Harry woke, groggily, to the sound of muffled speaking and the steady droning patter of rain on the tentskin. He shuffled sleep-drunk into the kitchen, where it was evidently Malfoy’s turn at the hob. He had two pans going—though one smelled a bit burned from where Harry was standing, and the look on Malfoy’s face didn’t impart much confidence in the state of the other. Hermione and Ron were carrying on an excited discussion at the kitchen table, one of the research books open between them.
“It’s got to be Ravenclaw’s diadem, all right?” Hermione was saying. “It just has to be! That’s the only artefact of hers that’s mentioned in any of these books.”
Ron massaged his temples, suggesting they’d been at this for a while. “All I’m saying is it seems too obvious. You just said it yourself: it’s the only artefact any of these books talks about. But she must’ve had loads of jewellery.”
“What, because she’s a woman?” Hermione sniffed, and Ron visibly winced.
“No, no,” he stammered, going red in the face. “Just because everyone’s heard of it! People have been looking for it for ages.”
“And no one’s found it. Because it’s been hidden away.”
“My point is that it’s a heavily sought object; why would You-Know-Who make a You-Know-What out of something like that? Wouldn’t he want it to be something no one’s looking for?”
Harry pulled out a seat, plopping down. “Sorry, but I think I’m gonna have to side with Hermione here.”
“Aw, c’mon,” Ron groaned.
Harry held up a hand. “Dumbledore was certain that You-Know-Who wouldn’t want to use ordinary, unremarkable objects. And that he was probably looking for something from the founders. If in all our research the only item of Ravenclaw’s we’ve come across is the diadem, then it stands to reason it’s all he ever came across too.”
“But we’ve found mention of at least three artefacts of Hufflepuff’s so far, none of which is the cup that Smith witch owned. So clearly You-Know-Who had access to information we don’t, which means it may be the diadem, and it may not.”
Harry grimaced, because now Ron made a good point too. It was too early for this—and Malfoy blessedly swooped in with food to distract. He seemed to have salvaged whatever had been in his pans and somehow thrown together eggy bread and grilled tomatoes. Hermione cleared the table quickly as Malfoy set a plate piled high with steaming, egg-soaked toast and slightly blackened tomatoes between them.
“Impressive,” Harry said, and Malfoy lifted a brow. “Thought you couldn’t cook?”
“I was never taught to cook; I didn’t say I couldn’t learn.” Malfoy cut Ron a look. “One wonders what Weasley’s excuse is, then.”
Ron tried to deliver a mocking retort, but it was muffled by his mouth being stuffed with toast.
Malfoy slid into the fourth seat at the table, pouring himself some orange juice, and his legs casually brushed against Harry’s beneath the table as he scooted his chair in. It was close quarters—but kind of cosy, between the warmth of the tent’s charms and the filling food and the sound of the chill rain pelting down outside.
“We’ll need to move camp as soon as we’re done with breakfast,” Hermione reminded around a bite. “It’s been raining most of the night, so the river’s starting to rise. It’ll probably flood over by noon, so we’ll need to be gone before then unless we want to get waterlogged.”
They made quiet murmurs of acknowledgement, and after they’d finished the Scouring up, it was all hands on deck to clear the site. They packed quickly, and Harry cast an umbrella charm over them while they cleaned the bank of any evidence they’d camped there. Once Hermione was satisfied with the job, they Apparated together to the next site of her choosing: a windswept, heather-covered cliffside overlooking a bay under cloudy skies that occasionally parted long enough for the sun to peek through.
“Home sweet home,” Ron sighed.
“Just as I pictured it,” Malfoy said. He then pointed to a red squirrel chittering loudly at them from atop a cluster of stones. “And look! A relative popping in for a visit!”
“Easy,” Harry warned, half to Ron and half to Malfoy. “Let’s get set up before we start going for each other’s throats, shall we?” Hermione pulled Ron away to help her cast the security charms, and Harry hissed at Malfoy, “Do you really have to wind him up like that?”
“You asked me for my help; you didn’t ask me to play nice with Weasley.”
“Well now I am; and Hermione too, for that matter.”
Malfoy gave a beleaguered sigh, as if this were a Herculean task. “Only if I don’t have to play nice with you. My patience can only stretch so far.”
Harry snorted, casting a thoughtless Erecto at the tent. “Why start now?”
Now that Malfoy had agreed to offer input and help in their research, there was an odd new part of the day where the four of them—usually after a meal—found themselves curled up on the couch or in armchairs, silently poring over books and occasionally scribbling notes or elbowing one another for an opinion. While Hermione and Ron were intent on tracking down the remaining two Horcruxes, Harry was more interested in figuring out where the sword of Gryffindor might have disappeared to. The locket hung heavy inside the pouch around Harry’s neck, and he longed to be rid of it as soon as possible—plus, it felt like an easier target than the cup or the maybe-a-Horcrux-maybe-not diadem.
Still, the more they talked about the places in which Dumbledore might have hidden the sword, the more desperate and far-fetched their speculation became; Harry did not seriously think that Dumbledore had Transfigured it into a knife and given it to the Hogwarts house-elves to prepare meals with. But no amount of wracking his brains was doing much good; he could not recall Dumbledore ever mentioning the sword at all outside of his will, let alone where he might have hidden it.
Malfoy had pointed out the appallingly obvious when he’d accused them of not knowing what they were doing. But Harry had thought that they at least had a direction. Lately, it was beginning to feel like they didn’t even have that, spinning their wheels fruitlessly when the answers they sought might not even be able to be found inside dusty old books.
News of the sword had mowed down the weeds of doubt that had grown in their minds, but new seeds were beginning to take root once more as the days dragged on, with darkness setting in early as autumn slowly gave way to winter. With shorter days came shorter tempers, and patience was wearing thin all around.
Even time in the Sanctuary was turning into almost a chore. Harry had thought that with the four of them now all focused on (roughly) the same task, he wouldn’t feel quite as guilty for ‘wasting time’ with Malfoy, but it was somehow worse. He knew they needed to find the sword of Gryffindor almost as much as they needed to find the cup and Ravenclaw’s artefact, and every time he crossed that threshold, it was another afternoon or evening he wasn’t driving himself spare trying to remember if Dumbledore had said something—anything—that might serve as a clue to the sword’s location.
Malfoy seemed to be sensing Harry’s growing reluctance to spend time with him in the Sanctuary, for lately he was as short and snippy as he’d been when he first arrived. He kept his word and watched his tongue around Hermione and Ron, but Harry could feel him backsliding from what had been something bordering on at least camaraderie with Harry, if not friendship.
As the first snows began to fall, Harry realised that even surrounded as he was by friends and at-least-not-enemies, he felt more alone than he had in a very, very long time.
“Harry? Would you take a look at this?” Hermione asked. “I want your opinion on something…”
Her voice was very loud in the silence of their usual post-prandial research session, and Malfoy snickered meanly at the jolt Harry gave when she’d startled him with her question. She had her copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard out open on her lap and was frowning down at the pages.
Harry cut Malfoy a warning look, then moved from his seat on the sofa to the armchair Hermione occupied, settling on one of the arms. “What is it?”
“Look at this symbol.” She pointed to what seemed to be the title of one of the stories—though it was all in runes, so Harry couldn’t be entirely sure. His eye was drawn to a character sitting above the bold-face heading: a triangle, with a circle in its centre cut through with a vertical line.
“What about it? I never took Ancient Runes.”
“I know, but that isn’t a rune, and it’s not in the syllabary either.” She tapped the spine of another book she’d tucked between her leg and the arm of the chair—the title was more incomprehensible scribbles, so Harry assumed it was one of her Ancient Runes textbooks. “This whole time, I’ve been thinking it was just a fancy historiated initial, but I think it must be something else entirely. Look, it’s not even part of the printed words—someone’s drawn it there, by hand. Doesn’t it look familiar?”
Harry took the book from her, frowning at it, and from the corner of his eye, he saw Malfoy stand and move across the tent to join them, his curiosity evidently having gotten the better of him. “No, I don’t…wait a moment.” Harry squinted. “Isn’t that the same symbol Luna’s dad was wearing round his neck? At the wedding?”
“Yes, that’s what I thought too!”
“What—the one Krum nearly decked him for?” Ron asked, placing his own book back on the table and shuffling over to throw in his two pence.
“…That’s Grindelwald’s mark.”
They all three turned to Malfoy, who was staring down at the book with a hard set to his jaw, stone-faced and serious. He swallowed, then seemed to realise they were looking at him. “I’ve—my family owns…not a few artefacts associated with him. I’ve definitely seen that mark before.”
Ron rolled his eyes. “Colour me surprised.”
“But I’ve never heard that Grindelwald had a mark,” Hermione protested, confused. “There’s no mention of it in anything I’ve ever read about him, and he’s hardly an undocumented historical figure.”
“Maybe not, but Malfoy’s right,” Harry said, recalling the strained conversation with Krum at Bill and Fleur’s wedding. “Krum told me he’d seen it carved into a wall at Durmstrang, and that Grindelwald had put it there. He was pissed off as anything to see Luna’s dad wearing it, though I can’t imagine Xenophilius is a Grindelwald supporter.”
She traced the symbol with a finger. “That’s odd, then. If it’s a symbol of Dark Magic, representing such a terrible wizard, what’s it doing in a book of children’s stories?”
“You reckon Dumbledore wanted you to see it?” Ron asked. “You said someone drew it there by hand; do any of the other story titles have peculiar symbols over them?”
“Dumbledore?” Malfoy parroted. “What’s he got to do with this?”
Hermione held up the book. “Dumbledore left me this, in his will. He left all three of us something, though it’s been quite a chore trying to figure out why he chose what he did.”
“He left you a book?” She nodded, and he looked to Ron.
“Sword of Gryffindor for me,” Ron said. “Ministry was reluctant to part with it for some reason, though, as you can see.”
“Didn’t want to pass off an ancient artefact of cultural significance to a teenager? Shocking.”
“Would’ve saved us some trouble,” Harry muttered.
Harry fished inside the Mokeskin pouch around his neck and drew out the Snitch he and Malfoy used for their Seeker’s games. “A Snitch.”
“My first game Snitch, from my first ever Quidditch match.” He moved to bring it to his lips, to show Malfoy the writing, before recalling that it had been inside a dragon’s mouth not so very long ago. “Er, it’s got a flesh memory, and some writing appeared on it before: I open at the close. Beyond that, it’s fairly unremarkable.”
“A book, a sword, and a Snitch…” Malfoy repeated, half to himself, and then shook his head. “The man was mad.”
“Clearly not that mad,” Hermione said. “Since we know we need the sword now, and there’s obviously something important about this book, too.”
“And the Snitch?”
Hermione looked uncomfortable. “Well, I’m sure it will reveal itself in time.” She looked to Harry. “Do you think Mr. Lovegood would know more about the symbol?”
Harry winced. “I don’t think he even realised what it was; if he’d known it was related to Grindelwald, surely he wouldn’t have worn it to a wedding.”
“I dunno,” Ron said. “Luna’s never really been one to recognise tact, y’know? It might not’ve struck him it’d be in poor taste.”
He had a point, though out of respect for his friend, Harry didn’t want to admit it. He sighed, turning to Malfoy. “Do you know anything else about it? Does it mean anything?”
Malfoy had his arms crossed, giving a little shake to his head. “No, I’ve only seen the symbol a few times, on items I know were associated with Grindelwald at some point.”
Malfoy’s arms tightened, and his shoulders tensed. “Father…has always been a collector.” His tone then quickly grew defensive. “And just so you know, he’s allowed to collect these things. They aren’t Dark; the Ministry’s inspected them.”
“Malfoy, what items?” Harry couldn’t help the urgency in his voice; what if this was the clue?
“A woman’s jewellery set; a necklace, earrings, and a brooch. An anniversary gift for my mother, years ago.” Malfoy shrugged. “They could have been forgeries or fakes—it’s a simple enough symbol to recreate. But I doubt Father would have done business with anyone who didn’t deal in artefacts with a lengthy, provable provenance.”
Ron was visibly excited, eyes wide. “Y’think maybe one of ‘em is a…?”
Hermione shook her head, though. “Lucius Malfoy already had one—and he lost it. I doubt he’d have been entrusted with two.”
“Wait—what?” Malfoy’s arms dropped to his side, and his hands clenched into fists. “What’s my father got to do with anything? He had one of these pieces you’re looking for?”
The silence that followed his question was deafening; was it wise to share that particular element with Malfoy? What if his father had explained to him exactly what kinds of treasures Voldemort had entrusted to them? They were walking a fine enough line as it was.
Malfoy made an angry sound in the back of his throat, spitting out, “Excuse the fuck out of me for trying to help.” He then stormed off into the Sanctuary, slamming the door shut behind him.
Harry felt a twinge of guilt, but he couldn’t go chasing Malfoy after every tantrum he threw. His legs wouldn’t hold out.
He sighed. “So it’s Grindelwald’s symbol. But what does he have to do with any of this?”
Hermione bit her lip. “I’m not sure, but it must mean something. Since when has anything involving Dumbledore been mere coincidence?”
Ron snorted softly. “Maybe it’s just as well he’s dead, else I’d want to kill him myself for being so damn cryptic with everything. Chalk this up to another mystery we’ll drive ourselves round the twist trying to sort out.”
“It’s not working,” Malfoy growled, interrupting Hermione’s fourth re-read of The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
Harry and Ron were out on a shopping excursion, and she’d been left to guard the campsite with Malfoy. It had been a fairly quiet morning, but that appeared to be over now. She closed the book, setting it onto a side table, and crossed her arms. “What isn’t working?”
Malfoy dropped his voice, even though they were the only ones in the tent, as if the topic were exceedingly scandalous and he didn’t want to be overheard. “The—transforming. Spending time around him, in his general vicinity. You said that would take the edge off, but it’s coming back. It’s wearing off, and I feel—” He shuddered, gritting his teeth. “I feel like before. All—hot, out of sorts. Like my skin’s too tight, or like I’m wearing someone else’s face.” He rubbed his shoulders. “It’s going to happen again, I know it! Even transforming now doesn’t do anything to dampen it, and I’m almost afraid to shift back, because it’s going to happen, probably when I least expect it, I’m going to—”
He cut himself off with a whine and sank into one of the armchairs, cradling his head in his hands. Hermione rolled her eyes and sighed; she’d forgotten just how dramatic this one could be. He was frightened, and that was understandable, but he could stand to grow a thicker spine. She smiled grimly to herself; no wonder he’d chickened out of actually doing the job assigned to him by Voldemort and instead looked for an escape route.
“…Well, I figured this would happen.”
Malfoy’s head shot back up, expression betrayed. “You knew?”
“I told you, remember? This is something you’re going to have to deal with: these urges that aren’t necessarily yours but are born of your own deep-seated emotions, whether you want to acknowledge them or not.” Malfoy made a face. “Don’t give me that. Ignore them, and this is what happens. If you want to stop feeling this way, you have to identify the cause and…sate it, for lack of a better word. There’s a part of you now that is probably always going to want some degree of reassurance that Harry won’t leave you or abandon you; clearly, simple proximity and spending time together isn’t going to be enough to achieve that reassurance anymore.”
“Reassurance he won’t leave me? I couldn’t get rid of him even if I wanted to, or have you forgotten?”
“That’s hardly what I’m talking about, and you well know it. It’s the mate—” Malfoy held up a finger in warning. “…The M word business again. You’ve been spending time around him, yes, which did the job for a while—but you’ve gotten acclimated to it. It’s been normalised for you, and now you see nothing special about his interactions with you. What you’re feeling is simply the needy dragon bits of you wanting to feel unique again. Reassurance that the relationship you share with him is different from those he shares with others—and more important for it. You’re going to want him around when he’s not, and when he is around, you’re going to want him closer.”
“…Closer?” Malfoy whispered, almost fearful.
“Well clearly being in the same room isn’t enough anymore; I expect that’s what’s making you feel antsy. Once you find a way to establish a new facet to your relationship, everything should settle again. Maybe if you were to initiate some touch—”
“Touch?!” he practically shrieked, leaping to his feet. He ran his hands through his hair, pacing a hole in the rug. “Fuck—fuck. I thought that was months or—or years out. Not something I’d have to deal with inside a matter of weeks!”
“Don’t have a heart attack. I’m not saying you’ll need to walk around holding hands. It probably just needs to be something—something physical—that lets your body know it doesn’t need to freak out like this. He’s there, he’s tangible, and he’s not going to Disapparate on you.” She shrugged, reaching for the book again. “It’s all very chemical, I’m sure.”
“And what happens when I get used to touching?” Malfoy asked, though he didn’t sound like he wanted to know the answer to that. Hermione didn’t either, so she kept mum.
Malfoy slumped back down into the armchair, rubbing at his face. “This is so fucked up.” He cocked his head to the side, brows raised hopefully. “Don’t suppose you’re still not on board with my clocking him, then?”
“Nice try, but no.” She batted her lashes, smiling innocently. “Though I’m happy to arrange for Harry to clock you if you like?”
He let his head fall back against the chair cushion, then shook his head. “I can’t do this. I can’t. If he catches me trying to grope him—”
Hermione nearly ripped the book in half. “What?”
“Well that’s what it’s going to look like to him! This is mortifying.”
She scoffed. “Surely a bit of embarrassment is better than sheer torture and being burned alive?”
He lifted his head. “To a Malfoy? Debatable.”
“Well,” she huffed. “I don’t see you’ve got much choice. If you’re so worried about what he’ll think, I can explain the situation to him so he doesn’t get the wrong idea? He probably needs to be looped in regardless—”
“NO. No. No no no—that’s worse than me having to tell him.”
Hermione failed to see how her gently explaining Malfoy’s unfortunate condition to one of her best friends was worse than Malfoy slogging through it himself and probably misrepresenting a bevy of details, but she let it stand. “Well one of us is going to have to tell him, because I refuse to chance you killing yourself because of stubborn pride. If I have to Imperius Harry into giving you a great big bear hug, don’t think I won’t.” He groaned again, looking like he might just cry. “What if it overwhelms you again and you pass out before you can make the shift to heal yourself? You’ll be dead in minutes; there’s no healing those sorts of injuries in a human, not with our skill level. I’ll give you a week to sort things out with Harry, and if you can’t manage it, then I’m going to him myself.”
Malfoy’s complexion had gone ashen, and his eyes had a haunted look to them, dull and lifeless. He really was terrified of having to be this vulnerable with Harry, which struck Hermione as so absurd. Harry struggled with tact at times, and he’d never been much for decorum, but he was reasonable, and regardless of how he felt about what was being asked of him, he’d grit his teeth and bear it, like any thankless task he’d been set before.
“He’ll help you, you know. He won’t make fun of you—we aren’t thirteen anymore.”
“I’d almost rather he did,” Malfoy muttered. “Pity’s worse.”
“Well it’s not pity either. It’s because it’s right. It’s…” She sighed. “Fine, it’s awkward, I’ll admit, and certainly not ideal—especially the timing—but god, he nearly got all three of us killed at the Ministry because it didn’t sit right with him you were being held prisoner there, stuck in stasis, without a proper hearing! I know you don’t think too highly of him, but Harry Potter is a good man. He’s not the smartest man, he’s not the most skilled—but he’s good. And he can’t not try when he sees wrong being done and suffering undeserved.”
“Maybe it’s not undeserved,” Malfoy said, rubbing at his forearm. Hermione imagined that if he rolled up his sleeve, she’d see an angry dark blotch shaped like a rotting skull.
“I thought pity was worse? Or is self-pity an exception?”
Malfoy locked eyes with her, squaring his jaw. He still looked like stiff breeze might topple him. “I’m not holding hands with him.”
She slid a finger between the dog-eared pages she’d marked, opening the book on her lap again. “One week, Malfoy,” she warned.