Chapter 52: Locked and Barred (Year 7)
Curled around her stuffed lion, thumb tucked against the ring now ornamenting her finger, Hermione dreamed.
A pale-blond little boy, his gray eyes beginning to lose the frightened look with which Hermione remembered them best, made faces at himself in a mirror and giggled at them as he scrubbed his hands in a sink which had politely lowered itself to his height. When he had finished rinsing off all the foam, he turned off the water and reached without looking into the little alcove beside the sink for a towel.
"Mew?" inquired something within the alcove, and the little boy jumped, then giggled again.
"Neenie!" he protested, as a calico kitten unwound her slender length from among the folded washcloths and bars of soap. "You're not a towel! What are you doing in there?"
The kitten gave a soft, musical trill and stood up on her hind legs to wash the tip of the little boy's nose with her raspy tongue.
"You're silly," said the little boy with certainty, as he dried his hands on the towel the kitten had been using for a mattress, transferring bits of black, orange, and white fur to his fingers in the process. "Should we have lunch out on the balcony today? I like to look at the trees, and watch the horses flying above them, even if they are a little scary with all their bones right under their skin like that." Draping the kitten around his shoulders like a furred scarf, he left the washroom, chattering away to the accompaniment of her purring. "And someday, when we don't have to stay inside all the time because it isn't safe to go out, we can go exploring in the trees and have adventures…"
Hermione awakened smiling, though her view of her bedroom ceiling at Headquarters was just the least bit blurry.
Pomona Sprout looked up from the tray of kitchen herbs she was checking for health (part of an upper-level class relating magic to food, for which she'd had house-elves as guest lecturers once or twice) as Alecto Carrow stormed through her office door without so much as the courtesy of a knock.
"Where's Murrow?" demanded the other witch, her eyes narrowed further than nature had made them. "When I get my hands on him—"
"Do sit down, Miss Carrow," Pomona said coolly, waving her wand to conjure a chair. "Who are you looking for?"
"Don't play the fool with me." Alecto plumped down in the chair, scowling. "Fifth year named Murrow, one of your precious badgers. Going about the school scrawling all kinds of gibberish and nonsense on the walls. 'MAPT', if you please. What the bloody hell is a MAPT?"
"I believe it's a new student organization." Pomona patted soil in place around the roots of the tiny, vigorous parsley seedlings on her tray and moved on. "Though I hadn't the slightest idea Murrow was involved with it. As far as I was aware, it was an outgrowth from last year's Defense Association—"
"And just as much against the rules as that ever was," Alecto cut in. "Disbanded now, isn't it? And a good thing, too! Merlin only knows what would have come of teaching that sort how to fight. Thought we'd stamped it out when Potter and his lot took French leave at the start of the year. I suppose his godfather'd know more about where Potter is than he pretends to…" For a moment her face was thoughtful. It looked like hard work. "But never mind that. It's all in capitals, this MAPT thing. Means it stands for something, doesn't it?"
"I suppose so." Pomona pinched off a soft-furred leaf of sage and folded it in half, releasing its spicy aroma to the air. "Though your guess would be as good as mine."
Alecto's eyes narrowed still further, though Pomona would have thought that was impossible. "Now you see here," she said, leaning forward in her chair and glowering. "If I find out you're making game of me, that you've got something up your sleeve, that you're helping these magophobic morons play their sick little games with these innocent children we're supposed to be guiding along the proper paths—"
Pomona choked, and held up a hand as she tried to catch her breath. "Beg your pardon," she wheezed when she could speak again. "The sage—a bit stronger than I'd thought." Setting down the leaf, she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket to wipe her streaming eyes. "Can you tell me what you mean by magophobic?" she asked from behind the momentary cover of the cloth. "I haven't heard the term before."
"Ah, that's new." Her countenance lightening somewhat, Alecto sat back. "Word they're promoting at the Ministry, to mean the sorts of people who're afraid of the real potential of magic. I mean, they've got to be afraid of it, don't they? If they weren't, then they wouldn't go around insisting Muggles and wizards are the same. It's not logical!" Warming to her subject, she began to thump one broad fist into her opposite palm as emphasis to her words. "If you've got power, you ought to use power, or why would you be born with it in the first place? And obviously you're meant to be in charge of the ones who haven't got it, and keep them in line, where they ought to be. That's all there is to it. You see what I mean?"
"Perfectly." Pomona folded up her handkerchief and put it back in her pocket. "I'll have to remember it. But as for Murrow, I'm afraid I'd need something a bit more definite. As things stand, you think he's going around the school and writing on the walls, which you think may be for the purpose of advertising an illegal student organization, whose name you're not even sure about, let alone whether or not it exists. Can you tell me who saw him doing this, or how else you might have come up with his name?"
"Information received," said Alecto primly. "From a good, loyal, pureblood student."
"I see." Pomona nodded once. "I'll find Murrow's timetable, then, and have a word with him after his next class, about respect for his surroundings and obedience to proper authority. Is that all, Miss Carrow?"
"Send him to me when you're done with him," Alecto commanded, heaving herself upright out of the chair. "I'll have a little something to tell him myself." Her face wrinkled up in its thoughtful expression again. "Half-blood, isn't he?"
"I couldn't say." Pomona pulled open a drawer of her desk and began to rummage inside it. "Close the door gently when you go out," she said over the sound of rustling parchments. "The African Violent doesn't care for being jarred."
When she had counted to forty-seven after the decided thud of door against frame (which had, as she'd expected, agitated the potted Violent to such an extent that fisted leaves were now swinging wildly about and thumping against walls, masking any other sound from ears which might be listening), Pomona cleared her throat, keeping her eyes carefully away from a screened-off corner of her office. Behind it, she knew, lurked a young wizard in her own House's colors, probably looking as sheepish as was possible for such a tall, broad-shouldered fellow to look.
"I haven't seen you," she said briskly. "None of your teachers have, and none of them will, either. Officially, you've run off. Unofficially—well, that's up to you. I'd keep that club of yours as just initials for the present, though. They can make what they like out of 'MAPT', but if it got around what that actually stands for—" She shrugged her shoulders. "They're fools, and sooner or later they'll know it. But I'm not losing students to that kind of foolery if I can help it." Pulling a bottle of firewhiskey from her bottom drawer, she set it on the corner of her desk. "I'll be back in a few minutes," she said, and stepped into the small loo which had politely attached itself to her office some years ago.
When she returned, the level in the bottle was slightly lower than it had been, and the Violent's tendrils were withdrawing, the plant settling back into its pot with an air of satisfaction. The door of her office had been left ajar, as if to demonstrate its occupant's innocence in the matter of one Timothy Murrow and the organization known to its members as Muggles Are People Too, a worthy offshoot of the still extant, if once again secret, Dumbledore's Army.
Smiling to herself, Pomona picked up where she'd left off, flexing the stem of a sprout of rosemary to test its strength and scent.
If Alecto Carrow thought she was going to lock up Hufflepuffs on Pomona Sprout's watch, for doing nothing more than fulfilling the ideals of their House about loyalty and fair play, she had another think coming to her in decidedly short order.
High in the mountains, a small exploring party toiled upwards, leaving behind them a trail which would have been baffling to any tracker of wildlife in the world, for while it was just within the bounds of possibility that a wolf and a lynx might be keeping company, there should certainly have been no dainty deer hooves overlapping the predators' pawprints. Nor should those little hooves have sunk deeper at the front than at the rear, as though the deer had a passenger riding on its back.
But then, we never have made sense to just about anyone.
Wolf lifted his nose to the breeze and took stock of the smells around him. Cold rock, ice, frigid water, a few hardy plants here and there, a hint of hawk-musk high above where Redwing circled, and the clear, comforting waft of Lynx on his one side, Pearl and Captain on his other. No human scent was anywhere to be found, fresh, stale, or long-gone.
Which either means this isn't the right place, or it is right, but the last time someone was here was so long ago that every trace has washed away. And given how long the Horcrux we're after has been missing—since Letha's father died, so before any of us were born—that's entirely possible.
"Break time," he announced, standing up as Harry and prompting the rest of the abbreviated Pride to resume their own human forms, Ginny holding up her arm as a landing spot for her brother. "Shame Hermione couldn't come. She'd love the view."
"She wouldn't have loved the climb." Meghan rolled her shoulders, wincing. "I need to go for more runs in deer shape. I'm not as strong as I thought I was."
"Sit down." Neville spread his cloak across a handy rock. "I'll rub your shoulders. How close are we, Harry?"
"Let me look." Harry pulled one of the maps with the intersecting circles from his pocket, unfolded it, and tapped it three times with his wand, near one of the only remaining intersection points that had not been crossed off with a red X. Ginny and Ron came to look over his shoulders, and Harry hastily added the heat-rune to one corner of the paper so Ron would be able to see the markings, before tapping the intersection point a further two times, enlarging the landmarks on the map with a rush of ink.
"We're here," said Ron almost as soon as the lines had settled into their new places, tapping his finger against a small crook in the mountainside. "Looks just like that from above."
"So the place where we're going is…" Harry frowned at the map, then scanned their surroundings. "Am I looking at this thing the right way?"
"Go like this." Ginny rotated her hands ninety degrees counterclockwise.
"Got it." Harry performed the same operation with the map, and nodded as the landscape around his feet and the symbols on the parchment lined up properly. "So that means we need to keep going, a bit more to the right—"
He looked up to see the place he was describing.
High above the Pride towered a lofty, jagged cliff.
"We have to go up there?" Meghan stared at the height of the mountain peak. "That's really high. Maybe should we come back another day with broomsticks?"
"But how are we going to get them here?" Neville sat down beside her. "Only small things, pocket-sized, can go with us when we change forms, and broomsticks aren't exactly that. And unless you get the fancy portable ones, you can't shrink them. It interferes with the magic."
"One of you could Apparate back to Headquarters and get them, maybe," Ginny suggested. "It'd be a shame not to give it a go, after we're already here…"
About to add his own two Knuts' worth to the conversation, Harry found his attention caught by Ron. His friend was turning his head first to one side, then to the other, as he might have done in hawk form, gazing intently at the mountain all the while. "Something funny up there," he muttered almost under his breath. "Something I've seen before."
"Magic?" Harry turned the wheel on the sidepiece of his glasses which would change his vision to something similar to Ron's. "Some kind of safeguard, a standing spell?"
"Mm-hmm." Ron held up his hands around the mountaintop, roughly shaping a globe. "You see it?"
"Not yet—wait, now I do." Harry twiddled the wheel a bit further. A spherical glimmer of light did seem to cloak the distant peak, as though someone had cast a massive Shield Spell over the top of the mountain. "But I think they're right," he added, nodding towards the three other members of the Pride. "We're not getting up there unless we fly. And I know you have wings, but you're not going after that thing alone," he overrode the beginning of Ron's protest. "If there's one safekeeping spell, there could be two, and I don't fancy standing here and watching you get killed or captured or possessed." Spinning the wheel back to its former position, he rubbed his eyes, which had started to sting. "Still, there's one piece of good news."
"Nobody'd put that powerful a spell on a place unless something was there worth guarding, would they?" Harry grinned. "Looks like we finally found it."
Hermione sat in one of the window seats at number twelve, Grimmauld Place, with a mess of tattered scrolls and grubby scraps of parchment spread out around her. She would have liked to be out with her siblings and friends on their continuing Horcrux-hunt, but her other role as liaison between the younger and older echelons of the war against Voldemort meant she sometimes had to stay behind and deal with some of the boring bits.
Like organizing all the notes about what the DA and the Red Shepherds have done with the Order's help, and who's been in charge of what. It isn't very interesting, but it does need to be kept up to date, or how would we know who might need help where or when?
She added three scrolls to one of her piles, then reached for another handful of parchment, neater than most, a phenomenon explained to her satisfaction when she spotted Percy's handwriting on the topmost sheet.
We have a lot in common, Percy and I. Even more than before, now that he's found his adventurous side. But then, if I'd grown up with my dad and mum thinking I was a Muggle, if I hadn't had the Pack-parents to challenge me and Harry and Fox to bounce off and Pearl to watch after, I might have been just the same sort of rule-bound and timid that Percy used to be. She frowned, checking the dates on the sheets of parchment. Except I wouldn't ever have put following the rules ahead of doing what's right, even for a little while.
Under her breath, she laughed. At least, I hope I wouldn't!
About to set aside the documentation of one of the Red Shepherds' many successful forays into the labyrinthine world of the Death Eaters, she paused. A tiny drawing of two interlocked flowers ornamented the second-to-last page in her hand, clearly sketched by the document's author in an abstracted moment, probably while he was trying to come up with the right way to phrase something. One of the blossoms was recognizable, even without its color, as the scarlet pimpernel from which Percy had taken the punning name of his little band of companions. The other, she decided after a moment of examination, might be meant for a daisy.
The sort they call a "marguerite". And that was the name of Sir Percy's wife, in the story of the Scarlet Pimpernel. She was brave and determined and beautiful, with golden hair and blue eyes, and he loved her even though she couldn't always do everything that he could…
Swiftly, Hermione bundled the pages out of sight under the proper pile, grimacing a little as her eyes fell on her engagement ring. She hated keeping secrets from Ron or the rest of the Pride, but this secret wasn't hers to tell.
Though even if they both make it through the war, Percy still might keep what he feels for her locked up in his heart. He'd think he was somehow barred from loving her because she loved his brother first, and he'd never see that George would have wanted them to be happy.
Sighing, she leaned back against the padded side of the window seat. "Sometimes," she said to the empty room, "life just isn't fair."
Her pendants warmed briefly, as if to agree with her.
Tonks fought back a yawn, grimacing to herself. The worst part of stakeouts, in her opinion, was always the problem of staying sharp while one was waiting for whatever was going to happen.
And in this case, we can't even be sure it will happen. One chance sentence overheard by one of our undercovers about a 'delivery', to 'the big place down by the docks'. Three different spots they could have meant, and any number of things that could be arriving—could even be people, we know the Death Eaters like to use Muggles for toys, and some of those same nasty sods are also rich and lazy enough to get other people to do their dirty work for them…
She stiffened. Below her post, concealed among a summer's worth of overgrown weeds on a remote hillside, the door of the crumbling warehouse she'd been watching was opening. Two men in robes stepped out, each levitating one end of a long wooden box—and might that box be jiggling just a bit on its own, as though it held something living inside it?
Tonks leaned farther forward, trying to get a better look.
Under the hand and foot on which her weight rested, the loose ground around the weeds' roots shifted.
Ginny swallowed a yip as her pendants spiked hot and cold almost in the same instant. Judging by the sudden wobble in Ron's flight pattern, he'd felt the same thing.
Not now, she thought fiercely towards the magic which infused the metal, gripping her broomstick's shaft tighter between her hands. Not unless we can do something about it. We've got our own work ahead of us.
Slowly, as if grudgingly, chain and medallions lost their chill, and Ginny blew out her breath and leaned forward to catch up with the rest of the Pride, who were darting up and down, side to side, along what seemed to be an invisible wall.
"It is like a Shield Spell," Meghan was saying as Ginny came into earshot. "Only it's mixed with something else." She reached out and laid her hand against a region of the air which looked the same as the rest of it, but which resisted her push. "There might be a weak place or a door, somewhere we can get in, but I don't know how we'd find it. Unless you can see it?" She craned her neck back to look up at Ron and Harry, both hovering above and behind her. "If you can see where the magic is, can you see where the magic isn't?"
"We can try—but hold on." Harry removed his glasses and squinted at them, then put them back on. "You did the spells on these," he said to Ron, tapping a finger against the black frames. "Think you could do another few like them? Not all the spells, just the one like you've got, the one that lets you see heat and magic?"
"Probably." Ron twisted his wrist once or twice, as if remembering the movement involved in a spell. "Yeah, I think so. But the spell has to go on something, and we don't have any other glasses out here."
"We can," said Neville, drawing his own wand. "Three pairs, Harry?"
"If you don't mind. We'll have the best chance if we can all see it together." Harry leaned back a little, and his Firebolt turned and skimmed behind the group towards Ginny, his fingers starting to move as soon as she looked at them. Come talk to me. Tell me what's wrong.
"How did you—" Ginny began, then pulled out her chain and tossed it towards Harry, who ducked under it smoothly as he pulled up beside her. How did you know? she asked silently, at the same time allowing herself an instant of pleasure in the appreciative hum filling his mind at the sight of her. I didn't think I was making it that obvious.
You weren't. Harry held out his hand, and called a small globe of flame around it when Ginny had put hers into it, bathing them with warmth. But when you and Ron both jump at the same time, and my pendants go off for you being upset a second later, it doesn't take much to figure out somebody's in trouble. Do you know who?
Not yet. I haven't had time to look. Ginny did so now, and frowned at the faint glow emanating from both sides of her first pendant. Let me think. It's not Dad or Mum, and it's probably not Bill, he's still in France with Fleur, helping train some of the older students at Beauxbatons, the ones who've been trickling over a few at a time to join the Order or the Shepherds. So that leaves Fred, Percy, Charlie, and Tonks—
The pendants' light flared as the final name was spoken. Ginny hissed under her breath, her hand tightening around Harry's. I knew it, I knew something was wrong—she's been found out or spotted or captured, and we can't do anything—
We can get word to the people we've still got on the inside with the Death Eaters, Harry broke in, squeezing Ginny's hand in reply. They'll do whatever they can. And Tonks isn't stupid. She'll do whatever she can to stay alive, until we can get to her, or someone over there can help her escape.
I hope so. Ginny exhaled a shaky breath. And none of that changes what we came here to do, does it?
No, said Harry shortly, and ducked out of the chain, cutting off Ginny's impression of his seething anger at this fact. "But that doesn't make it easier either," he said aloud, handing the chain back to her. "That holiday Padfoot was talking about a while back sounds pretty good to me right now. Spend a few months camping out together, with nobody knowing where to find us, nobody depending on us to run impossible risks and save the world, our biggest problem deciding on where to go tomorrow…"
"Sign me up." Ginny blew her husband a kiss. "But after we're done with all of this, not before. How're they coming?" she called aloud to Ron.
"Nearly done." Ron whipped his wand through three small spirals and tapped it once against the conjured glasses, identical in frame to Harry's, which Neville had handed to him. "There. One down, two to go. You want these, Gin?"
"Why not." Ginny guided her broom alongside Ron's, accepted the eyewear, and unfolded the earpieces to place it on her face. "Oh, I see it now. The air sort of sparkles, all along here. So a doorway or a weak point would be wherever it isn't sparkling?"
"Or if the sparkles look different anywhere," said Ron absently, his attention on the second set of glasses he was enchanting. "Hold on till I'm done here, and then we can decide which way we're all going."
"How about Pearl and I go left, and you three go right?" Neville suggested. "That way we'll meet on the other side, and if there's any way inside here at all, we'll find it."
"And if there isn't a way, we'll make one," Meghan finished, making a rude face at the spell beyond which resided the last of Lord Voldemort's Horcruxes. "Because that's what we do."
"We could always raid Percy's stash if we have to," murmured Ginny, looking down the curve of the magical shield at the place where it touched the mountainside below. "He probably wouldn't have thought to continue the spell below the ground, and if the ground's not there anymore, neither would the spell be."
"That's what the Red Shepherds always say, isn't it?" Ron handed the second pair of glasses to Neville. "When in doubt…"
"Semtex," chorused the other four members of the Pride, and Harry conjured a small fireball in midair, mimicking an explosion.
Ginny laughed with her friends, and felt a bit of her fear lightening. The war was far from hopeless, and even Tonks's peril wasn't beyond redemption yet.
But I wish I knew where she was, and what's happening to her…
Severus Snape was just descending a back staircase at Malfoy Manor when he heard the commotion in the entrance hall.
"Hang onto her, dammit!"
"Bloody hell, she bites!"
"Don't let her—yowch, you little vermin!" This was followed by a resounding slap, and a three-part curse in as many languages, delivered in a virulent contralto Severus thought he might recognize.
Though how she came to be captured is more than I can guess—or perhaps not, given her vaunted lack of coordination. Odd that it never showed itself in a battle situation before today…
Moving swiftly through narrow doors which nevertheless showed no signs of dust or disuse (the house-elves now resident at the Manor would never have allowed such things to accumulate), Severus arrived in the entrance hall just in time to see Nymphadora Tonks Weasley forced onto her knees, her face contorted in a snarl which showed no signs of fear but the flickering of her hair through all the colors of the rainbow giving that the lie.
And who could blame her, with two of my supposed compatriots holding her arms behind her back and one with his wand's tip against her throat?
"You dirty little half-blood twat," snarled Walden Macnair, the mustache of which he was so proud bristling with what Severus was sure Macnair considered righteous anger. "I'll teach you to interfere with your elders and betters—"
He yelped like one of the animals he'd once been in the business of destroying as a bolt of red light struck him in the hand, flinging his wand high into the air.
"You'll teach her?" said Lucius Malfoy lazily from halfway up the grand staircase, as Starwing, beside him, stepped to one side and caught Macnair's wand in her palm. "How strange. I would think her abilities in that line were sufficient without further tutelage."
"You're not wanted here." Macnair took a step towards Lucius, thrusting out his chest. "Go on, get lost."
Lucius arched one pale eyebrow. "You amaze me more and more, Macnair. The last time I had occasion to look, this house, these grounds, were mine. Which makes me, after the Dark Lord, of course, the final authority on who is and is not wanted here."
"If you think," Macnair began heatedly, "that I'm going to knuckle under to some pompous, overbred little Squib—"
A screech of rage interrupted him mid-sentence as Starwing brought her wand slashing down. With a sound like a slamming door, Macnair was flung backwards and upwards across the entrance hall, his mustache and hair erupting into furious growth. By the time he had reached the raftered ceiling, he was cocooned in black fibers like an outsized, wriggling pupa.
"My dear," said Lucius mildly to Starwing, laying a hand on her arm. "Do let him breathe. The Dark Lord has need of all his followers, even the most foolish."
Starwing sighed. "All right," she said with a note of petulance in her voice, and waggled her wand from side to side. Macnair gasped, wheezed in air, and began coughing, as the cocoon of hair around him wove itself around and among the rafters, holding him in place. Below, Lucius flicked his fingers at the two remaining Death Eaters, who hastily released Tonks's arms and backed away.
"Very good." Lucius descended the last few steps to the broad landing at the base of the staircase, Tonks eyeing him warily from where she knelt on the polished wooden floor. "Come with me, my dear," he said to her, his tone that of a finished gallant inviting a naive debutante to dance with him at the first ball of the season. "Don't worry about them. They won't bother you again."
The expression on Tonks's face suggested she was restraining her incredulity by the thinnest of margins, but she got to her feet and started forward.
"Ah." Lucius held up a hand, halting her. "Before I forget. Which of your illustrious captors has your wand in his possession?"
Slowly, Tonks pointed to the Death Eater who had been holding her right arm. Lucius snapped his fingers at the wizard, and after a bemused interval, the Death Eater produced the named item from inside his robes and levitated it over to Lucius.
"Excellent." Lucius pocketed the wand, then beckoned Tonks towards him once again, taking her arm when she had ascended the three steps up to the landing. "I will explain your duties in the household once we are out of the reach of prying eyes and ears," he told her. "After all, how I provide for my less fortunate relations is no one's business but my own." Silvery eyes slid to one side and found Severus in the shadow of the staircase. "Is it."
Holding in an impulse towards riotous laughter, as inappropriate as it would have been cathartic, Severus merely shook his head in agreement.
"Quite right." Lucius clucked to Starwing, who fell in behind him and Tonks, and the strange little trio ascended the stairs and disappeared into the darkness of the corridor above.
Tonks had thought nothing could override the terror shaking her from within, but confusion was now bidding to do exactly that. She'd known from the moment the wrought-iron gates opened where she was, though she'd never seen the place with her own eyes. Still, to have Lucius Malfoy pop up and claim her as a relation, escort her away from the Death Eaters who'd brought her in—
It could be good, or it could be bad. And if it's bad, it's going to be very, very bad. She matched her pace to that of her escort, noting bits and pieces about him with the still-functioning corners of her brain. He was favoring his right leg, which tallied with what she'd heard about his werewolf bite; he seemingly still hadn't recovered from Draco's magic-draining, given what Macnair had said, and that Luna had done his wandwork for him…
Yes, Luna. Tonks glanced behind her as unobtrusively as possible, taking in the young witch in her gray robes and black cloak, eyes on the carpet in front of her. Is her mind really gone, or is she just putting it on, waiting until she can hit back? Maybe, if she is, and if we work together—
"Here we are," Lucius announced, stopping in front of a set of double doors. Luna drew her wand and murmured an incantation Tonks didn't catch, and the doors unlocked with an audible click and swung wide. "Please," he said, releasing Tonks's arm and stepping back one pace to bow to her. "Be welcome in this, our humble abode."
Managing somehow to keep her face straight, Tonks stepped into the room, looking around. It was lavishly furnished enough, with two armchairs facing a French door onto a balcony and a table between them, a writing desk against one of the wood-paneled walls, and a long sofa against another. Through a half-open door to her right, she could see a canopied and curtained king-sized bed, a tall wardrobe in one corner, and a vanity with a padded seat in front of it. Something about the vanity was odd, though—she took one step in that direction, trying to put her finger on it—
"Hold still," said Lucius sharply, and Tonks froze. A moment later, she felt the collar of her robes given a quick tug, then released. "There," said the elder wizard in a tone of satisfaction. "You looked like you'd dressed in the dark. However did you come to be so disheveled?"
"Lost my balance on a hillside." Tonks bit off her words before any unflattering epithets pertaining to her host could attach themselves. "Ground was loose."
"I see." Lucius brushed at her shoulders, and Tonks heard the patter of gravel and dirt on the floor beside her. "Quite a mess you made of yourself in your tumble. Not that you could have known that, in these rooms." He chuckled under his breath. "My dear Starwing, although obedient, is not terribly bright, and she inevitably mistakes her reflection for another young lady bent on stealing my affections. To that end, I have had my house-elf cover all reflective surfaces in these rooms. And speaking of which—Echo!"
Tonks turned around quickly, just in time to see the little house-elf who'd been missing from the Headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix for the past few months materialize in the center of the sitting room. "Yes, Master?" she said meekly, then caught sight of Tonks and fell silent, her hands going up to her mouth.
"You know this witch, I believe." Lucius waved a hand in Tonks's direction. "She will be joining our happy little household. Whatever has been occupying your time lately, to the extent that you are sometimes several seconds behindhand in coming when you are called…" His glare made Echo shrink back with a whimper, and Tonks clenched her fists, reminding herself that starting a fight wouldn't help. "That work now belongs to her, and you will fetch her whatever she needs to complete it. Within reason, of course. As for the rest of her accommodations, sleeping, eating, and the like…" He waved a hand airily. "Use your own judgment. Only see that she doesn't go outside the house, or off the grounds, without permission. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Master," Echo whispered. "Right away, Master." Scurrying around Luna, who was regarding her with the wide-eyed uncertainty Tonks had noticed in post owls around house-elves and small children, she stopped beside Tonks and held up one tiny hand. "If Mistress would please to grab on?" she said softly.
"Just a moment." Lucius's voice arrested Tonks in the act of closing her own hand around Echo's fingers. The last of the Malfoys was regarding her with a strangely intent gaze. "Try not to fall down any more hills, little cousin," he said softly. "I might not be there to save you next time."
Tonks was still staring at him when Echo's hand closed around hers, and the luxurious room winked out of existence around them, to be replaced by a moment later by a smaller, shabbier one with far less in the way of furniture. Setting this aside to be examined more later, Tonks went swiftly to one knee, catching hold of Echo as the little house-elf's face began to crumple.
"Easy now," she murmured, remembering what her mother had once told her, that comforting another person was very nearly as good as being comforted yourself. "Easy now, I've got you. It's going to be all right."
Rather than dwell on this any longer, Tonks took a look around. Her first impression, that this room was almost barren of furniture, was borne out by this longer examination. Practically the only items visible were a small and sturdy table with a circular bundle of blankets beneath it, a much-mended rocking chair, and, situated directly beneath the single barred window—
Well. Tonks whistled under her breath. I think I know what's been taking up Echo's time lately.
"Her name is Annette," said Echo shakily, lifting her head from the crook of Tonks's elbow and turning to regard the cradle. "Annette Selene. She's not even a month old yet, and her parents died the day she was born. Their friends asked me to take care of her, and I have been, but it's hard, Mistress Tonks, especially when nobody else can know about her or she'd be in terrible danger—"
"Oh, like that, is it?" Tonks craned her neck to get a glimpse of the tiny, round face, relaxed in sleep, with a few wisps of brown hair straggling across the small forehead. "I don't know much about babies, but I bet I can learn. Feed them when they're wet and change them when they're hungry, right? Or is that the other way around?"
A tiny smile flickered on Echo's face. "You're silly, Mistress Tonks."
"I do what I can." Tonks fished in her pocket for a handkerchief and held it out to Echo. "And you don't have to keep calling me your Mistress all the time. I'm not."
Echo blew her nose decidedly. "Yes, you are," she said through the weave of the cloth. "Or I wish you were."
"I'm sure you do, but I don't see…" Tonks stopped as Echo shook her head in tiny, frantic jerks. One slender finger slid down Tonks's arm and rested for an instant on her wedding ring, then was snatched away.
Something to do with Charlie? Charlie, and my being Echo's mistress—well, I know Winky belongs to the Weasleys, but I still don't see—
And then she did, and it was all she could do to restrain her grin.
"You think that could work?" she asked, trying for as casual a tone as possible. "Since your dad was officially freed and all, he never accepted any new contract anywhere, but your mum did?"
Blotting at her eyes, Echo nodded. "But not yet," she whispered. "Not until he forgets. You take care of Annette, and I'll take care of him, and then, when he hardly even remembers you're here…"
"Sounds good." Tonks grimaced. "Though Charlie's going to go spare, imagining everything that could be happening to me. I don't suppose we can get a message out to him that I'm safe, more or less, and he's not to get himself in trouble trying for some grand heroic rescue?"
"I can try." Echo's ears twitched, and her head turned towards the cradle an instant before a fretful cry arose from it.
"Nice trick," said Tonks, getting to her feet. "All right, show me how this is done, would you?"
"It's not too hard." Echo pattered beside Tonks to the side of the cradle, where Annette Selene was squirming in time with her tiny, unhappy wails. "First, you pick her up, and make sure to support her head—yes, just like that. Next, you see if her nappy's wet, and it probably will be, so we've got to change her, and then we'll see if she wants something to eat…"
Ha! Take that, writer's block demons!
My apologies, all. I have been having some unpleasant personal issues in the past couple of months, and most of the time which would have been spent writing has instead been devoted to dealing with them. Your patience is appreciated, and I hope will be rewarded with plenty of chapters in the upcoming weeks and months.
If you're wondering what's going on in my life, and when I will update again, there are easy ways to find out! I post to my blog, Anne's Randomness, at my website, annebwalsh dot com, at least once a week (more often when there's news, but Fiction Fridays with funny and random little short-shorts are a given). I also try to update my Facebook page (facebook dot com slash annebwalsh dot page) and Twitter feed (at-sign annebwalsh) at least once a day. Sorry about the lack of links, but this new computer doesn't like the link maker... I'll figure it out.
Thank you very much for continuing to read, and I always appreciate it when you review! Please remember to be both honest and polite, and I will see you next time!
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