Chapter 35: Truths and Desires (Arc 7)
BYOT, and lots of them. Also creepiness warning for final scene.
Draco crept down the corridor, setting his feet down with exaggerated care on the boards nearest the wall, which would be least likely to creak and betray his presence. He doubted he'd have been heard even if he'd done a step-dance along the length of the hallway, what with the shouting in the entrance hall below, but it was never a bad idea to keep in practice with one's sneaking.
Solo sneaking's easier some ways than the team sport, Fox remarked from a spot in the back of his mind. With a team, you're only as good as your weakest link, and my little sister was always ours. But she was light and quick, and good at distracting the grownups, so she pulled her own weight even if she didn't know all the tricks we older ones did, not right away.
Biting his lip to suppress a laugh at the image of a tiny child with braided hair chattering at top speed to a pair of frowning adults, keeping their attention away from the three other figures scuttling out of a room in which they should never have been in the first place, Draco paused near the top of the stairs and leaned forward. The shouting voice, though rough-edged, was distinctly female, and equally distinctly not that of his Aunt Bellatrix.
Which doesn't leave a lot of people it could be—most of the upper ranks are male…
"—telling you, they were busting in the door!" the unknown witch repeated over the protestations of at least two wizards. "Anybody who didn't get out of those damn caves on their own likely got caught, I had enough to do hauling Amycus out with me—"
Amycus. Draco ran down the list of pureblood surnames until he found the one which matched. Carrow, right. And Alecto, that must be who's talking. What were they assigned to again? Some crazy side operation, that's right, not anything we'd planned at all. Keeping an eye on a bunch of wanna-bes who were trying to prove they were good enough to join our side. He smiled smugly, catching his own eye in a wall-hung mirror and smoothing down his hair. Hard lines on those who weren't born to it.
"—fixed the little Pritchard brat, though." Alecto ended this sentence with a snort. "I was aiming for the Mudblood girl, but he got in the way. Still, no real harm done, there's a sister out of the same bloodline, younger and easier to handle, and what with the stuff he was saying, he was already too far gone for anything except pure breeding stock…"
Draco felt his breath catch in his throat—except, he realized with a shiver, it wasn't his own shock and grief he was feeling, but Fox's. What's wrong? he thought hesitantly towards his dream-friend. Did you know whoever it is she's talking about?
His name was Graham. The words fell on Draco's mental ears clipped and flat, shorn of all emotion. Graham Pritchard. I'm not sure if he was thirteen or fourteen, but he can't have been any older than that. He was my sister's friend, and his parents' only son, and what he wanted most out of life was to make people think well of Slytherin House again.
A flash behind Draco's eyelids showed him a black-haired boy in Hogwarts robes with a green and silver crest, his quiet smile full of confidence as he sprayed paint from his wand onto a stone wall, flicking it skillfully back and forth to shape the illusion of a grassy plain under a broad blue sky. A moment's extra work added a pair of tiny red flowers to the grass, which made the girl working beside him, her strawberry-blonde hair nicely complementing her gold and scarlet lion, point and smile, and supply a yellow blossom between them with her own wand.
That's Graham, Fox said, still in that deadly quiet, reasonable tone. And the girl is Natalie. One of his best friends, who just happens to be Muggleborn. Care to lay money on her being the 'Mudblood' Alecto killed him in place of?
"But—" The word came out in a harsh whisper, and Draco clamped down on his reactions, hurrying back up the hall to his own bedroom and making sure to lock the door. Talking to Fox might not be precisely the same as talking to himself, but it would look the same to anyone who walked in on him, and this close to his great undertaking, he couldn't afford to have his fitness questioned in any way.
"Why would he even notice—someone like her?" he was finally able to say once his safeguards were in place and he was seated on the edge of the bed, fighting a case of the shakes. Even without Fox's reactions affecting him, the thought of a boy three years younger than himself being killed had him on edge. "Let alone be friends with her? All right, maybe Alecto shouldn't have been trying to kill her, but still—"
Hold it right there. Fox's tone went sharp and cold. Did you just say maybe she shouldn't have been targeted for death because of who her parents were? Maybe she shouldn't have been put in a situation where one of her friends had to sacrifice his own life to save hers, because of an aspect of her being over which she has absolutely no control whatsoever? If your father were my worst enemy in the world, would that give me a right to come after you, kidnap you and threaten to kill you, use you as some kind of sick leverage over him?
"Somebody already did that," Draco muttered, but conceded the point with a sigh. "No. That's not right. And you wouldn't, anyway, that's not a thing you'd do in a million years—"
You're right, it isn't. But it is something your friends downstairs would do. Have done, are doing. Every single day, never mind a million years.
Draco bristled. "Why are they suddenly my friends?"
I beg your pardon? Fox laughed, the sound between Draco's ears as brittle as an ancient, heirloom wand. Who was that out in the corridor priding himself on being born into "the upper ranks"? Who's going along with this mad little plan of theirs to get Portkey targets into Hogwarts, so they can sneak past the wards and kidnap any other students they decide they want, or take over the school by force if their scheme to get their own man appointed Head doesn't work? And let's not forget the other bit of that plan, the part you're supposed to do all by yourself—
"Yes, but that's different." Draco heard the sulky tone in his own voice and made himself recite the twelve uses of dragon's blood before he went on. "He's not a little kid—about the farthest thing from it. And he's so completely doctrinaire on his own ridiculous line that there's no other way to deal with him. Once he's gone, whoever takes over from him ought to be easier to handle."
Right, Fox said after several moments of silence. You just go on believing that. Go on training, getting yourself ready for this mission you're so keen about. But every so often, stop for a second or two and think. Think about a kid younger than you, who died because he was trying to stop his friend being killed for something she couldn't help. Think about an entire castle full of kids like that, who've walked away from everything they ever knew to learn how to handle an entirely different world. And then think hard, really hard, about whether or not you want to be a part of giving people like Alecto Carrow power over those kids.
With an almost-audible snap, he vanished, and Draco knew there would be no more communications for a while. Fox tended to sulk after things like this happened around Malfoy Manor.
"Though there hasn't been anything just like this before." Sliding down from the bed, he lay in front of the fireplace, unlit on this warm May afternoon. "And maybe I'll ask Father if he can't get the Dark Lord to assign the Carrows somewhere else, once we have Hogwarts under our control." He rolled his eyes. "I mean, really. Mudbloods ought to know their place better than they do, but there's no reason to kill them. That's wasteful. They have their uses, if someone's willing to take a little time and train them up properly." A dreamy smile came to his face. "I can think of one I'd like to have for my very own. Perhaps I'll even be able to bring her home with me, after I complete this mission…"
Eyes half-shut, he lost himself in daydreams of a head full of brown curls bent in reluctant submission, and never noticed when his fingers crept up to stroke along the line of the scar marking his left cheek.
Hermione whipped around, her wand in her hand, as Floo flames erupted in Professor McGonagall's fireplace. On her other side, Harry had his own wand out, as well as his other hand open and upright, ready to choke off the fire and throw its occupant out at a random grating if they should see something they didn't like.
"It's Roger!" Artemis Moon shouted, flinging out her own hand in a don't-do-anything gesture. "Roger and—"
The tall Red Shepherd stumbled out of the green flames before she could finish the sentence, his arms wrapped protectively around a smaller person, one with hair out of which ashes were now cascading, revealing a warm shade of golden red.
"Natalie!" Hermione started forward, but Meghan beat her there, pulling her friend free and starting to give her a ferocious hug before squealing in glee at something she saw cradled against Natalie's front. Roger reached down between the girls and carefully extracted—
Another of the knots in Hermione's gut untied itself in a rush of relief as Zachary Davies, still sound asleep, nestled more comfortably into his father's hold. The third knot, though, refused to loosen.
Where's Graham? Was he hurt, maybe, and they had to give him first aid on the spot? It might not have been safe to send him through the Floo, they could be coming by the Red Roads, and that would get them into Hogsmeade first, and then up to the castle by foot or carriage…
Then she looked more closely at Roger's face, and at Natalie's where she leaned against Meghan's shoulder.
"Oh, no," she said quietly.
Harry muttered one short, sharp word under his breath.
Ginny had just turned the last corner to bring her to Professor McGonagall's office when she felt the spike of heat through her pendants. She didn't have to look down to know that the carving of the mostly-grown wolf which occupied one full side of her second pendant had lit up like a bonfire. Stopping where she was, she counted silently. In three, two, one—
The door of the office slammed open, and Harry stormed out of it, gripping his wand so tightly Ginny was surprised it hadn't shattered. He turned back long enough to shut the door without slamming, then wheeled around again and spotted her.
"Hi," he said in a voice which sounded surprisingly normal. "Where's everyone else?"
"Most of them went back to the common rooms. A couple of the DA leaders from each House are waiting down in Sanctuary for news." Ginny swallowed against the boiling anger coming off Harry, anger she could smell, could see, could practically feel. "You have news."
"That's one way to put it." Harry laid a hand flat against the stones of the wall, and Ginny felt the air temperature in the corridor rise by a few degrees. "Zach's safe. So is Natalie. Graham…" He looked up, and Ginny felt Lynx's snarling hiss rise deep in her mind, answering Wolf's fang-baring fury in the back of the green eyes. "Graham put the rules in the right order. Just like Fox did. More than Fox did. Dammit, Ginny, he's dead!"
Ginny bowed her head for a moment, allowing the pain and anger to swamp her, then retreat. I don't have time, she reminded herself, right now I don't have time. In a few hours, in a day or two, then I'll have time, then I can do this. Not now. Now I need to be strong. Now I need to be alpha.
Crossing to Harry, she offered her hand, and he took it, pressing it tightly, echoes of her same determination spiraling through his scent and the expression on his face. "Pearl isn't taking it well," he said, starting towards the stairs. "It helps that Natalie got home alive, but she's grieving herself, and all the more because he literally died saving her, saving them." He grimaced. "She was carrying Zach, and she's such a little thing, a Killing Curse would have blasted right through her and got him too."
A chill ran through Ginny's blood at the thought. "That would have been so much worse," she said. "Not just because two people would have died instead of one, but think about what it would do to Selena and Roger, and their Pride. Not to mention, Graham never would have forgiven himself."
"And the effect on the DA wouldn't exactly be choice." Harry's laugh held nothing of humor at all. "Can you imagine anything better calculated to get the Houses going after each other again than a Slytherin boy who didn't save a Gryffindor girl, not to mention a baby not even a year old yet? The Death Eaters would turn it into Graham realizing what side he ought to be on, into him letting Zach and Natalie die, and for all we've done together, there are still enough people who're ready to think the worst of Slytherins that they might have been able to drive that wedge between us. Fracture what we've fought so hard to build."
"But it didn't happen like that." Ginny squeezed Harry's hand once, and felt his answering pressure firm and sure against her fingers, though his breath was still shaky and his scent swirled with anger and confusion. "Is it awful of me to be thinking that we must have done something right?"
"No, because I'm thinking it too." Harry sighed. "And hating myself for it, because he's dead, Ginny. Graham's dead. He'd barely turned fourteen, and we went out and saved him on our first real mission of the war, and now he's dead anyway, so what the hell was the point of it all?" His skin heated against hers. "What the hell's the point of any of it?"
Ginny held her peace. Her love knew as well as she did why they trained, why they fought, and reciting platitudes at him would only fuel the flame of his anger. What he needed now was more a listening ear than anything else.
Because for all we may know this war is necessary, that doesn't take the pain away when people die.
And we wouldn't want it to.
"We found Romilda Vane," she said into the silence, and felt Harry's hand tighten around hers again. "I know you'd have seen it on the Galleon, but I was coming to tell you more about it."
"So, tell." Harry let the fingers of his other hand trail along the stones of the wall as they descended a flight of stairs. "Where was she?"
"In a little closed-off alleyway, the sort of thing you have to live in a place to know about. Which she does, or did. Live in Hogsmeade, I mean. Her family's from there, they run a bed and breakfast on the west edge of the village." Ginny allowed herself one fast, fierce grin. "We surrounded her and moved in fast. She never even got her wand clear before we had her down. Ron and Blaise are bringing her in, along with the two Slytherin girls who Blaise found, or they found him. They were part of this, but changed their minds at the last second, and the things they're telling us…well, Ron used the Weather Vane Inn's Floo to pass most of it along already."
"The anti-DA." Harry shrugged. "We couldn't expect to be the only ones who'd figured out we're stronger together than alone. Though I'd hoped the other side would still be so fractured they wouldn't be able to pull very much off."
"They weren't," Ginny pointed out. "This is bad, but think about how much worse it could have been. If they'd been able to do it on a larger scale. If Romilda hadn't been caught trying to use a Love Potion on you, if they'd somehow found her and turned her while she was still in the DA, while we still trusted her. Or if one or two, or ten, of their other people had managed to hold their noses and join us. We could have been trying to trace fifteen or twenty kidnappings instead of just one. Or if they'd been smart enough to get some adults in the picture, possibly we'd even be dealing with a hostile administration, or something like it."
"Something like it?" Harry glanced at her. "What do you mean?"
"Think back to Umbridge." Ginny knew she'd made her point when Harry's shoulders tensed. "Yes, exactly. Now imagine she'd managed to get the Defense position as well as High Inquisitor, and that you hadn't been able to figure out what Dumbledore was telling you in his office, how to find the entrance to the Den and disappear. Or that you'd gone ahead with that detention instead of telling her you wouldn't. How much harder would it have been to get people to join the DA, to make it strong and incorporate all four Houses and keep it going?"
"It would have been easier, just at first, if Umbridge was worse," countered Harry. "People would have wanted her gone no matter what. People did want her gone no matter what."
"But once she was gone, we would have lost our focus." Ginny held up a fist, then let it spring open, waggling her fingers aimlessly, meaninglessly. "Everyone who was willing to fight against her would have assumed that once we got her out, we didn't have to go on fighting. But as it happened, she was just the beginning, the problem that got people in the door. Once they were there, we could get them looking at the real threat, at Voldemort and the Death Eaters."
"All right, I can see that." Harry nodded. "But that was Umbridge. She was all about Fudge and the Ministry. They were stupid and power-hungry and bad, but how does that tie into Voldemort? You just said yourself—"
"That he's the real threat, and he is," Ginny confirmed. "But what makes you think he wouldn't have used them? Used what they wanted, what they'd do to get it, for his own ends?"
Harry growled under his breath. "Damn it. That's exactly what he'd do. And could still do, with plenty of the people in the Ministry, the ones who still are like Percy used to be. The Ministry's the authority, the law of the land, and therefore I obey it without question. I don't have to look at the effects of the rules, that's not my job—I just carry them out, do what I'm told, whatever that may happen to be…"
"So as long as he can replace or Imperius anyone who'd be high up enough, or have enough guts, to question his rules, he can take the Ministry like that." Ginny snapped the fingers of her free hand. "And if he could get someone high enough to appoint another Hogwarts Inquisitor, or get enough influence over the school governors to have them sack Professor Dumbledore and appoint someone he liked better, he'd have Hogwarts too."
"Not necessarily." Harry stroked the stones of the wall once more, a small, possessive smile on his face. "Remember the stuff Professor Jones and Professor Kettleburn told Hermione and me? About the cornerstone of Hogwarts, and the castle's inherent magic, and all of that?"
"Yes, I remember." Ginny frowned. "But I thought the cornerstone needed all four Heirs to use it, and Consorts and Champions to go with them."
"It does, but we wouldn't need it, not yet." Harry waggled his hand behind him, then tapped his own chest. "I'd bet you Pearl and Captain and I could probably get Hogwarts itself partway awake, if we worked together. Get the castle, and all the magic in it, to accept Dumbledore as Head, and…object if someone tried to make him leave." His smile grew until it was positively a grin. "It might not even let people like that on the grounds at all. Stall them at the gates, bat their broomsticks out of the sky, cut off the Floo if they tried to come in that way. The students and teachers could still come and go, and people who have legitimate business here…"
"But no one from the Ministry." Ginny couldn't help but smile in her turn at the image of a league of furious bowler-hatted wizards casting spell after ineffective spell against the gargoyle-guarded gates. "I like that." Her smile faded as they arrived at the fourth floor mirror. "Not like what we have to do now. Telling everyone what's happened…" She sighed between her teeth. "Why did I want to be the Pride's alpha again, and help lead the DA and the year to go with it?"
"Because you were born to be a leader." Harry touched the corner of the mirror, making it grate aside. "Because anything less wouldn't be worthy of you."
Ginny stepped into the opening in the wall. "Is it wrong to wish I were just a little less worthy, then?" she asked softly.
"No." Harry joined her. "I do a lot of it myself."
The mirror closed behind them as they set off down the tunnel towards Sanctuary.
Minerva paced back and forth in the corridor outside the Head's office, glaring at the gargoyle when it turned its head to watch her. Finally it edged timidly aside, making room for the door out of the revolving stairway, which discharged a weary-looking Aletha, stroking a red feather between her fingers.
"There you are." Minerva hurried up to her colleague. "How is he?"
"Tired." Aletha tucked the feather into her pocket. "Very tired. I've sent him to bed, and Fawkes is going to make sure he stays there long enough to get some actual rest. But…" She looked up into Minerva's face, her brown eyes full of a quiet sorrow. "We need to talk, Minerva." The slightest smile curved the full lips. "Now that he's finally authorized me to tell you the truth."
"The truth—" Minerva pressed a hand to her mouth as a chill struck through her chest. "Aletha, you don't mean—"
"Nothing's going to happen tonight," Aletha interrupted in her best Healer-calm tones. "But…" She glanced back at the gargoyle, which was pretending with all its might that it wasn't eavesdropping, and at the two or three paintings hanging along the wall, the occupants of which weren't bothering to pretend. "Perhaps we should go somewhere with fewer sets of ears," she suggested pointedly.
"Yes. Please." Minerva led the way down the corridor, her mind in a whirl.
This cannot be happening. Not now. I knew it would someday, possibly even soon, Albus is an old man even for a wizard, but now? When the war grows more complex by the day, the school is in terrible danger, the Order needs a steady hand on the helm…
They turned into an empty classroom, Aletha shutting the door behind them. Minerva absently conjured a pair of armchairs, noticing only as they formed that they were a brilliant shade of plum, rather like one of Albus's favorite Muggle suits—
"Oh, dear," she said aloud, and sat down abruptly as her usual resolve failed her at last.
"I'm so sorry, Minerva," Aletha murmured, and strong arms slid around her, undoing her still further. She pressed her face into the offered shoulder and wept, releasing her control as she would have done with very few others.
"You're sure," were the first words she found herself able to articulate, several minutes later.
"Yes." Aletha sighed deeply. "I could wish I weren't, but I am. He's worn himself to the bone, trying to be three men at once, and he doesn't have the reserves he did five or even two years ago. It won't be tonight or tomorrow, it may not be next week or next month, but it won't be much longer than that." She drew a handkerchief out of the pocket of her robes and handed it to Minerva. "By the time the children return to school in the fall, you will be Headmistress of Hogwarts."
"Will I?" Minerva blotted her eyes. "That's not doubting you, Aletha, not in the slightest, but with all the forces conspiring to take control of the school, will I be allowed to remain in that office? My loyalties are well-known, and I hardly have the resources Albus does, to play one side against another with countervailing loyalties and come off unscathed from the fray…"
"Exactly the reason I'm bringing this up to you now." Aletha smiled. "Albus has been making arrangements for the last year to keep as many of the school governors as possible from being easily or quickly suborned. And even if Voldemort takes the Ministry and manages to push through some regulation or other that contravenes the official system and places Hogwarts under direct control—only 'as an emergency measure, for the duration of the current unpleasantness', I'm sure is how they'd put it—you'll already be in place here by then, and they'll have rather a difficult time sacking you."
"They will?" Minerva frowned. "Why?"
Aletha extended one of her hands. In its palm hovered a globe of clear blue light. "Magic," she said simply. "The magic of the school, and of its Founders." Her smile quirked to one side. "Harry's already come up with the same idea independently. One of the portraits overheard him and told me as I was leaving Albus's office."
"What a young man he has turned out to be." Minerva dabbed at her eyes again. "You should be very proud."
"Oh, I am. We all are." Aletha gazed for a moment into the distance. "Not happy about how much he's already had to shoulder," she said quietly, "but so, so very proud of how strong he's been through it all. But that's for another day." With a shake of her head, she was all business. "As soon as Meghan's able to concentrate on things again—which might be sooner than we think, she tends to respond to pain more in anger than in sorrow—we'll hold a little ceremony naming you to the castle as Albus's designated successor, and ask if you're acceptable." She chuckled once. "I don't think there should be much question of that…"
Remus stood in the entrance hall, waiting. In his mind's eye, the Map spread out before him, expanded to show Sanctuary below his feet, now empty after Harry and Ginny had delivered the painful news and the DA's leaders from each House returned to their common rooms to pass it along. Outside, a small knot of students came along the path from the gates, three young wizards grim and determined, three witches fearful and unsure. Behind him, in the kitchens, an honor guard of DA members awaited an even sadder arrival. And to one side, moving swiftly up the stairs—
Danger, beside him, glanced over just as Severus Snape emerged from the doorway leading to the dungeons, his face set like stone. He must have been to Headquarters, she said silently. God, Remus, poor Voni and Par, not just for themselves but having to explain what's happened to Bernie—she's only seven, how can she possibly understand this—
She won't. But she'll accept, eventually. Remus reached out and found Danger's hand already moving towards his. It shouldn't ever happen this way, but that doesn't mean it won't.
The great oak doors creaked once and opened. Ron and Blaise Zabini stepped inside, each holding one arm of Romilda Vane, whose defiant expression would have looked far more convincing if her lower lip hadn't been trembling. Behind them walked Dean, his wand pointed steadily at a pair of Slytherin girls, both glancing nervously around the entrance hall as though expecting doom to descend upon them at any second. One's name was Rivers, Remus recalled from his teaching days, Laurasia Rivers, and the other was one of the Carrow twins—Flora, he thought, not Hestia.
Snape advanced on this second trio, stopping a pace or two short and extending a hand with an abrupt, commanding gesture. Dean reached inside his robes, extracted a pair of wands, and placed them in Snape's palm. With a nod, Snape slid them away in one of his own pockets, then turned his attention to his cowering students.
"I have just returned," he said in a very quiet voice which nonetheless filled the entirety of the room, "from explaining to a man and a woman in whose bloodlines even your most fanatic relations could find no fault why they will never see their only son grow to be a man. I suggest that you do nothing which might…displease me."
Both girls shook their heads in a frantic, uncoordinated duet which would have been screamingly funny if not for the circumstances surrounding it. Snape cut them off with a second, jerky nod, beckoned curtly for them to precede him, and started for the dungeon stairs once more, pausing for an instant beside Blaise. "Well done," he said, even more softly than before.
Good for him. Remus watched Snape out of sight down the dungeon steps once more, Rivers and Carrow huddled together in front of their Head of House. I'm certain he won't like administering that test Albus wants, but I'm even more certain he'll do it rather than face the members of his House getting each other killed any longer.
Though in this case, blame rests all over. Danger growled softly, the way her wolf form might, as she looked at the rampant lion embroidered on Romilda's robes. Time and past it to deal with such things…
The sound of more footsteps brought everyone's heads around just as a small procession appeared from the hallway which led to the kitchens.
Lee walked in front, his own face hardened and expressionless, a shock to anyone used to seeing him laughing and cheerful, ready to assist the Weasley twins in their most outrageous pranks or think up his own and happily claim their help in turn. In his arms, he carried the small, slim body of his wife's cousin. That same wife kept pace beside him, her eyes filled with tears but her scent one of purest rage. Behind them came Selena, Lindsay Jordan, and a double file of other DA members, all with their wands at salute. Hannah Abbott was there with Ernie Macmillan by her side, Su Li and Terry Boot behind them, and Colleen Lamb bringing up the rear, looking across the hall to acknowledge Blaise with the briefest of nods.
As if by prearrangement, the honor guard spread out as they entered the hall, fanning across the possible exits in pairs, all of their eyes fixed with loathing on Romilda Vane, who was now shaking in good earnest. Lee continued to advance, and Remus, beginning to understand what was about to happen, drew his wand and conjured a waist-high block of white stone in the center of the hall. With a small sigh, Lee moved to it and gently laid Graham down upon it, as though he were only sleeping.
Ron and Blaise released Romilda and moved back to guard the oak doors with Dean as Maya bore down on the Gryffindor fourth year. "Hello," said the older witch, her teeth bared in a wide, mad smile. "My name is Maya Pritchard Jordan. You killed my cousin."
"I never!" Romilda shrieked, her voice echoing around the silent hall. "I never did anything to him! I put a spell on Natalie in the toilet this morning to make her want to have the baby all to herself, I did that, you can get me in trouble for that—and then I activated the Portkey and she touched it with the baby in her arms, I didn't want to do that to her but they made me, they said I'd go to prison if I didn't—he wasn't meant to be there, he wasn't meant to go with her, that was an accident, if he'd left her alone it never would have—"
The silent regard of the DA around the hall seemed to unnerve her, and she dropped to her knees with a wail. "I didn't mean to!" she cried, looking around as though hoping for some shred of pity. "I never meant for any of this to happen!"
"What a shame." Maya bent down and seized the girl's arm. "Get on your feet."
"What?" Romilda looked fearfully up at her Housemate. "Why?"
"Because." Maya gestured behind her, to the bier where Graham's body lay, to Lee standing beside it like a guardian statue. "You're going to come here. And you're going to take a good, close look at what you never meant to happen."
With a whimper of fear, Romilda allowed herself to be pulled upright. The DA members standing at their posts watched coldly as Maya propelled the younger witch firmly into the center of the hall, to the side of the stone block. "This is my cousin," she said, releasing Romilda. "His name is Graham. He has a little sister he loves to tease and play with, and he was going to have a summer job stocking shelves at Weasleys' Wizarding Wheezes, and he thought he might have a bit of a crush on one of his good friends, but he wasn't sure if she liked him back or not. But now he'll never know or do any of that. Not ever again." She stared into Romilda's eyes. "Because of you."
"I told you, I never—" Romilda paled at Maya's snarl and shut her mouth instantly.
"Good," said Maya softly. "Very good. Now, there's just one more thing." She laid her hand on Graham's head, stroking her fingers through his hair, as Remus had seen her do many times before. "Touch him."
"No!" Romilda shrank back, her hands darting behind her. "I won't!"
"Yes." Maya never looked up from her caresses. "You will."
"You can't make me!"
"Oh yes I can." Maya breathed each of the four words almost lovingly, as though she were bestowing a blessing upon Graham. "Oh yes I will."
"But—I don't want to!"
"That's funny," said Lee, speaking for the first time, in a voice as cold and hard as the stone on which his young Pridemate lay. "I don't think Graham wants to be dead." He stepped around and caught Romilda's chin in his hand as she tried to jerk away. "But he hasn't got a choice any longer, now has he?" he asked, looking down at her. "And neither do you."
He released her and stepped back to his original place, clearing the way.
Trembling harder than ever, Romilda approached the bier. Twice her hand darted out, only to pull back at the last second. Tiny whines escaped from her, like an animal pushed past its endurance, but the faces of the DA surrounding her showed no mercy and no pity, and with a shuddering gasp she laid the very tips of her fingers against Graham's palm. "He's…cold," she whispered, looking down at the silent, serene face under the black hair, now disarranged from Maya's stroking. "So cold…"
A sobbing scream tore its way out of her throat. "I didn't want this to happen!" she shrieked, tearing herself away and spinning wildly to face each pair of the DA in turn, holding up her hands in pleading. "Don't you understand? Don't you see? All I wanted was—all I wanted…"
Her rotation brought her back around to face Lee and Maya again, and the still, small form of what her desires had cost.
"I wanted to be somebody," whispered Romilda Vane, staring at Graham Pritchard's lifeless body. "I wanted people to know my name. To never be able to forget me, no matter what."
She dropped gracelessly to her knees, still unable to take her eyes from Graham's face. "I just never thought it would happen like this…"
Silence fell over the entrance hall once more.
Whew. Hope that was worth the wait for everybody.
If I seem to be hating on Romilda a little bit—well, yeah. The way she got away with what she tried in canon annoyed me, as did JKR's lip-service to House unity and not judging people while in practice we got "Gryffindors good, Slytherins bad". I know I'm not perfect on the subject myself, but I'm at least trying to mix it up a bit.
In case you missed it last chapter, I now have a website, annebwalsh.com. Stop over and search for story-related Easter eggs, read snippets of Playing with Fire (now 1/3 complete!), investigate the useful links, and keep up with my blog, Anne's Randomness. Come on, you know you want to…
Next time: More on the Hogwarts succession plan, the administering of the tests of intent, and the preparations for the fifth of June… stay tuned, enjoy Anne originals responsibly, and please don't forget to review—politely!
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