Harry didn’t know when Malfoy had finally come to bed, and by the time he woke the next morning—early, because it was his turn at the till for breakfast—Malfoy was already up, though his bed did show signs he’d slept in it, however briefly.

Hermione and Ron weren’t awake yet—they liked to sleep in when they didn’t have breakfast duty—but Harry found Malfoy sitting on the sofa with a mug of coffee in one hand and a book whose cover Harry couldn’t see in the other.

“Morning,” Harry offered, hoping it didn’t sound as forced to Malfoy as it did to Harry. They’d ended things rather abruptly after the kiss the night before, and for Harry at least, it was a bit awkward, being alone together just now. He’d never been very good with follow-through, generally stumbling through romantic encounters with all the grace of a mountain troll, and try as he might to remind himself this was not a romantic encounter, it was difficult to deny that it shared similarities.

Malfoy had shown himself to be a master at avoiding uncomfortable discussions, though, so Harry did what he could to generate small talk, hoping to coax Malfoy out of whatever strange mood had come over him. “What do you feel like for breakfast?” See? He could be thoughtful, considerate of his partner’s wants and needs.

“Granger’s bacon, Weasley’s buttered toast, and my own porridge.”

Harry glanced into the kitchen, half-expecting to see Hermione and Ron slaving over frying pans with a pot of porridge warming on the side. “Uh, well I’m cooking, so…”

Malfoy raised his mug in a mock toast. “Then I’m all set, thanks.”

Harry felt a spark of irritation ignite in his chest, but then it settled into a quiet, seething burn that Harry actually found just this side of comforting. It felt more…normal, like their usual interactions. He wondered if Malfoy had done it on purpose, to resolve the awkward atmosphere between them without having to actually address it, though it was more likely he was just being his usual arsehole self.

Hermione and Ron joined them shortly while Harry was finishing up their omelettes. Ron looked like he’d sleep-walked to the table, but Hermione was bright-eyed and alert, fidgeting nervously. Harry watched her curiously, tamping down the sliver of panic that she somehow knew what he and Malfoy had gotten up to in the Sanctuary the night before. Paranoia was unbecoming.

Must you bounce your leg like that?” Malfoy asked her through grit teeth. “It’s annoying.”

“Sorry,” Hermione said. “It’s only—well, I think I’ve found something.”

Harry whipped his head around, whisking the last omelette blindly. “What? Found something?”

She nodded, holding up the book she’d been clutching when she arrived at the table and showing them the cover: The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore.

Harry frowned, turning back to his omelette. “Didn’t we burn all those?”

“No; you threw yours into the fire. You’re lucky it was only a magically reproduced copy. I kept my original because, well…” She shrugged. “I couldn’t shake the feeling we’d missed something. Something important—we had so many loose threads, and it seemed unthinkable they weren’t connected somehow.”

“We went through that book cover to cover, Granger,” Malfoy said, refilling his mug. “No secret codes, no leads to chase down, nothing but five-hundred pages of Skeeter’s dry drivel.”

“Five-hundred and sixteen, to be precise,” Hermione said, flipping to the back of the book and spinning it around so that Malfoy could read it right-side up. “We didn’t really comb the index, where reproductions of all the resources were catalogued—all the more our loss.” She tapped the page she’d opened to. “What do you make of that?”

Harry watched intently as Malfoy ran his eyes over the page with a bored expression. “A reproduction of the love letter Dumbledore wrote to Grindelwald way back when.”

“It’s not a love letter,” Harry reminded, and Malfoy rolled his eyes.

“Look closer, Malfoy,” Hermione urged, pointing to the signature. “Notice anything?”

“What, did he add a little heart after his—” He cut himself off, frowning at the page, then flicked his eyes up to meet Hermione’s.

She smiled, a bit devious. “This is the only letter he signed that way; there’s reproductions of several exchanges with other witches and wizards from around the same time, and none of them have that symbol in the signature.”

“What symbol?” Harry asked, cutting the heat and grabbing the spatula to shift the omelette from the pan to a fresh plate. He set it down with a loud clatter in front of Ron, who jolted awake with a sleepy, sniffled Thanks. Harry took his seat next to Malfoy, knees bumping together, and leaned over to see the whatever they were looking at for himself. “Where?”

Malfoy pointed at the A in Albus. “That one.”

Harry peered closer, resting one hand on Malfoy’s shoulder for support. He would have surely missed it without his glasses, but he could see now that the A had been replaced with a triangular symbol that Harry was certain he’d seen somewhere before… His head snapped up, and Hermione was smiling at him encouragingly. “Wait—is that…?”

“It’s the same mark from The Tales of Beedle the Bard!” she practically shouted, bustling with excitement.

Ron perked up, mouth full. Food seemed to have recharged his engines. “Ee’l ‘eh ‘Ard?” He swallowed with some effort. “Didn’t you mention Viktor saying something about that symbol too, Harry?”

“Yeah; he was upset because Mr. Lovegood was wearing it—he said it was Grindelwald’s symbol.” Harry shook his head. “But—I don’t get what’s so interesting about that? Dumbledore and Grindelwald were friends,” he said with a dour tone. He could have gone quite a lot longer without having been reminded of Dumbledore’s atrocious opinions on Muggles and Muggleborns. “It’s hardly surprising Dumbledore would have signed his letters to Grindelwald using that symbol.”

“Don’t you think it’s strange that Grindelwald even had a symbol, though? Especially before he’d become, well, Grindelwald? He didn’t come up with that symbol out of thin air, either—I’m positive that’s the same mark I saw on that headstone back in Godric’s Hollow! And that grave was there long before Grindelwald ever came along.” She took the book back from Malfoy, tracing the mark with her finger. “There must be more to it than meets the eye. It keeps cropping up—Viktor and Mr. Lovegood, Grindelwald and Dumbledore, that old headstone and the name Ignotus…”

Harry didn’t really follow, and while Malfoy had seemed initially intrigued by the find, he looked to be rapidly losing interest.

Ron took a swig of juice. “It’s a fun theory, but…what’re we supposed to do with it?”

We aren’t supposed to do anything.” Hermione looked at them all in turn, taking a breath as if to brace herself. “I think we need to go visit Mr. Lovegood, Luna’s father.”

“What?” Ron sputtered.

“He’s the only logical choice!” Hermione protested, and Harry snorted.

“‘Logic’ and ‘Lovegood’ in the same sentence?” He loved Luna, he really did, but she and her father were more than a bit removed from reality some days.

“Well Viktor’s too far away, and too young to know anything of use, I’m sure, and Dumbledore’s out of course, and Grindelwald—well, I don’t even know whether he’s dead or alive by now. He’d be quite old if they still have him locked up in Nurmengard…” She waved her hands. “Anyway, Mr. Lovegood’s our best bet, I’m sure.”

“Bet for what?” Harry asked; she actually sounded serious about this. “What’s so important about that symbol?”

“I don’t know—and that’s why it’s important. I’m sure it means something, given all the people we’ve seen it in connection with.”

“All the people we’ve seen it in connection with?” Ron repeated. “Dumbledore and Grindelwald. The end.”

Not the end,” Hermione huffed, anger suffusing her face with red. “It was on that headstone, so it predates Grindelwald, and Mr. Lovegood clearly thought it meant something other than support for Grindelwald! If it wasn’t Grindelwald’s symbol, but a symbol of something else he was interested in—something he got Dumbledore interested in as well—then it could be important.”

Harry mulled over her logic, and while he was starting to see why her curiosity had been piqued, he wasn’t entirely sure it was all that relevant at the moment. He glanced over at Malfoy, who seemed intent on sitting out their debate, calmly sipping his coffee. For all his protests about wanting to be involved, not liking being left out of important conversations, he certainly wasn’t making an effort to participate when given the opportunity.

Hermione was staring at him plaintively, and with great reluctance, Harry had to say, “I dunno, it doesn’t sound like it’s going to lead us to a Horcrux, Hermione… And we don’t need another Godric’s Hollow—”

“Godric’s Hollow was dangerous because it was an obvious place You-Know-Who would think to look for you. We took a chance and went there only because we thought the sword might be hidden there; if we hadn’t had any reason to go there that had to do with the Horcruxes, we wouldn’t have gone at all!”

“But you want to go see Mr. Lovegood, even though he’s also got nothing to do with the Horcruxes?”

Hermione wilted. “Well—we won’t know he’s got nothing to do with them until we ask, will we?” She didn’t sound half as sure of herself as she had before, but she quickly rallied, shaking her head. “This symbol keeps appearing around us, though. Dumbledore left me The Tales of Beedle the Bard for a reason—and that mark is the only thing we’ve found out of the ordinary in it so far. That doesn’t make you think it’s maybe connected to the Horcruxes?”

Harry released an irritated sigh. “Maybe? Sure. But I could be convinced just about anything was maybe connected to them at this point. We keep trying to convince ourselves that Dumbledore secretly left us signs and clues to—”

“Granger’s right,” Malfoy said, leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest. “I think we ought to go and see Lovegood.”

Harry threw him a dark look, and even Hermione looked torn as to whether or not she ought to appreciate his support. He was quite sure Malfoy’s suggestion had less to do with wanting to figure out the meaning behind the symbol and more with just wanting to get a rise out of Harry. This arrangement of theirs already looked to be backfiring, if it was going to put Malfoy on his prickly guard at all hours outside the Sanctuary just to compensate for having to be vulnerable for a few moments inside it.

“It won’t be like Godric’s Hollow, Harry,” Hermione reassured. “You-Know-Who’s got no reason to be within fifty miles of the Lovegoods’ place looking for you. Plus, Mr. Lovegood’s on your side! The Quibbler’s been for you this whole time, you heard what Dean and the others said.” Her brows lifted, her expression uncomfortably earnest. “I’m sure this is important!”

Harry remained unconvinced, shaking his head. “I feel like if it really was that important…Dumbledore would’ve told me about it before he died. I mean, he told me all about Horcruxes—”

“‘Cept how to destroy ‘em,” Ron muttered, and Harry frowned at him. “What? It’s true.”

“Only because he thought he’d be around to destroy them himself! And we figured it out.”

“Sure. Eventually,” Malfoy said, adding his own two Knuts. “If the old codger had told you everything he needed to before he died, he would have died before he finished.”

Hermione bit her lip. “I just really think this is what we need to do next. We haven’t made any more progress on tracking down Horcruxes, and honestly it feels like we’ve hit a wall. Now we’ve got this symbol that links Dumbledore and Grindelwald and someone who’s been buried in Godric’s Hollow for what looks like centuries? We have to go, Harry, I’m sure!”

“Why not vote on it, then?” Ron said, and Harry wondered if his sudden shift in support of Hermione’s suggestion wasn’t due in part to the fact that Hermione looked like she might start crying if Harry tried to talk her down from this one more time. “To be fair about it. Those in favour of going to see Lovegood—?”

Hermione’s hand shot into the air first, and Ron’s climbed soon after, earning him a grateful smile.

He turned to look at Malfoy, who simply quirked a brow and then slipped his hand up as well.

Harry barely held himself back from rolling his eyes; he was surrounded by traitors. There was no way Malfoy was voting his conscience—not after the fit he’d thrown about Godric’s Hollow. He just wanted to be contrary, because evidently Slytherins responded to threats of vulnerability with self-sabotage, taking everyone involved down with them.

“Well that’s that, then,” Ron said, pushing his chair out and sending his cleaned plate back to the cupboard.

“Fine,” Harry sighed, less irritated with Ron or even Hermione than Malfoy. He agreed that the danger of going was substantially less than it had been with Godric’s Hollow, but it still seemed like a pointless detour that threatened to distract them from more important matters. “But we should be quick about it—in and out, no staying for dinner or tea or anything. Once you’re satisfied, let’s move on and focus on finding these last two Horcruxes, all right?” Then a thought hit him. “Wait, where does he live anyway?”

“They’re not far from my place, actually,” Ron said. “I’ve never been there myself—and always been quite happy with that—but Mum and Dad always point towards the hills whenever they mention them. Shouldn’t be hard to find, should they? I mean, it’s the Lovegoods.”

“Right!” Hermione clapped her hands. “I think we should make a day of it—Harry’s right that we need to get back to Horcrux hunting as soon as possible, so let’s gather our things, then we’ll pop in for a visit and see what’s what.” She was unaccountably cheery now that she’d gotten her way and promptly excused herself from the table to get dressed and gather her things.

“I’ll remember this betrayal, you know,” Harry threatened Ron, as he tried to sneak back off to his room.

“Hey, don’t blame me, mate. Blame Twelve Fail-Safe Ways to Charm Witches!”

When he’d vacated the kitchen, Harry turned to Malfoy, lowering his voice. “You only agreed to this to try and get back at me.”

Malfoy snorted in derision, shooting a Scouring Charm into his mug. “Get back at you for what, you paranoid weirdo?” Harry didn’t really have a good answer for that, as it would require they talk about Malfoy’s odd behaviour since the kiss. “Granger made a good point. Grindelwald’s involved with this mess somehow, so until we’ve got a lead on a Horcrux, we ought to chase down what knowledge we have.”

He stood and moved to go gather his own things, but Harry grabbed his arm, fixing him with a searching look. “Are…are you all right? Do you need to—”

Malfoy jerked his arm away, cheeks pinking. “No. I don’t. And when I do, trust that you’ll be the first to know.”


An hour later, they had Apparated onto a chilly hillside from which they could easily see the whole of Ottery St. Catchpole, which was little more than a collection of dwellings scattered haphazardly around the valley.

“So which ones house your conquests?” Malfoy asked flippantly, his disembodied head floating beside Harry, as the rest of his body was draped beneath the Invisibility Cloak.

“Too many to enumerate,” Harry returned, still harbouring a kernel of irritation at Malfoy. “Put the Cloak on properly, or else there’s no point.”

They were running low on Polyjuice, so they’d decided to go out in Glamours instead, keeping Malfoy under the Invisibility Cloak. Malfoy had objected to being shoved under the Cloak again, reminding them all unnecessarily that Harry should be wearing it since he was the one with the price on his head. Hermione had agreed, but Harry had reminded her that she’d said this would be a safe excursion, and he was perfectly fine with not going at all if she thought it was dangerous enough he needed to be under the Cloak.

She’d folded, so here Malfoy was, draping the Cloak back over that shock of blond hair with a sour frown twisting his features.

They could see most of the village from here, and they took a moment to try and pick out the Burrow. Ron pointed out the general direction he thought it might lie, but from this distance, they couldn’t make out more than the orchard grove and tall, towering hedges that helped hide the house from the eyes of their Muggle neighbours.

“…So weird, being this close and not being able to visit,” said Ron, still staring at the spot where he knew his home to be. “I mean, I know it’s for the best—we’d only be bringing them trouble—but still.” Hermione reached over to brush her fingers against his knuckles, and he smiled at the gesture. “It’s Christmas hols; Ginny’ll be home, unless she’s off visiting—oh!” He gasped. “You think Luna’ll be home, too? I’d not say no to an update on how far into the ground Snape’s run the school…”

Malfoy didn’t say anything in response to Ron’s slight against Snape, and Harry wondered what his feelings were on the matter. Malfoy had to know Snape was a Death Eater, so maybe he’d decided to stop trying to act like Snape walked on a summer’s breeze and shat moonbeams. Snape had helped Harry bring Malfoy back to himself, but then he’d turned right around and sliced of George’s ear, plopped his greasy arse in Dumbledore’s chair, and let his Death Eater mates have the run of Hogwarts. Surely even Malfoy couldn’t conscience that.

“Let’s try up this way,” Harry said, leading the way over the top of the next hill.

But after an hour of trekking up and down the hills surrounding Ottery St. Catchpole, they’d turned up nothing—most of the cottages had been abandoned, some in recent weeks, some since long before. They’d peeked into the windows, just in case the dilapidated state of the cottages was little more than a Glamour to deter unwanted visitors, but none of the places looked eccentric enough on the inside to be the Lovegoods’. Deciding to try their luck on the other side of the valley, they clasped arms and Apparated to an area that seemed more densely occupied.

In the end, it was Ron who found it. “That’s gotta be it!” he exclaimed, pointing toward the top of the hill next to the one they’d just mounted, where what looked to be a castle tower, all in slate black, rose imperiously into the sky. “Who else would live in a place shaped like a rook?”

With his beanpole stature and long limbs, Ron was easily the first to arrive at the front gate, while Harry and Hermione gave chase behind, panting all the while. Malfoy most unhelpfully Jinxed Harry’s laces to come untied just short of the peak, slowing him down so he came in dead last. When he finally reached Ron and Hermione—his laces double-knotted this time—he found Ron grinning broadly and pointing to three hand-painted signs that had been tacked to a rotting, broken-down gate. “We’re definitely in the right place.”

Harry adjusted his glasses—Transfigured into a pair of coke-bottle lenses that Malfoy had told him were particularly unsightly—and peered at the signs.

The Quibbler Head Offices, Editor: X. Lovegood

‘Tis the Season! Pick Your Own Mistletoe

PLEASE Do NOT Touch the Dirigible Plums – Owners Not Responsible For Flights of Fancy

“Last chance to turn back,” Ron said, and Hermione pushed past him with a huff, unlatching the gate and striding up the winding path leading into a snarling, wild winter garden that was still in full bloom despite the chill. Harry was certain he’d never seen many of these plants before—though he did recognise a tree bearing a dangling fruit that looked like the orange radishes Luna sometimes wore for earrings.

“Oh—my,” Hermione gasped, drawing up short and placing one hand each on Harry’s and Ron’s shoulders to steer them back from an old, rotting stump whose roots were reaching for them like grasping tentacles. “Snargaluff!”

A bit more on their guard after the close call, they finally made their way up to the front stoop, on either side of which stood a pair of trees, their boughs heavy with a strange red berry-like fruit Harry didn’t recognise—and clumps of white mistletoe, which he did recognise. Had Hermione and Ron not been there, he might have been tempted to make a sly remark to Malfoy about kissing—but perhaps they weren’t yet at the joking and ribbing stage of this business.

Harry raised his fist to knock, when Hermione said, “Wait!” He turned to look at her, and she glanced back at the overgrown garden path and the creaky gate. “…I think maybe Malfoy should stay out here as lookout.”

“Think again, Granger,” Malfoy hissed from under the Cloak. “It was only because I was there to save your arses last time you’re around today!”

Hermione shifted to face where his voice had come from. “Yes, but that was a dangerous situation from the outset; this shouldn’t be. You’re more useful out here standing guard than trying to manoeuvre about inside while invisible. Someone’s going to bump into you or accidentally step on the Cloak, and then we’ll all be in trouble, especially if something does go wrong, and then You-Know-Who finds out you’re hanging about with the likes of us.”

He couldn’t see Malfoy, but Harry knew he was rolling his eyes. “Mother will never be able to show herself around the ladies at Bridge Club again. …Fine. And how exactly am I supposed to let you know if I see anything suspicious?”

Hermione tapped her lip in thought, then gave a bright Ooh! and pulled out her beaded bag, rifling through it before deciding it was easier to just Summon what she was looking for. A gold coin came zooming out, and she flipped it into the air. Malfoy’s hand shot out to catch it, then slipped back under the Cloak. “We used these coins in Fifth Year to organise DA meetings. They’ve got Protean Charms on them—and that’s the Master coin you’ve got.” She Summoned another coin and passed it to Harry, still speaking to Malfoy. “You just perform a spell to alter the charm’s wording, and it should be reflected in Harry’s copy.”

“I know how they work,” Malfoy muttered, and Hermione’s brows lifted, but she let it go. He pulled the Cloak back just far enough to expose his face, fixing Hermione and Ron with a pinch-lipped look. “…Don’t let Potter out of your sight. I won’t be able to swoop to the rescue like last time, and you know he likes to go wandering off into dark corners on his own.”

Hey,” Harry hissed.

“We’ll be with him every minute,” Hermione reassured, and Harry felt very much like a child at the moment, especially when Ron ruffled his hair and said, “Maybe we should slap him with a Shackling Spell this time.”

Harry batted Ron’s hand away, running his hand through his Glamoured hair to settle it again; it was much more obliging than his real hair. He frowned at Malfoy, then sighed. “…You be safe, too.”

“As if I needed reminding,” Malfoy said, then pulled the cloak back down over his face and disappeared, the crunch of dry leaves under his feet the only indication he’d gone to stand watch back at the gate.

“…Right, here goes,” Hermione said. “Well go on, knock!”

Harry raised his hand again and rapped three times on the thick, black door. It looked like something from Arthurian lore: wide enough for three people to pass through abreast and studded with iron nails and strappings. The knocker was shaped like an eagle and glowered down at them with a fierce, judging gaze. Maybe this actually had been a castle tower at some point.

Several long seconds passed, and then came the sound of many locks being disengaged, and the door creaked open—just enough for a white face to peek out at them. Standing barefoot in what looked to be a faded and stained nightshirt—had he just woken? It was past noon—with his white, candyfloss hair lying lank and unkempt, Xenophilius Lovegood was nearly unrecognisable, a completely different man from the comparatively dapper visage he’d presented at Bill and Fleur’s wedding.

“Who goes there? What’s your business? Where’ve you come from? Why have you come here?” The questions fell from his lips in a rapid-fire, quavering tremolo, and his eyes flicked back and forth from Ron to Hermione to Harry and back again, suspicion clouding his features.

They hadn’t anticipated this uncharacteristically cool reception, even with their Glamoured disguises; Luna had time and again invited them to visit when Harry was around the Burrow, assuring them they would receive a warm welcome and that her father was always delighted to regale pop-in visitors with his most recent findings concerning the mating rituals of some fantastic beast or another. He’d been under the impression Xenophilius was a man of perpetual good humour, not unlike his daughter.

“Hello, Mr. Lovegood,” Harry said, slowly extending a hand—even as Xenophilius recoiled, his pale face slipping into the darkness of his home. “I’m—” He dared a quick glance over at Hermione and Ron, but they didn’t try to stop him. He wondered what Malfoy would say in their stead, then raised his wand and tapped his crown, dispelling the Glamour. “…I’m Harry Potter. And this is Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley.”

“Oh—oh my…” Xenophilius brought a hand to his mouth, and Harry didn’t miss the way his eyes flicked to Harry’s forehead, as if to check there was really a scar there. His lips thinned, and his grip on the door tightened, knuckles white.

Fearing they risked having the door slammed in their faces if he didn’t think quickly, Harry asked, “We’re sorry to drop by unannounced like this, Mr. Lovegood—only, we’ve got something we’d really like to ask you about. I promise we won’t take too much of your time.” He tried to peek around Xenophilius to get a look inside the house, but it was a difficult thing. “Could we, er, come inside? Just for a bit?”

Xenophilius’s gaze went over their heads, scanning the wild garden through which they’d come to reach the house. Did he have dangerous creatures lurking about in the tangles and snares of magical plants? Harry wouldn’t have put it past the Lovegoods, come to think of it. “I…well, I’d like to—it’s only polite, but…” He swallowed thickly, licking his lips. “I’m not so sure it’s wise—the state of things being what it is. You’re putting me in quite a difficult position…”

“And we’re really sorry about that, sir—but I promise we’ll be out of your hair quick as we can!” He didn’t want to have come all this way, taken this risk, only to be turned away. Now that they were here, he could feel his curiosity mounting as well.

Xenophilius dithered a bit longer, smacking his lips in distress, before sighing in a very put-upon way and tugging the door open wider. “…All right, then—but get inside, quickly! And this really must be a short visit; I’m terribly busy, you see.”

He waved them inside, and no sooner had Ron, who was drawing up the rear, made it over the threshold than Xenophilius slammed the door shut once more, bolting it tight and engaging no fewer than a half-dozen locks of different makes and sizes. A good thing they’d left Malfoy to stand guard under the Cloak; he might have gotten squashed.

Rather than opening into an entryway or even a sitting room, the door had brought them into an open space that looked, between the griddle and sink and coldbox with a little dining table in the middle of everything, like it was meant to be a kitchen. It was a bright, cheery room, its curving walls painted robin’s-egg blue and decorated with all manner of hand-drawn flowers and birds and insects. Luna’s work, no doubt; he’d seen her doodling during DA meetings, and clearly her father had been keen to foster her talents in every way possible.

There came a loud BANG! from somewhere above them, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione gave a violent jolt, though Xenophilius didn’t seem to notice, only shuffling toward a wrought-iron staircase spiralling up to the floor above. He crooked a finger absently in their direction, beckoning.

“Well, if you’re wanting to come up, you might as well,” said Xenophilius, mopping his forehead of sweat; it was uncomfortably warm inside, despite the chill of winter lurking just beyond that imposing front door.

Harry cut a worried look to the others—this wasn’t going to wind up being another ‘Bathilda’, was it?—but Ron just shrugged, and Hermione shooed him forward. He hoped the bang had only been Luna swatting Wrackspurts or something.

Xenophilius led the way up the stairs, and Harry, Hermione, and Ron followed, their eyes going everywhere in the fantastically strange house. Hermione, one hand on the railing, tapped her crown and Ron’s in succession, dispelling their Glamours now that they were safely indoors. This floor looked at first blush to be a living room—but the huge clanging printing press chugging along in the corner suggested it doubled as a workspace.

“Step lively,” Xenophilius warned, and a good thing he did, for while the kitchen space below had been a bit untidy with back issues of The Quibbler piling up on the table and dishes sitting dirty in the sink and a lone slipper hiding under the range in want of a mate, this room was a shrine to all things cluttered, and the Lovegoods seemed to be fervent worshippers. Stacks of bric-a-brac and piles of knick-knacks outlined the meandering paths through which they were meant to tread, and Harry was reminded of the towering piles of junk he’d glimpsed within the Room of Requirement when he’d entered in the hopes of getting rid of the half-blood Prince’s copy of Advanced Potion-Making.

Nowhere, though, amidst the towers of books and haphazardly scattered papers and parchments and curious models of creatures he strongly suspected did not actually exist did he see Luna; the loud BANG from earlier, he could now see, had come from a massive printing press, which was rattling and rocking on its moorings as it churned out fresh copies of The Quibbler.

“Oh—goodness, you weren’t meant to see—” Xenophilius charged through the debris, nearly tripping over a potted plant that looked like it hadn’t been watered or seen the sun in weeks, and grabbed a faded quilt thrown over the back of an armchair, tossing it over the printing press. Harry didn’t see why he’d bothered, as uncollected copies of what was likely the latest edition of the paper continued to fly from the mouth of the press, fluttering to the floor around their feet. Xenophilius seemed satisfied, though, and turned to face Harry. “Now then, you said you needed to ask me something? Pray, make it quick.”

Xenophilius looked on the verge of tossing them out on their collective arses if they didn’t make their case quickly enough, so Harry took a breath, remarks already prepared—

“Oh—dear!” Hermione gasped, brows knit in horror. “Mr. Lovegood, what is that?!” With one trembling finger, she pointed at an enormous horn that had been mounted on the wall like a trophy kill. Nearly as long as Ron was tall, it was a stony grey colour and spiralled up from the base to the tip, kind of like a unicorn horn, if the unicorn had been the size of a Hungarian Horntail.

“Ah, a recent acquisition—it’s the horn of the elusive Crumple-Horned Snorkack,” said Xenophilius absently as he moved an old tea set off the seat of one of the armchairs scattered about the room.

Hermione turned to Harry and Ron, still scandalised. “That’s not from a Crumple-Horned anything; it’s a—”

“C’mon, ‘Mione—we’re guests,” Ron urged. “Let him have his delusions.” He placed a hand on her arm, but Hermione shook him off, rounding on Harry when it seemed she’d get no support from Ron’s corner.

“That’s an Erumpent horn! I recognise it from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them! Those things are extraordinarily dangerous—far too dangerous to keep lying about the house! I’m not even sure he’s licensed to own it—you’ve got to have special permission—” Probably seeing Harry’s eyes glaze over, she scoffed and turned to Xenophilius, pleading, “Mr. Lovegood, you have to get rid of that thing! They’re terribly unstable once they’ve been harvested! Once false move and this whole place could be blown sky high!”

Her strident tones seemed to absolve Xenophilius of a bit of his good humour, and he drew himself up. “My dear girl, the Crumple-Horned Snorkack is not dangerous,” he said with an affected drawl that sounded academic. “I’ve been professionally trained in Snorcack Husbandry by the Grand Duchess of—”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lovegood, but that’s not anything from a Snorcack! It’s an Erumpent horn, and from the looks of the loss of veining at the base, it’s incredibly volatile! If you don’t get rid of it straight away—”

“While I usually am only too happy to discuss the nature of the magical but ever-so-shy Snorcack with guests, as I mentioned to you earlier: I’m quite busy today, many errands to run you know, so—” He turned back to Harry, shutting Hermione out. “If you could explain what exactly it is you need from me, Mr. Potter?”

Harry licked his lips, shooting an apologetic look at Hermione, then said, “We were hoping you might be able to help us, Mr. Lovegood.”

Xenophilius looked torn, his fingers worrying at the hem of his nightshirt. “That’s quite a risk you’re asking of me, you know—helping Harry Potter, with things as they are these days.”

What?” Ron said, flabbergasted. “Hold up—aren’t you telling everyone and their brother they ought to make helping Harry do whatever needs doing their number one priority?” He pointed to the press, still banging and clattering beneath the tablecloth. “Or did Wrackspurts get into the inking plates again?”

“Of course not, Wrackspurts primarily dwell on the Ethereal Plane.” Xenophilius waved him away. “But, well, circumstances have changed, and I fear I can no longer in good conscience advocate such a position…”

“Rules for thee but not for me, then?” Ron bit out with a fierce glower. “Didn’t realise Luna’s dad was a hypocritical coward.”

“Ron…” Hermione chided softly.

Xenophilius had no response to the accusation, though, only seemed to hunch in on himself, shoulders shrinking and expression falling. Harry was beginning to regret coming here; he hadn’t wanted to do so in the first place, and now that he could see how uncomfortable they were making Luna’s dad, he felt even worse for it.

“Well, we’ve come all this way,” Hermione said, glancing at the ceiling, where the wrought-iron staircase continued to spiral upwards to another level. “Maybe we could catch up with Luna first? And then Mr. Lovegood can decide if he thinks he ought to help us or not. Is that her room up there? Is she home?”

Xenophilius blanched at the suggestion, mouthing something to himself before firming his jaw. When he spoke, his voice was breathy and tremulous, nearly lost in the racket the printing press was making. “Luna…my Luna is presently out—down at the stream, fishing for Plimpies. She makes a lovely Plimpie stew, you know—warm and filling, we go through gallons of it most ever winter. We…” He licked his lips, then nodded to himself. “I’m sure she’d love to see you. I’ll just run and let her know you’re here, and then…then we can discuss how I might be able to help you while she prepares stew for us.”

Before Harry could protest that they really didn’t have time to stay for dinner—not least of all because they couldn’t just leave Malfoy sitting around outside freezing his arse off while they slurped down bowls of stewed whatever-the-heck Plimpies were—Xenophilius had darted for the staircase, nearly tumbling end-over-head in his rush. A moment later, they heard the clacking of the locks being disengaged and the great THUD of the front door slamming shut.

“I figured Xenophilius was a loon, but I never quite took him for a coward,” Ron spat. “Guess Luna got the guts of the family. It’s probably her ghostwriting all the articles supporting Harry in The Quibbler.”

“I can’t entirely blame him—he’s only human. Plus, it’s not his own safety he’s got to be worried about,” Hermione reasoned. “Luna’s still enrolled at Hogwarts, after all—she might be in more danger than she realises…” She trailed off, frowning in thought. “Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to come here…”

“I’ll accept that, ‘You were right, Harry,’ any time you’re ready to offer it,” Harry said, giving her a wan smile. “Let’s just talk to him, get the answers we need as quickly as possible, and get out of here. Luna will understand if we have to cut our visit short.”

Hermione nodded, then glared up at the Erumpent Horn. “Right, but we should keep well away from that thing—one false move, and Malfoy’ll have to finish the Horcrux hunt on his own.”

They kept to the opposite side of the room as they waited for Xenophilius to return, and Harry stared out the window, which overlooked the wild garden out front. He could see the broken-down gate from here and wondered if Malfoy was still down there. He could be staring up at Harry right now—or making rude gestures—and Harry wouldn’t know. He gave a weak little wave, just in case, to let Malfoy know they were all right and that Mr. Lovegood hadn’t actually been Voldemort in disguise.

“What’re you doing?” Ron asked, then shouldered Harry aside to peer out the window himself. “Did you see Luna?”

“Oh, no, thought I did.”

They heard the front door creak open again, then shut with a loud thump, and a moment later, Xenophilius had climbed back up the spiral staircase, precariously balancing a tray of mismatched teacups and a steaming teapot on his head. “While we wait for Luna to return, would you care to enjoy an infusion of Gurdyroots, prepared and presented in the traditional style of the native peoples of Vanuatu?”

“But Gurdyroots were first cultivated in—” Hermione started, then fell silent at Harry’s quelling look. They didn’t have time to get into this again.

“Home-grown, of course—you cannot trust the provenance of imports,” Xenophilius continued, as if Hermione had not spoken at all. He carefully removed the tray from his head, setting it atop one of the tottering stacks of books, and poured from the teapot a deep-purple liquid that had the consistency of glue and which, Harry suspected, did not taste half as good. “I’ve told Luna she has visitors—she’s just down at Bottom Bridge now, netting up the last of the Plimpies to stew. She was delighted to hear you’d come calling, so I’m sure she’ll be along any minute now.” He began passing the teacups around to Harry, Hermione, and Ron. “Have a seat, my friends, and help yourselves to sugar if you feel the need. We Lovegoods take ours straight.”

Harry hadn’t a clue where they were meant to sit unless it was on the printing press or perched on a pile of old editions of The Quibbler, so he stayed standing. Xenophilius uncovered another armchair for himself—that was three now, Harry counted—when he lifted a papier-mâché model of a faerie house and placed it gently on the floor beside an ottoman, settling in with his hands folded over his stomach. “Now then, I shall help you, if I can—but I make no promises. What would you ask of me, Mr. Potter?”

Harry took a breath; here went nothing. “Well…you were wearing a symbol on a necklace at Bill and Fleur’s wedding—a circle surrounded by a triangle with a line through its centre. Do you remember the piece? We wondered if…if there was any particular meaning to it—or where you might have come across it?”

Xenophilius’s wiry white eyebrows lifted into his messy fringe. “Oh, dear me, boy—there’s a very special meaning to it of course! That was the symbol of the Deathly Hallows!”

He spoke the words ‘deathly hallows’ with a sort of grandeur and gravity—and Harry wondered if they were supposed to have heard the term before. A quick glance at Hermione and Ron said they were just as confused as he was. “I—I’m sorry, the Deathly…Hallows?”

“Yes! I take it by that perplexed tone you’ve not heard of them, then?” Xenophilius nodded, understanding. “Well, they certainly don’t teach you about such things at Hogwarts, I’d wager! But as my Luna will tell you, not all great knowledge is found in books and lectures! No, the tale of the Hallows must generally be passed from one Quester to another—from one wondering, wandering mind to another equally receptive!”

He sipped at his Gurdyroot infusion and swallowed with a smacking sigh. To be polite, Harry took a sip from his own cup and nearly gagged, tamping down the urge to retch. It tasted like someone had pureed a bagful of bogey-flavoured Every-Flavour Beans. Malfoy would not be sad he’d missed out on this.

“A—a ‘quester’, sir? I’m afraid this is new to us—could you maybe start from the beginning?”

“Do the Hallows have anything to do with Grindelwald, Mr. Lovegood?” Hermione asked, having dared to edge just a bit closer to the Erumpent horn in order to be a participating member of the conversation. “It’s only, we’ve heard that he used this symbol in correspondence—”

“Oh, don’t tell me you’re going to try and rough me up as well, like that ignorant upstart at the wedding! Accusing me of sporting the symbol of a Dark wizard when I was merely indicating myself to be a believer, in the hopes of finding others to help me in my Quest.”

“But why would he think it was the symbol of a Dark wizard?” Hermione asked. “Are the Hallows dangerous objects, then?”

“You’re so eager to label that which you don’t understand ‘dangerous’, young lady!” Xenophilius tapped the side of his nose. “Knowledge is the only true safety we may rely upon some days. Forewarned is forearmed.”

“That doesn’t answer my question at all…” Hermione muttered under her breath, crossing her arms over her chest.

“There’s nothing Dark about the Hallows,” Xenophilius scoffed, turning back to Harry. “At least not in the way modern wizards might consider. Certainly they can be used to mischievous ends—have been used, even—but a wizard’s wand can be used to harm as easily as to heal. They’re tools, nothing more, nothing less.”

“So…they’re objects? Magical artefacts?” Harry asked, and Xenophilius nodded, swirling the infusion in his cup as if it were a fine wine. “But—what exactly are they? And what do you mean your ‘quest’?”

“The Quest, Mr. Potter! The Quest—to find the Hallows, master them, and in doing so become master of Death itself!”

Harry felt a chill of foreboding run down his spine, and Hermione cut in, “Master of Death? Are you—do you mean necromancy?”

“Pah!” Xenophilius finished his cup with a smacking slurp, placing it atop a teetering tower of old copies of The Quibbler. “Clearly we’ll have to start at the beginning of the beginning, then!” He clasped his hands together. “Now, you’ll of course be familiar with ‘The Tale of the Three Brothers’, no? A common wizarding fairy tale.”

“Uh…” Harry said, even as Ron nodded, and Hermione said, “Yes, of course.”

Xenophilius frowned. “No, Mr. Potter? Such a shame…” He cast about the room, his eyes scanning the chaos. “Let’s see, I’m certain I recall seeing my copy of the tales just around here last Tuesday…”

“Oh, if it’s The Tales of Beedle the Bard you’re looking for, I’ve a copy myself, Mr. Lovegood,” Hermione said, reaching into her beaded handbag. “Just here.” From it, she withdrew the book that Dumbledore had left her in his will.

Xenophilius stared at the book with an awestruck expression. “Might that be an original? A first print even, perhaps?”

“Er, I think it is…”

“Even better! Then, my dear, why don’t you read the ‘Tale of the Three Brothers’ aloud for us all? Best to make sure we’re all on the same page before charging forward. If you’re to embark on the Quest, you’ll want to start off on the right foot!”

Harry still didn’t quite understand what this ‘Quest’ was, and they certainly weren’t about to embark on anything while there were Horcruxes out there waiting to be discovered and destroyed, but Xenophilius did not seem inclined to discuss the matter further until Harry had sat through story time.

Hermione shrugged in apology, then opened the book to the page she’d shown Harry some months back, with the symbol they were investigating scrawled next to the heading. Harry hadn’t bothered to sit down and read it yet, though he knew Malfoy had been engrossed in it on more than one occasion.

She gave a little cough to clear her throat and began to read.

Three brothers once, in times of old, walked down a lonely road. ‘Twas twilight then, and race they did, toward home, not to be slowed—

“Mum always used to say it was midnight,” said Ron in a loudly whispered aside to Harry. “Always sounded spookier to me that way.”

“Do you mind?” Hermione huffed, and Ron held his hands up in defence, then mimed zipping his lips together. Xenophilius didn’t seem to notice the interruption, his attention fixed on the window overlooking the garden. From this angle, all they could see were the tops of the hedges and the scattered cloud cover crawling over the village.

Hermione pursed her lips, evidently irritated at having been thrown off her rhythm, but she quickly recovered her composure, continuing to read.

A river wide before them stretched, too deep to wade across—but wizards were these brothers three, so all was not yet lost. Wands they produced to work their wiles and magic through them flowed; a bridge appeared from naught but air, so on and on they strode. But hardly to the centre of the bridge had they advanced, when blocked the path before them was, as Death upon them chanced.

“His hooded robe was black as night, his fingers long and pale, for Death is not a mortal but hails from beyond the veil—

“Wait—Death?” Harry boggled. What the hell kind of story was this?

It was now Harry’s turn to be on the receiving end of Hermione’s glare. “Yes, Death. It’s a story—there are going to be fantastic characters in them sometimes.”

He ducked his head. “Oh—yeah, no, sorry.” He motioned for her to continue. “No more interruptions.”

Hermione brushed her hair away from her face, exhaling loudly through her nose, and turned her focus back to the book.

‘Good brothers three,’ spoke Death to them, ‘You have my deep respect—as bested have you me this day, your lives I shan’t collect. As proof of your bold cleverness a boon I’ll give to you; speak up and say how Death may grant each brother here his due.’

The eldest was a man of spite, combative in his mood, and as he hoped to one day rule, a plan within him brewed. ‘O Death,’ he boomed, ‘Grant me your wand—a worthy token true; a wand that ne’er shall lose a duel, a wand that will subdue.’

And Death approached an elder tree and begged its branches bow—and fashioned for the brother here a wand of great renown. ‘Be wary,’ warned the shade in black, ‘For those who wield such wands cannot afford a moment’s rest, lest broken be their bonds.’

The second was a man of pride who sought to humble Death. ‘I want,’ he said, ‘to revive those who’ve drawn their final breath.’ So Death approached the riverbank and plucked a single stone. ‘This will, when used, call back to you a soul already flown.’

The youngest, now, was good and wise and humblest of the three, and Death he knew was cunning, quite, and difficult to flee. ‘I wish to hide from all around, to bothered never be,’ so Death unclasped from ‘round his throat a Cloak that none could see.

Harry couldn’t resist himself, turning to Ron with raised brows. “A cloak no one could see—an Invisibility Cloak?”

Ron shrugged. “There’s always crazy magical items popping up in these stories.”

Hermione cleared her throat, and they chorused, “Sorry…”

She sighed. “Then Death allowed the brothers three to pass thence unperturbed, and homeward bound did they then make, their way no more disturbed.

“The eldest soon perchanced to test the power of his gift: he struck a fellow wizard dead, his judgement cruel and swift. ‘My magic is unparallelled, my might beyond compare! A Wand purloined from Death himself—let every man beware!’

But Death had warned the brother well against such boastful taunts, and sure enough, word travelled ‘round, inviting grave response. The brother drank the night away and stumbled to his bed, and as he slept, a thief in-crept, collecting Wand—and head.

Now Brother Two, his Stone in hand, had plans himself as well: a lovely girl, lost young and soon, he hoped to see a spell. But once he turned the Stone o’er thrice within his clutching grasp, the shade that stood before him was not one he wished to clasp. She was, he thought, so sad and cold, deep sorrow in her eyes, and though he begged her stay with him, the truth was undisguised: This woman was not of this plane, no longer his to hold—so driven mad with longing deep, he joined her in the mould.”

Harry felt a chill ripple down his spine. These were only stories, right?

Death had, by now, collected two of three souls he was due, but though he searched for years on end, the youngest ducked his view. And then one day, with shadows long, the brother doffed his Cloak—and Death saw he was old and grey, his voice a raspy croak: ‘My son,’ he said, ‘This Cloak is yours, long has it served me well. Its prov’nance is quite curious—too curious to tell. I pray you wrap this Cloak up tight around your shoulders sound, and never let it leave your sight—so that you won’t be found. But should time come when you’ve a child and sense your journey’s end—then, Son, bequeath this Cloak to them, and greet Death as a friend.’

“And it was here Death realised he was not owed a soul—the brother, now a father-grand, would join him on a stroll. ‘Hello, my friend,’ the old man said, a twinkle in his eye, and clasped did he Death’s hand in his—to go, but not to die.”

With a soft huff of accomplishment, Hermione closed the book—and a long beat of silence passed as the words washed over them. “Well,” Xenophilius said at last, breaking the silence as he readjusted his seat in the chair. “There you have it! The Deathly Hallows, plain as day.”

“Plain as…what?” Hermione asked, slipping the book back into her bag. “You still haven’t explained what these ‘deathly hallows’ are! Are they ghosts or something?”

“Ghosts? Of course not! They’re the Hallows. You just finished telling their tale!” Xenophilius yanked open a drawer on a sidetable and scrabbled through it for a quill, tearing a page from the book on top of the pile he’d been using as a footrest. Hermione released a quiet squeak of horror at the sight. “As you can see, we have the first brother’s Elder Wand…” He drew a vertical line. “And then the second brother’s Resurrection Stone.” And now a circle, bisected by the line. “And the third brother’s Cloak of Invisibility.” Finally, a triangle around the circle, with the line at its centre. It was clearly the very same symbol that Xenophilius had worn to the wedding, the same one drawn in Hermione’s book and etched into a crumbling gravestone in Godric’s Hollow. “These three objects together make the Deathly Hallows—magical items of unfathomable power. This symbol is used to identify those of us on the Quest to find them and reunite them.”

“Reunite them?” Hermione said, frowning. “But…but that was just a story.”

“Don’t all great tales eventually become stories, watered down over the ages into palatable bite-size nuggets we might feed to our children before bed?” Xenophilius shook his head, smile gone just a bit smug. “Some might see in Beedle’s poem a simple fairy tale—but those of us who’ve dedicated our lives to the hunt for the Hallows recognise the clues! In reuniting the Hallows—as they once were before Death gave them to the brothers—one may become as Death himself and master that last, final moment!”

He glanced out the window again, staring up at the sky. The sun had moved a bit since they’d been here; it must have been going on an hour or more. Malfoy would be getting anxious, but he’d have to be patient a bit longer. “…I expect Luna will be returning soon. It’s nearly dinner time.”

“So—when you say ‘become as Death himself’—” Ron began, “You mean like…become Death?”

“Bah, don’t take everything so literally, Mr. Weasley! Once one has gathered together the Hallows, he may effectively choose where and when and who shall die, including himself! The Elder Wand ensures he may not be struck down by another, the Resurrection Stone gives him the power to recall others from beyond the veil, and the Invisibility Cloak allows him to slip by others, undetected and unremarked until the time of his choosing. It’s a simple enough concept: find the Hallows, track them down wherever they’ve wandered across the centuries, and you need not fear Death’s coming.”

“Wait, are you trying to say these things—these ‘Hallows’—actually exist?” Hermione asked, and Harry knew that she was doing her level best to keep her scepticism out of her voice, but she hadn’t been entirely successful. “I’m sorry, that seems quite far-fetched—and placing rather a lot of faith in a children’s story. Of course there are such things as Invisibility Cloaks—they’re rare, but they do exist. But—”

“No, no, do not be deceived, my dear! While there certainly have been imitations, crude mockeries that claim to be Cloaks of Invisibility, the Third Hallow is indeed a true Invisibility Cloak! Disillusionment Charms and Bedazzling Hexes fade without proper upkeep and recasting and can be removed with the mere flick of a wand—and Demiguise hair is difficult to weave and turns brittle after harvesting, rendering its utility in fashioning Invisibility Cloaks moot.” Xenophilius leaned forward, adjusting his seat until he was perched on the edge of his cushion. “The third brother’s gift, though, does precisely what one would hope such a cloak would do: renders the wearer completely invisible to the eye, never fading, never failing. It requires no Charms or Hexes, it cannot be destroyed by typical means or its magic dispelled—it is a cloak fit to sit upon the shoulders of immortals and eternals. You don’t come across a piece like that every day, I expect!”

Harry could understand why Xenophilius might say such a thing—but he, in fact, did come across a piece like that every day, and when he locked eyes with Hermione and Ron, he could see they were thinking the same thing. They had all seen, had all touched, precisely one such cloak—and Draco Malfoy was waiting for them just outside the front gate, hidden under it at that very moment.

“I…I suppose so,” Hermione at last allowed, and Xenophilius slapped the arm of his chair, settling back.

“Precisely! So you can see that these are no ordinary objects, not even the Cloak, which might at first blush seem the most mundane of them. No Cloak manufactured today could hold a candle to a true Hallow. If those sorts of objects could simply be procured by Owl Post, why I expect the possessor would be rich beyond imagination! He could waltz right into Gringotts and have the run of the place!”

Harry was pretty sure breaking into a place like Gringotts would still be pretty impossible, even with an Invisibility Cloak that had once belonged to Death, but he kept quiet.

“But—even if such a Cloak existed,” Hermione continued, “you can’t mean to say the Stone does as well. There’s just no way such a thing could exist even—Necromancy is an unexplored art, for good reason, but it’s based on well-founded magical lore and theory.”

Xenophilius raised a ringer. “But the Resurrection Stone does not abide by the rules of mortals—it exists entirely to disrupt those rules! We cannot apply our narrow-minded views of what should and should not exist to objects that lie outside of our own logic.”

Hermione looked like she was about to start steaming like the teapot full of Gurdyroot infusion, and Harry cut in to spare her nerves. “Well what about the first brother’s gift, then? The wand that no one can beat—you think it exists too?”

“Ah, the Elder Wand…” Xenophilius leaned back and linked his fingers together over his chest. “Well, while we may debate over the existence of stones and cloaks ‘til sunup, of the Wand’s existence there can be no doubt, for its dark work can be seen scrawled through the annals of history—it cannot hide; it does not want to.”

Hermione narrowed her eyes at him. “…You speak of it as if it’s conscious.”

“I cannot say for certain that it isn’t!”

“A thinking wand?”

“And why not? We do not question that our wands choose us, in their own way.”

“But that’s entirely different; that’s not a choice so much as the wand attuning to the nearest witch or wizard who—”

Xenophilius turned his attention back to Harry, perhaps sensing Hermione wasn’t going to be quite as receptive as he might have hoped; Harry didn’t know what that said about him. “The Elder Wand does exist, my boy. It taunts, it teases—it tempts weak men to try their hand at taming it. It seeks those rich in power and weak in mind—and when it has tired of one master…it finds its way into the hand of a new one.”

“And…how is that?” Harry asked.

“Well, he who would become the new master of the Wand must claim it from its previous owner, of course.” Xenophilius nodded. “Notice I have said claim—and not capture. The Elder Wand is a wand like no other, in that it is a wand like any other.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“While it may have been a true wand of elder when granted by Death to the brother, it was, at its most basic, only a flimsy piece of wood. The Wand itself has likely long been destroyed, the wood having broken down over time and the core decayed—but its magic, what makes it a truly invincible weapon, has persisted, passing from wizard to wizard, as if immortal.”

“If it’s an invincible weapon, then how come it’s been passed around so often?” Ron asked. “Doesn’t seem to have worked out too well for the first guy.”

“Because it was not the First Brother’s wand—it was Death’s, fashioned by his hand. It is as bloodthirsty as its true master, and so any who wish to wield it must themselves become bloodthirsty as well. It will not be won in a proper duel; it will not be snatched in due course of spellwork. You must well and truly defeat its previous master and claim its power—that is how you win the loyalty of the Elder Wand. The wand like any other.”

Harry shook his head. “I still don’t understand what you mean—the wand was destroyed?”

“Yes, as I said,” Xenophilius huffed, clearly getting irritated that Harry wasn’t following. “The power is in the magic of the wand—not the physical wand itself! It is this power that now flows from wand to wand—”

“Wand to wand?” Hermione interrupted. “Before you said wizard to wizard!”

“And the wand chooses the wizard, no? He who has the power of the Elder Wand has the Elder Wand, in essence.”

Hermione’s brows furrowed, then her eyes widened. “You mean to say that…the power transfers to the wand of whichever wizard has won its allegiance?”

Xenophilius nodded eagerly. “Yes, precisely! This has made the Elder Wand rather a bit trickier to track than it once was. Historically, it was easy enough to follow the trail of the Wand as it changed from hand to hand, given the particularly bloody fashion it tended to do so. But once the physical embodiment of the Wand was destroyed—or broken down, the truth of the matter is sketchy—it became much more difficult to trace. Now, any wand can hold the power of the Elder Wand. Why…” Xenophilius extended a hand to Harry. “Mr. Potter could be in possession of the Elder Wand right this very moment and might not even realise it. Until he wielded it in battle, of course.”

Harry pulled his wand from his back pocket, staring at it. It was just his ordinary holly wand, the same one he’d had since age eleven.

Hermione scoffed. “I’m sorry, but this all sounds like hogwash. Wands are no more and no less than what a skilled wandmaker makes of them. Once broken, they can sometimes be repaired, but their magic doesn’t—doesn’t transfer.”

“Of course not. Unless it is the Elder Wand.” Hermione’s hands clenched into fists, and Harry prepared to have to physically restrain her. “And much as you may not appreciate the power of the Elder Wand not conforming to your narrow-minded view of magic, young lady, I’m afraid it does exist—and many have paid for their mastery of it with their lives. Passing from despot to insurrectionist, from warlord to assassin, the Elder Wand has had a hand—figuratively speaking—in most every major political or martial event of the past thousand or more years, its mark remaining long after the Wand itself had turned to dust.”

“So…where’s it now?” Ron asked, voicing the question Harry himself had been about to pose.

“Well that’s the sixty-four-thousand-Galleon question, isn’t it! And if you could answer that, then you would be one-third more knowledgeable than we other Questers!” Xenophilius sighed, shaking his head. “Alas, while efforts have been made to track the Wand through its verified sightings, where it has been dubbed the Deathstick, or else the Wand of Destiny by its wielders, most agree that the trail goes cold following the vanquishing of the Dark Mage Loxias by his bastard twin sons, Arcus and Livius of the White Grove. Which of them actually struck the blow that ultimately felled Loxias, and into whose wand—Arcus’s of holly, or Livius’s of hawthorn—did the power of the Elder Wand transfer? And whence did the power flow then? Charting the course becomes nigh impossible, the threads too frayed to follow. I expect we shall see it rear its head again in due course—the Elder Wand, as I said, has a craving for destruction and decadent displays—but for the time being, we can but wonder.”

Silence settled between them; even the printing press had cooled down, its magical cogs at rest.

“Mr. Lovegood,” Hermione said at length, fingers worrying the hem of her jacket. “All this Hallows business…it wouldn’t happen to involve someone by the name of ‘Ignotus’, would it?”

At this, Xenophilius seemed to brighten considerably, eyes widening. The name triggered something in Harry as well, but he couldn’t quite recall where he’d heard it before. “Why, young lady, you’ve been holding out on me! Making me think you a gormless rube with no true interest in the Hallows—and here you show you’re already familiar with one of the brothers himself!”

“Wait—who’s this Ignotus fellow?” Ron asked.

“Ignotus Peverell!” Xenophilius crowed, as Hermione added, “That was the name written on the gravestone we found in Godric’s Hollow—the one with the sign of the Hallows etched into it, remember?”

Xenophilius clapped, almost giddy, and he seemed quite a different person from the cowering ball of nerves he’d been thus far. “I’ve always said so, but the symbol of the Hallows adorning Ignotus’s grave is proof, there’s no mistaking it!”

“Proof…of what?” asked Harry, unaccountably curious. That name ‘Peverell’…it sounded familiar as well, but he couldn’t quite place it. Where had he heard it before…?

“Proof that the Peverell brothers—Antioch, Cadmus, and Ignotus—were the same three brothers spoken of in the tale! The original owners of the Hallows! You must understand that there are several factions of believers among we Questers, but I firmly side with my brothers and sisters who have long held that the Peverells were the first to own the Hallows, and that it is their lines we ought to trace to locate the Hallows in the modern era, as these objects have a habit of circling back around to the bloodlines that first brought them into positions of significance in our world.”

Xenophilius spared another brief glance out the window—he’d done it so often, Harry wondered if it was a nervous tick. “Oh—dear me, look at the time,” he mumbled, reaching into his pocket to check a watch, his eyes passing over the face too quickly to have actually read the time. “You’ll all stay for dinner, of course.” He leapt to his feet, snatching up the tea tray and working his way through the trail he’d carved in the debris, headed for the spiral staircase. Harry quickly placed his cup—still nearly filled to the brim—on the tray as Xenophilius passed. “It’s been ages since I’ve had someone around to discuss the Quest with! I love my Luna dearly, but she doesn’t seem quite as invested in the challenge as I.”

“Who’d’ve thought Luna’d turn out to be the sane one in the family?” Ron muttered under his breath.

Once Xenophilius’s head of wild, white hair had disappeared and the sounds of him puttering about in the kitchen downstairs floated up to them, Harry asked Hermione, “…Okay, be brutally honest—something I’m sure won’t be a chore for you here: What do you think of this business? Hallows and all. I mean—it could be something, or it could be more Crumple-Horned Snorcacks, I suppose.”

She forced a wry smile at his teasing, then shook her head with a sigh. “I’m sorry, but this…this is just rubbish. An absolute waste of time—I’m certain that symbol means something, but this? This is too far-fetched, even by Lovegood standards, I think.”

“Probably got what we deserved,” Ron said, “Coming here in the first place.” He quickly added, “I mean, no offence, Hermione. Just—I think it was a long shot.”

“No,” she said, scratching her head wearily. “You’re right—it was a waste of time. We could’ve spent this entire afternoon researching!”

“Yeah, tragic…” Harry said, half to himself. He looked to Ron. “…So you don’t believe it either?”

Ron shrugged. “Nah; the story’s just one of those things you tell kids to teach them lessons. Whadyou call ‘em—morality tales? You know, you’re supposed to learn something about yourself from them.”

“What are you supposed to learn about yourself from that one, then?”

Ron tapped his chin. “…I dunno, but maybe that’s where they got the superstition about wands made of elder tree wood being unlucky?”

Harry had never heard of any such thing, but then again, these were wizarding fairy tales, so perhaps that was no great surprise—Ron would have entirely different traditions and superstitions from those with which Harry or Hermione might have been familiar.

A pungent stench drifted up from the kitchen—damn; it smelled like the soup was nearly ready. But where was Luna? Harry hadn’t heard the heavy door open again.

Hermione sighed. “I suppose that makes the most sense—maybe Dumbledore meant the book to be a kind of…I don’t know, spiritual guide? To keep us focused on what’s important in all this; I mean, it’s rather obvious which ‘Hallow’ you’re meant to choose, given the chance—”

“The Wand,” said Ron, just as Hermione continued with, “The Cloak,” and Harry said, “The Stone.”

They all three blinked at each other, a bit bemused—clearly they’d learned completely different things about themselves from this ‘morality tale’, and it showed.

“I mean, you’re supposed to say the Cloak, of course,” Ron said with a quick glance in Hermione’s direction, then he turned to Harry. “But come on! Who needs to be invisible when you’ve got an unbeatable wand?”

“Well you certainly haven’t complained about how useful Harry’s cloak’s been thus far,” Hermione said pointedly, one brow raised and arms crossed over her chest. “And ask yourself this: would you rather face You-Know-Who with a supposedly unbeatable wand that’s gotten all its former masters killed, or an Invisibility Cloak that even Death itself couldn’t track?”

“You think the Hallows were really crafted by Death, then?” Harry asked, and Hermione scoffed.

“Of course not—I’m hard-pressed to believe they even exist, let alone were created by a being from a children’s story.” She shook her head. “No—while there are stories about powerful, cruel wizards meeting violent ends throughout history, I’m inclined to believe that’s just because they were proud fools who got what was coming to them. Hubris has brought down more regimes than any spell yet crafted.”

Ron nodded. “Yeah, which is why I’d make sure never to go bragging about it if I got my hands on the elder wand. That’s just begging for trouble, it is! Like—imagine Malfoy with it! He wouldn’t be able to keep quiet about it.” He gave a half-shrug. “I figure as long as you can keep your mouth shut about it, then it’s yours to do with as you please. People would just think you were a powerful wizard.”

“So then Xenophilius was telling the truth about all those ancient wizards?” Harry asked. “They really claimed to have an all-powerful wand?”

“Yes, they claimed as such,” Hermione said, giving Harry a look of fond exasperation. “But anyone who’s trained themselves well enough can go around proclaiming they’ve found themselves an unbeatable wand when it’s really just their own skill showing through. You ought to know perfectly well that wands are only as powerful as the wizards who wield them—so call it the Deathstick or Wand of Destiny or a Hallow, whatever you like. It’s still just a bit of wood and magical core and the innate abilities of whoever’s brandishing it, nothing more and nothing less. Let’s not forget—” She gave a sniff. “All those wizards who claimed to have an unbeatable wand were still defeated in the end, and whatever wand they were wielding didn’t seem to have made a difference.”

“But,” Harry said, “how many of them actually got beat in a duel? And how many of them got double-crossed, or were killed after boasting they had an unbeatable wand?” Hermione didn’t have a prompt answer for that.

“Well, I still wouldn’t say no to it. I’d just make sure to keep quiet about it,” Ron said.

“I’d like to see you try,” Hermione chuckled.

Ron frowned at her, then looked at Harry. “…So why would you take the Stone?”

Harry shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I? I like my wand the way it is, I’ve already got an Invisibility Cloak that suits me just fine. But with the Stone…I could see my parents again—and all the people I’ve lost since then. Sirius, Mad-Eye, Dumbledore too…” This war was far from over, and Harry didn’t doubt he would lose others still as precious to him before all was said and done. It was an easy choice for him to make.

“But the poem said that they didn’t really come back,” Hermione reminded gently. “The shade in the tale wasn’t the same as she’d been in life, and it eventually drove the second brother mad. I think the point of that part of the story was to teach you to know when to let go, that clinging hopelessly only prolongs suffering.”

Well, what did she know? She’d never lost anyone. Not like Harry had. He shrugged. “I suppose. There haven’t been any stories over the years about stones that can bring people back to life, have there?”

“Alas, no—it’s as far-fetched as it sounds. I imagine Beedle simply took the idea of the Philosopher’s Stone and embellished on it. You know, instead of a stone to extend life, it’s a stone to reverse death.”

Harry didn’t remind her that the Philosopher’s Stone had been real, though—so what did that say about the Resurrection Stone?

A bit of steam was wafting up from the kitchen now, bearing with it a stench growing in strength and now bordering on that of sweaty Quidditch jock strap. God, did the Lovegoods eat anything normal? He contemplated asking Hermione if she knew any spells to help disguise the taste, as otherwise it was going to be difficult to eat enough of whatever was simmering down there to be polite. He’d almost rather drink a gallon of the Gurdyroot infusion.

“Well then what about the—” Ron dropped his voice, glancing quickly over at the stairwell. “The Cloak? That’s the one I can’t get over. Because, well, he’s right—about how it’s special and all. We’ve been using it for so long I kind of stopped appreciating it, but it’s nothing like any of those other cloaks Mr. Lovegood described, is it? And I’ve never heard of anyone else who has anything like it. Plus we’ve never been caught under it—”

“We’ve had close calls, though,” Hermione said. “And it’s just doing its job; it’s an Invisibility Cloak. That’s what it does.”

“The close calls weren’t because someone spotted us through the Cloak though. And all that stuff Mr. Lovegood said about the other types of cloaks people pass off as ‘Invisibility Cloaks’, that was all true. Charms wear off, or the cloaks get ripped up by spells, and Demiguise hair loses its magic over time until it’s just normal boring fabric. But Harry’s Cloak isn’t new; it was his dad’s before it was his, so it’s been around a while, but it’s still in perfect working order!”

“Yes, all right,” Hermione allowed, wrinkling her nose, “But that doesn’t make it a Hallow, or even suggest that Hallows exist! The Stone, by its very nature, cannot…”

Her and Ron’s conversation devolved into whispered arguing, and Harry, bored by now of their odd manner of flirtation, began to wander the room. He’d caught out of the corner of his eye a glint of something on the landing of the floor above, and he carefully picked his way over to the spiral staircase, craning his neck to peer up at the third level—

And found his own face staring back.

He thought at first it was a mirror on the ceiling, but when it didn’t move, he recognised it as a painting. One hand on the railing, he let his curiosity guide him and placed a foot on the bottommost step.

“And we haven’t even gotten into—Harry? Harry, where are you going? I don’t think we should wander off without Mr. Lovegood’s say-so. There’s no telling what other sorts of dangerous artefacts are lying around where we might unwittingly stumble across them!”

“Knew we should’ve put a Shackling Spell on him…”

But Harry’s head had already cleared the next landing, which held what could only be Luna’s bedroom. The walls were painted a rich navy blue, as was the ceiling, which was decorated with artful depictions of five familiar faces: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Neville, all floating around a brilliant bronze star. He wondered if Luna had painted this after the battle at the Ministry, when they had infiltrated the Department of Mysteries together.

The paintings did not move like most magical portraits, but Harry was captivated by them all the same. A paint-splattered step-stool had been leaned against the wall, and Harry dragged it over and climbed to the top step to get a closer look at Luna’s handiwork. What he’d initially taken to be fine golden chains weaving around the pictures, linking them together, he now saw were actually a single word, repeated a thousand times over in golden ink: friends.

A sudden swell of affection for Luna rushed through him—mixed with guilt at having distressed and inconvenienced her father so. He would have to make a proper apology and visit again after this Horcrux business was done. Yes, he would do that.

He climbed back down, replacing the step-stool where he’d found it, and paced around the room. Beside the head of her bed sat a bureau covered in framed photographs, including a particularly large one showing a young Luna and a woman who looked very much like her. They were hugging and waving at Harry from across time, and he instinctively waved back, a small smile tugging at his lips.

The smile fell, though, when he realised the picture was quite dusty, the glass dark and murky. It reminded him uncomfortably of the pictures in Bathilda’s sitting room.

Something wasn’t right here. The air smelled…flat, and dead. He stubbed his toe into the pale blue carpet beneath his trainers and kicked up a fine layer of dust. Opposite the foot of Luna’s bed stood a tall wardrobe, its doors ajar; it was empty, and a spider had begun to build a web between the doors. Even the bed, now that he looked at it, did not seem as if it had been slept in recently, and he ran a finger along the headboard. It came away grimy with dust.

“Harry?” Hermione called, her head poking up as she ascended the staircase. “Are you all right?”

Before Harry could respond, Xenophilius returned to the floor below from the kitchen, holding another tray—this one laden with bowls of a thin, greasy soup the colour of dishwater.

Harry hurried back down the stairs, ignoring Hermione’s startled Harry? “Mr. Lovegood,” he said. “Where’s Luna?”

Xenophilius drew to an abrupt stop, the tray trembling in his grasp. His eyes were wide and white. “I beg your pardon?”

“Your daughter, Luna. Our friend. Where is she?”

Xenophilius licked his lips, inclining his head toward the window. “I—well, I’ve told you, haven’t I? She’s just down at Bottom Bridge, fishing for Plimpies. She’ll be returning very soon—”

“Then what’s that soup made of?”

Xenophilius’s mouth opened and closed a few times in quick succession—but nothing came out. He looked exceedingly distressed, even more so than he had when they arrived, and his eyes continued to flicker towards the window distractedly.

Harry turned to back Hermione and Ron, his face set in a grave expression. “I don’t think Luna’s here. I don’t think she’s been here for a while now—might not’ve even come home from Hogwarts. Her room’s like a tomb—cold and dead. There’s dust over everything, her bed hasn’t been slept in, all her clothes are gone…” He rounded on Xenophilius. “Let’s try this again. Where is Luna? She’s obviously not out fishing for anything, and why do you keep glancing out the window like—Ah!

Harry hissed in pain as something stung his leg. He shoved his hand into his pocket—and pulled out the DA coin connected to Malfoy’s. It was uncomfortably warm in his palm, and around its rim flashed a message that made Harry’s blood run ice-cold: DEATH EATERS.

The bowls shattered as Xenophilius dropped the tray, spilling the rancid dishwater soup over the hardwood flooring. Harry, Hermione, and Ron already had their wands in hand and trained on Xenophilius before he could think to reach into his pocket to retrieve his own.

“They took my Luna!” he wailed, voice a desperate, watery hiss. “They didn’t like The Quibbler’s stance on supporting you—and now they’ve taken her from me as punishment! I’ve no idea where she is, or—or even if she’s alive!” He took a tremulous breath. “B-but they did say that they might give her back, if I would just—”

“Just what?” Hermione snapped. “Because if the next words out of your mouth were about to be ‘hand over Harry Potter’, then things are going to get difficult.”

“Out of our way,” Ron said, angling his body to stand in front of Harry’s. “You wanna turn Harry over to You-Know-Who and his cronies, you’re gonna have to go through us.”

Xenophilius’s gaze bounced among the three of them, clearly sizing them up and trying to determine if he could take them on his own. His lips pursed into a thin, grim line. “…I can’t let you go. Believe me, I cannot. They’ll be here any moment, and if they see I’ve let you go, then my Luna will pay for it. Family first, I’m sorry my dear boy. I truly am.”

For what it was worth, he sounded sorry—and Harry didn’t think Xenophilius believed he had a choice. But he had no intention of going quietly, and he brought his wand up, pointing the tip squarely between Xenophilius’s eyes. “And I’m sorry, too. We don’t want to have to hurt you, Mr. Lovegood, but trust us: we will. So you can either get out of the way or be moved. You can tell them you lost us, and that’ll be the truth.”

“I…I’m afraid I—”

Harry!” Hermione shouted, her wide-eyed gaze fixed on the window. A pair of figures on broomsticks zipped past, and in that moment of distraction, Xenophilius drew his wand, slashing it through the air in a familiar motion. Acting on instinct, Harry grabbed Ron and Hermione by the shoulder, leaping to the side and bringing them down with him so that the Stunning Spell Xenophilius had fired barely missed them, instead smashing into the Erumpent horn hanging on the far wall.

A sudden, violent explosion shook the very foundations of the tower, the sound itself hitting Harry square in the chest with real physical force. Shrapnel flew in all directions, pelting them before they could even think to throw up Shields. Harry was launched through the air, crashing into a bookcase that toppled forward and onto him, sending books of every size and sort raining down on Harry’s head. He threw up his arms to protect himself, reminded distressingly of the night he’d woken to find Gryffindor Tower being attacked by a dragon.

A thick cloud of dust was thrown up by the force of the explosion, and Harry struggled blindly to free himself from the pile of books he was buried under, listening to Hermione’s screaming and Ron’s frantic shouts of Harry! HARRY! echoing from somewhere in the debris.

From the sound of a muffled groan near the staircase, it seemed like Xenophilius had been knocked off his feet and down into the kitchen below, and though he would have turned the three of them over to Death Eaters, Harry hoped he wasn’t injured terribly. Wherever Luna was, she would be devastated to learn that her father had been hurt badly trying to save her.

Harry finally managed to move enough books off his chest and legs to struggle to his feet, coughing deeply as he was forced to inhale thick, choking dust. He pulled off his glasses and wiped the lenses with the sleeve of his shirt, but it did little good. He could make out through the destruction, though, that the ceiling above had caved in, and Luna’s bed was hanging down through the hole, looking as if it might come crashing down on their heads at any moment.

“Hermione? Ron?” he called, coughing to clear his lungs. “Where are—”

Shh!” Hermione hissed, suddenly there at his elbow and steadying him when he gave a start. She was caked in white dust from the walls and ceiling, and the confetti-like remains of exploded books and parchment had gotten caught in her hair.

She tugged on his arm, bringing him over to the bent and broken railing where the spiral stair had been. Ron was already leaning over to peer down into the kitchen, and Hermione brought a finger to her lips to remind the both of them to be quiet. He realised why when the door downstairs crashed open, nearly falling off its hinges with the force of the spell that had been used on it.

“See? What’d I tell you, Travers—no rush, no rush at all. Just more tripe from this nutter.”

Harry couldn’t see who was speaking, but he remembered the name ‘Travers’—he’d been one of the Death Eaters at the Ministry when they’d stolen the Locket and rescued Malfoy.

“It—it’s not, I promise you: Harry Potter is upstairs—”

There came a loud BANG, and Xenophilius whimpered. “And my left nut’s made of solid gold. Keep your hands to yourself—you’ll get grime on our robes.” Xenophilius gave a sharp, warbling gasp. “Now, like I said the last time you called us out here: you’re gonna pay if you’ve summoned us for anything less than something damn solid.” Another bang, another squeal. “You want the little bitch back in one piece? Bring us somethin’ good. We don’t want your bleedin’ headdress, we don’t want your proof of Crinkle-headed Snuffalumps—”

“I—It’s Crumple-horned—” Another sharp BANG silenced him.

“And what was that explosion just now? Got tired of our little pop-ins? Thought you’d lure us out here and off us, hm? Did you actually think you’d get your girl back that way?”

“I—I wasn’t, I promise. I’m not sure what…but Harry Potter truly is up there, I swear it…”

“Pah, you’ve never seen Potter in your life. You know, I’m gettin’ awfully tired of your lip, Lovegood—no one reads your rag anymore, so what good are you to us? Plus, you look like shite; I think we oughta just put you out of your misery…”

“Mind your spellwork, Selwyn,” came a second voice, one Harry vaguely recognised as Travers’s from their brief encounter Ministry. “Whole place looks like it’s about to fall down around our ears. What’ve you been up to, Lovegood? Forget to open a Howler?” The crunch of debris being crushed underfoot grew louder as Travers approached the mangled staircase, and Harry, Hermione, and Ron stepped back so he wouldn’t spot them. “The stairs are completely blocked.”

“So clear it out.”

“Might bring the place down.”

“Does that sound like our problem?”

“Yes, yes clear it out! Potter’s up there! Go, you’ll find him!” Xenophilius blubbered. “I haven’t lied! Just, please give me back my Luna!”

Someone sighed loudly, then cast Homenum revelio. He gasped as he felt an odd sensation pass over him—like a shadow, except he could feel it.

“…Hold up, now. There’s someone up there, at least,” Travers said, tone much sharper than before.

“See? See, it’s just as I said—Potter’s up there, Potter! I’ve trapped him here for you.” Xenophilius released a great wailing sob. “Just please…give her back to me now, I’ve brought you Potter, all I ask for is my Luna…”

“Right, you want her? She’s yours—as soon as you get up those stairs and bring us back Harry Potter. And it better be the Harry Potter, not some stupid Muggle you’ve kidnapped and Glamoured. Double-cross us, and we’ll kill you and everyone in this place. Maybe tear it down for good measure, this place is a death trap.”

“V-Very good,” Xenophilius squeaked, and then there was shifting and banging, and the railings on the staircase began to wobble; Xenophilius was trying to clear the stairs to reach the second level.

That was their cue to get the hell out of here. Hermione was already two steps ahead of him, though, quietly directing Harry and Ron to help her move a large wardrobe that had slid down from Luna’s room and was now blocking the window. They used the sounds of Xenophilius banging about on the staircase to muffle their own attempts to Levitate the wardrobe safely away so that they could escape through the window. It took rather a lot of concentration, managing three Levitation Charms between them, and Harry was about to suggest they just use the wardrobe to block the staircase, giving them enough time to make a break for it before Selwyn and Travers blasted through, when two loud successive BANGs rang out from below.

Harry wondered if the Death Eaters had lost their patience and just begun beating on Luna’s father again, when Xenophilius’s frightened voice called out, “Who…who’s there…?”

Then there came another loud BANG, and the debris blocking the staircase erupted into a shower of woodchips, shredded paper, and dust. Hermione made a grab for Harry’s hand and looped her arm through Ron’s, ready to Apparate them to a safe distance—when Malfoy’s disembodied head poked up from the floor below. “What the fuck are you three still doing here? Come on!”

They scrambled down the stairs after him, taking in the chaotic state of the kitchen. The cabinet doors had been blown off their hinges, sending cups and flatware and pots and pans spilling over the floor, and the smokestack attached to the wood-fired stove was kinked oddly. A pool of water was spreading across the floor, suggesting a pipe somewhere had burst.

Two bodies were laid out on the floor unconscious—Travers Harry recognised, making the other Selwyn.

Malfoy had Xenophilius at wandpoint, and Harry nodded to the Death Eaters. “Friends of yours?”

“Yes, I was just getting them reacquainted with my best Stunner and Body-Bind.” Malfoy jerked his chin at Xenophilius. “Friend of yours?”

“We thought so,” Harry said darkly. Xenophilius was halfway crouched and looked like he might prostrate himself before them, begging for forgiveness, if they asked it. “I’m not so sure now.” Harry turned to Hermione and Ron. “What do we do with them?”

Hermione worried at her lip, frowning in pity at Xenophilius. “We’ll have to let them go, I think.”

“Let them go?!” Ron shrieked. He pointed at the Death Eaters. “Those ones would’ve killed us—” Then he pointed at Xenophilius. “And that one would’ve let ‘em!”

“Yes, and if we do anything other than turn them loose with nothing more serious than a pat on the head, You-Know-Who will know we’ve been here!”

“Look at this place! He’s going to know we were here regardless! Especially once these three tell him we were here!”

Hermione lifted her brows. “How can they tell him we were here if they don’t remember it?”

Ron frowned. “Obliviate them?”

Malfoy rolled his eyes. “No, Weasley; just get them very, very drunk.”

Harry turned over Hermione’s suggestion in his mind. “But won’t the Death Eaters think something’s up when they see Mr. Lovegood’s home’s been destroyed?”

“He had an Erumpent horn mounted on the wall, Harry!” Hermione huffed. “Even if he hadn’t caused it to blow by hitting it with that Stunning Spell, it still would’ve gone off at the next slightest disturbance.”

“Aren’t you…Lucius Malfoy’s boy?” Xenophilius asked Malfoy, peering at him curiously. “I would have thought…well, that you’d be arm in arm with Selwyn and Travers there.”

“Now look!” Ron groaned. “He’s recognised Malfoy! We gotta get out of here—Obliviate ‘em or whatever and let’s go!”

“Mr. Potter!” Xenophilius hissed, reaching out for Harry before Malfoy rapped his hands viciously with his wand and forced him back with a fierce glint in his eye. “Mr. Potter, please! You must believe I didn’t mean for this to happen! I only want my Luna back!”

Harry kept his distance, raking Xenophilius with a cool gaze. “…Gonna tell us what actually happened to her? Or still going with the ‘fishing for Plimpies at Bottom Bridge’ line?”

Xenophilius worried at the hem of his nightshirt, expression miserable. Harry struggled to muster much pity for him, though, considering he had a goose egg on his crown that was starting to throb something horrible. “…They took her. Right off the Hogwarts Express. She was coming home for Christmas, and…and they took my darling Luna. I don’t know where they’re keeping her, but if they find out I’ve…if they see you’ve escaped…”

Harry glanced over at Hermione, then back to Xenophilius. He didn’t much like Luna’s father right now, but Luna herself was a different story. “What if they thought it was their own fault I got away? What if they saw you’d done them a favour, keeping me here, only their own stupidity let me slip through their fingers. Would that suit?”

Xenophilius’s eyes widened, then went glassy with unshed tears. “Bless you, Mr. Potter. Bless you!”

“I’m not doing it for you—I’m doing it for Luna.” He didn’t know where she was, and though it galled, they couldn’t spare the time to look for her. But he could at least make sure she didn’t get in any more trouble on his account.

“Harry!” Ron hissed. “We can’t let You-Know-Who know where you are!”

“We won’t,” Harry reassured him, looking to Hermione for support; she was the most skilled among them when it came to Obliviation, after all. “We’re just letting him know where I was. Can we do that?”

Hermione wrung her wand in her hands. “…Yes, I think so. We should Modify Mr. Lovegood’s memory a bit though—clean it of any mention of the Hallows. I don’t know if there’s any point to it, but if there’s the slightest chance the Hallows are part of this whole mess, I don’t want You-Know-Who realising we’re looking into them.”

“Agreed,” Harry said. The less Voldemort knew about their movements, the better. “Why would we have come here instead, though?”

Hermione mulled this over a moment. “We can make it seem we came here looking for Luna, to check how things are going at Hogwarts. It makes sense we’d be worried. Oh—and we’ll need to Modify their memories to remove all traces of Malfoy and Ron—”

“Me?” Ron said.

“Yes, you,” Hermione said. “You’re not supposed to be out here, remember? As far as anyone knows, the only reason you’re not at Hogwarts this year is because of your dreadful case of Spattergroit—so if word got out you were not only not sick, you were out here actively helping a Mudblood and Undesirable No. 1, what do you suppose would happen to your family?” She sniffed, turning back to the Death Eaters. “It’s best they only remember seeing Harry Potter on the run with his wanted Mudblood friend.”

“Wish you’d stop using that word…” Ron muttered under his breath, and Hermione let a soft smile curl at her lips where he couldn’t see.

She directed Xenophilius over to stand beside the slumped Death Eaters, and he allowed her to Modify his memories without further protest.

Harry watched her work, too wired with adrenaline to do much more than stare, and Malfoy made his way over, bumping Harry with his shoulder.

Bless you, Mr. Potter,” he mimicked in a quiet mocking tone, and Harry tried to elbow him in the side but missed his mark, as Malfoy still had the Invisibility Cloak draped over his shoulders. “Oh Mr. Potter, oh my hero! Oh let me kiss your feet, let me lick your—”

“Must you?” Harry hissed, covering Malfoy’s mouth with one hand and biting back a reluctant smile.

“If I don’t, who will?”

Hermione finished her Obliviations and Memory Modification, putting all three wizards under a sleep spell that would lift in due course. “The explosion should be the last thing they remember; with any luck, they’ll just assume they got knocked out as Harry and I escaped.” She slipped her wand into her sleeve and held her hands out on either side to Harry and Ron. “I’ve had about enough of this place, if you have. Shall we?”

Harry couldn’t agree more, and he grabbed her hand, looping his other arm through Malfoy’s as Hermione Apparated them to a new far-flung location, throwing up spells and wards before the rest of them had even gotten their bearings.

“That—good for nothing—traitorous—” Ron growled as he dragged the tent from Hermione’s beaded bag. “He knows you’re out here, trying to save the wizarding world—which includes him—and he tries to turn you over to You-Know-Who!”

“He did it for Luna…” Harry felt compelled to remind. “And we made it out all right, thanks to Malfoy.”

Protego totalum… Salvio hexia… Yes, quite,” Hermione said. “Thank you for the warning, Malfoy.”

Ron grunted, mumbling something under his breath, and Malfoy raised a hand to his ear, cupping it. “What was that, Weasley?”

Ron gestured rudely at him. “I said thanks, Ferret-face.”

Malfoy made a mocking bow. “I live to serve.” He flicked a glance to Harry, lips quirking up on one side, and Harry had to look away; he was sure it violated the Best Mates Code to laugh when your friend was getting the piss taken out of him by his mortal enemy, even if it was rather amusing. He was already on thin ice with Ron after Malfoy had pulled his chair out from under him at breakfast-dinner that one time. Malfoy quickly sobered with a sniff. “So what the fuck happened? Lovegood’s place looked like a war zone. You could hear the explosion clear across the valley. Did Weasley’s wand backfire again?”

Cave inimicum,” Hermione finished with a huff, rounding on them, “No, it was just the natural consequences of someone hanging an Erumpent horn on their wall like a trophy! I tried to warn him, but did he listen? No, and now his house is in pieces!” She wilted. “Luna will be distraught when she learns…it was her home, too, after all…”

Harry thought back to the dust-covered photograph on her bedside table and frowned. He hoped it had survived the blast and that Mr. Lovegood recovered it.

“Yeah, well, serves him right, I say—after what he tried to do to us…” said Ron. “But damn—they’ve got Luna now…”

“Where do you think they’re keeping her?” Harry asked, and Ron shrugged—then slid a glance over to Malfoy, who now had the Cloak bundled up in his arms and looked very peeved to have been called to deliver his opinion on this particular matter.

“How the fuck would I know?”

“I was just wondering. Maybe you had a guess! Just take a shot in the dark!”

“Perhaps she’s up your arse? Have you checked?”

Ron looked like he wanted to charge Malfoy—but only got one step before he stumbled, nearly slipping to his knees with a groan. “…Shit, forgot we got blown up…ow…”

His clothes were peppered with tiny little rips and holes where shrapnel had torn through. Harry probably didn’t look much better, and he patted his head gingerly, wincing when he brushed the bump on his crown.

Once the tent had been erected, they all filed inside, and Ron prepared them mugs of tea while they recovered in the sitting room. Malfoy was curled up beside Harry, as was custom, but he didn’t seem to be unusually agitated the way he’d been after the debacle in Godric’s Hollow. Either the kiss they’d shared in the Sanctuary the night before was going a longer way than Harry had dared hope, or Harry simply hadn’t been in imminent enough danger to merit Malfoy going spare.

Malfoy listened intently as they explained what they’d learned from Xenophilius—or rather, what they hadn’t learned, which was ‘anything of merit’. “Oh Harry, you were right!” Hermione groaned, slumping into one of the armchairs and throwing an arm over her eyes. “It was a complete waste of time—barely better than Godric’s Hollow, and only that because you weren’t nearly swallowed by a snake this time.”

“Er, it’s fine…” Harry offered weakly, though he understood what Malfoy meant now: it did feel damn good to finally hear someone tell him he’d been right about something.

“No, it’s not fine. I can’t believe I ever thought Xenophilius Lovegood of all people would be able to help us! Honestly, I do care for Luna, but even she can be a trial for me sometimes. I’m certain all that rubbish about Hallows and whatnot was simply a story to keep us occupied while he summoned those Death Eaters.” Her arm flopped back to her side as she stared, dejected, up at the canvas ceiling of the tent. “I mean, obviously the symbol holds some importance, but it must simply be a run-of-the-mill rune. I’ll have to check my texts again, I’m sure I’ve missed something.”

“…I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Malfoy said, unusually quiet for what ought to have been a prime opportunity for him to poke fun at ‘Loony’ Lovegood’s father. “My father at least thinks the Hallows are real.”

“Lucius Malfoy?” Hermione asked.

“No, my other father,” Malfoy said, rolling his eyes. “I can’t speak to the authenticity of the tale myself, but there was a time when Father had a keen interest in the Hallows. It was all he would talk about, he nearly drove himself mad tracking down every book on the subject he could find and chasing down even the weakest of leads.”

“You said you saw the symbol on a woman’s jewellery set your father had purchased…”

Malfoy nodded. “He must have bought the pieces for his research; he was obsessed with finding the Elder Wand.”

“That would be the one he was most interested in,” Ron sneered, as if he hadn’t just been saying the Wand was the one he’d most like to have himself.

Malfoy didn’t rise to the bait, though, seemingly lost in memory. “…Objects created by Death or no, there are fanatics out there who believe they exist and will go to…extraordinary lengths to find them.”

“But—we already discussed this: there’s just no way these Hallows exist!” Hermione protested stubbornly. “The very idea of the Stone goes against countless centuries of Magical Theory—”

“So forget the Stone,” Ron said. “There’s still Harry’s Invisibility Cloak—”

Malfoy twisted around to look at Harry. “That Cloak’s a Hallow? I’ve been skulking about under a Hallow?”

Ron raised his brows, clearly looking for Harry to back him up, but Harry just shrugged uncomfortably. “…I don’t know. I mean—if they do exist, in the form they’re said to…maybe? It is a really good cloak, and it’s old, but it still works perfectly…” He didn’t want to distress Hermione any further today; at this point it was only thanks to her and Malfoy that Harry and Ron were still alive.

But he had to admit, the tale was sounding less and less like a story and more like legend woven over a pattern of truth. The Cloak he couldn’t deny, and if even Lucius Malfoy—a man renowned for being cruel and calculating and not easily duped—had been convinced the Elder Wand existed, maybe there was some truth to it. So did that mean the Resurrection Stone was out there somewhere as well…?

“Just—forget about what fantastic magical items we happen to possess, and think about the source of this legend. A poem, that’s all! Ron said it outright: it’s just a story, a morality tale to teach people not to be frightened of death or try and outsmart it. Harry’s Cloak is amazing, I’ll admit, but if all we had to do to cheat death was to scurry under it, well we’d be set and I’d say let’s have Malfoy summon You-Know-Who straight away. No more tromping about in the woods, and maybe we’d make start of term, even.” She sighed. “But it’s not that easy.”

Harry turned his wand over in his fingers, appraising. “…Even if it’s not that easy, it’d at least be easier; I certainly wouldn’t turn down an unbeatable wand right about now.” His holly wand was a good one, and it had served him well—even against Voldemort. Twice. But he wouldn’t have turned down the Elder Wand—or mastery over its power, as Xenophilius had intimated was all that remained of it.

“But the Wand doesn’t exist, Harry.”

“Lucius Malfoy thought it did,” Ron said, and even Malfoy looked at him with a shocked expression, clearly baffled Ron would dare invoke his father’s name in support of an argument. “What? He did!”

Hermione threw her hands into the air. “Fine, you and Harry and Lucius Malfoy can all fight over the Elder Wand—but don’t tell me you actually believe the ‘Resurrection Stone’ is real.” She looked to Malfoy. “Your father wasn’t on a hunt for that as well, was he?”

“Father generally preferred people stay dead once they found their way through the veil.”

Hermione nodded. “There’s no magic—none—that can raise the dead. You can make Inferi, but that’s absolutely not the same.”

“But—we’ve seen people come back, after a fashion,” Harry argued. “When my wand connected with You-Know-Who’s in that graveyard battle during the Triwizard Tournament, I saw my mum and dad, and—even Cedric.” He didn’t know how he felt about using their memories to justify the Hallows’ existence, but Hermione had to admit there was magic out there that no one could explain properly. He’d yet to get a firm answer on what precisely had caused those ghosts or echoes or whatever they were to appear, though the Department of Mysteries had tried to arrange an interview with Harry shortly after. Evidently even Fudge’s claims that Voldemort had not returned to power could not stifle the Unspeakables’ curiosity concerning the finer details of Priori Incantatem.

“But…well, I mean… Those were just…just magical echoes,” said Hermione, a shadow of pity flitting across her features. “They weren’t really brought back, were they? Not even as ghosts? So I hardly think it’s the same thing.”

“No, but…the girl in the poem that the second brother tried to bring back, she wasn’t exactly ‘resurrected’ either, was she? Maybe it’s all in our interpretation of what the word ‘resurrection’ means. For some, maybe it’s just about having a few extra moments with someone, to see them one last time. It doesn’t sound like it’s all that different from the magic of portraits, keeping someone’s thoughts and memories from a certain point in their life embedded in a magical object.”

Harry blanched as the words left his lips; when he thought about it, the wizarding world’s portraits sounded almost like Horcruxes. And by extension of his logical argument, the Resurrection Stone kind of did as well.

He tried to walk back the unfortunate comparison. “She wasn’t a ghost, but the brother was still able to interact with her to a point. Even if it’s not the same as them still being alive, even if they aren’t really back, even if it’s only for a little while… That might be enough for some people.” He was quite sure it would be enough for him. What he wouldn’t give for five more minutes with any of the loved ones he’d lost. With Dumbledore, even.

He saw concern—and something more ineffable—in Hermione’s expression, and when she cast a worried glance to Ron and Malfoy, he heard his own words through her ears. He’d crawled too deeply into the mindset of the second brother for her comfort, and his apparent fascination with the Resurrection Stone was frightening her.

Of course she hadn’t understood. She couldn’t—nor could Ron, nor could Malfoy.

He cleared his throat, deciding to change the subject and spare them any more awkward silences. “So what about that ‘Ignotus’ fellow you mentioned? Peverell, didn’t Mr. Lovegood say his name was? Did you manage to find out anything about him, other than that he lived in Godric’s Hollow once upon a time?”

“Oh, unfortunately no,” she said, and he didn’t miss the way her shoulders slumped in relief, glad to be on to other topics. “I did look him up—I got curious after we saw the mark on the gravestone, and I figured it couldn’t have been a terribly common name. I didn’t find much, but I did manage to track him down to the Peverell line—so Mr. Lovegood at least didn’t make that up—in Nature’s Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy.”

Malfoy’s brows inched up his forehead. “Certainly not the area of interest I’d have expected from you.

She rolled her eyes at him. “I borrowed it from Kreacher—the Grimmauld Place house-elf—hoping we could use it to track down descendants of the Founders.”

Harry’s heart leapt. “Is he, then? Is that why he was buried in Godric’s Hollow? Because he’s descended from Gryffindor?”

“I…well, it’s difficult to be sure. That particular book only discusses Pureblood families, and there’s so much branching and interweaving, everyone winds up related to everyone else at some point along the way.”

“Please, make it clearer you think of us as a bunch of inbred freaks,” Malfoy bit out.

“If it walks like a duck…” Ron said.

Malfoy rolled his eyes. “You’re a Pureblood, too, you imbecile! And you’re certainly doing a piss-poor job of disabusing Granger of this warped opinion she’s gathered.”

“The book, Hermione?” Harry said, trying to keep the conversation on topic. “What did it say?”

“Right, anyway, things get particularly sticky with the Founders’ lines; they’re full of out-of-wedlock offspring and false claimants—you know, people hoping to earn a bit of fame claiming they’re descended from a Hogwarts Founder. The only thing I could find of note about the Peverell family was that it’s one of the Pureblood families that are extinct in the male line.”

Ron wrinkled his nose. “‘Extinct in the male line’?”

“It means the name’s died out,” said Malfoy. “When the last remaining male heir dies childless, or only has daughters.” A strange, unreadable emotion flashed on his features, and then was gone before Harry could catalogue it.

“Precisely. And the Peverell name was one of the first to go, it seems—it’s been centuries. Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean all the descendants are gone—they’d just go by a different name, after marrying into other families.”

Harry dropped his mug as it suddenly came to him—he knew, now, where he’d heard the name ‘Peverell’ before.

“Marvolo Gaunt!”

If he closed his eyes, he could still see the faded, desaturated scene from Dumbledore’s Pensieve: an old man, furious and filthy, with a ring clutched in his grimy fingers, bellowing to a man in fancy Ministry robes Centuries it’s been in our family, that’s how far back we go, and Pureblood all the way!

“Honestly, Harry…” Hermione chided, Vanishing the tea that had spilt when the mug had clattered to the floor.

Ron was frowning at him. “Who?”

Harry felt like he was about to vibrate out of his skin. “Marvolo Gaunt!” he repeated, shifting forward onto the edge of his seat. Malfoy moved with him, so they were still pressed up against each other. “You-Know-Who’s grandfather! I saw him in a Pensieve memory I viewed with Dumbledore. He said he was descended from the Peverells!” Ron and Hermione looked bewildered, and he could feel Malfoy staring at him with much the same expression. “He had a ring with him—the one that used to be a Horcrux—but it wasn’t a Horcrux in the memory. Gaunt said it was a family heirloom—a Peverell family heirloom—and that it had their coat of arms on it.”

“Coat of arms?” Hermione wrinkled her nose. “That’s impossible; the family didn’t have a coat of arms. It would’ve been listed in the book!”

Harry tried to remember what the ring had looked like. “I…I don’t know, maybe he made up the coat of arms part? I don’t remember seeing anything fancy on the face—maybe a few scratches. I only ever saw it really close up after Dumbledore had already destroyed it.”

“Wait—scratches…” Hermione pounded her fist, eyes wide. “Are you sure it wasn’t the symbol?”

The symbol—the sign of the Hallows, or if not that, at least a sign Grindelwald and Dumbledore had had great interest in. Had Marvolo Gaunt been a believer, then? Had he been on the ‘quest’? That was difficult to believe—Gaunt hadn’t struck him as the type to read fairy tales—but Harry could believe that a bigoted pig who’d cared about nothing more than his ancestry and how his blood somehow made him better than those around him might try to pass off a rune inscribed in a stone as a fancy family crest.

“Yeah… Yeah, it might have bee—” But then a thought occurred to him. “Oh my god.”

“What?” Hermione half-whispered, half-squeaked.

“A stone—bearing the Hallows mark—passed down through a line of Purebloods descended from a Peverell brother…” He swallowed thickly, saliva in short supply as excitement began to course through his veins like lightning. “What if the stone itself was the Resurrection Stone?”

Hermione scoffed in disgust—and Ron’s mouth fell open. “Holy—but Dumbledore destroyed it, didn’t he? D’you think it’d still work—”

“Of course it wouldn’t work,” Hermione snapped, scrubbing her hands over her face in frustration, “Because it never worked, because there’s no such thing.” She stood with a huff, her exasperation visibly bleeding into anger. “Harry, you’ve got to come back down to earth—forget the Hallows story! We know the symbol must mean something, but there’s no sense in jumping to conclusions—”

“Who’s jumping to conclusions? It makes perfect sense! The symbol was etched onto the stone, and Gaunt said he was descended from the Peverells! He could’ve picked any Pureblood family if he was just making shit up! He was way too obsessed with his blood status to use a name that’d died out years before if he wasn’t actually part of that family.”

“Not thirty seconds ago you weren’t sure what mark, if any, was on that stone,” Malfoy said, admiring his nails.

Harry ignored him, his imagination racing far beyond the confines of their little tent. Three magical objects—the Hallows—which, if united, would make the possessor master over Death.

The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

His heart lurched—was that the connection? The piece Harry had been missing, now finally snugly fit in place? Was this how he was truly meant to face down Voldemort? Not with merely his wits and wand, but with three powerful, ancient magical artefacts lost to the sands of time but slowly, steadily finding their way back to him? The Cloak he already had in hand, so if he could just find the Resurrection Stone and claim the Elder Wand’s power, would it be enough to ensure that Voldemort would be well and truly defeated?

“…Where’ve you gone, Potter?” Malfoy’s voice was soft and edged with wary concern. Harry was distantly aware that Hermione and Ron were still bickering about the state of the Stone, but he scarcely heard them.

Malfoy had hung the Invisibility Cloak on one of the brass hooks by the door, and Harry rose, moving over to it. He ran it through his fingers, and it seemed to flow, the cloth supple as water and light as air. In his nearly seven years in the wizarding world, he’d yet to see its equal. It was exactly what Xenophilius had described: a cloak that rendered the wearer completely invisible, never fading, never faltering; a cloak, he thought, you might even be able to hide from Death itself under…

—Dumbledore’s still got his Invisibility Cloak—

His heart stopped.

He’d wondered it before, when he’d read those words in Lily Potter’s letter: Why would Dumbledore need an Invisibility Cloak? Especially when he’d told Harry years back he didn’t need one to become invisible?

Because he wasn’t interested in using the Cloak; not for concealment at least.

Slowly, Harry turned back to the others. “…Dumbledore knew.”

“What?” Hermione asked, startled from her argument with Ron.

Harry clutched the Cloak in his hands. “He knew! He knew this Cloak was one of the Hallows! He had it with him, the night my parents died!” He tossed the Cloak over the back of the couch—belatedly thinking he probably ought to be gentler with it, as it was evidently centuries old and might’ve been hand-woven by Death himself—and fumbled with the Mokeskin pouch at his throat. He pulled out the scrap of his mother’s letter, waving it as evidence. “In the letter from my mum I found in Sirirus’s room, she mentioned Dumbledore borrowing my dad’s Invisibility Cloak. We know Dumbledore was interested in the Hallows, from that letter in Rita’s book, so he must’ve wanted to examine the Cloak more closely, thinking it might be the third Hallow!” Why else would he have wanted it, after all? Dumbledore would never have needed an Invisibility Cloak, after all, not with his skill with Disillusionment.

And then another glorious, thrilling thought hit him, and he nearly took a stumble, legs trembling beneath himself. “…I’m a Peverell.” He licked his lips and said with more conviction. “I’m…I’m a Peverell. Dumbledore said this Cloak had been in my family for years, passed down… That must be how my dad got it! And—Ignotus Peverell’s buried in Godric’s Hollow, where I was born!”

Hermione remained resolutely unconvinced. “There’s centuries between your birth and Ignotus’s death! Just because you were born in the same place someone else died doesn’t mean you’re related to them!”

But Harry could not be dissuaded, and he began pacing the tent, feeling as though great new vistas of truth were opening all around him. The mere idea of possessing the Hallows—of what power they might grant him—emboldened Harry, sheltering him in a sense of relief and ensured protection.

He folded his mother’s letter, slipping it back into the pouch—when his fingers brushed over smooth, chilled metal. He carefully withdrew the Snitch that Dumbledore had left him—the one both he and Malfoy now had nearly swallowed—and stared at it wonderingly. Could it be…?

I open at the close, the writing on the Snitch had said. Something was hidden inside, something important that Dumbledore had wanted Harry to have. Something Dumbledore had had in his possession at one point…but knew that Harry would eventually need.

Something small enough to fit into the casing of a Golden Snitch.

He stared, awestruck, at the scuffed-up face of the Snitch, then turned it around for the others to see. “…That’s what’s in here.”

“…What?” Ron asked, a bit fearful.

“A Hallow! The Stone! That’s why Dumbledore willed it to me! As a way of getting the Stone to me, so I’d only have to find the Elder Wand!”

What?” Hermione said, sounding even more exasperated than usual, and even Malfoy was looking sceptical by this point, though he’d humoured Harry silently so far.

Ron, though, seemed happy to support Harry in his journey of discovery. “You…really think so, mate?”

It was so clear now—how had he missed it? He had his Cloak already, and Dumbledore had done his part now to provide Harry with the Stone—though he’d not yet worked out how to get at it. With that, he’d have two Hallows in his possession. Once he found the Elder Wand, he’d be able to unite them all, as Xenophilius said was the goal, and become Master of—

It felt like a cold hand had reached through his chest and grabbed hold of his heart, squeezing. The bright, sunny confidence he’d basked in as he’d contemplated the role the Hallows might play in his fight against Voldemort was suddenly overshadowed by a dark, unsettling realisation.

“…Fuck. It’s the Elder Wand.”

All three of the others seemed to sense the change in his tone on a visceral level, as if the chill that had settled into Harry’s bones had infected them as well. “Harry…?” Hermione said, soft and scared.

“You-Know-Who… That’s what he’s been looking for. All these visions I’ve had of him running down leads in far-flung foreign villages, why he was torturing Ollivander—and why he killed Gregorovitch too…” Harry looked them all in the eye in turn. “He’s looking for the Elder Wand.”

As sure as he’d ever been about anything, he was sure of this now. It was as if he’d read the knowledge in Voldemort’s own mind through Legilimency. Voldemort was seeking not a new wand but an old one. A very very old one.

How had he found out about the Hallows, though? Voldemort was a half-blood; he’d been raised as a Muggle, in a Muggle orphanage. No one had ever read him The Tales of Beedle the Bard as a child, and even once he’d made it to Hogwarts, it was unlikely he would have been exposed to children’s stories then. Hardly any wizards believed in the Deathly Hallows, hadn’t Xenophilius said as such?

But then, both Hermione and Xenophilius had spoken of the Elder Wand being the easiest to track—the Hallow that made no effort to hide its existence, spoken of in history books and correspondence by dozens of writers over the years. Voldemort could have heard about that one. Except he would have learned about it as the ‘Deathstick’ or the ‘Wand of Destiny’—not a Hallow—perhaps even in the same way as Hermione had heard of it, in their History of Magic class.

Which suggested he didn’t know it was a Hallow, then—and by extension, didn’t know how powerful it really was. Perhaps he’d never heard of Hallows at all. After all, he’d taken one of those same Hallows and corrupted it, turning it into a Horcrux; if he’d known what the Stone had truly been capable of, would he have treated it so?

“He’s looking for the Elder Wand…” Harry repeated, half to himself, half to lead the others on the journey he had just made. “But he hasn’t found it yet, of that I’m sure.” Voldemort could not possibly conceal so great a coup from Harry. His elation at finally having secured the wand like no other, the wand like any other, would bleed over into Harry’s mind through his scar with a raw, searing agony. “Which means the Hallow are real, and I’ve already got one—” He laid his hand on the Cloak, still draped over the back of the couch. “Maybe even two.” He held of the Snitch. “If we can find the Elder Wand before You-Know-Who does, if we can unite the Hallows, then maybe—”

Hermione was shaking her head again. “Harry—Harry, please, just…just slow down for a moment. I know you really believe in this stuff, but…I don’t think this is it. You’re just getting carried away, seeing connections where there are none!”

Why couldn’t she see how perfectly everything was aligning now? Hadn’t she been the one so insistent they look into the connections between these pieces of the puzzle in the first place? He must not be doing a very good job of explaining.

But she hastened to speak over him when he opened his mouth to argue. “Just—think about this: If Dumbledore really thought the Hallows not only existed but were key to your defeating You-Know-Who…then why did he never speak of them to you? He told you all he knew about Horcruxes, urged you to do all you could to find and destroy them—but not a word about Hallows. If they were truly so fantastic, so powerful, then why did he have you off hunting Horcruxes and not Hallows? Especially when he knew you already had one…” She smiled wanly at him, just shy of patronising. “Maybe even two?”

She thought she had him—but he was ready, because he’d done an awful lot of brooding about the twisted thought process of Albus Dumbledore over the past few weeks. “You really think Dumbledore would’ve done anything straightforward like tell me about these objects? Half the stuff we know we only managed to piece together from the riddles he left us! Obviously he expected us to put the pieces together for ourselves, otherwise it’d be too dangerous.”

“More dangerous than telling you outright about the Horcruxes? Than taking you into memories and showing you exactly what they looked like and where they were last located? That’s some of the darkest magic out there, and he trusted you enough to tell you all he knew about it before he could only speak to you in riddles.”

“Then what’s that book for, huh? What’s this for?” He shook the Snitch. “Dumbledore always wanted me to find stuff out for myself—to explore and learn and take risks and make mistakes and learn from them. That’s what he did—and I’m convinced that’s what he’s done.”

“Harry, that was—that was school! This is life or death, the fate of our friends and family and the entire wizarding world! This isn’t practice, or a lesson—it’s a distraction. Dumbledore taught you everything he knew about Horcruxes because that was what he wanted you to focus on: finding and destroying them. That symbol—it doesn’t mean anything. At least not anything we can afford to focus on right now, because it’s nothing to do with defeating You-Know-Who.”

Harry’s frustration she couldn’t make the connections he did mounted to a stinging irritation, and he found himself losing patience with Hermione. He turned to Ron, a firm rock of support and encouragement thus far. “You see what I’m talking about, don’t you? That the Hallows are what we ought to be looking for? We need to claim the Elder Wand before You-Know-Who does.”

Ron hesitated, glancing back and forth between Harry and Hermione with a torn expression. “I…I dunno, I mean. The way you’re talking about it, I can kind of see how it fits, bits of it at least…” he said awkwardly. “But big picture-wise, when you think about what we know…” He took a deep breath. “…I think we’re supposed to get rid of Horcruxes, Harry. That’s what Dumbledore told us to do. If he’d meant there to be Hallows involved, he would’ve mentioned it—”

“He did though! He left Hermione the book!” Harry turned to Malfoy, his last hope. If nothing else, Malfoy would at least side with him just to piss off Hermione and Ron. Sowing seeds of discord was a favourite pastime of his. “You said before that seeking out Horcruxes was useless, that it wouldn’t do us any good because You-Know-Who would still be all-but-invincible even if we managed to find all six Horcruxes and destroy them. Maybe you had a point—and maybe this is the final piece of that puzzle.”

Malfoy would not look at him, though; Malfoy, who seemed to have an opinion on everything, had nothing to say.

He didn’t know why, but somehow this betrayal stung keenest of all.

“Harry…” Hermione said, voice soft in the silence that had settled as Harry waited and waited and waited for Malfoy to say something. “…Can we please just drop this for now? It’s been a long day, and I’m sure we’re all exhausted—how about I whip us up some dinner? Maybe…maybe we’ll think more clearly with full stomachs, or after a good night’s sleep?”

It was clear she was just trying to appease him; she would be no more ready to believe that the Hallows were the key to their success after dinner or in the morning than she was now, and he doubted Ron or evidently even Malfoy would come around in time either.

He clutched the Snitch tight in his grip, stuffing the Cloak into his jumper and zipping it. He wasn’t going to let these Hallows out of his sight, now that he knew how precious they were. “I’m not feeling very hungry. But I do think I’ll take that good night’s sleep.” With that, he strode out of the sitting room, making a beeline for his bedroom and not caring how loudly he slammed the door behind himself.

Alone, he flopped down onto his bed, staring up at the canvas ceiling in mute anger. His thoughts whirled, his mind an agitated stew of frustration and hope and despair and elation. He’d been against going to see Xenophilius from the outset, convinced the strange symbol that had so intrigued Hermione had been meaningless, but now thoughts of the Deathly Hallows and what he might be capable of if he could possess them had burrowed under his skin. With the Cloak, none could catch him; with the Stone, none could hurt him; and with the Wand…none could beat him.

Where was the Wand hiding now? Who possessed its power—did they even realise? You had to, didn’t you? How could you not know you’d come into possession of the most powerful wand in existence? Was Voldemort close to finding it? Harry found himself wishing his scar would burn or ache again, throwing him into yet another vision.

It was a race of a sort, now. Whichever of them found the Wand first, whichever of them claimed its power…he would be the one who triumphed, Horcruxes intact or not. Hermione didn’t believe, Ron didn’t believe, even Malfoy didn’t believe—but they didn’t need to. It wasn’t their duty to face down Voldemort. They hadn’t been drawn into a prophecy not of their own choosing, hadn’t been told that neither can live while the other survives.

The Snitch was cold in his fingers, and he studied the casing.

I open at the close.

Fine—only, what was ‘the close’? He ran Hermione’s recitation of the Tale of the Three Brothers back over in his mind, trying to pick out any hints of a ‘close’ in the words of the poem itself, but nothing came to him. If he could just get this Snitch to reveal all its secrets, then they’d see. The four of them would be aligned in their goals once more, and there would finally be some hope beyond maybe somewhere out there are a couple more Horcruxes.

He murmured words to the Snitch in the low, flickering lamplight, trying every unlocking spell he could think of—he even tried Parseltongue, but the Snitch remained just a Snitch.

Hoping to see the writing again, in case they’d missed something in the excitement over the Snitch revealing one of its secrets, Harry brought the Snitch to his mouth again, pressing his lips against the cold metal and trying not to think about whose mouth it had last been inside—

“Should I be jealous?”

Harry sat up, startled, to see Malfoy in the doorway, leaning against the jamb with his arms crossed over his chest. “…Was just trying to activate the flesh memory.”

“Is that what they call it these days?” Malfoy straightened, stepping into the room properly. He stopped just a few paces short of Harry.

“…Did Hermione and Ron send you in here after me?”

“Why is that always the first conclusion you jump to? Did you conk your head in that Erumpent horn explosion?” He had, actually, and now that Malfoy brought it up, the bump started throbbing again. “In what universe would I ever be the one either of them asked to go and be a comfort to you in this your hour of losing your gobstones over a children’s story?”

“So you’re here because you want to be.”

“I’m here because this is my room too, Potter. Unless you feel up to finally fucking off. I certainly wouldn’t say no to my own quarters.”

Harry hadn’t actually considered it, but he supposed they didn’t really need to keep an eye on Malfoy twenty-four-seven now—so perhaps he could convince Hermione to adjust the Charms on the tent to fashion another bedroom. It would admittedly be nice to have some privacy of his own; there was nowhere in the tent Harry could go to be alone with his thoughts.

He didn’t want to make promises he couldn’t keep, though. Instead, he mumbled, “…Thanks, by the way. For letting us know about the Death Eaters. And for taking them out. Could’ve been messy without you there.”

Malfoy raised a brow, looking entirely too self-satisfied. “Hm. That’s twice now I’ve saved your life. You’re racking up quite the life-debt to me.”

“Well trust that as soon as your life’s in peril, I’ll make every effort to even the score again.”

“Oh, I’m counting on it. You are the Saviour, after all. Can’t have you going around letting people think you didn’t earn the title.” Malfoy hugged himself a bit tighter, shoulders stiffening, and he cleared his throat softly. “…I did have a reason for coming in here.” At Harry’s confused frown, Malfoy pinched his lips, then inclined his head towards the wall Harry’s bed butted up against.

Towards the Sanctuary.

Harry supposed he should have seen this coming, especially given how Malfoy had reacted the last time Harry had been in mortal danger and needed to be rescued. It was a testament to the degree of self-control Malfoy had gathered over the past few months that he hadn’t grabbed Harry by the collar and dragged him into the Sanctuary the moment the tent had been staked down.

Harry shifted upright, slipping the Snitch back into the Mokeskin pouch around his neck, and sighed. He still couldn’t shake the feeling that they needed to shift their focus from the Horcruxes—especially as they weren’t making any headway—and try scouring Hermione’s library for mentions of the Elder Wand. The Cloak was useful for stealth, and the Stone could bring comfort in times of peace, but the Wand was what they would most benefit from when the time finally came, as Harry knew it would, to face Voldemort in combat.

Malfoy gestured for him to move along, and Harry let himself be chivvied out of the room and into the Sanctuary next door.

He wondered if Malfoy’s weird mood from that morning had finally lifted. He’d been uncharacteristically quiet during the Hallows discussion, making only the occasional rude comment instead of slipping one in every other breath. Maybe he’d just forgotten to be in a snit, after the day’s hectic events. Harry wasn’t about to press it, resolving to simply go blithely along with whatever Malfoy asked. It had been far too long a day to fight now, so he hoped Malfoy simply wanted to stretch his wings after having been sat hunched under the Cloak for so long on watch.

The lamps in the sitting room had been turned down, and both Hermione and Ron seemed to have retired to their rooms. Harry heard water running in the bathroom, though, so one of them must have settled on a bath. That sounded right up Harry’s alley as well, actually; he was pretty sure he had dust and dirt in places he couldn’t even reach now, and a soak might help clear his head and calm his racing mind.

Malfoy passed up the broom shed when they entered the Sanctuary, so a Seeker’s game was out, and Harry wondered if Malfoy expected Harry to join him, or if he’d mind terribly if Harry just Transfigured a bush into an armchair—

“Do you know why my father sought the Elder Wand, Potter?”

Harry straightened immediately, jaw gone slack. Were they actually about to have this conversation? He hadn’t dared hope!

Malfoy was staring at him levelly, rolling his unbuttoned sleeves up with a casual grace that made Harry feel like he’d just stepped off the farm. He continued: “Because it represents absolute power. And absolute power does what any power does in the hands of those too weak to come by it rightly: it corrupts, absolutely.”

Harry’s heart sank as it dawned that Malfoy wasn’t about to share the hard-sought fruits of his father’s research.

“Good men do not seek out that wand, Potter.”

Irritation sparked in Harry’s chest; he didn’t take kindly to being patronised, least of all by the likes of Malfoy. “It’s a wand, Malfoy; it’s not inherently good or bad, it’s whatever the wizard makes of it. Dumbledore was looking for it too, and—”

“So you’re ready to jump to his defence once more and call him A Good Man? Or have you maybe learned that his ideals weren’t always that far removed from the Dark Lord’s?”

Harry felt like he’d been slapped, and he reflexively returned, “He was nothing like You-Know-Who!”

Malfoy’s easy restraint snapped like someone had just taken a Severing Charm to it. “He was enough like him that they were looking for the same thing! And if I were you, I wouldn’t be so eager to set off on a quest to find the very thing the fucking Dark Lord is after, knowing to what ends it’s always been used.” A flush suffused Malfoy’s pale cheeks, and his grey eyes had gone dark like stormclouds. “Those who want that wand most are those who least deserve it.”

Harry laughed, a harsh mirthless bark. “I can’t believe you brought me in here for a lecture.”

“Oh, pardon, where are my manners?” Malfoy gasped, his hand going to his throat in mock astonishment. “Should we have attended to the tongue-fucking first? Foreplay’s never been my strong suit, so I’m honestly not sure how to approach the matter with you.”

Harry’s ears went red, and he felt his neck heat in shame as he struggled to shake off Malfoy’s crude language. “Well it’s better we have it than he have it! We don’t even have to use it—”

Malfoy rounded on him, drawing in uncomfortably close and using every inch of the bit of height he had on Harry to try and make him feel small. “But it wants to be used. The wand chooses the wizard, and it wants to find one who’ll earn it that Deathstick name.” He was breathing hard and only belatedly seemed to realise they were just shy of brushing noses—and stepped back, turning abruptly away. He reached up to undo the top-most button of his shirt, rolling his shoulders. “…I’m sure you’ve not got a high opinion of my father, but know that however terrible you imagine him to be now, he was that much worse in the throes of his Hallows obsession. Paranoid, mistrustful, convinced the Ministry was tracking him to try and get the Hallows for themselves and that this surely meant he was close.”

Harry’s imagination unhelpfully supplied an image of Bellatrix Lestrange’s wild-eyed visage with Lucius Malfoy’s stringy white hair, and Harry wondered what Malfoy would think of him if he started laughing right now. To distract himself from the urge, Harry shrugged, “And yet you know nothing about them?”

“Did you somehow miss the paranoid and mistrustful bit of what I just said? You honestly think he’d chance Mother and barely-out-of-nappies me finding the Wand before him? He only left off when his collection burned to ashes after the library caught fire.” Malfoy scratched his ear absently. “…Which may or may not have been started by me and then blamed on a house-elf forgetting to snuff a candle.”

“You set your home on fire?”

“I did him a favour, Potter. That obsession of his would have consumed him. I count it a stroke of fortune you helped the Dark Lord rise again to keep him from diving back into that pit of madness.” Malfoy shook his head. “It pains me to agree with Granger, and trust that I’ll deny it if pressed, but Dumbledore left you explicit instructions to find Horcruxes, and he didn’t let slip one word about Hallows. That should tell you everything you need to know about where your duty lies.”

Harry rolled his eyes; he’d about had it with others lecturing him on ‘duty’. “I’m sure he’d have seen things in a different light if he’d realised You-Know-Who was after the Elder Wand.”

“Fuck the Elder Wand. You’ve faced the Dark Lord at his weakest as well as at full strength and always managed to come out the other end the victor. More or less. You clearly don’t need that wand, and Dumbledore knew that.”

Harry crossed his arms over his chest, levelling Malfoy with a cocked brow. “Except someone’s never missed an opportunity to remind me my luck’s going to run out one of these days.”

“What an arsehole; don’t listen to them.” Malfoy closed his eyes and took a long, measured breath, reminding Harry of a yogi searching for his centre. He opened his eyes again, staring at Harry with some unreadable naked emotion in his gaze. Harry felt like he ought to be sitting for this, like Malfoy might bowl him over. “…Know that I am serious when I say this: I would rather the Dark Lord find that wand than you, Harry Potter. Because that wand always winds up killing its bearer. And—Merlin, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: I do not want you to die.”

Sitting might have been a good idea, but instead, Harry’s lips decided to tick up on one side, until he was wearing a soft, goofy little grin. Malfoy was being so earnest, and he looked genuinely put out that he’d been forced to say something nice. “…That’s sweet. You like me.”

Malfoy tossed his head. “You really don’t listen, do you?” He looked like he wanted to grab Harry by the shoulders and literally shake some sense into him; Harry wisely kept a bit of distance between them, in case Malfoy actually tried it. “You don’t need the Wand, Potter. Let the Dark Lord claim it if he can—it won’t do him any good. If Dumbledore had thought the Wand might tip the scales unfavourably, the conniving codger would have put you on its trail from the outset. Stop thinking about what you don’t have and look at what you do. You’ve got people willing to fight for you, alongside you. Even, I’d wager, to die for you.”

Harry’s expression darkened. “You say that like it’s a good thing.”

“Well it is.”

He had to scoff at the notion, from Malfoy of all people. “You’d die for me?”

“What? Oh fuck no.” Malfoy held his hands up, shuddering. “I meant Granger and the gaggle of Weasleys and some of your more desperate sycophants.” Harry rolled his eyes, but Malfoy pressed, “They’d die for you because they believe in you, in what you’re capable of all on your own. Belief’s a powerful thing. Belief is what makes those Unforgivables so deadly—you’ve got to mean them.” He took two steps forward, his voice softening to almost a plea. It went straight to Harry’s stomach, twisting him up in knots. “That wand will only undo you; leave it be, Potter.”

Why did Malfoy have to practically beg him? Why did he have to sound so genuinely frightened for Harry, and why did that somehow mean more, hit harder, than Hermione’s pleas or Ron’s gentle reminders?

When Malfoy spoke again, his voice had hardened, like he’d only let the mask slip for a moment—long enough for Harry to get a glimpse underneath—before sliding it back into place. “Trust in those who trust in you, however misplaced that trust may be in actuality.”

Harry gave him a wry look. “You’re telling me to trust in others, when clearly you don’t even trust in me? That doesn’t sound very fair. Or logical.”

Malfoy actually looked ashamed, licking his lips and glancing away. He stared off into the middle distance, anywhere but at Harry now. “…I’m not there yet.” Harry’s eyes goggled; he hadn’t actually expected a straight answer—and he certainly hadn’t expected Malfoy to express something that sounded so close to regret over it. “I don’t know if it’s in me to trust in anything, really.”

“…You think I’m going to fail, then.” It wasn’t a question. Harry supposed he’d just been waiting for someone else to agree.

“I think you’ve got a chance—a better chance than most others, given your track record.” Malfoy looked at him, just out of the corner of his eye, like he couldn’t bear to look at Harry head on after such an admission. “But trust…is putting it all in.” He shrugged. “Unless you want to be lied to.”

“No,” Harry said, and he didn’t have to think about it. “I’ve been lied to or misled most of my life. I’d rather have it straight, if it’s all the same to you. Even if it’s not the truth I want to hear.”

Malfoy nodded. “I won’t lie to you. I won’t tell you pretty things just to make you feel better.” His voice went cold again, though, and Harry fought the urge to shiver. “So know that when I say the Wand isn’t meant for you, I mean it, and I truly believe it to be so.” His lips were pinched and thin. “If you’re set on claiming the Wand for yourself, then that’s yours to do. I won’t help, though. I’ll do what I can to track down Horcruxes with you, but I won’t help you corrupt yourself.”

Malfoy’s words crashed over Harry like a frozen waterfall with a chilling finality. They would not have this conversation again, either way, of that Harry was sure. He didn’t very much appreciate being issued an ultimatum, but he had to admit it was very Malfoy of Malfoy.

They needed that wand, he maintained. He was tired of close calls and barely scraping by; he wanted this absolute power Malfoy spoke of, and he was confident that he could master the Wand without succumbing to the ego and pride that its previous owners had been hamstrung by. He would not be corrupted.

But Malfoy was serious about this. He had that desperate air about him that both fascinated and frightened Harry. This was, he realised, what Malfoy looked like when he stood his ground and fought, rather than turning tail and running, because something meant enough to him he couldn’t abandon his post.

He didn’t believe in Harry, but he believed in this. And Harry wanted to protect that fragile, hard-fought spark of belief—to nurture it, to see it grow into a raging inferno that consumed Malfoy.

“…Fine, we’ll focus on Horcruxes for now.”

Malfoy closed his eyes, looking like he might faint dead away with relief. He mouthed an obscenity to himself, and Harry had to roll his eyes at his dramatics.

Harry turned to head back into the tent.

Malfoy grabbed his arm, staying him. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“…Uh, to bed?” It was early yet, but the sun had already nearly dipped below the horizon, as it did early in these depths of winter, and Harry was unaccountably exhausted after the day they’d had. A bath could wait, he decided. Malfoy fixed him with a hard, knowing look though, and Harry’s shoulders slumped. “Wha—seriously?”

“The lecture’s over; time for the tongue-fucking.”

Harry groaned, grimacing. “Can we not call it that?”

“Why not? It’s colourful, it’s accurate—it’s perfect. I suppose you’ve got a better suggestion?”

“I’d rather it not come up in conversation at all, really.”

Malfoy’s brows rose, and his lips curled in a suggestive leer. “I’m fine not talking.”

His grip on Harry’s arm tightened, and Harry felt a flash of panic spear through him—

But too late, and with a snap of his wrist, Malfoy jerked Harry forward, sending him stumbling over his own feet into Malfoy’s waiting embrace. Malfoy’s arms came up tight around him, locking Harry in place, and he’d dipped his head in to cover Harry’s lips before he could object—and oh.

Harry hadn’t agreed to this.

This was…entirely different from the night before. Then it had been all tense and tentative and good but mortifying for it, and that was all right. Harry could handle that, because if they both hated it, then that meant neither of them wanted to really do it. It was just what they did, the only thing Harry could think to do, to give Malfoy his damned reassurance.

That had been what Harry had signed up for, that had been what Harry had expected—not this.

Not Malfoy’s hands sliding up, over his biceps and tracing his collarbone and resting just over his pulse so that he could tell when Harry’s heart started racing, when it gave a juddering jolt because Malfoy’s tongue swiped over Harry’s lips.

Not Malfoy’s breathy sigh of relief—the tail end of an aching exhalation that Harry could almost feel, palpably, as Malfoy clung to him with fingertips and tongue and lips and bare skin brushing. Harry chased that stolen breath, parting his lips and drawing it back in as if it were his own, and Malfoy followed eagerly, giving and giving and giving.

A part of Harry knew shame, it really did—but it was a distant awareness, like he was watching this all play back on an old television. Here, in the moment, it was hard to hold on to the idea that he shouldn’t be doing this, and that he absolutely shouldn’t be doing it with Malfoy. Who else was he meant to do this with, if not this one, who was giving him everything he hadn’t thought he needed? Warmth and touch and breath and not trust, but a need. Trusting Harry with his vulnerability, if not exactly trusting Harry with himself.

Malfoy didn’t want Harry to die. It was probably going to happen anyway, Harry had mostly accepted that, but…Malfoy hadn’t. He wanted Harry to live, and not just to live but to be safe.

“I won’t help you corrupt yourself.”

The vision he’d seen in the dark woods still haunted, a reminder of what it was that Malfoy most feared: Rejection. Abandonment. Never being good enough.

Never being good enough for Harry.

But he was good enough, and wasn’t Harry showing him that right now, closer with Malfoy than he’d ever been with any other person ever, sharing heat and breath and what felt like even heartbeats? He needed to prove it, show Malfoy the same in return: that he didn’t want Malfoy to die…that he kind of even wanted him to be happy. Or at least, he wanted him not to be so afraid: of himself or Harry or Voldemort or anything.

He wanted everyone to feel that way, really, but…he could start with Malfoy.

Harry let his arms slide around Malfoy’s narrow, bony hips, settling feather-light but firm. Malfoy would learn that it was all right to cede a bit of control to Harry, that he wouldn’t ruin it, wouldn’t waste it—and he tightened his grip and tilted his head back the other way, knocking noses with Malfoy and pressing in hard and meaningful, so Malfoy couldn’t mistake it for anything but what it was. He expected Malfoy to retreat, or to protest in some new and exciting way, because even Harry could tell he was going about this entirely the wrong way, teeth clacking and lips smushing together.

But he didn’t; Malfoy just let it happen, only gentling Harry’s efforts with a tailored response. He drew Harry in, parting his lips in invitation, and then slowly but firmly forced him back out, like an instructive parry. On some level, Harry was irritated; of course even snogging Malfoy would somehow turn into a competition. But on every other level, in every other respect, he was thrumming with adrenaline—this was the most terrifying thing Harry had ever done, and Malfoy didn’t realise the degree of power he held over Harry in this moment. Only instead of capitalising on it, Malfoy moulded it into an experience.

It was only belatedly Harry recalled this was not meant to be an exercise in pleasure—it had a purpose. This wasn’t ‘snogging’ or ‘tongue-fucking’ or anything so prosaic; Harry was meant to reassure Malfoy, to prove that he was here, he wanted to be here, and Malfoy would not scare him away or drive him off.

And equally so, that he would not leave Malfoy—or give Malfoy cause to leave him.

He’d never wanted someone else’s whole-hearted faith more than in that moment, and it drove him mad he hadn’t earned it. How could Malfoy stand here, breathing the same air as Harry, sharing the same heat as Harry, and not know who Harry Potter was? What more could Harry possibly do to show him? How far would he have to go before Malfoy stopped needing so much reassurance and just understood?

Harry drew back, breaking the kiss—and whatever spell lay upon them with it. He slid his hands up from Malfoy’s hips, rubbing his fingers along the gentle curve of Malfoy’s spine, up to his knobby neck and down each vertebra in sequence. He counted them, like Malfoy had counted his ribs, and filed the information away for no reason. Malfoy’s eyes were hooded and dark, and his pupils were dilated in the low light. The hour had drawn on, lost in the haze of heightened emotions and touch and need.

“I won’t seek out the Elder Wand,” Harry said, voice a ragged rasp. “I promise. And—I’ll make you trust me.”

He didn’t quite know how he would manage that, but that was a problem for future Harry to deal with. Right now, all that mattered was settling Malfoy’s nerves and proving however he could that the locket’s vision had been lies upon lies.

An unreadable emotion passed over Malfoy’s face, flickering in his eyes before disappearing in a wisp of smoke, and he rejoined the kiss, ratcheting up the intensity. It was hot and slick and forceful, and just the way Harry could read the dragon sometimes, hear it saying things even when it wasn’t saying anything at all, he imagined he heard somehow Thank you.


Men Who Love Dragons Too Much Copyright © 2018 by fencer_x. All Rights Reserved.

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