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Prologue
*

“A Muggle, Minerva?” The poisoned steel in Severus’s voice made Hermione flinch in spite of her resolve to remember about his bark being worse, and all that, as her mother would say. She knew this to be the truth about Severus, but there were still moments when her instincts involved a lot of the flight reaction. In this situation, however, he had reason for his concerns. Not that she would back him before listening to McGonagall’s reasoning, but she was willing, should the need become apparent. It appeased her slightly that none of the other faculty, new or seasoned, looked much more at ease than she felt.

“On recommendation from my sister, Severus.” McGonagall’s tone was equally sharp, if not without an undertone of sympathy.

“Your sister.” Severus drew himself up to his full height, despite staying seated. “The leader of the coven in Devonshire?” He waited for her quick nod. “She’s somewhat flighty even by your own description.”

Hermione didn’t rise from her chair, though her body screamed at her to get out of the room. A man and a woman powerful enough to command hundreds of Wizards and Witches were not two people she wanted to watch argue.

“Flighty, yes, but an excellent judge of character. And his resume is considerable, Muggle or no. He has worked with children in his training of the Slayer and spent years in research before his promotion to field Watcher. He is widely acknowledged as the foremost Demonologist in England and perhaps the world. He will protect and arm these children with the tools they need to survive, much as I am sure you would. He, however, cannot teach them to whip up a reliable polyjuice or strengthening draught.”

Hermione bit the inside of her lip, suddenly grateful that her greatest passion lay with her greatest strength. She had no doubt that Severus enjoyed and saw the usefulness of potions, but so much of his heart lay in the art of both knowing and undermining the Dark Arts. Which subject he was better at was hard to say, but it was easier, if not much, to find people qualified in the latter rather than the former. Potions took patience and care and an acute intelligence that few men or women, let alone Wizards, ever found it in themselves to nurture.

“I suppose then this means that upon his acceptance of the offer, all our positions will once again be filled.” Severus surveyed the table, his eyes lingering briefly on Hermione, Sirius Black, Oliver Wood and Cho Chang, the new faculty. Sirius was taking over in Care of Magical Creatures. Oliver had stepped in for Madam Hooch, who had been injured too badly to ever mount a broom again. Cho was implementing a new course in basic magical medical care. Hermione was taking over as the new Arithmancy professor, Vector having been killed. Hermione was torn over this, having been close to her old mentor. She had yet to face her first day of children and already she felt herself to be slipping out of someone’s much larger shoes every time she took a step.

“It will be good to see this table full again,” Professor Sprout stated softly. She had lost one of her children in the war. Hermione smiled at her in agreement and was surprised to get a small smile in response.

Severus, despite appearances, could recognize when somebody else was right. “Has the offer been sent?”

McGonagall pushed a sealed parchment piece across the table to him. Severus swiped it from the table and walked to the window, tying it to the leg of the generic Hogwarts owl that had been assigned to wait over this particular faculty meeting in case correspondence should need to be sent. The owl hooted softly and took off upon being released from Severus’s hold.

McGonagall rose to leave and the rest of the faculty followed in her measured footsteps. Hermione was the second to last to leave, daring a quick glance at Severus’s back before she stepped out into the corridor. He was still watching the horizon, the owl having long since faded from sight.

*
Four Months Later
*

“The problem,” Hermione stressed to the people sitting around the table, “is not that I cannot solve the equation, rather that I cannot solve it on my own. I have an excellent knowledge of the study of different maths from a Wizarding point of view, but my knowledge of upper level Muggle math is disastrous at best. I have contacted my colleagues at Beauxbatons and the ministry -- those arithmancers I feel I can trust -- but they are in the same position as me, if not worse. I, at least, spent my formative educational years in the Muggle schooling system. I need to pick someone else’s brain. Someone that I can trust who will have an extensive understanding of the systems I am using to solve this equation, if from an entirely different point of view.”

The room, consisting of those members of the Order of Phoenix who had survived, and a select number of the Hogwarts faculty, was silent in the wake of Hermione’s forceful requests. Hermione refused to look at Harry, as she instinctively knew he had That Look on his face. The one that told her he was hoping for the best and expecting the worst. It was a little too close to how she felt for her to handle seeing it written across his features.

“And this problem is essential, ‘Mione?” From anyone else it would have sounded like he was doubting her dexterity with her own subject, but Hermione understood that Remus was just checking to see if there was something that wasn’t getting said for one reason or another.

“Absolutely. I’ve tried going around it, the larger questions end up with answers that make no sense. I hardly think we have to worry about a band of possessed elephants parading in and taking over where Voldemort left off. Or ghouls for that matter, more maneuverable, but even stupider than demon-driven quadrupeds. No, this equation must be solved for any progress to be made in any direction.”

Remus nodded. “I see.”

“I take it from that answer then, that there is no other way, another set of equations entirely, perhaps?” Ginny had taken over her brother’s abject and utter belief in Hermione’s ability to solve any academic problem, given enough time, upon Ron’s death.

“I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried everything, even things that I had been told didn’t work by every Arithmancy professor I was ever taught by, just to see if this once was the exception. There is no exception, there is a hole in my ability to see the problem in its entirety. Unless this can be rectified, we are left blind in this particular area.”

“I may know someone.”

Hermione blinked and turned to face the corner of the room. It was not Professor Giles's first time at one of these meetings -- they had finally learned that a Defence teacher who could not be trusted needed to be found out and disposed of quickly -- but it was the first time he had spoken up in one.

“Oh?” There was hope in Hermione’s voice.

“A couple of someones actually, they come as a team. Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, former Watcher and expert demonologist and Winifred Burkle, occult researchist and genius in the field of Muggle physics, with an intensive background in math. She goes by Fred. She was well on her way to being a permanent graduate student type when she was accidentally sucked through a portal into the demon dimension of Pylea. They’re both discreet and have a predisposition toward fighting for the side that wants the world to prosper, rather than be run under by a group of tyrannical miscreants.”

Hermione smiled at what she recognized as humor in the man’s consistently dry tone.

“You think, then, that we can trust these two?” Severus’s question came from the other corner of the room, cold and practical.

Professor Giles did not let the evident hostility affect him. He shrugged. “As much as you can trust me.”

Hermione did not think him fool enough to believe they trusted him as one of them, but he knew, as did the rest of them, that they were bound in a neat little Catch-22. There came a point when they had to trust someone.

Severus acknowledged the sentiment with a cool nod of his head. He glanced to McGonagall. She held his eyes for a few seconds before speaking up. “Get in touch with your friends, Rupert, it seems we would be grateful for any assistance they might be able to provide.”

*

Hermione couldn't have said what she had been expecting from the pair of hired brains that Professor Giles had called in, but the man and woman who entered her office without bothering to stop their argument over the dental habits of Argeilan Beasts wasn't it. She listened for a few moments, somewhat fascinated by the woman's argument of nurture over nature in a species that was regularly known to eat their young more for fun than sustenance. Hermione let her have the last word before clearing her throat rather non-discreetly.

The woman jumped visibly and turned in the direction of the noise. The smile that came over her face was large and uninhibited. She held out her hand, "You must be Professor Granger. Giles is very impressed with you. I'm Fred, this is Wesley. He's wrong about a lot of things, but I keep him around for entertainment's sake anyway."

The man, Wesley, didn't smile, but his eyes held a hint of humor in them. He held out his hand as well. "Pleasure to meet you. Your resume is quite impressive for one so young."

Hermione felt anything but young, but she respected that he was speaking in biological terms. She shook both of their hands. "I appreciate your making it out here so quickly. I don't know if Giles mentioned compensation, but I'm sure an agreement can be reached-"

"Why don't we first see if we can be of any help, Professor."

Hermione liked men who recognized the possibility that they could be wrong every once in awhile. "Regardless, your time must mean something to you."

Fred was still smiling. "We rather enjoy having time in general, which apocalypses and evil megalomaniacs intent on wiping out the non-Wizarding population of the world prohibits. The compensation is built in for us, Professor."

Once comfortable enough to do so, Hermione had poked at Giles for the history on these two until he had relented, telling her everything from childhood on at her insistence. They had been fighting their own version of demons for at least as long as she had. She took a moment to wonder at this woman's ability not to seem exhausted by what, at times, must seem a pointless struggle. "I think if we're to be working together we ought to leave off the honorifics, yes? Hermione will do just fine."

"It's a very pretty name," Wesley said with a slight nod of acknowledgement. Hermione flushed, unused to being complimented for anything outside her intelligence. "Now," he continued, "if you don't mind, my understanding of the field of Arithmancy is limited at best, perhaps if you could give us both a crash course and tell us what it is you're looking for from us? We'll do our best to give any assistance."

"Of course." Hermione walked to the door of her office, "There's a blackboard in my classroom, this is most easily taught with visual aids. If you'll follow me."

The two followed and Hermione didn't have to look back to remember Wesley's measured steps, Fred's light-footed gait, as they made their way to the next room.

*

On a case by case basis, Severus didn't mind Muggles. It was as a group that he was wary of them. Muggles had a rather repetitive history of wiping out what they could not understand and regretting it later. Three Muggles without any type of blood-relation to the Wizarding world staying at Hogwarts at once made Severus's stomach harden inside himself. It made doing very simple, necessary things -- eating, for instance -- much more of a task than they strictly should have been.

He trusted the Professor, "Giles, I've never been much on Rupert," to the extent that he trusted Muggles to any extent for one reason. There were two types of Muggles who became demonologists. The first pursued the occupation out of a desire for knowledge that would lend them ways to gain wealth and power quickly, the second merely desired to know what others did not. Muggles who were concerned with the former found it -- if they were lucky -- but did not live long to enjoy it. Deals with the devil rarely turned out well for anyone but the devil. Severus knew this intimately. He put Giles at slightly older than himself, and therefore safely in the latter category of demonologists.

Fred was still young, but Severus doubted that anyone who had forcibly spent time on Pylea would look to the demon world for help with anything good.

Wesley was the unknown.

Severus had good instincts; they had kept him alive long after he strictly wished to be. Wesley didn't set his teeth on edge, so for the moment, Severus held his suspicions close to himself and watched everything that went on in the castle with an unblinking eye. It was his Standard Operating Procedure, really, but of late it had been a conscious choice rather than a subconscious one.

It was also how he avoided being startled when Giles approached him from behind in a hallway, "Professor, I was hoping for a minute of your time."

Giles caught up to Severus, who motioned for him to say whatever it was he had on his mind. "You make Wolfsbane for Remus Lupin, if my information is correct."

Severus sneered. He doubted Giles ever spoke if in doubt of his sources. "You're not a werewolf, Professor. I have a hard time imagining what interest such a potion could be to someone like yourself." Wolfsbane, while the salvation of that percentage of the population who transformed into werewolves monthly, was highly toxic to anyone else. There was no antidote, as Severus, being the one to perfect Wolfsbane and the only one to know its properties inside and out, had not quite managed to invent one yet. It was a sore spot.

"It's for a friend. A boy I met back when I was with the Slayer. We've bumped into each other a few times over the years, I sent him a missive when I heard about the potion's properties. He travels the Muggle world mostly, and would have been unlikely to know anything about it, despite nearly every Wizarding werewolf having access to it by now."

"He must request it himself." Severus didn't actually think that Giles was lying, but it made no difference one way or the other. He was not in the habit of handing out deadly substances to men he had only known for a little over five months. Or much of anyone else. "Your word that he is a Dark Creature means nothing to me."

"No, I wasn't foolish enough to suppose that it would. He's in the East at the moment, but if I owl him floo powder, will a request via the fireplace do?"

The request was too quick, Giles had obviously expected this. Which meant that the boy must have asked him to ask first, get Severus used to the idea of giving him the potion. Severus wondered, with a pang that he would have bitten his tongue off before admitting to, if surviving with the condition was even more harsh in the Muggle world than it was in the Wizarding one. He supposed they both held their fair amount of challenges. "That would be fine. Tomorrow evening?"

"Eight o'clock by your watch," Giles confirmed.

Severus narrowed his eyes. Giles tipped his head politely and branched off into a hallway that had conveniently appeared moments before.

*

He felt her enter the room and appreciated the fact that she waited silently for him to finish the task he was currently engaged in. Brewing the Wolfsbane took incredibly precise timing. He worked methodically until that point where it needed to simmer for a while. He turned to her then, "You needed something, Professor Granger?"

"Your help," she replied succinctly.

The thought of making her feel like a sniveling first year again tempted him, but it had been a long day and he didn't have the energy for pleasantries. "That seems to be happening a lot."

She frowned at that, but pressed on. "I was right about bringing Fred and Wesley in. There was a differential equation that I was trying to solve in every manner but the one that actually worked. Fred caught the mistake."

"So the equation has been solved?"

"The specific one that I brought them here for, yes. But as you must know each equation only leads to a dozen more. I've asked them to stay for a bit."

Severus knew enough about Arithmancy to respect that decision, even if it did not sit well with him. "What has your work shown you so far?"

"Much of what we already knew and a little of what we didn't. The latter information makes us privy to the name of the man who has been leading raids in the North and wooing followers from all over. It's Zabini, Professor."

"Blaise." The word slid bitterly over his tongue.

Hermione nodded sharply. "It explains why we never found the body." The War, which had been more a series of short and ugly magically driven battles, had left hundreds dead and/or missing. The eldest Zabini child had been unaccounted for until now, but that was hardly unusual.

"And what use, Professor, do you assume I can be of now?" His failure with Blaise -- with nearly all of that generation of Slytherins -- was in the past. There was no rectifying those mistakes at this juncture.

"Get me Malfoy. And get him to talk."

Severus tilted his head, watching her intently. "What does Draco have to do with any of this?" He did his best not to let his voice catch. Severus had found that most of his failures lay quiet when he commanded them to. Draco was different. "Neither McGonagall or I could save him when they put him in there, what makes you think we can today?"

"The three of us will present our case to the ministry as such: Malfoy is necessary to the prevention of another uprising such as Voldemort's. That's a hard claim to argue with, you must admit."

"Not that the chance to release Draco from his imprisonment doesn't appeal to me," Severus prefaced his question, "but, what, exactly do we need him for?"

Hermione seemed genuinely confused. "I should think that would have been obvious to you."

"Let's pretend that it is not," the edge in Severus's voice slid smoothly along her neck, ready to cut at any moment.

"Malfoy and Zabini...they were lovers, in school. Everybody knew. If Malfoy is still willing to help us, though he could hardly be blamed if he was less than inclined to do so, he's the only living person who knows Zabini well enough to understand his motives through more than just magical equation and educated guess work."

Evidently, Severus mused, not everyone had known, but then, seeing as how Draco had known Severus to be 'friends' with his father, Severus doubted that was information Draco would have allowed him to get his hands on. Until that night when Draco had shown up at the gates of Hogwarts and asked for asylum, making sure that Lucius was proud of him was often Draco's single concern. Severus nearly smiled. The ironies of the situation were piling up rapidly. "Have you spoken with Minerva?"

"I have. She agrees."

"I shall talk with her then, set up an appointment with the Minister."

She acknowledged his words and turned to leave. She paused at the door. "He was not my friend, but we all failed him in this instance, not just those of us who actively cared." She accented her last words. "It will be good to get him out." She left quickly, shutting the door softly behind her.

Severus peered down into the cauldron. He needed to add the next ingredient. "Indeed, Miss Granger."

*

Severus most likely would have laughed at anyone -- a cruel, dismissive laugh -- who had told him that Percy Weasley would grow a backbone upon seeing his younger brother killed, and transform into perfect Minister of Magic material. He also would have had to eat that laughter later, because in the year since Percy's election to the position -- no doubt garnered by the memories of a martyred father and brother -- the young man had been surprisingly effective and smart in his leadership.

Not that there weren't exceptions.

Paranoia generally stayed with a populace that was recovering from losing its children, siblings, parents and lovers. Weasley had tried his best to keep people from taking justice into their own hands with mob scenes and such by allowing that any man or woman who had committed crimes with the Death Eaters was to be tried for these crimes and, if found guilty, sent to Azkaban. The law was perfectly reasonable on the surface and had even worked decently well for the large amount of criminals it had affected.

There was one fairly large instance in which it had failed one of them.

Draco Malfoy had sWitched sides late into the proceedings, but Severus sensed that it would have been earlier had Lucius not known his son so well. Lucius had been a bastard, but a frighteningly smart one with excellent powers of observation. He had been aware that somehow he had gotten saddled with a son who, no matter how much trash he talked, valued life. And not just the life of "people like him." Lucius had kept Draco away from the raids, the real dirty work, until the very last moment that he could, when Voldemort no doubt had been breathing steadily at his neck to find out whether his heir was really worth the space he took up.

Draco had joined in the reveling and then shown up at Hogwarts a day later, unable to keep even a glass of water down and ready to join with McGonagall, Dumbledore already gone by that point, struck dead defending Harry nearly two years beforehand. Unfortunately his actions in that one revel had been enough to garner a sentence of a five year stay in Azkaban. The truth, and every Wizard knew it, was that a stay in Azkaban, no matter the length of time, was equal to a life sentence. It was the rare man or woman who could function after a stay there. Usually the courts didn't even bother with the formality of a number of years, but in Draco's case, his stay was shortened in respect to his having fought on their side in the final battles; his having saved countless lives with his information of the other side's numbers and what he knew of the plans.

Draco had been in Azkaban for over a year. Severus doubted that even if he knew anything, he would be able to dig it out of his head at this point, but the boy deserved the chance to recover. To be somewhere where people would care for him. Knowing Lucius, the boy had seen precious little of that even before Azkaban.

So it was that Severus found himself couched between two Gryffindor Witches, staring across at a Gryffindor Wizard, asking for a favor. He was glad that Hermione did most of the talking. Percy was most likely to listen to her, the woman who had grieved over the loss of his brother for a year and a half. It had made Severus uncomfortable at first, seeing their devotion at age seventeen, unsure of what to think of it. He had been so used to seeing them as mere children, dismissing their every emotion as fleeting and simple. There was no question, though, that Hermione had lost a part of herself the day the Ron had died. A part that she had yet to replace. Severus was beginning to wonder if she would.

The Weasley's had as much as adopted Hermione after Ron's death. She was almost every bit the sister that Ginny was to Percy. Her words were the most likely to sway his decision.

"Perce." She paused after a somewhat long monologue about the benefits of acting for Draco's release. "Please, do you honestly think that I would show one of them any mercy? Malfoy was one of us at the end, and we need him again, we needed him then, and you know it." One of the people Draco's knowledge had saved was Bill.

Percy sighed and looked into each one of their faces. "This is going to be an immensely unpopular decision on my part, you realize."

Which meant, Severus reflected, that the boy had already made up his mind. He gritted his teeth, "I will owe you for this, Minister."

Percy blinked. "Hardly, Professor, this isn't a favor. Or at least, not for you."

It wasn't said harshly, just matter-of-factly. Severus could respect that. "Regardless of intent, the debt has been incurred." He held up his hand, "Just recognize and respect the fact Mister Weasley. And then leave it alone until you have call to remember it."

Percy smiled at the stripping of his title. He understood. "I will at that."

Hermione stood to give Percy a hug, and Severus went to arrange releasing the boy to whom his debts could never be completely recalled.

*

Draco was warm. The realization sent a spark of pleasure racing through him and he clamped down on it, as well as the fear that followed quickly on its tail. He tried to put together a rational train of thought on the issue. Doing such was getting harder as time went on. He could barely even remember not to be too proud that he could do so. Dementors sucked pride out of a person even more vigilantly than pure happiness.

Nonetheless, Azkaban was never warm, so there was something odd about the situation and Draco was determined to figure out what it was. Probably delirium, Draco told himself, but that didn’t seem like the right answer either, as even visions and experiences had while delirious in Azkaban were generally unpleasant. Draco didn’t mind feeling warm for the first time in over a year at all. In fact, he was quite enjoying it. Draco recognized the happiness in that admission and hid it quickly underneath a memory of a Muggle girl’s face while he had been raping her. The Dementors weren’t big fans of that one. Neither was Draco, really.

“Open your eyes, Draco.”

Draco fought frantically to place the voice, familiar as it was. Finally, he gave up and obeyed the command. He didn’t think it was possible that they would show him something worse than waking up to Azkaban after every fragmented sleep cycle. When his vision focused, he was hesitant to trust it. “Professor?”

“I’m real,” Severus Snape said.

“Then…” Draco blinked and made himself follow point A to point B. “I’m not in Azkaban. Or you’re in Azkaban and all the Dementors have gone away.” He added as an afterthought, “And you brought blankets.” That theory sounded stupid even to him, and he doubted he was the most mentally functional person in the room.

“You’re at Hogwarts. Madame Pomfrey is treating you for malnutrition and a slight case of pneumonia.”

Draco frowned. “Has it been five years?” He shook his head, confused, “It felt like forever, but I didn’t think-“

“It’s been a year and five months,” Severus clarified. “We bargained for your release with the ministry.”

Draco closed his eyes again, tired despite his lack of exertion. “Bargained. You want something.” He opened his eyes to look straight into Severus’s. “What have I got?” Draco had relived his sentencing too many times over the past year and five months not to know exactly all that he had lost. The items that Draco owned now were limited to the two names people referred to him by, the prison uniform he donned, and his body and mind – each broken in their own way.

Severus’s eyes swept past Draco’s and over his ex-student’s body. They darkened. “Do you remember Miss Granger?”

Draco tasted a bitterness that seem to come up from the back of this throat. Granger had been in several of his less happy memories. “Come up with something brilliant that involves me, has she?”

Severus looked surprised. “You’ve kept your sanity remarkably intact.”

“Thinking that you deserve time in Azkaban is hardly a happy thought, but it would have been at the forefront of my mind, Dementors or no. I suppose one could say I pulled a Sirius Black. Sadly without the glamorous escaping, but I’m Slytherin, we’re less flashy.”

Severus looked like he was about to say something, but he stopped. He chose instead to tell Draco, “Blaise Zabini is attempting to follow up where Voldemort left off.”

“Bugger.” Draco muttered the word with heat. “Of course it would have to be Blaise. Not Pansy or Greg or someone we could’ve figured out with a microscope and a little bit of thought.”

"Draco-"

“He’s smart, Professor. At least as smart as me and maybe trickier. He finds weaknesses as a parlour game and the exploits them for a bit of dining entertainment.” There was hatred in Draco’s voice, the kind of hatred that can only be developed from what was once something more.

Severus nodded. Draco coughed wetly. Severus stood up. “Get some more sleep. Poppy’s going to kill me for upsetting you.” He turned to leave.

“Professor,” Draco’s voice was strained from the coughing. “Seeing you wasn’t upsetting.” He rolled over as best he could and promptly fell asleep.

*

Madame Pomfrey was fussing over Draco. He had never had someone do such a thing for him but he recognized the intent in an abstract way. He spoke up. "I'm- Uh, I'm pretty comfortable."

It had seemed like a good thing to mention until she looked up at his words. There was a moment when Draco wasn't entirely sure what he'd done wrong before she broke into laughter. "Of course you are. I must be driving you mad, poor boy."

Draco caught his words before they came out, instinct and seventeen years of his father's training nearly driving him to snap at her. He had spent a year and a half with the scrape of the Dementor's robes as they rustled past his cell being his only form of contact. He didn't want her to pull back. Draco remembered once more that his father had been wrong about a lot of things. He shook his head slightly. "No, you're fine. I just…didn't want you to worry."

She tucked a stray hair behind his ear. A year and a half's growth fell straight past the sharp bones of his shoulders. His eyes followed her hand and noticed that the ends were neat. He brought a hand up to his face. It was smooth. "Who cleaned me up?"

"I did, dear. I'm sorry if you were wanting to keep the beard but it was matted and it was just easier. It can be grown back."

Draco laughed. It was a tiny sound, but genuine. "Hardly. Thank you."

She sat on the bed. "You're welcome. Are you feeling up to visitors?"

His memories had large gaps right now, this he knew, but he wasn't wrong in remembering that Pomfrey had been nearly psychotic about guarding over her patients. "How long have I been here?"

"Almost two weeks. You needed rest, and nutrients."

No wonder she had believed him when he had told her he was fine. "Are these visitors waiting?"

"In a way. They're waiting for me to give the word that they can come."

Draco felt like a five year old again. "Will you stay until they get here?"

Luckily, Pomfrey was neither his mother nor his father. "And after if you wish it."

Draco caught the happiness that was sliding its way up through his stomach. He bundled it up and put it somewhere nobody could find it. Not even him for the moment. "Tell them they can come."

Pomfrey stood and opened the curtain that hid Draco's bed away from the rest of the infirmary. The place was empty. She walked to the fireplace and threw some powder in: "Minerva."

McGonagall's face appeared in the flames as requested. "Poppy. Everything alright?"

"Fine, Minerva. Draco is ready to see you and the others."

"We'll be there shortly." McGonagall's face vanished.

Pomfrey returned to her spot on the bed. She fussed a bit, pulling the covers up slightly. Draco closed his eyes and learned about what it felt like to be touched by someone who didn’t harbor any ulterior motives.

*

Draco would have thought that time moved more quickly outside of Azkaban's walls than it did inside them. That was how he remembered things. None of the people sitting in front of him seemed to support this theory, so he wondered if perhaps he was remembering incorrectly.

Hermione still had the same look of shocked grief, if slightly more buried under professionalism now than it had been in the immediate aftermath of her fiancé's death. Severus still snarled just enough to keep anything breathing at bay. McGonagall still exuded hope underneath her air of pragmatic thinking. Harry sat closer to Ginny, but he still hunched as though trying to avoid notice and she still gave Draco the sensation that she could read his mind. She had developed a calm after the first series of battles that proved completely unnerving to Draco. Black still kept to the shadows as if someone might come looking for him and Lupin still stood faithfully near him, never trying to draw him out with anything more than a slightly bemused look.

If Draco hadn't known better, hadn’t felt the passage of time so acutely, he would have sworn it had stood still.

Hermione was the first one to speak, clearing her throat softly and obviously forcing herself to make eye contact. "It's good to…have you back."

Draco considered it a feat to look more disinclined to keep living than someone who had spent day after day having every happy memory he could conjure sucked out of him, but Hermione had evidently managed it. She was obviously waiting for him to say something. "Can we… Um, can I be told what I have to do to stay out of there?"

There was a flash of shock in her eyes that had nothing to do with grief. It was refreshing. "Oh, right, of course." She flattened the hair atop her head hastily, a habit Draco remembered her picking up in their fifth year, right around the time Ron had asked her on their first date. "We need some information, anything you can give us really, on Blaise Zabini."

Draco vaguely recalled the conversation he'd had with Severus when he had first woken up. "Right. I can't imagine it will be of much value."

"You were with him for two years," Ginny pointed out. Her voice wasn't unkind but there was a strand of the implacable about it.

"We weren't like you and Potter, Weasley." Draco couldn’t help the impatience in his voice. He was just glad it covered the frustration. "We slept with each other. There wasn't a whole lot of talking and there was even less trust."

"We're not asking where he keeps the family jewels, Mr. Malfoy." McGonagall's voice was reassuring in its near lack of tone. "Just anything about him, the way his mind works, that might lead us to him before we're fighting battles like ones too recently fought."

Draco took a deep breath, forcing air into lungs that were still slightly damp. The action forced him to concentrate, pushing away the terror that they would send him back were he not to give them enough. He waited for a coughing spasm to pass, surprised to feel a hand on his back as he regained a sense of his surroundings. The hand rubbed in circular motions. "Are you okay?"

Draco peered in the direction that voice should have been coming from and, sure enough, Black was no longer in his corner. Lupin smiled at Draco upon seeing the direction of his gaze. Draco didn’t smile back, but Lupin was evidently still hard to upset. Draco kept very still, not wanting to give Black a reason to withdraw contact. "Fine, thank you. Just a bit of a cough."

"Obviously." Black's voice was darkly amused. Draco couldn't think of a time when he'd heard the man use that particular tone, but then, he hadn't known Black very well.

"Okay, here's what I can think of off the top of my head. It's not much, but if you give me a bit of time, I can probably come up with more." Draco knew that his bargaining for more time away from the walls of Azkaban was disgustingly transparent, but it had been awhile since he'd had much practice at being a Slytherin. He was just glad Black hadn't seen it as reason to take away his hand. "Blaise is the eldest of the Zabinis, which means he's the most groomed. He has two sisters, both of whom are pretty much complete twits but decently powerful Witches and a brother who's almost as smart as Blaise but nearly a squib. All in all, Blaise was evidently the only one in the family to get all the good genes. It’s given him something of an ego."

Draco stopped, willing his brain to keep working despite the desire to sleep that was creeping back over him. "Um. His greatest strengths were Charms and, oddly, Care of Magical Creatures. He's very good at keeping things both alive and loyal. He's the same with people. Blaise could tell you three different, conflicting lies and make you believe every word of all three. He understands how people work, which is something Voldemort never did." Or Lucius. Draco shoved the thought away.

"He can't make a potion to save his life and his transfigurations are spotty at best. He's decent at Herbology, but a total wreck at Arithmancy. He could care less about the rest of his family except Zara, the youngest sister, who he adores. As far as I could tell, she's the only person or thing he's ever cared about." Draco hoped his voice was as expressionless as he was attempting to make it.

"I'm pretty sure the Zabini family has more money than anyone suspects. That's just a hunch on my part, but the way Blaise would spend… I didn't even spend that way, not even as a thirteen year old when my sense of finances was rudimentary. At best. And I wouldn't put it past him to secure backers elsewhere. Blaise would hire people to do certain types of thinking for him. He did it back in school with Arithmancy." Draco bit the inside of his cheek. "Um. And History of Magic."

Black brought his hand up and down Draco's back in the silence that followed, when Draco couldn’t look at any of them. "He doesn't trust what money can buy him, but he respects its power nonetheless. He'll hire people to think through his tactics for him. Only, they might…well, they might not exactly realize they’ve been hired. He's tricky and clever."

"Slytherin." The word came out of McGonagall's mouth and Draco's head popped up but there had been no sneer of disdain. She continued, "I suppose it's good that we have two of those on our side."

"He'll have more," Draco told her. He wasn't being fatalistic, just recognizing the truth of things.

"Undoubtedly," McGonagall nodded sharply. "I think you should rest now."

"There's more," Draco protested.

"There will still be more when you wake up." That was Severus, although the lack of edge in his voice was unsettling to Draco, as it had been in their brief conversation days before. "Get some rest."

Draco was tempted to fight their suggestions, try and show them he was of use, that they would want to keep him around, but he felt himself falling more heavily against the hand at his back. "When I wake up, then."

The hands that pulled the covers up were bigger than Pomfrey's, and Draco managed to focus his eyes long enough to note the concerned faces of Sirius Black and Severus Snape looming over him. It was such an odd image, his brain decided he was already asleep.

*

Fred, Wesley and Giles had stayed out of the conference at Pomfrey's insistence. She hadn't wanted Malfoy to have to deal with unfamiliar faces just yet. They waited and convened with the group in the faculty lounge afterward.

There was a period of silence before Ginny opened her mouth. What came out was not what Hermione had expected. "He's terrified we're going to send him back."

Ginny, besides being very much her mother's daughter, had a type of psychic abilities. She couldn’t see the future and she shunned all divining arts as hocus pocus, but, as she had once described it to Hermione, "Everyone has their own spectrum." By which she had meant that each person has a range of colors that surrounds them and each color, or combination of them, could be interpreted into an emotion. The best secret Ginny had ever told Hermione was that she had fallen in love with Harry's colors before she had ever fallen in love with him.

Ginny had taken her fifth year abroad in China wherein one of the foremost masters of the Art taught. The two still corresponded and Ginny had continued her studies in a more independent manner once back at Hogwarts. Colorsense itself wasn't a very common gift, even among psychics, and those who had learned to control it were even more rare.

McGonagall sighed. "I was afraid of that."

"Far be it from me to be the voice of common sense," Sirius sounded like he actually meant that, "but has anyone told him differently?"

Hermione was pretty sure she would have laughed at the look on Severus's face if the situation had been different. She covered the momentary giddiness by responding to Sirius before Severus could. "Perhaps it would be best to start with that next time. He seems more than willing to help."

"He was willing to help before we threw him in a fucking hellhole for what was supposed to be five years," Harry pointed out coldly. Malfoy had blown his cover as an agent for McGonagall by releasing Harry from the Malfoy dungeons and getting him safely off the grounds. The latter had involved Malfoy springing two particularly nasty hexes on himself so that Harry could get past without a scratch.

"Right." Hermione blushed. She startled slightly at the hand that came down on top of hers. Fred smiled sympathetically. Hermione tried her best not to feel like an over imaginative child.

Giles, who -- Hermione noted curiously -- was observing Severus rather closely, spoke up. "Not to underestimate the importance of Mr. Malfoy's comfort in this situation, but it would be appreciated if those of us who were not present for his information session could be brought up to speed."

Severus, determinedly looking at anything but Giles, nodded his head. Hermione filed away the two men's interactions for later. Depending on the situation, Ginny could sometimes be persuaded to share what kind of colors a person was shedding at a given point. Severus told him, "We haven't learned much yet. Mostly Mr. Zabini's obvious talents and weak points. It seems we're working against quite the people person. According to Draco, Mr. Zabini will acquire followers quickly and keep them most steadily. That seems to be the biggest obstacle we have been told of so far. There are others, including what could possibly be considerable wealth on Zabini's part and a willingness to hire others who will advise him well."

Fred asked her question only after she was sure Severus had finished. "You said there were weaknesses."

Harry smiled wryly. "Arithmancy, which does us no good, and a sister, which might be useful."

Fred tilted her head. "There will be others. Your friend has said himself that he's not yet told us everything and there are always weaknesses. Balance is inherent in human nature."

Remus laughed appreciatively. "Leave it to a Muggle who fights demons to remind us of this. Well put, Fred."

Fred grinned at him, and Hermione felt something flare in her stomach. She didn't recognize it, but she knew the look of shock that brightened Ginny's eyes for a moment. Hermione wondered what she had seen.

"Has there been any success as far as solving further equations?" Giles looked annoyed, but at what Hermione wasn't precisely sure.

"Only a little," Wesley answered, and Hermione let him field the question. "We could have told you about the quick build up of followers, but what he wants with them, that's another matter entirely. We're working on it. Hopefully whatever Malfoy tells us next will be of more use." Wesley's words were cold, but his tone indicated that he was merely tired.

"Indeed." Severus's response was nastier than need be. Hermione realized how well she had come to understand him when all it made her feel was worry for him. She didn't need colors to tell her he had a guilt complex neither her nor Harry could even begin to understand regarding Malfoy. "If we give it enough time, Blaise will actually make his moves, and then there will be no need for either information or conjecture, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce."

McGonagall cut in before an all out snark-fest could break loose. "That may be, but for the moment, I believe Mr. Wyndham-Pryce has a valid point. Let's adjourn for the evening. I will hope to see you all at dinner in less than an hour." She stood up and left the room without waiting for any kind of response on any of their parts.

Fred pulled her hand away as she got up and brought Hermione's brain back from its wanderings. She got up to catch Ginny before she could slip away.

*

"Gin, wait up." Hermione picked up her pace a bit, careful not to run. The students should have been in their common rooms, but on the off chance that any of them were out breaking curfew, it would hardly do for her to be seen running through the halls.

Ginny and Harry waited for her, hands held casually between them. Ginny smiled when she caught up to them. "Hello."

Hermione reached down to where their hands were and squeezed, greeting them both with one gesture. "Are the two of you staying here again?" Normally, Ginny and Harry lived in a smaller house they had built on the grounds of the Black Estate, which Sirius had fought for the right to reclaim immediately after enough proof had been gathered -- Peter Pettigrew's intact corpse not the least of it -- to clear his name. It was easy enough to Apparate there from Hogsmeade, but with everything going on since Malfoy had been whisked away to the school, the two of them had taken up residence in one of the many quarters used for housing visiting dignitaries, faculty from other school and others.

Harry nodded. "It's easier that way. Did you want something of my girl?"

Ginny wrinkled her nose at him. He let go of her hand and reached up to comb her hair back behind her ear. She caught his hand as it cupped her ear and held it there for a second. Hermione felt like an intruder. Ginny must have seen something from the corner of her eye because she turned back to Hermione, "Sorry."

"It's good to see you guys so happy," Hermione said honestly.

But you still miss Ron, went unsaid between the three of them. Ginny reached out and hooked her hand over Hermione's elbow. "You wanted to know something?"

"Oh, right." Hermione let herself be led in the direction the two of them had been walking. "I was wondering if you saw anything interesting between Severus and Professor Giles?

Ginny pursed her lips. "Ask me again sometime? He's…Snape is so private. I try not to look if I can help it. If you think it's important, though-"

"For all I know it could be entirely my imagination. Just…he seems to have a respect for Professor Giles that I wouldn't expect, I guess."

Harry agreed, "Especially given the Muggle factor."

Ginny made an "mm" sound in her throat and changed subjects without warning. "Were you jealous of Remus or Fred?"

"I'm sorry?" Harry and Hermione both spoke at once, albeit in different tones. Hermione sounded startled, Harry merely perplexed.

Ginny chuckled, "I was speaking to Hermione, which she knows. She had a red aura for a second in the meeting…I wouldn't even have had to be looking at her to see it, it was that bright. And that red is unmistakable, nothing else even comes close to it. But as far as I know you've never felt that way toward Remus, or else your meetings with Sirius would be tinted very differently. So I can only imagine that it's of him that you're jealous. You shouldn't be though, with the 'mates for life' and everything."

"That's a myth, Gin," Hermione reminded her, exasperated in spite of herself.

"Maybe for werewolves as a general populace, but I'm telling you, Remus might as well hook his vital organs up to Sirius'. I can't even begin to describe the type of blue that swirls when they're anywhere near each other. It's a deeper color of devotion than I've ever seen. Regardless, you're avoiding the issue. Fred."

"Is a lovely person and brilliant besides, but a woman," Hermione declared, feeling rather flustered.

"A very attractive woman," Harry felt it useful to point out.

"And, as a straight woman, I have of course noticed that Wesley is an incredibly nice looking man, but I'm just not ready."

Ginny sighed. "I can't even tell if you're hiding behind your conceptions of your sexual identity or your grief for Ron, but whichever it is, it isn't like you not to face things head on."

"I'm not-" Hermione stopped walking, "why would I hide from something like this?"

Harry gently turned Hermione to where she was facing him. "'Mi, I love you, okay? And I loved Ron. The two of you were the first family I ever knew in any real sense of the word and there isn't a person who could ever replace one of you for me. I feel his absence every single day of my life, and it's part of what makes me keep living it to the best of my abilities. It's been nearly two years, babe. You can bet wherever Ron is, he's yelling at you, 'move the fuck on, Granger.' He loved you too much to want to see you miserable like this, and we both know it. And personally, seeing as how he's probably got front-row seats in the movie that we refer to as our lives, he's probably all for you shagging a girl."

Hermione smacked him lightly on the shoulder. "Thank you for that rousing pep-talk."

Harry's grin was goofy. "Anytime, just ask. Really."

Hermione became serious again. "I hadn't even allowed myself to think…"

"That's a good place to start, then," Ginny informed her gently. "Even if it turns out to be nothing, you've got to start thinking about it sometime. Harry's right, you can't spend the rest of your life like this. We miss seeing you happy."

Hermione leaned into Ginny slightly. "I'll try," she promised.

Ginny and Harry conferred silently for a moment. Ginny told her, "Good enough for us."

*

The problem with sexual awakenings, as Hermione had discovered much earlier with Ron, was that they made things weird. Had she walked into her office an hour ago to find Fred sitting with her knees curled up into her chin, bent over a notebook, long hair spilling all around, Hermione would have said, "Oh, hullo, working on something?"

As it was, she did say, "Oh, hullo, working on something?" but it felt weird, like maybe she wouldn't have said that an hour earlier. Maybe she wouldn't have said anything at all except, "No, keep working."

Fred pulled her eyes away from the notebook. "Oh, kind of, not really. Fooling around with some of the rune formations we were looking at this morning." She twirled the pen in her hand and then, as if just noticing the item, smiled sheepishly at Hermione, "I'm cheating. Haven't quite gotten used to the whole quill and ink thing."

Hermione spelled open a tiny drawer hidden seamlessly in her wall. She lifted four pens out of it, each of them sporting different colors. She dropped them and the sound made it apparent that they landed on several more pens. "I used to steal them from my parent's house every time I would go home. Now they just send them in care packages. I think they were worried about me stepping into a life of crime without ever realizing where I had gone wrong."

Fred giggled. "Your parents don’t mind that you chose this life over…"

"Theirs?" Hermione finished for her.

"Well, I would say a 'normal' life, but that's really all about perspective, I suppose."

Hermione sat on the edge of her desk, her legs just reaching the floor. She was still somewhat bitter at having never made it past five feet and two inches. "They…love me. And Harry. And they loved Ron. They respect that when I say this is where I need to be that I know what's best for myself. And since I'm neither starving nor constantly asking them for money, they figure the job security's as good over here as it is where they are."

"Did you…" Fred looked away, doodling nonsensical shapes with her prized pen. "I mean, after- Um. Okay. After the war, after Ron, did you ever think about going home?"

Hermione stood up, wanting to leave the room and forget about this conversation so badly that her feet nearly did the job without waiting for her brain's permission. Instead, she forced out an answer. "This…after…" She started again, "My parents loved the boy that I brought home on a vacation for two weeks, who asked them for their permission before he asked me to marry him. Harry and Ginny and Minerva and Sirius and Remus loved the man I planned to marry. For better or for worse, this is my home."

Fred smiled. "Yes. I've been wondering if you understood."

Hermione looked at her quizzically.

"There's this…" Fred's hands opened in a vague gesturing motion, "well, he's a vampire, but I always think of him as a man. He has a soul. And he rescued me from hell. He took me to his home where there were demons and Powers That Be and things that aren't supposed to exist all over the place. And even after my then boyfriend killed someone or after Wes and I broke up, it was always home. There wasn't anywhere else to run to, anywhere else I even wanted to go. I…I'm glad you get that."

Hermione figured that if Fred had been allowed to ask an insanely personal question, she was at least allowed the option of trying. "Why did you and Wes… I mean, you seem so perfect together."

"As friends, we are," Fred stressed the last word. "As lovers…can you imagine dating yourself?"

Hermione made a face. "I'm not sure I want to."

"Probably not," Fred agreed. "So, yeah, we yelled at each other a lot and said some things that we shouldn't have and finally told each other we never wanted to see each other again."

"I take it that didn't work out quite as you had planned?"

"Oh, it did. For about a month, when we accidentally ran into each other at the grocery store and ended up having a four hour conversation in the pasta aisle. Some kinds of love work better without the added complication of sex."

Hermione snorted, "That's for sure."

"Now that we've both satisfied our curiosity, would you let me take you out for a…butterbeer?" She sounded the word out, one syllable at a time. "Remus said they were your favorite."

Hermione was momentarily distracted from the main question. "You talked with Remus about me? That's what was going on between the two of you?"

"He smelled my attraction," Fred told her with a blush. "He told me…he said he thought I had a chance."

Hermione, for the first time since Victor Krum, wanted to kiss someone who wasn't Ron. She reigned in the urge. "A butterbeer would be lovely."

*

Severus followed Giles out of the meeting, watched the smooth flow of muscle as Giles walked, and thought, obviously, it's long past time I got myself shagged. Severus hadn't thought of a colleague in that way since…well, never, and he didn't suppose that now was a good time to start. He was willing to compliment himself on his taste, though.

Severus knew better than to make a play for the sexy ones. Or even the ones that had enough personality to bluff their way through to presumed sexiness. He was much safer with people who mirrored him, the ones that nobody ever noticed until they were -- most often unpleasantly -- forced to. He had rather thought him and Hooch would have made a fabulous couple, her being just terse and mischievous enough to suit his tastes while not being completely out of his league, but when it came down to it, she was still a female and he was still a male and that didn't help either one of them out in a sexual situation. Not that they hadn't done favors for each other over the years, both of them keeping their eyes closed and laughing afterward. She was the only person he could remember honestly laughing with in his life. He had never told her, but it was more for those moments after everything that he returned, time and again, to her bed.

He cast one more covert glance in Giles's direction and made an abrupt turn, winding his way through the castle, out the entrance on the side that was closest to the gates. He walked briskly until he was a few feet past the wards and Apparated.

He took a quick glance around to make sure he had made it to the right place, as he was less than completely familiar with the small Wizard town on the outskirts of the Scottish Highlands. It looked right and Severus walked past the family run shops and pubs, past most of the houses, wishing that he could get the hang of placing himself just a bit closer to his actual destination. The cottage, though, when he reached it, looked much like every other cottage, and structure, for that matter, in the town. He sighed, and knocked on the door.

She answered, and favored him with the briefest flickering of a smile in her harsh yellow eyes. "Severus." She stood back to allow him past her and in to the house.

He stepped inside. She shut the door and turned, supporting herself heavily on the cane held in her right hand. It was wooden and organic and reminded Severus perversely of a broom. She lowered herself onto the couch and motioned for him to follow suit. "Tea?"

"Please." The first time he had come he had said no, not wanting her to get up again, to have to watch her body move in a way that was so foreign to him, he sometimes thought he understood it less than she did. She had shrugged and called for Nilly, the house elf that Minerva had asked to go with her upon leaving Hogwarts to bring some for herself.

Nilly appeared almost immediately with hot tea and finger sandwiches. Severus looked at the clock over the mantel and noticed that he had intruded at tea time. It made him feel better about his unannounced visit. He didn't like the thought of her being alone.

She took a sip of her tea and informed him, "This has been quite the place to be this past week."

He didn't doubt it. She was missed. "Who else?"

"Minerva, of course. Oliver, who comes every week with the excuse that he needs advice but from what I can gather is really quite the good teacher, if a bit…overzealous at times. He dragged Harry along with him this time, it'd been awhile since that one had come my way."

Severus sneered, but there wasn't much heat in it. "Too busy for old friends, most likely."

She laughed. "Give it up, Severus. You like the boy."

"He's…less Gryffindor than I may have originally assumed." He smiled dryly.

She set her teacup down on the tray and settled back into the couch. "A lot going on of late, I hear. Young Malfoy seems to be winning Poppy's heart, if Minerva is to be believed. And Muggles abound. Three, at last count, if I am not incorrect."

"The point, Xiomara."

She acceded. "Scold Harry as you will, Severus. You didn't come by for an afternoon chat. Or rather, not only for that. What are you here for?"

Out of the hundreds he had known in his life, she was one of the only people he had never lied to. He wasn't about to start now. "Someone to touch. A bit of laughter. Time away. You."

She smiled somewhat gently. "It's never me, Severus."

He felt selfish and just a little bit sickened. "Maybe not during, but before and after it is."

"Why are you here?" she repeated. "Who am I to be…'during', as you so charmingly put it?"

He met her eyes and made himself hold them. "Rupert Giles."

"Hogwarts DADA professor and Muggle demonologist extraordinaire. I should have guessed."

Severus ignored her amused tone. He leaned in and ran a hand underneath the loose shirt she wore. She had given up robes after finally leaving Pomfrey's care. They were too much of a hassle with the injury. His fingers tweaked her nipple and she hissed.

"I need to make someone feel good," he told her.

"I could use feeling good," she admitted.

*

He didn't make it back to Hogwarts until shortly after dinner. Despite his intense desire to retreat to his dungeons and sleep until morning -- when he would have to deal with the world again -- he made his way to the infirmary and found Pomfrey.

She smiled at him, "Evening, professor. He's awake, if you want to see him."

He flashed her a look of gratitude and went to the cordoned off area, pulling back the curtain cautiously. Draco's eyes were wary of the intruder, but a look of recognition filtered into them slowly and he motioned for Severus to come in. Severus did so, seating himself in the chair next to the bed. "How are you feeling?"

"Ridiculously worn out. You?"

Severus considered the question. "Fine. Overall." He paused. "Miss Weasley says that you're worried we'll send you back."

Draco's eyes narrowed. "Ah, so that's where the flood of reassurance came from."

"You've already been told that isn't the case." Severus cursed himself mentally for not coming directly after the meeting, making sure Draco knew immediately. Still, obviously someone had taken care of it.

Draco fiddled with the top cover. "Sirius. Um, Black. He said…he asked me to call him Sirius. He talked with me, just. Just let me talk, mostly."

Severus wished he had the gall to begrudge Draco any small kindness, especially from a man that Severus still desperately wanted to think of as a cruel, unthinking child. Black was hardly that anymore, though, and Severus only had to look in Harry's direction, or Remus's, or even Draco's, evidently, to know that. "Did you?"

"Yes. A little." Draco changed the subject abruptly, "Is Weasley telepathic?"

It took Severus a moment to remember that Draco had been one of the less informed of the inner circle. They had been perfectly willing to take any information he had to give and completely unwilling, for the most part, to offer him any in return. "Do you remember the year she took in China?"

Draco took a moment to shuffle through his somewhat scrambled memories. "She was studying…Eastern mediwitch techniques?" He sounded proud of his ability to recall this information. Severus nearly told him he had a right to be.

"That was what we told everyone. It made sense, what with her working so closely with Poppy. She did take courses in that while she was there, but in truth she was studying with one of the foremost experts in ColorSense."

Draco raised an eyebrow in surprise. "She's an Aura Witch? Those are unbelievably rare, practically believed to be a myth among certain sects of the Wizarding populace."

"You can see why we felt it might be in our best interests to keep it a secret."

"Naturally," Draco responded, proving just how deeply the Slytherin mindset was imbedded in him. "I assume it’s still not precisely public knowledge then?"

"Not precisely," Severus echoed.

Draco nodded, slightly absently. He focused in on Severus again, "Thank you for coming. I'm glad you wanted to tell me, even if Sirius got here first."

Severus stood up. "Do you feel you can sleep, or would you like me to get Poppy?"

Draco shifted onto his side. "I think I'm already asleep."

Severus turned to exit, only to turn back, pull the covers up over Draco's shoulders and then take his leave.

*

Severus muttered, "well, it figures," and walked past Black without acknowledging him. Black followed.

Severus gave the password to momentarily dissolve the wards on his door. "Why are you here?"

"We need to talk. And you always show up here again, sooner or later."

Severus left the door open just long enough for Black to step over the threshold.

"How's Xiomara?"

Severus gave off a general air of confusion. He was more befuddled as to how Black knew than anything else, but it would work as a presumed ignorance of what Black was taking about. "I don't know what you mean."

Black looked tired. "I never thought that you thinking I was stupid was among the problems between us. I suppose I shall have to rethink that."

Severus actually was tired. "Don’t hurt yourself. She's fine."

"I'll have to drop in on her soon." As if sensing Severus's patience for small talk was at an end, Black switched subjects. "Draco-"

"Thank you for telling him." Severus wasn't sure who he surprised more with the words.

Black stuttered. "Well, it's that. I. I mean…he needed to be told."

"Yes." And I should have been the one to do it, Severus's conscious wanted to let the words free of his head, but he only had so much to give to the man standing across from him.

"Damnit." Black growled, a sound that was surprisingly human. "Remus pushed me to him today, earlier. Nobody saw it, but he did. He's a better man than I. He lives without preconceived notions and he forgives where he- He forgave me." Black breathed heavily, "Whatever you may think, what I did, intentionally or not, it was ever so much more a betrayal of him than of you. And yet he looked into my eyes after Azkaban and he saw someone different, someone that…neither of us knew."

"He thinks Draco needs you," was what Severus chose to deal with out of all that. He knew Remus was a good man. Severus was obstinate, but he caught on to reality eventually in most cases.

"Us," Black clarified. "He knows Draco needs us. Which is why I'm here. As much as intruding on your space and making a general nuisance of myself counts among my favorite pastimes, there are bigger issues at hand."

"I can’t decide to like you simply because it's in Draco's best interest." To his shock, Severus knew without question that if he could have at that point, he would have.

"I'm not suggesting that. I'm suggesting…asking that we find a way to start over."

Severus looked at the man who had been the boy that had tried to kill him -- back when Severus had actually valued his life. The boy who had made friends so easily, even with James. Potter. Potter, who had taught Severus never to fall for the sexy ones. Black's hair was cut neatly above his ears and his appearance was as tidy as it had been back then, but the lines of his face had never really softened again after the years of privation and his eyes…weren't laughing at Severus. Or anything, really. They looked eerily familiar and it was a moment before Severus realized why.

"Draco has your eyes."

Black scrunched up his face a bit. "What?"

Severus waved a hand. "Nothing."

Black took a step forward. "If it helps, I'm sorry for what I did. I…like most things back then I just didn't think it through. You knew exactly how to push my buttons and just for once I wanted to get the better of you. Just that once. I didn't think about the possibility of you dying or Remus being exposed, I just thought about the fact that you always were getting the last word, even if I technically spoke after you. I wouldn't have wished you dead, nor have I ever."

Something loosened slightly in Severus's chest, but all he said was, "Then we'll…start from here. I will apologize in turn for trying to give you to the Dementors. I did think it through, but at the time, I honestly thought you were trying to harm Harry. Whatever else I have done, I have protected him. He…"

"I know," Black said. "He's pure. He makes the things that touch him that way."

"Draco-"

"Is different, but he has some of the same effect."

"For them, then," Severus nearly whispered. "No more held grudges."

Black nodded. "Goodnight, then."

Severus let him out.

*

Pomfrey and Severus moved Draco into a room that was near the quarters Ginny and Harry were using and those that Lupin and Black occupied. They had offered him a choice between that and a room near to Severus's.

Draco had seen enough of dungeon-like spaces for a lifetime.

The two of them made sure he ate before Severus had to leave to teach a class and Pomfrey felt the urge to get back to the infirmary and make sure nobody was waiting with snitches for eyes or some other classroom accident type malady.

Draco found a quill and some parchment and began writing an orderly list of things that were important to know about Blaise. It was half-way through this activity that a memory was jogged, something Blaise had told him after they had fucked, when Blaise was most likely to give out information that he shouldn't.

Draco didn't bother to write it down. Instead he slipped out of his room and made his way to where he hoped the Arithmancy classroom and office still resided. He walked in at full throttle and came up short when the only inhabitant was a man that he had never seen before. The stranger was staring at a blackboard filled from one edge to the other with equations more complicated than anything Draco had ever seen, even during his sit ins at Death Eater meetings. He cleared his throat.

The stranger looked over at him with rather sharp grey eyes. Draco hesitated for a moment. "I was looking for Gran- Hermione Granger. Is she here?"

"She went to the library with Fred. I swear it's like the loo for those two, one simply can't go without the other." The stranger walked over to where Draco was standing and held out a hand. "I'm Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. The Muggle specimen brought in to help Hermione with her work."

Draco blinked. Muggles at Hogwarts? It made his news that much more pressing. He took Wesley's hand, years of training in etiquette coming to the fore. "Draco Malfoy, pleased to make your acquaintance."

Wesley nodded and let go of Draco's hand. "I thought that's who you might be."

Draco made himself drop his hand to his side, forget the feeling of…warmth that had transferred itself from Wesley's hand to his. "I had best go to the library, there are things-"

"Malfoy? Are you supposed to be out of bed?" Hermione came around from behind him carrying a stack of books that was almost as large as she was.

Draco took the stack from her hands and set it on the nearest desk. "I'm fine. Pomfrey was the one who moved me out, so I'm legal as well. And could you use Draco?"

Another woman, with a stack of books even larger than Hermione's unloaded them next to the spot where Draco had placed the others. She smiled and held out her hand. "I'm Fred, nice to meet you."

Draco hadn't been expecting anything quite so feminine out of a person named Fred, but he shook her hand and politely declined from mentioning this fact. "Granger, I remembered something. It's…I'm probably not even really supposed to know, he'd told me when he wasn't thinking particularly clearly."

"If it’s to be Draco for you, I generally go by Hermione. I have some nicknames, and the students seem to like Professor, but not Granger. Now, do tell."

"Blaise's grandmother was a Muggle. Not the one that the Zabini family shows off in pictures or anything, but the actual biological ancestor."

Wesley frowned. "I don't understand."

"Blaise's mother, a Lestrange, actually, was an only child. Her father raped one of the Muggle women in the village by the Lestrange estate during a drunken binge and she was oh-so-lucky enough to bear him a child. He was going to kill the woman and the child, but the child showed magical abilities and his wife, the woman everyone thinks was Blaise's grandmother, was barren. So he killed the woman and kept the child and told everyone their daughter was born of his wife. The knowledge would have probably died with the old man except that he became somewhat loony in his old age and let some things slip to his son-in-law. Sebastian -- Blaise's father -- dosed his wife's mother with Veritaserum and found out the truth. He used it against his wife and children on a regular basis. All in private though, of course. Blaise hates Muggles and Muggle-borns in a way that is far more than just blind prejudice speaking. Blaise has enough money to do whatever he wants with himself, but what he wants is to wipe out all but the purest of our, um, well, Wizards. The power is secondary. That kind of obsession, that," Draco stressed, "is a weakness."

"Not to mention," Fred was already moving toward the board with all the equation, "the fact that it clears up at least three or four of the questions these 'solutions' were presenting."

"If that's the case," Hermione moved to join Fred, "the indication that he's moving away from more traditional Wizarding spaces makes much more sense. We thought perhaps we were figuring things incorrectly, but if he's that driven, hiding probably takes on less importance."

"I would venture that the only importance it would serve is to keep those following him thinking that he's after what they desire, rather than his own personal ends." Wesley's voice had a soft pensive quality to it that made Draco want to taste him. Perhaps not touching anyone for over a year is affecting me a bit more than I had previously realized.

Draco shook his head slightly and scolded himself for not paying attention. "That would make sense. His followers would want what Voldemort had promised them: money and power. Most of them dislike Muggles as a matter of habit but have no real drive to wipe them out. They're merely an inconvenience." He grimaced slightly and looked over to where Wesley was watching him intently. "Sorry. I'm not…I don't think that way anymore."

"You wouldn't be here if you did." Wesley walked over to where the two women were concentrating on the third leg of a particularly complex equation. Draco sat down on a desk and watched, enjoying the view.

*

Draco had come for the noise forgetting just how overwhelming it could be. It occurred to him that the gap in his memory might be due to the fact that it hadn't been quite so overwhelming before, when he had been accustomed to noises outside the occasional moan or shriek from the other prisoners.

School was in session and the Great Hall was filled with students. Draco cast his eyes around for a place to sit. Most of the students refused to meet his eyes, aware of who he was and either afraid or disgusted. Severus was at the head table and Draco had no wish to give the students easy access to gawk at him during the meal. Hermione and Fred were nowhere to be seen.

"Draco!"

Draco swung around to see who had called him. Off to his left, Remus Lupin was gesturing for him to come to his table. Lupin was seated next to Sirius. Remembering the way that Sirius had treated him in the infirmary gave Draco the impetus needed to sit down at a table whose occupants included Ginny Weasley, Harry Potter, Wesley, and a man Draco didn’t recognize.

Wesley moved over to make room in between him and Harry. Draco hesitated for a second, not sure who he was less eager to be sitting by. The man whose life he had saved regardless of old enmities and who in turn had done his best to keep Draco out of Azkaban without either of them ever admitting to a truce, or the man who he wanted to drag out of the Great Hall in mountain troll fashion and ravish.

Draco sat down and calmed his nerves by piling nearly twice his bodyweight in food on to his plate. Across from him, Lupin smiled in a knowing way that made Draco's skin tingle. Draco turned his gaze to the man sitting to the side of Lupin that Sirius wasn't occupying. "I'm sorry, I don’t believe we've met."

Wesley took it upon himself to do the introduction. "Draco, this is Rupert Giles, the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and an old…colleague of mine. He's eschewing his spot in the limelight," Wesley gestured toward the head table, "to join us this evening. Giles, this is Draco Malfoy, our insight into the enemy."

Giles nodded his head. "Pleasure."

"As for me," Draco responded lightly. His stomach fluttered with the strength of his desire to have been at the meeting where Severus was told Hogwarts was hiring on a Muggle for that position.

Sirius caught Draco's eye. "Mr. Wyndham-Pryce tells us you revealed rather interesting news to the Arithmancical wonder trio today."

"Wesley, please, or Wes. The title makes me feel like you're calling my father." He didn't smile as he said it.

"Oh. Just deep buried family secrets that I called up. Every Death Eater family has them. It's what distinguishes the real Death Eaters from the Wannabees." Draco tried to be coherent through his overwhelming desire to suck Wesley stupid and make him reveal his own deep buried family secrets. Lupin choked on his pumpkin juice.

The Weasley girl looked at him for a second, immediately squinting. Draco winced and hoped she wasn't offended. He wasn't entirely sure what she could read out of him. Next to her, Harry laughed. "I suppose we can add 'for shite at keeping family secrets' to our list of weaknesses. Either that or add 'insanely persuasive' your list of useful qualities."

Draco looked at him hastily and recognized the look of playful evil in Harry's eyes. It had been a look Draco had dreaded for so very long. Draco wasn't an idiot, he knew that Harry had always come out the winner in their little games, but Draco had been so desperate to play against someone who was at least 'his size' rather than the endless games he was forced into with Lucius as the opposition, where winning was never an option. Draco had spent a lot of his time learning to lose with grace. Or at least lose in a way that wouldn't "force" Lucius to "teach him a lesson."

Draco met Harry's gaze with what he hoped was an equally sharp look of someone out to have a little fun. Draco didn't precisely remember what fun felt like, but he thought it was probably the same as flying. All anyone needed was a broom and a little reminder of the sensation to get him off the ground. The look must have worked because Harry smiled. "I'm glad you're here. Even if it's for rather nasty reasons."

It struck Draco that the expression he had found so familiar a second ago was slightly different than he remembered it being. It was lacking in animosity. Draco smoothed his features out. He nodded. "Yeah. Me too."

*

Draco had never been overly fond of small spaces, even before spending month after month locked inside of one. Unable to sleep at night, he took to wandering the Hogwarts grounds, reveling in the fact that nobody would reprimand him for the freedom, neither warden nor professor.

Severus found him on the third night as Draco was skirting the edge of the forest. Draco had heard the rustle of Severus's cloak long before the man had actually joined in at his side. Draco appreciated the warning for what it was; cloak or no cloak, Severus could be silent as death when he so chose. Severus's voice had a cadence like that of the swishing fabric, "Flirting with danger, Draco?"

Draco wondered for a moment how Severus knew about Wesley before he realized that the man was referencing his choice of a walking spot. "I was thinking about…irony."

"And it led you here?" Severus didn't sound surprised.

"My-" Draco reconsidered, "Lucius had the house elves mix a potion in with the butter and sugar while they were making my birthday cake for my eleventh birthday. Somnii tumultuosi araneum, I'm sure you've heard of it."

Severus made a sound in the back of his throat. "I wish I could say I was surprised."

"No, I'm glad you aren't. You knowing what he was…makes me feel less insane. Anyway, his potion worked, of course. He was scrupulous about getting the best." Draco laughed. "He must have felt so terribly cheated by me. I wish I had learned to feel cheated by him a bit earlier."

"What did you see?"

"Yes, that's the interesting part of the story." Somnii had been originally designed as an instrument of interrogation. It lulled the taker into a sleep and then called from his brain his truest fears. If the user had any gift of foresight, as most Wizards did, whether they were able to call upon it in a waking state or not, the fears could be a compilation of existing obstacles and ones that were yet to come. The potion only worked if the person using it had a Dream Reader on hand to interpret it, and those were even more rare than Aura Witches. Because of this, Somnii had not been used as a tool or otherwise since it had been ruled illegal nearly a century earlier. "Harry was there, drowning in his own robes he was so damn tiny. My father always thought I was afraid of Harry. Raged that he had spent eleven years trying to teach me true fear and the art of resisting it and yet I still feared this…child."

"For all his insistence on having the best, Lucius was never quite sure what to do with it once he got it. You found a Reader, then?"

"No. I spent so much time trying to prove to Harry and Lucius and myself that I wasn't afraid of Harry that I never even noticed that I really wasn’t. Then McGonagall gave us that detention, when Hagrid took us into the forest. It hit me, somewhere between running from Harry and smacking right up into Hagrid, that about the only thing I hadn't been afraid of all evening was Harry."

Severus nodded. "And that lead you to believe…"

"That I was afraid of myself in Harry's presence. Afraid of what he could make me see in myself and in the world." Draco stopped, turning to look into the forest. "I didn’t see much of Harry when I was in Azkaban. Lucius was everywhere. I couldn’t breathe without him using up some of my oxygen, but no Harry."

Severus began walking again, this time in the direction of the school. "It is the exceptional person who can walk through a ring of fire and come out with only superficial scars."

Draco jogged a bit to catch up. "You think that's what I've done?"

"Do you fear the person you are in Harry's company anymore?"

"Fear him? No," Draco decided. "I'm not sure I like him, but I don’t fear him."

"Scars are scars, superficial or otherwise."

Draco glanced at the man walking beside him. "Is that how it was for you? With Dumbledore?"

Severus didn't answer, but Draco hadn't expected it of him. "I didn't see you."

"I'm sorry?" The words suggested that Severus had no understanding of what Draco had just told him, but the movement of his body, much stiffer than the moment before, gave that away as a lie.

"In Azkaban. I saw more of Harry than I saw of you." Impulsively, Draco put a hand on Severus's shoulder. "I missed you."

Severus moved very carefully all the way back to the castle, as if afraid he would lose Draco somewhere on the open grounds.

*

Hermione watched Fred turn the drink menu upside down as though that might help it make more sense. Wizarding menus had about the same consistency as their pictures, with descriptions constantly changing and items choosing new names every few minutes. Hermione let her drinking buddy for the evening puzzle things out for a bit longer, enjoying the situation too much to cut in, before taking pity and stealing the menu away.

Fred looked surprised at her empty hands for a second before smiling, "I almost had it."

"Sure," Hermione agreed easily. "What did you drink in the Muggle world?"

"Um," Fred tapped a finger to her pursed lips. "I dunno, girly stuff. Tequila sunrises, fuzzy navels, seabreezes… Something sweet with just enough edge for you to know you were gonna have fun."

Hermione nearly swallowed her tongue. She summoned Rosemerta. "I'll have a butterbeer and she'll be having a Dancing Grindewald."

Rosemerta leaned down to kiss Hermione on the cheek. "Of course. It's good to see you back in here, m'dear. Can I assume you'd like your butterbeer with a little something I don't give to students?"

Hermione giggled. "I'd appreciate that."

When Rosemerta had drifted off, Fred gave Hermione a stern look. "I thought Grindewald was evil. I read everything Giles sent me after he called us, I could have sworn-"

Hermione kept a straight face but her eyes sparkled. "Grindewald was evil. Wait until you take a sip of this drink. You'll know how it got its name."

Fred propped her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her intertwined fingers. "Why Arithmancy? I mean, you're good at it, of course, but I'm willing to bet you're good at a lot of things. Why not transformations, or charms?"

"Oh, um," Hermione settled back into her seat, "well, I guess I didn't want to go into transformations because I felt like it was Minerva's ground. Like I would never be as good as her and I wasn't even sure that I wanted to be. There's something about outdoing your childhood idol that can be very upsetting, y'know?"

Fred's eyes darkened. "Yeah. I learned that once."

"And charms…was never really enough of a challenge to hold my attention, I guess. They just worked for me and while that's convenient, it's not really much fun." The drinks came. Hermione thanked the deliverer and took a small sip of her butterbeer. It settled with an elegant mix of sweetness and tang at the back of her throat. She purred appreciatively.

Across from her, Fred gasped. "Shit." Her eyes widened. "That's…well, evil."

Hermione grinned. "Told ya. Do you like it?"

Fred took another sip. "Love it," she said, in a slightly strained voice.

Hermione took another sip of her drink. "I think…Vector wasn't a great teacher, not really. But once you got her one on one, that's when she was amazing. I started taking independent studies with her because it was the only way I could really learn the information to the extent that I wanted to and I ended up continuing because I would inevitably learn so much more than I had originally planned on. And then, I mean, well, three years of studying alone with a professor -- she was like an older sister to me. I would hate for someone who didn't know her to take over where she left off." Grief settled at the base of Hermione's throat and she was disgusted at being so familiar with it that it nearly went unnoticed.

"Some days," Fred admitted with a slight blush, "I think I stay for the trimmings."

Hermione cocked her head curiously and Fred continued. "I could go back to regular Muggle physics, you know, I mean, I've published there and everything. I get offers to teach or research from different places all the time. But if I did that I'd rarely end up thumbing through a book made with sheets of vellum. Or struggling with prophecy that for all the trouble it brings, often sounds like poetry. Or laughing at Wesley, listening to him laugh at me."

"You have a great laugh." Hermione knew this was probably not strictly on topic, but it had been mentioned, and hence she could argue its appropriateness.

"You have the sexiest smile I've ever seen in my life."

Hermione knew when she was outclassed.

"It wouldn't diminish its power any if you were to flash it a bit more often," Fred teased.

Hermione took a large gulp of the butterbeer and concentrated on the just-this-side of pleasant burn. "It's only of late that I've remembered how. You mustn't expect miracles." Even if I'm pretty sure you could produce them.

"I locked myself in a room once. I wouldn't stop doing equations and I was scared mindless of my own shadow."

Hermione wasn't sure she believed this woman who grinned at everything and faced life as though it was a smashingly good dancing partner, but she asked, "What happened?"

"Some people I learned to call friends reminded me what the word 'happy' meant."

"Just like that?" Hermione wished she could summon up a Severus-worthy sneer, but the drink had reached her toes and forming her words took enough effort.

"Of course not," Fred scoffed. "There were demons and an apocalypse or two and some very messy break ups and a whole bucket's worth of tears. But we survived all of that and with every survival they taught me more and more that we had only actually survived if we took pleasure in that fact." Fred's hand snuck across the table to worm its way into Hermione's.

Hermione let a tiny smile crawl over her face.

*

Hermione was an early riser by nature. She liked the smell of the castle before teenage girls had time to flood it with the perfuming potions they wore. She thought best in the hours right after she had rolled out of bed, literally most days, and done nothing more to her appearance than distractedly sweep her hair up and out of her way.

She woke up thirsty the morning after what she had decided to think of as the 'informal date'. Harry scoffed at her need to label everything, but it comforted her. In this case she thought her label might be a little inappropriate, since Fred had asked and paid -- once Hermione helped her figure out exactly how much of each coin to shell out. It had probably been more like a date date, but Hermione's brain seemed disinclined to accept that, so she went with what she could handle.

She got out of bed and made herself presentable for day of teaching before heading to the kitchens, where she enlisted the help of Lolly, a house elf who had taken a particular liking to Hermione. Lolly brought her a tray with water, milk and enough breakfast for three people. Hermione thanked her and took the tray to her classroom, where she could work on her own until the students came.

Wesley was already in the classroom when she got there and she pushed aside her frustration at being cheated out of her solitude. "'Morning. I have more than enough breakfast, if you haven’t eaten yet." She set the tray down on one of the desks.

"Thanks, I might." Wesley didn’t look away from the problem he had been considering since she had gotten there.

"Something wrong?"

"The answer to this equation keeps coming up as finite, which-"

"Shouldn't be possible," she concluded with Wesley. Nothing in Arithmancy was ever definitively conclusive, it was what made most Wizards unable to handle the subject in any depth. There were too many possibilities, too many things to consider. It was one of the things Hermione loved best. Ron had always believed that options were a sign of hope. Her eyes skimmed the equation. "Where's that coming from?" She pointed to a rune that appeared three times throughout the course of the entire equation.

"I'm looking for possible ways of stopping him, what we need to do to effect things. I took three of the situational possibilities from the equation Fred worked through two days ago, before…any of this made any sense, and combined them algebraically. It should have worked." Wesley placed the chalk on the board's ledge and walked away.

"I think there's something missing." Hermione joined Wesley at the breakfast tray where he was considering his options.

"Such as?"

"I'm not sure." Hermione picked up the water and tried not to gulp. "Something about… I'll have to talk to Draco. I think he might have more to do with this than we're currently giving heed to."

Wesley crumbled a scone in his hand and plucked one of the larger bits into his mouth. "Perhaps we ought to be working the equations in reference to those on our side regardless."

"Not a bad idea." If one that made Hermione a bit nauseated.

Wesley grabbed the milk and took a large sip. "Did you have fun last night?"

Hermione considered a polite deferral. He was being nice though, nicer than Harry was probably going to be to Fred, so she made it easy for him. "We talked. She's quite…amazing."

"Mm." Wesley took another bit of scone. "If you take advantage, or hurt her in any way, I'll open a portal and throw you into a dimension that will be filled with demons who make Voldemort look like a child at play."

"That's sweet." Hermione decided on a muffin and took a small bite. "I might have Gin and Remus come along when I talk with Draco. I think we could all use a bit of insight." She murmured a spell that revealed the time to her. "I have class in a bit, you'll be in the Hall for lunch?"

"I'll be in the library until then, most likely." Wesley finished off the scone and wiped his hands on one of the linens that had been provided. "Thanks for the food."

*

At Hermione's insistence, Remus, Ginny and Draco all met up with her, Fred and Wesley in her classroom after classes were finished for the day. Sirius showed up with Remus, but Hermione didn't say anything, since those two rarely went anywhere without each other if it could be helped. She could trust both of them, so as she figured it, Sirius was just another brain to be put to use.

Fred and Wesley had held a vote and stuck Hermione with the job of explaining what exactly was going on, so when everyone had arrived, she spelled some of the chairs into a circle and sat down, motioning for everyone else to do so. She began by asking, "Were any of you privy to Professor Vector's work? Any of what gave us insight into Voldemort's final plans?"

Sirius, who was actually quite good at Arithmancy, if not so accomplished as Hermione, offered, "I believe she had the initiative to begin solving equations that were known -- the actions of our side -- against his. If she hadn't we would have had no idea that he planned to-" Sirius paled for a second, realizing what he was about to say, but went on, "we wouldn't have known that he would use you and Ron to get at Harry. It was a good guess anyway, but the details would have been lacking."

Details that had managed to save hundreds of lives, if not Ron's. Ron had died saving Hermione's. Ginny squeezed Hermione's hand. Hermione squeezed back and walked past the mental roadblock that was always erected by thinking of Ron's death. "Exactly. On the most basic level, all the variables in an Arithmancy equation represent something, even if it's just time itself. So variables can be assigned to a catalytic factor in an event, such as Harry or the full moon, and can therefore be solved to see possible outcomes of several series of events. It's not an exact magic, but it provides answers of a kind."

"What's the problem you're running up against?" Draco asked slowly, as if still processing this information. His marks in Arithmancy had never been anywhere near to Hermione's. She doubted the time in Azkaban had helped his comprehension of the subject much.

Wesley took it upon himself to answer, speaking directly to Draco. "When we combine the equations algebraically the solutions we come up with are finite, controlled. In other words suggesting that time as we know it is stopping here. Which doesn't seem to be the case. It suggests that the equations themselves recognize factors that we're unaware of."

"This only happens when you start solving for what will happen with us involved in the whole situation, correct?" Ginny looked like she had a headache. She hadn't been a fan of Arithmancy either.

"Well, yes," Hermione admitted.

"So why can't you just concentrate on equations that don't concern our side?" Ginny asked.

Fred twisted up her mouth. "Too many answers. His movement toward the outskirts of England rules out the solutions that show the possibility of an imminent hit on London or Devonshire or Suffolk, but it doesn't eliminate the possibility that he will work his way back into those spots by way of outlying towns, tell us whether he will use unsuspecting Muggles to work against themselves in his employ or merely rule through fear until the time comes when he can destroy those whom he commands. And those are just a few of the questions that are coming up. An Arithmancy solution shouldn’t be definitive, but too many answers is just as crippling. It's evident that the equations need something, we're just not entirely positive of what that is."

Draco fisted his robes. "Perhaps there's someone else working with him. You've tried all the obvious suspects, I assume? Pansy, Vince?"

"And all his siblings." Hermione shook her head. "As far as we can tell, it’s a one man show."

Remus and Ginny were eyeing each other nervously. Hermione fought the urge to scream. "Remus, Ginny, if there's something you know-"

"It was really Draco that gave us the idea," Remus folded his fingers together. "When you were checking to see if there were others involved, how did you go about that?"

Hermione frowned. "Up to four variables can be combined to indicate a relationship so close that differentiating the two parts is not only folly, it's…wrong. It's utilized mainly for family or lovers, but I've seen it with friends before." Three friends in particular. She remembered not even being jealous that Harry had blended into her and Ron's joined variable so seamlessly.

Remus and Ginny were obviously engaging in a battle of wills as to who was going to say whatever needed to be said. Remus evidently won, because Ginny drew herself up and said, "You should try combining mine with Harry's, Remus's with Sirius's, um," she sped up as she went through the next words, "yours with Fred's and Draco's with Wesley's and uh, if that doesn't work, try Professor Giles with Snape."

Draco was flushing madly and obviously painfully aware of it. "You Read emotions. Surely you have to know that none of us are anywhere near-"

"A good deal of Reading others, in one form or another," Remus was doing an admirable job of staying calm for everyone in the room who wasn't, "is having the instinct to understand what you're seeing and what it means. Gin and I are just making an educated guess, and you could try this and nothing might change. Then again, everything might. It's the best -- only -- insight we have for you right now, though, so we're telling you."

"Thank you for your time." Wesley stood. "I need some air. Fred, Hermione, if you need me, I'll be back shortly."

Hermione tried her hardest not to look as Draco did his best to become one with his chair. Sirius raised an eyebrow at him. "You aren't going to follow him?"

Draco gaped. "I-"

"Probably have the social skills of Neville in a room full of boggarts at the moment," Sirius interrupted understandingly, "but you should still go. If you don’t start remembering how to live rather than just survive right now, you never will. Go chase after the sexy bastard. Gin and my boy wouldn't have brought the two of you up as a match if the desire…and whatever else it is, were one-sided."

Draco looked like he was about to say something more, but Sirius stood up and dragged Draco to his feet. He tidied Draco's hair and pushed him toward the door. "You're irresistible. Go."

Draco went.

Remus came up from behind Sirius and kissed him on the neck. He murmured something that sounded suspiciously like an endearment from where Hermione was sitting. Then Remus turned around and left the room. Sirius followed with a not-so-apologetic smile on his face.

Ginny looked at the two women in the room. "And on that note, I'm going to go find Harry, if that's all right?"

Fred nodded at her. "We have equations to work on."

Hermione watched Fred distractedly push a hair back over her ear with one hand and pull down slightly on her sweater with the other. "Yes. Equations."

Hermione thought she might have heard Ginny giggle on her way out.

*

At nearly ten that evening, Hermione stood up, brushed the chalk off of her robes, ran a hand over the top of her head to smooth out any bumps and announced, "I'm sorry I didn't mention it earlier, but there's somewhere I have to be right now."

Fred looked up and whatever she saw obviously deterred her from arguing. "Okay, well. Since Wesley seems to have fallen down the rabbit hole," they both thought it more likely that he was still figuring things out between him and Draco, "I'm going to give up for the evening. Do you want any company?"

Hermione gave her an apologetic look. "Not for this. It's… I can't. It won’t be fun anyway, trust me, you'll have a better time soaking in a bath and getting a good night's sleep."

Fred leaned in and kissed Hermione briefly on the lips. "I believe you. If you need me after, you'll know where to find me."

Hermione nodded, "Of course." She left the rooms, walking quickly to the front of the castle, not allowing her fingers to touch her still-burning lips until she was past the door, crossing the grounds to a cottage she had once visited much more regularly.

Hagrid had died only months before Dumbledore while defending that Wizard whom he had admired above all others. Sirius had taken over as teacher of Care of Magical Creatures as soon as his name had been cleared, but he hadn't had the heart to move into the cottage. Instead, he and Remus and a bevy of house elves who sorely missed Hagrid took care of the upkeep and Fang, who had been miserable when moved into Sirius' and Remus' quarters.

Every year on the night of his death, those who wished to remember him came to the cottage. They made tea for each other and someone invariably brought a slab of treacle fudge from which they all dutifully at least a bite's worth. Sometimes they talked about Hagrid and sometimes they talked about anything but Hagrid, but his presence was always felt.

When Hermione got there, Harry and Ginny were already there. She wouldn't have been surprised to find out they'd been there most of the afternoon. After Dumbledore, Harry had felt Hagrid's loss most deeply. Severus was already there as well. The first year they had held the party, Hermione had been surprised to see him show up and even more surprised when he had spoken up whilst the others were sharing memories of Hagrid. It was one of the first times Hermione had realized just how deeply human the man was underneath his damn good show of being an ill-tempered dragon denied his rightly form. Remus and Sirius were in the kitchen, brewing tea, chatting with Minerva.

Oliver and Cho showed up together shortly after Hermione. Soon people were flooding in, the ones that were already there squeezing together to make more room. Hooch showed up, obviously in pain from having had to walk from where the wards ended. Neville and Seamus and Dean all came together, all of them being centralized in London. Madame Maxine and a few now-graduated students of Beauxbaton trickled in.

Hermione sat nearly on Harry's lap and listened to the conversations of others. At one point, Harry whispered into her ear, "Sometimes I feel like Voldemort was trying to take the laughter away, y'know? Because that's all I can hear, when I think of them. Dumbledore and Hagrid and Ron. All three of them knew how to make people laugh…how to make themselves laugh."

Hermione felt a tear slip down her cheek. She hated herself for confiding in Harry, who had just possibly lost more than any of them in Voldemort's fall, but he was still the only person in the world that she felt comfortable calling her best friend. "I'm terrified of what those equations will say. Of what -- who -- we'll lose this time. I don’t know how to survive anything more."

Harry wrapped his arms around her waist and tucked her head under his chin. "I know."

A sob tore loose from Hermione's mouth and she buried the sound in Harry's chest along with the words, "I love you."

Harry squeezed her tighter. "I'm scared too. But you and Ginny are two of the only reasons I still can laugh. You can't let your losses destroy you. It's not fair to you or to me to let evil win after it's technically lost."

Hermione looked up at him. "She kissed me tonight."

Harry smiled. "Did you kiss back?"

Hermione glanced around the cottage. Sirius had his arms around Remus's waist, joining in every once in a while as Remus conversed with Hooch. Severus was speaking softly with Minerva in a corner. Oliver was making Cho laugh at something he was describing more with his hands than his words. Seamus was play-smacking Dean for something he had said. Her gaze came back to where Ginny was standing behind their chair, hand planted lightly in Harry's hair. "No," she licked her lips, "but I think I'm going to."

~~~~

The chance arrived sooner than Hermione had expected.

It was late when she got back. Fred and Wesley were sitting on the hallway floor, propped up against her doorway. Wesley was still in the clothing he had been wearing during the meeting earlier that day, but Fred was decked out in flannel pajamas that looked to be at least three sizes too large for her and slippers that resembled Goofy. Upon Hermione's arrival, Wesley stopped whatever he was saying mid-sentence and got to his feet. He held out a hand and swept Fred up as well, ruffling her hair and affecting a leer for good measure, "Have a good night."

To Hermione's surprise, he brushed his hand across her hip as he passed by her, "You too."

Fred called after him, "Find me if you need me."

Wesley raised his arm in the universal sign for, "yeah, yeah" and turned down the hall that would lead to his rooms. Hermione walked to the door. "Is he okay?"

"Yes. No." Fred shifted from one foot to the other. "Um, probably? He has this thing…he gets involved with all the wrong people." Her hands fluttered, "Well, except for me. And that was a little case of too right. He's always finding the ones that he can't love or who can't accept who he is, all of that stuff, so he's decided that he'll be in love with me forever and pine in some kind of tragic one-sided love story for the ages, but I think your Draco guy might be able to break him of it. I hope so."

Hermione keyed the wards on her door and stepped aside to let Fred in before her. "Me too. For both of them." A thought occurred to her. "Did you come by for something? Seeing as how the floor outside my apartments is hardly the most comfortable spot in the school to spend hours whiling away the time."

Fred was suddenly much closer than Hermione remembered her being. She leaned in and sucked at Hermione's lower lip, pulling away slowly. "To do that."

Hermione licked the lip that had been relinquished back into her care. "I'm trying to…live. But it's been awhile since I've done that."

"I know. Tell me if I-"

Hermione hooked a finger in the waistband of Fred's pajama pants and tugged her in again, her other hand coming up to pull Fred's face down to hers. Hermione's kisses were sweet, but demanding all the same. Fred found the clasps at the neck of Hermione's robes, undoing them and pushing them off Hermione's shoulders to pool on the floor. Hastily, Fred untucked Hermione's blouse from the waistline of her pants and slid her fingers around the bare skin she'd managed to unearth.

Hermione panted against Fred's lips. She pulled back. Fred looked concerned, but Hermione waved her questions away, "I just want…I've. Women are new. I want to see-"

Fred brought one hand up from underneath Hermione's blouse and brought the hand that Hermione still had wrapped around Fred's neck to the top button that was actually buttoned on her pajama top. "Go ahead."

Hermione didn't need any more urging. She deftly pulled at the buttons one by one, finally pushing Fred's hand off her waist so as to get rid of the top. Fred pushed the bottoms to the floor and stepped out of them in a series of quick movements.

Hermione watched her for several moments, not saying anything. Hesitantly, she unbuttoned her pants and slid out of them. She unbuttoned a few of the buttons at her collar and then slid her blouse over her head. Without looking at Fred, she reached back to unhook her bra and let it slide off her arms.

"Stop."

Hermione looked up. "You don't want-"

Fred stepped toward her, so that they were skin to skin. She skimmed the fingers of both hands just slightly underneath the elastic of Hermione's panties. She dragged her fingers to the side, over Hermione's hips, and then ever so slowly, pulled them down, sinking to the ground along with them. On the floor, she delicately lifted Hermione's feet out of the holes, curling her fingers around one elegantly shaped ankle at a time. When she had accomplished her task, Fred looked up into Hermione's eyes. The were darker than usual and the expression in them was completely unreadable. Fred grasped the backs of Hermione's knees and tugged, bringing Hermione to kneel on top of her. Fred brought her hands up to Hermione's hair and searched gently for a bit to find the pins that held it in place. Ever so carefully, she released the pins, nearly twenty in all, and Hermione's hair fell free of its confines.

Fred swallowed. "Wow."

Hermione snorted. "Oh, I'm sure."

Fred caught her up in a kiss for that, slightly punishing and intensely thrilling, their chests pressing into each other, Hermione rocking herself against Fred's leg. Fred pushed Hermione back just a little and repeated, "Wow."

Hermione pushed back at Fred until she fell back onto the floor, her legs straightening out beneath her. Hermione straddled her, looking distracted for a moment. She reached out to where her clothes were and grabbed her wand, muttering a string of words. Fred giggled at the sudden feeling of having a warm rug beneath her. "Much better," she murmured.

"Mm," Hermione agreed, casting aside her wand and returning her attention solely to Fred. She lowered herself to kiss Fred and Fred took advantage of Hermione's being unbalanced, pushing her to the side so that they were lying face to face on the rug. Fred ran her fingers lightly down the length of Hermione's spine, resting her hand over the swell of Hermione's ass. She reinstated the kissing, her breath warm and lemon scented.

Hermione laughed into her mouth and Fred pulled back, unsure of whether to be offended or not. "I don't remember being bad at this."

"No," Hermione rolled onto her back, her skin flushed from the pads of her toes to her scalp. "You reminded me of someone."

Fred sucked lightly at the bared skin of Hermione's throat. "Tell me."

"The old," Hermione tried to breath as Fred slowly trailed kisses down past the hollow of her throat, "headmaster," she finally managed.

"Complimentary," Fred commented wryly as she cupped Hermione's right breast in the palm of her hand.

Hermione shrieked. "Oh, um. No. I mean. He…oh…he- Lemon drops!" Hermione shouted the last as Fred ever-so-gently bit the nipple of the breast she had been kneading and then retreated by way of sucking the nipple into her mouth and slowly letting go.

"I like lemon," Fred repeated the whole process on Hermione's left breast. "Tastes almost as good as you."

Hermione regained some semblance of sense and rolled over, pushing Fred beneath her. "I wonder-" She pinned Fred by holding her elbows slightly above her head and pulled back far enough to lave at Fred's belly button. Fred giggled and her skin vibrated slightly under Hermione's tongue. Hermione looked up at her, "Lemony."

She didn't give Fred a chance to respond, licking from the top of her navel straight up until their mouths met again, and they were kissing. Fred brought her hands down, wrapped them around Hermione's rib cage and slid her up Fred's body just far enough that Fred could reach down and easily access-

"Bloody hell!" Hermione nearly bit Fred.

Fred brought the hand that wasn't caressing Hermione's clit up to her face and soothed back some of the hair that was flying all over. "Is this okay?"

Hermione fell back onto Fred, finding it hard to think past the heat climbing from her vagina to her head. "Help me…I-"

"Every done this to yourself?" Fred's voice, just a little bit lower than usual and somewhat breathless, was enough to make Hermione's eyes roll into the back of her head.

"Yes." It had never felt like this.

"Just return the favor," Fred's words were as close to begging as anything that didn't begin with a "please" could be.

Hermione's hand combed through the dampened pubic hair before sliding smoothly over Fred's clit.

"Oh fuck," Fred moaned.

"Not good?"

"Fucking fantastic." Fred made each syllable its own word. Hermione pinched her clit gently and didn't even worry when Fred stopped breathing for what seemed like forever. When she started again, breath rushing audibly back into her lungs, she changed tactics and plunged two fingers inside Hermione.

Hermione saw black spots for several moments on end as she came. She heard herself scream, and only vaguely recognized the sound as something that came from her. That kind of scream was a sound she had nearly forgotten. "Merlin," she breathed, looking down at Fred. Fred whimpered, her muscles drawn taught.

Hermione scraped a fingernail over Fred's clitoris and Fred let go, shuddering at the intensity of the climax.

When both of them were breathing regularly again and Hermione felt sure that her legs wouldn't give out on her, she stood and pulled Fred to her feet. She lead the way to the bathroom and ran a bath. She stepped in and looked expectantly at Fred, "You're staying for this part, right?"

Fred smiled. "Who stays for the appetizer and leaves before the entrée?" She climbed in the bath and settled in the V of Hermione's legs. "Did you…that wasn't too much, was it?"

Hermione gave a moment's consideration to the different cleansing potions she kept on hand and accioed the one with citrus extract as a main ingredient. "You're too much, but I'm pretty sure that's what I needed." She exerted a slight pressure on Fred's shoulders and Fred slid down, tilting her hair back into the water to wet it. Hermione poured a bit of the potion into her palm, rubbed her hands together until there were suds, and waited for Fred to come back up.

*

Severus knew he had an option: he could take a sleeping potion, or he could resign himself to a night without rest, but Morpheus never darkened his door after the yearly "remembrance party" for Hagrid.

It was far past midnight when he got back to his quarters. He hadn't voiced his memories of Hagrid since that first year, but he made it a habit to be among the first to come and the last to leave. Hagrid had trusted and defended Severus even at his least deserving of moments. For that, if nothing else, Severus had considered him a friend.

Severus opened his private potion cabinets and reached for his bottle of Dreamless Sleep, but replaced it only a second after picking it up. He wasn't a big fan of medicating himself unless completely unavoidable. He left his quarters again, and headed for the kitchen.

Over the years, Dobby had learned that Severus was rather unappreciative of a reception that included any type of enthusiasm, but Severus could still tell that the house elf was happy to see him.

"Dobby welcomes Professor Severus, sir. Can Dobby get sir anything?"

"A snack, whatever's on hand, and some tea, please." There was always plenty of food at the cottage, but he could never bring himself to eat anything. "Not too much."

Dobby scrambled away just as a voice opined, "I've rather begun to think requesting that is a moot point with them."

Severus looked over to see Giles working away at easily half a loaf of toasted bread. He walked over to him, taking the closest seat. "They listen to me a bit more than the others." He paused. "Sometimes."

"That makes them and the children."

Severus waited for Giles to finish meticulously spreading the jam over another piece of toast. He took a bite. "Yes, but I don't have to beat the house elves."

Giles did an admirable job of not choking. "I suppose that takes less time than stuffing them in a cauldrons and waiting for them to find their own way out."

"Infinitely," was Severus's only reply as Dobby returned with a tray that was marginally smaller and less full than Giles's.

Giles took a sip of his tea and when he had swallowed asked, "What can you tell me about Lille Parkinson?"

It was Severus's turn to swallow with care. "Is there something you need to know?"

"Why it is she's flunking my class when she so obviously has the ability to excel in it, for one?" Giles pinned Severus with a stare that made it clear he was only willing to play games to a certain extent. "I care about my students."

Severus hesitated. "It's not horribly unusual for Slytherins to get…overlooked."

Giles chuckled. "Or assumed to be evil and therefore considered lost causes. Would that be what you were going to say?"

Severus scowled. "Miss Parkinson's parents are both in Azkaban, as are both her uncles, their respective wives and the large majority of their children. A few of her cousins, most notably Pansy Parkinson, are unaccounted for, and assumed to be in Blaise Zabini's camp."

"How old was the girl when her parents were imprisoned?" Giles asked softly.

"Twelve. It was the same year that nearly a third of the sixth and seventh Slytherins were also imprisoned for crimes committed under Voldemort's regime. Students from other houses had taken the Dark Mark and were also sentenced to prison, but nowhere near the same amount." Severus tried to keep his own self-disgust from roiling over his carefully modulated tone.

Giles didn't seem to notice. "Who takes care of her?"

"She was placed here for a year, most of the orphans were, until Minerva and some of the staff were able to find them homes. She was taken in by a branch of the Durien family."

"Durien…" It was obvious name sounded familiar. "Brant and Margot?"

"Are her adopted cousins. The Duriens who took her are incapable of having children."

Giles frowned. "I thought that could be cured in nearly 99% of the Wizarding population."

Severus bit back a sigh. "If it occurs naturally, as an inherent defect, it can. Ulena's…injuries were inflicted upon her and left far too long for any healing to be affected."

"Ulena is Mrs. Durien?" Giles pried gently. At Severus's curt nod, he evidently felt emboldened, "Were you the one to place Miss Parkinson with them?"

"I." Severus stopped and poured himself another full cup of tea. "I was there, when Ulena was hurt."

Giles waited as Severus took a sip and then worked his way into telling the rest of the story. "We were schoolmates. She was Hufflepuff, so in my childhood arrogance she had seemed beneath my notice, but I knew her all the same. When Poppy told her, I thought-" Severus's lips thinned. "Lille needed someone who wouldn’t see her as her parent's child or another Slytherin. Ulena. Ulena had forgiven me. And she wanted a child so very badly."

"Forgiven you?"

Severus glared.

Giles backed down. "Then Miss Parkinson's behavior-"

"Is a test. For Ulena and Andrew mostly, but I suspect for you a bit as well."

Giles took off his glasses and cleaned them absently. Stripped of their guard, his eyes showed signs of fatigue. "Is there anything I can do? Children whose families might have an interest in reclaiming them are most at risk and yet she simply refuses to put herself into learning even the simplest of defensive spells."

Severus was relieved when Giles replaced his glasses. The nakedness of the request paired with the open look in Giles' eyes had unnerved Severus. "It is likely that she already knows most of the simpler defensive spells. My only suggestion is that you find a way to challenge her. She may be testing the boundaries of Ulena and Andrew's patience, but I sincerely doubt she truly wants to push them away. Given the chance to make them want to keep her, I would be willing to bet that she would take it."

Giles tilted his head slightly. "Thank you." He stood up to leave, "I think I'll try and catch some sleep before the children begin raining down upon me in biblical proportions. If you'll excuse me?"

Severus stood as a courtesy, surprised at himself even as he rose. Giles turned and walked toward the door. He had the grace not to do anything other than listen as Severus called after him softly, "Thank you."

*

Although rumors made it out that Dumbledore had blackmailed Severus into taking charge of Slytherin House, the truth was much less sinister. Dumbledore had known Severus better than anyone. At times, Severus had suspected Dumbledore of knowing him better than he knew himself. Inasmuch, the older Wizard had known that Severus would do anything to protect the children he saw as being in his custody from making the same mistakes he had made.

Severus had felt the loss of Pansy, Greg, Vince, Millicent, Katie, Mortimer, Verelaine and Blaise ten times more strongly than he had the safekeeping of the fifteen Slytherin children who had been joined with Minerva in that year. Draco's desertion had felt like a nail being driven into the pit of Severus's stomach at the time that Draco had taken the Mark. His subsequent turning had almost been enough to make up for the children Severus hadn’t been able to help. Almost.

Given all this, he owled the Durien's the morning after his midnight snack n' chat session with Giles, asking them if they were available to speak to him. He would have preferred to send Minerva or Hermione or Remus, really anyone other than himself, but Lille was a Slytherin. One of his. One of his with close ties to Blaise and his camp, since the unaccounted for Pansy was unlikely to be anywhere else but where trouble was brewing. Lille had worshipped Pansy -- her older, more sophisticated cousin -- as a child.

Ulena's reply reached the castle by the end of Severus's second class. "Severus," it read, "Are you free this evening? Your letter has us a bit worried about Lille, and we would prefer to hear what you have to say as soon as possible. I'll make a honey cake in the way of bribery. Fondly, Uli."

As requested, Severus left after dinner. He Apparated from Hogsmeade to the rather large ancestral home that Andrew had inherited as the eldest of the Durien clan after his father's death in the days of Voldemort's first go around. Severus figured he had tripped some kind of ward stepping up the stair to the front entrance, as a house elf was there to greet him before he had even raised his hand to the large copper knocker charmed to reverberate throughout the house.

The elf led him into the same parlor he had sat in almost a year before to present the suggestion that they take in Lille and the three times he had come to check up on her before she had been sent back to Hogwarts. Ulena appeared no more than a second after he had arrived, grinning and wrapping her rather diminutive self around him. "Severus! It's so good to see you." For a second her lips curved into a frown and her blue eyes flashed dangerously, "You don't visit nearly enough."

Severus returned the hug, hard pressed to refuse her anything. "It's not often I'm cajoled with honey cake."

She pulled back and swatted at his arm playfully. "Drew'll be down any minute now. He's working on a piece about heightened security at games and its effects on morale."

Andrew Durien was one of the vice editors of Quidditch Weekly, but when a subject interested him enough, he pulled rank and wrote an article about it himself. He had started out wanting to be "a serious reporter," in the trenches, with his name on a byline in some of the more eminent Wizarding periodicals. After his father's death, he had decided to be less serious, started as a rookie reporter for QW and wooed the girl he had harboured feelings for since his fifth year, when she had turned fourteen. Ulena, still somewhat jumpy at the time from her run in with the Death Eaters, had eventually allowed herself to be caught and the two of them had settled into one of the happiest marriages Severus thought himself likely to ever witness.

As if he had been listening in, Drew appeared behind Ulena, his hands nearly circling the entirety of her waist. He leaned down and whispered, "Someone smells like honey, pretty girl. Know who that would be?" He straightened up and held out his hand. "Severus. Always a pleasure."

The two men shook hands, and Drew gestured for Severus to take a seat. Drew seated himself on the couch, Ulena falling nearly into his lap. A different house elf than the one who had answered the door brought the cake, draped decoratively in honeysuckle, and a tea tray. Ulena spoke as she reached to cut the cake, "Rudeness aside, you have us rather worried. We were hoping we might skip the pleasantries."

Severus took the proffered plate from her hand. He cut off a piece and tasted. "Delicious." He took a sip of the tea Ulena had poured and set down in front of him. "I was speaking with Professor Giles, the Defense teacher last evening and he brought up Lille."

Drew took the plate his wife handed him. "Her last report in that class was less than satisfactory. We…weren't sure how to approach it with her."

"I informed my colleague of her situation," Severus continued. "I suggested that he try challenging her more. I haven't noticed any significant misbehavior on her part in day to day matters, so while I assume that this reluctance of hers is a test of sorts, I was wondering if you had any deeper insights?"

Husband and wife exchanged a glance. Drew put his hand at the small of Ulena's back. "Severus," she said his name carefully, the way so many still uttered Voldemort's, "do you…enjoy your knowledge of the Dark Arts?"

Severus had seen this woman scream under the Cruciatus and cry under methods of torture even less refined, but he still sometimes forgot that underneath the flush of contentment that she had settled into, there was a soul of steel. "There was a time when I did. People don't consider the Dark seductive because it sounds neat."

"She's afraid," Ulena told him, not in the least reproachful. "She's fourteen and everything she knew was swept away by that seductive quality. This Professor Giles admitted that he believes in order to guard against, the children must first understand the nature of Dark Magic. I have no argument with her being challenged. Merlin knows she'll need the expertise. Drew and I can only protect her so far. Before she is exposed to that, though, perhaps it would do some good for you to speak to her. To…let her know that the Dark is only as powerful as she allows it to be inside of her."

The cake settled uneasily in Severus's stomach. "How can you trust that I would be able to help anyone in such a situation as this?"

Ulena smiled. Unlike the uninhibited expression of happiness that usually presented itself, this smile was knowing, tinged with a sadness that would always lie somewhere beneath her skin. "If you fear that sometimes I forget you were there, watching, I fear that sometimes you forget that you were the reason I got out, that I lived past that night."

He would have let the fact that she had not escaped whole lie, unwilling to wound her for the sake of his own self-disgust, but she had other plans. "More than that, you are the reason that my rather useless body doesn’t have to matter. You gave us Lille, don’t think we don't know who pulled all the strings in that particular instance." She leaned over to cut herself another piece of cake. "I can't imagine someone I trust more, really. It's unfortunate that you can’t see it, but I don’t need you to. I just need you to help our daughter. And I know that you will."

It was moments like this when Severus was glad he had taught his facial muscles -- and everything else about himself -- to lie.

*

Severus arranged for Giles to be at the meeting. Regardless of Severus's trust, or lack thereof, for Muggles, Giles had shown concern in reference to the girl, and this conference had as much to do with him as with Lille.

The meeting was set for Wednesday after classes in Severus's office. Giles arrived slightly early to catch Severus grading essays. Giles glanced surreptitiously at the wealth of comments filling the margins, "Kind of you to save your students from boredom when reading over your comments."

Severus paused momentarily. "My kindness knows no end."

"So I hear," Giles turned and perused the shelf of more commonly used ingredient potions that Severus kept on his wall. "What are the Rogandi kidneys for? Potions are hardly something I'm all that up on, but if I remember correctly, those aren't good for much of anything, unless you're a Wodmuz, and you eat them as a delicacy."

Severus noted that Giles didn't shudder at the last bit of information and was impressed in spite of himself. "It grosses out the students." He waited a second before adding, "The same with the L'lok tentacles."

"Quite." There was a knocking at the door and Giles answered it. "Miss Parkinson. Right on time."

Lille didn't say anything, just clutched her books more tightly and walked past him to stand in front of Severus's desk. "Professor?"

At this, Severus looked up. Not for the first time, he was glad that Lille had almost nothing in common with her older cousin. She was a classic tomboy, her tight, athletic build a telltale sign of the fact that she played beater for the Slytherin team. In the time that he'd known her, Severus had never seen her allow her hair to grow past her ears and he wasn't entirely sure she knew how to put on a skirt. She had Pansy's brunette curls and perfect teeth, but everything else about her was softer, less angular than Pansy had been. Severus had the feeling if she were ever to smile, she might have just enough personality in her looks to be considered pretty. This was strictly theoretical, of course. "Sit down, Miss Parkinson."

She did. Giles took the seat next to her.

"Ten points from Slytherin for disrespecting a Hogwarts professor." Severus kept his voice low. It hadn't been how he had wanted to start out the meeting, on many levels, but it had to be done.

Lille's eyes flashed defiance. "Uli told me I don’t have to be afraid of you. She says you care about your students more than any other teacher in this place and that I'm lucky to be in Slytherin where you can take care of me."

Severus knew the usefulness of fear, particularly when it came to his students. He also knew when it was counterproductive. "I would rather you weren't afraid of anything, so much as aware of the possible danger it presents. But fearful or not, I will demand your respect. Of me and the men and women with whom I work."

Lille leaned back in her chair and thought about what he was saying. "This is about the Dark Arts, isn't it?"

"Defense Against," Giles supplied.

"Not the way you're teaching it," she bit out. She looked at Severus. "Sorry Professor, but he teaches us all about the hexes and curses before teaching us how to defend ourselves. He gives everyone the tools they need to join up with Zabini if they decide. You know my family. I can't…what if I'm tempted? I don't want to leave Uli and Drew and become some kind of psychotic murdering freak."

"Miss Parkinson, Professor Giles is a Muggle, do you honestly think his intent is to give his students the ability to join with a group that wants nothing more than to wipe his kind out?" Severus carefully didn’t look at Giles as he asked this, feeling vaguely nauseated himself at the harsh truth of the words.

Lille stuttered, "Well, no. I mean, of course not. That doesn’t make any sense. But it doesn't explain why he's doing what he's doing either."

"Maybe that is a question you should be asking him," Severus suggested, not a little patronizingly.

Lille blushed but turned to face Giles. "Why would you…"

Giles took pity on her inability to finish. "Muggles have a saying, Miss Parkinson. 'Know thy enemy.' I could teach you general defense mechanisms from now until the end of time and without the knowledge of what you were fighting, most of them would end up being of no use to any of you."

Lille's left foot tapped nervously. "I…I understand. That makes sense. But I still. I just don’t want to learn those things. I don’t want to find out that I deserve to be imprisoned just like my mom and my dad and all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. I mean, how is it possible that I'm the only good person to come out of my entire genetic line? It's not, right? So I thought, if I stayed away from temptation then I would never have the chance to find out that I was like them. And I could stay the person that Uli and Drew think I am, the girl that they keep telling me they're so proud of."

"Lille."

Lille turned back to Severus, her eyes wide at the use of her first name. Severus almost smiled. "You parents, and all their siblings, they sought out what you are so afraid to even consider learning about. The yearning for the Dark was already in them, they didn't need any help to bring it out. That desire isn't in you, as this discussion makes blatantly apparent."

Lille's eyes shone wetly, but she didn't cry. Severus swallowed a sigh. "Believe me, you're nothing like them. Nothing. And all Drew, Ulena and I ask is that you work at a subject that will allow you to protect yourself should they come back to claim you. We want you to stay with the Duriens every bit as much as you want to yourself."

Lille made a face at nobody in particular. "It still scares me."

"I highly doubt you’re the only one. It still scares me most of the time," Giles admitted.

Lille looked skeptical. "No it doesn't."

Giles just stared at her. She relented. "Okay, okay. I'll do better. I promise. Good enough?" This last was directed at Severus.

He carefully didn't laugh. "For the moment. You can go now. If you're late to practice, tell Professor Wood that you were speaking with me."

Lille got up to leave and was at the door when Severus stopped her. "Miss Parkinson?"

She turned. "Yes, Professor?"

"We're going to win this weekend, correct?"

She grinned. "I promised Uli and Drew that their trip down to see the match wouldn’t be for nothing."

Once she was gone, Giles stood. "I appreciate all your help in this matter."

Severus nodded, his mind attempting to work its way back to the essays he had been correcting. "I didn’t do it for your sake."

"Well of course not. Have dinner with me."

The essays would now have to be officially consigned to being a lost cause for the evening. "I'll head up in a bit, go on ahead."

"Preferably not in the Great Hall, I'm not really one for public courtship," Giles clarified.

"No."

"Why not?" Giles kept his tone mild. "We're of an age, single, intellectually compatible and you're the sexiest thing I've laid eyes on in decades. If I'm not exactly that in your eyes, well, I promise, I make up for it in the sack. So I've been told, at least."

"Fraternizing among the staff is not encouraged," Severus ignored everything that had just been said for the sake of his health.

"Bullshit. Cho and Oliver might as well be having sex at the Head Table every night, as discreet as the two of them are being, and Minerva doesn’t even glance their way. If I didn't respect you quite as much as I do I'd suspect you of being a coward."

"Merely because everyone else in this castle feels the need to distract themselves from the things that they should be paying attention to by copulating like rabbits in the spring is no reason for me to participate in such behavior." Severus affected his best too-haughty-for-this-song look.

"Hardly," Giles words were clipped. "Wouldn't want any sign of your humanity to rub through that fantastic façade you've spent so many years shining. I will keep asking until you give in."

"Awful lot of work for a shag."

"If that was all I wanted, I would agree, wholeheartedly." Giles left before Severus could get in the last word.

Severus drove his quill into the inkwell, shattering the tip, and cursed. Dinner invite or no, he still knew better than to show interest in the sexy ones. Especially sexy ones who seemed to be a bit off their rocker. Sexiest thing he's laid eyes on in decades? Man needs to get out more. Or at least start looking in the mirror every once in a while.

*

Sirius seemed the most likely person around to understand his dilemma, so Draco woke up one morning to watch him teach the fourth years about Fioers, a creature distantly related to the dragon. The only characteristic Fioers had in common with their big, bad cousins was the ability to breathe fire as a defense mechanism.

Draco waited until the students had trudged back up to the castle. It was an immense relief that they had begun to stop looking like he was going to pull a wand and curse them all into the next country at any second. That fear had been faulty anyway. Which was what he needed to talk to Sirius about.

As Draco approached, Sirius held out his hand. A Fioer was perched on top of it. "Will you hold her for a second?" He didn't wait for a response, depositing her on top of Draco's right shoulder and turning his attention back to another Fioer, who was playing a game of Hide and Seek. Unfortunately for Sirius, Fioers had the ability to change their skins in order to completely camouflage themselves regardless of surrounding.

Not to be defeated, Sirius transformed into a dog and sniffed the wayward creature out. He picked it up gently in his teeth and returned it to the holding containing all the other Fioers. He shifted back into a human once more and gestured for Draco to put the Fioer he was now holding gingerly in with its friends. Draco let go reluctantly. Fioers were warm, and Draco liked pretty much all things warm at the moment. Sirius gave him a look of sympathy. "As exciting as my teaching technique is, I somewhat doubt you came out here to learn about the wonders of these little guys."

"It was a good refresher," Draco told him honestly. "But no. I didn't."

Sirius waited a second before asking, "Do you want me to ask questions, or just sit and wait until you're ready to say something?"

"It's…I'm not doubting the brilliance of the people assembled to defeat Blaise or that they could well do so without my help, but I'm here, I'm out because of the threat he presents and I don't," Draco's mouth twisted at that, "I don't want to just sit back and watch, sticking in a word of advice or two along the way."

"Have you spoken with Minerva?"

"Not yet. Um, see, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. Right now, magic-wise, I'm not much use to anyone." Draco opened two empty hands wide.

"That's what's worrying you?" Sirius was obviously trying -- and failing -- to keep the amusement out of his voice. "Draco, floo yourself out to Diagon and get yourself a new wand."

"Two problems with that sterling idea," the edge in Draco's voice could have rivaled Severus at his most cutting. "One, I'm without funds. Free or no, everything I had was confiscated and I'm seriously unemployable at this moment. Two, how likely is it that old Ollivander's going to jump for joy at the prospect of supplying an ex-con who wasn't wrongly convicted with a new prospective weapon? The students here may be starting to relax a little around me, but the rest of the Wizarding world thinks that article in the Daily was right: someone who murdered and pillaged alongside those people who are threatening the safety of everyday Witches and Wizards once again should not have been set free to possibly rejoin them."

Sirius waited until Draco's breathing evened out again. "This is why you should talk to Minerva. She'll vouch for you with Ollivander. And he'll take her word over the flaming pile of horse dung the Daily dishes out any time. Or over that of blind public sentiment, for that matter. As for the money…I don't suppose you would accept a loan."

Draco shook his head and held a hand up. "It's not pride. Trust me, I know enough about that to know it has nothing to do with this."

"Then what? Because honestly, I can afford it. My family's estate and funds were restored to me and Hogwarts pays me enough, along with the room and board, to allow for all of that to sit, gestating inside Gringotts."

Draco swallowed. "I'm not entirely positive of my ability to pay it back. Ever. Ollivander may be willing to take McGonagall's word, but I'm not sure that anyone else will, especially with enough weight to provide employment for me."

"Let's do this, then. Allow me to provide you with the monies for a wand. After," here Sirius fixed Draco with a stare to cement his point, "Blaise has been defeated and any necessary clean-up has been affected, if you can't get a job, Remus and I will discuss some alternate form of repayment by services rendered. Fair?"

Draco hesitated before nodding once, sharply. "Fair. And." His mouth tried curving upward with a little success, "Thank you."

Sirius smiled with hard-won ease. "You're welcome."

*

Draco had been raised to recognize the strength of both Divining and Empathic Arts, given that his mother had been gifted ever so slightly as a Seer. Her great aunt, whom Draco had never met, but Narcissa brought up at every possible opening, had been an Aura Witch. It was the only reason Draco knew as much as he did about what Ginny Weasley could do. Aura Witches were so rare that only a couple of paragraphs were devoted to them in the entirety of the endless tomes that Binns had assigned reading in for History of Magic.

Still, if only Ginny had said something about him and Wesley, he would have felt inclined to ignore it. He wasn't even going to pretend he didn't want to rediscover the Astronomy Tower with Wesley, but beyond physical attraction, Draco wasn't feeling entirely up to getting involved with anyone at the moment. Between the fact that Draco didn't see himself as such a prize these days, and that his last relationship -- the one with Blaise -- had been destructive even before he had been called upon to help hunt his ex down, the thought of dating anyone right now made Draco queasy.

It had been Ginny and Remus, though, and that changed things. First off, because an empath and a wolf's combined conclusions were unlikely to be wrong. Secondly because Draco trusted Remus. Remus had been one of the very first to believe that Draco had truly defected, even after having been thoroughly abused at Draco's hands the year he had taught at the school. He had also been the one to constantly bring attention to the dangers that Draco was being exposed to, saving Draco's life once or twice in the process. It was something Remus had done for everyone, which almost made Draco feel more…cared about. He wasn't being singled out by Remus, rather, he was being lumped in as 'one of them', the people that Remus saw it as being his duty to help protect. Draco didn't have it in him to think that Remus could steer him wrongly.

Which meant that Draco had spent the better part of a three hour conversation convincing a cynical Wesley -- who could believe in ancient and vague prophecies but not the straightforward words of two of the people he ate dinner with every night -- that they should at least give the dating thing a shot. Draco thought it was a testament to how very much faith he had in Ginny and Remus that he had won the argument, and procured himself a date for the next evening.

Draco's release from Azkaban, while not temporary, was conditional. The main condition being that he could not leave Hogwarts. Minerva could petition the Ministry for him to be allowed to go places, but she herself or someone considered equally trustworthy in the Ministry's eyes would have to accompany him. Wesley wasn't one of those people.

Having spent a year and a half in Azkaban, Draco didn't much mind not being allowed to leave Hogwarts' grounds. There wasn't anyone he really wanted to see anywhere else and Hogwarts had everything he needed to keep himself occupied. A smaller part of him also figured that if anywhere was going to help him recuperate his ability to remember good things and create new happy memories, Hogwarts was that place, but he tried not to think about that very much, the thought was too closely connected with the tingle of fear that lurked constantly at the base of his skull.

Draco's challenge was this: how to have a first date inside Hogwarts walls that would actually lead to a second and a third date. If nothing else, Draco felt it was up to him to prove Remus and Ginny right.

Hermione was the first person he thought to ask, but she was hard to catch away from Wesley during the day, unless she was in classes, and it wasn't exactly like he could just interrupt one of those for casual dating tips. He went for his second choice.

Draco found Harry on the Quidditch pitch, assisting with one of Wood's classes. Draco thought it was probably counter-productive to have Harry around. As good as the now-professional seeker was on his broom, his looks and his status tended to cause the students -- regardless of year or house -- to drool and lose any semblance of intelligence when in his presence. There were a few exceptions, but most of them didn't really care to learn flying anyway, and so were inconsequential. Harry seemed to realize it too, but obviously felt bad turning Wood down when the erstwhile professor asked for assistance. What made it worse was that Draco was almost positive that Wood only asked to give Harry something to do. Draco felt the urge to snicker. "Only Gryffindors."

The Gryffindor that he had come seeking saw Draco as he was making a pass overhead. He flew to where Wood was helping one of the Hufflepuff's with his in-air posture and yelled something over the wind before making a smooth descent, hovering over the bleachers next to where Draco was sitting for a second before sliding off the broom and sitting down at his side. "If you wanted entertainment, you should have come to the first year Ravenclaw-Slytherin class. It's something else."

"I'd imagine. I'll have to stop by some time. Entertainment wasn't really what I came for, though."

"You don’t say?" Harry raised an eyebrow.

Draco felt unbalanced. "Oh, but I do." It felt good to come back with a joke, even if it was less than entirely clever.

Harry's eyes positively danced. "Then what are you here for, pray tell?"

Draco's inner you're-being-an-idiotometer was blaring at him. He forced himself to talk. "I need Hogwarts dating advice."

Whatever Harry had been expecting, obviously that wasn't it, since his face went blank for a moment. "Dating advice?"

"Did Ginny say anything about the meeting she came to yesterday?" Draco hoped she wasn't as honorable as it seemed she probably was.

"No, we don't…I figured she was asked to Read and we don't talk about what she Reads, unless it pertains directly to us. Not even then sometimes."

Draco sighed. Gryffindors. "She and Remus suggested that my future might be…considerably more interconnected with Wesley than either of us had previously considered. That our relationship might have some greater effect on the total whole of what is happening."

"So you asked him out?" Harry sounded unsure of whether to be congratulatory or not.

"Well, asked, begged, convinced him that attempting to date me was a sacrifice he would have to make for the greater good…all the same, really."

Harry winced. "Draco-"

Draco spoke right over whatever Harry was going to say. "Anyway, I can't very well leave the school and I thought maybe you would know somewhere appropriate inside to, uh, woo someone, for lack of a better term."

"You and Blaise never had any places you found for yourselves?" Harry blushed beet red.

Draco did his best not to match the color. "We had places, but they aren't exactly somewhere you can take someone on a first date. He wasn't much of a romantic, and we weren't much of- It wasn't what you and Ginny have."

Harry was slowly returning to his natural color. "We can win this war without you prostituting yourself out for the sake of a scent and some colored air and the suggestion that it might be the way to go. You sound like you need a break from being used."

Draco didn’t have the energy to get mad even if he had wanted to. More than anything, he knew perceived guilt when he heard it. "Maybe, but I don’t think now's the time for me to take it. If redemption was easy, what I'm doing wouldn’t be so special. And it’s not like I don’t find the man attractive. I'd have to be blind not to."

Harry didn't look reassured, but all he said was, "The lake runs off into a…lagoon, for lack of a better word, underneath the school. Unless there's a new gang of Marauders, or someone has gotten hold of the map, you won’t find students there. It's easy to get to by a tunnel near the faculty lounge. The house elves will make up a picnic basket if you ask them to. It's really nice. Peaceful. It's a place to go by yourself as much as with another person." The last sentence sounded like a suggestion.

Draco wasn't going to take it, but that didn't mean he didn't appreciate it. "Thanks. I owe you one."

"Most days, I like to consider us permanently even, and leave it at that." Harry was on his broom before Draco realized he had stood up, flying off to rescue a rather hapless Gryffindor.

*

Wesley met him by the faculty lounge, casting dubious glances at the large basket hanging from Draco's hand. "A picnic?"

"Sort of." Draco chatted it up with the fairies in the portrait that guarded the tunnel Harry had told him about. The fairies twittered at him for a bit before swinging the entrance open. "I have it on good authority that where we're headed is nice."

"Good authority." Wesley followed a few steps behind Draco. "I thought you went to this school."

"In all the millennia that Hogwarts has existed, I seriously doubt that any one person ever knew all its secrets. I seriously doubt all its secrets have yet been discovered." Draco concentrated on walking. The tunnel curved down steeply and twisted sharply a few times, but it wasn't very long before they arrived. Draco stopped abruptly. "Oh."

Floating on the water, flying above it, curled into tiny cracks in the rocks, were hundreds upon hundreds of fairies, bathing the entire cavern in the soothing bluish light that emanated from their wings. If they were surprised to see humans in their midst, it evidently didn't bother them, as not one flew up to investigate. "Harry didn't mention this part."

"I doubt he thought it was necessary." Wesley had stepped forward, his eyes glowing with excitement. "The only time Water Fairies choose to interact with humans in any way is when we're asleep. They have the telepathic abilities to implant visions in the human brain, along with a few other creatures, but as I understand it, humans are the only ones far enough along the evolution chain to actually interpret those visions. The visions are meant to help strengthen one's chance of survival in dangerous situations. I should have realized… there's a large amount of reading dealing with the fact that some of the greatest Seers in Wizarding history have been turned out of this school and that, what's more, the students here experience an unusually high amount of Sight in their years at school, but I didn’t even think…"

Draco watched a fairy skim over the top of the water, small waves lapping in her wake. "I've never even heard of them. I thought they were imaginary."

"Not unusual. They're reclusive. And Giles says the divination teacher here is bloody well useless, so you would hardly have learned about it from her."

"Narcissa and Lucius…my parents…taught me almost everything I know about the subject," Draco confirmed.

"Then I doubt you know much about the more benevolent forms of divination." Wesley's voice was compassionate. "Water fairies have not yet proven themselves capable of harming. The visions they present might be dark, but they are always presented so that the receiving party can get past the actual vision and to what it might mean for him."

Draco walked to a spot that was nearly free of fairies and carefully spread the blanket the house elves had packed. "I would transfigure us a table, but I'm working on getting myself a wand at the moment, so we're pretty much magicless right now."

Wesley knelt on the blanket. "I've survived for quite some time that way."

Draco couldn't imagine. He couldn't imagine what it felt like not to constantly have the sense of his powers tingling delicately at the tip of his fingers, the base of his throat. "I suppose you have."

The meal, predictably, was much too large. Draco forced himself to stop before he felt full, knowing that he was actually well past it. He had missed food in Azkaban and, not having ever experienced hunger in that way before, hadn't realized it would take his stomach a while to reach the point where he could eat as much as he so wished again. His first couple of meals at Hogwarts had been followed by long dates with a toilet and since he had no wish to end the date early by vomiting all over his dinner partner, he took the safe route.

Draco tried initiating small talk, but found himself to be out of practice, and Wesley to be less than obliging. Wesley put a stop to it with a curt, "Why did you betray everything you knew for them?"

"It wasn't for them." Although, if Draco was honest with himself, it had gotten to be more and more so as time had passed.

"Then what? Some sense of wrongdoing implanted from who knows where?" Wesley's voice was mocking and hopeful all at once.

Draco wanted to hit himself for finding it oddly hot. He thought he should be offended, but he couldn't be. Not when his answer was: "If that was part of it, then it was far overshadowed by the need to betray everything -- everyone -- I knew. Blaise and Lucius and all the fucking sickening people that had done nothing but inject poison straight into my head from the moment I was born."

"You just woke up one morning-"

"Of course not. Hate builds up until you're trudging along behind your father to one big Death Eater 'Party' because you've convinced yourself, in your need to survive, that your hatred is actually jealousy, admiration, the need to be like this man who has taught you everything you think is worth knowing. But you get to the party and everything smells like malevolent death and he's pushing you into a room where there are two girls, maybe half your age. Maybe. And you force yourself into them, ignoring the screams that are almost as loud as the ones in your head because you are so sure that if you just do this, just step over this threshold, you will be him and the jealousy -- the hatred -- will be gone. And when it's over, when the girls aren't tearing themselves apart in the futile hope of freeing themselves from the curses that you're laying on them, when their bodies lie cold and slightly green in the afterglow of the Killing Curse, nothing has changed, nothing except that maybe you feel that hatred directed as much at yourself as it ever was at your father." Draco looked at Wesley. "That way was going to kill me."

"I can’t tell as there's much difference this way." Wesley corrected himself, "Not to say that what you've chosen isn't right, just that you don't seem to hate yourself any less for it."

Draco sighed. "The road to self-hatred always seems much shorter than the one back from it."

Wesley grimaced. "Fair enough."

"And Azkaban…isn’t the most therapeutic spot in the world."

"I wouldn’t imagine." Wesley shifted positions, supporting himself with one hand against the blanket.

Draco was surprised at his need to cover the hand with his own, touch Wesley's cheek, anything to obtain contact. There was a faint stirring of sexual desire beneath the urge, but overall it was just the need for physical touch, something he had missed even more than food while in Azkaban. It was funny to him, that he could miss something he had known only rarely in his life, but that didn’t change the fact that he did. To keep himself from doing anything stupid, Draco began carefully repacking the basket. "So. Do I warrant a second date?"

Wesley was silent for a bit. He smiled sardonically. "Well, more than you merited a first."

Draco figured that would have to be good enough.

*

Hermione volunteered to go with Draco less out of the goodness of her heart -- which was substantial -- and more because she had questions that she didn't want to ask around Fred and Wesley. She doubted Draco would answer with them as an audience anyway.

They flooed straight to Ollivander's. The old man was waiting for them when they arrived, his shop closed to customers even though it was the middle of the business day. Ollivander smiled upon their arrival. "Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy, welcome. Now, Mr. Malfoy, shall we see about getting you a new wand?"

Draco stepped forward, watching as Ollivander sorted haphazardly through his various boxes. He handed a wand to Draco, who took it, waving it ever so slightly. The resulting blast knocked Hermione back a good few feet. Draco turned to her, "Are you all right?"

"Fine," she answered. "I think I'm staying over here, though."

Draco seemed to think this was a good idea, but he was careful to aim away from either her or Ollivander on his next try. It was no more successful than the first. There was a third and a fourth before Ollivander handed him a wand that seemed to connect. If Hermione hadn't noticed the lack of an explosive reaction to his testing it, she would have recognized the look in Draco's eyes of a bone-deep need being fulfilled.

"Eight and three-quarters inches, with a braided unicorn hair at its core." Ollivander announced.

The wood was a smooth maple, nothing like the blackened wood of his first wand, fashioned to look like Lucius's. Hermione admired the craftsmanship, "Pretty."

Draco looked away from the wand and up at her. "It is."

Hermione approached Ollivander. "I know we're supposed to floo right back, but would you mind terribly if we stepped out for a sundae? I've been craving one for months now. Then it will be back here and off to Hogwarts in no time at all."

Ollivander raised an eyebrow at her, but didn’t deny the request. "Off you go then."

Hermione herded Draco out the door before he could say a word of protest. He scowled. "Potter was a really bad influence on you, you know that?"

"Makes my life more interesting."

"It's making my life more nerve wracking."

"Relax," Hermione commanded. "I told Minerva I was going to do this. I need to talk to you."

He accepted this as gracefully as was possible and stepped inside Florean Fortescue's. Hermione bought herself a souped up version of a banana split and urged Draco on until he had chosen a single scoop cone of Screaming Chocolate. He swiped at it with his tongue hesitantly, as though it might swipe back, but then closed his eyes. When he opened them, he thanked her, "I had forgotten how good that was."

She sat down at a table and he followed suit. Two bites into her sundae, she threw caution to the wind and asked him straight out, "What was the relationship like, between you and Blaise?"

His response was every bit as candid. "A lot of sex."

"Look, Draco, honestly, I'm sorry I have to pry, I would hate it if someone needed to know the things that were and will always be just between Ron and me, but I need some indication of who you were to him."

Draco took a bite out of the cone and hissed at the lump of cold hitting the roof of his mouth. "If it were you and Ron we were talking about here, there would be something to tell. Blaise and me, though…at best I was 'his' in the possessive sense of the word. He's very proprietary. With everyone really. That's why it's not so much of a shock that he's taken to this whole evil lord thing with such adeptness. These people allow him to see himself as their owner, just like they did Voldemort before him."

Hermione kept her eyes firmly planted in her ice cream. "And you? What did you feel?"

The crunch of Draco's cone was nearly enough to make her jump. He finished chewing the portion he had broken off. "Well it wasn't love, exactly. It was…I wasn't like you, Granger. I didn't have a million friends and a family who let me do whatever I pleased. I had a father whose favorite type of experimentation involved seeing how far he could go before he broke me, and a whole bunch of people who were told to hang out with me by their parents. Blaise didn't give a shit what his father told him, though. He liked me enough to hang around me on my own merit, or at least, the me that I was supposed to have become. That was…heady. He was my friend, I guess."

"So you cared about him?"

Draco didn't even pause. "Not enough to be blind to the fact that he didn't care back. Well, not in any way that I would have wanted him to. I'm quite sure my betrayal pissed him off for reasons that had nothing to do with either friendship or love."

"He thought you were his to control." Hermione's voice was empty, and she reached a hand out to curl over the one with which Draco wasn't holding the ice cream. She was only mildly surprised when he grabbed on tightly.

"Fooled him." Draco ate down to where only the tip of the cone remained.

Hermione remembered something her mother had told her as a little girl. "You're supposed to make a wish on the tip, before you eat it."

Draco looked at her curiously, but she just shrugged. "Muggle superstition, take it for what it's worth."

She noticed there was a second in between when Draco lifted the last of the cone to his lips and when he actually popped it inside his mouth.

*

The numbers swam in front of Hermione's eyes until she squeezed them shut. There was a drape of red over the blackness for a second before that faded and left her with the nothingness she sought. "Everything is personal with him. His goals are always…about him, in the end. Voldemort was like that, really. It's a weakness, we just have to figure out how to exploit it."

Fred shuffled up behind her, resting her chin on Hermione's shoulder. "Where was his grandmother from?"

"Little town up north by the name of Linnow. I already did a full round of equations. The town hasn't been touched in years and evidently plans on staying that way indefinitely, according to the view of the universe. I'm guessing Blaise sees that as too obvious."

Wesley used a quill to scratch at some of the notes he had made. "I suppose that eliminates the town by his family's estate and any places that can be directly linked to his father."

Hermione opened her eyes slowly, focusing in on Wesley to make sure he would stay in one spot. He did. "Most likely, although I doubt it would hurt to run a set equation, substituting each of those towns in separately. It took me less than ten minutes to solve for Linnow's involvement."

"Better safe than sorry," Fred agreed, her chin moving against Hermione's shoulder as she spoke.

"What isn't obvious, then?" Wesley thought out loud.

Hermione knew he hadn't actually been addressing her, but she answered all the same. "Are you seeing Draco again?"

Wesley pulled himself out of wherever his train of thought was taking him. "Tonight."

"Ask him that question." Her tone implied that her words were not mere suggestion.

"I don't know if-"

"He'll tell you anything he knows," Hermione cut him off. "I don’t have time to be Draco's constant interrogator, nor is it a job I want."

"And if he doesn't know anything? Which, if I may point out, has been the case more often than not with him." Words aside, Wesley was calm.

"Then hopefully Fred and I will find something in the library regarding Blaise's family history. After all, subtle or no, this is all about his bloodline." Hermione headed toward the door, Fred falling in that direction as she lost her support. "That's the best thing we have to go on right now."

Hermione wasn't ready to mention the other possibility just yet.

*

Ginny was picking at her food. Hermione, sitting in between Sprout and Cho at the head table, couldn't take her eyes off of the process, as Ginny slowly and carefully dissected everything on her plate.

"Hermione?"

Cho's voice sounded distant, but even so, it called her back to reality. "I'm sorry, what was the question?"

Cho waved a hand. "It wasn't important, we were just discussing last Saturday's match."

Hermione tried to remember what had happened. The details had only really been important to her back when she was watching Harry and Ron play. She still found out everything she could about Harry's games. Cho saved her from having to pretend to know what was going on, "You look distracted, though. Something you want to talk over?"

"A million things," Hermione admitted. "But right now I think I need to go check on a friend. If you'll excuse me?"

Both women nodded and Hermione rose, taking her plate with her to the table where Ginny was seated next to Harry. Oliver had foregone sitting at the Head table to talk with Harry about Quidditch. Ginny normally would have been interrupting with her own opinions, but tonight she was obviously preoccupied.

Hermione placed a hand on Remus's shoulder. He didn't even look up before he pushed at Sirius -- who never sat at the Head table so as to sit with Remus -- over a place, making room for her. She slipped into the vacated spot and nudged Remus with her hip. "Thanks."

Remus swallowed whatever he was chewing. "If you can make her feel better, clear up the air in here, really, the thanks will be all mine."

Ginny looked up at that. "Oh. Sorry, Remus."

Remus just shook his head and returned to the conversation he had been having with Sirius. Hermione squeezed Ginny's arm. "Want to talk?"

"Draco looks like flaming crap."

It wasn't the answer Hermione had been expecting. Not because Ginny didn't swear. Six older brothers and she swore more fluently than most experienced Aurors. "Actually, I think he looks pretty good. I mean, the weight's going to take some time to come back, obviously, and I'll admit, he's a bit on the twitchy side of things, but for the most part-"

"He has this sick orange-grey color pouring out of his throat that I can't even begin to describe."

"Orange-grey?" Hermione tried to envision what this would look like without much success.

"I think I put it there," Ginny looked like she had swallowed a rotten lemon.

"Not to impose reality onto anything, but, Azkaban, Gin." Hermione's tone was gentle, but undeniably firm.

"Is why he tends to pour this fantastically disgusting green from his stomach and chest, and a kind of angry red from his head, but not the cause of this. Or at least, not directly."

"You think it's because of Wesley? You think you were wrong?" For a second, Hermione hoped so, hoped that she could wipe away her suspicions of what Blaise was up to with a simple "yes".

"Not wrong, exactly." Ginny put down her fork and quit the pretense of even trying to eat. "It just would have been better if they had figured it out for themselves. Especially Wesley. Draco shouldn't have to convince someone else of his worth when he's not in the least sure of it himself. Sometimes I just wish I couldn't See. Draco's misery is obvious enough without extra visual evidence."

"But if you're right, things have to get better, yes?"

"Yes, of course." Ginny pushed her plate away from her. "Probably only after they get worse, though."

*

"Miss Parkinson, I'm glad you're here. I wanted to compliment you on your reversal of the Scorpio Hex this morning."

Severus looked up from his work and managed not to roll his eyes only through an amount of willpower he hadn't previously known he commanded at Lille's obvious attempts not to glow with pride at Giles' words. "Thank you, Professor."

She sprang up and gathered her things. Severus glared. If he had doubted Lille's loyalty even just a bit, he would have suspected her of helping Giles out in his rather incessant efforts. It was more likely though that she could handle the rest of her homework by herself and was running off to tell Drew and Ulena what her DADA professor had just said.

To make the floo conference worthwhile, Severus added: "You can tell them you're top in Slytherin in potions as well."

She looked up at him, levelly. "Am I?"

Severus almost smiled. She could be delicious at sniffing out the most delicate of lies. "When I finish adding in the marks from the last test you will be. While I doubt you come here out of the dire need for potions help, it has made a difference."

She bounded up to where he was sitting and kissed his cheek, pulling back to survey his reaction. Whatever she saw caused her to giggle and turn to leave. "Uli says you're handsome when you blush. I just wanted to see for myself."

For a fleeting second, Severus allowed himself to wish desperately that he was alone, with the freedom to lay his head down on the desk and curse heartily. He let go of the fruitless desire and directed a scowl at Giles. "You're not good enough at looming to make it work for you quite yet. What is it?"

Giles walked over and set the tray he had been carrying down on Severus's desk, careful not to disturb any of the papers. He swung the bag that was hanging from his shoulder to his side and pulled out a sheaf of papers. He sat down across the desk from Severus. "Food and yet-to-graded homework. I thought we could have a party."

There was an ironic twist to most of Giles' words that Severus knew he would get caught up in if he let himself. "This isn't a date."

"Of course not. That would require the aforeknowledge and consent of both involved parties." Giles didn't even look up from the top paper as he responded.

Severus had the feeling he was being tricked anyway.

"Do you know what Mr. Malfoy's interest in Wesley is?"

Severus blinked irritably. He was tired of this man catching him off-guard. "I would imagine the same as most men their age." Which wasn't entirely true. Azkaban left its victims with the need for human contact, but not of that sort. Still, when he had asked Draco about the castle gossip regarding that situation, Draco had hedged, giving a final answer of "ask me again later."

"Look," Giles' voice was low and intent and not like Severus had often heard it, "I have no interest in harming Draco. I wouldn't even be asking you if you weren't the expert resident on both him and Azkaban. But Wesley, for all he acts blithe, is anything but. He's not a good person with which to get involved casually. And it seems like a rather…precarious time to be forming random sexual alliances."

Severus almost suggested that sex resulting from high-tension situations was some of the best to be had, just to see the reaction on Giles's face. What Giles was suggesting was true, though. "It's not about sex. Whatever it is about, Draco isn't ready to say, but. I think I can say with some confidence that Blaise was enough semi-casual sex to last Draco a life time. Besides, if that was the case, Draco would have admitted it. It's been a long time since he's existed in the blissful state of thinking that all people born twenty years or longer before him are essentially sexless beings."

Giles waited a bit before nodding. "Thank you. That clears things up a bit."

"It does?" Severus didn't bother hiding his surprise.

Giles laughed. "Not even a mite, but I thought it sounded gracious."

"Well, I can't fault you there." No sooner had the words left Severus's mouth than he realized he was flirting and clamped his lips shut, returning to his scathing commentary of the fifth-year Gryffindor whose paper he was grading.

Giles seemed to take the hint, and went back to his own work. They ate silently, slowly finishing off the tray, and when they were both ready to call it an evening, Giles packed his papers back up and stood to take the tray. Severus stopped him with a hand on his arm. "I'll get it. It's easier for me. Magic."

"Right."

Reluctantly, Severus pulled out his manners and dusted them off. "Thank you. For the food. It was…appreciated."

Gallantly, Giles didn't press his advantage. He just smiled. "Maybe some time again."

"Maybe." Severus thought that was a good word.

*

Hermione came to his quarters mere minutes before he was readying himself for a bout of sleep that would no doubt be much shorter than he deserved. Severus all but sighed and allowed her in. "What can I do for you, Professor?"

"Severus," she scolded offhandedly.

He relented. "Hermione. Tea?"

"No," she waved a hand. "It's past both our bedtimes and this isn't a social visit, much as I may regret that."

"I take it you have a question."

"Don’t I always." Her quip was more introspective even than usual for her and he furrowed his brow. She seated herself and waited for him to do the same. "I was researching the Iseulde Rite. As you might imagine, your name appeared quite a bit in my reading. I was hoping you could walk me through it, fill in any gaps that the writings on the subject -- which, I might mention, are few and far between -- leave."

Severus wished he had gotten himself some tea, if for nothing else than to wash away the taste in his mouth. "It was created as a warning system, a way of scaring Wizards and Witches off of the thought of coupling with Muggles. Voldemort's spoken plan was to use it on a few inter-dating couples to make others understand the consequences of their union. I realized later that to believe anything spoken from that man was sheer folly, but at the time I was still a believer."

Hermione nodded patiently, but he sensed her need for facts. "My part in it was to create a potion that would…equalize everything inside the two partners. Make their hearts beat at the same rate, their breathing simultaneous…essentially connect their central nervous system, blood flow, and so on. It was actually rather easy, I spent some time delving into studies of the potions that were abandoned centuries before when attempts to create something that would allow telepathic communication between two parties by synchronizing brain waves failed. The basic concept actually wasn't faulty, but potion making hadn't quite developed to the art that it is nowadays, and so the idea was ahead of its time. I managed to adapt the studies to my needs, and voila, Voldemort had his potion."

"How were the couples made to ingest it?" Hermione asked.

"Usually one of the Death Eaters would volunteer to make sure that it happened. How they did it…I was considered too valuable for missions that actually required making contact with the other side and I did my best not to ask too many questions, but the best way for it to have happened was for them to slip it in some food, or something else that was going to be digested. It wouldn't have changed the taste, so they would never have noticed."

"And once they had digested it?"

"The first part of the Iseulde involved a Calling Charm, to bring the couple to Voldemort. He was good at Charms, incredible actually. Once they were Called, it took a circle of at least six Death Eaters to implement the actual ceremony, which bound the Wizard so firmly to his mate that whatever magic he had possessed was unable to inhabit his body anymore, it would be rejected as foreign to the bonding." On second thought, Severus was glad he hadn't taken the time to get himself tea, as he sensed it would be all over his carpet by now.

Hermione boggled. "But a Wizard's life force-"

Severus finished her thought. "Is intimately connected with his magic, I know. The Wizard would die slowly of the need to pull at magic and be unable to, and take his lover with him, since his lover could no more survive without him at that point than he could without his magic."

Hermione bit her lip. "That's disgusting."

"Well, yes, but I swear, everything else Voldemort did was strictly above board." Severus was pleased at how well the sarcasm rolled off his tongue.

Hermione huffed. "Stuff it."

Severus didn't. "Does this have anything to do with the Muggles we're currently hosting?"

"Possibly. The equations seem oddly insistent that certain people be paired together for any results to be brought forth. I'm just…covering my bases."

Severus flipped through his catalogue of colloquisms and came up short. "Your bases?"

"Muggle saying, not important." She stood. "Thank you for your help. I've no doubt I'll be back for more. Most likely in short order."

He stood and walked her to the door. "I should like to know most especially if there is actually something I can do."

"Knowledge is power, Severus," she reminded him.

He threw a practiced you're-a-child look at her. "Good night, Hermione."

She grinned unapologetically. "G'night."

*

Severus would have had the heart to snap at Giles about how obnoxious his consistent sniveling was if Giles hadn't obviously been trying rather diligently to suppress it. He was practically holding a handkerchief to his nose with one hand and grading with the other, though, so Severus pulled his wand from his pocket and summoned a house elf with just the barest of swishes and flicks.

Dobby appeared with his customary CRACK. "Master Severus is wanting something, sir?"

"A pot of tea, Dobby, plain. That will be all." There was a slight emphasis on the last sentence, so as to make it clearly a command.

"Thank you," Giles managed to work out after Dobby had left to fulfill Severus's wishes. His voice was rough.

"Did you teach like this all day?" Severus rose from his seat and went to rifle through the finished potions in his adjoining classroom.

"It got worse as the day wore on. I woke up with a stuffed head, and the rest just followed. I rather wish it had all come at once, I would have had Remus stand in for me."

Severus came back into his office, carefully balancing three corked bottles. "Remus?"

"He offered, as a standing sort of deal. Whenever I need him. I hear he was quite good." Giles opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say was cut off by the reemergence of Dobby.

"Dobby brought sir some sugar and milk on the side. No food, though. Dobby listens to Master Severus, sir."

Severus didn't smile, but he did manage a, "Thank you, Dobby. I will call if I need you again."

Dobby bobbed happily and left. Severus took one of the cups and poured it half full of tea before pouring two drops of one of the potions he had brought back with him and one drop each of the other two. He stirred it all in with a spoon and handed it to Giles. "That should help."

Giles sipped with only the tiniest hesitation. He grimaced, but kept drinking. Severus didn't apologize for the taste. With measured sips, Giles drained the cup.

Severus instructed, "Wait a minute or so and tell me how you feel."

Giles closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. Severus went back to grading papers until two minutes had passed. He looked up to find Giles obviously asleep sitting up. "Right."

A quick mobilicorpus and Giles was off the chair, waiting to be lead somewhere. Severus gathered the papers that Giles had hardly made a dent in and walked to the door, making sure to keep Giles at his side. It was evening, so his dungeons would be completely deserted, but getting the man through the upper levels of the school without the two of them being seen and causing a virtual orgy of rumors among the student body was likely to be sheer hell.

Then again, having Giles asleep in his quarters, solidly there and strictly untouchable would hardly be much fun either.

After a few minutes of deliberation, Severus settled on the lesser of the two evils in his mind and made the rather short trip from his office to his quarters. He settled Giles on the couch and released the mobilicorpus in order to transfigure his armchair into a suitable bed. Severus bent down to unlace Giles' shoes and pull off his socks. Methodically, he divested the man of his trousers, button-down shirt and vest.

Another few turns of his wand and some muttered Latin and Giles was in the erstwhile bed. Severus settled the covers over his shoulders, determinedly not pausing to look at the still well-developed torso, and walked from the room. He left the fire burning but extinguished the lights with a quick nox.

He tore into some Hufflepuff whose name wasn't registering with a face at all for her theory on why shredded hippogriff toenails could work as a more efficient substitute for lacewings in an Illuminating Potion. It didn't feel as good as it should have.

*

Wesley stared at the broom in disbelief for so long that Draco said, "I asked if you were all right with this."

Wesley pulled his eyes away from the broom. "You asked if I minded heights. I thought we were viewing a sunset from one of the towers, or something…sane."

"Oh." Draco deflated a bit. "It is perfectly sane. I'm quite good. I wouldn't let anything happen to you."

"You were quite good," Wesley pointed out. "Have you even flown since your release?"

"Of course." Draco was beginning to sense that this might be something of a cultural barrier. Hermione had spent the large part of her formative years as a Witch and she still was not terribly keen about climbing on a broomstick. He should have remembered that. "It was one of the first things I did. Don't you have something like this? Something that being kept away from would…drive you mad?" Draco flinched at his own words, hoping they weren't as true as they sometimes felt.

"I like to shop in bookstores and watch films. Neither of them really carries along the thrill of possible death."

"I would imagine you get enough of that in your day-to-day job."

Wesley was slow to answer. "Touché."

"Look, whatever else you're thinking about me, you've got to believe that the last thing I want to do is go back there." Draco had discovered a certain reluctance in himself to say the word Azkaban. "And accidentally killing you would hardly help me out in that area."

"You have a point."

"Then try it. Just for a bit. Long enough to know how incredible it feels. Then, if you still wish, I'll bring you safely back down." Draco didn't quite understand why it was so important to him. He'd never before really wanted to share what being free of restraints felt like.

Wesley touched his fingers lightly to the broom. It didn't waver and he seemed a bit reassured. He swung one leg over it and mounted gracefully. Draco slid on behind him, pressing his chest to Wesley's back and holding tightly to his waist with one arm, the other one coming around to rest firmly on the neck of the broom. Now, with Wesley's body heat radiating against him, Draco thought maybe it wasn't such a mystery as to why he had wanted this. He didn't allow himself to think about it. "Relax."

The muscles of Wesley's back remained tense against Draco's chest. Draco shook his head slightly but kicked up gently from the ground and started a gentle glide up to the level of the Quidditch goal posts. He could go much higher, had in the past, but the posts presented a good height for someone who wasn't sure about the whole experience.

They reached their ideal height fairly quickly. Draco wasn't really in the mood to show off his flying skills, not to someone who wouldn't appreciate them anyway, so he circled the pitch lazily, enjoying the feel of having another human being so near. He remembered his first time flying in this space, not knowing enough to know that half the brilliance of flight is in what can be seen at a point so high above everything else.

Wesley evidently knew this, though, or was at least learning it, since his first reaction after the slow loosening of his muscles was to comment, "The forest is gorgeous from here."

"It's gorgeous down there, too. And inside it, really. Just a different kind of gorgeous." Up here was his favorite kind. He had wanted Wesley to see that, the way the forest was so many different shades of green it would take a lifetime to catalogue them all.

"Things that are evil are very good at being beautiful."

Draco swallowed. He didn't see anything he would call beautiful when he looked in the mirror anymore, but he knew that was the technical word for what he was, had been brought up to know that, brought up to be ashamed for not using his 'beauty' more ruthlessly. "The forest is not evil. Dangerous, yes, but only because it houses creatures that would protect themselves from those who would see fit to invade their homes. Unicorns and Minotaurs would not inhabit a space that consisted of pure evil. Even snakes would be hesitant to do so. The forest has its evils, everything does, but it is not innately evil."

"I used to think… I trained this child, for a bit, to become strong, fight demons. She became evil and I met demons who were good."

Draco did a lazy figure eight in the air, tilting the broom slightly. Wesley leaned further back into him.

"I took a child away from his father because I thought it was the right thing to do and was spurned for it. And in my loneliness I formed a bond with a woman who…was beautiful. But I didn't love her. I couldn't."

Draco angled them toward the ground and descended cautiously. In the second after they touched the ground, before he let go of Wesley's waist, he murmured, "But you couldn't stay with Fred, either."

Wesley dismounted. "Thank you for the ride. It was-"

Draco didn't want to know what words Wesley would have for his first flight. Draco kept those words locked inside himself, one of the few memories he could use to conjure a Patronus. "You're welcome."

*

Draco stopped by Severus's office with the not-so vague hope of being offered a cup of tea and a listening ear only to find a virtual party occurring, compared to Severus's usual solitary habits. "Oh, I'm sorry, I'll come back."

Severus shook his head. "Come in. Tea?"

Draco figured he might as well get one half of what he came for. "Please."

"Lille, Professor," Severus fixed the girl curled up in a chair, scribbling on a rather lengthy parchment piece and Giles, hunched over the opposite end of Severus's desk from where Severus was himself, with a look, "If you wouldn't mind?"

Giles rolled up the assignment he had been grading and got to his feet. He was paler than usual and Draco thought he might have heard something about Giles having come down with a nasty cold. He nodded at Draco before looking at Severus, "I'll see you at dinner?"

Draco wouldn't have had to have been trained in the art of reading between other people's communication to see the layers of tension and attraction sparking between the two men. He wondered briefly if he should mention what Ginny and Remus had said about Severus to him. Given that Draco currently thought he would be happier not knowing about Wesley, he decided rather quickly against it.

The girl packed up her things and made to leave, but when she got to the door she stopped and turned around to look at Draco. "I never knew anyone who could make Pansy as mad as you could. You should know that. With her and you, things are bound to be personal."

Draco considered this girl who he had seen once before, to his knowledge, playing on the Slytherin team. Then she had been little more than a blur and a well-trained, talented beater. Lille Parkinson. The cousin that Pansy had always spoken of in that contemptuous tone she saved for anyone stupid enough to actually like her. "Have you seen her? Since-"

Lille shook her head. "I don't talk to my family anymore. I'm trying to get my name changed."

Draco admired that. He would jettison Malfoy in a second if he had the guts to take on another name that he would have to prove himself worthy of. "Thank you for-"

"She was in love with you. I don't think she would have stayed that way if you would have shown any interest in reciprocating, but she was." Lille spun on her foot and practically ran from the room, her lower lip wobbling ever so slightly.

Draco turned back to see Severus's eyes darkened with concern. "Perceptive girl."

Severus summoned some tea. "Too much for her own good at times." After a bit of thought he added, "And too little at others."

"Her last name wasn't what got her into Slytherin." As much as it seemed so at times, the hat didn't recognize bloodline at all in its choices. It just happened that many family members had likenesses that ran deep.

Severus pushed a cup of tea toward Draco. "I hear you took one of the Muggles flying."

Draco took a sip. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Severus stirred some sugar into his tea. "It wasn't then?"

"I can't figure out who he wants me to be. Or, if I in turn, want to be that person. And if I do, if I want it for my sake or for his."

Severus nodded but made it clear that he was not ready to speak yet. Which prompted Draco to continue. "Right now there's a few things that are clear. One, I don’t like the person I was with Lucius, nor do I particularly want to return to being the person I was after I defected. Two, I'm lonely. I was before, but for whatever reason I am no longer so okay with it. Three, every time I think I know something, I generally find myself to be wrong, so you probably shouldn't even be listening to what I'm saying here."

"Most people who have not lived through what you have are wrong all the time as well. I won't count it against you or your house," Severus replied glibly.

"Convenient for you."

"Draco, even were you to want to, returning to who you were before Azkaban…it’s not something anyone does. Whoever you were then, he doesn’t matter anymore. He doesn't exist anymore. And when you find who does in his place, you'll know what to do about Wesley."

Draco knew all this. It sounded better in Severus's voice than it had in his head. "I think he likes me because I'm not…Harry Potter, Boy Who Lived Several Times and All Around Champion for the Cause of Light."

"I don’t doubt it. He worked for a reformed vampire. I doubt his sense of right and wrong is as one dimensional as, say, a Gryffindor's."

Draco rolled his eyes. "You just don’t like letting go of things, do you?"

"I don’t like disappointing people. What would the rest of the staff do if I became nice one year and they didn't have one teacher to filter the student's aggression toward? And what would the Slytherins do without someone to take their side?"

"So you do it for other people."

"A little bit. Everything we do is for other people on some level. Especially those of us who feel that we owe others something. But…I know what I get out of it. That's the important part, knowing what you get out of it for yourself. Nobody else really has to see that."

"I'm worried that he wants me for the wrong reasons. He doesn't act…he isn't happy to even be wanting me. At all."

Severus toyed with his empty tea glass. "Do you want him?"

"So far as I can tell," Draco answered cautiously.

"Are you at ease with that?"

Draco thought that should be obvious, but he humored Severus. "Not precisely."

"Every once in a rare while, honesty works wonders for a situation."

Draco was tempted to tell Severus to listen to his own words of advice, but realized that if he wanted to say that, the advice itself was probably pretty valid. "Yes. I suppose that's probably true."

He looked intently at Severus just for good measure.

*

Draco suspected that one of a Slytherin's most useful traits was the ability to forego pride and take the easy way out when necessary. He took Hermione aside after dinner one evening, asked her how she was doing, spilled the words, "so, double date?" and within minutes, he had accomplished his aims.

Severus had once taught Draco to learn what he could from Lucius and ignore the lessons that did him no good. Lucius had taught him that all creatures behave differently in public than when in their natural habitat. The closest thing Draco had to a natural habitat for Wesley was Fred, and it would have seemed odd suddenly inviting her along on one of their dates. Also, Draco seriously doubted he would mind Hermione being there as moral support.

Hermione suggested they do dinner in her rooms, seeing as how she had been living at the castle for the longest and was in the employ of the school and therefore had the most spacious rooms. Not to mention the ones that looked the most like someone lived her life in them, rather than just stopping by to visit.

Draco arrived a bit earlier than Wesley. Fred was already there, but then he highly suspected she was there more often than anywhere else. She was settled at one end of the couch, her legs reaching across to where her feet lay in Hermione's lap. The two women smiled at him once he was inside the wards Hermione had released to let him past. Hermione motioned to the armchair, "Sit."

"You look shnazzy," Fred observed.

There were some lessons Draco couldn't forget, no matter how much he wanted to, and Lucius's not-so-casual cruelty in the months that he had taught Draco how to control his facial expressions stayed with Draco, as surely as his heartbeat. It was due to this that Draco didn't blush. "Harry's fault," was all he said.

"Harry?" Hermione raised an eyebrow, but didn't seem terribly worried.

"Well, Harry and Ginny, but blaming him is the kind of habit that's hard to drop."

Hermione managed to snicker and look reproachful all at once. "Do tell."

"Ginny bought the clothes for me, but she swears it was only at Harry's insistence that 'clothes make the man' or something very Muggle that neither of us could understand. Evidently he feels once I clean up I'll make a better impression." In truth, Draco didn't think it could hurt. And it felt nice to have something that was his against his skin again, not something that was donated to the "we don't want Draco walking around naked, now, do we?" fund by people who were his size. He wondered if Ginny had known how much he liked deep blues or if the color of the sweater was sheer coincidence. If she hadn't known, she had probably figured it out from whatever she saw when he'd opened the package.

"Harry had quite a time catching Ginny once she came back from China, suddenly pretty and not so in love with him anymore. He probably knows what he's talking about." Hermione smiled softly at something. Draco thought it was probably a memory. He was glad she had some good ones.

"If nothing else, Ginny has good taste in clothes and you got a new sweater and a pair of pants out of the deal. That's better than Wesley any day, really."

Draco understood the mischievous look in Fred's eye when he heard, "Thank you ever so much," from behind him and looked up to see Wesley standing there. Hermione reset the wards now that both guests were inside.

"You're welcome," Fred told him solemnly.

Draco couldn't help noticing that Wesley had spruced up a bit for the date as well. He wondered if that was actually for his benefit or for that of the two women. Either way, neither Fred nor Hermione had seen fit to wear anything out of the ordinary, which was oddly reassuring.

"Come then." Hermione gently set Fred's feet on the floor and stood. She was wearing gray wool slacks that hung at her waist fashionably and white cashmere sweater with a wide scoop neck. Her hair was back in a loose bun, messy tendrils falling free. She looked nothing like the girl Draco remembered tormenting and for the first time since he had been taken out of Azkaban, he realized that he was not the only one to have changed. He felt a smile try to claw its way free, losing the battle only shortly before it caught up with his lips. It was progress.

Hermione led them to the table, which was set beautifully with genuine silverware, crystal and in season flowers, both magical and ordinary, arranged artfully in the center. "House elves?" Draco wanted to know.

Fred laughed. "Definitely. We may be all kinds of geek, but evidently home economics geek isn’t one of those kinds."

Two of the settings had been placed on one side of the table, the other two settings being directly across the way. Draco momentarily wondered how much Hermione had told the house elves and how much they generally took it upon themselves to just know. Hermione and Fred sat on one side and Draco followed, pulling back a chair and sliding into it. Wesley was only seconds behind him. Hermione barely touched her wand and murmured something below her breath and the food appeared. Fred dug in immediately and Draco waited until she looked satisfied with everything she had put on her plate, both out of deeply ingrained manners and fear for his life.

Hermione kept surreptitiously pushing plates at him every time he was about to actually start eating. After a bit he caught her eye. Caught, she commented, "You're skinny," and took the herbed potatoes for herself.

Draco politely cut his meat into bite size pieces, his elbows hanging off the edge of the table, sitting straight, his silverware carefully poised. In his first year at school, the older Syltherins had made fun of him for his etiquette, etiquette that Lucius would have beaten into Draco had he been crude enough. As it was, Lucius had found other ways to make sure Draco would remember. By the time he had gotten to Hogwarts, there hadn't been enough taunts, enough variations on the words "poof" or "quim", in the world to make him forget.

Besides, Draco had stopped the torture very quickly by hexing people's food to speak at them when they didn't go about eating it "correctly." None of the kids had wanted to eat food that was speaking to them.

It was comforting to see that Wesley ate the same way.

Hermione and Fred were working valiantly to keep up the small talk, Wesley joining in every once in a rare while at Fred's prompting. Draco waited for a lull to ask, "Where are you from, Fred? You have a nice accent."

"Oh." Fred wrinkled her nose. "Small-town Texas. Cow country. You know what they say though, you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl."

Draco didn't know the saying, but he didn't doubt its fundamental truth. It applied to him in too many ways. "Well, I like it, I think it makes you sound interesting."

"And sexy," Hermione added.

Draco wasn't going there. Wesley, to his surprise, took advantage of Fred's slightly stunned silence, Hermione's self-satisfied silence and Draco's cautious silence to ask, "Where are you from, Draco? You speak Queen's English. Makes it hard to pin down."

"Lucius would die all over again to hear someone refer to my spoken English that way." Draco felt something like spite tickle pleasantly at the pit of his stomach. "To him it was a pureblood trait, speaking English as it is written. I never knew anyone growing up who sounded any different. It was hard to understand the Irish and Scottish students at school when I first came here. Even people with London accents were difficult. I grew up on a Manor that was a few miles from the local town. The town was a Wizarding town that one of my great great great grandparents established and then quickly forgot about for the most part. I never saw the town as a child. If I needed something we always went into London. The Manor and the town are both located about a half a day's travel by train from the Scottish border. And you? The accent sounds like London, but it's muddied."

"I was born in a steel town a little bit south of Sheffield. I left for Oxford the day I was handed my diploma, spent four years in Oxford pursuing a degree in ancient and comparative literatures. I was recruited for the Watcher's program when I stumbled upon some texts that I shouldn't have through a bit too much zeal for research on my part. When I moved to London to work out of the central headquarters, I was only supposed to be part of the archiving team, but it had the effect of putting me in the wrong place at the right time when they were looking for someone to take over as Faith's Watcher. I don't think they would have ever even considered me had the Council been reeling a bit less over the whole situation, but they were still unsure of how exactly two slayers could exist at once and to have one who was roaming free on top of everything had them in a bit of a panic. I volunteered to go and they sent me." Wesley tilted his head a bit. "It was a little more complicated than that."

"Most life stories are," Draco agreed knowingly. He wasn't sure if it was Fred's presence or the effect of their last "date", but either way, the hostility that had brimmed from Wesley wasn't entirely there anymore. It was nice. "So that's how you ended up in Los Angeles."

"Well," Wesley pursed his lips, "more or less. There were some steps in between London and LA."

"Do you miss England?" Draco realized what he had just asked and restated, "I mean, when you're not here, obviously."

Wesley considered the question. "I don't miss where I grew up. I've never gone back, and I don't plan on doing so in the future. I miss…the smell in Oxford's archives; the pub that I went to when the only thing that was going to get a paper written was some cheap beer and chips; the silence of the Council building late at night when the only people left were me and few of the other archiving geeks. I don't miss it in the way that I miss LA."

"You like LA?" Draco had been places, sacred Wizarding sights all over the Continent, Dark gathering places in the East, but America had never been a vacation spot for the Malfoys. Too new.

Wesley looked at Fred. "I have family there. And a job that I do well. And it's sunny, which I like in spite of myself. Oh, and you can get really good food any time you want to, that's fantastic."

"It sounds," like paradise, Draco wanted to tell him. Instead he finished his thought with, "wonderful."

Wesley turned his gaze, catching Draco's eyes. "I'll have to show it to you, some day."

Draco knew he was out of practice at the whole dating thing, but he was pretty sure they were getting somewhere now.

*

Everyone in the castle had nightmares. Hermione suspected that almost any Wizard or Witch old enough to have taken some part in the war had them. When she woke up shivering and tasting vomit at the back of her throat, desperate to make its way out, this fact very rarely ever made her feel better about the awareness that she had them as well.

There were hands on her when she awoke this time and for a brief second all she could think was that Ron must be there, that she had woken up from a much longer nightmare than the one she had just seen. Then she remembered. She dropped back to her pillow, having startled herself into a sitting position upon waking. "It's okay, just a nightmare."

"I have them sometimes." Fred laid back down as well, fitting her body against the side of Hermione's trying to cover as much surface area as possible. Hermione thought she would mind, thought she would resent the body covering hers not being taller, more dense. Instead she found it to be just what she needed, a physique so forcefully different from the one her memories held.

"What do you…do you mind telling me what they're about?" Hermione was aware of just how many boundaries she was obviating with that single question. She hoped briefly that she had learned timing somewhere along the way.

"There's…well, I mean, there's several. But there's a few that I see a lot." Fred tucked her head underneath Hermione's chin so as to curl up more tightly while still successfully cuddling. "Pyleans are violent by nature. It's a culture of war. In times when a war is unavailable, it will do just as well to take out their aggressions on the humans that they enslave. Or, if they are at war and they come home needing to take the edge off." Fred's voice trembled slightly as she finished her sentence.

"Is that where the scars on your back are from?" It had seemed unlikely to Hermione that Fred could have gotten those while fighting demons, unlike the scars that graced her arms, legs and torso.

"Those and others," Fred confirmed. "Are they disgusting?"

Hermione wanted to tell her that they were beautiful, but the truth was far more complicated than that. "They're survival."

"You don’t have any."

"Wizards torture each other from the inside, mostly. And we Heal what can be seen. It makes it harder for us to wear our survival."

Fred kissed the hollow of Hermione's throat. "What do you see. In yours?"

"Voldemort set a trap. An ever-so-predictable one, which is the worst part. He intercepted the yearly invites to Hogwarts that Ron, Ginny and I were sent in my seventh year and substituted them with ones wherein absolutely nothing was changed except the date that the Hogwarts Express was supposed to leave platform nine and three quarters. Leaving the three of us in a magical space with no kinds of wards on it, since the wards are designed to be activated only when needed, such as the dates on which students are traveling. Several Death Eaters were at the platform to meet us. We took out a few before they hit each of us with an advanced form of the stupefying charm that none of us had even heard of yet at that point.

"We were taken to Voldemort's hiding place of that moment and held there while Harry was fed just enough information to fall neatly into the bait and hook that Voldemort had set up. He would've too, if Draco and Severus hadn't been a bit more aware and cautious and devious enough when put together to outwit the devil himself. Draco volunteered to polyjuice himself and go in as Harry, with only a few changes to exactly what Voldemort would be expecting to make it look good. Harry went in polyjuiced up as Severus and, though the plan was only to get everyone who mattered out of there alive, that ended up meaning that Voldemort had to die. Harry was the one to do it, had to be, of course. He had figured out what none of the rest of us had, though."

Hermione took a deep breath. "He knew that he was the only one with sufficient power to kill Voldemort with the Killing Curse, not due to actual power levels, but due to the link they had. However, as this was the truth, it was most likely that the curse would kill both of them. Unless Harry could find something to ground him. Which was where the Binding Charm came in. Harry had managed to dig up this obscure binding charm that nobody -- as far as I could tell from my research afterward -- had used in centuries. The idea of the charm is simple: those who love you will hold you tight. Harry chanted the Charm and bound himself to Ron and I before doing the Killing Curse. I don't know if Harry hadn't read enough about the Charm, or if something went wrong, or what. I've never asked him, nor have I had the heart to research that far, but it was obvious that while Voldemort was dying, so were Ron and I. Before Harry or I could do anything, Ron broke from the Charm, taking all of it into himself."

Hermione knew she was crying, but couldn't be bothered to wipe away the tears. "I accioed Harry's wand and crawled over to Ron, muttering healing charms, but I'm not much with those on a good day, and he was too far gone for it to matter. He said, 'Checkmate, love.' And he smiled at me, a real smile. He was good at smiling when there was nothing to really smile about."

She cried for a long time after she fell silent. Fred rocked her a little, bringing her head up to gently kiss at Hermione's cheek. "I'm sorry."

"I've always been the quick one," Hermione sobbed, "always the one who could apply our lessons correctly. Except the one time it mattered."

"Don't cheapen what he did like that, Mi." Fred's words were sympathetic but unyielding. "Don't play the 'what if' game over his death. He did what he did because he loved you. He wanted you to survive. And you have. Just because people can't see the survival written on your skin doesn't mean it isn't there. Don't make that less than what it is."

Hermione gulped at the air, calming herself. When her tears had finally dried, she rolled in slightly toward Fred. "Thank you. I'm glad you're here."

Fred pulled the covers up more tightly over both of them. "Get some sleep, baby."

*

Hermione caught Harry out on the Quidditch pitch before the sun had risen. She was surprised to see a second figure in the air as well. She narrowed her eyes and caught a glimpse of shock-blond hair. Draco.

She watched the two of them fly seemingly nonsensical loops around each other, speeding up then slowing down, flipping to where they were upside down on their brooms and then righting themselves at the moment of their choosing. Eventually Harry saw her. He waved, but didn't come down. The first time she had come to watch him here he had come to her almost immediately upon seeing her. She had asked, "You're done?"

"Not even close, but you were waiting."

She had pushed him back into the air. "I can wait." She would wait forever if she could watch him being happy in the duration. Eventually, Harry landed. Draco didn't, still soaring lazily above them. She handed Harry the bottomless mug from which she was slowly sipping hot cocoa. It was charmed to stay heated. "'Morning."

He took a cautious sip. "Mm, to you too."

Hermione's eyes caught on Draco's small figure in the distance. "How is he?"

"He's flying," Harry answered, as though those two words covered everything.

Hermione understood. "Listen, I…there's something I need to ask you."

Harry took another sip, less cautious now that he knew it wouldn’t burn him. "I might have an answer."

"It's about," Hermione looked away from Draco and back at Harry, forcing herself to make eye contact, "it’s about the night Ron died."

Harry paled ever so slightly. "I'll assume it's ridiculously important, then."

"I need to know if you remember who else was there. I mean, obviously Voldemort and the three of us and Ginny and Draco. Were there others, though? I've gone over and over it in my head and everything's too muddled-"

"Wormtail."

"That was it?" Hermione tapped her foot in frustration. "He's dead."

Harry frowned. "I know, I killed him."

"Right, of course. I just think that someone who was there that night has to be in Blaise's company. The equations…well, really more my instincts and some careful research, I think I may be on to something, but-"

"Blaise always liked inside jokes."

Hermione startled and turned toward Draco, who had landed silently behind her and Harry.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you." His eyes were bright with worry and just the tiniest bit of freedom.

Hermione waved his apology away.

"He liked their cruelty. The idea that someone was left out. Of course, he hated it when he was the one left out. He wasn't there that night, but Annabelle LeStrange was. You wouldn't have noticed her, she has a strong affinity for melting into the background so as not to be noticed until it's too late. Her parents sent her to Durmstrang, but we grew up together and she's not someone you forget. At least not unless you're stupid."

"Annabelle…her name wasn't on any of the Death Eater lists," Hermione said. She knew those lists by heart, had memorized them so that she would never succumb to a sense of false safety. There were many names that matched up with people she had once thought of as friends.

"No, I would've been surprised to see 'Belle caught. She's too…crafty. Blaise would know how to find her secrets out though, as much as anyone would. She'll have talked to him and he'll be planning whatever it is you think he's planning."

Hermione smiled at the backhanded compliment. "Not what I exactly wanted to hear, but thank you, nonetheless."

Harry added, "Thanks for spicing things up this morning."

"You're…well, I mean, that's what I'm supposed to be doing. Not the flying, of course, the answers." Draco hastily turned in the direction of the castle and practically ran toward the safety it offered.

Harry raised an eyebrow, watching Draco's retreat. "Tell me he was less nutters during the date."

For the first time since Ginny and Remus had brought the topic up, Hermione realized how right they had been in regards to Wesley and Draco. "Wesley puts him at ease, I think. He's not a Wizard, he has no history with us, he has history of his own. And to give him credit, Draco does just fine when he's one on one with any of us. It's just when he's presented with more than that that he tends to become overwhelmed. And honestly, wouldn't you?"

"I don’t plan on finding out," Harry told her honestly.

"Good." Hermione placed more emphasis than technically necessary on the one syllable word. She reached out and grabbed Harry's free hand. "Have breakfast with me?"

He squeezed her hand and let himself be led away from the pitch.

*

There was one law of magic that Hermione kept in mind above all others. Every curse had an anti-curse, every potion had an antidote, and every hex had an anti-charm. The exception, of course, was Avada Kedavra, and even there, Hermione was less than convinced. Just because someone hadn’t discovered an anti-curse didn't mean that it wasn't out there.

The Iseulde was one part potion and two parts charm, as far as Hermione could tell, and only one of the three had any kind of counter measure to it. The Calling Charm was simple, something that third years were taught early on in the year. The anti-charm was almost as simple and was taught in third year Charms.

Finding herself unable to grab a few minutes wherein both she and Severus were free, Hermione wrote to him, questioning if it was an oversight, if the entire Rite actually could be halted with a simple flick of a knowledgeable Wizard's wand.

He responded, "Originally, yes. Until Dumbledore protected one of the Called couples with just that measure. Then Voldemort had Zabini Sr. work on a way to change the Call just enough that the anti-charm wouldn’t work. I assume by your question that you are looking for previously established Defense measures against any of the three parts that make up the Rite. If this is the case, unless you can find something that I am unaware of, you will have to create your own. Particularly in the case of the potion. I believe that I could be of help in that area, should you need any."

She scribbled back, "Bloody hell, Severus, of course I need your help."

His response was three words long, "Language, Miss Granger." His owl looked peeved at even having to carry such a missive. She fed him three sizeable chunks of pumpkin bread and didn’t deign to write back. He would help.

She sent out a second missive inviting herself to dinner with the person she needed help from on negating the last two thirds of the Rite. He wrote back, "Lovely, we'll be expecting you."

Fred asked her, "You want me to go with you?" but Hermione felt that this was something, "I'd best do alone." Fred had insisted on goodbye sex, even at Hermione's protests that it was only going to be a couple of hours. Hermione didn't put up too much of a fight.

Bill Weasley had met his match in Taryn St. Jolle, an ex-Ravenclaw with four years on him and a black book that rivaled his. The two of them had finally settled down into a relatively normal relationship after nearly five years of trying to get each other out of their systems. Bill had met Taryn through Charlie, who was incredibly impressed by both her level of daring in dealing with dragon newborns and the advances that she had made in Wizarding medicine using their saliva. She had incidentally discovered that the saliva of an adult dragon, which is basically a highly unstable lighter fluid, had drastically differing properties than that of the babies. Their saliva had far more magical properties, their breathing therefore creating fire more in the way that human fire mages called upon different Magical Earth Properties, rather than igniting an explosive device. Taryn hypothesized that the reason for the difference had to do with the magic disseminating more evenly throughout the adult dragon's body than the baby's, but the why of it didn’t matter so much as the fact that she had discovered the saliva to have wondrous healing qualities and possibly other beneficial effects.

It was Taryn who greeted Hermione when she got to Bill's. "Hey babe. We haven't seen you in a bit."

Hermione smiled apologetically. "Busy saving the world, one student at a time. How's the research?"

"Slow and painstaking." Taryn swept long, straight brown hair efficiently off the back of her neck and into a knot atop her head. It revealed the tattoo of a baby Chinese Fireball at the back of her neck, breathing fire that wrapped slightly around her throat. "Bill's bringing dinner. I offered to cook, but we both thought it would be better if we could actually eat what was in front of us while talking."

Hermione laughed. She heard the door open in the other room. "Speak of the devil."

Taryn looked oddly at her. "Muggle expression?"

"One of my mum's favorites."

"Your mum must be a woman of taste. I'll have to remember that."

Hermione felt herself being crushed from behind. "Hi. Bill." She wheezed out.

"Hey little sister girl." His voice was fond in her ear. She blinked back tears.

Taryn crossed to him and swatted his arm. "Let go, you're being a brute." Bill did as he was commanded and turned slightly, straightening to kiss his wife, who was every bit as tall as he was.

"Let's sit down," Bill suggested, leading the way into their kitchen area and pulling out boxes of steaming food. "Ethiopian okay? There was a problem with one of the subsidiaries down in that corner, so I spent most of the day there."

"Get it all worked out?" Taryn asked idly, as she pulled some plates from a cabinet and set them on the table.

Bill grabbed the silverware. "Yeah, no problems." He handed Hermione a fork. "You start."

She did, too hungry and too at home to worry about manners. She nearly knocked her plate clean off the table when Bill said conversationally, "We hear you've shacked up with a girl."

She recovered herself enough to comment, "Tactful."

Bill managed to kiss Hermione's cheek without her ever realizing he had gotten near. "Harry can't keep secrets from us for anything, you know this."

"We're not…shacking up." Hermione's statement betrayed her distaste at the notion.

"Good," Taryn said simply. "Don’t mind him. He worries about you."

"You shouldn't," Hermione told him.

"Comes with the territory of being the eldest," he informed her. "And Ron wouldn't have wanted you to become Hogwart's newest spinster."

Hermione sat down, her plate full. "Thank you."

"For approving?" Bill raised an incredulous eyebrow.

"For loving me."

"You make it all too easy." He sat down across from her, next to Taryn. "Now, you didn’t come to allow me time to grill you about your love life."

Immediately, Hermione felt her equilibrium return. "I need a Charms expert."

Bill looked confused. "Flitwick won't do?"

"I need someone who can devote twenty four hours a day to something, minus the sleeping and the eating portions. I'll make sure you're paid well. I don’t know what Gringotts-"

"I'm up for paid leave anyway," Bill interrupted. "I'm the only human employee they have who's worked steadily since the end of the War. Tell me what you need."

"I need an anti-charm to a Calling Charm and a Binding Charm, both reworked into Dark-based magic."

Taryn set down her fork. "What's this about?"

"I'm worried that a rather large group of Death Eaters intent upon bringing a new reign of Dark to the fore is going to use a ritual called the Iseulde Rite to wipe out certain elements of the Muggle and Wizarding populations. I need a way to stop them."

Bill cut at his meat until it was nearly decimated. "You realize it's been awhile since I've done something like this, I mean, with sit-down research and all."

"You do the equivalent every day, just in a more on-your-feet type of way. I trust you. If I didn't, I would have found someone else."

Bill looked at Taryn. "What say you, wife?"

Taryn drummed short fingernails against the table once rapidly. "You are always up for a challenge."

They grinned at each other, the secret, knowing grin of people who understood each other all too well. Hermione felt a small burn at the pit of her stomach. She waited for it to turn into the dull agony that always followed.

"That settles it," Bill returned to eating. "You've got yourself a Charming Guy."

"Heh, heh," Hermione rolled her eyes. The pain she was expecting never came.

*

Severus asked Draco to help him find the antidote. He didn't need the help. He suspected things would go quicker if it was just him working on it. He recognized in Draco however, the need for two things. To reassure himself of his own abilities, particularly in regards to magic, and something to do. Severus was hoping to solve both problems with this one solution.

It also allowed him time with Draco. He told himself it was something Draco needed, time with people who cared about him. Which was most likely the truth.

It was every bit as true that Severus needed the time as much as Draco. He knew there was no making up for lost time, no bringing back the first years of Draco's schooling in which Severus had studiously avoided Lucius's carbon copy. James Potter might have been the one to teach Severus not to pursue the sexy ones, but Lucius had carved the lesson into his skin. He could feel the blood dripping whenever he had looked at Draco in his first and second year.

Third year Draco had shown up with a look in his eyes that Severus recognized. At first he thought it was just more similarity to Lucius. It only took one glance in the mirror to realize that Draco's gaze held the mark of Lucius, rather than the echo of him. Severus had the same look to him.

He was careful not to think how different things could have been if he had caught on those two years earlier. If he had been able to get past his own issues for the boy who had still held the possibility of being healed at that point. Severus considered it odd that he should think it possible to heal Draco now, now that his eyes held shades of Azkaban as well as Lucius' tortures.

Severus had caught himself staring at Lupin and Black the night before in the great hall. The World's Most Beleaguered Pair of Gryffindors, as he liked to think of them, preferably with an accompanying smirk. Lupin had been talking, a steady stream of whatever he was saying accompanied by a few lively hand motions. And Black had smiled.

Draco was definitely fixable.

At the moment, though, he was sleep-deprived and frustrated. "I can't read anymore. I can't tell an A from an R. And I'm not any further than when I started. The process is only reversible by shutting down the organs of one of the two connected beings, and that just doesn't help us."

No, it didn't, and it was overwhelmingly what Severus was finding to be true as well. "Shut the book."

Draco shut it loudly, with a satisfying "bang". "Have you ever read 'Romeo & Juliet'?"

Severus frowned at the oddity of the question. "No. Have you?"

"Well, no. But Padma Patil once did a report on it in Muggle Studies. Basically, at the end, after a whole bunch of melodrama and people stabbing other people and other fun stuff, the girl drinks this potion that's supposed to make her appear dead so that she can trick her family into believing she is and Romeo can steal her away. But there's a miscommunication and Romeo never hears about the plan-"

"And he thinks she's dead and kills himself?"

Draco looked impressed. "Random guess?"

"I know something of Muggle tragedies." An incurable bookworm, he had nabbed a collection of Greek tragedies during a Death Eater raid in which they had killed several Muggles and ransacked their homes. It had been his first taste but not his last, as well as the beginning of the end for him. It was hard to kill people who could potentially write something as utterly brilliant as the Orestaia.

"Okay, yes, that's the gist of it. I'm thinking, what if there was a potion that could not only make the person look dead, but actually mimick its effects. Is it possible, do you think, to trick the potion, rather than actually reversing damage done?"

The idea had its risks, but then no antidote was without risk. To be without risk was not to drink poison in the first place. Severus stood and walked to a cabinet with previously made potions in it. He took the one he was looking for down from one of the higher shelves and walked back to hand it to Draco.

Draco threw him a questioning look.

"I have to do some more research, think this out more thoroughly. Go eat something and then get some sleep, preferably something close to ten hours or so. There's enough Dreamless in there to put you under for a week, so be careful."

Draco gripped the bottle more tightly than was probably prudent. "Thanks. For the warning. And the potion."

"You look like you need it."

Draco got up. "No more than you." He disappeared out the door before Severus could respond. Severus blinked his eyes a few times to generate moisture and allowed a tiny corner of his mind to admit to the possibility that Draco might be right.

*

Giles brought a box of something that was very noisy when eaten to one of their afternoon grading sessions. He offered them to Lille, who looked at him and then at the box suspiciously before he explained, "Muggle candy. Chewy and yet somehow addictive."

Giles held out the box to Severus who was on the verge of refusing when Lille reached out and took one. He felt it one of his duties to be at least as brave as his students. The candy was bright red and oblong. Severus bit into it and almost yelped at the burst of spicy cinnamon that spread out over his tongue. Lille did yelp. Then chewed some more, swallowed, and asked, "Can I have another one?"

Giles' lips quirked upward. "A friend just sent me a care package. I have quite a few boxes waiting in my quarters. Feel free to take as many from this one as you like." He pinned Severus with a look that clearly said, "you too."

Severus resisted for a while, but the smell of cinnamon was soon penetrating the air, stronger even than the still dissipating odor of the cauldron that had been blown up earlier in the week while one of the Hufflepuff first years was brewing a Tickling Potion. He tried to be surreptitious about taking the candy at first, one at a time and only after long intervals. Then the realization that the only people in the room were Lille and Giles, and his reputation had long been ruined in their estimation, sunk in. He grabbed the box, tipped a small pile into his palm and set it down next to his ink pot, where he could easily grab one whenever he wanted.

Lille made off for dinner a bit early, as she had Quidditch practice that evening and wanted to be able to digest before she got on a broom. Giles stayed, though, right on through when the dinner hour normally started. Severus finally asked, "Are you skipping dinner?"

Giles looked pointedly at the now-empty box of candy. "I'm not exactly hungry."

Severus screwed up his mouth. "Me neither."

"Sorry about that. It didn't occur to me, really. I was just hungry for something after classes." Giles went back to grading papers.

Severus stared at the top of his head for a bit before admitting, "Cinnamon is one of my favorite flavors."

Giles didn't say anything, didn't even look up, which allowed Severus to tell him, "I was pretty much raised by the house elves, as much as anything else. Sissy was the head kitchen elf -- they have hierarchy, just most humans never pay enough attention to notice -- and she was always making cinnamon treats."

"When I was very young, just starting out as a Watcher, there was an archivist, an older lady by the name of Valentina Bradley." Giles lingered over the name fondly. "She took a liking to me, I think because I had a tendency to look lost a good amount of the time back then. She always smelled like cinnamon. I don't know if she ate a lot of it, or wore a perfume that was supposed to mimic the aroma, but I can't eat it, or even smell it, without thinking of her."

Severus wanted to know more, regardless of the fact that his more deeply self-taught instincts warned him against caring. He understood the way this worked though. He had to give something up for anything to be given up to him in turn. In a way, it was oddly comforting. He didn't trust things that came without a price. "When I came to Hogwarts, I thought my favorite subject was going to be Divination. My mother had a gift in reading the cards. I was never allowed near her decks, so they held something of a fascination for me. That, and I liked drawing up the astrology charts. There's a surprising amount of precision in Divination when one actually knows what he's doing."

"Yes," Giles agreed. He was silent for a bit and Severus was beginning to think he had mistaken that first exchange of information for something more than it actually was, when Giles spoke again. "I entered Uni with every intention of being an accountant. That's what nearly all the Gileses were before me, and well, I didn't really have a much better plan. I was interested in playing football at the time, but I didn't think the national team would have me." Giles' cheeks flushed ever so slightly at the memory.

Severus made himself think of Lucius, always a sure-fire erection killer. "I had a sister. She was two years younger than me. We weren't very close. She was quite good looking and social and most of the things that I was not and had a tendency to…make sure I was aware of it."

"When I moved to London after school, I bought myself a kitten. Gorgeous little creature, some kind of Persian. I named her Serendipity. She died a natural death at the age of seven. I still haven't been able to get another cat." Giles took off his glasses, cleaned them and set them back on his face. "What happened to your sister?"

Severus wondered who was testing who at this point. "She became a Death Eater. Took a different path than I did, but the end result… Voldemort, of course, found it hilarious to pit us against each other in nearly everything we did. It didn't take her long to realize that she'd made a mistake. Lucretia could be mean, and had been raised to think of Muggles and Muggle-borns as below her, but she wasn't inherently cruel, nor did she have what it took to build up a tolerance to random cruelty. He found out that she had betrayed him and -- as a test of my devotion -- Voldemort had me poison her. She was given everything she needed to make the antidote, but she had to make it herself before the poison killed her. She was…Lucretia had inherited my father's looks and his charm, but I had inherited my mother's intelligence. I-"

"I don't-"

"I knew she wouldn't have a chance," Severus finished, ignoring Giles's attempt at interruption. "I watched her die. Standing next to Voldemort, in between men who laughed at her struggles to mix together the right ingredients in the right order."

"Was that why you left?"

"It was one of the reasons. It is the reason why I can never truly leave. No matter what I do, I will always be one of them." Severus sneered. He realized he had been mistaken. He wasn't testing Giles at all. He was warning him.

To Severus's surprise, Giles laughed. It wasn't hysterical laughter, or even the shaking, sobbing kind, just a few small huffs of amusement. "I'm sorry, it's just. I ran in the same circles as ensouled vampires for several years. Men who had perpetuated evil for centuries. Puts things in perspective, if you know what I mean."

Severus didn't exactly, but he didn't think that was what Giles really cared about. Giles had passed Severus's test, ignored his warning and hadn't been testing him in the first place, merely digging for information like a good little researcher. "I suppose."

Giles shook his head slightly and stood to gather his things. He leaned across the desk and kissed Severus chastely on the lips. "I'll see you tomorrow morning." He left without waiting for a reply. His walk was just a tiny bit slinkier than usual. Severus suspected he knew this.

*

Slytherin won the Quidditch match against Gryffindor. Hermione, who was evidently intent on ruining Severus's hard-won reputation as a curmudgeonly prat, kissed him on the cheek and congratulated him. He glowered at her for all he was worth, but it only prompted her to say, "Of course, when my team grows up a bit," Gryffindor had lost its Seeker, one of its Beaters and its Keeper to graduation the year before, "you'll be kissing my cheek." She flippantly raised an eyebrow and wandered off to leave him mulling over whether her double entendre had been purposeful.

Giles, standing off to the side of the madness that generally characterized the post-game Quidditch pitch, commented just loud enough to be heard, "Quirky, that one."

Severus, who was more than willing to snipe at Hermione regardless of circumstance, very rarely allowed others to do it. "If by that you mean brilliant and human, yes."

"It wasn't an insult. I rather like her. Bollocks of steel and all that."

Severus smirked. "Indeed."

"Have a celebratory dinner with me."

It had been a month since the last time Giles had asked. Severus knew because, well, it wasn't like he got offers every day. "No."

"Then at least tell me how many hoops you want me to jump through, so I'll know when it's all right for me to ask." Giles tone was surprisingly casual for someone who had just gotten rejected.

"There aren't enough hoops in the world. Yours or mine."

When Giles spoke, he was no longer casual. "We can do this the hard way or the easy way. You can tell me what damaged you so badly you think you're completely beyond the point of fixing, or I can find out on my own. It is your choice."

Severus was momentarily shaken by the conviction in Giles's voice. "When you find out," and he didn’t doubt that Giles would. The man was a trained researcher and Severus's secrets weren't hidden nearly as well as they had been during his time as a spy. "Then you can decide how fixable or not you think I am."

"You realize this is only making me more determined?"

Severus shot him a look that could be clearly interpreted as, "someone shorted you several strawberries while making your trifle, didn't they?"

Giles smiled rather serenely. "If I didn't know better, I would think you were playing hard to get on purpose." He walked off to congratulate the members of the Slytherin team, who by now had calmed down enough not to maul innocent passers-by.

Severus growled, "Obnoxious little wanker," under his breath. He gathered himself together and followed shortly, descending into the fray.

*

Draco woke up to the sound of someone knocking at his door. A cursory glance at the clock on the wall told him that it was nearly three in the afternoon. He had found he could sleep easier in the daytime and had taken to capitalizing upon the fact that he wasn't actually scheduled to be anywhere at specific times. He rolled out of bed. "Who is it?"

"Professor Giles."

For a second, Draco wondered if he was still asleep and having odd dreams. It occurred to him that his dreams were never odd, merely horrific. He pulled the jumper he'd left by the bed over his head and went to open the door. "Come in." He stepped back. "Sorry it took me so long."

Giles walked past him, turning back to assess Draco. "Did I wake you?"

Draco waved aside the question. "Naptime. Can I get you something to drink? Tea?" He sat down on the sofa and motioned for Giles to join.

Giles settled himself on the opposite end. "Tea is fine."

Draco called a house elf and ordered an afternoon tea for two. Giles waited until the house elf had gone. "I've been trying to get you on your own for days."

"I don't like to be alone." Draco wanted to laugh at the level of understatement in that sentence.

"Yes. Quite understandable, really." The house elf reappeared with a tray bearing tea, finger sandwiches and scones, leaving quickly after it was set down.

Before he had saved Harry's life, carrying the Boy Wonder out of a place Draco had once considered home, Draco had been a spy. A good one. He knew how to wait people out. He just didn't want to anymore. "Is this about Severus?"

Giles quirked an eyebrow. "Yes."

"I'm observant," Draco answered the unspoken question. And privy to information about the two of you that I doubt either of you would want me to know. He left that unsaid.

"He's testing me."

Draco leaned over and poured each of them a cup of tea. "Sugar?" He added some at Giles's nod. "Severus is testing everyone. It's how he lives his life."

"He voiced his challenge to me," Giles clarified.

"Ah. And it was?"

"That if I could dig up the goods on him and still wish to pursue him, I might have a chance in that arena." Giles carefully did not look anywhere but into his tea cup.

"And you want me to what? Tell you everything so that you can decide it's not worth it and prove to him once again that he's undeserving?" Draco dropped the words casually, as though they were the sugar cubes he was carefully depositing in his cup.

"I feel inclined to point out the decisive lack of optimists in this castle." Giles's tone was brittle.

"Give me a reason to believe in you," Draco challenged him.

"I know about his sister."

Draco's cup never trembled. He was surprised at his own willpower. "You know about Lucretia?"

"He told me."

Draco set his cup down and settled back against the cushions, thinking. Eventually, he spoke. "When Severus was fifteen, Lucius invited him back to Malfoy Manor for the summer. Lucius knew Severus would accept. It was common knowledge that the Snapes doted upon Lucretia and pretty well despised Severus for not being everything she was. He wasn't prime society material which was all the Snapes had ever wanted in a child and so to them, he wasn't much of a child at all. Severus saw a male Lucretia in Lucius, everything he would never be, the crown jewel in the Malfoy cap. He failed to recognize that Lucretia's petty meanness had no resemblance to the rather deep vein of cruelty running through Lucius. All he knew was that Lucius made him feel wanted."

"Were they lovers?"

"Not then," Draco shook his head. "Later. In their seventh year. Right before Severus took the Mark. Everything before that…Lucius was just priming him. Teasing him."

"Seducing him."

Draco acknowledged the words silently. "Severus had no real allegiance to Voldemort. I don’t think he even really thought about what he was doing. He got to make potions and be around Lucius and that was everything he wanted. At first he wasn't even a part of the raids. Voldemort was many things, but stupid was not among them. Severus was needy, not bloodthirsty. The first time he ever took part in one, it was presented to him as an experiment. To see whether or not his inventions worked. By that time he was so indoctrinated that it barely crossed his mind he was actually torturing another human being to death."

Draco took a few sips of tea and gathered his thoughts. "At that time, Voldemort's right hand man was a Wizard by the name Tarence Toulemme. He took a liking to Severus. Lucius traded Severus to Tarence for a bit of extra favor in the eyes of the higher-ups."

"The thing…the part that Severus wants you to understand, or at least, this is what I assume, is that had that little trade never happened, had Lucius not betrayed him, he is unsure of whether he would have ever begun to think for himself in regards to Voldemort. In a way, I think he believes without question that if Lucius hadn't done what he did, that Severus would have stayed with them until the end."

"You don’t agree," Giles pointed out the obvious.

"Of course not. Severus' actions, both in regards to the Wizarding world at large and on a personal basis toward me deny that possibility in every way as far as I'm concerned. Perhaps it would have taken him longer, but Severus's cruelty runs no deeper than Lucretia's did. Petty meanness, at best. He was able to blind himself to what he was doing out of his own sheer need for the gains that allowed him for a time. He would not have been able to forever."

Giles bit into a finger sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. "One could argue that he only stayed on the side of the good because Albus Dumbledore made him feel a necessary part of the Order."

"He was a necessary part of the Order. And Dumbledore may have made him feel needed, but there was precious little of that coming from anywhere else. With Voldemort, his needs were…manipulated. Dumbledore loved Severus like a son. I'm sure it helped to keep him on our side, but Severus had made the decision to come over without the knowledge that Dumbledore would even accept his defection."

"So then, he came over due to a lover's spat and stayed for the love Dumbledore was able to provide." Giles poured himself more tea.

Draco snorted. "Hardly. If it had just been Lucius…Tarence wanted him. He could have easily convinced himself that wanting was needing. Lucius's betrayal merely awakened an awareness in him. He began to see his own betrayal of the people he was killing. And then, of course, there was Lucretia. He left because he couldn't live with the man he had become."

"I'm not entirely convinced he can now," Giles commented.

Draco felt the pain building up behind his eyes. "Old habits die hard."

Giles sipped at his tea. "You think he'd be willing to give dinner with me a shot now?"

"You're still interested?" Draco wondered if perhaps Ginny and Remus hadn’t seen more than mere sexual attraction between the couples of which they had spoken.

"No," Giles said as seriously as he could, "I prefer to punish him for a mistake he made while he was still a teenager. That makes far more sense."

Draco considered explaining that in his world, it actually did. He decided Giles had probably figured it out between Draco and Severus. "I could put in a good word for you." Severus could use…a good lay. Thinking anything else seemed absurdly risky. The Dementors had drained Draco of any hard-won optimism he'd obtained before Azkaban, but Giles smiled at Draco's words, and he found the ability to mentally cross his fingers.

*

Draco was jolted out of the mental exercises Sirius had suggested for him when there was a knock at his door for the second time that day. The exercises were important, he knew, and he would get back to them, but the idea of human company seeking him out twice in a twelve hour period was more excitement than he could bear to turn down. He answered the door, nearly shutting it again out of shock when he recognized Wesley as being the person standing on the welcoming mat that someone -- Draco still wasn't entirely sure who -- had placed outside his door as a joke.

The mat yelled, "Gerroff me, y'stupid sod!"

Draco hastily offered, "Um, come in."

Wesley stepped inside and Draco shut the door behind him. There was silence for a bit before Draco managed, "Was there something I could do for you?" Wesley had never been to his rooms, never even been the one to approach Draco before.

"I could use a bit of dinner, since," Wesley looked at his watch to confirm his next words, "I believe we're missing it."

Draco glanced at the clock on the wall. He'd been working at the exercises longer than he'd realized. "Was there something particular you wanted-"

Wesley waved a hand, "Whatever. If something sounds good to you, that's more than fine."

Draco wondered if this was a date. Blaise hadn't really been one to bother with preliminaries. If he showed up at Draco's room, it was to screw. It occurred to Draco that this might not be so different, that Wesley might just have more manners -- or less guts -- than Blaise possessed. In fairness, if Draco hadn't been decently sure that meaningless sex would mess things up beyond all measure at this point, he wouldn't have minded a visit like that. As it was…Draco ordered dinner from one of the house elves and decided to wait Wesley out.

When the food was brought back, Wesley grabbed one of the plates accompanying it and piled food so that there wasn't an inch left of the plate showing through. Draco put far less on his plate and they sat down at the table Draco had off to the side of the sitting area. Wesley ate in tiny but quick bites, allowing time in between for himself to update Draco on what had happened that day. "I think Hermione knows something that she's not telling either me or Fred. I suspect it's something to do with magic and that our knowledge wouldn't be of much use anyway, but… The one time I kept something I knew from everyone I was working with, events didn't turn out so well for anyone. In the the-person-I-was-trying-to-protect-ended-up-in-a-hell-dimension-and-I-ended-up-alienated-from-everyone-I-cared-about way. Which lead to my sleeping with the enemy phase."

Draco broke all the information down into easy-to-handle bits. He decided that, despite his curiosity, the last part would just have to wait. "Hermione isn't keeping it a secret. Not exactly. It's just that she's used, well, she's used to Ron and Harry being her partners in crime. They both adored her and thought the world of her brilliance, but when she would start to talk they would smile vacantly. So eventually, she just started going at her own speed, not worrying about whether they were at her side or not, because she knew that when it mattered, they would catch up. You and Fred are different, but I don't think she's realized that yet."

"I take it you know what the secret is?" Wesley pried.

"Not exactly. She's got Severus working on something that he's asked for help with and I have a feeling it's all connected, but I'm lost as to what the larger picture looks like."

Wesley finished the last of what was on his plate. Draco couldn't help but be impressed. "You accidentally sent someone to a hell dimension?"

"It's a long story."

"I would imagine most ones with that synopsis would tend toward long, yes." Draco cut delicately, precisely at the lettuce on his plate.

Wesley sighed. "All right. Let's see. Fred and I worked for a vampire. One with a soul. Me, her, a woman named Cordelia and a man named Gunn. We took calls from people who were dealing with paranormal difficulties and helped them out. Then Angel, the vampire, had a son with his sire, Darla."

Draco frowned. "Lucius had reams of books on vampires. I never came across anything in any of them that would suggest that was possible. They're dead."

"It was quite the shock to all of us, believe me. Inasmuch we were trying to figure out how it could be possible. While researching, I came across a prophecy that I believed to be valid. It indicated that Angel would kill his child. So I stole the child. It turned out to be a false prophecy and the child was in turn taken from me and thrown into a hell dimension with a man who had sworn eternal vengeance on Angel for killing the man's family back before Angel had regained his soul."

"And here I was thinking I had some interesting stories to tell my grandchildren."

Wesley ignored him. "As you might imagine, Angel was considerably aggrieved at my actions, as were the rest of the group. A law firm that we at Angel Investigations considered to be our arch-nemesis tried to enlist my services. I refused, but ended up sleeping with the woman who was sent to make the offer." Wesley pushed his plate away from himself. "It was something I should not have done."

"Is that-" Draco cut himself off.

Wesley looked up at him. "Is that what?"

"Is that why you're reluctant to…" Draco pursed his lips, as though searching for a word.

"I dated Fred, right? And she was perfection, the epitome of everything a woman should be. But it didn't work. I could make it work, in a very messy way, with my worst enemy, but not with my best friend. Why aren't you reluctant?"

"Because Blaise wasn't either to me. At times, maybe, he was both, in some ways. But really, he never cared about me enough to gain that status. Those kinds of things are mutual by necessity. I'm neither best friend nor worst enemy to you right now, I know that, and that does scare me. But I think…Remus and Sirius are best friends who have been each other's worst enemies at times and it was Remus who suggested this. That's something I can trust." Draco hoped that had made as much sense outside of his head as inside.

Wesley didn't give much indication, sitting silent one moment and the next getting to his feet. "You wanna take me for a broomride?"

Draco wasn't one to push his luck, but his, "really?" spilled out before he could stop it.

"I'd like to fly with you," Wesley said softly.

Draco liked the way it didn't sound dirty at all.

*

It was cold and getting progressively colder. Draco wrapped himself in two Slytherin scarves, one wound carefully over his ears. Wesley went without. Draco pointed out, "It's even colder up there."

Wesley smiled dryly. "I actually kind of miss the cold. We don't get much of that in Los Angeles."

Draco wondered if he was as successful as he hoped at trying to hide his concern that Wesley might be slightly "tetched". He shrugged off the concern -- he didn't know anyone without their share of idiosyncrasies -- and mounted the broom. This time, Wesley swung a leg over and sat behind him. His body was closer to Draco's this time, the reserve and worry of the previous ride being gone. Wesley wrapped his arms around Draco's waist and it was all Draco could do not to burrow back against Wesley, take more of the contact that Draco was being given only out of Wesley's concern that he not fall to his death.

Draco kicked off from the ground and was quickly well into the air, above the magically augmented height of the trees in the Forbidden Forest. Night was near to falling and the castle windows glowed, stained glass projecting rivers of color in the last of the day's light. Soon the outside torches, charmed to light themselves at the disappearance of the sun, would roar to life and the castle would twinkle, as sturdy and welcoming as ever. Draco looped casually over a few of the turrets before bringing them back to the pitch.

Despite his nonchalance, Wesley's breathing was harsh and short against the cold. Draco had to work not to pant himself at the slightly erotic sound of it, washing so closely over his left ear. In an attempt to divert his attention, he shouted, "Hang on!" and began to show off. He didn't try anything terribly risky; daily practice with Harry or no, Draco knew he was still just beginning to get his flying back to the precision level it had been at before Azkaban. He dipped a little, and twirled and even did one flip before bringing them down.

When their feet were firmly planted, Wesley asked in a throat that had nearly closed up with cold, "That's it?"

Draco twisted enough to face him. "I am not going to be the one to explain to Hermione why you had to get treated for hypothermia, I don’t care how much you missed the cold."

Wesley's laugh was self-effacing. "Have a cup of hot cocoa with me, then?"

"I'm forever up for some hot cocoa," Draco consented easily. He waited until Wesley pried his hands apart and lifted himself off the broom before dismounting. "C'mon."

They walked quickly to the kitchens, where Draco set his broom off to the side and asked the three house elves who were vying for his attention to bring them the hot cocoa. He stripped off his gloves, glancing at Wesley's hands as he did so. "Merlin." Without thinking, he took Wesley's hands in between his, the cold of the skin nearly burning him. He pressed his hands more tightly over them for a second before loosing them just enough to massage the skin. He brought the tangle of their hands up to his face and blew a stream of warm air into the cocoon that his hands had created. Lifting his face back up, his eyes met Wesley's and he realized suddenly what he was doing. He snatched his hands away, "Sorry. Um, there's your hands back."

"I was rather enjoying them having been hijacked," Wesley admitted.

The hot cocoa was served and Draco blew on his, both to cool it and to have something else to concentrate on.

"Do you not like being touched?" Wesley took a sip after saying the words, obscuring his eyes behind the large mug.

Draco tried to understand the question. He failed. "I miss being touched."

"You always stiffen, or pull away," Wesley clarified.

Draco shut his mouth firmly to disallow the surprised "oh" it wanted to form. When he had regained control he said, "I'm afraid of taking more than has been given."

Wesley's eyes darkened, but Draco didn't sense anger behind the change. He stayed still as Wesley reached a hand out and gently stroked one side of Draco's face with his thumb. "It's all right to take."

"If I start I may-"

"Start," Wesley ordered. "Just try."

Draco leaned into Wesley's thumb. Wesley turned his hand, cupping it against Draco's cheek. The corners of Draco's mouth lifted into what could nearly be called a smile.

*

Bill had caught Hermione off-guard while she was in the middle of trying to figure out why Draco's rune caused everything to go haywire in nearly every equation he entered into. He had pulled her away from her scribbles, "Dinnertime, 'Mi."

"Bill, I'm in the middle of something," she protested, stumbling slightly.

Bill righted her. "Yes, I see that, but you do know how mum hates to be kept waiting when ready to feed bunches of people."

"Oh, Bill, not tonight, I have so much to get done, I haven't even started grading-"

"It's your own fault," he told her firmly. "If you hadn't waited so long in between visits and if she hadn't found out about this girl you're keeping from Harry, who accidentally spilled not realizing you hadn't said anything, she wouldn't have insisted that I kidnap you, but as it is, your life will just have to be set aside for the moment."

Hermione felt contrite, but not enough to keep her from arguing. "It's not the easiest thing in the world you know, trying to tell your mum that I've met someone."

Bill slowed the pace and squeezed her hand. "I know."

Fred was at the main entrance, looking perplexed. "There was a note that said to meet you here. What's going on?"

Hermione glanced quickly at Bill and gave in. "We're going to join the Weasley's for dinner tonight. That is, if you don't mind."

Fred bit at her lip. "Maybe I should just stay here. There's still that conundrum in the-"

Bill spoke over her, "You'll only do that if you want me to die a slow and painful death at my mother's hand. And I'll be crushed if I've caused such enmity in you in such a short time. A month more, maybe, and I would understand, but it's been less than a week."

Fred looked to Hermione. "What do you want?"

You. Hermione nearly shivered at the force of the thought. "Come with me. Please. You're gonna love Molly."

Fred's eyes lit up. She poked Bill, "Your sister's got me convinced that your mom is a kitchen goddess. She'd better live up."

"You'll return twice the size you were." He ran his eyes over Fred's frame. "Maybe three times the size, in your case."

Hermione laughed softly, listening to them mock bicker all the way to the nearest spot beyond the wards. Bill blinked out of existence. Hermione wrapped her arms around Fred's waist. "Just relax. I'll get you there whole."

Fred winked. "I'm not much good to you any other way, am I?"

Hermione Apparated them directly into the Weasley's living room, nearly on top of the twins. Before she could break from Fred, she was being hugged by Fred and George on either side of her. In the background she could hear Fiora Maxten, a quiet Hufflepuff from the year before Hermione who had turned out to have an outrageous -- and wicked -- sense of humor, railing at her husband. "Fred, I swear, we've talked about this kink of yours!"

Behind her, Amala Danielson, George's on-again off-again girlfriend of nearly three years, laughed. "Yours too?" She asked nonchalantly. She was a beater for the newly formed American Pro-Quidditch team and nearly twice the size of every other woman in the room. In flat shoes, she stood an inch taller than George. She seized hold of Fiora's waist and dipped her, leaning down as though to kiss the smaller girl.

George and Fred broke their death grip on Hermione as one to watch the show.

Amala's grin was evil as she righted Fiora. The twins sighed. "Hullo, Hermione."

Hermione politely refrained from smiling at their disappointment. "Fred, George, Amala, Fiora, this is Fred, my girlfriend."

Amala stuck out a hand and shook Fred's firmly, "Nice to meet you. Did I hear right, you're American?"

"Texan," Fred's whole frame moved with the force of Amala's handshake.

"Eh, almost the same thing."

Fred giggled and accepted the greetings of the other three before Hermione pulled her into the kitchen area. Molly spotted the two of them and bustled over, pulling them both to her in a large hug. "Mione, it's been forever. Is this the girl Harry's been telling us about? Oh dear, she's a stick. We'll have to fix that right up," Molly went off, returning her attention to the stove before Hermione or Fred could say a word in return. Bill winked at them from the table, where he was setting plates.

Fred offered, "Can I help?"

Bill asked, "Think you can find Charlie? He looks like me, but shorter and without a carbon copy. Hermione'll recognize him. Tell him we're almost ready."

Hermione and Fred left the kitchen to do as told. They found Charlie in the back, de-gnoming with Percy. Fred watched in concern as gnomes flew this way and that, but Hermione reassured her, "It just stuns them." She called out, "Perce, Charlie, they're almost ready in there."

Percy wiped his hands on his pants and headed toward them. He hugged Hermione and shook Fred's hand upon being introduced. Charlie ruffled both women's hair and grinned when it got Fred to laugh. Percy asked, "How's the Malfoy thing working out?"

Hermione stood on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "He's been very helpful. I still owe you."

The four of them walked back in and took their seats at the table, where everyone else, including the late-arriving Taryn, Harry and Ginny, was already sitting, waiting for what Harry called sternly, "The stragglers. Sit down, you're holding us all up."

Percy was the first one to talk to Fred, asking several questions about what kind of help she was providing with Hermione's Arithmancy finally coming to: "So, basically, the runes themselves indicate some kind of important Muggle involvement?"

Fred glanced surreptitiously at Ginny. "Well, yes, that and other factors point that way. We're still solving for more answers."

Percy seemed to be on the verge of asking another spectacularly detailed question like his earlier ones when Molly interjected with, "What's Texas like, dear?"

"Hot and humid." Fred wrinkled her nose, "Kind of dusty. I didn't much like it, I left for California at first chance."

"You went to school there?" Amala asked.

"UCLA. Did a bachelor's in physics and was working on the PhD when I got…distracted," Fred finished politically.

"Hate it when that happens," George's tone was solemn but his eyes were mischievous. Next to him, Fred opened his mouth to build on the joke, but Fiora intercepted him. "Is Muggle physics different from Wizarding physics?"

Underneath the table, Hermione grasped Fred's hand. She fielded the question for her, having more expertise on the difference than Fred, if not more knowledge of the actual discipline. Fred squeezed back and concentrated on answering the next question thrown at her.

Later, walking back to the school from the ward-gate, Taryn laid a hand on Fred's shoulder. "Not bad, for your first time."

Fred looked at her in disbelief. "Are you kidding?"

"Not at all. The first Weasley family dinner I went to as Bill's girlfriend, the twins slipped an EveryWhichWay Wafer onto my dessert plate. They look like cookies, so I ate it. I was walking on the ceiling for a full hour before the magic wore off."

Fred looked pained. "I'm sorry."

"Eh, I married their brother anyway. I figure that's the last laugh if there ever was one."

Hermione shoved gently at Taryn. "Silly." She kissed Fred clumsily, trying to keep up the pace while doing so, "You were great."

Fred just stuck out her cheek for another kiss.

*

Hermione entered her office one morning to find Wesley staring at a board of equations, deep in thought, seemingly unaware that Draco had attached himself to Wesley's back and it would probably take heavy Muggle machinery -- or at least a few advanced level Unsticking Charms -- to separate them. Hermione's breath caught in her throat for a moment before she croaked out, "'Morning."

Wesley turned his head. "Oh, good morning. Does this mean anything to you?"

It took Hermione a second to figure out he meant the complex cluster of runes on one side of the equals sign. "It indicates that things are coming together. Unfortunately, its value is neutral. It could as easily mean that things are coming together for us as for Zabini. What's more, in a situation like this, wherein we suspect there could be personal motives for any attack launched, it could relate to the intersection of factors from both sides coming together. It doesn't tell us much except to watch our backs even more diligently than before." She caught herself before commenting, "Or the people attached to them."

Fred's voice rang out from behind Hermione, "Good morning! Oh, hey Draco. I brought breakfast for people who couldn't be bothered with little things like eating."

Hermione turned to watch Fred not-so-subtly glare at Wesley. Wesley held out his hand and drank the juice she set in it to appease her. She took the drained glass and gave him a muffin. "Draco, did you eat?"

"I had something brought here."

Hermione tried not to marvel at the fact that Wesley ate, concentrated on the equation set and conversed with Fred without once trying to dislodge Draco. While Fred and Wesley set to debating something about the value of infinity in a runic equation, Hermione wrapped a hand around Draco's arm. She hoped he was telling the truth about eating, he was still far too skinny. "Hey."

Draco focused on her. "Hey."

"Are you…is everything okay?"

Draco nodded. "We talked."

Hermione could definitely see how that would improve things. She released his arm. "About?"

"The fact that I'm clingy."

Hermione frowned. "I hadn't noticed."

"Well, I hadn't wanted…I was kind of worried-"

"Oh," Hermione understood in a flash of insight that made her want to bring up everything she had just eaten. "Draco, you should have said something. Sirius or Remus or Severus or I…hell, even Harry, we all would have been fine with it. You didn't seem to want anyone to touch you."

"That was pretty much what he said."

Hermione wasn't surprised. "Are there other things like that? Even including Ginny and Remus in our ranks, none of us is telepathic, Draco."

Draco had the grace to look slightly abashed. "I know that, but neither am I. Azkaban bloody well screws with your notion of self and it's ridiculously hard to feel like I know what the right course of action is in any given situation. Most days making the decision between eggs and scones at breakfast takes on apocalyptic proportions and I end up taking both, even if I'm not technically hungry enough to eat all of it. Then I make myself eat all of it because I get to worrying that there won't be any later. The guards at Azkaban can be less than dependable when it comes to things like that. So, I'm sorry I didn't say anything but it wasn't personal."

Hermione studiously kept a straight face. "Feel better?"

It took Draco a minute, but he seemed to sense the release of tension once made aware of it. "Yes, actually."

"You should yell more often. I'd be willing to listen," Hermione volunteered. Something that Hermione couldn't read passed over Draco's face. She got the gist, though. "When you're ready."

Draco released one half his hold on Wesley, grabbing Hermione's wrist and then releasing it so quickly she was unsure contact had actually occurred. Before he could pull away, she caught his hand and intertwined their fingers. "This okay?"

Draco squeezed lightly.

"Can you tell me how the antidote's going, or would Severus kill you?"

"How quiet can you keep?" Draco winked conspiratorially.

Hermione locked her lips shut and mimed throwing away the key.

Draco looked bewildered for a second. "Oh. Another Muggle thing. D'you think anyone would mind if I sat in on a few Muggle Studies classes?"

Hermione unlocked her lips. "No, of course not. Draco, focus. Potion."

"Not a very reliable way of keeping yourself silent, is it?" Draco mused. He told her about the potion anyway, dropping a deceptively casual, "I trust you."

Hermione tried to listen and breathe, each one taking up equal amounts of concentration.

*

Fred had climbed on top of Hermione, straddling her, grinding gently against her as they kissed, taking their time tasting the residue of the day on each other. Hermione's fingers were skimming beneath the waist band on her jeans when Fred's head popped up. "Matter and anti-matter."

Hermione knew enough about that to hope that she wasn't talking about them. "Baby?"

"Sorry, it's not…this was good, don't think I wasn't paying attention-"

Hermione kissed her on the lips quickly, startling her into silence. "It's okay. I do it too. Ron used to laugh at me when I'd jump out of bed right after we'd finished to write something down. What did you come up with?"

"Draco is the one who screws with all the equations, right?"

"I think that's pretty well established, yes."

Fred got up to pace, idea-induced excitement pouring off of her. "And all the equations on some level have to do with Zabini. So what if it's the two of them that are causing the reactions, not just Draco himself? They're reacting to each other, maybe against each other. I don’t really think they'd disappear if they touched, I mean, obviously, because Draco hasn't exactly been shy about the fact that they've done much more then touched, but I have to think of it this way because they're so much of the same raw material with such completely different results in each of them. Too much alike to be any kind of chemical reaction, so, yes, matter and anti-matter."

Hermione smiled behind her hand at Fred's chatter. "We should look more closely at whether the relationship between Zabini and Draco in an equation affects things. If you're correct, than I would assume a direct correlation in the mathematic build between the two representative ruins would cause more mayhem than an indirect one. Right now I can't remember if that's true or not."

"Right." Fred bounced a bit. "And there's also the matter of checking for other common factors. I mean, the three of us are doing all the equations, and while I doubt I could be causing much disturbance, you or Wesley easily could."

"We might want to see if redrawing representative runes changes anything. If it's the rune itself, and not what it represents, then I can perform a Runic Transmorphing Spell and we can start over again."

Fred nodded. She turned to Hermione, idea-based fever burning out. "Tomorrow?"

Hermione rose from the chair and walked to where Fred was standing. She plucked open Fred's topmost button. "Tomorrow."

*

Severus carefully held himself back from blinking when, despite the fact that Flitwick had occupied the side of him not taken by Minerva at the head table every night for two school years, Flitwick was not the one sitting by his side.

Blinking action or no, Giles explained without being asked. "If I can't get a date out of you, I'll have to just work with what I'm given. Don’t worry, I told Filius we were collaborating on a Dark Arts project for the seventh years."

"Good. The shock of me having tripped upon an admirer would undoubtedly do him in and we're hardly at a place where we can afford to be loosing more professors," Severus said with considerably more aplomb than he was feeling.

"Is that why you won't say yes? Concern for your colleagues? That's positively heart-warming Severus."

Severus wished that his glare worked on Giles even a fourth as well as it worked on his students. "Did you move chairs simply to annoy me?"

"As much as it would please me to claim that level of planning genius, no. Draco promised he'd put in a good word for me. I was attempting to see if his verbal skills had paid off where mine are so obviously failing. I sense not."

Severus twisted his lips ever so slightly. So that was what Draco had been on about. The boy had nattered on about forgiveness for nearly an hour while Severus was trying to stabilize pixie blood for the as-of-yet undiscovered antidote. Pixie's blood had brilliantly diverse qualities if one could get it stable enough not to blow up any other ingredient with which it came into contact. Severus had thought Draco was trying to figure himself out aloud. Draco's Slytherin subtlety was still suffering a bit from disuse. "I believe he was still getting around to it."

"Ah. I used to be better at waiting."

"Age is supposed to improve patience."

"Seems odd, doesn’t it, when you have less time to wait for things?" Giles mused.

It was a good point. "I've found the amount of time we have to be rather arbitrary regardless of age."

Giles concentrated on his food, not saying a word. Eventually, Severus filled the silence with, "When did you and Draco speak?"

Giles' eyes were indiscernible for the briefest of moments. "When I sought him out to ask him about you."

Severus set his fork down, not wanting to do anything so foolish as throw it at the students. Or Giles. "And what did he say?"

"Not much until I informed him of our deal."

"Deal?" Severus concentrated on reports of Siberian winters and infused the one word with the glacial results.

"That if I could find out about you, and still want to date you, you might give me a chance. Not much, I know, but I've spent the large portion of my life fighting off different versions of the apocalypse with a teenage girl and her friends. Having the odds against me is sometimes a sign of luck, I feel."

Severus forced himself not to look at Potter, who only looked his full nineteen years when his eyes were visible. As though nineteen were so old. "Then Draco-"

"Loves you, I believe," Giles cut him off. "It's a good thing that I have a general belief in a being's ability to change, else I think he might have Avada Kedavraed me, consequences be damned." Giles took his glasses off to clean them, peering sharply at Severus despite their lack. "I have many faults, Severus. But I try not to make mistakes more than once. And I have already not been willing to accept change in someone where I should have."

Giles replaced his glasses upon his nose and Severus sighed softly in relief. Barriers could be terribly useful things. Still, Severus knew there was wisdom in knowing when to admit defeat. "Very well. One dinner. No sex afterwards."

Giles wisely did not smile. "We'll bargain when I've gotten a few in you."

Severus stabbed his fish and refused to acknowledge Giles for the rest of the meal.

*

Giles had explained, "I did all the work asking, I get to pick the place."

Severus was pretty sure he could have pressed the issue, but he didn't. He knew how to pick his battles.

They ended up in Muggle London, several blocks northwest of the Leaky Cauldron at an place that purported to serve Southeast Indian. Severus was unfamiliar with such cuisine and therefore unwilling to vouch for the validity of the restaurant's claim, but in the corner of his mind where he stored information that he considered classified, he admitted to himself that the bread Giles referred to liltingly as "Chapatis" was warm and beautifully textured against his tongue.

"So," Giles threw out, conversationally, "why do you like potions so much?"

Severus glowered.

Giles backtracked. "In my universe, the purpose of a date is to get to know someone that you could be potentially interested in just a little bit better. I will admit, due to the fact that the wooing process was somewhat complicated by your reticence, my unsubtle probings must needs take a surprisingly banal track, but nonetheless-"

"Because if the process is easy, you're most likely doing something wrong," Severus answered the original question.

"You don’t like things that are easy?"

"They…" Severus hesitated, unwilling to use the word "frighten", "make me suspicious."

"Ah. That explains a lot."

Severus worried that it probably did. "It has the added bonus of allowing me to become a leader in the field rather more easily than most, as many Wizards give into defeat before they've ever really given it a chance."

"Something tells me you would be a leader even were the subject unanimously popular."

"Flattery will get you nowhere," Severus warned.

"Honesty might get me everywhere, though."

Their conversation was interrupted by the waiter bringing their food. Giles spooned some rice onto Severus's plate before taking some for himself. Severus was torn between wanting to snap at him for making assumptions and finding the gesture oddly sweet. He would admit, at least inwardly, that there were times when sweet was nice. He decided on neither option and merely ignored the whole moment, pouring a bit of each dish onto his plate. The smells wafting up were less than a step away from seductive and Severus was glad that he knew nearly every aphrodisiac yet discovered by its scent.

Giles picked up the conversation when the food had been parceled out. "When I was a kid I watched a lot of American movies. Action films, particularly. I was too young to understand the idea of a crush at the time, but I always had one on the brainy character, the person who figured out the strategy of how to Overcome Great Evil. I thought I just wanted to be him or her when I grew up. So that was what I did. I became the brainy sidekick."

"I've only ever seen one movie." It had been in Muggle Studies, back when he was a student. At the time, he had been too much in Lucius's control to appreciate it. The only reason he had taken the class was out of some misguided notion of knowing the enemy. At the time, he hadn't known that was a Muggle notion in and of itself.

"We'll have to remedy that. Movie dates are quite standard in Muggle culture."

"Seems paradoxical. It would be hard to get to know someone while concentrating on a movie. Unless it is traditional to ignore the movie, in which case, I don't know how my knowledge of them would be bettered."

The ghost of a smile played at Giles' lips. "There are other ways of getting to know someone than just talking. But I think we can forego that for the sake of expanding your horizons."

Severus felt the blush crawling up the skin of his chest. "You presume I would have any interest in that sort of…exploration."

Giles stared challengingly into Severus's eyes. "I do presume, Severus. Am I incorrect?"

Severus could lie better than most lawyers and politicians. He hated it. "No. But physical attraction is irrelevant."

"In and of itself, yes." Giles opened his mouth, looking as though he would continue in that same vein. At the last moment, he evidently reconsidered, "Are you enjoying dinner?"

"If food were sex, this would be an orgasm." Severus said it as though he was discussing the new policy on inter-continental flooing.

Giles choked on his water. "You enjoy that, don't you?"

Severus very carefully assembled his quizzical look.

"Catching me off guard. And you knew exactly what I meant."

Severus allowed his eyes to give off the slightest hint of deprecatory smile. "Usually you're rather good at not letting on."

"Allow me some recovery time. Your capitulation to my demands for a date have thrown me somewhat."

"I rarely give quarter," Severus informed him.

"Let me be the exception." It wasn't exactly a plea, but it was close.

For the first time, Severus let himself consider it.

*

When Draco began working with the bluejar petals, an ingredient unlikely to cause explosions even in the hands of Longbottom, Severus inquired, "Why did you tell Giles about me?"

Severus was glad to see that while Draco's grip on the spoon he was stirring with faltered, it didn't dissipate altogether. Progress. Draco stammered, "I thought, well, it occurred to me that… Because you could stand to have someone who treats you well."

"You had absolutely no guarantees that he would," Severus pointed out.

"But I hadn't seen anything to prove the contrary either. You and I both know that when all of your options are exhausted, the only thing is to try the unlikely. Desperation isn't something to strive for, but it sometimes provides you with information that you would never have discovered otherwise."

"I'm not desperate," Severus sniffed.

"Perhaps I am," Draco snapped, immediately drawing in on himself.

"Draco."

"Wesley stayed with me last night, and the night before. Just so I would have someone to touch. I warned him, I told him I wouldn't be able to stop but he didn't believe me and now I can't. The need is there, all the time, and I know that's what's inside you, even if you're still lying to yourself about that, and so…vicarious living, and whatnot." Draco split one of the petals into three even lengths and added it to a mixture of mugwort and bark from the Whomping Willow.

"We went to dinner," Severus offered tentatively.

"I know that, Severus," Draco let a hint of exasperation bleed into his tone. "I do listen, y'know. It was one of the easiest habits to pick back up again. It's amazing what people will say, even if they don't trust you."

Severus thought most people probably trusted Draco more than he realized, but chose to save that conversation for a later date. "He's clever. For a Muggle."

"That must be quite clever. Wesley's nearly so clever as Hermione, and I never thought I'd see the day when I'd think that about anyone." Draco paused, studying the mixture in front of him. "Perhaps more of the bark. He's not Lucius."

"We'd hardly have gone to dinner if he was."

"You know what I mean," Draco sprinkled a bit more of the ground bark into the cauldron.

"Just because something isn't comparative to one evil does not mean it's not comparable to another."

"It also doesn't mean that it's not! Just…did he ask you out for another date?"

Severus gave in, "Not in so many words."

"And did you accept?" Draco pushed.

"I think I declined to respond."

"Be the man I bloody well believe you are and rise up the challenge," Draco looked up, meeting Severus's gaze.

Severus catalogued the ingredients he had been laying out before him. It had occurred to him that trying to stabilize the Pixie's blood with something equally as instable rather than something patently contradictory to that state, might work better for his purposes. "All right then."

*

Draco was accustomed enough to waking himself from nightmares that it took him a moment to realize that he wasn't the one muttering incoherently. Wesley's chest was still under his head, not breathing except to murmur, "No," and other less-understandable, half-formed words.

Draco whispered, "Wes," but there was no response. Biting the inside of his lower lip, he shook Wesley. "Wes, c'mon. Wake up."

Wesley started, eyes opening wide and blank. Instinctively, Draco reminded him, "It's Draco. Just Draco."

Wesley took a breath. "Oh." Some of the tension bled from his body.

Draco offered, "Can I get you something?"

Wesley murmured something in the negative. "Just stay here."

Draco wrapped himself even more firmly around Wesley than the moment before. "You…is it something you want to talk about?"

Wesley had been silent for so long that Draco assumed they were ignoring that the question had ever been presented when he explained, "I think my nightmares about my father are probably very similar to the ones you have about Lucius."

An odd cold stole through Draco's stomach and throat at the thought. "Ah."

"Lucius wished you to be evil and my father wished me to be…well, anything that I wasn't, mostly." Resignation sounded jarring in Wesley's accent.

"I'm sorry that your father was a fool," Draco couldn't control the harshness of his tone.

Wesley stiffened for a moment before snorting weakly. "Yes, me as well." He slid into a non-sequitur, "Are you here because of what Remus and Ginny told us?"

"I'm here because these are my rooms," Draco volleyed back with a decent dose of calm. He wanted to dance at the feel of returning to himself. He stayed where he was.

"Draco."

"Perhaps I want you to answer first."

Wesley was unmoved, "I asked first."

"Extremely mature." Draco suspected that meant it was up to him to be the adult. "I'm here because you haven't pulled away yet."

"Whether you understand it or not, I can think of at least five people off the top of my head who would still be here if you had reached out to them first," Wesley pointed out.

Draco knew all the cruel things he could say. Knew at one point he probably would have said them. Wondered if maybe he should now. Chose instead to say, "I don't stare at other people's arses when they're busy considering runic equations."

"I'm just a well-rounded arse to you, then." Wesley twisted to face Draco.

Draco couldn't help himself, "Only when you open your mouth."

Wesley snickered, "Left myself open."

"You did," Draco agreed softly.

"I find you dangerous. Too much like me and too much like Leila, and I've been there, done that."

Draco knew there was a time to ask questions and a time to accept what context clues gave away and move on. This was the latter. "I'm neither you nor Leila."

"Which is most likely why I am here." There was fear in Wesley's eyes.

Draco also knew to quit while he was ahead. He kissed Wesley quickly on the lips. "I'm exhausted." He settled his head against Wesley's chest, closed his eyes, and very determinedly recited the Greek alphabet until he fell asleep.

*

"You're doing more harm than good," Severus pointed out.

Draco looked at the incorrectly colored swirls moving restlessly of their own accord inside the cauldron. "On the upside, I haven't blown anything up."

"Draco, go to bed," Severus ordered.

Draco had been working on an idea he had formulated about adding kneazle bile as an active ingredient since the early hours of the morning. It was well past dinner. "The theory is valid, if I can just-"

"I know the theory is valid, we don’t have the time for me to allow you to waste days working at something that will never go anywhere, but you're exhausted and not doing anything any good right now. You just put sulfide in there, for Merlin's sake. I'm going to have to conjur windows just to air this place out and sulfide is a non-reactant to all ingredients originating in magical creatures, you learned that in third year Potions. Go to bed."

Draco sniffed tentatively at the air. "Sorry."

Severus waved his hand distractedly. "I'll see you in the morning. Go slobber on your Muggle consort."

"I suppose you find better things to do with yours?" Draco lifted an eyebrow.

"Impertinent snot," Severus answered dismissively.

Draco stood up and placed a hand on Severus's shoulder, squeezing briefly. Before Draco even saw movement, Severus had caught the hand, squeezing it in his own. "Sleep well."

Draco didn't pull away, waiting until Severus let go. "Night."

Exhausted, but experiencing the restlessness caused by too many hours spent stationary in front of a cauldron, Draco set to wandering the castle, paying just enough attention not to get sent somewhere he didn't want to go by a fidgety staircase. He wasn't terribly surprised to find himself outside of Sirius' and Remus' rooms when his feet stopped moving. Too tired to fight instinct, he raised his hand, and knocked at the door. Only after he'd knocked did he stop to consider how late it was.

A bedraggled but alert Remus opened the door. Draco felt sheepish, "Did I get you out of bed?"

Remus smiled, "We're getting old. Can't go all hours of the night anymore. You didn't wake us, we were talking. Come in. Is everything all right?"

Everything wasn't, but the scope of the question suggested to Draco that the answer was, "Fine. You?" He stepped inside, allowing Remus to close the door and reset the wards.

"Well. Would you like something to drink? Tea?"

"Do you have any chamomile?" One of the house elves who had more effectively raised Draco than either Lucius or Narcissa had used chamomile as a sleeping agent whenever something had happened to upset him too badly for sleep to come.

"I'm sure I can rummage some up." Remus and Sirius had an actual kitchen in their rooms, as both had grown unaccustomed to the service of house elves over the years and didn't always feel comfortable merely waving a wand when they wanted something. Sirius had tried to explain the feeling of safety and familiarity that they each got out of making their own tea, sandwiches, or biscuits. Draco had nodded politely, aware that his comfort zone was too intimately connected with house elves to ever truly understand.

Draco sat down at the well-crafted oak table that sat two or three in the center of the kitchen area. Remus set a pot to boiling and took a second chair. Just as he had sat down, Sirius's voice filtered out to where they were, "Remy?"

"In the kitchen, hon. Draco's here."

Seconds later, a semi-bleary Sirius appeared, tightly wrapped in a robe. He took the third chair. Remus offered, "I'm making chamomile tea, want any?"

"With lemon?" Sirius asked, his ears perking up hopefully. Draco wondered if things like that happened to all animagi who took their animals forms far more than could be strictly recommended. Sirius had all kind of unconscious mannerisms that suggested his alternative form.

Remus reached over and tucked a fly-away hair behind Sirius's ear. "I think I can manage that."

Sirius turned his attention to Draco. "You look like someone peeled you off one of the castle's ramparts."

"You're looking dashing yourself." Not terribly original, Draco had to admit, but quickly and well-delivered.

"Not-so-nebulous rumor has it that Severus has you working in his dungeons all day long," Sirius prodded. Remus got up to answer to the call of the shrilly demanding teapot.

"He asked me to help out with something," Draco defended his former teacher. "I'm quite good at potions. I think I was considering a career in them."

"Previous hopes and aspirations still a bit unclear?" Remus asked the question with marvelous calm. Draco appreciated it.

"I'm remembering, slowly. More slowly than I could wish, perhaps," Draco admitted.

"It took me over a year," Sirius whispered. "Sometimes I'm still not sure…"

Remus handed Sirius a cup of the tea, wedging a slice of lemon onto the side. "If you haven't remembered, you don't need to. There are bunches of new ones to put in their place."

Draco got the feeling this was a conversation they'd had before. Several times. "Anyhow. It makes me feel useful, the work."

Remus handed Draco a cup of tea. "I put a bit of sugar in it."

Draco met Remus' eyes. "How'd you know?"

"You always smell a bit sweet in the afternoon, after teatime."

Sirius's pupil's dilated slightly and Draco thought, yes, it would be rather intoxicating to sleep with someone that attuned to others, wouldn't it? He swallowed the tea carefully. "What did you smell, that day? When you told us…when you suggested my rune be paired with Wesley's?"

Remus lifted his legs and draped them in Sirius's lap. "Similarity. And need."

Draco wondered if the smell of his need had been as overpowering as the feel of it. "Similarity?"

Remus sighed as Sirius began to massage the soles of his feet. "Every creature has smells that define him or her in the moment. Those are emotive scents and they are basically the same for everyone and everything. The slight differentiation comes from the basic, underlying scent of the creature in question. No two creatures carry the same scent, but similarities do occur. However, it is rare and suggests a connection of some import. The fact that I was smelling more than just the similarity gave me some clue of what it might be in the case of you and Wesley, but the fact that there was a connection at all was what Hermione and company needed to know. As I understand, Ginny Saw much the same thing, only visually."

Draco took another sip. The tea was cooling to a more pleasant temperature. "What do you smell now?"

Remus took his attention off Draco for a second, diverting it to Sirius. Sirius, was paying attention to his hands, still working at Remus' feet and did not notice the look of tenderness in his partner's eyes. "Comfort. Understanding…although, that's a hard scent, it's more of a sense carried along with other scents. The similarity isn't so jarring, so chaotic as it was before. The need is still there."

Draco considered the way Sirius had wrapped his hands in bands around Remus' ankles. "Maybe it'll never go away."

"I hope it doesn't," Sirius' and Remus' voices couldn’t be distinguished from each other.

*

Wesley was still up when Draco slid in the door close to midnight. He took his robe off and held it in front of him. "You should'nt have waited."

Wesley shook the words off. "Problems with the potion?"

Draco blinked. "Oh, well, yes. But I stopped by Sirius's place on the way back. I thought you'd go to bed."

"I had a lot to think about."

Hesitantly, Draco walked to where Wesley was sitting. He draped the robe over the back of the couch and then stood, unsure of whether he was invited to sit next to Wesley or not.

Wesley pulled Draco down, almost on his lap, "Not like that, you bloody prat."

Draco snuggled into the embrace. "What was I supposed to think?"

Wesley ignored the question. "Have there been partners other than Zabini?"

Draco raised his gaze to Wesley's. Quietly, he answered, "From time to time."

"No relationships, though?"

Slowly, Draco shook his head. "No."

Wesley ran a hand down the length of Draco's torso. "I'm slightly overwhelmed."

"I don't understand," Draco admitted.

Wesley sighed. "I feel as though you may as well be a virgin. You have no idea what it means to be in a reciprocal, real relationship. And I'm…worried, that, despite my best efforts I'll end up just being another part of what’s broken inside of you."

Draco laid his head down in the hollow of Wesley's throat and subtly sniffed. He turned his head and pressed his lips against the cool skin. "I don’t think so."

"That's not-"

Draco straddled him, "It is good enough." He paused. "Give me the chance to know what you know about love. If it doesn't work out, then I absolve you of blame, but not if you don't even allow the possibility of it."

Wesley pushed himself up from the couch to meet Draco's lips. Draco's erection rubbed up against their bodies and Draco nearly fell off the couch. Wesley carefully pushed Draco off his lap until Draco was standing, bent over, kissing the still sitting Wesley. Wesley rose, fitting himself to Draco, never once breaking the kiss.

Draco let his fingers sneak in between their bodies, quickly unbuttoning and unzipping Wesley's jeans, and crawling down the front of his boxers. Wesley jumped, disengaging from Draco's mouth.

Draco considered Wesley's swollen lips, the feel of his cock held firmly inside Draco's palm. A knot in his chest released, and for the first time since he had woken up in the infirmary, his lips curled upward, revealing teeth. His smile was almost too large for him to say, "Still think you're getting a virgin?"

He just managed.

*

Hermione's least favorite rune formed itself, the lines pulling together from other, more benign runes, all without her touching the equation once. Fred stepped back from the equation. "Um. Does that happen a lot?"

It was a foolish question, seeing as how it hadn't once happened in the nearly two months since Fred had arrived, but it was one Hermione could forgive. Brilliant or no, Fred was still a Muggle and her mind still conceived of the world in that frame. While A plus B plus C would never transform itself into A divided by X, it wasn't entirely out of the question that bastardized Nordic and Celtic runes could reshape themselves at will. In truth, though, "No, rarely ever. And it’s never a good sign when it does. We're running out of time."

Hermione ran a hand through her hair. As situations went, it wasn't the worst she'd ever been in. She was ninety-five percent positive that Zabini was going to initiate an Iseulde Rite as a warning to all "Muggle-lovers" of what was to come. Draco was the most likely to be attacked, as Hermione suspected him and Wesley were coming close to fulfilling all of the required steps to be vulnerable to the Rite, if they hadn't done so already. For a brief second, she considered asking Remus, then shook the thought off. Gryffindor bravery wasn't a quality to be pulled at only when strictly desirable. If she wanted an answer as to whether Draco was bonded to Wesley in any significant way, she would ask him.

If they were bonded tightly enough, it would satisfy Zabini's need for drama to perform the Rite on his ex. Bill was working around the clock on the anti-charms and Severus had reported some measure of success in working with the potion. Which meant that things didn't look half so scary as they had nearly every time she remembered going up against Voldemort.

All the same, she could have handled a little more certainty on several issues. There was always the possibility that Zabini wouldn't use the Iseulde but rather something more flashy and with a larger circumference of devastation. Or that he would use the Iseulde, but on a random couple, somebody that Hermione could never find and get to in time to protect. Finally, there was the question of if she was right, and everything was going to go down the way she had pieced together from the equations and instinct, then where was it going to happen, and when? Soon just wasn't specific enough.

She suspected that if she were correct about Zabini's intent: to use the Rite as a warning, then it would have to take place somewhere intensely public, but with the war not long behind the Wizarding community, large gatherings were still fairly unusual. People weren't yet enthralled with the idea of making possible targets of themselves. It ruled out any large events, since, as far as Hermione knew, there were none in the immediate future.

That left large Wizarding thoroughfares, such as Diagon Alley and the like. "Fred. I need some help."

Fred looked up from where she was still puzzling over the equation. "Anything."

"I need to talk to Draco, and I also need some research done and I can't do both at the same time." Ron had first taught her how to admit to that weakness. She didn't have the time just now to pander to it.

"I had best do the research. Draco reacts better to you."

It was an odd truth if Hermione had ever heard one, but a truth nonetheless. "I need you to find every major spot on the continent of high Wizarding traffic which also provides a bolstered atmosphere for spelling. Many of them will, it's usually why they're chosen to host a hotbed, but there are a few that are just coincidentally located in major Muggle areas and therefore easy to camouflage." Zabini could Apparate anywhere in one jump so long as it was on the continent. Apparating over water was trickier. The bolstered magic point was a guess on Hermione's part, but the Iseulde took a lot of power to complete. Powerful or no, followers or no, he would most likely need some help.

"I think I can handle it," Fred kissed her lips quickly. "Go chat Dragon Boy up. Find me when you're done?"

Hermione smiled softly. "As soon as," she promised.

*

Dragon Boy was exactly where Hermione expected him to be: standing over one of Severus' cauldrons. She knocked on the edge of the lab's door, even though it was open and unwarded. He looked up from the mixture he was staring at with a vexed expression. "Oh, Hermione. I can't make it work."

"You can," she said without letting a beat pass. "You will."

"Severus is probably starting to think I'd be more useful to the whole endeavor if he killed me and used me for ingredients."

Despite the very real frustration and disappointment in Draco's voice, Hermione couldn't help but laugh. "Two flaming drama queens in a room with countless ignitable substances. However is the castle still standing?"

A moment later, she wasn't sure how it was that she was still standing, as Draco laughed in response. It wasn't a bear laugh or even really much more than a chuckle, but it was a sound of mirth, and something she couldn't remember hearing from Draco since…well, it had been a long time, she knew that.

Draco put a hand on his hip and asked, diva like, "Now, did you actually need something, or did you walk down all those stairs just to be a pain in my arse?"

"As it so happens, Severus," she pronounced each syllable of the name distinctly, "I did need something."

He motioned to her to sit down and she did. He muttered a cooling spell over the cauldron and then came to join her. "What can I do for you?"

"I think I may have been wrong about a few things, or at least, I think my interpretations of the equations provided a less than complete picture. I've been thinking about what you said when you first started telling us about Zabini, about how he would hire others, use their skills to his own advantage, bring them to him and keep them. The equations indicate that it's a one man show, but what if, in fact, Zabini integrates the knowledge and emotions of his followers into his own plans so well that the separation is inconsequential?"

Draco leaned back in his chair. "I see…you’re suggesting that rather than this whole plan being Blaise's idea that in fact each part of it could have come from someone else, but Blaise has so carefully orchestrated the whole that the equations can't see the other informants?"

"Exactly." Hermione sat forward, relieved that he understood and eager to get past the explanation stage.

"How does this involve me?"

"Well, we haven't pinned down all of his followers, but we have a fairly good idea of who several of them are. In particular, we know that Pansy Parkinson is with him."

Draco nodded. "Oh, I get it. Who else?"

"His siblings, the surviving free members of the Nott, Lestrange and Crabbe families, the two youngest Anadol's, Marcus Flint and his older sister, an Avery, a Rosier, several Durmstrang and Beauxbatons alumni whose names I can't recall at the moment-"

"Any Goyles?"

"All dead or incarcerated," Hermione reported matter-of-factly, all too aware that the list she had just compiled was what guest lists to the Malfoy mansion must have looked like when he was young. "I'm sorry."

"They deserved it," Draco's voice came out paper-thin.

Hermione was well aware of that. "For you. I'm sorry for you. They were your friends." His family.

"They were my enemies, too. Pansy was in love with me," he stated.

It took Hermione a second to hook the two statements up. "Oh. That's probably not good."

"No," Draco agreed. "She holds grudges longer than anyone I know, longer even than Blaise, but if the two of them are together, and I suspect that word is a euphemism at this point, well, I should probably put stronger wards on my door."

"I'm trying to find possible places for what they're planning to happen. Fred and Wes and I have been looking up and down to find somewhere that might mean something to Zabini and yet still fit all the necessary requirements."

"And those are?"

"Large and populated with strong magical base," Hermione summed up.

"You're starting to think it might have nothing to do with him?" Draco guessed.

"Well, if you could think of some place that might fit Pansy's sense of justice rather than his, it would be another page to turn, and we're just about out."

Draco went still for a few minutes. Hermione had noticed him doing it before, mostly when he was in deep thought. He spoke up, "I can think of a couple. There's a beach in France, like the Riviera, but Wizard's only. Pureblood's only, for that matter. With spring coming on, it will be crazed. Our families often saw each other there while vacationing. Pansy once caught me under the pier with another boy. Railed at me about propriety, but you could see the jealousy radiating off of her."

Hermione, despite attempts otherwise, snickered. "And the other?"

"The central Wizarding spot in Austria. Like Diagon Alley, just with more German. A branch of Pansy's mother's family is Austrian and her parents used to send her to see them quite a bit when they were tired of dealing with her. Pansy loves to shop, so she spent most of her time learning German from the vendors. You think English Wizards are tits about the pureblood thing? We've got nothing on the Austrians."

Hermione had gone through enough Muggle education not to be terribly surprised by that fact. "Anything else you can think of?"

Draco shook his head, "Not at the moment, but I'll keep my mind open. If I think of anything, I'll owl or floo or something."

Hermione stood. "Thanks for the help," she nodded toward the cauldron, "with everything."

Draco snorted, "Fat lot of good I've managed in that area."

Hermione squeezed his shoulder. "It's appreciated all the same."

Draco rose up into the touch. Hermione waited a bit before releasing her hold.

*

Hermione waited in Severus' office for him to finish his last class of the day. He sneered upon noting her presence. She ignored him. "I can't help thinking I've screwed this up entirely."

"Misinterpretation of the runes?" His voice was cold, too cold, Hermione could discern the fear that all the frigidity was supposed to hide.

"No, although, there's always that possibility. No, I think I allowed my concern for the future to lead us directly where Zabini wanted us to be."

"Sit down, Professor." Severus settled himself behind his desk.

"Bloody hell, Severus. I've saved your life twice. You've saved mine at least once that I know of and I suspect far more that I've just never been able to trace back to you. Call me by my given name." Hermione wasn't sure where the burst of frustration at his habit of falling back on titles whenever uncomfortable came from, but it refused to be held back at that moment.

"Hermione, then," Severus lifted an eyebrow, but relented. "I don’t understand, you believe the equations led you into a trap?"

"Not the equations by themselves," Hermione explained. "At first, when we were having trouble getting anything, we asked Ginny and Remus in to consult and they told us…things. Things that most likely changed the course that Wesley and Draco's relationship would have taken. This is not to suggest that it would not eventually have come to pass that the two of them would notice each other in that way, but it may have been sped up, us thinking that would strengthen our chances, when it fact, it gives Zabini just the opening he needs for the Rite."

"Does it matter, at this point? What is, is. Can we use their allegiance as a strength, even in the face of the Iseulde? That's what we should be asking ourselves." Severus frowned. Suddenly, he stood up. "You have William Weasley working on the anti-charms, correct?"

Hermione stood up so as to have to angle her neck upwards less than she would in a sitting position. She nodded, but couldn't help adding on, "He thinks it's cute that you still call him William. You're the only one."

Severus scowled. "Has he made any progress?"

"He claims it to be a bit two steps forward one step back like right now." Which was still progress.

"Come with me, I might have an idea."

"A charms idea?" Hermione was well aware that Severus' magical abilities were about as diverse as any Wizard still living, but his actual strengths tended to lay more firmly in potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts.

"Somewhat," Severus glared at her impatiently, "I don't fancy having to explain myself twice, Professor. Show me to where…Bill is staying and I will break my idea down so that both of you can handle its magnitude."

Hermione laughed at him. It was hard not to when he was in frothing drama queen mode. "Hard day with the students? You seem to have forgotten my name, it's Hermione."

Severus growled, but followed her out the door all the same.

*

Upon discovering that Weasley was not in the workroom Hogwarts had provided him, Severus allowed Hermione to lead them through the castle, hitting places she thought he might have gone and asking people if they had seen him. It didn't take her terribly long to sort out where he'd gone to and soon, Severus was stepping through the hole in the wall that the Fat Lady guarded, into once-avowed enemy territory and keeping pace with Hermione to find over six feet of Weasley folded up to allow occupation of a dormitory windowsill.

Briefly, Severus peered past the red hair to see what was being watched. A nearly direct view of the pitch was afforded. Slytherin was practicing.

"Clever little buggers," Weasley didn't turn as he said it. "Their captain's quite good at strategy."

"Does this surprise you, Mr. Weasley?" There was considerably less venom in Severus's voice than his aim.

Weasley turned at that, his eyes betraying a bit of surprise. "Not really, Professor. Just an observation."

Severus took the fact that he didn't add anything about Gryffindor wiping the field with his Slyths to be a peace offering. He accepted. "Have you figured out the anti-charms, then?"

Weasley sighed. "Hardly. I came up here to wrap my mind around something else, see if I couldn't get it to start working again."

Hermione put a hand on Weasley's shoulder. Acid burned through Severus's stomach at the reminder of the way she had so often stood behind her Weasley in Order meetings. The way she had looked unsure of where to stand at all for so long after he was gone. He took a breath and reminded himself of how she had snuck away from the head table the other night to sit next to her Muggle colleague…the girl with no girl's name…Fred. He hadn't known until then. Suspected, yes, but not until she whispered words in Fred's ears all the while that Harry had laughed at the two of them and Severus thought he was seeing distorted déjà vu, not until then had he known for sure. "What do you know about charms associated with sex magic?"

Weasley narrowed his eyes. "That's not really my specialty, doesn't really come up much with charm-breaking and all, but a bit. Enough to recognize it as a type when I see it."

Severus employed the verbal equivalent of a smirk. "I see."

Weasley, sadly, didn't rise to the bait, merely pursing his lips in amusement. "Tell me what you're thinking."

"The Iseulde's magic is based on emotional bonds, correct?" He waited until both ex-students had nodded. "But what if all the variant participants had been carnally involved?"

"You're suggesting Zabini has tailored the Rite to these specific circumstances?" Hermione looked thoughtful and as though she were a bit disgusted with herself for not having come up with the idea first.

"Possible, but it seems like we might be second-guessing a few too many times." There was silence for a few seconds before Weasley stood up. "You're not suggesting that we care whether that's what Zabini plans to do or not."

Severus's hand twitched to reach out and pat the top of the red head. He kept it firmly at his side. "Sex magic, regardless of what form it takes, is one of the strongest magics we have, as it is based in emotional and physical forms of magic, whereas most rely on one or the other."

Weasley was nodding excitedly, "You might just be on to something. I'll need to go to the library. It's been awhile since I brushed up on some of these concepts. And I'd want to talk to Professor Flitwick, see if the idea I'm working with has any merit… Should I just come find you when I think I have something?" He directed the question to Hermione.

She nodded and made a flicking notion with her fingers, "Go. Research."

Weasley leaned in to kiss her forehead and scarpered off, laughing. The Weasley laugh was almost as uniform as the hair. Severus watched the wistful fondness in Hermione's eyes. "Complete loon, that one is," she commented as soon as Weasley had exited. There was an ironic twist of her mouth that Severus didn't completely understand.

Instead of asking about it he announced, "I have to get back. Class in less than ten minutes."

"Yes, of course. I have one as well. Lunch, then?"

Severus smiled for all the things he couldn’t say to her. It was a small, malformed smile, but recognizable nonetheless. "Then."

*

Potions were a very physical type of magic. Severus had learned this early on, before Hogwarts even. A Potions Master could bottle desire, repulsion, death, mended bones, hunger, thirst and countless more physical sensations with a few hours and the right store of ingredients. Love, hate, fear, calm or anything that required the emotional was nearly impossible. Love potions were potions that created desire so strong as to be nearly indistinguishable from love, but it was still not love. A potion to instill fear could mimic all the body's responses to it or even trick the mind into thinking the taker was in a situation that required the emotion, but as of yet, no Wizard had found a way to actually call up that emotion straight out of the bottle.

Therefore, like every knowledgeable Potions Master, Severus had been looking at the equation of how to separate that which his original potion had grafted together as a strictly physical one. It hadn't occurred to him until he was busy lecturing Weasley on the reason for the strength behind sex magic that magic's strength came from those who wielded it. While Wizards and Witches had varying levels of strength it was not the magic that was inherently strong, but the filter for that magic.

Likewise, sex magic's dual strength came from the fact that Wizards and Witches could not indulge in the act of sex without experiencing some emotion, regardless of what emotion that was. Repulsion, giddiness, relaxation, love or any other of the countless emotions that could be equated with sex were all powerful bases of human magic, which depended on a person's physical and emotional make-up to be effective.

The fact that people were made up of both physical and emotional traits was also what allowed potions to be almost unfailingly effective. Though considered basically impossible to brew up an emotion, it was easy to create an emotional stimulant, something that capitalized upon physical reaction to create an emotional one.

If Severus hadn't been in front of nearly thirty fourteen year-olds when he realized the faulty assumptions he'd been operating under in his experimentation with the antidote to his own bloody potion, he would have kicked himself and sworn in ways the devil himself hadn't learned. Since he did have the responsibility of not completely corrupting scores of barely pre-pubescent youths, he merely growled, "The potion is on page fifty-seven in your texts. I trust you can handle it on your own."

If they couldn't, Severus was going to be more disappointed in himself than he was in them. Not that they'd ever know it. Luckily, it was the Ravenclaw/Hufflepuff joint class, which meant only a little rivalry and a considerable amount of brains.

Severus summoned all of the notes he'd been taking on his progress -- or lack thereof -- on the antidote. Leaving a class to do a potion without his holding their hands was all well and good, leaving the classroom while they were doing so was call for dismissal and just short of suicide.

Draco jogged into the classroom seconds after the notes settled themselves onto Severus's work area. The confusion on his face smoothed out and he approached the Professor. "You had me a bit worried. Those aren't notes I'd want circulating just yet."

Severus smirked at the purposeful understatement, instead of cheering at Draco's calm delivery of it. "I warded them. Should anyone else try to summon them, I expect they will be less than pleased with what actually comes to them."

"Good to know. Thanks for telling me in advance of when I may have thought to do that."

"You're included in the wards parameters," Severus smacked Draco lightly upside the head without even looking in his direction. There were several gasps from the students, no doubt thinking he was about to beat the prodigal blond into submission right there in front of them.

Draco told the students who had gasped, now carefully busying themselves in preparation, "It's all right, I could take him."

Severus couldn't help peeking. It was all he could do not to laugh at the outright terror on several of the Hufflepuff's faces. Imagine, two ex-Death Eaters about to kill each other right in front of them. Draco turned his attention back to the task at hand, "I take it you've thought of something?"

"Other than hate or repulsion, what kind of emotion could make you want to draw away from somebody?"

Draco frowned but answered the question, "Dislike, something less severe than either of those."

Severus shook his head. "It can't be anything of that nature. We're dealing with lovers, to destroy their love, even if we could find a way to make it impermanent…it smacks of Dark magic."

"It isn't completely impossible to fight the Dark with Dark," Draco pointed out. Severus remembered teaching him that lesson.

"No, but it's preferable that we avoid doing so if possible and it hasn't been proven that we can't."

Draco leaned up against the potions counter. "How about…how about if it were the opposite, how about if it were love?"

"Love is what makes the original-" Severus stopped himself. Dark with Dark. He started scribbling.

*

Severus had left a note in his office for Lille and Giles: "Currently occupied, charmed the office to ward when you leave, if you forget anything, don’t go back for it."

At three quarters past six, Severus was half-agitated, half-relieved for the break in his work that the knock on his laboratory door provided. Draco shooed him off, "Answer, I think I can handle making sure it doesn’t congeal."

Severus unwarded the door with several waves of his wand and opened it up. He took one look at Giles and thought, hello. It wasn't much. It wasn't, hey, what's a sexy man like you doing in a dungeon like this? or even, nice to see you again but it also wasn't sod off, which was Severus's reaction to most people's interruptions of his work.

Giles offered into the silence in which Severus was still trying to process this gut reaction, "I suppose this answers my question about whether you were planning on coming up to dinner. Would you mind if I brought something down for you and Mr. Malfoy?"

Certain that he had a reputation to maintain, even if he couldn't remember precisely for what, Severus replied, "If you feel you must."

"And if I were to bring something for myself and sit with the two of you while you ate?" was Giles's delicate inquiry.

"I wouldn't hex you into the nether-regions of the Forbidden Forest," was Severus's gracious acquiesance.

"I'll bring some pudding along as well," Giles went on as if Severus had greeted his attempt at geniality with enthusiasm, "your apprentice is still looking to need another ten stone or so."

Severus snarled at the hyperbole. "Suit yourself." Somewhere inside of him, the fact that Giles cared that Draco was still a good two stone or so underweight made him want to leer: perhaps you could help me to drop ten stone or so of my own, eh?

It was less infuriating then it had been mere weeks before when Giles merely nodded, "Yes, well. Don’t ward the doors, I'll be back in a jiff."

Severus went back to where Draco was stirring the potion in a smooth, clockwise manner. "Perhaps, since you seem to be having difficulty saying, 'I like you, come in and have a sit-down with me,' you should progress straight to the rogering. In thanks for bringing us dinner if you like, since honestly, if you don't, I may have to. I seem to need to eat every third minute of late."

Severus was personally of the mind that it couldn't hurt Draco to eat every minute he was awake until he had sated himself. "Don’t be vulgar."

Draco smirked. "It gets you to listen."

Which was the truth, but to admit to it would make Severus feel that perhaps he was personally to blame for Draco's sudden metamorphosis into a by-product of the darker coves of Knockturn Alley. "I always listen to you." Then, betraying the truth of the quickly spat out words, "I allowed him to bring the food, didn't I?"

Draco looked away from the potion for a scant second. "We should all aspire to be such romantics, Severus Snape." His tone was soft, fond even.

The way he looks reminds me of James and Lucius, Severus wanted to say. Or maybe, I don’t know how to say what I'm thinking with him. I'm afraid to say what I'm thinking with him. I'm afraid of him. I'm afraid. "He's a Muggle."

Draco pursed his lips. "And you're a coward."

The door opened again and Giles stepped through, closing it behind him. Severus replaced the wards, relieved at not having to handle Draco's ability to see beneath all of his half-truths. In the few seconds it had taken him to deal with the wards, Giles had set down the tray that he had carted back. He approached Severus, blithely invading the personal space that Severus was used to nearly physically rebounding people, as though he had actually placed wards on himself.

Giles kissed Severus, warm and quick. "Progress?"

It took Severus a moment to realize Giles was speaking of the potion. He didn't step back as he answered, "Yes, some."

*

Draco had barely left the laboratory beyond trips to the loo for four days when the potion he and Severus had been pouring over for those ninety-six hours thickened and coalesced into an oddly appealing red. Draco removed the cauldron from the heat and sat contemplating the change while waiting for Severus to return from his afternoon class.

When Severus appeared, slightly harried-looking and muttering about first years, Draco announced, "I think you did it."

Severus stopped in his tracks. "Your pronoun usage has sorely deteriorated since we last spoke. If anything was done, we did it. And we won't know if anything was done until we've tested the potion."

"Obviously," Draco rolled his eyes. Both Lucius and Severus had hated it when, as a boy, Draco had done that to either of them. Lucius had hexed him so that his eyes would stay crossed for three days. Severus had threatened to take points from Slytherin and then neglected to actually follow up on the threat.

"Arrested adolescence doesn't suit you," Severus snapped.

Draco ignored him. "How do you suggest we go about testing it? I'd think it would be a bit risky to give anyone the original potion without knowing that the antidote will work. I would suggest mated pairs of animals, I'm sure Sirius could loan us a few, but I doubt that will work, seeing as how both potions depend on an emotional response that very well could be uniquely human."

Severus' next words tipped Draco off to the fact that his old professor had long since been aware of all of these factors and had done everything in his power to come up with an alternative solution than the one he had, ultimately failing. "We're going to have to ask for volunteers. Couples whe can be pulled in the loop far enough to know what's going on and what they're committing to, but who stand little chance of actually being harmed if the antidote doesn't work. After all, the original potion is only deadly if the second charm in the Rite is enacted once the potion has done its work. By itself, it doesn't directly place anyone in mortal peril."

Draco noted the twist of Severus's mouth and wondered if those words sounded familiar to the ones he had been told when asked to create the potion. "That's going to be complicated, seeing as how one of the pairings must needs be Muggle-Wizard and I can only think of two of those off the top of my head, both being at risk from Blaise."

"I might have an idea on that score as well," Severus stated.

"Been thinking about this quite some time?" Draco inquired as guilelessly as he could manage.

"Since Hermione came to me about brewing the antidote, and don't look at me like that, I presumed you would have been thinking about it as well."

Draco flushed.

Severus's voice was quiet when he continued, "I didn't mean-"

"It's all right. I should have been. Essential part of the process, I know that. Just…most days it's a big accomplishment to pull myself away from Wesley and put a pair of trousers and a jumper on and remember my way about the castle and think about everything one step at a time. Because that was how I survived in there, one step, one thought at a time. It's harder for them to steal that way, harder for them to recognize hope if it's distilled within the moment. I forget that I'm allowed to go past the moment I'm living in, that I'm expected to do so."

By way of apology, Severus told him, "I've compiled a list of possible Wizard-Wizard couples. I'm thinking it best that it be someone neither Zabini nor Parkinson would have been in school with or taught by. William and Taryn Weasley are on the list, McGonagall's sister and her longtime partner, a few others that I feel can be trusted."

Draco nodded. "Sounds solid. And the mixed couple?"

"Xiomara Hooch has a nephew with a weakness for Muggle television. He spent a lot of time as a younger man hanging around one of the buildings in London from which it's…broadcast, I think was the word she used. Fell in love with a girl who worked in the building. They've been married almost ten years, I think."

"And you trust them?" Draco felt an arse asking the question, but even second-guessing everything in an operation like this was never enough.

"As much as I trust you," Severus confirmed.

Which made Draco pause. "Do I know them?"

"They worked a different side of the war then you did. They stayed on top of everything on the Muggle side of things, making sure there were no odd rumors that we weren't hearing about, that type of thing. Both of them has risked their lives more than once in the pursuit of defeating Voldemort and his forces."

"Owls, then?" Draco suggested.

Severus grabbed for a pen and some parchment.

*

"You did it, then?" Wesley inquired with a cautious smile.

"Well," Draco equivocated, "so far as we can tell. It would be far preferable to test the antidote on a wide range of couples, make sure that it works regardless of age, body type, level of magic or lack thereof, that sort of thing, but in a pinch, which is pretty much where we are, we think it will do."

"So that was Draco-speak for 'yes, Wesley, I did create a highly complicated potion in spite of the fact that I'm still working on regaining much of my memory.'" Wesley sat down on one of the chairs in Hermione's office.

Draco didn't even hesitate to settle down on top of him. "In the it-was-mostly-Severus-with-me-sitting-in-for-most-of-the-manual-labor way, yes, I suppose."

Wesley kissed Draco quickly, "I'll take that for now. So is this potion going to save us all?"

"It's one part of it. Hermione thinks Blaise is planning something of a…three-pronged attack. The potion was one prong, and Bill has supposedly taken care of another one of those prongs, a Charm, but the third prong, another Charm, is still waiting for a counter-Charm."

"And all three prongs have to be defended against? The downfall of two won’t lead to the negation of the third?"

Draco dropped his forehead to Wesley's. "We're not entirely sure. The only person who's ever seen the spell, um, well, it's a Rite, this Rite been done is Severus and none of us is willing to bet on the fact that Blaise, or someone working for him, hasn't altered it."

"And if he's altered it so that even these antidotes and counter-charms that you've all worked so hard to create don't matter?"

"Then it's up to whoever's caught in the Rite to think pretty bloody quickly." Draco bit his lower lip. "There was a time when I was good at that."

Wesley ran a hand up the length of Draco's back. "I wouldn't put it past you to call up some of those instincts in a life-or-death situation."

"I just…" Draco shut his eyes tightly. "It won’t be just me. It won't be just my life. Most likely. And what if it doesn't work that way? What if I'm still stuck reacting three minutes after the fact and your life depends on those flaming three minutes? What if-"

"If my life depends on it, then I assume I'll be there too. We can work together. I can try and make up for some of what's missing. I know I'm not a Wizard and that you depend on magic quite a bit to get you out of tight spots, but I like to think I can hold my own against the not-strictly Muggle, as you would see it."

"You make up for a lot of what’s missing." Draco allowed himself a curl of surprised pleasure at how even his voice stayed, given the terror that lay behind saying the words out loud. He opened his eyes to watch Wesley.

Wesley took a breath. "I wish I could make up for all of it. Or give it back. Something. I'm feeling a bit… Is there something I'm supposed to say here?"

Draco shook his head. "No."

He was pretty sure it had already been said.

*

Draco was helping Sirius crop the tails off a batch of newborn crups when Hermione came bounding over the lawn, trying to speak over the noise of the mewling pups. Draco cut into the excited babble with, "Do you ever actually teach your classes?"

Sirius snorted in time with a crups's offended yip. Draco held on as Sirius bandaged the damaged appendage. Hermione took a deep breath. "Classes are cancelled. There's a training session up in the hall. Bill's found the second anti-charm; we're teaching it to everyone and handing out small vials of the antidote with instructions that they are to be kept on everyone's person at all times."

Sirius nodded at Draco, who let the crup run free. It circled around itself, trying to survey the damage. Sirius rubbed a fond hand over its head, the hand completely eclipsing the small creature's body. "Have you given anybody a reason for all of this?"

"Oh, well, you know Minerva, something about the Ministry sanctioning new student trials and getting everyone caught up to speed." Hermione waved a hand airily, but the look on her face belied her admiration of the Headmistress.

"And the potion?"

Hermione's face filled with a slight pink tinge. "Mm, well, I spoke with Lulli, and-"

"Lulli?" Draco interrupted.

"The first house elf to actually volunteer to be sent into a Death Eater's home," Sirius supplied. "You didn’t know?"

"There was a lot that was kept from me, for obvious reasons."

Hermione winced, but continued. "Anyhow, she agreed to allow rumors to spread that the house elves were considering an insurrection. The students think it’s a skeleton anti-poison potion."

Draco squinted. "How will they know when to take it?"

"That's sort of the we-hope-to-hell-this-works part of the plan. Severus said that you tested the potion on people who hadn't been exposed to the initial potion and that there weren't any adverse affects."

Draco nodded, things suddenly clicking into place He had assumed those tests were to make sure that those participating in the testing were proven not to have a problem with the potion itself that would impede its success as an antidote. "I get it. Good thing one of us still knows what he's doing, yeah?"

Hermione shoved him without deigning to respond. "They've been told to swallow it if they feel a change in any of their metabolic functions, and to report to Poppy if there are any complications. They've also been told to ask for more should they use theirs up. We're figuring on the fact that it's unlikely any of them have Muggle sweethearts away from the school with whom they're maintaining a strong enough relationship for the Iseulde to work should Zabini track that Muggle down but most of the staff feels that this is a better safe than sorry kind of situation."

"Are the anti-charms complicated?" Draco put a hand to his stomach.

"Memory still not what it was?" Sirius asked sympathetically.

"Not with anything," Draco confirmed. "And it's not exactly like Wesley's gonna be of much help in this arena."

"Well," Hermione hesitated, "they're wandless. But we are teaching them to first years along with everyone else."

"Yes, well, necessity-"

"Mother of, yes, yes," Hermione finished. "But they can learn them. And so can you."

Draco took his hand away, the solid feel of her approval battening down the last whirlwinds of doubt. "We'd better hope so."

Sirius picked up the pups, falling over each other and growling ineffectually at their altered tails. "Go on ahead, I'll be up in bit." He put one of the crups up against Draco's face, treating him to a bevy of tongue kisses.

Draco turned his face into the show of affection.

*

Hermione nudged Fred under the table with her foot. "I think we're going to have to remind two certain someones that breakfast is the most important meal of the day." She tilted her head toward the space that Draco and Wesley usually inhabited, conspicuously empty.

Fred spoke with her mouth full. "Those two are worse than us."

"Those two," Ginny pronounced, "are worse than hypogriffs in heat."

Bill laughed, choked on his pumpkin juice and, when he had recovered, mock-scolded, "Virginia Weasley, there are children around."

Children who were paying absolutely no attention to the "old people" in the room. Ginny countered with, "Some of them the same children who caught the two of them snogging in an alcove of the northern wing last week."

Harry cracked up at this, eventually laying his head down on the table to try and regain his breath. While it was funny, Hermione threatened, "You say one negative word about this to him, Harry Potter, just one, and you won't have a tongue to snog with, not to mention other organs more pertinent to post-snog occurrences."

Harry looked up, an expression of mild bewilderment on his face. "All in good fun, Mi."

Her stomach gave a guilty lurch. "I know, I'm sorry."

He reached across the table and tousled her hair in retribution. "You're going to make someone a fantastically psychotic mum one of these days."

She was just about to come up with a comment of her own about Harry's oh-so-suitable disposition for parenting when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at Severus, standing behind her, for all the world looking like he always did, but, "What's wrong?"

"Have you seen Draco?"

Hermione twisted out of her seat and stood facing him, "No, but then, I haven't exactly looked. Fred and I just assumed we'd be poking fun at Wesley over newly applied hickeys if they managed to get themselves out of their rooms before classes."

"Last night the house elves were cleaning the drinking glasses from dinner when they noticed an odd residue on two of the glasses. They'd been instructed to keep their eyes open for just such a thing. It seems that when they received these instructions, they decided to take things one step further and design a system whereby all users of eating utensils, plates, glasses, et cetera would leave traces of magic -- in a Muggle's case, aura -- and therefore the elves would be able to tell who had used what. Immediately the elves sent the glasses down to me to be looked at and informed me that Wesley and Draco had been the ones to drink out of them at the last meal. I sent word up to the two of them to take the antidote, as well as contacting Minerva about the fact that someone in the school must have placed the poison in the glasses. I had an odd feeling, though, so I ran several tests on the substance inside the glasses. It had been mixed with other liquids and was therefore even harder to separate out, on top of being cleverly disguised to look the like the Iseulde's poison-"

"Oh bloody flaming hell," Hermione started walking, "Tell me the rest while we're moving."

"It's a hallucinogenic. I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that both Draco and Wesley walked out of here thinking it was of their own accord."

"Which is why the wards weren't tripped," Hermione followed.

"I went to go check on them as soon as I figured it out, but they were already gone. I came to the Hall, hoping…"

Hermione stopped in front of Minerva's office. She hadn't been at breakfast, which was unusual, but in light of what Severus was saying, Hermione could only assume she was still trying to find their in-house traitor. "Gliocas."

Hermione and Severus were taken into the headmistress's office, where she sat with a fifth-year Hufflepuff named Kealen Radsen. He was one of Hermione's best students. "Headmistress," she nodded her head.

Minerva nodded in recognition. "Finding our traitor," Kealen gave a small squeak at this description, "proved surprisingly easy."

"Does he know anything?" Severus growled, promising slow painful death to Kealen with his eyes while directing the question at Minerva.

"He doesn’t even realize he did it," Minerva clarified. "One of the Slytherin's…evidently they've taken to keeping a watch on Draco, something about the Parkinson girl being worried about him? Whatever the story, one of your children saw him switch their drinking glasses in the commotion while everyone was coming into the Hall."

"Why didn't they say something earlier?" Severus demanded.

Hermione shared a look with Minerva. "Because you weren't at dinner. And they would have tried desperately to find you before going to anyone else."

"I'm not sure they would have at all," Minerva told him, "if I hadn't sent Professor Lupin down to play twenty questions."

"Subtle," Severus noted.

"We didn't have time for subtle." Minerva glared. "The point is, the culprit here has Imperius and Obliviate stamped all over him if one just does the slightest poking."

"So someone else-" Severus started.

Hermione shook her head. "They all went to Hogsmeade last weekend, it could have been anyone."

"And the Obliviate?" Severus queried.

"Anyone with a talent for charms could hinge an Obliviate on the resolution of an Imperius, which can easily be resolved by the carrying out of the given order, you know that." Which was worrisome. She needed him to think clearly.

Severus glanced down at her for a second. "We need to find them."

Minerva waved them off. "Go. I'm available by fire if you need anything." She turned back to a starch-white Kealen.

Hermione ruffled Kealen's hair. "You should know better than to talk to strangers." With that bit of dispensed wisdom, she hastened out the door after an already-retreating Severus.

*

Severus used the walk down the hall to recover, once he was sure he could remember how to walk. Left then right, yes, that's it. He let his head fill with images of Draco, pictures that extended as far back as infanthood and then cleared them all, one breath at a time. "Assuming the child was cursed while in Hogsmeade, we can most likely assume that Zabini doesn't know what we know."

"We can't rule out the possibility that Kealen sent an owl to someone while under Imperius, but all he would know is that we taught them special charms for new Ministry regulations and gave them an anti-poison supposedly meant to deflect the results of a possible elf insurrection. He'll read preparation for his attack into that, but probably not at the level we've achieved," Hermione reasoned.

Severus ordered his thoughts carefully. "Have you found that any one location seems more likely than any other?"

"The two that Draco suggested both look to be most likely, although there's a third possibility in Madrid." Hermione explained, "One of Zabini's siblings spent some time studying Muggle persecution of Witches."

Severus was intensely grateful he hadn't eaten anything for breakfast. "Ah. We'll need to assemble teams able to Apparate to all three spots."

"Yes, I was thinking that Harry, you and I would lead up each of the teams. Do you have a preferred location?"

"No, but I want Potter sent to Spain." He caught Hermione's sideways glance in his peripheral vision. "Just…intuition. And Potter has a knack for saving Draco's skin."

"True. All right. Harry to Spain then, you take Austria, I'll take France."

"Potter takes Black. He can pick one other. No more than three-"

"I know how to plan an attack, Severus. I was around for the second go-round, in case you missed that part."

Severus didn't blush, but he had the grace to relent, merely stating, "Perhaps the eldest Weasley would be best as a third."

"Yes, indeed." Hermione went on, "I'd like Remus and Cho with me."

Severus nodded approvingly. Chang's foremost strength might have been medicine, but he had seen the girl put more than a few Death Eaters in a position to be past need of her treatment. "I suppose I'll be taking the youngest Weasley, then."

"And your third?"

Severus considered the possibilities. Not for the first time, he wished vainly that Giles weren't a Muggle, or, barring that, there was a resident DADA expert other than himself and Potter whose skills he could borrow. In the absence of that, however, someone who was quick-witted and could throw a mean charm with the best of them would do. "Filius."

"Gather them," she ordered. He imagined it was subconscious, her tendency toward leadership, but sometimes her calm strength could impress even him. "I'll get the others, including Harry's team. Meet in my office as quickly as possible and I will give everyone Apparating coordinates."

Severus quickened his pace.

*

Draco remembered this. It would have been novel, remembering something, had it not been something that he very well could have gone the rest of his existence without recalling. The feeling of pulling out of a potion-induced night vision was unmistakable, though. As the feeling faded, his brain caught him up on the fact that he was not in either his room or Wesley's, or anywhere else that bore resemblance to the places with which he was familiar. "Shit."

He looked around, hoping not to find- "Shit."

"Not much for the vocabulary, are we this evening- oh." Wesley caught a glimpse of their surroundings. "All right, shit it is. Where are we?"

"I don't know." It was small and dark, though, and Draco was busy trying not to see all the things his brain connected with small, dark spaces.

"Any idea of how we got here?" Wesley sounded as calm as though they were discussing whether to have tea at three or four in the afternoon.

Draco recognized it as a coping mechanism and was grateful that one of them could stay even-keel. "I think we were drugged."

"Hogwarts has wards," Wesley reasoned. "Even if we were, it's not like someone could just come in and take us out."

"No, but if we walked past the wards of our own volition, then they wouldn’t have been tripped." Draco tried to back up, explain what wasn't apparent to someone who hadn't dabbled in potions since he could speak even a fragmented version of the English language. "There are several variants on potions that can be used to control what the user is dreaming. Some are used as tools to understand the mind, some are used as ways to get people who are having trouble sleeping to rest, some are used to inflict nightmares, all kinds of things. Whatever we were given induced sleep-walking and was probably infused with a suggestive component to get us past the wards."

"So much for an anti-Calling Charm," Wesley commented wryly.

Which prompted Draco to check around his neck, where he kept the potion him and Severus had so carefully crafted. "We didn't follow our own instructions," his own voice sounded miles away from him.

"What do you mean?" Wesley asked.

"We told the students to make sure to get another batch of the antidote from Poppy the minute they used it." Draco had been planning on going for more in the morning. Severus had told them to take it late in the evening and he hadn't wanted to disturb the mediwitch's sleep. Draco pressed one hand to Wesley's heart and one hand over his own. "They must have fed us the poison while we were asleep."

Wesley placed both his hands over Draco's. "Draco."

Draco looked up at him.

"You can do this. You can reverse the last Charm," Wesley told him.

Despite Hermione's reassurances, it was a complicated anti-Charm, unsurprisingly, Bill having created it to be wandless on the theory that "no bad guy worth his salt is gonna leave his victims their wands." Draco tried going through the steps in his head. It had to be performed either as the Charm was being placed onto them or no later than a second after as the Charm created a fast-acting bond and once the bond was actually in place, there was no undoing it. Or, at least, Draco admitted, if there was, they hadn’t come up with a way to do so. "I don't know. I… He could change the specifications."

"He could," Wesley squeezed Draco's hands. "You'll change with it."

"You have no idea what you're talking about," Draco struggled to keep his voice low, "there are a million factors to consider-"

"Draco."

"Wesley," Draco's breath was coming in short, harsh pants, forcing Wesley's to do the same. He tried stopping it, only to worsen the situation.

"It's okay if you can't."

"No, no it's not, you don’t understand, you can't understand how it is to be cut off like that, and you'll feel it, because you'll feel everything."

Wesley pulled him into a kiss, nearly suffocating for both of them, but sweet and just the tiniest bit calming. "I love you. And that makes it okay. Do you understand that?"

Draco realized, helplessly, that the concept was as foreign to him as the idea of a Bonded Death was to Wesley. He crawled the few inches spanning him and Wesley and curled around the other man, concentrating on the odd tandem sensation of their harshly beating hearts.

*

Draco dug his fingernails into Wesley's skin at the CRACK that brought forth two very familiar people. He didn't say a word. After all, this was their game.

Blaise approached him first, eyes raking up and down his figure. "Well, Azkaban hasn't exactly been the best choice for the famous Malfoy looks, has it now? But then, your bitch doesn’t seem to mind."

Draco had begun working on a response the moment Blaise opened his mouth, knowing that it took him longer now, not wanting to give his ex precious seconds, "Is it fun, turning yours over and pretending she has a whole different set of parts?"

Pansy hissed in the background but stayed silent. For the briefest moment Draco wondered at what Blaise had done to her to garner that kind of obedience and felt a flash of sympathy. Blaise grinned, "Pretend? Why, when she's so very talented at metamorphing herself? Yours wouldn't have that level of ability, though. Tell me, is he literate? You always were fond of them big and stupid… I suppose he could qualify as one."

Draco clamped down on the sickness at the back of his throat. "I was fond of you. My taste could hardly degenerate."

There was a flicker in Blaise's jester's mask. "Are you comparing me to that barely human filth?"

"No Blaise, I would never do him such insult," Draco replied truthfully.

Blaise stepped forward and drew his hand back as though to hit Draco. Wesley brought the hand attached to his arm that wasn't still being held in a death grip to block Blaise's progression. Before Draco could even open his mouth, Pansy flicked her wand, "Crucio."

Draco wasn't even sure who had been hit, Severus's potion did its job and the curse wound its way through both of them, one via the other. Draco was too lost in the pain to even tell his screams apart from Wesley's.

The pain stopped suddenly, and Draco made himself focus enough to listen to Blaise's heated, "Muggles aren't meant to withstand that!"

Draco worked his mouth and managed to form a -- barely -- understandable, "Why. Should. It. Matter?"

Blaise's face twisted into what Draco recognized as a look of self-congratulatory happiness. "Later." He wrapped a hand around the back of Draco's neck, pulling him into a quick, harsh kiss, dropping him back when he was done.

Draco waited for them to Disapparate to give himself the pleasure of spitting. He curled over Wesley, who had fallen onto his back in the throes of the curse and hadn't yet moved since its cessation. "Wesley? Wes?" Draco ran a shaky hand through the dark hair, lying wetly against Wesley's skull.

Wesley cracked an eye open. "That wasn't much fun." His voice broke on the words, but they were decipherable.

"I'm sorry," Draco whispered, "I'm sorry we're here, I'm sorry I taunted-"

"Draco," Wesley put a shaky hand to Draco's chest.

Draco wrapped it in both of his as Wesley had done to him earlier that day.

"I loved the line about the different set of parts."

Draco brought Wesley's hand to his mouth and kissed one of the fingertips. "Glad I could entertain."

Wesley gave a shaky tug with the hand that was being held and Draco followed the suggestion, pillowing his head directly beneath Wesley's chin.

*

"I'm sorry," Draco mumbled disconsolately. Sleep was impossible for him here when not drugged. The walls were much too close on every side and it was all he could do not to continuously mutter the Patronus spell even though here, as in Azkaban, he was wandless and without the hope of it working.

Wesley, unable to sleep without Draco's mind being willing to accept that state of being, sat up and pulled Draco's back to his chest. "What do you think he's waiting for?"

The conversation with Hermione about magical spaces came back to him. "An audience. Probably mid-day."

Wesley shifted so that he could see his watch. Draco had never seen him take it off, not even in the shower. It was black and the face sported several different buttons. Wesley brought his other arm around Draco and pressed the side of the watch. The face glowed blue. Draco was impressed, "Your tiny clock has a lumos spell inside of it? How do they keep it in there? Some kind of enchantment?"

"Sort of. It runs on batteries. There's a tiny light bulb inside of it… This is gibberish to you," Wesley smiled, catching the look on Draco's face.

Not for the first time since he'd met Wesley, Draco wished he'd paid more attention in Muggle Studies. "Sorry. You can do Arithmancy and I can't understand how a miniature clock works."

Wesley shook his head. "I can't do Arithmancy. Hermione does all the neat looking runic parts, Fred and I just help her out with the high-level calculus that some of the equations require to create a rune. Fred really, more than me. Hermione'd be able to do it on her own if she'd stayed with Muggle education. And my watch," he gestured to the wrist clock, "is a mystery to most Muggles as well. They're just glad it works."

"Wizards are like that. Doesn't matter how the charm brings your wand, so long as it does, or how Veritaserum drags the truth out of someone, as long as the truth is told. Severus thinks it's our downfall."

"And you?" Wesley wanted to know.

"Probably," Draco admitted, wondering if he could say that to Wesley because Wesley was a Muggle or because he was Wesley. "It's easier to find solutions to problems when you understand the why and wherefore of that problem."

Wesley had begun answering when a loud series of banging noises interrupted his words. Draco's stomach curled at the sight of Blaise with three other fully-trained Wizards, all holding wands. Like his expecto patronii, his shielding charm was completely ineffectual against the simultaneous casting of body binds, aimed at both him and Wesley.

Draco was dragged away from Wesley by one of Blaise's back-up crew. He tried screaming, anything to distract Blaise from Wesley who was quite obviously his target, but even Draco's larynx was caught in the charm's power, unable to vibrate. Blaise turned to him, "There's just one more thing I need to make this all work, love," the word sounded violent rolling off his tongue, "and as I've long since gotten it from you, it won’t take much time or energy."

Blaise pushed and prodded at Wesley until his largely immobile form was in a suitable position. He yanked down the waist of the pajama pants Wesley had been wearing and raped him without a moment's preparation. Draco split his concentration between making sure that the bile trying to rise stayed where it was, as he couldn't open his mouth and let it out, and keeping eye contact with Wesley.

When it was over -- Draco was sure it had felt much longer than it was, the more violent the sex, the quicker Blaise got off -- Blaise managed to catch Draco's eyes with his own for a mere moment. There was a muttered finite incantatum and he was gone. Draco flexed his toes, trying to remind his muscles how to respond to commands from his brain. "Wesley?"

"They're gone, tell me they're gone."

Draco would have been able to feel Wesley's fear, sharp and all too overwhelming, even if his voice hadn't rung full of it. "They're gone." He wanted to apologize, but it seemed unworthy of what had just happened.

"Why did he-"

"Sex magic," Draco offered, the pieces having clicked into place as Blaise had intercepted his gaze, eyes so full of hatred they were barely human. "The physical and emotional connection allows him great power in regards to us. He'll use it to warp the charm, build on its already considerable power."

Draco inched closer to Wesley. "It's okay, though."

Wesley laughed, bitter and followed by a wince, "It is, is it?"

"Not this, this isn't okay," Draco felt clumsy in ways he had never experienced physically, "For this I will kill him so slowly he won't understand that death is coming, and will feel that to wish for it would be foolhardy. But he will wish anyway."

Slowly, Wesley shifted, reaching down with shaking hands to reposition his pants back up over his waist. They were quickly stained by Wesley's blood and Blaise's semen. "What, exactly, is okay then?"

"There's one type of magic that is stronger than sex magic, stronger than any known magic, in fact, and Blaise isn't capable of it."

"But you are," Wesley surmised. Draco thought he could hear a bit of hope in the statement.

"I didn't think so, but yes." Draco inched even closer to Wesley, who put his hand on Draco's knee. It trembled, but held its spot. "I am."

"Is it Dark magic?" Wesley's voice wasn't judgmental, just weary, as though he knew it was necessary to ask the question, but not the reason behind the import.

"Love magic is the furthest thing from Dark magic there is," Draco replied softly. It was bad timing, he understood that. Post-sexual trauma was not the moment to be introducing the idea that he probably wanted to stay with Wesley for as long as Wesley would have him. Unfortunately, he didn't have the time to wait it out. He needed Wesley with him on every level. Love magic was powerful when used by a single person, but magnified enormously by any kind of love being fed into that person's being. Even if the love was coming from a Muggle. Love magic, unlike that of sex magic, was powerful enough that it superceded the vessel and existed of its own accord.

After a long while, Wesley's breath -- and by default Draco's -- evened out. "Come lay beside me." The words were oddly hesitant, neither request nor order.

Draco curled up as close as he could without touching Wesley. Wesley leaned in the extra nano-inch it took for them to come together. Draco fell asleep.

*

It took ten minutes and another binding charm, which nearly sent Wesley -- and by default, Draco -- into panicked hysterics, to get them out into the square. It was gorgeous. Sultry and hot even though it was only spring, flowers the shade of fire embers bloomed everywhere alongside magical plants that Draco had only ever seen in books.

Forget France or Austria, then. Draco had been to both of the spots he had suggested Hermione concentrate on, and this wasn't either place. He sent up a small request to whomever was in charge of rescuing the hapless that in her infinite brilliance she had figured out that he was wrong. Even assuming he was right and that he could overcome Blaise's maneuverings and magical power, he wasn't sure he could get out of this place without help, let alone find his way back to Hogwarts.

Blaise had Wesley and Draco magically bound facing each other around a stake protruding from the center of the bustling square. Out of the corner of his eye, Draco could see a plaque glinting in the sunlight. Something tickled the back of his mind and he closed his eyes, trying to remember why he felt like he should know this place.

There was a crowd gathering. Many were obviously already Blaise's followers, looking on him with the countenance of a dog wishing to please its master. Draco sneered. Others were just curious onlookers, Witches and Wizards who were out shopping or enjoying the day's weather and had stumbled upon a large group of people tying two men to a pole. Several looked uncomfortable. Several more settled in for the entertainment.

Draco heard Blaise charm himself with a translation charm and he began to speak. It came out in Spanish and as Draco didn't have a wand with which to undo the charm for his own purposes nor did he speak Spanish, most of it soared right past his comprehension. The Spanish, however, jarred the last of the memory that had been hiding so persistently from him. "Wes," he whispered.

"He's talking about Witches and Wizards who couldn’t escape the Inquisitor's wrath. We seem to be tied to some sort of memorial to them," Wesley translated.

Draco was momentarily side-tracked. "You speak Spanish?"

"Comes in handy in LA. He's…oh." Wesley swallowed.

"Riling them up over Muggle crimes against the Wizarding world, most of which were hundreds of years ago?" Draco guessed. Blaise's rhetoric could have gotten him anything. It had kept Draco in his bed for much longer than he otherwise would have stayed.

"Vividly."

"I need you to do something for me." Draco hoped against every instinct that he had that he wasn't being presumptuous. He hoped he was starting to understand what had seemed so foreign less than twelve hours previous.

"Tell me," Wesley ordered. "Quickly."

Blaise's speech was reaching a crescendo, Draco didn't need translation capabilities to understand the rise in pitch and the boisterous reaction of the crowd. There were still members of the crowd who looked uncomfortable, they were each searching out others but staying quiet, as safe as they could within the throng. "Just, you said you loved me," Draco began, wishing he felt more certain about the truth of that or about his plan or about anything.

"I did. I meant it."

That was something. Draco grabbed onto it fiercely. "Think about that."

"About telling you I loved you?" Wesley frowned.

"About the fact that you do. Concentrate on the love itself."

"I'm a Muggle, Draco," Wesley saw fit to remind him, as if Draco weren't hyper aware of being the only Wizard on his side at the moment.

"Don't believe what he's telling them. We aren't that different. Trust me." Draco had learned that the hard way, watching Muggle victim after Muggle victim struggle against death, some brave and some not, all of them so very familiar. As familiar as the Death Eaters that Voldemort saw fit to punish publicly, killing them slowly in front of his other Death Eaters, letting them feed upon the misery of others. "I know the words, I need you to supply part of the magic."

A hand holding a wand descended on him, and Draco jumped, the noise of the crowd and his own intensity of conversation having blocked from his awareness the fact of Blaise's approach. Blaise ruffled Draco's hair in a parody of affection. Draco stayed unnaturally still, hoping that Wesley could think anything through the resultant fear of having Blaise so near him. Draco looked directly at Wesley, who mouthed, "No problem."

Draco listened carefully to the Latin that Blaise was almost chanting. Draco was perversely grateful that whoever had been in charge of figuring out this part of the Rite had obviously had something of a flair for dramatics; the incantation was long. Draco meanwhile carefully reworked each of the words as they left Blaise's mouth, infusing his own meanings into them, informing the magic of his purpose. He unfurled his hands, spreading his fingers widely.

Draco felt the bond forming, but there was something odd about it, misshapen, he would have said, if bonds were a solid, tangible thing. Blaise's wand was oddly hot on his shoulder and suddenly things made sense. Blaise hadn't raped Wesley to have more control over the magic, he had needed the connection so as to be part of the bond. He had warped the incantation, as Draco predicted, not merely because of the change of conditions but because it allowed Draco's drained magical capabilities to drain into himself. After all, magic, like matter, didn't merely evaporate. It had to go somewhere.

Draco remembered things. He remembered the first thing Severus had seen fit to tell him about magic. Magic isn't in the words, it's in the intent behind the words. Muggles pray, we Charm. He remembered his promise to Wesley that he would kill Blaise. He took the words out of his head and let them flow over his tongue, louder and louder, the magic burning out of him, being both pulled and pushed. Someone was screaming, Draco wasn't sure if it was Wesley or Blaise. He recited the words, so poetic he nearly sang.

Flames licked up through his throat and along the veins into his outstretched fingertips. Beyond them. Draco pushed the words past the inferno.

*

Hermione was the first of the three team leaders back at the castle. It hadn't taken her very long to determine that they weren't in the right place. After all, at this stage in the proceedings, hiding wasn't a big part of Blaise's plan. Severus returned shortly after her and the two made an almost immediate decision to Apparate with the others to the coordinates that Harry's team had been given.

It was immediately obvious upon blinking back into existence that they weren't in the thick of the action. It was also immediately obvious where that action was taking place. Ten or so yards from where they were, in the center of the shopping square, Wesley and Draco were slumped around an oddly ornate pole rising from the ground. Hermione recognized it as the Wizarding world's memorial to all magically-endowed men and women who hadn't survived Spain's Catholic driven madness of the fifteenth century.

On his knees, his back facing them, was someone Hermione could only assume was Zabini, his wand lying across Draco's shoulder, held tightly in one fist, his other hand digging ferociously into Wesley's shoulder. A girl, Pansy, Hermione realized, was on her knees next to him, shaking him and yelling spells. It didn't seem to be having much of an effect -- he was screaming loudly enough to be heard over the mayhem of Harry and co. trying to fight their way through those followers of who had enough loyalty to stick around while their leader was evidently dying in front of them.

It made it easier on Hermione, Harry, Severus, Cho, Filius, Sirius, Remus, Bill and Ginny that so many had fled at the first sign of things not going quite the way plans had indicated they would, but the part of Hermione that could be pragmatic in the middle of anything from chaos to orgasm was dreading having to track them down at a later date. Still, between the nine of them, most of the resistance was subdued within twenty minutes with very few injuries sustained on their side.

By the time they were done, Zabini's screams were no more than aborted sounds, his throat having given up, torn to shreds. Pansy was too busy streaming healing spell after counter-curse after nullifying spell to notice that anyone was approaching and Severus had restrained her before she had the chance to throw even a single hex at any of them. Cho was already busy at that point, peeling Zabini off of Draco and Wesley, making sure that they were fine before turning her attention to him.

Ginny spoke softly, "You can't do anything, Cho."

Cho looked up, her eyes questioning, though not particularly surprised. Ginny looked at a spot in the middle of Zabini's chest. "His magic is…" her gaze followed something only she could see. "Blimey. I think it's in Wesley and Draco."

"The Charm misfired?" Severus narrowed his eyes in suspicion and Hermione was reminded that he had seen it work before.

"No." Ginny shook her head, "I think, I think Draco did something to it."

"Something?" Harry prodded gently.

"That's all I- You're gonna have to wait for him to wake up," Ginny shrugged. "But they're surrounded by the prettiest shade of gold ever."

"And that means?" Bill prompted.

Ginny's lips twisted shyly, like she was about to give away a secret, and her and Remus answered simultaneously: "Love."

As Cho softly murmured the words to stop Zabini's heart, releasing him from the torture that was a complete magic drain, and Severus and Sirius collected the still-unconscious Draco and Wesley, Hermione wondered if love smelled as good as the magical fire hydrangeas that populated the square.

*

The clean up team, namely Harry, Remus, Hermione and Bill, had delivered those of Zabini's followers that they had managed to subdue to the Ministry and returned to Hogwarts by the time Wesley woke up. Much to Severus's consternation, this event happened without Draco's yet having woken.

Upon waking, Wesley opened his eyes, focused, took a quick look around, threw off his covers and crawled into bed with Draco. He fell back asleep before Pomfrey could get in a word of protest. Severus pulled Draco's blankets so that they were both adequately covered and spared enough of his attention to give Pomfrey a look of warning.

She shook her head and left in defeat, but Severus had the uncomfortable feeling he had heard her mumble the words, "…too cute…"

Fred, who had been reading a book that looked to have been purloined from the library of one H. Granger while waiting for Wesley to wake up, quickly collapsed onto the bed that he had abandoned and fell into an exhausted sleep. Hermione came in an hour later to check up on everyone and mobilicorpused her back to their rooms.

Sirius flitted in and out at regular intervals, but while Severus and he had left off deliberately insulting each other at every possible opportunity, sitting in a hospital room for hours with nobody but themselves for company was not a test of their newfound truce that either of them wanted to face.

Giles dropped into visit. He brought a note from Lille. "McGonagall cancelled classes for the teachers who were missing. Your cauldrons are fine. Uli says to tell you hi. I'm going to start calling her mum from now on. Just so you know."

Giles pulled up a chair so that he could sit next to Severus. "The rumors about what happened were quite fascinating. Creatures I'd never heard of devouring Professor Granger; Bill Weasley leading a Goblin Revolt. You turning back to the Dark."

Severus nodded his head. "Stay around long enough, you'll hear it some more. Exams too hard? Snape's joined with the newest Dark Lord to flunk all students and end Wizarding as we know it. Food not up to snuff? Snape's testing his newest potion to make us all minions of the Dark side's bidding. They almost give me too much credit."

"I'm quite good with determining rubbish when presented with it. I went to Minerva to see if the truth was available."

Severus motioned toward Draco. "Miss Weasley imagines he reworked a spell powerful enough to do fundamental soul-magic bonds without a wand."

"How is he?"

Severus pursed his lips. "Poppy says that she imagines it's just a matter of waiting until he wakes at this point."

Giles was silent for several minutes. "Would you like me to wait with you?"

"It could be… Well, we don't know how long it will be, and I'm not much company at the moment." At another time, Severus would have laughed at the statement, if not aloud, then internally. He was perfectly aware that his personality was not what one could properly call sociable.

"I didn't start this for your conversational skills. Although, I will admit, when you bother to put forth the effort, those are part of the draw. I didn't know that then, though." Giles took off his glasses, rubbing at them furiously in the quickly fading light of the hospital ward.

Sensing Giles's frustration, but equally frustrated himself, Severus spat back, "I'm sorry you've had to work so hard for what I'm sure you imagined would be an easy shag. Poor Snape, hasn't seen action in years…maybe ever. If you think I don't know what's whispered about me, then you're-"

"I think I'll stop you before you go somewhere both of us are going to regret," Giles cut in, "You know perfectly well that if all I'd wanted was a casual fuck I would have given this up long ago. And I'm too smart to allow myself to be riled up by your last ditch attempts to insult me into storming off."

Severus breathed hard, unsure of what to do. As with everything in life he had plotted this out, considered all the eventualities. Except the one occurring. "I won't apologize for myself."

"Neither will I."

"If you want to stay… There's plenty of room," Severus finished awkwardly. Giles stayed where he was. After a few minutes, Severus asked quietly, "Would you pass me the book on that table?" It was the one Fred had tossed aside when she laid down.

Giles passed it to him. "If you're going to read, you won't mind if I snooze?"

Severus had already opened the front of the book. "Do as you please."

Draco finally made the trip back to sensibility in the early hours of the morning. Giles had been asleep for several hours. Severus was keeping himself awake, still reading Hermione's book. It dealt with the differences between Muggle biology and Wizard biology. There was a chapter on the physical repercussions of animagic transformation that was particularly fascinating.

Severus was engrossed in it when he heard Draco croak, "This is getting to be very familiar."

Severus summoned a glass of water and held it to Draco's lips, forcing him to drink slowly. When he pulled the glass away, Draco licked his lips and said in a less broken voice, "I wonder if this is how Potter felt, all those years when he spent more time in the infirmary then he did in the tower."

Unable to help himself, Severus pushed the hair away from Draco's eyes. "Probably. I expect you to break the habit."

Draco yawned. "You and me both. You'll tell me what happened when I wake up again?"

"We were hoping you would have some insight," Severus admitted.

Draco was nearly back asleep when he answered, "It was something Dumbledore once told me, long before I was ready to listen."

"Those do have a tendency to come back right at the moment you most need them."

Draco was obviously fighting to stay awake. "Inherent power of love magic, Severus. Don’t underestimate it." His eyes dropped shut.

Severus glanced over at Giles and considered taking what was probably rather good advice. It was a shame Albus wasn't around to witness the event.

*

Wesley was sitting where Severus had kept vigil when Draco woke up a second time. "Severus?"

Wesley stood and leaned over to kiss him. "Giles woke up and browbeat him into taking a shower. I think they may have detoured for food on the way back."

"We're alive." Draco realized that it was probably rather unnecessary to point this out.

"Hermione and Fred came by this morning and brought me breakfast. We discussed it and, as far as any of us can tell, we think you reversed the flow of the bond, but since it was three way, it was unstable and so instead of fortifying all of us, it reacted on the person that you were focusing your love onto and yourself -- being the source -- and drew from Zabini to try and stabilize itself."

Draco moved over so that Wesley could sit next to him on the edge of the bed. "Is his…can you perform magic?"

"We're not sure. I can feel it, that's all I or anybody else knows. Hermione suggested conducting trials somewhere with less breakables than the hospital ward."

"On the other hand-"

Wesley laughed. "Do you want something to eat?"

"Time is it?"

Wesley glanced at his watch. "Fifteen past one."

"Probably should. Try and get myself back to some semblance of normalcy."

Wesley put a hand over the blanketed area that hid Draco's legs, "How're you feeling?"

"Like somebody went in and rearranged my insides. You?"

"It's looking entirely possible that somebody did rearrange my insides," Wesley reminded him.

Draco fished his hand out from under the blankets and grabbed onto Wesley's. "Wes. Um. With the…well, when we were in-"

"It's good Draco."

Draco searched for something in Wesley's expression. "I need to say this anyway."

Wesley flinched ever-so-slightly. "All right."

"My father didn't touch me like that, nor did any of the Death Eaters, or the employees and other inmates at Azkaban. But they took advantage in a million different ways. My father with my head, Voldemort with spells so invasive I was sometimes left feeling that he hadn't left me with anything that was my own. Blaise did it in his own way, using my own emotions against me until it was nearly too late."

Wesley's grip tightened. "I don't think you could have done anything. No more than I could have. The fact that you performed wandless magic of immense power at one point doesn't make me think that's something you can just pull from yourself in any given situation, no matter how dire."

"I'm tired of letting things happen," Draco's words tasted like lemons left too long in the sun, rotten and faintly reminiscent of something that was once sour.

"I'm tired of things happening," Wesley admitted. "And when he did…when he raped me, I wanted to pin him down and rip him apart with teeth that were not my incisors, just to prolong the process. But you basically did that. From what I hear -- and Hermione is not one to mince words, let me tell you -- Cho had to do a heart-stopping spell to relieve him of the agony. The best part is, I'm most probably walking around with all that power he used in part to incapacitate the two of us." Wesley paused, obviously thinking about his next words. "I don't get to look at my side of things and say that we clearly won very often, but even though there are remnants of Zabini's gang running about and loose ends to be tied up, I honestly think this might be one of those times."

Draco responded with a non-sequitur. "You loved me enough for my magic to work."

Wesley leaned in for his second kiss since Draco had woken, taking his time with this one. "I told you it was going to be fine. I'm hardly an optimist, you know."

"Compared to me."

"I think Severus may actually qualify for that comment," Wesley shot back.

"Possible," Draco sat up a little, puckering his lips hopefully.

Wesley obliged on the condition, "Just a bit. Then food."

Draco wasn't too concerned about logistics right that moment.

*
Epilogue
*

When Draco had finished telling the faculty and staff gathered in the lounge for a formal briefing the events of his and Wesley's capture and those leading up to Zabini's death, Minerva was the first one to speak. "Albus shall be tickled pink," she said softly, eyes surprisingly gentle as they commanded Draco's attention, "his portrait is always whinging that we never followed his advice."

Hermione noticed Harry's guilty flush and had to suppress a smile. Severus, who had refused the invitation to sit and was instead standing in the direct path between the sunlight and Giles, pointed out information that Hermione thought should have been brought to light much earlier. "The Ministry is aware of the events that were reported to it by the nine of us sent to retrieve you. There shall be no charges, even if it was possible to press them over the use of love-based magic, which it generally isn't, Zabini's misdeeds were actually far more recognized than anyone on their end of things was publicly admitting."

Percy had relayed that to Hermione, who in turn had told it to Severus. She had also managed to wrangle a few extra concessions out of her not-quite-brother, the most important being, "They're giving you full pardon, Draco. Unconditional. In return for the favor, I guess you could say."

Draco looked to his side, where Wesley was sitting, quite obviously pretending that he didn't notice everyone avoiding his gaze. Draco hadn't come out and directly said how Zabini had been able to complete the bond between the three of them, but there weren't many options and the ones that didn't involve sex were complicated and often took months, if not years. Draco whispered something in his ear and Wesley whispered back. Draco asked, "Am I free to live in the Muggle world?"

Nearly everyone in the room shifted slightly in their seats, producing a soft and yet glaringly obvious rustling. Minerva and Severus remained still, conferencing each other with their eyes. Since Draco hadn't asked the question of anyone in particular, he glanced around, waiting for someone to answer. Hermione itched to relieve his anxiety, but Minerva and Severus were still playing at telepathy. It was Severus who finally ended the silence, "You are, but we would prefer that you didn't. Either of you. Mr. Wyndham-Pryce has acquired the powers of an adult with no more idea of how to use them than an eleven year old Muggle-born floating his way across the lake on the way to the Sorting Ceremony. We would appreciate being given the chance to teach him restraint and perhaps even control over his magic. As far as you're concerned, it is the general consensus of the senior staff as well as certain Ministry officials that your skills and knowledge are something we would prefer to have around in case of future crises."

Draco's expression never wavered -- Hermione was surprised at how nice the familiarity of Draco's seeming serenity was, off-balance Draco had been more unnerving than she had cared to admit -- as he opened his mouth to make a counterpoint. Wesley cut him off, "It's all well and good that you feel he might be of use and that I'm considered somewhat unstable all things considered, but what is he to do while I learn all these new skills and you wait around for the next bad guy?"

If Hermione hadn't known Severus so well, she wouldn't have recognized the quirk of his lips for the near-smile that it was. "We rather thought we would leave that up to him, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce. Up to this date, his life has been somewhat determined by the events surrounding him and the actions of others. I should rather like for that to end here."

Draco smirked haughtily, but there was a disbelief in his eyes that belied the sentiment of the action. "You're telling me I can do anything? I can be an Auror if I want to? I had the qualifications, you know."

Behind Hermione, Harry muttered with no pretense of trying to be unheard, "Well, there goes that department."

Draco's gaze flashed to where Harry was, sharper and meaner for a second before he caught the joke. "Perhaps something else, then."

Harry offered, "You're a quick thinker, you'd probably be good at the Auror thing."

Draco shrugged. "Not really my idea of a good time. I was just…"

Just pushing to see where someone would stop me, Hermione finished for him.

"I think my memory needs to improve something fierce before I'm entrusted in any field quite like that," Draco admitted.

Surprisingly, it was Minerva who didn't even allow a second to elapse before stating, "Hogwarts is to be your home for as long as you so desire. If any of our resources can be of use to you, they're yours. Stay, Mr. Malfoy."

Draco turned once again to Wesley. Wesley nodded slightly, "Fred's staying, I might as well."

Which evidently decided it, because Draco inclined his head toward Severus first, Minerva second, "Thank you for the offer. For the moment, we will take you up on it."

"Excellent." Minerva stood, officially ending the meeting.

Hermione got to her feet and turned to Fred, who was grinning unabashedly. "Yes," Hermione responded to the warmth of emotion Fred was radiating. Draco and Wesley were whispering at each other, obviously uncharitable comments if the set of their mouths was anything to go by; Ginny was messing with Harry's already hopeless hair; Remus was watching things, his chin resting on Sirius's shoulder, his arms wrapping around the larger man from behind; Giles and Severus were standing nearly touching each other, much more in each other's personal space than either would have normally allowed another human being, neither saying a word.

"Yes," Hermione repeated. She left it at that.


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