30k words what? And we thought all this and the previous chapter would fit in one. We have problems ha ha...

Anyway, have fun. —Lysandra

The first thing Bill realised when he and his family finally reached the Top Box — taking the stairs because Dad thought it made the thing more impressive, really showed the scale of it, to climb to the top (though also because it would probably take more time to find the bloody lifts) — was that there was not nearly enough space in here. Between the very annoyed-looking Bulgarian delegation, the Malfoys and a couple other people who must be with Fudge, the Blacks, the Weasleys, and a handful of Ministry officials, they were already about twenty seats short, and that was without considering the presence of...


A short, black-haired man at the fringe of the crowd shot him a distracted smile. "Will, how's things?"

Fionn Ingham was about the only member of the third official-looking delegation Bill was familiar with — they'd gone to school together. But he definitely recognised a couple of the others, standing around looking variously annoyed, edgy and/or confrontational. Like Síomha Ní Ailbhe, and the Tánaiste of muggle Ireland. "Not to be insufferably rude and abrupt — good to see you, been ages and all that shite — but what the hell's going on here?"

The normally pleasant man shot Fudge's back an absolutely filthy look — which wasn't too much of a surprise, when he thought about it, he'd heard Saoirse had issues with Fudge (to put it mildly). "Oh, nothing much, the Ministry just displaying more of their famous incompetence. Apparently, nobody thought to inform the Bulgarians how limited seating was up here, especially with Fudge and Bagman inviting along their favourite dirty cronies by the handful — er, no offence to your dad—"

Bill couldn't really say anything about that. Dad had gotten the invitation to the top box as a thank you for making criminal charges against one of Bagman's relatives...disappear. That was dirty, there was no other honest way to look at it.

"—so they used up all the seats meant for the Bulgarian delegation. And then the Tánaiste decided to crash the thing — the Republic does have a right to be here, it's our bloody team, honestly. He could have warned Crouch ahead of time he was coming, but where's the fun of that? So anyway, put it all together, and we've got about half as many seats in the box as we actually need. And the Ministry is fucking incompetent, and didn't put anything in the wards to make this thing freely resizeable. And their pet wardcrafters are too bloody stupid to fix it. So. I'm about ready to punch Fudge or Crouch or bloody Bagman in the face right now, kind of surprised Síomha or Michael hasn't beaten me to it yet."

...Well, that was rather...much. Bill didn't think he'd ever heard that much frustration on Fionn's voice before — he was one of the nicest, most easy-going blokes Bill had ever met. (Bríd's influence, he assumed, he'd never asked.) It was just strange, honestly, enough he was a bit taken aback.

But, he realised after a moment, there was a relatively simple solution to that particular problem. "We could just go punch the Ministry's pet wardcrafters, and fix the damn box ourselves. How hard could it be?"

Fionn gave him a rather peculiar look. "Funnily enough, that's almost exactly what Lyra Black said."

"Smart kid. Come on, I'm pretty sure Saoirse can protect the Tánaiste from Fudge and fucking Bagman without you, at least for a few minutes."

"Yeah, alright, just let me... Síomha!"

Michael was trying to be civil, but his second time meeting Cornelius Fudge wasn't shaping up to be any kind of improvement over the first.

He wasn't likely to forget that first meeting — that whole week had been bloody wild, for a whole host of reasons. It had been decades in the making, slow shifts in culture and politics, the work of thousands of people going all the way back before the Revolution, it had felt like everything coming to a head all at once. The left had been slowly reorganising for years, and when Ross had waltzed into Labour along with dozens of friends and allies pulled from the Workers' Party and Sinn Féin and the Greens (and certainly nobody in any way associated with the Provos, of course not) just as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were viciously feuding, new rifts within the twin giants of Irish politics opening up every day...

It had seemed like Providence, almost. If Michael were given to such flights of fancy, he might almost think it had been handed to them, the moment engineered for them to exploit.

He'd hardly stopped moving for a single second, it seemed, all through October and November of '92, but even once the election had been over, Labour picking up more seats in the Dáil than they'd ever held since...well, ever, in point of fact — they'd even taken control of dozens of county and city councils, which they'd hardly been prepared to deal with — the party had just started. Labour had immediately become the finest girl in the room — neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael had had the eighty votes they needed to form a government, they'd both needed to court Labour to put them over the top. Neither of them had been particularly gracious about it, but so long as Michael wasn't such a raging arsehole they'd rather decide to work with each other, he'd been in a position to demand pretty much whatever they wanted.

Though that made it sound much simpler than it had been, December had been a fucking nightmare. He couldn't count how many aggravating meetings he'd sat through, arguing first with this idiot from Fianna Fáil, and then this cunt from Fine Gael, back and forth and back and forth, several times a day for interminable weeks on end. There'd been a period there, for a while, when he'd almost wished they hadn't done quite so well in the general, or that Labour weren't so mad to pick him, of all people, to lead the Party — there were few things Michael hated more than formal meetings with "serious" politicians and Dublin advisors and lobbyists, and dealing with the bloody press, and fuck, when he told Alex to please shoot him at the end of the day most days he'd only been sort of joking.

(He'd never thought he'd be happy he couldn't get laid all through university, but if he'd had responsibilities to a wife and kids to balance on top of everything else, he really might have just killed himself.)

Finally, after weeks of wheeling and dealing and shouting and crying, finally Fianna Fáil had lowered themselves enough to agree to a deal Michael could actually bring to his fellows in the Dáil and the Party Conference, and not feel like a cheap whore doing it. He still did hate the deal they'd ended up with — Barnie had argued the Dáil simply wouldn't stand for Labour ministers in departments that were too deeply involved in the economy, because you couldn't have scary socialists in any positions of actual importance, perish the thought. He was right, of course, didn't make him any less of a bastard. Barnie, unlike anyone of importance in Fine Gael — they'd been in the middle of a leadership contest, because they had a great sense of timing like that — Michael could actually sort of work with. He hadn't been happy with it, but it would do for now, it was something they could settle for for now and build on later.

Of course, it was...almost worth it, to get a Labour Tánaiste. Even if it did have to be him. He'd argued, when it'd been coming down to the line in January, that they could nominate someone else for the position. Jamie Kirk, maybe, Jamie would be a perfectly passable Tánaiste, Michael would just stay a lowly TD and keep doing his thing, that had sounded much better to him. But, well, they couldn't not have the leader of the Party take the nomination...apparently. Not his argument. Hell, Jamie could have just taken over, Michael would have been fine with that...

But maybe it was better Michael had gone along with it. Jamie was very Catholic, after all — Michael somehow doubted he would have taken the magic thing very well.

Not that he'd known that at the time, of course. It'd been...very abrupt. It had been a Friday, the third week of January '93, the storm of chaos that had been the election and the formation of a government and his confirmation as Tánaiste finally over. Barnie had warned him that he'd be getting a visitor shortly, but he hadn't been very clear about what kind of visitor he'd be getting. Just said he'd be dropping by Iveagh House late in the day with a bottle, if he needed to talk about it, which had been...concerning, of course, but there'd been a lot of mad shite going on at the time.

If Michael had thought all the nonsense of getting here finally being over meant things would in any way get less complicated, he'd been very wrong. Being the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, he'd been in the process of being read into all kinds of things, little of which he'd been entirely pleased about. There was the insanity going on in Ulster, civil wars and coups were still rocking several former Soviet states (the list changed by the day, it was nuts), Yeltsin was a half-mad corrupt alcholic Western sockpuppet, the Americans were also still doing something in Iraq (besides the genocidal sanctions, he meant) and who knew what else elsewhere — the outgoing diplomatic staff had been surprised Michael hadn't been surprised by the recent revelation of the Americans meddling in Latin America, but, come on, really — no one really knew what the hell was going on in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Egypt or Yemen anymore, don't even get him started on Burma or Thailand, Somalia appeared to be slowly falling apart, the Congo was a fucking horror show, Bombay was on fire, the Israel–Palestine situation was growing more and more horrifying and hopeless by the day, apparently this whole climate change thing was shaping up to be a castastrophic problem, which was incredibly irritating, because he'd hardly even heard about this until now, and nobody in the know was taking it at all seriously...

Michael had already been a bit overwhelmed. When Fudge had waltzed into his new office to tell him about the magical world, he'd hardly had the energy to react.

Not to the magic part, anyway. The revelation that magic existed, and had always existed, that there were millions of bloody witches and wizards around the world, and goblins and dragons and fairies and who knew what else, that had been...insane, but he'd been sort of numb by that point, he'd just accepted it and moved on. (He recalled blankly wondering if he'd had a psychotic break, or maybe Alex really had shot him a couple months ago, and this was his own personal Hell.) Michael might have just quietly let Fudge go on his (clearly rehearsed) little ramble until he bounced out again, and then met up with Barnie to drink himself stupid, because he did not want to deal with this right now.

If Fudge weren't such an arrogant, condescending little shite. Honestly, you'd think he were speaking to a bloody child.

A bloody child who was also a British subject.

See, Fudge had seemingly been operating on a very strange assumption. Michael understood, now, that Britain and Ireland were one country on the magical side. Fine. That was fine. It had nothing to do with him, what did he care? But Fudge, apparently, had very little understanding that that wasn't the case on Michael's side of the curtain.

It had taken a couple off-handed comments for Michael to realise that, when Fudge said your Prime Minister, he wasn't talking about Barnie. When he said your government, he was talking about Downing Street.

Michael recalled an irritated correction escalating into a shouting match. He had still ended up meeting Barnie to drink himself stupid, but there'd also been a bit of ranting about Fudge in there too — and he hadn't been alone in that either, Barnie had met the man himself, obviously. He only remembered about half the conversation, but he was pretty sure he and Barnie had spent much of it commiserating about what arseholes mages were, and Michael had only even met the one at the time. Weird fucking night, was what he was saying.

That was a year and a half ago now, and while Michael knew quite a bit about this magic thing, certainly more than he had then, he was only growing less comfortable with it with time. Not because magic, no, he was mostly okay with that part — it was actually pretty nifty, he thought, there were times around Síomha's people he had to hold in entirely unprofessional childish glee. No, it was the institutions of the magical world he was starting to have serious problems with. Apparently, magical Britain and Ireland were still operating under some...ridiculous aristocratic, oligarchy that was just... It was somewhat better in Ireland, a few places in Scotland and Wales — due to, as Michael understood it, an older tribal mindset that had been preserved, more communal — but the same exploitative power dynamics that existed in the real world tormented people with bloody magical powers as well. Really, he should have expected as much, but it'd still come as a revelation. An uncomfortable, infuriating one.

Of course, mages also apparently thought it was perfectly fine to regularly fuck with millions of peoples heads, risking severe mental and emotional trauma every time, to keep their own existence hidden, which... Michael hated the Statute of Secrecy, and the particulars of its enforcement. With a vicious, violent passion.

This Fudge cunt wasn't from one of these tyrannical noble families, apparently, but he had that paternalistic, dismissive attitude toward non-magical folk Michael was quickly growing to despise.

"Why, Minister, I took a portkey in, like everyone else," Michael said. He was trying to keep his voice level and polite, but he could feel the strain, the smile on his face almost painful.

The ridiculous man looked slightly surprised, for a moment — if Michael had to guess, that 'muggles' could actually use portkeys, many magical devices simply didn't work for them properly. (Clíodhna hadn't been sure either, at first, it was one of the many things they'd tested since they'd formally opened relations with Saoirse months ago now.) Fudge recovered quickly, though he only recovered so far as looking very flustered. Though, to be fair, he had already seemed rather overwhelmed when Michael had found him, minor snafu with the Bulgarians, apparently. "Of course, of course, I just— Well, I hadn't realised you were coming, was all! Glad to meet you again, of course," he lied, obviously.

Michael's smile became even more strained, but he managed to hold it, at least. "Of course I would come. As I understand it, Mullet, Troy, and Ryan are all muggleborns—" He heard the trace of sarcastic scorn on his own voice, saying the word, but he doubted anyone around knew him well enough to catch it. Well, maybe Síomha by now, and he heard Alex covering a snort, but. "—it simply wouldn't do for the Republic to not show even token support for our own citizens, would it?"

That was, he knew, a somewhat impolitic thing to say. 'Muggleborns' having split loyalties was a common narrative among certain politely bigoted mages, but Michael wasn't certain it was untrue — the three 'muggleborns' in question had all recognised him instantly, after all, he doubted they would have if they hadn't any enduring sympathies for the nation of their birth. And who could blame them? The mages hadn't struck him as particularly welcoming, to put it mildly.

This time, he heard Síomha trying not to laugh, but the British — Fudge, a man Michael recognised from photographs to be Crouch (their top diplomat), a handful of aides and guests — didn't seem particularly pleased with the comment. Particularly one man, with long silvery blond hair, richly dressed in a dark, shimmering English suit he could have pulled from the 1910s (complete with cane, because of course), his eyes narrowed with irritation, fingers tightening around the head of his (ridiculous) cane.

Nobody quite seemed to know what to say, Michael let the awkwardness linger for a moment before moving on. "Now, aren't you going to introduce me?"

Fudge flushed with clear embarrassment, but he hadn't much choice in the matter, it simply wouldn't be appropriate to do anything else, especially right in front of a foreign delegation. He turned to Crouch first, who greeted Michael in Gaeilge, because of course he did — most Irish mages still used Gaeilge, they didn't seem to realise the 'muggles' didn't really anymore. Michael had learned some in school like everyone else, but he'd hardly touched it since he'd left secondary. He'd been trying to pick it up again recently — seemed the thing to do, if they were truly to build closer ties with their mages — but he still wasn't nearly confident enough to actually use it in a setting like this. So he just responded in English, trying to not sound irritated.

His French, on the other hand, was much better. Fudge stumbled all over the introduction to Oblanski, babbling about how he didn't speak English, but Michael recalled that, on the magical side, the language of international diplomacy was still French, so he just took over and introduced himself. Which Oblanski apparently thought was fucking hilarious — after a couple pleasant back and forths, Michael found himself wondering why the British Minister couldn't be more like this one, he seemed far more personable.

And then next in the introductions was blondie — Lucius Malfoy, apparently. Michael hardly heard the rest of Fudge's babbling, something about him just recently making a very generous donation to something (because of course), rather distracted. Because, he did know that name. The Malfoys were one of the youngest of the magical noble families — in Britain, anyway, the French branch of the family had been nobility there much, much longer — so Michael would have reason enough to be skeptical of him for that alone.

Though, Michael had recently been given reason to believe his own biases about things like aristocracy weren't quite applicable to the magical world. So far, he'd met three noble mages, total. The first had been Fionn — Michael hadn't even realised Fionn was nobility at all until they'd been explaining the Wizengamot and the Seventeen Founders to him, and he'd asked the man, wait, isn't your name Ingham? (It turned out, yes, that had been a bit of a shock, that Fionn was from one of these ridiculous "Noble and Most Ancient" families.) The other two had been earlier today, Sirius and Lyra Black. Sirius had been the first magical lord Michael had ever met, and...

Well, if that Hit Wizard arse hadn't been calling him Lord Black, Michael would have never guessed. Both of the Blacks had been... Well, magical, certainly — the girl especially, she could never be mistaken for a normal person — but they hadn't seemed particularly noble to Michael. Sirius in particular, well, he hadn't come off that differently from any other excitable football fanatic. Hell, Michael had gotten the very clear impression Sirius could be considered what passed for a leftist in the Wizengamot, he'd been very comfortably familiar in a lot of ways.

But Lucius Malfoy... Michael recognised the name from the list he'd been given of known Death Eaters.

It was still a bit absurd to think about, sometimes, that their mages had just gotten out of a mad, genocidal war a decade ago. (Well, not their mages, it'd barely touched Ireland, still.) The Second World War had been before Michael's time, obviously, and it was just surreal to think the mages had had their own murderous racist nutjobs, had their own war, but they'd hardly even properly resolved it, hadn't bothered with their own Nuremburg, instead their answer to the Nazis were still just...walking around, everyone apparently determined to just not talk about the fact that some of their fellows, even people in powerful positions in the government, had only a decade ago been calling for the outright murder of an entire demographic of people, had committed atrocities by the dozens, and this was just...

Michael just had no idea what to think of the magical world sometimes. There were some people and organisations within it that were perfectly fine, even respectable, but the society overall...

Of course, his academic sort of horror was trumped almost right away. Malfoy, the magic Nazi, it was clear he was trying to be polite — wouldn't do to appear a complete monster in public, after all — but the air of noble aloofness only seemed to intensify under Michael's attention, meeting his greeting with a cold sniff, hardly even deigning to acknowledge his existence. He did submit to the expected pleasantries, of course, but didn't bother going so far as actually shaking Michael's hand. He did understand most mages didn't do that, especially the nobility, but Michael didn't give a damn, he did it anyway, just to force them out of their comfort zone. (He'd admit he was a bit of an arse himself sometimes.) But Malfoy didn't lower himself to such muggleish things, of course not, just sneering at his outstretched hand with every indication of disdainful superiority.

Michael hated him, instantly. And he got the very clear sense the feeling was mutual.

Thankfully, Sirius bounded over to insert himself before he could say anything provocative. Síomha would probably be annoyed with him if he picked another fight with people who could reduce him to a bloody smear on the ground with a wave of their hand. He was going to give that poor woman a heart attack one of these days.

He wasn't going to stop, of course. He doubted he could help himself anyway, and besides, it was just bloody funny watching the mages squirm.

(And it was possible he just liked teasing Síomha. Because he was an arse like that.)

This is so awkward.

What the hell, Blaise!

Stop ignoring me!

Blaise did not stop ignoring Harry, whom he had callously abandoned to shmoose with the fucking Bulgarians as they all waited for someone, somehow, to squeeze an extra thirty seats into the top box. Harry personally would have been perfectly happy just leaving the box, finding a seat somewhere out there in the normal people stands — that, in fact, would probably (almost definitely) be less awkward than standing here trying not to get drawn into the row that Malfoy had started with Ron as soon as he had realised that all of the Weasleys (except Mrs. Weasley) were joining them in the box.

Which might have been better than the Minister freaking out about him being alive (though that hadn't lasted long, dealing with the Bulgarians and the Irish was much more important) or Malfoy mocking Harry for being disguised as Sirius's bastard son — Sirius, of course, had played along, spent a solid five minutes inventing a tryst with an Australian witch he happened to run into in the autumn of Nineteen Eighty, and the epic tale of their reunion in a cabaret in Berlin over the summer, before Malfoy's mum had intervened — but not that much better. Especially since Ron had apparently forgotten that they'd had a fight themselves just a few hours ago, kept saying shite like back me up, here, Harry! And of course if he didn't, or if he even hesitated, it looked like he was siding with Malfoy, which he definitely wasn't, but he also didn't want to take Ron's side, he wasn't even sure what stupid thing they were arguing about — he'd tuned out right around the time Malfoy started in on Ron being so stupid and worthless that he failed out of Hogwarts (which wasn't quite true, Mrs. Weasley hadn't let him actually fail the year before pulling him out) when even Crabbe and Goyle hadn't failed everything.

Blaise, being the slimy, Slytherin bastard that he was, slipped away as soon as he'd seen Malfoy headed their way — Traitor!

Hey, if you don't want to deal with Draco, you can walk away, too, you know. He's plenty distracted by Weasley.

Yeah, but I'm not a complete arse!

Yeah, you should work on that.


Where the hell was Gin? Or Mira? Lyra had skipped off to see what was taking so long with the whole making-the-box-bigger-on-the-inside thing — she had no idea why putting it in those terms was vaguely amusing — which she insisted shouldn't really take more than a few minutes, because, honestly, were they mages or not? But everyone couldn't be too busy talking to other people to realise that Harry was literally suffocating under the awkwardness.

That's not what literal means, you know...

Shut up, Blaise, you're dead to me.

If lies make you happy.

"Still, Potter, I have to congratulate you—"

"Huh, what? Sorry, wasn't listening..." Ron laughed at Malfoy's annoyed sneer, but really, Harry hadn't been trying to slight the poncy bastard, he honestly hadn't noticed Malfoy was talking about him until he heard his name.

"I said I have to congratulate you — your little disappearing act might be the single most important thing anyone's done for Dark politics since Dumbledore managed to get himself appointed Chief Warlock. Mother's been able to take advantage of the situation to great effect."

"I think you mean to be congratulating Lyra, and maybe Xeno Lovegood. I hardly did anything. And besides, it's not like your mum actually managed to get Dumbledore kicked out of the Wizengamot."

As far as he could tell from what Gin had told him and Blaise, Narcissa Malfoy was actually having a bit of trouble keeping her people in line this summer. They had tried to vote Dumbledore out, but something had gone wrong, and no one (or at least Gin) knew what. Personally, Harry was glad about that, if only because Narcissa Malfoy was definitely a Death Eater supporter, even if she was Lyra's aunt, and he didn't think she should be in charge of the government, or her allies, or whatever. (Neville's grandmother was also involved, apparently, and she sounded horrible, too.) Besides, he hadn't meant to get Dumbledore fired or something — even if he wasn't nearly so willing to give the Headmaster the benefit of the doubt about his having Harry's best interests at heart as he would have in second year, he didn't have it out for him or something. He'd just wanted a proper holiday for once!

Both Malfoy and Ron looked positively shocked that Harry knew enough about the political situation to make even that vague a comment, which...seriously? He wasn't that bad at this shite!

Before either of them managed to come up with a response, though, a wave of silver-blue light washed over them, tingling in that way Harry was beginning to associate with Lyra's magic.

"Ugh, finally."

"What the hell was that?"

"Obviously, Weasley, someone's finally doing something about the lack of proper seating around here. How stupid are—"

There was another wave of magic, and his words cut off with a startled eep, as did everyone else's. The floor began to shift under their feet, keeping up with the walls which were pulling apart from each other...without really seeming to go anywhere? It was really weird, but a minute later, there was about twice as much space in the box as there had been when they had arrived — the walls stopped moving, the floor stopped stretching, and the disorienting sense of magic completely ignoring physics all around him vanished.

"I think that went well," Lyra said brightly, from somewhere on the other side of the crowd, followed quickly by the bloody Deputy Prime Minister of muggle Ireland — Harry still had no idea why or how he was here, but he suspected the Blacks were involved — saying, "What the fuck was that?" and the witch Lyra had pointed out as one of the leaders of the magical Irish nationalists saying, "Somebody being a reckless showoff."

And then there were too many people talking for Harry to make out any one person, and someone was conjuring more purple, velvet-covered chairs, and everyone was getting shuffled around as they found seats for themselves. Harry somehow ended up in the middle of the Irish party, in the second row, between one of their mages, a shaggy-haired man in fucking dueling clothes (because if you weren't even going to try to look muggle, you might as well be comfortable, he guessed), and Blaise. Which was a great seat, because he was nowhere near Ron or Malfoy. There was a youngish bloke on Blaise's other side who immediately turned to him to ask exactly how this whole quidditch game worked, which, well...

Blaise wasn't exactly what one might call a fan of quidditch. He knew the general rules, of course, and went to the matches at school, but only because everyone did. So it wasn't at all a surprise that, after a few seconds muttering about the quaffle and scoring, he gave up. "You know, Harry actually plays, he could probably explain it better than I would. Here, switch seats with me, Harry."

Harry grinned, sliding over. Now the crowd had cleared up and he could actually see the stadium and the pitch, he was starting to get properly excited about the match, and he could definitely explain Quidditch better than Blaise could. "Oh, um...okay. Alex, was it? Hello, Alex. So, there are two teams, with seven players each..."

Bill watched the girl — young woman, he should probably say, that wasn't kiddie magic they'd just pulled off — warily, out of the corner of his eye. He'd made a point of finding a seat next to her in the chaos that followed their expansion of the box, but now that everyone was settled he had no idea how to initiate the conversation he really thought they needed to have. The one that started with who the fuck are you and eventually worked its way around to what are you doing with Gin, because, as cool as that little impromptu cooperative project had been (he might've been a bit harsh, calling the Ministry wardcrafters idiots for not knowing how to deal with the situation, but it honestly hadn't occurred to him that there wouldn't already be some kind of space-defining enchantment in place to alter, even if it wasn't intended to re-size the box), he wasn't certain he was entirely comfortable with his baby sister falling into the company of a budding dark sorceress — especially not after that whole possession episode not two years ago.

Bill didn't know exactly what the consequences of that possession had been, mostly because she'd managed to hold herself together in the immediate aftermath well enough that his parents hadn't seen fit to force her to talk to an actual mind-healer when she said she just didn't want anyone else in her head ever again. He had done everything he could for her, teaching her the basics of occlumency and giving her a primer — which, yeah, kids weren't supposed to read shite like that, but really who gave a fuck, she was his sister, and she'd needed it — and she was less obviously shakey than last summer, but he was pretty sure that, whatever had happened there, she was still bound to be more vulnerable to the influence of someone like Black.

He wasn't the only one who thought so, of course, but Mum wasn't exactly in a position to suss out what Miss Black's intentions might be. She wasn't even in a position to talk to Gin about her friendship with the recently discovered Black heiress — they'd had a screaming row about her (and the people Gin was hanging out with and the magic she'd been practicing and how she'd been acting in general) on the very first night Bill had been home.

According to the twins, it was merely one in a long series of rows, most of which came down to Mum wanting Gin to be more like Aunt Alice (kind and fair, she'd joined the Aurors because she believed in justice and protecting the weak) and less like Grandmother Lucretia (who Bill remembered as being proud and serious and uncompromising, altogether intimidating). Though the specifics of the matter — Gin falling in with the daughter (bio-alchemic twin) of a psychotic war criminal and the bastard son of a "common-born, social climbing slut" like Mirabella Zabini — didn't help, either. Mum and Dad had been in the same year as Zabini and the Blackheart in school, so Mum had a better idea than most of what Bellatrix might have been capable of at fourteen, and Zabini was, in some ways, worse — she was sane.

Mum being Mum, her concern had manifested mostly as nagging and obvious disapproval, and Gin, being Gin (and more like Mum than she wanted to believe), had told her to fuck off — it wasn't as though she'd been failing her classes, so why should Mum care? Mum wasn't stupid, she'd caught the implication that Gin was blaming her for not really noticing or apparently caring about the possession incident, and who was Gin to judge her for her parenting (aside from, you know, her kid). The long and short of it was, Mum and Gin hadn't exchanged more than two civil words in the past six weeks before falling into an argument.

Bill couldn't help but be on Gin's side in this.

He understood where Mum was coming from, of course. Unlike Charlie and Percy, he actually remembered the War, not just a few muddled, terrified impressions of it. He'd just started school when it had ended, so he was old enough to have known the people she'd lost — Uncle Fabian and Uncle Gideon and Aunt Alice — and the muggleborns Mum and Dad had hidden in the attic with the ghoul before sneaking them out of the country, and the way Dad had been so stressed, all the time, trying to get by in the Ministry and pass information to the Order of the Phoenix without catching the wrong sort of attention. They'd mostly stayed away from the rest of the Order, so no one would suspect they were involved in it, but Bill also remembered Grandfather Septimus telling Dad that if he didn't stop associating with them entirely, keep his head down properly, he would be forced to distance himself from his youngest son, and Grandmother Lucretia funnelling money and resources to them through Mum, because de Mort's Death Eaters were an affront to the Dark, but she couldn't bring herself to openly support Dumbledore.

(He even remembered Sirius Black coming around a few times with Aunt Alice. He'd been crushed when he first heard that Sirius had been a traitor the whole time, because he'd liked him — he'd been the only adult around who wasn't obviously worried, always joking and laughing, walking around in broad daylight wearing muggle tee-shirts like you wanna make something of it? and calling him Bill instead of Billy.)

But Mum had always thought she knew best for her children, and never been very tactful about expressing her opinions on the matter. It wasn't really a secret that she could be incredibly overbearing and controlling. Even Bill had had several screaming rows with her over the course of his fifth and sixth years at school — and again when he'd decided to start working for the goblins overseas, because he had been twenty-one years old and deserved to have his own life, damn it, not just live with his parents and help out with the kids and stop their house falling down around their ears — and he hadn't been seriously traumatised and trying to cope with it on his own, like Gin was. He could count the people he'd ever had an actual row with on one hand and still have fingers left over, it was just... Mum had this way of getting under everyone's skin.

She did have good reasons to be worried about Gin, though. She had gotten more letters about her only daughter over the course of the last Hogwarts term than the twins and Ron combined (which had to be saying a lot, because Ron had been failing so many classes she'd actually pulled him out of school). She'd been getting into fights with her roommates — put two of them in hospital, even — the situation culminating with Gin moving into the room Black and her girlfriend had "tricked the castle into creating" for them. Since she'd come home for the summer, she'd been sneaking off to the home of some boy called Justin (whose name Mum always said with paranoid scorn), and writing letters to the Nott heir in some kind of cypher, so Mum couldn't read them, which...wasn't entirely unreasonable, really. Gin got up early every morning to run to town and back, now — literally run, as in, for exercise — and Mum had used this opportunity to search her room early in the holiday. She'd found books on healing and bioalchemy, along with a sheaf of notes on various curses and counter-curses — none of them particularly dark, but many potentially lethal. (And of course she'd confronted Gin about them, making it very clear that she had no respect for her daughter's privacy whatsoever.) Even more concerning, Gin's magic was far more focused now than it had been just last summer. Part of that would be from the occlumency, of course, but part of it could only come from obsessive practice casting over a period of months. Taken together, it painted a disturbing picture, especially in a witch who'd just turned thirteen.

Even more so in a witch who'd been possessed for the better part of ten months the year before.

So, because Mum did have good reason to be concerned, and there was no way in hell Gin was going to tell her anything, Bill had spent quite a lot of time with his baby sister over the past couple of weeks — more than anyone else in the family, certainly. She wasn't speaking to Ron because he'd told Mum about her hanging out with Slytherins at school, and the twins were completely wrapped up in this joke shop thing of theirs, and Percy with his new job at the Ministry. Dad, of course, was still as obsessed with his muggle artefacts as ever, tinkering out in his shed when he wasn't at work, and Charlie was even more of a stranger to the kids than Bill was — at least he'd come back home for a couple of years after Hogwarts. Plus with Mum obviously nagging him about his hair and the magesight amulet Chione had given him — also known as the earring with the "horrible great fang on it, honestly, Bill!" — the minute he'd apparated in, Bill was obviously the most likely of her brothers to be sympathetic to her feud with their mother. He'd invited her to go for a walk after breaking up her fight with Mum that first night — telling them he'd been sleeping with the team's kite wilderfolk guide for the better part of a year, you know, if anyone had been wondering what was new in his life, had rendered both of them pretty effectively speechless — and it hadn't been difficult to convince her to tell him what had been going on with her over the past year.

He was fairly certain by now that this wasn't some lingering effect of the possession. Or rather, it was probably a consequence of trying to cope with the whole experience, and maybe not a very healthy one, but she wasn't still being influenced by the impression of the teenage dark lord, which was what he'd told Mum.

But most of it did come back to Black, really. (Zabini was, as Gin put it "a total creep.") Apparently the other girl — who reminded Gin of 'Tom' in a lot of ways, which Bill thought should be a huge red flag right there — had told her that she was completely worthless, creeping around like a fucking victim — little Gin swore, now, it was bloody disconcerting — then introduced her to Nott and made some kind of deal to get him to teach her to fight — which sounded like pretty blatant manipulation to Bill, but he couldn't imagine what Black thought she was going to get out of it. And Gin had obviously thrown herself into learning to defend herself with everything she had which was...good? maybe? Fuck if he knew, he wasn't a bloody mind healer.

(He was seriously considering whether he could arrange for O'Rourke to meet Gin, because she was a bloody mind healer. If anyone he knew was familiar with the process of recovery after major possession, it would be her.)

He was, though, pretty fucking certain that this was the best opportunity he was going to get to figure out exactly what this girl who apparently held so much influence over his sister — pushing her into learning to fight, introducing her to 'questionable' people, and now even sharing a room with her at school — wanted from her.

Oh, who was he kidding? Even if she wasn't a potential bad influence on his baby sister, Bill would still probably be curious enough about the new Black to try to get a chance to talk to her. Especially now that he knew she'd been trained as a fucking cursebreaker.

He had known that she'd warded Justin Finch-Fletchley's (muggle) parents' pool house as a dueling studio. He had had to go check it out when Gin told him exactly what she'd been doing at the older boy's house, if only to assure himself that they weren't going to implode if hit with the wrong spell, or shatter and inform the entire bloody Ministry that Justin and Gin had been using magic on an illegally warded muggle property, completely unsupervised. As it turned out, he needn't have worried. They were perfectly fine — tournament standard, behind a take on the Holston variation on the Hogwarts dueling platform, stripping intent and bleeding excess energy into a nearby ley line to avoid triggering the Ministry's blanket observation wards, behind a suite of attention-diverting wards executed more neatly than Bill could have done at that age.

He had been slightly surprised at the skill that had gone into designing the scheme, though less so after Mum had told him that Lyra Black was a clone of the Blackheart. It wasn't really a secret outside of Britain that Bellatrix Black was as brilliant as she was mad. She had published a series of articles on advanced theoretical arithmancy in her late teens, before moving on to bloody time travel. (When she wasn't busy being a psychotic mass murderer — de Mort and Black had a very...complicated reputation, in the international academic community. Even most Miskatonites considered waging a fucking war to be a bit beyond the pale, especially one centered on something as stupid as blood purity.) It stood to reason that her bio-alchemic twin/daughter would be just as sharp.

But wardcrafting was something one could learn on one's own. There were published ward schemes out there, from simple shite like the Holston ward (and dozens of variations), to complex dueling wards, to security wards that were completely outdated — no one would publish a security ward that hadn't long since been cracked — but still served as good examples for anyone trying to learn the art independently. And it wasn't insanely dangerous to learn wardcrafting through trial and error, without any real guidance. Bill had. A solid ninety per cent of the enchantments holding his parents' house upright were experimental shite that no wardcrafter in his right mind would actually use in a professional situation, or cheap, quick and dirty solutions he'd come up with while he was still in school — good enough to get the job done, but terribly inelegant, poorly optimised, and too heavily integrated into everything he'd cast on top of them to fix now.

Cursebreaking wasn't nearly so well documented. Bill was pretty sure, for instance, that nowhere in any text on wardcrafting was there an explanation of splitting a ward scheme using a fucking bulla so you could insert a significant element into the middle of the thing without completely destabilising it, as they'd just done a minute ago. That was the sort of thing someone had to have taught her, if only because the chances of figuring out how to do it on her own without killing herself were miniscule. And since (apparently) no one knew where the new Black had actually come from, that was a hell of a lot more interesting than quidditch.

Bill liked quidditch, of course, but not nearly as much as the rest of the family. This was the happiest he'd seen Gin since he'd come home, despite having managed to get stuck in the front row between Sirius Black and Draco Malfoy, with Narcissa on her son's other side. The adults were sniping at each other over the kids' heads about...Bill couldn't quite make out what.

While he was trying to, Black solved the problem of how to start a conversation for him, apparently having given up on making small talk with the Bulgarian on her other side. "This is neat." She flicked his earring, sending the fang swinging. "I've never seen that sealing charm used in an amulet before. Where'd you get it?"

"A friend made it for me — new design, asked me to be her testing kneazle." So far he liked it. It was more comprehensive than the magesight spell he normally used and, after he'd gotten used to the weight of it, he'd quickly grown accustomed to the sensory enhancement. To the point that he really didn't like taking it off, actually. Chi said that was probably a side-effect of the spells she'd included to make it easier to interpret the perception charm, but Bill was pretty sure it was just because... Well, it was kind of like seeing in colour for the first time, wasn't it? Chi just didn't understand that because she could see magic without a damn charm.

"Neat," the girl repeated. "Hey, speaking of experimental enchantments, is that shadow-walking ward on your parents' house based on a goblin design? Because I was under the impression that you couldn't use elemental sunlight in a runic ward, and you definitely can't use a ritual to cast a fucking bounce line. And where the hell did you anchor it? Because I did not see it coming."

"Er..." It was, actually, but admitting that he'd been trying to reverse-engineer the wards on the bank vaults, or at least some of their elements, was the kind of thing that would definitely get him fired. "Why do you want to know?"

"You mean other than it being bloody neat? You did kind of send me to the bottom of the fucking Channel. Isn't the point of a bounce ward supposed to be that they're not lethal?" She didn't quite manage to say that with a straight face, probably because wards that simply repelled an intruder, redirecting their apparition or portkey or whatever, were supposedly among the safest home-protection enchantments, but they were also incredibly easy to alter to teleport a potential intruder to any number of dangerous locations.

"Well, obviously it wasn't. Wasn't even meant to be. Vampires don't need to breathe." It was far more likely that a vampire would try to shadow-walk into his parents' house than a human, and even that wasn't what anyone might call likely. He'd mostly done it to see if he could. "And it's anchored in a pocket dimension. Why the hell were you trying to shadow-walk into my parents' house in the first place?" Why the hell did she know how to shadow-walk was a better question, really, but he couldn't really bring himself to be surprised that the Blackheart's daughter was experimenting with magic humans really weren't supposed to be able to do.

"I was trying to visit Gin, obviously. Pocket... You mean the Manchurian Flytrap? How the..."

She trailed off, clearly wondering how he'd managed to anchor anything in an inescapable death-trap. Which, the answer was obvious, at least thinking about it for a bit — he'd just built the shadow-walking ward into the Flytrap before he'd fully implemented it. It had been kind of tricky to get it to fold together properly, but he'd worked it out eventually. However... "Manchurian Flytrap? Of course not, that would be incredibly illegal. Do you mean the everted Polonian Cross-Dimensional Inversion?"

Black blinked at him. "Calling it by the proper academic name doesn't change the fact that an everted Spinning Door is a Manchurian Flytrap. Actually, I think the original Spinning Door is just a broken Flytrap."

It was, yes. Or rather, it had been developed out of an attempt to find a way to escape from a Flytrap — one which had been largely unsuccessful. "Yes, but a Flytrap would kill the invader and use the energy of their death to help power the ward scheme." The active, automated subsumption element was, in Bill's opinion (and that of the law) kind of important.

"Oh, right, because just leaving an invader to rot in a pocket dimension is so much better than actually using them for something. I forgot."

Bill snorted, trying not to laugh, mostly because that I forgot reminded him of a conversation with a former colleague. "Okay, was it Kazlova?"

"Was who what, now?"

"Whoever trained you. Because that sounded an awful lot like something Nadya Kazlova would say."

She smirked at him. "Nope."

"Green?" She shook her head. "Brinkley?"

Her grin only grew wider. "Nuh-uh."

"Would you tell me if I guessed it?" Bill asked, suddenly reminded of talking to his youngest siblings when they were about six.

"Sure, but you never will."

Oh, really? Bill would take that challenge. Cursebreaking wasn't that big a world, really, even among independent contractors. There were a few loners out there, but most of them, at least the ones good enough to be considered at least semi-legitimate (and presumably the Black heiress's Master would have been at least semi-legit), tended to get around, mixing with different crews, sometimes recruited for a project, sometimes just drinking with like-minded madmen between jobs. Bill suspected he'd met them, whoever they were, and that he wasn't likely to guess had to mean it was someone incredibly unlikely for one reason or another.

He considered for a moment as Bagman cast a Voice Amplifying Charm on himself, welcoming them all to "the final of the four-hundred and twenty-second Quidditch World Cup!"

The crowd, of course, went wild, clapping and waving flags. The residents of the top box joined in, though most not quite so exuberantly as the Blacks or the twins, all of whom jumped to their feet to scream and cheer, blatantly ignoring the variously shocked and appalled looks sent their way from...pretty much everyone else. Including Bill — he really hadn't been expecting that.

"Ah..." Bagman hesitated, obviously slightly thrown by the inappropriately over-the-top display of excitement only feet away from him. "Right... So, then, without further ado, allow me to introduce...the Bulgarian National Team Mascots!"

"Bisset?" Bill guessed, as Black dropped back into her chair, grinning like a lunatic. Bisset was a staunch neo-Gemeenschoppist and absolutely hated the very concept of nobility, he'd never be caught dead working for the Blacks.

"Getting colder."

Hmm...Green had been trained by Davison, and he was the one who'd showed Bill that trick with the bulla, said he'd learnt it from his mentor, so... "Davison?" He had thought the older wizard was retired, but he supposed that did make him unlikely.

"Warmer. Oh, hey, look, the Bulgarians brought veela cheerleaders!"

Yes, Bill had noticed. A hundred bloody veela working in concert were kind of difficult to miss. Their allure was blunted this far away from them, and it only took a few seconds for Fionn to cast a paling against it, but some of the more weak-minded residents of the box were obviously still affected anyway. Fudge had gotten out of his seat, leaning over the edge to get a better look, and Draco Malfoy was practically drooling.

There was an uproar as the veela were sent off the field — it wouldn't do, after all, for half the men in the stands to start getting in fist fights and jumping to their deaths. Honestly, he was kind of surprised that the IAQ had approved that particular choice of 'mascot'. Even more surprised they'd managed to find a hundred veela who were willing to come to Britain, even for this, but... "Brinkley?" She and Davison had both been students of Ciardha Monroe, once upon a time. The last two still alive, so far as Bill knew.

Black sniggered. "Nope. Can you really see Pretty Kitty voluntarily spending more than ten minutes in my presence?"

Well, no, he couldn't, really. Kate Brinkley was one of the oldest, most successful monster slayers and travelling cursebreakers out there — that she'd survived this long was a testament to how careful she was, and how seriously she took the job. Black, on the other hand, was obviously anything but. If Brinkley ever found out she was going around calling her Pretty Kitty... That alone spoke to a dangerous disregard for her own safety.

("Now kindly put your wands in the air...for the Irish National Team Mascots!")

But the nickname suggested that they had, in fact, met. So, who did Brinkley associate with? She was almost ninety years old, so she'd probably met anyone with any reputation to speak of. The most notorious semi-legendary cursebreaker out there who was (probably) still alive was... "Night?"

("Are those leprechauns?" one of the muggles said as about three-hundred of them soared over the stands in a shamrock formation, dropping their false gold on the unsuspecting fans, many of whom seemed not to realise that it was false.)


"The Shadow's partner. Robbed Gringotts back in the Sixties? Possibly Adil Shafiq, but no one ever proved it." He was pretty sure that people would have noticed if Shafiq had had an apprentice in the past decade or so, so if it really was Night who'd trained her, he probably wasn't Shafiq, but.

"Ah, no. I told you, you're not going to get it."

He glared at her smug smirk, taking another moment to think about it as Bagman introduced the Teams. (The Tánaiste had apparently decided to get in on the fun, leaping to his feet and cheering obnoxiously as the Irish players flew onto the pitch. Síomha Ní Ailbhe, sitting nearby, let her head fall into one hand, shoulders shaking with laughter.) Maybe he was going about this the wrong way. Where could she possibly have been without him running into her sometime in the past five years, or, for that matter, anyone else who might have mentioned, oh, hey, did you know so-and-so took on a ten-year-old Bellatrix Black as an apprentice?

"One of the Black metamorphs?" There were still a few around, he knew. He thought he might have actually met Nymphadora once, passing through Carthage.

"That really should have been your first guess. I mean, it's practically the—" The rest of her response was cut off by the starting whistle and obligatory jumping and screaming. He was willing to bet it was something like that's the logical conclusion, Weasley.

But it really wasn't. Or at least, it seemed pretty absurd to Bill. He meant, that she'd been trained by some long-missing semi-legendary Black metamorph seemed about as likely to him as... No.

That actually sounded insane, even in his own head.

But he had taught both of the cursebreakers whose styles Black's had reminded him of, and Brinkley definitely would have known him, and it was impossibly unlikely. Literally impossible. But the goblins had been saying that the girl was a 'wandering star' — a time-traveller, basically, from a timeline mostly parallel to their own. Bill had thought they were just fucking with the humans, but if they weren't...

"Ciardha Monroe."

Black, who had been distracted by the start of the match ("And it's Mullet! Troy! Moran! Dimitrov!"), whipped back around to face him, eyes wide with surprise. "You weren't supposed to guess that," she said, switching to Gobbledygook, presumably so everyone around them wouldn't overhear her confirm that she was from another bloody dimension. One in which Ciardha Monroe was still alive, apparently.

...Well, this was definitely more interesting than quidditch.

This was amazing, quidditch as Draco had never seen it played before. From the moment Mostafa blew the starting whistle, it had been non-stop action, the Irish chasers keeping the quaffle in the air more than it was in their hands, falling into and breaking formation so fast that idiot Bagman couldn't even keep up with the commentary, spinning and swooping around bludgers and the other players with such agility it was hard to remember they were actually playing quidditch, trying to accomplish anything other than just the most gorgeous flying Draco had ever seen.

Krum, of course, was brilliant, he kept flying interference for his chasers, between circuits of the pitch, but Draco wouldn't be surprised if someone had told him the Irish chasers were using some kind of telepathy spell, they were that coordinated, and some of those acrobatics! Troy scored the first goal of the match with a Catapult, flipping his broom tail over nose to build momentum and flinging the quaffle two-handed through the right hoop as Moran and Mullet ran interference, luring one of the bludgers away and blocking Ivanova respectively — the Bulgarian chaser was forced to dodge to avoid a collision (bloody ballsy, for a chaser to just drop in and sit there, bracing for impact, especially a chaser as slight as Mullet, if Ivanova had hit her, she'd've gotten the worst of it), so suddenly that she nearly hit Levski — Connolly stole the other bludger from Volkov and passed it off to Quigley, who used it to force Zograff down, too far from the hoops to defend them properly, as Connolly arranged an actual collision between himself, Volkov, Vulchanov, and Dimitrov, who got crushed between Connolly and the larger of the two Bulgarian beaters, the other one spiralling toward the ground. He recovered quickly, but not quickly enough — by the time he reached the bludger that Moran was leading on a merry chase, slowly enough that it wouldn't lose her, keeping far enough away from the other players that it wouldn't get distracted, and beat it at Troy, the Irish chaser had already scored, rolling his Catapult straight into a flip turn, zipping away, the bludger passing him by inches as he spun back upright.

All of this happened in about three seconds, mind. He'd replay it on his omnioculars later, see if there was even a name for that play, but at the moment, Draco couldn't stand the idea of looking away, even for an instant.

Through it all, Lynch, the Irish captain and seeker, circled the pitch, carrying out his snitch search pattern with a single-mindedness that could only come from knowing that his team knew exactly what they were doing. There was no need for him to call their plays, no need for him to look out for bludgers, no need to get distracted by anything, just trusting that they'd do what they needed to do. Even after getting plowed with that Wronski Feint early on in the match, he kept his mind on finding the tiny golden ball whose capture would assure his team's victory (not that they couldn't win without it, but keeping a fifteen-goal lead was a tricky proposition, even for a chaser squad as good as Ireland's).

Draco attempted to keep his attention on the match with the same single-mindedness, despite the conversation Mother and Lord Black were having over his head, and the way the Weasley girl leapt out of her seat when Ireland scored. The conversation was really the more distracting part of it. Truth be told, he'd felt like jumping to his feet and cheering, too, but unlike the redheaded degenerates — or Black, or Potter (though Potter actually might not know better, he had been raised by muggles) — he simply couldn't allow himself to act so undignified in public. The looks his parents would give him...

Though he had to say, Mother wasn't exactly the picture of decorum today herself.

He was pretty sure that Lord Black was intentionally antagonising her, they'd been going back and forth since they'd sat down. "I'm just saying, Lynch's got a decent chance. Yeah, Krum's the better seeker by a long mile, but those Firebolts..."

Draco didn't have to look to know Mother was sneering at him, it was clear enough in her tone, and he couldn't look away, anyway — the beaters had surrounded the scrum, all four of them sending the bludgers through a pack so tight Draco couldn't even tell which team had the quaffle like they were doing bloody drills. "Yes, well, I'm just saying the dementors certainly haven't done your intelligence any favours. The Firebolt may be faster than anything Zirihnkov has come out with, but the advantages in maneuverability far outweigh those of speed—"

"I suppose I'll have to take your word for it, doubt I've spent nearly as much time riding a broom as you have," Lord Black said, his tone insinuating...Draco wasn't really sure what. Of course Mother had spent more time flying than he did — he'd been in Azkaban for the past twelve years. Mother didn't have much free time, but flying was one of her favorite things. When she did have a free afternoon, she was almost always out in the air.

"I said speed, Sirius, not size," Mother said drily.

"I never took you for a witch who prefers to take things slowly," Lord Black drawled.

Father cleared his throat on Mother's other side. Draco looked away from the match for half a second, just long enough to see that Mother had actually gone slightly pink. Her voice was tight and higher than usual as she said, "I daresay you've ridden more brooms than I have, even if you haven't taken the time to perfect your skill."

"My skill with a broom seems rather irrelevant to this conversation, but if you'd like a demonstration sometime..."

"Do you mind?" Weasley interrupted, undoubtedly rudely — both Mother and Lord Black were of a status well above her own, and adults on top, but he couldn't help being a bit grateful to her for it. At least until she added, "I can hardly hear the commentary over your flirting," which was just...scandalous, suggesting that his mother would flirt in public — and with Lord Black, of all people!

Black let out a bark of laughter. "Who's flirting, love? We were just talking about flying."

"Uh huh."

That sarcastic, disbelieving scoff was enough that Draco couldn't help chiming in. "What on Earth are you talking about, Weasley?"

"Oh, come on! Really? Don't you know why flying is traditionally a witches' sport? And what they say about female quidditch players?"

Well, he was pretty sure that before modern cushioning charms were developed, flying a broom was just bloody uncomfortable for a wizard, but wha—

"Miss Weasley!" Lord Black exclaimed, grinning behind his tone of false shock. "Surely you aren't insinuating that Lady Malfoy is a sex-sta—"

"Do shut up, Black," Father interrupted, directing a spell at Lord Black behind Mother's back and over his and Weasley's heads.

Lord Black made a rude hand gesture at him. "Nice try, Malfoy, but Bella used that on everyone. Pretty sure we could all break it by, what? Age six?"

"Yes," Mother said. "If she actually wanted you to shut up, she'd use this one." She flicked another spell at him, this one much stronger, Draco could feel the cold darkness of the magic as it passed him by, ruffling his hair. Lord Black jumped as though stung, his mouth open in a silent yelp, but whatever it was, he apparently couldn't break it so easily as the first one, because he just crossed his arms and glowered at her, tapping a toe in unmistakeable annoyance.

Mother just smirked at him. Then rolled her eyes as he cast an illusion above their heads — Bella, Cissy's being mean to me.

"Oh, for fuck's sake, Siri! I'm busy! Aren't you two supposed to be adults?" Black shouted back at him, over a roar from the Bulgarian side, as they very nearly scored their first goal of the match — Ryan just managed to save it, threw the quaffle straight down, half the chasers falling into death-dives racing to follow it, and the rest spreading out, ready to support whoever managed to catch up to it first. (Mullet, by a hair — she was tiny, didn't have the upper body strength to play a straightforward style, but incredibly fast, put some seekers he'd seen play to shame.) She did un-curse him, though.

Draco tried very hard not to think about the fact that Black was actually a version of his crazy Aunt Bella, and therefore inherently slightly terrifying, even if he hadn't arranged for her to be kidnapped and tortured at the end of last year. (Which he had, and she knew it. She'd practically admitted as much a couple of weeks ago, he was absolutely dreading going back to school, where she'd be able to enact whatever terrible revenge she had planned for him without Mother's interference.) He didn't do a very good job of it, obviously. He needed something to distract himself, he decided. Quidditch was all well and good, but it was hard to enjoy while preoccupied by thoughts of Black's impending revenge, and not nearly as good a distraction from fear as, say, anger.

"Muffliato," Draco muttered under his breath, using an anti-eavesdropping spell Snape taught all the Slytherins so that he wouldn't annoy Mother before saying (in the most accusing, disapproving tone he could manage), "You weren't insinuating—"

"Don't be stupid, Malfoy, and you can shut up, too, by the way. In case you hadn't noticed, we're at the bloody World Cup, and—" She broke off to jump up again, cheering and clapping for a goal Draco hadn't seen, distracted as he was by defending his mother's honour (and pretending not to be terrified by the reminder that his cousin was insane and had it out for him).

When she sat down, he decided to try again. "Do you mind? Leaping about like a bloody savage is just—"

"Seriously, Malfoy? I'm not stopping you sitting there with a stick so far up your arse you'd rather bitch at me than shut your thrice-cursed mouth and—"

"At least I don't look like a bloody idiot, jumping up every thirty seconds to scream myself—"

Ireland scored again, prompting more of the very jumping and screaming he'd been complaining about. Ignore me, will she...

"Typical Weasley. I'd expect this sort of behavior from someone so stupid he failed out of Hogwarts — not sure anyone noticed, but even Crabbe and Goyle haven't failed everything." No reaction. "Even you didn't fail everything, even having a mental breakdown all of second year and attacking all those poor mudbloods."

That got her attention. Her head snapped around, hair whipping out behind her and falling over her shoulder in a way that should have made her look softer — her chin was too strong and her mouth too wide to call her features delicate and she had the sharp Black cheekbones, not what Draco would call pretty — but the way she was staring at him, wide brown eyes flat and hard, her expression completely impassive, the world between them seemed to narrow, the light scattering of freckles across her tiny nose and the annoying squeaking rosette sort of falling away, taking any impression that he was trying to get a rise out of a soft little girl with them. "You mean when I was possessed by the Dark Lord? Allowing my marks to drop would have raised suspicion, he couldn't have that."

"When you were what?!" He cleared his throat, trying not to draw attention to the way his voice had broken on that last word. "You're as mad as Black!" Because all Draco knew — all anyone knew, so far as he knew — was that little Ginny Weasley had been having some kind of episodes, painting messages on the walls and using some kind of Dark Arts to petrify Mrs. Norris and all those muggleborns, until she'd finally lost it completely, tried to commit suicide in one of the lower dungeons. For attention, they presumed. Of course, there were rumors about an actual basilisk and the Chamber of Secrets, and Potter supposedly killing the thing with Gryffindor's bloody sword, but he was pretty sure those were just rumors. Yes, Potter was obviously involved, he'd showed up to that surprise feast covered in muck and blood, like he'd just pulled her out of an oubliette or something, maybe after she'd cut her own wrists, but no one actually believed he'd killed a thousand-year-old basilisk with a sword.

"Oh, so you weren't in on it, then? I did wonder, you know."

"In on what, you delusional—"

"Your father slipped a horcrux into one of my school books before my first year, when he got into that fight with my father, at Flourish and Blotts." She glared over his shoulder as she made her accusation, looking at Father only two seats away.

A horcrux?! Draco knew what a horcrux was, of course. Mother had told him the real story of the Warlock's Hairy Heart when he was nine or ten (bloody horrifying, he hadn't slept for a week), even if he didn't know how to make one. Mother had told him, all matter-of-fact about it, that it wasn't particularly difficult, so far as ritual magic went, just bloody. And painful. And deep Dark Arts, the most evil sort of soul magic. There was, she said, no shame in not wanting to ever have anything to do with that kind of magic, he could still be a proper dark wizard without being evil. Most dark wizards, even, didn't ever get into that sort of madness.

He couldn't decide if he was surprised that the Dark Lord had, or not.

On the one hand, yes, he knew that the Dark Lord had claimed to be immortal. He'd been dead — well, gone — for almost thirteen years, now, but people still talked about him like he'd be coming back one day. And he knew that the Dark Lord had done a lot of terrible things. Enslaving Draco's father, and who knew how many other people, came to mind. He knew that Aunt Bellatrix was insane — he'd found a file in Mother's office, once, copies of crime scene reports, raids Aunt Bella had been responsible for. (He had no idea why Mother had them, and he hadn't wanted to admit he'd been snooping to ask.) Those were even worse than the Warlock's Hairy Heart — he'd only seen a couple of photos, but he'd actually thought he was going to be sick. He wouldn't be surprised at all to find out that she'd made a horcrux, just because it was bloody and painful and the sort of Dark Arts only crazy people did. But the Dark Lord...

The Dark Lord was a bit of an odd topic. Draco could probably count on one hand the number of times he'd actually talked to either of his parents about the War, but he had the impression that, even if she thought he was mad and dangerous and evil, Mother also kind of thought he'd...had the right idea, sort of? His methods, of course, were abhorrent, but a Dark Revolution was a cause that she would actually support, with the right leader. Father, the only time Draco had ever gotten him to say anything on the subject, had told him that the Dark Lord had been a great man, once. But he'd been cursed, or something, some ritual magic gone wrong, maybe, and he'd lost his mind. Started forcing people to do his bidding, like Father, and Lord Nott...and the Yaxleys...Mr. Crabbe and Mr. Goyle... (The list went on.) Even some of the actual Death Eaters, Father said, were decent people — they'd joined up before he went mad and would have left if they could. (They couldn't, of course, being Marked, and all.)

A roar from the Bulgarian side distracted him from that train of thought as they brought the score up to sixty-ten. (The Bulgarian Minister's delegation, who had also been watching the Blacks and Weasleys and several of the Irish muggles as though they'd lost their bloody minds jumping and clapping like children when their team scored — what were they even doing here? — restricted themselves to polite but enthusiastic applause.)

Then again, it was also possible that Weasley was lying, or still hadn't got her head on straight. She'd practically have to be mad, if she thought Father had had anything to do with passing her this so-called horcrux. Even if the Dark Lord had made one, and Father for some reason had access to it, he would hardly have wanted it out there in the world, trying to re-embody itself!

"I'm sure he did no such thing, you lying little...hag!"

Weasley rolled her eyes. "And I'm sure you're an idiot. Tom thought so, too, you know. He wasn't terribly impressed with your father, either, both of you were just so disappointing compared to Candidus... They went to school together, you know."

Draco felt his eyes narrow. Now she was just making shite up. Everyone knew the Dark Lord had been from Brittany, and Great-Grandfather Candidus had gone to Hogwarts! "You're having me on!"

She just raised an eyebrow at him, cool as you please, and snapped back with a response that could have come straight out of Tracey Davis's mouth. "Am I? Thanks ever so for informing me. Whatever would I do without you here to correct my own memories? Must be some other pasty blond I remember him shagging."

Draco broke his privacy charm. "MOTHER!"

Mother turned to look at him, raised an eyebrow in one of those remember, Draco, you're in public expressions. "Yes, my son?"

"Was the Dark Lord's name really Tom? And did he know Great-Grandfather Candidus?"

Mother's eyes flicked from Draco to the Weasley girl and back, a hint of suspicion clouding her features, but before she could answer, Lord Black snorted. "Pretty sure he knew old Candy in every sense of the word."

"How the hell would you know that, Black?" Father drawled, a dangerous note of annoyance in his tone, now they were talking about his grandfather.

Lord Black grinned. "Got it from Bella, obviously. See, your lovely wife got all jealous that I was fooling around with Giovanni — you remember him, right, Cissy? — so she couldn't have him, asked Bella to have a talk with me about sleeping around. If I recall correctly, that pretty much boiled down to if you knock up a muggle, I will castrate you. Er... Not really sure, it was a while ago, but I think I was trying to give her shite about her own sex life—"

"Giovanni? Who— Not Giovanni Zabini? When was this, Narcissa?"

"Before we started courting, Lucius, and before I learned he was a wizard's wizard, obviously." Mother, having gone positively scarlet, made a valiant attempt to change the subject. "Why, Sirius, by all the gods and Powers, would you do something like that? What could possibly have possessed you...?"

"Well, I was fourteen, so presumably I was just being an annoying little shite. Besides, that entire conversation was fascinating. I mean, yeah, using the Cruciatus as foreplay was a bit much, but I'd never heard of half the shite they got up to, so—"

Lord Black's voice abruptly cut out under the same silencing curse. "Shut up and watch the quidditch, Sirius."

He glared at Mother and cast another illusion — Cissy's being mean to me AGAIN — before sinking into a very dramatic pout.

Ireland scored three more times before Black apparently looked over in their direction again. This time, rather than shout over the cheering (Ninety-ten to Ireland!) she cast an illusion of her own, a dot of light 'writing' You probably deserve it in the air.

Yes, and?

Shut up and watch the quidditch like a good boy, and you can have a biscuit when we get back to the tent. This one was followed by a very bad sketch of a dog sitting and staring off into space. (Apparently Black thought it was fairly pathetic, too, as she felt the need to label it you, with an arrow when she was done.)

Fuck you, Bella, Lord Black projected, though his shoulders were shaking in silent laughter. Everyone knew, now, that he was a dog animagus — it had come out at his trial — and no one seemed to be the least bit surprised.

Do I look desperate to you?

"Okay, that's it," Weasley muttered. She cast a finishing charm at the glowing words cluttering up the air in front of her and turned around to kneel on her chair, obviously planning to tell Black off — Mother and Father appeared to be having some argument of their own behind an anti-eavesdropping charm — but before she said a single word, she let out a little squeak of surprise. "Dumbledore?"

"What?" Draco tore his eyes away from the match again to see that the Headmaster (and still Chief Warlock, if only just) had indeed just entered the box, wearing robes that appeared to have been cut from a Leinster flag, and a more severe expression than Draco had ever seen on him. Well, in person — the photo in the papers after he'd just barely managed to hold on to his position in the Wizengamot (taken on his way into the meeting) had been every bit as furious and determined.

Still, he sounded normal enough as he said, "Harry, my boy! I've been looking everywhere for you!"

Potter blinked at him as though he couldn't fathom what was going on here, that ridiculous disguise of his making him look even more stupid than usual. "Headmaster?"

"Your Excellency?" That was Director Crouch, from International Cooperation. He had been running around all evening in a minor panic — understandable, not only had they built the bloody box too small, but the Irish muggle politicians the Blacks had somehow managed to get here were apparently entirely unexpected. Well, Draco assumed the Blacks were to blame, they had shown up together (with Saoirse bloody Ghaelach), on an ancient flying carpet they'd apparently brought from one of the Black properties, because there weren't any bloody lifts in this ridiculous, poorly designed stadium — Draco had had to use the stairs, like a bloody commoner!

But he digressed. Crouch, who'd seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown since the Malfoys had made it up to the box, now sounded outright frightened. "We weren't expecting— You must allow me to introduce you—" He switched to Bulgarian, chattering to the Bulgarian Minister, who cut him off almost immediately with a dismissive wave and a single sharp sentence.

Dumbledore, meanwhile, had begun to assure Fudge, "Oh, no, I shan't be staying long, that's hardly necessary—"

"Nonsense, there's plenty of room!" (Well, there was now.) "Conjure yourself a chair!"

Ireland scored again, but this time, the only person in the box who jumped up to cheer was Black. Bagman, apparently confused by the lack of enthusiasm behind him, briefly broke off his commentary to see what had happened, though to his credit he picked it back up almost at once — the show must go on, and all that. Everyone else, who had been staring at Dumbledore or Fudge or Crouch or even Potter, turned to stare at Draco's mad cousin, who looked around, apparently unconcerned with about sixty foreign dignitaries and influential politicians and Irish separatists and Weasleys staring at her. "Ireland scored. Are we not supporting Ireland anymore?"

Cursebreaker Weasley — the one with the cool earring and the dragonhide jacket — pulled her back into her seat, smirking and murmuring something too quietly for Draco to make out over Female Weasley groaning in his ear, "Nothing good can come of this," and Mother rising smoothly to welcome the Chief Warlock, inquiring politely as to his business this evening, since he clearly wasn't here for the match.

"Ah, well, I simply heard that the Blacks were to be here this evening, and wished to take the opportunity to assure myself that Mister Potter is safe and well after...his abrupt departure for his summer abroad."

Lord Black attempted to respond to that, but he was still silenced, so Black got there first. "Sirius told you he was fine weeks ago. Are you sure you're not here to abruptly remove him to the custody of a pair of abusive muggles under the mistaken impression that he needs to spend more quality time trapped in the suburban nightmare they call home?"

"Perhaps this is something better discussed in relative privacy," Mother suggested, in that not really a suggestion at all tone she did so well.

Dumbledore glanced around at the rest of the box, then, after a few very long seconds, made the right choice (doing as Mother said was always the right choice, in Draco's experience), nodding and gesturing toward one end of the box. "After you, my dear."

Mother shot the Headmaster a sharp look, but didn't actually correct his overly-familiar address, just led the way to the back of the room, followed closely by Lord Black (whom she surreptitiously un-silenced). Draco tried to follow as well — he'd had to get up to let Lord Black out of the row anyway, and whatever was going on, he wanted to know (no one ever told him anything), even if this was the most inconvenient time to hold a meeting in the history of ever — but was stopped by a sharp shake of his father's head.

Black vanished her own seat rather than climb awkwardly over the knees of everyone else in her row, and stalked toward the corner Dumbledore was currently casting anti-eavesdropping charms around. "Weasley, I'm probably going to need someone to explain how blood wards work in about three minutes. You know, a qualified, adult-looking person."

"Is that your way of saying, Bill, will you please back me up, here?"

"Was that not obvious?"

"Obvious, yes. Presumptuous, also yes." Cursebreaker Weasley stood with an easy shrug, even before he finished implying that he might have said no, meandering toward the Leaders of the Light and the Allied Dark, and the Head of one of the few remaining Most Ancient Houses as though this was neither very intimidating company nor a terrible imposition because Ireland was up by one-twenty and there was still no sign of the snitch, and it was the bloody World Cup. (Draco wasn't entirely displeased not to have been included in the meeting, under the circumstances.)

Potter, like any sensible quidditch fan, hadn't moved.

Black, when she realised he wasn't there, stalked back. "Come on, Harry, this is about you!"

"But, Lyra, it's the— Can't this wait until after the match?"

"No. Blame His Excellent Timing, he's the one who just showed up. Come on."


"You can get the memory from Blaise later."

Potter pouted, still looking stupider than usual with his hair pulled away from his face and his eyes all grey instead of their usual bright green. "Fine. Let's just make this quick," he muttered, sidling down his row, clearly keen on getting this over with. Good luck with that. Dumbledore wasn't exactly what one might call accommodating, and the Blacks were mad about their Family, everyone knew that. (See Mother involving herself in the impending Potter custody dispute, despite having no good reason to do so.) Trying to force the last member of any Noble House to live with muggles was akin to sacrilege to any right-thinking mage, and Potter was Lord Black's godson. If the Chief Warlock actually did manage to get Potter away from them, they'd probably murder the muggles in question and take him right back, laughing in the old man's stupid bearded face the whole time.

But, Draco decided, it wasn't his problem — not when Mullet had just stolen the quaffle from Levski with... It kind of looked like a Sloth-Grip Roll, but she let go halfway through it, swung down as she was coming in on the Bulgarian's left, and plucked the ball from under his arm in mid-roll, without even slowing down. He'd gone several meters before he realised what had happened. She'd already passed it off to Moran and come around to take stock of the pitch, apparently taking a breather. (Draco didn't blame her, they'd hardly even slowed down since the beginning of the match, and flying like that had to be exhausting.) She twiddled her fingers at the Bulgarian from about a meter up, an enormous illusion of her pleased smirk projected on screens for those who hadn't bought omnioculars.

Yeah, this was much better than politics.

This conversation had hardly even started, and it had already begun to go wrong. Not that Albus could even say he was particularly surprised — that did seem to be the theme of the summer.

In part, he'd been operating on outdated information. He'd composed a list of people he expected to be in the top box: Crouch and Bagman, of course, Fudge and a couple of people from his office, a Bulgarian delegation, the Malfoys, the Blacks (Sirius, Lyra, and perhaps a couple of the Tonkses) and, most importantly, Harry. The conversation would be relatively private, considered only by those directly involved — Crouch, Bagman, Fudge, and the Bulgarians obviously had no reason to participate, and while Narcissa was an aggravating meddler, her enmity with Sirius, stretching all the way back to their childhood, would, he had thought, likely prevent her from forcing her way in uninvited. In the unlikely event that she insisted on involving herself, she could almost certainly be counted upon to side against Sirius.

Despite the venue being admittedly inappropriate, it would, Albus had thought, be perfectly functional, and might even catch the Blacks off guard. They could hardly have expected him to confront them in such a public place, he couldn't imagine they would have brought Harry here if they'd anticipated such a move on his part. But it was of paramount importance that Harry be returned to his aunt's house, not only to maintain the wards but to maintain the relationship between the boy and his muggle family. All too often, muggleborns drifted away from their parents and siblings as they became more involved in the magical world, and without those connections to ground them, it was only too easy for them to...lose their way, abandoning the morals and principles with which they had been raised in the pursuit of knowledge and magic and power.

While he could hardly claim that the Blacks were less capable of protecting the boy than Albus himself, given the resources at their disposal, he could and did have his doubts about whether they could be...the sort of influence Harry would need in his life, in order to be an effective foil to Tom's evil. It was, of course, sometimes necessary to fight fire with fire, but embracing darkness, even to fight a worse evil, could only corrupt, in the end — and given the developments of the past weeks, he couldn't stop himself wondering whether that wasn't exactly what Tom would want, to corrupt the boy, rather than turn him. After all, what might Lily have become, if she hadn't died?

Albus knew, of course, that there was very little chance that Lyra could be swayed, but Sirius was clearly more vulnerable to his influence — and, now, had legitimate authority over her as the recognised Lord of her House — and Harry was likely to be far more open to returning home for the last weeks of the summer than the Blacks were to allow it. If he could only talk to the boy, he'd thought, he stood a very good chance of turning the tables on that infuriating girl...

But the necessary confrontation had almost derailed before it'd even begun. Albus had been taken aback, for a moment, to notice there were far more people in the box than he'd expected, enough that the space had to have been expanded at some point after construction. (Something about the magic in here felt unstable, in fact, someone must have whipped out a temporary solution at the last minute.) He'd been especially surprised to recognise Michael Cavan, the Tánaiste of muggle Ireland. For only a couple seconds, he'd been distracted with thoughts of why the muggle politician was at the World Cup, how he'd even gotten here — but then he'd recognised Síomha Ní Ailbhe, of all people, sitting next to him. And there was Fionn Ingham, and that was Clíodhna Ní Chaoimhe...

Apparently, Saoirse Ghaelach was forming closer ties with the muggle Irish Republic. That was...concerning. It did make sense, now that he thought about it — the Republic had confirmed they were sending a delegation to Hogwarts for the Triwizard Tournament, thanks to those unauthorised invitations that infuriating Black girl had sent out, but, bafflingly, had insisted on arranging their own transportation and security. The assumption in the Muggle Liaison Office was that the Republic was getting assistance from Irish muggleborns. There had been precious little evidence behind that assumption — it was a common paranoia among purebloods that muggleborns would retain their loyalty to the culture of their birth, concerned they would betray the mages to the muggles somehow — but it hadn't seemed entirely unreasonable, in this case.

If Saoirse was involving themselves, though...

(Albus belatedly realised he was going to be forced to host Síomha Ní Ailbhe, at his school. He didn't like this. He didn't like this at all.)

It was impossible to miss that most of Arthur and Molly's family were also present, their distinctive red hair marking them out in the crowd. It actually took several seconds longer for Albus to spot Harry than to identify their youngest boy, Ronald. The Blacks had apparently decided to disguise him for the event, though only superficially. He was concerned to realise, when he finally spotted the boy, that Harry and Ronald weren't sitting with each other. He'd been under the impression they were the best of friends, but now... Perhaps Ronald being pulled out of school at the end of winter had presented...difficulties, for their relationship. Albus had tried to convince Molly to change her mind — not simply for Harry's benefit, no, he doubted the isolation of being kept at home and away from his friends at Hogwarts would do Ronald any good either — but the fiery-willed woman had been adamant.

No, instead it was Blaise Zabini sitting at Harry's side.

Blaise Zabini, who was, in so many ways, very much his mother's son — charismatic and manipulative, with the added advantage of legilimency on his side. Were it not for the fact that Blaise, according to Severus, had no great ambitions of his own, Albus might have suspected him of being on a path to become the next Tom Riddle. As things stood, he could only suppose that he was working to further his mother's goals, whatever they might be, and however young Harry's ensnarement might factor into them.

Albus would admit to having a...difficult history, when it came to Mirabella Zabini. He had been, perhaps, predisposed to suspect her, more than was justified — there had long been a rumour that the infamous Lady Grace had been born to the Zabinis, an old but otherwise unremarkable Venetian family. He recalled wondering, when her name first appeared on the list of incoming students, if this Mirabella had had any contact with Lady Grace, if she knew anything about her, and after her Sorting, if the international thief and conwoman had had any...untoward influence on the young girl. The close association she had formed with Bellatrix (the two had been virtually inseparable for years) had only reinforced that suspicion. They'd been quite the pair, Bellatrix cold and vicious and dangerous — rather obscenely so, for a child her age — and Mirabella warm and charming and charismatic...

...rather obscenely so, for a child her age. Now Albus suspected Lady Grace truly was a Zabini, and truly had had some influence on Mirabella — it simply wasn't natural for a child that young to be quite that adept a manipulator without some external guidance. It was a scandalous thought, but there it was.

But despite his suspicions, Mirabella had made no overt political moves. She charmed her classmates and professors, but hardly positioned herself as an outright leader (that was Bellatrix's position). And when she left school, it was with no apparent plan other than to marry well and become a society lady (despite her common background, and her long-established relationship with the Blackheart). And then, the first overt power play she had made... Well, it had hardly matched his expectations of her.

It wasn't lost on Albus that the cessation of hostilities back in '81 was almost entirely due to the efforts of Lily and, of all people, Mirabella. Lily had defeated Tom, yes, but it had been Mirabella who'd negotiated the Truce in the aftermath. The Ministry had still been scrambling, the Order had still been scrambling, it had been chaos those first couple weeks. If not for Mirabella exploiting her connections in both the Death Eaters and the Ministry, who knew how long the violence might have continued? Mirabella might well have saved hundreds of lives.

(However much he might avoid crediting her for it publicly.)

And these days, well, he couldn't say he was personally pleased with her work at the Department of Education — as the Headmaster of Hogwarts, it was simply his duty to maintain the autonomy of his school however he could — but he couldn't deny she... Well, as much as he might hate to admit it, Mirabella was an excellent Director of Education. Her overhaul of the licensing process for Mastery applicants, her review of the OWL and NEWT standards... Even her attempts to dictate changes to the internal operation of schools throughout the country, he couldn't say hers were bad ideas. Most of the time, she even had the right of it — which was part of what made it so frustrating to try to fight Ministry overreach in places it had no right to impose itself, the things she was trying to accomplish were perfectly reasonable, but for that it was the Ministry forcing them to do it! It would be so much easier if she weren't doing good work, if her demands were obstructive or punitive, but as it was...

He was increasingly convinced, as the political situation worsened, that he was ultimately going to lose his struggle against the Department of Education. And he couldn't even be certain this was a bad thing!

So, on the surface of it, Mirabella's interest in Harry's life was hardly cause for concern. Despite her closeness with Bellatrix and the connections she had maintained with even the worst of the Dark in the days since the end of the War, she certainly wasn't a Death Eater herself — she spent much of her time in the muggle world these days, had even married a muggle, twice — and, so far as her professed and demonstrated politics went, wasn't too frightfully awful of an influence. Certainly no worse than Albus had thought Lyra Black might be, before the horror of the end of term.

The concern was that the surface might not be at all representative of Mirabella's motives and ultimate goals.

When she'd decided to establish a place for herself in the political sphere, she had moved quickly and decisively, with goals clearly in mind. Albus could not bring himself to believe that her wrangling a position at the head of a Department, promoted over candidates much older and more experienced, over candidates who were more qualified (at least on paper), despite having no political background or experience only ten years before, was pure accident and opportunism. One might be elevated to Chief Warlock for an act of heroism without truly knowing anything about the position or how to use it, but in many ways, the Chief Warlock was a figurehead. The Wizengamot could and would work around any incompetence or ignorance on Albus's part — and had, for the first several years of his tenure in that position. In contrast, it would be immediately obvious if a Department Director was incompetent, and those incapable of performing the duties of their position and managing the vipers' nest of interdepartmental politics would be quickly driven out by cutthroat subordinates itching for advancement.

Before November of Nineteen Eighty-One, however, Mirabella had appeared to be little more than a flighty girl who had been tremendously unlucky with her first two husbands dying in completely inconspicuous circumstances. She was an incorrigible flirt who enjoyed pretty dresses and parties, and generally came off as clever and witty, but very superficially so. The worst that would have been said about her, in her first decade or so after leaving school, was that she was a social climber (the nobility tended to disapprove of commoners attempting to become upwardly mobile, even commoners so charming as Mirabella Zabini) and completely shameless in her romantic affairs (the commoners tended to value monogamy far more than the nobles, whose marriages were most often arranged, matters of business over pleasure). They might, perhaps, have objected to the company she kept, but as the War had grown more overt, she had publicly distanced herself from it (and Bellatrix), maintaining a relatively neutral political position (insofar as promiscuous party-girls best characterised as the sort of person written about in gossip columns simply because she was young and pretty and glamorous, even when suffering the tragic loss of her latest husband, could be expected to express political views).

It had taken far too long for Albus to see it, but Mirabella Zabini had always preferred to be the power behind the throne, as it were, positioning herself to hold influence rather than overt authority, guiding those who did hold authority into positions of greater power, and herself along with them. Even when she was a student... Bellatrix had taken advantage of their social position to further Tom's goals among the students, but she would have had no reason to further the standing of a relatively poor, foreign commoner such as Mirabella among their peers, suggesting that Mirabella had been somehow instrumental in their initial rise to prominence within Slytherin. (Most likely by acting as an intermediary for Bellatrix, who, like many children of the nobility, had led a relatively sheltered, isolated life before coming to school, and so had been woefully lacking in social skills at the age of eleven.)

He truly could not fathom why she might have decided to involve herself here, what she hoped to achieve by inserting herself into Harry's life. Yes, Harry would — one day, after Voldemort was finally defeated — be a powerful, influential member of the Wizengamot, but there was nothing he might help her achieve that she could not accomplish on her own or with the assistance of the Blacks, given that they were now (for better or worse), an active political power again. Certainly not in the short term, in any case.

Moreover, he could not fathom why she had apparently decided to insert herself into this conversation, and yet there she was, making her way across the box toward the corner he had...appropriated for the confrontation, despite the Potter situation being distantly her business at best. (Being Mirabella Zabini, of course, she was incapable of walking twenty feet without acquiring a man to escort her — Bill Weasley, Molly and Arthur's eldest, had apparently been ensnared.)

His uncertainty regarding her motives made him rather...uncomfortable with her presence — understandably so, he thought. He also thought, however, that she could be depended upon to act as a moderating force within the discussion. That was, after all, the role she had taken for herself in the political scene at large. In fact, he had been and was still rather surprised that she hadn't been appointed to some office in International Cooperation, rather than Education — what Bartemius had been thinking, refusing to allow her into the diplomatic corp, Albus would never know.

In any case, it wasn't Mirabella's participation (or that of her captured Weasley) that concerned him most — it was Narcissa's.

For some entirely inexplicable reason, Narcissa had clearly decided to stick her nose in as well, and moreover, apparently had decided to ally with her least favourite cousin, a man with whom she was incapable of spending five seconds before their lifelong rivalry began to express itself in the form of childish sniping on both sides — against him! Yes, it was well known that Narcissa had been sponsoring Lyra Black when she first appeared in Magical Britain. Until Sirius's name had been cleared (or perhaps until Andromeda had arranged for her to become the Acting Head of her House, he wasn't entirely certain of the legalities of the situation), Narcissa had been the girl's official guardian. So it was perhaps reasonable to expect her to support the girl if he were to attack her directly, but there was no reason whatsoever for her to wish Harry more firmly under the influence of the Blacks — if anything, she and they were shaping up to be political rivals! Sirius's politics, while hardly as light as Albus might wish, had always been moderately progressive and extraordinarily populist for a man raised in a Noble and Most Ancient House, while Narcissa's could be summarised as expedient, with the goal of maintaining the current social order — i.e., with herself at the top of it.

That did seem to be the theme of this summer, didn't it? People who should reasonably have no motivation to cooperate, nonetheless cooperating in opposition to Albus himself.

As baffling as it might be to individuals with an incomplete understanding of British history, Albus hadn't been particularly surprised to see Tom and his Death Eaters face considerable opposition from within the Dark itself. Ars Publica, the name by which the Dark in the Wizengamot were traditionally known, had (among other issues) long been characterised by a rejection of outside authority in their affairs — Tom's Allied Dark, given they were united chiefly by their fealty to a Dark Lord, thus represented a stark break from the fundamental principles of Ars Publica, just as firmly as from the Light. Members of Ars Publica had a long history of opposing Dark Lords in the past, most famously persecuting the decades-long campaign against Ignatius Gaunt and leading the resistance movement against Frances Cromwell. (Ironically, the most visible champions of both those efforts had been Blacks.) He might not agree with them on much else at all, but he couldn't deny they were at least in accord when it came to their distaste for figures like Voldemort.

Of course, even ignoring the Dark Lord aspect of it, Ars Publica had other issues with the Allied Dark. As much as they might state otherwise, the sociopolitical stance of the Death Eaters was actually a characteristically modern one — despite rhetoric claiming they represented a return to an older, purer magical Britain, the Death Eaters represented a radical break with the traditions of the true Dark, enough the majority of Ars Publica had wanted absolutely nothing to do with them. Some of them had, seemingly, found the Death Eaters even more offensive than the Light did, on a personal level that didn't quite touch them, since the Light obviously had no stake in the question of what the Dark was "supposed" to be. There was still much the two largest factions of the Dark disagreed on — for example, Ars Publica was perhaps the most liberal faction in the Wizengamot when it came to rights for nonhuman beings, while the Allied Dark tended toward fervent opposition (which often put Albus uncomfortably on the same side as the former on those issues) — enough that many of the most vicious arguments on the Wizengamot floor were internecine Dark squabbling.

Albus felt he could be forgiven for not seeing their alliance coming until it was already too late.

And Common Fate joining them? That had blindsided him completely. The faction was, traditionally, led by the heads of the Bones and Longbottom families, both of whom he had considered firm allies. In some ways, Common Fate had been behind him personally even more strongly than the Light. For all their relative beneficence, the Lords of the Light were still Lords — the nobility of their nation had their own established interests, to which Albus, as a commoner, would always be seen as an outsider and potential threat. While Common Fate did share some of those same interests, obviously, their history did lead to certain important ideological distinctions.

It had taken some months in the Wizengamot for Albus to realise that calling the divide within the body a simple opposition of Light and Dark was a massive oversimplification; in particular, Common Fate were sort of both and neither. Their political tradition descended primarily from old pagan priesthoods, a small number of the most influential of which had been granted representation ever since the beginning — the House of Bones, one of the Seventeen Founders of the Wizengamot, had originally been a death cult of sorts, a cabal of literal necromancers credited with the ability to speak with, and for, the dead. (There were numerous aspects to the history of magical Britain that were quite horrifying if analysed too closely.) These old cults had been oriented far more toward the interests of the commons than the contemporary nobility, and facets of that attitude had been retained, inherited through fifteen centuries of cultural drift. Albus, as the first commoner ever elevated to Chief Warlock in their nation's history, had seen a degree of support from even some aesthetically Dark members of Common Fate he wouldn't have anticipated, apparently just on principle.

Common Fate allying with the Dark against him, that he would have never seen coming in a thousand years — Augusta and Amelia had both lost close family members to the Death Eaters, some of whom still held influential positions in the Allied Dark! That they would work together, that they ever could, was just completely unthinkable!

And it wasn't just the Dark closing ranks against him, oh no, even people firmly in the Light had taken up the cause of his downfall alongside them. His relationship with the Lovegoods, and the peculiar conservative, pseudo-spiritualist, collectivist subculture they came out of (the direct descendants of the same religious cults Common Fate had risen from, in fact), had always been somewhat complicated, but he'd been taken aback by the sheer vitriol Xeno had been throwing at him lately. They'd had disagreements in the past, yes, Xeno had had frank criticisms of his handling of the war — informed, he assumed, by his late wife Pandora, who like Lily had been both a member of the Order and a shameless practitioner of extremely illegal ritual magics, so coming at his critique from a unique angle — but his dissection of Albus's history and the assault on his record was on a scale and of a ferocity like nothing he'd done before. And, unusual for anything written by the notoriously eccentric man, people were actually listening — according to their own numbers, the readership of the Quibbler had doubled in the mere couple of months since the Granger interview, a handful of his articles being bought and reprinted in papers across the country.

Albus had even heard rumours the Herald was in talks with Xeno to pick him up as a regular columnist — that was bloody absurd, he never thought he'd see the day...

And, perhaps the hardest betrayal of all, when the Dark had called a vote to remove him as Chief Warlock, the Light had stabbed him in the back — they had all voted against him, almost to a man. Albus had had no warning. In fact, only the day before, he'd been in a meeting with a number of influential Lords, where Llewellyn, widely considered the leader of Ars Brittania (the traditional, hard-line Light), had reassured him he had nothing to worry about. He'd told Albus, to his face, that they had the votes to defeat the motion, that they had nothing to worry about.

He'd lied. Llewellyn had looked at Albus, in the eye, and lied to him.

The only reason Albus was still Chief Warlock was because the Dark had flipped, stalling the vote only so they could examine the shifting of the political winds.

Albus owed the Dark, including Narcissa Malfoy, for his continued influence.

Though it seemed, that influence was shrinking by the day. The motion to remove him as Chief Warlock had failed, yes, but nobody doubted it was only a matter of time, and his enemies were moving to excise any power he might have in the Ministry in the meanwhile. His allies in the DLE had been shuffled out of leadership positions. Mirabella had moved to ram through reforms while he was weakened. The DIC had already suspended his credentials to the ICW, it wouldn't be long before his (legitimate) diplomatic caché simply evaporated. Mysteries had ceased sending him regular reports entirely, certainly a sign that the days of his political career were numbered if he'd ever seen one.

He'd scrambled to protect his people, to stop the reins of the government from falling into the hands of the Dark, he'd fought to do as much as he could, but he knew he was losing. His influential position in the administration of their government was, he feared, about to end as swiftly as it'd begun — and, much as his nomination to Chief Warlock in the first place, due to the maneuvering of figures in the shadows whose motives or even their names Albus knew not.

And as intensely complicated as it had become, it had all started that day back in June, when Albus had been convinced, for a short, horrible time, that Harry Potter was dead.

A misunderstanding Lyra Black was, intentionally or not, responsible for.

(And now, knowing that Tom was regaining his strength, on the move again, and Bellatrix out of Azkaban, in the wind, Albus couldn't help the paranoid suspicion that perhaps, just perhaps, whoever was pulling the girl's strings was working with Tom, as well — that it was all a single, well-choreographed plot intended to strip Albus of influence and power, weaken him so that he would be unable to effectively resist Tom's next bid to return fully to the land of the living and reignite the war as he inevitably would. It sounded entirely mad, of course, but such a thing would hardly be inconsistent with the elaborate, overly-complex schemes Tom and Bellatrix had enacted over the course of the war. They'd staged a goblin rebellion as a distraction, for God's sake!)

All this he thought of as he cast his palings against the chance of any international dignitaries overhearing him insulted by a fourteen-year-old witch he was powerless to silence, because, as Sirius had pointed out at the end of their last encounter, they had him over a barrel politically speaking, and he was hardly going to resort to violence in an attempt to teach the girl to mind her tongue and stop acting out. No matter how infuriating she was, she was also just a child, at least in the eyes of society at large. If this was all part of a larger and more elaborate plot, whoever had organised it had chosen their instrument well. Albus hardly wanted to be the sort of wizard who went around beating children into submission, much less seem to be, and in any case, it probably wouldn't actually work unless he went so far as to kill her.

Exactly how much of Bellatrix's personality could be attributed to her association with Tom and the then-living Blacks during her formative years, and how much was simply genetic, Albus couldn't say. However, judging by the girl's complete disaffectedness in response to having blown herself up practicing runic casting and later (as now seemed to be the case) being tortured by her fellow students — whom the DLE still had yet to identify — he was willing to assume that physical punishment would have as little effect on the Blackheart's daughter as it ever had on her. (Which was to say, none.)

Detention, likewise, had had no impact on young Lyra's behaviour — if anything, assigning such punishments over the course of the previous school year had only given her more opportunities to corrupt the staff. (Okay, just Severus, but that was quite bad enough!) If he started taking points from Gryffindor instead, subjecting her to censure from her peers, she would doubtless convince them all that the House Cup was a Tool of the Man, used to Keep Them Down — Albus was fairly certain that was how Sirius and his friends had defended their own rampant loss of points in their time. (Somehow, it had seemed much more amusing in the Seventies.)

How, precisely, one was meant to enforce any sort of discipline upon a child uncowed by threats of punishment or social pressure or even pain, he had no idea, but quite frankly he was becoming ever more strongly convinced that it was not Lyra Black he most desperately needed to find a way to control. His best course of action at the moment (he suspected), was to discover the person or persons behind the campaign to discredit him over the past months, and apply pressure to them instead — they seemed to hold some sway over the girl's actions, if not her attitude.

It wasn't Sirius, he knew. God knew the man had motive, having been locked up in Azkaban due to Albus's failures for all those years. He obviously couldn't have raised the girl, for the same reason, but it was hardly impossible that he had colluded after his escape with whoever had to enact this plan against the man he held responsible for his incarceration. Albus did know, after all, that the girl had been in contact with the escaped convict, even if she couldn't possibly admit it. It had, however, been only too clear in their previous discussion of Harry's summer plans that young Lyra was by far the more...forceful of the two of them, and he also knew that Sirius, though clever, had never been one to plot or scheme. It might be Narcissa, or Zabini, possibly — both were far more inclined toward such methods, and could potentially hold some influence over the girl — but he was quite certain that, if Narcissa had had a Black heir hidden away in the wings, she would have brought her forward when Arcturus had died. And Zabini...

Honestly, he couldn't see why Zabini would bother plotting against him. Yes, they were at cross purposes when it came to the Ministry's interests in undermining his control of his school, but...

But she held the ears of several important people, and had ways of convincing others to tell her information which was, in the right hands, potentially valuable. Given the degree of influence she'd demonstrated in orchestrating her truce back in Eighty-One and the fact that she had only become more prominent in society since — exchanging her youthful, party-girl façade for a more sedate, respectable persona within their world and making a name for herself in technology on the muggle side of things — it was not unreasonable to believe that, as things stood today, if she wished to take control of the government she could easily do so. She simply had no interest in doing so, nor had she ever shown any sign that she enjoyed pressuring people simply for her own amusement. Even if she was killing off her husbands — which, at this point, was nearly an arithmantic certainty, though there was no actual evidence to that effect — he suspected that it was primarily for money or power, rather than self-gratification. And despite her close association with Bellatrix, she had never shown any great love for Tom. She had, in fact, profited immensely in his absence.

All of which meant that there was no reason for her to be behind Lyra Black's existence and/or the shambles that had become of his political career over the past two months. She had certainly taken advantage of the circumstances, but Albus doubted that she had engineered them.

A pity, really, because out of all the people with whom he'd ever known Bellatrix to associate, Mirabella Zabini and Tom Riddle were the only two who had ever seemed to have any degree of influence over her behavior. It would have been a convenient explanation, to believe that Zabini was manipulating her one-time lover's daughter in much the same way she had her mother. (A scandalous thought, but there it was.)

But no, for all his pondering of the subject (and despite Perenelle's insistence that there needn't be any sort of convoluted plot masterminded by some shadowy adversary with some sinister, unknown goals — she made it sound so...ridiculous, honestly!), the best Albus could come up with was that the girl was raised by one of the Black metamorphs or, less likely, one of Bellatrix's less well-known associates. (Because — sinister, unknown goals notwithstanding — she had to have been raised by someone.) The latter possibility did seem rather...doubtful, though. Bellatrix had not, so far as Albus knew, ever had many friends, let alone friends who could be relied upon to carry out so delicate and demanding a task as raising her daughter. It was possible, he supposed, that she could have delegated the task of finding a suitable foster-family to Zabini, which would broaden the pool of candidates considerably...

He would have to try to work it into the conversation, he decided — see whether he could get a reaction from either of them.

Mirabella and her escort had nearly reached the line he had cast on the floor, delineating the edge of his anti-eavesdropping spells, when they were intercepted by a very irate Bartemius Crouch. Poor Barty seemed to be having an even worse time of it today than Albus was himself, almost trembling with rage as he exchanged a volley or two with his counterpart from Education. Albus couldn't quite make out their words over Sirius and Narcissa's snide, passive-aggressive quips. It was almost amusing, watching two of the most influential members of the Wizengamot putting on such a childish performance. But only almost.

"Why should any of that matter to someone like him? It's not as though he has any respect for the other traditions of our world, I can't see why you would expect him to respect your rights as Mister Potter's godfather."

"Well, you see, Narcissa, he claims to have Harry's best interests at heart, though he apparently hasn't any intention of taking Harry's opinions on the matter into consideration."

"Ah, I see. Yes, it's clearly in his best interests for the boy to have been raised entirely ignorant of our ways."

"Fuck culture, what about ignorant of magic itself? What kind of monster—"

"No, Sirius, you're missing the point. You see, an ignorant Harry Potter is a malleable Harry Potter — quite clever, really, if rather more Slytherin than I might expect from our esteemed Headmaster."

On the balance, he decided, their byplay was mostly tedious. Were they not still waiting for the actual children to join them — Albus would have no qualms starting without the infuriating Miss Black, but there was hardly any point trying to convince Harry to leave with him if Harry wasn't there — he would have long since interjected, changing the subject.

"Yeah, well, I hear politics will do that to a man. Something, something, corrupts absolutely, you know."

Okay, that was just insulting. Surely Sirius, as much as anyone, must understand the lengths to which Albus had gone to limit his personal power, refusing to exercise it even in the most dire of circumstances. He seemed to recall the impetuous young man objecting rather strenuously to that fact, once upon a time.

"Knock it off, children," Zabini drawled, leading young Mr. Weasley across the ward line — she couldn't possibly have heard anything they'd been saying, but he supposed the specifics hardly mattered. "I swear, put the two of you in a room together, and suddenly you're eight years old again."

Embarrassed silence ensued immediately, giving Albus the opportunity to say, "Miss Zabini? Mister Weasley? I'm afraid I don't understand why—"

William cut him off, rather defensively. "I was invited." Presumably by Zabini.

"And I'm here to keep the children in line." She said this completely straight-faced, perhaps unsurprising, given that, as Bellatrix's long-time...companion, she would have been a figure of relative authority in the lives of the younger Blacks since they'd been very small, but still rather ironic, given the way she had presented herself for most of those years.

Both Blacks glowered at her. "Hey, we don't have to do what you say any— Wait, no, we're not children, Zee! Damn it!"

"I don't suppose it would do any good to tell you to mind your own business for once in your life, Mirabella?"

"Not a bit, Cissy, dear," Zabini said, her tone most deliberately patronising, ignoring Sirius's objection entirely.

Well, much as he might prefer to avoid her, Albus was hardly going to object to a relatively neutral party enforcing some sense of decorum on those two. He cleared his throat. "And...Mister Crouch?"

("Oh, if I'm a child, that makes you a paedophile. Ha!")

("Really, Mirabella? Sirius? What would Bella say?")

"Oh, you have some nerve, Mister Dumbledore, asking what I'm doing here! You're the one exacerbating an already delicate political situation by barging in to further this ridiculous, petty dispute—"

("Probably ask whether we'd had a threesome with Nicky yet.")

("Ooh, that's a great idea! We should definitely do that! I'm free this weekend.")

Dumbledore drew himself up with as much offended dignity as he could muster, ignoring the highly inappropriate conversation behind him as best he could. "Enough, Bartemius! I will not be spoken to in such a way! I am still the Chief Warlock—"

("You're free every weekend, Sirius. Getting drunk and shagging any random muggle who crosses your path doesn't count as having plans.")

"Barely," Crouch hissed, his voice full of scorn. "Meanwhile, I am still the Head of International Cooperation! Do you have any idea how many difficulties you've caused for my Department this summer?!"

("I'll have you know, Cissy, I don't shag every muggle who crosses my path — only the pretty ones. Also, I forgot, I was invited to a thing at a veela colony this weekend, but Tuesday is good.")

"I do believe I might have some idea, yes. It is hardly as though I myself have been exempt from the fallout from that unfortunate...misunderstanding."

("I'm curious, Siri, is there really nothing more important in your life than having as much sex as possible, with as many people as possible?")

("I'm curious, Cissy, are you jealous?")

"Oh, is that what you're calling it, now? Face it, Chief Warlock, you—"

"Now, now, Mister Crouch," Mirabella interrupted, her tone somehow both soothing and amused. "Given the delicate political situation at hand, this is hardly the time for that particular discussion, wouldn't you say?"

("Of course not! I—")

Bartemius was neither soothed nor amused. "Do not talk to me, Mirabella! If it weren't for you and that– that horrid, impetuous, mad little girl—"

("So you really wouldn't go to a veela orgy if you were invited?")

("Of course I should say no!")

"Oh, yes, how dare Lyra take it upon herself to fulfil a treaty obligation that both of the esteemed politicians before me seem to have been content to leave neglected, no doubt entirely unintentionally. After all, what the muggles don't know won't hurt them, will it?" Zabini's eyes narrowed pointedly. "And honoring the treaties and agreements established for the continued peaceable coexistence of our respective peoples is so tedious. It's a wonder anyone bothers."

("Should? Uh-huh. Well, I'm not inviting you, because that's just begging for incest jokes — I saw that look, Weasley — but if you just so happen to be anywhere near Barcelona on Friday or Saturday...")

("You can't just go inviting people to other people's orgies, Sirius!")

Somehow, Albus suspected that the devious witch was no longer referring solely to the 1913 Treaty of Anglesey — the unofficial truce between the former Death Eaters and the Light had been perilously close to collapsing since it had come to light that Sirius had never been properly tried. That there would be trials for all suspected Death Eaters and that prisoners would not be executed were the only major concessions Bellatrix (or Mirabella, speaking on her behalf) had demanded.

If anything, Bartemius grew more furious in response to the thinly veiled threat, his face bordering on purple in his rage. He had, of course, been the Head of the Department of Law Enforcement at the end of the war — blame for the miscarriage of justice in Sirius's case could be laid at his feet as easily as anyone else's.

("You can when they're veela. The more the merrier. Also, I'm pretty sure I just said I'm not inviting you, so—")

"Okay, I just barely caught any of that, but were you just inviting Cissy to Barcelona this weekend, Sirius?" Lyra asked, dragging Harry across Albus's impromptu ward line by his elbow. "Because yeah, I can see Lucy being so bad in bed that she'd want to join in a veela orgy now and again, but—"

"I would advise you against finishing that sentence, missy," Narcissa snapped, interrupting her with a brief flicker of cold power.

The girl rolled her eyes, breaking the silencing jinx with a silent, wandless dispel — certainly a useful skill to have learned, but terribly disconcerting, in such a young witch. "Fine. What's up, Your Excellency? Has there been some political development that I'm unaware of?" she asked, taking the lead as though she was still the Acting Head of her House.

Sirius appeared content to allow her to do so, but Albus certainly wasn't. He ignored the girl in favour of addressing her legal guardian. "Lord Black... Sirius... I was hoping to speak to young Harry alone—"

"Not going to happen," the other wizard interrupted, his face twisted into a ferocious scowl.

"—or, at the very least, with the two of you together. Perhaps you would prevail upon your cousins to give us some degree of privacy? The matter we need to discuss is one of some delicacy, after all."

"No. Anything you can say to Harry in front of me, you can say in front of Narcissa and Zee. And Bella wouldn't go even if I asked her."

"And I invited William," the girl interjected.

"Right, so Bill can stay, too. Crouch can bugger off, though."

"I will do no such thing! You people have turned this event into a diplomatic nightmare, and I will have an explanation!"

"His Excellency wants to take Harry here back to his abusive muggle aunt and uncle's house and make him stay there for a few weeks to reinforce the idea that that's his home, because he laid a fucking blood ward on Harry to protect him from the mostly-late Tom Riddle — Voldemort, that is—" (Crouch flinched slightly at the name, though he was the only one present who did.) "—even though it's not necessary for him to go back there to maintain the ward, and he'd be better off breaking it anyway, and in any case, His Excellency doesn't have the political leverage to force us to give him up. So I repeat, has there been some new development I'm unaware of? And if not, do you realise that you're interrupting the Quidditch World Cup Final just to re-hash an argument we settled months ago?"

"I think you will find, Miss Black, if you think back to the discussion in question, that our dispute was in no way settled."

"Er...yes, it was. You demanded we give Harry back and I told you to go fuck yourself, and you tried to be all threatening, but—"


"I'm kind of in the middle of something here, Zee."

"Yes, and that something ends now. I've done nothing but deal with messes of your creation all day. Now, the Chief Warlock is going to say his piece and we're going to reach some mutually unsatisfying compromise like the responsible adults we are. You are going to stop being unnecessarily antagonistic and allow us to do so."

"Or else...?"

"Or else I'm going to strangle you with my bare hands, Lyra," she said lightly, her tone nearly as pleasant as the one she used on Crouch only a moment ago.

"I think she's serious, Bella."

"No, you're Sirius, remember?"

"Shut up, both of you, before I make you shut up!"

"Ah...do I really need to be here for this?" Harry asked no one in particular. "Because, there's, you know, the match, and—"

"Unfortunately, my boy, I'm afraid we won't be able to stay through the end of the match, however long that might be. It is imperative that you be returned to your family immediately. In fact, I fear—"

"Like hell he will!" Miss Black interrupted. "Those classless pigs—"

"Vox petram."

Silver spell-light flashed across the space between Zabini and the Blackheart's daughter, too quickly for the latter to do much more than raise her eyebrows in surprise as her voice box was transfigured to stone. After apparently trying and failing to object verbally to the spell, the girl glowered at the older witch, and cast (also wandlessly?! A dispel was one thing, but...) a passable illusion of her own voice saying, "What the fuck, Zee?!"

"Someone once told me that there was no point making a threat you were unable or unwilling to follow through on. Who was that, again...? Oh, yes." She gave the girl a very pointed look. Presumably it had been Bellatrix. "Now, are you finished interrupting?"

"No! And you can't make me! I have every right to—"

Zabini cast another spell, this one silently. Albus didn't recognise it from the wand motion, either, but from the feel of the magic... Was that a general nullification charm? His estimation of Mirabella's abilities as a witch went up a few notches. Any spell that suppressed another mage's ability to channel or shape magic was rather difficult to cast, let alone to hold, even against an immature witch like Miss Black, who was staring at her now in abject astonishment — quickly becoming annoyance as she obviously tried and failed to break the spell.

Mirabella smirked at her. "I assume you also know the rule about underestimating people, simply because they aren't you?"

"Er...don't?" Sirius grinned. "Zee, don't take this the wrong way, or anything, but I think I might love you."

"That's cute, darling. Now—"

"Er, sorry, but...do I really need to be here for this?" Harry asked again, rather hesitantly.

"Yes, my boy, you do need to be here — given that you are yet to have been given a say in the matter at hand, it is only right that you ought to have one now. For your safety and that of your aunt and her family, you must return to their home for the remainder of the summer. You see, I cast a very powerful protective charm on you, based on the magic your mother used to protect you from Voldemort's attack when you were a baby. So long as you reside with her blood — her sister, Petunia — so long as your home is with your mother's family, this spell will protect you—"

"Like it did when Voldemort was possessing the annual Defense sacrifice?" Sirius interrupted. "What about from basilisks? Because I hear those can be pretty dangerous. Honestly, you should count yourself lucky we're not pulling him from Hogwarts and homeschooling him for the next four years!"

"The decision of where and how Mister Potter will be educated is not yours to make, Sirius!" Albus snapped, failing to contain his irritation at the interruption. Harry had been softening, he could see it in his face!

"The hell it's not! I'm his godfather, Albus! You might be the Chief Warlock—" ("Barely," Crouch muttered.) "—but if we bring a custody case against you, the Wizengamot will side with me, you know they will!"

Narcissa nodded her support. "I think you will find, Your Excellency, that the nobility take our traditions far more seriously than those who — through no fault of their own, of course — have a rather...less thorough understanding of said traditions."

Well, that was quite a polite way to call him up-jumped common trash, Albus was almost impressed. "I think you will find, Narcissa, that I do still have some influence, despite your best efforts to thwart me. But that is neither here nor there. None of us, I think, want to see this dragged out for the court, especially since— You do wish to return to Hogwarts, do you not, Harry?"

"Yeah, sure," he answered distractedly, peering past Albus at the quidditch players still zipping about. "I mean— Yes, I want to go back to Hogwarts. But I don't want to go back to the Dursleys. And, um...I don't really understand why I should? I mean, Lyra said—"

"Harry, my boy, I know you trust Miss Black, but she is hardly a reputable authority when it comes to—"

The girl in question snapped her fingers several times, throwing a filthy glare at Mirabella before turning to young Mr. Weasley with a series of hand-signals which Albus recognised as the rudimentary sign language which had been developed to circumvent the difficulties most humans had in speaking Gobbledygook. Generally people only used a few specific signs to represent the sounds they were incapable of vocalising, but there were signs for the less foreign phonemes as well.

"Er... Apparently this is why I was invited, because while Lyra does know what she's talking about, I'm actually a reputable source on things like ritual-based blood wards. Also, Lady Zabini, Lyra would like me to tell you several things I am absolutely not going to translate, but I'd say she's annoyed with you."

(Barty, who of course would be familiar with the sign language, broke into a rather strangled coughing fit as he attempted not to laugh.)

"I got that, thanks," the Director of Education said drily. "And I did warn you of the impending consequences of your actions, Lyra. It's hardly my fault you chose not to heed me."

Miss Black pouted at her enlisted cursebreaker, throwing a few more signs at him.

"Do you want me to back you up or not? Then you're just going to have to deal with it. So, my understanding is that these wards — it would be a blood ward, Potter, not a charm — are tied to the Evans bloodline and draw on the strength of all members of the family to protect—" The Black girl interrupted with another snap and another flurry of hand signs. "What do you mean it draws on ma— Oh, wait, yeah, that does make sense. But then..." Weasley sighed, seemingly just holding back the urge to roll his eyes. "So this ward draws on the magic of all the members of the bloodline to protect them and their household from the man Lily intended to protect her son from — assuming I understand what Lily did that night, they'd kind of just extend the soul-shielding effect she was going for, but since Lily's soul isn't in it anymore, they'd have to draw on everyone else's magic instead, right?"

That last was obviously a question directed at Albus, who quite frankly had very little idea. He had known, of course, that Lily's ritual had been soul magic — it had to have been, if she was attempting to counter the Killing Curse, but... "Forgive me, Bill, my boy, but did you just say that you know what Lily did?" Because so far as he knew, no one understood what she had actually done. There had simply been too few traces to reconstruct it, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Potters' home. He had himself been trying to piece it together, off and on, for well over a decade, with no success.

"Well, I'm not positive, but Pandora had a theory that it was some adaptation of Iphigenia's Sacrifice, or possibly an old Sumerian soul-shielding ritual."

Albus sniffed, trying to keep his annoyance off his face. Of course Pandora had had a theory. He'd suspected as much back in Eighty-One — he had, in fact, suspected that Pandora might have helped Lily with whatever plan she had concocted, though she insisted that had she known what Lily intended to do she would have rather prevented it than provide her assistance. He had believed her — he'd never heard Pandora Sage-Willow lie about anything — but she'd refused even to speculate on what her fellow ritualist might have done, likely for fear of implicating herself. Even such an innocent and unworldly witch as Pandora had understood that the war presented a very specific condition under which certain exceptions would be made. Such could not be guaranteed if she were to have admitted to her expertise with High Ritual after the conflict subsided. Not that he would have brought the matter to the attention of the authorities, but neither she nor Lily had ever truly trusted him. And he supposed he couldn't really blame them, given that he'd made his disapproval of their methods clear early on, despite their efficacy.

"The real question," Bill continued, "is how she managed to destroy him before he could go and hit Potter with a second Killing Curse. Some sort of vengeance or justice ritual, obviously, but Pandora theorised she'd found some way to suspend it in a ward so that Riddle attempting to kill Potter would trigger it."

"Is that even possible?" Barty asked, saving Albus the trouble.

The young cursebreaker grinned. "If magic likes you enough, anything's possible. That's pretty much the first rule of ritual magic, right? But it's not unheard of — that was why Pandora thought Lily might have been studying Sumerian soul magic, their ruins are kind of notorious for being laced with ritual traps. No one really knows how they did it, though, so she would've had to reinvent the wheel, there." He shrugged. "Ingham and I came up with a couple different ways to do something like that, theoretically. Though, being Lily Evans, she probably could have just batted her eyelashes at Adrestia and said please, so. I mean, did you ever see her invoke the Powers?"

Sirius gave him a rather startled look. "When did you? Weren't you ten when the war ended?"

Bill just blinked at him. "Eleven. Pandora brought her over to do some blessing on our house back in Seventy-Nine. Lily introduced me to Hestia and made me promise not to let the kitchen fire go out, because if it did, Hestia wouldn't be able to keep the Death Eaters from noticing anything odd about our family."

Before Albus could comment — he hadn't known about that particular ritual (he could only assume that Molly hadn't either, because she almost certainly would have asked him about it) — the Black girl snapped her fingers again, glaring at Bill, and signed a few words at him.

"Slow down, kid, I don't actually use the sign language, so... Look, can you just let her talk? I think she's learned her lesson."

"You clearly are not familiar with my niece," Narcissa scoffed, but Mirabella must have been growing tired of maintaining that nullification charm, because she raised an eyebrow at the girl in silent question.

The infuriating child, in response, gave her the same overly-elaborate bow of concession that the Gringotts goblins used to mock the more obviously racist of their human customers. It was so very obsequious that it came right back around into a sort of sarcasm — still acknowledging that they had been defeated, but only for the moment.

"If you continue to antagonise the Chief Warlock, I will curse you again," Zabini informed the brat, even as she released her spell and reverted the transfiguration.

"Yeah, yeah. What the hell even was that? Because I know you can't channel enough magic to just stifle anything I try to do."

"Ask Narcissa about it later, it was her NEWT Arithmancy project."

Lyra Black grinned. "You've been holding out on me, Cissy — you know adaptive specific nullification is supposed to be impossible, right?"

"Yes, well, I wasn't raised to have a good deal of respect for impossibilities. Did you have something to contribute to the conversation, or not?"

"Yes, but no one will listen to me if I say it, so I was trying to tell William to run through the likely outcomes of an attack on any member of the bloodline, given that the protection draws on the magic of the bloodline, and Harry's the only mage involved."

Young Mr. Weasley grimaced. "Right. Well. Since Potter's the only wizard in the bloodline, it's very possible that, if he or either his aunt or cousin were actually attacked by Riddle — or his minions, possibly, I'd have to do a few tests on the anchors and the Dark Mark to say for sure — it might cause permanent damage or actually kill Potter, drawing too heavily on his magic to support the protection. Assuming the ward was cast correctly. In my professional opinion, the best case scenario would actually be if it wasn't, because if it was, it would be more of a liability than a protection. Basing it on Lily's soul magic would give it more focus, sort of built-in intent, but there would obviously be other less useful biases, so..."

"The worst case scenario, though, would be that they're strong enough to kill Harry burning possessed professors to death, but too weak to provide any general protection for the household simply by surrounding their home with light magic, like that ritual you mentioned Lily did on your parents' house. Which they are."

"And how would you know that, Miss Black?" Albus asked, quite certain that she knew because someone, perhaps the same someone who was behind her sudden appearance in his school, had gone to Little Whinging to investigate.

"Got it from Snape." Damn him! "He visited the Dursleys after the Aurors visited him asking whether he knew who might've thought it was funny to show up on Petunia Dursley's doorstep looking like her dead sister. According to him, they won't stop a Marked Death Eater harming the muggles, and they're not comfortable to be around, but certainly no worse than that flaming peacock you keep in your office."

"Did he mention how he actually tested whether they would stop a Death Eater harming Harry's aunt?" Albus asked, not entirely certain whether he wanted to know the answer.

"Well, he couldn't have cursed the bitch without setting off the monitoring wards, so I'm guessing he just smacked her or something to test them." The girl shrugged.

Sirius scoffed. "Typical Snivels. Finds someone who actually deserves to be cursed, even has a good excuse, and he doesn't bother!"

"Sirius!" Albus couldn't help the appalled exclamation. "The woman is a muggle!"

"Yeah, a muggle who makes Walburga look like a kind, loving, mumsy sort of witch!"

"What the hell are you talking about, Siri? Walburga was mumsy."

"Are you fucking kidding me? That woman was a bloody harpy!"

"That woman was your mother, Sirius!" Narcissa snapped, even as the girl giggled and said, "Well, yeah, but like, a mumsy harpy."

Had it been Walburga who raised her? Sirius's mother had become a recluse in the years following the end of the war and the fall of her family — Arcturus had made it known that she was quite mad, barred her from succession as the Head of the House, even, but perhaps that had been a ruse? It would explain how the girl had so clearly been trained as a Black heir, and perhaps why she had appeared on the political scene now, rather than at a more opportune moment...though not who was directing the plot against him. Walburga had died...relatively recently, Albus thought. Hadn't that been one of the earlier rumours put about, that Lyra Black had been homeschooled by a witch who had recently passed away? Hmm...

"I don't see you getting all defensive on behalf of your own mother, Cissy!"

"We're not talking about Dru, Sirius! Though if anyone was a harpy..."

"Narcissa," Mirabella said warningly, followed by, "Sirius," in the same tone. "Do recall that you have an audience, and there is a purpose to this conversation beyond your childish reminiscences."

The witch flushed prettily, looking down in a show of shame for having lost her composure. The wizard cleared his throat, eyes flicking from Mirabella to Albus himself. "Erm. Yes. Right. Sorry. Wards, and, er...stuff. Harry already said he doesn't want to go back to that bitch's house, so I'm not really sure what more there is to say, anyway."

"That His Excellency should let us take care of Harry, since his protections are incompetently cast and ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst?" the obnoxious child suggested.

"The blood ward could just be weak because it's supposed to be reinforced by the familial bond between the members of the bloodline and the household, and as far as I can tell..." Young Mr. Weasley trailed off, obviously attempting to be tactful about the point, despite Miss Black already having baldly accused Harry's aunt and uncle of abuse, and Harry... Where was

Harry had edged away from the conversation, slipping out of the privacy palings entirely to go stand at the edge of the box, leaning on the railing and cheering as Ireland scored yet another goal, bringing the score to one-seventy to ten, Ireland.

The Black girl apparently realised this at the same time Albus did. "Hang on a second."

She dragged the silly boy back by his elbow again, this time complaining audibly before he even crossed the palings that, "But Lyra, I already said what I had to, I just— It's the World Cup, Lyra!"

"Yes, and it's your entire bloody life and future and general wellbeing we're discussing, but sure, go watch quidditch, that's definitely more important."

"You weren't even talking about me when I left, or the wards — you didn't even notice I was gone, did you? — and I don't have anything to say, anyway, just, you already know I don't want to go back to Durzkaban—" (Albus's lips twitched at the childish hyperbole, though he quickly schooled his features back into impassiveness. It would hardly do to seem as though he was laughing at the boy.) "—and yes, of course I want to go back to Hogwarts, even if I have run into Riddle there more times than anywhere else, and I don't care about the wards, and I know none of you care what I think, so yeah, I do care more about quidditch, and—" His tirade was cut off by a roar from the stands all around them, the loudest yet. "What was—?"

"Bulgarian Seeker Viktor Krum — injured!" Ludo Bagman's magnified voice shouted over the crowd. "Bludger to the nose — nasty thing, if I do say so myself — but he's not showing any sign of pain, still circling the pitch, and Zograf's not calling for time!"

"Damn it! What did I— What happened?!" Harry tugged his arm out of the Black girl's grip, rushing back to the edge of the box and demanding of the nearest spectators, "What did I miss? How did he— Oh, come on, ref! That's got to be a— Wait! Is the referee on fire?!"

"Er, yeah, one of the bird-ladies hit his broom with a fireball just a second ago," one of the muggles informed him, staring at the pitch as though entranced, even as Albus approached, laying a hand on the boy's shoulder.

He flinched, whirling around to glare at whoever had touched him so unexpectedly, his expression softening slightly when he realised it was Albus, and not Miss Black coming to drag him away from the action yet again. "Harry, my boy," he began, not entirely certain how to get through to the boy, and especially not in the few seconds he had before the Blacks inevitably interrupted their momentary privacy. "I realise that sometimes families...may not get along. My brother and I... Well, I won't bore you with my own family drama, but suffice it to say that I do understand how difficult family can be. But your aunt and uncle, your cousin, they are your family. I'm sure that behind whatever minor conflicts you may have with them, they love you very much, and—"

Harry's expression hardened, eyes narrowing into hateful, scorn-filled slits. Between the expression and the outdated hairstyle the Blacks had foisted upon him, Albus was quite suddenly reminded of a young Tom Riddle, he would have been Harry's age now, glaring at him with impotent fury as Albus explained that he simply could not allow the boy to remain at Hogwarts over the summer. The silvery grey they had coloured his eyes wasn't quite the icy blue that Tom's had been, before he had been so thoroughly corrupted by his darkness, but still, the resemblance was rather uncanny.


"I'm sure that behind whatever minor conflicts you may have with them, they love you very much, and—"

"No." Harry took a deep breath, glaring up at Dumbledore. It took nearly all of his self-control to keep his voice quiet and level, to not scream the word in his stupid, patronising face, to not fly into a rage at the suggestion that his desire to never see the Dursleys again as long as he lived was just– just because of some petty, childish disagreement with them.

"I'm sorry?"

You should be. "No. They don't love me. They don't love me, and I don't love them, and we'd all be a lot happier if none of us ever had to see each other again!" Harry hissed...still in English (probably), and still quietly enough that no one turned to look at them, but he couldn't keep the anger to himself, he just couldn't. "You have no idea what it's like, living with them! If you make me go back, I'll just run away again! I know about the Knight Bus, now, and I have money, and places to go — they won't even try to stop me, and—"

"Harry...Harry," Dumbledore said, using that terrible, disgusting, wise old grandfather who's not going to tell you a damn thing you need to know about why a motherfucking Dark Lord is trying to kill you tone he used whenever he talked to Harry alone. "I know that—"

"No, you don't know! You can't, because if you did, that would make you just as bad as they are. Worse, even! Did you know they tried to beat it out of me, when I was little?" he demanded, desperate to make the old man understand that he wouldn't, couldn't go back there, that no protection was worth forcing him to live with a woman who hated him because of what he was, and her stupid, thuggish family.

A tiny, troubled frown appeared, just a crease down the centre of the Headmaster's forehead, and he opened his mouth to say something, but Harry didn't want to listen to whatever it was. "They tried to beat magic out of me! I was a kid, I didn't know what was going on, I was just as scared about suddenly appearing on the school roof as I was of Dudley and his mates — there were so many things I never understood, and all they ever told me about magic, or my parents, or anything, was don't ask questions. Did you know that I slept in a cupboard until I got my Hogwarts letter? Did you know they tried to keep it from me?

"Oh, wait," he realised, even as he said it, "you must have, you sent Hagrid to give it to me, didn't you? Did he tell you that they hadn't told me anything about anything?" Certain phrases from that life-changing meeting in the small hours of his eleventh birthday were carved into his mind, unforgettable. "That when Hagrid finally came to tell me about magic, they called you a crackpot old fool who teaches magic tricks to children? And it's barely better, now! Did you know that there are six different locks on my bedroom door? All of them on the outside, of course. Though they didn't get the bars on the window replaced after the Weasleys rescued me, summer before last, so I guess that's something. Did you know they lock my trunk up, as soon as I walk in the door, in the cupboard where I used to sleep? I have to break in and steal back my textbooks if I want to do my summer homework!"

He had to pause for breath, which left Dumbledore an opportunity to say, "I will speak to them, Harry. I think I can promise—"

"No. You can't promise anything. It doesn't matter what you say to them, as soon as you're gone... They're scared of me, professor. They're scared of me, and I never ever did anything to deserve it, and maybe they're right to be scared, because they've done more than enough to earn me hating them— I'm not saying that I would, you know, do anything," he backtracked quickly, realising as the words left his mouth exactly how bad they sounded, Dumbledore's eyes going all wide and alarmed as though maybe he thought if he made him go back, Harry would do something like kill them himself. "I don't want to have anything to do with them, I mean. It's just— They might be more scared of you, enough that they'll smile and nod and agree to whatever you tell them they have to do, but as soon as you're gone, they'll go right back to doing everything they can to keep me away from magic, to control me, because they're terrified that if they don't, I'll blow them all up like Marge, or worse, embarrass them in front of the neighbors! And that's not how family treat each other, it's just not."

"Harry, my boy, I know it may be difficult to resign yourself to spending any time away from magic, even only a week or two, but surely you must see how important it is that you not allow yourself to lose sight of where you came from, simply because you have gifts your aunt and cousin do not..."

What the...? "What the fuck are you talking about? Sir," he added belatedly, upon realising that he'd just used the F-word to Dumbledore's face. (Fuck, Lyra was a terrible influence on him.) "This has nothing to do with the fact that they're f– bloody muggles, or even me not wanting to go a week without using magic — have you even been listening to me?" Actually, no, he decided, on second thought, it probably didn't matter that he'd just sworn at the Headmaster because he clearly wasn't actually listening to a fucking thing Harry was saying, just lost in his own little world of memories and what he thought Harry was thinking, even though he had no idea...

Harry caught a flash of one of the memories, one he'd seen before, from a very different perspective, looking down on a boy about Harry's own age, his fear hidden behind fury as he argued, calmly and rationally, but with sharp anger behind every syllable, not to be sent back to London, to the muggles, with their war and their bombs and—

"Has it ever occurred to you that maybe if I remind you of Tom Riddle so fucking much, maybe you shouldn't treat me the same way you did him?" he snapped, before he could stop himself.

He felt his eyes go wide with sudden anxiety as Dumbledore glared at him, hardly making an effort to hide his own fear and anger at the idea that Harry could snatch a thought from his mind, even one so unguarded and obvious as that — he hadn't even been trying, he hadn't meant anything by it. He was on the verge of beginning to babble apologies when he felt Lyra come up behind him, the tingling cold of her magic enveloping him before she touched him, wrapping an arm around his waist and resting her chin on his left shoulder like a much shorter Blaise.

"I'm sure it hasn't. Riddle wouldn't have a problem going to live with Petunia, he'd just compel her to ignore his existence, or maybe to obey his every whim, if he was feeling particularly sadistic. It's not like mind magic would trigger the Ministry sensors. In fact, you should probably just make that horse-faced bitch forget you ever existed next time you see her. If you happen to completely fry her brain doing it, well...oops? Accidental magic can be so unpredictable, am I right?"

Harry bit his lip, trying not to laugh. There was just something infectious about the way she was giggling, even as she spoke, clearly not serious, because who would really say something like that right in front of Dumbledore, but probably still willing to kill the Dursleys for him if he gave her anything even slightly resembling permission to do so.

Dumbledore wasn't nearly as amused. Harry could almost feel the heat of his anger, rippling in the air around him. "Miss Black, this conversation does not involve you!"

"Sure it does."

"You are no longer the Acting Head of your House, and even if you were, Harry Potter is not a Black!"

"No, but he's still Sirius's godson, and Dorea's grandson, and arguably it's more my job to protect him now that I'm not our Acting Head, because our Lord has to deal with political shite and make nice with outsiders like the Chief Warlock. The First Daughter's only real responsibility is to take care of the children of the family. You know, teach them shite, advocate for them...pick fights with arsehole adults who think they can get away with whatever they like because they're adults and they make the rules..." Had she just done something? Harry didn't think she'd cast a spell, but the temperature around them seemed to drop about ten degrees, the hot anger he'd been able to feel rolling off of Dumbledore suddenly vanishing. Well, not the emotion, that was still there, but... Had he been doing something? "If I say Harry's part of my family, you don't really have the authority to say otherwise. Well, I mean, you can say it all you like, but it doesn't mean anything.

"So, go fuck yourself, Your Excellency. Harry's mine, you can't have him."

"Er... Lyra? Maybe you shouldn't say things like that in front of..." In front of a bunch of foreign dignitaries who weren't paying them the least bit of attention. Oh. Dumbledore must have done a privacy charm. He felt a bit stupid not to have thought of it before, given that he'd definitely gotten a bit louder than he'd meant to, snapping at the old man a moment ago. "Never mind."

"Harry's family, Miss Black — his only living, blood family — are his mother's sister and her son!"

"Since when does blood define family?" There was a hint of something in her voice there, some kind of challenge Harry wasn't sure he understood any more than whatever magical subtext he was positive he was missing, but it didn't really matter, because, well, she was right, wasn't she?

The Dursleys, for all they were his mother's relatives, had never treated him like family. They'd never even treated Lily like family! He'd only ever heard Petunia talk about her that one time, when Hagrid had practically forced her to. And, well...

The Blacks were insane, that was an obvious, undeniable fact. Living with them for the past six weeks had made it very clear that Sirius and Lyra were both kind of unstable and just as fucked up in a lot of ways as he was — Sirius's parents were even worse than the Dursleys, and he still didn't know who raised Lyra, but he'd seen the scars on her back, so — but the one thing they had going for them, the one thing that seemed to keep them kind of...grounded, maybe, was the whole House of Black thing. The Family. (They always said it like it had a capital letter there, like they were the fucking mob or something.)

Sirius had tried to explain it to him, what it meant, to be a Black. To be part of the Family, or even just a family. Harry had eventually cheated, used legilimency to figure out exactly what he meant, because he definitely hadn't been getting it. That whole godfather thing was no joke. He kind of felt like Harry was his own kid, in a lot of ways. He also felt like he'd failed Harry, getting sent to Azkaban as he had, and that was a huge fucking mess Harry didn't want to touch with a ten-foot pole, but... Sirius loved Harry. Harry wasn't sure he'd ever felt anything like that before, but...he cared about Harry the way Petunia cared about Dudley. He'd move heaven and earth to make him happy. He'd kill for him. He'd die for him, if he had to. (It was kind of uncomfortable, realising that someone cared about him that much.)

Lyra... Lyra was completely incapable of explaining anything, ever. He'd cheated trying to figure her out, too, though not with legilimency. In a fit of frustration after a particularly annoying dancing lesson, he'd asked Mirabella why Lyra was so ridiculously obsessive about teaching him shite. From what she had told him, Lyra had been given a sort of model of what she was supposed to be, what the perfect, ideal heir to the House of Black was like, stories and legends and expectations and, kind of in the same way that she couldn't do anything halfway, she'd just gone ahead and...become that. And one of those things she was supposed to do, one of the basic principles of what it meant to be Lyra, Heir to the Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, was taking care of the rest of them. Mira had flat admitted that she didn't think Lyra was capable of love (which, given that she was a clone of Bellatrix, Harry couldn't say he was surprised about that), but that didn't mean she didn't care about them. It just meant that Family, to her, was more about duty than feelings. Her responsibilities to the members of her House and theirs to her, and how it all sort of balanced out. She had to take care of them, because if she didn't, who was she? (Which sounded awfully broken, but was probably better than the psychotic Dark Lady alternative.)

Family, by the Blacks' definition, was about having a place to belong, people who would support you and protect you, fight the whole goddamn world for you if you needed them to, because you were theirs, and all the gods help anyone who tried to hurt you or take you away from them. The worst thing a Black could be was a Blood Traitor — not like Malfoy and his cronies used it to mean anyone who didn't kiss their inbred, pureblood arses all the time, but literally a traitor to their own family. Family who didn't act like it. It was kind of like the way wilderfolk defined species, really. You had to act like family to be family. You didn't have to love them or even like them. You didn't even really have to understand them. They might hurt each other, or lie and take advantage of each other sometimes, but they also took care of each other, taught their kids things and protected them (actually raised them). And when push came to shove, they had each other's backs. Like Sirius and Narcissa, just a few minutes ago. They hated each other, couldn't even have a civil conversation, but the second an outsider threatened the Family (including Harry, which was just a weird thought), they closed ranks against him.

And the Dursleys...didn't.

All they had ever done for Harry was try to tear him down, turn him into an empty, magicless shell of a person, because they were scared of him.

"They're...not my family," he said, hesitating, slightly, over the words, the unfamiliar idea. He'd never really admitted it before, even to himself. They'd always been the closest thing he had to family, but they...weren't. They really, really weren't. "The Dursleys. They've never treated me like family. So...blood relatives or not...they're not my family."

Was it weird, that it kind of felt like relief, saying that?

"Harry, my boy!" Dumbledore exclaimed, looking just as shaken as Harry felt. "You can't mean that!"

"No, I can, and I do," he said more firmly, growing more certain of it every second. "I don't care if Petunia is my mother's sister, she's not my family, and never was! Er...what was that?" he added, distracted from what probably would have been a long, passionate, and slightly incoherent rant by a sort of soft twanging feeling in the air around him, and...

"You have no idea what you've just done, Harry," Dumbledore said, doom and disappointment heavy in his voice.

"Er...no?" He really, really didn't.

"Don't mind him, Harry," Lyra said calmly. "You just broke his precious blood ward, but it's fine. You have better family, now."

Oh. Shite. I didn't mean to do that. (Not that he was exactly disappointed that he had...)

"So, the way I see it, there's no reason to continue having this conversation, now is there, Your Excellency?"

Harry couldn't actually see her face at the moment, but he could just imagine the mocking I won smirk she'd be wearing. Dumbledore, on the other hand, could, and gave her the coldest, most hate-filled look Harry had ever seen in return (seriously, that was like, Snape-level hatred), before apparating out of the box without another word, the space around them sort of shivering — Lyra yelped and drew a handful of runes in the air with her wand which shot off toward each corner of the enlarged box, obviously holding her breath until it stabilised again.

"Fucking madman. Just because Escher traps aren't deadly doesn't mean they're fun to get stuck in — especially with a few dozen people who can't tell the fourth dimension from the seventh! But...I think we're good."

Er...ignoring that, even if they weren't it hardly mattered, because Lynch was diving, streaking across the field— "The snitch!" Harry found himself yelling, moving to the railing again without any conscious decision on his part. "He's spotted the snitch!"

Krum seemed to have realised what was happening as well, along with half the bloody stadium. Fifty thousand wizards surged to their feet, more rising as the Bulgarian seeker drew level with the Irishman, flecks of blood flying behind him as they raced toward the ground.

"Fecking hell!" one of the muggles shouted, leaning forward, over the edge of the box.

Harry heard Sirius screaming at the top of his lungs, a few feet away now, pressed to the railing as well. "Go on, Lynch!"

Lyra, still only inches from his ear, laughed. "He's going to crash again."

"Krum's not!" Harry yelled back — far louder than necessary, probably, but he was too caught up in the excitement to care, fumbling for his omnioculars, training them on the spot the seekers were converging on — he saw it, he saw it!

And then he lost it, as Lynch lost control, plowing into the ground again, dirt flying up around him, and a horde of angry veela rushing out onto the pitch and—

"The snitch! Where's the snitch?" someone bellowed from...somewhere behind Harry, maybe a bit to his left — everyone was out of their seats, now, fighting to get to the front of the box, fighting to see—

The scoreboard flashed BULGARIA: 160; IRELAND: 170, even as Bagman's magically magnified voice called out over the crowd, "IRELAND WINS! KRUM GETS THE SNITCH, BUT IRELAND WINS!" A moment later, Krum came level with them, rising slowly, fist held high, a solemn salute to his people, despite the loss and the blood still dripping from his nose, staining his red robes a deeper scarlet.

And then he sank back down, into the crowd of veela and leprechauns and mediwizards and his fellow Bulgarians, the Irish team a short ways away, jumping and cheering before mounting up again for a victory lap, Lynch riding double with Connelly, barely conscious.

"Sit down, sit down!" a fussy, official-sounding voice called over the small riot going on as the Irish supporters in the box, including Harry himself and the random muggle bloke beside him cheered at the top of their voices, waving pennants and flags, and...one of those squeaking rosettes that had been on Gin's hat — where had Harry even gotten that? It was as though it had just appeared in his hand! (Oh, fuck it, it didn't matter!)

There was a bang like a gunshot, startling them all into silence. "Sit down so they can bring in the bloody cup!" that Crouch bloke snapped, before repeating himself in Bulgarian.

"And then we'll have the Team in to accept it!" the Minister added, which seemed to be a good deal more effective in getting everyone to sit.

Harry, at least, couldn't wait to actually see them up close, in person — Sirius and Lyra and the muggle politicians had gone to meet the Irish team without him, earlier, but even they hadn't gotten to speak to Krum, and no matter how amazing the Irish chasers were (and they were amazing, Mullet especially), Krum was still the best player on the field. Even if they had lost... The longer it had gone on, the worse it would have been, ending it then and there was the best thing he could've done for his team, especially since he'd already had his bloody nose broken — Harry was surprised he was still on his broom! — and he'd pulled off a Wronski Feint! At the World Cup!

A sudden thought had him patting down his pockets for a bit of paper and a pencil, or a pen, a lump of charcoal — anything

Blaise, do you have a pen on you?!

Here, catch, he responded, amusement tingeing his thoughts as he flung a pencil from halfway across the box.

I fucking love you! he thought (to even greater amusement), snagging it out of the air reflexively.

Now he just had to get close enough to ask, and maybe, just maybe, he could get an autograph! Wouldn't that be something...

So, long chapter, lots of rambling, very little quidditch. In my defense, there was very little quidditch in the canon QWC Final, either. At least I didn't just say, oh, and then Ireland scored ten goals in fifteen minutes because the author can't be arsed to write anything more exciting. Also in my defense, we finished watching Buffy a couple of weeks ago, so of course I had to write 30k words of terrible crossover BS that I will definitely never be publishing because I hated the last season.

I'd just like to take a moment to appreciate the amount of research Sandra puts into the political shite. I'm completely incapable of caring that much, but super impressed, anyway. —Leigha

I believe she's referring to Michael's section. Didn't take that much work, really, but okie-dokie. Speaking of, the "Provos" Michael references at one point are the Provisional IRA who, yes, are exactly who you think they are. No, he doesn't actually work with terrorists, he just knows people who know people. But then, nearly anyone as well-connected as him would, Ireland is a small place. —Lysandra

Lyra has gotten a lot of practice with illusions recently, given that basically everything she was doing to interact with the real world while she was intangible was an illusion. Sirius also mentioned that all the Blacks (and their closer cousins) learned to dispel that jinx Bella uses all the time wandlessly when they were really young, so her wandless magic in this chapter shouldn't necessarily be taken to mean that she's suddenly become completely ridiculous. (Dumbledore, however, doesn't know this.) Similarly, she definitely didn't pull off enlarging the box by herself. She just broke the existing wards (which she's been analysing for the past two days, presumably while Sirius was busy getting covered in glitter with scantily-clad Brazilians). Fionn and Bill actually enlarged the space and kept the whole thing stable.

It should be assumed that Bill thought Lyra was from this time in an alternate dimension, until she immediately asked what gave away the fact that she was from the sixties, because she's really, really bad at this whole keeping secrets thing. Bill agrees not to tell anyone in exchange for stories about Ciardha, because he's a huge fanboy and it's Ciardha Monroe!

I really, really love innocent!Draco. Yes, he's a spoilt little twat, but he really does think the world of his father, and it's not his fault Narcissa decided to lie to him for the good of the family (because he almost certainly wouldn't be able to keep it secret that Lucius was a real Death Eater, if he knew). Similarly, It really amuses me that Harry puts Narcissa and Augusta Longbottom in the same category of horrible people who shouldn't be in charge of the government, just because all he knows about Neville's Gran is that she's super hard on Neville...

It also amuses me more than is probably reasonable that Sirius and Narcissa are bickering about sex in the background while Dumbledore and Crouch are having their Very Serious Political Conversation.

And finally, a bit that I really wanted to work in, but it just didn't fit...

Albus: Harry, my boy, I—
Lyra: Excuse me, Your Excellency, but I think you must be mistaken. This is my brother, Marv.
Harry: Lyra!
Lyra: Sorry, Marvolo. It's a family name.

Er...there are probably more things I was going to say at some point while writing this ridiculous monster of a chapter, but I can't for the life of me remember what they were. Christmas is terrible and I'm glad it's over? The next chapter is already mostly done, though we'll probably wait to post until we have at least one more done as a buffer.