Disclaimer: Nope. Don't own Harry Potter.

Content Warning: There is an event in this chapter which could be triggering. Please check the content warning at the end of this chapter for more information.

OoOo

Chapter 19

Rule number sixteen: If you know you are going to fail, always make sure that someone else or something else will take the blame.

It took a bit of planning with Pansy – not to mention a great deal of convincing, conniving, and cajoling – to get the Neutral party and other neutral students to meet. Draco tried to stay out of the planning process as much as possible, knowing that the other students wouldn't trust an invitation if it came from him. It took a couple weeks to gather the names of everyone willing to attend a meeting, and then they had to delay another two weeks due to a bout of flu that swept through the student body. Draco managed to avoid getting sick, but at one point half of the classes were canceled and a quarter of the students were infected at once. When the school had sufficiently recovered, they set the meeting time for Sunday afternoon. It was a time that most students were free and there was the least amount of supervision. Draco didn't want the professors catching wind of their plans.

Draco headed up early to get the Room of Requirement set up. He picked a casual setting, a large, well-lit room with a fireplace and plenty of couches, armchairs, and beanbags for a variety seating options. He dropped into a chair off to the side as the students began arriving. He was pleased to see that turnout was even better than expected. Nearly every student from the Neutral party had arrived, along with a dozen or so students who had chosen the Superiority or Equal parties but had more neutral leanings. The students found their seats, chatting amongst each other, before Pansy got up to stand in the front of the room.

"Thank you for coming," she said. "We have a lot to discuss."

Isobel McDougal, sitting on a couch with Darla Burgess and Anthony Goldstein, crossed her arms. "Are you going to tell us what this is all about now? You were incredibly vague when you called us all here."

"I was working on behalf of a party who wished to go unnamed. But now that you're all here…," she stepped back and gestured out for Draco to take her place.

He pushed himself up, shoved his hands into his trouser pockets, and sauntered to the front of the room. The response from the room was expected and immediate. Those students who had signed up under the Equality room all objected. The Neutral students groaned and rolled their eyes. The few students who had signed up for the Superiority party looked startled more than anything.

"What are you playing at, Malfoy?" Goldstein asked, giving him a sidelong look.

Draco leaned against the wall and tried to look like an irritated, overwhelmed student and not a manipulative genius trying to overthrow the current political hierarchies of the school. "I'd thought I'd do you all a favor by pointing the inherent fallacies in this bloody debate they're forcing us to put on." He shook his hair out of his face and heaved a sigh. "Look, we all know the debate is just a way for the professors to push their propaganda about equality."

"We do not know that," Isobel objected, sitting up straighter and looking affronted.

Draco knew she was going to be a hard sell. She was taking the debate seriously, and she had a lot of faith in the professors. But he'd need to convince her to sway the other Ravenclaws, so he kept his tone conversational. "What would you call it then?"

"It's a forum for discussion for the most important political decisions of our time. And your presence on the Neutral party is an insult. We all know you're not neutral."

"I don't claim to be," Draco said. "But have any of you bothered to ask why I'm on the Neutral party?"

He could see a few curious glances. Goldstein was the one who answered, in his typical inquisitor style. "Another diabolic plot to spy on your enemy, eh Malfoy?"

"It was an experiment," Draco lied. "All of you know who my father is, all of the professors know who my father is, and so you all assume you know my loyalties. When the professors say this debate is a forum for a discussion, when you," he gestured at Isobel, "claim that this is a forum for discussion, it suggests some form of conversation. But none of you even approached me to ask why I signed the way I did. None of the professors asked why I signed the way I did. Do you know why no one asked?"

It was a rhetorical question, but he paused, just to see if anyone was going to admit it. He saw a few people shift; a few people glanced away. He smirked, because they all knew the answer.

"Because this debate is not actually a discussion. No one really cares about reaching the other side and changing opinions. This debate was set up to further entrench students into the belief systems they have, and that's only going to lead us into eventual conflict."

Some of the students looked discomfited at his declaration. Others were angry that he'd even suggested it. Isobel was one of them, her eyes sparking as she retorted, "You have no proof of that!"

"Then why have the professors silenced you?" Draco asked. He looked around at the group. "Why are all of you forced to choose a side or be silenced? Why aren't you allowed to convince people to take a more nuanced look at the politics surrounding the issues of Equality or Superiority? That's why you're all here, after all. That's why you've put yourself in the Neutral party. Because both sides are crying 'War! War!' and you think there might be options for peaceful resolutions of these issues. You don't want to discard your beliefs just to get a place at the table. You shouldn't have to discard your beliefs to be heard."

He'd hooked them, he could tell. Several of them murmured to each other in low voices, a couple looked offended as they realized they had been silenced. Even Goldstein looked contemplative.

"What are you suggesting?" Darla asked.

"A protest," Draco said. "The Neutral party stops attending the other group meetings and holds our own. We force Equality and Superiority members to attend our groups, and we demand a place at the debate."

"And if our demands aren't met?"

"Then we walk. We don't attend the final debate and we don't turn in an essay. What are they going to do? Fail us for not writing an essay in a class that isn't even an approved part of the curriculum?"

He saw some of the Ravenclaws sit up at that last piece of information, and he had to huff out a laugh. "You must have realized that there is no way they got a mandatory debate class approved by the Board of the Directors. They would have had to write the curriculum and send it in for review before the end of last year. And even then, approval for a new class can take a full twelve to eighteen months, particularly if the topic is considered controversial."

He heard a few other whispers and mutterings in the room. Some of them might have suspected that this wasn't an official class, but when he laid out the facts for them, the truth was easier to see. They were putting in a lot of work into a class that wouldn't even count for their grades. And a lot of them with in 5th and 7th year, meaning they had end-of-year exams to worry about.

"Why should we trust you?" Isobel asked.

"You don't have to," Draco said. "I'm just one member of the Neutral party. I don't claim any authority or special privileges. I just wanted to draw your attention to this problem. If you all want to elect an official head of the party or just keep it democratic, it doesn't make a difference to me."

He stepped back and let them talk amongst themselves for a few minutes. He heard some conversations about protesting, others about alerting their Head of Houses to the issue, and a few people who didn't want to take any action.

"We don't have to decide now," Draco said, calling their attention back to him. "I know we're all busy, so how about we meet back here next week when you've all had a chance to think about it?"

He could see his suggestion was met with approval. A few of the kids got up, ready to return to the typical ease of a Sunday.

"Hey, Malfoy," Anthony said, loud enough to catch all their attention. "Why did you join the Neutral party?"

And that caught everyone's attention. And it caught Draco off-guard, even though he'd just accused them of not caring about his opinions. He wasn't expecting the question, so he paused, trying to find a reason that wouldn't make any of them guess at his true motivations. His pause made the rest of the room lean in for a moment.

"My political beliefs aren't performative," Draco finally settled on. "And I have no desire to partake in a scripted debate."

Anthony held his gaze for a moment, searching for whatever truth he was hiding, and then he burst into laughter. "You're trying to get out of doing any work."

Draco drew himself up, affecting an indignant tone of voice. "I'm offended at that assumption."

Anthony kept laughing, and a few other students joined in as well. Still, they accepted the story easily enough. It was rather Slytherin, after all.

Draco watched them leave, Pansy lingering behind with him. When the door shut behind the last student, she turned to him, a smile spreading over her face. "That went better an expected."

"I thought so too. What do you think? Do we have them?"

She walked closer, shrugging a shoulder. "There will be a few hold-outs, but I think you've got a good chance at winning them over."

Draco let out a breath, feeling oddly victorious. Pansy stopped in front of him and reached out for his hands. She linked their fingers together and raised an eyebrow. "Want to celebrate?"

"I thought you were single for a while."

"Single doesn't have to mean celibate." She stretched up on her tiptoes, her mouth stopping inches from his own, but she didn't close the distance. She waited for him to make a move.

Draco did feel oddly giddy. The prospect of successfully dismantling the debate made his skin buzz with triumph. His mind was already racing with his next moves. If this argument had worked at Hogwarts, it could work outside of it. Maybe it could even convince Lucius to delay his Mark, maybe he wouldn't have to choose a side just.

He smiled. "I suppose a celebration is in order."

He leaned down and claimed her lips like a victory prize. She remembered the way he liked to kiss, slow at first, gentle and tantalizing, and then delving deeper. She pulled his hands to encircle her waist. The silk of her shirt rose up and his fingers skimmed the warm skin of her lower back. He traced the line of her spine up to the clasp of her bra. They moved as one, a parody of a dance, over to one of the large beanbag chairs.

She dropped backwards, pulling him down with her.

OoOoO

Maybe it was the success with the Neutral party, or maybe it was sex with Pansy, or maybe it was the lighter schedule because Flitwick was still out of class, meaning his classes were canceled, but Draco found himself in a good mood that week. Even Warrington's and Nott's little digs and pointed comments didn't bother him. The only downside was that Bill was sick too, having come down with the flu sometime the previous weekend. On Tuesday, Jameson oversaw Runes class, giving them worksheets to fill out while Bill recovered. Draco was hoping that he'd be better by Thursday, but this time it was McGonagall who stepped in, following them from Transfiguration into Ancient Runes. Draco heaved a sight and ignored the busywork in favor of the Persian runes. He was so wrapped up in trying to force a translation, that he didn't realize class had let out until everyone had left, leaving him sitting in an empty room.

He sighed and started packing up, but stopped when Bill darted inside, quickly shutting the door behind him. He was still in infirmary pajamas, with a knit jumper pulled over the top with a large 'B' emblazoned on the chest. His feet were in slippers.

"What are you doing?" Draco asked.

"I've escaped," Bill proclaimed, spreading his arms wide. "Sweet, sweet freedom!" He made for his desk and began rummaging about for their work.

Draco narrowed his eyes. Bill still looked pale, his hair was flat and greasy, and the fact that he was still in pajamas meant he hadn't actually been released. "You're not really supposed to be here, are you?"

"Absolutely not," Bill agreed. "But that woman was driving me insane. I told her that if she made me drink one more potion I was leaving, and what did she do?"

"Made you drink another potion," Draco surmised.

"Exactly. So I left. But it's not like I'm deathly ill or anything." Bill gave him charming grin and then lapsed into a violent coughing fit.

Draco raised an eyebrow.

"Don't you dare say anything," Bill warned.

"Or what?"

"Or I'll cough on you and leave you to the tender mercies of Pomfrey."

"I hate to break it to you, but the flu is no longer contagious after five to seven days of showing symptoms, and that's reduced even further once you're on medications. When did you start feeling sick?"

Bill muttered something under his breath about Friday, and then something about a 'damned know-it-all' and Draco smirked even wider.

"So, I was thinking," Bill began.

"That's a new development," Draco said.

Bill scowled. "I'm ill. Be kind. Anyway, while I was imprisoned in the abysmal abode that is the infirmary, and tortured with a variety of potions, something hit me."

"Was it very painful?"

"Could you shut it for a minute? I'm trying to relate the moment of my brilliance."

"Just the one moment?"

Bill blinked at him. "You don't usually banter. Whatever happened to sullen, cynical, I-am-the-Ice-Prince-and-do-not-deign-to-talk-to-lowly-mortals Draco?"

Draco couldn't answer, because in truth, he didn't know. It had just been a good week, the sort of good that made him start viewing the future with a little bit of hope and optimism. And the only thing bad about this week was that he wouldn't be able to work on the runes with Bill, but here he was, still sick and infirmary-bound, but willing to risk Pomfrey's wrath to work with him. Draco felt the very strange urge to smile, not as a greeting, not as a manipulation, not as a way to mask frustration, but for the simple fact that he was happy.

Bill reached out to lay a hand on his forehead, ignoring the way Draco instinctively flinched away. "You don't have a fever, but who knows? Maybe your genius has finally driven you insane."

Draco glowered and shoved Bill's hand away, making him break into a grin.

"There he is!" Bill teased. "Anyway, I was thinking, what if our numbering system is off?"

"The numbering system?"

"The original tablet with the eleven dialects of runes was organized into two columns. We assumed the dialect on the top of the left column was the first dialect to be developed, and therefore the easiest to translate."

Draco let out a breath in realization. "Other numbering systems are read from right to left, and some from bottom to top."

Bill nodded.

"You want us to focus on four dialects then," Draco surmised. "The two top dialects and the two on bottom."

"Yes."

"You realize that we could just be making more work for ourselves."

"Or things could fall into place sooner because we've been focusing on the wrong dialect."

Draco grimaced, because they were taking on four times the amount of work as before. But it was a good idea. Bill didn't seem to shrink away at the prospect of additional work. If anything, he seemed invigorated, delving into the work with a burst of manic energy. But for all of his enthusiasm at the start, he started flagging after an hour of sorting, referencing, and guesswork. Draco could tell Bill would have stayed longer and pushed through the discomfort, so he started packing up his own things. He had to threaten to expose Bill's escape to Pomfrey before the professor begrudgingly agreed to returned. Draco trailed him to the infirmary, just to be sure he did.

His week ended with a stack of Quidditch practices. The other houses were practicing just as hard because the games had been pushed back following the bat-attack and necessary stadium renovations. The last three games, Gryffindor-Hufflepuff, Slytherin-Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor-Ravenclaw, were to be played a matter of weeks apart. Gryffindor was still favored to win the Cup, but the scores were close enough that all the teams had a shot. Slytherin was the closest challenger.

Draco spent Friday evening on his broom, doing laps around the school while the field was occupied by Ravenclaw. Hufflepuff had the pitch booked Saturday morning and Slytherin had claimed the afternoon spot. Gryffindor had it that evening.

Warrington pushed them hard on Friday, so by the time their practice came along, the team was already dragging. Warrington didn't care. He was intent on winning the House Cup, even though victory wasn't fully in their control. It all depended on how many points Gryffindor racked up in their games.

As tired as the team was, no one dared to complain when Warrington forced them into drill after drill, because he was the sort of captain who took complaints as a reason to work them even harder. Thankfully the Gryffindor team trickled in during the last half-hour, forcing Warrington to stop the drills, lest their opponents steal any of their formations. He ordered them to practice speed runs across the pitch for the remainder of time.

The Gryffindor team tried to take the field a good five minutes early. Draco saw the conflict unfold below him as he flew down the pitch, going fast enough to keep Warrington from yelling at him but not really trying for speed. He could hear Warrington shouting for them leave; Potter argued that they could start warm-ups if Slytherin was only flying laps.

Warrington turned back to his team. "Bulstrode, break out the Bludgers! Bellier, run a Quaffle sneak. And Malfoy, let's see another Andy's maneuver." He turned back to the Gryffindor team and crossed his arms. "We're still practicing."

Draco glanced over at Millicent, not surprised when she didn't bother unpacking the Bludgers. There wasn't enough time to get them into the air. Nor was Draco going to practice his dives. He was too tired, and his arms felt limp. It was a recipe for disaster. He angled his broom down, ready to pack up. Warrington was too distracted with the Gryffindors to yell at him.

The clock tower chimed six, time for Slytherin to leave the field. Draco shouldered his Firebolt and headed over to Warrington and the Gryffindor team.

"It's our field now," Potter was saying.

"You interrupted us," Warrington said. "We're going to take that time back."

Potter tried to step around him. Warrington blocked him.

"It's our field," Potter insisted.

Warrington drew himself up. He was bigger than Potter, bigger than anyone else on the Gryffindor team. "What are you going to do about it? Run crying to McGonagall?"

"I hardly think I'll cry over it, but yes. I will get McGonagall if you don't leave." Harry's voice was flat. He wasn't going to be goaded into the fight that Warrington wanted.

Draco stepped up, more to mitigate the conflict if things did turn violent. It'd been a good week; he didn't want to get detention and spoil it. The rest of the Slytherin team sidled into place behind them.

Warrington seemed to realize that Potter wasn't going to be provoked into a fight. He crossed his arms. "How about we settled this a different way? Pursuit."

"What's that?" Harry asked suspiciously.

Warrington turned to his team and, following his cue, they burst into laughter.

Draco didn't, because it wasn't that funny, but he did let a smirk cross his lips. "Really, Potter," he drawled, speaking up because he was tired and sore and he wanted to get this posturing over with so he could soak in the Prefects' tub. "What do those Muggles do to you over the summer? Lock you in a cupboard?"

The Slytherins laughed even harder. Harry flinched, and behind him, Ron bristled and Ginny took a half-step forward. Draco quirked an eyebrow in surprise. It'd been an idle rumor, that Harry's Muggle relatives locked him in his bedroom over the summers. But as the rumor spread, it also grew, until the younger students were sure that Harry was locked in a closet for the whole summer, or even a trunk. But by Harry's reaction, and the reaction of the Weasleys, the rumor wasn't that far off from the truth. Draco tucked that insight away.

"Pursuit is a racing game for two flyers," he continued in the same bored drawl. "The flyers start at the goalposts at one end of the field and race to the other side. They must weave in and out of all three hoops and then make it back to the starting point. It's called Pursuit because one flyer gets a two second head start. If the second flyer ties or passes the first, then he wins. If he doesn't, the first flyer wins."

"What do you say, Potter?" Warrington asked. "Feel like you can catch me? If you win, we leave the pitch now, no argument."

Harry looked at Warrington, and the broom in his hand. Warrington had a Nimbus 2000. It was a good broom for a Beater, but it didn't have the speed of Potter's Firebolt. "Deal."

Warrington grinned, and then held out an imperious hand to Draco. "Your broom."

The Gryffindors burst into outrage at the switch. The Slytherin team snickered.

Draco turned to Warrington. "I don't think that's a good idea."

His dissent had the two teams falling silent in surprise. Warrington rounded on him, face growing red.

Draco took a half-step back and raised his hands, a show of submission while he continued to needle him. "It's just that… well… you don't really think you're going to beat Potter here, do you?"

Warrington's face turned redder; Potter looked surprised.

"He's a Seeker; you're a Beater. It's training," Draco further placated. "If you keep your broom, and you lose, well, you can always blame it on the broom. He has a Firebolt, after all. You were never going to win with a Nimbus. But if each of you have the same broom, and he still beats you, well, how is that going to look?"

Rule number sixteen: If you know you are going to fail, always make sure that someone else or something else will take the blame.

Warrington took a step forward. "I swear, Malfoy –,"

Draco cut him off. "Fine. Take it." He shoved his Firebolt into Warrington's chest.

Warrington muttered something about driving him into the ground in their next practice. Draco pretended not to hear it. The Slytherin captain mounted the broom and took off for the far side of the pitch. Potter followed, shooting him a side-eyed glance as he did.

The teams cheered for their captains as they took their positions. Draco didn't. He knew what was going to happen.

Someone stepped over to him as Warrington shot forward, racing for the other goalposts. "You don't like him all that much, do you?"

Draco glanced over. Ginny Weasley raised her eyebrows in question.

Draco snorted. "You can't be surprised that Potter and I don't get on."

Potter shot forward, crossing the pitch in half the time Warrington had. He caught up with Warrington by the second goal post, had beat him at the third, and struck out for the opposite end of the pitch, a full three broom-lengths ahead of the Slytherin. The Gryffindor team went crazy.

Ginny leaned in to be heard over the cheers. "I meant you and Warrington. You could have just refused to give him your broom and let him save face."

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Your little speech about him blaming his broom if he lost. He couldn't refuse the Firebolt after you said that; it would look like he was preparing an excuse."

Draco turned, the cheers of the Gryffindors reaching a crescendo now that Harry had won. But the race wasn't important. Ginny was. She'd just correctly deduced his conversation with Warrington, and that gave him a moment's pause. He was getting a little tired of being discovered by Weasleys. He frowned at her.

Ginny met his frown with a grin. "You don't need to look so put off. You spoke in front of everyone."

He had. He just hadn't thought anyone would pick up on what he was doing. He crossed his arms. "What's your point?"

Ginny shrugged. "Just wanted to say good job, I guess. It was pretty clever. Although, I don't think it was going to win you any points with your captain."

She nodded up ahead where Warrington was storming towards them, face set in a snarl.

"It wasn't to earn points."

"Not with him, certainly," Ginny agreed. "But maybe with your Neutral party?"

His head whipped around to her. What had she heard about the Neutral party? But she was already rushing forwards with her team to greet Harry who was returning to them, smiling wide in triumph.

Draco scrubbed a hand through his hair in frustration. He had wanted some element of secrecy with the Neutral party. He wasn't expecting that it'd stay private, and he'd put no expectations of secrecy on the group, but he didn't want the professors finding out about it. Not yet, at least. If Ginny Weasley knew, then other Gryffindors might know as well. They'd be the first to tattle to a professor.

Warrington reached his team, chucking the Firebolt at Draco's head. Draco snatched it before it could hit. Warrington said nothing, just stomped towards the Quidditch locker. The team filed in behind him as the Gryffindor team took the pitch, still celebrating, and –

FWUSH!

There was the sound of igniting gasses – and then a burst of heat and light. A wave of force knocked into him from behind, picking him up off his feet and tossing him forwards. He was hurtling towards the ground before he could brace for impact. His limbs hit. His head bounced and stars flashed. He rolled a couple of times before he stilled, coming to rest on his stomach, the scent of grass and sulfur invading his nose.

His ears rang, a high-pitched tinny sound, and underneath it, he could hear shouting, screaming. He tried to turn his head; it took him longer than it should have. His eyes saw flames first. Bright yellow-green flames. They shot up, fifteen feet into the air. Maybe even higher than that. It was hard to tell. His vision had gone a bit wavy.

There were shouts around him now. He pushed himself onto his hands and knees. His head sent out a spike of pain, telling him to move slowly. He carefully turned to the right and left and located his teammates. They'd been tossed like he had. Bulstrode was grasping her arm, nursing a clear break, but that appeared to be the worst of it. The Gryffindor team hadn't been so lucky; they were somewhere behind the flames.

He pushed himself to his feet and staggered towards the pitch. His fingers fumbled for his wand. He tried the fire-suppression charm that Snape favored, but it had no effect. Draco paused, and then registered the unique color of the flames and the way they were behaving. They weren't spreading; they were stationary. Fae-flame, if he had to guess.

He tried to recall the counter-charm. Was it depostus? Compressus? His head hurt. The ringing in his ears was getting louder.

He saw shapes in the fire, and then the Gryffindor team burst through the flames. The two Beaters were carrying Katie Bell. She was shrieking; her legs fully engulfed in flames. It was an automatic reaction for Draco to re-try the suppression spell, and this time it took. Demelza Robins emerged next, her right sleeve on fire. She threw herself onto the ground and began rolling on the lawn to put it out.

Ron and Harry were the last to emerge. They were carrying Ginny Weasley between them. Their clothes were smoldering, but not fully ablaze. Draco could see deep red marks beneath their tattered uniforms. No blistering. Third degree burns. Ginny didn't look burnt, but she wasn't moving. Draco watched as they set her down, completely limp and unresponsive. Harry cast a few medical charms, but to no effect. Draco noted, with a growing sense of alarm, that she didn't appear to be breathing.

He took a step forward, ready to cast an oxygenating spell, but then he heard shouting. He turned. Several professors were running their way, Pomfrey leading the bunch. Ron stood up, waving his arms and shouting for help.

Draco stepped back and grabbed his broom. The fire was still burning in its peculiar shape. He needed to see the whole field.

He pushed through a bout of dizziness to get into the air. The yellow-green flames were slowly dying down, only ten feet high now, but as he rose, an image emerged. The flames were burning in the pattern of the Dark Mark.

He tracked the plume of smoke rising from the fire. Fae-flame burned hot and fast. It was typically used to treat forests or fields that had been overrun with certain invasive species, but the smoke it emitted was toxic. The first inhalation could sear the lungs. The pain of that would cause the victim to gasp in more smoke. Dizziness would follow, then unconsciousness, then death.

It was a windless evening; the smoke was rising straight into the air. The arsonist had set this trap for the Gryffindor team, fully intending them to be in the air when the fire was set, trapping them in the smoke. This wasn't graffiti. This was intended to kill.

Draco's stomach did a strange flip. He hurriedly dropped back to the ground, just in time to be ordered to the infirmary.

The infirmary was still full of a dozen flu patients. They were all out of bed, trying to crane their heads out the window to see what had happened. Draco dropped onto an empty cot and tried to figure out who would set such a deadly trap. It wasn't any Slytherin, otherwise Warrington would have never delayed the Gryffindor's practice. And Draco doubted any of the other children with Death Eater parents – there were a few in Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff – would be capable of such a feat. That left the professors, specifically Stevick and Jameson. But which one? And why?

His head throbbed as he tried to ascertain the arsonist's motivations and goals. The chatter of students around him wasn't helping. The Slytherin team was getting pestered with questions, and they had no answers.

Pomfrey arrived minutes later, a line of stretchers floating behind her, carrying the Gryffindor students. A hush fell over the infirmary. With a flick of the nurse's wand, the stretchers floated to an unoccupied portion of the room. Another flick sent a privacy curtain flinging about them, shutting them out of view. But Draco could still hear them. He could hear Katie crying. He could hear Demelza scream when something happened, and Pomfrey's immediate apology. He could hear Ron asking about Ginny, something quavering in his voice.

And then more people rushed into the infirmary, adults wearing lime-green robes with the crest of St. Mungo's. Draco heard gasps from the other students. Healers weren't usually sent for. Pomfrey was perfectly capable of handling most school-related accidents.

But this hadn't been an accident.

The Healers were ushered behind the curtains, and then they put up their own charms, ones that muted their voices and the sound of their patients. All Draco could make out was the occasional brush of a body against the curtained wall, making it flutter silently.

Bill strode into the infirmary next, his jaw clenched and face pale. Draco watched as he was let behind the curtain. Pomfrey emerged a few minutes later. Her eyes were pinched at the corners, but nothing suggested that anything truly terrible had happened. Like the death of a student.

She turned to the remaining students, the flu-patients and Slytherin team, and gave a decisive nod. "Right then, let's see to the rest of you."

It was clear that no one on the Slytherin team was in imminent danger, so Pomfrey started with the minor bumps and bruises. It was a way for her to treat and release the team in order to free up more room in the infirmary. Draco let himself slump onto his bed, knowing that he'd be the last tended to. He watched a few other people ebb and flow into the infirmary – Sprout came in with fresh aloe from the greenhouse. Snape brought up a new batch of burn salve. He stuck around to check in with his students. There was something sour about his expression that said he was furious, that said whoever had been behind this attack had done it without his knowledge.

A few students tried to enter, asking about their friends. They were shooed away again. McGonagall and Dumbledore arrived and took up residence in the corner of the room, speaking quietly to each other and casting worried gazes at the curtained off section of room.

No Healers had emerged yet. No students had emerged yet.

Bill hadn't come out either.

Draco felt a creeping sense of dread, followed by the stark realization that if he had hung around another moment or two, he would have been caught up in the flames as well. And it was only stupid, dumb luck that Warrington had picked a fight with Potter, keeping the Gryffindor team from taking the air. The entire team could have inhaled the smoke.

His mind replayed those last few minutes before the fire. Had there been any sign? Any clue that the pitch had been doused with an accelerant? He remembered walking on the pitch without noticing any difference, but perhaps there had been. Perhaps someone like Hagrid could have spotted it – a slight discoloration or the lack of insects or something. He didn't want to think he'd been helpless. He didn't want to think he could have ended up like Ginny, unconscious and not breathing.

She'd been absolutely fine just seconds before. He remembered their conversation and her pointed words. He remembered her smile, and the way she'd run onto the pitch, her red braid bouncing, celebrating Harry's win with the rest of her team. He remembered Bill's face when he'd come into the infirmary. He'd been trying to appear calm, but Draco had seen the fear behind his eyes.

Had Draco looked like that when Lukas had died?

No, most likely not. There had been nothing to fear. The Avada had hit much like the fire had, sudden and immediate, like a lightning strike. Lukas had died instantly. There had been no period of fear or dread or anxiety. There had just been grief.

So why was he feeling anxious now? Why was he feeling this rolling sense of dread? Was this… was this empathy? Assuming what Bill must be feeling and tormenting himself with it?

Draco sat up, trying to physically push the feeling away, but he'd moved too quickly. His stomach roiled and black spots danced in his vision. Nausea washed over him. He was going to be sick.

He curled over and Pomfrey was suddenly in front of him, setting a bowl in his lap. He heaved a couple of times, but only bile came up because it was past dinnertime at this point and there was nothing of lunch left in his stomach.

Pomfrey patted his shoulder. "I'll get you a stomach-settler."

She stepped over to the medicine cupboard. Draco saw Dumbledore and McGonagall approach her, and he grabbed his wand. He cast a discrete amplification charm, wanting to overhear their conversation.

"Well?" Dumbledore asked in a quiet voice.

"It could have been worse," Pomfrey returned, equally as soft. "From what we understand, there was an altercation between the teams which kept the Gryffindors from being fully in the air when the fire was started. Otherwise… well… it would have been worse."

"Thank Merlin for Slytherins," McGonagall said wryly.

Dumbledore nodded. "Flitwick recovered an incendiary device. It was scheduled to go off at ten past six, meaning it was set for the Gryffindor team."

"Who would do such a thing?" McGonagall demanded. Her eyes slid his way once, and he dropped his gaze to the bowl in his lap. Out of his periphery, he could see her shake her head, discarding that thought. She knew Slytherin wasn't the culprit. They had been just as surprised.

"We're looking for any additional evidence on the pitch, but so far, we haven't found anything. We'll have to do a sweep of Hogwarts." Dumbledore sighed, then asked, "The students?"

"Some broken bones, a lot of burns. Most of them are second-degree, but a fair amount are third. We've got three students who will need to regrow skin; the rest can be treated with salve. Ginny Weasley is the only one with smoke-damage. They say she was highest in the air, so she got a lungful of smoke. We should send word to her parents."

"It's that bad?" McGonagall asked.

"It's all treatable, but burns are tricky. Especially internal ones. There's a good chance she'll fully recover, but there's also a chance of long-term complications. Lung sensitivity. Shortness of breath. Inflamed airways. In any matter, she'll be bed bound for two weeks."

"I'll send for them."

McGonagall turned on her heel and left. Pomfrey grabbed the bottle she was looking for and then stepped back to Draco's bedside. Draco was annoyed to see Dumbledore follow after her. The Headmaster paused in the middle of the infirmary, glancing over the students in their beds, a troubled look on his face.

Pomfrey vanished the bowl from Draco's hands and handed over the anti-nausea medication. "Does anything hurt apart from your head?"

"No."

"Any dizziness?"

"Only when I move too quickly."

"Follow my finger," Pomfrey said, holding up her index finger. Draco obediently tracked her finger, and she nodded in satisfaction. "Any black spots or flashing lights?"

"Only when I move too fast. And my ears are ringing."

"Is the ringing continuous or is it echoing after you hear other sounds?"

"Continuous." Draco paused to listen. "High E flat."

Her mouth twitched into a smile. "Sounds like those piano lessons paid off."

Draco was startled for a moment, before remembering that he'd talked about piano lessons the last time he was in her care, drugged up on the Quidditch pitch. She obviously remembered.

She reached for his head, turning it this way and that. She tutted. "You've got quite the bruise on your pretty face."

Draco nearly jerked out of her grasp in surprise. He never received much positive attention from the faculty and staff, and certainly none of them had ever called him pretty. She reached for the bruise ointment. There was a brief chuckle to the side. Draco glanced over to realize that the Headmaster had overheard the comment. His eyes twinkled a moment, no doubt at the shock on his face.

Draco tried to scowl, but then Pomfrey's fingers were spreading the ointment over his temple, and she was being gentle, but the pain spiked again, and some of the black spots returned.

"You'll need to stay here for the night," Pomfrey said, handing him a few other potions to drink. "Once your stomach settles, I'll have some food brought up." She flicked her wand and summoned a pair of hospital pajamas for him to change into.

Draco sighed and cast a quick glance over at Millicent. She was already changed, arm splinted while the bones mended overnight. At least he had company.

"I hope you two aren't in too much pain," Dumbledore said, stepping forward and looking between them.

Draco frowned, not quite sure what had brought on this interaction. The Headmaster didn't typically talk with the Slytherin students. He was silent for too long, so Millicent spoke. "No, sir. Thank you for inquiring." Her tone held a good amount of suspicion.

"I want all of my students to be safe," Dumbledore said. "No matter what political or social beliefs you have. And I do hope you will come to me if you find yourself in any trouble."

He waited a moment for their response. Neither of them answered. Dumbledore's smile faded a touch. He gave them a nod goodbye and left.

Draco and Millicent exchanged a look. Draco wondered, for one moment, if the Headmaster had heard about his Neutral party mutiny, but that was too complicated to consider at the moment. He pulled the curtains around his bed and changed out of his Quidditch uniform. He was grimy with sweat, dirt, and soot, and he cast a cleaning charm to get rid of the worst of it. The thought of a long soak in the Prefects tub was nearly enough to make him abscond from the infirmary, but he was still a bit too dizzy. And he was tired.

He pushed open the curtains a bit, enough to have a view of the room, and then closed his eyes.

He slept, only interrupted when the Weasley parents raced into the infirmary. Draco roused enough to study them. He saw the naked concern on their faces, the panic in their eyes. He heard Mrs. Weasley's jumbled questions, and how Mr. Weasley interjected – not interrupting, but translating the mess of language into something understandable. And he saw the way Mr. Weasley clutched onto Mrs. Weasley's hands, and the way she held them, tight and bracing. They were escorted behind the curtains, and Draco got a glimpse of Bill, slumped beside Ginny's bed, pale and stricken and heartbroken. Mrs. Weasley gave a cry, and the Healer's hurriedly shut the curtains around them.

Draco pulled his own curtain shut and tried to fall back asleep.

oOoOo

Bill woke up Saturday, in his own bed, feeling somewhat human again, and let out a sigh of relief. There was something undignified about spending the last week in the infirmary, lying on the same beds he'd inhabited as a child, right next to some of his students, wearing those awful pajamas. He'd tried not to go to the infirmary at all, preferring to suffer in his own room, but Pomfrey would hear nothing of it. She'd only released him last night, and Bill was looking forward to a quiet weekend catching up on all of his work.

He took breakfast in his room and started grading the busywork he'd given to his students. He was grateful for the other professors who had covered his classes, but Runes was a bit of a niche subject that had very little overlap into the other fields of study. The professors were probably more confused than his students. He'd made good headway in the morning, but started to flag after lunch. He took a nap and slept longer than he intended too, waking up around four feeling groggy and befuddled. He summoned a pot of tea and settled back in, intent on getting all his grading done before dinner. He nearly succeeded too. He was finishing the last of his grades when his door burst open. He started, whipping around to see a panicked Hooch.

"There's been an accident. On the Quidditch pitch."

Bill got to his feet. "Right, what do you need from me?"

"Bill," said Hooch, and then she stopped. Bill felt his stomach drop. He knew that pause meant nothing good. "Gryffindor was on the field."

Ron and Ginny.

And Harry.

"Who is it?" Bill asked. "Who's hurt?"

Hooch's face constricted. "All of them."

All?

Bill didn't understand for a moment. What did she mean all of them? Flying accidents usually involved one player, two if there was a collision. Possibly three if something had gone very wrong, but never the entire team.

"I don't understand."

Behind her, Professors Sprout and Trelawny raced through the hall. He caught the tail-end of Sprout's sentence, "… the whole pitch is on fire!"

Bill still didn't understand. Not fully. Quidditch pitches didn't catch on fire, but he shoved his feet into his boots and grabbed his wand. Hooch tossed him his coat and then they were racing out after the other professors – after the entire school, really. He saw Jameson and Flitwick doing their best to send the students back to their dormitories, but they were crowded around the windows that faced the pitch, and over their heads, Bill could see fire. Bright yellow-green flames. And below that, the outline of students, some standing, some prone on the ground.

By the time he and Hooch made it outside, Dumbledore and McGonagall had created some semblance of order out of the confusion. The Slytherin Quidditch team was being directed to head up to the infirmary, Bill glimpsed Draco in the ranks, and Pomfrey was setting the Gryffindor team onto a row of floating stretchers. Only two Gryffindors were standing, the two Beaters that Bill couldn't recall the names of. His eyes swept over the stretchers and found Ron, sitting up on one, covered in ash and soot, part of his uniform burnt away. Harry was on the stretcher next to him, lying prone but still alert.

Ginny was on the last stretcher. She wasn't as burnt as the others, but she wasn't moving. And her skin was taking on an alarming shade of blue. Pomfrey was leaning over her, and Bill knew the spells she was casting. Breathing spells. Oxygen spells.

No.

Bill felt strangely removed from his body, like his legs belonged to someone else, but they still carried him over to his baby sister. He tried to reach out for her. Pomfrey barely spared him a glance as she cast the charms, calling out, "Minerva!"

And then Pomfrey was whisking Ginny away, all of the stretchers falling into line behind her. Bill made to follow, but McGonagall caught him by the shoulders.

"She's alive, Bill. Let Poppy work. She doesn't need a distraction right now."

Bill turned wild eyes onto her. "That's my sister!"

"I know. We'll go see her in a minute, but you need to calm down. We're going to need all the professors to stay calm. Do you understand?"

Did he understand? Yes, he understood, but she was asking the impossible. She wanted him to be calm when his little brother was half-burnt from a fire and his baby sister was on oxygen charms because she wasn't breathing. How on earth was he supposed to be calm?

Dumbledore shouted something, and that was surprising enough to call his attention. He turned to see the Headmaster standing in front of the flames. His arms were raised. He shouted again, and then dropped his arms. The fire dropped too, the tall yellow-green flames collapsing in on themselves with a great woosh of wind, and then they were extinguished. A heavy curl of smoke rose up, and Dumbledore vanished that too, leaving blackened ground as the only evidence that a fire had once been there.

There was a pattern to the burn, Bill realized. Clean lines of green grass bordering soot. He took a couple of steps back, trying to get it all in range, and then he realized what he was staring at. A large Dark Mark, burnt into the grass of the Quidditch pitch. A Dark Mark that had gone up in flames and nearly killed his siblings.

Minerva placed a hand on his shoulder. "Do you understand?" she repeated. Her voice quiet but there was an edge underneath it, one that said she was scared too.

Bill nodded. "Yes." He was a professor at a school that had undergone yet another attack by Death Eaters. This one had been far more deadly than the bat. The students would be frightened, and he would have to project some appearance of calm and control, even though he felt none of it, and even though his siblings had been the worst injured.

Minerva squeezed his shoulder. "See to your family."

Bill swallowed hard and headed back to school, keeping his face as neutral as he could, mindful of the fact that there were still children peering out from the doorways and windows. They could see the Dark Mark now. They knew what had happened.

But how had it happened?

Bill knew, when he took the position at Hogwarts, that he'd also be spying on the Death Eaters and risking his life. He never thought that the danger would come to Hogwarts, that the danger would impact his own siblings. Bill had signed up for the risk and accepted the very real possibility that he could die. He'd even gotten his affairs in order, just in case. He never thought Ron and Ginny would be injured. Never thought their lives would be in danger. And from who? Who was doing this?

He made it to the infirmary and blanched again. It wasn't Pomfrey attending to his sister now. Healers had come in from St. Mungo's.

Oh, Merlin. How bad was it?

He was allowed past the privacy curtains and given a seat in between Ron and Ginny. Ron's shoulders and arms were being wrapped with medicated bandages. Ginny was still unresponsive.

Bill felt a well of guilt rise up. The bat attack. The Dark Mark graffiti. And now this, another attack by a Death Eater. An attack by a Death Eater when Bill was supposed to be spying on them, gathering information on them. He was supposed to be preventing these attacks. Why hadn't he discovered them? What had he missed?

He sat forward, dropping his head into his hands. He listened to the Healers huddled around Ginny. Lung damage from the smoke inhalation. A concussion from falling off her broom. A broken ankle and a shattered wrist.

He didn't know how long he'd sat in that chair, minutes or hours, but all of a sudden, the curtains were being pulled back and his parents were there. Bill blinked in surprise, and then relief. And then his mother cried out and collapsed at Ginny's bedside.

One thought ran through his mind. 'I've done this to them.'

The Healers explained that Ginny had inhaled a searing smoke that had damaged her lungs. She was not in any danger of dying, and they projected she would make a full recovery, but they would watch her carefully. Sometimes this sort of damage led to long-term health complications.

Another thought intruded. 'I've done this to her.'

Molly and Arthur thanked the Healers. They clutched Ginny's hands and whispered all of their love and support to her. They stepped away to smother Ron and Harry in kisses and hugs. And then they turned to him.

"What happened?" Arthur asked.

Bill explained what he could. Guilt made his words come out rough and stilted.

"Death Eaters?" Molly demanded. "At Hogwarts?"

"Doesn't surprise me," Arthur said darkly. "Sons of Death Eaters allowed to attend."

If only it were that easy. If the Slytherin team hadn't been caught in the blast, it would be simple enough to blame them. But this was the second time the attacks had happened and Slytherin had also been injured. No, it wasn't the students. Nor were they in cahoots with whoever the Death Eater was or they wouldn't have lingered on the field.

Bill had another dark thought, one that said a certain Slytherin genius might have planned it that way, might have gotten injured just enough to throw suspicion off. He swallowed the paranoia down to mingle with the guilt, and said, in a halting voice, "I'm sorry. I should have… I should have done something… anything."

His mother wrapped him into an embrace, and he felt his tears spill over. "This isn't your fault, Bill. There wasn't anything you could have done."

"I was supposed to…," he stopped, because he was about to say he was supposed to discover and neutralize threats from the Death Eaters. He was supposed to stop them before anyone was hurt, but he couldn't tell them any of that. And it was like the French guards all over again. He was too late to save anyone. "I was supposed to watch them," he finished lamely.

Arthur swung an arm around his shoulders. "You can't be everywhere at once. Your mother and I learned that the hard way. If we could have, we would have figured out a way to keep you all safe long ago."

Their words were a drop of relief in an ocean of turmoil. Bill gave them a weak smile and pretended their support helped more than it had.

They stayed with him through the evening and were given a room for the night. Bill was ordered back to his own bed by Pomfrey. He slept, but only because his body was more exhausted than his mind.

There was no change in Ginny that Sunday.

Or on Monday.

Ron and Harry were released. Harry had escaped without any permanent mark, but Ron had an impressive burn scar on his shoulder. He grinned and said he was going to brag about it to Charlie.

Ginny woke up for a brief moment Tuesday. She tried to talk, but her voice was nothing but a ragged breath of air. The Healers said that was normal.

That evening his arm burned.

Bill was in his room, trying to prepare for his classes. Dumbledore had said it was okay if he needed to take a few days, but Bill was already behind, and he couldn't fathom letting anyone else down. He was pouring over his lecture notes, trying to figure out how to combine a few lectures due to his lost week, when the hot fire seared through his arm.

A flash of anger followed, just as hot as the call from the Dark Lord.

Bill grabbed the invisibility cloak and masking potions and met up with Severus out in the woods. They Apparated to a familiar looking chateau. The abandoned Bonnet estate.

It was supposed to be guarded. It was supposed to be warded. It was a known Death Eater location. French guards had been tortured and killed here, and yet, the Death Eaters had somehow reclaimed it and gathered here again. And not just the inner circle, no, Bill had Apparated to a dark revel.

It was too much. Ginny was still recovering. His brother was scarred. And here they were, celebrating, reveling, enjoying themselves. Bill clenched his hands into fists and felt the urge to pull his wand and start cursing. The look on Severus' face stopped him. The Potions Master was startled to see the revel. He hadn't been informed of this. And from the scowl that followed, he was sick of being left in the dark. Bill pulled in a breath. There was still a need for espionage. He would just have to be better at it.

Severus took off for the house with a quick step, and Bill followed in his wake. It was one of the safest places to be because the crowd that had gathered looked a little unsteady. There was plenty of drinking and smoking. A few vials of stronger substances were being passed around. Bill was relieved that there were no house-elf or Muggle victims being tortured tonight. Instead, golems of straw and dirt were being used as target practice, and as a way for new recruits to show off their magic prowess.

The more senior members had gathered inside. Severus beelined for Nott who was holding court with a few junior members in the hall.

"What's going on?" Severus demanded.

Nott huffed out a breath of air. "If you're sick of being uninformed, maybe our confidential information should stop leaking to the Aurors."

"The very fact that information is still being leaked while I am kept int the dark serves as evidence that I am not the source," Snape retorted, voice icy. "And if I were informed of certain events that would occur at the place of my employment, I could ensure that our students would not be harmed in the process."

Nott shrugged. "Our lord has informed us that he has an agent in Hogwarts, and that's all you need to know. Any interference will be considered treason."

Severus's lips thinned. "And where is our lord?"

"Preparing for the ceremony."

"What ceremony?"

Nott looked to his Death Eater contingent, and they all burst into laughter.

"He really is keeping you in the dark, isn't he?" Nott crowed.

It was clear they weren't going to share anything of value, but now that they mentioned a ceremony, Bill could see that the house had been decorated. It was still in shambles, but window glass had been charmed to replace the missing panes. Candles had been lit and set about the ledges and mantles. Flowers had been arranged in bouquets, and Bill could tell they'd been specifically arranged, but he'd never bothered to learn the language of flowers. What sort of ceremony was this?

And, more importantly, who was the Death Eater at Hogwarts?

It was crowded on the inside of the house. It seemed that any Death Eater of standing had been invited indoors. Normally Bill would have stayed in one spot, better to remain hidden, but he didn't have time for caution. He had family he needed to protect.

He snuck his way through the parlor and into the kitchen, which was mostly filled with women ordering their house-elves about. The only preparation they were involved in was mixing drinks and arguing about who had the best punch or tonic recipe. Quite a few of them appeared tipsy already. He listened to their conversation for a few moments but heard no mention of a spy – just more allusions to the ceremony and the celebration afterwards. A few of them referenced Lucius Malfoy, who had apparently "found the book", but no other information could be gleaned.

Bill hadn't been able to case the Bonnet estate on the last visit, and making his way about now proved to be tricky. The hallways were tight, the rooms all spilled into each other, and there wasn't much furniture to offer a buffer from the Death Eaters. On more than one occasion, he found himself pressing backwards into a corner, sucking in his chest, hoping that the person in front of him wouldn't take another step backwards because he'd be discovered.

He didn't see Voldemort. He didn't see Lucius. He was going to have to try to make it upstairs.

It was always tricky, navigating the stairs in the invisibility cloak. It was an easy place to get hemmed in if he was unexpectedly joined on the steps, but he was going to do it. He wasn't going to play it safe anymore.

He tracked the people who were traveling between floors, mostly inner circles members, but sometimes a few house-elves or Death Eater wives would go up as well, carrying food or drinks. He made his move right after a trio of women had descended and right as there was a burst of shouts and laughter from the parlor. He didn't want the creaking, half-dilapidated stairs to give him away. He ran up as quickly as he could and found himself on the second floor of the Bonnet mansion. There were still a few family portraits hung on the walls, although their frames had been ripped off, most likely stolen by scavengers and stripped of their gold overlay. The wallpaper was torn and stained, but it had once been a classic French blue floral design. There were voices coming from a room to the right, a private sitting room of sorts. Bill slipped in and found the majority of the inner circle gathered inside, chatting and drinking. They were wearing fancier robes than usual, black brocade shot through with silver. They carried their masks in hand, ornate silver, polished to a shine.

Bill had just found a wall to tuck himself against when Lucius Malfoy arrived. He wasn't wearing the Death Eater robes, and something about the sharpness of his step made Bill think he'd hurried in from somewhere. His face was composed though, and when he spoke, it was with an unconcerned drawl.

"Where is she?"

Goyle gestured. "End of the hall."

Lucius swept back out of the room. Bill saw Bellatrix stare after him, something speculative in her gaze. He followed Lucius down the hall, passing several large bedrooms along the way, now empty and in disarray. The door at the end led into what had once been a little girl's bedroom. The wallpaper was a faded pink, and he could see the broken remains of a child's wardrobe and a few scattered pieces of toys. Mirabelle Bonnet was standing in the middle of the room, a small smile on her face, like she was recalling a happy memory. Bill wondered if this had been her room.

Lucius stopped a few feet in front of her. He said nothing for a moment, just waited, and then he waved his hand and the door slammed shut, only seconds after Bill had passed through. It was a casual display of wandless magic that had Bill stepping backwards to the wall.

"What are doing?" Lucius asked.

Mirabelle opened her eyes. She was wearing one of the fancier Death Eater robes as well. Had she been promoted? Bill couldn't see a mask anywhere, and her fair hair was down, worn in long curls. She was a pretty girl, but harsh black of the robe made her look pale.

She regarded Lucius with a steady gaze. "I am proving my loyalty to my lord."

Lucius' lips thinned. "I see. And this is how you do it?"

"How else should I do it?"

"Anyone can die for a cause," Lucius said. "Not everyone can fight – at least, not with any measure of success. There are others that are willing to die for him who less powerful than you. One of them should take your place."

Something in Mirabelle's eyes hardened. "He said you would tempt me."

Lucius paused. Bill felt his breath catch as he realized what was being discussed. Anxiety and panic welled up. He didn't want it to happen. Not to a child, not to a girl barely a few years older than Ginny. He stared at Lucius, willing him to say something to stop this from happening.

"What did he say?" Lucius asked. His voice was smooth, casual, but Bill saw his fingers twitch, just once.

"He says you are not fully devoted to him. He says that you would not die for him if he asked."

Lucius huffed out a breath. "Of course I wouldn't. I know my worth, and that I am of more use to him alive." He took a step closer. His voice dropped. "Aren't you?"

Mirabelle swallowed. Her eyes darted away from him. "I have nothing to offer him but my life. My family has lost its wealth and power, so I cannot aid him in matters of finances or politics."

"You have your mind, do you not? A mind like yours can make money easily enough, and money makes friends."

"Friends like you?" Mirabelle's chin jutted up in defiance. "I know my father asked you for help, when everything was lost."

"He did," Lucius agreed easily. "Three times, in fact. The first time I covered his debt. The second time I advised him where to take out a loan and how to recoup his losses. The third time, I stepped away. You do know how he lost his fortune, don't you?"

"In support of the Dark Lord. Support that you did not reciprocate. If you had, my father would not have lost his fortune."

Lucius' eyebrow rose. "Is that so?"

"You didn't follow the plan and my father lost everything."

Bill watched Lucius take in that information. Nothing changed in his expression, but his eyes flickered, like he was putting pieces of a puzzle together.

"So you have been told."

Lucius didn't speak with inflection, but there was something about the flat tone that let Bill extrapolate from it. Mirabelle was repeating a lie that Voldemort had told her, a lie that was most likely used to manipulate her into "dying for the cause", whatever that entailed. And Lucius knew the truth.

Lucius took another step forward and reached out a hand. Bill was startled for a moment. He didn't think he'd ever seen Lucius initiate physical touch before. Mirabelle reached out, but she hesitated, hand paused in mid-air.

"I am the one who gives financial advice to our lord," Lucius said, his voice silky and insistent. "I also advise the others. My advice is not always heeded, either by my fellow compatriots or our lord himself." He gave a careless shrug. "A king does not always listen to his advisor, but that does not mean the advisor changes his opinion to suit. No matter how powerful, how wise, how visionary – missteps will be taken. That is why the role of advisor is important. We must correct and caution. No one is infallible. Not even Merlin was omniscient."

Bill watched as Mirabelle's face contracted at his words. She warred with something, but then she let out a tremulous breath. Her hand dropped into Lucius'. His fingers closed over hers.

The door burst open. Bill pressed flat against the wall as Voldemort strode inside. He was dressed in a long silk robe, the same deep green of the Slytherin House. A diadem was set over his bald head, and he wore a heavy chain and pendant around his neck. There were multiple rings on his fingers. The jewels sparkled and cast a rainbow of colored lights across the faded bedroom walls.

Mirabelle paled at his entrance. She tried to pull her hand away, but Lucius tightened his grip. He didn't turn, not even as Voldemort stepped up behind him.

"I thought I might find you here," Voldemort said, his voice dripping with reproach. He leaned over to hiss into Lucius' ear. "What do you think of my sacrifice?"

Bill felt a chill steal over him. Mirabelle had mentioned dying, but sacrifice? A human sacrifice? Only the darkest, vilest of ancient magics used a human sacrifice. What was Voldemort planning?

"It's a poor choice for sacrifice," Lucius pronounced.

Mirabelle's eyes flashed and she tried to pull away again. Lucius held firm.

"A poor choice?" Voldemort queried.

"There are others of less worth that would gladly take her place."

Voldemort shifted, a snakelike undulation so that he could hiss into Lucius' other ear. "Am I not worth a great sacrifice?"

Lucius finally turned to face him. "You still have all your pieces on the board. You don't sacrifice a knight when you could just as easily sacrifice a pawn."

Voldemort circled around the two to stand behind Mirabelle. He placed his long, grayish fingers on her shoulders. "The girl asked to serve me. She pledged her very soul to me. Who am I to deny such a heartfelt request?"

"You could give her any other command. She is of greater utility than any of the other recruits."

"I know what you are trying to do, Lucius. And she knows it too. You would have me spare her to appease your own guilt. You abandoned her father, after all."

"My advice was sound."

"You did not obey."

"And in doing so, I saved my own fortune which has been used to fund your endeavors."

Voldemort's fingers tightened, his long nails digging into Mirabelle's shoulders. Bill could see her grimace, though she said nothing. "You believe you know better than me?"

"What good is my advice if I never disagree?"

"What good is a servant if he will not obey?" Voldemort parried. He sighed and relaxed his grip on Mirabelle. He reached up and stroked a finger down her face. "I reward my obedient servants. This one has been promised a reward, isn't that right, dear child?"

"Yes." Mirabelle's voice was a whisper.

"What have I promised you?"

"You will see to my mother and brother after my death. You will see the name Bonnet restored to its former glory."

Voldemort's eyes went to Lucius. "I had planned to do the same for you, Lucius. After all, you were the one to recover the book. Such a feat requires a great reward. I know you have been desperate to return to England, to have your own good name restored and to return to your position in government. And yet, you question my judgment, which in turn has me questioning your loyalty."

Bill watched as Lucius' eyes slid from Mirabelle's to the Dark Lord's.

Voldemort's lips peeled back in a vicious grin. "I do not reward disobedience."

Lucius' head tipped to the side in apparent confusion. "My questions are not disobedience or a sign of disloyalty. If anything, they are a sign of my devotion. I question so that all options are uncovered and explored."

"You disagree with my choice of sacrifice."

"Yes," said Lucius.

Bill felt his heart skip a beat – partly in shock at his plain words and partly in hope. Lucius had proven himself to be clever; surely he could find a way to save Mirabelle. And he could see a similar hope in Mirabelle's eyes. She was questioning her decision. Bill was sure of it.

But then Lucius stepped back and released her hand. He nodded his head, a steep enough incline that it could be considered a bow. "But if this is your decision, and if you are certain of your path, I would never bar you from it."

Voldemort's grin widened in triumph. Mirabelle's hand dropped to her side and twisted into the fabric of her robe. She bowed her head.

"Then let us travel down this path together," Voldemort said. "I have commanded it."

"I will follow," Mirabelle said, but her voice shook.

Lucius said nothing. He stepped aside for Voldemort to exit and Mirabelle trailed after him, fingers still clenched in the fabric of her robes. Lucius didn't move for a moment. Bill found his eyes fastened to his face, waiting for him to show some sort of emotion. Regret, maybe. Or guilt or anger. Something that proved he'd just let a girl of eighteen or nineteen agree to sacrifice herself for a madman. But his face betrayed nothing. He pulled in a sharp inhale and then followed the others out of the door.

Bill didn't move. Not at first. He didn't want to. He was smart enough to put all of the pieces together. There was to be a ceremony tonight. Lucius had brought back a book that most likely contained some sort of dark ritual. Mirabelle was going to die as part of that ritual.

Following the deaths of the Bastion guards at this very estate, Dumbledore and Tonks had devised an emergency beacon for him, disguised as a watch. He activated it now, even though he didn't think it would work. The Death Eaters were back at the Bonnet house, meaning they already deactivated the wards set in place by the French Aurors. They would have put up their own wards, one that would silence a beacon like this. And even if the beacon got through, it would take time for the French Aurors to muster and to travel to the estate. Time that Mirabelle didn't have.

He was helpless, yet again.

A bell began to toll. He could hear the Death Eaters beginning to move into the house, towards the ballroom. Their footsteps were loud and purposeful. Their voices were strident, excited.

Bill didn't want to follow. He didn't want to see what was about to happen. He wanted to leave and run away, back to Hogwarts. He wanted to quit. He couldn't do this job anymore. A sob caught in his throat. He pushed it back down and forced himself to move.

He walked slowly, telling himself it wouldn't do to bump into a Death Eater now and ruin his cover, but it was also to delay the inevitable. By the time he made it down the stairs and into the ballroom, all the Death Eaters had gathered in the back. They stood in straight rows, giving Bill a perfect view of the proceedings happening in the front of the room.

An intricate series of sigils had been painted onto the floor in the front of the ballroom. Bill was a cursebreaker. He could pick out the different symbols in the markings. Voldemort stood in the center of the mosaic, on the ward for soul. Circled around him were different markings, representing strength, power, intelligence, and might. Directly to the right and left of him were the sigils for life and death.

Lucius was the one painting the sigil. He'd donned the same brocade robes and silver mask as the inner circle, but his pale hair was visible beneath the hood. He finished drawing the wards, and then opened an ornate box and took out a long dagger. He pricked his thumb and knelt down, placing a drop of blood onto the ward lines. They slowly began to glow with a warm red light, like they'd been painted from burning coals. Lucius picked up a book next, an ancient-looking heavy tome, but before he could start reading, Voldemort raised his hands.

"My loyal servants!" he announced. "Tonight, you will witness the first step of my ascension. Long have I walked among you, trapped in this mortal body and hindered by the limitations of this form. But now begins a new chapter in our history. Now I begin my journey into the heavens, where I shall serve you not as a dark lord, but as a god!"

Bill felt goosebumps break over his skin as the room burst into cheers and applause. Voldemort breathed in, drinking in the praise and adoration. From the glowing ritual lines, deep shadows emerged, coalescing about his feet and writhing up into a cloud of dark smoke.

Voldemort reached out his hand. "Nagini!"

The great snake slithered forward. Voldemort reached out a hand and brought the serpent's face close to his own. When he spoke again, it was in Parseltongue, the hissing language flowing out of his mouth in a slippery sibilance. The syllables seemed to catch each other and echo out, growing louder and more dissonant until the hair stood up on the back of Bill's neck.

Voldemort turned back to the crowd. "Today, I reclaim a portion of my power. I do so in order to purge our race of those that are unclean, those that are unworthy, those that are weak. And to do so, one of your own – a servant just like yourself – has offered to sacrifice herself for the cause. Come forward, worthy servant!"

Mirabelle stepped to his side. She unfastened her robes, her fingers trembling at the clasps. She let it drop to the floor, leaving her in a long, white dress. She knelt at his feet.

Voldemort reached out with his other hand, one still firmly on Nagini's head. He tipped her chin up. "Do you give yourself freely?"

"I do," Mirabelle said, her voice a touch too loud and forceful. It was a mask for her obvious fear, but Voldemort didn't seem to care. If anything, he seemed to relish in it, a smile sliding across blood-less lips.

"Then we shall begin. Lucius!"

Lucius stepped forward, the book open in his hands, the dagger resting on the page. He began to speak, a strange, chant-like language that Bill had never heard before. The inner circle stepped forward to take up positions around the sigil. They repeated the chant when Lucius paused, and all around them, the markings on the floor grew brighter, the red turning into a shimmering gold.

The chanting was taken up by the rest of the Death Eaters, and their voices reached a deafening crescendo, shaking the very walls of the ballroom. Lucius declared something in a louder voice and then pressed the dagger into Voldemort's hand. Voldemort slashed out at Nagini and Bill recoiled in surprise as blood sprayed out in a vicious arc. The snake shrieked and dropped to the ground, writhing in its death throes. The sigil underneath the snake burst out a blinding white light.

Voldemort presented the bloody dagger to Mirabelle. "Give yourself to me and prove your worth!"

Bill forgot how to breathe. He forgot how to blink, even though he desperately wanted to look away. This wasn't happening. This couldn't be happening. No sane person could want this, or ask it, or witness it. Someone had to object. Someone had to do something.

He grabbed his wand. He readied a curse, but he was too far away. And fifty Death Eaters were standing between him and Voldemort.

Mirabelle raised the dagger towards the sky. "I give myself to you, freely and unreservedly, my lord and my master!"

She stabbed the dagger down and Bill's eyes shut before he could see it plunge into her chest. But he could still hear it. Even above the chanting, he could hear the sound of metal penetrating through flesh and bone. Lights flashed from behind his eyelids, and he heard a rumble that sounded like thunder and then –

Silence.

And then the sound of a body dropping, limp and lifeless to the floor.

And then he heard cheering. Applause.

Bill turned around, fleeing the ballroom and racing through the rest of the estate. He staggered out the front door. There was a strange gasping sound, almost a whine. He jerked around before he realized it was his own voice.

He couldn't stay here.

He ran past the wards and to the Apparation point. He Apparated back to Hogwarts, arriving in the dark woods outside of the castle. He couldn't seem to breath. The cloak was suffocating him. He tried to pull it off, but it tangled about him. His fingers weren't working. He couldn't even feel them. He finally ripped it off his head and dragged in a deep breath. The night air was cold, but it wasn't cold enough. He was sweating, his whole body felt hot. He needed a shower. He needed a glass of water. He needed to check on Ginny.

He started towards the castle, but his legs gave out, sending him crashing to the ground.

Bill curled in on himself and sobbed.

OoOoOo

Content warning for suicide of an OC who sacrifices herself in a dark ritual to let Voldemort reclaim his horcrux. It's discussed pretty openly, so to avoid that discussion, skip out in the second half of the story when Lucius appears. To avoid the description, skip out once Bill goes down to the ballroom. And then don't read the rest of the chapter, which is basically Bill having a very understandable panic attack after witnessing it.

Author's note: So – one of the big changes in this chapter is Draco plotting to do something with the debate, mainly empowering the Neutral students to stand up and protest for their opinions to be heard. I have lamented before about not doing much with the debate class, so I have a whole subplot planned out. I'm quite pleased with the idea of it, so hopefully y'all like the direction it is going.

The other big change is Mirabelle. When I first wrote this chapter, I sort of 'skimmed over' the dark ritual, because I didn't want to put a lot of thought into it, because it was scary. So I made the sacrifice a random Muggle girl, and then threw in a line about her 'having to be a virgin' because I realized if they were going to kill her, what was to keep them from behaving even worse to her? And also, virgin sacrifices are a staple of dark rituals in . However, I don't like that lore, nor do I want to continue notions of purity being attached to sex.

When I first wrote this, Lucius used the Imperius Curse to have the girl kill herself, but as I was thinking about it, I don't think that would actually work. I have this idea that the ritual is so complex and powerful and delicate, that the presence of dark magic on the 'sacrifice' would ruin it. Plus, an Imperius is not true willingness. And that's when I got the idea for Mirabelle. I wanted to show the abuse that happens in this cult and explore what that does to a developing mind. Something that strikes me, that isn't really mentioned in fanfic or the series, is that a lot of the Death Eaters are underage (16 yrs old) when they 'sell their soul' to Voldemort. I wanted to show how the adults manipulate and use these kids, and how the kids are convinced they are doing the "right thing" by joining. And even if they do have doubts about it being the "right thing", they don't really get a choice because their family is leveraged against them.

However, Voldemort specifically chose Mirabelle for the sacrifice because he wanted to hurt Lucius. Voldemort and Lucius are very much locked in this unspoken power struggle, and Voldemort wins this time. He has Lucius' fortune hanging over his head, and Lucius makes a decision about how much to fight for Mirabelle, and also weighing in how successful he would even be in helping her.

Overall, not gonna lie, this was tough to write. I think it helps the story – and it sets up for the next chapter when things go down – but yeah. Not a fun headspace to be in. Sorry to leave to you here. Feel free to rant at me in the comments.