Crossing the glittering white granite of the Wizengamot floor, Bríd Ingham slowed to a stop looming over the Longbottom seat. "You ready?"

Lady Augusta glanced up from the papers neatly arranged across her desk. Her pale eyes met Bríd's, and for a moment the last two decades seemed to melt away, the weight of tragedy lifting from her, once again the powerful witch she'd been when Bríd had been a child. She didn't express her obvious excitement, though, instead growling, "Worry more about your own people, girl."

Bríd felt her lips pull into a smirk. "Yes, yes, you know what you're doing, I know. Just thought I'd check in before the party gets started."

"Yes, well." Apparently absent anything to say, Augusta's eyes dipped down for a moment — and then she scowled with a sort of exhausted disapproval. Bríd didn't think she'd ever worn the billowy robes the Brits liked so much even once in her entire life, she tended to show up to Wizengamot meetings in a formal dueling kit (usually in Saoirse Ghaelach's colours, not that many of these idiots seemed to notice that little detail). The lords and ladies of older generations didn't bother trying to hide they thought she had no class at all, but Augusta had known her long enough by now to know pointing it out wouldn't accomplish anything. "I'm sure there are last-minute discussions you could be having."

She lifted her shoulders in a lazy shrug. "Nah, Ciara's handling our people. She's more convincing, you know. But fine, I can leave you alone." With a quick little bow — only slightly sarcastic — Bríd turned away again.

From the Ingham seat, the Wizengamot Hall was a bustling hive of noise and chaos, as it was in the last few minutes before any session. A huge theater of benches and desks in concentric rings, the Hall itself was made of pure white stone, bits of quartz embedded within scintillating in the sunlight pouring through the enchanted ceiling overhead, at times the glare enough it almost hurt. Luckily, it was broken here and there with the seats all around, cast in a whole variety of styles and colours as designed by the first of the family to join the assembly, or else some heir down the line. Her own seat was a plain wooden desk with a wide banner hanging from the front, a golden sun rising over a green field — she knew the symbol was very old, but she honestly didn't know if had originally been meant to refer to Freyr or na Fianna, though she guessed it didn't really matter — but many were more colourful and far more elaborate.

It looked like the seats were filling up, though the circle surrounding the empty floor in the middle was still mostly empty — it would remain so, Bríd could hardly expect anything else. In an odd exercise of nationalism, the seats of the Seventeen Founders had been left at the centre untouched, even though most of the Noble and Most Ancient Houses were defunct in the modern day. There was her own family, of course, then the Monroes right next to her (empty at the moment, Ciara was probably twisting a final few arms); the Longbottoms about a third the way around the circle was occupied; Lady Susan was still rather young to participate, so the Bones seat sat empty; Lord Sirius was still technically a fugitive and Lyra inactive, so no Black; and the rest, the Maddychs and the Gaunts and the Slytherins and the Cadwaladers and the Langleys and so forth, they'd all been abandoned centuries ago, and yet they sat, kept clean and polished over the long years, waiting.

Which Bríd had always thought was very strange — it seemed a bit...morbid, to her, but what did she know. Brits were strange people sometimes, no use dwelling over it.

Aides and messengers were still dancing back and forth between the seats, like an anthill overturned, but the activity seemed to be slowing down, cousins and vassals gradually trickling away, leaving the lords and ladies in their shimmering robes and twinkling jewelry arrayed alone. Just as the Wizengamot was called to attention with a slow series of heavy thumps, the stone floor vibrating like the skin of an enormous drum, Ciara appeared in her peripheral vision, collapsing into her seat. "Cutting it rather close, don't you think."

The older woman — at sixty-two, she wasn't exactly over the hill by magical standards, but still nearly twice Bríd's age, never let her forget it either — puffed for a moment, straightening her darkly glimmering formal robes and shooting Bríd a level glare. "Erin and Tugwood took a bit more hand-holding than I thought. They're not happy about working with Death Eaters, you know."

Well, no, Bríd couldn't imagine they were — she wasn't entirely pleased about it either, to be honest. At least Erin Scrimgeour hadn't actually lost any family to the latest British Dark Lord and his murderous lackies, the same couldn't be said of everyone in Ars Publica. In any ordinary circumstances, or if they were being lead by virtually anyone else, Bríd doubted she would have ever considered it. Even if she had, her grandmother certainly wouldn't have signed off on it, it'd been a struggle to get her to agree as it was.

Unconsciously, she looked over her shoulder to her left, finding Lady Malfoy, sitting surrounded halfway up the stands by the rest of her so-called Allied Dark. She still didn't know how she felt about this. Narcissa might be a Black by birth, but she acted so very...well, British. Not that the Blacks had ever been anything other than Brits — they certainly weren't Gaels, anyway — but they'd been with them, once, theirs had been an important voice in Ars Publica for centuries. But that was so very long ago now, it seemed.

According to Grandmother, the Blacks had once been the most dependable of their allies, unwaveringly aligned with the Dark in a way most others weren't, but they hadn't been able to really count on the Blacks since her time, when Phineas Nigellus had still been around. They weren't any less dark in the magical sense, but they'd...drifted over the last decades, politically. So many of them had gotten wrapped up in petty blood purity, high society nonsense, too many getting drawn into the Dark Lord's orbit, and the war had eaten their family down to the bone. Most people Bríd had spoken to had been convinced it had ended them, before this Lyra had shown up, before Sirius had been proven innocent.

(Of course, Bríd had never really believed Sirius had supported the Dark Lord, but that wasn't important right now.)

Which was part of what made Narcissa so...complicated. On the one hand, she was a Black, so she had their families' historical achievements and alliances to lean into. (She was an obvious bastard, wasn't a Black by blood, but she'd been educated by them and raised within their Family Magics, so it didn't really matter.) But on the other hand, the things that distinguished her from Blacks generations back were exactly the things that made her more difficult to trust. Blacks started at a handicap in that regard — that was a natural consequence of dedicating an entire bloodline to the Dark, fucking madmen — but they'd been consistent allies of Ars Public for its entire existence. They'd been one of the founders of their faction, in fact, it wasn't a stretch to suggest Melisende the Black, and later figures like Gwenfrewi of Aberdyfi and Chief Warlock Henry Black, were influential in the development of the ideological underpinnings of their politics.

But joining a maniac Dark Lord? especially one deeply rooted in British pureblood supremacy? That was not a very House of Black thing to do. Historically, Blacks tended to recognise no outside authority over them. Which, Bríd would be a hypocrite to have a problem with that — the Dark political tradition had a long history of opposing the imposition of power from various kingdoms over the years all the way up to the modern Ministry — but it did make them very reliable in a way. Hell, two of the most famous Blacks to ever live had led the fight against the two most successful Dark Lords in Celtic history, Gwenfrewi of Aberdyfi against Ignatius Gaunt and Henry against Cromwell. They'd literally laid down their lives on the principle that Dark Lords were bad.

Okay, saying it was a matter of principle might be giving Henry too much credit — Cromwell had been actively trying to depose him as Chief Warlock — but still.

The point was, Bríd was absolutely certain Narcissa was not allying with them as a matter of principle. She didn't know the younger woman well, but she didn't doubt she was in this for one reason and one reason only: the preservation of her (and her family's) wealth and power. Her Dark Lord had failed, and with Dumbledore's reputation tarnished the Light had descended into petty infighting, so she saw aligning with the Dark and Common Fate as the best way to maintain some level of influence. It really was as simple as that.

Bríd should be glad — taken together with their alliance and Augusta's people, Narcissa's so-called Allied Dark gave them a controlling majority of the Wizengamot. But she didn't trust these people. She didn't trust Narcissa and she didn't trust most of her faction, sleazy criminals and bigots all, some even outright murderers. She and Ciara would exploit this opportunity while it lasted, but she didn't expect their alliance to hold very long. Such arrangements with pureblood supremacists never did.

Thankfully. Allying with British pureblood supremacists even for something as crucial as replacing the Chief Warlock left a bad taste in her mouth — she doubted she could stomach it in the long term anyway.

While Bríd had been watching Narcissa, the assembly had been called to order, Amelia casually sweeping up to the lectern. It had taken some convincing to get Amelia to preside while Dumbledore was suspended anticipating a formal vote to remove him — it was standard procedure for the Director of the DLE to stand in when the Chief Warlock was unable to for whatever reason, but Amelia had an almost pathological distaste for politics. However, if she didn't preside, it would pass to either Crouch or Diggory — Crouch by the proper order of succession, but Crouch was a commoner and Diggory had seniority, so Diggory probably would have been pushed in over Crouch's head — and Amelia hated both men with an almost intimidating passion, the threat of either one ending up in charge of the vote to oust and replace the Chief Warlock had been enough to get her to play along.

So she was speeding through the opening business of the session with all due haste. It was hardly a few minutes, a few quick motions and one short floor vote, before the matter of the expulsion of the Chief Warlock was taken up. A couple people made brief statements, rehashing the arguments for and against Dumbledore being removed from office, all of which everyone had already heard a hundred times — they had been discussing this for a while now, after all. Before too long, with little fanfare and no apparent recognition of the historical weight of the moment, Amelia started the vote.

The vote had already been set to be done as a sequential vocal assent when the motion had originally been made. Once upon a time, the vote was ordered by seniority — the Seventeen Founders first, alphabetically, then down the list in order of the family's admittance into the Wizengamot. For the last couple hundred years, though, the traditional order had been abandoned, replaced by a simple alphabetical one. Except the Founders, who still went first.

So, funnily enough, the first two votes were abstentions. Though the house technically wasn't defunct yet, the Black seat was still vacant, so no vote there. While Amelia, proxy for her underage niece, did have the right to cast a vote, she'd decided not to, claiming she felt it was improper for the presiding officer to explicitly express support for one side or the other. That was sort of ridiculous, since Dumbledore did that all the time, and it meant they would be one vote short of where they should be, Ciara and Augusta had had no success in convincing Amelia to change her mind.

Bríd did respect Amelia's conviction, no matter how terribly inconvenient it could be at times.

Next down the list was Bríd herself — aye. Then came Augusta, with another aye. There was a bit of muttering across the floor, Dumbledore's Light whispering to each other, in reaction to Augusta's vote. Bríd could almost see why it would be a surprise to some people, but it really shouldn't have been. Yes, the Longbottoms were a culturally light family, and had shown largely consistent support for Dumbledore in the past — most notably, Augusta's son and daughter-in-law had been involved in that ridiculous Order of his — but Augusta was influential in Common Fate, and always had been. Her support of Dumbledore had always been limited to particular issues, and contingent on him not angering her too much or there being better alternatives. Ars Publica had presented her with a better alternative.

If that had been the biggest surprise of the vote, they would have been in the clear. Unfortunately, things quickly started getting very weird.

Abbott: aye — not a surprise there, they were a light family but closely tied to Common Fate. Ainsley: aye — that was...odd. Lord Ainsley was definitely Light, there was no doubt about that, he shouldn't be voting to expel his own Chief Warlock. Atwell: nay — as expected. Bellchant, nay; Bletchley, aye; Boot...aye? What? That was...odd, but alright. Then Brown came up, there was no doubt which way he would vote, and after him—

"Aye."

A storm of whispering and muttering swept over the chamber, Lord Brown casually sinking back into his chair as though he hadn't just done something completely absurd. Brown was with Ars Brittania, one of the noisier members — Dumbledore and Ars Brittania didn't agree on a whole lot, but they did like him just on principle. As neutral as his politics might actually be, Dumbledore claimed to be strongly Light (more culturally than ideologically, but Bríd wasn't certain Dumbledore even realised there was a difference), which did a whole lot of good for the public dissemination of Ars Brittania's rhetoric, even if few of their policy proposals actually got anywhere. It was not to their advantage to get rid of him.

What the fuck was going on?

Before long, Amelia got things rolling again — Bulstrode: aye; Burke: aye; Carmichael—

Aye?! What?! And Carpenter immediately after him, no, this wasn't right, something had gone very seriously wrong...

It made no sense for the Light and Ars Brittania to vote against Dumbledore. They had to know Ars Publica, Common Fate, and the Allied Dark between them had the votes to force the confirmation of the next Chief Warlock without them. They had to know whoever they nominated would be worse for their interests. Dumbledore wasn't a great representative for the Light — ideologically, his principles were much more in line with Common Fate, though by everything he did and said he apparently hadn't noticed that — but he was certainly better than anyone the Dark would pick. But if they were voting against him...

They knew something Bríd didn't. Something was wrong.

As Amelia called for Cornfoot to vote (aye, except he was supposed to be a nay, what the fuck), Bríd leaned along her desk toward Ciara. "Something's wrong, we have to kill the vote."

"I know." Ciara had obviously figured it out herself — she was writing a note, presumably telling their people to flip. Once it was finished (Crabbe: aye), she whipped out her wand and duplicated it a few dozen times, a volley of charms folding the things and sending them zipping through the air to their allies. Ciara wasn't the only one either, notes were passing back and forth all over the place, the air thick with bits of parchment and paper and even flickering green messenger charms, a low rustle of muttered conversation forming an anxious background to the proceeding vote.

Davis: aye; Diggory: aye; Dunbar: nay; Eirsley: ayedammit, note must have gotten to him too slow, come on, come on — Fawley: aye; Flint: nay; Gamp: nay.

Bríd let out a short breath at two of their alliance flipping in a row, they must have gotten the message. As the vote went on, she kept a tally in her head, biting her lip, her leg anxiously jiggling under her desk. It was going to be close. It was going to be very close.

Especially since several of the Allied Dark didn't follow along, voted up as they'd originally planned...but Bríd wasn't certainly whether that actually meant anything. Narcissa had flipped — she was clever enough to figure something was going on, Bríd had spotted her sending out her own notes around the same time as Ciara — but a few of her people hadn't. It was a little too complicated of a situation to know if this was actually a betrayal or not. Perhaps, despite the unexpected turn in the vote, these few simply couldn't bring themselves to vote in support of Dumbledore — they did rather hate the man, after all. Perhaps they assumed Dumbledore had fucked up so badly he'd managed to alienated his closest supporters, which was possible, if rather unlikely.

Or perhaps they knew something. Perhaps they were in on it.

Bríd remembered, from the politics lessons her grandmother had insisted she undergo before taking up the seat, that not all of the Allied Dark were families with a long history in the Dark. It wasn't that long ago, only a few generations, that some of them had been Light.

And not only Light — several of them had once been prominent members of Ars Brittania. It didn't get more Light than that. In a way, what the Death Eaters were to the Dark, Ars Brittania was to the Light. Firm and uncompromising, fervent humanocentrists, they were the radical fringe, varying from generation to generation and within themselves from mostly harmless nationalists to zealous ideologues to opportunistic demagogues, at their worst only a thin veneer of respectability holding them back from outright violence.

If they were up to something, it couldn't mean anything good. Not for the Gaels, not for Ars Publica, not for anyone. After all, as tense as things were right now with the 'former' Death Eaters, and Saoirse, and the ICW, and the muggles, it would be far too easy for a civil war to break out. Those never went well for anybody.

As the vote came to a close, Dumbledore surviving the expulsion attempt (however barely), Bríd stared directly across the floor, up at Lord Llewellyn, widely considered this generation's leader among Ars Brittania. A stately, dignified-looking middle-aged man, tall and blond-haired and well-dressed, he didn't seem particularly surprised, but there was a shade of annoyance on his lips. He'd wanted the vote to pass, Bríd knew that instinctively, he'd wanted to expel the Light's own Chief Warlock. His faint displeasure clearing, his lips instead tilted into a smirk, mocking and taunting, directed at Ciara right at her side. He couldn't have made it any clearer if he'd stood up and shouted at them across the Hall.

Ars Brittania was up to something. And Bríd had no idea what it was.

Fuck.


"Sev!"

Severus managed not to flinch at the overly exuberant greeting from an individual who most certainly should not be in his offices, looked up from the notes he was scribbling with his most forbidding scowl — not that he expected it to have any effect whatsoever. He was supposed to have nearly another month of blissfully student-free days to enjoy, damn it! "Bellatrix, what the hell are you doing here? I distinctly remember asking Ashe to ward this office against shadow-walking."

"Yes, and? I mean, Babbling's a bloody genius — anchoring your wards in Shadows so that they'll work across the planar boundary is fucking brilliant. But it really should've been obvious that anyone who can shadow-walk can still get to the anchor points, and you'd have to use shadow magic to monitor them properly, so... Theoretically awesome; practically, not so much. Well, okay, most people who can shadow walk probably aren't cursebreakers, because why would they need to be, they can shadow walk pretty much wherever. But useless for your purposes, at least."

Severus sighed. He probably should've expected that — Ashe was very much an academic. "And why are you here?"

She dropped into one of the student chairs, obviously with no intention of leaving any time soon. "Have you decided who you're taking on as an apprentice yet?"

"Ah. So you've heard about that."

That was even less surprising than her getting around his wards. Quite honestly, he was surprised she hadn't come to annoy him about this weeks ago. Mirabella had almost certainly mentioned the ongoing drama between the Ministry and Hogwarts at some point. The heart of the conflict was a push to expand the Hogwarts faculty. Dumbledore had been fighting against it all summer — blindly opposing the Ministry meddling in the way he chose to run his little kingdom, Severus was certain, because it wasn't as though Mirabella's reforms were unreasonable. He and Minerva had been arguing for years that they needed to bring on supplemental faculty for at least the core classes.

One professor for each subject might have been sufficient in the post-war years when classes had averaged thirty-five to forty students, but the historical class size average was at least twice as large. One-hundred and six students had accepted places in next year's incoming class, the result of a post-war boom in fertility combined with the presence of a muggleborn contingent representative of their actual prevalence in the population (in the absence of Death Eaters murdering anyone whose name was added to the Accidental Magic Office's list of known muggleborns). Defense was going to be a disaster — or, well, it would have been if Cassie hadn't volunteered to teach it this year, but this would still be a problem after her contract expired — and Minerva and Filius's practical lessons were nearly as dangerous. Even Pomona had expressed her concerns about keeping order when her classes were released into the greenhouses, and Severus flatly refused to offer potions labs with fifty-three students in each section.

Children would die.

The Department of Education agreed with him on that, as it turned out. Dumbledore, however, had managed to get the measure Mirabella had proposed to force him to simply hire more staff (instituting a legal maximum student:teacher ratio, citing student safety in practical lessons) sidelined indefinitely in the confusion following the aborted attempt to remove him as Chief Warlock.

The Director of Education had countered by inviting every Hogwarts professor with at least one Mastery to a private dinner — so, all of them save Binns, Hagrid, Cassie, and Flamel, who actually had several Masteries, but was masquerading as a peri for some gods-unknown reason and therefore couldn't admit it — where she had urged them to take on apprentices, under an obscure clause of their hiring contract. Dumbledore had never encouraged his staff to take on personal students — actively discouraged it, in fact, on the grounds that he didn't want their attention to be diverted from their duties to Hogwarts's students. (Ha.) But he couldn't actually prevent them from doing so, the Board had to approve changes to the hiring contract, and they simply wouldn't. Mirabella was a far more convincing politician than Dumbledore, and moreover she was right about the safety issue. At least half the families on the Board had children who would become students within the next three years, that argument would sway them easily.

It had caused some discord within the school, as Filius, Ashe, Septima, Aurora, and Severus himself had immediately begun reviewing applications — they all received several every year, regardless of the fact that they never accepted any of them — while Minerva, Pomona, and Charity had refused. Though in Charity's defense, she didn't really need any help with her classes, and her mastery was in Theory, anyway. It was a bit difficult to imagine their Muggle Studies professor was inundated with applications in the same way Severus, Ashe, and Filius were. Minerva was obviously unwilling to argue for a reduction in her workload if it meant going against Dumbledore, and Severus suspected Pomona simply felt sorry for the Old Goat.

(And also that she was planning to just ask some of her seventh-years to help her keep an eye on the children, under the guise of helpful Hufflepuffs who just happened to enjoy spending their afternoons wandering around the greenhouses and helping children who happened to be taking lessons in the same place at the same time, because they were Hufflepuffs. That had been Severus's plan before Mirabella had begun meddling, though of course he would have had to offer recommendations at the very least to get his Slytherins to cooperate.)

Dumbledore had, of course, been furious, but there was nothing he could do about it. He had attempted to intimidate them and 'reason' with them, but he hadn't stood a chance. When even Poppy had announced she would be taking on a trio of likely young Healers — just today, at lunch — he had accused her of joining the mutiny and walked out the front doors, apparently finally accepting the fact that the power he believed himself to wield was almost entirely the product of other people's willingness to obey him. Severus wasn't entirely certain where he'd gone, perhaps down to his brother's pub, but it wasn't terribly important — he was certain he'd come back, probably with some plan to thwart one of the other measures which had taken effect three days ago as a symbol of noble resistance to the government interference they represented, or whatever he had deluded himself into believing he was fighting for.

"Just today. And you know what I realised?"

"What?" he asked, injecting as much wary suspicion into his voice as he could.

Bellatrix grinned. "This means you're going to have someone who's actually supposed to do your marking! Someone who isn't me!"

She could try to sound less gleeful about that, but Severus really wouldn't expect her to. Of course, he hadn't really expected her to do all of his marking anyway. It would have been nice, and she certainly had the time — she hardly ever attended her lessons, and students were in class less than half as many hours as professors, anyway — but no one in their right mind had ever described Bellatrix as nice. He had expected her to find some way to weasel out of their agreement within the first week or two of September. It was only a matter of time, for example, until someone revealed that he'd practically told Dumbledore that she was behind Potter's disappearance, even if he had technically kept his word, and since Granger no longer had a time turner to confiscate there was no incentive for her to do the job properly. She could easily give them all 'O's and scribble encouragement of their stupidity in the margins, make twice as much work for him undoing her mischief.

Not to mention, anyone who'd ever met Dumbledore (including Mirabella, Granger, Zabini — even Potter, he wasn't actually as stupid as he looked) should have been able to tell her that Severus wouldn't have been able to change his mind about Potter being dead for those two days his tracking charms had implied otherwise. While tricking someone into making an agreement in the first place didn't precisely invalidate it — if it did, he would have dissolved his own vow to Dumbledore a decade ago — it did mean he wasn't particularly inclined to try to hold her to it. At least, not over something as trivial as the bloody marking, especially since he hadn't actually planned on her doing it after Granger's time turner was revoked. (He'd only forced her do it in the first place to fill some of her excessive free time...and to make the point that he could.) She'd simply assumed he'd have a price in mind for his cooperation with her little scheme, so he'd taken advantage of the moment.

Truthfully, if she'd warned him ahead of time, he probably wouldn't have objected to her taking Potter away from Petunia at all. Yes, it was potentially problematic to have his fate tied to the sinking ship that was Albus Dumbledore's political career — he would have objected to her tricking the Old Goat into thinking the boy was dead — but it seemed most of the criticisms of him focused on his more recent decisions, with the implication that his years were finally getting to him. The trust he had placed in Severus nearly thirteen years ago, vouching for him as a spy for the Light, had yet to come under fire — presumably because Severus had made efforts to demonstrate that that trust was not misplaced. He'd spent innumerable hours since the end of the war building up his reputation as a useful member of society, the closest thing he could get to a degree of security against the possibility of being chucked back into Azkaban if the bastard who had lured him into his current state of indefinite servitude under false pretenses — and, further, failed to keep his end of their agreement — choked to death on a fucking lemon drop.

So, since he personally had yet to be negatively impacted by the fallout, Severus couldn't even say he was particularly annoyed about the whole thing. Removing Lily's son from an abusive muggle home was, he had ultimately decided, worth the hours he'd spent in a panic upon realising the boy's disappearance.

Of course, he would still have to object to her breaking their deal, if only for the look of the thing. "It does not, however, invalidate our agreement."

"Oh, come on, you don't need me to do it! Besides, Blaise said it would look weird for you to have an actual, qualified teaching assistant, and still make a random fourth-year do the marking anyway." Traitor. Not that Severus was surprised — about Zabini telling her that this was a good reason for Severus to let her off the hook, or that she'd needed to be told in the first place. "And keeping it quiet that I am doing your marking wasn't part of the deal, so people will find out. Plus I'll be busy with the Tournament, so."

Severus groaned. "Don't tell me you're actually going to enter that ridiculous contest. Did altering the judges' panel not offer enough potential disruption to the upcoming year for your tastes?"

"Are you kidding? A, there's no such thing, and B, all I did was invite judges who wouldn't automatically give the Cup to Britain. Besides, winning this thing is practically a family tradition by this point."

Severus chose not to comment on the idea that the House of Black had a tradition of winning the Triwizard Tournament, mostly because he couldn't bring himself to doubt it — it sounded exactly absurd enough to be true. "You do realise that the I.C.W. is sending a neo-Grindelwaldian race traitor as their representative? To Albus Dumbledore's school. In Britain."

"Well, I knew he married into a veela clan. And I think they prefer neo-Gemeenschoppist. But he's a diplomat, he can't be that offensive. I'm really looking forward to seeing Cassie Lovegood's face when she realises Miskatonic is sending Angel Black, though."

That name meant nothing to him, aside from the fact that the girl was potentially related to one of the judges. Presumably distantly. Obviously it was unlikely that Cassie would get on with any representative from Miskatonic — their researchers weren't all dark mages, but they did all at least tolerate the presence of a small minority of individuals whose work was only ethical when good was defined as contributing to the development of the body of collective knowledge — but he couldn't imagine she would like this Angel Black less than Dumbledore or Delacour would. Especially since he was almost certain Dumbledore was not expecting a representative from Miskatonic. He had mentioned that Flamel would be joining Cassie and Delacour on the panel (despite ostensibly being dead), but not a bloody thing about the fucking University sending someone. He raised an eyebrow in a silent question.

"Ah... You know about the House of Black in the Sixteenth Century? How pretty much everyone was violently insane?" He nodded warily. Granted, the Blacks hadn't been terribly influential during that period — it wasn't exactly the sort of thing Bagshot had included in the textbooks Binns used — but Regulus Black had tutored Severus in History in exchange for help with Potions, which meant Severus's understanding of the history of Magical Britain was a bit more Black-centric than the standard Hogwarts curriculum. "Yeah, well, Angel is one of those Blacks. She's dedicated to the Dark like I'm dedicated to Eris."

Fuck. "Yes, I expect that will be problematic." That might have been the single greatest understatement he'd ever made.

Did he not already have enough to worry about? Personally, he thought that Potter's visions of Barty Crouch returning to the Dark Lord — Severus was almost certain the twinges he'd been feeling from the Mark over the past week weren't only in his head (he thought the thing was even starting to darken again, these past three days) — and Dora running off to play Black Cloaks with Moody and probably get herself killed when they finally caught up with the Blackheart — the senior Bellatrix hadn't responded to the letter he'd asked her alter-ego to forward, though he had received several letters from Tonks which, reading between the lines, assured him that they were nowhere near catching up to their quarry, at least for now — and the changes to the Tournament that he'd already known about and the ongoing tensions with Dumbledore were quite enough to be getting on with. But no. Apparently not.

He was going to die, he realised. Before the end of her tenure here at Hogwarts, the junior Bellatrix was going to drive him into an early grave.

"Are you trying to get us all killed?"

"No? Why would I...?"

"Oh, I don't know, but you do realise that Dumbledore and Lovegood are both going to want to kill this black mage of yours — I presume she won't be inclined to let them — Dumbledore's going to want Delacour deported for his politics, Delacour is politically obligated to object to the presence of any representative from Miskatonic, and everyone thinks Flamel is already dead?"

"Yes... I don't see how that would end in anyone actually dying, though. Well, unless they decide to send the Aurors after Angel, but Dora's safe on the Continent, so."

Yes, so safe, out there with a paranoid old man trying to hunt down the most dangerous person Severus had ever met. At least she wouldn't be killed by this particular mad Black. Thank the gods for small favors, he thought sarcastically.

"I guess it's possible Dumbledore might lose it like Trelawney. Still wish I could've seen that — is it true she tried to kill herself?"

"No, you sadistic little monster. She believes she has been cursed with the power to control life and death and Fate Itself, but she's not suicidal." At least not now that she knew that she hadn't accidentally killed Potter.

The sadistic little monster in question stuck her tongue out at him. "Oh, like you have any room to talk. You could've stopped me. You thought it was funny."

He shrugged. What was he going to say? It was true, after all. He wouldn't have destroyed Sybil's mind himself, but he was hardly going to complain about the loss of the wine-soaked fraud. She was the one who'd made the prophecy that had started the whole fucking chain of events leading to Lily's death. And yes, it had been fairly amusing to watch — Sybil's reaction to that bit of glamoury the junior Bellatrix had used to make it appear that he was wearing yellow was, quite frankly, the funniest thing he'd seen in years.

"Is she going to be back next year? Or has Dumbles finally pulled his head out of his arse and sacked her?"

Severus was entirely unable to suppress a snort of annoyed exasperation. Bloody stupid question. "Of course she's not going to be back, she's delusional!"

"Oh, is sanity a requirement to teach at Hogwarts, now?" the girl quipped. "Honestly, I would've thought Zee would focus on making sure all of the professors were actually alive first, but..." She trailed off with a rather speculative hum.

Was she... Well, there were worse ways for her to occupy herself, he supposed. (If nothing else, there was a silver lining to her entering the Tournament in that it would legitimately keep her busy, even if it did also give her more opportunities to create an international incident.) "Even you can't drive a ghost insane," he said derisively, with every intention of goading her toward the idea, if she wasn't actually considering that ridiculous project already. Of course, he wouldn't put it past her to find a way to do it, but it would certainly be more difficult than driving Sybil around the twist — she'd already been halfway there.

Bellatrix snorted. "If I wanted to get rid of Binns, I could just exorcise him. I mean, it can't be that hard. So, Trelawney's not coming back, do we know who's replacing her, yet?"

"A metamorph calling herself Shirazi."

The girl's eyes grew wide. "Are you taking the piss?"

It occurred belatedly to Severus that Flamel might not intend for the students to realise that she was in fact human, despite the fact that all of the greater fae had vanished several centuries ago. "No. Though I suppose I ought to have said peri — gods only know why, but she's chosen to masquerade as a bloody fairy for the duration of her tenure here."

She blinked at him, her head tilting to one side in confusion. "Oh, right, you're muggle-raised. Metamorphs are fae-touched — it used to be a thing, people thinking they were changelings, you know, fae masquerading as humans. Doing it the other way around is a joke, kind of. A really old one, I read once that up to half of everything we know about the fae is actually shite made up by metamorphs to fuck with people." That...did sound suspiciously like something Dora would think was hilarious, he'd have to ask her if it was true. "Though I guess she might've just wanted something different after six-hundred years of Flamels. Oh, come on," she added, in response to the raised eyebrow inviting her to explain that little deduction. "It's ridiculously improbable that some other metamorph with an interest in traditional witchcraft would show up here right after I invited Flamel to join the judges' panel. I'm right, aren't I?"

Severus rolled his eyes, consoling himself with the fact that it likely wouldn't have taken Bellatrix more than a single meeting to realise that 'Shirazi' wasn't actually a peri on her own. "I don't imagine she'll appreciate you outing her."

"As if I would. We like metamorphs, Sev. Especially when they're having everyone on about who and what they really are. Who else is new? Defense, obviously... Did Dumbles find a way to keep Hagrid on?"

"Why wouldn't Hagrid be kept on? It's not as though he let a third-year get savaged by a thrice-cursed hippogriff in one of his lessons."

It also wasn't as though there was actually much magic involved in Care of Magical Creatures. Dumbledore had argued that because of that fact, and because Hagrid had decades of experience actually caring for magical creatures, he ought to be considered a qualified instructor, even if he wasn't actually a qualified wizard. He'd passed the practical exam the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures used to certify their field agents over the summer, and the Department of Education had signed off on his simply following the curriculum Kettleburn had designed last year, which meant that yes, the gentle giant would be retaining his position come September (though there would be an additional instructor brought on to ensure that the students could, in fact, pass their OWLs and NEWTs).

She snorted. "So are you responsible for making Care all lame? Probably should've guessed. You're an arse, you know that?"

"I daresay as many people have called me an arse as have called you insane," he noted. "I simply reminded Hagrid that the average human child is far less resilient than you. If it had been young Draco who was injured, Hagrid would have been lucky to avoid another stay in Azkaban." If he'd been killed, Narcissa probably would have demanded the half-giant's head — and, knowing her, gotten it. "The curriculum was always rather lame, as you put it. Cassie will be covering Defense. Filius has chosen two apprentices, one of whom will likely cover your year's lessons." The Charms Professor had decided to keep the first and second years to ensure they had a solid foundation, and the OWL and NEWT students, leaving third and fourth years to make do with teaching assistants.

"What! That bastard! I was actually going to go to his theory lessons this year!"

Severus raised an eyebrow at the annoyed outburst.

The girl pouted at him. "He made me cast a Cheering Charm."

"So..." Yes, Severus could imagine that had been unpleasant for her, but what it had to do with her attending lessons, he had no idea.

"So, he was making a point about me just showing up for the practical parts of his lessons and not knowing what the hell was going on when I agreed to help with the demonstration. So I was going to actually go and make a point about not making me sit through boring, childishly oversimplified theory lectures. I mean, I didn't actually want to go, but— Never mind. You were saying, about the apprentices? Are they all teaching lessons?"

"Septima and Aurora have each chosen one. I don't believe they intend to hand over their actual classroom duties, but you may still see them assisting in lessons." Ashe had decided that none of her applicants had the sort of potential which would make them worth the effort of taking on a formal apprentice. All of them would likely become perfectly adequate enchanters or artificers or wardcrafters, but they were all, in her words, depressingly conventional. Severus considered this a promising indication that he might be able to enlist her in his campaign to keep the junior Bellatrix too busy to wreak havoc on the school at large — after all, she could hardly be considered conventional. He really ought to suggest that to Ashe, though probably after the first week of lessons, give her a chance to actually meet the girl first.

"And you? I know you were working on lesson plans when I came in, you have to have picked someone."

Nosey brat. "I am considering my options."

He had it narrowed down to five candidates: one young potions master Severus had met at a conference (he was, in fact, almost the same age as Severus, but he'd earned his mastery only two years ago) he would almost certainly bring on, with the intent to hire him as a junior professor when Dumbledore finally allowed him to do so (assuming he didn't prove himself an insufferable idiot in the meanwhile); one older witch who was currently employed as an apothecary; two exceptional potions students, one of whom had gotten a perfect NEWT score, and the other of whom had barely passed, and that only because she'd managed to find three different short-cuts in the practical that even Severus hadn't noticed until she'd done it; and a homeschooled Irish boy who hadn't yet taken his OWLs, but wanted to become an alchemist, and had been advised to establish a firm foundation in potions first.

He could only take three of them — even if one already had his own Mastery, and only wanted to get some teaching experience and for Severus to direct him in developing a specialisation in healing — so he'd determined to bring them in for face-to-face interviews over the course of the next week. He had already decided that they would take classes on a rotating basis, so that he could keep an eye on all of the students' progress (though obviously if he did end up taking on the Irish boy, the schedule he'd laid out would need to be adjusted accordingly).

"But you are going to pick someone."

"Yes, Bellatrix, I am going to pick someone."

"And that someone is going to do your marking."

Severus sighed. "I suppose. They, at least, will have some incentive to do the job properly."

"Hey! I did a great job! No one even noticed it wasn't you insulting them in the margins!"

"And I'm sure you would have continued to do such an exemplary job without the threat of losing Granger's time turner hanging over you."

"Wh– Well... I mean, I guess I could have..."

Severus's hand rose to the bridge of his nose almost automatically. "Are you honestly telling me it hadn't occurred to you to simply do the job so poorly that I would take it away from you?"

"Er...not really? You may have noticed, I'm not good at being bad at things on purpose and, assuming you always set the same essays, I already did all the research I needed to last year, so it's not like it would be difficult, or even take that long compared to the first time." She shrugged. "Mostly it's just really tedious, and I imagine not even having to do any research would make it even more tedious, and most kids are painfully bad writers. I'm not really sure how you stand it."

Alcohol, mostly.

"But I probably would've started setting idiots on fire before I fucked up on purpose."

Severus winced at the memories evoked by that casual reminder of the senior Bellatrix's approach to teaching. Honestly, everyone thought he was bad, but he had in fact seen more than one idiot set on fire (and worse) in the course of his initial training as a Death Eater recruit. "Well in that case, I suppose, yes, I'll assign someone else do the marking, purely in the interests of student safety."

"Great, now that's settled, do you have any idea how to get this thing open?" she asked, plucking a small, round, silver box out of the air between them and sliding it across his desk.

Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be engraved with a complex design of frolicking animals — and enchanted with containment magics, but it wasn't obviously cursed, and the latch, when he prodded it with a single finger, opened easily. "Is this some kind of trick?"

"What? No, not the pyxis, the—" She grabbed the thing back, snatched a golden necklace from it, and casually tossed it at his face. "This."

He barely managed to catch it, snagging the chain awkwardly from the air leaving the attached locket — heavy gold and...were those emeralds? — swinging wildly before him, twisting and spinning so that it took a moment for him to realise... "Is this a horcrux?"

Because there was a creepy, pulsing sort of feel to the spells on the thing, almost like the beating of a tiny magical heart, and he could feel a mind, or... Not quite a mind, perhaps, or at least not one entirely human, but something was definitely using mind magic to reach out to him, the most subtle of touches, attempting to find a way past his defenses without alerting him to its presence — not quite subtly enough, but certainly sufficient to warn him against using the same method to inspect it.

"Yep. Got it from one of the Black elves. Apparently Reggie stole it from a fucking death trap." Reggie— Regulus? But...

Severus knew he'd been quickly disillusioned about the War after his induction, knew he'd been having doubts, that he'd wanted to leave, knew that Bellatrix had made an example of his body, burning it before them all — she'd said he'd betrayed the Dark Lord, been killed by him... But Severus had thought the stupid boy had simply tried to run away or defect to avoid the harsh truths of war, not...

"Would've been completely badass if he hadn't been stupid and got caught by said trap, but I suppose we can't all be cursebreakers." She shrugged, as unconcerned as ever.

"He was a recruiter," Severus found himself saying, rather woodenly. "One of the best. Charming, manipulative bastard." He'd also been one of the few mages Severus had ever considered a friend. He had always been a bit naïve about the Cause, young and idealistic. Cynical about people in general, and a consummate liar — he'd been raised to be a subtle manipulator, the sort of man who influenced opinion rather than leading from the fore, and he was good at it — but much of his success was owed to the fact that he did legitimately believe in the Revolution, passionately. Any affection he might have shown for the objects of his assignments had almost certainly been entirely fabricated, but he hadn't just been parrotting the Dark Lord's rhetoric as he worked to turn hearts and minds among their peers.

Severus, who had joined the Death Eaters in the cohort before Regulus's, had tried to warn him — tell him what it was like to live the war, rather than to support it from the sidelines as the young Black had all his life — but he had never stood a chance at dissuading him. Bellatrix had been his hero and protector, the cousin he had always looked up to now become his Lady — he would have followed her through the gates of hell.

In a sense, he had. He'd joined the Death Eaters just after his seventeenth birthday, and was dead four months later, his only legacy a scorch mark on the marble floor of the Dark Lord's Court.

And, apparently...this. Severus glared at the bauble, strung on its chain.

"Yeah, well, he was a Black. Being a charming, manipulative bastard kind of comes with the territory, you know, deception and all. And we don't do anything halfway, either — when he decided to fuck Riddle over, he went big. Unfortunately, Riddle's not an idiot. Reggie ordered the elf that gave that thing to me to destroy it, but it's fucking impenatrable. I'm guessing he inscribed the enchantments on the inside, so we'd have to get it open to kill it. And I haven't been able to figure out how. I mean, I assume he did leave a back door for himself, just in case he ever needed it, but..."

"So what do you expect me to do with it? Go drop it into Mount Doom?" Really, there had to be some way to destroy the thing — it was impossible to make something actually indestructible, magic simply wouldn't allow it. It was simply a matter of finding the weak spot. "We can't all be cursebreakers, you know."

She sighed. "There are things I haven't tried yet, I've only had it for a month or so. An unmaking ritual would almost definitely work — Death and Destruction go hand in hand, and Death doesn't like people trying to avoid it. But I don't want to completely destroy it. I mean, Reggie died for it, the least we could do is keep it as a trophy after we deal with the horcrux. And what if there's something neat in there? Plus we kind of need it to track down the rest of him. Red thinks there's at least three others out there somewhere, and the impression of his soul is protected from being used like that as long as it's in there, so."

Pinching the bridge of his nose did nothing to alleviate the Black-induced headache developing behind his eyes. (It never did, really.) Severus scowled. "You do realise that your counterpart almost certainly knows exactly what methods the Dark Lord used to secure his immortality? You could simply ask her."

"No, that would be telling. She said she's not going to stop me killing Not-Professor Riddle, but she's not helping, either, so I'll figure it out myself, damn it. Or, well, I won't ask her, at least," she amended herself immediately, apparently realising that she was currently asking Severus for help.

Though he still had no idea what she expected him to do with it. "I repeat: I am not the cursebreaker, here."

"No, but you are a mind mage. And so is Riddle. And that thing is definitely trying to get into our heads—"

"You knew that and you thought you'd just throw it at me anyway?" Severus interrupted. He'd assumed she hadn't even noticed the mental assault, given her natural occlumency.

"Obviously? Why do you think I was keeping it in a containment box? It tickles. I assume you're capable of avoiding getting possessed trying to talk to it, but if I'm wrong, by all means, throw it back in the box."

Severus just stared at her, wondering if she realised how ridiculous that notion was — talking to a bloody horcrux, especially directly. It wasn't unheard of for mages to preserve their consciousness in such a vessel specifically to pass on their knowledge to the next generation or six, but not through direct mental contact. "Why the fuck would I open my defenses to this thing at all?"

"Er... Because Riddle's a mind mage, and that thing has to have some intelligence. It could control the enchantments from the inside — that could be his back door, just asking the thing to let him in if he ever needed to get into it for whatever reason."

"No."

"But—"

"No, Bellatrix. Even if this thing is capable of deciding to drop its defenses — which I doubt — it has no incentive to do so, given that it would know I am not Riddle. And while I may be capable of keeping it out of my mind entirely, I have no desire to enter into a legilimency battle for control over my body, so I will not be establishing contact with it. Just do your ritual, melt the thing to bloody slag, and have done with it," he advised her, dropping it unceremoniously into the velvet-lined box and flipping the lid shut, immediately cutting off the subtle pressure it had been exerting on his mind. "We'll find some other way to locate the remaining three." Like capture the wraith and use that as the focus of their tracking charm, now that it was no longer in hiding.

"Why would you doubt it?"

"What?"

"You said you'd doubt the horcrux could control its own defenses. Why?"

"Because, Riddle would hardly have wanted to rely on the cooperation of anyone else, even another version of himself, if it became necessary to alter one of his anchors for some reason. Whatever back door he left for himself, assuming he did leave one, that wouldn't be it."

She glared at the box, sitting so innocuously between them. "Well, what would be, then? Because he's not stupid enough to lock himself out of his own wards, which is basically what that would be."

"How the bloody hell should I know? I'm simply telling you that the Dark Lord would have been more likely to use the Slytherin dorm password to lock that thing than he would be to trust any version of himself to cooperate in lowering its own defenses, simply because he asked it to."

The girl raised an eyebrow at him as though uncertain whether he was serious before shrugging and flipping the box open. She hissed the password at the thing — Severus was fairly certain it just meant open. Predictably, nothing happened. "I don't think that was it. Any other ideas?"

Severus was hard pressed not to laugh at her deadpan delivery, even knowing that she had legitimately misinterpreted his facetious suggestion. The fact that she was entirely serious only made it more amusing, really. "That was sarcasm, Bellatrix. You may safely assume that I have no other ideas."

"It's hard to tell when everything you say sounds sarcastic," she snapped, sounding almost defensive, herself.

He sighed. "I still think the best option is to simply kill the thing and move on."

"No. I'm going to figure it out!" She snatched the box away and shoved it back into empty space, pouting at him.

If he didn't know better, Severus would think the horcrux had managed to gain some influence over her, just enough that she would protect it rather than destroy it, but he doubted Eris would allow such a thing. This was just Bellatrix being a stubborn, petulant child. "I'll let you know if I think of anything."

The girl's stubborn annoyance was eclipsed by a satisfied grin. "Brill. See you in a few weeks, then!"

She vanished before he could offer a response (something along the lines of I should be so lucky), leaving him to plan his lessons — and, more importantly, his strategy for dealing with the inevitable problems that the presence of a Miskatonic researcher dedicated to the Dark Itself would create over the course of the coming year. He had no intention of wasting a single second trying to guess how to break open Riddle's precious horcrux. He half suspected there was no back door. While it might seem rather hubristic not to include one, Riddle had always had an absurd degree of confidence in his own work, even before he began to lose his mind — it wasn't out of the question that he had locked it up with no intention of ever needing to unlock it, in which case a back door would be an "unnecessary" weakness in the thing's defenses.

So. It would probably help if he had any idea who this Angel Black was. Perhaps Anomos would know whether she'd published anything he might have a look at, just to get her measure...

Yes, a trip to the Bookshop sounded like a much more appealing option than spending the next few hours trying to focus on writing out lesson plans, he decided, throwing his quill into the inkpot again. It wasn't as though he could concentrate on anything so mundane at the moment, anyway.

(That girl was going to be the death of him, he just knew it.)


On the edge of the Delacour compound at the heart of the enclave, situated on private clan land but with its main entrance opening into a public street, was a rather disorderly little shop. A small storefront, a bit over a hundred square metres, littered with all manner of enchanted paraphernalia. Most of the space was taken up with ordinary, everyday items — cutlery and crockery, belts and hats and gloves, simple jewelry, that sort of thing — and a few shelves of bottles stacked high and stocked deep, everything from basic healing potions to cosmetics.

Most of the enchantments and potions were designed by the proprietor, of course, but Régis knew she hadn't actually made them — Lise would say, with that dry drawl of hers, that was what apprentices were for. Some of the items were her work, though they were largely display pieces, an example of custom services on offer. There was a bit about warding, advertising the different schemes available, but without any actual wardstones (after all, if the script were hanging out for anyone to see they'd be useless); there was a small selection of weapons laid out, mostly blades long and short (Lise was one of the few humans permitted to study the traditional weapons used by the mezedaj); there was a rack of clothing, the synthetic silk shimmering in the sunlight, notes listing options varying from animated patterns to thorough protective enchantments.

Lise was perhaps most known for her skill as a blood alchemist, though naturally that wasn't something one could sell off the shelf. There was a board on the wall, with descriptions of services offered, in some cases accompanied by photos of previous patients, showing off results. Some options were rather frivolous — permanently altering hair or eye or skin colour was a frequent use of blood alchemy — but even some cosmetic ones were a bit...involved, because people could be eccentric sometimes. There were also a litany of medical procedures, treatments for everything from genetic or birth defects, to fertility issues, to sex reassignment, to a long list of cancers and degenerative diseases. The list was slightly longer than the last time Régis had checked, but it always was — Lise never stopped researching and experimenting.

But, as dense and busy as the little shop was, Régis still picked out his daughter instantly. It was rather difficult to miss a veela, after all.

"Papa!" Springing up from her seat behind the counter, Gabbie skipped across the shop, silver-blonde hair and light blue-white dress drifting behind her, and threw herself into his arms.

Tipped back a step by the impact (exaggerated a little for effect), he held the hyperactive girl for a moment, chuckling under his breath. And stubbornly pushing back at the hot and silky-smooth veela magic tingling at the edge of his mind — Gabbie would be fourteen in a few weeks, at that age when her magic had gained that overwhelming, seductive quality to it, but hadn't yet the experience to stop it from leaking all over the place. His girls hadn't seemed to mind, the handful of times he'd slipped around them — hardly seemed to notice, in fact, as he had enough self-control to not make an idiot of himself even then — but it was for his comfort more than theirs.

"What are you doing here? Oh!" Gabbie started a bit, pulled back to look up at him. Compared against her sister, Gabbie took rather more after their mother, round-cheeked and wide-eyed, but with a tiny little button nose that was all her own. A wet shimmer in her bright yellow-orange eyes — apparently a veela thing, it was common among the People — she said, "I don't mean it's bad! I just, I thought you'd be at work."

"Well, yes, but I thought I'd come visit for lunch. Why, should I not have?"

Gabbie grinned. "No, that's okay. I should tell Auntie Lise I'm going first, though."

"Go put some shoes on and I'll talk to her quick." He'd noticed Gabbie was barefoot, which wasn't a surprise at all — she almost always was, in the clan compound or indoors anywhere else. He wouldn't bother, but the public areas of the enclave weren't quite so well-maintained, it wasn't out of the question she could step on something unpleasant.

The silly little girl made a face at him, but didn't argue. "'Kay, back in a minute." Gabbie retreated back a step and, in a hot burst of yellow-orange flames, vanished.

A second later, there was a high tinkle of metal hitting tile. Régis followed the sound, then chuckled to himself — it wasn't overly difficult to enchant clothing and jewelry to come with their wearer through that fire-walking thing the People could do, but he recalled these earrings had been a birthday gift from one of her school friends, likely hadn't been intended for veela. Gabbie must have forgotten. He stooped over to pick up the pair of little glittering butterflies before walking over to the door in the back.

Lise's office was something of a low-key mess, but Régis would expect nothing else — his cousin(-in-law) could be more than a bit scatter-brained at times. The shelves were packed, books and binders and folders and even loose papers crammed in from floor to ceiling all along three walls, seemingly at random. Her desk was nearly covered in papers and inkwells, paperweights in the form of blank wardstones and bits of metal etched with glyphs holding down stacks here and there. A red scarf fringed with white was hanging from the curtain rod, under it a pair of boots, one tipped over onto its side.

Spotting a pair of tights thrown carelessly against one of the shelves, Régis felt a smirk twitch at his lips. The rest wasn't so unusual, but that was certainly out of the ordinary. He could only assume Chloé — Appoline's cousin and Lise's wife — had dropped in at some point this morning, and Lise had neglected to put them back on.

The room was rather more occupied than Régis had expected, Lise apparently meeting with her apprentices and journeymen — they came and went with enough regularity Régis only recognised Doriane, Lise and Chloé's eldest, a grown woman now. Lise was reclined in her chair, bare feet crossed on a corner of her desk, a folder propped up open on her thighs. (Her skirt looked roughly knee-length, so yes, those tights were probably today's.) Her short black hair was its usual untameable mess, her sharp face in its stern lecture mode, age just starting to show at the corners of her eyes — she was nearly fifty now, which was still comparatively young for a witch, but she was starting to get up there.

The conversation between Lise and her students/employees, something about scheduling the blood alchemy rituals and custom enchanting projects they'd arranged over the next couple weeks, petered out as they realised they had company. "Oh, Régis. Did you need something?" She still had the slightest trace of a British accent, though less noticeable than it'd been when first they'd met. Lise had married into the Delacours a handful of years ahead of Régis — she'd been in his wedding party, in fact — but she'd been relatively new to the Continent at the time.

"I was taking Gabbie out to lunch, if you can spare her."

"Oh, sure, go ahead. Don't bother closing up the shop behind you, I think we're almost done here."

"Right. Have fun, everyone." He was sent out with a chorus of you too, Mister Delacours and one piss off, Uncle, shut the door behind him with a low chuckle — Lise had been a terrible influence on Doriane, it was kind of adorable.

He only had to wait a few more seconds before there was another flash of fire, dissipating to reveal Gabbie standing in the middle of the room, now with the addition of sandals, thin leather straps winding nearly up to her knee. (She'd probably prefer something smaller and simpler, but if there were too little to them they'd end up flying off at some point.) "Okay, ready to go?"

"Yep. You dropped these, by the way," he said, holding out his hand, her abandoned earrings glinting in his palm.

Gabbie blinked, lips curving in a silent oh. "Dammit, I keep doing that," she groaned, plucking one out of his hand, picked off the back and started sticking it back in. "I should ask Auntie Lise to enchant them for me. I don't want to lose them, they're Cvétka's and they're pretty!"

That would be possible, but not very easy — metal was harder to fix to carry through veela fire than cloth or leather, and these things were rather small, the glyphs would have to be tiny. Régis noticed Gabbie was still struggling to get the back onto the stud, fumbling and glaring sightlessly at a wall. "Did you want help with that?" He knew Appoline or Fleur usually had to help her with her earrings if there wasn't a mirror on hand, she was hopeless without one.

Gabbie pouted up at him, her lips getting that adorable little sideways quirk of hers. "Yes, please."

Régis ruffled her hair a bit before moving to help, which just made her pout harder, but it only took him a handful of seconds to get both of the little butterflies back in their places. He did have practice at it, after all — Appoline had a bad habit of drifting off with them still in, and when they'd been little he'd helped Fleur and Gabbie both with theirs more times than he could count. (The things he picked up raising girls.) Straightening her hair with a few gentle swipes of his fingers, he smiled. "There we go. Come on."

The veela and the lilin — the People of the Song, as they called themselves — had their own history stretching back millennia, their own language and traditions. As much as they might partially integrate into the local culture, they did always retain certain quirks of their own. One of these was a rather more communal sense of property than humans tended to default to. Lise, for example, she only charged outsiders for her products and services — though she often waived the fee for medical things, if the person in question had the need but not the means. On the other hand, residents of the enclave, be they veela or lilin or human, didn't have to pay at all. It was the assumption here that people would take as they needed and give as they could, they were all in it together. To them, this wasn't even something that needed to be remarked upon. It was simply how things worked.

No matter how foreign and strange the way the People did things had seemed at first, it was one of the things that had first captivated Régis about them — despite what some of his more vulgar colleagues suggested, his love for Appoline had come after he'd grown to admire the People, not the other way around.

A good example of the ordinary way of things here was what became of the fountain square at lunchtime. At the centre of the compound was a largely open space, tile glittering in the sunlight, occasionally broken with bushes and trees, the air cooled with fountains dotting the clearing. Every day, a number of the locals would set up cookfires and iceboxes, food and drink prepared and laid out for any who wanted it. Exactly what was on offer shifted day to day, depending on who had come out to cook this time or what happened to be in season, sometimes preparing too much or too little to feed all who came (though, in the latter case more volunteers usually made up the difference). It wasn't precisely a dependable or efficient system, but Régis rather liked the random, organic nature of it, the square turned into a miniature festival for a few hours every day, never the exact same thing twice.

Of course, veela cuisine was a bit...odd, by most European standards. The People seemed to prefer seafood and fruit (especially berries) — while grains and beans and fowl turned up often enough, vegetables were seriously underrepresented, and he wasn't certain he'd ever seen a veela eat beef or pork even once. And everything was so damn sweet, even sauces and stews that didn't appear to be at first glance, he had to be careful serving himself or he could end up with something he couldn't even stomach.

He could only assume their metabolism was different from humans' — if it weren't probably half of them would be overweight or diabetic.

Scooping himself a portion of a raisin and almond pilaf he knew was edible, he staked out a spot on the edge of one of the fountains, somewhat removed from the rest of the attendees. (The People were very friendly, but he did have something he needed to talk to Gabbie about, it wouldn't do to be interrupted.) He only had to wait a few moments before she came flouncing over, and he failed to hold in a cringe when he saw her lunch — shrimp and berries (currants, cherries, and bilberries, looked like) in a thick glaze, and a crêpe with honeyed strawberries and a dusting of powdered sugar.

Though he knew other veela would think it a perfectly fine meal, Régis would be very sick if he tried to eat that. The food was probably his least favourite thing about living with the People.

Partially in an effort to distract himself from Gabbie's lunch, he asked, "So, have you heard from Cvétka lately?"

"Oh, er, no, not for like a week now." Gabbie paused, plucking a shrimp and a few berries off her plate — with her fingers, it apparently hadn't occurred to her to look for utensils. (Silly girl, that glaze was going to stain her fingers something awful.) "Cvétka and Dragí and their family went on holiday, somewhere in the middle of nowhere up the mountains over there, they said they'd be out of owl range for a little bit. They invited me to come with but, um..." She trailed off, popping another berry in her mouth and looking rather sheepish.

"You'd get tired, I know." As a consequence of the changes that had been made to them eons ago, the People needed to take energy from other people to survive — they fed off the minds of other beings, in much the same way vampires fed off their blood (though neither race much appreciated the comparison). They needn't necessarily hurt anyone, but they both needed more and had less control over the process when they were young, which was an awful combination.

A grown woman like Appoline could sustain herself off of Régis alone without too much difficulty, though even at her age they still brought in a third occasionally, if it was starting to drag at Régis too much. (The People didn't need to sleep with the person to get what they needed from them, but they generally preferred to.) A young veela like Gabbie, so soon after meeting the sky (a sort of magical metamorphosis thing, so far as he understood), it would be much too easy for her to seriously hurt someone. Even if she spread herself across both Cvétka and Dragí — which was something Régis preferred not to think about, his baby girl having threesomes with her schoolmates, but such were veela — it would still be possible to take too much, if she slipped. The People could be quite dangerous at this age, to people who couldn't protect themselves.

Régis hesitated a moment, wondering if he should ask if she were doing okay — he did worry, even if he wasn't entirely comfortable knowing the details. But he was sure she was fine. He'd seen veela who weren't getting enough before, it was always very obvious. "I'm sorry we couldn't go anywhere this year, love. It's just been so busy at work, with this Tournament business coming up..."

Chewing at another shrimp, Gabbie frowned at him for a moment, probably wondering why exactly the Triwizard Tournament should have anything to do with him. (It shouldn't, ordinarily.) She shrugged it off after a second. "That's okay, I know how these things go sometimes. If you're busy, you're busy, that's not really your fault. Besides, Auntie Lise has been letting me mind the shop all summer, and even letting me help with some of the enchanting sometimes!"

"Wow, really? I thought you were a little young for that kind of work." Régis had known about this already — Lise had confirmed he and Appoline were comfortable with it first, with assurances she wouldn't let Gabbie touch anything too volatile — but there was no good reason not to play along. "You are being careful, aren't you?"

Gabbie rolled her eyes. "Obviously, Papa, I'm not stupid."

"I didn't say you were, love, that's just advanced work for someone your age."

"If I were coming up with the script myself, maybe, but I'm just scratching into things what Auntie Lise tells me to. It's not hard. Dorrie keeps trying to give me her easy work," Gabbie said, pouting at her absent cousin, "but it's still fun, and Auntie Lise keeps giving me stuff to read about enchanting and stuff, and she says if I keep up on my Potions and Transfiguration we can start doing blood magic next summer!"

That was news to him — either Lise was just trying to keep the excitable girl occupied so she could get anything done this summer, or she was already grooming Gabbie for an apprenticeship years ahead of time. Which, that was perfectly fine, Lise was brilliant and well-respected in her field and Gabbie could certainly do far worse than study under her favourite aunt. Twisting his lips into a smirk, "I guess you haven't showed her your Transfiguration marks, have you?"

"They're not that bad! That class was just so boring this year, Mister Sartini was awful. But I'll work on it if Lise'll teach me, that blood alchemy stuff she does is so cool."

"Oh, it is all very neat, even if I don't know what she's talking about half the time." Academic types like Lise always gave him a headache if they went on too long. "But it looks like you've already started a bit on blood magic yourself."

Gabbie shot him a confused frown for a second, before following his gaze to her own hand. "Oh, that." Yes, that — the glaze from her lunch had already thoroughly stained her thumb and first two fingers an obvious red, shading into purple at the tips. Her lips quirked in annoyance, but then she shrugged, popped another berry into her mouth. "If blood is always this yummy I owe Evi an apology."

Régis laughed.

Over the next minutes, Gabbie rambled on as she was like to do, broken only by occasional bites of her lunch. The rate she was going at it, Régis could hardly get a word in edgewise. Not that he'd expected much else — Gabbie had always been a strange, hyperactive child, he was long since accustomed to this. (Several in the clan had suggested this had something to do with Gabbie being half-lilin, but Régis couldn't say, he hadn't met but a few.) He was perfectly happy to listen, throwing in the occasional question or joke, slowly wearing away at his pilaf.

Things she'd been learning with Lise and her students, and enchanting was just so cool, even if the actual carving of the things was very tedious. Going on a long tangent about a couple of her friends in the compound, eventually leading to a (human) boy attached to one of the lilin clans somehow. (The People needed humans to survive, a significant proportion of the clans was and always had been human — though the language used to describe them was somewhat different than that for ones who'd married in, like Régis or Lise, it was complicated.) This boy was, apparently, very funny and very handsome and just all around awesome, and yesterday she'd been invited to a party (read: orgy) she'd known he would be at, but she hadn't gone, because she liked him (it was easier for veela to slip and hurt people they actually had feelings for), and yes, she knew she was being smart and responsible and everything, and she definitely didn't want to accidentally hurt anyone with her weird veela sex magic stuff, but it was still sad, she wished she didn't have to avoid him so much. That was a good thing about Evi, she guessed, she didn't really have especially squishy feelings for her — she liked her, of course, but just kind of in a friend way — but vampires were a lot less...fragile than humans were, she didn't have to worry about breaking Evi. Ooh, that reminded her, they'd been talking, and Evi was wondering if she could come visit for a few days, but that might be rather complicated, what with vampires and sunlight and all, it might not be safe for Evi to come here. Maybe Auntie Lise could set up some wards ahead of time, it was possible to filter out the parts of sunlight that hurt them, some of the newer buildings and all the little gazebos across campus had them in. But Mamie might not like having a vampire in the house, people could be very racist about them sometimes, she should probably ask first... Oh, speaking of some people being very racist, Fleur had decided to go along with the group to Britain, but of course she did, Fleur was great, she was way cleverer than everyone else Gabbie had heard was going, she had a really good shot at winning. Just, not going, because the British were dumb and mean, that was just silly, and it would kinda be letting them win without even playing, and that just wasn't right, obviously the right thing to do was to go and show them how stupid they were right in their stupid faces, and it was kind of sad Fleur wouldn't be at school, but younger family and friends were allowed to go along — professors were coming to keep up their studies, don't worry, she wasn't going to fall behind — and that might be interesting, to go somewhere that wasn't another commune somewhere else, she didn't really go out into solely human spaces very often, that could be interesting, and—

"Gabbie love, I—" Régis cut off with a sigh, frowning up at the sky for a second. He just knew she wasn't going to take this well. Setting aside his empty bowl quick, he turned more fully toward her — which was slightly awkward, sitting side-by-side on the rim of a fountain, perhaps not the best place for this conversation. "I must be honest with you, I did not come only to visit. There is something I need to talk to you about."

Gabbie had taken the opportunity of the interruption to start in on her crêpe — she was holding the thing with both hands, one end stuck in her mouth, sitting there blinking at him with her head tilted in confusion. It was unfairly adorable, but his girls were often unfairly adorable. She tore a bite off, swallowed it too quickly to have properly chewed, that was probably unpleasant. "You have serious face."

"It's about the Tournament. You see, the C.I.S. was invited to appoint a representative to the judges' panel." It had caused a bit of a stir, apparently — the CIS had been uninvolved in the planning, the event largely a British vanity project, had had virtually nothing to do with it until the president of the Council of Education and Culture had gotten a letter from someone attached to the British parliament. Cassie Lovegood had also been invited, he knew — she'd pulled out of a tournament in Sri Lanka, and recently announced she was teaching at Hogwarts for the year — but if there were more alterations nobody had told him. He had heard the girl who'd sent it was somehow involved in Dumbledore's political troubles back home, but Régis neither knew the whole story nor particularly cared to.

He hadn't quite gotten to the point yet, but nobody could say Gabrielle Delacour was slow on the uptake. Her face splitting into a bright, cheerful grin, she chirped, "They're sending you?!"

"Yes, love, they're sending me." Which, that was bloody strange, since he hadn't had much at all to do with education since he'd finished his own — he could only assume someone up the chain had decided to exile him to Britain for the year as some sort of punishment.

Everyone knew Britain was a punishment detail, cultural backwater and bigoted cesspool that it was, and Régis was well aware that he was...controversial among his peers. For decades now, ever since his early days in the diplomatic corp, as he gave too many signs of his skepticism toward the Statute of Secrecy, and increasingly over the years, as his growing sympathies for the People became more and more obvious. He assumed one of his superiors hated him, and was sending him away as punishment for some slight — his support for the Martins, perhaps, he'd known there would be consequences for that even as he'd put the words to paper.

Gabbie let out a squeal of excitement, practically bouncing in place — he hated that he had to crush her enthusiasm immediately. "You can't go to Britain, Gabbie."

Her face twisting into a pout, she whined, "I can too. They said younger kids can go with if someone entering is their sibling or friend or something, and Fleur says she's going to try."

"Yes, the school will allow you, love, but your mother and I say you cannot."

"But Papa, Fleur is going to be gone the whole year, and it'll be so—"

"No." That came out a little harsher than he'd meant it to, enough Gabbie jumped, her avian eyes going very wide. He forced out a sigh, shaking his head. "I'm sorry, love, but it's not safe. Britain is... In some ways, Britain is behind the rest of the Continent. There are things mages here have gotten past, that the British have not yet."

It only took Gabbie a second to pick up on what he meant. "They're racist, you mean."

"Yes, I mean they're racist." Honestly, they probably wouldn't be happy with him either — the same people who had problems with nonhuman beings often hated race traitors just as much — but he would be in far less danger than she.

"You know, not everyone at Beauxbatons likes veela either."

"It's worse in Britain. Much worse."

"But..." Gabbie frowned, probably trying to look firm and stubborn, but that adorable quirk in her lips softened the expression too much. "Fleur said she already asked you and Mama if she could go, and you said yes."

It probably wasn't worth explaining that he and Appoline had argued with Fleur about that for some time — neither of them wanted her to go, but Fleur had insisted she was old enough now to make her own decisions, which was fair. Gabbie, on the other hand... "Your sister is older than you, love."

The frown was gone, shifting into a plain pout. "I can take care of myself."

"Gabbie..." He gently took her hand, smiled all nice, tried to speak as soft as possible. "It is not bad, you can't help it. But you're still leaking your magic all over the place."

She grumbled, "Yeah, well, I try to hold it in, but it's really hard..."

"I know, love. And people here, at Beauxbatons, they know that. They understand that. And they know how to handle it." It helped that most schools here taught everyone the very basics of occlumency, which did help limit the effect People had somewhat — not enough to ignore it entirely, but enough to retain control of themselves. Mind magic was a dying art in Britain, he'd heard, like many forms of old witchcraft. (Most of Europe wasn't that much better, it was true, but at least they had this one.) "But over in Britain? There are no veela there, no lilin. Most British, they've probably never even met one before. They feel your magic, they might think you are attacking them somehow, on purpose. And they might hurt you, thinking they are defending themselves."

"But I wouldn't hurt anyone!"

"I know that, love, but they don't. They don't understand. And people fear what they don't understand. And sometimes, they get angry, so they don't have to feel afraid. And angry people sometimes do cruel, horrible things.

"I'm sorry, love. But it's just not safe. You can't go to Britain."

Gabbie kept pouting, orange-yellow eyes wide and bright and sad, obviously trying to sway him. He even felt a prickling of magic on the air, at a guess projecting more sympathetic feelings at him. (He didn't take offence, that was normal for the People, they did it during ordinary conversation all the time.) Not that it would matter even if he was leaving himself open to it — he did have sympathy for her position already, he understood, but they had to deal with the world as it was. He didn't want to be sent away, separated from Appoline and Gabbie and the rest of the clan for much of the year. Yes, Fleur would be there now, but he was just going to worry about her the whole time anyway, surrounded by strangers in this foreign country, one infamously hostile to her kind. If it were up to him, none of them would be going at all.

But it wasn't up to him. He'd protested to anyone who would listen, but nobody would listen, he hadn't been able to talk Fleur out of it. Gabbie, at least, she had to stay here, where she was safe. If something should happen to her...

Finally, the suddenly moody girl broke eye contact, staring up at the sky to let out a long, heavy sigh. "Fine. I get it, fine."

"You get what?" Gabbie did have a bad habit of pretending to agree to something, only to weasel out of actually giving her word so she didn't have to obey.

She understood what he was asking for immediately, rolling her eyes before facing him again. "Fine. I promise I won't go to Britain with the others. It's stupid, racist idiots are stupid, and I hate it, but fine."

"Thank you, love." Régis wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulled her into a light hug; she grumbled a little, glaring at the ground with childish disappointment, but she didn't try to pull away. "I know it isn't fair, but sometimes the world isn't fair. Perhaps, when the next one comes around, you can go." At least, he assumed they were trying to revive the thing — it used to be held once every few years, presumably the next would be at Durmstrang or Beauxbatons. "But it just isn't safe in Britain, love. I am sorry."

"Yeah, I get it. It's annoying and stupid, but I get it."

Shooting her a sad, sympathetic smile, he planted a quick kiss on her forehead, reluctantly let her go. "Now, I still have a little while before I have to get back. How about we go find some gelato quick?"

Gabbie tried to keep up her sad face, but did a very bad job of it, her unshakeable cheerfulness leaking out like sunlight from behind a cloud.


"Fuck! Stop! Fuck, fuckDamn it!"

Lyra watched helplessly as Not-Professor Riddle's horcrux burned, the ghostly, wraith-like projection screaming in fury and pain as it was transmuted into acrid, creeping death-smoke and sickly flames. She had cancelled the spell as soon as she realised that the thing was actually dying, but too late, it seemed, as the magic continued to unravel, critically damaged. I didn't mean to do that.

Eris was predictably unsympathetic. Good riddance.

Well, yeah, I mean, that's two down, but... Fucking thing didn't answer any of my questions.

And she also couldn't use it, now, to find the other soul anchors Not-Professor Riddle had floating around out there somewhere. And there hadn't even been anything neat in the bloody locket.

She threw herself back on her bed just as Harry burst into the room, wand drawn.

"Lyra? What's wrong? We heard screaming!"

"Ugh, it's nothing, Harry." She had to physically bite her tongue to stop herself snapping at him to bugger off. She was in no kind of mood to deal with him being all protective, trying to barge in and rescue her from nothing. Not that she was ever really in the mood to deal with that sort of shite, but sometimes it was easier to fake not wanting to punch someone in the face than others.

"Are you sure?" Blaise asked, half a step behind him. "Because I can't help but notice there's something dissolving the rug by your desk."

"Oh, right. Evanesco." The smoke from that particular fire-like transformation was very deadly, but heavier than air, so it would have just dripped off the table where the horcrux had been when she set it on fire.

"What is that?" Harry approached the locket, she could just see him out of the corner of one eye, poking at it with the tip of his wand. Nothing happened, of course, the only magic left would be the protective enchantments, and they were inert as long as the thing was open.

"It's a six-hundred-and-fifty-year-old Slytherin family heirloom which is now completely useless to me, because I accidentally destroyed any information it might have contained while I was trying to get it to talk."

"Oh, yes, completely useless." Blaise sounded awfully mocking, there.

"Trying to get it to talk?"

"It was...possessed. Kind of. I could explain, but it's complicated, and honestly, I'm so not in the mood."

"Yeah, well," Harry said, all serious and concerned. "It's probably just as well. You really shouldn't go fooling around with possessed shite. I mean, it could've been like that diary of Gin's, couldn't it."

"Yeah, well, I'm a bit less likely to get possessed than Gin, aren't I," she snapped, unable to keep herself from pouting up at the ceiling. Fucking stupid...

"Wait, are you saying that was..."

"Yes, Blaise, that was a horcrux. And yes, I killed it. And no, I didn't mean to. Stupid bastard kept being a smarmy dick instead of answering my fucking questions!"

"So, you..."

"So I threatened to set it on fire, and then it was still being a smug fucking arse, so obviously I had to follow through on said threat. Turns out the same fire that works on dementors also works on horcruxes. I was only trying to burn it a little, though."

She sat up to glare at the thing, only to find Harry staring at her with a very peculiar expression. "Lyra... Is there something important you've neglected to tell me?"

"I don't know, is there?"

"What the fuck is a horcrux, Lyra?" Blaise must have told him through legilimency, because before she could answer, his eyes went all wide and horrified. "God, that— That's horrible! And... That was a piece of Riddle's soul?"

"A sympathetic impression, actually, but yes." She glowered at the thing, despite knowing that the intelligence it had contained was now gone.

"How did you— Why– why didn't you tell us about this?!"

"Er...because you would've been all we have to destroy it right away like Snape, but you live with me, and therefore have more opportunity to nag me about it? Obviously?"

"Well, yeah, why the fuck wouldn't we—"

"Because there could've been something neat inside! How many times do I have to explain that?!"

"Was there?" Blaise asked, his tone rather mild in comparison to Harry's. "And how long have you had it? I presume it's been a while, if you've talked to Snape about it..."

She pouted at him. "No. But there could have been. And I've had it a few weeks. Maybe a month. Didn't get it open until I was practicing Parsel yesterday." Her visit with Snape had reminded her of it, so she'd had another go at breaking the damn thing open, left it on the desk in the hopes that inspiration might strike. It wasn't as though its aura actually bothered her. Yes, its constant attempt to infiltrate her mind was noticeable, but it couldn't get in to actually do anything to her. It kind of reminded her of hanging around the kitchens when the elves were making something with a lot of pepper in it, just constantly on the edge of sneezing (but with magic).

So it had still been out yesterday when she'd been looking through that Parsel primer she'd found at the Bookstore a while back — now that she could actually speak it (and now that the migraine she'd gotten from stealing it from Harry over the course of like fifteen minutes had finally receded), it would be neat to be able to read it, after all. She'd been going through saying words, attempting to match sound to symbol — the introduction was laid out like 'B is for ball' ("X is the symbol for the initial bit of sound/magic of the first word in the Parsel equivalent to the Latin sentence Y"), which meant a lot of saying random words in Parsel and attempting to pick out the individual sound-magic 'phonemes' which weren't nearly as distinct out of context as they seemed when she was just speaking the bloody language. Which meant the horcrux had been well within the range of her voice as she spoke the Parsel equivalent of "Clear the path" which literally, in the rather awkward Latin phrase the author had used, was open the way.

Apparently Snape's 'sarcastic' suggestion that Riddle had left a back door for himself in the form of the same bloody password that opened the secret passages at fucking Hogwarts was right, it just had to be proper, magical Parsel, which was just...positively infuriatingly, really. How the hell had she not guessed that? Well, she knew how — it was fucking stupid to use the same password for everything, and even stupider to undermine the incredibly solid protective enchantments on the fucking locket with a thrice-cursed password in the first place, even if it was a password in an obscure magical language that less than one percent of the population could actually speak!

"What's the point of having a Conspiracy to Kill Not-Professor Riddle if you don't tell us about shite like this?" Blaise asked, interrupting her annoyed mental tirade against idiots who didn't understand basic security principles. Not that she wanted to not have been able to break into the thing, but stumbling on the password just felt...cheap. (Almost as bad as asking Bella how to get into the thing, but not quite.)

"I would have—" she started to explain, but Harry cut her off.

"Conspiracy to Kill Not-Professor Riddle?"

"Er...yes? Did I..." Oh, wait, no, she wouldn't have told him that, because he didn't know that she was from another universe where Riddle was a Hogwarts professor instead of a washed-up Dark Lord. She shrugged, not in the mood to explain that any more than how horcruxes worked. (Given the two topics, she'd pick the horcruxes, honestly — the theory behind them was actually really neat.) "Riddle applied to be a teacher at Hogwarts back in Sixty-One." The same year Bella had started at the school. Not a coincidence, according to her — he had been largely at loose ends, then, with his apprentice trapped at Hogwarts most of the time, and Dippett had told him to re-apply once he had some experience both out in the world and with teaching. "Dumbledore told him to fuck off, because no one who knows anything about Dark Arts can be allowed to teach Defense, apparently, so he became a Dark Lord instead."

"How the fuck would you know that? And also, CONSPIRACY TO KILL RIDDLE? You didn't think I might want to be involved in that?!"

Fuck, Harry, so dramatically outraged... Honestly, it wasn't that big a deal, the 'conspiracy' had yet to really even do any conspiring. "Well, no, I thought I'd already mentioned it at some point. And I asked Bella about him, obviously."

Harry just stared at her, slack-jawed and dumb at what seemed a very simple explanation to her — obviously Bella knew practically everything about Riddle, and it wasn't like she was unwilling to talk about him, even if she didn't actually care about killing him — until Blaise pointed out, "You didn't tell him you've been to see Bella, either."

Well...bugger.

She was so not in the mood for this...

"Sev!"

"What god have I offended, to have your company foisted upon me twice in a span of five days, Bellatrix?"

"Shut up, you miserable bastard. You're going to come kill things with me."

"Excuse me?"

"You, me, cursebreaking mission. Lots of inferi to re-murder. Something referred to as an 'evil potion' to check out. Breaking Riddle's shite because I have spent way too much time explaining myself today. Let's go."

He didn't have to come, of course, she was sure she could thoroughly destroy Riddle's death trap on her own, but Ciardha had always insisted that cursebreaking solo was an invitation to get dead — even he had taken back-up most of the time, usually one of the locals who had asked for his help in the first place — and Snape was the member of the Conspiracy who was most likely to be any good at killing inferi, and also the least likely to object to her killing inferi with whatever curses happened to come to mind. She could cast fiendfire in front of him, and she doubted he'd even blink. (Gin wasn't nearly good enough yet to be more of a help than a hindrance, and Narcissa still had an extremely annoying tendency to treat Lyra like a fucking child, which she had absolutely no patience for today.)

Snape raised an eyebrow at her. "I'm afraid you're going to have to do a bit more explaining yet today, because I have no intention of running off to kill...inferi? — the term is exterminate, not re-murder — without a better explanation than that. I am, as you see, in the middle of something."

He was in the middle of reading an article in a professional journal of some sort, scribbling notes in the margins with the same red ink he used on student papers. "Professional idiots will still be there when we get back."

"Bellatrix..."

"I accidentally killed the horcrux, okay, and Harry and Blaise heard its fucking banshee death wails and barged in and I forgot I hadn't told Harry about the Conspiracy to Kill Not-Professor Riddle, and then accidentally mentioned I visited Bellatrix a couple of weeks ago, and generally speaking it's better to go exterminate a few hundred inferi than murder your baby cousin for being tedious, so." Also, she wasn't in the mood to let Not-Professor Riddle have nice things today. If he would've just answered her fucking questions, she would be in California studying Parsel right now instead of hiding away in Britain to avoid accidentally killing a second person today. Burning his little death trap to the ground sounded like an excellent way to spend the rest of the afternoon, especially since the fucking acromantulae were still hiding from her.

"You...killed the horcrux...accidentally." Snape actually seemed to be fighting not to laugh, which she might have considered a sort of victory on any other day. At the moment, however, it was simply another irritation.

"Yes. Apparently you have to say the password in actual Parsel—"

"Password?"

"Yes, password, you were right, go ahead and rub it in, but I still think it's fucking stupid, even if approximately no one actually speaks real Parsel. Anyway, the horcrux threw out a projection, so I thought I'd see if it had anything useful to say, but the fucking thing wouldn't answer my questions and I may have gotten a bit carried away with my threats, and— Stop fucking laughing at me, Snape, horcruxes are surprisingly fragile, okay! And that is all the explanation you're getting until I get to break all of Riddle's toys, so are you coming or not?"

Snape sighed, acting all put out even though he was still trying not to laugh, but rolled his journal up to shove it in his pocket, in a very Maïa-esque bid to bring along something to read in case he got bored at some point during this little excursion. "I suppose I might as well. Since you've already disrupted my afternoon anyway."

So, might as well go set a bunch of animated corpses on fire. Sounded good to her. "Fabulous, let's go," she said drily, grabbing him by the arm to pull him to his feet, and immediately into the Dark.


Hoo boy, political parties. Quick and dirty summary just to get it over with:

Ars Publica — the traditional Dark; largely against regulating magic and for rights for nonhuman beings; magical chauvinists, but generally cool with muggleborns; prefers to limit Ministry power (vote: 16, 27%)

Ars Brittania — the traditional Light; supports regulating magic and limiting rights for nonhumans; generally blood purists, but willing to compromise; supports a strong Ministry (vote: 4, 7%)

Common Fate — historically pro-Ministry; generally supports some regulation of magic but against limiting nonhuman rights; magical chauvinists, but cool with muggleborns; tends to split on Ministry power and economy (vote: 14, 25%)

Light — Dumbledore's faction, pulled from AB and CF; supports regulation of magic and limiting rights for nonhumans (with some defectors); generally pro-muggleborn and muggle protection; supports a strong Ministry (vote: 13, 22%; with AB 17, 30%)

Allied Dark — Death Eaters, pulled from AP and AB; against regulating magic and supports limiting rights for nonhumans; radically blood purist (though moderating to AP position now); prefers to limit Ministry power (vote: 11, 19%)

Last year, the Wizengamot was pretty much deadlocked, no one group carrying enough votes to control the assembly, things going one way or the other issue by issue. More recently, AP, CF, and AD have been forming an alliance, giving them a solid 70% of the vote. (They'd split on bills, of course, but they can control appointments to Ministry offices and the like.) But shenanigans inside CF and AD are going to fuck it up pretty much immediately. Whoops.

As an example, this vote to expel Dumbledore as Chief Warlock, the same vote referenced in a couple summer scenes. The expected vote was 35-21-2, but the actual result was 27-29-2, due to the Light/AB unexpectedly flipping and AP/CF panicking.

Yes, I realise I think about this shit way too much...

CIS — French initials for the ICW, because 'wizards' is a semantically loaded term.

How veela and lilin work is taken largely from my headcanon. Nothing is particularly important to go over right now, they'll be explained as they come up.

Anyway, yay, a chapter. Will be a while until the next one. December is Leigha's busy season at work, she's been pretty much dead on her feet by the time she gets home, and chapter three is mostly her scenes, so. It'll happen when it happens.

Lysandra