Amicus Curiae – 1/2 – Sunryder

Title: Amicus Curiae
Author: Sunryder
Fandom: Harry Potter
Genre: Crime Drama, Family, Hurt/Comfort, Pre-Relationship
Relationship(s): Draco Malfoy/Harry Potter
Content Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Violence – Domestic and/or Against Children
Word Count: 50,700
Summary: Purebloods learned magical contract law at their parents’ knees. (How else were they to keep from accidentally entering into a marriage contract?) It turns out, Harry Potter was not taught these fundamentals. When Potter swears he didn’t put his name in the Goblet, Draco has to ask himself: was it likely Potter outsmarted Dumbledore and got his name in the Goblet, then regretted it so much he’d denied the contract and moped for a month? Or was it more likely that Potter was an uninformed idiot and fate had made him her plaything for the fourth year in a row? Well, when Draco put it that way, there was only one answer.
Artist: Tintalle



CHAPTER ONE

Students were supposed to ignore the sound of crying down Hogwarts’ dead-end halls. (At least, Slytherins were. He had no clue what Hufflepuffs did in their portion of the dungeons.)

Everyone had bad days, and dormitories and Common Rooms weren’t designed for proper privacy. So, until a student could manage concealment Charms on their four-poster or had the sense to book a study room, they retreated to an isolated corner of the dungeons and even the most nefarious of Slytherins respected their fellow students’ right to wallow in peace.

However, ‘in peace’ wouldn’t stop someone from peaking around the corner to see who was doing the crying. But there was tacit agreement in Slytherin that one would only look if they intended to do something helpful about it.

Given these restrictions – and the way every Slytherin in the building, Professor Snape included, would mete out punishment for violating said restrictions – Draco usually left criers to themselves.

Today, however, was a beautiful day where no one should be crying.

Nearly every student, including Gryffindor, was wearing one of Draco’s ‘Potter Stinks’ badges. Draco had beaten Potter in a duel, swollen Granger’s teeth to even more absurd proportions, and Potter and Weasley were the ones who’d gotten detention for it. (Pansy reported that one of the First Years had heard two-thirds of the Golden Trio shouting at one another. Draco hadn’t known Potter could shout at people that weren’t him.)

Since today was perfect, when Draco heard the echo of choked snuffles down a hallway, he didn’t stroll by.

Draco stopped, silently waiting for the student to decide if they cared enough to muffle the crying. They didn’t, but Draco still switched to stomping so the Firstie would know he was coming and could get themselves together. (Crying children was bad enough. Draco didn’t need to see snot.)

Only, it wasn’t a homesick Firstie who’d failed their first test lurking down the dark hallway.

It was Potter.

“Malfoy!” Potter scrambled to his feet, scrubbing oversized sleeves over his face. “What are you doing?”

“What am I… why are you in the dungeon?”

“I just—detention got out and I—what are you doing here?”

“I live here! Why are you… are you crying?

“No!” Harry snuffled and—ugh, he streaked snot across his face.

Draco grimaced. “Your lying would be better if you weren’t all red and… drippy.”

Potter snorted up his mucus, which was perhaps the foulest thing Draco had ever seen. “Go away, Malfoy.” Potter tried to shoulder past Draco, who stuck out his foot and tripped him. “Malfoy!”

Draco grabbed Potter by the rumpled scruff of his shirt and dragged him back into the nook where he’d been crying. “There are people out there.”

“So?”

“You want the whole of Slytherin house to see you crying?”

“What does it matter? You’ve seen it and you’re just going to tell everyone else!”

“You’re snotty and gross. I might be too busy dry heaving to tell anyone.”

Potter snorted, but this time it was something like a laugh. “I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t think you understand how disgusting you are right now, Potter.” Draco cast a mild cleaning charm at Potter’s face, making him pucker and sneeze. “Now, explain.”

Potter opened his mouth like he was actually about to start talking, but his common sense got the better of him. “I’m fine.”

“Really? Because if you don’t tell me otherwise, I’m going to assume that my ‘Potter Stinks’ badges were so ruthlessly clever that they made you cry.”

Potter’s glasses made his eye roll even more impressive. “I already said you were going to tell everybody.”

“I’m threatening you to make you tell me the truth, Potter, don’t be daft.” Potter tried to retort something, but whatever it was, Draco didn’t care. “No, don’t pretend you’re daft. It’s not believable anymore.”

“What?” If Draco didn’t have proof positive to the contrary, Potter’s gob smacked expression would have made the lie believable.

“A Wizard clever enough to get past Dumbledore’s age line is clever enough to understand—”

“I didn’t!” Potter’s accidental magic came as a burst of wind, snatching at Draco’s robes. Despite the threat of a Wizard as powerful and half-trained as Potter losing control, Draco was the sort to press on.

“You’re still sticking to that lie?”

“It’s not a lie!”

“Everyone with the slightest bit of sense knows it is.”

“Why?” Potter’s voice cracked. “What have I done to make everyone think I’m a liar? I told the truth about the Heir of Slytherin two years ago, and I told people what was going on with the Dementors, and about—other things. Why do they all think I’m a liar now?”

“Because you’re obviously lying.”

“Because you’ve suddenly decided I’m clever enough to do anything, let alone get past Dumbledore’s age line?”

“Clearly, you’ve been faking the entire time.”

“Now I’m smart enough to do that?” Draco hesitated too long. “Did I seem like I was excited on the night my name came out of the Goblet? Does it seem like I’ve enjoyed any of this!”

“Just because you don’t enjoy it doesn’t mean you didn’t do it. The fact that you’ve been hiding a brain under that ridiculous hair this entire time is its own kind of insult and probably why the Ravenclaws are as upset as they are. I know Slytherin is irritated that you wasted your sense on something as stupid as defeating an age line. You’re almost as reprehensible as the Weasley twins.”

Potter just blinked. “You really think I could outsmart Dumbledore?”

“You must have.”

“Me outsmarting Dumbledore is more likely than someone else putting my name in the Goblet of Fire?”

“Of course not, but if you didn’t put your name in the Goblet then they wouldn’t be making you compete!”

“Because they don’t believe me!”

“Because you put your name in!”

Potter tossed his hands up and paced down the hall and back. Draco ignored the breeze yanking at his robes. “All right.” Potter must not often use his ‘let’s all stay calm’ voice on people because it sounded like ‘you are an idiot.’ “Explain it to me.”

“Explain what?”

Harry pursed his lips and forced himself not to shout. “Explain why you’re sure that I put my name in the Goblet of Fire. And—” Harry cut Draco off, “don’t just say ‘because they say so.’ Explain it to me like I’m just as stupid as you used to think I was.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Potter. I still think you’re an idiot for wasting your reveal on the Goblet.”

“Then this shouldn’t be hard.”

“I know you put your name in the Goblet of Fire because if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be competing.”

Potter clenched his jaw and dragged in a slow nostril breath like he was a dragon debating just how roasted he wanted his meat. “Why do you know that someone else didn’t put my name in the Goblet and the teachers aren’t just wrong about making me compete?”

“Because they’d know if you weren’t the one to put your name in.”

“How?”

“Because you wouldn’t have to compete.”

Potter closed his eyes, and really, Draco was getting insulted at Potter acting like Draco was the difficult one. “Why?”

“Because you wouldn’t be entered into a binding magical contract. If someone else had put your name in, it would be half a contract that you hadn’t accepted yet.”

Potter got out the first sound of “what?” before he licked his lips and put on his patient voice again. “Draco.”

They both wrinkled their noses. “Right, sorry. That was weird. Malfoy. Act like I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Draco was beginning to suspect that might be true. “Dumbledore explained this when he showed us the Goblet and announced the Tournament. Putting your name into the Goblet means telling the Goblet – and magic itself – that you’re willing to compete. What ensures that the contestants do compete is the Goblet accepting the offer and creating a binding contract. Otherwise, anyone with sense would pull out.”

Potter was blinking again. Right. Simplify even more.

“Every student who puts their name in the Goblet is basically making the Goblet an offer. It’s like handing another person a contract that you’ve already signed. When the Goblet chooses the champions, it accepts three of those offers, like it’s signing just those three contracts and rejecting the rest. Thus, creating a magical contract.”

Potter closed his eyes like it pained him to ask. “A contract.”

Merciful Merlin. The very basics then.

“Contracts are formed between two people; two ‘parties’ as they’re called. One person promises to do something, and the other party promises to do something, or pay something in return.”

“So, it’s just a promise.”

“There are more factors to it, but basically.” As much as it pained Draco to simplify it that much. “But the parties know it’s a contract and agree, in the sight of magic, to be bound to the promise.”

“And if they don’t?” Potter cracked.

“It depends on the contract. Usually, magic forces you to do what you promised. If you can’t, or you won’t, magic decides what it thinks is fair compensation.”

“Unusually?”

“The contract might demand someone lose their magic.”

“Lose their magic!” Potter squeaked.

Quite against his will, Draco found himself soothing Potter. “That doesn’t apply to you. The Goblet’s contract is that the champions offer to compete in exchange for the money, the glory, and unspecified magical contributions from the Goblet that no victor has ever talked about before. That’s all you agreed to. No magic loss.”

“But I didn’t agree to anything!”

“Potter.”

“I didn’t put my name in the Goblet of Fire.”

Draco had been raised too well to toss up his hands and pace hallways like Potter, but he was close. “But you had to, otherwise there wouldn’t be a binding magical contract between you and the Goblet, so Dumbledore wouldn’t be making a 14-year-old compete!”

“But I didn’t!”

“Potter—” The Gryffindor pressed in close, a frantic look in those green eyes that made them almost glow.

“I didn’t.”

“Potter, you did.” Draco wanted to be angry at Potter for assuming Draco was idiot enough to believe this, but Potter looked so panicked that if he had tried to claim anything short of the sky being green, Draco would have believed him. “Granger may not care – or she just may not know anything about magical contracts – but every Wizard-raised person in this school knows you did it, including the professors and your beloved Weasley. He may be a wastrel who’s never been worth your time and effort, but even he knows when he’s being lied to about basic magical theory.”

Tears welled up in those green eyes, magnified by the glasses.

“For a contract to be magically binding, both parties have to say yes. And magic knows if that yes was given freely. Dumbledore is a Pureblood who has entered into who knows how many magical contracts himself and for the school. If you hadn’t freely put your name in the Goblet, magic would know, and as the person currently in charge of the Goblet and in charge of this school, Dumbledore would know. He would’ve said to everyone that you hadn’t put your name in the Goblet, and you wouldn’t be competing. Since he hasn’t and you are, that means you did.”

“Draco—”

“No.”

Potter grabbed Draco by his waistcoat and hauled him in close enough to hiss. “I didn’t.”

Potter’s frantic eyes and nearly parseltongue words made Draco ask a question he had never contemplated. “Then why are you participating?”

“I have to.”

“Potter, I just explained this: that’s not how magical contracts work. If you didn’t put your name in the Goblet, you didn’t enter into a contract, magic would know, and you wouldn’t have to compete. Honestly, an object like the Goblet of Fire probably would require your full and free consent instead of just being willing, which is a high magical standard.”

“Malfoy, I didn’t do it. I was in bed all night. I didn’t.”

Potter was all but crying in Draco’s arms. That made Draco narrow his eyes and start calculating.

Was it more likely that Potter could outsmart Dumbledore and put his name in the Goblet, but then regret it so much that he’d deny doing it and mope around the school for a month? Or was it more likely that Potter was just as much of an idiot as he’d always been and fate had decided to make Potter her plaything for the fourth year in a row?

Well, when Draco put it that way, there was only one answer.

“Well then,” Draco sighed. “You need a lawyer.”

Potter blinked, trying to catch up. “What?”

“You need a lawyer, Potter.”

“How do I do that?”

“You Muggle,” Draco grumbled then turned on his heel.

“Malfoy?”

“Come along, Potter. I can’t get a Gryffindor a lawyer when he’s in the dungeons.”

“Are we going to Snape?”

“Professor Snape is in the dungeons, so no.”

Potter had enough common sense to keep his mouth shut as they went past the various Slytherins and Hufflepuffs out and about this close to curfew, though Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter in one another’s presence outside a classroom without drawn wands was enough to churn the Hogwarts gossip mill all on its own.

Potter followed Draco the grand staircase before he bounded up several stairs and leaned in to whisper, “Where are going?”

“Professor Flitwick.”

Potter stumbled to a stop. “Why?” Draco just kept walking and waited until Potter had caught up enough to answer.

“Professor Flitwick is obviously not a Pureblood, but you don’t become a master duelist without having an understanding about the kind of magical contracts you’re getting involved in when you agree to a competition.”

“Really?” That made Draco stop and stare at Potter, who looked like he’d asked that question with all sincerity. “What?”

“You really are hopeless, aren’t you?”

“Hey!”

But Potter didn’t have a defense for that, so Draco resumed their trek to the seventh floor. “Dumbledore is the most knowledgeable on the subject, but Dumbledore can never be trusted.”

“He can too!”

“Given that he should know that you didn’t put your name in the Goblet and has done nothing about it, even you should be able to admit that you can’t trust him here. I’d prefer to ask Professor Snape, but you’d end up screaming at him and get nothing done, and McGonagall is obviously incompetent.”

“Hey!” Potter wrenched Draco around. “Don’t talk about her that way!”

Draco tried to shrug off Potter’s hand, but it didn’t go anywhere. “Potter, either McGonagall is too incompetent to know the basics of contracts, too disengaged to know that you have no idea about them, or she believed you put your name in the Goblet of Fire and didn’t need the information. Which would you prefer?”

Potter shoved Draco back towards the stairs. “Shut up. Why not Sprout?”

“Why not talk to the Witch advising your opponent?”

“Right.”

“Gryffindors.” Draco sighed.

“We could ask Moody?” Potter offered, no sarcasm at all, like Draco was going anywhere near that nutter without a comforting wall of witnesses. Draco came to a stop and his opinion of that sheer idiocy must have been written on his face because Potter hunched his shoulders and looked away. “All right, no Moody.”

Potter started back up the stairs, but Draco stood there with crossed arms and waited.

“Aren’t we going to Flitwick?”

“Not until you apologize.”

“Apologize?”

Apologize.” Draco hissed. Potter laughed, like apologies were something a Slytherin would joke about.

“You can’t be serious.”

Draco just tapped his foot, unmoving until Potter managed to get out a half-arsed apology through his gritted teeth, obviously not knowing what it was for.

“That was acceptable.”

“Oh, acceptable,” Potter grumbled but followed. “What even makes you think Flitwick will be there?”

“He doesn’t have to be.”

“But we’re going to his office to talk to him.”

“Yes.”

“I think you’re deliberately not making sense.”

Yes. Obviously. It was what Potter deserved for bringing up Moody, but Draco didn’t want Potter throwing a fit in the hallway. “Haven’t you ever been to Flitwick’s office?”

“Why would I have? I don’t get in trouble in Charms!”

“Merlin help me, Potter. Is that the only time you talk to professors?”

“Why else would I?”

“Potter.” Draco stopped so Potter would understand the gravity of what he was saying. “You’re causing me to have sympathy for Granger because she has to put up with you all the time. Stop it.”

Potter just rolled his eyes. Mother often told Draco that eye rolling was the lowest form of sarcasm. Before tonight, Draco had thought she was being dramatic.

“Professor Flitwick has a charmed chalkboard outside his office door that’s connected to a notebook he keeps on his person. If a student’s request isn’t pressing, he’ll write back a reminder of his office hours or schedule an appointment through the chalkboard. If it’s urgent, he’ll come.”

“How do you know this?”

“How do you not?”

“You’re good at Charms.” Draco might be able to forgive Potter some bad behavior in exchange for noticing. “And McGonagall doesn’t have that.”

“No, McGonagall expects students to stick to her office hours or talk to her after class to arrange an appointment. I’ve assumed you Gryffindors had a way of contacting her and just never talked about it, but today has damaged my perception of her competence.”

“We can talk to her!”

“Really? How?” Potter licked his lips but didn’t have an answer. “That’s what I thought.”

Four steps later, Potter shouted, “The Prefects!”

“And what if you don’t want to talk to your Prefect to talk to McGonagall?”

“It’s not like you can just walk into Snape’s office.”

“No, we talk to the statue outside of his office and it will tell us when to come back, or it will let us in if the problem is bad enough or he’s not brewing. The Prefects have a spell he teaches each of them individually to summon him if something has gone wrong.”

“Really?”

“Of course.”

“What does Sprout do?”

“She pre-schedules appointments.”

“Pre-schedules?”

“Every single Hufflepuff meets with Sprout once a month. Frankly, I don’t know how she gets anything done.”

“Once a month?” Judging by Potter’s tone, they were finally on the same page. Draco ‘hmmed’ in agreement, and Potter sighed, “Hufflepuffs.”

They turned the corner to Flitwick’s office and Draco waved Harry to the long chalkboard that stretched high enough that the tallest Seventh Year wouldn’t have to crouch and the shortest Firstie wouldn’t have to go up on their toes.

Of course, Potter just stood there staring at the board instead of picking up the piece of chalk charmed to wait on the bottom ledge.

Draco nudged Potter in the shoulder in the universal sign of, ‘Get on with it.’

“Right.” Potter steeled his shoulders like he was going to battle. He scribbled, ‘I didn’t put my name in the Goblet of Fire and Draco says I need to talk to a lawyer and you can help.” Potter stepped back, then added, “—Harry Potter”.

That was… Draco didn’t have words.

“What?” Potter asked, and Draco just shook his head.

Before either of them could make sense of the other, Professor Flitwick yanked open his door and greeted them with, “Goodness. It wasn’t a prank. Come in.”

Despite his own dubious background, Professor Flitwick had always been the height of good manners. He managed to exchange pleasantries without it feeling like a chore, got each student settled in chairs before his fire, handed them a teacup of warm milk in deference to the evening hour – malted for Draco, un-malted for Potter since he’d just stared when Flitwick asked his preference –then climbed the short staircase to his own chair and settled in for a long conversation.

Potter, of course, had no idea the pointed silence was waiting for him. Draco cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow until Potter stuttered, “Oh! Right. I didn’t put my name in the Goblet of Fire, Professor.”

“So you’ve said, Mr. Potter.”

If Draco left Potter to handle this, they’d waste another hour looping in verbal circles. Draco didn’t have time for that. Instead, Draco explained that Potter had been in bed all night on October 30th, followed by Potter’s utter lack of knowledge about magical contracts. Thus, if he didn’t put his name in the Goblet – “I didn’t, Professor. I swear.” – Potter had not entered into a binding magical contract with the Goblet and shouldn’t be forced to participate. Potter nodded vigorously along with the entire explanation.

Professor Flitwick cradled his teacup close and took a long sip while he stared at Potter. The Gryffindor finally had enough sense to keep his mouth shut when it ought to be and for Professor Flitwick to take his measure.

Finally, Flitwick asked, “Is all this the truth, Mr. Potter?”

“Yes, Sir,” Potter answered with that same wild-eyed desperation that had convinced Draco.

It was enough for Flitwick.

“Oh, my dear boy,” he squeaked. With a flick of his wand, Flitwick slid his chair across the floor and leaned forward to place a hand on Potter’s knee. “I’m so sorry that you’ve been dealing with this alone, and that for all the times you said you didn’t put your name in the Goblet, none of us listened. I’m even more sorry that we might have listened too late.”

“What?” Potter’s voice cracked.

“I don’t know the particulars of the magical contract process with the Goblet of Fire, but there is a no small chance that the Weighing of the Wands was enough to count as your consent.”

Papers on Flitwick’s desk ruffled in the breeze. “But I didn’t say yes!”

“With events as Mr. Malfoy explained, you didn’t make the offer to the Goblet by putting your name in the fire. Instead, the Goblet made an offer to you when it spat out your name. Your consent to the Tournament might have been participating in the Weighing of the Wands. But I don’t know if that’s an official part of the Tournament or if it’s just pomp and circumstance.”

“How do we find out?”

“We’ll need to ask someone far more learned in contracts than I.”

“I don’t…” Flitwick waited for Potter to find his words. “Please don’t tell Professor Dumbledore.”

If Flitwick was surprised by the request, it didn’t show. Draco’s estimation of the sometimes-excitable professor went up. “Not the Headmaster. Professor McGonagall.”

Potter looked to Draco. Flitwick caught it but still explained. “Her brothers specialize in business law in both the Muggle and Magical worlds. If anyone would know how to find the particulars, it would be them.”

Draco had heard his father complain about why anyone would need to understand the overlap between Magical and Muggle law, but he hadn’t complained about the McGonagall brothers’ work. Draco nodded, and Flitwick waited for Potter to give a nod of his own. With that, Flitwick strummed his wand against something neither student could see, but Draco had spent enough time with Severus to know meant he was triggering the teachers’ ward network. Wherever she was, McGonagall would feel the tug of Professor Flitwick asking for her attention.

Flitwick waited for a moment before an answer must have come back. “Minerva will be along shortly. Now, while we’re waiting,” the Professor flicked his wand and a tin of cupcakes came zipping out of his desk. “I don’t know why you boys came to me, but I’m grateful you did.”

Before Draco could say anything appropriately complimentary, Potter took his cupcake and burst out, “You’re the only one we thought would listen.”

Draco closed his eyes, but Flitwick just cooed and told them to have another.

CHAPTER TWO

By the time Harry stumbled into the Gryffindor common room, he was an hour past curfew and his whole world had been upended.

“Harry!” Hermione popped out of a chair beside the fire, ignoring their housemates still up and about on a Friday night. “Where have you been?”

“With McGonagall.”

Hermione dragged him to one of the dark study corners and glanced around before she hissed, “Padfoot?”

“No.”

Hermione leaned in, waiting for him to explain. And honestly, it wasn’t until Harry had the comforting familiarity of Hermione demanding to know what was going on that Harry’s brain caught up to the whirlwind of his night. “I found out why everyone thinks I put my name in the Goblet of Fire.”

“Because they all would have done it if they had the chance.” Hermione glowered at the room.

A smile spread across his face. “Maybe some of them, but for the rest, it’s because putting your name in the Goblet makes a magical contract. That’s why you have to participate if your name comes out. If I hadn’t put my name in the Goblet, like I’ve been saying, then I wouldn’t have made the contract and I wouldn’t have to participate.”

It wasn’t often that Hermione looked confused, so Harry enjoyed it for a moment before he tried to summarize all the information Draco had spewed at him.

Hermione let Harry go for two sentences before she accepted that it wasn’t absolute nonsense and she was going to have to understand it. “Stop.” She dashed up to the dorm and grabbed one of the Muggle notebooks she kept around for intense notetaking. She made Harry start over and ended up with a list of questions Harry couldn’t have answered if his life depended on it.

“This magical contract theory sounds like it makes sense, but we need more information. I can go to the library, and maybe Ron—”

“We don’t have to, Hermione. Draco and I, we…” Harry swallowed and barreled right past Hermione’s shock. “We went to Professor Flitwick.”

Hermione didn’t take her eyes off Harry as she flipped to a clean page. “Explain.”

“Uh… well, you make a contract when—”

“Not that. Explain Draco.”

Thus began the most mortifying conversation in Harry’s life. It might have been better if Hermione didn’t stop him one sentence in. “Harry.” She put down her quill. “Are you telling me that Draco Malfoy found you crying—”

“Hermione!” Harry hissed, looking around for eavesdroppers.

Hermione rolled her eyes, not understanding why it was worse to have everyone know that Harry been crying in a hallway than know he was trying to get out of the Tournament. “Fine. But he found you and he decided to help you?”

“Yes.”

“But that’s impossible.”

“That’s what I would’ve said, but he did. That’s how I know all of this.”

“Harry Potter, we absolutely cannot trust Draco Malfoy as a source of information. He probably made all of this up!”

“You just said it made sense!”

“It’s Malfoy.” Harry didn’t know if Hermione was implying that Draco was capable of inventing the intricate details of a magical subcategory on the spot, or if Draco could be reciting a book on magical law word for word and still not be trustworthy.

“But it wasn’t just Malfoy.” Hermione’s pained sigh was a point in favor of Malfoy’s opinion that Harry put her through too much. “So, Dra— Malfoy—”

“Just say it.”

He took me to Flitwick.”

“Not Snape?”

“Dra— Malf—” Hermione glared. “Draco said we’d kill each other before we solved the problem.”

“I’m surprised he was willing to admit that.”

“Me too.”

“But why Flitwick and not McGonagall or another of the professors?”

Harry chose to keep Draco’s thoughts about McGonagall to himself. “He said that agreeing to do a duel is a kind of contract, so Flitwick has lots of experience.”

Hermione jotted a note down in the corner of her paper but stayed on target. “And Flitwick confirmed everything Malfoy said?”

“Better: he believed me about not putting my name in the Goblet and then he called McGonagall.”

Harry had expected it to take longer to convince McGonagall than it had to convince Draco. But McGonagall had taken Flitwick’s word without a second thought. Though, she did look at Draco to ask, “And you believe him, Mr. Malfoy?”

Harry had frozen at the thought of Draco telling their professors his proof was catching Harry crying in the dungeons. Draco had just looked at him like he was an idiot. “Believe is a strong word, Professor.” Before McGonagall could tear him apart, Draco finished, “But yes.”

Harry continued his explanation to Hermione. “Then she sent Draco back to his dorm before curfew and…”

“And?”

“Her brothers came through the floo.”

“Her what?”

“Professor McGonagall has two younger brothers.”

“And they’re lawyers?”

“They specialize in both Wizarding and Muggle business law.”

“They do both?”

“McGonagall’s father is a Muggle.”

“Professor McGonagall is a half-blood?” Hermione nearly shrieked.

“I thought you’d like that.”

Hermione smacked his arm. “Don’t distract me, Harry. What did Professor McGonagall’s brothers say?”

“Not much. We explained things to them and they said they didn’t know enough about how the Goblet contract works to tell me if I’d started a contract with the Weighing of the Wands.”

“When will they know?”

“Robert – McGonagall’s youngest brother – has lawyer friends in France that he’s going to talk to and see if any of them have paid more attention to the Goblet of Fire. I guess it’s been in France since the last tournament so they might be more interested in it. Malcolm – the other brother – went straight back to the office and said he would wake everyone up to help him research. He said if we’re lucky, some Wizard in the Middle Ages put someone else’s name in the Goblet to get them killed.”

“And if we’re not lucky?”

“They’ll look into other things, but the worst is that I’ll still have to compete. But even that won’t be as bad as it was this morning.”

“Why, did someone tell you what the First Task is?”

“No, I… McGonagall believes me.” Harry couldn’t hold back his awe.

Hermione took his hand. “Of course she does, Harry.”

“She didn’t before. She thought I was lying, just like everybody else.”

“Not everybody.”

“Not you. But everyone who isn’t you. And McGonagall apologized for not believing me.”

“Really?” Hermione was as dumbfounded as that statement deserved.

“After we got done with her brothers, she walked me back to the tower, stopped me outside the Fat Lady, and said, ‘Mr. Potter, I apologize for letting it get this far.’”

“Did she give you house points?”

Harry bit back his laugh. “No, but the apology was better.” Harry couldn’t stop himself from repeating it. “McGonagall believes me. And Flitwick believes me. I’ve got lawyers who believe me and are trying to get me out. They… believe me. And Draco Malfoy is the one who convinced them.” Harry dragged his sleeve over his nose. He wasn’t going to get caught crying again.

Hermione pointedly cleared her throat.

“I know you’ve believed me, Hermione. And I wouldn’t have made it through the last month without you. It’s just… Draco did something about it.”

“So did I!”

“I know. He just… he made other people believe me too. And I know you tried! I just… I don’t know how to explain it.”

Hermione huffed. “If you remember, I’ve been bullied too, Harry. I understand.”

“It makes sense?”

“It’s nice to have grownups believe you when you’re telling the truth. And I remember when you and Ron became my friends. It’s quite nice to have someone fight for you. I can’t quite believe that it’s Malfoy, but I understand.”

“I wouldn’t have made it without you, Hermione.”

“And don’t you forget it, Harry Potter.”

@@@@@

Minerva McGonagall sat before the fire in her private quarters with a snifter of brandy and settled in for a long think.

She’d meant her apology to Mr. Potter with full sincerity. No child could understand the scope of Minerva’s failure, especially since Mr. Potter didn’t know Minerva had tried to raise objections after his name had emerged from the Goblet. Albus had cast her worries aside in the name of information gathering.

While Malcolm led every lawyer in their office on a mad research binge – no doubt supported by Ms. Granger – and Robert darted about France trying to charm his way into someone else’s research, Minerva knew there was one source in Scotland who might have the answer tucked away in a corner of his brilliant mind. (Albus didn’t agree to things if he hadn’t read everything about them first.)

So, she’d gone to Albus and explained that Ms. Granger had been researching magical contracts and realized that Mr. Potter might not have to participate. (For all her fondness of Albus, telling him that the idea had come from young Mr. Malfoy would lead to inquiries that had nothing to do with the problem at hand.)

But Albus, for all he was a good man and a brilliant leader of the light, had never led an investigation. He’d gone from school, to a research position in France, straight back to the bosom of Hogwarts. Minerva had done the same, but her time in ‘research’ had been spent in the DMLE, hunting criminals. No matter the battles he’d led or the fights he’d won, Albus trusted more in spy craft than he did in a good, old-fashioned investigation.

Instead of offering to quiz his fellow headmasters or drag in the Ministry officials overseeing the Tournament and their foreign equivalents, he intoned to her about the broader consequences of Harry withdrawing. For how would they learn who had put Harry’s name in the Goblet if matters were not allowed to play out?

Minerva didn’t fight him.

She disagreed vehemently, and there was no hiding that from Albus. But no matter how often Minerva differed with Albus, he trusted she would support whatever decision he made.

Though Minerva had at the beginning of the year, tonight, the guilt of inaction ate at her.

Supporting Albus’ decision to gather information didn’t mean she had to support his flawed methodology. Particularly when they ought to approach it like hunting a criminal, not preventing a Death Eater attack.

Minerva set aside her snifter and, with her own two hands, slid down the chalkboard tucked in dimensional store over her bookcase. (Transfiguration calculations had never been quite the same when written with her wand. It was a habit she had picked up from her Auror training partner and never left behind.)

For transfiguration, she would write starting object on the left-hand side of the board. Then, on the right, put what she intended to end up with. Here, she wrote in the perfect middle of the board: “Potter’s name put in the Goblet of Fire.”

From there, she laid out a spiderweb of questions in all directions. Some were easy. “Where?” had to be the Entrance Hall. “When?” was broader, but logically could be confined to “October 30-31 (after the students went to bed but before the students woke).” She put an asterisk beside that time frame because there was a chance some student had put Potter’s name in instead of their own and no secrecy was needed for that.

“Who?” encompassed every student (Hogwarts, Durmstrang, and Beauxbatons), professors, Ministry officials, reporters, and bystanders. Another asterisk because there was a chance someone had snuck into Hogwarts in the dead of night.

Which led to “Why?” which had neither an asterisk nor an explanation, no matter how much Minerva wanted to leap to someone working for You-Know-Who. Given Harry’s history and Severus’ darkening Mark, that it was the most likely possibility. But Minerva had shouted at enough Aurors over proper criminal procedure that she could not bring herself to leap. She would follow the evidence. And what evidence did not present itself to Albus’ ‘wait and see’ strategy, Minerva would hunt down.

For all that people considered Albus’ phoenix Patronus a sign of his innate goodness, Minerva took it as a sign that Albus was a bird. He was a powerful creature straight out of legend, to be sure, but he’d grown accustomed to sitting on his perch and only occasionally doing bouts of impressive magic, waiting around to die.

Minerva, however, was a cat.

And cats would not, ‘wait and see.’ They would hunt.

@@@@@

Draco was not curious.

He wasn’t.

He didn’t care that he’d been sent from Flitwick’s office before he could find out McGonagall’s plan. And he didn’t care that Potter came into the Great Hall without the twitch that had been haunting the corner of his eye for the last month and actually ate breakfast instead of picking at it.

He also didn’t care that Potter got a letter from an unknown owl that stopped off at McGonagall on its way out. He didn’t care that Potter and McGonagall exchanged a long look after reading their letters, then turned back to breakfast.

Nothing about that was suspicious. And even if it was, Draco Malfoy didn’t care about Gryffindors being unsubtle.

Draco hadn’t dragged Potter to Professor Flitwick’s office because he was emotionally involved and wanted to know what was going on. He did it because having Harry Potter in his debt could only be a good thing. There was no limit to what Draco could get from Potter as payment for last night.

Really.

Though, as the morning progressed and Potter didn’t even have the decency to give Draco a look of acknowledgment, cashing in a favor started to look like the wrong option. Spreading the truth about Potter’s so-called courage would be much more satisfying. (That would do away with meddlesome worries about what had happened last night and how much Potter had screwed things up without Draco’s help.)

Draco was wasting his walk to lunch idly wondering about the proper time to spring the story of Potter crying – not about whether Potter was freed from the Tournament and Dumbledore was just waiting for a dramatic reveal – when a stinging hex caught him on the bum. Draco bit his lip rather than shriek in the mostly empty hallway. He whirled with his wand drawn and found Potter peeking around a corner, waving Draco over.

First, Draco glanced over his shoulder to be sure his fellow Slytherins had gone ahead. “You could have just said my name!”

“I thought you’d say that was too obvious!”

“Less obvious than stinging me in the hallway! What if I’d shouted?”

“Then we’d get detention and I’d get to tell you then.” Potter shrugged.

Draco was uncomfortable with Potter’s blasé attitude towards discipline. “I have had detention twice in all my years at this school. Both have been your fault. I don’t want a third.”

“How have you only had two detentions?”

“Because I don’t go around hexing people in the halls!” Potter furrowed his brow like that didn’t seem possible. Which, it wasn’t. “All right. I don’t get caught hexing people.”

“Or Snape just doesn’t give you detention.”

“Anyone who hexes in front of a Professor they know will give them detention gets what they deserve.”

“Detention for getting caught, not for hexing?”

“Yes. Now, why did you drag me over here?”

Potter grumbled about not dragging him anyplace. “Did you know that Professor McGonagall has two brothers?”

“I’m the one who told you that, Potter.”

“Right.” Potter licked his lips. “Well, they’re lawyers. And McGonagall called them to Flitwick’s office after you left. They specialize in magical contracts.”

“I know this, Potter.”

“You know about her brothers?”

If Draco were talking to a Slytherin, he’d think Potter was trying to imply something to Draco without saying it outright. But Potter was a Gryffindor who was just flailing himself through the conversation and not getting anywhere fast. “Potter. This wasn’t worth hexing me over!”

“I was just telling you they’re researching whether or not I have a contract with the Goblet.”

Draco was so surprised he stumbled out, “So?” instead of something useful.

“So what? I just told you.”

“I mean, why are you telling me this?” Draco meant it truly. Why had Potter hunted him down and snuck about to tell Draco what was going on? Draco, who he’d let be sent from the room, who he wouldn’t look at over breakfast, who had saved the day but couldn’t be told so in public?

Potter just blinked. “Because you… you were…” Potter heaved a great sigh. “Never mind.” Then he was gone, back around the corner and down the hall and Draco was too baffled to do anything but watch him go.

CHAPTER THREE

Draco expected to get ambushed by a Gryffindor for tainting their precious chosen one, but honestly, he thought it would be Weasley.

Yes, the red-haired simpleton had completely squandered his relationship with Potter, but Potter was so relentlessly forgiving that Weasley only had to apologize with the slightest sincerity. Draco assumed that since the adults in Potter’s life had gotten on board, Weasley would stow his idiocy and Potter would accept him back with no restitution. This meant that somewhere along the way, Potter would tell his little Gryffindor friends that Draco had something to do with his turn of fortune.

Draco could almost hear Granger’s whines and Weasley’s growls about how it must be evil. Thus, Weasley would ambush Draco, threatening furious hexes. Weasley would lack the common sense to know he hated Draco because Draco was the one who’d been helpful while the Weasel ran, but motives wouldn’t have much meaning when they both got detention for dueling in the hall.

In the grand scheme of probability, Draco found getting accosted by random Hufflepuffs who were angry about upending the Goblet system more likely than Granger popping out from behind a tapestry and hauling Draco through a doorway he’d never seen before.

Yet, that’s precisely what happened.

“Granger?” Draco didn’t squeak.

“I need you.”

“Have you been Imperius-ed, Granger?”

“No,” she snapped and yanked Draco away from the door so he couldn’t escape from the hidden classroom. The room’s long tables had been stacked against the walls, leaving behind a stuff rug that had been cleaned with a general charm rather than something specific, and Potter, who was collapsed on a pile of pillows that all had the lumps that came from imperfect transfiguration.

“Hermione?” Potter scrambled to his feet while Draco croaked, “Granger?”

“I need you to help Harry with his Summoning Charm.”

Potter and Draco spoke over one another, but Granger put her hands on her hips and glowered them both into silence.

“One of Harry’s lawyers went to France to talk to a historian who specializes in the Triwizard Tournament. According to him, no one in the history of the tournament has ever been chosen as the champion after someone else put their name in the Goblet, and only twice someone has been accused of putting another person’s name in.” Hermione grabbed a strange, flat stack of scrolls from the table and flipped through them from right to left because, for some reason, they were bound at the side. “One was a Beauxbatons student who wanted her betrothed dead, and another was a Durmstrang student with a blood feud. The Goblet reported both students to the Headmaster in charge, and neither falsely-submitted student was chosen as the champion.” Granger set the strange scroll back down amidst a mountain of books that Draco was fairly sure shouldn’t be out of the library.

“What does that have to do—”

“There’s no precedent for what happened to Harry. The Weighing of the Wands has been a part of the tournament since 1547 when one of the contestants cursed another’s wand partway through the Tournament.”

“Checking them at the beginning of the Tournament wouldn’t prevent someone from cursing the wand halfway through.”

“Nothing about this Tournament has made decent sense, why should checking the wands?” Granger snapped. “The problem is, weighing the wands isn’t technically in the bylaws for the Tournament because it wasn’t there from the beginning. So, maybe it’s just something they do and the Goblet doesn’t care. Or maybe, after several centuries, the Goblet has decided it is part of the process. The lawyers don’t know. And worse, they don’t know how to check, because the Goblet has gone back to sleep.”

“What about people who violated the Goblet’s contract? What were the consequences for them?” Even Draco could admit that Granger was the smartest witch of the age, so nothing was demeaning about asking her questions.

“They say that no one has ever broken the contract.”

No one?” Draco scoffed.

“That’s what I said!”

“But…” Poor Potter looked between them, baffled. “Neither of you has said anything?”

Granger huffed. “Draco agrees with me that it isn’t plausible that at no time in the last 700 years has no one broken the contract with the Goblet. Approximately 375 students have participated in the Tournament. Not one out of 375?”

“Do we even know what constitutes breaking the rules?” Draco asked.

“No!” Granger sounded fascinated and appalled. She grabbed a book from halfway down a stack and started flipping. “Technically, we don’t even have a hard and fast list of the rules themselves. Especially since one of the few rules they gave Harry was about not getting help from teachers and we all know that everyone has gotten, but none of them have been magically punished.”

“So, if there aren’t rules, how can he violate them? And even if he does, there might be no punishment at all?”

“Precisely!”

“Is this what you brought him in for?” Harry demanded. “Because this is probably something you could have told him about not in our secret study room.”

“It looked like I was interrupting a nap, Potter.”

“Right.” Hermione ignored the verbal poking. “My theory is that the lawyers are going to decide that Harry doesn’t need to participate at all and he’ll be fine, but we have to prepare in case I’m wrong. That’s why you’re here.”

“To interrupt Potter’s nap?”

Accio!” Potter shouted and tried to flick one of the lumpy pillows at Draco. Only to have it crash at Draco’s feet.

“Ah.” That would be why she needed him for Summoning Charm practice. “Why is Potter Summoning?”

“His broom.”

“For what?”

“The First Task is Dragons.”

Dragons?”

“That’s what I said!”

Potter started to giggle like a small child. He absolutely deserved the pillow that Draco flicked at his head. “Hey!”

“What the plan?” Draco asked Hermione.

“Mr. Robert McGonagall wrote Harry to warn him that the historian he talked to in France mentioned dragons being part of the task. Harry and I did research because just ‘dragons’ is too broad a topic for Harry to be properly prepared. Professor Moody caught us in the library talking about it and said that if he were in charge, he’d make the participants try and steal a dragon’s egg, which was obviously him just telling Harry what the Task was.”

“And Potter missed it entirely.”

“Of course. We decided that Harry is faster on his broom than his feet,” or in his head, “but the first step to flying is getting his broom.”

“Hence the Summoning Charm.”

“Yes.”

“Why me?”

And there went all of their accidental comradery. “You know why, Draco Malfoy.”

Draco’s smile might have gone a little Slytherin. “I don’t think I do.”

“I don’t know why!” Potter objected. “I say he doesn’t need to be here!”

“Yes, he does, Harry!”

“Why?” Potter whined.

“Because I can’t do everything, Harry Potter!” Hermione snapped. “If Ron had his head on straight, he’d be able to do the Summoning Charm with you so I’d have enough time to help the McGonagalls’ research. But we don’t have Ron, and Neville can’t cast properly, and you don’t trust anyone else, and Draco is a terrible person but he’s the best at Charms practicals in our year, and I can’t cast and research at the same time. I can’t!”

Granger’s hair crackled with accidental magic and somehow got frizzier. “All right!” Potter took his life in his hands and wrapped Granger in a hug.

“I can’t!” She shouted against his shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Hermione.” Potter dragged a hand through her hair, not flinching away from the static. “Do you want to take a break?”

Draco grimaced because that was absolutely the wrong thing to say. Granger reared back and smacked him. “Harry Potter! No breaks!”

“No breaks! I got it!” Potter scampered out of range.

Potter’s face told Draco to just shut up and do as Granger said. As much as Draco would like to pretend, he wasn’t scared of Granger beating them both silly with pillows, that would be a lie. Granger pointed them both to the pile like she was Expelliarmus-ing them across the room.

Draco just raised his palms, no wand in them to hex her, and went.

“Good. Draco, you work on the Summoning Charm with Harry while you answer my questions about Wizarding contract law.”

“Draco?” Potter grumbled.

“Harry…” Granger’s tone was more threatening than a curse.

“Right, Draco.” He and Potter scampered over to the pillows while Granger went to her books. They just stared at one another for a long minute, neither quite knowing how to begin. Granger climbed on the table and pulled a massive tome onto her lap. “Well?”

Right. This was apparently what Draco was doing now.

Draco Summoned a pillow straight to Potter’s face and said to Hermione, “Ask away. I doubt you want me to begin at the beginning.”

@@@@@

Like most people, Draco had wondered a time or two how Granger ended up in Gryffindor instead of Ravenclaw. After spending every spare moment for two days being interrogated while he exhausted himself running Potter through charms, Draco understood; she was too mean for Ravenclaw.

It had taken Draco four hours to heckle Potter into a powerful Summoning. In Draco’s defense, a large chunk of that was spent explaining to Potter and Granger the impact of emotions on charm casting.

(Draco didn’t know how these Muggleborns got anything done if they didn’t have the sense to take emotions into consideration. Granger had tried to lecture him on the school’s exclusionary system. Draco had replied that he could explain Wizarding contract law or he could care about Muggleborns but he couldn’t do both at the same time.)

Either way, Potter had a Summoning Charm that could manage to get his broom all the way from the castle. After which he’d pointed out that it would be more efficient for Granger to have the broom on her person in the stands than it would to make the poor, beautiful thing break out of Gryffindor Tower. They both just blinked at Draco like that fit of practicality had never crossed their minds.

(Really, this is why the world needed Slytherins.)

Draco considered his work done after that afternoon. Potter would summon his broom, out-fly a dragon – because of course he would – get the egg, and they’d all move on with their lives without this strange aberration.

But to Granger, there was more work to be done. Somewhere it the stack of unwound scroll – called a ‘notebook’ apparently – she’d made a list of useful spells for dealing with a dragon. Now that Harry had time, Draco could help him with those, just in case.

“Why? He doesn’t need them.”

“It’s better to be prepared for any eventuality than just assume things will go well.”

“I don’t know half of these, Granger!”

With a smirk, she handed Draco The Standard Book of Spells: The Complete Compendium Grades 1-7. “Then you can learn.”

And really, Draco couldn’t back down from a challenge like that.

He and Potter mastered Aqua Eructo (in the likely event something was set on fire) and the Flame-Freezing Charm (in the unlikely event Potter had the sense to prevent a fire). Granger spent the days in a mad rush of research, sending multiple owls a day off to the lawyers and getting just as many in return. Every so often, she’d look over at them with frustration that she was trapped behind a book while they got to cast.

She’d left their latest study session a few minutes before dinner so she could send another owl. As he had for the last two days, Draco sent her off with a grumble that the lawyers must already know if Potter would get cursed for not participating and this wavering about was foolish. Granger had Bat-Boogeyed him, Draco had dodged, and went right on griping when Harry said he wanted to skip dinner for more practice.

“You’re obviously not going to compete, so you’d be better spending your time telling everyone you didn’t put your name in the Goblet. The longer you put off the announcement, the more it’s going to look staged.”

“It is staged.” Potter rolled his eyes about practice, but still held open the tapestry for Draco to step into the hallway.

“Of course it’s staged. It’s not about it being staged, it’s about it looking staged.”

“What makes you think I’m not going to compete?”

“Because you’re not going to.”

“Of course I am. Why else would I be practicing so hard?”

The statement was so ridiculous that right there in the hallway where witnesses could see them, Draco stopped and turned the full force of his glower on Harry. “Because Gryffindors can’t sit still.”

Potter just blinked. “What?”

“You know that there are no real consequences for not participating in the Tournament. If there were, your lawyers would’ve found them by now. Which means you’re not going to compete. Which means all of this practice was just to keep you and Granger from panicking.”

“I’m not panicking!” Potter panicked.

Draco ‘hmm-ed’ as Snape had taught him and headed towards dinner.

“I’m not. And I’m going compete.”

“No, you’re not, Potter.”

“Yes, I am. Because they haven’t found someone who didn’t compete, which means they don’t know what would happen to me. That means I can’t risk not competing.”

“How surprisingly glass half empty of you, Potter.”

“Draco!” Potter grabbed him by the arm and twisted him around. “I’m competing.”

“No, you’re not.” Draco scoffed.

“I am.”

“No, you’re not.”

Draco tried to sound like his mother, but he didn’t achieve because Potter said, “Yes, I am.”

Potter… Potter meant it.

“Why in Merlin’s name would you do that?”

“Because I’m a champion!”

“No, you’re not! You’re an idiot who didn’t have the common sense to go to the Board of Governors, or your magical guardian, or Wizarding Child Services and tell them that you didn’t put your name in!”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about a shred of common sense, not this ridiculous pseudo-martyrdom that lets you prance around and pretend you don’t want to be a big, fat dramatic hero!”

“What seems to be the trouble, gentlemen?” Cut through Draco’s flailing limbs. Professor Flitwick was high on the list of people Draco didn’t want catching him in the middle of a domestic with Harry Potter. (Outranked only by Snape, who would mock Draco relentlessly, and Dumbledore, who would use it to his advantage.)

“Malfoy is being an arse!”

“Potter is being an idiot!” Draco snapped back before his brain could re-engage.

“You’re making it difficult not to take away house points, gentlemen.”

Draco stepped on Potter’s foot before he could open his stupid mouth. “Apologies, Professor. We’ll be on our way.”

“No, I don’t think so. Let’s all take a breath and try again: what seems to be the trouble?”

Draco uttered the first excuse he could think of. “Harry has been having difficulty with the Summoning Charm. He’s going to use it to call his broom for the First Task.”

“That’s quite clever, Mr. Potter.” Flitwick complimented.

“Thank you, Professor. I’ll be sure to tell Hermione since it was her idea.” Potter smirked at Draco, as though Draco had been trying to take credit for Granger’s cleverness.

“If I may, Mr. Potter,” Flitwick interrupted their stare down, “I was under the impression that the Misters McGonagall were working on getting you out of the Tournament.”

“They are, they just—”

“That would be the point of our argument, Professor. There is nothing in the original Tournament bylaws about the Weighing of the Wands, it’s only traditional. But they have yet to find anything about the magical consequences to Harry if he chooses not to participate.”

“If Mr. Potter chooses not to participate, or if he chooses to exempt himself from the competition before it before it begins?”

“What’s the difference?” Potter asked while Draco was busy furrowing and unraveling it for himself.

“Well, Mr. Potter, if you were one of my eaglets, I would be wondering what the consequences might be if you simply chose not to compete.”

“Isn’t that what I would be doing anyway?”

“As I understand it, your current plan is to argue that you shouldn’t be competing because you didn’t enter, and thus, didn’t create a contract forcing your participation. What about if you simply… didn’t play.”

Draco lit up like a Lumos charm while poor Potter was still terribly confused. “What do you mean?”

“You are all students, Mr. Potter. They will have safety precautions in place for each task. If you chose not to compete, you could simply find out what the precautions are for each task and trigger them when you enter the field.”

Potter couldn’t have looked more horrified. “Professor… I couldn’t!”

“Of course you could!” Draco shouted. “You’d have to talk to the press beforehand – not Skeeter, she obviously hates you – but you’ll just tell the reporter that you didn’t enter your name in the Goblet and despite whatever twisted magic put your name in the cup, you refuse to compete and pull attention away from the actual champions who chose to compete and who deserve—no, not that word, champions who have…”

“Earned,” Flitwick suggested.

“Yes, earned their place in the tournament, not been coerced through someone else’s deception. You’ll say that Dumbledore himself has been trying to understand how to right this wrong but since they haven’t discovered one and the First Task is upon you, this is how you’ve been forced to handle it.”

“Draco.” Later, Draco would recognize that Potter was horrified, but at moment, all Draco could hear was his own relief that someone had thought of a way around all the unexpected consequences that Draco had been trying not to worry about. “They won’t believe you, of course, but when you dramatically follow through and then congratulate the other champions, it will look perfect!”

“I can’t do that!”

“Yes, you can! Of course, there’s a provision for you to leave a task if you’re injured or in too much danger. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it. And the Goblet has no way of judging how serious a threat is, so you could walk onto the pitch and stub your toe, and that would qualify! You won’t have to compete, and you’ll be able to control what the press are saying about you.”

“Draco, I can’t just not compete!”

“You’re right, we need to send a letter to your lawyers first—”

“Draco—”

“Thank you, Professor—”

“Draco!”

“—they’ll need to confirm the regulations surrounding withdrawal once the competition has begun without a justifying injury, but—”

“I’m not doing it, Draco!” Potter’s shouting broke through Draco’s planning.

“Why wouldn’t you? This is exactly what you’ve been looking for.”

“It’s not!”

“You’d look like a hero and you wouldn’t have to compete! This is the perfect solution and I’m ashamed I got it from a Ravenclaw.”

Flitwick snorted a laugh.

“It’s not what I wanted, Draco. I just wanted…”

Potter trailed off because there was no way to end that sentence that wasn’t ‘get out of competing.’

This, Harry. This is what you wanted.”

“But to just go out and jinx myself in the foot would be cowardice.”

“You didn’t put your name in the Goblet!” Draco got out through gritted teeth.

“It’s one thing for them to know this was all a mistake. It’s not the same thing to be too afraid to compete.”

“You don’t say you’re scared. You say that you didn’t put your name in and you’re done letting all of this distract from the true champions.”

“I’d still look like a coward.”

“To the Gryffindors, but not to anyone with sense.”

“I’m a Gryffindor!”

“That’s what I said!”

Harry snarled with inarticulate rage and stormed down the hall in a direction that wouldn’t take him to the dining hall. “Harry? Where are you going?”

Draco went to hound Potter until common sense had been rammed into his thick skull. Professor Flitwick stopped him. “Let him go, Mr. Malfoy.”

“But—”

“You both need to calm down.”

“But he’s wrong!”

“Neither of you are in a place to listen.”

“I don’t need to listen, I’m the one who’s right!”

“Down the hall please, Mr. Malfoy.”

Draco went to storm after Potter only to get charmed in the opposite direction. “Professor!”

“Off to dinner Mr. Malfoy.”

“But—”

“Go.” Professor Flitwick was never intimidating, but for the first time, Draco realized there might have been something lurking underneath that tiny, mild-mannered, easily excitable exterior this entire time.

So, Draco went.

Not to dinner, of course. He went to the owlery to have Granger send another letter to the lawyers. But still, he went.

CHAPTER FOUR

Harry skipped dinner and planted face-first in his bed. He didn’t have the stomach to face a table of lions after Draco’s plan to run away from a fight had tempted him more than he wanted to admit.

Though, Harry didn’t blame himself for that. Draco managed to make everything sound reasonable.

‘Of course, Harry could Summon a brick across the room. He’d Summoned a pillow, hadn’t he?’ And ‘he could cast a jet of water furious enough to knock someone off their feet. He’d filled up a glass and it was the same thing!’ No wonder Crabbe and Goyle followed him around and did whatever he said. If Draco felt like it, he probably could have talked Harry right off the Astronomy Tower.

But Harry wasn’t Tom Riddle, talking vulnerable Weasleys into the Chamber of Secrets. He was Harry bloody Potter. He was a Gryffindor. He’d fought Voldemort twice and won. He could handle a dragon.

And he could handle Draco Malfoy saying he could make himself a hero by being a coward.

Harry stared at the bed’s canopy for far longer than he intended, laying there until the rest of his dorm stumbled in. As it had done for the last month, their laughter died off at the first sight of Harry. Before they could say anything, Neville slipped past them with a napkin full of food that didn’t need a knife and fork.

“I noticed you weren’t at dinner, Harry, and I thought you might be hungry.”

Harry wasn’t, but he rolled himself upright and forced out a smile. “Thanks, Nev.”

“Yeah, Harry Potter is too special to eat with the rest of us, isn’t he?” Ron sneered. Harry had to be spending too much time with Draco because his first thought was that the insult wasn’t very good.

Also, he was going to blame Draco that, without thinking, Harry reached for his want and Accio-ed a pillow into Ron’s face.

Though, it might have been Harry’s fault that he could hear the crack of broken bone from across the room.

“What the hell!” Seamus shouted.

Harry scrambled out of bed to face the dorm-wide fistfight, but sometimes luck was kind and they were cut off by Prefect at the door. “Potter broke Ron’s nose!” Seamus shouted, but the Prefect was just as useless as he’d been all year.

“Then report it to McGonagall. Professor Dumbledore has asked to see you, Potter.”

“Maybe he’s finally going to throw you out for being a liar.” Ron hissed, wiping away blood on his robes.

Neville put himself between Harry and the rest of the room and whispered at him to just go.

Harry stomped his way out of the dorm, and stomped his way through the halls, so irritated that he didn’t even worry about what Dumbledore wanted. He stomped up the stairs and didn’t stop until he found the brothers McGonagall with Professor Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and… Padfoot.

Harry ignored them all and went straight to the dog, burying his face in Sirius’ ruff and getting nuzzles and licks in place of hugs.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the McGonagall brothers looking to the Professor. “One of the students pointed out to Albus that Fawkes is not exactly soothing,” she lied.

“It’s not that.” Harry knew McGonagall was lying on his behalf, but Fawkes shouldn’t think he was anything less than perfect. “It’s just that Fawkes isn’t great at hugs.”

Fawkes trilled and the sound made everyone smile. “Well, that’s understandable,” Robert McGonagall smiled brightly, while Malcolm had a crease at the corner of his eyes that Harry had figured out meant humor.

“Thank you for letting us impose upon your hospitality Headmaster,” Malcolm said. “We’ll find ourselves a quiet corner with Mr. Potter to discuss his options.”

“Oh, Malcolm, I thought you could have your meeting here. After all, whatever Mr. Potter decides, I will have to implement it on his behalf.”

“And why is that, Headmaster?”

If Harry didn’t know better, he’d say that the McGonagall brothers didn’t like the Headmaster. As the conversation went on – Malcolm wanting to leave, Dumbledore insisting they stay – Professor McGonagall stared up at the ceiling with the longsuffering look she got when Harry’s class couldn’t do First Year transfigurations.

“As you say, Malcolm, I am the Headmaster. If Harry chooses not to participate, I will be the one who has to enforce his lack of participation.”

“Is that what I’m doing then?” Harry asked. “Not participating?”

“That’s a private discussion we ought to have alone with you, Harry,” Robert said, much cheerier than his brother. “Neither Headmaster Dumbledore nor Minerva has the legal authority over you to be a part of this conversation unless you choose to involve them.”

“You said that in our first conversation about talking in front of Flitwick.”

“It still applies.”

“So does my answer. They can stay.”

“Are you sure, Harry?” Robert asked.

“Of course.”

Neither of the McGonagall brothers liked it, but they pressed on. Malcolm settled his tall frame on a chair opposite Harry, who was still on the floor with Sirius. Robert settled on the stone at the base of his brother’s chair, not at all humoring Harry.

“First,” Malcolm began, “let me be clear that we – everyone at our firm, and everyone at the other firms in England, France, Norway, Sweden, Poland, and Germany that we trusted with a non-disclosure contract – have reviewed every piece of historical information about the Triwizard Tournament we can find, including consulting historians who specialize in the subject. Despite that, no one knows what to expect if you choose not to compete tomorrow.”

“No one?” McGonagall sounded just like she did when Seamus conjuring flaming flowers.

“No one.”

Robert carried on in the ringing silence that followed his brother’s words. “We have plenty of theories. They range from there being no magical consequences to Harry being stripped of his life and/or magic like he violated an unbreakable vow. But we have no singular piece of evidence that suggests any particular outcome is more likely than the other.” Robert leaned over and rested his hand on Harry’s foot. “We’re so sorry, Harry. We wanted to come back with a recommendation either way, but we can’t offer one.”

“You don’t think one will happen?”

The brothers paused. “Unfortunately,” Robert said, “we do not.”

“Because we don’t agree.” Malcolm clarified.

“You don’t?” Harry didn’t think adults were allowed to do that.

Robert sighed, but that didn’t stop Malcolm from answering. “I think that the Goblet was crafted by Witches and Wizards driven by pride and competition. I don’t think the magic that makes the Goblet work will care that you weren’t the one who put your name in. I think it would take any step you took in preparation for the First Task as a sign of agreement and punish you accordingly.”

“But Dr— the research said that magical contracts need ‘full and free consent.’” Harry hoped no one noticed his slip.

Robert started talking before his brother could. “That is the case, but what amounts to ‘full and free’ is left up to magic’s interpretation. In this case, Malcolm believes – and I have no definite evidence to the contrary – that magic would choose to take the Weighing of the Wands as your agreement.”

Malcolm pressed on. “I believe the Goblet would add to that agreement any time you called yourself a champion, the preparation you did for tomorrow’s Task, even those times someone called you a champion and you didn’t object.”

“But why?”

“Because the Triwizard Tournament is a testament to the folly and hubris of Wizarding kind, and I believe the magic behind it is just as capricious.”

Harry couldn’t help a small smile. “You were a Ravenclaw, weren’t you, Sir?”

The man raised a bushy eyebrow. “No, I was a Gryffindor.”

“My brother was Head Boy,” McGonagall said with no small amount of pride.

“Really?”

“Daring, nerve, and chivalry don’t have to mean chasing a basilisk on one’s own, Mr. Potter,” she said.

“Though, it never hurts to defend one’s friends,” Dumbledore pointed out.

“That sounds more like a Hufflepuff,” Malcolm replied.

“To the point at hand,” Robert said with what felt like long practice, “Malcolm is rather more concerned about the Goblet’s motives and the magical consequences that come with them. I am fixated on the fact that dozens of people researching constantly for a week in multiple languages couldn’t find a single instance where a champion was punished by the Goblet for breaking what few rules the Tournament does have.”

“None of those rulebreakers outright refused to compete.” Malcolm came back.

“Yes, yes,” Robert rolled his eyes for Harry, like the brothers had been having this argument all week. “But what makes a failure to compete a worse violation than hexing a competitor two seconds after the Task begins?”

“The Goblet is petty.”

“So you think.”

“We have no proof!”

“Boys!” McGonagall shouted. They both shifted with embarrassment and it was good to know Professor McGonagall could do that to adults too.

“Well, there you have it. We cannot make a recommendation either way because we can’t agree either way.” Robert finished. “We can present you with our full arguments if you’d like.” Harry grimaced. “No, we thought not. But we’re afraid the decision must rest entirely in your hands, Mr. Potter, and relies on how much of a risk you are willing to take about the potential of the Goblet of Fire to be capricious.”

“Or on the assumption that five hundred years of magical history have been accurately recorded and people didn’t just leave the punishments out.” Malcolm came back. Padfoot huffed and dropped his bulk onto Harry’s lap, demanding pets that were more for Harry’s sake than his own.

“You have until the Task begins tomorrow to make your decision. Though you might be helped along by our research into Ms. Granger’s proposition about the consequences of withdrawing from each Task immediately after it has begun, and—”

“What?”

The brothers blinked and looked to McGonagall, who looked as confused as Harry.

Robert licked his lips. “Ms. Granger has been helping us with our research.”

“I know that, what do you mean about withdrawing? She wasn’t supposed to look into that. I said no.”

“Ah, then you don’t want to hear our research on the subject?” Malcolm sounded like it pained him not to share, which meant the information was good.

“I would,” Professor McGonagall said. “And don’t give me that look, Mr. Potter. You said I could participate in the meeting, so I shall.”

“I said you could stay,” Harry grumbled. Padfoot huffed out the dog version of a laugh, then gave him a nip for disrespecting McGonagall. “Sorry.”

“What do you mean withdrawal?” The professor asked again and the brothers McGonagall explained Professor Flitwick’s mad idea about just shooting up red sparks. Draco must have run off and told Hermione if she was the one who told the brothers.

McGonagall looked like she’d swallowed one of Dumbledore’s lemon drops. “Well, it would certainly resolve the problem.”

“It would indeed, particularly since we believe that this would fall well within the bounds of the flagrant rule-breaking that other champions have gone unpunished for.” Like Draco, it sounded reasonable when Malcolm said it.

“You don’t think the Goblet will be upset about it?” Harry asked, forcing himself into slow strokes along Padfoot’s back.

“I think you could find a way to twist your ankle three seconds into every Task and it wouldn’t come near breaking the rules.”

“I am quite surprised Ms. Granger came up with this plan. It doesn’t sound like her at all.” Came from Dumbledore. Since Hermione had been the most Ravenclaw Gryffindor Harry had ever met until Malcolm McGonagall, that meant it didn’t sound much like a Gryffindor, so it didn’t sound like Harry.

“There will be consequences to such a decision,” Professor McGonagall pointed out.

“But those consequences wouldn’t be your life.”

“No, I’d just be called a coward.”

Malcolm fixed Harry with a steady gaze that he felt through the top of his head and waited until Harry looked him in the eyes. “You’re Harry Potter. Anyone who considers you a coward doesn’t deserve their magic.”

“There are many daft people, brother.”

“Yes,” he admitted, “withdrawal would require some time with the press and certain manipulations. Or, we could follow the letter of the law and finally get you a magical guardian who could refuse your participation. That adult would take the blame.” Malcolm cast a pointed look at Dumbledore.

“A what?”

“That is rather a problem for another time don’t you think?” Dumbledore ignored Harry’s question.

“Not if it means saving his life tomorrow.”

“It is my understanding that Harry is rather prepared for tomorrow’s Task.”

Padfoot buried his face in Harry’s belly. “I am, Sirs,” Harry said, not wanting anyone else to have authority so Sirius wouldn’t have to fight for it when he got his freedom back.

“I don’t think anyone could ever be properly prepared for what you’ll face tomorrow, Mr. Potter.”

“Maybe not, but I’m as ready as anyone ever could be.”

“Well,” Dumbledore clapped his hands. “Since Mr. Potter has made his decision—”

“I’m not sure Mr. Potter has been adequately informed about the consequences of his decision.” Malcolm held his ground.

“It seems you don’t know what the consequences will be either way.”

“I’m going to compete,” Harry said, before the two men could go at it again. Harry thought Professor McGonagall had already had enough pointless arguments today, but the moment the declaration crossed his lips, Harry felt a ripple across his magic. Wherever the Goblet was, he was sure it had just spit out a burp of fire.

“Are you sure, Harry?” Robert asked.

“What else can I do?”

“You can—”

“Risk it?” Dumbledore interrupted.

Harry didn’t have it in him to give Dumbledore the kind of look Malcolm did, but he interrupted the Headmaster. “It sounds like it’s a risk either way, but competing is a risk I can get ready for. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Goblet turned out to be just as stupid and fickle as Wizards usually are, but I don’t know what to do about that.”

“It might not care.”

As much as Harry wanted to believe Robert, the Goblet wasn’t the only problem. “Then I just have to convince stupid and fickle Wizards not to care that I didn’t want to compete after all the stuff Rita Skeeter put in that article.”

Malcolm’s sigh made Harry sad. It wasn’t disappointment, but it was the kind of resignation he never wanted to trigger in the man.

“We respect your decision, Harry,” Robert said. “Though, that is something we’d like to discuss with you when you have a moment.”

“Skeeter?”

“Interviewers—”

“Leeches.” Malcolm interrupted.

Interviewers and anyone else who wants to publish something about you. Particularly if they’re going to be reckless enough to write with a Quick-Quotes Quill and publish without letting you review the story first.”

“That’s a thing I can do?”

“It’s a thing most public personalities do.”

“And I… I’m a public personality?” Padfoot paused in his lap and Malcolm’s glare at Dumbledore could have doubled as a curse to peel the skin off his face. Robert wrapped a hand around Malcolm’s ankle and kept him from saying a word.

“Yes, Harry. You’re a public personality. We’d like to have a broader discussion with you about Skeeter and the like, but I understand that you have more pressing things to worry about this evening. We’d have put this conversation off until you had a few days of rest after the First Task, but Skeeter and other reporters will be there tomorrow.”

“So, I should just not talk to her?”

“Avoid her at all possible, and if she corners you, just smile and walk away.”

Harry didn’t think he could manage that, but Padfoot nipped him so he promised to try. It must not have sounded very genuine, because the brothers McGonagall looked to the Professor and she said she’d get in between Harry and reporters. “I imagine there will be a party in the Gryffindor Tower that you’ll be wanting to get back to.”

“That’d be nice.” Harry snorted.

“If your House doesn’t, Mr. Potter, I’ll do it myself.”

As much as Harry was tempted to keep the brothers there all night and ask them a dozen questions about what was coming next, they had places to be. Together, he and Professor McGonagall showed the brothers out, each with their own whispered comments to take care of himself tomorrow. (Robert gave him a hug and Malcolm told him they’d be in the stands and come the moment Harry called.)

The second the door closed behind them, Sirius popped up from four legs to two and bounded into a hug.

“You’re here! Why are you here?”

“I’m so proud of you, Pup.”

“For what?” Harry grumbled into his neck.

“For having the courage to compete anyway.”

The words curdled in his stomach. The choice to complete wasn’t really courage. Harry had meant it when he told the McGonagalls that it was just the choice he could control. Competing wasn’t courage; it was common sense. And now he was stuck, no matter what he might think tomorrow.

He managed to choke out, “Well, it was what I needed to do.”

“You’ll be brilliant, Pup.”

“I’ll try.”

With an, ‘If you’ll excuse us,’ Dumbledore and McGonagall slipped out of the Professor’s office, giving them privacy. But Harry didn’t enjoy the conversation as much as he wanted to.

Time to talk things out with Sirius was all Harry had wanted since this whole mess started. But when Harry had daydreamed about this conversation, he told Sirius about how he hadn’t put his name in the Goblet and how scared he was to compete anyway. He told head-Sirius about making Hermione cry from stress, something that school had never done. He told him about Ron being the kind of bully that Harry had hated in primary school, and how Hermione kept telling him that Ron would come around, but Harry didn’t know if he cared.

He told head-Sirius about Draco, and how Harry wouldn’t want to be in Slytherin house if it meant straights O’s on his NEWTs. But somehow, Draco had waltzed into a friendship like he’d always been there, bullying Harry into believing he could do anything. He always told his head-Sirius that he didn’t understand Draco at all, but… he wanted to.

Harry wanted a grownup to talk things over with, but Sirius wasn’t it. The man in front of Harry, talking about how brave he was and how brilliant he was going to be, wasn’t the man in Harry’s head.

Harry gave a dramatic yawn and claimed that he needed to get to bed so he could be at his best tomorrow. Sirius wrapped him up in a long hug, and Harry had to pull away and get out the door before Sirius could see his tears.

Harry stumbled into the wall opposite Dumbledore’s door, sucking in breaths to keep himself from sobbing. But of course, getting caught crying in a corner by Draco Malfoy once in his life wasn’t enough.

Hermione had been lurking, and she crashed into Harry with a hug that was a thousand times more comforting than Sirius’ because he knew the girl on the other side of it so well. “Oh Harry, are they going to let you get out of the competition?”

Harry shrugged off Hermione’s touch, angrier than he had words to explain. “No one is letting me do anything, Hermione. I chose to compete.”

“You what?” Draco demanded, like he had any right at all to tell Harry what to do.

“I’m competing. Because I’m a Hogwarts champion and I want to.”

“No, you don’t!”

Harry grabbed Draco by the stupid pressed lapels of his stupid perfect jacket and shoved Draco against the wall. Hermione shouted his name, but right now, Harry didn’t care. “You don’t know me, Malfoy. You don’t get to make my decisions for me, and turn my best friend against me, and talk like you know anything about me!”

Draco’s eyes were huge, scared enough that Harry was about to wrench his hands away and apologize. But then Draco had to be himself and fear gave way to a sneer. “I didn’t make your best friend do anything, Potter. Weasel betrayed you all on his own.”

“I wasn’t talking about Ron!”

“We were just trying to protect you, Harry!” Hermione objected.

“I can protect myself!”

“Obviously not!” Draco snapped.

If Harry stayed here for another minute, he was going to punch Draco in the face. He shoved Malfoy again and stormed off down the hall.

“What is wrong with you, Potter!” Draco shouted at his back, but Harry couldn’t speak.

@@@@@

Sirius stuck his shaggy, lupine head around the statute guarding Albus’ door and looked at the Tabby cat lurking around the corner. Dog or not, his face couldn’t have more clearly expressed, ‘What the hell was that?’ Minerva just flicked a tail at him and bid him follow her down the hall.

There were too many people coming and going about the castle tonight in preparation for tomorrow, and the sight of a Grim sneaking into the Forbidden Forest wouldn’t help things. The plan was for Sirius to spend the night in Minerva’s spare room because no Auror or ministry official would have the gall to break into Minerva’s rooms, no matter the potential Azkaban escapee. Then Sirius would leave while everyone was busy watching the First Task.

(Since Minerva didn’t bother lying to herself about Sirius’ personality, her spare room was prepared for several days.)

Sirius had enough sense to keep himself as a dog until Minerva checked her rooms, making sure her brothers hadn’t hung about. The moment she told him it was clear, Sirius shifted to a human and demanded to know what that fight had been, but with the kind of language Minerva didn’t permit, even in a fully-grown student.

“Sorry,” he grumbled, just as petulant as a boy.

“Mr. Malfoy was the first person to believe Mr. Potter and explained to him the parameters of magical contracts.”

“Malfoy!”

There would be no dramatic pacing around her rooms. Minerva pointed Sirius to a chair, which he dropped into with a huff. “Yes, Malfoy. I do not know the particulars that led Harry to confide in Mr. Malfoy, but Mr. Malfoy took Harry to Filius, who called for me, and I called for my brothers.”

“Why would a Malfoy help Harry? And what do you mean he explained magical contracts?”

“Sirius, what did Albus tell you about how Harry got his name in the Goblet?”

“That Harry said he didn’t do it, but once your name comes out of the Goblet, there’s no getting out.”

“You and I know that’s not precisely accurate.”

“It’s basically what your brothers just told it is.”

“But we didn’t know that until my brothers did the research.”

For all Sirius was wild and had little desire to pay attention to matters he didn’t find interesting, he had always been damnably clever. “Dumbledore knew Harry didn’t put his name in the Goblet but he let it go so he could find out who did.”

“Yes.”

“I want to say that makes sense.”

“Do you?”

Sirius’ jaw changed shape as he chewed on the words he wanted to shout.

Minerva released her ramrod posture and slouched back in her chair. “Do you remember what it was to be an Auror, Siri?”

“I will always remember it, Min. For a moment, it defined me. I never forget it. And I… will never forget him.”

They both took a moment to let their grief at the loss of Elphinstone Urquart consume them. Minerva for her husband, and Sirius for the Auror trainer he’d loved like a father.

They had more pressing matters, but Minerva couldn’t help but tell him, “They showed Phin your confession, you know. Not a memory, but a dictation from a certified quill.”

“He wouldn’t have needed to see a memory. He came to see me, in the days right after. I told him I did it.”

“Why, Siri?”

“I was broken.” How to explain to a woman who could spend a thousand years in Azkaban with the skin peeling from her bones and never break? “A few days with Dementors, seeing James and Lily’s bodies over and over again, and confession was all I could manage. I believed it then, that I’d killed them. I didn’t realize what I’d done until after my first whole month as a dog.”

“I’m sorry that none of us did more or tried harder.”

“I don’t blame you. I didn’t try for myself. I wallowed. And Harry paid for it.”

Minerva leaned over the space between them and took his hand. “Siri, I need you to try for him now.”

“Min?” With a flick of her fingers, the chalkboard descended from the ceiling, filled out with a hundred more details than when she began.

“Albus has always been a professor, and a researcher, and a politician. We are Aurors, you and I. Hunting the person who would do this to our Harry will need an Auror.”

Those clever, wild eyes consumed the case. “Tell me what you need.”

“I need someone to talk to. Someone I can trust. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked a case and I’m rusty.”

They both knew Sirius was rustier than her, but there was only one Auror Minerva would rather work with, and he’d left them both behind.

“I’ll do my best. So long as you promise not to get frustrated when it turns out there’s some bit of procedure that Elphinstone would’ve known that would solve all our problems.” Sirius was joking, but the thought niggled something in the back of Minerva’s mind. She paused and pressed two fingers to her mouth. “What?”

“He would.”

Poor Sirius froze like he thought she was going to cry. “Yes?”

“Elphinstone would’ve had just the spell to solve my problem.”

The years he had spent in Azkaban may have slowed Sirius’ reaction time, but he’d never been slow. “The ward stone.” He lit up. “But we don’t… Phin told you how to ask it.”

“Phin would never betray his oaths by telling me directly, but he told me enough that I can put it together myself.”

“Well then.” Sirius’ smile was feral. “Let’s add what he told me and figure it out.”

CHAPTER FIVE

Draco didn’t write to his parents about the First Task. He drafted half a dozen letters on the subject, trying to sound indifferent, but he swung between terrified and awestruck, neither of which he wanted to convey.

Harry had summoned the broom from across the stands, taken off, and done the best flying of his life. The extra charms they’d practiced hadn’t been necessary since not even a dragon could out-fly Harry Potter. He’d lured the Hungarian Horntail into lunging at him, then darted straight for it, so close he could have reached out and brushed his fingers across the dragon’s scales. Harry had snatched up the golden egg on his first dive and looped back around so fast that the tamers just stood here and almost let the beast fly after Potter.

Draco had his heart in his mouth the entire time, nearly crumpling the bench in his fists. It was all he could do to keep his seat, letting everyone around him scream and shout, even his fellow Slytherins.

But Draco couldn’t.

The whole thing was a blur. In truth, the clearest part of the whole task was looking across the stands at Granger to heave a sigh of relief.

Well, and he remembered what happened before.

Draco might have arrived at the Task a few minutes early – a perfectly acceptable amount of time, nothing at all suspicious. And he might have left his seat and roamed down to the tent where the Champions were waiting. And maybe he found Granger pacing like she was ready to break in. (Like a tent needed the height of cleverness to get through.)

The two of them may have stood there for several long moments, politely ignoring one another, and just happened to end up with Granger pressed to the tent whispering for Potter while Draco kept a lookout.

“How are you feeling?” She asked Potter through the canvas. “Okay?”

Gryffindors.

“The key is to concentrate. After that, you just have to—”

“Battle a dragon?”

Draco couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “Avoid a dragon.”

“Draco?” Potter opened the curtain. Draco had a glimpse of those wide, green eyes before he yanked the tent closed and hissed at Potter not to be an idiot.

“Do you want to lose points for so obviously cheating?”

“Honestly… yes. I don’t want to do this.”

“Then don’t.” Hermione pled. “Professor Flitwick told you to just send up sparks and be done with it.”

“Hermione, I can’t. You know I can’t.”

Draco wanted to snap about damn fool Gryffindors getting exactly what they deserved, but he could hear Harry gulping back tears while Granger looked like she was about to hug him through the canvas.

“Then do it.”

“What?” They both choked.

“Then go out-fly a dragon. Go be Harry bloody Potter and do the impossible, ridiculous nonsense that you do all the time.”

“Dra—”

“No. Shut up. Go be impossible.”

And Harry had.

Potter handily winning first place or not, there was no Slytherin who would venture up Gryffindor Tower to join their House’s party. Diggory had been fairly clever with his transfiguration, but it had only landed him third, which meant the Slytherins as a whole didn’t consider it worth the risk to sneak into the Hufflepuff Common Room to celebrate Diggory’s survival. (Those with a fondness for certain badgers went over anyway.) That meant most of the Slytherin upper years went out to the lake to celebrate with Durmstrang, while a few of the more adventurous joined Beauxbatons.

Draco, however, huddled in his house and went to bed. As much as he’d have liked to see Krum, congratulating any other champion before Harry seemed… well, Draco was not going to use the word ‘betrayal’, but he was feeling something perilously close to loyalty. He wasn’t going to give in to the feeling, but he wasn’t going to offend it either.

Draco was on time for breakfast the next day because he always was, and the day after the First Task was no cause to vary his schedule. Draco’s fellow Slytherins didn’t need to see him paying Potter any more attention than usual.

(Yes, ‘than usual,’ because Draco’s year mates wouldn’t be worth the name Slytherin if they hadn’t noticed he’d virtually disappeared from the Common Room over the last week. He’d be stunned if Pansy hadn’t tracked him to the secret classroom and knew everything, but she’d kept her mouth shut. Draco was relying on everyone else’s assumption that he’d been trying to figure out the First Task so he could lord it over people.)

Draco’s plan this particular morning was to eat his breakfast and pay no attention to the door since everyone else would do it for him. A cheer had gone up for the other three champions when they arrived for breakfast, and the same would undoubtedly happen for Potter. Even Draco Malfoy could reasonably be expected to look at the door when people started cheering, so he’d get to look at Potter like everyone else.

(The rational part of Draco’s brain pointed out that just looking at Potter wasn’t going to do a speck of good considering Draco didn’t quite know what he wanted to see Potter for. To which the emotional part of Draco’s brain replied that they didn’t need to see Potter for any particular reason. They just wanted to see him. Rationality then told emotion to shut up and Draco ate another rasher of bacon.)

So yes, Draco’s plan was to look at the door when Potter’s cheer went up, give an eye roll worthy of a Gryffindor, sublimate whatever emotions his brain would spit out into a particularly vicious bite of bacon, then go back to his breakfast with the hope that the sight Potter alive and well would be enough to make him stop wanting to see Potter for reasons no portion of his brain could name.

However, Draco’s plan had not accounted for looking up at Potter’s cheer and finding the champion blushing at the floor as he clutched to Granger with one hand and had Weasley’s shoulder under the other. Weasel had his own arm pumped to the sky like he was the one who’d out-flown a dragon.

The world stopped and a half-masticated piece of bacon fell out of Draco’s mouth and landed on his lap. The part of Draco that had gone through etiquette training shrieked about grease and trousers and decorum, but all of those objections were drowned out by the white noise where rationality and emotion had been twenty seconds before. Now, they were both frozen in silence at Gryffindor unpredictability, leaving a wide-open space for the tumult of rage to rush in.

Draco didn’t want to believe that he would’ve hexed Harry Potter in a room packed with cheering witnesses, but rage made it sound like a brilliant idea.

Blaise, however, chose that moment to drop his serviette in Draco’s lap as a silent demand to clean himself up. It was mundane, and the sort of thing Blaise hadn’t had to do for Draco since he’d mastered the use of spoons at age three.

Draco just blinked at the white cloth, then looked at Blaise, who had to realize that this wasn’t a time for mundanity. This was a time for risking a year of detention for the chance to curse Potter for being a two-timing, disloyal, brainless, Gryffindor.

Blaise just ‘hmmed around his mouthful of porridge, patted his mouth with the unused serviette he’d pilfered from Crabbe, and in a voice that carried perfectly to Draco’s ears but was lost amidst the cheering said, “You ought to choose better friends.”

The rage meant Draco opened his mouth to snap back something foul, but another cheer went up on the opposite side of the room as Weasley dragged Potter’s hands into the air. Potter had three seconds of mortification, then he was doing it himself, crass and foolish given that people had only been on his side for two minutes.

At the bottom corner of his vision, Blaise stacked more bacon onto Draco’s plate.

Such a simple juxtaposition, but it made Blaise’s point. Draco had spent the last two weeks wrapped up in Potter, thinking that their association had gone unnoticed. But of course, Blaise knew. Knowing Blaise, he had probably been covering for Draco and was the reason none of their fellow Slytherins had demanded to know where Draco had been hiding. Draco would have done the same thing for Blaise.

Well, Draco would have done it for him once.

Now, Draco would ask a thousand questions to decide if it was worth the effort to defend him, then decide if he would rather have Blaise owe him a favor or just blackmail him about the secret. All this while the boy whose secrets Draco had been keeping for free and with no thought of sharing was busy rewarding the friend who’d done nothing for him.

Like Blaise was sitting here rewarding the friend who done nothing for him.

Draco didn’t like comparisons to Weasley, even ones in the bounds of his head. Perhaps especially there since he couldn’t refute them with the smug jinx he would’ve used on anyone who dared say such a thing out loud.

Instead, Draco buttered a slice of toast with disgusting marmalade and put it on Blaise’s plate, and asked how Transfiguration was going.

Marmalade being his favorite, Blaise accepted the apology. “Perfectly, as usual.”

“I’m having trouble getting my hedgehog any color other than brown.”

“Because you’ve been practicing Charms at the expense of your other classes.”

Their eavesdroppers – and really, Pansy couldn’t be more obvious – would think Blaise meant the Potter Stinks badges instead of how Draco had been holed up with Potter in a spare classroom saving his ungrateful skin.

No. Draco was not following his rage this morning. He was following bacon. “My Charms work was spectacular though,” Draco couldn’t help but point out.

“It was. Worth the effort, though?”

“I thought it at the time.”

Blaise gave one of his quiet ‘hmm’s’ and suggested they practice Transfiguration out in the sunshine. “It’s shaping up to be a lovely day.”

Yes, yes it was.

@@@@@

There were times Blaise Zabini regretted the choice to be friends with Draco Malfoy.

It wasn’t as though there were any other decent options in their entire year. The few years above and below yielded perfectly adequate Slytherins (and perfectly adequate everything else in the other houses) but that’s all they were: adequate. Some of their fellow students had the potential to be more than they were – Potter unfortunately being one of them – but Draco Malfoy had always been riddled with potential.

(His mother had just sighed the day he’d come home and said he’d decided to befriend Draco. She understood – a Malfoy and a Black. What else was to be expected? – but she’d counseled Blaise not to let all Draco’s potential blind him to what was.)

And for several years, that had been the best advice possible. For all Draco’s potential, he’d gotten lost under the weight of his name, happy enough to be followed around by sycophants instead of being challenged.

But the truth Blaise had learned about Draco when they were five remained true ten years later: when Draco decided to change, he changed. Draco was certain of himself and would stay trapped in whatever stupidity he indulged in, right up until he decided to jump. When Draco put himself to a problem, he put himself to it.

Draco had been lodged in the mud of petulant child for the last three years, but between Moody’s obvious hatred and the fear every Death Eater’s child had with a boogeyman for a teacher; the brilliance behind the Potter Stinks badges (more effort than Draco had put in since they’d gotten to school, and oh, how Blaise had missed Draco’s little experiments); and the sudden willingness to help Potter of all people, Blaise had hope that Draco could be shocked out of complacency.

And as Draco always did when he decided: he threw himself into friendship with Blaise like they were five years old.

Of course, Draco changing his behavior didn’t change Potter, who thought that turning up arm-in-arm with Weasley wouldn’t change things for Draco. The fool Gryffindor had waited until he thought Draco was alone – Blaise had literally just stepped around the corner – and hissed at Draco. “Over here.”

Draco did not curse Potter, but it was close.

Instead, he looked Potter in the eye, stuck up his nose, and walked away.

Blaise didn’t need magic to hear the forlorn, “Draco?” that followed them down the hall.

Not being having the idiocy of a Lion, Blaise waited until he and Draco were properly alone to ask if Draco had anything he’d like to tell him.

“Do we really need to have a gauche conversation about Potter?” Draco huffed, like Blaise didn’t notice how Draco wouldn’t look him in the eye.

“We don’t need to have it if you don’t want Potter following you around like a krup.”

“Of course not.” Draco’s words said no, but his blush said yes.

“Do you have a plan?”

“To make him stop? He’s a Gryffindor, he’ll lose interest soon enough.”

So that’s how Draco was going to play it? Pretend like either of them believed his obsession with Potter was gone now that it was finally reciprocated?

Draco wouldn’t be budged from his lie, and common sense was too much to ask of Potter. He lasted a day after Draco’s shunning, then let himself be summoned by a long look from Draco, only to get ignored again when he had the gall to try and speak. Potter retreated for half a day, then let Draco lure him over only to be ignored again and again. (Blaise’s mother would’ve been impressed with Draco’s technique, if Draco had done anything more with the attention than just irritating Potter.)

Blaise endured a week of this back and forth before he got sick of it and ‘forgot a book’ in the library so Potter could have a moment of privacy to pounce. Potter had hissed out a “Draco,” in the open hallway, and really, Blaise couldn’t imagine how Draco had endured being anything like Potter’s friend for the two whole weeks they’d managed.

Mind you, Draco didn’t have the sense to get them out of the hallway. He just stood there with his arms crossed like that wasn’t ridiculous.

It was, however, an accurate predictor for how their conversation would go.

“Potter.”

Potter just stood there fidgeting. Now that he had Draco, he didn’t know what to do with him. “Draco.” Draco’s eyebrow went higher, but when no other words were forthcoming, he turned to leave. “Draco!”

“What!”

“Nothing! Just—”

“Nothing and just aren’t the same thing, Potter. Either you have something to say to me or you don’t.”

“Why are you being like this?”

“Being like what, Potter?”

“Being weird!”

“I’m not weird, you’re weird!” Really, unparalleled repartee.

“I am not!”

“Then what are we doing here!” Draco spread his arms in picturesque drama.

“You didn’t talk to me!”

“When was I supposed to?”

“After! You were there with Hermione, and you told me to go be impossible, and I was, but then you weren’t there.”

“To what, Potter? What did you expect me to do afterward?”

“To… I don’t know, congratulate me?” Blaise wanted to step around the corner to stare at Potter so he could properly convey how stupid that was. “Right, not that. But we had this big party in the Common Room, and people who used to grumble that they hoped I broke my wand were telling me that they always knew I’d be brilliant, and you… weren’t there.”

“Maybe I didn’t want to simper about how brilliantly you did, Potter.”

“I didn’t ask you to!” Potter closed his eyes and breathed, which was more control than most people could manage with Draco in a snit. “I just wanted to say hello, Draco, that’s all.”

“And we had to be alone in a hallway to do that?”

“You… wanted me to talk to you in front of people?” Potter was rightly baffled. “I tried that when we were practicing and you told me not to do it again because we’d get in trouble!”

By ‘trouble,’ Draco meant ‘people would ask questions that he didn’t want to answer,’ but acknowledging that would undercut his temper.

“You didn’t have to be stupid about it.”

“But I wasn’t stupid about it! I didn’t even hit you with a jinx this time!”

“That doesn’t make it better, Potter!”

“I don’t even know what you’re yelling at me about!”

“Because you’re an idiot!”

Potter – bless his Gryffindor bravery – tossed his hands in the air but stood his ground. “What about this time?”

“I went out of my way to help you, Potter! Do you know what would have happened to my reputation if I got caught?”

“Got caught? Were you hiding me?”

“You were hiding me too!”

“Because you told me to!”

“That’s not the point! The point is that you paid me back with the Weasel!”

“‘Paid you back?’”

“You took him back without a second thought!”

“He apologized! What was I supposed to do?”

“Exercise a little common sense!”

“And what do you mean ‘paid me back?’ Friendships aren’t about getting paid! They’re about—”

“Turning on someone at the first available opportunity?”

“That’s what you’re doing!”

“Fickle is the kind of friendship you prefer, isn’t it?”

Blaise had to interrupt before they came to blows in the hallway. (Literal blows. Draco’s hand wasn’t anywhere near his wand.)

Blaise thought that was the end of it. The whole mess had just been a temporary truce in their persistent hatred of one another. It was an experiment that had failed miserably and everyone could go back to normal.

But… Gryffindors.

Draco was determinedly himself over the next weeks.

Blaise tried to be concerned with the effort it took for he and Draco to resume their former friendship, but it wasn’t nearly as difficult as he’d expected. Draco had no problem telling Blaise when he was being cold, and Blaise had no problem telling Draco when he was being dramatic. Those conversations ended with Blaise going silent for days and Draco stomping off in a huff before they came back and went on slightly better than before. (Yes, they both knew it proved the other’s point. No, they didn’t acknowledge it.)

Potter, however, kept distracting Blaise from their progress. He kept shooting glances at Draco over the supper table, and in classrooms, and down the hall like he was a scorned boyfriend. Several times Potter took a step towards Draco like he was actually going to approach Draco, then he realized they were surrounded by witnesses and lost his nerve with a blush.

This was an untenable situation. Blaise would have let Potter pine in the background if he’d just been subtle about it. Or if Draco had been deliberately stringing Potter along by ignoring him and not just moping so hard he missed it entirely. Since neither was the case, Blaise took it upon himself to properly and practically be Draco’s best mate.

Despite it being Potter’s life, he was not the way to resolve this issue. A boy who lacked the sense to pine properly couldn’t be trusted to do anything about it. So Blaise, in a fit of humility beyond reckoning, settled in at one of the small library tables across from Granger.

As befitting her status as the cleverest witch of the age, she didn’t bother looking up from her books. Under normal circumstances, Blaise would have applauded such dedication to homework, but they were on a bit of a schedule here. The Yule Ball had been announced and it didn’t look like Draco was going to do anything even remotely dramatic. At last check-in, Draco had said he was going home for the Christmas hols, conceding the field entirely instead of having the gumption to attend a dance where Potter was with someone else.

Blaise propped his chin up on his fist and asked, “Did I miss an essay on House Elves?”

“No,” Granger answered without looking up.

“Then why the research project, Granger?”

“Why do you care?” She glowered at him.

Care isn’t quite the word. I’m mildly curious.”

“You’re curious enough to talk to a half-blood. That’s more than mild.”

She wasn’t wrong, but Blaise didn’t give her the surety of anything more than a shrug.

“All right, Zabini. I’m researching for the Society for the Protective of Elvish Welfare.”

Blaise wanted it noted by whatever entities noted such things that he didn’t laugh. “I’m afraid I’ve never heard of that organization.”

“I founded it.” Granger could have given purebloods lectures on snobbery.

“Hmm.”

“Hmm? That’s all you have to say?”

“What do you mean by ‘Elvish welfare’?”

“There’s only one thing it could mean.”

“Some mechanism to prevent Wizards from physically disciplining their House Elves?”

“Freedom for House Elves.” Granger hissed. Blaise reminded himself that there was a purpose to this conversation. Draco’s interests were paramount to calling Granger an idiot. (However, Draco was second to keeping Granger from offending the Hogwarts House Elves.)

“You founded an organization to protect House Elves from mistreatment by freeing them?”

“Yes. If they’re free, they can leave their employment when they get abused and Wizards will be forced to pay them proper wages.”

“But House Elves wouldn’t leave.”

“Because they can’t.”

“Because they’re loyal. Even when a human wouldn’t be.”

“And that loyalty shouldn’t be mistreated.”

“Oh, so you want House Elves to have a clause in their contracts allowing them to leave abusive environments. You want them to be able to quit rather than having to wait to be fired.”

“I want them to not be treated like slaves!”

“I admit, the contracts are skewed in the Wizards’ favor, but the Elves enjoy their work.”

“Because they don’t know any better!”

Blaise checked their corner of the library, hoping there were no House Elves shelving just out of sight and who’d punish him with sour marmalade and cold toast tomorrow. “Really, Granger?”

She had the decency to blush. “Shut up, Zabini.”

“Shan’t. The House Elves might short your sheets for demeaning them, but I don’t want them thinking I’m in on it.”

“I’m trying to help them!”

“And what is it that the House Elves want you to do for them, Granger?”

“Dobby says they all want things to go on as they are because they’ve been trained to hurt themselves if they don’t.”

“And what have the rest of the Hogwarts Elves told you?” Granger licked her lips and tried to come up with an answer that wasn’t, ‘I don’t know.’

“You have asked other House Elves, haven’t you Granger?”

“They won’t talk to me.”

“They won’t— you just roam into the kitchen and ask if someone has a moment.”

“You know how to get into the kitchens?”

“You don’t? What are you all doing up in that tower?”

“Studying!”

Blaise leaned on the table and narrowed his eyes. “You’re trying to convince me that the Gryffindors are too busy studying to know how to get into the kitchens?”

“It’s not like every Slytherin knows!”

“We’re taught it on the first morning when we’re given our tour of the dungeons.”

“Why would you need a tour?”

“So you know where the kitchens are!”

“That’s not a tour!”

Simultaneously they both leaned back and took deep breaths. Neither had ever been thrown out of the library before and this wasn’t the time to start.

“Back to my original point: I imagine that the Hogwarts House Elves would be freer to discuss how they feel about their treatment than any other Elves in the Wizarding World. Furthermore, they would be in a position to ask Elves in private households about their masters.” Blaise couldn’t help his pointed look at her mountain of books. “You, of all people, know better than to only consult one source.”

Granger picked up her quill. “How do I get to the kitchens?”

“Are you going to go storming in and demand to know why they don’t want to be free?”

No.”

“Then what’s your plan?”

“To walk in and ask if someone has a moment!” Blaise did not curse Draco Malfoy and his damnable obsession with Gryffindors. However, he did close his eyes for a moment and reminded himself that he was an excellent friend.

“Right. Come with me.”

Granger scrambled to slip her materials into her bag, leaving the books for Madame Pince to re-shelve (as she preferred). “Where are we going?”

“The kitchen.”

“Why are you helping me?”

Because Draco wasn’t going to gain any ground with Weasley, which made Granger the weak link to luring in Potter.

“Because if I let you go alone, the Elves will end up refusing to serve us all dinner.”

Granger grabbed him by the sleeve and forced him to stop – foolishly in full view of anyone who bothered to look up from their books. “Really, Zabini. Why?”

“I was just curious about your books. Now I’m trying to save us all.”

“And why would you curious about anything a half-blood was doing? Why would you even talk to me?”

“I’m a Slytherin.”

“That’s what I said.”

“Is it?” Granger let him go, but followed him to the kitchens with a thousand questions on her lips and in full view of enough students that Gryffindor/Slytherin alliance would be the gossip on everyone’s lips.

CHAPTER SIX

Draco took a back stair down from Transfiguration to the dungeons, going out of his way to avoid people. (If he heard the words ‘Yule Ball’ one more time, he was going to hex someone.) He wanted to be as overjoyed as the rest of the school at having a dance, but he couldn’t manage it.

Ignoring Potter didn’t make the champions and their dates any less the main topic of conversation. Particulars about Potter had been easy to avoid since the Gryffindor hadn’t asked or let himself be asked. (Pansy said Potter was darting around corners and avoiding other people like his name had just come out of the Goblet again.)

Draco would be off on the Hogwarts Express tomorrow morning, free of the risk he might overhear anything. Which meant, of course, Draco’s final class of the day was besieged by the news that Potter had asked Chang, but she’d turned him down for Diggory. (In an afternoon, Cho Chang had become the most popular girl at Hogwarts.)

If the gossip was to be believed, half of the school had been in the Owlery with them when Potter asked. The details changed based on the teller – Potter had flowers, or he gave her jewelry, or she cried when she had to say no, or he cried – but the basics were all the same: Potter had asked and been rejected.

Tragically, Draco’s first impulse wasn’t to laugh at Potter for lacking the spine to ask her earlier – or for lacking the sense to ask, “Who are you going with,” before issuing his own invitation. No, Draco wanted to tell Potter he was sorry.

Which is why Draco was taking the quiet route to the dungeon, stopping himself before he did something stupid, like tracking down Potter to see if he was well.

So, of course, Draco found Potter sitting in a back stairway, head in his hands, tucked away where Draco had never before found another living soul. Potter scrubbed his face with undoubtedly snotty sleeves, then stopped when he saw it was Draco. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m not happy about it either, Potter.”

“Just…” Potter sank into a sad slump against the wall. “Just go.”

This ‘being a better friend’ business was exhausting. “Budge over,” Draco grumbled and joined Potter on the stairs. They both sat there in horrible silence before Draco accepted Harry wasn’t going to do the decent thing and acknowledge why he was tucked in a corner crying… again.

“Why didn’t you just ask Granger?” Draco sighed.

“Because it’s Hermione!”

“So?”

Potter rolled his head along the wall to glower at him. “You’re supposed to ask people you like to a dance, Draco.”

“Well, unless you’ve got another crush hiding in the wings who you’d like to permanently insult when the entire school knows they were your second choice: you need to ask a friend.”

“Hermione has a date.”

Somehow Pansy had missed that. “Who?”

“She won’t tell us.”

“Because Weasley was too much of a prat to ask her and now she’s punishing him?”

Potter looked at Draco like he was insane. “What are you talking about?”

“I suppose I can take some comfort from you being an idiot about everyone’s emotions and not just your own.”

“Draco,” Potter sounded physically pained. “Please not today.”

Trust Potter to take all the fun out of it. “I suppose I can allow you to cling to your idiocy a moment longer. Just go ask your beloved Weasley.”

“Ask him… who I should ask?”

“Ask him to be your date.” Potter blinked. Then blinked some more. “What about that is so difficult? He seems to be your favorite person on the planet, and no one would think you two had been secretly dating.”

“Ron’s a boy.”

“So?”

“Boys don’t… date boys.”

Now Draco was blinking. “Is this Muggle stupidity?”

“Muggle stup— Draco, are you telling me that Wizards can… girls can be with girls and boys can… be with boys?”

“Of course they can. Why wouldn’t they?”

“Because Muggles… my Muggle relatives said that was evil.”

“Then your Muggle relatives were idiots. And according to most Muggles, we’re all evil because we can do magic so who you partner with should make no difference. Mind you, such partnerships aren’t universally accepted. Muggleborns in Wizarding society might have a problem with same-sex pairings because their Muggle relatives do. Then there are Pureblood houses that claim those pairings are in defiance of magic, but that’s just because they don’t have the power to make a ritual child and they want to pretend there’s something wrong with the people who do.”

“Ritual child?”

“You are exhausting, Potter. How you have been at this school for four years and still not know even the most basic—”

“Complain later, explain now.”

“A ritual child is created through ritual and runic magic in a place designated for ritual magic. It might be a house’s ward room, or a ritual circle on the property, or a ritual circle that someone has been granted access to through a House that they owe allegiance to.”

“What does—”

“Let me answer this question before we get into the fundamentals of ward rooms, ritual circles, and interhouse allegiances, shall we?”

Harry gave a shaky nod. “The couple will perform a ritual to ensure a magical child. If one of the parents can grow a child, the couple will probably have sex right there in the circle and grow the child the traditional way.” Harry blushed, and Draco powered through like the conversation wasn’t embarrassing him too. “For couples where neither parent can grow a baby, magic will hold the child in the circle as it grows.”

“For nine months?”

“It depends on the ritual.” Draco shrugged.

“It depends… how!”

“I could explain it to you, but you wouldn’t understand it.”

“But if anyone can make a baby—”

“Not anyone. They have to have access to one of these runic spaces, a coven that can cast the spell and that’s willing to relinquish a piece of their magic for the creation of life, and enough power in the couple to power the ritual. Having all of those things together is rare.”

“But everybody should be able to have a kid if they want to.”

“Potter, that’s like saying everyone should be good at Potions.”

“We all would be if Snape was a decent teacher.”

Potter had had a trying day. That was the only reason Draco closed his eyes and ignored the dig. “Professor Flitwick being a good teacher doesn’t make everyone good at Charms. And, as I said, the couple creating the child and the coven members of the ritual circle sacrifice a bit of their magic to make the child. You need enough power to fuel the spell in the first place, enough power that you’re willing to part with some, and a circle of people who are willing to part with some of their own, all of them willing to make themselves permanently weaker to create a child.”

“But—”

“Back to the point at hand! The simplest solution to your problem would be to ask Weasel to the Yule Ball. Though, I imagine he will be a terrible dancer. And since his House has no problem breeding like rabbits, there’s a good chance that he’s one of the purebloods who would object to even the notion that he likes men.”

“Don’t say that about them!” Potter snapped.

“You insulted Snape!” Potter tossed his hands in the air, like that wasn’t a decent enough reason to bite back. But instead of storming off like they were wont to do, Potter stayed put and ran his hands through his hair – which somehow made it less messy.

Despite Potter staying put, that seemed like the end of their conversation. Draco went to stand, and Potter blurted out, “Ron doesn’t like boys.”

“So? It’s not a declaration of intent to marry. The most it could be taken as is a statement of alliance, which everyone knew about you two after you forgave him for betraying you.”

“I don’t—”

Draco couldn’t articulate how much he didn’t want to hear Potter say he didn’t like boys. “You asked for my recommendation. You can ask any of your fellow Gryffindors, boy or girl, and that would be easier than trying to come up with another crush and asking them without it being an insult or appearing fickle to all the other candidates.”

“I could ask George.”

Draco stiffened and rose. “There you go. Problem solved. I’d get on it quickly before he finds someone else.”

Five steps down the stair, just far enough around the tower’s curve that all Potter could see was Draco’s back, Potter said, “I could ask you.”

Draco was in the rare position to know that it would have hurt less to be cursed. But he was a Malfoy, so there was nothing in his voice as he drawled, “Draco Malfoy is no one’s second choice,” and disappeared down the stairs.

@@@@@

Draco wasn’t tall enough to cover the entire chaise he was sprawled over, which meant his mother had plenty of room to settle herself beneath his head. He was almost an adult, which meant he didn’t shut his eyes and pretend like she wasn’t waiting for him to talk, but Draco did keep his gaze on the fireplace.

Mother spent a long minute stroking her fingers through his hair, dragging strands out from where they were trapped under his head and combing through to the tips. She waited until Draco’s eyes were drifting closed at the soothing, uninterrupted strokes before she murmured, “Mr. Zabini will be an excellent escort to the Yule Ball.”

Draco shouldn’t have let himself be lulled. “Yes, he will.”

“He is certainly a preferrable option to Ms. Parkinson. Though, I’m surprised it took you so long to ask him considering how much you have valued your rekindled acquaintance these last few weeks.”

“I was planning on just coming home.” Which she knew full well.

“Yes, you did mention that in your last letter.”

Her questions were not about why he’d chosen to ask Blaise, but why did he change his mind? Draco couldn’t quite explain what had made him slouch against Blaise in their private carriage on the Hogwarts express and ask if he might like to come back to Hogwarts for the second half of break and join him for the Ball. He knew full well what had made Blaise say yes – Draco already looked so melancholy that Blaise had bought him peppermint toads. Maybe that was what had made Draco ask; the quiet comfort of Blaise knowing precisely what he needed.

“Has Mr. Zabini turned out as well as Mrs. Zabini intended? I imagine she married that particular husband because she thought he would make a handsome, brilliant child.”

“Why did you choose father?”

There was no hitch in her stroking. “Because I loved him.”

“But why?”

“You’ll need to clarify your question, darling.” Yes, he ought to. Left alone, it sounded like Draco didn’t know why his mother would love his father.

“When you were students, what made him the one you wanted?”

“He was a Malfoy.”

“Not the politics of it. Him.”

“Politics are always part of it, darling. But,” she continued as Draco rolled over to demand better specifics, “Malfoys are clever, and they are survivors. The Death Eaters were already active in the last years of my schooling and anyone with sense knew there was a war coming. Win or lose, I knew Lucius Malfoy would come out on top. So yes, I first paid attention to him because of practicality. Then I got to know him. He was in his Seventh Year while I was in my Fifth, and within three conversions he said he would marry me if he could. Your father actually had a contract with someone else and I slithered him out of it and he proposed that day.”

“But why him?”

“I can tell you that it was because he was brilliant, even then. And it was not a book sort of brilliance. Even now, his talent for winning people over is unparalleled. Perhaps it was because I respected him for what he could do. Or perhaps it was simply that he was devastatingly handsome.”

Mother.”

“There are a hundred reasons, darling. At sixteen I could not have laid out the specifics the way I can now. And, my mother did not care for them beyond that he was the Malfoy heir. That was sufficient cause to support our engagement.”

“But you knew it was love.”

Mother was quiet for a long moment as she studied Draco with a gravity she reserved for the most tangled of problems. Draco didn’t rush her. That patience made her answer with the truth. “It was a Black sort of love, yes.”

She’d never said such a thing before. “What does that mean?”

“We Blacks are fiercely possessive, darling boy. I took one look at your father when I was in my First Year and he was a gangly Third, and I decided he was for me. Thus, I would have him. I found the reasons why he was my match as the years progressed, each new page turning in the book of why as I learned more about him and our love grew.”

Mother stroked through his hair, letting Draco mull. He didn’t need nearly as much time as he took. It was more gathering up his courage to look her in the eye.

Clever as she was, Draco didn’t even have to speak.

“Are you certain, darling?”

Draco couldn’t trust his voice not to crack, so he just nodded. “Well then, I imagine you have been quite a Malfoy about it, waiting for her—”

“Him.”

“Him, to come to you since everyone else has.”

“That… might be right.”

Draco appreciated that his mother always knew when he wasn’t in the place to be laughed at. “Well then, we shall have to be a bit of a Black about it instead.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

With a kiss from his mother and a pat from his father, Draco stepped through the floo to Professor Snape’s office at his precisely scheduled time. Plenty of the Pureblood students had wanted to go home for Yule proper but be back for the misnamed ball. Since the school wouldn’t send the Express out and back again, a floo timeslot sheet had been passed around before break. Lateness would be punished with a sneer and a fate worse than losing House points.

Christmas Day being what it was, Draco offered Professor Snape a polite nod and got out of the way, no time for pleasantries when there was going to be a mad rush of students who’d spent Christmas morning with their families and now wanted to get back with enough time to fuss.

Part of Draco wanted to buzz about the dorm like the others. The girls were no doubt in a frenzy of Charms and makeup, while the boys were trying to pretend like they weren’t casting Charms at themselves as they shoved one another more than usual. Draco didn’t bother hiding the Charm that would keep his hair perfectly slicked, while his dress robes were of fine enough make to have their Charms pre-woven.

As much as Draco usually enjoyed the process of getting ready, tonight, preparation was a matter of minutes. He let everyone else flail about like decapitated snakes while he settled in the Common Room and watched the giant squid slip past the windows.

Since Draco’s Charms work was unparalleled, his silent brooding was occasionally interrupted by Housemates who couldn’t make their hair stay, or their eyes sparkle, or their robes swish. They were temporary interference, spells quickly cast, gratitude extended, and then on their way.

The biggest interruption came from Blaise, who kept roaming into the Common Room and trying to subtlety check for curses and Imperius because no healthy Draco Malfoy would forego the chance to fuss. (He also dropped by some tea, butterbeer, and chocolates, which Draco enjoyed but didn’t inspire him to get him up and about.)

Blaise did Draco’s duty for him, making sure that the Fourth Year Slytherin boys were all presentable, then he swept into the Common Room like he hadn’t been silently fretting over Draco and sending people off to him for Charms work like the chance to display his brilliance would be enough to break Draco out of his funk. (Under normal circumstances it would have been, but not today.)

Blaise stood there for a long moment, staring down at Draco in his chair with a silent question about whether they should even go, and if they weren’t, how would they explain it? Of course, they were going, and Draco stood with enough ‘why would we not?’ in his expression that Blaise sighed.

Blaise could pressure Draco into talking. Draco’s temper wouldn’t have made it difficult. But talking would require time they didn’t have, and it wasn’t often that Draco truly wanted to be left alone with his thoughts instead of wanting to be cajoled into speaking. This was the former, and Blaise really was the best of friends. Instead of dragging Draco back into their room, locking the door, and grilling him about what had him so quiet – damn the rumors that would spread about skipping the ball for their bedroom – Blaise just tugged on the ends of Draco’s bowtie like it needed to be straightened. Draco took Blaise’s wrists and gave them a squeeze, then they were off.

The whole of Slytherin House didn’t enter the Yule Ball together, but they certainly went in groups. The mad energy that filled every student today could easily turn into curses in the hallway. No one wanted to go to all that effort only to end up bleeding in the hospital wing in their fanciest robes.

There was a crush of students in the Entrance Hall, dates from different Houses meeting on the stairs, groups stopping to chat like outside the Great Hall was the exciting place to be. Draco gave polite nods and compliments as they shuffled through past their classmates, shouldering the burden since pleasantries weren’t Blaise’s specialty, despite his mother.

Once they made it into the Great Hall, Draco understood why so many students were content to be occupied outside. The decorations for the Yule Ball were… generically pretty, he supposed, sufficient for their needs and a decent showing for a school dance.

The celebration Draco had attended on Yule proper hadn’t bothered with Muggle Christmas trees, or ice sculptures, or the sleek, cold silver that infected the Yule Ball’s tablecloths, drapes, and even the lighting.

(The true Yule celebration had been white – as one must – with a frosty blue and evergreen for accents. Draco’s favorite piece had been the dance floor made of ice. He’d hunted down the professional who’d done the casting just to understand the Charm work that went into a sheet of ice that was neither slick nor cracked ominously as people walked upon it. Instead, it sang the haunting song of skates over a freshly frozen lake as the guests danced.)

Obviously, Dumbledore hadn’t consulted a professional in his planning since the Hall wasn’t big enough to fit this number of students or the massive round tables that didn’t display enough food and took up too much of the limited floor space. Perhaps the flow would be better when everyone wasn’t clumped around the edge of the dance floor waiting for the Champions to make their soon-to-be-unfashionably-late entrance, but Draco doubted it.

After he and Blaise settled into their place beside the dance floor, Draco was so busy silently judging the décor that it took him an embarrassingly long moment to realize they were surrounded by Slytherins.

Rather, Slytherins who were not with the same partners they had asked to the dance before Draco left for Yule. He looked to Blaise, who just tugged Draco closer. It wasn’t anything dramatic, not like preexisting couples had put off their partners or someone shunned their crush, but there were students divided into dates who’d planned to come as a group, and a Sixth Year who’d already asked a female friend there with one of his dormmates.

Draco forced his expression to stay mild as he leaned into Blaise and hissed, “They don’t think we’re legitimately dating, do they?”

“Who do you think we are?” Blaise smirked. “Hufflepuffs?”

Draco glanced around and replied, “There are a surprising number of Hufflepuffs in this group, Blaise.”

“There are more Pureblood Hufflepuffs than we tend to give them credit for. And if there’s anyone who would be loyal enough to not care about sharing magic, it’s them.”

“What?”

“Oh, do you not know?” Blaise’s smirk was getting irritating.

“Obviously, Zabini. What happened while I was away?”

“I might have mentioned to a person or two that you and I were going to the ball together.”

“And Pansy spread it to everyone in creation, yes. I got questions about it at Yule.”

Blaise’s eyes sparked at the thought of the Yule celebration Draco had attended. There was Pureblood and then there was Pureblood, and if there were echelons to which even the Malfoys didn’t belong, they were absolutely beyond the Zabinis.

(For all the Malfoys were Noble, they were not Ancient. While Noble was enough to be invited to the grand Year Wheel parties, it was not enough to throw one for a day so important as Yule. Occasionally the Malfoys were invited to hold Litha in the summer on their rather spectacular grounds, but that had only happened after Mother – a Noble and Ancient Black – had married in and the Dark Lord had been dead for several years.)

Draco waved Blaise along, silently promising to tell him about the party later when they didn’t have more pressing topics.

“You see, at the pleb parties the rest of us attend, the thought came up that perhaps we ought to stop letting people shove us in a corner and pretend we don’t exist. After all, when did the magical world start caring about Muggle notions of decency to such a degree that we chose to ignore the value of power?”

“I assume the Hufflepuff corners of this party were discussing it differently?”

Blaise put on his most earnest expression. “Should we not honor those willing to sacrifice some part of their magic for the love of a friend? And the love of a child?”

Draco snorted. Blaise was terrible at earnest. “And the Ravenclaws talked about how more people should make ritual children because they never end up being squibs?”

“While the Gryffindors were all about the courage it takes to stand up for your friends and your beliefs. If your highest of high-class Yule celebrations was the sort to invite unengaged people, I imagine you would have seen more such couples roaming around.”

“People don’t ‘roam around’ at these parties, Blaise.” However, they had gossiped about the Triwizard Tournament generally and which families they could expect to be making alliances based off who they had invited, and none of them had been discussing the shakeup before Draco’s eyes tonight.

“Of course they don’t. But people do at our parties, and they will at this ball.”

“And if I were to roam around Hogwarts, what would I be hearing about the new arrangement of partners?”

“Well,” Pansy slid in at Draco’s other side. “You’d be hearing that Slytherin and Hufflepuff are of a mind on this issue. We, because even the most foolish, Muggleborn Slytherin understands the value of power and that, for all so many pretend differently, we Magicals follow power. Though, it certainly helps matters that no small number of our classmates are ritual children themselves born to keep their family lines alive.

“Hufflepuff concurs, despite being a thoroughly intermixed house. They had a Pureblood or two who came out thoroughly in favor and brought the rest of the loyal little Badgers with them. Apparently, their devotion to ‘fairness’ means people ought to love who they choose.”

“Love?” Blaise laughed at the notion that would be the only consideration in marriage.

“They are charming in their world view, aren’t they?”

“That’s a word for it.”

“They’ve come down on our side, so charming is the world we’ll be using. Ravenclaw is still uncertain, not having had enough time to research properly to form an opinion. But gossip tells me that there’s a pair of Seventh Years who have been out amongst the House since their Fourth.” She nodded over to Ravenclaw’s terrifying blonde beater who held the school record for most opponent’s bones broken. She was glowering at everyone who came near her red-headed girlfriend. “This ‘being evil’ business doesn’t apply to one of their house favorites, so even the Ravenclaws most likely to be against can admit the math doesn’t add up.

“As for the Gryffindors, they’re liable to break either way.”

“That’s better than I was expecting,” Blaise said.

“Obviously they’re predisposed to think such relationships are a step towards dark magic, but something happened in their house and no one will give me specifics.”

You’re having trouble gathering gossip?” Blaise was giddy at the prospect.

“No one is more frustrated by it than I. They all have their light families telling them that power is wrong while they go about licking Dumbledore’s boots, but it seems the threat of their parents isn’t as terrible as the Weasley twins.”

“What did they do?”

“I don’t know.” Pansy hissed. “All I know is that the twins have firmly come down on our side and no one wants to deliberately go against them. Then there’s Potter, who invited George, and their house is currently fond enough of him to go along. Gryffindor doesn’t have any real house leaders at the moment, so there’s no telling which way they’re going to break. I can’t tell if the whole house is either undecided or just holding their tongues.”

“It’s so nice when their vaunted lion courage fails them,” Blaise said.

“No one enjoys being smug more than I.” Draco cleared his throat at their looks. “Few people enjoy being smug more than I, but in this case, I’d rather have information.”

“It must have been bad,” Blaise affirmed. “The Lions normally wouldn’t know the meaning of discretion if it bit them on the ass.”

“Hence my concern.”

“So, everyone rearranged their dates as a silent show of support?” Draco couldn’t keep the disdainful doubt from his voice.

“Some, but I imagine most just didn’t want to be left behind. I’ll know how many were nursing secret crushes by the end of the night.”

“The whole night?” That seemed terribly long for Pansy.

“I do have more important things to be gathering information on, you know. As much as we teenagers like to talk about crushes, it will be more useful to know how everyone else feels about these newfound crushes.”

“You think that will help you tell the difference between who’s just a prat and who’s an actual threat?”

“Yes. The Gryffindors are the most tightlipped, but there’s no way that each house hasn’t had their troubles and I want to know who.”

She was right, and Draco meant to tell her, but they were interrupted by fanfare announcing the champions. Some part of Draco recognized that Krum had brought Granger – and really, that should have been the most relevant shock of the night – but Draco couldn’t drag his eyes away from Potter, who walked in with Weasley’s arm around his shoulder. They were comically different heights, Weasley’s formal robes were a decade out of date, and that was not at all the proper hand position for a couple to swan into a room, but George grinned at the crowd and Potter didn’t look like he was about to keel over, which was the best that could be expected.

Draco swallowed back the pain in his chest. Blaise knocked against his side and Pansy dug her chin into his shoulder, replacing one kind of pain with another.

“All that effort,” she whispered, “and Potter’s hair still looks like a bird has been nesting in it.”

Draco forced out a smile, but it wasn’t up to his usual snuff. He felt Pansy lean away and knew she was looking at Blaise. He ought to be worried about what he was giving away, but there was no looking anyplace else as Harry scanned the faces in the crowd. Draco told himself that Potter was looking for Weasley, but it didn’t do away with his hope.

Blaise swept Draco into a dance the moment it was appropriate, positioning them so Draco would never set eyes on Potter. Draco would have preferred retreating to one of the tables for butterbeer, but Blaise knew that the part of Draco that had danced since birth would take over to keep his feet from stumbling. After all, being considered a bad dancer was a worse fate than getting caught mooning over Potter at a ball.

They danced long enough that Draco’s mind cleared, and with the unerring sixth sense of a best friend trying to keep him from making a fool of himself, Blaise knew and led them from the floor. As much as Draco might have liked to spend the night in the mental silence of dancing, they both had rounds to make and pleasantries to exchange. (Besides, too much time dancing together would start rumors that they were on a real date and planning their engagement, which was an entirely different set of problems they didn’t want to deal with.)

Of course, Pansy had to interrupt their path to the table and sweep Draco off for a walk about the room. Blaise let them go with a smile and headed for the food. “I hope you didn’t get too much trouble from the rumors about you and Blaise attending the Ball together.” She said, looking more at the crowd as she gave some Beauxbatons a wave.

“Did you tell people he asked me, or were you telling different people different things?”

“Different people different things, of course. That way no one would know who had asked who and they could decide it was a matter of one friend asking another.”

“There was no trouble at all. Just a few old men telling me that a boy like me ought to manage any girl he chose, while their wives pointed out that Blaise is prettier than most women.”

“I will accept your gratitude in the form of help with my Charms homework.”

Draco nodded. “I trust it didn’t cause Blaise any trouble?”

“Men get to live by different rules, so Blaise got just as many accolades for asking you as for getting you to ask him.”

“They’re different sorts of accolades.”

“Blaise has the sense to like both.”

“He deserves them.”

“He did manage to pull your head out of your ass.”

Draco snorted. Pansy must be certain of their privacy if she was willing to swear. “He did.”

They walked in silence for a long moment and Draco thought the apology might have been all she wanted from their trek. Of course, Pansy wouldn’t have needed as much time and as much privacy if that were the case. “I’ve been running around these last few months helping you and Blaise as best as I’m able without either of you telling me what’s going on. You were off in your own little land for weeks before that, but even after Blaise managed to bring you back, you weren’t really with us. And now, tonight of all nights, you’ve gone away again. So, I’d like to know, Draco: when are you going to be done being sad? You’re no fun like this.”

Which was Pansy’s way of saying she missed him.

“I’m not sad.”

“You are. You haven’t charmed anything in weeks, and you just admitted that you spent all of your Yule celebration in a corner with the old men.”

“Not all of it.”

“Enough of it that the old men asked you about your date and scolded you for your choice. That’s too much time in their company, Draco.”

Draco didn’t quite have the words to explain what he was feeling, but he knew it wasn’t sad. Melancholic was a better fit, but even that wasn’t quite right. He felt uncertain. But the uncertainty wasn’t a permanent state, it was the result of his processing. It didn’t help matters that Draco’s mother had checked with him a dozen times about what he wanted and Draco hadn’t been able to give her a straight answer. Draco didn’t know if he wanted Harry, or if he was just insulted that Harry didn’t want him, or did he want something like Harry – powerful and attention-grabbing as he was – or was Harry simply the voice for a world where there would be no war and no Dark Lord to fight for?

Mother had tried a dozen variations on the question to trigger something in him, but Draco didn’t know. And he couldn’t stand any more questions until he did.

“I’m not sad, Pansy. I’m just quiet.”

“You’re quiet because you’re sad.”

“No, I’m just… quiet. I’m thinking.”

“About what?”

“Everything.”

Pansy stopped and looked at him with all the seriousness she could muster. There were moments Draco forgot that Pansy’s mother had died in childbirth, leaving Pansy the de facto Lady Parkinson and Heir to House Parkinson since the beginning. This was not one of those moments. Pansy weighed him with severity that would have done Mother proud.

In his own dramatic complications of the last few months, Draco had forgotten Pansy’s worries at the beginning of the school year about her father’s pending remarriage and all the ground she would cede while she was away from home. It was that girl, the one with problems of her own and who understood all too well what ‘everything’ might mean who asked him, “Draco, do we need to have a conversation?”

“I haven’t been a very good friend to you this year, Pans.”

She blinked. “You’re the Malfoy heir. We’re only allowed to be a certain kind of friend unless we want to be forced into the lifelong sort of friendship that neither of us wants.”

“Still. Your soon-to-be stepmother can’t have been thrilled that Blaise was my date instead of you.”

“She had things to say about your kind of Pureblood.”

“How did your father take it?”

“So long as the stepmother doesn’t say things where other people can hear, he isn’t marrying her for what her mouth can say.”

The woman was clever enough to lure Lord Parkinson into a second marriage, so Pansy knew better than to underestimate her. “I’d apologize for making things more difficult at home, but if I suppose that if I’d asked you, it would have made things difficult in another way.”

“My life with her will be a melee of difficulties, no matter what choices I make.”

Draco took Pansy’s arm and resumed walking. “What does she want from you?”

“To be stupid and pliable so her children can be my father’s heir.” The Parkinsons had a habit of killing eldest-born daughters for the sake of making sons ‘firstborn’. Pansy had been all her father had for long enough that Draco couldn’t imagine he’d allow that. (Though, allowing it wouldn’t bring Pansy back after the stepmother killed her.)

“This wasn’t the kind of conversation I meant to have with you, Draco.”

“It needs to be had.”

“We can schedule it for a midnight later in the week. But your avoidance means that we do have to have a conversation and you’re trying to distract me.”

“The Yule Ball isn’t the place for either of these conversations. Though,” Draco paused, “I don’t quite know what the conversation you want to have will be about.”

“Because you’re not sad, you’re thinking. And you’re not done thinking.”

“Just so.”

“And when you’re done? I’ll be the one you tell after Blaise?”

Pansy sounded more tentative than she had in ages, and that was Draco’s fault. “I intend to.”

“That’s something, I suppose. Don’t take too long, though.” She pinched him.

“I’m trying.”

“I’d say ‘try harder,’ but if that brain of yours worked any harder than it does usually, steam would come out your ears and that would ruin your hair.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

While Pansy made it her life’s mission to find out what happened in Gryffindor, Draco and Blaise settled themselves at a table with treats and let people float over to pay their respects. The side-eyes that Draco always got had a different energy than the usual mix of envy and rage – as well as a few pointed whispers in their direction – but there was no confrontation. The houses did a decent enough job keeping their members in line and Draco trusted that Pansy’s gossip network would end the night with a complete list of people who needed an eye kept on them.

Instead, Draco did his duty as the chief of the Slytherin and Pureblood social sphere, leaving the table more often than he usually would to give Blaise dancing breaks. Poor Zabini found the whole thing exhausting. (“I much prefer being a Zabini so I can control who I have to speak to and when. This waiting about for people to spring themselves on you and never having a quiet moment is miserable.”

“You get used to it.”)

Draco could honestly say that he had no idea where Potter was and he was determinedly not looking.

Which was not quite the mental state Draco wanted, but it was good enough.

However, that determined lack of attention to Gryffindors meant that Draco was rather more shocked than he ought to be when Granger stormed past a Hufflepuff who had been slowly making their way over and flopped down beside him. (Krum followed after her like a wolf on a leash, torn between bemused and furrowed at whatever had her irritated.)

Eyebrows went up over the entire Hall. “Granger?” Draco asked, as level as possible.

Granger snatched a chocolate leaf right off Draco’s plate – shaped to look like a wreathe and infused with peppermint – and complained. “Ron is an ass and considering they’ve been attending classes here for four months, I refuse to believe that every student at Viktor’s table is as bad at English as they’re pretending.”

“So… you’re sitting here?”

“Is that all right?” Granger asked and it wasn’t a question. They hadn’t been caught talking to one another in the months they’d been something like friends, but Granger was irritated enough not to care about subterfuge. Frankly, trying to explain it to her would probably end up with him punched again.

“Of course.” Draco pushed the plate of chocolates into easy snatching range.

Before Krum could settle in beside her, Blaise waved him back up. “Come get drinks with me, Krum. Granger has to yell at Draco about something and, as dates, we shouldn’t have to see it.”

Krum looked to Granger to be sure she would be all right. For some reason, she found it charming from Krum when any other male on the planet would have been eviscerated. “A butterbeer please, Viktor.”

Krum went off with a smile while Blaise gave Draco a wink that meant he’d help clean up the blood.

“So, have a nice Yule?”

“Draco!” Granger snapped.

All right, then. “I don’t know why I’m being yelled at.”

“You told Harry about ritual children and then vanished off home before I could ask any questions!”

“I don’t control the train schedule, Granger.”

“That’s not the point, and you know it. I had no idea what books to look at, or what to research since Harry couldn’t remember your wording properly. Since I had no way to contact you to ask questions, I asked Ron—”

Draco swore.

“—and he told me it was all dark magic, and something only evil people do, and somehow that turned into him saying that if Harry was going to ask any boy to the Ball, it should have been him, not that he likes Harry that way, and Ron went on for a quarter of an hour about you being evil, and rituals being evil, and Harry being evil, and who was he going to take the dance, and if I’d just said yes to one of them, none of this would be happening!”

Granger’s hair managed to crackle beneath the Sleekeasy. “I’m surprised he only went for 15 minutes.”

“He tried to keep going but I Silencio-ed him and walked away.” She wasn’t joking, so Draco pressed on.

“Then I’m surprised Potter asked George after hearing Weasley’s lecture on the evils of ritual magic and homosexual relationships. Or that George said yes.”

“Harry couldn’t properly relay the information about ritual children to me because he was too busy hunting down George to ask him. By the time I asked Ron about ritual magic, Harry had already asked George, and he didn’t seem to care beyond making sure Harry knew he didn’t fancy him that way. George bragged to Ron because they’re idiot boys who like to irritate one another, and Ron started talking about it being disgusting right there in the Common Room for everyone to hear.”

She paused and snapped the chocolate into equally-sized pieces. “I’ve never seen George turn so fast.”

At that, Draco sat up, feet on the floor, elbows on the table. “What?”

“George. He was furious. Only, when Ron gets angry his face turns the same color as his hair. George… went quiet.”

Draco couldn’t imagine it. Granger nodded at his bafflement. “He didn’t have even a bit of a smile. And he was so angry that Fred, who was up in their dorm, felt it. He came bolting down the stairs to see what had happened.”

“Why was he—”

“Apparently, Fred and George both like boys and girls, and their older brother Charlie likes men exclusively. They told me later that Charlie hasn’t met a fellow he’d like to spend his life with, but he’s already asked the twins and Bill, their oldest brother, to be part of his coven when the time comes so he can have a child of his own. He gave them all a book so they’d understand what they would be sharing—”

“Which book you promptly borrowed from the twins.”

“Of course. And they all agreed. When the twins realized it was a possibility, they asked the same of their brothers, though I think the twins might just be planning on impregnating someone and saving themselves the trouble.”

“That’s… more than I ever wanted to know about the sexual habits of Weasleys.”

“Likewise, but they were both furious. They’ve been angry at Ron before, but not like this.”

That would be why all the Gryffindors had fallen in line then. Their stubbornness wouldn’t let them keep their mouths closed for long, but fear of the Weasley twins was a powerful thing, even for a Lion. “And then what happened?”

“Ron tried to backtrack calling it dark, but he kept calling it disgusting.”

“Please tell me the twins made him appropriately disgusting?”

“The Bat-Boogey hex was thrown around quite a bit, and Ron hasn’t been able to eat a proper meal in days, but he won’t shut up about it.”

“Again, I’m surprised Potter was willing to bring George with his best friend calling him foul names.”

“Harry might not have asked George in the first place if he’d talked to Ron about it before, but once he had, and once he’d seen what it meant to the twins to have their brother call them such things…” Granger looked him in the eye. “Harry stands up for people.”

As much as Draco would like to object, he’d probably see it that way too, if he was a Gryffindor.

“So, every time Ron complains, Harry says George is his friend and why is asking George any different than asking me?”

“And no doubt Weasley’s crush on you didn’t appreciate that explanation in the slightest.”

“His what?” Granger blinked.

“Never mind. How did Weasley take that?”

“Ron said that Harry would be better than whoever I was actually going with, and then I shouted a bit, and he shouted a bit, and people got called dark, and somehow, someone mentioned Harry got the idea to ask George from you.”

‘Someone’ meant Hermione, but Draco’s mind caught up to the words and he snatched up one of the chocolate pieces for himself. He chose to say, “I’m surprised I haven’t been cursed, then,” instead of deriding the sheer stupidity of telling Weasley.

“Harry has been with him all night.”

The chocolate curdled in Draco’s mouth. Which must have translated in the pucker of his lips because Hermione snapped, “You should be happy he is, Draco Malfoy. Otherwise, who knows what stupid thing Ron would have done tonight. Ron knows that you’re friends, and Harry hasn’t been denying it like he would’ve before. I don’t know what argument the two of you had after the First Task, but it wasn’t enough for Harry to let Ron insult you even tangentially. They’ve been fighting over that too.”

“Yes, let me be thrilled that Potter is reining in the idiot after giving him the information he needed to be an idiot.”

“I can’t take any more idiot boys today, Draco Malfoy. I can’t!”

As though he felt her irritation in the ether, Krum chose that moment to come back. Blaise didn’t bother pretending like they hadn’t been listening in. “If you’d like us not to be idiots, Ms. Granger, I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait another decade.”

“I’m not an idiot!” Draco snapped, because he was the one who’d kept his mouth shut and quietly helped these stupid Gryffindors out of their problems and now he was the one getting stalked by a mad redhead.

“Yes, dear,” Blaise smirked as he handed Draco his drink.

“Oh.” Hermione blinked between them.

“Granger?” That was her calculation face. Draco had gotten familiar with it when he explained magical contracts.

“This doesn’t justify being a prat.” She scolded.

“Being a teenage boy?” Draco tried.

“No, Harry.”

“I don’t know what we’re talking about.” Blaise interrupted.

“Neither do I, and I was here.”

“Never mind,” Granger waved them off like she hadn’t been incomprehensible for the last minute.

Granger didn’t retreat to the comfort of her fellow Gryffindors, so the four of them sank into the sort of conversations one had with the cleverest Witch of the age and an international Quidditch superstar. Eventually, people realized that Granger wasn’t going to move and Draco wasn’t going to make her, so they resumed paying obeisance with her there. A few didn’t make their way over to avoid dealing with Granger, others were more willing to come at the sight of her, and one daft Beauxbatons sneered at Krum for taking a Mudblood to the Ball.

Wands were drawn, Granger flushed a red that didn’t go with her dress, and Draco scoffed at them all. Apparently, Krum knew French well enough to pick a fight in it, but Draco ignored them in favor of taking Granger by the hand and guiding her to the dance floor.

Her wand had been one of the ones drawn, so there was an awkward moment where she tucked it back in who knows where before she set her hand in Draco’s and let him lead her about the floor. She was stiff as a board and still that terrible red, so Draco told her that one had to watch their complexion when dealing with pastels.

Granger rolled her eyes and snorted, “Thank you, that’s helpful,” but she wasn’t fuming anymore.

Draco knew Granger wasn’t going to stay silent – she never did – but he wasn’t expecting, “You used to call me Mudblood,” to be her opening salvo.

“Would you like me to apologize?”

“Would you mean it?” Draco gave the question the credit it was due.

“I would mean an apology for hurting you.”

“But not for using the word?”

“I can admit that any blood that made you isn’t muddy, so I might apologize for the inaccuracy.”

“But not for thinking that other people are… muddy?”

“Technically, the muddiest person here tonight based on their behavior is Weasley, and his blood is some of the purest in the Wizarding World.”

“Draco.” She scolded with one word.

“I was wrong to use it on you.”

“But not to use it at all.”

“Is this really the night for a discussion of my beliefs around Muggleborns?”

“That we’re all muddy?”

“Obviously not. You’re not.”

“I don’t know why I bothered to try and talk to you about this.” Granger’s sigh was neither appreciated nor appropriate.

“Harry didn’t know anything about Wizarding contract law.”

“What does that have to do with calling people terrible names?”

“I’m getting there. If Harry had known about contracts, he would have stood up at the feast and sworn on his magic that he hadn’t put his name in the Goblet and this whole mess would have been handled in ten minutes. There’s something wrong that he didn’t know and that everyone assumed he did, including the professors who are paid to know better. So, yes, there are things that could be cleaner. However,” he pressed on before Granger could get the words she was thinking out of her open mouth, “if mixing with Muggles leads to Witches as clever as you and Wizards as powerful as Potter, then perhaps we could benefit from it.”

“Draco Malfoy, you managed to say something that was both sweet and Slytherin.”

“One can be both, you know.”

“I didn’t think it was possible.”

“Sweetness when dealing with women is in a man’s best interests. I think you should be more surprised when you see such common sense from Gryffindors.”

“Believe me, if I ever see it, I’ll be surprised.” Granger’s deadpan words weren’t directed at Draco’s face, but over his shoulder.

Draco had expected sneers and scoffing. What he hadn’t expected was a bruising grip on his arm wrenching him around.

Draco’s wand was at Weasley’s throat before he finished the spin. “Let’s use our words now, Weasley. Not our fists.”

Potter stumbled to a stop and glanced between them with owl-large eyes behind his glasses. He looked like he’d been trying to catch Weasley before he reached Granger and hadn’t expected it to come to blows.

Draco and Weasley were at an impasse, each waiting for the other to pull back.

It took too long for Granger’s liking and she pushed her way between them. “Honestly, you two.”

“Us!” Weasley shrieked. “You’re dancing with Malfoy!”

“And what if I am, Ronald? Draco’s an excellent dancer!”

“Draco!” Weasley’s voice went high.

“Yes, Draco.”

“Draco?” It went higher still.

“Now that we’ve established my identity, Hermione and I were rather in the middle of something.” Granger blinked at the use of her first name. “Run along now, Weasley.”

Weasley pushed past Granger and got in Draco’s face. “I’ll run you along.”

Potter managed to tug Weasley back while Draco muttered, “Run me along? That doesn’t make any sense.”

Potter had to haul Weasley back again while Granger hissed, “You’re not helping.”

“Am I supposed to be helping someone who attacked me in the middle of a school dance?”

“You’re the one who threatened me!” Weasley shouted.

“After you put your hands on me.”

“That’s enough!” Granger interrupted. “I, for one, don’t want to be thrown out of school for fighting. So, I’m going to take Draco and walk in one direction and Harry, you’ll take Ron and walk the other.” She waved them off, but that did not one bit of good as Weasley lurched forward.

“You’re not going with him, Hermione.”

“I’ll go whoever I like, Ronald Weasley!” She grabbed Draco and hauled him in a direction not towards their table, but at least not near one of the gawking groups. (Their table was off to the left, where Blaise had a hand on Viktor’s arm to keep him in his chair.)

Potter was worse than useless at handling Weasley, who followed them off the floor. “You’ve switched Krum for Malfoy, then? One dark wanker for another?”

Granger whirled around, Draco’s hand still in hers. “I’m dancing with my friend, Ronald. If you hadn’t been such a prat all week, I might have danced with you too.”

I’m the prat? You’re bloody holding hands with Draco Malfoy!”

With all his trying to keep Weasley under control, it seemed Potter hadn’t noticed the hand holding. As Weasley and Granger hissed things at one another, Potter’s eyes stayed on Granger’s white-knuckled grip on Draco.

“You shouldn’t be with either one of them in the first place!” Ron shouted, his volume finally loud enough that the teachers couldn’t ignore it anymore.

“He’s right.” Potter finally summoned up the will to speak and that was what he chose to say?

“He’s what?” Draco could feel the curse lurking behind Hermione’s words.

“You can’t go around with Durmstrang and Slytherins.” There was a rage in Potter’s eyes that Draco hadn’t seen since he nearly drew blood in the last fight they’d had the night before Draco caught him crying the first time.

Despite how things had gone every time they fought before, Draco’s first thought was not to tell Potter and Weasley that Durmstrang and Slytherin were better choices than daft Gryffindors.

Despite his mother’s best efforts, Draco also didn’t think about putting away Malfoy pride in favor of Black subtlety to get the thing he wanted.

All Draco could think of was his parents at the Yule celebration.

In between pleasantries, his mother had sought out allegiances, determining just how much support the Dark Lord would have at the ready should he make a move; who could be guided into leaving the Dark Lord to his own devices; and how difficult it would be to shift people either direction. Father must have been uncertain about Mother’s plot to follow a new path, because he watched her move through the crowd with careful eyes but did nothing to help.

For the rest of his life, Draco would remember with crystal clarity the slight of Father joining Mother after she finished a conversation with some minor light family. He raised an eyebrow at her as he held out his forearm. She laid her hand upon his and smiled, “Darling.”

That was enough.

Father had walked with Mother to Lady Longbottom and by the time Lucius and Narcissa were done, the woman whose only child had been ruined by Narcissa’s sister and Lucius’ Lord was their ally. She would have fought for them in the Wizengamot, refused the blood feud that had been brewing for the last hundred years, and given them shelter against both the Dark Lord and Dumbledore. Father didn’t know Mother’s plan or her goal, but she smiled at him and he trusted her enough to follow her anywhere, certain that her plan was for the family’s good and that she was right.

Draco did not want rendezvous in secret stairwells or fights at the slightest provocation. He wanted someone to be certain in him, and to be certain in them.

Part of Draco demanded satisfaction for the insult that he was good enough to help fight a dragon, but wasn’t good enough to acknowledge in the open; good enough to advise Hermione, but not good enough to be considered her friend instead of someone who’d all but called her a slut in front of the entire school.

But the part of Draco that would hold tight the memory of his parents for the rest of his life chose to twist his hand in Hermione’s and raise their forearms to the place every proper Pureblood child knew. He bid Potter and Weasley a pleasant evening and turned his back on them both. It was a temptation Weasley’s wand couldn’t ignore, which got him and Potter both scooped up by a furious McGonagall. Weasley’s, “But Professor, he did it first!” meant not a thing to the Professor as she dragged them away.

Krum pulled Hermione into his arms and offered a staggered explanation that Blaise had insisted they wait, but he’d wanted to protect her. Blaise did something he hadn’t done in public since they were children and wrapped Draco in the excellent sort of hug he’d forced himself to learn since Draco loved hugs so dearly.

“Okay?” He whispered in Draco’s ear.

“Yes.”

Blaise leaned back. “I believe you.”

“That’s because I’m telling the truth.”

“But, Potter. He can’t keep sitting on the other side of the Hall seething with jealousy if he’s been kicked out.”

“And I can’t enjoy an evening with my friends if I’ve been.”

“But wasn’t jealousy the whole point of all this?”

“No.”

“I mean, it was your jealousy at the beginning. That’s why you asked me—”

“I asked you because you’re my friend, Blaise, and I wanted to come with my friend.”

“But you wouldn’t have asked me if Potter hadn’t… not asked you.” Draco appreciated the careful use of a word other than ‘rejected.’

“No. But Mother reminded me that there are more important things than winning.”

Blaise blinked at hearing such a sentence come from Draco’s mouth. “And an exiled Potter is a result better than winning? Draco are you trying to tell me that spending time with your friends is more important than winning? What Hufflepuff nonsense is this?”

“It’s the long-term victory instead of the temporary one.”

“You think Potter will come crawling back now that you’ve gotten him lectured in a hallway in the middle of a Ball in his honor?”

“It’s not about Potter coming back. It’s about not fighting with Potter every time we disagree over something and then one of us storming off.”

“But that’s what you just did.”

No, I didn’t.”

“You walked away!”

“Walk and storm aren’t the same things, Blaise.”

It took Blaise a long moment, but he began to nod. “No, I suppose they’re not.”

“I don’t want to be the kind of man who storms anymore.”

“The long-term victory is being a better you.”

“Yes.”

“No matter what happens with Potter?”

“Perhaps not ‘no matter,’ but not as it was. I will be better.”

“And if he keeps picking fights and getting thrown out of places?”

“Then at least I’ll be better.”

Blaise rested his hands on Draco’s shoulders and clenched the fabric between his fingers. “I’d say I’ve missed you, but I think, ‘it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ might be better.”

Draco put his hand on Blaise’s wrist and smiled with well-deserved pride.


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sunryder

Nerd, author, artist, and cookie addict.

7 Comments:

  1. oh fuck… forgive my language but seriously. MASTERFULLY fucking written. i can’t wait to get to part two. I love this. the pacing, the characters, the emotions, the drama that had me giggling and facepalming in turns. i am enjoying this so much. ok… on to part two.

  2. Your Draco is remarkable, amazing and fabulous. Hermione is blossoming beautifully. Blaise is very interesting. Unfortunately, Harry is still a clueless idiot. : )

    Thank you for sharing

  3. This is really well written! Excellent job.

  4. You captured teenage energy so perfectly. Well done.
    The characterizations are immaculate. Thank you for this.

  5. How you throw us into a conversation and let us ride the energy is just perfect. I mean, I’m THERE and it’s REAL and so good. I enjoy how we can see each person as you have them speak, and that so much is being said even in the circumlocutions of Slytherinese. 🙂

    Also digging the neat details such the contract law and ritual babies and all of that.

    Dashing off to the next part!

  6. I love the misunderstanding that come from combining a pure blood Slytherin with a muggle-raised Gryffindor! Harry wasn’t given a lot of chance to socialise as a child, especially not formally, and he has no idea of subtext or the type of machinations Draco assumes are normal.

  7. greywolfthewanderer

    sweet! much fun to watch this Draco as he moves about and learns things!

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