Disclamer: I don't own HP.
Thanks to the ever-patient kirstenalanna for being my beta.
wonderful image by .asperity @ TDA
The next afternoon, Elena found herself at the Longbottom house again. This time, however, she was alone as she ascended the steps and knocked quickly on the door.
Alice answered, though she did not appear to be cheery. Instead, her normally happy face was drawn and pinched. Dark circles lined her eyes and her hair was limp. “Come in, Elena,” she said wearily.
Elena entered the house, speaking as soon as the door was closed. “Corinne has found where Ethan MacDonald was sent. She wants to raid the house.” The words felt dry in Elena’s mouth. She was only saying what she had been sent to say, nothing more.
Alice ushered Elena into the sitting room, where Neville was lying in a bassinette. She didn’t sit, however, so Elena felt forced to stand as well. “She wants to know if you and Frank would be willing to help.”
“Elena,” Alice began, sounding insubstantial. “I want to know who killed my father, I really do. But can’t you manage it with the three of you? I’m tired enough as it is keeping what remains of my family whole. I’d like it if Neville had parents when he was older.”
“I agree,” Elena said, forgetting her own strict instructions. “You shouldn’t have to solve this. He was your father, after all. It’s just that they don’t feel safe just the two of them.”
A look of comprehension filled the other woman’s eyes. “You wouldn’t go,” she said. “Why not?”
Elena made a face at that. It was Simon’s fault, really. He was the one insisting that she stay behind. That Frank and Alice come instead. “Not enough experience,” she mumbled. “Last time, well, you know, Simon almost died because he had to protect both himself and me. He would have been fine with another Auror at his back. But I was just a liability.”
“Another Auror?” Alice said, her eyes light with confusion. “But you are an Auror.”
“No,” Elena said darkly. “I’m not.” She hadn’t meant to reveal to Alice her inexperience, but it had slipped out. Now she wasn’t sure how she could avoid telling the whole story. That she was the healer who had witnessed Marcus Gordon’s death. The one who couldn’t stop him from dying.
Luckily, it seemed that Alice was too tired to really care about this confusion. “Alright,” she said at last. “I honestly don’t give a damn if you’re not. You’ve done a fine job so far, as good as any Auror, so there’s no reason you should stop now. That whole incident with Simon--it could have happened to anyone. I’m just glad that you were there to save him.” She folded her hands neatly, as if settling the matter.
“But, will you help with the raid?” Elena wondered. “Even if I go, it could be a trap. We would need all the help we could get.”
Neville began to cry loudly and Alice hurried over to him and picked him up. She ignored Elena, rocking her son and cooing to him until his sobs turned to sniffles. Finally, she just gazed at him in adoration, like he was the most precious thing she’d ever seen.
After a long moment, Alice looked up. “Yes,” she said at last. “I’ll go. Frank too. I want my son to grow up in a safe world, not one plagued by random killings and danger.”
Elena felt a little moved by the emotion in Alice’s voice. “Then thank you,” she said at last. “I’m sure your help will not go unappreciated.”
Still holding her son, the mother nodded definitively. “When do we leave?”
It was night when the group of five arrived at the house. It was on the outskirts of London, in a rather suburban area. The houses around were all single story, and though modern, looked ill-cared for. Number ten, the house that Redmond has directed them to, looked as average as the others. The garden was covered with untouched snow. Icicles dripped from the roof. No lights were on in this house, nor in its neighbours, but the street lamps that lined the narrow streets cast a dull glow on the whole scene.
“Not a wizarding family on the block,” Frank said. “All Muggles here.”
“Nobody’s here,” Corinne corrected.
No one in the group was bundled up for the cold. If things came to a fight, it would be impractical to be wearing bulky coats and mittens.
In a whisper, Elena saw Alice draw her wand and cast several spells, to reveal any humans in the area. Nothing. The street, as Corinne had said, was deserted.
“Shall we go inside, then?” Simon asked.
Elena shivered, only partly because of the cold. “It feels like a trap,” she said. “Redmond’s employers likely know he’s dead and have had plenty of warning to set the place up for an ambush.”
“But no one is here,” Alice countered. “I’m a damn good spellcaster and the spell doesn’t lie.”
“People don’t have to be waiting for it to be dangerous,” Simon said in a quiet voice.
Corinne shook her head. “None of you have been on a proper mission in a while, have you?” Her voice was a bit scornful. “We have planned out what we’re going to do. I suggest that you all stop loitering in the street, where anyone can see and go inside. Like Alice said, the whole street is deserted. And we can check for traps as we go along.”
That settled it. Elena could sense that the other three had bristled at Corinne’s accusation that they had not been on a mission recently. They seemed more eager to prove that they were still capable. So, in single file, the four Aurors, and Elena proceeded across the snow-covered garden. Frank didn’t bother to knock on the door, simply opened it. If there had been people inside, secrecy would have been paramount. Unlike Muggle police, who always declared their presence, Aurors needed to be stealthy. When suspects could vanish instantly, giving them a warning was disastrous.
Elena was in the exact middle of the line, yet she could still feel the gush of warm air that issued from the open door. The scent, something putrid and sticky gushed out into the cold of the winter, forming clouds in the air. Elena gagged, doubling over automatically, her head reeling at the stench.
Around her, she heard various other exclamations and curses. “That’s a body,” Simon said darkly. Elena wanted to vomit.
She’d seen corpses before, all Healers had to in training. In some tragic cases, the death of the Minister being most obvious, she’d watched patients die. But she had never had to deal with the smell of death. The bodies in training had been magically preserved, as perfect as they’d been when still alive. Any dead patients had been taken away quickly and again preserved, never left to rot.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” Alice said softly, from the back of the line. Elena felt less shame, knowing that an Auror, who had dealt with death so much, couldn’t stand the stench either.
After another minute, Corinne shook herself and strode into the house. “It’s not use standing outside,” she reasoned. “We’re more vulnerable in the open.”
A second later, Frank followed, wand raised. Alice pushed past Elena a moment later, her shirt pulled up to cover her mouth and nose.
Elena was still doubled over on the steps, taking shallow breaths through her mouth, wishing she could run away from that awful heat and that smell. She wasn’t sure if she could stand it if the smell intensified. She still thought she might vomit.
A hand clamped down on her shoulder and Simon helped her upright. “Are you alright?” he asked gently.
She shook her head and made a show of plugging her nose. However, when she spoke, her voice was anything but light hearted. “I don’t think I can go inside,” she whispered to him.
He looked down at Elena, his eyes impossible to read. “You need to,” he said at last, “if only for a few moments.”
Elena bit her lip but took a step towards the door, trying not to inhale.
“You also need to breathe,” Simon reminded her when she swayed and he caught her with a hand around her waist.
Blushing, Elena pulled away and strode as confidently as she could into the sauna-esque house. She didn’t want him to think she was weak. He had said he wanted her to be replaced by another Auror after all.
As she had feared, the smell did worsen, but the thought of Simon watching her made Elena keep walking, towards the glowing light of several wands.
“That was a little too easy,” Elena heard Corinne say with disgust.
Elena was sure that Simon would have pushed past her if the hallway they were in had not been so narrow, so she hastened her pace until the corridor opened up into a larger room. “What is it?” she asked, though quickly regretted it, since talking required breathing and here, death soaked the steaming air.
Someone cast a light to the ceiling, and on the floor, Elena could suddenly see the source of the stench. A body, bloated and bloody, lying on the tile floor. Mercifully, there were no flies to have further desecrated the corpse; however, the scene was bad enough without them.
“Any idea who it is?” Simon asked, appearing un-phased by the body.
Corinne gave a brisk nod. “Natalya the Minister’s private guard.” The one whose flat they’d searched, finding the illegal potions.
“How can you tell?”
“Her face isn’t that distorted, plus she had some Muggle ID on her,” Corinne said, holding up a soggy wallet.
Elena took a step forward and saw that it was indeed Natalya, or at least a woman who resembled the guard. “How did she die?” Elena asked, glancing up at Frank and Alice who had not spoken yet.
“Can’t tell,” Frank said, resting a hand on Alice’s shoulder. “I don’t really think that matters though. What matters is that she didn’t kill Marcus.”
“That’s not true,” Simon said. “She easily could have done it, then been killed to keep from talking.”
Alice gave a little shiver. “I knew her, a little,” she said in a plaintive voice. “My father’s guards would never kill him. They were entirely loyal. I’m sure she must have been captured when he died.”
“I’m not so sure,” countered Corinne, “I might have said that the Minister couldn’t be assassinated, yet he was. I wouldn’t trust the loyalty of any non-Auror guards explicitly.”
Now that she had confirmed the woman’s identity, Elena was trying to stay as far as possible from the corpse. She pressed against a wall in the kitchen and sweat rolled down her face and back. It seemed that the scent of the air was worming its way into her skin, taking residence there. She desperately wanted to leave this room, for it was all she could do not to gag.
“Do you think you could examine the body?” Frank turned his focus to Elena now, eyes curious. He knew that she was a Healer, rather than an Auror.
Elena shook her head, trying for the same nonchalance that the others had. “I don’t know what good it will do. She’s dead. And one of you could search her for clues much better than I could. After so much time, I don’t even know if I could tell you how she died.”
Simon moved closer to Elena and urged her towards a door that led out of the room. “We’ll search out back,” he said. “Corinne, you can examine the rest of the house with Alice, while Frank takes a look at the body.”
The surge of relief and gratitude that filled Elena was instant. She wouldn’t have to stay inside! As fast as she could, without running, she walked to the outside door and opened it, relishing the icy blast of untainted air.
Without waiting to see if anyone objected to Simon’s plan, she walked onto a small stone patio that was slicked over with ice and snow.
Simon followed her out a moment later and shut the door. “Feel better now?” he asked her gently.
Elena nodded gratefully. “Thank you,” she said with a half-smile. Already, the smell was fading and Elena felt as if she could properly breathe again. For a moment, the only sound was the wind blowing cold air through the garden’s bushes, then Elena spoke again. “I hope,” she began, feeling nervous. “That you don’t think any less of me because of this. I mean, I’ve seen bodies before. Normally I’m not bothered, it’s just the smell
. I know that you’d rather have me be replaced by someone else, I just hope that this won’t make you really do it.”
There was another long pause as Simon seemed to digest this speech. “I don’t think less of you,” he said at last. “It was awful. And I don’t want to replace you because you’re so bad at this. It’s just that if you got hurt I would feel responsible, since I was the one who dragged you into this whole mess. Your family doesn’t need another child…” he trailed off.
Elena felt like she glowed with elation. Simon didn’t want her gone! He just cared enough to not want her dead. Sure that she was grinning stupidly, she spoke again. “I’m quite glad to hear that.” After a moment, Simon’s lasts words registered and she felt her heart sink. “Another child,” she said slowly. “Frank said you knew my brother. You said you knew him. What did you mean by that? My family doesn’t need another child what? Hurt? Is Oliver alright?”
Even in the minimal light, Elena could see Simon blanch. “Perhaps it’s not the best time to talk,” he said. “The others will wonder if we don’t start searching soon.”
That answer wasn’t good enough for Elena. “You’ve evaded before,” she said dangerously. “Don’t try it again Simon. Tell me how he is. I know you know.”
“Elena,” Simon said, stepping so that he could place a hand on her shoulder in a comforting manner. “What I know is by no means certain, nothing in war ever is. There’ve been tales of men presumed dead showing up fifty years later, safe and sound. I couldn’t really give you a definitive answer.”
Anger replaced any happiness Elena had felt. “Don’t play that game!” she snapped. “The Ministry has done this with my family whenever news has been scarce. I’d bet that you can at least hazard a guess one way or the other. And you’re damn stupid if you think that you’ll get out of this without giving me an answer!” The last sentence was added on as Simon had begun to speak.
The man set his shoulders but kept his hand on her shoulder. “Do you want the truth? Then I’ll tell you the best I’ve got, even if you won’t like it.”
Elena crumpled to her knees before he could finish. “I knew it,” she mumbled through tears that were starting to fall onto the snow. “You would have told me if he was alright.”
Simon’s face lost all of its anger and he knelt in the snow beside her, looking horror struck at how he’d acted. “Do you really want what little news I have?” he asked.
She nodded, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “Yes. You know better than anyone.”
He sighed and said, in a voice barely louder than a whisper. “Like I said, news in war in rarely definite. And in the case of your brother, it is based on just a bit more than a rumour; however, I have reason to believe that your brother was killed in action in Albania.”
At those words, Elena began to sob in earnest. “That’s not true!” she said. “You’re lying.”
Simon put his arms around her gently. “I’m so sorry,” he told her. “I didn’t want to tell you because I knew how upsetting it would be. I wouldn’t have said anything until I was absolutely sure about it.”
Elena kept crying, ignoring Simon’s words. She couldn’t even process anything. Oliver was dead. He was gone. Her worst fears were true.
After a moment, Simon’s words filtered through to her again. “I wish I hadn’t told you now,” he was saying, half to himself. His fingers were now stroking her hair, though Elena didn’t feel soothed at all by the gesture. “Corinne will kill me for being tactless. And, Elena, please, I know this is sad, but could you wait just an hour for us to search. Just one hour? Then you can go back and cry all you want.”
Elena shoved him away. “Wait an hour to cry? How exactly am I supposed to do that?” she almost screamed. “I suppose that you could do it. Since you don’t seem to care about anyone. But Simon, he’s my brother! And he’s dead!” her voice failed on the last words and she started crying once more.
“Damn,” Simon said and put his hand on her arm.
“Get off!” Elena yelled, and pushed him away, curling up on the ground, not caring about the snow that was seeping through her clothing. In a second, however, she’d rolled to her feet, her wand, which she’d suddenly remembered, in her hands. “Don’t you dare touch me!” she shouted. “Or I swear I will hex you!”
Simon pulled out his own wand warily, but didn’t look threatened, only sad. “I’m going inside for a moment,” he said. “Please don’t go anywhere.”
Elena nodded, and hiccupped. She kept her wand up until Simon entered the house, then lowered it once the door shut loudly. Only a second later, however, the wave of warm, awful air from inside blew her way. Elena saw Natalya, lying on the floor and wondered if that was how her brother had looked. This time, she couldn’t help but vomit.
After a few moments of utter misery, she straighten up and shakily vanished the mess with her wand. She then simply sank onto a fresh patch of snow and wished she could forget everything. She wished she’d never met Simon or Corinne or the Minister. But it was a futile wish because Elena knew that she couldn’t change the past.
Elena heard the door open again and made sure to hold her breath. She heard Simon’s heavy footsteps near her, plus a lighter set. She felt a pair of warm hands help her to her feet and saw Alice’s small, pale face. “I’m so sorry,” she said to Elena.
Simon stood behind Alice and as soon as Elena was standing, put his arm around her waist to help hold her standing. “Ready?” he asked, glancing at Alice.
Alice nodded in approval. Elena gave a tiny nod and Simon spun around, apparating back to the warehouse.
Out of the cold, Elena felt slightly less despair. She was able to stumble to her room and curl up under the blankets, where she could be alone.
Simon came in a moment later and holding a cup of some steaming potion. He handed it to her, and made sure she drank all of it. When she’d finished the last drop of the sweet liquid, she felt immeasurably tired.
“Sorry,” Simon murmured as Elena felt the world spinning. He touched her hair and just before the world darkened, Elena heard the door shut.