoying for her now that Tio has arrived."

"How is that?'

"You have seen how everyone respects him, the teachers included. That is not typical, even for the clergy. It is simply a reflection of how people react to him. And Professora Hernandez is well respected too. She would be Headmistress, were Transfiguration and the related subjects not so important here. They take up her time, heh? It is not a choice that many people would make, even so. The fact that she turned down such a position, so that she could be of more actual help to the students... She is greatly, greatly respected for it. Together, she and Tio , over the last five years since he has come, have raised the success rate for those becoming Animagi before graduation by twenty nine percent. They even hold summer seminars for adults who wish to try for success that they did not attain at school. The Headmistress, of course, preens under the praise that she receives for her apparent arrangements there - but she resents them both tremendously in private, and likes to try to intimidate them. It does not work very well, if at all - Tio is Tio , and Professor Hernandez, by nature, simply cannot be bothered."

"I would not be bothered by much either, if I were a great bloody thirty foot snake. Does her kind of form have any worry from predators at all?"

"No. And that too, is a reflection of her nature. As frightened as all of we here at Castelobruxo are on the thought of discussing our misdeeds with Jesus through Tio Antonio, it is yet nothing next to the fear we all have on facing the wrath of Senhora Professora Hernandez. Her heart is as big as her Animagus form: profound and encompassing as the strength of her coils, but when her fury is awakened...Lucifer himself would be tempted, I think, to run back to Christ's Mother to protect him from harm there. With God, at least, there is the hope of mercy, heh?"

"Have you ever seen her angry?" Lucius couldn't help but ask curiously.

"Sim," Ramone said after a moment. "Once. It was truly terrible. It took a full month to repair the damage to the castle. She did not touch the wards, but those were the only part of the standing structures that did not retain damage.'

"What ?"

"It is said that that was why the last Headmistress retired - that she refused to come back to a place where Professor Hernandez was yet employed. When the Board of Governors was presented with her ultimatum..." He shrugged. "Mid-level bureaucrats are easier to replace than good teachers, heh?"

"Salazar's syphilitic scrotum." Lucius actually sat up at that. "What the bloody hell happened ?"

"I will tell you tomorrow," Ramone said. "I, too, am very tired." The blankets collapsed around him... Lucius stared at the sheets and the pillow again... Lying back, he closed his eyes, and promptly opened them again. Tugged the blankets up over his shoulders, rolling to face the wall, and pulled his knees up to his chest before reaching for his own pillow and pulling it over his own head. After a few minutes, he heard the bed opposite shift, and soft slippered feet scuffing to the loo. After a few more, his own bed sank a bit, and the pillow was abruptly removed. Dazzled and disoriented by the sudden light, he barely struggled as  a thin strong arm rolled him on his back and slid under his shoulders, lifting him slightly. Lucius opened his lips automatically as the cool vial touched them. An absolutely unmistakable silky and bitter taste filled his mouth.

"What..."

"Shh. It is a small dose only, but it is past midnight now, and as you did not sleep at all last night, even twice your effective hours of sleep will barely be enough. Those tree-houses of Tio 's, though, they will not build themselves, heh? Close your eyes now, and I will make sure you are awake in good time."

"But what are you doing with Nightshade Draught? Ramone, that is a Class A prohibited substance! You could be expelled if you are caught with that in our room! No, you could be imprisoned! Only a licensed Mind Healer can dispense of that, in the monitored hospital environme..."

Then darkness descended, and he knew no more.


 

Three and a Half Hours Later

Lucius Malfoy sat on the steps, broom beside him, and stared into the darkness beyond the parameters of the school grounds. Soft footsteps sounded beside him. He did not turn about.

"Bom dia, Senhor Malfoy," a soft voice said.

"Sir." It was dull with fatigue. He sensed, rather than saw, Silva move, and smelled coffee, and the warm fragrance of fresh rolls. He did not turn his head.

"Carriera came to me last night," the priest said quietly. "After you were asleep."

Lucius said nothing.

"If you wish," Silva said. "I will arrange letters."

"One does not write letters to the dead."

"I have contacts, Malfoy. I can help."

"No. You cannot. The wording of the message...  It was phrased as such in case of interception by the authorities. It will be put out now that she has gone abroad, and within a few weeks - no more than two months - there will be word of an unfortunate accident. My application here provided a suitable and convenient timeline for this course of events. It was why I was allowed to come. My presence was complicating matters there."

Silva digested that.

"And your woman?" he said finally.

"She is safe enough as long as I cause no trouble. They will not kill her. Her sister is to be his consort. But if I do not do my duty, as they see it - if I do not cooperate with their version of events again, both in public and private - they will marry her to someone else. As he is a widower now, most likely to my father."

A soft exhaled breath escaped the priest's lips.

"I am sorry, sir," Lucius said colourlessly. "You are here to train me, not to...'

He forced his voice silent, before it could crack. An arm slipped around his shoulders. He smelled coffee again, and felt the cup tilt at his lips. He swallowed automatically, and again. Silva set the mug aside. Lucius opened his mouth and accepted the offered piece of roll. He chewed, eyes fixed on the thick, green wall of foliage facing him. Silva said nothing, just offered him the rest of the roll piece by piece, and the interspersed sips of coffee.

"Bueno ," he said quietly when the mug was empty. A cool thumb brushed the corner of Lucius' taut mouth, brushing away a drop of coffee. "You are a good boy, Luis. Together, we will make of you the finest of men."

The fragrant breeze moved across the steps. Lucius stood, retrieving his broomstick. With his shorn hair, his features did not look so much elegant and refined as angular and drawn: both harsh and ethereally beautiful.

"Carriera has invited me home for the holidays," he said.

"You will enjoy his family. I will make the arrangements with your father."

"You misunderstand me, sir," Lucius said. "I wish to stay here. At the castle. I do not want to hurt his feelings, but..." This time his voice did crack.

"The extra time to study will do you well," Silva conceded. "As time is so short." He too stood, and glanced around quickly.

"Take my hand," he commanded. "Now."

Startled, Lucius obeyed immediately. There was a quick rush, the deep, sweet sound of bells reverberating through every cell of his body, and then...

He staggered. Silva caught him neatly. They were back in the half-finished tree-house.

"What..."

"Your aversion to apparating is incurable," the priest said. "Sadly. I confess, it is not my favourite mode of travel either. God is good, sim ?" He beckoned him out the door of the tree-house and onto the small deck. Lucius followed curiously - and lunged forward with a horrified shout as the priest vaulted lightly over the railing, twisting so that he faced the young man as he plunged straight down through the canopy, arms stretched wide. The shout turned into an awestruck gasp, half-caught in his throat as Silva blurred and soared up again - and then, then the young Englishman could do nothing but stare in speechless, abject awe as before him hovered a vision such as he had never seen before - never even imagined before - a magnificent pitch-black phoenix with dancing golden eyes and wings that spanned a full ten feet. Its high, spiraled crest and exquisite swooping tail, near as long again  as the span of the wings, were not golden again as in the photos, but lit from within as hot black coal, radiating ruby and garnet and shimmering blue waves of heat... A round collar of tiny, delicate snowy-white feathers encircled its long, graceful neck. Lucius Malfoy's own eyes were huge, and his face, had he been able to see it, wondering as a child's. The phoenix let a long, musical croon in a near-minor key, and then Silva was standing beside him again, smiling as the young man blinked at him as if coming out of a dream.

"What..." he stammered. "How... It is impossible; it is not possible ! How ?"

The priest reached up and cupped the back of his shorn head with both hands, pulling it down and kissing his cheeks, eyes and forehead lightly.

"I have no answers," Antonio Silva said. "But I must trust you now, Luis, as you are trusting me. There are only two others alive who know: Ramone and Professora Hernandez. And it must stay that way, sim ?"

"But... What do you do if people... I mean..."

The priest  blurred, and shifted into the form of a giant black panther.

"You havetwo Animagus forms?!" Lucius held his head as if it would literally fly off.

"Nao. This one is an extremely advanced glamour." Silva reverted abruptly. "I do not use it often. Only often enough for others to occasionally witness and report, in association with my name."

"I have never heard of a black phoenix before in my life," Lucius said. "In all of my studies. Well." He grinned briefly as he followed the man back inside the tree-house, in remembrance of his first hours at Hogwarts. "Once."

"It is likely a reflection of my religious order, the Jesuits. Black is the only colour we are permitted to wear. And there is a story there," the priest observed. He went to the corner and retrieved a large kit of Nomaji tools, extracting several and stuffing them into his belt. "Perhaps you will tell me, while we work?"

"It does not reflect well on me, I am afraid."

"Nao? All the more reason to share it."

Lucius sighed. Silva listened as he talked, Summoning bits and pieces of this and that from the forest as the five year history of ThatCrazyBitch Black and AllBallsNoBrains Malfoy unfolded.

"And this is the woman whom your master has chosen as his consort?" he inquired.

"Yes."

"Mm. This we can work with."

"We can?"

"Sim." He hummed to himself as he flexed his legs and hoisted himself up, sitting astride a branch of the tree above the house itself as he wove and spun various types of vines through the framework of what would be the roof. "It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that any man with a true shrew for a woman will be in need of commiserative comfort. And you are marrying the shrew's sister, and will thus be the appropriate candidate."  

"Niss is not a shrew!" Lucius protested as he settled down cross-legged amidst a mass of giant, extremely sticky and pink odoriferous leaves and began to hollow out with a small Nomaj jack-knife (for no other apparent reason besides the fact that it seemed to entertain his mentor to hear him gag in Accented Upper-Class English ) the broken-off, oozing stems. "So what is there to commiserate on? And Bellatrix may be insane, but she is not stupid. He doesn't just want her for her dubious charms and social standing; she's brilliant, and sees patterns in things like I do. Well, not exactly like I do, but..."

"Hate and pride blind women as thoroughly as they do men, my fine young Englishman," Silva said dryly. "Would you say that your master loves this woman of his?"

"I do not know. I have never seen them together. She embodies the key element of the perfect solutions to all of his long-term plans, though; I know that much. Whatever distaste he may have for her erratic behaviour - and from what I have heard of him, he does not approve of erratic behaviour unless he is directing it or partaking directly - is balanced by the strategic advantages she provides him as the eldest daughter of House Black."

"So she is to be his left hand as you are to be his right?"

"If he decides upon meeting me properly that I suit, yes. Right now, I am potential, not actuality. Probable potential, but..."

Silva regarded him thoughtfully through the rafters again.

"We will begin at the beginning," he said. "With the players. Tell me, young Malfoy, exactly and everything of what you know of Tom Marvolo Riddle."

"You know his name?" Lucius' own hands paused as he looked up. The priest smiled down at him.

"Sim, of course. Inez - Professora Hernandez  - has met him."

"I beg your pardon ?"  

"They were in the same year when she traveled to Hogwarts from Castelobruxo in our sixth year, on exchange. He paid little attention to her at first; he was in your House, Slytherin, and she was a Nomaji-born and placed in Ravenclaw, but that changed quickly enough."

"Oh," Lucius said blankly. "What did she think of him? I mean... Did she think anything of him?"

"A great deal, none of it positive. He had heard a rumour that they taught the students to become Animagi in South America, and wished to know why. He was quite relentless on the subject, she told me, quite past the point of irritating."

Lucius' eyebrows raised. "She did not tell him the truth, did she?"

"Nao, of course not. She told him nothing of anything. She disliked him greatly as I said, not the least for the reason that he could not keep his eyes off of everything of her but her eyes, and on the occasions that he tried to trap her with public inquiries, she simply said that it provided an easier and safer way to traverse the rainforests and jungle. He asked her if she had managed the Change, and if so, what her form was. She informed him that where she came from, that was not a question one asked someone whom one did not consider a friend. He attempted to apologize, for his own ends, obviously, but she was not inclined to accept. He then made a rather poor and awkward attempt at seducing her, to which she responded by laughing loudly in his face."

Lucius nearly choked, and not on the smell of the leaves. "Riddle propositioned Professor Hernandez ?"

"She was quite the most beautiful girl in the school. In any school."

"Is she married?" he ventured. "Is it rude to inquire?"

"Not at all. Nao. She is not. We two thought on it - planned on it - at one time, but it was not God's will." It was very matter-of-fact. "I myself did not Change till several years after we were graduated. My teachers were not concerned when it did not happen; there was obviously something there, but it was slow-blooming. It happens sometimes, and I was magically strong, with many ways to defend myself, so they said to leave it to God's good time and to be careful in the meantime. When I did transform the first time, Inez was with me. I was very ill for several days beforehand, of a parasite, she thought, because my fever became so very high. She cared for me as best she could, and when the fever broke, it was because I transformed and burned. She was quite surprised. We both were."

Lucius snorted. Silva just laughed softly.

"As I said. Once I recovered, we discussed it, and prayed on it together. We had been not just together or discussing it. I had proposed.  Before we could announce the bans, though, the fever began. Afterwards.. We talked. It was difficult. We truly loved each other. But Inez said that we could not deny that God was telling us He had different plans for us." His hands moved smoothly as he talked. "I argued. But then, she told me of something that I had not known before that day, and I could not argue any longer. I tried..." He smiled briefly, and not a little wistfully. "But she is as stubborn as she is beautiful, and that... That is saying something, sim ? She kissed me, and took me by the hand, and led me to the seminary in Sao Paulo, and said to my superior, 'I am giving to God the man I thought He had sent to be my husband, that I will love all the days of my life. You will tell Him, please and thank you, that there had best be a miracle coming from this, or He will be answering to me when the Long Night is over for insisting I permit my Antonio to father every child of South America but the ones we will never raise together.' And now... Now we are here again, Inez and I, here at Castelobruxo once more, and God has been so good to us both, sim ? We cannot be together as a man and his woman, nor married, but we do have our children after all. Every child of the continent, and we raise them  and teach them and love them and send them out in the world: frightened together for them as parents are, to be both blessing and strength to each other and everyone they meet."

Lucius looked down at his pink, sap-stained hands.

"I will not tell anyone," he said. "I swear it, sir. I would like to remember while I am here, but when I return... If it would be safer to obliviate me, I will understand."

"We will see. Much may change in so short a time. You will see one such change already when we return to the castle as a result of your humbling of yourself, young Malfoy. God can be hard, but He is kind too."

"How do you mean?"

"You will wait and see. Now." He patted the branch that he was straddling. "Come. Up. I will show you now how we set the roof in place with all of your beautiful bright leaves. They make excellent tiles, you will see, and if the pattern is right, the light shining through will make the whole house glow as if with stained glass!"

Several hours later, filthy, weary and exhausted again, Lucius dragged himself to the dining room.  Ramone shot to his feet immediately, pulling out his chair. He dropped down, head falling forward and thudding on the table.

"E ai ? Are you alright?" his room-mate asked solicitously.

"No. And for the record, I think we may assume on the standard answer for the rest of the term,  so I will assume on your daily concern as a given, and save us both breath."

"As you wish." Even given his nature, he seemed quite unusually perky... Lucius turned his head to look at him, not moving it from the table top.

"You are very cheerful this morning," he observed. "Dare I ask?"

"Yes," Ramone said happily. "I received two pieces of very good news when I awoke. The first..." He placed a parchment envelope in front of his nose. Lucius pushed himself up and examined it.

"Niss wrote to you? Really?"

"She did. And she sent me a gift too, and said that we are friends now, and there is a note for you to go with it; it is inside, see, I will..." He flipped the envelope open as two figures approached the table.

"Bom dia, Senhor Malfoy," Inez Hernandez greeted him. "And how was the jungle this morning?"

"Good morning, Professor," Malfoy said. Silva seated himself, charmed him briskly clean, and began to prepare a plate. "I met a spider. We were sharing a pile of leaves. It offered me a kiss."

"Very nice. And what did you think?"

"It was as big as my head. There was not a great deal of thinking occurring in the given moment."

Silva laughed as he held up two pitchers. Lucius nodded to the one containing guava juice. Ramone gagged rudely. Hernandez tweaked his ear.

"My office, Senhor Carriera," she directed. "Eight tonight."

"Sim, Professora Hernandez," he said happily again. She waved and headed back to the table. "That is my second piece of good news, Luz. There was a note on my table this morning from the Headmistress, stating that now that Father Silva has accepted you as one of his students, there is an opening in Professora Hernandez' student lists, and that I am to be transferred to her!"

"Truly?" Lucius sat up in delight. "That is wonderful!"

"It is. She is very nice, and very protective of her students too. Since she has no children of her own, she is very involved, heh?"

Lucius glanced at Silva at that. He said nothing, just peeled and sliced a hard-boiled egg, setting it on the prepared plate.

"Who was your advisor before?" he asked.

"He was the Arithmancy professor. The one who left because of the howler monkeys."

"He has been gone for two weeks!"

Ramone waved him off, chattering away. Silva wiped his fingers on the napkin and caught Lucius' eye, nodding to the chair beside him. Despite his pleasure for his friend, his stomach twisted and knotted. He closed his eyes tightly, fist clenching under the table. A sudden vision of his mother's face appeared behind his darkened lids, and an overwhelming desolate wave of grief, clamped immediately.

Be brave, my lovely.

He shoved his chair back and stood. Ramone's flow of words stopped immediately. The eyes swiveled in gleeful anticipation.

Lucius came around the table. When he reached Silva's side, the priest turned his chair slightly, pulling out the second and angling it to face him. Lucius lowered himself carefully, right hand on his knee, and left clutching the side of the seat. His knuckles were white and tense.

"Bueno ," the priest said, and in a murmur that reached only the pale young man's ears... "No tears now, my fine young Englishman. Their tendency to take undue satisfaction in others' pain is as bad for their souls as pride is for yours."

Lucius Malfoy closed his eyes tightly.

My mother is lost .

Soft, cool fingers touched his chin, lifting it.

"You have cut off all your hair, Senhor Malfoy. May I ask what prompted it?"

My mother is lost.

"My dignity is, obviously, yet at large, sir," Lucius drawled. "After my collision with the door. I thought it might be easier to spot and recover should I not have the other so constantly in my face, never mind Carriera's warty little arse."

Antonio Silva roared. Carriera sprayed coffee everywhere. Sniggers ran around the room, and jeers, but a high clear, genuinely tickled giggle too, surprised from one of the tables of younger-yeared students. Lucius steeled himself as the priest retrieved the cup of coffee he'd prepared and held it to his lips. Silence fell again. He drank carefully.

"Thank you, sir," he said.

"Obrigado," the priest corrected as he dabbed at his lips with a napkin.

"Obrigado," Lucius repeated.

"Nao ha de que. You are most welcome."

When Ramone returned that evening, his room-mate was already in bed, lying on his back and tracing the face of the girl in the photo on his night table. Lucius set it on the table as the other young man closed and locked the door, and rolled on his side to face him.

"So?" he asked. "How did it go?"

"Very well." Ramone shoveled himself onto his own bed, folding his long thin legs up as his fingers twisted in his lap. "Tio Antonio was there too. He told us both the truth about your mama."

Lucius said nothing.

"I do not want to send you home," Ramone said desolately. "Whatever awaits you there... It yet seems safer here, with me."

"You said you had a note for me, from Niss?"

"Yes." He reached in his satchel. "Desculpe-me; I would have given it to you earlier, but I was distracted. No one threw one hex at me all day!"

"I am sure that Professor Hernandez was delighted." Lucius sat up and caught the letter tossed, unsealing the parchment and unfolding it. His small smile faded to a blatantly shocked expression as he read the words.

"Luz?" Ramone sat up, alarmed. "What is it?"

"Carriera," he said, not removing his eyes from the letter. "What, exactly, did Narcissa send you as a gift?"

"Uh? Oh." He pushed his sleeve up. "A bracelet. It is so beautiful, see? She said that her sister gave it to her, and now she is giving it to me, because..." He jumped as the silver bangle, shaped like a snake, suddenly slithered off his wrist and shot the distance between their beds, nuzzling into Lucius' neck and licking his cheek affectionately. Lucius caught it up and stared at it, and at the parchment again.

My lovely -

I was quite charmed by Mr. Carriera's letter(s) of self-introduction, and am much reassured by your own accounts of your immediate mutual friendship. It seems to me, under the current unanticipated and difficult circumstances, that, in my absence, you may be in need of the comfort that such an amiable companion may provide you. I have, therefore, sent him a small token of my appreciation of his appreciation of you. You may inform him of the significance there as you are inclined . I only suggest that you consider it.

This is not a test, Luke. You matter. What you want matters. What you need matters, and again, under the unanticipated and difficult circumstances, these are not lessons that I feel can afford to be put on hold. As I have promised to take care of you... I will do so. The choice is yours, always yours, but if you are reluctant because you are worried on hurting me - I am likely to be reassured by regular and detailed reports. Said reports may be sent via my appointed student advisor: one Namirembe Obonyo. She is a lovely woman, and has reassured me that she will be happy to deliver to me (unread) sealed missives sent to her and received from one Mr. Carriera of Castelobruxo, in order to avoid unfortunate interception of content between the two of us. I do believe you would enjoy her company greatly; she is an absolutely astonishing duelist, and I have no doubt whatsoever that she will be competing for her Grandmastery one day.

I retract, by the way, my instruction to be brave. Every. Single. Resident. Of. This. School is a born Gryffindor, not excluding Nami (that is, Professor Obonyo) . The story goes that she killed two Nundus when she was fifteen , and when I asked her how she did it (because I am not inclined toward skepticism there; trust me, one day when you meet her, you WILL understand), SHE SAID THAT SHE DROPPED A MOUNTAIN ON THEM. I said "oh, are there mountains near the village where you were born then,' and all she said was 'There was one. There isn't now, BECAUSE I BROKE IT WHEN I DROPPED IT ON THE NUNDUS . I am aghast , Lucius. Truly. Only the thought of the expression of dismay on Mother's face should she realize the company I am keeping this year is keeping me sane. Almost as sane as the thought of the expression on Abraxas' face when he realizes that we plan to invite this woman to be godmother to our children. Salazar's suspenders, that WILL be a sight to remember. The memory may very well fuel my Patronus for the rest of my life.

Be happy. Bugger the sods, Luke, and be happy .

Your

Niss

"That is wonderful!" Ramone said in delight as the silver snake slithered back to his wrist. "It is an Animus charm?"

"A specifically adapted one," Lucius said. "Yes. Her sister is quite skilled. You have written her more than the one letter?"

"Sim. Three. I did not think you would mind, it is just that I have never had anyone to write to before besides Pablo, not another Magical my age, anyway, and I am very interested in Uagadou besides. It is the only other school besides Castelobruxo that teaches self-transfiguration, and wandless magic too? I am sure that Hogwarts is lovely, but if I were in a position to travel via ISEP, I would have preferred Uganda. I will be happy to show you our correspondence, there is nothing untoward there, I promise; I have kept to my manners, but she is telling me of her courses, and the traditions there, and..."

Lucius waved him off. "It is quite alright," he said, and running his hand over his shorn head... "Nothing untoward at all?"

"No. Well... No. I told her that you were very faithful to her, and none of the girls here who make eyes at you have drawn so much as your notice, much less your attention. I had thought, maybe, that she would like the reassurance. And she was very pleased to hear it, she said, though she had no worries at all, and asked me if I had an angel, and I said no; angels are not mere princesses and do not like to kiss frogs, and my preferred variety of angel is not of the kind that is accepted by tradition here in Brazil anyw..."

He stopped abruptly. Lucius lowered the letter and surveyed him closely.

"You were not joking then," he said. "When you kissed me?

Ramone flushed violently and hunched his shoulders, looking down at his fingers again. Lucius thought hard.

"Father Silva said that you invite everyone to your bed, but I have never actually seen you approach any boys," he said slowly. "Only the girls."

"It would not go over well," Carriera muttered. "It is not accepted here. At all."

"But you said..."

"You are English. I had read..." He trailed off. "It is different there. Tio knows I read. He knows me. He would worry."

"Not so different," Lucius said. "Discretion is yet..." He shook his head, bemused. "Carriera, you had just met me! Were you not afraid I would say something to someone?"

"No. My wand tells me when I can trust someone."

"Your... What ?"

"My wand. I left it on the table, the day you came. It is ... It is different. I told you. It watched you. When you were here, alone. I knew you would be brought here and left it here, so it could watch you a little, in private. When I came in, it told me you would be a good friend. In the way that it has. That we have."

"Oh." He eyed the wand on the table, remembering Silva's words of warning in the library. "Well... You need not worry. I will not tell anyone. Though... You may want to refrain on making note of appreciation on my own wand in the future, in the dining hall."

"Uh?" Ramone's nose wrinkled. "Oh. That. No, you need not worry. My wand, it makes sure they do not hear such things as I intend them."

"Is it intelligent?"

"That would depend on how one defines intelligence. And it is a dangerous question besides, Malfoy-from-England, that leads to more of the same. Do you prefer the facts, or the truth?"

"The truth," Malfoy-from-England said. "Always."

The bright little room was quiet.

"I will tell you, then," Ramone said. "Tomorrow. I." He stopped. "I am not brave. Not like you. I must pray to be brave, first."

"You need not tell me anything, Ramone. It is your choice. I will..."

He looked down at the letter in his hand, and making an abrupt decision, shoved it over. Ramone offered him an odd look, then took it and read it. Slowly. Three times.

"Ah," he said. "Well." He rubbed his cheek. "I must think on this."

"I am not suggesting anything," Lucius said. "I am not..."

"Do you like men?" he asked directly. Lucius shrugged.

"I like Narcissa," he said. "I have never thought much on anyone else, ever.  I am hers and she is mine, and insofar as there may be a God, if He exists, I believe that He made us for each other."

"Much, or not at all?"

Lucius slid back on the bed, crossing his legs.

"I am like you," he said finally. "I do not have many friends. Any friends, really. Many who think they are, but the individuals who are deemed suitable for me to associate with... We are not alike. They do not realize it. They think that I am like them. That I think the same way that they do. The way that we all were raised to think. And in some ways... I do. But I think differently too. I am able to see everything  - every situation - from different angles. As through many sets of eyes all looking at the same object, or situation, from different perspectives. It is very difficult to do that and to maintain, as do those people I grew up with again, that there is only one right way of looking at the world - theirs - because in the end, from my experience, perspective in and of itself and by definition is  neither right nor wrong. It is simply an issue of where you are standing, and whose eyes you are looking through. It is not a question of interpreted morality, it is a question of personal experience."

Ramone listened silently.

"I see facts," Lucius continued. "Through my eyes. All of my eyes. I see the threads of events, past and present, and possible futures, that have, and do, and will connect them. They cross, they turn... Sometimes they lead to new paths. But they all lead to one thing, in the end. Or from one thing. To, or from  - or perhaps to and from - that which, as I understand now, has nothing to do with facts. That which fact can only facilitate, reveal, or obscure, but never ultimately define. Truth.  I have always known this, I think. In my heart. But I have never really..." He paused, searching for words. " I was raised in a certain manner, to follow one series of facts that validate the single perspective. But because I can see other perspectives and paths that the others around me, who were raised around me cannot... Because I have the ability to see , and have the experience in seeing, those paths... I am able to see that the path and perspective I am supposed to advocate, with the facts I have been taught along the way, will lead me to only to a dead end, not to any new paths, nor to the center of things. So this  can only lead me to the conclusion that that perspective is a faulty perspective, because the facts that supposedly are revealed along that path do not lead to truth."

He was thoughtful, his brow furrowed.

"And how does this relate to the context we are discussing now?" Ramone asked.

"In context... I came here knowing one true thing. I love Narcissa. That that is not just fact, or my truth, but the truth. It is the truth at the center of me . Of all paths presented me, of all facts that lead away, and back. And I have never loved anyone but her, so my perspective has been that as she has been the only one I was truly attracted to, and because she is a woman, I have assumed I am only attracted to women. That again, is not the truth though. It can have nothing to do with the fact that she is a woman, because you are not a woman. You are a man. That means that my attraction to both of you lies not in the fact of your genders- that you are female and male - but  in the deeper truth that you are Narcissa and Ramone. So... I would say that no, I am not attracted to men. But  I am attracted to you."

There was an abject silence from the other bed. Lucius lifted his eyes, rising from the depths of his concentrated and meticulous processes of deductive thought.

"You say it as if it has been - is - a given for you," Ramone said, not looking at him. "That being attracted to me was a conclusion you had already reached."

"Well, yes," Lucius said, surprised. "I concluded that the first hour I met you, Carriera, when you kissed me. I simply have not thought on it again till now, because till now, again, it has not been, as I told you then,  relevant."

"Uh?"

"There are things you think on regardless, simply because the options are intriguing to think about, and things you do not. It is as I told Niss again, before the first time we made love. Sometimes it was easier not to ..." He gestured. "Simply for the fact that it was so difficult to stop. I had always known it would be her decision to continue, rather than mine, so I simply left it in her hands and concentrated on other things. It has been like that with you. Now that she has made the context relevant for me, if not you - and in my mind, it is your decision, not mine -"

"Why?" he said abruptly. "Why is it my decision and not yours?"

The silence grew delicate.

"Because now that we have determined that I am comfortable with the idea of the proposed applied context... That is how I would prefer it," Lucius said. Carriera's brows wrinkled at him.

"Uh?"

"I take care of everything else," he translated. "Everything around me. It is how I am. In private..." He lifted a shoulder.

The young Brazilian's eyes widened.

"Oh," he said. He furrowed again. "Oh. You do not find it embarrassing to admit that?"

"No. It is not something I advertise, but I do not consider it a weakness. It is simply the way I am. Or... what I have assumed I am," he corrected himself carefully. "Based on my experience to this point."

"But you would not agree, simply because your angel told you she is fine with it?" he probed.

"No. As she is constantly telling me... My opinion - what I want - matters. Correlatively... In this context again... What you want matters. My attraction to you, and her acknowledgement of the possibilities, in absolutely, absolutely no way, whatsoever, however, when ever, renders any obligation to you. Ever. As far as I am concerned, the subject is closed until, or unless, you bring it up again."

Ramone pulled his socked and slippered feet up.

"It is interesting," he observed. "That you tell me this, and are so free of embarrassment, yet have such difficulty with the thought of Tio Antonio's methods."

"What does the one have to do with the other, exactly?"

"Exactly everything, when one takes sex out of the photo, heh? He is asking you to permit him to take care of you. To guide you. For you to submit to him and his will."

"In public!"

"And will you always be permitted to serve quietly? In private, by a tactful angel, so that your dignity is preserved and no one sees your discomfort?"

"Narcissa does not discomfit me."

"And that is my point, heh? Narcissa loves you. Lethifolds do not love. They cannot. They, and love, are antithetical. Whatever awaits you- it will seek your submission in a far more painful and embarrassing context than Tio would ever stoop to. It does not mean he will not teach you the thorough lessons, it simply means that he is attempting to remove from you a crucial weakness that could be used to break you before anyone is provided with the opportunity to employ it against you - and can you deny, even now, Luz, the truth I know that you do know - that, like Narcissa again, and myself, he wishes only the best for you? And Professor Hernandez too, because she is protective, and would never, never agree to release you to Tio's care in this manner unless she felt it was God's will?"

"It is just..." His shoulders tightened. "Difficult."

"Tio would not do this unless it was - is - truly necessary, Luz. He is not a sadist, and he does nothing - nothing - without purpose. And he does not shame. If he felt you needed shaming, he would do that in private, and the warning would come first, in the context of 'perhaps you would like to discuss this with Jesus?' Let me tell you, heh, those words from him strike terror into the hearts of everyone from the youngest of the first years to the Headmistress herself."

"It did not stop them from being arseholes yesterday. Or today, for that matter. Or have they decided to step up as his assistants in teaching me to control my temper?"

"No," Ramone admitted. "No. I am afraid that they are simply using his rules for you to rationalize their inherent ... What would you call it... Arseholery. Also," he added. "They, too, all want to have sex with you. You are not being co-operative. They are resentful."

"I beg your pardon ?"

"They offer us vital lessons here on identifying and accepting and embracing our base animal instincts, Luz, from the moment we arrive as eleven-year-olds. There are side-effects." He paused, abruptly. "You and your angel... You said that you have made love to her? Not just kissed, or... But actually..."

Lucius flushed.

"Yes," he said. "Many times."

Ramone nodded, and rolled himself up again. After a moment, the sausage of blankets collapsed, and he herded himself under his pillow again. Lucius pulled his own blankets over his shoulders and rolled on his side. The next morning, he made his way to the west steps, waiting in silence in the stark, relentless light. Silva was, perhaps, twenty minutes late. When he arrived, he sat beside him, unwrapped a cheese bun from a napkin, and broke it into pieces. After only two or three bites, though, Lucius shook his head, pulling his knees up and resting his forehead on his arms.

"I am sorry," he said. "I cannot. It is not... I just... Cannot."

Silva rubbed his back gently. There was the echo of bells, the deep reverberating music, and they were back at the tree-house. Lucius looked about. Finished, it was an exquisite work of art of woven vine and flower. The curtains of carnivorous sword vines were gone. In their place - everywhere, on all the sills -  were vases filled with tall sprays of exquisite flowers: ivory and white and gold flowers that shimmered and sang in the constant small and humid breezes that flickered through the dense canopy.

"What..."

"They are Amazonian bell orchids," a voice said. Lucius turned as Inez Hernandez stepped in from the outer deck. She was dressed in mottled green and copper robes: formal and flowing and trimmed in black, and her small, plump feet were bare.  Flat-footed, the top of her head barely reached the young man's collarbones. She came to stand before him, placed her hands on his shoulders, and stood on her toes to kiss his cheeks softly.  "We have many traditions surrounding them here in Brazil, one of which is that we bring them at the birth of a new child, to sing the child to rest so that his mother too may rest."

"My mother is dead," Lucius told her. It was harsh and desolate both.

"Yes," Inez Hernandez said gently. "This is true. I am so, so sorry, Senhor Malfoy."

And Lucius crumpled to the floor of the tree-house, screaming in his grief. The room, out of the corner of his blurred, agonized eyes, seemed to expand. He was suddenly surrounded, supported and cradled by massive, smooth and mottled green and coppery coils. The sound of music was everywhere. Silva crouched beside him and touched his cheek.  A wave of fatigue, so strong it was nauseating, washed over him.

"Sleep," the priest said to him. "Inez will guard you. I will be back by sunset."

"Where..."

"A far flight, over roads that are not yet yours to travel. I will return, I promise. In the meantime... Sleep."

"Carriera will worry. Your classes..."

"All is accounted for. Obey me now, my fine young Englishman."

Lucius closed his eyes and obeyed. When he woke again, Professor Hernandez was moving quietly about, casting light and anti-shadow charms all around. He lay on the pallet that she had transfigured beneath him from one of the orchids and watched her. She turned and came to sit beside him on the floor. In her hand was a tall glass of chilled papaya juice. She helped him sit, then to drink: sip by slow sip. When he was almost finished, there was a great rush of wind from without, and the sprays of orchids crashed in their charmed vases from the sills onto the floor. The soft chimes silenced abruptly.  Lucius scrambled up, alarmed by the look of grey, tightly controlled fear on Antonio Silva's face as he appeared in the door of the tree-house. The small woman was at his side immediately.

"Antonio? O que aconteceu ?"

"There has been an incident at the school,"  the priest said to her without preamble. "Take my hands, both of you, now."

Inez Hernandez swore vividly as she obeyed. Lucius stood, frozen. "How bad?"

"He is alive. Barely. He fell down the north steps, from top to bottom. The Headmistress says it was an accident, but it  was not an accident. If it had been, he would have Changed automatically when he fell, and he did not. That can mean only one thing; someone slipped a repressant into his coffee at his last meal."

The Transfiguration Mistress said nothing more, just seized Lucius' unresisting hand in hers. There was the reverberating echo of bells, and another great rush of wings, and the tree-house was empty.

 

Chapter Text

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

The Hospital Wing

Wednesday, November 26th ~ 11.30 A.M.

 

"And... There... We... Go." Ren etched the last rune with an economic flourish. "All done. Up you get."

"That's it?" Jacia 'Jax'  King raised her fingers to her cheek and boosted herself up to a sitting position as the Warder transfigured the examination table back into her hospital bed. "It didn't hurt at all!"

"Don't tell me you're disappointed? No. Wait. Don't answer that." Ren passed her a mirror. "Here. Check out your fantastically gorgeous self instead."

"And you a married man." The girl tsked at him, but accepted the mirror. Her face was as perfect as it ever had been, save for the intricate series of interlocked glowing silver runes now scribed around what had been the parameters of her injuries. "Mm. Very nice. Good job, Master-Adept. You ever need a reference, let me know."

"Thanks. And no, it didn't hurt; the inks are all on the surface now, but they'll start itching like fury tonight as the runes sink in and bond with the first set we did, so don't be shy on taking the potions Madame Pomfrey brings your way."

"Can I scratch?"

"No. You may not." The reborn wizard transfigured the operating stool back to the comfortable bedside chair and settled himself. "So how are you, really?"

"Bored stupid. I know you said I have to stay in quarantine to minimize the risk of infection till the final layers are set, but still. Bored, bored, bored, bored, bored ."

"Mm. Maybe this will help?" Ren dug in his pocket and offered her a crystal cube. "Saturday's duel. I rigged the stadium from several angles, and Professor Flitwick spent a little time merging the perspectives into the single show for me. Or rather, you. Now you too can see my award-winning performance!"

"Eeeeeeeeeeeee!" She squealed and grabbed. "Gimme gimme gimme! Is the kiss on it?"

"Sorry?"

"The kiss ! The one Luscious Malfoy laid on you! Hot as bloody sin that bloke; I'd  polyjuice every last inch of me for the opportunity there , and will too, if you're having adulterous qualms. It's the least I can do to thank you; just give me a bit of hair and I'll be good to go. All night long. Mm- mm!"

Ren snorted with laughter.

"And on that note," he said, tucking his wands into their holsters. "I'm going to attempt my furtive escape."

"Too late," a deep voice informed him.

"Oooh!  Someone's in troub-le!" Jax sing-songed. Ren threw a pillow at her. The Headmaster pushed the sterile hangings back and ducked through, popping his ears in friendly greeting at the girl sitting on the bed as he passed off a huge basket of chocolate frogs done up in green and silver ribbons charmed as tiny, frilly snakes.

"From the family," he told her. "They passed the hat, and send their love along with. Hello, Lawrence. It's so nice to see you again, and my, but that's a lovely wedding ring you're wearing! Is it new?"

"Hey Gramps," Ren said in his meekest tone. Jax grinned at him.  "I'm sorry.  I didn't mean to get married without you. It just..." He waved vaguely.

"Seemed like a good idea at the time?" Neil supplied, perching on the end of the bed. He wore no robes, only the canvas trousers and denim shirt he wore when working the greenhouses, and his knees, boots and fingernails all looked a little worse for wear... The former Harry Potter winced. There was only one reason that Augusta-Domitia-Claudia-Dame-Lady-Longbottom's Master Herbologist of a Headmaster of a  grandson would present himself in public without charming the dirt off of himself first, and that was because he was just too damned annoyed with the individual he was about to present himself to to care.

"Erhm. Yes. It did, actually."

"I understand." The deep baritone was alarmingly soothing and pleasant. "I'm completely devastated to have missed the occasion, of course, and you still owe me for all the arse-covering I've been doing for you, but I do understand. And speaking of arse-covering... How was the wedding night?"

"Nice, Gramps. Also, you are the Headmaster ! And there is a student right here !"

"Ah, but I'm not your student, am I?  Come on!" Jax coaxed. "Tell us! Inquiring Slytherins want to know, and not just on the personal prurient basis either. The other Houses will offer us obscene amounts of money for every detail we can get out of you."

"Isn't that nice. Would I get a cut of the profits, at least?'

"You're a Hufflepuff, Master-Adept Weasley-Cartwright.  Aren't you lot supposed to be above that sort of thing? Though I'm sure we could work something out." She reached into the basket and waved a packaged frog at him. "Special edition treacle tart! Mm. Treacle tar... Wait, are these all special editions? Aw. Don't I feel loved! What else have we got here? Peanut butter and raspberry chunk, dark toffee ripple, cinnamon spice, citrus supreme... Ooh. White chocolate and marmalade ? Headmaster?" She held it out invitingly.

"You are as thoughtful and gracious are you are clever and ambitious, Miss King. Ten points to Slytherin for just being you.  I only want you to be happy," Neil said piously to Ren as he accepted and unwrapped Jax's offering. "Tell me, when do I get to meet the little woman in pers... Oh wait. That's right. You're bent now! That's new too! New Mastery, new career, new orientation, and a new  husband? All on top of saving the world and the invite to father another couple's children? You have had a busy week, haven't you? Such a pity you didn't feel inclined to invite your grandfather to the celebratory party, but... Ah well.  I only raised you; I don't suppose that I, of all people, was actually entitled to be there." He popped a bit of chocolate in his mouth. "Cousin Augusta is very pleased for you, by the way. Surprised, but pleased. Mostly surprised, though. Yet another thing we have in common!"

"Oh for..."

The Neil-formerly-known-as-Neville just grinned at him toothily.  Ren rolled his eyes at him and, as he rose to his feet, grabbed his satchel and wiggled his fingers at the smirking patient... She wiggled her fingers back at him, the silvery green ribbons hissing at him mockingly from where they were now weaving themselves through her hair. Ren crossed his eyes at them too,  following Neil into the deserted hall outside the ward and yelping as a huge half-paw swatted his head. Hard.

"OW! What the..." He rubbed his ear as a  Muffliato charm buzzed around them.

"Suck it up," the Headmaster said unsympathetically. "I'm sure Charlie will appreciate your practiced efforts there. In the meantime, I have one word for you. Eulalia ."

Ren winced.

"Mm. That's what she said. I do not care how much she annoys you, Potter; sending her your bloody wedding announcement like that - in front of everyone , where she couldn't even react, much less cry because she isn't supposed to know you - was not on . Do you have any idea, any idea, how much you hurt her?"

"I..." Ren blinked at the fuming man before him, disconcerted. Of all things - all things - that had not been what he'd been expecting to hear.

"Shut it. Yes, she's smug. Yes, she's annoying. Yes, she's self-righteous. Yes, she's a bit of a bint, but she's still your bloody mother ! In the name of all of the rest of us who also grew up without our mothers, and would pretty damned literally kill for the opportunity to exchange one good bout of screaming sulks in person... Grow the fuck up?"

"Charlie didn't invite his mother!" Ren protested.

"Not my jurisdiction, and not my cross - don't bother pardoning the pun here because it is relevant - to bear. Try again."

"Neville.."

"Don't you 'Neville' me! You are having a do-over of the ceremony at the ball I'm throwing you: a proper do-over, and she will be there, and you are going to dance with her, and oh yes, do not even think, not for one second, not one , Master-Adept, about not inviting her to your investiture on Christmas Eve, or to the Invitationals for that matter. I. AM. SICK . OF. THE. WHINING !"

"Hers, or  mine?"

Neil just gave him a disgusted look, bit the head off of his white-chocolate-and-marmalade frog, and strode off down the hall. Ren craned his neck. There was a whuffle from behind him. He turned and sighed. The huge black Grim peeking around the corner emerged, morphing as it did so.

"Has it really been that bad?" Ren asked him, sinking down on a conjured bench. "And are you and Remus  mad at me too?"

"No, no. Well,  yeah, a bit on the mad, but that's what Mind-Healers are for."

"Sirius..."

"All's good. We understand.  And will continue to understand as  long as there's cake and a bit of public kissing at some point to squeal over, anyway." His father sat beside him. "Irish Wolfhounds. They're an emotionally needy breed. What can you do."

"And Mum?"

"She's a bit upset, yeah," Sirius said apologetically. "Quietly so, and that's indicative right there , isn't it?" He pushed his hair out of his eyes. "Snape's doing his best, but there is a difference, pup, between maintaining the chronically difficult relationship with certain members of your family and rejecting them outright. She does understand the circumstances here, but..." He grimaced. "The road to Hell and all, but sometimes you do have to take the fact that someone means well into consideration, yeah?"

Ren was silent. Sirius turned him by the shoulder to face him.

"Half of her being so annoying - most of it, really - is because she's afraid of you," he said gently. "Not of what you can do, but because she is your mother, and she does love you more than anything.  All of this... It's a bit like finding the kid you gave up for adoption as an adult, right, expecting a brilliant sunny and perfect reunion, and meeting him and realizing that he's had a miserable life and blames it all on you.  And what can you say to that, really?" He shook his head at Ren's rebellious glare. "No. She did what she had to do. The only thing she could do. She died, but only because it was the only way you could live, pup. And she's not the one who left you with the Dursleys, is she? That was Dumbledore's doing."

"I'm not mad at her for dying."

"Pull the other one. Everyone who’s ever has a parent die on them is mad at them. It doesn't make you an ungrateful plonker, it just makes you human."

"You're not mad at your parents for dying!"

"Sure I am. I'm mad that they disowned me first so that I couldn't be there and witness the joyous event. Events. There would have been cake, I assure you."

"It's not the same thing."

"Our motives aren't the same, no, but the anger's still real. We don't even want to start in on Remy and how he feels about his father dying. Peacefully, in his bed, and on the night of the full moon? After it was his big mouth that got his kid bitten in the first place, in his bed on another full moon, destroying his associative peace forever? There's a reason our own bed is a transfigured sofa."

"It... Is?" Ren was genuinely taken aback.

"Yeah. Looks like the other, smells like the other, sleeps like the other, but when it comes right down to it... He hasn't slept in the real, original thing since he was four, and it's not because he wasn't able to afford it. His four poster when he as at school here at Hogwarts was originally the hearth-rug; McGonagall transfigured it for him before we all arrived that year after his mum wrote ahead and let her know the problem, and it was always the furthest from the window besides."

"Oh. I didn't know."

"And now you do, and don't bring it up unless you're willing to cope with the fall-out. It's a touchy subject. Now, back to yours. It's long past due, and Neil's right, you do need to resolve it, and for your own sake, not just hers. No, your mum didn't come back to rescue you when you all passed over, but...  I want you to think about something else too, alright?" Sirius reached out to turned Ren's face back firmly as he looked away.  "No, Ren. Look at me. Listen to me. You're not a kid anymore. Little Harry is . Was. This little Harry... Your mum came here, from wherever she was, not just to help with the big picture, or to meet you, but so that he could leave the Dursleys! And no, he's not you, but given all your emphasis on balancing of souls and personalities, and that you've all said that he had to effectively be the same person as you, if a bit younger, and if it's all a blur where she was... If you can't see through the Veil to the specifics, mentally and physically, maybe he is a bit you, to her anyway, yeah?"

Ren was silent at that. Sirius waited.

"I get that," his son said finally. "I do. But it's about what came after that, really, isn't it? Yes, I was an adult, but that was only my mind , Padfoot, and the Dursleys didn't know about the switch, did they? And she still didn't check up on me! Snape said that it didn't occur to her to help because she's used to not being able to have any effect, but she's used to looking on anyway, isn't she? And she admitted outright that she didn't even do that much! Why couldn't she have done even that much?" He hunched his shoulders and ran both hands through his hair, then leaned forward to brace his elbows on his knees and bury his face in his hands as he struggled against the agitated tears... Sirius rubbed his shoulder quietly.

"Maybe she couldn't have done anything even if she'd wanted to," Ren said finally. "Since I was supposed to be thinking I'd just gone back in time and things had to remain exactly the same as they had been from my perspective as a result, but it's not a selfish question, Sirius, or a childish one. It just... Isn't . I'm a parent too, and alright, maybe not a great one or even a good one, but I still know what ... Past the point, you can't help yourself, it's just what parents do ! On instinct! I mean... It's what you're doing right now, isn't it? Checking up on me, and how much practice have you had? So what was she doing instead for those two years while she... Wasn't?"

"I don't know," his father admitted. "It's a valid question though. Why don't you ask her?"

'Uh?"

"Ask her what was she doing in those two years that she wasn't checking up on you."

"Aside from Snape, you mean?"

"Yeah, no." Sirius shook his dark head. "I don't think so.  Part of the deal, Neil told me, was that they stay apart so as not to risk interfering with events in any way that would risk her identity being discovered, or that might influence those events in ways that would confuse your memories of the established past. Her fear aside... If she managed to stay away from you out of respect for what was coming, do you really think that she, or Snape, would have risked it all just for the sake of mixing their bits? My Lils wouldn't have done, and let me tell you, looking back from the adult perspective, she was more of a smug, selfish bint than your mum could ever imagine being. Your mum..." He grimaced. "She's annoying, yeah, but honestly, now that I've had a bit of time to process everything, and her, she just strikes me as being really young. Young and desperate, and very, very aware that her time with you is limited - again - and that she's going to have to leave you behind again, and Voldemort might be a footnote in your world and a painful neo-memory in ours, but to her, he was bloody last night . And now she's here again, and so is he. And so... So are you ."

"Don't take this the wrong way, but where's all this coming from?" Ren asked, not a little bemused. "I mean, I do appreciate the perspective and insight, but it's all a bit sudden, yeah?"

"Not really. It's about Regulus," his father said bluntly. "He and your mum's souls  balanced each other. I've been thinking about that a lot these last few weeks, and trying to understand her so that I can understand who he was. Who he really was. I spent my life defining him by what I believed him to be, after all. I looked down on him, criticized him, judged him... I just assumed that, as a Black, he didn't have the capability to be anything more than that, and all while I - a Black myself - was making such a point that I wasn't, and couldn't, and shouldn't , be defined by those prejudices myself. And now... Now I find out that the kid died, not for glory or his version of the Greater Good, for the sake of a bloody house-elf ? Willingly ? He tossed himself into a lake of the bloody living dead, not because he wanted to be a hero, but because he loved that little fucker. And I look back... And I think, yeah, I find myself thinking... Of course he did: of course he loved him, of course he loved him that much , because in his whole life, his whole life , Kreacher was the only person who ever truly loved him . Unconditionally and perfectly, just the way he was, right from the day he was born."

"Sirius..."

"No. It's true. It's true , pup. I didn't love him. Our parents sure didn't. They couldn't. They were insane, clinically insane, both of them. So at the end..." Sirius leaned back against the wall and pushed his half-loosed tangle of hair out of his eyes again. "He'd go on, you know, Reg would, about ideals and higher purposes and sacrifice and whatnot... But in the end, it's not what it was about, for him. It was about Kreacher loving him again, and him loving Kreacher, and wanting him to live. The rest... He talked a good game, always, but it was all incidental. He wouldn't have actually died for any of it. My Lils would have, mind you, and she did, didn't she, at least half-way? She would have just loved the idea - her and Jamie both would have - of going out in a blaze of glory and being remembered for all time for it. Your mum, though... If she matched Regulus, and Reg was really the way I just described him... She wouldn't have. And didn't. And as she didn't... You have to see that that's not why she came back, either. She came back for the same reason she went out in the first place... To protect you, from the threat come round again."

Ren rubbed his eyes.

"You survived the Dursleys," Sirius said gently. "She knew you would, pup, because you are an adult. So no matter how painful it was for her, and you... She could manage to leave you alone there, upon your request.  Voldemort though... She never saw him die, did she? He killed her before it happened. She had to die before it could happen. And so she never saw it, and that means he's never died at all for her, has he? Really never died, because now he's back again. She's seen him. In person. In her mind... That's what she's here to save you from. Him.  The Dursleys hurt you, but that bugger... He could kill you. He could kill... Everyone. Next to that, next to that war, her war, the war that she ended.... The Dursleys just don't have that kind of psychological power over her. In her mind, Ren, it's not your responsibiity to end this war. It's hers. It always has been, and even now, never mind the happy ending for everyone else, it can only end the one way for her, can't it? The same way that it did the last time. She's going to die, one way or the other, and she's going to have to leave you behind. Again."

He looked down at his thin, laced fingers.

"I don't really like her," he said. "If I'm honest, really honest, I never liked really either version of her. The self-righteous smug and the trigger-happy wand carried - carry? - over in both of them, and just remind me too much of my own mum. But I don't hate her. I can't, because she does love you, and that... that I understand. I got you back too, see? It was a miracle. And then I thought I was going to lose you, and I got you back again. For keeps. Those days where I thought..." He struggled. "Before you told me you could stay... Were staying, because you wouldn't fit through the door... They were worse than the entire nine years of Azkaban put together. The only thing worse than being refused a miracle, is getting your miracle and having it taken away again. And this situation... For me and her... It's not the world-crossing or coming back from the dead or anything else there that's the miracle, is it? For the two of us... Remus too, but especially for the two of us... It's all down to you."

Ren slumped.

"And I thought she was the one who holds the Grandmastery in emotional manipulation," he said, but there was no bite to it. "Fine. Fine.  I'll talk to her. Not now, though. I have to go get ready for tea."

"Excellent. And... Ah yes." Sirius smirked at him. "Tea. Do give darling Niss and Luscious Lucius Cousin Sirius' best regards, won't you? I'm so looking forward to being a grandfather; I just can't tell you!"

"Bugger off. Wait." Ren caught his arm as he rose. "Tell her.." He struggled again. "Fuck. Tell her..."

He swore, dug in his pocket, retrieved a Flake bar and transfigured it into a glass vial. Placed his wand at his temple. Sirius raised an eyebrow as a smooth, silver tendril emerged. Ren dropped it into the vial, corked it, and passed it over.

"Don't lose it," he ordered. "And tell her I want it back."

"Is this..."

"The wedding, yeah. At the Ministry. And I want it back."

"Can I watch it too? With Remus?"

"Sure. Why not. Pass it around for all of Hufflepuff to sniffle over for all of me. Just make sure she gets it first, and tell her we'll talk when I'm ready, not when she wants to, and that ..."

He paused.

"Yes?" Sirius prompted.

"Tell her that I'm okay," Ren said reluctantly. "And that everything's going to be okay. It's the last thing I remember her saying to me, actually. Tell her that. That I remember that. From that night. And that I guess I did internalize it after all, even if our world didn't cooperate in helping things along there, because it seems to be who I am now. What I am. They even gave me a Grandmastery for it, right?'

He cracked out, and cracked back in.

"Tell her to try and get the self-righteous smug under control," he ordered again. "If you think it'll help, tell her it reminds me of Petunia."

He cracked out a second time. Sirius barked a laugh, tucked the vial in his pocket, and blurred, lolloping down the hall.

Chapter Text

Malfoy Manor

Wiltshire, England

Later That Afternoon

"I am not," Lucius Malfoy informed his wife as she reached up and straightened the collar of his (her) favourite silver silk shirt, "looking forward to this at all. For the record."

"Now, now." Narcissa patted his cheek as she examined the lay of his mother-of-pearl cufflinks. "There's absolutely nothing to contract about. We're just having friends over for drinks. Here." She handed him his (her) favourite knee-length-and-sleeveless navy robe. He slipped it on, she adjusted it a bit and turned him about. "Lovely. Sit."

"I am not contracting. I am panicking. And we don't have friends over for drinks, Niss." He sat on the stool, though, swiveling about to face the huge antique mirror across from their bed. Her fingers moved swiftly through his hair, weaving an elegant French braid. "We're Malfoys. We don't have friends to invite over."

"It's the dawn of a new era. And I should hope you'd want to change that much anyway, my lovely, considering that our primary guest is going to be putting his cock up your arse. That'll be a bit awkward if you can't even claim to be amiable, won't it?"

"Nothing has been decided yet. Also, really ? Was that supposed to calm my nerves?"

"No. But it amused me." Narcissa kissed his sleek head and turned him about, examining him critically. "Mm. No. Shirt's fine, trousers are perfect... No, no robe. The waistcoat will be fine, and we'll just leave the collar open a bit."

Lucius sighed and stripped off the robe. She bloused his shirt a bit and patted his rear. The enclosing, perfectly fitted navy hand-tailored wool slacks itched slightly, but there was no denying they were becoming, and the accompanying waistcoat was, in terms of the flattering aesthetic, downright excessive.

"Good enough to eat," Narcissa said approvingly. Her husband looked down at her sourly.

"Are you not even a little nervous?"

"Of course." She sat on the stool in turn. Lucius retrieved the brush and began to run it through her hair. "But it would be rather unladylike to advertise the fact, don't you think? My mother would roll over in her grave and start in with the screaming; then she'd raise Aunt Walburga just for the company, and then she'd raise your father to pass judgment on you. Really, it's best this way."

"We could call in Cartwright Senior to be our army. He'd be happy to pop his ears at them, I'm sure."

"What a lovely thought. We shall have to have him for dinner soon."

"Mm." He arranged tendrils artistically. "How's that?"

"Perfect." Narcissa rose to her feet. Lucius bent to kiss her gently, so as not to muss her lipstick. She tweaked his nose.

"Stop worrying!" she ordered him. "Master Cartwright -"

"Master Weasley-Cartwright - "

"Will be doing more than enough of that for all of us, poor thing, and it's our job to soothe him."

"I do not think..."

There was a crack, and Vinny popped in. Lucius could have sworn, as was always the case there, that he could hear the ever-so-faint echo of trumpets.

"They is coming through in five minutes, Mistress and Master," he announced. Narcissa twirled at him.

"Will we do?" she asked.

"Perfectly. Though you might be wanting to put the robe on, Master Lucius. Master Ren is wearing real dress slacks, not ones he is transfiguring from his cargo trousers, and Master Charlie is wearing St. Roux."

"What about the tie?"

"Vinny is sure that he is not being qualified to say, but still. St. Roux. We is needing to respect that. Also, Master Ren is being a little jittery," the young elf said delicately. "So again... You is probably wanting to not be putting the provocative obvious on display?”

"Uh?"

"Cover your arse," Narcissa translated, handing her husband the robe. "Or it'll send him screaming."

"Mistress is saying it," Vinny said virtuously. "Not Vinny. Please be taking note of that." He popped out again.

"Nrgh!" Lucius said, panicked again. Narcissa raised her eyebrows at him reprovingly. He wilted, then braced himself, shaking back his hair and smiling down... She patted his cheek.

"Moderate the disarming suavity," she advised. "You look like you're trying too hard, and it brings out your resemblance to Abraxas besides."

"Before or after he contracted dragon pox?"

"Well, you are looking a little green. Do you need to sick up before we go?"

"No. I'm saving it up for all the apparating we'll be doing tomorrow."

"Excellent." The Lady of the Manor adjusted her exquisite-yet-not-overwhelmingly-ostentatious robes (the exact blue of Lucius' eyes) slipped on her favourite diamond earrings and a pair of delicate blue flats, and allowed her husband to offer her his arm. "Green sitting room?"

"Isn't that cheating?"

"No. It's responsible social planning. There's nervous and then there's nervous. Completely different protocols."

"Ah." They made their way down the hall, down the stairs, and turned into the aforementioned sitting room. Narcissa  closed the door and flicked her fingers. The huge portrait on the wall blanked and refocused.

"My goodness," she said appreciatively as the images reformed, revealing the interior of the reception room two doors down. "That's little Dora's Charlie? Mm. Someone has grown up nicely, hasn't he?"

"He's nineteen, Narcissa."

"I'm practicing to alarm his mother, Lucius. Shh."

Lucius just snorted and turned back to the view of their guests.


 

"How," Ren Weasley-Cartwright was saying between panicked, gritted teeth, "can you possibly, possibly be so calm?"

"Because there's nothing to be nervous about." Charlie adjusted his collar. "We're visiting friends for drinks."

"And a shag! Argh!"

"Getting a bit ahead of yourself there, yeah?" It was  both tender and patently amused. "Here. Hold still." Lucius and Narcissa watched as the younger man adjusted his husband's black silk waistcoat and tie. A dressy, extremely-if-quietly expensive dark crimson button-down, trim charcoal linen slacks, a shining, hand-made black Italian leather belt and matching shoes completed his outfit. "Gorgeous." He kissed his nose, and his pierced eyebrow. The barbell shimmered, the jewels changing to crimson and black to match his outfit.  "Though I still think you should have worn the robe. They're going to be totally distracted by your arse."

"Yeah, yeah." Cartwright sank down on a delicate, padded Victorian chair and promptly stood again. Lucius' lips twitched at his wince. Narcissa grinned outright.  "Alcohol. He promised me there'd be alcohol."

"It'll be fine," Charlie soothed as he transfigured his wand to a mirror and checked himself swiftly. He wore an exquisite dark grey three piece suit in the latest (surprisingly tasteful) Wizarding style, and his hair had been trimmed down from its riotous halo of curl to a shining and eminently fashionable clipped tousle. His shoes, Lucius noted, made no pretense of adding so much as a single half-inch to his inconsiderable height... Oddly, that fact alone made him seem taller. "Just follow my lead, and everything will be just fine." He caught his new husband’s  increasingly nauseated expression and lowered the mirror. "Seriously, Dash; shagging aside - why are you so worried?  Didn't you tell me you had a good time with him on Monday?"

"Yeah, but we didn't discuss anything related on Monday! We just... Talked!"

"About..."

"Stuff! Other stuff!"

"That's a bit non-specific, innit? D'you think there's any chance that the children will inherit his eloquence?"

"Oh, shut up. Nrgh!" There was a sound of guttural frustration.  "I hate this! Three  International  Masteries, and he's going to think I'll have a fourth for sure, and how, how I ask you, am I supposed to bring into the conversation that I'd never even kissed another man till Saturday? That I didn't even know I was bent till Saturday?"

"Self-repression really isn't that uncommon, mate," his husband reassured him gently, coming over again to rub his back. "And it does help if you have context, yeah? You didn't. You were married really young, and those three Masteries you just mentioned took up  a lot of your time and focus besides, and it's not like you hate yourself, or hated yourself for it, is it? You just never self-identified. Which again, isn't nearly as uncommon as you seem to think, and certainly isn't anything that anyone is going to judge you for."

"Translated: they've already figured it out." Cartwright dropped into the chair again, burying his face in his hands. "Bugger!" Augusta was having her effect there, Lucius couldn't help but think... American or not, that last exhortation was very British indeed. There was even a bit of the convincing accent.

"Nope. No buggering today. It'll be awkward looks and fortified tea all around, and if it goes on for too long, they'll prolly take the bullet for us and say  they're petrified just to make us feel better. They're classy people, yeah, and  that's what classy people do.  I never grew up with any myself" - Narcissa choked back a giggle at that - "but Dora gave me the run-down on the basics way back when, so we should be fine." The young wrangler pulled him into a firm, solid hug. "Trust me, Dash, alright? If there were - if there ever is -  something to worry about, I will tell you. In advance, and in good time, I swear it, to work up all your necessary wards." He took his face in both hands and kissed him warmly and deeply. "I promise you, mate. I am promising you. Everything. Will. Be. Fine. Trust me!"

"I'm so glad I married you," Cartwright said fervently. "Even if I do have to suffer through your mum as part of the deal."

"Mm. Solace right there; we won't have more in-laws to deal with since they're both orphans. Neither of us would ever have been in there; never mind my status as a blood-traitor, Abraxas Malfoy would have buggered his son himself for the cause before offering him up to the Americans."

Lucius gagged, then sighed, then gagged again.  Narcissa patted his shoulder.

"Didn't he die of dragon pox? It  originated from the Peruvian Vipertooths, did you know that?"

"I did. And it's a particularly unpleasant way to go, I hear, for something that isn't cancer. Maybe not quite as unpleasant as rotting to death in Azkaban after having your arms chewed off by a giant feral perpetually-hungry Alaskan Kodiak, but..."

Narcissa quite nearly choked as that one processed. Lucius actually clapped his hand over her mouth. His wife bit him, hard. He yelped and released her. Narcissa glared at him as she healed the offending wound wandlessly. "You knew?" she hissed at him.

"Unofficially, yes."

"And you didn't tell me?"

"I was hoping to get the memory from the source and surprise you with it, my heart, once his grandson has knocked us up and we're all one big happy pregnant family. Viewing material to soothe you through the prospective hormonal fits and morning sickness, perhaps?"

"My poor mate," Charlie was saying solicitously as Cartwright sank down, then stood again.  "You need another easing charm on your arse before we're forced to sit like gentleman?"

"My arse is fine. My nerves are a different story. This was not covered at Dark Wanker U. Or at Dueling U, and definitely not at Warding U.!”

“Protection's kind of contraindicated here," Charlie agreed. He glanced around. "Where d'you think they've got to, anyway? We're not that early, are we?"

"And that's our cue. Contract,"  Narcissa murmured to Lucius as she straightened his robe one last time. "And babble on a bit about your latest potions project. It's annoying, but you'll come across as nervous.'

"I am nervous!"

"As well you should be. I want that memory, Luke, and I want it before we're forced to sit down for Sunday dinner with  Molly Weasley. The fortifying and projected images will sustain me. I'll go in first," she directed. "Follow on my cue."

"Nrgh!" he said, panicked. His beloved kissed him lightly, breathed once and determinedly, and setting her pale, slim shoulders, opened the door and stepped out briskly.


 

"Gentlemen!" she hailed, stepping through lightly. "Welcome!" Caught mid-panicked moan, Ren froze on the spot. Charlie squeezed his shoulder firmly and stepped forward, his brown eyes warm and smiling. Young as he was, Narcissa Black Malfoy was decidedly disconcerted... Lucius had told her, of course, of the boy's remarkable self-possession, but faced with it...

It startled. He wasn't even twenty yet, and he presented himself with the easy, calm poise of a man her grandfather's age. Never mind his mean height and cheerfully boyish face, she thought, he wouldn't have looked, his sheerly radiating amounts of charisma considered and even without the (really quite perfect) suit,  out of place in the halls of the All-European Wizengamot.

And the incumbents of the All-European Wizengamot would have been paying attention to him.

Respectful attention.

Tom Marvolo Riddle, Narcissa Black Malfoy reflected most indelicately, was likely now pissing himself at the stories on Ren Cartwright, but if he ever were to set eyes on his new spouse of his, he'd be spewing from every orifice he owned. Bellatrix, on the other hand, attracted to power as she was...

Narcissa shuddered slightly, if internally, and forced her attention away from that trending thought. The young man before her took her offered hand and bowed lightly.

"Mrs. Malfoy. Charles Weasley-Cartwright. My husband and I are honoured by your invitation."  It wasn’t her imagination, Niss told herself firmly. It wasn’t. He was positively glowing, as if lit by deep, warm fire from the inside out.

In a way, she supposed, he must be- and she suddenly and most definitely, definitely, never wanted to be near him when he was angry.

"As my husband and I are by your acceptance," she responded. "Please, call me Niss."

"Charlie," he responded in turn. She smiled, and turned to his husband.

"Master-Adept Weasley- Cartwright." She offered Ren a warm smile and a light kiss on the cheek. "It's so good to see you again. Welcome, and may I offer you my congratulations on your much-deserved accolades? I didn’t get a chance to say on Saturday, but you were absolutely superb. It was, quite simply, a privilege to see you in action, and I will treasure the memories throughout my life.”

"Thank you, ma'am," Ren said. He yet looked a bit flustered, but...

He's verbal again. Excellent.

"It's just Ren, please," he was saying. "And I apologize in advance for stepping in it, socially speaking. I promise you, it will happen."

"Then you may consider yourself forgiven in advance, and we'll say nothing more on the matter at any point. Now, I know Luke calls you Lawrence; would you like me to have a word with him on suppressing his formal instincts?"

"It's okay. I'd be afraid he'd break something with it. You have a lovely ... Erhm." He looked around.

"Home?" Charlie offered, amused. "Or if you're going for the specifics... Reception room?"

"Shu'p," Ren muttered. A black snout poked out of his shirt sleeve inquiringly. He smacked it back. "No! New tattoo," he said to his hostess. "Sorry. It hates it when I wear long sleeves because it can't see anything."

"One moment," Narcissa said, graciously ignoring that.  "LUKE!"

"Right here, my heart." Lucius called, and came down the hall, smiling. "I am so sorry; I had a  cauldron on the fire. Lawrence! Charles! Welcome!"

"Thanks," Ren said, and promptly blushed violently. A sound came from his sleeve that might have been a snigger. He covered it quickly with a cough as Charlie shook hands with the man before them again, and again offered him an amused look. His husband ignored it as he shook hands with Lucius himself, firmly. "Nice to see you again, Malfoy."

"Luke, please. Both of you. The pleasure is ours, I assure you. This way, if you would, and if may I ask, first, how your brother is, Charles?" Lucius inquired as he ushered them all down the hall again and to the left, into a lovely, comfortable room... Ren looked about curiously. It was decorated in silver, ivory and muted greens, with a high domed ceiling with painted frescoes of twining vine and flowers. There was a long window with a view of the gardens and the fields beyond, and of all things, a baby grand piano, tucked into a corner... Two deep, comfortable sofas faced each other, a square glass coffee table framed in filigreed iron between them. There was a delicate porcelain tea service  laid out on a side trolley, along with a variety of various bottles, a small silver bucket of ice, and a dainty dish of lemon slices. "I must admit, I was quite concerned when we all met at the bank on Monday."

"He's doing as well as can be expected at this point," Charlie said. "The surgery was successful, but the combination of the after-effects of the curses and the long term effects of the pain medications he was on, never mind the shock of what he witnessed in Brazil...  We brought him into St. Dymphna's this morning."

"Well, If there is anything - anything - you need, or he needs, please do let us know." Lucius gestured to the sofas. "Please. Make yourselves comfortable. May I offer either of you tea, or a drink?"

"Thank you," Ren said. "Tea for now." Charlie just nodded at their host's inquiring eyebrow as he raised a bottle of whiskey. He settled beside his husband, crossing one leg over his knee comfortably and stretching his arm along the back of the sofa.

"I imagine you're both pretty curious," he said as Narcissa settled gracefully opposite. "About the events of the last few days?"

"If you will pardon the expression... Burningly so." Lucius handed Ren off his tea, and poured firewhiskey (neat) into three crystal tumblers. Narcissa gave him a reproving Look as she accepted hers. The dragon wrangler just laughed.

"Bit of a story, yeah, and we'll get to it, but why don't we get the formalities out of the way first. Personal introductions: tallest goes first?"

"Lucius Abraxas Malfoy." the man obliged as he too, settled comfortably. "Thirty seven, Head of House Malfoy, husband of eighteen years to Narcissa, father of Draco, formerly employed by one Tom Marvolo Riddle in the position of Dark Strategist Extraordinare - though for the record, it was never my preferred career choice, and I was always rather free and loose when exercising the strict parameters of the job description. Hobbies include Potions, Nomaji cinema, hunting down the perfect spicy chicken vindaloo, and keeping my neighbours guessing on whether the neo-secret room under my drawing room floor contains  ten generations' worth of Dark Artifacts or twenty years' worth of garden-and-church sale Nomaji paperback specials. In the interests of full disclosure, and much to my embarrassment as an Englishman, I am not actually that fond of Agatha Christie, nor Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey-"

"Great plonker," Charlie agreed. "Bunter was a bit of alright though, yeah?"  Ren poked him.

"And would greatly appreciate it if at some point, Master-Adept Weasley-Cartwright, you would put my wards there back the way you found them."

There was a resounding silence.

"Erhm." Ren lowered his tea cup. "Yeah. About that."

"You were not unexpected. Augusta informed me of your incipient visit on the morning before you came by," Lucius reassured him. "She told me that a friend of hers would be stopping by to pick up a certain item left in my care, again by my former employer, for disposal, so I just placed it on the mantel in my study for your convenience along with the celebratory cigars. I trust that you enjoyed them?"

"They were very nice. Thank you. Augusta told you I was coming to pick up Riddle's diary? Really?"

"Yes. She has always been aware of my true affiliations; her son Frank and I kept each other informed during the war, though his allies were no more aware of the fact than mine were. He simply operated, as I did for Riddle, as his colleagues' key strategist, and if any ever commented on his truly uncanny instincts, there was always someone else to remind them of his mother's talents. She has never openly stated her opinions of Malfoy since the first war ended, but that too is a strategic move. Neither of us has ever had any doubt but that he would return at some point, so we have nodded coolly and politely to each other in public, and exchanged the warmer cordialities such as birthday and Christmas gifts and the occasional note such as the one I just mentioned via our house-elves."

"Oh," the young Warder said blankly. "That... Explains a lot. Alright. Erhm. Did you have any idea of what the particular item was? The diary, I mean? And did you actually stow it under your drawing room?

"No. I knew only that it was considerably more than it seemed. Do I want to know?"

"It's probably safer if you don't."

"Very well. As for where I kept it... I passed it on to Dobby, our head house-elf here at Malfoy Manor. He kept it taped to the bottom of his sock drawer.  I was fairly certain that of all the places in the world, that..." He looked mildly alarmed as Ren coughed helplessly on his tea.

"I'm fine, I'm fine." Ren waved him off as his hostess half-rose. He was red-eyed with spluttering mirth. "'M sorry. That just struck me as really funny." He sniggered into his tea, and recovered himself. "Sorry. Well, no details at this point like I said, but I can tell you that it was one of an extremely poorly written series, none of which the general public need to worry on suffering through any longer. Book tour not only postponed but cancelled, and no further editions or projected sequels in the works either, if only because the market has been so thoroughly flooded that further speculative investment on the part of the author-slash-publisher would prove completely unsustainable."

"How reassuring. And that is all there is to be said about that?" Lucius' mouth tilted.

"Pretty much, yep. From our perspective, anyway. I daresay the author himself will have quite a lot to say about it when he comes back, but what can you do. I've heard he always did like to go on just to hear himself talk."

"Mm," his host agreed, and that was all.

"Your turn, mate." Charlie said cheerfully to Ren.

"Right." Ren collected himself. "Lawrence Domitian Weasley-Cartwright, career overachiever. Thirty at the end of last July, born in the USA, raised in Brazil - mostly, anyway. I met my wife at eleven, married her at twenty one, and as much as I would like to tell you more, I really, really can't, for her family's sake." He looked a bit awkward at that. "I'm sorry."

"It's quite alright," Narcissa sipped her whiskey. "It’s obvious to us from your lack of personal and professional public references, Master-Adept Weasley- Cartwright, that you did not attain your credentials in what one would consider the traditional manner. We, of all people, are, I assure you, in absolutely no position to pass situational judgment."

"I appreciate that." He shifted a bit again. Charlie squeezed his shoulder lightly in encouragement. The Malfoys waited patiently.

"While we're on the subject of my marrying young," Ren said. "And my wife..." Husband and wife watched as he set his cup down and ran his hands through his hair. "We might as well just put it all out there. I guess you've probably realized by now that you two caught me a bit off-guard on Saturday? In all ways?"

"We have," Lucius said gently. "And before we go any further... We would like to apologize profusely for that. I'm afraid we rather assumed that because you are Augusta's relative you would know more of our local traditions than you obviously do, and because of... Any number of other things... Well. That you were..."

"Experienced?" Ren supplied. "Because of the photo of me in the Leaky with Bill?"

Lucius actually looked a bit embarrassed.

"I have lost my touch, I am afraid," he said. "I, of all people, should know that two and two do not always equal four. And the timing seemed so fortuitous... Ordained, even, in a way.... Such a series of events, all so precisely aligned toward the apparent acceptable end... I am afraid, Lawrence, in our rush to see things resolved in the most strategically advantageous manner, that we quite forgot to take the reality that you are an actual human being into account. For all embarrassment and discomfort that we, and particularly I, have caused you, I beg your forgiveness."

He bowed his head. Ren blinked at him.

"It's okay," he said. "It was a long..." He paused. "It's been a long life, yeah, for all concerned. And once I'd done my 'what the hell-ing' and gone to see Charlie because the Horntails had told me that we belonged together, and wasn't that was a shock; we'd met in person a grand total of twice at that point, he filled me in on what actually had happened, and a bit on you, and reassured me that you could be trusted. Which went a long way toward reassuring me, and..."

"He did?" Narcissa looked at him oddly. "You did? That is... Please don't take this the wrong way, Charlie, but... You did?"

"What, tell him that you can be trusted? Yeah of course," the wrangler said matter-of-factly.

“And may I ask what led you to this conclusion? Your family and ours… The history there is complex, to say the least.”

"History was never my preferred subject. I’d rather look forward. More to the point, your niece Dora has been my best friend since first year at Hogwarts. And no, Mum didn't, and doesn’t, really approve  - she has no problem with Dora's parents, but Bellatrix did take out her brothers, yeah, and she's never going to be able to get past that. Dad told me in private, though, that no one's responsible for their relatives' behaviour, and that insofar as you're concerned, Luke, he'd always reckoned you for a deep-cover agent because he and Mum were at school during the years you were there, and he said that AllBallsNoBrains Malfoy would never have been on the same side of anything as ThatCrazyBitch Black. It was just against the laws of nature.”

Lucius snorted at that. Narcissa chuckled.

“He also said not to spread his opinions around there, though, because never mind Mum, if the confirmed details hadn't come out it was because you didn't want them to, and if you didn't want them to, there was a damned good reason for it." The wrangler sipped his whiskey again. "I reckon he's one of your biggest admirers in his own way, and you'll prolly be hearing his opinions on your subject round the Ministry water coolers next week at the latest. Everybody - everybody - knows how protective Arthur Weasley is of his kids, and if he says  he isn't bothered by the idea of my association with you, it'll bring in a lot more people off the fence."

"May I ask," Lucius said. "Forgive me... Did he ask you to relay these sentiments, however indirectly?"

"No. He didn't have to. I might look like a Prewett, but of all the kids, he and I think the most alike. We are the most alike. That being said, it's only fair to warn you of an upcoming development there."

"Oh?"

"There's a big family blowout coming," Charlie said bluntly. "Over Christmas, more'n likely. I'm pretty sure that Mum and Dad aren't going to survive it. Their marriage, I mean. It's going to get ugly, really ugly, and at the end of it Dad might very well file for custody of the kids. If he goes that route, Ren and I will be supporting him. The reasons aren't likely to ever spread beyond the family, though, and that means the rumour mill will likely lay the blame on that complex family history you just mentioned, Niss, and on your current doorstep."

Narcissa's lips pursed slightly. Lucius sat back and tapped his fingers on the arm of the sofa as he looked the younger man over.

"I am truly sorry to hear that," he said finally. "Are you sure it is inevitable?"

"Yeah. I am."

Narcissa sighed.

"Well, we will not press for details," she said. "But if you wish to confide in us, or even if you simply wish to talk, Charlie, our door is always open. And once things do come out, please tell your father the same."

"I will," he said. "So?"

"Ah." She collected herself. "Narcissa Black Malfoy, thirty seven, professional society wife and mother. I enjoy indoor gardening - I keep several greenhouses and am quite looking forward to meeting your grandfather, Master-Adept, so that we might compare notes -the Nomaji art of glass-blowing, and keeping people guessing. Too, the piano there is mine, and I am reasonably proficient on the cello."

"The... What ?" Charlie said involuntarily.

"Cello. A Nomaji musical instrument, of the string family..."

"I know what a cello is, love. How long have you played?"

"Since Lucius and I were married. We were both introduced to Nomaji classical music while we were on our exchange years with ISEP. I quite fell in love with the instrument, and he bought me a Stradivarius as a wedding gift. After that, I taught myself from books he'd bring in on his secret forays to London Muggleside during the war. Why do you ask?"

"Believe it or not, it has to do with dragons again. Romanian Longhorns are a bit anxious, and cello music calms them like nothing else. Something to do with the sound; it hits the sweet spot on their auditory spectrum and soothes the jitters. Now I’m  having this mental image of you sitting in their field in an evening gown, playing them a concerto."

Narcissa laughed outright, surprised. Lucius chuckled in genuine warm delight.

"Now there is an image we must make a reality, my heart," he said to his wife.  "And into a portrait afterwards."

"Oh, you," she said fondly, and turning back - "Do either of you have any more specific questions for me? For either of us?”

"Not right now," Ren said. "Your turn, Charlie."

"Right." His husband settled back, crossing one leg over the other again. He looked phenomenally relaxed. "Charles Septimus Weasley-Cartwright, nineteen, dragon wrangler. Second of seven kids, and as of this point and unless Mum rescinds my claim - a not un-possible possibility, all things considered - Heir of House Prewett. Pretty sure she'll  end up passing it on to Percy though, unless I select - and it's just a statement of fact, not of assumption or presumption so don't hit me for it - another maternal candidate for myself besides the sister of the woman who ended that line in the first place."

Narcissa winced. Ren elbowed Charlie, hard. Charlie shook his head at him.

"It's gotta be said, mate. It's not any reflection at all on what, or how I think; you know that, but it's still a relevant subject. S'what the firewhiskey's for, yeah, to get us through these unpleasant but necessary qualifications?"

"It is quite alright, Lawrence," Lucius said. "And Charles is absolutely correct.  Weasley's inclusion in these proceedings - particularly this particular Weasley, since he is, as he says, Heir to Prewett - is a major factor in terms of our negotiations. Is there someone you have thought on, Charles?"

"Yeah. Dora. Lupin's got his eye on her now though, and I reckon when it comes right down to it, she'd prefer him."

"Ah. Well, one decision at a time, I suppose. Hobbies?"

Charlie opened his mouth, then closed it. For the first time he looked  actively disconcerted.

"Yes?" Ren prompted.

"I reckon I don't really know," Charlie admitted. "I like reading and Quidditch, but really, dragons have always been where it's at for me, yeah? And now that we're here in London full-time, I'm going to have to work up some alternatives."

"You don't have to quit your job." Ren frowned at him. "We can work something out there."

"I know I don't have to, mate. But after the last few months, I'm re-evaluating my priorities. Lying there, dying, and thinking of all the things that I'd never get to do... Things you just take for granted that you will get to do: fall in love properly, get married, have a few kids, travel about a bit... I'd like to work on projects that will make a real difference, yeah? And now there's you, and yeah, Luke and Niss here... Christ, the three of you? Not just the things you've done, but the kind of people all of you are?" He looked a bit wistful. "The Horntails gave me a gift. Not just life, but the possibility of doing something real with it. Not on the saving-the-world level, but on the making-a-difference-in-the-world level. So whatever happens next... I want to make it count."

Ren took his hand.

"We'll figure it out," he said. "Together. I have no plans after the end of January, so we'll book in a review then."

"Yeah. Though..." His husband sat up a bit. "Here's a question for you. One that I reckon again that we're all curious on. How does being an International Warder work, exactly? I mean, in terms of scheduling and contracts and all?"

Narcissa shook her head (internally) as she watched the young Warder brighten visibly, almost to the point of his husband’s glow, and watched the way Charlie Weasley-Cartwright’s eyes hooded slightly in pleased satisfaction at the sight... The young wrangler  had, to her experienced eye, more than obviously been saving the question to slip in at the appropriate moment toward the end of distracting  his new partner in his particularly agitated state, and he’d timed it impeccably - immediately after Ren’s self-conscious, embarrassed revelations, and his own commiserative, and in hindsight, quite deliberate, admission of youthful uncertainty.

One week. They’ve known each other for one week.

I do not care how naturally charismatic he is, or what the Horntails did to him. That is not natural. He is not natural.

I do believe that we two will be having tea together very, very soon, Mr. Weasley-Cartwright.

"There's a fair amount of travel involved," Ren was saying. "And yeah, there's fun stuff like the security for events like the Quidditch World Cup, but when it comes down to it, we're global trouble-shooters. The ICW has a department specifically for monitoring potential disasters of all types, Magical and not, and it's our job to prevent them. The lethifolds are a prime example there. The particular issue's been on the agenda for centuries, but it's got tabled every time because there was simply nothing to be done about it.  It's why they gave me the Grandmastery because it is a Warder's job, and I did it. Locally- if we stay on here, I'll be liaising with the Department of Magical Disasters and Catastrophes, and with the Unspeakables too. They work on levels of security that no one knows exists.'

"Will they actually pay you?" Charlie asked.

"Yes.  I'll be offered an annual retaining fee - as a consultant, not an employee -  and paid again on a case-by-case basis.  There'll be times I'll be working with the other International-Level Warders on larger projects, and there, we'll all set the prices together. Mind you," he added. "When you're working on a project that does call for the entire team, money rarely comes into it. It's all favours owed and exchanged, and unofficially acknowledged permanent understandings channeled via the ICW."

"Examples?" Lucius inquired, genuinely curious.

"Brazil again. There's no price that can be put on that kind of job.  No price that can be, and you don't charge for that sort of thing anyway; it's indecent. But now that it's done... The ICW's let me know, unofficially again, that I'll never have to pay for, or wait for, a portkey again, anywhere. They'll provide me with diplomatic immunity wherever I go, both Magical and Non-Magical. There'll be no floo line that I'll ever have to wait to connect on, and when I am traveling, anywhere, the hotel bills will never come my way. I'm expected not to take excessively chronic advantage of their generosity, but at the same time, they will expect me to abuse the privileges shamelessly now and again. It's not all about politics, after all; I did solve a rather serious problem for them, and they want the opportunity to demonstrate their sincere and genuine appreciation. I've already put in the request for several personal favours, and they were absolutely thrilled to oblige me."

"How's that? And are your family and friends included in on this charming arrangement?" Narcissa wanted to know.

"Yes on the family on everything but the diplomatic immunity, and they won't turn down a request on behalf of friends, but there's the understanding on moderation there too, particularly if the friends can afford it otherwise.” He looked apologetic at that, Narcissa waved him off.  “Specific requests - I've put in for a dozen extra front row seats for the Invitationals, since my family's unexpectedly grown in size since I was sent my standards. The portkey that takes us to New York will be powered to take all of Hufflepuff who want to go, and can make it. I'll be putting in a standing requisition for some of the rarer ingredients in my bio-runic inks - not illegal ones, just ones on which there are waiting periods, and will be getting regular packages. that one's a bit of a quid pro quo . I'll be asked to share the results of my research. And I'll be building a lab, location as of yet to be determined, and that'll probably be covered too."

"Will you be offered sponsorship deals? For warding broom companies and whatnot?” Charlie turned slightly to face his husband full on. His repositioned knee brushed Ren’s thigh, and remained there... The tea-pot flew over neatly and poured, refilling the Warder’s cup. The cream pitcher followed, and a silver spoon, stirring three times precisely, clockwise. Narcissa watched, then caught Charlie’s  eye, her own eyebrow arching in inquiry.  His lips flicked at her behind his tumbler, his sleeve slipping just slightly as he twisted his wrist to show that his holstered wand was yet firmly ensconced underneath… The tea-pot replaced itself neatly without spilling a drop. The young man didn’t so much as look at it to see where he was directing it.

Wandless magic? On that precise a level? Aren’t we talented.

And…

Subtle?

Now there’s a characteristic that one wouldn’t associate with a Weasley.  

Narcissa watched as her younger guest reached out and adjusted Ren’s collar a bit,  and as Ren flashed a quick, sweet smile at him in turn, turning his head to brush the sturdy freckled fingers with his lips before returning his attention to the conversation and without one whit of awareness that said conversation had ever been interrupted. She deliberated, toed her slippers off and tucked her feet up, leaning against her own husband... Lucius put an arm around her, she tilted her head to kiss his jaw, and sipped from her tumbler, watching as it refilled and as the level in the bottle on the trolley lowered correspondingly. Again, she caught Charlie’s eye, and inclined her head ever so slightly. He raised his own glass to her ever so slightly in return, in a tiny toast of acknowledgement of her thanks. Her fingers flickered, and there was suddenly ice chinking loudly in his refilled glass. Her message there was clear - we’ll talk more openly over drinks together later, now cool it  - and just as clearly received.  They turned their attention completely back to their two men.

"I'm sure I will be ,” Ren said.  “But that's really not my thing. I don't need the money or the free advertising, after all.  I'll likely collect the full set of brooms though, either directly from the source or as an appreciation gift from the Americas - I talked to Gus Richards again this morning, very briefly, and he said they're all absolutely killing themselves trying to figure out how to thank me. I said that I didn't want or need thanks, he said that as a Warder himself, he understands, but that it isn't about me, not even a little bit, so to just take whatever they offer me and keep my humility to myself. So I'll accept those. I'd want them anyway, because different jobs require different types of equipment."

"Are you permitted to turn any jobs down?" Lucius asked, interested.

"Yes and no? Stuff like the Quidditch World Cup security, yeah. It's not vital, and doesn't really require someone quite on my level. If, say, the President of MACUSA asked me, as a favour to a fellow American, to pop by and have a look at the wards... It'd be considered a courtesy, and unless it was an emergency I could say "Sure, how does a week from next Thursday sound, that'll give me time to plan a few errands around it and I'll let you take me out for dinner afterwards." If it's something like diverting an asteroid... Yeah, that's pretty much obligatory."

"Divert a... What ? What ?"

"Miracles aren't always miracles. Sometimes they're the result of ten years of quiet, careful work and planning, with an alarm set to go off at the crucial moment."

"You will have to be very firm with Fudge," Lucius told him. "He will try to take advantage."

"I got that," Ren said dryly. "When he suggested he take me and my fiance out for a lovely meal in exchange for my quote-unquote 'having a little look-see' at the Ministry of Magic's primary wards grid toward the end of suggesting, read implementing, any upgrades and improvements."

Sadly, none of the three individuals present looked remotely surprised.

"That's what I said," the Warder agreed. "I told him that I'm a bit busy for dinner, but to have his people work up a proposal for the other, and I'd get back to him once my schedule's cleared a bit. He looked positively hurt at the idea that I'd be so crass as to require pay for my efforts."

Husband and wife snorted in derisive tandem.

"Par for the course. I think I finally got it through his head though, that the only reason I'm not charging Hogwarts is that my grandfather is Headmaster there." He drained his tea and set the cup down on the saucer, settling his shoulders. As if in response, Narcissa felt Lucius’ own shoulders tense.

“Which brings us round to that other reason we’re here today,” Ren Cartwright said. “You ready, Malfoy?”

“Now?”

The Warder paused as he loosened his cufflink, and looked up. The tiny silence stretched.

“Yeah,” he said. His lips quirked. “I’ll be gentle, I promise.”

Lucius didn’t laugh. He looked, quite frankly, terrified. Ren shook his head.

“First things first,” he said. “I’ll have a good look to see what we’ve got to work with, and then we’ll map out our strategy.”

“I had thought said that you’d done this before!”

"I have, yes, on the equivalents anyway, but I can’t just dive in there. Bio-runics aren’t one-size fits all, and Riddle would have had to  tailor each of his followers’ Marks on the individual level at least a little. He might have tried for an auto-adapting sequence to accommodate for the differentials when branding the unwashed masses, but considering that he thought of  you his right-hand man, he might have put in a bit more effort. We can’t assume on anything, and more to the point, I don’t and won’t assume on anything. Not with you, not with anyone, not now, not ever.” He removed his second cufflink, dropping it into his pocket, and rolled up his sleeves. “It’s not how I do things. It’s not how I am. Are you comfortable here, or would you prefer to take it elsewhere?”

“Will you need more room or specific accommodations?” Narcissa asked.

“No. I’m fine here if you are.”

“Well, then.” She gestured. “Please.”

“Thanks. Mind if I…” He too, gestured. Lucius said nothing, just pulled his legs in. The young Warder seated himself in front of him, on the table itself, and looked him straight in the eye.

“You’re scared,” he said to the taller man directly. His voice was mild, calm and eminently matter-of-fact and uncondemning. “I get that. It’s been a long haul, and a part of you, no matter what, will never feel safe because it’s never been safe to feel safe. So… We’ll take the nerves as a given, and I’ll ask you something else again. In this instant, in this context… The context that you’ve witnessed personally as you’ve watched me take all the exams to prove myself in my field…  Do you understand that I meant what I said on that dais, Malfoy? That I would rather risk death than risk harm to anyone with the hands that I’ve now sworn, by all and everything I hold sacred, never to use for anything that doesn’t serve the ends of guarding and protecting my territory?”

"Yes, I..." Lucius paused, removing his arm from around Narcissa gently. She shifted back a bit. He rubbed his face with both hands. "I do, but… I am sorry. This all constitutes a rather large leap of faith. As a career strategist, those have never seemed to me particularly prudent.”

"I’ve taken a few of those myself over the years,” Ren conceded, and patted his knee. “And it never gets any easier. We’re not anywhere near the point of no return, though, so why don't you let me have that look I suggested, at least, and we'll see what's what? I’ll explain everything I do as we go along, I promise, and if you need me to stop and clarify a point or ask a question, you go right ahead."

Lucius nodded, and began to unfasten his right sleeve. Narcissa tucked herself into the corner of the sofa, accepting the cufflink that he passed to her. Ren reached out to help him roll up his sleeve, turning  his wrist and tracing a light, gentle finger over the tattoo on the forearm... A look, not just of disgust, but open disdain flickered over his pleasant features.

"Fucking amateur," he muttered disparagingly. "No finesse at all. And ugly?  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; there is absolutely no law, anywhere, that says you have to sacrifice your sense of the aesthetic along with your soul.”

Lucius offered him a peculiar look. Ren just waved him off and popped his wands,  unstrapping  the containing holsters and tossing them to Charlie as he tapped his empty tea-cup and transfigured it into a long cylindrical support pillow.

“Put the pillow across your knees,” he ordered. “Like that, yeah, and rest your arm on it, Mark up again."

Lucius obliged. Ren reached out to touch it again, then did a double-take... He set his wands aside and took the other man's hand, rotating the crooked, rigid index finger and thumb.

"No injury, no curse… Training lock?” he asked.

"Yes."

"Whoever laid it on you had one hell of a lot of oomph. How long has it been there?"

"Twenty one years."

"Twenty..." The slighter man looked up, startled. "Are you serious?"

"Yes. It was put on me when I was sixteen, before I returned from Castelobruxo on my ISEP year. I have learned to adapt somewhat over the years, but never to the point, alas, where I could offer anyone a serious threat as a duelist.” He flexed the remainder of his hand. “Glamours are wonderful things, as are desk jobs, particularly when you are as skilled at both as I am, and my former employer’s recruits were never famed for their ability to think in the manner in which I specialize. Riddle was quite displeased with me at first, but after his initial fit of sulks on my carelessness in depriving him of an International level executioner,  he did eventually concede my worth as one who would work strictly behind the scenes.”

"Ah. And the guy who cast it on you is from South America? I don't suppose he's registered at the Invitationals?'

"He is deceased."

"I'm sorry to hear that." Ren prodded again. "I would have liked to meet him. Fuck me, but that's beautifully set. I've met maybe a handful of people in my life who could manage the kind of casting where it would only affect half of your two fingers." He withdrew and grinned suddenly. "No wonder Riddle was pissed when he saw it; he’d have taken it as an effective  ‘screw you, asshole’ from the source once he realized he didn’t have the oomph to break it.”

"It was not a case of oomph. The particular variation can only be broken by the one who put it on me."

"Nope. I mean, I’m sure he told you that, but that was only to salve his own pride. It can only be broken by someone more powerful than the one who put it on you. Not quite the same thing, yeah?”

"Could you break it?" Charlie asked as their hosts processed that.

"Oh, probably, but after all this time, it's rusted a bit. It'd be easier - and safer - to work my way around it than to try and remove it. Give me a few days to see what I can come up with." He examined the Mark again. "Why did he put it on your right arm? I thought the left was traditional there."

"He never made any statements, but I suspect that he was insulted by the fact that someone else had branded me. It was a symbolic gesture, in that he was laying his claim on the same arm."

"Ah." Ren placed a firm, warm hand flat against the Mark and concentrated. Narcissa gasped as he drew his hand back, a single emerald green strand linking the Mark to his palm.

"What..."

Just as abruptly, the strand disappeared. Ren turned his palm over. A single green dot marked the center. He smiled at her, and stood... The table flew aside, leaving a wide space between the two sofas.

"Now," he said. "Let's see what we've got to work with here." He brushed his left hand over his right, and flicked the fingers of both hands. Before the three sets of startled eyes, a three dimensional, slowly spinning image of the Dark Mark rose.

"Proxy model," the Warder explained.  "Like the one of the castle in the Wards Room. I can't work on it by proxy, but I can get a much more detailed look at what he's done with each layer before we tackle the real thing." He began to flick delicately and swiftly with his wands... Then stopped abruptly. "Oop."

"Oop?" Narcissa repeated. "Oop? Please, Master-Adept. Do feel free to elaborate."

"Hold on, hold..." Ren prodded a bit more. "Mm. Yeah. That figures, doesn't it? Dark Wankers. Only children at heart, every one of 'em; there was never one born who wouldn't rather blow up their toys than share them." He tucked his wands behind his ears and began to untangle threads deftly with his fingers. Pried two apart and peered in between at the apparently empty space. "Aw, come on now! That's not even evil, it’s just petty!"

"Still waiting here, Master-Adept."

Ren let the strands pop together. "Right," he said briskly, turning to Lucius. "No worries, but here's the thing. I can see everything he's done here from all angles, but he's locked it all down so that only he can get back in to alter it."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Mm. Petty, like I said. No windows, just the single door. Like I said, that in and of itself isn't really an issue to worry on; it's crudely set to say the least, and I can pick it without any trouble at all. Unfortunately, he's as good as curses and hexes as he is bad with aesthetics." He pushed the proxy  Mark aside gently, so that it hovered before the fireplace, and hauled the coffee table over again, sitting on it and directly in front of him. "This next part is going to require another leap of faith on your part, I'm afraid, Malfoy. A big one."

"I am not fond of riddles, Lawrence, or is the fact that we are sitting here right now not indicative there? Get to the point.”

"Right, right. Sorry. Short translation: he's rigged the lock with a hex. It's designed, if someone tries to go in without invitation, to set off an explosion."

"And where will this explosion take place, exactly?" asked his host,  into the silence that followed.

"In your heart," Ren said bluntly. "And there's no way around it. If we proceed here today, I'll  have to set it off. What I can do beforehand though - and I wouldn't be offering if I weren't one hundred percent sure that I can manage it safely and effectively - is to inscribe a bio-runic fence - a real one, not the half-assed imitation he's got going on here - around your heart, so that it's protected once it all blows."

Chapter Text

Castelobruxo School

Brazil

September 20, 1970

"It is a problem, sim ?" Antonio Silva stood behind the marble podium at the front of the rearranged dining hall, folded arms resting on the slightly angled surface as he surveyed the students. He was dressed in his black robe again, the belt precise, the beads neatly strung. His wand holsters were strapped to his sleeves. Behind him sat several silent rows of teachers. "The wards of Castelobruxo have been breached. A lethifold slinks among us, hidden and hungry - one with a mind yet, and the focused ill-intent that has allowed it the temerity, in the premeditated, malicious manner, to attempt to satisfy its cravings within our walls."

Chairs squeaked uneasily.

"You are wondering, I am sure," he continued evenly. "How I can be certain. The steps, they are steep. The crowds were thick. Accidents, they happen. Yet... There is is. Here it is.  I have here before me three separate analyses of Senhor Carriera's blood, performed by our three individual healers here at Castelobruxo again.  All report the same findings; Senhor Carriera's system contains lingering concentrations of a shifting repressant - one that prevented his ability to shift to his Animagus form as his body, as are all of yours, is trained to do automatically - automatically, without thought - in times of vital danger. The reports also conclude that the concentrations indicate that that repressant was administered no more than twenty minutes before his fall. It is not difficult, mm, considering that Carriera sits in the same chair at the same table for every one of his meals here, to determine what happened? At some point in the hour before lunch hour - the hour when every student here has their break from classes - one of you sitting here before me now slipped into the prepared dining room and brushed the liquid potion over the dishes set out at his place."

Shocked gasps rang out.

"So surprised," he said ironically. "All of you. Sadly, I wish I could say the same."

The gasps were swallowed so quickly that Lucius, sitting at the end of the fourth row of his fellow sixth year students and within direct eyeshot of the priest, was genuinely surprised that no one physically choked on them. He permitted himself a small, sour smirk.

"We will handle the situation thusly," the priest continued. "After this meeting, I will return to my office. There, I will await any visitor who wishes to discuss his or her involvement in, or knowledge of, this profound and unfortunate display of ill manners. I will remain there till four precisely. If, at that point, I remain unenlightened, the chimes that summoned you to this meeting  will sound again,  and you will all return here. Attendance will be taken, and anyone missing will be located, detained, and invited to join us. At the point where all are confirmed present, Senhora Professora Hernandez, as Senhor Carriera's advisor, will take over the proceedings. If any one individual cannot be located - that is, if they have left the premises - the authorities from Manaus will be called in , and that individual will be hunted down with prejudice on the presumption of guilt. Once captured, he or she will be subjected to an immediate interview with a court-ordered Legilimens in order to verify involvement, or lack thereof, in this regrettable series of events."

Lucius watched as every face within eyeshot blanched.

"I would like to state," Silva said coolly, straightening and looking about. "Lest you, the perpetrator - and I address you directly now - think that you may direct my silence on the matter of your confession to me because I am a priest, that Jesus will be absent from my office today in His official capacity. I have been authorized - no, assigned - to act as a private citizen in this matter by my superior, so any statements made to me on the subject will comprise a legally binding confession to a representative of the school and that school's elected staff liaison to Castelobruxo School's Board of Governors. I would also like to remind you, all of you, on behalf of the Board of Governors, that should this matter remain unresolved... Attempted murder is a very serious crime, sim ? If such a one, one willing to descend to such depths in planning, not just executing an impulsive urge, remains at large... Which of us can truly say that it is safe here? Keeping this school open while such a threat exists within its walls  would be irresponsible, to say the least."

There was a rather dire pause as that processed.

"You will close the school?" a small, very young voice said. "But... Padre... What of..."

It bit off. A protesting susurration began to rise, and not slowly either.

"It is a problem,"  Silva conceded. His voice rang out over the panicked cries. They silenced immediately. "As I have said. One that could easily be avoided if only Senhor Carriera's attacker - or for that matter, anyone with any knowledge related -  were to review his or her position and come to the logical and responsible conclusion."

"You said attempted murder," a female voice said. "Does Carriera yet live then, Padre?"

"He does. And I am most pleased to inform you all that he will make a complete recovery. It is a good thing too, because if he had not survived, the school would now be closed, and you would all be on your way home till the investigation is resolved. As it is... The option will yet be reviewed in twenty four hours." The priest's gaze hardened as he looked around again. "You will listen to me now, all of you, and you will listen carefully. The only reason... The only reason... That this grace period of twenty four hours has been granted you... That closure has not already occurred... Is because Senhor Carriera has personally pled for leniency on behalf of those of you who were not involved in his attack. He knows very well he did not trip. He knows now of the repressant. He knows that someone in this school deliberately and with malice and forethought planned to, and attempted to, take his life. He does not know who it is, or whether he is still at risk. And yet for the sake of all of your lives, your safety, he requested - no, he begged - the Board of Governors, through me, their representative, that we allow you stay here where it is safe - for he does believe that you are safe, and that this vicious and premeditated attack was but an extreme example of the personal, directed, and, as I may say it, completely unwarranted animosity shown him here at Castelobruxo by all of you again, every hour of every day."

Never mind dueling, if the International Masteries Board, Lucius Malfoy reflected, was ever inclined to hand out rewards for the art of the killingly inflicted mass guilt trip, the man before him was a guaranteed bloody bollocking Grandmaster.

"If the perpetrator comes to me," Silva continued deliberately. "And confesses his crimes, and his or her motives, the authorities will yet be involved, but the matter will be dealt with as privately as is appropriate. As privately as Senhor Carriera has requested . If he or she does not come to me, I am telling that perpetrator now: you risk your crimes being  revealed in front of God and all, and the truth that your fellows will know you for what you are in entirety - not just an attempted murderer of one, but an attempted murderer who yet would have the unspeakable, unholy cowardice and temerity to risk the safety of everyone here to save your own skin."

The students just sat there, paralyzed.

"Where is the Headmistress?" a voice from the crowd said timidly.

"The Headmistress has been dismissed by the Board of Governors for vital dereliction of duty. She was not the one who ordered Carriera's blood tests. I am sure that there is at least one of you here who is grateful to her for the fact, and quite put out with me for over-riding her there?"

Puzzled glances were exchanged. A small, entirely unpleasant smile grew on Antonio Silva's face.

"You did not know," he addressed his audience. "None of you, that I had that prerogative, did you? That prerogative that only a parent or registered Magical guardian of a student here at Castelobruxo can invoke on behalf of their legal relative?"

A sharp gasp rang out.

"So all is revealed," Silva said. "God is good. It would have been a hard blow indeed to lose the last of my family. I am so grateful that I am not, after all, forced to endure such a terrible evil as that . I truly do not know how I would manage without the comfort and joy that my lost brother's son brings to my life."

Lucius had to bite his lips with mirth at the expressions now of absolute pants-pissing terror sweeping over the room. Tom Riddle, he thought, could only dream of inducing the perfect horror reflected in the faces of the masses surrounding him.

"Carriera is your nephew?" someone blurted. "But... You never... Why has he never..."

"Should it have made a difference?"

"No, but..."

"Should you leave the qualifiers out of that sentiment,"  the priest said. "Senhor Garcia, Jesus would be most pleased. Senhora Professora Hernandez, I am hereby removing myself from the administration of these proceedings. I am going to my office now," he informed the gathered students. "Pray do not forget me? I will, I assure you, and much to my sorrow, remember this day always - and the names and faces of every one of you as you sit before me now, unable to say in all certainty that any one of your fellows could not have been guilty of this abhorrent and abominable sin against a boy whom you have all, always, so abused and hated, and who yet had the grace to remember each and every one of you on what could have been his deathbed."

"Obrigada, Padre," Inez Hernandez said pleasantly as Silva stepped down and she took his place. "May I say, to begin, that I am so glad you all had the good sense to obey Padre Silva's instructions and make yourselves so immediately available for this meeting? Your cooperation is noted and appreciated.  Before we continue with the formalities, let us make the one last attempt, for form's sake. Is there anyone here who has anything that they would like to share with the class?"

Not a breath sounded.

"No? Ah well. No one can say we did not offer the fair opportunity." There was a sudden blur. The room filled with screams and the crashing of chairs as a gigantic anaconda, thirty feet long and fully three across, reared up and lashed out over the audience before her, barely skimming the tops of the student's heads before slamming sideways and into the huge eastern window. Magically protected as it was, it held firm, though the stone walls around it trembled and shook, and a good half of the plants on the rafters overhead crashed down into the aisles...  It retreated just as suddenly as Inez Hernandez blurred back and stepped before the podium.

"I do not think," she said, her eyes flat ice as she scanned the rows. "That you, murderer, fully understand the gravity of the situation here. If this school - my school, for I have been deputized as Headmistress for the remainder of this school year - must be shut down because of a lack of resolution to this matter... If I must send unprepared innocents into the mouths of Evil Incarnate, and if one hair on any of those innocents' heads is lost as a result... I am going to take it very, very personally. You will not have to worry about imprisonment. You will not have to worry about lethifolds.  You will not have to worry about Padre Silva, or about Jesus Himself for that matter. What you will have to worry about is me. I will discover your name; I, Inez-Constanzia Gutierrez de Hernandez, will hunt you down,  and death... You will consider death, in the end, nothing but a blessing, do you understand me?"

That last 's' in 'understand' was an echoing sibilant hiss that made Lucius' ears ache.  A muted sob sounded, and another, and another.

"You will return to your classes," Castelobruxo's new Headmistress said. "Now." She caught Lucius' eyes and made a 'stay' motion. He sat while everyone scraped to their feet and headed out, casting covert looks at each other... When the last were gone...

"Tell me the truth now, Senhor Malfoy," Professor Hernandez invited him as she stepped down from the raised dais and came to sit beside him. She tapped her wand on her closed fist; all of the shattered plants lying about promptly repotted themselves and rose back to rehang themselves from the rafters. "Was that a bit much?"

"No. Is he truly going to be alright?" Lucius asked her anxiously. "I know Father Silva said that he would be, and of course I do not think he would lie, but..."

"He will be in the hospital ward for a few days for observation, but he will be well. Would you like to stay with him?'

"On the ward itself?"

"Yes. He has been asking for you. He told Antonio that he is worried that you will be alone at this time, and unprotected with only your one half-hand. We are not worried, but stress is not good for him. If you wish to go to him now, you may. One of the house-elves will bring you your things, and a bed will be brought in for you. He is in quarantine right now for his own protection, but you are, obviously, an exception."

"What about classes?"

"Your assignments will be sent to you. And he is not ill any longer, not physically, but he is profoundly shaken and requires rest and time to recover. He will be delighted to tutor you as is necessary, I am sure."

Still, Lucius hesitated.

"What do you think?" he asked her.

"I think it would be for the best," Hernandez said forthrightly. "He is unsettled. You are unsettled. Together, at least, you will be unsettled, if not immediately reassured, in mutually amiable company."

Lucius nodded.

"I would like that, then. Senhora Professora Hernandez?"

"Senhor Malfoy?" She smiled at his use of the quite exceedingly formal Brazilian honorific.

"Thank you," Lucius said awkwardly. "For... Everything."

He dried up, and ducked his head as if to hide behind an invisible curtain of hair. She kissed his cheek.

"Do you think there will be the necessary meeting, then?" he asked her. "At four?"

"I do. We are a continent whose children are raised to avoid direct confrontation in the name of self-protection. It is in our blood. Unless, of course..." There were sudden green and coppery glints in her hair, and her eyes were flat and shining again. "It is not." Lucius had to suppress a shudder.

"Will there be trouble over the Headmistress' dismissal?" he asked instead. "Will she file a protest?"

"Nao . She is an excellent administrator, but she too is a child of this country.  The tendency I just mentioned to avoid direct confrontation - a tendency exacerbated tremendously in one with no means to Change -  translates quite poorly for a woman in the particular position, and the incident has provided the conclusive proof that she should not have been recommended in the first place.  Carriera  was unconscious for two hours before Antonio saw him, and she continued to  reiterate her belief to the healers  throughout that it was an accident, never mind the witnesses that noted that he had not Changed. Another hour and the suppressant would have been out of his system, and all proof of the attack with it."

"What ?"

"It would have been most convenient for her. There would have been no basis on which to initiate a formal investigation of this most difficult incident.  She does not like dealing with difficult incidents. Now..."  The small, round woman offered him a quite extraordinarily vicious smirk.  "Now she does not have to. God is good, mm?"

Lucius just ran a hand over the back of his neck as he watched her go. Once she was out of sight, he collected his satchel, hopped on his training broom, and made his way through the halls toward the hospital wing. The quarantine room, isolated from the others, was not only enclosed by walls and a door, but by several layers of shimmering, dense wards. They parted at his approach, closing behind him just as quickly as he stepped through. Before him, Ramone was dozing on a narrow white bed, clad in iridescent blue socks patterned with swimming goldfish, a pair of scarlet pajamas and a bright orange dressing gown. His face was turned to the window, and the string of beads that normally hung over his bedpost was wrapped loosely around his right hand.

"Carriera?" Lucius said tentatively.

"Luz!" His eyes flew open and he brightened immediately, sitting as Lucius entered - and squawked, startled, as his room-mate stepped off his broom, came swiftly over, and grabbed him up in a huge and unceremonious  hug. After a moment, Ramone's arms came up and about him uncertainly.

"I am fine, Luz. Truly."

"Never, never," Lucius said into his dark, unruly hair. "Never scare me like that again, Carriera! As for the other... You are only fine because you were lucky. Please have a little more consideration for my sensibilities from now on? I have promised to remember you, and so I shall, but three weeks' acquaintance has not provided me with nearly enough memories to sustain me if you are lost."

"It was not intentional, I assure you." Ramone pulled back a little and touched the other boy's face, examining the tears on his fingertips with astonished uncertainty. "You are crying for me?"

"No. I'm crying for the treacle pud they serve at Hogwarts on Thursdays. You're an idiot, Carriera." Lucius wiped his eyes. "Not just a bit much, but an idiot."

"No one has ever...." His eyes widened as Lucius leaned in, slipping a hand around to cup the back of his head and cutting his words off with a passionate, open-mouthed kiss. Ramone froze immediately, but it only lasted a few seconds before the other boy pulled back and slid to the end of the bed.  

"What..."

"I will ask permission the next time. I am very good at it, I am told, in the specific context and my public aversion notwithstanding."

Ramone snorted in spite of himself.

"I am fine," he said again. "Though I think that I shall take to riding my broom down over the steps from now on." He pulled himself up a bit more against the stacks of pillows. His dark skin and bright night clothes shone brilliantly against the white sheets. The goldfish on his socks wiggled, flicking their tails and fins sedately. "I do not even have a headache."

"And what of the rest of you?"

"Healer Torres tells me that I should be grateful I was unconscious. I quite depleted the stocks of Skele-Gro before Tio arrived."

Lucius winced.

"Are you well?" Ramone asked, searching his face. "It is a stupid question, I know; Tio told me you were alright, or would be, but as he would not allow you to see me before now, I would like to hear. He did not leave you alone last night, did he, in our room?"

"No, no. He offered me, or more accurately ordered me, to his sofa. He did not want me to be alone, I think, as you said. I was grateful. He is very kind. Frightening, but kind. Save again for when he is just frightening. Which he was, just now. By the time he was finished with the lot of them, there was not a dry seat left in the hall."

"Ah," Ramone said delicately. "Did he invoke Jesus?"

"Yes. Several times. He also informed them all that you are his nephew."

The pause that followed that was quite as dire as the one that had followed the initial declaration in the dining hall.

"What is it?"

"It is rude to ask," Ramone said after a moment. "Horribly, horribly rude. I cannot tell you how rude it is, in our culture... A positive taboo... But may I beg of you your complete memory of the occasion? I will return it, I promise."

"Why is it rude?"

"To ask another to give up a memory?" He offered him a cross-eyed look. "In a place where we are, and all those around us, are not just defined by, but are our memories?"

"Ah. Well, of course. You may share whatever memories of mine you wish, Carriera, as long as you do return them. Do you have access to a pensieve?'

"Tio has one, though I know a spell that makes it unnecessary. Truly?" Ramone did sit up at that, eyes wide and face glowing. "You mean it?"

"Of course. Well, not the private ones of me and Narcissa. Not unless you ask her, and she agrees. But anything else... Is there something especially that you have in mind?"

"Sim. I should very much like to see one of snow. I have never seen snow. And do you have any of hippogryphs?"

"Yes. I even have several of hippogryphs playing in the snow. There may even be one of me riding a hippogryph in the snow during a Care of Magical Creatures class. Or flying over it, anyway. What do you need to perform the spell?"

"Just my wand. I extract the memory, or you do, and release it into my eyes. Then I see it as if through yours."

"I have never heard of it before."

"You would not have. It was designed by a member of Tio 's religious order. It is used only by priests who have trained, too, as healers, and only then in cases of criminal incorrigibility. I am afraid..." He hesitated. "I will show you, but I am afraid that I will have to obliviate you of the memory of how it is done before you go home. Used in the wrong hands, it could be very dangerous. You can implant memories too, by using it, or even take away those that exist and replace them, you see, effectively turning a person into a completely different person. It is forbidden, but it can be done. And I am not supposed to know how to do it. I am not supposed to be able to do it. It is very advanced, heh?"

"Did your uncle teach you?"

"Nao." He fiddled with the edge of the sheet, hesitating again. Then... "It is used in cases of criminal incorrigibility, yes, but it may also be used when an individual does not feel comfortable imparting memories via methods that might be intercepted."

Lucius looked at him. Ramone took a deep breath.

"I must tell you something of me now, Luz," he said. "I am not brave, not like you, but I must tell you. I have not had time to pray on it, as I said I would, but maybe that is  for the best, heh? If I pray on it, I will think on it, and then I might not be able to..."

He stopped.

"You do not have to tell me anything, Ramone."

"You went to the library?" he cut him off.

Lucius nodded. Ramone pulled his knees up. Lucius put his satchel on the floor and turned to face him cross-legged.

"It has to do with the circumstances around which I Changed," Ramone said. "In my first year. Seven years ago now."

"Seven..." Lucius' brow wrinkled, puzzled. "But this is only your sixth year."

"It is. I took... I had to take a little vacation between my first and second years here, you see? I have told you, or rather you believed, that I am sixteen, like you. I am not. I will be eighteen next January."

"I see." He did not. Ramone's fingers, and eyes, returned to the edge of the blanket.

"I Changed very suddenly," he said. "In the single moment, heh? There were no symptoms before. No signs. I had studied the meditative techniques, and practiced a little, and taken the first of the necessary potions - the one that introduces the magical core to the idea that permanent change is possible, as you introduce the forms and sounds of the letters of the alphabet to a child beginning to learn to read - but that is all. The first stages, especially, cannot be rushed, because it is not just  case of transforming the body. It is a case of altering the magical core to accommodate for the two true versions of the same individual. It must learn to accept that both can co-exist permanently and safely, and that the one is as valid as the other, and at first, it does not think it quite natural. It resists. If one is careful and gentle, it begins to understand, and to even become a little excited at the idea. It adapts a little at a time, a symptom here, a hint there... Over months and years. Like a rose blooming from a bud. At eleven, though... At eleven, there is is no bud. There is not even a seed. I was no different. As a child, when I came here... I was bright. Very bright, but my core, it was as anyone else's my age: a little shy, heh, and wondering at the possibilities. A little unbelieving, and very naturally strong yes, but... Untaught. Unfocused. Undeveloped."

His voice was soft and unsteady. Lucius suddenly wanted, desperately, more than anything he had ever wanted in his life, to move up beside him and put his arm around him. He dared not.

"When I Changed," the young Brazilian said. "It was so sudden, so violent, so extreme a bout of accidental magic,  that it broke my  core open. All the potential that  should have developed so gradually and naturally over years... It was all released and formed all at once. The force of that released power... It broke...  Me.  Physically. Nearly every bone I had was splintered. My organs were very nearly all destroyed. The released power coalesced around me, and held me together in my new form till Tio arrived. The only part of me that remained whole was my head and my brain. Most of the focused power was centered there, on maintaining that. As I was in frog form... Tio healed me first, in that form. Once that was done... I was too frightened to return to human form. They had to force it. I fought them, or rather, my magic did. When I transformed back, I was very nearly in as bad a shape as I had been before."  

Lucius struggled for horrified breath.

"It took me a long time to recover. Over a year. The physical... It was the least of it. Tio took care of that for me, as I said. With his tears. Mostly, it was my magic. He had to tame it. To teach me to tame it. To go from the equivalent of a newborn's power levels to that of an adult, an adult with very nearly Tio's potential, if not his experience and training but without the ability to control or focus that magic... You can imagine what it was like. I was a danger to everyone around me. So he took me away for a year, deep into the jungle where I could harm no one. He took a leave of absence from the Church, though he had their blessing. He was the only one with power enough to tame mine, heh? And while we were there, he made me my new wand. A wand that would understand me and my pain, that would love me and only me, and that by its very nature must dedicate itself to me and bring me to a mental place where I could feel safe through its designated vocation of active and targeted protection of me from all assaults both within and without."

He pulled his feet up. The goldfish were gone, disappeared over the cuffs of his socks and hiding within.

"I do not truly need it," he said. "Or I do... But not to perform magic. I perform almost all magics wandlessly now. It is another trait I share with Tio , though of course we do not advertise the fact. For us, it is like your blue eyes, not something that we work for, The ability is just... There. You will see now, if you watch carefully, that I only truly use it - my wand, that is -  as such in Potions classes. The rest of the time... It is like a prop, heh? In truth, it serves that other purpose entirely."

"But..." Lucius couldn't help himself. "All of the jinxes and hexes that are aimed at you..."

"My wand, as my protector, permits them. It would protect me from those too, but it would not help me if people saw their efforts making no effect whatsoever. It insisted at first, but then we had a little talk. It was very annoyed, but it conceded. And yesterday... My wand did not detect the repressant because it was not technically a danger to me.  And when I fell, there was no spell involved; I was pushed from among a crowd. I felt the hands, and the push. My wand, it tried to override the repressant then. If there had been a few more moments... But there were not, and it was knocked away from me besides. It is easier to help me, if it is touching me."

"It was not damaged, was it? And... It is intelligent?"

"Nao , it is fine. There is nothing of this earth that can harm it save for my death. And... Sim. It is, but only, we believe, because I require it of it," he said carefully. "In circumstances where I am at risk. Which is to say, from my perspective - and therefore its perspective - constantly. It is a bit of a mystery, truly. Tio is fairly sure that it does not operate as with its own mind or brain, but that the magics involve imitate patterns of human intelligence - my human intelligence - so closely that there is no discernible difference."

He shifted, pulling the pillow over his lap as Lucius sorted through that, or tried to.

"While he tamed me," Ramone continued. "He would sometimes invite a friend to visit us. A fellow priest, or rather his bishop - one who guides and trains priests - and who is trained as a Mind Healer. We would talk. He helped me with the mental and emotional trauma of what had happened.  And when I returned to Castelobruxo for my second year, Tio came with me. I was not ready to leave him, or him to leave me. They hired him immediately when he applied, of course. He arranged for me to have my own room. No one questioned it. My wand made sure of it." He picked the the sheet. "It was difficult at first. I was not... I was difficult to be around. Unsettled. Not magically, but emotionally. It annoyed the other children. I annoyed them. Frightened them a little, even. I did not intend to, and after a little, I settled, but... It had set the bad precedent, heh? By the time I calmed, I had the reputation for being a bit much. There was only so much Tio could do, because no one knew, aside from Professora Hernandez, that he was my uncle.”

"Why not?"

"Because the Board of Governors insisted, as a condition of my return. They wanted no connections made between us, because of the circumstances  of the incident that broke my core. They had already made sure that no one at the school remembered it - there are means to make it so - but it is a delicate operation when so very many people involved, heh, and sometimes, there is something that sets off a mental association that can bring it all back for someone. That could not be allowed, they said, not in this case, for vital reasons, and so they tended to every last possibility, every possible link, before I was allowed to return - including the student populations’ very remembrance that I had ever been there at all.”

"What ?"

"The incident that broke my core was the incident I told you of, that made Senhora Professora Hernandez so angry.  She was the one who found me. Who called in Tio. And the Headmistress before the one we have- had - now... She had been here for a very, very long time. What had happened to me though... It would not.." He struggled. "It was not her fault. It was in no way her fault. She was a wonderful woman. Very kind and reasonable, and profoundly respected. But one of the boys involved..." He looked down at his hands, now tugging compulsively at a loose thread. "He was her son. And because of the nature of the incident again, and because he and his friends were seventh years... It was decided by the Board of Governors that  it was best if no one were to know of what happened. Castelobruxo is the only school in South America, you see? There are no other options for the students here, if..."

The thread snapped.

“So they erased you?” Lucius repeated, his voice rising in his agitation. “They erased you in the minds of everyone here? As if you never… Like they do the Nomaji? After everything that you’d gone through already? And then they wouldn’t even allow you the private in-house comfort of your own uncle?”

"He was still here. Has been. They cannot - could not - take that away. It was not the Headmistress’ idea, or her fault," Ramone said again, not looking up. "She was a good woman. But her son... She retired at the end of that year. She was not fired, but she did retire. She could not... She saw the results, heh? She saw me . And in me, she saw the truth of what he was. It is not easy to realize that one has raised a lethifold. That one has allowed it in the house, when one has sworn to protect the house. So she left, because she refused to allow them to make her forget what he was and what he had done and what she had not seen in him, and I have heard since that when he was lost six months afterwards he was expelled, she did not go to his memorial."

Lucius pressed his hands to his face. Despite...everything… that had happened in the last few days, he had, till that very moment,  never realized that it was possible to feel one’s heart crack and break.

"You said that he was one of the boys involved?" he said quietly.

"Some cannot Change,” Ramone said. “The ones with the allergy to Mandrake... They know there is no hope. They adapt. They learn other ways to protect themselves. The ones, like our Headmistress now, who simply cannot manage it... They hope. They reach a point where they must realize, and it is difficult. They are angry. They are afraid. They..."

He paused.

"They live while they can," he said finally. "As ones who are already lost. Mostly, they live while they can with each other. One of them, though... Not the Headmistress' son, but his closest friend... I did not ... I would have liked him to be my angel. I did not talk about it, of course. I did not understand it, at that age. I did not understand myself. But he did. His friends did. And there was a night, when I went for a walk about the castle. It is so big, sim , so many corners? I took a wrong one. And I.... He was going into a washroom. ' Boa noite, Senhor Carriera'  he said, 'You are far from the dormitories, are you lost? We cannot have that; come in and wait for me a moment, and then I will show you the way back." I was not lost, I knew where I was going by then, but I had not known he knew my name. That he had ever noticed me, truly, much less remembered me. So I went into the washroom, and all his friends were there. They were smoking and drinking. And I was nervous, and said that I would leave, but they locked the door, and..."

Sixteen-year-old Lucius Malfoy’s cracked heart seemed to dissolve in his chest, crumbling to soft, dry dust.

"I prayed." Ramone's chin was lifted, his eyes were bright and defiant and as carefree as he could manage. "And God was good. I prayed very hard, and He heard me, and answered. I Changed. Professora Hernandez's study was right below, and the explosion, it made a large hole in her ceiling then, heh? I slid through, just as I was Changing. The Headmistress' son, and his friends too.  She saw my face before... And she saw them , none of them looking very dignified at all, and that was all there was to be said about that ."

Lucius buried his face in his arms again. it was so quiet he could hear Ramone's breathing.

"Are they dead." he said, from his arms.

"I do not know. I had heard of the Headmistress' son, but I did not see the rest of  them after that day. I did not see anyone for a very long time, and then only Tio ."

"How could he bring you back here? How could he bear to?”

"He would have wanted to come anyway, with me or without me. Once he understood how they intended to manage the problem… He could not in good conscience stay away. The students have no other options besides this place, and he saw when he returned to help me that it was possible - more than possible - that if they had made such arrangements over me, that  such things had happened before and could, and would, happen again. And with the memories of those things always dissolved… Who would be left to remember and to make sure it does not happen again? There are very, very few people, Luz, who have the strength of mind, and magic, to resist a team of truly determined Obliviators. They did not even dare try with Tio. He is a man of God, but I am the only member of his family he has left, heh? He was born of a large family: seven brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents… And every single one of them has been lost. Every one. Lucifer… It is said in certain circles that  he takes Antonio Silva personally, and has set out to destroy him, if not physically, then mentally.”

“How could you bear to come back?”

Ramone rubbed his eyes.

“I had  friends here, then,” he said. “Ones who had promised to remember me, even, but whom Tio had told me would not be allowed to. I wanted, very badly… I wanted to meet them again. Even if they did not know me any longer, I wanted to be with them. It became an obsession with me as I recovered. Made nothing, my name and memory stolen... I was not dead, I said, but I was still lost. I could not let it go. Finally, Tio agreed for my sanity’s sake,  but only if he would be here too, he said. If they had not accepted him as a teacher, he and my parents would have sent me away. He has several good friends in France; one of whom teaches at Beauxbatons. When I came back, Professora Hernandez and he... Together they are like my parents here. We do not talk of it, but they help me always. Sometimes it is still very hard. Sometimes ... It is why I have the Nightshade potion. His friend the bishop makes it for me. It is not illegal, because he is a licensed Mind Healer, as I said, and I am still his patient. And I do not sleep much, some nights. Sometimes several nights in a row. It helps, and increases the efficacy."

"I have never seen you have trouble sleeping."

"That is because I have been taking the potion since you arrived. And sleeping as a frog. I do not dream as a frog, not like I do as a human, but humans need to dream, so I cannot always do it."

"You've been taking it every night ?" Lucius was horrified. "Since I arrived ? Ramone, that is not safe! You are not supposed to take it more than twice a month!"

"I know. And it is not... It is not the reason I am telling you this. But now that you know, I will stop. For as long as I can, anyway. We will want to start casting silence spells, heh?"

"Why would they put me in with you in the first place?"

"I asked them to. You were assigned to Professora Hernandez, before you came. I saw your file on her desk. There usually several exchange students from Hogwarts. Some years, as many as six. This year, you were the only one. I was surprised, heh?  Tio was worried when I suggested the possibility. He said that you were perhaps not ideal. He told me about you, a little. Of your family's prejudices. But Professora Hernandez was there, listening too as we were having tea in his quarters, we do sometimes, and she said she thought it was a good idea. That we should try it. And see what my wand said about you, and if it did not like you, you could always be moved to another room. She was very stubborn too."

'Why did you ask?"

"I do not know," Ramone admitted. "I thought... It would be nice to have a friend again? I had not really wanted one after I returned and saw my others look through me as if I had never existed. But it is lonely, sometimes, being the crazy cousin. So I prayed to God to send me a friend, and  that evening, I saw your file on the desk, and knew that you would have none of your friends here since no one came from Hogwarts this year but you, so..." His shoulders tightened beneath the bright red pajamas. "I will understand now, if..."

"If?" Lucius stared at him. "You actually, actually think that I will wish to stop being your friend because of what you  have just told me?"

"I do not know. I have never told anyone before. And there is your angel's letter, and you have said that you are attracted to me, and I am..." He buried his face in his arms. "I want you, Luz, but I am just so... I am so afraid."

"Carriera," he said helplessly. And then... "Ramone. I have told you. It is completely up to you ! It is how I prefer it, that it be up to you! I was not lying when I said that!"

"That does not help. The way that you have said that you are... I would feel like I was forcing you. Hurting you."

"This is not a necessary component of our relationship, Ramone. I do not..." He struggled. "As for my inclinations… It is not... Maybe I am strange in my own way. It is not really about sex."

"Uh?"

Lucius Malfoy pressed his fingers to his eyes.

"I will be quite upset," he said. "If you tell your uncle this. He will take blatant advantage."

"Go on." He looked curious.

"The anger that I feel," Lucius said. "The rage and humiliation. It is not ... It is not at being forced to bend. It is at my own realization that he obviously understands that it is how I am; that on certain levels I am naturally inclined, and that he is determined to, as you said, train me to love him. So that I will be able to identify the contrasts when I am presented with a master who does not know love, and my instincts will not carry me along the wrong path. And yes, it may be necessary, but it is still embarrassing!"

"Are you attracted to him? Physically?"

"No, no.  No, it has nothing to do with that. He is simply... Kind.  He is going to reach a point, there will be a point, where he realizes that there is nothing I would not do for him for that kindness. It has already started. The Headmistress came in.  I was doing my homework on the floor. At his feet. She criticised him for it. He had just… I had just eaten. It had been, quite possibly, the single most humiliating experience of my entire life. And I still wanted to hex her where she stood for her insolence to him!"

"He has that effect," Ramone conceded. "So you protest because you do not wish the others to see that you enjoy his lessons?"

"’Enjoy' is a bit of a strong word,” Lucius said. "But after yesterday… I think they will be easier.”

"What happened yesterday?”

"He took me to our tree-house. It was filled with singing orchids. Professor Hernandez was there. She stayed with me, watching over me as I slept. As a snake. I felt like my pain mattered to them. Like I mattered to them. To him."

“And you do not think you do?" His room-mate offered him an odd look. "Luz, do you really think he would put himself through this if you did not matter to him?’

"What is he going through?"

"He is causing you pain! He knows he is causing you pain! It is absolutely antithetical... His form... Phoenixes heal, Luz! They embody healing. They exist, in their purest sense, to heal; they are attracted naturally to those in agony so that they might comfort them. He is doing what is necessary, but it goes against his very nature! Did he not tell  you at the beginning of your lessons that he is not training you in his usual manner?"

"Yes, but he said that it is because most do not respond well to the methods."

"And this is true, but there is much more than that. It pains him to see anyone suffer, even through necessity, so if he can find an alternative, if there is any possible, possible alternative... He will find it, and use it."

"But..."

Ramone pressed his fingers to his temples.

"There is more," he said. "You must know. It may help you understand. He will be angry with me, perhaps, but you must know."

"Ramone..."

"When Tio goes against his nature as a phoenix," Ramone said clearly. "It affects him physically, as a human. He can transform at will, but he does not often burn. He has done so less than a handful of times in his life. Always, always before... There is a period of great personal struggle and anxiety. He does not die when he transforms and burns, but he does face God. He must ask Him, every time, for the privilege of returning. For the sake of God's children who yet need him. One day, he knows, God will say no. Or perhaps, he will simply not have the strength to will himself to return. With you, with this... He believes it is God's will that he risk himself for you. He believes it God's will, but he yet has the choice , Luz. There are other ways to train you. If he has chosen this one; as he has chosen this one... You matter to him. You matter enough for him to die for you, should God will it."

Lucius stared at him, face dead white.

"What," he said. "What."

"You matter to him," Ramone repeated. "Personally. He does not care about this world’s battles, Malfoy-from-England, or who wins them or loses them. He cares about souls, and the world beyond, and helping those souls understand who and what they are, so that when the Long Night that comprises the life of the world, and our lives in this world, is over, we will all be together as one with God. As he- we - believe God wishes it. As it is a place of no shadows, there can be nothing of the shadows there. He is choosing to do this for you, not so that you may fight the shadows, but because he does not wish you to become one. He wishes you to be with God with him. As one, now, that he has declared - in private, through his revelation of self to you - that he wishes to remember.”

"I... But... Why ? Why would he... It makes no sense!"

“It does not matter if it makes sense. It simply is what it is. He is who he is, and you are not yet who you might be, and as you do not seem to be able to believe that you truly matter, and as that pains you, you, in your pain, now matter to him.” He smiled a little. “It is difficult sometimes, heh, to determine whether he is a man who becomes a phoenix, or a a phoenix who becomes a man? I would say, either way… That he has decided that it is God’s will that you create a bond with him as as a man does, very occasionally, with a phoenix. You told me that he has shown you what he is, heh? He has not even shown me that, not fully and intentionally. I have seen him as such, but it is not the same thing. No, it is not the same thing at all.”

The wand in Lucius’ his left sleeve warmed slightly.

"I cannot allow him to do this," the young Englishman said helplessly. "I do not want him to risk death for me. How do I tell him that he cannot do this?"

"Who are you to tell him that he cannot? We love those we love, my Luz. I, of all people - of all people - know that.”

"He has known me for less than three weeks!"

"I have known you for less than three weeks, and I would make the same choice."

Lucius ran his hands over his face at that. Carriera actually laughed at him, albeit softly.

"This is the danger in praying, heh?  Sometimes God answers. I asked Him  to send me a friend. He sent me a friend. And then I asked Him, maybe too, if it would not be too much trouble or a true offense to Him, to send me an angel, and what is borne to my room from this world’s farthest shores but one with the name and the face of the fairest and most loved of them all?"

"The one who caused all your problems in the first place, through his pride!"

"The one that God will yet raise highest again, should he humble himself willingly and bend to His will," Ramone said firmly. "How could Tio not love you, my Luz, when he sees how you break yourself - are breaking yourself - to obey him? To become what you truly are, toward the end of serving others?"

"My alternatives," Lucius Malfoy said dryly. "Are not all that."

"They are still your alternatives, and you have yet chosen this path. For better or worse, he is choosing to walk it with you."

"And what if his concern for me takes him away from you ?"

"Ah well. It is a calculated risk on his part, but when all is said and done, his level of risk will depend directly on how difficult you make things for yourself, and him. So perhaps this is why I am telling you all this after all, so that you may have all the facts at hand when determining just how important your pain and your pride is to you?”

"Isn't my suffering part of the point of this? That I’m supposed to be working through my pain at the prospect of breaking?”

Ramone shrugged.

"That too is your choice. You may choose to suffer with it, certainly, but it does not have to be that way. Doing something for someone else, it is always easier than doing it for your own reasons, I think, so if you wish, you may simply  choose to accept what he is offering you, and to offer him the gift of your genuine and yes, loving, efforts in return. Because he will not withdraw now. That... That is his choice. And you have no right to take it from him, any more than those boys had the right to my name and memory."

Lucius was silent. Ramone lifted his head and smiled at him a little, before lowering it again.

"I am very tired," he said. "I am sorry. I must rest now."

"It is alright." Lucius slid off the bed, and moved to the second that had appeared in the interim. He lay down on his side, facing him.  "Would it help, do you think, when you have trouble sleeping, to sleep beside me?"

Ramone actually snorted at that. Lucius laughed and held out his hand. Ramone reached out across the distance between them, and took it. He blurred... Lucius placed the tiny frog in his hand carefully on his pillow, and closed his eyes. He had almost drifted off, when he felt the bed shift, and a long, thin body lying not beside him, but behind him, and a long, bundled arm slip over him tentatively.

"This is nice too," Ramone said. "Sim?"

"Mm. Very nice. Is this much accepted here in Brazil, then?"

"Go to sleep, Malfoy-from-England. Dream of snow. When you wake, we will share the memory."

"Do you have one to share with me?"

"I will show you the one where I cut Tio's hair the first time. You will laugh; he looked like a plucked chicken. You have truly ridden a hippogryph?"

"Yes. The experience is highly over-rated, I assure you."

"Perhaps it is one of those things one should do just so that one may say one has done it?"

"I have done it, and if you enjoy the memory that much, you may keep it. It is not one I care to revisit frequently."

"Why not?"

"Because the one I was forced to ride was so impressed by my pride, arrogance and aristocratic gentlemanly manners that I was truly afraid that she would petition my father for my hand in marriage. She broke out of her paddock every morning for three months and would wait on the roof by the front steps of the school for me to emerge so that she could sweep down and offer to carry me away. It was traumatizing, to say the least, and the jokes about the kind of birds who found Malfoy attractive were not amusing. Slang term," he elaborated at the puzzled look aimed at the back of his head. "Girls are birds, boys are blokes."

"Sim, of course. Obrigado.  And what did your angel think of this?"

"Oh, she adored the bloody thing. She'd go down to the kitchens every afternoon and get raw steaks from the house-elves and hand them off to her like owl-treats. The jokes there about her upgrading from my broomstick were as obvious as you might imagine."

Ramone could do nothing but lie back and howl.

Chapter Text

Malfoy Manor

The Garden Room

After the world had ended, on a long-ago day and several universes away, thirty-four year old Charles Septimus Weasley stood at the window of his hospital room, gazing out at a small garden lot that yet had the audacity to remain green, and at a sky that dared to remain blue.

It’s cancer, the healer had said. I’m sorry, Charlie.

There was no bang, and he’d been too bemused to whimper. The healer squeezed his hand and stepped out quietly, closing the door behind her. She was a good healer. A decent human being, who understood that there were times when the only thing to be done was to step out and close the door behind you.  Charlie watched the knob turn and still, and lying  back on the pillow, stared up at the ceiling. Then he pushed back the sheet, got up, went to the closet and dug out his street clothes. Tossed the gown aside, and hauled on his jeans and t-shirt, padding over to the window and drawing back the curtains… Behind him, the door swung open again.

“Bugger off,” he said, not turning around.

“I’ve got your lunch, Mr. Weasley,” the orderly said after a moment, timidly.

“And I’ve got cancer,” Mr. Weasley returned. “Bugger off, I said.”

The orderly buggered obediently. The door closed. Charlie turned around. The lunch tray was still there. He made his way over and removed the lid over the plate. A glutinous mass of macaroni cheese wibbled querulously up at him, alongside a small dish of sprouts-in-mourning. He put the lid on, fished in the pocket of his jeans, then pressed the call button. The nurse appeared promptly. She made no comment on his clothes.

“Mr. Weasley,” she said. “What can I do for you?”

He handed her the handful of coin.

“Steak and kidney and chips from the Leaky,” he directed. “And a bottle of Ogden’s.”

“Of course, sir.”

She stepped out, taking the tray with her. Charlie returned to the window. The grass was still green, the sky still blue. He sat sideways on the deep padded ledge and pulled his feet up, resting his arms on his denimed knees and tilting his head back. Twenty minutes later, the nurse was back with his order. She set it up for him, then cracked the bottle of whiskey and passed it over.

“Anything else I can help you with?” she inquired, as she half-turned toward the door.

Charlie considered that, and her.  She was quite a few years younger than him, and pretty…  Her eyes were wide and starry with solicitous sympathy. It wasn’t a good look on her, but her pert, round little arse, snugged cozily into her white uniform, was working overtime to compensate.

“Dunno,” he said, and knocked back a hefty slug of the whiskey. “Fancy a shag?”

She raised her eyebrows at him.

“It wouldn’t be a pity shag,” he offered. “More of a ‘the world just ended; let’s go out with a bang’ shag.”

The lock clicked and the silence spell hummed. Thirty seconds later, the nurse was bent over the window ledge, uniform skirt hiked to her waist and knickers tossed aside, and the second deep swig of Ogdens’ was burning all the way down… Charlie moved behind her, unfastened his jeans with one hand,  knocked back a third shot, then set the bottle aside and grabbed her bare hips.

“Name’s Charlie,” he said as he cast a quick lubricatus and, bracing his bare feet, flexed his knees, positioned himself, and shoved and ground forward hard - hard enough to lift her half off her feet with it, even as his hand slipped around and tweaked deftly.  She screamed loudly, then gave way to his girth abruptly, clamping around him hard. He just rubbed steadily, and just as she was about to go off again, he pulled his hand away and withdrew.  She cursed at him loudly. He shoved forward again, offering her a light, stinging slap on the rear. She jumped, startled. It did quite delightful things in terms of internal friction.

“That wasn’t very lady-like, was it?” he said reprovingly as he began to screw her hard, in rough, full strokes. “Also, don’t say ‘bugger’ again ‘less you mean it. I’m a dragon wrangler, and I work with Horntails. No metaphors allowed there.”

She just moaned and groaned and twisted and shoved back in response, trying to grab for his hand, at least at first, but he held firm and pinked her nice round little arse for her three more times in increasingly sharp reminder till she gave over and asked nicely, and the grass  remained green, and the sky blue. When it was over,  she slipped into the loo to tidy up, and Charlie hauled his jeans up and retrieved the bottle.

“Your steak and kidney’s gone cold,” the nurse noted as she straightened her name tag and unlocked the door.

“Ah well,” he said. “There’s always tea to take, and cakes and ice.” He’d swigged a  fourth time. “And toast and marmalade, and of course, more tea. But I digress. Thanks, darlin’. You were great.”

“You’ve got my number,” she said, nodding to the button, and slipped out. Charlie pulled his knees up again, then maneuvered onto his back, there on the ledge, and stretched his legs up vertically along the wall. His arm fell loosely. He set the bottle aside and closed his eyes. There were days, he reflected, that one bit of Eliot worked just as well as the other, or perhaps just with the other, as with the referenced toast and tea... The wrangler's preferred personal default was actually butter and crumpets, but when it came down to issues of rhythm and meter, one simply Did Not Argue with The Man.

This is the way the world ends

This is the way  the world ends

This ...

"... explosion take place, exactly?" a man’s voice asked,  in the green-grassed and blue-skied silence. Charlie Weasley-Cartwright opened his eyes. Narcissa Black Malfoy’s face, opposite him, was suddenly white as the white and black of Eliot's waves: her sea-green, sea-girl eyes stilled and hollowed and drowning.   Eyes I dare not meet in dreams/in death’s dream kingdom/ these do not appear/sunlight on a broken column/There is a tree swinging/and voices are

"In your heart," Ren said bluntly. "And there's no way around it. If we proceed here today, I'll  have to set it off. What I can do beforehand though - and I wouldn't be offering if I weren't one hundred percent sure that I can manage it safely and effectively - is inscribe a bio-runic fence - a real one, not the half-arsed imitation he's got going on here - around your heart, so that it's protected once it all blows.”


 

Lucius Malfoy rubbed his cheek. Under his jacket, under his waistcoat, under his shirt, Charlie felt the tattoo stir slightly on his shoulder, as if in now-impossible response... One really had to wonder, he mused as he watched his mate's equivalent poke its snout and gleaming eyes out from under his shirt-sleeve again, and no matter all the prior night's evidence to the contrary, whether Horntails considered death (and impossibility, for that matter) matters of the personally irrelevant metaphor after all... Certainly, they weren't seeming to process the concept of  'Going On', not without the correlative of 'Coming Back'. 

Either that, and more likely, they were just really big fans of the long, drawn-out and melodramatic false exit scene. Again, as if in response to the thought, Ren's tattoo twisted its head and gleamed at him from under the Warder's sleeve... Charlie definitely heard a faint snigger emanating from around the vicinity of his own collar, and scratched briefly and hard. The snigger turned to a purr, then slithered down his spine where it belonged.

"I would be lying, Lawrence," Lucius said. "If I were to tell you that..."

He pressed his fingers to his eyes, struggling. The black pupils of Narcissa’s eyes were grey ash, crumbling to dry white before Charlie’s own eyes. 

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices/ have the strength to force the moment to its crisis...

The fingers pressed harder.

“I am afraid," Lucius Malfoy said starkly. "I want to be free, but I do not want to die."

Narcissa moved slightly, convulsively - and husband and wife both jumped violently as Ren’s hands moved up, his fingers slipping around the taller man’s wrists as he pulled his hands away from his face.

"You are not going to die," Ren said. He let go of Lucius’s wrists, but only to take his hands, holding them firmly in his own. "Not today, and never, never by my hand. If I didn't know that I could do this without harming you - without harm to you - I wouldn't try. I would tell you that I couldn't  - wouldn't - do it, and we would find another way."

"You just said there is no other way!"

Ren brushed his former statement off as so much metaphor, somehow managing the dismissive finger-flick without loosing the other man's now white-knuckled grip one iota.

"Right now and in this particular moment, yes, but there's always another way waiting around the corner. Always. It's just a matter of time and research. And whether you choose to trust my word when I say I can do this right here and now, or whether you say 'Lawrence, perhaps we should explore future possibilities before making the final decision', the choice is yours. Either way... I'm with you. One way or the other, Lucius Malfoy -" The Warder's soft, husky voice was calm and mild yet, his tone unchanged - and perhaps that was the point there after all - (all manner of things shall be well: It's all I know, it's everything I know, it's who I am, it's what I am) - " I am with you."

And the sudden scent of soft, sun-ripe peaches flooded the room, and the taste of them filled Charlie Weasley-Cartwright’s mouth. He rose to his feet and came around the table. The Malfoys’ sofa extended itself. He seated himself deliberately not beside Lucius, but beside Narcissa. He did not touch her, but she shifted a bit, not away, but toward him, unconsciously, as if leaning into the radiating heat of his body. He watched as the white pallor there warmed and tinted slightly, as with again, the faintest hue of peaches, and his eyes hooded over in pleased satisfaction.

"What would you have to do?" Lucius was asking Ren.  “Exactly?”

"Inscribe a fence around your heart, as I said. Not internally, though the sequences might sting a bit as they sink in, along the lines of a really bad case of pins and needles."

"Is there anything else in there we need to worry on?" Narcissa asked, nodding to the proxy Mark hovering by the fire.. “Besides the particular hex?”

"The standards.” Ren shrugged. “Nothing deathly and certainly nothing that I can’t neutralize once the door’s open. The basic summoning spells and the associative pain hexes were actually set under the bottom layer of the runic sequences, properly, through traditional Dark methods - Riddle obviously didn’t want to take any chances there; they’re the point of the entire Mark after all - but even though he set them properly, that’s where he made his vital mistake. Bio-runes and blood magic aren’t antithetical, and can be made to work together in a complementary manner that can enhance the effects of both, but you can’t just sit them on top of each other and expect them to make nice for the mere fact of applied pressure and proximity. You have to wire them together, runically speaking, or a lot of the raw magic used to power them both puddles between them, rather than flowing evenly throughout the layers. Long enough, and it’s like water under a foundation, right? Magic likes to be told what to do, to have something to do, and when it doesn’t, it  works on providing its own entertainment. It prods and pokes, and goes exploring, soaking through, in this case, the holes in the badly set layers, and the spells beneath, softening things up all around. That not only furthers the inherent instability of the sequences that define the working parameters of the bio-runes, but makes it a lot simpler to slip in and dismantle things. Bit like pulling weeds out of loose, damp earth, yeah, rather than having to go digging.”

"Ah.” Lucius said blankly, and then, suddenly and decisively, straightening his broad shoulders - “Very well. As we were, then. First the shield, then the sword."

"To confirm... You're in all the way?" Soft, calm, husky, solid... The world, too, straightened its shoulders in response to the reassuring immovable there, and resumed its normal patterns. "For the removal of both hex and Mark?"

"Yes. Before we begin though... May I have a moment with Narcissa?"

"Of course." Ren rose to his feet, as did Charlie. The two stepped out, shutting the door and leaning against the opposite wall together. When it opened several minutes later, there was the distinct odor of mint, and their hosts were composed again, if both red-eyed and swollen-mouthed... Narcissa squeezed her husband's hand and seated herself on her original sofa.

 "Is there something I should be doing now?" Lucius asked uncertainly as Ren retrieved a pack of biros from his waistcoat pocket, and looked at him expectantly.

"Yes. Strip to the waist and make yourself comfortable."

“Erhm. What?”

“It’s a very nice shirt you’ve got there, but it doesn’t really need warding, yeah? Ink’s gotta go on the bare skin.”

"Do it, Luke,” Narcissa ordered crisply. “Do  you need anything else, Master-Adept?”

"Nope. I'm all set.” 

"How often have you had to do this sort of thing before, mate?" Charlie asked as Lucius shrugged out of his robe and waistcoat, then loosened his second sleeve and unbuttoned his collar. "Specifically? In this kind of context, even?"

"Often enough. Dark Wankers do tend to work the variations on the same themes. No imagination at all. Which  isn't to say I don't need to concentrate, so while I have no problem with you two watching, Charlie and Narcissa, quiet is imperative." Ren tucked a biro behind each ear and turned to face the patient. "Alrighty then. I think we're good to..." He blinked.  Lucius looked down at him as he folded his shirt neatly and passed it off to his wife.

“Yes?” he inquired.

"Nothing, I." It was Ren’s turn to looked disconcerted. "All’s good, I just... For some reason I didn’t think you’d have chest hair." He turned fiery crimson, even as the words left his lips... Charlie grabbed his remaining whiskey and slurped hastily. The guffaw escaped anyway. Narcissa rolled her eyes at him, but her lips, too, twitched. Lucius  just cleared his throat and cast them both an extremely austere Look.

"You can grow it back magically," the Warder offered. "After I'm done. But for now..."

"I understand." The taller man reached for his own wand, handed off along with his clothes to Narcissa, and pointed  it at the mass of thick spun gold, murmuring. The mat shimmered and disappeared. Ren stared again, hypnotized. In the pale brown nipples, centered perfectly on his heavy, powerful pecs, were two tiny gold hoops shaped like snakes. The moment stretched out… Charlie crunched an ice-cube loudly.  Ren jumped.

"Erhm. Right." He cleared his throat again. "Okay. Well… Right. Elbow room.  If you two wouldn’t mind sitting on the other sofa there…Right.  You're already there. Excellent. Alright. Sit, Malfoy.  Now. Angle yourself sideways, yeah, like that, facing me." Lucius positioned himself. Ren seated himself, and  shifted a bit as he adjusted and readjusted his own position. The look on his face grew more frustrated and flustered. Finally...

"Fuck," he muttered, sitting back.

"What is it?” Lucius inquired, if only for form's sake... It was rather obvious what the issue was.

"Your legs are too long," the smaller man said bluntly. "I can't get the proper angle like this."

“Ah." Despite his nerves, Lucius’ lips tilted, enhancing the slight, mirthful  gleam suddenly appeared in those blue eyes... "That does present a problem, doesn't it. May I offer you my lap?”

Lucius !” It was pure exasperation. "Really?"

Ren just pressed his fingers between his eyebrows.

"Yeah," he said. "I... That would work. Sorry."

"It's quite alright. Please. Make yourself comfortable.' The mirthful gleam upgraded to wicked…  Charlie just looked amused. Ren muttered a curse.

"Alright," he said. "Alright. Sorry. Again. Don't take this personally. I'm not being rude, I promise; business-casual is where it's at." He picked up one of his wands and pointed it at himself in turn. The neat slacks transformed to cargo trousers and a soft, absorbent t-shirt. Charlie tutted.

Really, mate? Glamours after all? That's what that last-minute run back to the loo was really about, and after Vinny and I went through all that trouble to shop for the real thing?”

“No. I just needed to sick up. No glamours involved; transfiguration's a real thing too.” Ren kicked his shoes off. "Center seat, Malfoy, facing straight out, and stretch your arms out along the back of the sofa. I need as tight and flat a surface to work on as possible.

Lucius obeyed, or rather obliged. The view there was, quite simply, spectacular. Charlie grinned as his husband set his jaw in grim determination and approached his now-openly-amused target. Narcissa sighed, but it was rather unconvincing. Her gleam was as demure and shining as any Horntail's.

"I'm about to a defuse a deathly curse here, people," Ren said to them all, not a little testily. "The least you can do is take it seriously?"

"Been there, done that, mate." Charlie waved him off airily. "And it’s highly overrated, believe you me. All in a day’s work, isn’t that what you just said, and you've got that brand new Grandmastery to work with besides. Upon reflection, I hardly think we have anything to worry on, so I, at least, am taking my entertainment where I find it.” He stretched his legs out. The metaphorical smell of fresh ripe peaches was suddenly replaced by the actual smell, if not presence, of popcorn. 

"Shut it, princess.” Ren squared his shoulders, slung a leg over Malfoy's lap and settled astride him on his knees. Face to face now, and despite himself, his lips twitched wryly. Lucius' twitched back in acknowledgement. Charlie held out his hand to Narcissa. She looked down at it, and at him.

"Moment for the ages, love," he said to her. "Final step to freedom. If it were me - and it was me, four days ago... I'd want someone to hang onto, yeah?"

"I don't..."

He just looked at her steadily. She said nothing, but  in the end, took his hand. Charlie's fingers closed firmly and comfortably around hers. Across the coffee table, Lucius smiled a little.

"Thank you, Charles," he said.

"Any time," Charlie said. Ren pushed his hair back and clicked his first biro. He smelled of fir again, Lucius noted, and sweet mild soap, and honeyed tea, and underlying it all (ultimately unembarrassing, since he rather suspected he smelled the same, never mind the mint and popcorn) a definite hint of recent sex. He tilted his head back. He would have been distinctly more self-conscious on his renewed raging erection if the Warder hadn’t been quite so obviously in the same boat.

"How long will it take?" he asked.

"Half an hour or so. Let me know if you need a break."

He nodded. Ren twisted the setting on the biro, and raising his hand, braced his second lightly on the broad, powerful shoulder.  He placed the nib, then…

“You’ve got something glamoured here,” he said suddenly. “Mind if I have a closer look?”

"Ah. Of course.” The small gold cross on its chain glimmered.  “Do I need to take it off?”

“No,” the Warder said. “No, it can stay, as long as you don’t glamour it up again till I’m done." He placed the nib again.

"Lawrence," Lucius said quietly.

"Mm?"

"Thank you."

There was a pause. Ren lifted his eyes to meet his for a long moment.

"What are friends for," he said, and bent his head and inscribed the first tiny, neat line.

Chapter Text

FYI: I haven't deleted two chapters of the story. I just took out the announcements chapters. :)

 

Okay, here we go!

A timeline of upcoming events for those who like to know where we're headed:

Titles may change, so don't hold me to them. :)

 

SOLACE  (four (okay five) more chapters!)

Resolution of Tea

Battle of the Cabals (2 chapters)

Aftermath of the Battle of the Cabals

Christmas Eve

 

HUFFLEPUFF TAKES NEW YORK (Takes place on Christmas Eve) -- short

(includes Lots of Badgers, Plus Ones and Escorts)

 

BRING KLEENEX

based around Ren's induction in New York, from the point of view of all the wonderful people you miss so much!

 

NEW YEARS EVE--- short

Remus/Sirius' wedding/ Ren/Charlie's vow renewal.

Astonishing and Unexpected Decisions Made By Certain People

Solace - the Resolution.

 

MEANWHILE, BACK ON THE RANCH... (Little Nev and Little Harry revisited)

The (Revisited) Tales of Beedle the Bard: Apocalyptic Version (separate document)

 

THE GLOBAL INVITATIONALS!!!! (standalone)

 

 

'THE LONGEST RIVER' is the fourth book-length book. It starts immediately after the invitationals. CHARLIE-CENTRIC

 

BONUS FEATURES

Somewhere in there, there will be a short novella that takes place back in the  war-torn 40s, at Hogwarts, from the point of view of sixth-year Inez Hernandez as she meets a young Tom Riddle the year after the Basilisk is first released and Moaning Myrtle dies. Will feature young (pre-clerical) Antonio Silva and young(er) Dumbledore. Fawkes is not his familiar at this point.

 

 

So.... That's what's coming up.

 

Here's a poll for you:

 

What kind of one-shot, featuring which of your favourite character(s) that is NOT listed here would YOU most like to see???

Who is your favourite more-of-please? (I'm curious)!

How,exactly, did you find this series, and have you ever recommended it to anyone else?

 

xoxoxo BlueMaple

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Castelobruxo School

Brazil

September 20, 1970

"You are aware, Malfoy-from-England," Ramone Carriera says as he leans precariously around the hippogryph's broad, sweeping wing and peers down, down, down into the writhing, splashing mass  below, "are you not, that this is a metaphorical jungle? And that we are, in fact, dreaming?"

"Fact has very little, if anything, to do with truth, Carriera-from-Brazil. And... I would never have guessed." Lucius hauls him back firmly by the belt of his dressing gown, twisting slightly so that he might untie it and knot it about his own waist as well as Ramone's. Soap bubbles rise up all around them as he does so, followed by a poorly aimed rubber duck. Lethifolds, he reflects, are oddly playful at bathtime. When the two are anchored together... "There. That is much better. Now you will not fall."

"I am tied to you," Ramone points out. "Not to the hippogryph. It means only that if I fall, you fall with me."

"So cast a sticking charm and have done with, Carriera-from-Brazil."  As the last word leaves his mouth, it collides with the rubber duck, merging and Changing and becoming something small and round and golden with fluttering, buzzing wings... This time, it is Lucius' turn to lean, reaching and reaching. Ramone hauls him back, slapping his head ungently.

"You are a Keeper," he scolds. "Not a Seeker, and we are hunting lethifolds, not playing Quidditch! Leave the Snitch to those better suited to catching it, heh, and keep your eye on your hoops? Also, keep your feet up. What have I told you; one half-inch of too-long-leg may prove the difference between life and dea..." He wrinkles his nose suddenly as he looks around, and down between his legs. "Luz?"

"Yes, Carriera?"

"Why are we riding a goldfish? Was it not a hippogryph just a moment ago?"

"It was," Lucius says. "It is obviously an Animagus." He too looks down. "The question is, is it a goldfish who becomes a hippogryph, or a hippogryph who becomes a goldfish?"

"One cannot have a hippogryph as an Animagus form, my Luz. It a magical beast, and as magical beasts have their own magical cores, and as a human's core is fundamentally incapable of producing a second one of those of any kind, much less one of a completely different species, it is an impossibility."

Lucius considers that as he brushes a bit of random eviscerated lethifold off of his shoulders.

"If that is the case, Carriera-from-Brazil,' he says, "We have a problem."

"How is that?"

"If one cannot Change into a magical beast, only a non-magical one, then the hippogryph we are riding must be the original creature, and the goldfish its Changed form. That means that we are, in fact, riding a non-magical goldfish. Non-magical goldfish are not typically assigned the capacity to bear two near-grown men, much less the power of flight."

"That is not a problem, that is a demonstrated conundrum. And facts," Ramone says reprovingly. "Have nothing to do with truth, my Luz. You said it yourself just now, and you have been here at Castelobruxo for three weeks besides. Have you learned nothing from your associated lessons with my uncle?"

"Your uncle believes in God," Lucius points out. "And more to the point, his God seems to believe in him. The combination may make all things possible there, including that decidedly magical Animagus form of his, but I am English, and God is not part of the European wizarding tradition."

"That is very sad," Ramone commiserates. "Perhaps you should consider converting? Soon?"

"And why would I want to do that?"

"Because without faith one is more likely to fall, and if, as is the case now, I am tied to you, I will fall too."

"Oh." Lucius blinks. "I must say, I had not thought of that."

"It is a problem, as you said. And not a small one either," Ramone agrees. He peers over Lucius' shoulder. "It is a very long way down, heh?"

"You just said that it is a metaphorical jungle. Even if we do fall, we will not be hurt."

" You will not be hurt. You are an angel. Angels cannot die. They can only fall, and when they land, their shadows become lethifolds." The young Brazilian nods down again, where the shadows in question are now waging war on each other with a veritable army of rubber ducks. "I, however, am not an angel. I am a frog. A poison dart frog, very bad for the digestion, and cold blooded, and perpetually glowing, none of which bodes well for a continued friendship between us at all if you continue to choose bad faith over good."

"Mm. Well... What if you were to become my angel? If you were my angel, you would not be hurt! We could fall  and be lethifolds together!"

"You already have an angel, my Luz. You do not need me."

"But I do!" he protests. "I do need you! I need both of you!"

"No," Ramone says judiciously. "I do not think you do. And even if you did, it could not work out. You must go back to England, after all, and I must stay here, and we are both bound to die in our respective wars anyway, so what is the point of thinking on it?  There can be no future for us, so perhaps it would be best for all concerned if we part now."

He unties the belt, and stands. Lucius shouts in alarm as he grabs for him.

"Ramone, no! What are you doing? Sit down!" He grabs at him again as he sidesteps him neatly. The goldfish swims sedately, swerving to swallow the re-appeared Snitch just as it Changes into an iridescent blue sock bedecked with miniature racing brooms."You will fall!"

"I am not going to fall, Malfoy-from-England." Ramone rolls his eyes at him. "I have been riding on my feet since I was eleven, and now I am almost eighteen. If I were going to fall, I would have done so by now."

"Ramone, please, please, please, sit down, sit down ! I am begging you, please!"

"And you are very good at it, but I am not going to fall," Ramone says patiently. "I am going to fly. This is a non-magical goldfish, and cannot possibly bear the weight of both of us. I will fly alongside you, you see? That way, we will both make it out of the jungle safely."

"But you are a frog! Frogs cannot fly! They do not have wings!"

" Nao ?" He pauses, one foot off the back of the fish, his nose wrinkling again. "You are certain? Perhaps you are thinking of English frogs. Everything is different here in Brazil. Nothing is the same. Nothing is familiar. You are in a place where no one knows you, my Luz. Where no one matters to you, and where you do not matter to anyone. That means your opinion does not - cannot - matter either." His gaze softens as he looks down at Lucius' hurt, bewildered face. "It is just as well you hear this now, heh? You must try to accustom yourself to the fact; it is only what is waiting for you at home after all."

"I am home! I am already home! And fact is not truth! I do matter! I do!"

"But I do not." It is gentle, and sad, and profoundly final. "I do not, my Luz, and that is the truth. The lethifolds, they already have me. They have stolen my name and my memory, and I have been erased, and no one remembers me . They have all forgotten that I even existed. As soon as I am out of your sight, you will forget me too. They will make sure of it. You cannot go back with any memory of me, my Luz; they will not allow it, you see? You will go back Changed. You will not be you anymore. You will go back Changed, and they will choose your form for you."

"What?" Lucius stares at him, bemused. "What are you talking about? Who is 'they'?"

"Think on it," Ramone advises. "While you can. Though it will not matter, in the end, because they will take that too."

"I do not know what you are talking on, but whatever it is... You are wrong. You are wrong! Sit down, Ramone, please? I am begging you; you are wrong!"

"Not on this," Ramone says with great finality, and steps off the fish. Lucius cries out in horror.

"NO! NONONONONONONONO! RAMONE, NO!" And then he is falling too, falling and falling and falling, and...

"Ow." Lucius Malfoy picked himself up painfully off of the floor of the quarantine room and rubbed his hip, glaring at the boy before him. Ramone Carriera, now spread-eagled over the full confines of the narrow bed, snored happily at him in his sleep and stuffed his head under the pillow. "You are not a frog, Carriera; you are a hog. A bed-hog."

A half-mirthful, weary snort sounded. Lucius spun, startled, on his heel. Antonio Silva was standing in the door, a small book in his hand.

"It would not be an issue," the priest said to him, not-quite-not-reprovingly, "if you were to nap in your own bed. There are two of them here, just as there are two of you."

"Tio ?" Ramone hauled his head out from under the pillow, blinking at him, and sitting up. "Tio! Tempus !"

A soft glowing series of numbers appeared before him: the current time. The young Brazilian's face fell.

"They are gathering now," his uncle confirmed, and came to sit opposite him. Lucius sank down beside him.  Silva rubbed his temple with one hand, still holding the book in the second.

"Luis," he said. "May I have a moment with my Ramonzinho?"

"Of course, sir." Lucius rose again immediately, and stepped out. The door closed behind him. He fidgeted anxiously, but only for a moment before a small, hurried figure appeared.

"Senhor Malfoy!"

He turned.

"You will come with me," Inez Hernandez ordered as she approached him. "Now."

"Erhm. I am sorry, Professor, but Padre Silva said he just needed a moment with Ramone, and..."

"Now, Senhor Malfoy!"

Lucius said no more. Hernandez beckoned him to the empty hall outside the main doors of the hospital ward glancing left and right swiftly  before leading him left, then left again along a suddenly-appeared passage.  It seemed to conclude in a blank wall, but she tapped it with her wand and it slid back. She hauled him bodily through just it closed behind them. There was another hall before them, and several more spiraling, twisting passages, all sloping down... The final passage culminated, not in another blank wall, but in a door. Castelobruxo's new Headmistress ushered him through it and into the small, square chamber behind. There was nothing there but a single chair. She closed the door magically, and turned to face him.

"You will stay here," she ordered. "Till I return for you. This is a matter of vital security, Senhor Malfoy. Your vital security."

"Professor Hernandez, what..."

She just pointed to the far wall. A panel slid back, revealing the dining hall from the perspective of one standing behind the podium. Lucius' eyes widened at the sight of the rows of stone-faced men and women lining the walls and guarding the doors, all clad in dark blue, and each holding a bared wand. The gathered students huddled against each other in their chairs, eyes fixed studiously on their own laps, their own hands, their own feet - everywhere save for directly at the men and women themselves. The looks of terror that they bore on their faces were nothing short of pitiful.

"It is a one-way window. No one can see you. They are government officials," Inez Hernandez said tersely. "Sent by the Brazilian Magical President. Aurors, Legilimancers and Obliviators. They arrived without notice twenty minutes ago, and have informed us that they are not leaving, one way or another, without answers. If proceedings fall out as Antonio suspects they will, there will be no ISEP students left at Castelobruxo by nightfall, and considerably fewer memories of the specifics of recent events in those remaining."

"What ?"

Hernandez hesitated, then firmed her lips.

"I have only a few more minutes, so listen carefully. There two issues here: the first and official one the obvious. They are not to allow the school to be closed and the students sent home, a) because of the lethifolds, and b) because there would be far too many questions on what kind of event could provoke such a completely unprecedented action and the associated dismissal of the Headmistress. Secondly and most definitely unofficially, is the issue of Antonio's public declaration of relation and magical guardianship of Senhor Carriera, and his declaration that he is acting, in these matters and on order of his superiors, as a private citizen rather than as a priest. He, as an individual, is seen as a vital resource in South and Central America, and the Brazilian government has therefore sent representatives to remind him of the fact by whatever means they deem necessary before those on the highest levels notice that he exists as something other than a black cassock and collar."

"Erhm. What?"

"The Wizarding world, as it exists beyond the borders of the Lower Americas, does not tend to pay attention to Catholic priests, Senhor Malfoy," Inez Hernandez said tersely. "Or indeed, to any of those Magicals who believe in any kind of higher creative moral power. It does not like to be reminded that it is answerable to something other than its own sense of natural superiority. Antonio does have a genuine vocation, but there is no doubt that our government finds the fact convenient. He is  extremely well-known and well-loved amongst our people, but in a circumspect manner that serves to keep his reputation and knowledge of his abilities within our borders."

"Oh," Lucius said blankly. "Only... Abraxas had heard of him?" It was more of a question than a statement.

"He had heard of his skill in dueling," she corrected. "And not before you applied. He contacted the school after you requested his permission to apply, asking if there was anyone here, or available to us on consult, who would suit your particular requirements. It was, from his point of view, a happy and convenient coincidence as it provided you with your own way to rationalize his unlikely consent."

"Ah."

"Mm. Back to circumspection again. If Antonio were to leave the Church, and forgo the certain informal, and yes, formal immunity from the public eye that it affords him, it would not be long before someone from Away noticed him and his true abilities. Before Riddle noticed his abilities, and that... That would be completely catastrophic on every level. Even the rumour of the existence of another Magical with the power to challenge him would bring him here faster than you could say "What have we here? An entire continent with the established means and ability to erase not just the memories of, but the memory of Nomaji entirely? How very nice. Oh, this nasty little infestation? It is not so bad, truly. Oh you think it is? I do not tolerate people who disagree with me. I would, in fact, prefer it if those who dared just... disappeared. Mm? The Statute of Secrecy? No, not a problem either. We never liked that one anyway, and how simple it would be to keep the creatures in line once we present them with the details of the cost of misbehaving?" And that is not even counting that other little, extremely unpublicized issue, nao ? "What? You do not like these plans of mine, Padre?  Well, that is just too bad. My goodness, you are looking a little hot around the coll... Oh my. Oh my! What is this? Your Animagus form is a phoenix? An immortal bird, who cannot be killed? Mm. That is interesting. Tell me, what would it take, Padre, to convince you to allow me to take you apart in order to see what makes you tick?"

Lucius sat down on the chair with a thump.

"Indeed. It is, as Antonio would say, a problem."

"But... If your government is afraid of all of this... Well, not the bit on his Animagus form, but the other... Why was I permitted to come at all? They know my family's leanings! They would have to know too that Riddle has his eye on me; he has not made the point of it yet, but if I understand that he will, and why, there are most certainly others who do! Why would they risk allowing me to come here, when they can only be convinced that I will use everything that I learn here against them?"

"Think on that a moment," Hernandez advised. "Why do you think, Senhor Malfoy, that you would be allowed to come to a place where your mind could be - no would be - altered?  Or that there is, for that matter, a more than considerable chance that if you stay, you will not return at all? And why do you think that there are no other students from Hogwarts this year? Your application was not the only one sent in from your school. Your fellows were simply all allotted placements in their second and third choices."

He stared at her, horrified.

"Your application suited the needs of those on both sides of the upcoming war in Europe, and those here in Brazil," she informed him not unkindly.  "They all simply have different sets of information to work with. The only common denominator there is you. You are a complicating factor for all of them at this point in time, and your presence here solves a short-term problem for one, and a potential long-term problem for the others."

The boy before her pushed what little hair he had back with both hands.

"You are saying that the Brazilian government accepted my application here in the hopes that I will be lost," he repeated. "Or that ... That at the very least... Maybe as their best-case scenario.. I will be sent back... Altered? To their specifications?"

"No," Inez Hernandez said bluntly. "I am saying that certain members, or rather, associates of, certain members of the British government, Senhor Malfoy, forwarded your application to the Brazilian government with the strong recommendation that it be unconditionally accepted in the interests of our mutual vital security. Antonio, as you may well imagine, did not approve, and took a personal interest in your case. He took an even more personal interest in your case once Ramone's wand informed us your first hour here that you were not what they all assumed."

Lucius ran his hands through his shorn hair again as he stared at her. Castelobruxo's new Headmistress conjured a second chair and sat opposite him.

"This particular event," she said to him. "The attempt on Ramone's life... Changes everything. The specifics have been contained so far, but if the event becomes public knowledge, the results will not be pleasant for anyone. Our government's solution is as it always been, erase, or at least alter, the specifics entirely. Once that is done... Arrangements will be made for the ISEP students to return home, as a matter of preventative security. The British government finds this acceptable, as any changes in personality you demonstrate upon your return may be attributed to your mama's death. Riddle would find it less acceptable - his long-term plans for you depend on your remaining out of England until the end of the school year - but he would work with what he is given as necessary, should it prove necessary. Antonio, on the concealed and unexpected final hand... Does not find your departure at this point in time remotely acceptable. He will not have you placed beyond his reach, not just because of political reasons, but for your own soul's sake. So... He has placed a series of very particular wards on this room. As long as you remain in here, they -" She nodded to the officials. "Will not think to ask on you today. No one in the school will think of you. You will not be erased, you will simply be overlooked. After the officials have all left and are off the grounds, we will take other measures to account for your continued presence at Castelobruxo, on all levels, but on your part, it is imperative... Imperative, Senhor Malfoy - that no matter what is said and done, that you speak not one word of anything that has happened in the last week as pertains to Ramone's fall, including the fall itself, to any save Antonio, Ramone or myself, and not excepting Senhorita Black. Anything that you tell her... Everything you tell her... Puts her at risk of mandated alteration as well."

"But..."

"Do not ask me questions. I do not have time right now; I must go, but I am saying this to you from Antonio's mouth: you will obey . Everything... Everything ... depends on it. England depends on it, as England depends on you ."

Lucius pressed his fingers to his eyes, then nodded.

"I will obey," he said decisively. "You, and him."

Hernandez nodded, rose, kissed his cheek swiftly and stepped out. The wall sealed neatly behind her. No more than three minutes later, the young Englishman watched through the one-way window as the doors opened, and a black-clad, openly armed (his wand holsters were not their typical discreet black, but blazing scarlet) Antonio Silva, accompanied at a more leisurely pace by the new Headmistress, strode to the front of the room, his dark narrow features radiant with frigid and unconcealed displeasure. That last was more than obviously aimed, not at the students, but at the unwelcome officials.

"Where is your nephew?" the Auror closest to the doors demanded. "His presence and corroborative testimony are required in these proceedings."

"He is still in the hospital ward," Silva said tersely as Hernandez settled into her chair and he took the podium. "Recovering under guardian wards from the attempt on his life. You will not disturb him. Any questions you have for him may and will wait, and none will be presented him without my presence as his Magical guardian."

"He is seventeen, Padre Silva. Your presence is not required in any interview we request of him."

"If these were normal circumstances you would be correct, but as I am also his medical and legal and magical power of attorney, and as he is suffering from the effects of a serious head injury that could yet be impairing his judgment and the validity of his corroborative testimony, I am obliged to be present as witness to all related proceedings. You need not be afraid, children," he addressed the student body. "Jesus may have stepped away from my office temporarily, but He is yet at Castelobruxo, and I think it fairly safe to say that He is not remotely pleased at this turn of events."

"YOU WILL NOT FLOUT OUR AUTHORITY!"

"YOU WILL BE SILENT !"

And they were, suddenly and completely.

"The twenty-four hour grace period granted the students by the Board of Governors is not yet over," Silva informed them. "You have no authority here until it is."

"The grace period has been overridden on our highest levels."

"Has it? I have not yet heard from the great God on the matter myself; perhaps we should ask Him? Now, you will put your wands in your holsters, all of you, or I will break them."

The man opened his mouth... It shut abruptly. From the furious expression and his madly working and sealed lips, it was not his idea. Lucius watched as the row of officials edged away from their silenced fellow ever-so-slightly, glancing fearfully at the priest as they slid their wands away. Not one of them had failed to observe that the priest's own two wands were yet firmly established in his holsters, and that he had not made gesture or sound indicative of any casting of a single spell toward the end of muting their fellow. The students sat still as statues, all caught between the obvious conflicted urges to cheer and scream in horror.

"You are not the only individuals present capable of legilimency and obliviation," Silva said to the officials grimly. "Nor even the most effective. That is not a threat, it is the truth. I am sworn not to use my abilities save in extremis, and I will not, but what you are here to do is an abomination, and qualifies on every level. I do not care that it is the law. I do not care that you operate under the law. It. Is. Wrong. There are two and a half thousand students at the school and  only one of them... Only one of them... is guilty of this crime against their fellow.  I wish, I assure you, more than any of you, that he or she be brought to justice. My Ramonzinho deserves that. All of the students here deserve that, and in light of that, and as all have been warned of the potential consequences, I have no objections to  standard, prudent and careful investigation into the minds of any established and confirmed suspects. What I do object to, and will not permit, is the completely gratuitous rape of this student body in entirety. I. Will. Not. Permit. It. And if you insist on attempting it, I will stop you. You will go back to your masters with answers, but they will be the answers I choose to send with you."

"You walk dangerous ground, Padre Silva!  As we are here on a matter affecting vital global security, all cognitive situational assessments are considered necessary legal actions, and are  fully supported by..."

A second mouth was silenced, and sealed. Antonio Silva leaned forwards, flat hands braced on the podium, dark eyes cold as frostbitten steel.

"I do not care, Senhor,” he said softly.  “Who sanctions or supports these acts, it does not alter the defining nature of the acts themselves. It. Is. Rape .  And murder too, if you embark, as you so obviously intend, upon wholesale modification and erasure of their memories and personalities in order to establish whatever version of reality suits your governmentally established agendas. You may have training and licenses that provide you with the absolute legal right to invade, pillage and permanently alter the minds and, as necessary, personalities  of anyone and everyone here, but that does not bestow you with the moral right, and..." He straightened, and held up a forestalling hand. "Before you ask me what the difference is between what you are threatening to do to them and that with which I am threatening you..." He enunciated the next words clearly and precisely. "You are adults. These are children. Their physical brains are not fully developed . Their magical cores are not developed, and are all in constant flux besides as they study the Change. If you attempt to implement the kind of measures that I know you have in mind, you risk them in ways that you yourselves, again as grown adults, need not fear. You will damage them, and some of them permanently. Perhaps even the majority of them, and even a few of them fatally, if not in the immediate moment, then in the long run. The very least, the very least, that you can concede them, then, before you wreak such perversion on them, is three hours'  more grace and the hope that the situation may resolve itself before your version of the final and unavoidable moment!"

There was a definite uneasy, if profoundly resentful and sullen silence. Then...

"Where are the ISEP students?" another of the officials demanded. "None of them are here."

"They have been excused from the proceedings," Professor Hernandez said coolly from her chair.  "And are currently up in my office enjoying tea and a recorded Nomaji cinematic production under the supervision of one of our resident Healers. Padre Silva and I are satisfied that they are all innocent in these matters, and as they are innocent, they do not need to bear personal witness to the confirming fact that they have come on invitation and in good faith to a country where their minds, as soon as their visas of temporary residency were stamped, became the formal and permanent physical property, as is the case for all of us here, of the global Wizarding government. They  might be a little annoyed, do you not think, at the realization at this new and irrevocable status of theirs, inflicted as it was upon them without due notification or warning?  Without the opportunity for consideration or choice in the matter on their part, or on the part of their guardians, their schools, or even most of the leaders of their home nations?"

Behind the wall, Lucius Malfoy literally fell off his chair.

"No matter the manner of concluding these events, Headmistress," the man said between clenched teeth. "They cannot be allowed to stay."

"I am aware. And that being the case, I saw - see - no need to risk their mental integrity past the strictly necessary point by providing them with more information that must only be removed. We all know, do we not, that some things are easier to forget than others, and the more profound and unsettling the content, the more likely it is that the solutions will not take?"

They all nodded reluctantly.

"We are slaves," Antonio Silva said to the officials then, distinctly and precisely again. "Every one of us here, yourselves included. However vital and valid the concerns that lie behind the ICW's rationalization of their enslavement of us... You know it is the truth. And all morality aside -which I am assuring you, it most certainly, certainly is not - if you insist on carrying out this course of advisable, vital action... You are risking an entire half-generation of inefficient and incapable slaves: ones who will be so compromised that they cannot do the work that they have, and will continue to be, charged with executing. Not will not, cannot . Are you truly prepared to go back to your masters again and report that you did not think three hours of time a fair compromise when bartering  for that half generation's potential effective abilities, and through them, the continued effectiveness of the Statute of Secrecy?"

Lucius's mind was very nearly breaking, but an odd, brooding look seemed to pass among the officials at Silva's words... One of the women stepped forward.

"We do understand what you are saying, Padre, and we recognize that it is a valid concern. Insofar as that concern is a valid one, we have been ordered...|

She hesitated.

"Sim? You have been ordered... What?"

The woman set her shoulders and sent a document spinning over. Silva scanned it and tore it two before he had even reached the bottom of the page, dropping it on the ground and setting it aflame without so much as looking at it.

"Nao," he said flatly. "Absolutely not."

"You yourself, Padre Silva, have said that you have been instructed by your superiors to act as a private citizen in these matters. That means that the Brazilian government has the right to call on your services and abilities as a private citizen."

"I would rather burn in hell for all eternity, Senhora. I would burn in hell for all eternity, if I were to even consider agreeing. You may phrase it as prettily as you like, sim, and compliment me as prettily as you like, but you will not convince me to assist you in these matters on the grounds that I am capable of performing your crimes more efficiently and safely than you. If you wish to risk your souls: if your employers wish to risk theirs, then you, and they, will be taking the risk themselves, and the responsibility. Aside from that, and again, I have made vows ! Do you not understand that?"

"Your superiors have ordered you to set your vows aside and comply with civil procedures in these matters!"

Antonio Silva closed his eyes, pressed his fingers to his temple, and breathed very deeply indeed. Several times.

"My superiors have ordered me to set my vows aside," he corrected. "In the instance that a previously warned individual were to come to me in situ Christi on this matter and attempt to manipulate me, through my vows as a priest, in an attempt to attain divine forgiveness while avoiding the risk of secular culpability. It is not, I assure you, remotely the same thing as what you are suggesting, Senhora, and if you are all truly that confused, you are in desperate, collective need of a refresher course in the fundamentals of our mutual religion."

Lucius' nose wrinkled as he tried to sort through that, making a mental note to take Carriera up on his offer at some point for an explanation of the confusing particulars. He was immediately distracted by  the priest's next words.

"It is moot in any instance. As the conditions have been fulfilled," he continued. "And the confession attained, my status and responsibilities and vows as a priest are now fully reinstated. Your orders are your orders again, and mine are from God."

Dead silence fell.


 

"You have received a confession?" the woman said sharply. "Why have you not said so till now?"

"Because we were establishing formal and necessary mutual context," Silva said. "And the motives serving the crime are not as simple as you wish them to be. Nao, they are not simple at all, and as you have so kindly and unexpectedly presented yourselves and provided me with the opportunity to establish to you that you are the ones responsible for the unpleasant situation we find ourselves in now, I felt morally obliged to do so."

"We are responsible," one of the men repeated. "And how is this?'

The podium transformed to a chair. A similar chair appeared behind each of the standing officials.

"Please," Silva invited them. "Sit."

Bemused, and surprisingly, they sat. The students exchanged furtive small glances as the priest extracted from his pocket a small, battered paperback.

"I received no actual visitors to my office this afternoon," the priest informed them. "What I did receive, or rather, was placed on the floor immediately outside my office, was this book. A book that I recognized immediately, for I myself ordered it for one of the students here at the school as a Christmas gift from another, six and a half years ago now."

Lucius frowned.

"Padre . .."

Silva tched reprovingly. The reproved silenced herself.

"Muito bueno. Now. I have been teaching here for four years. This is my fifth. The book was ordered through me by a first year student for another first year student, two years, as I said, before that. That means that the first year student who received the book as a gift is now a seventh year student. The student who ordered him the book through me has been lost."

The silence fell again. Silva opened the paperback and flipped through the pages.

"It is a very good book," he noted. "The author is a Nomaj, a Scottish writer by the name of James Barrie. Many of you will know him, sim ? And this, his most famous tale and character: Peter Pan?" He settled back, crossing his legs, one over the other. "We study the story here at Castelobruxo, in third year Nomaj Appreciation. Many of the students find their own meaning in the recurring themes - the child who never grew up, perpetually seeking both freedom from adult responsibilities and a nurturing mother for his chosen brothers, those Lost Boys whom he has enticed and stolen away from their families with the promise of never having to take on the suffocating and difficult and enslaving responsibilities of the men God intended them to be."

He turned the book over in his hands again.

"There are many copies of this book," he said idly. "Many lost. Some stolen. Some overlooked, like the boys in the book itself, sim?"

Lucius watched as several of the Aurors sat up straight at that, eyes narrowing. Silva made a small gesture. It took the students several moments to realize that all of the officials were now firmly frozen.

'It is very rude to interrupt," he told them. "Jesus does not approve. We will help you along then, and avoid your necessary and regretful private discussions of the matter." He opened the book to the flyleaf.

"We are all one in this war," he informed his literally captive audience. "But sometimes... We forget. Sometimes we are made to forget, by circumstance, government decree, and on occasion, simple inability to process the pain and agony of the sins that we here, as slaves, are forced to commit for the sake of others. God understands that we are forced. Perhaps He does not, in His great mercy, condemn us in and of ourselves for that which we are told we must do. That which we are ordered to do, for the Greater Good. For that which we are ordered to train our children to become from birth: thieves, rapists, murderers, and in the name of the Holy, yet? We are told this is our charge from God - to unname, and yet to remember names. It is so difficult. So many contradictions that tear not just the mind,  but the soul, as we constantly struggle to reconcile what we know to be evil with that which the world tells us, and what we tell ourselves, is His most blessed will. "

He sat back in his chair.

"Who can predict the future?" he said rhetorically. "Who has the right to arrange it? It is a sin. To seek to become God... To act as God... We are ordered to act as God every moment of every day, in His name, by virtue of His will. This is the greatest contradiction of all, sim? It does not... Sit well. It cannot. It freezes us. We are forced to listen: to listen, to listen, to obey... Always to obey, all for our own good, even as it kills our souls. How can it be good if it kills us, we ask ourselves? How can it be good for us? How can it serve the greater good,  when the greatest good we know is God? God, who loves each of us, who loves all of us, who created each of our souls in an act of pure and perfect love, with the ultimate desire to see us all whole and part of Him?"

The students' furtive looks made the rounds again.

"Sometimes in our agony, we act instinctively," Silva mused. "In automatic rebellion against that which we know can never be good, can never be beautiful, and cannot be true. Past the point of agony... All we are are our instincts. We are reduced to them. When one of us is lost... We are reduced. All that we are left with is this: the instinctive knowledge of the acceptable, and the instinctive knowledge of the existence of its correlative opposite. Even when our memories are taken from us, our own memories... This knowledge remains. Nothing, nothing, on this earth can erase that."

He opened the book again to the flyleaf.

"December 25, 1964," he read. "For my good friend T., on the sad anniversary of the day his mama and mine were both lost. May we find our comfort in the arms of our Christ's Mother, on this, the day where hope is reborn to us through Her.  I will remember you always, as you have promised to remember me. Miguel-Maria Emmanuel Rocha dos Santos, Age 11."

Confused whispers broke out. Silva lowered the book.

"Miguel-Maria Emmanuel Rocha dos Santos," he said deliberately. "Was lost the same year he wrote this message. The second boy.. The one he addresses here as T - he kept the book. It is a small book, easily lost, easily stolen, easily overlooked. What its owner did not keep was his promise to remember his friend. But then…” He looked around.  “None of you remember him, do you? All of you who began school as first years, all of you, in September of 1964... I see your faces, sim ? You are all puzzled. You are all confused. How may this be, you ask? A boy lost, a boy of our year, that none of us, not one of us remembers? I ask you to think about this, as you look at each other. As you all look around, and see the faces of everyone here. The answer to your question is here in this room, sitting here with all of us. You will not have to think very hard at all, or look very hard, to locate it."

Lucius' hands came up to cover his mouth. The silence stretched and stretched and stretched and stretched...

And broke. A single, heart-wrenching sob sounded, immediately stifled. Everyone turned simultaneously in their seats. Antonio Silva rose to his feet and made his way down the center aisle to the section where the seventh years sat, to the fourth row, to the aisle seat. He knelt before a small, shaking young man now covering his face desperately with his hands, and pulled them away gently by the wrists. His face was a soft, blurred morass of tears.

"Shh, pobrecito ," he murmured. "Shh, Senhor Garcia. Shh, Tomasinho. Padre is here. I will help you, sim? You have only to tell me what has happened to you, to bring you to this sad point."

"I did not know he was your nephew," the boy choked. "I did not know, Padre! I forgot him, but I did not. I promised ... I... His laugh... It was his laugh. I could never stop hearing it. Not in my head, not... Not in front of me. The same laugh, but... I do not remember him!"

"It is a beautiful laugh," Silva's eyes were soft and dark. "I hear my brother Manuel's voice in it, Senhor Garcia, whenever I hear it, though he has been lost now these fourteen years. It is a great comfort."

"But..." The boy, Tomas Garcia, struggled. "Why... How can I not remember him?  I see his name, I hear his laugh, as a ghost's but he... I cannot remember him!" His face crumpled. "I promised to remember him; that is obvious. The book says I promised him. But I cannot! I have tried so hard, Padre. Always a ghost, always ... The book, I had the book. My ... I know I promised to remember him, but his name is Miguel, not Ramone. He is Ramone, not Miguel. He is your nephew, but he is Miguel , and he cannot be lost, for he is here, but .... Why can I not remember ? I am going crazy, I am crazy, I am going crazy, I just wanted him to stop, I just wanted him to stop laughing, to stop, to..."

Silva sat cross-legged on the floor and literally pulled the weeping young man into his lap. Lucius sat frozen as the priest brushed his fingers lightly over the boy's eyes. His sobs slowed, easing into soft, deep breathing.

"Children," he said, not looking at the frozen line of government officials. "Unfinished. Vulnerable. Fragile. You cannot be trusted to recover a single book, and you wish me to permit you to play God with their minds?"

"Padre," one of the sixth year girls said. "What… What is Tomas saying? What is going on ?”

"My Ramonzinho had an older brother," Silva said. Lucius blinked at that. "Named Miguel. They were born less than a year apart. Miguel was lost in his first year, two years before Ramonzinho enrolled here in his second equivalent year, in September of 1966. He was lost because a lethifold made its way onto the grounds of Castelobruxo. The Board of Governors decided that it was best if no one was frightened, and arranged for you all to forget the incident, lest your families lose confidence in the school - the school which saves all of our lives - and with the incident, the boy whom many of you had called your friend. I was not consulted. Nor were his adoptive parents, nor Ramonzinho himself. By the time I arrived at the school, the deed was done."

Even God Himself, Lucius thought, would have had trouble detecting the lie in the words.

"They were very alike," the priest continued evenly. "Miguel and Ramonzinho,  as brothers often are. Their voices, their laughs... They are exactly the same. And the officials here, when they came to recover all proof that Miguel had existed, missed the book that he had given to Senhor Garcia. The book with his name in it, and the words he had written to Tomas here; so very personal and meaningful to both of them, sim? Some things, they are just so difficult to..." He gestured. Lucius sat back in his chair.

"He has read this book, the message, thousands of times," Silva said to the stunned students. "Trying to remember this boy, this erased boy, this lost boy who loved him, and whom he so obviously loved back. When Ramonzinho came, you will remember how difficult it was? How difficult he was? He could not tell you he had a brother who had been here. He was not permitted. He had even to change the names that had been given to him and his brother as gifts from their adopted family. I came here to be with him, but not as his uncle, on the chance that if one of you did remember, even a fragment, that you would associate his face with Miguel's, and Miguel with me, and come to me for answers that I would not, perhaps, have been able to hide. But Tomas could not forget. He had the name, and with Ramonzinho's laugh... It is as he has said. He could not bear it. He could not bear it, and he just wished it to stop. Not to murder him. I do not believe he had the intent to murder him, as such. He just wished the pain in his own mind to stop."

There followed  a quite dreadful pause. Then….

"They erased him?" one of the girls repeated unbelievingly. Her absolute shock and appalled horror was echoed in every single face around her. "These men and women here... They erased your nephew ? Carriera's brother? A Magical? As if he were one of the Nomaji? But that... That is not permitted ! It is not... It is forbidden !"

"Nao , it is not permitted. And yes, it is forbidden, and yet, they did it.  On order again. On order, as the slaves we all are. The Board of Governors, and through them, the government, said that they did not want you to be frightened, even though it was not a true breach of the wards. The lethifold, it had crept into Miguel's suitcase, under the clothing, over the Easter break. It was carried in past the wards, and when he began to unpack, having come back a little early before his roommates, he was interrupted, and turned his back, and left the room to go to the washroom, perhaps, who knows... And it crept under his bed. He came back, very tired yet from the vacation, and lay to take a little nap, sim ?"

"How can you know how it happened?" one of the fourth years asked, confused.

"Professora Hernandez was passing," Silva said. "She came in to check, his door was open. The thing was so startled, it went up the wall, and Professora Hernandez was so surprised, she transformed and reared up, and knocked the ceiling out. It fell, a true accident, and the lethifold was crushed. And Miguel was gone. The open suitcase... It was not difficult to put the pieces together. She tried to summon me, but I was in the jungle, and not so easily found. By the time I came back, the Board of Governors had made its decision. And they left, thinking all was well, but they overlooked Tomas' book, and the depths of his love for Miguel, and sim ... The lengths too, a magical core will go to to argue against the unnatural instruction. It is why we do not erase Magicals, for just this reason. We do not forget easily, that which we are inclined by God to remember."

"What will happen to Senhor Garcia now?" a third year boy ventured. "And what will happen to us now, Padre? Now that we know?"

"Nao, truly... I do not know. It is not up to me, Senhor Ignacio. I may make recommendations, but... I do not know. I will not allow them to harm you, but when it comes down to it... It is not up to me."

Shoulders hunched all over the hall.

"They missed the book," one of the seventh year girls said, eyes narrowing as she looked over the lines of frozen officials. "It will not go well for them, will it, if it is known that they missed the book?"

"Nao," Silva agreed. "Probably not."

"It is not Tomas' fault," she said decisively. "Carriera will know that. He is a bit much, but he is far too intelligent not to understand. If we understand, he certainly will. He will not want him to be charged. He will want him to know what happened so that he may recover."

"Sim, this is true. He is a good boy."

The girl-  Lucius remembered her name suddenly: Carmen Lopez - she was tall, almost as tall as he and Ramone, with a slim, wide-eyed face and quite the most strangely styled head of hair he had ever seen rising from her brow as a high crest of a bird -  stood and crossed her arms.

"I think it best," she said clearly. "That we leave the book out of the story. That they go back to the government and tell them about Tomas, and how he loved your nephew, Padre, and how your nephew was his friend, and how they made a promise to remember each other, one that Tomas' soul and magical core would not let him forget. It will be a lesson for them, that erasing Magicals is a very, very bad idea. Perhaps they will think twice the next time, before making such a stupid, dangerous decision? We students  are not stupid. Our families are not stupid. We would have understood that it was an accident, and not a breach of the wards, and it would have taught all of us to be more careful. Only if we are not taught, we cannot learn or remember, can we?"

Lucius could not see Silva's face, but he could almost feel his lips twitch.

"I also think," Carmen Lopez continued. "That they would be taking a very stupid risk in trying to erase what you have told us about Miguel. It is easy to forget a story when you have heard it only once. It is much, much more difficult when you have heard it more than once. A very tricky proposition, mnemonically speaking?"

"You are a very intelligent young woman, Senhorita Lopez," Silva congratulated her. "I am most impressed, as always, on your natural perspicacity."

"Muito obrigada. You are so kind. So... If it were up to me..." She mused. "They would leave our minds be. We would leave theirs be. We would have a mutual understanding that this book is not an essential part of the reports to the government. They would file their reports on Tomas, with a unanimous recommendation that he be remanded to - mmm. Your Order, perhaps?  They have excellent mind-healers, I understand - to manage his trauma. A recommendation that you would endorse personally, which is very understanding of you, I must say, Padre, considering that you did just very nearly lose your last remaining family member."

Lucius, despite his anxiety, was impressed. Brazil, he thought, would leave him with more than one regret... Narcissa would have absolutely adored this girl. He was not entirely sure just in the moment, that he did not.

"And how would we ensure their continued good will and cooperation again?" Silva inquired.

"Oh, that is easy." Lopez dug in her satchel, and tossed him a cube, of the type used to record academic lectures. He caught it neatly and examined it, eyebrows flying.

"Audio only," she said. 'I turned it on as soon as she..." She jerked her chin at the first woman in the line. "Handed you the document attempting to conscript you into doing a job which we all know that you, as a priest, are not licensed to do - mass obliviation. The obviously forged document," she said pointedly to the frozen officials. "There is no way the higher-ups in the government would condone that; they would have to issue you a temporary permit along with the document if they actually were suggesting you employ the suggested course of action. A permit that would take three days to approve because of the number of people required to sign off on it against the probability of something going badly, including, and as it involves the entire student population of the only school of magic in South America, at least three of our approving representatives from the ICW. Oh, and of course, you would have to review with your superiors in any case, in order to confirm that you are not in any way compromising your vocational mandate." She examined her fingernails. "I cannot imagine that they would want to ask the ICW to approve you, a single untrained civilian, as a replacement for an entire team of trained professionals, particularly on the purported premise that you have sufficient magical power to again do the job of an entire team of thirty specialists all on your own, and better than they could manage it all together yet?"

The entire dining hall's worth of students was now staring at her in abject astonishment.

"You did not actually burn it, did you?" she asked the priest, lowering her hand.

"Nao, of course not." Silva's lips twitched, openly this time. "I, like all of the men in my family, am affected with that tendency to the overly melodramatic. It was a little glamour, and the actual document is, if not in my pocket, in an extremely safe and secure location." He brushed Tomas Garcia's eyes again... Lucius watched as he moaned and thrashed a little.

"Pobrecito, " the priest murmured, and patted the floor. Two med-elves promptly appeared.

"You will take Senhor Garcia to the hospital wing," he instructed them. "And place him in the second warded quarantine unit. Keep him lightly sedated till I arrive again, and guard him against all save for myself, with extreme prejudice against those who would force you to retreat."

The med-elves, and Senhor Garcia, flashed out. Silva boosted himself to his feet, tucked the cube in his pocket, and returned to the podium.

"Children," he addressed the student body. "I must ask your permission for something now. It is difficult, I know, but I hope you may listen and understand. I am not going to erase or modify your minds. I vow it before Jesus. But these guests of ours..." He gestured to the officials. "They are sure to demand reassurance that what you have heard today will stay among us. You have seen yourself that I have the proof of these courses of events, safe..." He patted his pocket. "I ask you now, if you trust me when I reassure you that I will not permit them to be lost - and if you will trust me to apply a geas to every one of you that will assure them, though I do trust all of you, that what we have heard here today will remain among us. You will retain all of your memories," he said carefully. "You will simply not be able to discuss them with anyone but each other, and Jesus, of course. It would be a gesture of good will on our part, sim , that will help them to understand that, as young as you are, you have the understanding of how difficult this situation is for everyone concerned?"

Lucius watched from his chair, as the students consulted with each other, murmuring and shifting, the older ones rising from their seats and moving among the younger ones, in their sections, to explain and reassure, and answer questions. They reconvened, and murmured again, and finally, nodded as a group to Carmen Lopez. She turned as the rest settled themselves.

"We agree, Padre," she said. "We all trust you." She squared her shoulders. "And we would ask you your permission for something in return."

"Sim ?"

"We would appreciate it very much," she said. "If you would tell Senhor Carriera that we are all so very grateful to him for his remembrances. We do not deserve them from him. None of us do. We do not... We will not presume on his forgiveness. But we all would like to talk to Jesus, soon, all of us, on the subject, and we would also like, with Carriera's and your kind permission, to hold a day of memorial for his brother, your nephew Miguel. We do not remember him, but he was one of us, and when the Long Night is over, God will remember the promises we did make to remember him, and will bring us all together again."

"I will tell him," Silva said. "And ask him. As for Jesus... You all are fully aware of His office hours. He welcomes you all, always."

She bowed lightly, and sat.

"If you will all close your eyes," he said quietly. "It will take perhaps a minute. It will not hurt, I promise you, and will change nothing of any of you."

Lucius watched from the small, invisible chamber as the priest moved from behind the podium, kneeling before the students, and raising his hands, palms up as if in supplication as he bowed his head... A soft blue glow rose from his palms, rising and rising, flowing forth and up, drifting and filling the vast room. It faded slowly, gently, before dissipating entirely. Silva waited, still on his knees, as the students opened their eyes, waiting in turn as he crossed himself and rose to his feet. Then they too, rose... The young Englishman watched in wonder as they all fell to their knees and bowed their own heads to him. Silva extended his hands over them and murmured a blessing. Despite himself, Lucius' eyes stung a little. When they were resettled, Silva brushed one hand across the other. The officials unfroze promptly.

"So?" the priest inquired of them.

"The students may return to their dormitories," the woman who had handed him the document said in clipped tones. Silva nodded. The students stood, and filed out. When the last had gone...

Silva raised his eyebrows as every wand in the room - thirty in total - was suddenly aimed at him, and furious waves of light passed over and around him. He stood patiently for several long minutes, waiting as they struggled... Finally, the woman cursed vilely in disgust, and lowered her weapon along with the rest of her company, their faces universally scarlet with both fury and exertion.

"It was a good effort," Silva said encouragingly. "Much better than the last time. You have all been practicing, sim? Muito bueno;  I am proud of you all. You may tell your masters that I give you all an O for your efforts, if yet the rather disappointing T for results. Before we part, however... Do we have our understanding on Senhor Garcia?"

They said nothing, just turned their backs as one and filed out. Silva sighed as the door closed then turned to the wall, walking forward and reaching out as if to touch the window through which Lucius was looking... The young man stood as the priest came through, the window and wall sealing behind him.

"Sir," he said. Silva waved him off, and sank wearily into the second chair. Lucius sat silently opposite.

'If you have questions," the priest  said after awhile. "It is better to ask, sim ?"

"How is it that their magic does not affect you?" he ventured. "I did not see you cast a single protective spell, much less a ward."

"My Animagus form is a phoenix, Senhor Malfoy, and certain traits there translate no matter the form. I am virtually immune in any circumstance to all forms of magical mental manipulation, and that is what those..." He offered an extremely vulgar Portuguese expletive.... "were attempting just now. Again."

"Ah." He lapsed into renewed silence. Silva sat back.

"Ramonzinho is aware of my adaptation of his history," he said. "And has informed me that you are now aware of that history yourself. The others... They do not need to know the details, sim ? It might be good for the truth to out itself, but it would not be good for him."

"No," Lucius said. "It would not." He fidgeted with the edge of his robe. "How long will it be before they are all gone, sir? The other ISEP students, I mean?"

"There will be a series of staggered portkeys over the next two days. I will be modifying their memories myself before each leaves. It must be done; it cannot be avoided, but I will not allow those butchers to..."

He stopped.

"And they will allow it?"

"I believe that I have just provided them with the reasonable demonstration on why they should not force the matter, sim ?"

"I." He too, stopped.

"Mm?"

Lucius said nothing, just  wrapped his arms around himself and bent his head. Tears fell down his face, loosely, splashing on his robes.

"Tell me," the priest said gently. Lucius just struggled to control his tears.

"Is it about Ramone or your mama?"

He shook his head. Silva waited.

"I do not wish to continue these lessons," the young Englishman  said finally. His voice trembled. "I do not wish... If I must stay.... I wish you to assign me to another advisor."

There was a silence. He could hear Silva breathing.

“So," he said. "May I be permitted to ask why?"

"I do not..." He struggled again. "What is the point?"

"I do not understand."

"Professora Hernandez said that, my immediate safety aside, you have much to teach me yet, but I will not be allowed to remember. They intend to send me back Changed. I will not be allowed to remember anything. I will not be allowed to remember you."

Silva said nothing as he wiped his face on his robes.

"Why are you bothering ?" Lucius said again. "Why put yourself through this, why..."

"You do not ask why I am putting you through this?"

"It will be for nothing! Even if... Even if the courts were not to... I can see now that it would not be safe! I cannot hide from Riddle's mind; he is the most powerful Magical on the planet!"

"Sim," Silva conceded. "All this is true." His lips flicked. "Mostly true," he amended. "That last, it is yet open for debate."

"So you will assign me another advisor?"

"Nao. The lists are full. But if you do truly wish to discontinue these lessons, I will not refuse you. I have told you this already, there are other methods. We may begin to employ them, as you desire. You will go home a skilled duelist. Perhaps even an Animagus, though without the knowledge that is a vital and assigned part of the curriculum here. I will not intrude upon you emotionally, or as one who has promised to remember you. You have but to tell me how you wish to proceed, and so it will be."

"But you still have not answered my question! Why did you offer this in the first place? If it cannot... If the man you are making of me must be lost… I will do my country no good without the lessons, but I cannot go home with the learned results, or even the memory of them, so I ask again, what is the point? You are putting yourself in vital danger, and for what? For nothing! I do not wish you to risk your life for me, and you should not wish to risk your life for someone who will - can - never be permitted to remember you, or what you have taught him!!"

"Ah," the priest said softly. "We have come to it, then. The crux."

"The..”  So agitated was he now that Lucius actually screamed in inarticulate frustration, surging to his feet and kicking his chair so hard that it flew against the wall and broke into multiple pieces.. “What is wrong with you? What were you thinking I did not ask you to do this! You cannot just offer this without asking if it is acceptable to the person you are offering it to; that is not acceptable ! It's too much, I do not... I did not ask you to do this!"

"One does not ask God for His blessings," Antonio Silva said as he gulped for tearful, enraged  breath. "For His mercy, for His grace. One does not ask God to send you your heart from across the world, in the form of a sixteen-year-old boy with Lucifer's own face and Lucifer's own pride and a heart and soul defined by the need to serve others as Jesus came to serve us."

"Uh?" He stopped, staring at him: bewildered, caught off-guard.

"Come here to me, my Luizinho." The priest patted his knee. Confused and distressed as he was, Lucius responded automatically... He slipped down and knelt beside him. Silva handed him a conjured box of tissues as he collected his thoughts.

"We must begin by confirming your understanding on the essential  issue. You will have realized, I think, by now, Senhor Malfoy," he said. "That I am not truly an Animagus?"

"Uh?"

"A magical core cannot produce from itself a second and distinct magical core. That is a matter of reproduction, rather than a matter of self-transfiguration, and reproduction involves two parents, not one. Even if the core could manage to reproduce on its own, as a single cell dividing... The second core would be human as well. A dragon cannot give birth to a unicorn, after all, or a basilisk to a manticore."

Lucius nodded.

"It logically follows then," Silva continued. "That as my core could not produce a second core... It did not. Yet there is a obviously a second core there. This tells us  that the second core had to come from an external source, and that somehow, at the moment when my studies of the Change were reaching the point of practical climax,  it conjoined with my original, entwining and interlocking around it, rather than merging.  So I am not a phoenix who becomes a man, nor a man who becomes a phoenix, but both - and when I switch forms, it is just that... Switching between two self-sustaining forms, rather than self-transfiguring the singular. Again I have two bodies, distinct bodies, separate bodies... But only one may occupy the given space at any given time. I do not have one body that changes shape," he emphasized. "I have two bodies that exchange space."

His student digested that, and nodded.

"I do not have," Silva said. "Before you ask, two souls. I have one soul, and when the phoenix is apparent, the soul within is Antonio Silva's as he would have been had God created his only body as a phoenix.  When the man is apparent, the soul within is still Antonio Silva's as he is, and was, when God created him as a man. When I am a phoenix, I am a phoenix, with a phoenix's mind. When I am a man, I am a man, with a man's mind. I am always fully aware that there is another form and body available to me, but my context and understanding of the world around me, and of myself, even though I remember how it was, and is, in the other body... is not ultimately relevant. It serves as reference only. Do you understand?"

"I... think so?"

"Bueno. Now. The context for your question... Why am I bothering.  There is a fundamental difference between my two forms that must be noted, sim?  Human beings define themselves, and others, in terms of their mutual relationships," Silva said. "To some, they are fathers or mothers, To some they are lovers, to some, they are enemies, to some, they are children. We define this person and that by the terms. He is an acquaintance to me. She is my grandmother. Always, the definition comes by the relationship of the other to the self, sim? Even at a remove, Carriera is Silva's nephew, and Silva is my advisor, therefore Carriera is my advisor's nephew.'

Lucius nodded.

"A phoenix does not do this," he said carefully. "There is no 'you', no 'I', no 'him', no 'her', in a phoenix's worldview. No ‘me’ or  'mine' or 'yours'. There is not even  'other'. There is only One. As a phoenix is born of flame, flame is both its reality and the basis of all metaphor - the lens through which it sees and defines everything around it. And while the aesthetics of the flame are of different and distinguishable shades,  the essential nature of the flame is singular. How would you say, then, that this would all translate to a phoenix’s perspective on relationships as humans would define them?"

"Erhm... It wouldn’t? Only…” He struggled. “If everything, as it is with the flame from which a phoenix is born, is part of a singular whole… Individuality, to that phoenix would be fact, not truth. Those aesthetic differences you mentioned in the flame are fact as well: not definitively valid?”

Silva nodded approvingly. “And?” he encouraged.

“And… As relationships are founded on reciprocated - no, reciprocal  - defined affinity between singular entities… There can be no one with whom a phoenix has any kind of defined affinity  because the reciprocal, by very definition, demands at least two, and two, to a phoenix is an invalid concept?”

"Sim. Exactly!”

"It all sounds very confusing, I must say."

"Or conversely... Very simple? A matter of perspective again, that does depend on which pair of eyes you are looking through, sim?"

Lucius, despite himself, smiled at that - then frowned.

“What is it?” the priest inquired.

“I am not questioning you, sir,” he said cautiously.  “You are the expert after all.  But it seems to me that phoenixes do recognize people individually. I have met one who does, our new Headmaster’s companion Fawkes.  He is very and especially fond of several of the students; not as fond as he is of Professor Dumbledore, but he does definitely recognize them.”

“It is a little confusing,” Silva agreed. “This way I have described to you… This way that phoenixes see… It is the view that it would have without the one crucial element that makes the difference. And now that we have established the foundation, we may expound a little on that difference, and the differences it makes, and you will see how it brings us full circle, and back together.”

Lucius settled attentively.

“There is one thing in existence," Silva explained. "My Luizinho, that allows a phoenix  an inherent understanding and grasp of the singular and the concept of singular affinity even as it examines the world through the lens of the uniform flame, and that is its heart. For a man, a heart is one thing: an organ within that pumps blood through the body. For a phoenix, the heart is a person - more specifically, the person to whom it bonds. This person, the heart, acts a set of external eyes and a source of referential context through which the phoenix may, and does, see and understand  its own physical and emotional and psychological parameters, and those of everyone about it. A phoenix's heart allows it to identify the ones within the One, as, in fact, God sees us - as individual, unique,  precious and completely irreplaceable facets of a seamless, unbroken whole, each completely and seamlessly whole within and of ourselves.”

Lucius struggled visibly to absorb that.

"What does that do for you?” he asked. “Specifically? As a phoenix? I mean, the ability to recognize people and yourself is very nice… But why is that necessary? It seems it must be necessary, to something or another. Something concrete, beyond- forgive me - personal validation.”

Silva laughed.

"It is, and it all comes back to what we phoenixes do. We heal. It is very difficult; there is just so much pain in the world, and when one  is unable to see the pain that each individual suffers as that individual’s and only as that individual’s… Well. The pain from each individual simply flows throughout the whole, the One, meeting and merging with the undistinguished pain of the undistinguished rest as a never-ending, unrelenting wave. It never stops. It never can stop, for somewhere, somewhere in the world, someone is always suffering. We  burn with the need to end it, for any pain that threatens an individual, from the human perspective, is threatening all of creation,  from the phoenix’s. And past the point, we reach our capacity, and in our absolute agony of being incapable of fulfilling what we were born to do… We burn literally, and die ourselves.”

"But you come back!”

"Sim. We do… And that... That… Is down to our hearts. Because our hearts, through the wonder and magics of our reciprocal bonds, provide us with our context for the singular, and our own singularity… In the very moment of burning, of our dying,  when we are immolating, when the world is ending, when the One is ending... We are yet able to see ourselves as our hearts see us. We see ourselves through their eyes, as God sees us all - as distinct and singular and irreplaceable, even within the body of the whole. And we are reminded, we remember that we are  individuals, and that we are not bound to One ending. And we are reminded in turn that the One cannot end either, because each individual is the One, and the One is within each individual. Finally, we understand that as our hearts yet live - for we could  only come to this understanding through our hearts’ eyes, at the crucial moment, if he did yet live... Then all is not lost after all. And there is such joy in that thought, such joy, even at the moment of death..."

He paused.

"We are reborn with the joy of it," he said. "Literally. All is made anew, all possible again, through the context and understanding that our hearts provide us. All becomes possible, including the impossibility of our own rebirth. And the cycle starts over again, and eventually we burn again, choked in despair and unrelenting pain... But again, our visions of singularity that we see through our heart's eyes remind us at the pivotal moment of that absolute truth: that there is none before and none after anyone who can replace any of us. That though we are lost - though all seems lost - as we will never be forgotten by God as individuals, and in being remembered by Him who cannot forget, as we cannot forget our hearts… None of us, ourselves included, the One included... Can ever truly die."

Lucius was silent. Silva traced his ear, his cheekbone.

"Ramone said that it is said that Lucifer seeks to destroy you," the young Englishman said finally. "That he takes you personally. That is why he targets your family, via the lethifolds. Do you think that he is seeking to find and destroy your heart, so that you will despair, and lose form, and burn without hope of return?"

"Ah well. It is a little simpler than that, I think. Demons destroy. Phoenixes heal. Demons seek to destroy that which heals. There is a reason there are no phoenixes in South America, sim ? We have so very many demons here of various sorts."

'You're saying that lethifolds eat phoenixes?"

"Nao, nao. I imagine that the feathers alone would be very bad for their digestion, never mind the heartburn."

Lucius sniggered at that, then laughed. Silva grinned at him.

"There are more Dark creatures  than lethifolds," he said. "Some do prey on phoenixes. There are histories that tell of a once-quite-reasonable population in the mountains of Ecuador and Peru, but there was also recorded a quite unreasonable number of Peruvian Vipertooths. The dragons themselves may not be evil, but their poison ... I would not be surprised to learn that Vipertooths were originally, if not harmless, less than fatal, and that their enhanced poison was bred into them via blood magic."

"Really?"

"Mm. Norwegian Ridgebacks are the only other breed that are poisonous, and they are not typically fatally toxic. Extremely unpleasant, but straightforward enough to treat. Vipertooth poison... The dragons themselves are not Dark. Their venom, though, most certainly is, and is often used in potions that facilitate Dark Magic, as a facilitator. The conclusion is that it is not natural."

"We did not learn that in Care of Magical Creatures," Lucius said, intrigued.

"Do not take this the wrong way, Senhor Malfoy, but as you Europeans have that serious chronic problem with Dark Magicals, your schools, with the exception of Durmstrang, probably do not want to give your most likely prospects ideas."

"This is very true. Alright. I shall keep that to myself, then."

"Bueno. One never knows, yet, when a little esoteric knowledge may prove useful."

"What will happen to you," the young man said abruptly. "If we discontinue our relationship? Not just the lessons, but the other?"

"I do not know. I have no context. If I were purely a phoenix... A heart may die, and another is always born at the moment of death... But if it does not die, only retreats... Nao, I do not know."

"When one dies, another is... You are saying that you have bonded before?"

"Sim. Though as is the case with the human heart, one does not have to be aware of its existence for it yet to beat. My heart... the one before you... He was never aware of the nature of our relationship. He was lost before I could reveal myself to him. He was lost before I truly understood what he was to me. It took his loss to make me understand."

"Ah."

Silva smiled briefly and understandingly.

"He was a fellow seminarian," he said. "My room-mate. In terms of human relationships... I identified him as my brother." He slid his left hand wand out of his sleeve. "I carry his companion with me now. Brazilian rosewood and fang of sun python. For him, in his memory and to be able to employ it...  As it is a left-handed wand and functions solely from the left... I learned to use my secondary hand."

“May I…” Lucius shifted. “Would it be inappropriate to ask his name?”

“It was - is - Gabriel. Gabriel Santa Cruz.”

“And he was lost on the day I was born?”

Sim. The fifth of July, 1954.”

“You know my… “ He paused. “Wait. Gabriel? Is he not another of your angels?”

Sim. I appear to be collecting them.”

"Could you ever bond with a woman?" he asked tentatively. "Do you think?"

"Nao. Phoenixes do not mate, and as the intimacy of the bond would almost certainly translate to the need and desire for the romantic and sexual on the part of both humans, I, as a phoenix, would be perplexed, to say the least. It would create intense inner conflict and alarm, and as I as a man know this, I as a phoenix automatically eliminate those with whom there is any possibility, ever, of conjugal attachment."

"Ah." He looked mildly relieved. Silva laughed again.

"You are my heart, my Luizinho," he said. "But I am not yours. There is another that carries yours with her, I think." He caught the  uncertain look, and translated kindly.  "e.e. cummings. February.  'i carry your heart with me(I carry it in my heart).' Such is human nature, when one loves. With phoenixes, the quote is more  accurately  'i carry my heart with me(i carry him in my heart).''

Lucius looked down at his hands, twisted on his knees, the thumb of the left hand rubbing the palm of the right compulsively.

"And you cannot just... Set me down?"

"Why ever would I want to do that?"

"Oh, I do not know! Because you might die of me if I prove, in my pride and arrogance, intractable after all, and become too much of an emotional burden?"

"Why do you not let me worry on that."

"Because it is not just about you!” The frustration in his voice was so intense now that his voice actually cracked with it. “Do you think that I do not worry about you ? Do you think that I want you to die because of me? I do not want you to die at all!"

"And I do not want you to die at all," the priest returned. "It is a problem, sim ? Or perhaps not. Perhaps together...  We may work to ensure that both of us live?"

Lucius just buried his face in his hands. Silva rubbed his back again.

"Your memories will not be lost," he said quietly. "You will return to England with your mind untouched. Whether you choose this course or another... It will not be an issue."

"You cannot promise me that!"

"I can. I will tell you this now; there is a concrete solution. I cannot tell you the details at this moment, but the solution is available. Every memory you make here... It will remain intact and unaltered. You will remain intact and unaltered. You have only to trust me."

"But what of Riddle? My returning unaltered may reassure me, but will only benefit him! And I cannot hide from him!"

"The solution I am talking on takes all  issues into account,"

"And you are absolutely positive that it will work?"

"Sim. I promise you. I promise you. You have only to trust me, and continue to work with me as you have begun, as I said, and all will be well.”  Cool fingers tilted his chin. Soft, dark eyes looked down at him. “You need not worry, my heart. I will take care of everything. I will take care of you."

Lucius couldn’t help himself at that. He didn’t even try. He just turned and buried his face in the black-robed lap. Silva pulled him up gently and wrapped his arms around him, humming to him softly… Lucius clung to him, pressing his face to his shoulder. Cool fingers rubbed his back slowly.

"What are you to me," he said, muffled. "If I am your heart, and Narcissa is mine?"

"You are such a human, Senhor Malfoy." It was profoundly tender and amused. "In this form, for now, I am your advisor. In the other... I am your phoenix."

"You do not mind the possessive?"

"It is mutual, and what it is." He settled back. Lucius slipped down from his position on his knees, sitting at his feet and leaning against him. Silva stroked his hair and cheekbone.

"You are tired again," he observed.  "Grief is exhausting, sim, in and of itself. We all know this here, so it is our tradition that when a loved one is lost that the child be granted two weeks of leave from classes with no expectations of assignments due later.  You will find your teachers most understanding."

"How may I take that kind of leave when my mother is not officially..." He could not finish the sentence.

"Inez will talk to your teachers and explain to them that you have been notified of her death, but that the public announcement is not to be made yet because of complicating political factors. They will understand. In terms of the students’ understanding… It is early in the year, and your workload is not yet at the point where the kind of immersive training your father is paying me to offer you will prove impractical. They will be informed that I will be taking you away  so that you may receive your dueling lessons as they are offered here in Brazil - in the jungle itself, while time permits.”

"That is allowed?” Lucius said dubiously.  “You may simply appropriate a student like that?”

“I am not appropriating you, Senhor Malfoy. I am teaching you your vital lessons in a more appropriate environment.”

“What about Ramone?”

"Ramonzinho will be going home for the same period to visit his parents. They are quite upset, and wish to reassure themselves that he is recovered. We will drop him off, along with all of his homework assignments,  and then we two….” His eyes were soft and dark again as he looked down at him. “Or rather, we One - will take the opportunity to acquaint ourselves properly."

“And you will not be in trouble for missing school yourself?”

"We do have substitute professors available, and I will set my classes a great deal of homework besides. I am fairly certain that after the events of this week, none of them will be inclined to court my wrath  by neglecting it. And now that you are reassured on all possible fronts… What do you really think of my little plan?"

"It sounds brilliant." His eyes drifted shut. "I'm just so tired, sir."

"Sleep, then. Inez will come to fetch you when the school is clear, and I will remain with you." The cool fingers brushed his cheekbone once more. Lucius slid down a bit, his head resting in the black lap again.  Wearily - bone wearily, suddenly - he drifted off.


 

The Garden Room

Malfoy Manor

Wiltshire England

1991

"You awake there?" The voice was soft and husky, and more than a little amused. Lucius opened his eyes as Ren slid back off his lap and stood, tucking his biros away neatly.

"Yes," he said, and cleared his throat. "Yes. I am sorry. I was not sleeping, just... Is it finished?"

"Yep. We're good to go." The Warder accepted a transfigured hand mirror from Charlie. "Have a look."

His eyebrows raised as he obeyed... The circle of runes around his heart was exquisitely rendered, in a pattern of vines and tiny golden daffodils.

"Narcissus flowers?" Lucius smiled at him a little.

"There's always a bit of room for purely aesthetic leeway," Ren said, a bit awkwardly. "I thought you might like them. They'll sink in, and there she'll be, watching over you." Husband and wife looked at each other at that, and then at him, their expressions identical in their soft and moved appreciation and genuine affection. He flushed.

"You are a poet, Master-Adept." Narcissa stood, leaning in to brush his lips gently with hers. He blinked at her. "And an excellent artist. Thank you."

"Charlie's the poet. And I'm not really an artist; I just work with floral themes a lot. Hanging out with Gramps, you get a lot of practice in."

Lucius chuckled. "It did not hurt at all," he said.  "When you were inscribing them."

"You flinched a bit, but you were pretty far away, wherever you were. You okay to continue?"

"Yes. Now that we have started, I would like to get it over with." The taller man settled himself firmly. Narcissa reseated herself beside him, just as firmly. "What can I expect when the hex goes off?"

"You might feel a bit of tightness along the length of your arm," Ren said. "And an intense burst of heat within the body of the fence itself. It won't hurt, it'll just feel really warm. What I'm going to do is sit here, in front of you again while Niss holds your hand. We'll count down from three. With each number, breathe in and out. Close your eyes with it."

"What happens when the hex bounces, mate?" Charlie asked.

"Ah. Well, what I've done there is place four particular runes as jewels within the setting of the fence itself,  at each of the compass points here."  He reached out and touched them lightly.  "They're set to unspool..." He paused. "Okay. First things first. From the beginning: the lock Riddle's set within the Mark is formed of individual rotated runes, stacked one on top of the other in a pattern so that it allows only magic emanating from his core through. Basically, his magical signature acts as the key there. With me so far?"

The three nodded.

"He got that part right. It's practically the only damned thing he did get right. When he was stacking them in his nice, neat and surprisingly accurate pile, he placed three more runes into the stack at regular intervals. They're set to expel any magic that isn't his away from the stack. Violently. They won't just spray that magic anywhere and everywhere though; they'll redirect it along a very specific route plotted via blood magics. That route is tight. Solid, and very, very narrow. It traverses, in fact, the main vein in the arm that leads to the heart. Once it reaches the heart, and is released from the confines of the vein, it'll act exactly like backed up, pressurized water coming out of an overstrained hosepipe. It'll spray everywhere, and get all over everything. Not really a big deal, normally you'd go over dizzy and pass out while your compensating internal magic turned the equivalent wet-vac on it - but those runes back in the lock that expelled the foreign magics didn't just expel them, they reshaped them into the form of a confined reducto curse, set to go off when the reshaped magic exits the hosepipe and hits the heart itself."

Charlie whistled softly.

"What I've done here," Ren continued. "Is to put a diverting extension over the end of the hosepipe. As the reducto curse passes through, the hosepipe will changes routes right before it reaches the heart. The curse will then follow the parameters of the fence I've set here, the inner borders of which encircle, but don't actually touch the heart itself, and since the reducto's set to go off when it touches heart tissue, it won't go off at all. It'll just follow the detour. Every time it hits one of the four runes here..." He touched the compass points again. "The shape of the curse is modified a bit. By the time it reaches the fourth, it's all  back to pure raw magic. As the first rush of water hits the fourth rune, the extension on the end of the hosepipe, grafted now back to the vein, will draw all that now-raw magic back down the vein toward the Mark again. Once it hits the Mark, it'll go straight through the lock into the depths of the tattoo itself. It can go through, because it's raw magic uncontaminated by any magical signature at all, including my own, since I didn't use my own wand or magics at any point when building the fence, just runes and runic inks, neither of which require the strictly personal touch. And since the lock's set to repel only magics sent it by someone else's core, the raw magic will slip through, like air blown through a straw."

"And what does all that raw magic do once it hits the interior?" Narcissa asked.

"Well, it's like I said, right? It is raw; undirected and unshaped, and if you don't tell magic where to go and what to do once it arrives at any given destination, it goes poking about on its own. It'll ram itself into every available empty, undefined space, and there are a lot of those here, because Riddle didn't set anything but the lock properly. That will apply even more pressure to, and around, the already unstable sequences, and everything will just..." He put his hands together and pulled them apart. "Crumble."

"And nothing else is going to go off when things do crumble?"

"Nope. When you use bio-runes, you're scribing them on a live subject at a set point in its chronological lifetime. Even as you do set it, the body is aging and changing. Not a big deal in the short term, but if you want the effects you're aiming for to continue, you have to go in once and awhile and adjust the parameters to accommodate for the biological changes occurring in the host. It's especially imperative if you're working with a child or an adolescent who hasn't hit his or her full growth. There, you need to go in every three months or so. How old were you when he put this on you, Malfoy?"

"Eighteen," Lucius said. "Almost nineteen. He had other means of controlling his followers till he'd done developing his final product."

"And at your height, I'm guessing you weren't quite done your own final product?"

"No. My last inch was the result of a late growth spurt at twenty."

"There you go. He should have gone in then and checked to make sure everything was still solid, and at least twice every year after till you hit twenty five. After that - every three years, at minimum. Since he didn't, not once, and as the shape of every one of the spells he's set here within the Mark itself are at least partially defined by bio-runes, they've all weakened as your body's changed with age."

"What about the summoning and pain-inducing charms you mentioned, that lie beneath?" Charlie asked, fascinated. "The ones he set with blood magic? You said those were properly set?"

"Those were,  but because they've been sitting directly under the bio-runes, they've been affected too. You sit a bag of apples on top of a loaf of bread, the bread's going to get a bit smooshed, right? And if you leave it long enough, the bread will smell and maybe even taste like apples too? There won't be any actual apple in it, but you'll have, nevertheless, bread that is convinced it's part apple. In this case, you have blood magic that's convinced, after all this time, that it's part bio-rune. It's not, but if you encourage it along that line of thought, it'll go along with what you have in mind, and come quietly if you say 'but everyone else is doing it', right?"

The three others looked at him, and at each other.

"Alright," Niss said. "To summarize... You trigger the hex, the reducto curse sets off, reaches the fence, is rerouted, is unspooled as it travels along the fence,  and goes back through the vein toward to the Mark. Once there it breezes through the lock, and goes looking for empty flats within the tenement building, but once it starts hanging pictures, the walls reveal their rot and all collapse, right through to the foundation?"

"Yep."

"What happens after that?"

"I pick the lock, open the door and start clearing out the rubble. Then I run the vac quickly to get rid of the dust, give 'er a quick spit-shine-and-polish, and you're officially back on the unemployment line, all long-term pension plans dissolved."

"Please tell me that I'm not the only one who feels really stupid right now," Charlie said to the Malfoys. "Even if you're just being polite?"

"You are not, and I am not," Lucius reassured him. "And I will not feel any of it, Lawrence? Beyond the fence activating?"

"The fence is already activated. It's just waiting for the incoming now. Half an hour from the moment we set the hex off should be more than enough to let the conditioner soak in and soften things up within the body of the Mark again; it'll take about another hour to run that vac I mentioned and wipe down the surroundings, and then I too, will be ready for a glass of whisk..." Ren felt a nudge on his arm, and looked down. The black snout had emerged entirely from under his rolled sleeve, and its owner was slithering out in entirety.  Narcissa leaned over, enchanted.

"It's so beautiful!" she exclaimed. "The detail is amazing! Where did you get it done, Ren?"

"Erhm. Well...."

"Souvenir from Sunday's party," Charlie said easily. "I've got one too: the male version. I stepped out of the fire, and there they were, both on me originally, and the female decided to take up residence on Mate here as soon as he caught me as I hit the floor."  He slid his fingers under the back of his own collar. "Here, you. Come  on out; the nice lady wants to meet you. " He removed his hand, and turned it over. The palm-sized tattoo of Karrash gleamed up at him.

"May I?" Lucius asked. The wrangler shifted onto the coffee table beside Ren, before the other two, and held out his hand. Lucius touched the scaly head lightly - and jumped violently, nearly falling off the sofa.

"Careful there." Ren caught him neatly. Even as his left hand touched Lucius' bare shoulder there was another black flash.

"What the..."

"Lawrence?" Lucius said. "Charles? Why do I have your tattoos on my bo-"

He jolted again. All three grabbed him at him simultaneously - and even as they all touched him, the twin tattoos, first Karrash, then Mola, slid down the length of his right arm as a greased banister, landed on the Dark Mark, and dove into the open mouth of the skull, past the snake and into the depths. The four Magicals blinked simultaneously, their every sense flooded, suddenly, with the sweet, rich scent of daffodils. Still holding onto him, Narcissa, Charlie and Ren jerked hard as Lucius threw back his head, his entire long body arching and bucking and convulsing in their grip.

"Lu..."

"Char...

"Ma..."

"AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

The Mark on Lucius Malfoy’s forearm didn't so much disappear as dissolve. The wash of garish colour melted in on itself, spreading out: thinning and stretching and flooding. The vein in his arm bulged, glowing and distended, as the magics within raced toward their target destination and diverted neatly into the fence, spinning through each of the four runes. Through their hands, each touching a part of Lucius' body, and through his body, each other, the other three felt the rising heat around their own hearts building and building... The first blast of magic hit the final rune and passed through... But instead of re-diverting back into the vein and back toward the ruin of the Mark, it branched off again as three new and unexpected extensions sucked equal portions of the raw magic away and along new and deep internal paths defined, not by runes or wands, but by the concentrated force of Horntail magic now resounding through all of them. The first path shot through Ren's fingertips into his body through a crackling bolt of sea-foam green, the second  blazed under Charlie's flattened palms in a blue-tinged, near-silver jagged arc, and the third, a dark, warm brown, nearly sent Narcissa into convulsions with the force of its power... There was a moment, a single moment, where all stilled, and they all fought for breath, leaning and falling forward into each other; ice-blond, pale gold, riotous ginger-and-gold and light, soft brown hair mingling...

And then a final huge rush of power slammed through all four again as four distinct magical signatures slammed into each other, not bouncing, but drawn and focused through the one remaining stable sequence in the Mark - Riddle's lock - and reformed into something impossibly complex and interlocking rather than a single merged pattern. The four distinct signatures in the pattern flexed and flexed, each attempting to pull away and assert its desperate individuality, shoving and jostling for space in the chinks and shifting spaces, and all only succeeding, in the end, in binding themselves on every deeper levels...

Then four distinct universes shattered, shuffling and re-piecing themselves together as defining image after defining image after defining image from four distinct lifetimes flashed through four sets of blank eyes, all identical in colour now as the deepest blue focal point of the hottest heart of flame.

Chapter Text

I've not abandoned you all, I promise! I'm hoping to have the next 2 chapters up (at once) by the end of the week, but it's the ENTIRE battle of the cabals, and I'm being super fussy because it's like Chapter 13 of Strange Familiar PLUS, with the duel and all - epic and a freaking emotional roller coaster. And it has to be EXACTLY EXACTLY RIGHT!

All I can say is find a nice quiet place to read it, and bring LOTS OF KLEENEX.

xoxoxoxox
Blue Maple

Chapter Text

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Wednesday, November 26th

6.00 P.M

During the final and most terrible year of Voldemort's War,  there was only one way that any of the members of the Order of the Phoenix felt secure in identifying and communicating with each other, and that was through their Patronuses. It was a well known fact, after all, that no Death Eater could cast one; any active practice of Dark Magic suppressed the ability, and they quite simply could not be faked. Polyjuice was one thing, but there was no spell in existence that could imitate the reflection of a person's soul.

When the just-graduated Frank Longbottom pointed out that truth and all of the possibilities inherent early in the summer of 1974, his compatriots were both delighted at his ingenuity and dismayed at the task ahead of them. Casting a corporeal Patronus was no small feat, and in no way within the repertoire of even a quarter of the recruited members. Their brand-new de-facto-by-virtue-of-the-fact-that-no-one-else-had-a-clue-after-the-last-to-hold-the-position-had-gone-and-got-himself-offed Chief Strategist's response to their reservations was both concise and completely characteristic.

"Stop your bloody whinging," the square-faced, blunt-jawed young man said tersely.  "And get back to practicing. Only puling and puking over the impossibility of finding something happy to think on right now  is a bit counterproductive, isn't it, and it sure as bloody hell isn't helping me along any. Now shut it, all of you. I'm picturing Allie blowing me here, and hearing you minging sods all sniffling  'Frank, Frank, it's so haaaaaard', however gratifying, is not putting me in the mood."

"La, Longbottom!" seventeen-year-old Fabian Prewett sniffed. "Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?'

"Aaaaaand there goes that one," Frank said. "Let's try this, then." He'd pointed his wand at the red-headed boy, roaring with laughter at his expression over his sudden arseful of boils as he slashed down. "EXPECTO PATRONUM!" A huge, silvery German Shepherd swirled into being, snarling and slobbering viciously. Fabian, mid-howl, slashed as well, and a sharp-faced fox shot out of his wand as promptly as a cork from a bottle, frolicking off to rub noses with his brother Gideon's marten.

"Good job." Frank patted his former dorm-mate's shoulder and cleared away the boils with a wave of the wand. "What got it up for you in the end? Don't tell me you get a hard-on for a blistered behind?"

"No. I was picturing Allie blowing me," Fabian Prewett said sweetly. "In apology for your infecting me with your diseased wand."

The expression on Frank Longbottom's face at that had provided fully a quarter of the present members with a memory that would fuel their own Patronuses throughout all the horrific years that followed.

However hard, crude and blunt young Longbottom had proven, though, the man was still a Longbottom, and that meant that he Got the Thing Done. Less than one month after he'd decreed that his troops were to follow orders and pony (dog, fox, marten, rooster, weasel, wolf, what-have-you) up, every one of them was capable, as he so indelicately put it, of blowing their wads on command. With results like that, never mind his positively eerie knack for anticipating the opposition's plans, much of his aggressive, hard-nosed and more often than not, downright offensive approach was, if not forgiven, tolerated. And when, after Voldemort's War ended in 1981, there had followed that tacit agreement among the survivors that, however human their parents had been in real life, the children of the fallen had the right to think on them as heroes....

Of all of those children, the survivors agreed, none would benefit from that policy quite as much as Neville Longbottom. Mind you, Allie MacMillan Longbottom had been a genuinely lovely individual: kind and sweet as the day was long as long as her territory wasn't being threatened or her competence challenged, anyway. The battles between her and her mother-in-law over primary rights to Frank (and for a few short months, their son) had been as epic as the war itself, and as for her competence... As the single hardest-hitting front-liner in either army, rumour had it that Riddle's right hand, known to those outside the immediate Inner Circle (and they all, even Bellatrix Lestrange, had had to take an Unbreakable Vow to avoid leaking his actual identity to the rest), as the General, had put a personal hit out on her the first time he saw her in action. The rumour was completely false, Alastor Moody told the Order when he returned in the spring of 1976. The General hadn't put a hit on her, he'd put a bounty on her, on the principle that, personal satisfaction notwithstanding, she'd be of far more use to Riddle Imperiused and with her talents rerouted.

Insofar as Frank was concerned though...

Augusta Domitia Claudia, Dame Lady Longbottom had told her small grandson quite frequently - at least three times a day since he was old enough to process what she was saying to him - that he was absolutely nothing like his father. That being said, in all of the years he'd had to suffer through the hearing, it never once occurred to small Neville that there were times she might have meant it as a compliment.

Yes, Augusta Longbottom had completely adored her only son. He was as morally uncompromising, as brave and loyal and fierce as any proper Gryffindor - as morally uncompromising, brave and loyal and fierce as his mother had ever been. He and his wife, as she'd told Neville again and again, had been well-known and well-respected by all who knew them and worked with them.

She had always been very careful though - very careful indeed - to refrain from employing the word 'well-liked' in her descriptives. The boy had suffered quite enough, and would continue to do so his entire life, long after she was gone and he was left as his parents' sole caregiver... There was absolutely no reason, she had reasoned right from the start - and everyone who had known him had again agreed without hesitation - that little Neville Frank Longbottom should ever have to know, or deal with, the realization that his undisputed hero of a father had been the greatest natural jack-ass in the history of Anywhere.

Minerva McGonagall, Transfiguration Mistress at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, sat at the Head Table on the early evening of Wednesday, November 26th, 1991, and thought on that as she watched as Hogwart's new Headmaster, the elder Neville 'Neil' Cartwright (Longbottom) eat his dinner... As far as she knew, he hadn't yet told Augusta of his and Ren's ultimate reason for crossing all of time and space, only that they were here to get rid of Riddle and to perform an unspecified ritual afterwards. Discreet, purposely vague inquiries of Severus Snape had confirmed Minerva's suspicion that God and His Opposite were, indeed and yet, both in the as-of-yet unrevealed details. Alice and Frank Longbottom in their world had, indeed, been as sweetly and fondly remembered as the residents of that world had anticipated that they would be here.

It wasn't her place, Minerva had thought, to disillusion her world's new immigrants, though she did intend to make sure that Augusta, once enlightened, would make absolutely sure that young Neville, once returned, was fully aware of what was coming before the well-meaning idiots returned his parents to him... There was always the hope, of course, that the intervening years and the shock of what had been lost would offer said parents a little perspective, but all else being equal...

She rather doubted it. There were miracles, after all, and then there was just the plain, unadorned improbable.

And there could be no question, of course, of leaving them as they were. It would have been one thing if they were, or had been, evil, but they'd never remotely qualified there. As bigoted, homophobic, species-ist (Minerva couldn't wait to see the bloody bugger's reaction when he realized that his mother had effectively adopted an ex-werewolf) and just plain ill-mannered as he had been, Frank genuinely disapproved of the Pureblood agenda and the persecution of Muggles. Ensouled beings were ensouled beings; the Dementors' cross-cultural culinary experimentation was proof of that, and even given the bemusing and personally discomfiting particulars...  Live and let live, he'd declared, though separately of course; never the twain should mix and mingle anywhere but through books, films, and pub food.  Muggleborns and half-bloods were an exception, obviously; magic was magic, and Muggles weren't actually inferior, after all. They were just...

Different.

And while 'different' was certainly more than enough of an excuse to promote and support firmly segregated societies, it certainly wasn't, in young Longbottom's book, in and of itself, enough to justify maiming, torturing and killing anybody. Those things... Those things were punishments that had to be actively earned.

Minerva sipped her tea quietly as she thought on the past, and the potential future, and the Patronus that had come silently through her window last night in Caithness just minutes after said Headmaster had kissed her breathless one last time, and slipped back to his own quarters at Hogwarts through her bedroom floo. It had been, not their first, but their third night together... Last Sunday evening, and, lacking the emotional wherewithal to return immediately to the school after Ren and Charlie's painfully heartrending reunion, the two colleagues had shamelessly shirked their duties and abandoned their  associates in favour of dinner and a show instead... Neil had been the perfect gentleman, of course, and once they'd returned, he'd walked her, as had become his habit of the evenings, home, or at least to her office floo... As she reached for the floo pot, he'd  stepped back courteously, hands in his pockets, his eyes brown and warm, and that whimsical, self-deprecating smile on his face.  It was, Minerva McGonagall thought, a very dear face... She stood there for a moment, looking up at him, floo powder in hand. His eyebrow had quirked inquiringly. She made an abrupt decision. Life, she decided, was too damned short to wait on the socially approved dance - and too damned long.

"I've had a verra nice time," she said, her accent softening and deepening as, again, it tended toward when they were alone now. "Wi' you today, Ne'il." His head cocked a little at that last, and at the odd little twist that turned it from 'Neil' to 'Neville',  but he only bowed lightly, hands still in his pockets.

"Would you li' to come hame wi' me?" she said directly. He considered her for a long moment, then moved to stand before her as he looked down, close enough so that their robes, if not their bodies, touched... The other half of his smile turned up fully. Minerva McGonagall's knees very nearly melted.

"Ye are a true rogue," she said severely. "Mr. Cartwright, to turn the magic of such a smile on a lady li' that."

"Am I?" Mr. Cartwright inquired.

"Aye. You are."

"And are you?"

"Am I ... What?"

"A lady."

Her eyebrow arched. "D'ye want me to be?"

He threw back his head and roared at that.

"Let's find out, shall we?" he said, and much to her startled surprise, flexed his knees and literally swept her off her feet into his arms. He stepped into the great hearth, the floo-pot caught magically out of her hand and falling to their feet. A great sparkling cloud rose all around them: green and silver, crimson and gold.

"Auldshire Manse," Neil said clearly. Ten seconds later, he stepped out neatly into her kitchen, not a hair out of place.

"Ye ha' style," she complimented him. "I'll gi' ye tha'..." It was cut off abruptly as he set her on her own feet and caught her face in his big solid hands, and her mouth in a deep, decidedly not -gentlemanly kiss. Minerva McGonagall's mind blanked quite thoroughly. He smelled of coffee, spiced ale, young earth and lavender, and tasted of strong tea with honeyed cream, and ginger tea-cake with raspberries: all things civilized and proper, and behind it all, something wild and primal and deep that took her breath away.

"No," Neil Cartwright said as he pulled away. "In answer to your question... No, I don't believe I do. Lovely table you have here, Professor McGonagall."

"Thank ye, Headmaster," she said, as he pulled the pins out of her hair. Her hair, black as ebony yet, tumbled down. "I quite li' it."

"Fantastic." He boosted her up on it. "I'm so glad." She pointed at the fireplace. It roared and crackled. He took her wand from her and tossed it aside, along with his own.

"Last call," he said.

"Ye talk too much," she informed him, and again, voicing her previous consideration... "Life's too short. And too long."

"Mm," he agreed, and seized her bodice, and ripped it wide, all the way down to the hem. His eyes half-lidded as he looked down at her, eyes raking over her deliberately and slowly. She was as lean and strong a woman as she was a cat: all long bones and elegance.

"Tha' was a new dress, Ne'il Cartwright," she said severely as his eyes returned to her face, that half-crooked smile back. The eyes were as dark a brown as ever, but the gold... The gold shone behind.

"I'll buy you another one."

"Ah well," she said. "Tha's alright then."

"Min?"

Back in the present Wednesday, Minerva shook her head slightly. The Headmaster, seated beside her, was holding the tea pot questioningly.

"I'm fine," she reassured him. He put the pot down and grinned at her, just a hint of that gleam of gold lurking... As he reached for the peas, Remus Lupin and Sirius Black entered the hall. Minerva caught Remus' eye as he slid into his chair. He smiled at her, his sharp canines shining wetly at her, just for a moment. The glint in his eyes was not gold, but flat, feral yellow. Sirius said nothing, just pulled over a platter and began to pile his plate high with beef and chicken. No bread or potatoes of any sort, just pure protein... Padfoot, she recalled, never mind that no one back in the seventies had known he was Padfoot, never indulged in starch, or even veg, the day before battle. Remus nibbled lightly on a slice of bread and butter, and filled the first of what would be, over the course of the evening, many, many cups of strong black tea... Down the table, Severus was going straight for the coffee, no solids at all, and Eulalia, or rather Lily, was pouring gravy over a full plateful of mashed potatoes with a steady hand and cool, focused eyes. Her black sleeve fell back a bit from her left wrist, revealing a brand new wand holster, and within it, her brand new wand, purchased the same afternoon that her old one had been destroyed in Neil's office.  

Minerva McGonagall sighed internally. Lily Evans Potter was quite possibly the most irritating woman in any world, but when push came to shove and wand came to battle, there was a  reason she and Allie Longbottom had decided to exchange godparental duties. Allie may have been the hardest hitter on either side of the war, but Lily... What Lily lacked in comparative oomph, she more than made up for in accuracy. The woman was a sniper, pure and simple. What she aimed at, she hit (unless one was a cat, of course): case in point, one Tom Riddle. The Order's universal consensus had been that though one of them might fall in the war, there was no way that both would, and as they were both expecting at the same time, the two women had agreed that the one would simply take over for the other if it became necessary.

It was worth noting, Minerva reflected, that neither of their husbands had been involved in the decision. As far as she was aware, the two women hadn't even bothered consulting them. No surprise there, really, as it was a foregone conclusion among everyone who knew them that even if the two men did survive the war, neither of them would be the ones doing the raising... Every single member of the Order of the Phoenix, in fact, male and female, had winced when Allie had announced her pregnancy, for Frank, as enthusiastic and supportive as he was on his beloved's ability to up the enemy body count, was when it came right down to it, just as much an insensitive traditionalist as the star of his favourite Muggle television show, one Archie Bunker... It was by no means standard Order policy to send pregnant members to the front, and if the young man had stuck to that line and moderated his personal approach even a little (NO-GODDAMN-BLOODY-WIFE-OF-MINE/WHAT-KIND-OF-MAN-DO-YOU-TAKE-ME-FOR/ YOU WON'T-BE-HAPPY-UNTIL-I-HEX-MY- FUCKING-BALLS-OFF-AND-OFFER-THEM-UP-POWDERED-DOWN-ALONG-WITH-EVERYTHING-ELSE-YOU'RE-INHALING-THESE-DAYS-WILL YOU/CHRIST-ALMIGHTY-PUT-THE-BISCUITS-DOWN-ALREADY-BEFORE-YOUR-ARSE-GETS-AS-OUT-OF-CONTROL-AS-YOUR-MOTHER'S) to one Lucius Malfoy's suggested tactful alternative (I'm-so-sorry-darling-your-due-date-and-that-rumoured-pesky-prophecy-both considered-the-possible-future-hope-of-all-generations-just-might-be-blossoming-within-you-right-now/ It-would-be-both socially-irresponsible-and-just-plain-poor-strategic-planning-to-send-you-to-the-front/ Might-I-suggest-a-lateral transfer-to desk-duty-for-the-duration-along-with-hourly-bouts-of-pickles-tea-and-oral-sex), he might have gotten laid a little more frequently in the following months. As things were, his preferred approach had ensured that, by the time mother and son had gone into hiding, all of Great Britain knew that Alice MacMillan Longbottom didn't shag pigs.

As for Jamie Potter, his ultimate ability to parent hadn't even been in question, for no one, not even his wife, had honestly been able to say that they'd expected him to survive the war. Hungarian Horntails, Minerva reflected, had absolutely nothing on her former protege  when it came to the grand and glorious melodramatic gesture. He'd go down saving someone else, she'd known, but go down he would... Even the birth of his son hadn't been enough to subdue his foolhardy, vain-glorious tendencies.

She'd loved the boy, Minerva had, but at least in part (probably mostly in part) because he'd  burned so damned brightly . He'd burned a lot of people, there was no doubt about that, but to those with the wit to see it - and yes, she thought, his foolish, over-indulgent parents had had that wit - there was no point in trying to subdue him. There was just something there, in him, that bespoke an early end. A glorious one, maybe, but an early one nevertheless, and what had been the point, really, she'd thought, of muting his fire when they were all so definitively bound to lose him so soon? As his Head of House and his favourite professor, Minerva had been fully, fully of aware of what a git Jamie Potter could be, but from the first time she'd first laid eyes on him in the autumn of 1971, war was blooming like a bloodied rose on the closing horizon, and she'd known that he wouldn't survive to see the end of it. So he'd burned, and she'd allowed it, doing little, if anything, to quell him, and in the end...

She sipped her tea. Neil smiled at her sideways, elbows on the table as he cradled his mug in his big hands. As the weeks had passed, he'd gradually abandoned formality, and the students were quite used the sight of him now trucking about in just his corduroy or tweed trousers and jumper, at least between meals, and now, more often than not, with his robes hung over the back of his chair at meals. He was always perfectly groomed and tidy, and dressed absolutely impeccably when out-of-school company was expected, so even the Slytherins weren't inclined to quibble. That last, of course, was helped along by the Headmaster's unabashed and open House pride. He was wearing tonight, not his orange jumper, but a classic Aran in tasteful Slytherin green, the distinctive pattern threaded through in silver. She wondered if he would change it before the meeting... Somehow, she rather doubted it. It would, when it came right down to it, make that much-needed point.

"Alright, then?" her brand-new lover asked her quietly.

"Of course," she said, and thought on the Patronus come through her window last night after he'd departed her bed - a magnificent eagle, stately and proud as its caster. She'd listened to the brief, terse words that followed in Amelia Bones' crisp, efficient tones, and when the message was delivered, and the eagle was gone to its next target, she'd gone to the window and pulled back the curtain, and looked out at the glimmering, cold, near-perfect circle of the not-quite full moon... Her loosed dark hair fell past her shoulder-blades. She closed the curtain, and returned to the bed, and sat on the edge amid the quilts and stared into the small hearth.

The call has gone out. Gathering tomorrow P.M. Say nothing to anyone till the next, under the assumption that all walls are infested and all allies unfriendly. In the meantime, prepare for all eventualities.

The words, from the particular source, on the particular night, after the particular month, could only mean one thing. Minerva McGonagall rose to her feet, and went to her writing desk, pulling out the chair and retrieving parchment and quill and ink. She scribed three paragraphs neatly and exactingly, signed her name and the date beneath, and dried the ink magically before folding and tucking the page into an envelope... She sealed it magically again, and wrote six words on the front.

That done, she placed the envelope in one of the nooks of the desk, retrieved her dressing gown, and stepped through the floo directly to her office. There, she transformed to a cat and slipped out the door, through the dark halls of the castle and up to the Headmaster's office. No password was necessary; there was now a tiny rune at the base of the gargoyle's pedestal, keyed to her magical signature as it was relayed while she was in Animagus form. She slipped through the office and up another staircase to his rooms, softly lit as he emerged, filling the door in his powerful nudity and toweling his hair dry from the shower. He grinned as he saw her sitting on the bed, tail curled demurely around her feet as she licked a paw at him. He tossed his towel aside and strode toward her. She blurred, standing as he approached, and he caught her face in his hands again, and kissed her long and sensuously and hard.

"Not that I'm not thrilled to see you," he said. "But what happened to 'I really reckon we should get some sleep'?"

"You said that. I simply said 'mmhmm." Her accent, now that they were back at Hogwarts, reverted automatically and abruptly to its strict, prim parameters... Neil found it, as he did her ironed flannel nightie and plaid dressing gown, both amusing and dead sexy. She reached down between them. His eyes lidded at her, and her clothes were suddenly gone.

"If this is what you're like at seventy three," she told him, "I can't even begin to imagine what you were like in your prime."

"This is my prime," Neil informed her. "I self-transfigured for the first time at this age, and that and the magics from the school when I made the Headmaster's Oath gave me a real biological boost. In all ways. Even got my hair back, and wasn't that lovely?"

"You were bald?"

"No. Receding a bit though." The prim, he thought was entertaining, but then again... So was kissing it out of her, and he dug his hands into her hair and bore her back to the bed, with, if no actual ceremony, a surprising amount of grace for such a big man.

'De'nitely not a problem the noo," she agreed, and, her hand still firmly placed, squeezed.

"Shut it, woman," he said, and kissed her again. "I'm sure you can find something more to do with your mouth than talk, mm?"

"Mm," she purred. "As long as ye're willin' to return the favour?"

"'Course," he said, and swung about with that surprising lithe grace. "I'm a bear, not a pig."

"I'm sure your mother would be delighted to hear it," Minerva said, before she could stop herself. There was a moment of silence at that… Her new lover propped himself up, looking down the bed at her.

"I don't know what it's like here," he said. "But in my world, bringing up one's parents in bed? Kind of kills the mood." He looked amused again, but at the same time...

"My apologies, Headmaster." She traced a finger over the (very, very, very) obvious as they resettled. "Mm. Are ye sure ye've never wanted to play Quidditch? Wi' a bat like this on hand, ye'd make a natural, ne'er mind self-equipped, Beater."

"Much better," he said. "And... No. I haven't. Brooms are very nice - I've even made the acquaintance of a select few in my time, as you well know - but actually riding them has never been part my preferred recreational repertoire."

And I'm sure your father would be delighted to hear that, she thought, but only silently, in her head this time.

"What, never?" she inquired instead.

"No, never."

"What, never ?"

"Well, hardly ever," he qualified. "Only on birthdays and extremely special occasions."

"Mm," she said. "In other words, a conversation for another time."

"Well done, Professor McGonagall," he congratulated her. "That's one well-earned O for you..."


 

Minerva watched as the tables shifted and murmured. The students had been on edge all day, likely because most of their professors had been on edge. As per the directive, not one had said a word to any of the others, but they'd all have received their messages by now. At six twenty precisely, a tiny scrap of parchment appeared on her bread plate, words up, remaining just long enough for her to read the message - M.M. 11 p.m., portkey, 2nd floor staff loo, 3rd stall left. As soon as her eyes had processed the last word, the parchment dissolved. Beside her, Neil set his mug down, the scrap of paper on his carrots dissolving, and half-turned, rummaging in his inner robe pocket. He extracted a light parchment envelope. She watched as he withdrew the three folded pages and the smaller sealed envelope within.  

He read the pages through, his initially surprised and quizzical expression fading, then again, carefully, before slipping them all back into his pocket. He sat back, stretching his legs out and frowning down at the table, fingers tapping. She touched his hand. He looked at her. She nodded down. He retracted the growing claws. Sirius, too, was watching him out of the corner of his eye, gnawing on a chicken leg. Remus just poured himself more tea. Down the table, Filius Flitwick passed Lily the untouched gravy beside his elbow. She, in turn, passed him her untouched slice of lemon pie. Filius ran on sugar during  battle the way Muggle cars ran on oil and gasoline; there were at least half-a-dozen similar empty dessert plates already stacked tidily before him.

Neil shook himself lightly, and leaned back, tilting his chair slightly.

"Professor Snape," he said  to the man sitting three places down, as he reached for his own pie. "A word in my office after your charges are settled, please?"

"Of course, Headmaster." Snape refilled his coffee mug without turning his head, and that was all, till several hours later, when, locking the door firmly behind them, Neil handed him the first two of the three pages. The Potions Master scanned them, his lips tightening, and swore vilely.

"That's what I said," the Once-and-Future Neville Longbottom agreed as the pages, keyed to the second of its two projected readers, self-dusted. "They won't be safe once this gets out, and none of it comes down to either of them."

"Suggestions?"

"Best if they're not together, I think. Can you manage Branwen if I take care of Jax?'

"Of course. What of the rest of the issues here?"

"Nothing we can do about them right now. Go."

Snape cursed again and squaring his shoulders, unlocked the door and made his way down to the dungeons, and presumably,  twelve-year-old-Branwen-of-the-Cardiff-Driscolls. As soon as he was gone, Neil rapped the wall. It slid open and he stepped through, directly into Jax King's hospital cubicle. She was sitting  cross-legged on her bed in her favourite set of fluffy pink unicorn pajamas,  nibbling on a caramel and taking notes from her Transfiguration text. She looked up, her face lighting in pleasure as she saw him... He touched his finger to his lips swiftly, silencing her before she could greet him, but before her look of alarm could develop properly, he took the small envelope from his pocket and handed it over. She slid her finger through the seal, her face blanching as she read.  

Darlin'-

Shit's going down a little faster than I anticipated, and Gramps will make sure you're safe till it's all sorted. He knows we talked; I had to tell him so that he can take care of you if the (extremely, extremely, extremely) unlikely happens and I don't make it out. That's just me being responsible though, so don't worry.   All will be well, I swear it.

If there's anything you can, and are willing to tell him, tell him once you get where he's taking you. The place is under Fidelius, so you don't need to worry. The house-elf's name is Vinny. Just call for him, and whatever you need, he'll bring you.

See you soon,

R.

Paper and envelope dissolved in her hands... She looked up at the Headmaster, now neatly and rapidly stuffing all of her things in her extendable satchel. He tossed her her slippers; she tugged them on automatically. "Oh my God," she whispered. "Oh my God, it's all happening now ?"

"Shh." He glanced around, took her arm, and knocked on the wall at the head of her bed. A door formed. He tossed the blanket on the bed around her shoulders and pushed her lightly through. They were suddenly standing outside the castle gates, beyond the apparition wards.

"Hold tight," he ordered, and apparated out. Seconds later, they reformed in a dirty, narrow side street... He murmured a few words; an address, and the air seemed to shift and separate, revealing a squat, shabby house. He tapped the doorknob, and ushered her through to the great front room of 259 Bolingbroke Court. The fire crackled warmly and quietly, and the lights raised slightly as Neil flicked his wand.

"Where are we?" Jax asked, looking about curiously.

"London." He set her satchel on the sofa. "Ren and Charlie's house. You'll be fine here. The guest rooms are up the stairs to the right. Take your pick."

"So it all really is going down tonight?"

"I don't have all the details," he said. "None of them, really. But it sounds like it. Now, is there anything you want to tell me before I go?"

"Yeah. Watch your ankles. Dad's an unregistered black mamba, and fond of his camouflage potions."

"Good to know. What about the others?"

"I don't know much more, Headmaster. It's not... I mean, they're like branches, right, of the same business. Not very cooperative, really, if only because none of them like each other on the personal level."

"Do you know where they keep the kids?" he asked her directly.

She shook her head, then shifted from foot to foot.

"I don't..." She hesitated, then firmed her lips. "I don't think it was really about Luna Lovegood," she said. "They made like she was the target, and maybe she was,  but she wasn't the only one."

"Sorry?"

"I think that maybe they were after the Weasley girl too," she said. "All along."

"What?"

"I don't know," she said miserably. "All I know is that if there is something, it's got something to do with her mum. But she needs to... Wherever her people are in all this tonight, you need to get her somewhere safe. Her and all of the Weasley kids. Only they're your family too now, right?"

Neil Cartwright hunkered down in front of her. "Is there anyone," he said. "Anyone, Jax, that you can think of who could tell me more?'

"Maybe... Dumbledore?" she ventured, and at his odd look - "Not Professor Dumbledore. Aberforth Dumbledore. Only... I was in his pub once, on a Hogsmeade weekend back in my fourth year, and Mrs. Weasley came in and was talking to him. In the back. I was passing back from the loo; I'd had to go and that was the closest building, and I saw her in his office: just her hair, and her voice. He said that he'd do his best but his brother wasn't her real problem, was he, so there was only so much he could do, 'specially since if he got hauled off there'd be no one left to keep an eye out and he wasn't willing to risk that. Nothing more specific, but I caught the word 'cabals' from her, right before I went, and really... I didn't want to hear anymore, so I ran off."

"Your fourth year. That was the year Fred and George started Hogwarts?"

She nodded, and sank down on the sofa, watching as he stepped into a hall. There was a soft crack, and the murmur of two voices, his and what could only be the house-elf's. After a moment, there was another crack, and he reappeared.

"The boys will be along soon," he told her. "Niamh Weasley, Luna Lovegood and Hermione Granger - she's a target now too, as Ron's girlfriend - will be along as well, as soon as we contact all of their parents. There are plenty of rooms upstairs, just stay out of the master suite, and I'm telling you now from experience, it's worth more than your life to poke around Ren's lab. Oh, and for Salazar's sake, don't mention that bit about Mrs. Weasley to her kids? As far they know they're all coming here for safekeeping because there've been a few noises made on Ren's in-laws now that he's married to Charlie, and he has to sort a few things, or rather people, out over the next couple of days before they feel comfortable sending them back to the dorms full time. He's sure they'd be fine, but that Horntail infusion on Charlie's part has been rendering him rather feral on the subject of the younger members of his family lately, especially with Bill laid up, and it's easier not to argue."

"And why am I here?"

"Officially? Because you're an extremely vulnerable patient of his right now, and since Terence Higgs pointed it out to the entire world the second day of his warding exams, everyone knows it. Unofficially? Because I'm a great big worrywart over the younger members of my family,  and if this does go down as we're all praying it will, you're going to be an official member. Not just of Slytherin, but Cartwright."

"Erhm. What?"

"None of this," he said. "None of this, is your fault, Jax, and I'll be damned to hell before I let anyone blame you on any level, even if no one ever knows that you were Ren's source.  And I'm not just saying that because you are his source, either." She stared at him, mouth ajar. He offered her his crooked little grin and touched her nose. "You don't think I hop intercontinental portkeys and brave lethifold-infested waters to bring back Amazonian bell orchids for just anybody, do you? Alright, lethifolds don't eat bears, but still. It's the principle of the thing.'

"I don't...' She stared at him, at a total loss, and took an abrupt turn to the mental right in an effort to compose herself. "Why did you call in a favour that big for me? An intercontinental portkey on that short notice.... I mean... You didn't even know me. You hadn't even been at Hogwarts a week before you went!"

"I didn't call in a favour, Miss King," Neil said coolly. "I asked for one."

"What?" Her jaw hit the floor. "What ?"

"I think you're worth it. Don't you?"

She just spluttered at him in indignation. He laughed.

"Don't worry," he reassured her. "Pretty sure that Ren's paid all debts concerning for all times. Now go get your offended Slytherin sensibilities some nice warm milk and brace yourself for the incoming hordes."

She collected herself. "Headmaster," she said.

"Yeah?"

'If you can... Bring Dad in alive? I have a few things I want to say to him. That I've always wanted to say to him. "

"I'll do my best." He bowed, and was just turning to the fireplace, when...

"Dementors," she said abruptly.

"I'm sorry?"

"If you really do have a way to kill them, and have something like in stock, bring it along. All of it. McNair keeps a nest under his place."

"And how would you know this?"

"They have lots of different ways of ensuring family loyalty," Jax King said. 'For family members, starting when you turn fifteen, once you've done your OWLs and are officially let in on things. Pro-active ones. Once you're seventeen, either you join the family business... Or you don't. They've gotten rid of a lot of Muggles that way too, the ones who are curious at first and think they're inclined, but then find out they're really, really not.'

"When do you turn seventeen?"

"April." Her shoulders hunched. "I'm not that brave after all. Just self-interested."

"You could have run," he pointed out.

"No," she said. 'No. I really, really couldn't have. Only they would have found me, you know? They wouldn't have even had to go looking. I would have come back, once they started taking my friends to make the point.  I just... Didn't know what else to do."

"Ah."

"You can do my stepmother," she offered. "She's just a lovely bint, she is. Pretty sure she was the one who came up with the idea of the Dementors in the first place; they're her type of toy. She just didn't want them on her turf because she's next thing to a Squib and can't cast a proper Lumos, much less a Patronus."

"A...  Don't take this the wrong way, but why would someone like your father marry a Squib?"

"It's a business arrangement. She was married to another bloke - Amycus Carrow - right after the war. He and his sister were Death Eaters, and she told them that that her family connections could keep them out of Azkaban. They didn't. They both died, or rather were Kissed, less than a month later; one of the guards in their wing got out of control, they said, and she petitioned the courts to have them put out of their misery. Nobody argued, what was the point, and she got all the family money, including controlling interest in the Wrexham Wyverns. She moved to Wales right after that and  Dad came to her and proposed an alliance for mutual control of the cabal network, and she agreed."

"At least we don't have to worry about her being an Animagus."

"Oh well. That doesn't mean that you can't tell what she'd be. You'll pick up on it as soon as you lay eyes on her, she looks like a great fat toad topped with pink hair ribbons."

"Charmi..." Neil paused. "What's her first name again?"

"Dorrie."

"As in Dolores?'

"Yeah 'S the only thing we ever had in common, we both hate our names. Doesn't stop her, mind you, it's all "Jay-SEEEEEEE-Uh!" every time I'm home. I'd call her Mother Dolores, but I'd sick up on it. I have enough trouble not sicking up on her, without self-aggravating."

"Maiden name?"

"Um.. Enbridge? Onbridge? Overbridge? Something to do with bridges anyway. Only it makes sense, since with her face  her toad's got to be at least half troll."

Neville Longbottom pressed his fingers to his nose.

"Works better if you squeeze them together," the girl observed. "When you're around her anyway. That way you can't smell the simpering bullshit she spews from every pore."

"I will keep it in mind," the Headmaster said, and dropped his hand. "Alright. I really do have to go. Fridge is that way, help yourself."

"Do you have any idea how long it'll take?"

"No. I'm afraid I don't. I'll keep you posted as I can, though."

She nodded. "Wait," she said suddenly, and dug into her satchel. He examined her offering.

"Chocolate," she explained of the striped white and marmalade frog. "Dementors. You never know."

Neil kissed her head, and helping himself to the floo powder on the hearth, stepped through. Back at Hogwarts, he cut through a wall to his brand new potions lab and unlocked a cabinet, removing several dozen small bottles of bright pink liquid and slipping them into a not-briefcase along with a variety of other assorted goodies... He started to lock the cabinet again, then shrugged and opened it again, depositing the contents wholesale, if tidily in the case. One never knew, after all, and it was far, far easier to Get The Thing Done when One Was Prepared for All Eventualities.

When he was finished, he locked the cupboard, tapped the wall again, and emerged in his office. His mouth twisted a bit thoughtfully as he removed the object hanging on the wall and hefted it in his hand.

Doesn't really go with the jumper now, does it?

Still. You never know when it might come in handy.

In the end, he just slung the item over his shoulder (it came with a nice carrying case of its own in this universe) and made his way to the fourth floor and the dark and deserted NEWT DADA lab.  Precisely seven minutes later, a green biro sparkled into being in the canister of extra quills on the corner of the teacher's desk. Neil Cartwright straightened his jumper, hefted his satchel over one broad shoulder and the sheathed Sword of Gryffindor over the other, and removed the biro from the canister. At minute eight, to the second, he clicked the button on the end and spun away.

Chapter Text

The Seminary of the Magicals of the Society of Jesus

Sao Paulo, Brazil

December 22, 1970

"As a dwelling placed under Fidelius," the old man said to Lucius, "we will construct a warded room in your mind. The framework that gives the floor, walls, and roof of that room its shape and structure will be comprised of warding spells. The individual tiles, stones and slates in the floor, walls and roof, all set within that framework, will be formed of individual memories. Once the room is complete, all of those memories, as part of that warded room, will become completely inaccessible to the external or intruding mind. You may assign new memories after the set wards are activated simply by willing it so. There is no limit there. The room will simply become bigger, and the wards will extend automatically to accommodate."

Across the room Antonio Silva sat on a chair, the beads on his rosary running through his fingers as soft, singing water. Lucius sat on the edge of the raised pallet, staring at the old man before him (Silva had introduced him as his bishop: one Jorge-Henrique Alvarez), mouth ungraciously ajar. The old man politely ignored the younger man's expression, and continued his lecture.

"As Fidelius requires a Secret Keeper, the room will require a key. So, in the center of the room, you will place a single memory. This memory will serve as the anchor, holding the room and the wards that form the room into final place. You must choose this memory carefully. It must be one that you have never spoken on, as such, to another living soul. If you ever do choose to describe that memory to another - and it must be your choice, made of your own free will and without conscious or subconscious coercion - the remainder of the memories that you choose, and have chosen, to segregate from your accessible mind will no longer be protected from external perusal. They will not be lost, but the wards that we will cast now that do protect them from that external perusal will no longer hold, and all that was hidden will be revealed to all with the eyes to look."

"Must I choose the memory now?" Lucius said uncertainly, after he had digested that.

"No," said the bishop. "But it must be done before you return to England. And it must be powerful. It need not be happy, but it must, as best you can estimate, be one that defines you. If it does not qualify, you will know, and you must choose another. Once it is in place though, only your own free, uncoerced will may expose it. And once you have revealed it, the wards will be dissolved in perpetuity. They cannot be re-erected, not without beginning this process all over again - and this process, young man, insofar as you are concerned, is very much a singular opportunity."

"Did you design them?" the young man asked. "These wards, I mean?"

"No. They were designed many centuries ago by one of my predecessors, at a time when many more of our kind  were called, or rather answered the call, to the formal religious life. Certain of those formal religious - the priests - served, as we do now, both Magicals and Non-Magicals in many ways, the most crucial of which was through their provision of God's sacraments. There are seven of those sacraments, but the one we are concerned with now is called Reconciliation. It offers penitents the opportunity to confide their sins directly to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, miraculously present in that most sacred moment in the physical person of the priest, in order to attain, through the mercy and grace of God, divine forgiveness and life eternal in His Presence as it was made possible through His self-sacrifice for us all on the Cross."

"In the physical person of..." Lucius half-sat, enlightened. " In situ Christi!"

"Just so." The bishop smiled briefly. "So. At that time when the wards were invented... It was a time of great persecution for our kind, mm? Magical law enforcement officials had no qualms about raiding the memories of my brothers for those confidences shared only with God through his priests in order to determine and assign secular legal culpability to those that they hoped to discredit. They would extract the memories by force, in the name of the Greater Good, and would modify them, and on occasion even the prisoners themselves, to suit their agendas. Many people were afraid and stopped going to the priests to confess their sins, falling away from God in entirety out of fear, not that their trust would not, but could not, be kept. Under the circumstances, I am quite sure that God understood their reasoning and did not condemn them, but still. Their fear served the government in that the further they drove the population from God - from the rituals and sacraments that reinforced their faith in difficult times -the easier the population was to manipulate and control. So, this persecution  - the mental rape of priests - became deliberate in that manner as well, not only to resolve so-called crimes, but as a way of weakening the Church's influence as a whole, because the population felt that it was no longer safe even with Jesus. And fewer and fewer men became willing to risk the religious life, not only for their own safety's sake, but for the safety of those they were called to serve. It was, as my friend Antonio here says, a problem."

Lucius listened, propped on one elbow now, fascinated.

"So our Order," the bishop continued. "The Magicals of the Society of Jesus... We came up with this solution. We are Warders after all, mm? Not all Warders are Magical Jesuits, but all Magical Jesuits are Warders. It is our core mandate: to defend those we serve however our beautiful Jesus requires it. In this instance... My predecessor modeled his solution after the tabernacle, a tiny cupboard or room of sorts where dwells the transubstantiated Body of Christ in every physical church, behind the altar. He created a mental tabernacle, a room within the mind, a sacred place where all confidences shared with Jesus were as inviolate as God Himself. He created it so that a priest's memories  of those confidences formed the walls of the warded room, none accessible to others without the deliberate and intentional  uncoerced exercise of will of the priest. It was a very good solution, and now all priests undergo the ritual as part of ordination."

"But I am not a priest!"

"You do not have to be a priest," the bishop said patiently. "It is simply a priestly tradition. We will set, as we always do, a contingency spell that will ensure that this entire conversation, and all thoughts related to it, will become part of the internal dwelling. No one will ever be able to detect what has been done to you, or even that it was done. It is a most necessary precaution, as the government, as you may well imagine, would not approve."

"How can the people trust priests now, knowing the risks, if they do not know you are protected?"

"They know we are protected. They simply do not know how." That small smile touched the old man's lips again. "It is a matter of much frustrated speculation in the government again, as our ability to resist embodies proof and chronic reminder that they are not, after all, above all."

"Oh," Lucius said. "Alright then." He lay back at the bishop's nod. "But how do you know you may trust me with this?"

"You come on high recommendation, and there is a second contingency besides. Incentive, if you would. If you betray this trust of ours, all memory, and the memories you have incorporated into the walls, including all of those finer details of your time here in Brazil and the people you met here, will be lost. Toward that possible end we will store in your mind an evolving alternate history, as the government would do if they had their way, that will simply take hold should you choose to give over our secrets to the enemy. In that one moment of absolute decision... There will be no secrets to give. The man that you are becoming here will be lost." He paused, looking down into Lucius' wide eyes. "It is necessary. It is vital. It is a price that you have no choice but to agree to, for we cannot risk this, do you understand?  We cannot risk the discovery of this ritual. If we stop now, there is no risk, only the memory of this one conversation obliviated. If we continue... You must understand that should you ever choose to betray us, you will lose all."

He watched the young man closely as he processed that, but in the end...

"So what will Riddle see, if the memories are locked away?"

"As each sequestered memory locks into place, the wards surrounding them, powered as they are by external and intruding magic, will set and reset themselves to reflect back at any intruder a variant on that new memory's original themes, acceptable to that intruder as harmless and innocuous fact, but never revealing the crucial, potentially damning content. Effectively... There will be two versions of every event that occurs to you in your mind: the real one, and the perceivable alternative."

Lucius eyes widened even further. "That is not possible. That cannot be possible! How..." His breath was gone.

"All things are possible with God, my heart," his mentor said quietly from his stool. "Will you trust me when I tell you this, and take this leap of faith? For me?"

Lucius turned his head sideways and regarded those soft, dark and beloved eyes. Three months since they affirmed their private bond, and he was no longer even remotely embarrassed by his love for the man before him... Embarrassment, no more than the concept of Two, was no longer a concept in their mutual vocabulary. All between them simply... Was. Their mutual motivation to survive their respective wars came back to one truth and one truth only now: man and phoenix's mutual desire to be reunited as one after the inevitable separation.

"Not for you," he said simply. "No, sir. Not for you. But with you? Always."

He held out his hand.  Antonio Silva pulled up his stool, and took it, and leaning in, kissed his forehead and his eyes.

"My fine young Englishman," he teased softly. "Still so proud?"

"It is not a matter of pride," Lucius said. "It is a matter of arithmetic. If it were for you, you would be before me . Separated. Distinct. We are not separate. We are One. One in this battle. In all battles now, and in all things." His fine lips set. "Together... We shall be as an army." He flexed and slid off the table. The bishop watched as Silva rose to meet him, and as they embraced... When they separated, both of their faces were wet, and alight with shared determination. Lucius turned to face the bishop and dropped to his knees before him, completely without self-consciousness now as he bowed his head.

"I accept your terms, sir," he said formally to the old man. "Unconditionally. I accept them, and will obey them as you obey your God."

"As He wills it, then. " The bishop took his hands, raising him to his feet. "Lie back then, por favor. I must put these drops of potion in your eyes first, to keep them open. It will hurt more than a little, I warn you now, but you must not blink, if you can help it at all, before the pain ends. The eyes, they are the windows to the soul, they say, and we cannot see through closed windows."

Lucius set his jaw and obeyed. The drops felt most peculiar, but he did not blink, when, after ten seconds or so, they began to burn: warmly at first, but soon as if they were boiling in his head... He screamed, oh yes he screamed, but he did not blink. Cool fingers held his firmly as the fire faded, and open-eyed though he was, he began to fall toward sleep.

"In Nomine Domine," he heard the two men's voices murmur. "In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti..."

And the shadows enveloped him, and his world was swallowed in darkness.


 

In another life in another world, in the universe where Harry Potter had been born and Ren Cartwright had never been permitted to live, Druella Rosier-Black was delivered of her third daughter, Narcissa 'Cissy' Black, at precisely half-past midnight on September 1st, 1954.

Several universes over, in the world that now served as Harry Potter/Ren Cartwright's home, Druella Rosier-Black (perhaps because she had had the hot sauce on her breakfast eggs that her counterpart had not) was delivered of her third daughter, Narcissa 'Niss' Black, at precisely eleven minutes before midnight on August 31st.

A few tablespoons of spiced sauce, a few particularly convulsive contractions, and the kaleidoscope shifted... Forty one minutes' difference, and in Harry Potter's homeworld - that world where the child in question had been born on September 1st rather than August 31 -  little Cissy Black began Hogwarts in 1966 rather than 1965. She never entered the Slytherin common room with her husband-to-be, one Lucius Malfoy, as her year-mate. He never seated her in the best chair in the common room and himself at her feet. He never provoked Bellatrix Black's early and overt disdain, and so did not spend the next five years caught up in a war that earned him the early and absolute attention of one Tom Marvolo Riddle. And the two lovers never applied to ISEP together, or Lucius at all, for that matter. Cissy did, and she spent a lovely year in Japan cultivating such socially and maternally approved hobbies as ritual tea ceremonies and the arrangement of cherry blossoms. She didn't find either terribly interesting, but did enjoy her discreet, torrid affair with her American room-mate, a fellow ISEP student named Rebecca Hanley, from Seattle, Washington. Lucius didn't mind, but then, Cissy hadn't expected him to. He proved particularly and specifically understanding when she invited Rebecca home for Christmas. The two of them liked each other exactly as much as Cissy had anticipated they would, and the three of them spent a quite enchanting and magical holiday together.

There were other differences, of course, that would make all the difference in the two worlds' near-parallel histories.  In Cissy's world, Antonio-Maria Silva of Manaus, Brazil fell in love, as he did in Niss' world, with one Inez-Constanzia Gutierrez de Hernandez, but Inez, a Nomaji-born from Puerto Iguazu, Argentina, lacking the devastating incentive of losing her twin sister to the horrific plague of lethifolds that so plagued her counterpart's country and continent, never applied to ISEP in order to escape her grief. She never went to Hogwarts, never met Tom Riddle, never attracted his attention, and never agreed (mostly out of sheer irritation and the desire to hear him stop talking) to go with him to a certain room on the seventh floor of the castle, where he promised to show her a place of miracles that only he had discovered. She never entered the Room of Requirement, and was never (despite herself) reluctantly impressed... She never returned on her own that same evening to explore the great room he had shown her, full of a world's worth of curios and curiosities. And so she never realized, much to her astonishment, that there was much more to the room, or rather, Room, than Tom Riddle had ever imagined.

Most importantly, she never, once she realized that the Room gave you exactly what you wished for if you only had the wit to ask, dropped to her knees and prayed very precisely indeed for a sign that would indicate the advent (or not) of a very specific and much-needed global miracle, and never, after she was finished, recited the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel that every child in the South and Central America and Pacific Islands of Niss's world had learned in the womb.

Finally, she never rose from her knees and saw beside her a small table, and on it, a very small white and blue book. She never picked it up and opened it, or read the flyleaf and the inscription, affording not just a double, but a triple-take at the inked date. She never turned the page and realized that there was, in fact, no publisher listed, or publication date. She never spent the entire night reading the contents over and over till each word was not just committed, but burned into her memory, and she never set the book down and left the Room just as dawn was breaking over Black Lake, returning to Ravenclaw Tower to lie on her bed and to stare dry-eyed at the ceiling, wondering, for the first time, which was more truly painful in the end: loss or hope.

In  Cissy's world - in that universe where Harry Potter was born and Ren Cartwright had never been allowed to exist - Inez-Constanzia Gutierrez de Hernandez never, on her twenty second birthday, accepted her beloved 'Tonio's proposal, only to inform him the next week, as Antonio's Inez  had after her lover's first and shocking, utterly impossible Animagical transformation, that she would not marry a man through whom God so obviously intended to work the literal saving of their world. She never held him in her arms as they both wept in desperate, frantic grief at what they must personally give up to gain all... She never took her lover's hand and apparated with him later that same day to the seminary of the Magical Jesuits in Sao Paulo,  Brazil, and kissed him one last time at the gate, and informed God that there had best be that miracle coming from this sacrifice, or she would have something to say to Him about it after the Long Night was over.

And she never walked away resolutely, with Antonio Silva's last remembered words ringing in her ears.

Prophecy or no prophecy, all is yet in God's Hands. You may have been offered a glimpse of a possible future, Inezinha, but if that future is to come about, if it is truly His desire, it will come about whether we actively work toward it or not. If, in good time, His time, He chooses to employ us more precisely toward the specific end, we will, of course, accommodate Him, but in the meantime... I do not think that He offered you this gift so that we could, in all pride and arrogance, arrange the future according to our preferred interpretation. He gave it to you, I think, so that we will yet have hope in the darkest years ahead. Should we thank Him by making them yet darker, by turning our backs on what we know is our duty to Him in the here and now? Because we do have duties to Him in the here and now; that is more than obvious, and we must not enable each other, rainha minha, if, in the end we must stand before Him and acknowledge that those of His children that He intended to be saved through our efforts might not have been lost, if only we had trusted His ultimate wisdom a little more.

In Cissy's world, Inez never went to Hogwarts. She stayed at home, and by the time she and her 'Tonio graduated, they were engaged. They were married in the autumn of 1949 in the vast unplottable Magical cathedral that hovered over Argentina's Iguazu Falls, in a huge, joyous celebration attended by every one of 'Tonio's six brothers and sisters, his uncles, aunts, grandparents, and multitude of cousins, nieces and nephews. His best man was his youngest and best-beloved brother, Manuel.  Inez' maid of honour was her twin sister, Consuela.  Everyone agreed that it was a match ordained by God.

For just over three and a half years, the young couple lived a blissfully idyllic life in their adopted city of Rio de Janiero, in constant contact with both friends and relatives as 'Tonio began to establish his reputation as one of the most innovative and talented spell-crafters in the western hemisphere. Inez, in the meantime, opened a small shop of really quite beautiful hand-crafted artisan furniture. Her talents at carpentry were completely negligible, but her talents at Transfiguration more than made up for it, and by the time she informed the delighted 'Tonio a year to the day after their wedding that she was expecting their first child, the two had a nice little nest egg put away.

Then, in March of 1953, tragedy struck. 'Tonio's best-beloved brother, Manuel, having completed his training as a guide through the magical jungle, married a wonderful young doctor-in-training from Paraguay and departed on a medical research mission to the interior of North-Central Brazil. They left their two-month-old son, Miguel-Maria, in the care of his aunt and uncle.

They never returned. Inez and 'Tonio adopted little Miguel, of course, and raised him as one of their own eventual eight. When he was old enough to ask (and to be answered),  'Tonio, who did not believe in lying to children, took five-year-old Miguel for a walk, and explained that reports back had described an extremely unusual and tragic freak incident - the camp had been attacked by a pair of lethifolds, and his mother and father had been lost.

Miguel-Maria Emmanuel Hernandez de Silva sat on a bench outside the small, ramshackle church placed, for the convenience of its patrons, on the edge of the bustling market-place (it was, appropriately, called Sao Antonio de Padua, after the patron saint of all things lost), his thin dark legs swinging, and thought about that.

"Are there many lethifolds in the world, Papi?" he wanted to know.  Miguel did not call his uncle Tio, as did his counterpart, Ramone Carriera, several universes over. He was the only father he remembered, after all, if not, as Papi reminded him, the only one he'd ever had.

"Nao," 'Tonio said. "Not many at all, Miguelzinho. They are very rare."

"How many is rare, Papi?"

"I am not quite sure," 'Tonio confessed. "They are very hard to see, you see? It makes them very difficult to count."

"That means you do not know whether they are rare or not," Miguel pointed out.

"It is true," 'Tonio conceded. "I do not."

"I will find out," Miguel said confidently. "I will find out, Papi, when I am a man. I will find out, and then I will find them all, and I will kill them all, every one."

"That is a very good plan." 'Tonio  did not think it prudent to lie to children, but neither did he think it prudent to inform children that certain nightmares could never be defeated. "I pray that Jesus will help you accomplish it. We will go into this church right now, you see, and I will pray, and you may light a candle for your intentions. Your intentions are your wishes," he added at the  inquiring look. "Not wishes of your mind or even your heart, but of your soul."

"Three wishes, then." Miguel slid off the bench. "And three candles, Papi. One for my intentions" - he pronounced the word carefully - "and two for Mami Bonita and Papi Manuel, to light their way to heaven." He'd paused at that, uncertain. "Are they in heaven, Papi? The lethifolds cannot stop them from getting there, can they?"

"Nothing and no one, Miguelzinho,' Tonio assured him, "can prevent that. It is why our beautiful Jesus came to us, sim, to hold out His own Hands and show us the way? Their bodies are lost, and their lives, but only a man himself may separate his soul from the great God, and your Mami Bonita and Papi Manuel were His true friends from beginning to end to beginning again, I am sure. No, I know."

"We will light the candles anyway," Miguel decided. "So those who are not sure may see the way, and Jesus holding out His Hands to them. The jungle is very dark and dangerous, and they might be afraid and close their eyes, and so miss Him there."

"A little extra light never hurts," 'Tonio agreed, and took his hand. "Anywhere. You are a good boy, my Miguelzinho."

And that (in the moment anyway), was all there was to say about that .

*

Moment followed moment, as moments tended to, and year followed year, and in September of 1964, Miguel-Maria Emmanuel Hernandez de Silva enrolled in Castelobruxo School, where he embarked upon Stage One of his self-determined life's mission - that is, his appointment to Castelobruxo's senior speed-racing team. At the try-outs the first week, the tall, thin eleven-year-old arrived on the course carrying two things: a signed waiver from his adoptive parents and a brand new top-of-the-line racing broom purchased for him through donations from the entire extended Silva and Hernandez clans. The elder students, amused and indulgent, convinced the coaches to allow the little one his demonstration flight - and none of them, no matter how badly he outdid them all in the aftermath of that vote, was ever quite able to regret it. It was not every person after all, who could claim to have trained alongside, from his very beginnings, the greatest racer that would ever live.

By the end of his first week of formal practice, Miguel was out-flying, not just the students, but the teachers. By the end of his first year, he had broken every record ever set at Castelobruxo.  By the time he was thirteen, he was flying for Brazil. By the time he was fourteen, he was flying for South America.  By the time he graduated, the seventeen-year-old boy was world champion twice over, and had been acknowledged by the global experts as the best racer in the history of the sport, setting record after record all throughout the seventies that would never be matched at any point in his world's future. And he was known to all as Miguel Arcanjo, Michael the Archangel, because, as it was said, only God flew higher than the archangels, and no regular angel could possibly match Miguel-Maria Emmanuel Hernandez de Silva's skill, or his joy, in flight.

No one ever understood till later, and then only his family, that Miguel did not just fly for the joy of it. He flew for the money. Speed-racing was an extremely lucrative sport, and by the time he officially retired in January of 1980, on his twenty-seventh birthday, Miguel was quite obscenely well-off. In the decades that followed he spent every knut he had, and a great number more that he earned through returning as a celebrity to the circuit when his funds were running low, on researching lethifolds.

And he realized something in his studies of demographics and urban distribution, immigration and emigration, and records of births and deaths and disappearances, both present day and historical.

Just because you couldn't see something didn't mean that it wasn't there.

In 1958 though, none of that had yet occurred. All was the future, unwritten. In 1958, 'Tonio Silva hugged his adopted son, and they went into the church and lit their three candles... When they emerged, 'Tonio crouched a little and blurred. Miguel clambered up onto his back, and they padded away through the streets of Rio de Janeiro (Notice-Me-Nots intact; the Nomaji would undoubtedly have found the sight of a gigantic black panther eyeing up the bookshops rather alarming) to their apartment. It would be many years yet till, in the autumn of 2004, fifty-one-year-old Miguel, who by then knew very nearly everything there was on keeping oneself alive in the jungle, would travel to the International School of Warding in Paris  to teach Introduction to Adaptive Spell-Cast Warding as a one-term favour to a friend of his Papi's. It would be many years yet till he walked into the classroom and met, three rows back dead center, the tired, green-and-bespectacled eyes of one twenty-four-year-old Harry James Potter. Many years yet and one week later, till Harry Potter invited him home to meet his wife and newborn child, and confided in him that, though he was there on sabbatical from the Auror Department of Great Britain's Ministry of Magic, Auroring was only a socially designated front for his real passion... Many years yet, one week and perhaps three minutes later before Miguel-Maria Emmanuel Hernandez de Silva understood what exactly what was sitting in front of him, and much more importantly, from his personal perspective...

What was not.

Their meeting, he decided, as he examined the lightning bolt scar on his new student's forehead, had, like his adoptive parents' marriage, obviously been ordained by God.

"Tell me, Senhor Potter," said the greatest speed-racer ever born of the most famous (and possibly most reluctant) Annihilator of Dark Magicals ever born. "What do you know of lethifolds?"

"Erhm," the young man before him said, startled. "Not a lot? Mostly just what's written in the books. Only it's a bit hard to know anything past that point, yeah, since they're effectively invisible?"

"One would think," Miguel agreed. "So here is a little examination question for you, heh? Tell me the best way to study, in the broader context, that which the eye cannot see, Senhor Potter - that which leaves nothing behind to show that it, or that which it took with it, was ever there in the first place."

Harry Potter sat back in his chair and looked him over. Tall and lanky  with bony agile features, deep and weathered mahogany skin, unruly dark hair shot through with white at the temples...  His dark brown eyes were tranquil, calm and patient, not as a contemplative, the young Auror sensed immediately, but as a trained and meticulous hunter waiting for the optimal moment to bring down his prey. No, he corrected himself. To bring down the world on his prey.

"You study not that which the eye doesn't see... But that which the eye no longer sees," he said finally. "The patterns and trends relating to the active loss and ongoing absence of what you know for a fact, once did exist.  In the context of lethifolds, then -  those people who were, and are no longer, there."

"Muito bueno!" Miguel looked quite inordinately pleased. "You are very good!"

"Yeah, yeah." Harry Potter waved that off. "Tell me more."

And Miguel obliged. His new student leaned forward, listening intently, face concentrated and frowning. When Miguel stopped for breath...

"Gin?" Harry Potter called.

"Yeah?" his wife called from the kitchen, where she was browsing the freezer for ice cream.

"D'you mind if Professor Silva and I go for a walk? Only, you know. Shop talk. Your eyes'll be glazing over before you know it."

"Knock yourself out. We're out of raspberry chocolate squeeze anyway. Pick me up some, will you, and you might want to put up your glamours, both of you, or you'll never get any peace."

"It is a problem," Miguel conceded as they rose. "Please, Senhor Potter. You must call me Mig, as my family does."

"Harry." Harry took his offered hand. They shook firmly - and the young (not-really-an) Auror nearly jumped out off his shoes when his teacher abruptly transformed, and he was left holding his polite paw. The howler monkey chittered in mirth at his expression, but before he could turn back, the young man had turned his palm over.

"Huh." He examined the white mark on the brown, leathery palm, and, as 'Tonio Silva had, the first day he'd seen it when Miguel had first transformed at sixteen, said immediately...  "If  that doesn't mark you as a born Warder, I don't know what does."

"What are you thinking, Papi?" Miguel had asked as 'Tonio had sat down, there in his lab, obviously troubled. "It is only a little lightning bolt; a sign of my speed, perhaps, nothing more."

"It is not a lightning bolt, Miguelzinho. It is eihwaz, the rune for defense. Jesus has obviously marked you  in response to your soul's intentions, according to the prayer you made as a child. Your lost father's form, and you now called by all Miguel Arcanjo, after our Defender in battle... I cannot say that I do not find this all greatly disturbing."

"What do you think it means?"

"I do not know, truly, but I think it a sign of His will, at the very least, that you are to continue along the path to which you dedicated yourself. And perhaps as, too, you lit those candles to guide the souls of the lost to Heaven that day... It is His will that you keep your eyes open for others, sim, that together with you will be the candles that will light all of our ways?"

"But how will I know these others when I see them?"

"You will know," 'Tonio Silva said with certainty. "Such direct and unsubtle portents from our great God are rarely singular, and almost always a warning of a great shadow falling.  And while one flame of a single candle  may act only as a spark in the night, where many are drawn together by God's Hand, there will roar a mighty fire against the darkness." He touched his beloved brother's son's cheek. "The world has taken note of you, Miguelzinho. Perhaps that too is God's will - that as it is keeping that eye on you, as  high as you do, and will, fly... It cannot help but keep its eyes fixed on heaven too, from where must come all of our  salvation in whatever battle is surely coming?"

"My friend Hermione mistranslated it on her Runes OWL," the young man with the lightning bolt (or perhaps the over-tilted, misdirected rune) on his forehead was saying. Miguel jerked his attention back to the present.  "Eihwaz, I mean. Well, no. She mistranslated ehwaz. Put in 'defense' for 'partnership'. Funny the things that come back to you in the weird moment, innit?"

"Mm." Miguel blurred back. "Is she determined to become a Warder too, this friend of yours?"

Harry Potter snorted with laughter. "No," he said. "If God exists, He's got her down for Minister of Magic. And when it happens... The world, never mind Great Britain, will never be the same."

"It is not such a crucial error as all that," Mig mused judiciously as they headed out and down the fire-escape of the high, whimsically shaped and white-washed attic apartment to the cobbled street below. "Eihwaz, ehwaz - defense, partnership... They do complement each other, would you not say?" He crossed his eyes as a fedora suddenly sparkled into being over his head. "What is this?"

"The beginning of a beautiful friendship," Harry Potter said as he cast glamours on both of them with a pair of brisk, practiced wands. "Only we are in Paris, yeah?"

"A place for all good beginnings," the older man agreed. "Where we too, always, will have had ours. Shall we walk, or would you prefer to fly?"

"Depends. Where are we going? Aside from to the corner to pick up raspberry chocolate squeeze, that is?"

"Up. As we are both strangers in this strange land, heh, it is the only direction we can be certain of."

"Works for me. Accio Firebolt!" A shining broom zipped obediently down. Mig hefted his own rather-more-than-equivalent from where it was leaning against the side of the building.

"Now," he said. "Now we shall have a little fun, heh? Shall we race to the Eiffel Tower, or down the length of the Seine and back?"

And that, as one Ramone Carriera was wont to say (for the moment, anyway, though definitely, definitely not over the next seventy-plus years to follow) was all that there was to be said about that.


 

Malfoy Manor

The Conference Chambers

Wednesday, November 26th, 1991

11.30 P.M.

The great conference room at Malfoy Manor was swarming. Four stations were set around the perimeter, each with long tables surrounded by chairs. An eye-poppingly tall and muscular African woman in tight black spandex leggings, neon orange sports bra and a low-slung chain belt leaned on her elbow against the central podium, nibbling on a cinnamon-oat biscuit and paying no attention to the disconcerted and murmuring hordes milling about her.

Across the room, a subdued and silent Narcissa Malfoy consulted her notes and charmed pertinent details onto the rotating and hovering models of each of the incoming army's four targeted destinations. She used no wand,  the tall woman noted, though she was wearing a wand holster strapped to her slim right thigh. The holster was silky white leather, and the wand handle emerging was formed of spiraled aspen and silver-shell, beautifully inlaid with tiny freshwater pearls. Nissie, as Namirembe Obonyo-Higgs had called her since their first unforgettable meeting at Uagadou in 1970, might never actually use the thing, but it did make a lovely accessory, particularly in contrast to her most unaccustomed dark green leather trousers.

Obonyo-Higgs -  easily six foot eight in her bare feet (and they were bare just at that moment, displaying toe-nails painted delicately in a pattern of orange and black tiger stripes) and  three hundred pounds' worth of aggressive and uncompromising muscle, pushed herself up and made her way over to Narcissa. The crowds parted before her like the Red Sea, retreating prudently in her wake.

"You know," that taller woman mused to her hostess. "I'd almost forgotten you have legs? Or did they just recently come in again in anticipation of the incoming and outgoing?'

Narcissa ignored her. Her former student advisor lowered her biscuit and cast a wandless Muffliato. The world's most popular pick for Global Grandmaster in Combat Dueling wasn't actually particularly adept at wandless magic, but she'd learned that particular spell early on. Her infamous wand, after all, wasn't inclined to the finer social niceties.

"Did it go that badly?" she said directly. "Because I have to say that you don't exactly have the expression of a self-satisfied society hostess."

"Mind your own business, Namirembe."

"Rude," Namirembe Obonyo-Higgs observed, completely unoffended. "Does that mean it went well?"

"It means that you should mind your own business, and that I have nothing more to say on the matter."

"Touchy, touchy." Namirembe nibbled again at her biscuit, then pulled out a chair, straddling it and sitting backwards as she watched her former student continue to cast. "These are really good. You can tell your house-elves to make them again. So? Was there?"

"The house-elves didn't make them; I did, and was there... What?"

"Touchy-touchy."

"Oh for..." Narcissa did turn around at that. Her expression was not so much exasperated or irritated as pale and fatigued beyond tolerance. The circles under her eyes and the expert layers of cosmetics were almost as dark as her former advisor's complexion. "Seriously ?"

"I'm only putting it out there," the other woman pointed out. "Everyone here is wondering, never mind staring at your arse in those trousers. Politics aside, are you sure you want to risk losing it? It really has held up well over the years."

"Your concern for the welfare of our nation's children is astounding, Mrs. Obonyo-Higgs. Have you decided where you want to go yet? I assume you've got no interest in McNair's territory, since you've got nundus down."

Namirembe's wand, currently strapped and chained into its magically reinforced holster at its owner's hip, snarled at her. It was a low, ugly sound that reverberated even through the Muffliato, earning its owner more than one truly frightened look from those standing and sitting about... The incoming human tide ebbed once more.  "Shut it, bitch," the two women said to it in tandem. Narcissa's lips quirked as she caught her mentor's eye.

"I'll take Wrexham. Men are one thing, but any woman who'd stoop as low as Carrow's gone has earned both the privilege of a personal interview and my autograph on her death certificate. Do I need to flatten any cowlicks for you?" Namirembe inquired. "Before the scheduled date, I mean?"

"No," Narcissa said. "It's not..."

She paused.

"It's not..." her mentor prompted.

"It didn't go badly," she said, not looking at her. "Exactly. I don't think, anyway."

"What does that mean?"

"I have no idea," the younger woman said. "At all. He's just...  Not what we expected. Neither of them are." That, she thought, was quite possibly the understatement of the past ten millennia.

"In a good or bad way?"

"I don't know that either. But whatever way it is... It is."

Namirembe pulled back and looked at her at that.

"Don't tell me," she said, her voice lowering even further. "That you all shook on it already?"

"I don't know!"

"How can you not know? There are only three possible options there, Nissie. Either they said 'Yes, we're in',  'We're in for a second date,' or 'We're honoured, but no.'"

Narcissa Black Malfoy breathed slowly and pressed her fingers to her eyes, not in irritation or anger, but as if fending off a vicious headache. Namirembe waited, baring her teeth against sidling would-be-eavesdroppers. She was quite aware that most of them, as Aurors, were sidling on order, but that, from her point of view, only made dissuading them all the more entertaining.

"It's complicated," Narcissa said finally. "Really... Really complicated. Can't we just leave it at that?"

"No. We can't. Don't they understand what's at stake here?" the taller woman demanded. "Is that it? I mean, alright, Freckles McHorntail is only nineteen and might need things explained to him a bit, but Commander Cowlick has those three IMs in all of those fields that should pretty much defy worldly naivete when it comes right down to it!"

"Oh, they understand what's at stake. More than anyone else on the planet, I would say."

"So what's the problem?"

"I didn't say there was a problem! I just said it was complicated!"

"Did you find out where he's from, after all?" Namirembe asked, eyes narrowed to slits. "And where he got his training?"

"Yes," Narcissa Black Malfoy said wearily. "Yes. As a matter of fact... I did."


 

 

The Malfoys' Garden Room

Earlier That Afternoon

Slowly, gradually, after a stilled and burning eternity -  seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, decades, centuries - they all regained consciousness. Ren struggled up first, stiffly, his face red and swollen with tears. The other three, still reeling, tried desperately to focus as he stumbled, swiping his eyes with the back of a hand, away from them and toward the door. He didn't leave the room though, just stood, back to them, shoulders hunched under his soft white t-shirt and arms twined around himself.

Narcissa watched, dizzy to the point of nausea yet as Charlie pushed himself up from where he had fallen and went to his husband, bouncing back hard as physical wards slammed up between them. Ren sank to the floor, back yet to them all, face in his arms over his knees as he shook. He looked unbearably small. Charlie's face twisted in agony.

"Mate,"  he whispered.  "Mate, please. Don't... Don't do this, don't..."

Ren didn't move, apart from the all-body tremble. He looked braced for a blow. He was braced for a blow. His arms came up over his head, and he began to rock slightly.

'Sorry," he whispered. "Sorry sorry sorry sorry sor..."

" Stop." Narcissa's voice was bloody and choked. " Stop."

He stopped immediately. Charlie sank down to the floor again, cross-legged just out of the range of the wards: not quite behind him, not quite beside him. The gold in his hair looked tarnished and dull, his freckles scattered as pinpricks of dark blood welling from under his parchment-pale, greyed skin. Even from where he was sitting, Narcissa could see his hands shaking violently. Her vision shifted abruptly... In her memory, the round cheeks thinned to skeletal, the brown eyes grew white and milky - the only pain potions that helped even a little at his end had almost completely blinded him - and the cheerful riot of ginger and gold hair thinned and fell away... Her hands came up to cover her face as she shook her head in frantic negation, and she blinked hard, and hard again. When her eyes refocused, she very nearly wept in relief at the sight of the renewed round cheeks, the thick shining curls and, however trembling and shaking now with the shock and echo of unimaginable remembered pain, the strong, healthy body.

"You died of cancer," she said him, trying desperately to keep her voice steady. "Five full years after being diagnosed?" She could not even begin to wrap her mind around it. The longest-lived patient on record - the mother of one seven-year-old Theodore Nott, as a matter of fact - had been released from her tortured agony sixteen months and one day after conclusive diagnosis. The healers had been in awe of her courage and determination, mustered only because of her only child's desperate wish that she make it to celebrate one last of his birthdays. The healers had helped her pass the morning after... She'd held off the last few hours again and only so that the child and his father would never associate the natal date with her death. She and Narcissa had never been terribly close, but little Theodore was Draco's age almost to the week, and she never once celebrated her own son's birthday without thinking of his now room-mate in Slytherin.

"Yes." Charlie did not take his eyes from his husband.

"And you came back to awareness here, to the realization that it you'd just been diagnosed again?"

He glanced over his shoulder at that. His face was no less grey than it had been, his hands no less tremored, but...

"Don't take this the wrong way, love, but let's mind our priorities, yeah? Your own man's looking more than a bit rough there." He nodded minimally at Lucius, sitting statue-still on the edge of the sofa and staring at the ground: blank-eyed and bare-chested, with both of his pale, unmarked forearms loosely across his knees. Narcissa collected herself instantaneously, her mind refocusing sharply and automatically. She slipped  off the sofa onto her knees and took her husband's hands in her own.

"Luke," she said. "What are you thinking, my lovely? Tell me."

Lucius said nothing. Narcissa slipped down further, the moment of sharp clarity gone as if it had never occurred, and buried her face in his lap to hide her own desolate tears. He stroked her hair automatically. It seemed to focus him slightly; he lifted his second hand and placed it gently, carefully, on her head, threading gold strands through his fingers. A small choked sound escaped him, and another and another... Narcissa looked up, bemused.

"What... Are you... Laughing ?"

"Your mother was right to worry." His deep voice was raspy and scarred. "When she let you go to Africa. Salazar's socks. All those bloody lions wandering the savannah; they turned you into one of them after all."

" That's what you're thinking on right now?" The bemusement turned to outright... Something.

"It would seem so. Show me." He gathered himself visibly.

" Now?"

"Yes."

Narcissa sighed, and blurred. It was really quite astonishing, Lucius Malfoy observed, ignoring the two men across the room out of sheer self-preservation as he sat back and surveyed his wife over from nose-tip to literal tail, how well the Look translated in leonine.

"It has been nineteen years," her husband said to her as she blurred back. "And you are just telling me now?"

"I was embarrassed, alright?" she said crossly. "I thought I was going to be a cat!"

"Lions are cats."

"Not like... I meant like Professor McGonagall! I took the quizzes and everything: the personality tests, and the temperament tests, and..." She caught his lips twitching as he looked down at her, and thwacked him. Hard. "Stop it. No, shut it."

"You are beautiful," he told her gravely. "No matter your form, and I feel quite protected now besides, with the female incarnation of Godric Gryffindor as a wife. I do plan to be there when you tell Andromeda and Sirius, mind you, and if you make me wait another nineteen years for that, I shall be quite put out."

"Oh for..."

The twitch turned into a full grin. She thwacked him again; he caught her by the wrist and pulled her into his lap. She buried her head in his bare shoulder, and he pressed his lips to her hair, and they both laughed stupidly and helplessly, and he kissed her hard, and she kissed him back, and they recovered together. The silence resumed slowly.

" Are you alright, my love?" she said quietly.

"I do not know yet, Narcissa." He  boosted her off his lap gently and reached for his shirt, pulling it on. She reached out, about to fasten his first button for him, then paused, tracing the runic design around his heart. It was bright and vivid yet, the exquisite daffodils shimmering so vibrantly they seemed to be moving, blown by some imperceptible - perhaps even other-worldly - breeze.

"Did you not say the inks would sink in, Master-Adept?" Lucius said to Ren, using the title deliberately. The huddled, silent figure enclosed within the shimmering wards didn't move.

"Dash,"  Charlie said quietly. "I know this prolly is a really bad time to ask you to get your Warder on, but you've got a patient here that you promised to look out for. He's got a couple of questions, yeah, on that purely professional level? Can you answer them for him, Dash? Can you do that for me? Sure you can. You're my good little mate; you can do that for me, can't you? Won't you?"

The silent figure moved slightly.

'M' sorry, Charlie," Ren whispered. His voice was barely audible. "I shouldn't've lied to you, I..."

"You didn't lie," his husband said immediately. His voice was strong and firm and absolute. "You just didn't tell me everything. You were never obliged to, Dash. I told you last night, didn't I, that you didn't have to tell me anything, ever, about what happened when you were a kid? That if you did, it would be your choice, and then only when you were ready? As for Luke and Niss..." He used the names, as Lucius had the title, deliberately. "You met Luke exactly one week ago today, and Niss last Saturday. Even if you did feel obliged to reveal all in the interests of pro-active co-parental disclosure... Only it's not exactly a conversation for the first date, is it?"

Ren said nothing.

"Can I sit beside you, little mate?" the wrangler said gently. Narcissa blinked back yet more tears at the utterly, utterly perfect tenderness there. "Put my arm around you, maybe? Would that be alright?"

Ren didn't say yes, but he didn't say no... Slowly, the wards faded out. The Malfoys watched, not moving as the shorter man slid over carefully, and put a sturdy arm around his husband. A slight, despairing hiccup sounded. Charlie turned and pulled the Warder into his arms proper, then half into his lap, rubbing his back and arms and legs with strong firm, reassuring movements. Sudden renewed images crashed and collided behind Narcissa's eyes again; time  and years and decades unraveled and re-knit, faces and names both familiar and not as past and present wrenched around and tangled... She pressed her face to Lucius' shoulder again, trying desperately to shut out, not the visuals, but the single associated voice.

(Mr. Potter. Lucius Malfoy. We meet at last...)

(Red hair, vacant expressions, tatty second-hand book... You must be the Weasleys.)

(The face I have been obliged to present since your... absence...that  is my true mask!)

(It's Longbottom, isn't it? Well, your grandmother is used to losing family members to our cause...)

(IF WE ARE THE ONES TO HAND POTTER TO THE DARK LORD, EVERYTHING WIll BE AS IT WAS, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?)

"Narcissa," Lucius said in alarm as the choked sob turned to violent, near hysterical laughter. "Narcissa, what..."

"If you're Luke," she said, struggling to control herself. Her voice trembled, shaken like the daffodils. "If you're Luke... Does that make.... him ... Darth Malfoy?"

All three men, even Ren, turned physically to stare at her. She fell back and howled till she was limp. When finally she recovered...

"You're not mad?" The not-quite-not Harry Potter's voice was small and bewildered.

"Course they're not mad, mate," Charlie said in his best bracing tones. "Bloody shocked and confused, but I don't think any of us could be mad at each other after all that. 'Walking a mile in each others' shoes' doesn't  even begin to cover it, yeah?' Though," he said judiciously. "We might all be a bit pissed with the bloody Horntails. That... Whatever the bloody hell it was... Was not on." He  glared at the two palm-size tattoos, now both back on his body, and more precisely, curled and snoozing on the backs of his hands.  Karrash just opened one glinting eye and smirked at him... Mola's snore was both indelicate and patently false. "We're really sorry," he said to the Malfoys. "We had no idea this would happen. At all."

"We know," Narcissa reassured him. "We were there too. We're not angry, Ren, we promise." She paused, bemused, looking him over. "You're really a hundred thirty eight years old? From another... With children and grandchildren, and... You're Harry Potter?"

Ren seemed to shrink back into himself a little at that. Charlie squeezed him tightly.

"I..."

"Hold that thought if you would, Master-Adept." Lucius helped Narcissa stand, and as she seated herself beside him, took a deep breath, shook his hair back and settled his broad shoulders. Retrieving his left-hand wand, he pointed it at the liquor cabinet in the corner. The door flew open and a fresh bottle of whiskey flew out, landing on the coffee table before him and Narcissa. Tumblers chimed, ice clinked, and two of the four drinks rose, hovering before the other two men. Charlie grabbed the first and knocked back a full third in one go.The not-quite-not Harry Potter shuddered violently and convulsively, gasping hard as he followed suit. Thus fortified...

"Yes," he said. "Yes, I'm afraid so. Though for the record... It wasn't supposed to be like this." It was more than a little plaintive. "I was supposed to be a walk-on! And Charlie wasn't part of the original plan at all, at least not from my end of things!"

"I am only thirty seven," Lucius Malfoy said, exquisitely dryly. "And even I know better than to try that one on. So the lethifolds were not part of the plan either?"

"Erhm," Ren said. "No. Not... I mean... Not... Our plan. All things considered, I'm no longer willing to say definitively that it couldn't have been - wasn't - part of Someone Else's."

"Mm. I cannot speak for your version of Antonio Silva, but mine would have called that blatant after-the-fact rationalization of truly award-winning arrogance and pride."

"Really, Luke?" Narcissa shot him an exasperated glare. "You're actually, actually going there?"

"No, no," Ren reassured her. "It's a perfectly reasonable descriptor. Argument. Whatever. One that came up in conversation on the subject more than once, I promise you, from many and varied and equally reasonable sources."

"And yet..."

"We saved your world with it?" he offered. "Literally? Even if it wasn't intentional?"

"There is that," the taller man agreed. "Yes, there is that. And while that does render me uninclined to judge on any personal level, I still feel obliged to point the flaws and fallacies in the ostensibly rhetorical argument on behalf-of." He set down the glass. "Though as we got each others' Reader's Digest Condensed Version, not the play-by-play - tell me something, Master-Adept. How much of the fence - the original design of the fence that won you your Grandmastery - was actually your doing?"

"LUKE!"

"Officially or unofficially?"

"Indulge me."

"Unofficially... Mig and I worked up the initial projected design together early on, decades before his niece Carlotta was elected Supreme Mugwump and forced the issue to the table - and I worked up all of the active bio-runic elements that brought the design up from the theoretical to the viable after he finally found the spawning grounds. Officially... I asked that my name be kept out of it on everything but the supportive level. I didn't need the adulation; I just wanted to get the thing done. For him."

"In other words..."

"All of it," Ren admitted. "All of the bits that actually made it work, anyway, on the purely practical level. There were other people involved in the crafting and adaptations of the necessary spells,  but none of those would have done any good without the fence itself to work with. The bio-runes were always going to be the crucial element, and those were all mine, like I said. And. Erhm. The ideas for the specific spells involved were mine too, and. Erhm. The bit about using a spell for its side-effect, not the main event, and the dead lethifold we worked from; that was a bit of a family heirloom; you caught that, I'm sure, but..." He looked more than a bit embarrassed.

"Didn't you tell me just last night you didn't remember who came up with the original idea of the side-effect spell?" Charlie inquired, amused. "I could have sworn I heard you say that."

"Yes, well. It sounded better than 'the whole bloody thing was pretty much down to me' didn't it?"

"I reckon I could have managed the revelation, mate. It's always been down to you, after all. At least you got to enjoy it that time, yeah?"

"Not quite the word I'd use, but... Yeah. It was very satisfying. On both the personal and professional levels."

"Were you in love with him?" Lucius asked directly.

"Who, Mig?" Ren said blankly. "No, no. He was more of an uncle to me than anything else; he was twenty seven years older than me, and between that and the fact that he was my teacher first, my first teacher in Wards on the official level... My kids called him Tio Mig. After he finished the term, he went back to Brazil, but we kept in touch, and he'd come back to visit regularly. He was Lily's godfather, in fact. And after Charlie died..."

He shifted.

"Gin called him," he said. "I was pretty... I mean... I don't know what you all got on that bit, but, I was drinking too much, on the verge of losing my job... Non-functional, really. And the kids were so young. James was only eight, and Al was six, and Lily was four, and I just... I was non-functional. I made a couple of really stupid mistakes at work. Nothing that threatened anyone but myself, but that alone was enough to drive home the realization for her that I honestly didn't - couldn't - care if I came home anymore. So she called him, Mig, I mean, and he came to get me, and took me back to Brazil with him for a few weeks. Bill - my Bill - came too. We all went to the jungle; they dried me out and got me back on a broom, and by the time they were done, I had the basis for my IM in DADA and was flying on a level that I'd never bloody flown in my life. I went back and the Ministry put me on Dark Creatures Control for awhile. That was fun. Probably the most fun I ever had working as an Auror because it didn't involve people. It didn't last, though, and that was when..."

He paused.

"He started me working on the Animagus transformation when I was down there," he said. "Fed me the necessary starter potions, and after Bill left, I stayed another month so that I could do the step with the Mandrake leaf. I couldn't have done it at home; a certain percentage of people, me included, drool like anything with it, and people would have known what was up. He told me it was best to keep it to myself, for myself, anyway. The world thought it had me; he said it shouldn't get my soul too, not without my permission, anyway."

"So no one here  - there - in Europe knew you were an Animagus?" Narcissa asked.

"A few did, sure. I told Gin I was working on it, and my entire generation of the Weasleys once I'd got it.  My kids too, once they were old enough to understand that they had to keep their mouths shut. Oh, and Neville of course. I didn't tell Hermione till after she retired. She didn't talk to me for a month she was so annoyed, but I said that if I'd told her when she was Minister of Magic, she would have felt obliged to use the information to help the world. And I didn't want to use it to help the world. I mean, I did, sometimes, but on my own terms. She threatened to tell on me anyway, but then Gin got to her, and said... I don't know what, but it shut her up. She had a temper on her, but she didn't actually lose it very often. When she did though..." He grinned in reminiscence. Charlie smiled and pulled him in.

"You made absolutely adorable kids," he told him. "And grandkids, and great-grandkids. Never mind Scorpius. Christ, are you sure the Horntails weren't taking the piss with him there?"

Ren actually laughed at that.

"No," he said. "No. He was like the Anti-Malfoy. The only thing he got were the family looks, the Blacks' passion for history and the traditional Malfoy knack for potions. Other than that, he was the biggest, sweetest, goofiest nerd ever born. And funny? Kid could have made a living as a stand-up comedian. It drove his grandparents crazy, and amused the shit out of Draco because it did drive them crazy. He didn't even bother with passive-aggression past the point, he'd just invite them for dinner when they were being particularly patrician and snobbish and let Scorp have his head. His OWL year they started in on Draco getting married again and just wouldn't let up, so Scorpius distracted them by claiming for six months that he was going to quit after his exams and join the Muggle circus. He didn't just get them going with it either; he had every portrait in the Manor quivering with fear. You should have heard Nev go on, telling him that he thought it was a brilliant idea, and after he was grown and the two made their Animagi transformations, the jokes on Neville the dancing bear and Draco as the rabbit pulled out of the magic hat were pretty damned epic."

"You don't sound like you hated him," Charlie observed. "At all."

"I didn't. We just annoyed each other. A lot. Habitually, even. It was part of the ongoing mandated legend, right, Harry and Draco's rivalry. We'd have the occasional semi-nice, private moment - he was one of the only people I've ever met, anywhere, that I could just sit and drink a beer and not say anything with, and not just because we had nothing to say to each other -  but on the whole... He was trapped by his family reputation as much as I was, at least in public. Heroes and villains, and the Malfoys were never out there anyway, so him being quiet with his purported lingering villainy worked right with the public assumptions. And of course, Al and Scorp had to be sleeping together, because a Potter and a Malfoy would never be real friends, right? Not in any world."

He closed his mouth abruptly, and looked down at the floor at that, at his own words... Lucius regarded him a long, long moment.

"Your time with the Dursleys..." he said quietly.

"I don't want to talk about it," he said immediately, harshly.

"Dash..."

"No. No. You've all seen it, you all... I don't want to talk about it. You've seen it, that's enough, and what you didn't see, you don't get to. None of you. I don't care if... I don't want to talk about it!" His voice rose higher and higher in its increasing agitation, not in volume, but in pitch... Narcissa had to force her hands down to prevent them from covering her eyes again, against the the juxtaposed vision of black hair and green eyes and

(It'snotreallyhumanDiddikinsdon'teverevertouchItwithyourbarehandsorIt'llmakeyousick)

(freakonlymumsaysharrysnotevenyournnamejustwhatyou'recalledbecausepeopleexpectityou'rejustadiseasethatlookslikeahuman youdontevenhaveaname)

(lookpetIpickedupnewbootsforItnononotforIttowearformetowearwhenIneedtomoveItIdon'twanttodirtyupmyhandsonItbeststeeltoedcourseIgotyoussomeDudderslook we'llmatchthat'smyboy)  

(Iwasn'ttryingtohurtItitwasjustabitofbleachinthebathmumIt'sadiseaseandbleachcuresgermsrightitsaidonthetelly!)

"Alright, mate." Charlie kissed his forehead gently in the near-paralyzed silence that followed. "If that's what you want, that's how it'll be. Now, how about you have that look at Luke's arm for him?"

Ren heaved himself up and made his way over slowly, seating himself on the coffee table before Lucius, and avoiding his eyes assiduously... The taller man said nothing, just held out his right forearm. Ren examined it closely, then Summoned a wand to prod at it a bit. He slid forward to fold the taller man's shirt open, and offered a small frown, running a light, warm fingertip over the circle of runes inscribed among the daffodils.

"What is it?" Lucius asked.

"The Mark's gone," the Warder said. "You're clean." His voice was its normal mild, husky light baritone once more: blessedly adult and unstrained... Back in the focused moment, black turned brown; green followed suit, and next to her, Narcissa felt Lucius relax, a near-inaudible breath of desperate relief escaping him... His fingers loosened a bit in hers; she squeezed them firmly, and caught his eyes... His smile was small and edged; his eyes sending her the single message in the one, even smaller, telegraphed exchange.

Field trip to Privet Drive after all this is over, my heart?

I'll pack the sandwiches personally, my lovely.

"Well, that's good, innit?" Charlie said encouragingly. "No, that's great! Why the frown?"

"The Mark's gone. The fence, though..."

The Warder pulled up his t-shirt and looked down. A second circle of shimmering runes circled his own heart. Charlie gawped, then put his bottle aside and came to sit beside him, struggling with the multiple layers of his St. Roux.

"Three for three," he said as he, too, looked down. "What does it mean?"

Ren said nothing, just reached out to Narcissa. She pulled back a moment, startled, but his fingers only brushed her face.

"Master-Adept, what..."

He pulled his fingers away. A strand of pale gold and green trailed from the center of the tiny X on her cheek, wrapping around his fingers before fading to a small glowing dot in his palm. He gestured Charlie up, then stood himself, brushing one hand with the other.  As had happened with the Dark Mark, a proxy flared over the table: a small, mottled globe this time. Ren Summoned his second wand and began to dissect it swiftly, slicing it into four neat segments and unspooling the twisted and tangled contents within.  It didn't take long, and when he was finished, he Vanished the remnants and sat down heavily.

"Here's a suggestion for you, Beauty," he said to Charlie.

"Mm?"

"In the next edition of our lives," he said. "Raise gerbils."


 

Malfoy Manor

The Conference Chambers

11.45 P.M

"So," Namirembe persisted, keeping an eye on the crowds. The last of the portkeys had transported their incoming, and said incoming were now dividing themselves into teams, all circling around their relevant tables to examine maps and associated data. "Define 'complica...'" She blinked. "Why is Remus Lupin wearing Armani to battle?"

"It's an Occasion," Narcissa said dryly. "I imagine, in his mind, the Occasion. And gentlemen always dress for the Occasion, do they not?"

"Uh huh. This is why I'm fighting for Kenya. If England were sponsoring me, they'd probably expect me to duel in an evening gown. And the sword?"

"The Headmaster brought it in. Lupin admired it, and he offered to lend it to him for the evening. Something about it matching his aura?"

"If you say so. Complications," Namirembe ordered. "Definitions and descriptions thereof."

"Ah. Right." Narcissa collected herself. "Do you know how the Opprobrium Curse works? Exactly? On the technical, magical level?"

"Can't say that I do, no."

"I can't conceive Luke's baby," Narcissa explained. "Because ever since the curse was cast, my magic views his magic as an extension of my own. We're married: one flesh, right, and our cores take that literally. Not... It's not literal, it's just how our cores perceive each other now when it comes to reproductive issues. And you can't exactly reproduce with yourself, can you?"

"That's rhetorical, right?"

"Yes. Well-spotted. Anyway. That's us. In Ren and Charlie's case, the Horntails - the ones in Ren's wands, that healed Charlie - take things literally too. When Luke and I were up on the dais proposing Solace, they took a good hard look at us, or rather our magic, and their magic saw us, thanks to the curse on me, not as two people but one - a female person who had already, given that literal perspective of absolutely everything again, successfully given birth to a live dragon."

"WHAT?"

"They don't get names. They don't do names; Ren just gave them theirs for his own personal convenience. It's either Mate, Child, Other Dragon, or just plain Other. So when they were reviewing us, 'Draco' translated as 'dragon child'."

Namirembe's eyes widened.

"So they looked at us," Narcissa continued. "On the dais, or rather at our magic, and saw, as I said, one woman. And their magic looked at Charlie and Ren's magic and identified them as two people with one soul, but ones with those two inconveniently male bodies. So by draconic magical logic again, they were soul-bonded, but not, in strictly reproductive terms, mates. Just one, male person. Which means, in draconic terms again, that they yet require a mate. A female mate, preferably with a proven history of successful pregnancy. A live pregnancy, with a healthy child. A bloody buggering bollocking dragon of a child."

"Jesus fuck!"

"Indeed. End result in their eyes: four bodies, two people, two souls, each pair independently infertile. And we invited them over for tea, and they accepted, and the one bit of the Horntails' active consciousness that was left after healing Charlie, and magically defining him and Ren, once they consummated on their wedding night, not just as one soul, but one flesh - decided to cement the proposed merger between the four, or rather in their eyes, two of us. Interesting fact of the day? Hungarian Horntails don't do foreplay any more than they do metaphor. They just assumed that acceptance of tea meant acceptance of the deal."

Namirembe snorted.

"So," Narcissa continued. "While Master-Adept Weasley-Cartwright was ever so kindly removing another man's brand from my husband's arm, after placing a bio-runic fence around his heart to protect him from nasty side effects, those absolute morons of Horntails decided that was the moment that he and Charlie - because remember that in their eyes, insofar as fertility is concerned, Charlie and Ren are the same person now - was saying 'yes, you're mine, have my brand', and proceeded to do... Whatever they did to seal the deal."

The snort cut off abruptly.

"Wha... Wait, wait. What? Are you saying... Does that mean you don't have any choice? That they have to offer you Solace now, and that you have to accept it, even if you decide you don't like each other?"

"No, no. We don't have to do anything. The problem is, is that if we decide not to, Solace won't ever work for any of us with anyone else. Only bloody buggering bollocking Hungarian Horntails can't reproduce with anyone but their designated mates, see? They can shag whomever they like, whenever, but there'll be no bloody buggering bollocking eggs from it."

"So..."

"No other maternal candidates for them," she translated. "No other proxy options for us. Ever."

There was a long moment of silence.

"Wow," her mentor said finally. "I.... Don't know what to say to that, Nissie."

"Oh, it's not all horrible." The quirk turned a little sardonic. "Turns out they actually, in the middle of all of this, did us all a favour."

"What's that?"

"The overriding infusion of their brand of fertility magic into the equation mixed things up a bit. Now that Luke and I are one," she said. "And they're one, any child resulting will in fact, have biological genetic markers from all of us."

"Erhm. What?"

"The resemblance to Luke won't be an exercise in magical spite. It'll be a real one."

"WHAT?"

"The curse is effectively broken - or rather, rewritten. I can have his children," Narcissa said. "I can have Luke's children again, Nami. All we have to do to get them is to accept the fact that all of those children will be both Charlie and Ren's as well."

*

"Wow," Namirembe said, blankly again. "Okay, then. Just... Wow. And how do we feel about that?"

"Bit slaggish, really," Narcissa confessed, surprisingly candidly. "I mean, alright, I might not actually have to sleep with them, but you know where people's minds will go."

"They're there already, sweetie. Trust me. And... Might not?"

"Yes. Now that there are four bodies involved, the Master-Adept said that it's quite possible that conception will be a multiple-step process."

"Uh?"

"Oh, for... Use your bloody imagination, woman! I know you're a proponent of the straightforward approach, but do I have to spell everything out for you?"

"No, and I am. It's on bloody overdrive, believe you me. My imagination, that is. What was Lucius' reaction?"

"That it's a lot to absorb?  He's a strategist, he's used to making projections, but this isn't anything that he could possibly, possibly have anticipated. That any of us could have."

"My brain hurts." The larger woman held her head. "Oh my God. And what do they think? Weasley and Cartwright, I mean?"

"Weasley-Cartwright. No 'and'. Also, no idea. It was a lot to absorb at the time, like I said. And there's the meeting now, besides, and we needed to concentrate on that. We finished up our drinks - there was no tea involved in any of them after that point, believe you me - and they went off to run some errands. They'll be here later though, and said we'll all talk more on the subject after the clean-up. In the meantime..."

"I won't say a word," her friend promised. "I swear." She hesitated. "Nissie?"

"Yes?"

"All else aside... Do you like them?"

Narcissa was silent.

"I don't know," she said at last, again. "They're not what we expected, like I said. At all." Not just the understatement of the last ten millennia, she thought, but of the last... Ever.

"Do you dislike them?"

"No more than they dislike us. I'm fairly certain that we're not what they expected either."

"No one ever is," her former advisor said philosophically. "So maybe it's best just to leave that qualifier out of the picture, when it comes right down to it? It has been less than a week since you met them; that's barely enough time to process your first impressions of them, much less perform accurate character assessments."

"What, you're on their side now?"

"What, they're enemies now? There are only two sides to take here, Nissie; the one that helps prevent the world from going down the crapper again, and the one that doesn't. I might be a career combat duelist, but I'm not really interested in practicing on anything but the purely recreational level when it comes right down to it. I mean, I would if it were necessary, obviously, but I'm just not into scenarios that take out my adoring fans. Insofar as your options are concerned, if they are really your only reproductive option... What's wrong with encouraging you to embrace a perspective that will allow you to be happy with the hand dealt you? Never mind that it'll annoy the shit out of that Weasley cow," she added, craning her neck. "Damn. All that cash come in, you'd think she could find herself a decent hair stylist. Do you think it would be tacky to slip the name of mine in her robe pocket?"

"Not as long as you don't sign it 'Hugs and Kisses, Namirembe.' Your fetish for public recognition aside, anonymity really is best in such delicate matters. Also," the younger woman added. "In her very reluctant defense, she might very well have decided it prudent to put off any appointment there till tomorrow. We're none of us likely to come out of this with our impeccable coiffures intact, none of us whose names don't start with 'Remus' and end with 'Lupin', anyway."

Namirembe laughed. "He's a cutie," she conceded. "Your cousin's one lucky bugger. I'd play Little Red Riding Hood to his ex-werewolf any day, never mind letting him eat me right up."

"Aaaaand back to the subject at hand. What did Molly Weasley ever do to you again?"

"Nothing. I've never exchanged two words with her, but now that she's probably going to be your mother-in-law, or at the very least your kids' grandmum, I feel obliged to commiserate in advance. Want me to drop a mountain on her for you? Lots of them in Wales, just make sure she goes in on my team and we'll be all set."

"That won't be necessary. You know me; I'm a firm believer in letting people bury themselves."

"Since when?"

"It's a recent development. Though, given that, and because we are friends, and because I really have no interest in seeing you embarrass yourself... You might want to start working up an alternative or two to your standard thrown mountain ranges."

"He's a defensive specialist, Nissikins. He might be able to power a shield that holds off an army for half an hour or so, but I can keep throwing things at him till the cows come home."

"And he won't have to throw things back, Nami," she said patiently. "At any point. All he'll have to do is power that shield to return your offerings to sender."

"Wha..." The cookie stopped at her lips.

"Police box? Reflective runic shield? Bio-runic expert, with the quite-probable ability to turn himself into a reflective runic shield at the drop of an inky biro?" Narcissa rolled her eyes at the blank expression. "'He's rubber, you're glue; throw mountains at him, they'll stick to you'... Honestly, woman, you were right there for his dueling exam when he explained it all! He didn't even make you pick up the bloody telephone before he dropped the bloody mountain-sized hint!"

"Goddammit!" Namirembe Obonyo-Higgs said in heartfelt dismay.

"I'm fairly certain that God's quite fond of him these days, since he stepped up to save the world and all. You're not likely to get any help there, I'm afraid."

Namirembe Obonyo-Higgs disdained to answer that, just snarled and slammed off to the drinks table.


 

The Malfoys' Garden Room

Several Drinks (All Around) Later

"I would just like to say," Charlie Weasley-Cartwright observed as he stretched out his legs and examined the ice in his tumbler. "That when I said the firewhiskey is intended as a facilitator, that this  was not what I had in mind."

"On the other hand," Lucius noted. "You did, while at the bank on Monday, emphasize the fact  that the standard protocols did not apply in our case." He nibbled on an egg and cress sandwich from the tray of assorted comestibles now on the coffee table. "I do not suppose that you are able to reassure us that you would have told us the entire story eventually?"

"I just remembered the entire story last week," the wrangler pointed out. "And Mate's been working with that the mnemonic disadvantage till September. He just thought he'd died and gone back in time."

"Two years," Narcissa said to Ren yet again. "And your mother didn't even check on you?"

"See?" Ren said to Charlie plaintively. "I'm not the only one who's stuck on that bit! It's not just down to my resurrected adolescent angst after all!"

"Pretty sure your adolescent angst didn't actually die any more than the pair of us did, mate," Charlie said dryly, helping himself to a third delectable blueberry tart. "So there was never anything there to be resurrected."

"Nice, man."  The Warder helped himself to a treacle tart.

"True, though." His husband flicked his cowlick. "Let it go. She buggered it up, yeah, but then again, I didn't see you coming to knock down the Burrow door to break me out."

"I was nine again, you great git! What, I was supposed to hunt you down and announce 'Hi, I'm Harry Potter, your soulmate from the future, let me take you away from all this and allow you to raise me to physical adulthood so we can shag like maniacs till you get magical cancer and I have to AK  you all over again?"

"I'd wince reproachfully for that," Charlie conceded. "But you might have a point.'

"Also," Ren added. "I didn't know I was bent till Saturday.That takes the soulmate bit and the shagging bit out of the entire scenario, which just leaves "Harry Potter', 'future', and 'cancer'' and 'AK',  and it's not like I could have even stopped you from getting sick in the first place, because I didn't know it was that bloody wand that caused it!"

"As fascinating as this exchange is," Lucius said. "My question still stands."

Ren grimaced and lowered his tart.

"I don't know," he said. "I don't... Only how do you bring up something like that? I reckon if things had gone on the regular way, such as the regular way is, I would have told you a version of my childhood, because it would have been the responsible thing to do, parentally speaking. You would have had the right to know what kind of...."

He stopped.

"I wasn't the greatest father,' he said. "I loved my kids, but I just..." His shoulders tightened. "I didn't exactly have good, age-appropriate role models there. Ever. Well, there was Arthur, but ..."

"But what?" Narcissa asked.

"I reckon that was a bit messed up too," the Warder said. "In terms of the dynamic, because I saved his life, yeah? Directly. My mind-healer and I talked on that quite a bit; she said that kids aren't supposed to save adults, adults are supposed to save kids. And I didn't resent it, of course I didn't, but it made a difference. In me, in how I saw him as someone who qualified as a parent, my parent, because it was all backwards. It was really.... When it came right down to it, I saved everybody. One way or the other, she said. The only person - the only father, or destined-to-be-a-father - that I didn't save, or risk, in my psyche's formative years was Neville. Right from the first year, he was just... Hermione and Ron and I snuck out to retrieve the Philosopher's Stone, right, and he caught us, and threatened to fight us to keep us in line. At eleven. And Dumbledore would never listen when I told him about the Dursleys, and Remus and Sirius both died, and Snape. Well. Snape." He grimaced.

"What about Mig?" Charlie asked.

"He wasn't a father. He never married. I don't even ever remembering him looking at a woman with intent, or a man either, for that matter, and yeah, he had dozens of nieces and nephews who adored him, but without the direct personal context, I never thought on him in the paternal sense. And okay, my mates all grew up and had kids, but really, they just made me feel even more inadequate, because their kids were right there, reaping all the benefits that I could never offer mine. I was a fantastic grandfather," he said. "But... Even now. It was horrid with me and Al. He was always Harry Potter's son. What's it going to be like for any we all might have now, as Ren Cartwright's kids?"

"Solace does make a difference, mate, and you've got the benefit of all that experience to be going with now besides, yeah? And the applicable hindsight? There's no way, no way you'd let the world bugger you the way it did back home, never mind that you'd have two other dads to help you along through the tight spots. Oh, and Niss as the world's greatest mum ever, never mind Neville again, still there as doting Gramps, and Sirius and Remus too. You're not alone with it. You're not alone, period."

Ren was silent.

"I would have told you that bit," he said at last, not looking at the couple opposite. "Maybe not the details... But that there'd be some paternal compensation necessary. And why. Generally. The rest of it... Would you have believed us if you hadn't literally seen it yourselves?"

"Quite probably not," his host conceded. "Though... Do you do not have a sense that the differences in our ages will affect things?"

The Warder laughed at that... There was little, if any humour in it.

"It's a number,' he said. "One that only, in the long run, has provided me with a learned and earned appreciation for the peaceful, quiet life. Take out the creaky joints and the cold feet and the piss-poor digestion - and I'm not remotely sorry to see those go - and all that's left is what you see before you, only with all of the extra, hopefully-helpful-now-and-again accumulated experience that comes with living through fourteen decades. I don't pretend to be wise and infallible just because I've got the physical years under my belt. Living a long time doesn't make you smart or special or worthy of respect in and of itself. It just means you haven't died yet. And for all that they called me the Boy-Who-Lived, it wasn't even especially accurate. More, again, the Boy-Who-Didn't-Die. Not even the Man-Who-Didn't-Die: the Boy. Hundred thirty-six when I kicked it, and that's what they still called me. It was in my obituary, I'm sure. It's how they taught me to see myself. And for better or worse, till now... It's stuck."

"Well, we need not ask or resolve all questions today. May I ask you this, at least," Lucius said. "Is our godson truly safe?"

"Yes."

"And he is with with your grandfa... the Headmaster's son and daughter-in-law?"

"Yeah. Frankie, and his wife Stella. They don't come any better, on any world. They'll feed him up, get him all the help he needs, and make sure he develops a proper, balanced perspective on life besides. And he's got my counterpart there too. The Harry Potter who lives here."

"And Augusta is aware?"

"Yeah. Of all of it. Neil told her, back at the beginning of the school year."

"You are sure their return is guaranteed? Even though your team got the wrong universe?"

"They didn't get the wrong universe," Ren said. "They didn't get the one they thought they were targeting, but since they never actually targeted that one in the first place,  there was nothing to go wrong. Yours was the original all along; Hermione and the other girls went back decades before the arithmantic and runic parameters of the Project were defined, after all, in order to write Charlie in, and the Horntails chose the one that they thought would be most appropriate to be to be going  with before we ever went looking, chronologically speaking."

"So... your vision, so to speak, was led by the nose?"

"Yup. Total bait and switch; the Project Managers never would have gone for a world that wasn't an exact match; it had to be, they thought, but that was because they didn't know the Horntails were  involved again, and who the hell in their right minds would ever throw dragons in as an element in something this big? Not a lot of people know they're intelligent, or would believe it of them, and they're really scary besides. So... Somehow the girls and Bill - our Bill - managed to glamour it up so we thought we were seeing one thing, while we were actually looking at something completely different - and we defined the parameters of the project by the parameters of that something completely different, and with the magical cores of the matches we found for our participants there. There were no options to confuse, because this world was the only one we ever used."

Lucius had the look of someone about to come down with a blazing migraine.

"They'll be back," Ren assured him. "The only way it can all get buggered up now is if they were to decide to go in and intentionally mess with the parameters after the gate was opened, on the assumption that they'd made a crucial error, and that would never have happened. The errors would have had to have been made on the arithmantic end of things, and that wouldn't have happened, not with Astra in charge. Errors are simply not in her personal vocabulary."

"And Astra is..."

"Astra Longbottom Malfoy. Frankie's daughter, and Neil's granddaughter. She's married to Pollux Malfoy, your counterpart's..." He squinted. "Great-great grandson? Yeah. Our Draco's great grandson. They're age equivalent, but the generations are mixed there because while the rest of my generation had our kids right on traditional biological schedule,  Frankie was born when Neil and his wife were just shy of sixty."

"Six... Truly?"

"Yeah. I'll draw you a family tree at some point. Or a family forest. It was pretty damned epic by the end there." He knocked back the last of the whiskey and set the tumbler aside, cracking his knuckles and slipping forward to sit on the edge of the sofa. "Alright. Let's see 'em."

"I'm sorry?"

"Maps, plans, notes, what-have you. No question of trusting you now, and from the bit I saw, you have things in hand, but I have how many decades in DADA, dueling, Warding and oh, yeah, Auroring, and we look like we have a busy couple of days ahead."

"Lawrence..."

"No," Narcissa said immediately. "You're going to Romania, on your honeymoon."

"No," Ren said kindly to her. "We're not. We're taking these sons-of-bitches down together, and before you say that you can manage without me, I'll offer you up an example of why you might not want to risk that."

"You may try, but..."

"Those cauldrons of Felix Felicitas you've got simmering away down there," Ren cut off Lucius. "The ones that you plan to hand out to all of your allies to guarantee them their best day ever?"

"Yes?"

"What kind of day would Riddle have had if he'd ever decided, with all best intentions and those stars on you in his eyes, to offer you a vial of that to guarantee his win?"

Lucius opened his mouth, and shut it again.

"Not everyone on the inside is your friend," Ren informed him. "Sometimes a safehouse is a harbour for rats. These blokes - well, the three blokes and the bitch - operate through Quidditch. Kiddie Quidditch. What are the odds that at least a few of the people you think are your allies know exactly what's going on there, and keep their mouths shut because their own kids, whether enrolled in the feeder leagues or not, are at risk or under threat?"

Charlie blanched.

"Christ," he said. "No. No."

"How many of your family did you say had been targeted again?" his husband inquired. "You, Freddie, George, and potentially Niamh... And how badly did you say they'd want Niamh, and just how badly did you say, again, that your Mum hates the Junior Leagues?"

"You think Mum knows?"

"Not saying she does, not saying she doesn't. I'm just asking you... What would she do, what - who - would she be willing to sacrifice - if one of her own kids was at stake?"

"She can't know! She can't! They never got any of us! They've got nothing on her!"

"No? The goblins deal in drugs, Charlie. Where do you think they might have got those drugs? Through what channels?"

"What are you saying?"

"That mycanthus isn't cheap," the still-in-spite-of-himself Harry Potter said bluntly. "And your family had no money till this year. Sometimes dealers will wait on payment, if the potential payout's hot enough. They make a suggestion, your mum takes a gamble on the odds that God will come around in good time, she wins that gamble big-time - enough to pay off all old debts with extra cash in hand... And the dealers are pissed enough at her for escaping them that they decide to make the point to her of cashing in on their preferred version of the deal anyway, while ostensibly targeting someone else's kid."

"Christ," Charlie said. He sounded as if he were on the verge of tears. " Christ!"

"It's only part of the story," Ren said. "I'm sure. There are other factors, other players... But I'll bet my broom that it is part of the story. No wonder the goblins were shitting themselves when I brought up the drugs. If they've been working through suppliers and contacts in the cabals... However at a distance... And the wizarding community finds out... You would have to wonder, wouldn't you, how many of those that they were hired to assassinate were sent to the cabals, for disposal with untraceable prejudice? They don't just deal in children, after all, and what of all the Nomaji they work with besides? You don't think that the goblins have never taken contracts from non-magical clients, do you? Only they're a bit obviously not-human themselves, and they'd need front-men, wouldn't they, to advertise certain of their service options without breaking the Statute of Secrecy?

There was a rather dire silence.


 

Malfoy Manor

The Conference Chambers

11.55 PM

"Much better." Namirembe returned, glass in hand, and recast the Muffliato as she glanced around. "Looks like everyone's here... Where's your handsome hubby? Can't exactly get this party started without him, can we?"

"He's still in the private reception room with Amelia Bones and Mad-Eye," Narcissa said. She looked, to her former advisor's eye, more than a little jittery. "They're all giving Fudge the breakdown."

"Fudge? Fudge is here?"

"Yes, of course. He's the Minister of Magic, Nami; we couldn't exactly blackball him."

"Why not?" she demanded. "He's shit on the shoe of Great Britain these days, Nissie! No, the smell of the shit on the shoe of Great Britain! Also, a complete international embarrassment. Honestly, it's almost enough to make me cancel my citizenship."

"Be that as it may, he's yet the democratically elected shit. Smell. Whatever. Both. He won't make it through the next election, but in the meantime, he's what we've got, and we have to work with him."

"Bugger." Namirembe slurped her drink sadly.  

"Mm," Narcissa agreed, and looked over at the great doors. Namirembe followed her gaze. Amelia Bones was standing there, mouth tight and eyes frigidly displeased... Mad-Eye Moody was there as well; he looked as if he were on the verge of rupturing something.  Cornelius Fudge, clad in his shiny green suit and bowler, looked as he usually did: that is, stupid. The stupid was at least partially deceptive, Narcissa knew...  Great Britain's Minister of Magic actually personified cunning, if not intelligence, but he was no less annoying for the fact. It was the fourth figure there that caught everyone's attention though. Slightly behind them, fully six and a half feet in his battle boots, with shoulders that nearly filled the door, stood Lucius Malfoy. He was clad in slate-blue soft trousers and a white open-throated shirt, neatly bloused... A soft glimmer of gold shone between his collarbones; his sleeves were rolled to the elbows, and his icy hair was pulled back in a neat tight braid. Impeccable as always, yes, but even from the distance, the two women could see that his face was pale as glass, his mouth taut and tense, the sharp angles of his cheekbones brittle rather than refined, and the circles under his eyes as dark as the double holsters on the belt at his hips.

"Jesus fuck," Namirembe said, taken aback. "He looks like total shit, Nissie!  What the..." Narcissa just swore violently and unhappily under her breath.

"Do not tell me," her advisor said as the Minister of Magic made his way to the podium and cleared his throat, tapping said throat with his wand in a projected Sonorus. "Do not tell me."

"Luke was cleared on appeal all those years ago," Narcissa confirmed unhappily. "After he was convicted, but for lack of evidence rather than confirmation of innocence. And with Riddle on the loose now - oh, don't tell me you didn’t know, everybody bloody knows, nobody's talking on it, is all - what do you think certain people were bound to think when the answers to all of this mess showed up on our doorstep but that it's all a giant set-up on his purported General's part to off the entire Order of the Phoenix all at once? Amelia and Mad-Eye know better; they know us, and they said they'd handle him, but when it comes right down to it..."

"I thank  you all for coming tonight," Cornelius Fudge said pompously. "Your prompt response does you all credit, and we acknowledge your dedication to the return of law and the safety of our citizens. I am greatly afraid though, that as our host, Mr. Lucius Malfoy, categorically refuses to reveal his sources, that the Ministry of Magic cannot and will not justify or authorize this kind of attack on private citizens."

 

Chapter Text

 

Castelobruxo School

Brazil

January 17, 1971

Contrary to the immortal opinion of one T.S. Eliot, January, rather than April, was the cruelest month in Brazil: both torment and tormented.

The first term had been unnaturally quiet. There were, over the four months counted from the first of September through the third week of December, less than half a dozen reported losses. Far from appreciating the reprieve though, the students’ tension only built, and by the time the last portkey to Manaus had activated on the last day of classes before the Christmas holidays, the collective mood was just shy of abject panic. Lucius didn’t understand the contradiction at all, and was far too uneasy to ask... Even Antonio Silva seemed unnerved, and that was quite enough to render his heart mute on the subject.

As it turned out again, the young Englishman didn’t have to wait long for the explanation. The students returned on the first day of the new term to the tolling of the school-wide mourning bell, and its echoes were no sooner silenced than it started up again. All throughout the month that followed, there was no single day when fewer than four pale, black-edged letters were delivered to the school (not counting the multiple versions of the same missive if enrolled siblings were affected), each marked with the official seal of the government of its country of origin. Each letter appeared, if the student receiving word of a loss was underage, to their advisor, to be delivered in person. If the student in question was seventeen, it appeared before them personally.

The bell only sounded and the letters were only delivered during class hours, so that none were alone or without support.  A kindness of sorts, perhaps, but on the other hand, it served just as well in providing Lucius the opportunity to establish his life-long personal context  for the phrase 'agonies of the damned'. He  truly didn’t know for whom he felt worse: the teachers, burdened doubly with the shock of a missive appeared before them and the task of meeting the eyes of one of the paralyzed children sitting before them, the children themselves, all praying frantically that they would be passed over (all while knowing that their God would fail to answer at least one of them), or the newly minted 'adults', every one of whom would mark the end of their official childhood, not by the turn of the year come round to the day, but with that first personally delivered invitation to sit at the adults'  table and partake in their continent's ongoing twenty-four-hour celebration of the Last Supper before heading off for their appointed shifts in the garden of Gethsemane and at the foot of the Cross.

Lucius Malfoy would suffer much in the years that followed, but if there was any one thing that saved him from insanity and despair during those years, it was the knowledge that, no matter what fresh hell Tom Riddle visited upon him, there existed at least one deeper, hotter version that he had survived before he ever officially met the demon in question.

On the worst day of the month - the seventeenth: Ramone's birthday  - no fewer than twenty nine black-edged letters were delivered to Castelobruxo School, each appearing on the first reverberating note of the bell before the teacher to whom the unfortunate student was assigned. Only one appeared before the student herself. That student was Carmen Lopez, come of age two and a half months before on All Saints’ Eve: October 31st, 1970. The bell tolled halfway through Nomaj Appreciation. The young woman sat for a full five minutes, staring at the envelope before her as the other students bent their heads  and prayed silently... Caught mid-explanation of the preferred themes of William Blake, Silva brought his chair over (he rarely used it, preferring to perch on his desk facing his classes as he taught) and came to sit beside her. He said not a word, just put a gentle arm around her shoulders. When at last she took the envelope in her hands, the classroom was so quiet Lucius could hear the seal snap.

Under their shared desk, Ramone clutched Lucius' own hand. Lopez said nothing, her expression impassive as she read. When she was finished, she refolded the page and tucked it into the envelope. As she put it back in the precise position that it had appeared on the desk, the lighter green trim of her emerald robes turned a deep purple. The trim of Lucius' own robes, once his mother's death had been announced, had turned azure blue... Upon inquiry, Ramone had retrieved his room-mate's  orientation packet from the drawer of his nightstand and extracted a single sheet.

"You see here," he said, sitting beside him as Lucius perused the two columns inscribed there. "Each colour listed reflects the degree of relation that those in mourning had with the lost. Red for the paternal, blue for the maternal, light yellow for sister, deeper yellow for a brother... Those who grieve have enough questions of their own, always, without being inflicted with the burden of having to answer the most painful of them over and over and over again. It is all about consideration, heh?"

"How long before they turn back?" Lucius asked, examining the sheet (orange for a first cousin, navy for a neighbour of no blood relation that had been close enough to call family, white for a son, should a teacher be the unfortunate recipient of the notification, silver for a daughter, and copper for spouses).

"Two weeks. Enough time for everyone to note the presence of the change, and to remember that they must be kind and understanding even after it has faded. If you do not wish it," he added, "I am sure that Tio would change it back for you."

For a moment, Lucius had seriously considered it. He understood the reasoning well enough, but his natural British reserve was positively cringing at the thought of others being privy to the finer specifics behind his current emotional state. In the end...

"No," he found himself saying. "No, it is alright. Mother loved blue, and on the days she was particularly irked with Abraxas would always put the extra effort into ensuring that I was happy with life. My own eyes are only grey when I am annoyed or angry," he explained at Ramone's inquiring look. "They turn blue when I am content. He hates the fact. Malfoy men do not have blue eyes; I am the first in twenty generations of the direct line to break tradition there."

Purple, he had learned (far, far better than he would ever in his life have wished to learn anything), denoted the loss of a grandparent. The shade was wrong though, he thought, puzzled, as he regarded Lopez’ robes... Lavender was for the feminine there, and violet for the masculine. It took him a moment to put the pieces together: that the deep, richer variation must mean that both had been lost. He watched as Lopez abruptly blurred. A small, wide-eyed bird with a ridiculous blue and orange crest appeared in her place. Lucius almost imagined he could see it weeping as it careened out of the classroom.

He looked at Ramone anxiously. Ramone just shook his head. Silva murmured a few words; a brilliant ghostly spider appeared and slipped through the door. Before Lucius, in his spiral-bound notebook, words appeared suddenly, inked in the young Brazilian's elegant script.

He has sent a message to her advisor. She will locate her, and attend to her.

Lucius hesitated, then inked a tiny question mark under the words. In response...

She is from Colombia, but her grandparents lived in Belen, in Peru. It is a very poor village, and the houses are built on rafts and stilts over the river. There are very few Magicals who have ever lived there at any point in history, and no Nomaji-born for three generations now, so we have no way to warn any of the residents of the dangers of living there without breaking the Statute of Secrecy.  Her grandparents moved there intentionally after their children were grown because they wished to do what they could for the people there. She has always known that their letters would come.

Lucius propped his head in his fist.  He knew the name Belen. It was the same village where Silva's first heart, Gabriel Santa Cruz, had been born. He didn’t look up to see Silva's face as he returned to the front of the room. He didn’t have to. Their new empathic connection, stronger than ever after the holidays and the time they'd spent alone together, not as teacher and student, but as phoenix and heart, ensured that he could feel the sharp stab of the priest's renewed pain as if it were his own.

That evening, Lucius sat on his bed, watching as Ramone charmed his green robes to purest white. It was the tradition for those attending the Requiem Masses for the lost, and there had been one every night that month. When he was dressed, he kissed Lucius' cheek, and slipped out. When he was gone, Lucius rose and went to the closet, retrieving what hung within. He too dressed carefully and headed through the maze to the chapel. His near-military-styled black dress robes shone in stark, reversed contrast to the white-robed figures moving through the hall... The heels of his high, shining boots rang precisely on the stone floors.

There was no room in the pews when he arrived. No one made room, so he stood, as he had every night since the beginning of the month, against the back wall and just inside the doors of the chapel, facing the altar. His features were impassive, his feet braced slightly apart, his hands folded behind his back. Beneath his lifted chin (no indication of pride or arrogance, but the necessary accommodation for his high, stiff collar) the formal crest of the Heir of House Malfoy glimmered.  At an angle, in the front rows reserved for the bereaved of the day, he saw someone prod Carmen Lopez. She turned, her eyes meeting his. He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. Quite deliberately, she turned her back.

It was the only movement he made for the next hour and a half. When the Mass ended and everyone filed out, he stood by the door till the last was gone. He went to one of the high arched alcoves that lined the sides of the room, and releasing his wand, surveyed the rows of lit candles. When he located one yet dark, he touched his wand to the wick. A small spark flared and caught. When he turned, he very nearly jumped out of his boots at sight of the figure standing behind him. He lowered his wand slowly.

"Your presence here is offensive," Carmen Lopez said to him harshly. "Due courtesy to guests is mandated, but you are not welcome at such times as these. You are not one of us, and never will be."

"I do not come here to offend," Lucius said quietly. "Nor for the welcome. And... I am well aware."

Her mouth hardened.

"Why are you still here?" she demanded. "How is it that you were you not sent home with the others, in September?"

"I am told that your Jesus arranged it. Who am I to argue His means and motives?"

"You are nothing," she told him. Her wide, wet eyes shimmered in the candlelight, her hair rising, not as a wave, but as the high crest of a bird away from her slim cheeks and high forehead. "You kill us. You kill us. It is all that any of you have to offer. You are the real lethifolds, eating us alive with not even the grace to give thanks for that which fuels and sustains you."

Lucius down looked at her.  She was only three inches shorter than he was, but the boots raised him an extra two.

"You came to my mother's memorial," he said quietly.

"I was made to," she said spitefully. "We all were. If it were not for Padre's dictate, not one of us would have come. You think we care about your puta of a mother, Malfoy?"

'No," he conceded. He was well aware of the meaning of the particular insult,  but his mother would have twisted his ear, metaphorically speaking anyway, if he'd demonstrated insult on her behalf in the particular moment. "You did not know her. I do not suppose that anyone can be expected to care on someone that they did not know."

He turned his back, searching for another cold candle. He could feel her eyes boring through his back.

"I am very sorry for your loss," he said, without turning again.

"Obrigada. You are so kind. I am not at all sorry for yours. I am glad your mother is dead. It is one less of you to think on. To kill us, every day."

"You did not think on her before I came here," he pointed out. "You did not know her name, or even that she existed."

"I will forget you,' Carmen Lopez said bitterly, to his back. "As soon as you are gone. It will be my pleasure to forget you. To erase you from my memory, as all of us are erased by you."

He turned to face her again at that.

"I would remember all of your names, if I could," he said. "Perhaps that is not enough for you. For any of you. But it is all that I have to offer. All - and everything - that is within my power to offer, in this one moment."

"It is nothing. You are nothing."

"You are not the first to tell me that," he said. "And you will not be the last. Yours is not the only jungle in this world.  For all that we have so few trees in England, relatively speaking... That particular breed of forest grows everywhere. The major difference between my jungle and yours is that yours hosts lethifolds and mine hosts Dementors."

For a moment, a long moment, the young woman just stared at him, visibly disconcerted and distracted from her furious pain at the apparent non-sequitur.

"Dementors," she scoffed at him, recovering somewhat. "They are almost as rare as your people believe lethifolds."

"Is that what your leaders tell you? Or did you read it in a textbook? Lies and delusions are dealt on both sides of the ocean, Miss Lopez." Lucius listened, bemused, to the words coming from his own mouth. He had no idea where they were coming from, or for that matter, why he was saying them. "What do you have here to lose from your enemy but your memories and mortal lives? Where I come from, the costs are much higher. There may be fewer physical victims, but then again... How many lives equate to the loss of a single soul?"

"What are you talking on?"

"Dementors eat souls, Miss Lopez. They have jobs toward that end. Governmentally sponsored jobs, even. Only they are not interested in gold or similar themes of payment, so we have not only the things that eat souls - souls that cannot even rely, in the specific context, on your God to note their ultimate integrity and so preserve them, no matter what they are forced to do - but the creatures that think souls a reasonable trade for their own safety. Even if what you say is true - that there are but a handful of Dementors relative to the true numbers of lethifolds - they are not the real evil, are they? Even if they all were to disappear today, we would yet be surrounded by the worst kind of demons: the kind of people who would pay them again, should their like ever return." He tucked his wand away. "There are no shortage of those anywhere, I promise you."

For perhaps half a moment, Lopez seemed, if not stymied, at least considering. Then...

"The fundamental premise on which you base your argument," she said dismissively. "Is flawed.  You are operating from your understood, but faulty perspective, that relies on an essential fallacy."

"Oh?"

"Souls are not tangible things that can be stolen away. They are of God, and the only thing that may prevent them from returning to God in the conclusive vital moment is the deliberate choice, made by their possessors themselves, to withhold themselves from His grace."

"And if there is no God after all?"

"Then I am positing a metaphor that yet serves to describe their essential nature. Your perspective, my perspective... They are but perspectives, and do not affect that essential and documented truth, that souls are inviolate in essence, and cannot be taken from the unwilling.  So whatever Dementors do, the actions attributed to them are misnomers."

"Really." After nearly two straight hours of standing in the pointed, tight boots, Lucius' feet hurt. Badly. He moved to sit in a pew. She did not, unsurprisingly, sit with him.

"Yes, really."

"So what is it do you think that they take?" He was genuinely curious. "Exactly, if not the soul as you define it? What is it that they steal, that leaves nothing but a blank, mindless body?"

"Sanity. That which contributes to the functions of active, mindful consciousness."

Lucius looked at her, bewildered. Carmen Lopez uttered a small sound of impatience, and in spite of herself, sat, or rather flung herself down beside him, turning to face him, one arm braced on the back of the pew as she offered him a look remarkably similar to Narcissa's when he was being particularly obtuse.

"Dementors feed on positive human emotions, do they not?" she said. "Leaving behind only despair?"

"Yes."

"Then we begin with this. What is emotion?"

Lucius fumbled, caught off guard.  Lopez waved him off impatiently.

"I will tell you. You are a European;  you will not have interpretive context. Nomajic studies have proved that emotions, and the behaviours associated with them, are the demonstrated responsive products of chemicals and chemical interactions in certain parts of the brain. Do you know of chemicals?" she asked belatedly. "At least? I do not have to explain those too, do I?"

"Yes," Lucius said. "I mean, no. You do not. I know what they are. And I know of brains too. Despite your obvious disdain for my country of origin, we do have that much, and them, in common."

"All things are possible with God. So, in Nomajic terms, one would say that a victim of the Dementors suffers a targeted attack on those parts of the brain that process the chemicals that, when interacting appropriately, induce appropriately balanced emotional reactions. This attack triggers, on the purely physiological level, instant and overwhelming crippling interference of those constantly regulating, regulated chemicals - the unnatural radical over-stimulation of some, the crushing and instantaneous repression of others, all while interfering with, and diverting, their natural patterns of delivery and processing. This results in a massive overdose of inappropriate emotional reactions - the negative ones."

Lucius rubbed his neck beneath his high collar as he sorted through that, and tried for a more familiar analogy. It wasn’t difficult; he he’d been working on a major project for Ancient Runes for a week now, and the equivalencies were immediately available.

"You are saying that the brain has the equivalent of ley-lines," he said cautiously. "That travel along ley paths, and direct and define these chemicals, as ley-lines do magic? And that when a Dementor attacks, they force the ley paths to reroute... "

He paused. Lopez waited, tapping her fingers on the back of the pew.

"It is as if the attack removes the warding sequences," Lucius said. "That are incorporated in order to maintain the structural integrity of the ley paths running through those certain parts of the brain.  And that removal of the wards allows the ley paths to collapse and sprawl, thus compromising the integrity of those sequences that define the ley-lines, even as those ley-lines channel raw magic - or in this instance, chemicals again - that, if appropriately contained, defined and routed, would result not in spells, but specific and balanced emotional reactions and responses?"

"You are not entirely hopeless," Lopez conceded. "Yes. It is an acceptable, if oversimplified analogy.  The initial attack does not remove the warding sequences, it simply interferes with them, rewriting certain portions so that the parameters of the wards are extended to encompass and embrace both the concept and proposed actuality of a brand new, strictly temporary ley path - one that branches away from the brain itself, outside the very body of physical victim, bridging the distance between that victim and the Dementor, through its mouth. The wards can accept this proposal as possible, because the new ley path does exactly what certain of the standard ley paths do - it acts as a defined road for the ley-lines that regulate the interaction and distribution of those defined chemicals that result in specifically  positive emotion."

"Only they channel all of them, don't they," Lucius said in realization. "All of those chemicals, along the new path that leads to the Dementor, leaving none behind for distribution throughout the host brain? And the only thing left there, then, in the active sense within the brain itself, are those paths that relay the chemicals that induce negative emotion!"

Lopez nodded.

"In the case of the Kiss," she said. "The Dementor follows the new ley path straight back to the source. It attaches itself to the face, and..." She grimaced. "Sucks magically on the brain, deforming it in both shape and function. When it withdraws, the brain reshapes, physically, to its standardized shape, but there are no ley paths left - the Nomaji call those neural paths - no ley-lines to define the parameters of chemical interaction, and no chemicals, in fact, to travel them, in any fashion. The victim is literally emptied of that which allows him or her to function on any point past the purely autonomic level. It does not mean the soul is gone," she emphasized. "It simply means that the physical brain is damaged beyond repair, to the point of permanent physiologic and mental catatonia.  If the soul - the soul was truly gone, truly gone... The body would be dead. The body only releases the soul, you see, only at the moment of bodily death. And the Kissed body is not dead, is it? It is simply... Not functional. Ergo, the soul is still in there."

"So how does the act fuel reproduc..." He stopped, revolted. "You're telling me that a Dementor's Kiss is literally a Dementor having sex with the victim? And that that which it extracts on the physiological level acts as seed?"

"If one wishes to reroute the metaphor along the singularly unpleasant and ungraceful ley path… Yes. I prefer not to travel it myself, in any context."

He flushed. "I am sorry. I just..." He shuddered convulsively. "Bleah. Bleah, bleah, bleah, bleah, bleah ."

"Mm," she agreed. "In reproductive terms... Dementors are the Magical embodiment of fear and despair. Like lethifolds, they are quintessentially Dark. Evil. Evil cannot act as a source of anything, Senhor Malfoy. It cannot reproduce on its own; it is a shadow, reactive rather than productive, and there is nothing there to work with in terms of fertilization. It can only distort and mutate that which it steals from the creative source, and so it does."

"Why do you think they do not exist in the tropics?" he asked. It was something he had always wondered.

"Because they would starve. They feed on pure, positive emotion. True positive emotion, true happiness... It is always a little compromised here. We cannot separate our sorrows from our joys the way others in other, more innocent, blissfully ignorant and gullible lands do, chemically or otherwise. And so when we achieve it, or are offered it... We do not let go there without a fight. It is why it is so hard to erase Magicals here, from the mind of other Magicals who love them. When the world betrays you so constantly, when the very land you inhabit rapes and kills you so very thoroughly every moment... There are only two sources of absolute joy: God, and those who stand beside you and suffer with you.  And those who stand with you may be lost, but we in South and Central America, Senhor Malfoy... We never let them go. If the Evil One himself cannot take them from us, no mere shadow can hope to accomplish it."

They sat for a few more minutes in silence.

"Why have I not heard of all this?" Lucius asked finally. "At home?"

"Because it is an explanation that incorporates things we have learned from the Nomaji, and again, you Europeans do not believe that there is anything worth studying there. It is against your cultural policy, and offends your sense of native superiority besides."

"That is not true! Well," he qualified. "Not entirely true. Not in all instances. And the Americans are just as bad."

"The Americans learn from the Nomaji. They simply do not associate with them socially. There is a difference. Insofar as Europe is concerned, it is entirely true, at least on the official educational level. Where did you say that you learned of chemicals again?"

Lucius sighed, and slumped a little.

"From a Nomaji-born classmate," he admitted reluctantly. "We were assigned to work on a potions project together, and he was explaining to me that the Nomaji do, in fact, have potions, only they call it chemistry. I asked him how you can create potions without magic, and he gave me several lessons on cross-cultural equivalencies, starting with, though certainly not ending with, the subject at hand."

"Mm." Lopez hoisted herself up, went to the alcove that hosted one of the tables of candles and associated paraphernalia, and returned with a slip of paper and a biro. "Here," she said, scribbling. "Look these up."

"What are they?"

"Books. Nomaji books. You will find them all in the library here. They discuss human anatomy and physiology and cognitive processing and development, all from the point of view of those who are not crippled by the fundamental belief that lack of a magical core means lack of native intelligence. Read them. Learn. Be astonished, and when you next see Padre, be sure to tell him that I have done my very, very personal best to counter your appalling ignorance so that he may give me extra credit for my efforts in his class."

"Thank you," he said politely, folding the paper and tucking it into his pocket. "I appreciate it, even if it is all for nothing."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"That I am nothing. You have said so yourself. Therefore all that you have just said... Is for nothing. I like your Animagus form," he offered as she glared. "It is an Amazonian Royal Flycatcher, is it not?"

"Yes. It is. Though it is very rude to make observations such as that when the form has not been deliberately and consciously shown you."

"Ah. You may ask Padre Silva my form if you like, when you next see him, as my apology. I have no idea what it will be, but he does, and though he will not tell me, you may tell him he has my permission to inform you."

"What?" For the first time, the look she offered him was completely devoid of anything but peculiar bemusement. "Why would he not tell you your form? You are working with such an abbreviated schedule, and once you know, the entire procedure tends to go much faster!"

"He says that if I wish to know, I must ask Jesus. He has been trying to further our mutual acquaintance for quite some time now, and believes that my unsatisfied curiosity there will provide incentive to allow him to make the introductions. Carriera knows too, I am convinced, but he says that as I am obviously one of those individuals who must know the gender of the child as soon as his wife has conceived, he feels spiritually bound to allow me the opportunity to cultivate patience."

"That is ridiculous as he is," Carmen Lopez said irritably. Lucius had to stifle a grin. The school's attitude toward Ramone had improved considerably after he had recovered from his fall, but the young woman before him seemed to think that her sincerest apology was best tendered through their joint expression of their relationship as it would likely have evolved if the past had never been tampered with - that is, of siblings who, however fond of each other, were in the chronic (loud, and loudly expressed) habit of annoying each other by breathing.  Silva, unsurprisingly, found it all immensely amusing. "Of course you would want to know the gender of your child! How else would you call it its proper name from the beginning?"

"That was my argument exactly!  He says that does not matter in my case, since all six of the godchildren that he has decided that my girlfriend and I are destined to provide him will be named for him."

"Boys and girls both?"

"Mm."

She said nothing more, just rolled her eyes as she turned to the door of the chapel. Lucius watched her go, a tall, dark figure in white slipping from the light-ridden room to the light-ridden hall beyond. He turned back to the front, still sitting in the pew, and regarded the exquisite crucifix hanging over the altar, and beneath it, the tiny wooden tabernacle. He closed his eyes, carefully and deliberately willing all memories, and past and future related memories, of Carmen Lopez into the warded room within his mind. He felt nothing, but that, Silva had reassured him, did not mean nothing was happening... He would only feel something, the priest had told him, when the memory he chose as the key was accepted by the magics. In the meantime, all was being stored and placed as stones in the walls in preparation. Nearly five months yet, the young Englishman thought, and rose from the pew: a tall, pale figure in black moving through the light-ridden room, through the door, and into the light-ridden hall beyond.

When he arrived back at the dormitories, Ramone was lying on his bed in his pajamas, reading a book. Something was off there, Lucius thought, and it took him a moment to realize what it was... He pondered the possible implications and the significance of the day's date as he stripped off his robes and tugged on his own pajamas, sneaking glances all the while. Ramone eyed him over the top of his book.

"Yes?" he inquired politely. "You have a question for me, Malfoy-from-England?"

"You are not wearing socks. This is the first occasion since I have met you that I have seen your bare feet."

"That is not a question. That is an observation. Whatever question you have, it would be better to ask, heh, if you wish an answer?"

Lucius sat on the edge of the bed. His stomach was suddenly tight.

"Today is your birthday," he said.

"Another observation."

"I have no gift for you. Or rather,  I do, but it has not arrived in the post yet."

"It is quite alright. I do not need gifts, Malfoy-from-England."

"What do you need?" he ventured.

"An excellent question.” Ramone put his book down, after due consideration. "To which the answer is, truthfully...  Nothing. A most unsatisfactory answer from your perspective, I am sure, so... Would you like to try another?'

Lucius' stomach was not the only thing that was tight now. His trousers were feeling it too. There had been no further discussion of any potential physical relationship between the two of them in the months after the fall and Ramone's revelation of his past, though every now and again he had caught the other boy looking at him out of the corner of his eye as he changed clothes, or as he bent to pick an item he had dropped, or as he emerged, decently clad, if damp, from the shower... True to his word though, he had kept his observations to himself and refrained completely from even the slightest hint of his own.

"What would you like?" he tried. He felt the dark eyes on him again.

"I would like you to come sit here with me," Ramone said at last. Lucius rose immediately and crossed the few feet between them as the other boy sat up, swinging his legs over so that they were sitting side by side. Beneath the vivid scarlet cuff of his right sleeve, the silver bangle shaped as a snake glimmered softly.

"This is nice, heh?" Ramone said encouragingly, first nudging his shoulder in a friendly manner and then putting an arm around him. He did not seem nervous at all, Lucius thought.

"Yes," he said, and cleared his throat. "Yes. It is."

"Sim," his room-mate corrected.

"I... I am sorry?"

"Not ‘yes'; sim. You are in Brazil now, Malfoy-from-England. You have been here for over four months, heh, and your command of our language leaves considerably to be desired yet."

"Ah," Lucius said, and experimentally, and in completely appalling accents - "Desculpe-me."

"De nada. Perhaps I should offer you lessons?"

"I am feeling educated enough for one day, thank you."

"Uh?"

"I will explain later. I do not understand it myself, really, or what it all means. There is something, I know, so I must think, and when I have processed the implications, I will..."

Ramone leaned in, cutting him off with a swift, clumsy kiss... And as Lucius raised his hands automatically to balance them both, he realized that, however nonchalant his demeanor, the other boy was trembling violently. He pulled back a bit, not withdrawing, but resting his forehead against Ramone's own as he closed his eyes.

True positive emotion, true happiness... It is always a little compromised here. We cannot separate our sorrows from our joys the way others in other, more innocent, blissfully ignorant and gullible lands do, chemically or otherwise. And so when we achieve it, or are offered it... We do not let go there without a fight. It is why it is so hard to erase Magicals here, from the mind of other Magicals who love them. When the world betrays you so constantly, when the very land you inhabit rapes and kills you so very thoroughly every moment... There are only two sources of absolute joy: God, and those who stand beside you and suffer with you. And those who stand with you may be lost, but we in South and Central America, Senhor Malfoy... We never let them go. If the Evil One himself cannot take them from us, no mere shadow can hope to accomplish it.

"Por favor, Carriera," he whispered. Ramone closed his own eyes and tilted his head again. The kiss was slower, deeper, and (once they got their tongues sorted out) completely breathtaking. This time when they pulled apart, they were both shaking.

"What would you like," Lucius said again. "Carriera-from-Brazil?"

"I do not know," Carriera-from-Brazil said. "Though again... I think that is the wrong question. And this time, it is my question to ask, not yours."

"Alright."

"You are wearing pajamas, Malfoy-from-England."

Lucius pulled back and looked at him, and down at himself.

"That is an observation," he noted. "Not a question."

"Muito bueno. Very good," Ramone congratulated him. "How should I then rephrase this observation in the appropriate interrogative?"

"Um.... ‘Why are you wearing pajamas, Malfoy-from-England?’"

Ramone raised an eyebrow at him. Lucius waited, then jumped.

"Oh. I suppose because it is time for bed, and it is traditional to wear pajamas to bed?"

"You have a truly appalling grasp of rhetoric, my Luz. It is also very obvious that you did not grow up in the tropics. Pajamas here are far more the exception than the rule. Take them off."

Lucius' gut didn't just twist, but knotted. He stood, returning to sit on the edge of his own bed, and watching his own hand as it unbuttoned the shirt. Ramone watched him carefully as he shrugged it off, not moving an inch. Without standing, with a minimum of movement, Lucius tugged off his pajama trousers. He set them aside, along with the shirt, and sat, naked, staring at the floor - and at the dark bare feet, crossing the few steps between them. The bed sank slightly. He did not lift his eyes.

"You will do what I say," Ramone said softly. "And only what I say, do you understand me, my Luz?"

"Yes, Carriera."

"Lie back."

He lay back. Dark, warm fingers trailed lightly over his chest, resting flat over his heart. In spite of himself,  he couldn’t help but reach up and cover them with his own. Ramone said nothing, just turned  it, and raised it, and kissed the palm... He slid in beside him, propped on his elbow, still fully clothed, and reached down and pulled the sheet over them.

'Go to sleep," he said.

"Um. What?"

"Go to sleep." He pulled the pillow under his own head, closing his eyes. Lucius propped himself up on his elbow and looked down at him, exasperated. Behind his closed lids, Ramone smirked up at him.

"Fine." Lucius flopped back. "I will go to sleep. But I would like to state for the record, Ramone Carriera, that you are a dreadful tease."

"So nice. I am not a dreadful tease. I am an excellent tease." He rolled onto his side and leaned over him and kissed him again. Lucius exhaled against his lips, opened his mouth to him - and bucked violently as, under the sheet, fingers trailed over his bare cock. He felt the snake about Ramone's wrist slither off, and up, and around, and bucked again as the coils tightened in their not-quite-painful-but-not-quite-not blissful manner.

"Ahhhhh..."

"Lie still, my Luz," Ramone whispered against his lips. "Lie still, now. And remember... If you have questions for me, or requests for that matter, it is best to ask..."


 

The Conference Chambers

Malfoy Manor

Thursday, November 27th, 1991

12.00 A.M.

"I have a question," Sirius Black said loudly to Fudge into the stunned silence that followed. "Are you actually working for the cabals then, or have they only got something on you, that you're covering their arses?"

"Mr. Black..."

"That's Professor Black to you, Minister.  Only the full moon is tomorrow night, yeah, and with what we all know is coming - that those buggery fucks don’t plan to leave a single kid standing in revenge for us taking down Greyback’s pack in Edinburgh -  I can't think of one other reason, not one, why you'd be spewing such goddamn cowardly shit from your fat, smug face just at this moment. You also can't possibly, possibly believe that you didn't just end your career with those words, because if you do - if you really mean them - I'm informing you right now, right now... That I'll put in the petition for your impeachment and run myself before I'll see you sit another day in office!"

"I'd vote for him," Namirembe Obonyo-Higgs said judiciously as a tidal wave of roaring cheers rose. "Wouldn't you, Nissie? I mean, he's your cousin, and I'm your best friend and Draco's godmother besides, however unofficially, and Draco's his blood heir. Righteous moral outrage aside, I'd feel nothing short of obliged to support his campaign."

"Your concerns and your suspicions are both valid, Mr. Black." Fudge’s voice rose on the Sonorus again. "Under these circumstances, and I do not condemn you for the latter, but there are appropriate protocols here, and..."

"Appropriate protocols?" Arthur Weasley repeated, incensed. "Appropriate protocols?  These are children, Fudge! There's only one kind of appropriate protocol here; we go in and we get them out and then we lay fucking waste!"

" - and while I am certainly willing to suspend certain of them given sufficient evidence, we yet have no evidence of committed crimes beyond Mr. Malfoy's word! We are not questioning his good intentions," Fudge shouted as the roars of protest sounded again. "But all gathered intelligence here, while accurate in terms of geography and whatnot, I'm sure, is not proof !"

"Geography and whatnot?" a young and furious feminine voice shouted back. "Geography and whatnot? Only they all had their bloody try-outs this last week, you great git, and even if they really are such upstanding good citizens and Uncle Luke's source was mistaken, don't you think they'd be the first to say 'no problem, with everything at stake we understand that you need to be sure?" Nymphadora Tonks' spiked short hair was a bristling, iridescent neon purple; her face matching the shade exactly as she pushed her way through the ranks. "Never mind that you have no right, no legal right to demand that anyone reveal their sources! None! That's the law too, you enormous pillock, as is your responsibility to investigate any leads! Tell him, Mum!" she appealed to the tight-lipped Andromeda. "You're a bloody lawyer, aren't you? Tell him!"

"I am," Andromeda Black Tonks concurred as every eye turned her way. "I'm also related to the man in question by marriage, Nymphadora, so some might see it as conflict of interest."

"Do not call me Nymphadora. Also, invalid premise. We're all related; everyone here is, one way or the other. We're Blacks; we know that better than anyone! We even," she said, the glare targeting Fudge not just poisonous now, but acidic, "have proof . You'll have to ignore the holes on the family's Ministry-registered self-updating genealogical tapestry, but they're generally only aimed at the faces, not the names underneath, so it's all right there yet."

"Point," Andromeda conceded again. "Or rather, points. Very well. You have no legal right to demand anyone reveal their sources, Minister Fudge, and Mr. Malfoy's perfectly legal refusal to do so in no way negates your responsibility to actively investigate all leads, particularly on matters such as this and considering what's at stake, in a timely, discreet and expedient a manner as prudence dictates. That being said, that clause that allows for emergency executive orders in times of national crisis was instituted for a reason. A declared verbal dispensation for a nation-wide search warrant, inarguable by all resident citizens in times of terrorism and war, would cover all contingencies. Would there be a problem there, Amelia?' she addressed her closest friend. "I believe that in such circumstances, the word of the Director of Great Britain's Department of Magical Law Enforcement overrides all others, particularly when backed by the Head of Great Britain's Auror Department and again particularly in the face of such sheer and established bloody buggering incompetence on the part of the elected Minister, displayed not just tonight, but over the last month as a whole to the world at large."

"On the other hand," Namirembe murmured to Narcissa. "A thorough knowledge of the law is an excellent, excellent quality in a Minister. I mean, there's always the resemblance to your dear departed whackjob of a mutual sister that might affect things, but she is married to a Muggleborn. It'd all cancel out, with maybe even enough credit left there from having a daughter as an Auror to tip things on the side of the positive."

"Thank you!" Tonks glared at Fudge triumphantly. "Never bloody mind that he..." She jerked her head in the direction of the impassive Lucius. "Is obviously keeping his mouth shut, not because he has something to hide, but because anyone revealed as his source would be as dead, one way or the other, as those lot of kids are going to be if you don't man up - no, human up - and do your proper buggering job! He's protecting whoever it is, and this way, the only arse on that particular line is his own!"

"And this is why she's my favourite," Mad-Eye told Amelia Bones. "No flies on her. Are you convinced yet, you great infected knob," he addressed Fudge loudly. "Or is Black there right after all, and you've got some horse in the race you're not telling us about? You've got no kids, so we know it's not that, at least."

"Am I missing something here?" Neil asked Minerva McGonagall in an undertone, his brow furrowed. "I mean, our version of Fudge was dumb as a bucket of rocks, but he still had that sense of political self-preservation to be going on with. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he should know he's hexing his own bollocks here, never mind that they were all conferencing in the back long enough for Bones and Moody to point out all the possibilities should he keep on with his arguments. What's he trying to do, exactly?"

"Save his own sorry hide," Remus said grimly. "His career was over the moment Malfoy made that call to Bones; the issue considered, he knows he'd be lynched if he didn't go in himself instead of just sitting back and organizing from the safety of his bloody office, but he's an adequate duelist at best, so kids or not, he's not about to go there. That means the only chance he thinks he's got left is to divert and somehow make it all about Malfoy and Riddle. It won't work; it can't - not even his closest cronies would be willing to give him the benefit of the prudent doubt there, the issue considered again - but he's not thinking long term, or even two days from now. He's thinking one minute, one hour at a time at the most, and he's got nothing to work with on Malfoy anyway, not when it comes right down to it."

"You think so, do you?" another voice said. They turned, startled. A tall, thin, altogether disreputable figure in grotty, ale-stained robes was standing there, the odor of goat-dung emanating from every pore. He smiled sourly at them all from behind his gnarled beard. "Where's your grandson again, Headmaster?" he inquired of Neil. "Don't see him about here anywhere. Bloke like him: defender of all mankind, great bloody hero, saviour of the world, reputation beyond reproach... You'd think he'd be right in on a fight like this, hey? Instead, word's out that he's gone off on his honeymoon -a  honeymoon conveniently sponsored by Malfoy, with ascertained proof of a certain last minute booked portkey to Romania."

"Portkey to..." McGonagall exchanged looks with Remus. His lips tightened. "And how would you know about something like that, Aberforth Dumbledore?"

"Was visiting my poor wee brother down the clink, just this morning," Aberforth Dumbledore said laconically. "Wandered down to the canteen for a cuppa after, and happened to fall in queue behind one of the junior jobs from the Portkey Office, down the Department of Magical Transportation. Gabbling away on just this subject, he was; fancy that for a coincidence, and it was pretty obvious to him too, who the knut was put out for, even if the names of the travelers are left off the forms to be filled on departure. Young Weasley being a wrangler and all, never mind the family connection through the Horntails? Charged to the Malfoy accounts, and with tea scheduled this afternoon and the first exchange of prezzies under proposition of Solace?" He slugged back whiskey from a flask in his wrinkled, spotted hand. "Far be it from me to judge, but it seems a bit lacking in priority on your boy's part, Headmaster, the issues considered and all. Unnaturally lacking, even. He'd had to have known that he'd be dead useful in a situation like this, and could have acted as a damned fine reference for the man's ultimate motives besides. All that, and it might put the certain suspicious type in mind that maybe, just maybe, Malfoy never told him what was going down at all."

"Was the portkey activated?" Sirius demanded.

"As a matter of fact, it was. Six p.m. local time, right on the dot." His words were slightly slurred now, though his blue eyes were sharp behind his thick grey eyebrows. "What would you reckon Fudgie-boy makes of the taste of them little green apples, Professor Black?"

"I am merely saying," Fudge amped up his Sonorus several notches. "That the Ministry's insistence on identifying the original source of these claims of Mr. Malfoy's is not merely relevant to proposed future events, but those that have already taken place.  I am loath to say it, but it must be said... The question of the identity of Mr. Malfoy's sources aside, we cannot afford to ignore the implications of the fact that those anonymous sources reportedly chose to confide in the particular man."

"Aaand there it is," Dumbledore said. "Called it. Then again... I do tend to do that."

"Here we go," Namirembe muttered, across the room. "Stiff upper lip and all that rot, Nissikins. He's got something to be going on with; he has to. He didn't survive ten years as a neo-Sith Lord just to be taken down by the likes of Carnelion Fudgenuts."

Narcissa said nothing, just straightened her narrow shoulders and walked across the floor to Lucius' side. They didn't look at each other, but his hand slipped into hers as desperately and easily as his counterpart's had in a long-ago, far-away memory of another meeting in the same room, at another council of war where the man known as Lucius Malfoy had made so many different choices that had led him so disastrously astray.

"Fact," Lucius said. "Does not affect the truth, Minister. Are you saying now, as truth, if not as verbalized fact, that the Ministry is - that you are - willing to take responsibility for the lives of the one hundred twenty children now in residence at the four training schools - and those are only the new recruits gathered up again this week, never mind the incumbents - should my source, however anonymous, be proven right?"

"There are protocols to be followed here, Mr. Malfoy!”

"What the sodding fuck is wrong with you, man?" Arthur Weasley roared furiously. "I vote we kick him out right now," he addressed the crowd. "We can get an emergency override for that, can't we, Andromeda, since this does constitute war by any standard, and the interim next-in-line is right here besides?"

"We can," Andromeda conceded. "All things considered, though as the Head of the DMLE is both the interim next-in-line and the individual who provides the override in times of war, it's a bit tricky.'

'We only need her for the one night," Moody pointed out. "And she can retire in the morning, with all of us here as witness to her oath there, and we'll appoint someone else till an election can be called.'

"Alternatively," Amelia Bones said coolly. 'Any one of you could propose the nomination of someone else as my proxy straight up, in order to avoid conflict of interest. As the Head of the DMLE, I would approve the motion, and nominations could then be made on particular individuals. Once approved, a third motion might be put forth to impeach the current Minister, and place the selected candidate in his stead. First, though... Head Auror Moody, do you agree with my assessment as Head of the DMLE that the security and physical safety of Great Britain's citizens is at vital stake at this particular hour in time, and that the implementation of a non-arguable search warrant for all locations across Great Britain toward the end of on-site collecting and gathering of information and detainment of suspected terrorists, both domestic and otherwise, is an appropriate and prudent response?"

"Abso-sodding-lutely ," Moody said with relish. "And do you, Director of Great Britain's DMLE Bones, reckon along with me as Head Auror of Great Britain that the continued leadership of this great arse-up here constitutes a vital threat to Great Britain's most vulnerable citizens, that being the kiddies, and agree with my opinion that he needs to be binned right here and now?"

"Hold that thought. First things first: under these sad circumstances, I hereby, as Head of the DMLE, and with the backing of Head Auror Moody, do declare Great Britain at war with they who shall now be known as the Feral Collective. Given the nature and sensitivity of the immediate threat, I am declaring that this notification of war is officially classified on the highest levels, and that anyone here who pops off and shoots their mouths to anyone who isn't here before things are resolved shall be arrested and charged with high treason, and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And that being said… Yes, Head Auror Moody. I am, in fact, in complete agreement with your assessment that the currently elected Minister of Magic is a great arse-up on both the personal and professional levels, and that as he has stated that he is, by his own admission, completely unwilling to deal with the current crisis in the prudent and timely manner, he does, indeed, need tossing.”

"Brilliant," Moody proclaimed. "Conscription of all present as members of the National and Consulting Martial Counsel, entitled to present and propose and submit votes on all relevant and concerning subjects?"

"Suggested, seconded and carried. Alright, people. I'm opening the floor for discussion of particulars of immediate priority. One at a time, please, and make it short and sweet. We're running a literal deadline here, mm?"

"All people who aren't here?" Fudge said pleasantly, and... Not. He did not, every eye narrowing in on him now noticed, look nearly as concerned as he should over the particular turn of events.

"Called it again," Aberforth Dumbledore observed, and craned his neck at Remus. "Nice sword!  Overcompensating, is he, Black?"

"What are you going on about now," Tonks called impatiently to Fudge.

"I merely want to know if the qualification on informing all individuals not here at this particular moment eliminates the possibility of appointing new members," Fudge explained. "I can think of at least one who might make an admirable addition to the Council, never mind an asset to all practical implementations of that national search warrant. As he's not onsite at the moment, an exception would have to be made."

“I think I’m insulted,” Obonyo-Higgs sniffed. “Really. Unsurprised, the source considered, but insulted. He hasn’t beat me yet, you know?”

"Mountains aren’t particularly selective on their targets, Nami.” Her husband, Warren Higgs - a wiry, nearly cadaverous man quite nearly as long and pale as Lucius - appeared, snaking an arm around her waist. “A police box or two to stow the sprogs while you do your thing might not be a bad idea, and if he does get a shot or two in, you’ll be able to get your preview besides.”

She sighed, martyred.

“You do have a point there, though,” Warren Higgs conceded. “You don’t think an International Dueling Master, forty Aurors, forty more armed and motivated combat-experienced civilians, and a giant feral killer Kodiak are enough to take care of business, Fudge, never mind the on-calls we’ve got standing by from the Welsh, Scottish, English and Irish Local Auror Reserves? Only don’t take this the wrong way, but I, for one, am a bit affronted at the thought that you don’t think enough of our own people to do the proper job. It’s not as if we don’t have motivation, you know, and the man in question's on his honeymoon besides. I reckon we could manage without him if we really put our backs into it, don’t you?”

“Master-Adept Cartwright - “

Weasley -Cartwright,” Arthur corrected.

“Weasley-Cartwright; thank you, Arthur, you’ve just proved my point - is one of our own people, Mr. Higgs.  He is a British citizen, married to a British citizen, and as such, the Ministry has every right to call on him to serve his country as needed.”

A queer silence descended.

“Every… right,” Lucius Malfoy repeated. “Every right, did you say?”

“I did. I’m still Minister; no one’s put forth the motion to impeach me yet, and if the last act in office that I officially perform is to call on the particular individual who is best suited to…”

“Save your arse?” Sirius jeered.  “You got your position queued up on his team already, whichever one it is, so that you can hide behind him?”

“Save our children, ” Fudge continued doggedly. “Than call on him I shall. Moody, we know where he is; the portkey to Romania was activated. Send one of your men through to inform the Master-Adept of his obligations.”

“You great ruddy…”

“There’s a little problem there, Minister.” Neil cut off the History of Magic professor. “Ren’s not just a British citizen; he’s an American citizen, and as he’s currently on foreign soil, you can’t just reach out and grab him. Not legally, not without letting both the American and Romanian governments know that we’re at war, and I’m  pretty sure that that goes against Director Bones’ dictate on how this entire mission is classified.”

“There’s no need to inform anyone of the current situation aside from the individual in question! Your grandson is an International Warder, Mr. Cartwright!” Fudge snapped. “He is a moral, if not legal, world citizen, and is, by his own stated oath, obliged to answer any summons of any of the leaders of any of the countries registered as participating members in good standing of the International Confederation of Wizards!”

The protesting, infuriated cacophony that rose at that was quite enough to shake the marble pillars of the conference room. Narcissa Black Malfoy looked up at her husband, standing beside her, hands in his pockets and looking quietly at the sweating, mottled  face of the man before him. Fudge glared back at him: defiantly, fearfully, angrily. Arthur Weasley caught sight of them mid-tirade and stopped in his verbal tracks… As he did so, the Auror beside him noted his abrupt silence, and followed his gaze, and cut himself off as well… One by one by one, each adjacent individual followed suit, till every eye was fixed on the tableau before them, and every voice in the huge room silenced.

“Obliged,” Lucius Malfoy repeated softly again.

"Yes, obliged!" Fudge blustered, and again... “He's an International Warder! It's his duty, it's...."

He trailed off, openly unnerved at the impassive expression on the face of the man looking down at him… Impassive, but not emotionless. The wave of profound, weary sorrow that flooded the ice-pale features was only there for a split second before it was replaced in turn by a kind of remote, soft pity.

“Minister,” Lucius Malfoy said. “Do you know why, exactly, you are standing here as Minister right now?”

Beside her husband, Narcissa Black Malfoy closed her eyes… And in her memory, as clearly as if it were her own memory, a door opened, revealing the form of a tall, gangly boy standing in a second doorway to the left,  and a modestly sized,  bright bedroom between them. A second boy, very nearly as dark as the first was pale, sat at one of two small desks, leaning in concentration over an immaculate sheet of parchment. The floor about him was littered with stacks of books, carelessly tossed clothing, and random items that only two teenaged boys would be able to identify.

And throughout all, over all, there was not a single shadow, only shifting, shining patterns of light.


 

Castelobruxo School

One Week after the Easter Break

April 19, 1971

Lucius emerged, visibly disgruntled, from the loo, wand in his hand as he tugged at a long strand of ice-blond hair. Said hair had reverted to Malfoy Standard four full days ago, appeared suddenly regrown overnight when he woke, and, despite all effort, suggestions, furthered attempts and frustrated cursing, it was still stubbornly refusing to be shortened.

It was, Silva had informed him, the first, long-anticipated visible indication of his successful progression as an Animagus. He should have been pleased, Lucius knew. He was pleased, though not at the annoying particulars, especially since it meant that he’d  finally been permitted to spit out the bloody mandrake leaf that had been magically stuck to the roof of his mouth since the middle of March. It was a small leaf, and not particularly troublesome in that hourly breath-freshening charms took care of the worst of the associated taste, but the intermittent bursts of feral drooling had been quite embarrassing. It did not help at all that at least thirty percent of all candidates had the same issue either, though it certainly did explain why there were so few British candidates that ever attempted the process. It was simply not dignified.

"No luck?" Ramone inquired brightly of him.

"Your powers of observation are simply remarkable, Carriera." Lucius dropped, sulky-faced, in his chair. "I do not want it back! I cut it for a reason!"

"You would have had to regrow it before your return to England anyway," Ramone pointed out. "It is not so bad, truly. I had forgotten how pretty it is like this, heh?"

"Oh, shut up."

"So nice. Is that how Tio is raising you?"

"Do not talk to me on your bloody Tio. He laughed himself sick when he saw it. He knows, Carriera! He knows, and he will not tell me. It is my Animagus form, I have the right to know!" He pushed the pale mass back and craned his neck... His room-mate was seated at his desk, a neat stack of parchment to his right as he inked a precise sketch of an odd-looking flower on the final sheet before him. As Lucius watched, he transfigured the tip of the quill to that of a self-colouring water-color brush, and began to paint in the details in delicate, tiny strokes. The result was nothing short of a work of art.  "Are you not finished that bloody assignment yet? It is due at midnight, and you have had two months to work on it!”

"It is, I have, and as it is only ten-fifteen, I am in quite good time. I do not achieve my perfect grades by ignoring deadlines,  Malfoy-from-England, and our professor, as a Master Herbologist, appreciates  beauty and the finer details besides. She also completely despises marking papers, so I have been expending the extra time and effort to make the perusal of mine, at least, as pleasant and aesthetic an experience as possible, heh?" He transfigured the quill back to his wand and tapped the last, lovely little sketch. Neat labels appeared, accompanied by shimmering music and a waft of fragrant petals. "There. Now I am finished. She will open the scroll - she appreciates parchment, unlike the rest of the heathens in this country - and the scent will rise to meet her, as will the music that she plays for her plants in her private greenhouse. Between those things, my legible handwriting, and, of course, my concise and accurate content..." He rolled the collected sheets tidily. A slender length of tendrilled vine, rather than ribbon, secured the lot... He tucked a single vivid fuchsia and orange blossom, magically  preserved, beneath the vine, and applied three drops of wax from his wand as a final seal. The drops reformed as they touched the parchment, molding themselves  into a tiny blue frog, complete with gold-splashed throat.

"Professora Esperanza Hurtado," he directed.  The scroll flashed out. "Bueno." He stood and stretched luxuriously. "A job well done. Now. How should I be rewarded for my good efforts?"

"What, hard work and better results are not their own reward?"

Ramone just vaulted onto his bed, magically discarding his clothes as he reclined and blinked his long lashes coyly, patting the space beside him. Lucius grinned and joined him with alacrity. Lips met and hands were roving before he was barely settled... Seconds later, he was flipped on his back and his pajamas were neatly disposed of.  A hot, lush mouth murmured and roamed, pleased, down and down and down again... He bucked and moaned violently.

"Ohhhhhhh Carriera... Please, please, please!"

"You beg so prettily, Malfoy-from-England," Ramone murmured. His room-mate's therapeutic progress over the last three months, the young Englishman thought blissfully as he gasped and gasped again, had been absolutely astonishing. There was yet, as there had been from their first slow, tentative and careful hour of strictly dictated, one-sided experimentation, the unspoken understanding that said therapy would only go so far, but within those limits... "Shall we exchange our mutual compliments, then?"

"Yes," he managed. "Please."

"Mm." Ramone swung about, reinforcing the already quite formidable silence wards around their room as he did so. Less than three minutes later...

"Nossa Senhora," the young Brazilian moaned as he lay limply and gasped for heaving breath. "That was just… Mmm."

"Mmm," Lucius agreed, swinging around in his own turn to lie beside him once more. He rested his head on the thin brown shoulder. The gold cross glimmered between the sharp collarbones; he turned it idly in his fingers... Ramone shifted him a bit, tucking his re-grown hair behind his ears. It arranged itself into a neat, orderly braid.

"What are you thinking, my Luz?" he asked. "You have been unusually quiet since we returned from the holiday. Were the lessons that Tio provided you while you two were away this time that painful?"

"No, no. Not at all. Intense yes. Difficult, yes. Painful... No."

"May I ask?"

"We studied strategy every other day. He has been advising me a great deal on how to manage the particulars of certain ongoing moral dilemmas that will arise in my future, as well as the people associated with them. There are several in particular that will require extremely careful  handling if I am not to lose my moral way."

Ramone traced his ear. Lucius had told him very little of what he was going to be expected to do in the coming years, but that didn't mean he had no ideas. His imagination, after all, as he was proving regularly these days, was quite dizzyingly creative, even given the limits of what he had to work with.

"And on the days you did not study strategy?" he asked. "What did you do then?"

"We traveled," Lucius said. "Or rather... We moved. Constantly, in all and random directions."

"Uh?"

For a long moment, Lucius hesitated - not in reluctance, but as if searching for the right words - then rolled on his back and stared up at the ceiling. Ramone waited.

"The jungle has four levels," the paler boy said. "Your uncle told me that the first hour we met. Each is its own world, with its own distinct dangers and beauties. Worlds upon worlds,  spun out from the center of all things, but who knows where the center  is, really, when you are dealing with such a chronically mobile and shifting environment, and when you yourself are forced to shift with it in order to survive? The center, when you do not know where you are or where you will find yourself, must, then, be carried within yourself. It is the only way, the only way, to survive. It will be, always and otherwise, as it is in the line of the poem he showed me... Vulnerable. 'The center cannot hold.'

Ramone listened carefully. His room-mate's philosophical musings, he had learned, were as his uncle's every action: always relevant, if occasionally bemusing and apparently random.

"We traveled," Lucius said again. "We moved, in all directions, through all the worlds. And I was blinded throughout."

" What?"

"He offered me a potion at the beginning of each day that blinded me, and another at sunset that renewed my ability to see. And in the hours between... We traveled. We moved. He guided me, he was with me always, as I learned to rely on him and on my other senses."

"He is crazy," Ramone said with utter conviction. "I do not care if he was always with you. He is completely crazy. And you were crazy to allow it."

Lucius laughed. "I am yet here," he reminded him. "And I learned a great deal."

"On what? On how crazy my uncle is? On how crazy you are?"

"No. On metaphors, and the importance of situational and personal awareness, and on identifying my own strengths and weaknesses, and identifying and maintaining my hold on my own center as I shift and am shifted. I will be living on so many levels - as different people, even - when I return, all paths and identities spinning and intertwined, entangled, conjoined... It will be very difficult, not knowing where one path leads off and begins. Difficult, and easy to get lost, and to lose myself. And as I must travel all of those paths in darkness, by instinct, lest I be revealed... At first I thought I was learning so that I might learn to find my way back to my center again, by instinct, after my travels, so all may hold. So that I may hold. But that was not the point of the lessons at all."

Ramone turned his head to look at him.

"There is only one way," Lucius mused. "To maintain the center within. Not to seek out a source of light that may illuminate the many paths you travel, so that you may find your way back... Not to bring, or carry light with you in preparations for your wanderings... If one defines oneself as something that seeks light, after all, that searches for it, that holds it... That is to define yourself as something other than light. A potential shadow. But if you become the light, if you carry your center with you... If it is what you are; if light is all that you are, all of who you are... You cannot be lost in the shadows, for the shadows come to you.  That is the nature of shadow and darkness, they will seek to define themselves by you, because that is what shadows do. So despite the tangle, you do not have to wander at all. You just be patient and still, and all that is needed will be naturally drawn to you."

Ramone smiled a little, at him and to himself, and wound a loose tendril of long, fine silky hair through his fingers. Lucius smiled up at him in return.

"Summation?" the young Brazilian asked.

"I will not have to fear losing myself in the darkness, or of losing light, if I am the light. And I will not have to worry on losing my moral center either, for at the center of all things surrounding, no matter the direction I move, is a small room, and in the room, touched by none, seen by none, sensed by none, but yet there... There, whether the shadows realize it or not, seeing all, from all directions from the centre, always, if I make, again, myself my center.. Affecting all, just by being what it I am, in patience and silence, and however unacknowledged and denied... is Luz."

Ramone offered him a another small smile.

"A very valuable lesson," he said.

"Mm. But not the only one."

"Oh?"

"Shadows are attracted to the light," Lucius said again. "They shirk it, but at the same time, they are attracted to it. Drawn to it. They define themselves, and are defined by it. That is the nature of shadows. Even as they are drawn to it, though, they close their eyes on it. Turn their backs to it. Deny it. That too is their nature. So all I have to do is be what I am - Luz - and be patient... And all of the shadows in my future will not only come to me, saving me the trouble and danger of going wandering among them at all, as I have said... Bur they will come to me, eyes closed and back first, while attempting to convince themselves that I am ultimately irrelevant. And they will back themselves right into the room with the always-open door, where they sense my presence - and they will find themselves backed and impaled on my waiting knife."

Ramone propped himself up on his elbow, looking down at him.

"You are quite frightening, Malfoy-from-England," he said finally. "Did you know that?"

"The imagery and metaphor is quite nice," Lucius said judiciously. "That is how the shadows prefer to define light: as imagery and metaphor. But when it comes down to it... We do not inhabit a world of imagery and metaphor, do we, and they will find not an image or metaphor waiting. So as long as I remain patient, and watchful... At the right moment, if I do not seek to orchestrate, to manipulate... When the moment is right, I will not have to lift a finger. The shadows will come to me,  because that is their nature, back first and eyes closed, as is too their nature, and will thus bring their own destruction upon themselves."

*

"Minister," Lucius said to Fudge. "Do you know why, exactly, you are standing here as Minister right now?"

Fudge looked stuffed.

"You are standing here because you were elected to the position," Lucius said exactingly. "By the people of Great Britain. By the citizens of Great Britain that survived Riddle's war. Do you understand how it was that Great Britain survived Riddle's war, Minister?"

No one moved.

"Great Britain survived Riddle's war," Lucius Malfoy said. "Not because of Harry Potter... Not because of Lily Potter…. But because there were people left afterwards to go on. Quite a disproportionate number of people, actually, all things considered. Frank Longbottom and I had to work quite hard together during that war to ensure that that disproportionate number was as high as it is."

No one breathed.

"Do you know why I was working with Frank Longbottom to save that disproportionate number of people?" Lucius asked the man before him. "Why, at sixteen years old, I was as determined as I was to do everything necessary, and I do mean everything necessary, to bring Tom Riddle down?"

A slight gurgle sounded from Fudge's throat.

"It was because I fell in love with a boy," the man before him said. "On my exchange year in Castelobruxo. Quite the most brilliant, beautiful, talented, sweet and purely lovable boy that was ever born on any continent. And the week before I returned to England from Castelobruxo, that boy threw himself into the embrace of a lethifold to save my life."

The gurgle stopped abruptly.

*

"He was a native Brazilian," Lucius said. "There is not one child of Brazil who has not lost a family member to the lethifolds. He was no exception. He'd lost all of his but one. Grandparents, mother, father, cousins, aunts, uncles... All of them. By the time he was eleven years old, he'd lost every one of them but the one uncle. So he knew what he was doing. He didn't trip, or fall, or stumble; he deliberately, deliberately, offered up his life to his greatest nightmare to preserve mine. I am alive today because of that boy. Every single choice I have ever made since has been made in honour of his sacrifice for me. The people who voted you in, Minister - a good third of them, at least, I would estimate, and I do not have to estimate because Frank Longbottom and I made it happen - are alive because of that boy's sacrifice. Europe stands because of that boy. Great Britain stands because of that boy. England stands because of that boy. England stands because Brazil did not step back and look away when England was vitally threatened. England stands, Minister, because when England was in vital danger, Brazil did not turn around and pretend that England did not have a problem."

Narcissa stood, her slim fingers white and clutching his, her sea green eyes shining and burning behind her tears.

"You stand here now, before England," Lucius Malfoy said softly. "You dare stand here now after stepping back, after looking away, after turning around,  after pretending that Brazil had no problem, all while its children were dying, being eaten alive, being erased as if they never existed - to demand that their bereaved step forward and save us?" He held up his hand as Fudge opened his mouth to protest. "Lawrence Weasley-Cartwright may be an International Warder, Minister. He may be an American citizen, and a citizen of Great Britain. Right now, though... He is Brazil. He is Venezuela. He is Colombia. He is Peru, Paraguay, Suriname, Guyana, Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador... He is the only person on this planet, Minister, who came forward when they all called for help on behalf of their children, and said 'I offer my life for you'. Oh, not his physical life. His gifts, his talents, his inclinations... His active and pro-active remembrances. Do you really think he designed that fence in one day? That fence can only be the result of years of research, study, trial, error, sweat, blood, tears, pain, loss, and unconditional, absolutely unconditional, love. The timing of its installation... The conditions of its installation... Boggle the mind in their improbability, but there it is. There he is. There he was. And here we are, and you dare, dare, to try to order him, to order Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia - again - to fight our war? To take your orders, so that England will not have to suffer the consequences of its own obligations, Minister, and put its own life on the line to save its own children? You are truly, truly, after everything that has happened in this last week, ready to say to South America, Central America and the Pacific Islands that they yet have the moral obligation to recognize and solve our problems?"

Fudge sweated heavily, his face pale. Lucius Malfoy reached out and tore the Order of Merlin off his robes and tossed it in the bin.

"You are no hero," he said. A whip no more, his voice rang precisely: a rich clarion bell. "A hero is a man who not only honours his duty when given the opportunity and means to perform it, but seeks out ways to honour that duty when God Himself tells him that it is impossible.  A hero is a man who rejects all unholy arrogance and pride, and who would - could - never fathom calling on others to act as his sword and shield, because he is their sword and shield. These citizens who elected you and came when called on tonight are heroes. You.. You are not even their enemy. You are empty. You would not even require a lethifold to eat your name and memory. You have discarded both yourself."

He slipped his left-hand wand out of its holster on its hip, pointing it at the bin and murmuring the incantation to Vanish the contents... It took a moment for the implications to process.

"You fight two-handed?" Moody demanded, flabbergasted. "Since when?"

"Since I was sixteen, and trained to do so at Castelobruxo. It was a very educational ye..." Lucius paused as he spotted two new arrivals in the doorway.  The first had soft, light brown hair topped by a perky, endearing cowlick, and a long scar that just touched the outer corner of his left, pierced eyebrow and skimmed his slightly quirked  lips... He stood square-shouldered and solidly as any veteran soldier, his feet braced and hands in the pockets of his cargo trousers while the second man - younger, shorter and stockier, cheerfully round-faced, with ginger-and-gold hair best described as a riot - lounged against the frame, glowing as if lit from within by  warm, ruddy fire and watching the proceedings with great interest as he nibbled on a half-wrapped Flake bar.

"Master-Adept!" Cornelius Fudge stammered, following Lucius’ gaze. "What... I mean... Aren't you supposed to be on your honeymoon?"

"That was the original plan, yes." Ren Weasley-Cartwright’s  voice was as calm, mild and husky as Lucius' was deep and ringing. "But then we heard England calling, and came to sign up." His eyes flicked the man over. "Not so much a shadow as a born jack-ass, I think. Do everyone a favour and resign before you're forced out?  I saw you at my exam: hundred-twenty against one, and even with the shield up and my word, I didn't see your wand out of its holster. Coward or incompetent, it doesn't matter, since either means you'd be nothing but a liability in any real battle."

He turned away as Fudge spluttered again, and, removing his hands from his pockets, strode toward the front, halting at parade rest and  bowing lightly to Lucius.

"Weasley-Cartwright reporting for duty, General," he said briskly. Every word carried to every corner. "At your service, all night long."

Jaws dropped. Lucius' lips twitched as he looked down at him.

"I suppose we could find a use for an individual of your qualifying talents," he conceded, not-quite-magnanimously.  “Would you say that you are capable of following orders effectively, Weasley-Cartwright, or do you prefer to lead?”

A snort of loud laughter - real, genuinely amused laughter - sounded from, of all directions, Severus Snape’s.

"Either-or, as the situation demands. That being said, I am on till-quite-very-recently unfamiliar terrain here in Great Britain. My resume aside, we'll probably want to take that into account, the essential skills may be broadly correlative, but that doesn't mean they're guaranteed to translate in specific context."

"Mm," Charlie agreed as every single individual present choked. "Best to just tell him what you want from him, Malfoy, at this point anyway. He won't be offended; he's a Warder, yeah, and when it comes down to it, they're all just in it for the happy endings."

Andromeda Tonks' guffaw rang out at that. Loudly. Narcissa had to turn her back hastily on the crowds, nominally to offer her sister a reproving look, but in actuality to hide her rampaging, red-faced giggles. Molly Weasley's expression was so mixed it might as well have been casserole. Arthur just rolled his eyes fondly and nicked a nibble of his son’s Flake bar.

"Very  well. You're with me, then," Lucius said. "Charles, you're with Narcissa's team. For heaven's sake, Alastor, would you put that thing away? We have battles to plan, and your active assistance would be much appreciated." Moody just held up a finger as he murmured into his adapted Muggle mobile phone.

"Alright," he was saying. "No, just put it on ice and I'll have a look in the morning. Yeah." He grunted. "Yeah. Me too. What can you do. No. Just follow the standard protocols. Yeah. You too." He tucked the phone away. "Sorry. Bloody rookies can't wipe their own arses without instructions written on the bog roll."

"Everything alright, Mad-Eye?" Tonks asked solicitously.

"No. It's not. My Monday fish and chips just got permanently cancelled. Borgin just found his niece's dead body on the floor of her kitchen when he went in to check on why she wasn't in for her shift at his shop."

"Erhm." Ren blinked. "What?"

"Yeah. That's Knockturn Alley for you. She could never afford proper wards, and with the regular break-ins for what bit of cash she kept on-site, it was bound to happen sooner or later."

"She had proper wards," the Master-Adept said. "I set them myself, two days ago. She at the DMLE?"

"Yeah. Down the morgue."

"Be right back." Ren cracked out. Narcissa glanced at Charlie. He shrugged.

"No idea." He came to peer over her shoulder as he reached around her to pick up a miniaturized map. The dragon on his forearm winked at her slyly. She ignored it. "Where are we headed?"

"Anglesey. Calum King's territory. Key points: he's a native Nigerian who changed his name when he came to Great Britain after graduating from Uagadou where they specialize in three things: wandless magic, Animagery, and using wandless magic while in your Animagus form. Luke's reports are very clear there; all of his defenses are set to target wands first and their wizards after, so our team is comprised of members who can manage without the standard tools of the trade. You'll fit right in."

"Brilliant. How many of his people d'you reckon are Animagi themselves?'

"A more than reasonable number. He believes in sponsoring and hiring his fellow alumni." She pulled a spiral notebook over, licking her finger and turning pages rapidly. "Nami brought this with her. She's taught dueling seminars at the school there since she was twenty-five, and all of the professors are provided with lists of the students and their forms as they attain them. She's kept her own records of all those who have passed through her classes for her own purposes, she's had her eye on the Grandmastery since she was ten, and likes to keep track of her potential competition. When we cross-index them with the records on those to whom King has offered employment and sponsorship in terms of immigration since the incorporation of the Afancs and his alliance with Dorrie Carrow, we've got a fairly clear idea of who could be waiting for us."  She pointed a finger at a stack of papers; one shot out toward them. Charlie caught it neatly. "Twenty seven names, and now... No surprises. Not on our end, anyway."

"Luke pulled this all together last night? And all the information on the other three sites too?"

"Yes. There's a reason Riddle pegged him as his right-hand man at fifteen."

He shook his head and began to read, brow furrowed.

"This is brilliant," he said. "Christ. Alright." He leaned over again to examine the hovering citadel. "Where are Luke and Mate headed?"

"Newport. McNair's got a positive fortress there, but of the kind that requires a scalpel rather than the hammer. He's fond of his cursed booby traps and Dark creatures, so a Warder and DADA expert of Ren's level who can operate on the fly the way he does will be absolutely invaluable.  Lupin's taking Cardiff; he's a native Welshman and with all the years he spent living in and around the city, he knows it inside out. That'll leave Wrexham for..." She nodded to Namirembe Obonyo-Higgs, currently inspecting her troops. "Carrow's a she-bitch straight from hell, with the sadistic tendencies to match on the personal as well as professional level. Nami plans to teach her the value of the straightforward approach."

"Isn't she supposed to be next thing to a Squib? Carrow, I mean?"

"Yes, in the applied manner, but what she lacks practically she more than makes up for in terms of the creative theoretical.  Research and development, shall we say, and all she's had to do is hire people who appreciate the chance to put her theories into practice. Completely unsurprisingly, she's the one who put out the bounty on Luna Lovegood."

"Why unsurprisingly?'

'Pan Lovegood's got a bit of a reputation in her field: research and development of new charms, not just adapted ones. She hasn't published much - not nearly as much as one might expect of someone of her caliber - so there are quite a few people who have speculated on the contents of her filing cupboards over the years. Given her long-term friendship with Remus Lupin and his as-of-yet unexplained recovery, and the speculation on whether Luna was actually his daughter and therefore subject to his inherited lycanthropic tendencies, it wouldn't be a far reach to wonder if the girl's mother was the one who worked up the cure alongside Fleamont Potter, or at least knew of it and decided to test it on her child's father."

"She knew Fleamont Potter?"

"Yes, through Lupin again, by way of his friendship with Jamie. Jamie and Pan were fairly neutral on each other, but Fleamont always quite liked and encouraged her. He and Euphemia would have liked a whole houseful of children, but it didn't happen, so they offered patronage of various sorts to certain of those promising and charming teens who crossed their paths as they visited their son at Hogwarts."

"How close are the two of you? You and Pandora, I mean?"

"Not particularly, though I've always been an admirer of her work. We don't travel in the same social circles, but we've kept up a bit of a correspondence on the subject of charms in general over the years. They're my preferred field too, after all, even if I've never had the chance to study them officially. Anyway. Carrow probably put the bounty out knowing that Luna wouldn't hit puberty for a couple of years, giving her time to convince Pandora to consider employment on her own research and development team. Charms are not always charming, and with her child as hostage to the cabals... Lupin's purported treachery would have provided any of the four with a good reason to bring her in, but insofar as Carrow is concerned, it wasn't just about Lupin. The mother was the real draw there, not the father, though the father, intimately aware as he would have been on the finer details of that which was in store for the child should he not do his part and pressure Pan into accepting Carrow's offer..."

There was a loud crack, abruptly cut off as Ren appeared again... He grabbed Lucius and pulled him aside, speaking rapidly. Lucius's lips tightened.

"You are certain of this, Lawrence?”

"Yeah."

"What's going on, son?" Moody strode over.

"Whoever killed Sadie Borgin wasn't after money," Ren told him. "They were after information. They knocked her cold, ransacked her memories - left one hell of a mess behind when they did it too; her brain's magical pudding - and cut her right hand off before AKing her."

"What?"

"I didn't just ward her flat. I put a bio-rune on her,  the one that wards against cold and damp with the extra against inflammation. The hand was severed right above the sequences; whoever helped themselves there was either on order to be careful or caught a glimpse and realized what it might sell for."

"Theories?" Amelia Bones demanded, appearing beside them.

"From the timing, and the implications of the memory sack... Someone else was there when I went in for my first visit a week ago last Wednesday night, when I made certain inquiries on a certain individual and his regular habits. I'm guessing that that someone popped out to inform that certain individual on my interest in him, and then came back to pay her a visit on behalf-of, and to get whatever other information on me she had. The body was at least a day old, which means he came in yesterday, probably when she was lowering the wards to bring in her supplies. All of that taken into in collective account can only mean the one thing;  we’re in deep shit."

"Explain,” she ordered.

"I asked Sadie if Walden McNair ever came by," Ren said bluntly. "And when she asked why I was asking, I said it was nothing, just a bit of unfinished business that if it ever came to resolution, wouldn't take place on her turf."

"Christ, mate, really?" Charlie held his head.

"I checked for bugs first!” his husband snapped. "I'm not stupid!  It's Knockturn Alley, though, and bugs aren't the only issue, are there? There are fucking rats everywhere, including the wa