From that point, their time spent in the Sanctuary became less a matter of chaperoning Malfoy as he stretched his wings and worked off the tension that built up when the dragon bits of him wrestled with the human bits for control of his body and more a respite from the stress of Harry’s mission. Harry looked forward to their sessions, he realised, though not without some degree of guilt still. Neither Hermione nor Ron ever brought it up, but he worried that resentment might be brewing between them. Of course, it had been Hermione’s suggestion he spend time with Malfoy in the first place, but Harry was pretty sure there was no need for him to pop into the Sanctuary every night, not now that Malfoy was as smooth and sound in his transformations as any Animagus Harry had met over the years.

He’d thought about bringing it up with Malfoy; if Hermione wouldn’t ask for him back, then maybe Malfoy could reassure him once more that he didn’t need Harry shadowing him, and he could return to the tent without feeling like he’d abandoned his charge for at least a few nights a week.

But he’d somehow never been able to broach the subject, and he wasn’t entirely sure why. It felt like…well, like he might disturb the fragile relationship they’d cultivated. They weren’t friends by any stretch, but there was a connection—two people, stuck in a situation they couldn’t help and making the best of it. Malfoy was very sensitive, despite the unruffled air he tried to affect, and if he thought Harry genuinely didn’t want to spend time with him any longer, he’d pull right back into his shell all while claiming Well I never wanted you around in the first place. Two weeks ago, Harry wouldn’t have cared, would have assumed it was obvious he didn’t want to spend any more time with Malfoy than was strictly necessary (and that the feeling was mutual), but now he found he was watching his tongue and minding his manners, and he thought Malfoy might be doing the same.

Indeed, his quips were not as sharp of late as Harry remembered them being, and even on the days when there was an edge to him, Harry usually found his barbs almost witty—unless he was pitted against Ron, in which case Harry or Hermione usually had to step in and defuse the situation. Malfoy was even joining them at the table for meals. Not every meal, granted, but even when he chose not to sup with them, he at least retired to the sitting room instead of holing up in the bedroom like a hermit.

“Granger, that was almost passable,” Malfoy said one evening after dinner; he must have been in a good mood (or else Hermione had spiked his orange squash), as he almost never engaged in dinner conversation despite their undisguised efforts to loop him in.

“High praise, coming from you,” she responded dryly, but she was clearly pleased with the rare compliment on her cooking.

They all took turns preparing meals now—even Malfoy, over Ron’s ardent protests that he’d no doubt try to poison them. Whether he was trying to do them in or not, though, was difficult to tell, as it turned out Malfoy was quite helpless in the kitchen. “Do I look like a house-elf?” he’d sniffed defensively when they had been faced with his failed attempt at chicken (overseasoned and undercooked) and rice (underseasoned and overcooked). Ron, too, was a horror behind the stove despite Harry and Hermione’s fervent hopes he might have absorbed some of Molly’s talent by sheer proximity. Harry, though, had been cooking for his aunt and uncle for years, and Hermione had always been self-sufficient, taking to recipes with rather more skill than Potions (“Potions is so precise is all!” she had protested, which struck Harry as funny coming from someone who’d made her fair share of pastries and baked goods in the past couple of months).

Between the four of them, there was at least some variety in their meals, and while it was neither Hogwarts nor the Burrow, Harry could say he was content.

Tonight, much like usual, they drifted into the sitting room for a bit of post-prandial relaxation. Malfoy usually made straight for the Sanctuary to work off a meal if it was a particularly heavy one, but Harry liked to digest a bit and catch up with Ron and Hermione before he joined him. The privacy afforded them with Malfoy’s absence meant they could discuss where they were (or weren’t, rather) with Horcrux research.

Except there was a hiccough in their routine this evening, as instead of making a beeline for the Sanctuary, Malfoy seemed to dither a bit, taking one step towards the door to the Sanctuary before reconsidering and shaking his head in self-reprimand. Harry watched him, bemused—and then wondered if he’d missed something. Did Malfoy need Harry to join him promptly? He hadn’t had anything close to an episode in weeks, but Harry could admit that he was not particularly observant, and Malfoy could have been hiding his growing discomfort.

He was just about to stand and suggest they retire to the Sanctuary, maybe play another game of pursuit if Malfoy thought the dragon needed to be given its head for a bit, when Malfoy seemed to come to a decision and closed his eyes, taking a bracing breath. He then turned around and marched away from the Sanctuary—and came to sit on the couch, at the opposite end from Harry.

Malfoy rarely used the sitting room—and he certainly never used it while they were there. Harry was baffled by the sudden switch-up; was this some new mind-game of Malfoy’s? A less-than-subtle hint Harry should get his arse up off the couch and head to the Sanctuary? He turned to Hermione for guidance, but she was sharing an unreadable look with Malfoy, leaving Harry lost as to what to make of the situation. Clearly there would be no discussion of Horcruxes tonight, but Hermione didn’t seem to be bothered by Malfoy joining them, and Ron—well, Ron was halfway into a good after-meal nap.

Deciding the safest course of action was to behave as if this were perfectly normal, Harry reached for the book sitting atop the stack nearest to him: From Mumbo Jumbo to Presto Change-o: Making the Impossible Possible. It sounded dreadfully boring, and Harry was considering the merits of an after-meal nap of his own, when there came a faint rustling from just outside the tent.

They all four sat straight up—even Ron, who looked remarkably alert for having been roused from a nap. Hermione held up a finger, signalling for silence, and they strained their ears. Then they heard it, carrying over the rush of the dark river on whose banks they were camping this evening: voices. Nearby, at that.

Harry’s head whipped around, searching for the Sneakoscope; they’d set it up on a small table near one of the bookcases, but it stood still and silent on its point, not moving or making any sort of sound at all.

He swallowed, then leaned over the arm of the couch, angling his head towards Hermione. “…You cast Muffliato over us, right?”

“I cast everything! Like always! Muffliato, Muggle-Repelling and Disillusionment Charms, the works!” she whispered back, complexion gone a bit green; this would be the first time their security charms would well and truly be put to the test. “Whoever’s out there, they shouldn’t be able to see or hear us.”

‘Shouldn’t’ being the operative word, of course.

The voices grew louder—though no more intelligible—accompanied by the scraping and scuffling of movement with the sharp snaps of twigs being trod underfoot. Their visitors were evidently trying to navigate the steep slope leading down to the riverbank. Carefully, they crept over to the entrance, with Harry, Hermione, and Ron all drawing their wands. Malfoy hung behind them, defenceless, and wearing an expression that said he didn’t like that at all.

It was pitch black outside with the new moon, and Harry wanted to believe that their enchantments would hold, whether these were just Muggles passing through or innocent witches or wizards or Death Eaters.

The thought that there might be followers of Voldemort lurking a stone’s throw outside their tent lodged an uncomfortable lump in Harry’s throat. Was Malfoy weighing his options right now? He might not be able to escape cleanly, but he could easily give their position away. Harry wanted to believe that Malfoy had come to accept he was better off with them than anywhere else, considering the environment, but logic might not hold up when family was involved. If Malfoy thought for a moment that he stood a better chance of keeping his parents safe by returning to Voldemort’s side, then he’d turn his back on them at first chance.

Malfoy made no sudden moves, though, and Harry turned his attention back to the intruders. It was a group of men, he surmised from the timbre of the voices—perhaps a dozen paces away. The burbling of the river made it difficult to determine their number, and Hermione crept back over to her armchair to find her beaded bag, rummaging about inside frantically. She drew out a handful of Extendable Ears, tossing one set each to Harry, Ron, and—after a moment’s consideration—Malfoy as well, before joining them by the tent entrance once more. Malfoy frowned in confusion at his set of Ears, fixing Harry with a look that said What the fuck is this for? Harry showed him how to fit the end of the flesh-coloured string into his ears, then fed the other end through the laced-up tent entrance.

His heart did a double-beat when he finally heard a weary male voice piping through the Ears.

“Looks like a decent fishing spot, wouldn’t you say? Or what do I know, I’m not a fisherman.” A pause. “Can you Summon fish?”

Someone else said Accio salmon, and several distinct splashes and then the slapping sound of fish hitting flesh answered the question. Wizards, then—which meant they’d have to be even more careful than if these had simply been wayward Muggle hikers or hunters.

Harry pressed the Extendable Ear deeper, closing his eyes and focusing. He could make out at least four voices—the two who’d already spoken, and another pair that were conversing in a language that was definitely not English and might not have been any human language at all, for how alien it sounded. It was a rough and raspy tongue, rattled off in a string of guttural noises. Harry thought he’d heard it somewhere before, or something like it, but couldn’t place his finger on where.

Incendio,” someone muttered, and a fire blossomed from the darkness, casting amorphous shadows against the tent canvas sandwiched between this group and Harry’s. Shortly, the scent of baking salmon began to waft in their direction. Harry was glad they’d already eaten dinner, else their grumbling stomachs might have given them away. The clinking of cutlery on plates filled the silence as the visitors tucked in.

“You don’t mind it’s cooked, right, Griphook? Gornuk?” someone asked—Harry thought it might have been the first man who’d spoken.

Hermione’s eyes went wide, and she mouthed Goblins! Harry nodded, and Malfoy settled a hand on his shoulder for balance as he leaned closer to the tent entrance, practically drilling his Ear into his skull as he strained to listen.

“Food is food. Thank you,” one of the goblins grunted in English.

“So, how long’ve you three been on the run?” asked another man. His voice was mellow and pleasant—and vaguely familiar, too. It had a quiet undercurrent of kindness, and Harry pictured a jolly figure to match it.

The first man was his conversation partner, it seemed. “I forget—six weeks? Seven? What’s the date?” One of the goblins mumbled something in response, though Harry didn’t catch it; he tried to recall the precise date himself and failed. “Met up with Griphook here early on—I think it was beginning of September? Then Gornuk joined us not long after. It’s been nice having a bit of company. Reckon I’d’ve driven myself spare if I’d tried to go it on my own.” There was more scraping and the sounds of a meal being enjoyed—someone poured someone else another drink, and the goblins conversed quietly between themselves. “You on the run, Ted? Or just got out while the getting was good?” the man asked. He didn’t seem comfortable with long silences.

“Nah, I knew they were coming for me,” replied Ted, and Harry realised where he’d heard the voice before: this would be Tonks’s father. A spike of fear drove into his stomach; if Ted Tonks was here, did that mean the Tonks family had been targeted? Was Tonks herself all right, or—compromised? “Got a friend on the inside who let me know last week the Death Eaters would be in the area, sniffing around for…well, y’know. Decided I’d better make myself scarce. I certainly wasn’t gonna register with that bloody Commission of theirs, so I knew it was only a matter of time before I had to go into hiding. My wife wasn’t too happy to see me go, but she’s a smart girl—she understood.”

“She didn’t leave with you?”

“Oh, she’s a proper Pureblood—one of the Sacred Twenty-eight, even! She’ll be just fine.” Ted clapped someone on the shoulder. “And then I met Dean here—when was it, a few days ago?”

“Yeah,” said a new voice, and Harry had to cover his mouth to keep from making any noise. He, Ron, and Hermione all stared at each other. Excitement bubbled up from within—he was certain that was Dean Thomas, a fellow Gryffindor, sitting only a few feet away from them.

“Muggleborn, eh?” asked the first man. “Rough hand these days, that.”

“I’m actually not sure, to be honest,” said Dean. “My mum’s Muggle, that’s for sure—but my dad left us when I was a kid. I don’t recall much of him, and my mum doesn’t like to talk about him either. I’ve got no proof he was a wizard, though, and that’s all that matters to the Commission.”

There were some general murmurs of assent, and then more munching and scraping.

“And what’s your story, Dirk?” Ted asked around a mouthful. “Last I heard, you’d been caught!”

“I was,” Dirk confirmed with a sigh, and Harry wondered if this was the Dirk Cresswell that Mr. Weasley had been torn up over. “Was halfway to Azkaban when I saw my moment and made a break for it.”

“So they’re really taking Muggleborns to Azkaban?” Dean asked, a definite note of fear in his voice.

“That they are—I managed to Stun one of the Aurors and nicked his broom. I reckon he wasn’t all there—maybe Confunded, or Imperiused. Probably shouldn’t be that easy to take on a Senior Auror otherwise, right? I’m certainly not looking that gift Hippogriff in the mouth, though. I wouldn’t’ve lasted long in Azkaban…”

A solemn quiet moment passed as the others likely reflected on their own chances of surviving the wizarding prison. Ted then tried to redirect the conversation. “So where do you two fit in? I, er…well, I honestly had the impression the goblins were more or less for You-Know-Who.”

“Then you had the wrong impression,” said one of the goblin, speaking in a low, sedate register. “We have taken no sides—nor will we take one. This is a wizard’s war, no concern of our own.”

“Oh, yeah? You’re just on the run for the fun of it, then?” Dean asked.

“…I sensed my life might be in imminent danger for reasons other than your war as a whole,” the goblin grumbled. “I refused what I took to be an impertinent request, and the parties responsible didn’t strike me as the type to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

“What kind of request?” asked Ted.

“A request more appropriate for a house-elf than one such as I,” the goblin sniffed, and Harry could only picture Malfoy in his head. He had to cover his mouth with his hand to keep from releasing a snort of laughter when the image wouldn’t go away.

“And what about you, Griphook? ”

“Similar reasons,” said the other goblin. He sounded just as snooty as the first one but spoke in a higher tone, so Harry pictured another short, squat Malfoy. “Recent managerial changes have resulted in the goblins losing their hold on sole control of Gringotts. As I am at the best of times loath to work with my own people and flat-out unwilling to bend my head to a wizard, I felt it best to…seek my fortunes elsewhere for a period.” He then added something under his breath in Gobbledegook, and Gornuk laughed.

“…What’s so funny?” asked Dean.

“He said,” Dirk answered for them, “that he got a doozy of a severance package. In more colourful language.”

“More like a Severus package!”

Harry could practically hear the devious grin in his voice, but he didn’t get the joke, and neither apparently did Dean. “I’m afraid I’ve missed something.”

“So has Severus Snape!” Griphook snickered, and then he and Gornuk collapsed into a cackling fit, their sharp yellow teeth bared through malicious grins.

All inside the tent were instantly on high alert at the mention of Snape—even Malfoy. Harry’s breathing was shallow, and he licked his lips, praying the goblins were keen to share more details on what sounded like a very interesting inside joke.

“These two had a bit of fun at the Death Eaters’ expense on the way out,” Dirk said, casting little clarity on the situation.

“How so?” Ted asked.

“Didn’t you hear about the kids who tried to steal Gryffindor’s sword from the Headmaster’s office at Hogwarts?”

Harry nearly choked on his own tongue, and Malfoy’s grip on his shoulder tightened almost to the point of pain. Hermione had Ron’s hand in her own and seemed to be using it like a stress ball, from the look of agony on Ron’s face.

Kids? Students had tried to steal the sword from Snape’s office? Who—and why?

“Not a word,” Ted said. “Never saw it in the papers.”

“Nor would I expect you to have,” chortled Dirk. “Griphook had insider knowledge, though—he heard it straight from Bill Weasley, one of the bank’s Curse Breakers. Apparently one of the kids who tried to nick the sword was Bill’s younger sister.”

Harry grimaced. Fuck—what had Ginny been thinking? Harry could think of few people more dangerous to mess with right now than Snape, and she’d snuck into his office, just to steal—

An heirloom of Godric Gryffindor. But—no, surely that wasn’t a Horcrux. It couldn’t be; Dumbledore had sat in that office for years on end, the sword hanging on the wall right beside him. That would’ve been the first Horcrux he found. And even if he’d somehow managed to overlook it, once he realised that Voldemort had been making Horcruxes out of the Founders’ heirlooms, he surely would have checked the sword for clues. No, Harry didn’t think the sword was a Horcrux…but Dumbledore had left it to Ron for a reason, surely. The question was…why?

“She and a some friends managed to sneak their way into Snape’s office—a feat in itself if you ask me—and smashed open the case holding the sword. Snape only caught ‘em as they were trying to smuggle it back down the staircase. Their lookout got cold feet and took off, so he caught ‘em by surprise.”

Dean sputtered. “But—why on earth would they do that? What, were they thinking they might use the sword on You-Know-Who?”

“Your guess is as good as mine—better even, maybe, seeing as they’re schoolmates of yours.”

“I can’t imagine…”

“Well, whatever they were up to, the sword clearly wasn’t safe where it was,” said Dirk. “You-Know-Who probably told Snape he was mincemeat if he let it happen again, so a couple days later, Snape had it sent down to London to be stored at Gringotts instead.”

You-Know-Who told him?” Dean repeated. “So…you think Snape’s a…?”

“Doesn’t matter what anyone thinks,” Ted said. “He is one. My daughter’s an Auror, and she’s gone wand-to-wand with him in recent months, alongside his hooded fellows and You-Know-Who himself. Sorry to have to tell you, son, but Hogwarts is little more than a Death Eater holiday home these days. If you ask me, you’re better off out here than in there while You-Know-Who’s got his folks in charge.”

“You’d not receive much of an education with someone that stupid leading your school, after all,” snickered Gornuck.

“I’ll grant you Snape doesn’t deserve to sit in that office—but I confess I feel like I’m still not seeing the joke,” said Ted.

“It’s a fake!” rasped Griphook.

“What is? The sword?”

“Indeed, the sword! It is a copy—an excellent one, to be true, but wizard-made. The true sword of Gryffindor was forged many centuries ago by goblin hands, for only our craftsmen can imbue such weaponry with our magic. Wherever the genuine sword of Gryffindor lies, it is not in a vault at Gringotts Bank, as Severus Snape would believe.”

“Ah, I see.” Ted chuckled. “And I take it you neglected to mention this unfortunate mix-up to the Death Eaters, who evidently prize this sword highly and would have been very distraught to know they were holding a counterfeit?”

“No, no; they seemed to have more important matters on their minds at the time. I saw no reason to trouble them with the information,” said Griphook smugly, and now Ted and Dean joined in Gornuk and Dirk’s laughter.

Harry’s mind was whirring at breakneck speed as he tried to process everything—Ginny and their other friends at Snape’s mercy, a fake sword of Gryffindor in some vault at Gringott’s, Hogwarts squarely under the thumb of Death Eaters…

“What happened to Ginny Weasley, then?” Dean asked. “And you said there were others who were with her, trying to steal the sword? Do you know who they were?”

Beside Harry, Ron’s face was white, and he swallowed thickly, the Extendable Ear shoved deep.

“Oh, they were punished of course—and cruelly, as I heard it,” said Griphook, utterly indifferent.

“Wha—but they’re all right, yeah?” said Dean quickly. “I mean, you’re not saying…”

“Bill Weasley did not seem overly distraught. I trust his sister did not suffer serious injury. Humans are more resilient than they seem.”

“They probably just didn’t want the mess of explaining away a student’s death,” Ted muttered. “I expect they’ll be doling out punishments a fair bit more serious than detentions if You-Know-Who takes over proper.” He sighed, and there came the quiet glug of liquid being poured into a cup. “Suppose I’ll have to drink to Harry Potter’s health and pray for a quick resolution to all this nasty business.”

“Harry Potter, eh?” Dirk huffed. “You really reckon he’s going to be able to take down You-Know-Who?”

“If not him, then who?” Ted asked.

“I dunno, but seems quite a bit of responsibility to load onto a boy’s shoulders.”

“He’s hardly a boy; he’s of-age now—pretty sure his birthday was several months back,” Dean said. “And I reckon he’s the real thing—I dunno if I’d call him the Chosen One, or whatever it is they’re saying these days, but he’s one of the few who’s gone up against You-Know-Who and lived to tell the tale. With Dumbledore out of the picture…he might be our only hope.”

“Well yeah, there’s a lot who’d say the same,” said Dirk, sounding too patronising for Harry’s comfort. “But where’s he now? Run for the hills, nowhere to be found! And don’t mistake me, I don’t blame him in the least. But if he knew anything we didn’t, had some special weapon up his sleeve or spell in his arsenal, well then don’t you think he’d be out there fighting and rallying the resistance, instead of gone to ground? When’s the last time anyone saw him? The Prophet actually made a pretty good case for—”

“The Prophet?” Ted gave a barking laugh. “Dirk, my friend, no one who’s after facts these days is reading that drivel. You’re much better off with The Quibbler—”

Dirk sputtered, choking on whatever he’d been in the midst of eating and vigorously thumping his chest. When he spoke again, it was with a wheezing rasp. “The Quibbler? That lunatic rag of Xeno Lovegood’s? Isn’t that the one that predicts the end of the world in every issue? And has a mail-order slip for Wrackspurt-B-Gone?”

“Now, now,” Ted said, his tone reflecting an attempt at mollification. “I know its got a reputation, but you’d do well to give it another look. Xeno is printing all the stuff the Prophet won’t—by which I mean the stuff they’re ignoring. The Death Eaters have their fingers in rather a lot of pies these days, and the Prophet was one of their first targets. The Quibbler’s become downright reputable of late; not a single mention of Crumple-Horned Snorkacks in the last issue. There’s no telling how long they’ll let him get away with it, of course—especially if they think he might actually be in contact with Potter. But every issue they’ve got a big front page advertisement saying that helping Harry Potter ought to be our top priority if we’re serious about stopping the likes of You-Know-Who.”

Dirk snorted in soft derision. “Easier said than done. That boy’s as rare as a Yeti nowadays; it’s no wonder The Quibbler’s taken an interest in him.”

“Well they haven’t caught him yet, have they? I’d say that’s a damn fine achievement in and of itself,” said Ted. “I sure would appreciate some advice on how he managed that. We could use all the help we can get staying not caught ourselves.”

“Aye, you’ve got a point,” Dirk sighed. “He’s Undesirable Number One, so the Ministry says—they’ve got all their people out looking for him, above-board and beneath. I’d have expected him to be caught by now—though who’s to say they haven’t done, and just killed him without publicising it?”

Ted scoffed. “I can’t see that being the case, though; what would be the point? You-Know-Who would want to make a spectacle of it. I’m rather more surprised he hasn’t used a Glamour or something to kill a look-alike, just to strike a blow against morale.”

There were some ambivalent murmurs, and then a long pause filled with more clattering of cutlery. When someone spoke again—too soft for Harry to tell the owner—it was to discuss where they would bed down for the night: there along the riverbank, or back up on higher ground where the trees offered some cover. It was eventually decided the wooded areas were safer, and so they extinguished their fire and then clambered back up the incline, their voices soon fading away.

With their visitors gone, they all reeled in their Extendable Ears and released a collective breath. Harry’s heart was still pounding, and he had to lick his lips before he spoke or risk his voice cracking. “The sword… Just—the sword!”

“I know! It all makes sense now!” Hermione gushed, all in a tizzy. “Where’s my bag? Be right back!”

“What makes sense?” Ron asked. “What do you reckon they were messing about in Snape’s office for?”

“Isn’t that what Gryffindors do?” Malfoy muttered, rubbing at his ear. He’d had the Extendable Ear shoved in pretty deep. “Stick their noses where they don’t belong?”

“Who’s asking you?” Ron snapped, but further sniping was cut short when Hermione bustled back with her tiny beaded bag, one hand shoved inside up to her elbow as she rifled around for something.

“Here—we—are!” With a huff, she slowly pulled something from deep inside the bag. The gilded edge of an ornate frame peeked from the mouth of the bag, and Harry rushed over to help her draw what turned out to be a large—but empty—portrait. It looked familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

Malfoy reached to trace a bit of the filigree along the frame. “…Is that Grandfather Phineas’s portrait?”

They all three fixed Malfoy with a bewildered look.

“Oh—right,” Hermione said. “You’ll be related to him, won’t you?”

“‘Him’?” Ron asked.

“It’s Phineas Nigellus Black’s portrait. Remember? It was hanging back at Grimmauld Place—I stuffed it in here to be sure Snape couldn’t spy on us through it.”

“Spy on us?” Ron asked.

“Yes—there’s another of Black’s portraits hanging in the Headmaster’s Office.” She cut a glance at Malfoy. “He used to be a Headmaster himself, after all.”

And now Harry realised why the portrait had been familiar. “But why’ve you got it out? I thought we were trying to lie low!”

“We are—and we’re going to stay hidden.” She had her wand out and pointed at the empty frame. “I’ll blindfold him, so he won’t be able to see us or where we are.”

Harry didn’t miss the way her eyes flicked to Malfoy, and he shared her concerns; the security spells around their tent had kept them shielded from Ted and the others, but all Malfoy had to do to make himself known once Phineas showed up was open his mouth. Harry considered slapping a Silencio on him, just to be safe, but held off. Hermione hadn’t said anything—not before, and not now—so if she felt he wasn’t a liability…Harry would give Malfoy the benefit of the doubt. There was a degree of trust coalescing between them now that a spell to force Malfoy’s silence would shatter, and Harry found himself reluctant to do that.

“Right—but I’m still struggling to see why we need his portrait at all,” Ron said.

Carefully, they propped the portrait up against the side of the tent, and Hermione wiped her brow. “Well, if what Ginny tried to steal was a fake sword, then that means someone else must have swapped it for the real one while it was in Dumbledore’s office—in full view of all the portraits hanging there.”

“I still don’t see what we’re so interested in the sword for,” Ron muttered, slumping into one of the armchairs. Clearly, his nap being cut short didn’t agree with him.

“I don’t know either—and I think that’s all the more reason we should be interested in it,” Hermione said. “Dumbledore left you the sword, Ron—and he didn’t do it so you could slice a toastie up neat. Now we find out it’s so precious to the Death Eaters—to You-Know-Who—it’s been moved to a high-security vault in Gringotts?”

Ron’s eyes went wide. “You don’t think it’s a—?” Hermione cut him off with a sharp shake of her head.

“No—Dumbledore would surely have noticed it. But I think if we can find it, the real one that is, it’s better off in our hands than in anyone else’s.” She shrugged. “Surely it won’t hurt to ask, right?” She looked to Harry and Ron, and they had no objections. “Right then.” She cleared her throat, then tapped her wand on the portrait frame before pointing it squarely at its centre, ready to cast as soon as Phineas Nigellus stepped into view. “Er—Phineas? Phineas Nigellus?”

Nothing happened, and Malfoy hissed, “Try showing a bit of respect, for Salazar’s sake! He’s a hundred and fifty years old!”

Hermione cut him a sharp look, bringing a finger to her lips to signal for silence, and then she rolled her eyes and tried again. “Professor Black? Or—Headmaster Black? Could we speak to you, please?”

“Took you long enough to get around to that please, didn’t it?” came a cold, snide voice, as Phineas Nigellus slid into his portrait.

Hermione immediately cried “Obscuro!” and a thin strip of black fabric appeared over Phineas Nigellus’s eyes, blindfolding him. Thrown by the sudden loss of sight, Phineas Nigellus bumped into his frame and shrieked in pain.

“Wha—how dare—what are you—?”

“I’m terribly sorry, Professor Black,” Hermione apologised, and she did sound penitent. It must have pained her dearly to be so disrespectful to a faculty member, even one dead seventy years. “Please understand this is a necessary precaution.”

“Remove this foul addition at once! I am a priceless work of art, and you’re ruining me! Where am I? This isn’t the house of my forebears! Put me back! What is the meaning of this?!”

“Chatty, isn’t he?” Ron snorted, crossing to the armchair he’d been napping in before.

“Never mind where you are,” Harry said, and Phineas Nigellus froze immediately, ceasing his attempts to remove the painted blindfold.

A smile curled at his lips. “Why, could that possibly be the illustrious and elusive Mr. Potter?”

Harry shrugged, though Phineas Nigellus could not see it. “Maybe.” If notoriety was what it took to get his attention, Harry had no qualms about using it. Malfoy, for his part, rolled his eyes. “We’ve got a couple of questions we’d like to ask you—about the sword of Gryffindor.”

“Ah…” Phineas Nigellus groped behind him for the only other object in the frame: a wingback chair. He slid into it with a huff. “Yes. Those children acted most unwisely there. What’s gotten into this generation? Thieving from the Headmaster!”

“Snape’s not the Headmaster, and even if he were, that sword doesn’t belong to him.”

“He is the Headmaster, duly appointed, and your insolence is not appreciated. As for the sword, it belongs to Hogwarts itself, with the Headmaster as its caretaker. What claim did those insipid little Gryffindors and that Ravenclaw oddity have to it? None! They deserved their punishment and worse.”

“Luna’s not an oddity!” Hermione huffed; there was really only one Ravenclaw who fit that bill.

“Backtalk with an elder? I’ve had more than enough cheek for this evening!” Phineas Nigellus began to wrestle with the blindfold again. “Get this thing off of me, and put me back where you found me!”

“Maybe after you’ve answered our questions,” Harry said. “How did Snape punish them?”

Professor Snape sent them into the Forbidden Forest. That oaf Hagrid needed a few extra hands, evidently.”

“Oi, Hagrid’s not an oaf!” Ron protested, but Harry only sighed in relief. Snape might have thought that would be a loathsome punishment, but Ginny, Luna, and whoever else had joined them—Neville probably, Seamus maybe—had probably sailed through. They had, after all, faced far worse terrors than whatever lurked in the Forbidden Forest. An evening gathering unicorn dung or jobberknoll feathers was much better than what Harry had been imagining: the Cruciatus Curse, or worse.

Hermione cleared her throat, and when she spoke again, she’d gentled her tone. Fine; they could play good-cop, bad-cop. “Well then, Professor Black, you wouldn’t happen to have noticed if anyone else had, um…removed the sword as well? Perhaps taken it to be cleaned or—or something?”

Phineas Nigellus scoffed. “Muggleborns! Goblin-made silver does not require cleaning, you simple girl. Their armour and weaponry repels mundane dirt, imbibing only that which strengthens it.”

“Oi, don’t call Hermione simple,” Harry warned. “She’s the brightest witch of her age.”

“Pity I can’t see anything then, isn’t it?” Phineas Nigellus said, then eased up from his chair. “And I’ve told you to watch the tone you take with me, Mr. Potter. Perhaps I should return to the Headmaster’s office.” He made motions of groping about in his frame to see himself out.

Harry felt his irritation rising; they were getting nowhere with Phineas Nigellus—and then a burst of inspiration struck. “Dumbledore! Dumbledore’s got a portrait in there too, doesn’t he? I know you portraits visit each other, so can you maybe bring him along so we can speak to him? That way we wouldn’t have to bother you.” Why hadn’t he thought of that sooner? Dumbledore was the one who had all the answers they needed, and this was the closest they could get to actually speaking with him.

Phineas Nigellus turned his face in the direction of Harry’s voice, one slender black brow raised. “…Forgive me, Miss Granger. I assumed your stupidity was inherent, given your blood status, but clearly you’ve simply been infected by Mr. Potter’s failings, you poor thing.” He sneered. “While yes, the portraits of Hogwarts may visit other frames within the confines of the castle, communing with one another, they cannot travel beyond the school grounds except to visit other paintings of themselves hanging elsewhere. I cannot ‘bring Dumbledore along’, and after the rank disrespect I’ve been shown this evening, I shall not be making a return visit of my own, either! Good evening to you all.”

Harry felt his heart sink, and Phineas Nigellus redoubled his efforts to leave the frame.

“Professor Black!” Hermione called, desperate to keep him from going; Harry didn’t share her enthusiasm and instead shuffled over to the couch, slumping down onto it. “Please, could you just tell us when was the last time the sword of Gryffindor was taken out of its case, and by whom? Before the students tried to steal it, I mean.”

Phineas Nigellus sighed, patience audibly wearing thin. “…As I recall, the last time the sword was removed from its case was when Professor Dumbledore used it to destroy a ring he’d found.”

Hermione whipped around to look at Harry, and Ron started awake from where he’d dozed off again. Harry’s heart tried to climb up out of his throat, a shot of adrenaline flooding his veins.

Malfoy was giving them all funny looks, arms crossed over his chest as he lounged against one of the tent’s posts.

“Have you told Professor Snape about any of this?” Hermione asked, her voice trembling with excitement. “About Dumbledore—and the ring?”

Phineas Nigellus finally managed to find the frame and was guiding himself out of the picture. “Professor Snape has far more important matters on his mind than the dead. Now, I’ll expect my portrait to be placed back where it belongs in due order! I say again, good evening.” He whipped his nose into the air and then stomped out of the frame, leaving behind nothing but the wingback chair and a murky backdrop.

“The sword!” Hermione cried, once Phineas Nigellus had vanished.

“I know!” Harry said, and unable to contain himself, he punched the air: finally, a bit of good luck!

“So then, the sword can really…?” Ron started. “We heard the same thing, right? Dumbledore used the sword on Gaunt’s ring? And destroyed it?”

Hermione beamed, nodding. She hefted the portrait up again, and Ron scrambled over to help her stuff it back into the beaded bag. Once she’d tightened the cinch, she tossed it aside with a joyous sigh. “I can’t believe it! All this time we’ve been looking for—and it was there the whole time! Dumbledore didn’t leave us with nothing to go on!”

“But—why the sword?” Harry asked, still perplexed. “I mean, will any Goblin-made weapon do, in that case? Or is there something special about it?”

“Didn’t you just hear what Professor Black said? Goblin-made blades imbibe only that which strengthens them.” Harry still didn’t quite follow, and she reached forward to shake him by the shoulders, grinning excitedly. “Harry, that sword’s impregnated with Basilisk venom!”

Holy shit, she was right. He’d used the blade to slay the Basilisk that lurked in the Chamber of Secrets years ago. Hermione had said that Basilisk venom was one of the few agents that could destroy a Horcrux, and while they had no access to Basilisk fangs or venom itself, with the sword, they wouldn’t need it! “That’s why he willed it to Ron!”

“He must have known they’d never let us have it, so he slipped it into the will as a hint. I can’t believe we missed it!” Harry thought it was rather generous of Hermione to suggest that they had missed it, when without Hermione’s quick thinking, neither he nor Ron would have ever considered why Dumbledore had left them the sword.

“All right.” Harry took a breath, needing to get everything straight in his mind. “Dumbledore wanted us to have the sword, and he didn’t want Snape or the Death Eaters knowing we had it. So he made a copy…”

“And put the fake in the glass case,” Ron continued.

Hermione nodded. “And left the real one…” She trailed off, frowning. “Where?”

They gazed at one another; Harry felt like the answer ought to be obvious—but it wasn’t. Things never were, to him. Why hadn’t Dumbledore told him? Where the sword was, what the sword was. Or had he told Harry, and Harry had just not realised it at the time? He wracked his brain, trying to recall their final conversations, those lessons, but all he’d been focused on was finding Horcruxes, not destroying them.

Someone sighed loudly. “Is anyone going to explain what’s so amazing about the bloody sword of Gryffindor?” Malfoy asked, looking at them all in turn. His eyes fell on Harry last, and he held them there. “Is that what you’re on this little camping trip of yours for, sneaking around all over the British Isles? Looking for this sword?”

An awkward silence settled among them; in their excitement, they’d forgotten Malfoy’s presence entirely. Harry looked to Hermione, who was staring at the floor, biting her lip. How did one politely suggest a conversation didn’t concern you?

Harry was spared the uncomfortable discussion, though, when Malfoy sneered, “…I see. Right, then. I’m tired, so it’s off to bed with me.” He waved at the three of them. “Feel free to scheme and plot in my absence. I wouldn’t want to keep you from your sacred duties any longer.”

Hermione looked pained, and even Ron grimaced.

With a derisive huff, Malfoy stormed off, being sure to roughly bump his shoulder against Harry’s as he passed.

Harry turned to follow him. “Malfoy—wait…” But someone—Ron—reached out and grabbed him by the wrist, shaking his head and giving him a firm look. Only after the bedroom door had been slammed shut did Ron release him, and Harry began to pace in front of the sofa. The energy from before had gone sour with Malfoy’s abrupt departure, leaving him with a manic sort of frustration. “…He feels excluded.”

Ron raised a brow. “Uh, he is excluded. It’s Malfoy—we can’t loop him in on this! I doubt four heads are gonna do us much better than three, and besides, he’s only looking out for number one. Slytherin to the core, he is. Plus—and I feel like we’re all forgetting this, me included: he’s a Death Eater.”

“Regulus was also a Slytherin and a Death Eater,” Hermione reminded pointedly, though she was frowning, as if she didn’t like the idea of defending Malfoy. Harry sympathised. “He still managed to do the right thing, once he realised the truth of what he’d gotten himself into.”

Ron squirmed. “I still say we can’t trust him. Not with this. Scrambling a few eggs is one thing; this is serious.”

“Nor am I suggesting we should trust him,” Hermione reassured him, though she was looking at Harry when she said it. “But it might do him some good to know he’s helping with a worthwhile cause. Something that might save his parents. You said that’s what’s most important to him, right, Harry?” Harry nodded. “Perhaps we should try to convince him this will help achieve that. Four heads might not be better than three, but if push comes to shove, I’d like some reassurance he’ll think twice before running back to You-Know-Who with his tail between his legs.”

Ron groaned, his head falling forward onto his chest. “This is mad.”

Hermione just shrugged. “I say we let him try and prove himself, at least. He doesn’t seem very adept at deception, so I don’t think we stand to lose much. We just…have to be selective about what we do share with him.”

Harry’s head was starting to hurt. He’d been in such a good mood before, and now here Malfoy was, inadvertently ruining things once again. He understood Malfoy’s frustration, but had he really expected any different? Did he think that just because they’d relaxed their guard around him a bit, suddenly they were all going to be best mates?

But Hermione made something of a point. There would come a time, despite their best efforts, that they’d have to fight—and Malfoy would have to choose on which side of that fight to stand. As it was, he could go either way. They could convince him to fall back to their corner with relatively little effort, as Hermione saw it, so why not at least try? One less Death Eater to fight was one less Death Eater to fight.

Ron seemed to recognise he’d been outvoted and slumped back into his armchair. “So, the sword of Gryffindor, huh?” He put his feet up on the coffee table. “Great, another damn magical object we need that we’ve got no idea how to locate. Just add it to the list, I suppose.”

“Oh Ron…” Hermione sighed, and Harry left them. A faint plipping against the canvas of the tent’s roof heralded an oncoming shower; it would be raining in the Sanctuary too. Harry was still running on adrenaline from earlier and had kind of wanted to fly off the excess energy, but the rain made it too dangerous without Atmospheric Charms, as Harry had found his glasses fogging and shirts soaked through on several occasions.

With few other options, he decided to turn in early like Malfoy.

The lamps were already low when he entered the room, and he stepped lightly to avoid disturbing Malfoy, though Harry doubted he was already asleep. He peeled off his shirt and shrugged into his nightclothes, performing his evening toilette at a glacial pace. Too soon, though, there was no way around it, and after settling onto his mattress, Harry softly cleared his throat. “…You awake?” No response came, and after an awkward beat, Harry tried again, “Malfoy?”

What?” He didn’t sound groggy at all, so he clearly hadn’t been sleeping—only ignoring Harry. “Done with your meeting already? Or worried I’ll eavesdrop? Shall I plug my ears? Bury my head in the ground?”

“It’s not like—” Harry started, then shut his mouth, grinding his teeth. He should have suggested Hermione do this; if she thought they ought to enlist his help, she could damn well ask for it herself. “Just, we have to keep this a secret. From everyone, not just…” He didn’t want to say Death Eaters, though that was the truth of it. “Not even the Order of the Phoenix knows about our mission. It’s only us out here, and that’s how it’s got to be.”

Malfoy rolled over, frowning at Harry in the dim light. His white-blond hair lay fanned against the dark pillowcase in fetching contrast. “If you think making me feel common is going to win you points in my book, you really haven’t learned anything about me in six years.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “The point is: it’s nothing personal. We’d feel the same hesitation to be open around anyone—family, our closest friends, whoever. Rather a lot’s riding on us…managing to do what we’re doing.”

Malfoy stared at him for an uncomfortably long beat, then quietly said, “…You’re trying to kill him.”

Hardly a secret. Harry shrugged. “Isn’t pretty much everyone?”

“No, hardly anyone’s trying—not seriously. Even Dumbledore wasn’t really trying.”

Harry shook his head. “You’d be surprised…” He licked his lips, choosing his words very carefully. He had to speak as if, at any moment, Malfoy could whisper his words to another Death Eater, who’d carry them back to Voldemort himself. “…There’s a weapon.”

“A weapon?” Malfoy laughed roughly. “What, Killing Curse too good for you?”

“You actually think the Killing Curse would work against him?”

“It’s the Killing Curse,” Malfoy drawled. “Killing is what it does. You don’t shrug it off.”

I did,” Harry reminded him flatly, and that shut Malfoy up. Harry sighed. “Anyway, it’s the only way we’ve seen is capable of taking him out, but…it’s in pieces.”


“Not broken, really. Just separated. So we have to find those pieces and…er, bring them together before we can use it. Trouble is, these pieces…well, we don’t exactly know where they all are. And they don’t look like anything terribly remarkable, so that makes them all the harder to suss out.”

Malfoy’s gaze went distant with thought, brows cinching. “…Like the locket? The one you stole from the Ministry?”

Harry hadn’t expected him to make the connection quite that quickly; he’d need to be careful what hints he shared. “Yeah, that was one of them.”

“So that’s what you want the sword for, too? It’s another of these pieces?”

“Oh, no,” Harry said, then wished he hadn’t; it might have done well to drop a bit of misinformation in the mix. Too late for it now, though. “But we do need that as well. There’s only two pieces we’re missing right now: A chalice that once belonged to Helga Hufflepuff, and then…something that used to belong to Ravenclaw.”

Malfoy’s expression soured. “Suppose you can’t tell me what that is either,” he sneered.

“No—no, we literally don’t know what it is. All we know is that it’ll probably be something she once owned—hence all the research into the Founders’ artefacts.”

Malfoy seemed to process the information, frowning in suspicion. “…You don’t really sound like you know what you’re doing.”

Harry had to laugh at that. “You’re not entirely wrong, but it’s all we have, and…and I’m positive it’s what we need to do. We’ll just have to keep our noses down, turn up what we can, and think—and then act.”

“Gryffindors are pants at thinking.”

“But we are good at acting, you have to admit.”

“Perhaps, but not thinking first doesn’t generally bode very well for the acting bit.”

Harry shrugged. “I dunno. I’m still here, aren’t I?”

“And how you’ve managed that is beyond me.” Malfoy sighed. “Well, luckily for you three, Slytherins are master thinkers.”

Overthinkers, you mean,” Harry ribbed, letting his lips quirk up at the corners to show he wasn’t being too serious. Malfoy didn’t really respond well to being the butt of jokes, and Harry didn’t want to ruin the relative peace being brokered here.

Malfoy shifted up in bed, drawing his knees to his chest, and he chewed on his thumb with a pensive expression. “…I’ve never heard anything about a cup owned by Hufflepuff or an item of Ravenclaw’s, but surely the most obvious place to look would be Hogwarts.”

“You’d think—but we know the cup’s been passed around among Hufflepuff’s descendants over the years, though it was stolen a few decades back, so it’s unlikely it’s made its way back to Hogwarts. As for Ravenclaw’s piece…” Harry grimaced. “It’s not impossible it’s still there, but Dumbledore had been searching for these items long before we took over. I imagine he explored every nook and cranny of the castle during his time there.”

Malfoy’s face fell, and it struck Harry he’d actually been trying to help—honestly—and was disappointed he hadn’t been able to offer anything of real value. Maybe Hermione was right; maybe he did just want to feel useful. ‘Or maybe he’s just trying to get us to let our guard down,’ an irritating voice inside his head suggested, and Harry wished, not for the first time, he’d studied Legilimency back at Hogwarts.

Still—while Malfoy was a conniving, self-serving little prick, there was one point on which he could always be trusted, and that was to look out for himself. Harry just had to make sure that Malfoy saw it in his best interest to work with them rather than against them.

He swallowed, and cast his line. “…So you’ll help us, then?”


“You’ll help us with our research?” He had to word his offer well, because help us could involve so many sacrifices that Malfoy was probably not yet prepared to offer (and maybe would never be).

Malfoy spoke slowly, practising just as much care with his words as Harry. “…You want me to?”

Harry thought he caught a flicker of something in Malfoy’s eye, but when he looked again, it was gone. They hadn’t visited the Sanctuary today, so he hoped it wasn’t a sign Malfoy was overdue a shift. “You want to save your mum and dad? Want to make sure You-Know-Who can’t hurt them or you? This is how you do it. The only way you can do it right now. So give us your all, and you’ll have ours.”

Malfoy had to understand this wasn’t about a want—it was a need. They needed every weapon in their arsenal available, and that meant working with people they might not otherwise like, if only because their ends were aligned for the time being.

Malfoy stared at him in the dim light, then sighed, sliding back down under the covers and rolling over to place his back to Harry. “I may vomit from such sentimental Gryffindor tripe being poured into my ear.”

Harry wasn’t sure how to interpret that, or the closed-off body language—and then Malfoy’s breathing began to even out, and he despaired. He’d thought there’d been…well, something. That Malfoy wanted to be a part of something bigger, wanted a hand in saving people he cared about.

And maybe he did; maybe it was just that Harry had come on too strong.

Harry drew back the covers and climbed into bed, disappointed in himself.

He should have had Hermione do this in the first place; she knew how to practise a tough kind of love with Malfoy, how to twist his arm without breaking it.

Malfoy wasn’t the kind of person you just—

“You invited me; remember that.”

Harry blinked in the darkness; the lamps had gone too low to make out his own hand in front of his face, and Malfoy’s voice sounded eerily disembodied.


You invited me,” Malfoy repeated. “Not the other way around. I didn’t go crawling on hands and knees, begging to be a part of your little misadventure that’s quite likely going to get you all killed.”

Harry frowned at the insinuation, though it wasn’t as if he hadn’t pretty much assumed as such himself. “And?”

“So this doesn’t count as my favour; you still owe me one,” Malfoy said. “Good night.”


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

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