Chapter 34: No Time At All (Arc 7)
BYOT. The Bad Things begin.
"There's something I've been meaning to ask," said Hannah hesitantly as she and Hermione set up the rune-labeled board on which Hermione would cast her half of the locating spell. "Only I've never been sure that I ought to, because it seems almost rude, especially with all the work everyone went to, with the Sanctuary and the spell-breaking year…"
"I promise I won't bite." Hermione bared her teeth. "See? Not sharp. Or not as sharp as they can be, at any rate."
Hannah laughed a little. "It comes out of all the things that you told us about… Voldemort," she said, pronouncing the name with only the briefest of shudders. "About where he came from, and who he was before he took that name, and what he wants. If he's actually a half-blood, wouldn't he be glad, instead of sorry, that no one could find that out with just a spell anymore? And if the only thing he wants is power, why would it matter to him if people can easily find out what blood status someone is, with just a spell, instead of having to look up family trees and do the research to find out if they've been faked?"
"That's not rude. That means you're thinking." Hermione tapped her wand against one of the runes twice, and was rewarded with a brief red glow and a musical chime. "Only you haven't thought quite far enough, and that's only a small problem, not a large one like not thinking at all would be." She let her jaw hang loose and crossed her eyes, getting another giggle from Hannah. "You see, the spell-breaking year wasn't just meant to break the spell. And breaking the spell wasn't really an attack against Voldemort. Not exactly, at any rate."
"Not exactly?" Hannah frowned. "I thought something either was an attack or it wasn't…"
"Well, that's true enough. But Voldemort is only one person, isn't he?" Hermione waited for Hannah's nod before continuing. "A powerful person, certainly, and dangerous even if he was all alone. But he's not all alone. He has the Death Eaters to help him, and that makes him much, much more dangerous, because they can be in many places and do many things, and we have to defend against all of them. And who are the Death Eaters, mostly?"
"They're mostly the—" Hannah broke off, her eyes wide. "Of course, of course, now I see! The Death Eaters are mostly purebloods, the ones who believe that only purebloods are worth anything! So the breaking of the spell wasn't aimed against Voldemort—it was aimed against the Death Eaters, to make them worried and frightened, to make them wonder if they should stay where they are and keep doing what they're doing!"
"Yes, it was." Hermione activated another of the runes before looking up with a wicked grin. "Because wouldn't it be nice if the next time we had to fight against Death Eaters, some of them decided they'd rather stay home?"
"I wish all of them would stay home," said Hannah in heartfelt tones. "And you said the spell-breaking year wasn't just meant to break the spell…well, it does mean we have the Sanctuary. Even if—" She broke off, turning her face away.
"Oh, Hannah." Hermione pulled a clean handkerchief from her pocket and handed it over. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to remind you—"
"You didn't," said Hannah into the folds of cloth. "I reminded myself. And just because the Sanctuary wasn't done in time for my mum, doesn't mean it isn't done now. And that will be in time for a lot of other people's mums and dads, and brothers and sisters, and everybody else." She blew her nose decisively, then folded over the kerchief and blotted her eyes. "Besides, I made up my mind about this months ago. I miss Mum terribly, and I will for the rest of my life—but I can curl up in a ball and cry about that, or I can stand on my feet and go fight the people who made me miss her." Squaring her shoulders, she grinned back at Hermione, truly if still a bit tremulously. "And one of those is going to get a lot more done than the other one."
"Whoever forms the next Pride, I hope it includes some Hufflepuffs." Hermione dusted off her hands and picked up the two potion pieces which mimicked the ones carried by Graham and Natalie, setting them in the center of the board. "You'd fit right in, we already seem to think a lot alike…"
"Are you sure you're all really Gryffindors, then?" Hannah walked once around the board, looking closely at each of the runes, as if to memorize them. "I remember it took the Hat a very long time to sort Neville, back in our first year."
Hermione shrugged. "At this point, does it matter? We're all fighting for the same thing."
"It really doesn't." Hannah glanced down at her House badge. "Except that maybe we shouldn't be Sorted so soon. Or there should be something else, something besides Houses. Something that lets us get to know each other without having to get into a war first."
"Yes, there should…" Hermione shook her head, impatient with herself. "But we are in a war, and some of our friends are in trouble out there, so we need to get on with what we were doing. Don't let me forget what we were talking about, though? I have a feeling it could be important."
"Noted and logged." Hannah tapped her temple with a finger. "Now how does this spell work again? It goes looking for something that's like the thing you've given it to compare with, and when it finds what it's looking for, one of the runes will light up?"
"Yes, exactly, and that will tell us how far away is the other thing it's found. Now from this spell, we're expecting two sets of results, one from the other board that Harry's setting up and one from the place where Graham and Natalie are. But we'll know which one is from Harry's board, because it will be exactly the same as the one he gets from our board, so we'll be able to put that one aside and concentrate on the other one."
"But that will only tell you how far away they are," objected Hannah, frowning. "Not in what direction."
"True, but that's why we have two boards." Hermione held up her hands, interlocked as Harry's had been earlier. "We put our location on a map, and draw a circle around it at the distance our spell gave us. And then we do the same thing with Harry's board, and the two circles will touch in two places—"
Hannah's eyes lit up with understanding. "And one of those is the place where Graham and Natalie are!" She sketched for a moment on her palm with one finger. "Couldn't we even eliminate one of those two, if we had a third board set up somewhere?"
"We could, but we have enough Order members and Red Shepherds on call to check out both locations that we find, so it's quicker just to set up two boards. Besides, Harry and I have done this spell together before, and we don't have anyone else who has."
"And it's better to get two locations that you're sure about, than one you can't be." Hannah nodded. "I understand that. Are we ready here, then?"
"I think so." Hermione waved her wand in a careful S-curve above the board. All the runes lit at once, sounding off in a dissonant, yet strangely compelling chord. "Yes, we are. Now we just wait for Harry to tell us he's ready too—"
Her pocket chimed. Hannah jumped.
"And that's probably what this is," Hermione finished with a laugh, digging out her Zippophone and flipping it open. "Hermione speaking."
"Ready when you are, Neenie," said Harry's voice from the green flame. "Do you want to call it or should I?"
About to answer this, Hermione noticed an uncertain look on Hannah's face. "Just a moment, Harry," she said into the flame, and lowered the Zippo, casting a quick Silencing Spell around it with her other hand. "What is it?" she asked her yearmate.
"Should either of you be counting down to it, if you have to do the spell?" Hannah mimed casting with her free hand. "Won't that throw off your timing?"
"Yes, it will—thank you for catching that, Hannah." Hermione shook her head, annoyed with herself. "What were we thinking? Last time, we had Moony and Danger count it off for us, because they weren't otherwise involved with the spellcasting…"
"Your sister's friends are the ones in trouble this time." Hannah's eyes glistened for a moment, but her voice remained steady. "It's always harder to think clearly when someone you love is involved."
"Isn't it just." Hermione removed the Silencer. "Why don't we let someone else do it, Harry, and leave the connection open, so we can concentrate on doing the spell exactly when we hear the word," she said into the Zippo flame.
"Makes sense." Though she couldn't see her brother, Hermione got the sense that Harry was nodding in agreement. "Captain, care to do the honors?"
Graham startled out of a half-doze as rock grated against rock. Beside him, Natalie stiffened.
"Well, well," said the squat witch standing in the doorway of their cave. "What do we have here?"
She swaggered inside with two strides and flicked a stubby wand at the boulder which had been blocking the arched entrance, which obediently ground its way back into place. Graham sat up straighter, squaring his shoulders and giving himself a clearer draw for his piece, feeling Natalie doing the same at his side.
"Why, I do believe it's a pair of babies who think they can play with the grown-ups," the witch answered herself, and cackled in a wheezy voice, rubbing her hands together. "What fun, what fun! And the boy, at least, I've seen before—miss us, did you, little Pritchard? Come back for more?"
"If someone's trying to taunt you, that's a sign of insecurity," Draco's voice murmured in Graham's head, from one of the early DA lessons on basic negotiating tactics. "They're poking you to see how you'll react. Not reacting at all will throw them off, and you'll get a better read on them than they will on you."
Tilting his head at the angle which would give the impression he was looking down his nose at the witch, despite his seated position to her standing, Graham turned a gaze on her which borrowed from both the intensely irritating wide-eyed stares Bernie and her elflet friends had perfected and the cool, knowing regard his mother tended to use on him when she wanted a confession about his latest wrongdoing right away.
The witch's face went first red, then blotchy purple, and she hissed at him like an angry cat. "Don't you know it's rude not to speak when you're spoken to?" she snapped.
"Don't you know it's rude to call people babies when they're not?" Natalie fired back.
"Ah, the girl's got your tongue, then!" The witch crowed another laugh and leaned against one of the walls of the cave, running her wand through her similarly foreshortened fingers. "And you I don't know, girly, and I know everyone who's anyone in the wizarding world…"
"Natalie Macdonald," said that young lady shortly. "Third year. Gryffindor."
"Macdonald?" The witch raised her eyebrows, in patently false astonishment. "I know McGonagalls, I know MacLaggens, but Macdonald? That's no wizarding name."
"You're right." Natalie smiled sweetly. "It's a witch's name instead."
The purple blotches on the witch's cheeks reappeared, forcing Graham to hold in a laugh. "I mean your blood, girly," the older woman got out with an effort. "Your background, your family, your lines of descent—your parents and grandparents—"
"Two of one, four of the other." Natalie's smile beamed even brighter. "Just like everybody else."
"Taunting bad guys works much better in fiction than it does in real life." This time it was Hermione's voice speaking inside Graham's head, and he wished he had a way to transfer the memory to Natalie without the older witch noticing. "Fictional bad guys love to tell the heroes everything they're planning. Real bad guys will probably just torture you if you get too annoying. Don't take the chance."
"Why, you little—" The witch raised her wand above her head, and Natalie gasped—Graham prepared to shove her aside should the first syllables of the spell be those of the Cruciatus, the Imperius, or even the Killing Curse—
"Aperio sanguinis!" shouted the witch, and swung her wand down into line with Natalie.
The witch blinked, shook her wand, flicked it with a finger while holding it up to her ear as if testing it for ripeness. Graham and Natalie took advantage of the moment to exchange smug looks.
"A-per-i-o san-guin-is," the witch enunciated more clearly this time, making her wave of the wand more broad and sweeping, as though she were demonstrating it for a classful of students.
Once again, nothing happened.
"Merlin's pinstriped bollocks," grumbled the witch, shoving the boulder out of the way again with a spell. "Here, Amycus! Amycus!"
"What d'you want, Alecto?" a wizard's voice shouted back from the space beyond the boulder.
"The blood spell's not working!"
"What bloody spell?"
"Not bloody spell, you imbecile!" Alecto stamped her foot in rage. "Blood spell! The blood spell!"
"Since when d'you call your own brother an imbecile?"
"Since you act like one, that's when!"
Graham tugged a corner of Natalie's cloak. "Carrow," he breathed into her ear when she leaned against him. "Their name is Carrow, they're brother and sister—there's another brother, I don't know his name but he has kids in Slytherin, twin girls in Selena's year—they've been some of the ones nastiest to her because of the DA and the Pride, they were probably part of this all along…"
Natalie nodded hard. "And they're acting just like we hoped they would with the spell being broken," she whispered back, as Alecto shouted and stormed at her brother, receiving an equal tirade of abuse in return. "They're confused and a little scared, they don't know what to think, because they never knew that spell depended on another one to work. They thought it was just a plain ordinary spell like levitation, and now they can't be sure what spell might decide to stop working next—"
"Rude to whisper in front of others, girly." Alecto's spell slashed down between Graham and Natalie, flinging them to opposite sides of the cave. "I'd take ten points from Gryffindor if I were your teacher, and one of these days I might be." She cackled again, replacing the boulder. "Oh yes, I very well might be! Once the Dark Lord has the right people suborned at the Ministry, people who'll ask questions in just the right ears, we'll get Albus Dumbledore sacked at last and put in the one man who's already in place and who's got proper ideas about discipline and training for young wizards and witches—Head of Hogwarts, Severus Snape!"
"I don't know that Professor Snape would want to be Headmaster," said Graham, pushing himself back up to sitting from where Alecto's spell had dropped him. His arm and side were sore, and his vision had grayed for a moment when he'd hit his head, but the longer they could keep Alecto talking instead of throwing more spells at them, the better. Not only would it minimize the damage she could do to them, but it might earn them some of that information which taunting her would not.
And if she talks so long that she forgets she has her wand out—and especially now that she's separated us, if we can get her to face just one of us and not look at the other one—
He was well aware that this was a stupid idea. Even if Alecto could be enticed into looking at and speaking to him exclusively, his own expression would be almost certain to give away what Natalie was up to behind the older witch's back, and the same went for Natalie. The chances of their pulling it off ranged from slim to none.
Its only saving grace lay in the fact that it was the best chance they had.
"Oh, you think so, do you, little Pritchard?" Alecto frowned at him, turning to face him. "Why?"
"Because he hates dealing with stupid people, and he thinks anyone who doesn't understand what he says the first time is stupid." Graham called up all his memories of almost three years as Snape's student and a member of the House the older wizard headed. "It's why he hates the elementary classes he has to teach, because the younger students are just learning to brew and can't understand why he makes such a fuss over which way to stir the potion, or when to take it off the fire." He smiled a little. "At least, not until they melt their first cauldron, or blow one up…"
Hermione bent over her sheet of calculations, her mind racing through the steps for converting the runic results of the locating spell into useable numbers for distance. Carry that…put that there…and done.
"Check me," she said, shoving her parchment towards Harry, who only grunted and wrote down a final number of his own before returning the favor. Hermione scooped up his sheet and ran her finger down his blotted lines of numbers, scowling at his familiarly awful handwriting before focusing her attention on what was important—his process and his results. She would know in just…a moment…
"Check," she announced, laying the parchment down. "We've got it."
"Yes, we do." Harry was on his feet, moving to Professor McGonagall's desk, where a large map of Hogwarts and its environs had been laid out, specifically bespelled to counteract the usual Unplottable Charm around the school. "So you were there, and we were here…" His wand stabbed down twice, marking the spots where the rune boards had been set up, his own with a tiny lightning bolt, Hermione's with a miniature book. "My distance was this…" A twirling loop, and a perfect circle appeared around the lightning bolt. "And yours was that…" Another circle surrounding the book.
"And there they are!" Meghan had her own wand out, and highlighted the two places where the circles crossed. "And I don't think we have to search that far one at all, it's in the middle of a river—"
"The Slytherin dormitories are underwater," Hermione pointed out, looking up. "Magic could dig a hiding place under a river and keep it entirely dry, and people would walk right past it because they'd never believe it could be there."
"Oh." Meghan deflated. "Who should go where, then?"
"That," said Harry, holding out the map for Neville to fix the marks on it with a Finalizing Spell, then rolling it up and starting for the door, "is not our problem."
Meghan started to bristle. Neville coughed. "He means the second Pride will handle it," he said when Meghan glared at him. "And the Red Shepherds."
"That's not fair!" Meghan scowled. "Graham and Natalie were my friends first! I should be allowed—"
"To go straight to bed, if you keep acting like you're almost four, instead of almost fourteen," Hermione interrupted, ignoring Meghan's indignant squeal. "What is the first law of war?"
With a much-put-upon sigh, Meghan began to recite. "As soon as the enemy arrives, every battle plan gets f—"
"—fully messed up," Meghan finished with a grin.
Harry snickered and joined her in the latter half of the recitation. "That's why they're called—"
"The enemy," Hermione couldn't resist chorusing with her siblings.
Neville applauded them.
"All right," said Hermione when she had her breath back. "That's true. But what I meant was the one that goes, War is like life, only more so. It's not nice, it's not pretty, and most of all—"
"It's not fair," Meghan finished dutifully, as Harry slipped out the door with the map. "I know. I'm sorry. It's just…" She held out a hand to Neville, who took it and drew her gently into a half-hug. "I'm so scared for them, and there isn't anything I can do now that we've worked the spell, except stand here and get more scared, and it wasn't so bad when we had things that we could do but now it's—"
Hermione's Zippo chimed again. "Hold that thought," she said, and flicked it open. "Hermione here."
"Neenie, it's Ron," said her boyfriend's voice, a bit more hushed than she was used to hearing it over a Zippo link. "Are you alone?"
"I'm with Pearl and Captain—why?"
"That'll do." A pause, as though Ron were checking behind him for possible listeners. "We're out in Hogsmeade, we haven't found Romilda Vane yet, but we did find Blaise, and he's got a couple of other Slytherins with him. Turns out Vane's just the tip of the Erumpent horn…"
"Excuse me?" said a small voice behind Ginny.
"Yes?" Ginny turned, and found herself face to face with a small, mousy girl in a Gryffindor cloak, worrying a bit of the hem back and forth. Quickly, she summoned her mental inventory of DA members and flipped through it (only Luna, who was understanding about such things, knew that she paired names and faces best when she visualized them as Chocolate Frog cards). "Cassandra?" she added as the particular card she'd been looking for glowed a pale red in her mind's eye.
Cassandra Aubrey flushed with pleasure at being remembered. "I thought I heard you say that you were looking for someone," she said in a rush, her eyes darting past Ginny to indicate Ron, Luna, Dean, and Lindz, along with several other DA and Order members, who had peeled off from this central location near the Three Broomsticks the better to scour Hogsmeade when the Marauder's Map had indicated that Romilda Vane had not returned with the rest of the student body to Hogwarts. "I think I may know where she is. But there's something you ought to know first."
Ginny angled herself so that her back was more squarely to the wall and made sure she had a clean draw for her wand, just in case. The only scent she was catching from Cassandra was nervousness, no deceit or betrayal at all, but that would also be the case if someone had placed the fourth year under Imperius. "I'm listening."
"I was waiting in the bathrooms this morning for one of the showers to be free when I saw Natalie Macdonald come in." Cassandra gestured to indicate one of the partial walls which separated the toilet and bathing areas of the girls' bathrooms within Gryffindor Tower. "I don't think she saw me, she just needed to…" One shoulder shrugged. "What people do in toilets. But something strange happened." She licked her lips. "When she came in, she looked happy, but normally happy. The way you are, on a Hogsmeade morning. When she went out…" A shiver, and she pulled her cloak tighter around herself, despite the warmth of the day. "She looked too happy. Singing and dancing happy, when she hadn't been before. And then a moment later, I saw someone else walk out of the bathroom as well."
"Who was that?" Ginny asked, although the sick, sinking feeling in her stomach told her she already knew.
"It was her." Cassandra nodded firmly. "It was Romilda Vane."
"And you're sure? Not that I doubt you," Ginny added quickly as Cassandra started to draw back in affront. "But this is going to have to go a lot higher than me. Professor McGonagall, at the very least—Professor Dumbledore will most likely be involved before we're through—possibly even some people from the Ministry, if this turns out to be more than just some silly student prank. Which we already know it is, it has to be, but they'll have to find that out for themselves."
"Because Merlin forbid they should actually listen to the people who know something," muttered Cassandra, and Ginny snorted a laugh. "But yes, I'm sure. We're the same year, you know, we share a dorm, and I was right there, nearly as close to her as I am to you. I'm very sure of who I saw. And of where she is right now."
"Yes, that's right." Ginny smiled, digging in her pocket for her Galleon, as Lynx, in the back of her mind, bared her teeth and extended her claws to sharpen them for the hunt. "How close can you get us without tipping her off that she's been spotted?"
"…so Ron says it sounds like pretty much an anti-DA, sir," Harry summed up for Professor Dumbledore, doing his best to ignore the glare being leveled at his left ear by Professor Snape. "They aren't junior Death Eaters exactly, but most of them have relations or friends who're connected on that side, or know somebody who is. And a lot of them are Slytherins, but not nearly all. The girls Blaise found knew about at least three Ravenclaws who sympathized with them, a couple of Hufflepuffs—Romilda Vane was the only Gryffindor they knew about, but that doesn't mean she was the only one."
"True." Dumbledore sat back in his chair, stroking the head of Fawkes, who had fluttered to his armrest about the same time Harry had arrived in the office. Harry found his eyes drawn, as they seldom were, to the signs of age written on his Headmaster's face, the lines of weariness etched into Dumbledore's skin, the dullness of his eyes behind the half-moon spectacles. "I assume teams have already been dispatched to the two possible locations you discovered for the missing students?"
"Yes, sir." Harry waited for the follow-up questions he would have asked himself in Dumbledore's place, or that he would have expected from Moony, from Percy, from any other leader on their side of the war—the whereabouts of those locations, the composition of the teams, when they had left, what arrangements they had made for back-up, at what time word could be expected from them—but nothing was forthcoming.
Either he's slipping badly, or he trusts us to know what we're doing without him having his fingers in every last pie. Harry dug one foot in the pile of the carpet as an alternative to a nervous swallow. I'm not sure which one makes me more nervous…
The blue police box on Dumbledore's desk let out a melodic ping a moment before the door swung open. "Here I am, finally," said Professor McGonagall, brushing a few last ashes from her shoulders as she entered. "Miss Macdonald's parents were not pleased with what I had to say, as one might well imagine—it required some time to calm them down enough to hear me out, and then quite a bit more to convince them that kidnapping or not, she must continue her education or she will become a greater danger to herself than the Death Eaters are to her." She glanced over at Snape. "The Pritchards?"
"Likewise, less than pleased, but not at the moment seeking a target for blame." Snape's voice was laconic, but the scent Harry was catching from him consisted of equal parts fury and frustration. "They remain at Headquarters for their daughter's sake, and have asked that any news be brought to Parvus first, so that he and Favonia can decide how best to explain it to her."
"A wise plan," said Dumbledore, looking up at last. "Severus, will you do me the favor of having Filius and Pomona located, and asking them to join us here as soon as they may?"
Snape nodded shortly and strode across the office, closing firmly behind him the door which Professor McGonagall had left ajar.
"I know that look," McGonagall said, frowning at Dumbledore. "Albus, what are you about to do?"
"Something which perhaps I should have done two years ago, Minerva, but convinced myself to refrain." Dumbledore stroked Fawkes's head once more, then gently shooed the phoenix back to his perch. "It will be mightily unpopular, and may even bring protests from the Ministry that I am overstepping my bounds. But I am no longer willing to allow those students to remain in my school who are willing to perpetrate such acts as this against one another." He interlaced his fingers, watching McGonagall steadily. "Beginning tomorrow, I will be asking you and the other Heads of House to administer a potion to each and every student, a potion which will make the telling of an untruth clearly apparent, and while that potion is in force request them to state the following, and only the following:
"That they will cause no harm to any other student, staff member, or visitor to Hogwarts, nor by their inaction allow such people to come to harm, unless their own safety or the safety of another would be placed in peril by failing to do so."
"A loyalty test?" McGonagall shook her head, her face openly bewildered. "That such a thing could be necessary…but no." She sighed. "No, as usual you've made every effort to be fair. Perhaps a little too much effort? Any student who sympathizes with Voldemort, with the purity-minded purebloods, but who is willing to refrain from open acts of violence while at Hogwarts could pass such a test with ease. Which was exactly what you had in mind, wasn't it?" Suddenly seeming to realize that Harry was still in the room, she looked over at him sharply. "This goes no further, Potter," she warned him. "Not until the official announcement is made."
"Yes, Professor." Harry glanced at Dumbledore, who waved one hand in a polite gesture of dismissal. He obeyed as quickly as possible, passing Snape on his own way out and Snape's way back in, and Professors Sprout and Flitwick on the revolving staircase, which had obligingly split itself in half to accommodate the two-way traffic.
That's not anything I'd want to tell people. Half of them will be shocked it's happening at all, and the other half will think Dumbledore's right that he should have done it as soon as the war started back up. And I think I'm with the second half—if we'd made it a condition of coming back to Hogwarts that you weren't going to hurt anyone you're here with, we might have stopped this from happening…
But then, we might not have. He stepped off the staircase into the corridor beyond and stared blindly out the nearest window. And there isn't any way to know about it now.
In his pocket, his Galleon warmed. He yanked it out and located the beginning of the message.
RV found. GP and NM in caves behind waterfall. GW
"Caves behind—" Harry blinked, recalling Meghan's objection to one of the two locations they'd found with the spell.
And that's the one the second Pride decided to take…
This day was either going to end very well, or very badly.
Alecto's ranting would have been frightening, Graham thought, if he'd been able to pay attention to it. As it was, he was so focused on appearing to pay attention, on keeping his eyes fixed on her unpleasantly lumpy face and never looking away from her for an instant, that he was barely registering anything she said. He hoped he would be able to remember it later, since it was probably all things the Order of the Phoenix and the Red Shepherds would love to know about, but—
A small splashing sound cut through Alecto's voice, and her eyes went wide. "What—" she began, whirling around with her hand clapped to the back of her neck.
In mid-turn, she sagged like an empty sack, then collapsed to the floor of the cave, eyes already dropping shut.
Graham thrust his hand hastily through the slit in his robes and pressed it against the antidote patch on his potion piece as he felt the fumes begin to work on him. Natalie, with her piece in firing position, was already protected, and indeed seemed to be feeling a bit of the euphoria the DA had noted as one of the side effects from long-term use of their antidotes. "That's her sorted," she said, grinning broadly for an instant, before her expression wavered. "But we still don't know how many more of them are out there, or if they're watching…"
"I bet I can find out." Graham pried Alecto's fingers loose from her wand and waved it a few times, experimentally. It felt a bit heavier in his hand than his own, but beggars couldn't be choosers. Beckoning Natalie to his side, he crossed to the boulder-blocked entrance, hoping he remembered the incantation for this spell correctly—if not, this, their one chance, would end before it had truly begun.
"Fenestra exappareo," he said carefully and clearly, outlining a square on the boulder with the tip of the wand.
The stone within the square writhed, contorted, and vanished, leaving the inside of the square as clear as glass. Natalie stifled a gasp with her shoulder, staring at it. "I didn't know you knew the Peephole Charm!" she breathed. "That's supposed to be above O.W.L. level—"
"And a Patronus is above N.E.W.T., but you can do one of those already," Graham reminded her. "Look now, talk later. Who's out there?"
They applied themselves to Graham's Peephole (rendered, by the second word of his spell, invisible to anyone but them), and shortly had three other Death Eaters spotted, in what did indeed appear to be a much larger cave connected to their own. More importantly, Natalie pointed out, was the unmistakable shape of a cradle, shoved into a far corner and surrounded by the shimmer which meant an area-effect spell, probably a Silencer.
"If you moved the boulder out of the way, I think I could get them all with one spray before they yell," she said doubtfully. "But then the potion fumes will knock Zach out too…"
"We'd have to do that anyway, to get him out of here without him crying and telling everyone where we are." Graham hitched his own potion piece to the other side of his waist and pulled out his robes, slicing along them with a quick "Diffindo" to allow for a left-handed draw. "Selena and Roger will forgive us for using almost any kind of potion on him if we bring him home alive." He winked, touching his thumb to his chest and motioning something large becoming something small, then back again. "Trust me on this one."
Natalie smiled and took her best shooting stance, raising her piece to eye level and sighting along it. "Ready when you are," she said softly.
Graham waited until all three Death Eaters in the cavern beyond were facing away from them (gathered around something he couldn't see, but which seemed to fascinate them), then mentally flipped through the most common variations on one of the charms they'd learned a few months before.
"Mobililapis," he said finally, almost under his breath, waving Alecto's wand in a carefully controlled semicircle.
The boulder wobbled once, then obediently rose into the air, following his movement.
Natalie fired as soon as her line of sight was clear.
The Death Eaters went down in an untidy heap, whatever they'd been looking at dropping noiselessly to the floor underneath them.
Graham set the boulder down carefully and followed Natalie into the main cavern, scanning quickly for any signs of movement, any hints that their escape had been noted. Curious, he edged over to their fallen enemies, and picked up the thing which had distracted them for just long enough.
Then he had to stifle a laugh of his own.
"Look at this," he called quietly in Natalie's direction as she emerged from the area covered by the Silencer, Zach cradled once again in her arms. "It's a map! It shows this whole cave system, it's huge, but we're near the entrance—it's that way, I think, if I'm reading it right—"
"Let me see?" Natalie held out one hand, and Graham passed over the map, using the time that she spent deciphering the markings on the parchment to Summon his cloak from their small cave and wrap it around her, then pin it at her shoulder, making an impromptu baby sling. "Yes, that way," she agreed at last, nodding towards the same tunnel Graham had indicated. "And there aren't any other inhabited caverns noted along the way, just a straight run to the surface—if we hurry, we might even be back in time for dinner!"
A rush of giddiness ran through Graham, and before he knew what he was doing, he'd caught Natalie's hand in his and pulled her close, turning so as not to squash Zach between them—her arm was around his neck, his hand was in her hair, and their lips were touching—
"No more," Natalie breathed when they broke away. "Not now. But—" Her smile was back, and more dazzling than ever. "Once we're safe—yes. Please."
Graham snapped her a salute, making her giggle, and took up his position at her flank as she started for the tunnel, turning his head from side to side to keep as much of the room as possible under his eyes. A flicker of movement made him whirl, his plundered wand coming up to target, but it was only one of the Death Eaters shifting in his stupor, the one Alecto had addressed as her brother, his hand sliding down from a precarious perch along his side to the floor.
Nothing to worry about, he assured himself, starting to turn back to his original heading, noting that Natalie had moved several yards closer to the tunnel entrance while he'd been staring behind them. We'll be out of here in no—
Before he could complete his turn, or his thought, a far more definite movement caught his eye.
From behind the heap of fallen enemies rose Alecto, her eyes filmed over with fury, a wand in her hand—her brother's wand, Graham realized with horror—rising to take aim at Natalie's unprotected back, green light gathering at its tip—
He flung himself at Natalie, as he had already done once today.
His hurtling body crashed into hers a bare second before the spell arrived.
Graham had time to see the girl he loved and the child they'd sworn to protect go tumbling together through the entrance to the tunnel, time to hear shouts and cries of shock in voices he knew and trusted rising over the sound of a great rushing wind, time to see his own shape outlined on the floor of the cave before him in green.
And then—there was no time at all.
Yes, I just did that. Some of you had guessed it was coming.
My apologies for the long hiatus between this chapter and the last one. Sadly it was occasioned by some personal losses, from which I've been doing my best to recover. Nothing life-shattering, but some definite sadness. Thank you for your patience during this time.
I try not to say this too often, but it seems people need a refresher. While I do encourage and welcome feedback, both compliments and criticism, it helps very much if any criticisms you may have are phrased in as polite and helpful of ways as you can manage. Phrases like "I wasn't sure about…" or "I was confused by…" or even "I didn't care for…", with corresponding examples and ideas for what you might have preferred, can be very useful here. They help me to see what I may be doing badly without leaving me feeling like I've been kneecapped with a baseball bat. Thank you.
News! I have created a website, at www.annebwalsh.com! Not only are all my most useful links stored there, but I've begun a blog, "Anne's Randomness", updating four times a week with information about both original and fan writing (like the fact that I've finally started Playing with Fire, sequel to A Widow in Waiting)! Check it out if you get a few minutes…there are hidden story-bits behind several of the book covers!
That should be all for now. Next time—reactions, repercussions, and yes, more Draco. Did you really think I'd forget about him?
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