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Vital by Aderyn
Chapter 16 : Chapter 16
 
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chapter image (featuring Alice and Elena) made by me (laelia @ TDA)



Chapter 16

Alice Longbottom walked through the door of Elena’s cell two days later. She was dressed in formal gray Auror robes, her hair up in a formal knot—the picture of comportment—but her dulled eyes betrayed an unstable interior. “Come along,” she said briskly upon entering.

Elena sat up from her bed, feeling confused. “What do you mean?” It was unlike the motherly Alice to be this hurried.

“You’ve been released,” Alice said, with a trace of a smile.

“What?” How was that possible? Wasn’t she supposed to be questioned longer? All Elena could ask, though, was, “Where’s Simon?”

Alice only shook her head, something like pity on her face. “Please, Elena.” It was unclear whether she didn’t know, or couldn’t answer.

Without trepidation, she followed Alice as she was taken from the cell. “Where are we going?” Elena demanded. Had Corinne received her letter from Alice?   Why was it Alice rescuing her? As ridiculous as it sounded, during her sleepless nights in the cell, Elena had visions of Simon being the next one to open the door.

There was an obvious shift in scenery as the two women left the corridor through a metal plated door. The stone floors were covered in plush carpet. The walls were suddenly papered, the lighting now more subtle. The decor of the new hall made Elena remember her visit to Simon’s office. This was a place of historic luxury, and not what one would expect near prison cells.

Alice walked with all the purpose of an Auror, though not so fast as to leave Elena behind. The few older wizards they passed in the hall made no move to speak to Alice, seemingly so oblivious that Elena wondered if Alice had cast an invisibility spell upon them.

Finally, Alice stopped at an ornate door. Inside was an expansive office, with an immense desk, and huge bookshelves that lined the dark, wood panelled walls. A fire crackled cheerfully in the corner. The warmth of the room harkened Elena back to her days at school and the always comforting Gryffindor common room.

“We will be travelling by Floo,” Alice explained, taking a small box of green powder from the desk. “But before we go back, there are a few things you need to know.”

“Why are they letting me go?” Elena asked again, feeling utterly bewildered. Her first interrogator had made it clear how much trouble she was in with the Ministry. Corinne had killed the man, once he had extracted the truth about the Minister, but there had been witnesses. Corinne was probably in Azkaban by now and unable to receive Elena’s mother’s letter.

With a sigh, Alice perched herself on top of the desk, her feet dangling inches off the ground. “I know this must be confusing,” she said with a shake of her head. “I must admit that I was reluctant to do this in the first place because I knew that you probably don’t trust me. But please, wait. Once we are safer, I can answer more questions.” Alice paused for a moment before beginning again, her tone now all business. “They’ve captured Ethan MacDonald and are questioning him as we speak. We will meet with Frank at our home before meeting with the others. They’ve changed locations for security.”

Elena thought that this made some sense, though she was obviously missing key events from the days she had been captive. “Floo?” she asked at last.

Alice shook her head, setting the ornate box back onto the desk. “Apparation,” she countered.

“But,” Elena began in confusion, Alice had mentioned Floo before.

“It’s always a good idea to be unpredictable.” With that, Alice hopped off the desk, took Elena’s arm and spun into the void of apparation. Echoes of a knocking on the door chased them as they travelled.

The two women appeared in the garden of the Longbottom house. Unlike her first trip to the home, Elena felt aware after the apparation. She scanned her surroundings, waiting for Alice’s next instructions. When the woman made no move to go inside, Elena posed a question: “Did you get a letter?”

Alice turned to respond, but before she could speak, the doors to the house burst open, and two masked figures leapt out, wands raised.

The sudden pounding of Elena’s heart arrested the scream in her throat. Instead, she cast a shield charm just as a hex flew from the wand of one of her attackers. As it hit the shield, the hex made wrenching sound, as if a physical projectile had been hurtled at the barrier. Elena’s arm shook at the effort to sustain the spell.

Next to her, Alice was duelling the second attacker. While it was impossible to see the faces behind Death Eater masks, Elena guessed that Alice’s shorter opponent was a woman. Her own attacker was well over six feet tall, with burly muscles only a man could have.

For a few minutes, Elena managed only to hold off the Death Eater. He forced her back, across the lawn, but she managed to block, or avoid his curses. He did not seem intent to kill her, for if he had been, he could have done so on numerous occasions. Instead, he eschewed Unforgivable Curses, and used spells that would stun an opponent for capture, but not kill.

Elena was an inexperienced dueller at best, and here, one-on-one her weaknesses showed. It was more than just her ability to cast difficult spells. There was a certain physicality required to leap, duck and roll out of the way. While she was in shape, Elena did not possess the necessary athleticism.

After another hundred heartbeats, the fight began to feel inevitable. Elena was going to lose. She could hold out for only so long before she grew tired. Already, her reflexes were slowing: a purple jet of light had singed the hair by her ear.

She felt a surge of regret run through her veins as she realized that no one was coming to her aid. This battle, neither Corinne nor Simon could rush in to save her. She was alone. It was difficult to accept that this was where she would die. Perhaps, if she were lucky, she would feel nothing from that final curse.

The twin to this inevitability was sadness. Elena was glad that she had seen her mother in the past days, but she wished she could have spoken, even seen, Simon one last time. She needed to know the truth about him. Since the Minister’s death, there had been so many times when he had been kind to her. There had been those glorious moments when she had finally thought that he might have returned her feelings, only to have him betray her. While part of her mind argued that it had all been some sort of misunderstanding, it was also impossible to dismiss it. This uncertainty left bitterness in the air. She didn’t want to die doubting him.

Time was elastic as Elena duelled the Death Eater; it stretched and warped, turning seconds into minutes. She could see the normally blurred spells coming, yet she too moved more slowly in this new languid time.

The air danced with ribbons of light that others might have called a beautiful, out of context.  Through the cage of spells Elena caught glimpse of Alice, who seemed to be having more success. The woman she was fighting was madly dancing with ripped robes and wildly billowing, curls that had fallen out of her mask.

Elena felt detached from it all. Her arms burned mildly; her eyes watered slightly. Now her battle was internal: could she accept the end? Why prolong the inevitable?  Death was in the shadows that darkened her vision. Even the flares of spells had lost their brilliance. The darkness was not the terrifying abyss of nightmares, nor was it the welcoming embrace of sleep; it was impartial, a new, uncaring existence that was waiting. It was what blurred time, for it was both content to wait eternity and impatient to claim. Its lack of humanity was terrible.

Her ears were starting to ring. The spells around her crackled and sang a fanfare for Death. This was another cruel tactic of the mind, designed to disorient and confuse as one slipped from life. First sight, then sound had twisted. She could not tell where the sound came from, only that it was all around her like a clock ticking towards her doom.

It was not long now.

Elena’s mind retained its normal acuity despite her dwindling senses. She knew that she did not have the strength for fighting anymore. It would take just one slip, and she would be gone.

Even the thought of her family, of Simon could not give her energy. She was beyond saving now.

She parried once, shielded twice, ducked a spell. She didn’t dare waste her precious energy on the offensive. Now, her only desire was to prolong her existence another heartbeat, another breath.

The earth beneath her feet tilted and Elena moved with it. She was falling. This was the slip that she had known would come. She collided with earth and the ringing in Elena’s ears did not completely cover the crack that wrenched through the air.

She waited a heartbeat, a breath, and yet there was no change. The shadows did not close in, but rather they receded.

 “Bella!” Elena’s opponent screamed in horror.

The sound had scared away the last traces of lingering Death, and Elena took the opportunity to stand, shakily. The Death Eater woman, Bella, lay sprawled on grass. Her mask had slipped off, exposing aristocratic features twisted into a mask of hatred. A tangle of curly hair surrounded her face like a dark halo. No one—not Elena, seeing her life solidify one more, nor Alice, a picture of vitality in the background, nor the opponent, staring in horror at the wounded woman—dared to breathe.

The tension in the air burst as, the male Death Eater aimed his wand at the Longbottom house, and fire erupted from within.

Suddenly, sound rushed back into the world. The man roared as he raced towards Bella. The fire angrily spat. Elena gasped in air: now that she could see how close she had been to death, panic encroached on her mind. Alice, with a cry, tore towards the home, screaming, “Neville!” A harsh crack sounded as the man grabbed Bella and disapparated.

Panic leant Elena the strength she had been unable to find in her previous acceptance. She caught up with Alice, who had stopped, ten feet back from the flaming door. This was no ordinary fire: chimera’s and dragons danced in the inferno.

 “Fiend Fyre,” Elena said hoarsely, recognizing the substance from a case at St. Mungo’s. It was horribly beautiful. The fire was a deep crimson, laced with bruises of purple. The beasts twisted in savage, elemental rituals of ancient magic.

The fire entranced Elena: she barely noticed the blistering heat on her skin, or Alice’s whimpers of her son’s name beside her. A strange serpent coiled at the flaming door. Its rippling muscles alone foretold its strike. Elena moved a second ahead, grabbing Alice’s arm and stumbling back as the viper shot forward, its diamond teeth dripping in glittering venom.

“Alice!” Elena said frantically, shaking the other woman. She could smell burned fabric from her charred robes.

Alice stood petrified as her home burned. She did not respond to Elena, but watched the advancing tendrils of the inferno with a mix of pain and fury in her eyes.

“Now!” Elena insisted, dragging Alice back again as more beasts lunged from the flames. “Take us there NOW!”

Alice gave a horrid, shuddering sob and nodded. One of her hands reached towards the house, as if she could will the fire to go out and the other gasped Elena’s elbow. She spun in mid air, and the world of heat and light dissolved into darkness.

They landed in the midst of a dark, covered copse of trees. Alice immediately collapsed onto the ground, shaking. Elena, feeling unsteady herself, saw a stone cottage at the centre of a clearing and began to cry out as she ran towards it. “Help!” she yelled, not knowing if Alice was injured or not. She would not be surprised if the other woman had splinched, at the very least, from the stress.

Before Elena had even reached the door, Frank burst out of the cottage. He scanned the scene, and cried out in alarm as his gaze fell upon his wife who lay broken on the earth.

To Elena it seemed that Frank flew to Alice, and was crouching at her side before she could even realize he had moved. “What happened?” he demanded of Alice, lifting her into his arms.

Alice looked up at him, with tears in her eyes. “Neville?” she asked pitifully, as if the question was all she cared about in the world.

“He’s at my mother’s,” Frank said in a passive tone. “Are you hurt?”

Alice shook her head. “Oh thank God,” she sobbed, again and again. “Thank God.”

A clattering was heard from inside the cottage and moments later, Simon burst from the door.

Elena, whose heartbeat had slowed upon hearing that Neville was not back at the burning, infested Longbottom home, started in horror, at seeing him. She hadn’t thought through how she would act around him. She wasn’t sure what she would do… She certainly couldn’t think about it now. How could she, when she had been willing to leave a child to die to save her own life? Never mind that had Neville been inside the house, he would have been dead by the time they left. Elena had cared more about her own self than that precious child. It was even worse, now that Frank had promised that his son was alive. Because what if he had died? Elena didn’t think she could bear to see Frank and Alice have to mourn their son.

Simon seemed to sense Elena’s confusion, if not the source, for he stopped and stared at her. After a moment, he took several steps towards Elena, and placed his hand on her cheek. “Are you all right?” he asked with a soft note in his voice Elena had heard only a few times before.

She was uninjured, but her mind had been damaged enough. She was a Healer and she had sworn not to harm others—yet she had fought the Death Eater with intent to kill, and she had believed she was leaving Neville to die. If she could break this most sacred tenet, without even a pause, who was she?

Elena wanted desperately to melt into Simon’s arms and have him reassure her that everything was all right. But the thoughts of her own failure brought the memories of Simon’s betrayal to the front of her mind. “How could you?” she demanded, taking an angry step backwards. How could the world allow for failure in its foundation? How could she want to kill? How could Simon be disloyal?

The tenderness on Simon’s face vanished, and he dropped his gaze in what appeared to be shame. “You don’t understand,” he said in a heavy, tired voice.

“What don’t I understand?” Elena asked in a dangerous, slow tone. “You let those men take me away. They handed me off to some sadistic, interrogating criminal without a second thought. I was not prepared for any of it—there was nothing I could do to escape. That man threatened me, and my family, if I didn’t talk. What was I supposed to do? I told him everything, Simon, everything! If Corinne hadn’t showed up and killed him, I would still be there, and they would know everything. What is there to understand?” Her voice slowly rose to a scream as she threw the words at him.

Simon winced at the speech. “I’m sorry,” he said finally. “So sorry. But, you don’t understand.”

A wave a fury hit Elena, the by-product of adrenaline and relief. “Are you saying you used me?” she spat, feeling revulsion numb her veins. “Was I just someone to be turned in when it was convenient? Was I a pawn that you would sacrifice for the greater good? I know you felt that way, before. I heard you trying to convince Corinne to replace me. I had only hoped that had changed.” Her voice caught on the last word, as she remembered her joy as she had kissed Simon.

Elena hoped that Simon would explode and argue back at her, denying that what she said was wrong, but he merely shook his head. It looked rueful, and maybe a bit sad, but there was no anger. “Are you all right?” he asked again, this time in a more clinical sense.

She shook her head angrily. She knew that Simon had meant physically, but honestly didn’t care if he worried a little at the moment. Maybe then, he could taste some of what Elena had felt, waiting in her cell.

Before she could see the look on his face, Elena turned away, to where Frank and Alice stood. Alice looked to have calmed down after learning that her son was safe and was now in her husband’s arms, looking at Elena and Simon with worry in her face.

Elena needed to get away from Simon, but didn’t want to intrude on Frank and Alice. She wished desperately that she had some place to escape to, but instead was stuck in this clearing, unable to get away.

With a sigh of exasperation, Elena whirled and pushed past Simon to get to the door of the cottage. She wrenched it open, and slammed it closed before any of the others could comment.

Inside, she paused, for the interior of the cottage did not match its exterior. Instead of seeing a charming stone interior, with low ceilings, wooden furniture and cosy rugs, she was startled by the vastness of the room that stretched in front of her. The walls were wrought of dark concrete blocks, and the roof lay twenty feet above Elena’s head. The floor was simple stone and there were bluish flickering lights set high up on the walls.

A long table sat in the centre of the room, and papers and maps were spread across it. Shelves of books and files lined one side of the room. The other side had an immense map, with wriggling symbols tacked onto it. At the other end of the room, Elena could see several doors.

Slowly, she walked to the table, curious about what this room had been designed for. She was tempted to call out a greeting, but could not think of who else would respond, except Corinne, if she were there. And Elena knew that if Corinne were present, she wouldn’t get to explore.

Elena rifled through the parchment, looking for anything of interest. There were handwritten recordings of Natalya’s memories, some in her hand, some in Simon’s. She saw an inventory of the guard’s flat. There was even a photograph of her corpse, which Elena hastily cast aside.

Other files included lists of known, rogue Death Eaters and their potential whereabouts. Elena caught sight of the woman Alice had duelled: Bellatrix Lestrange. Her face had the same haughty look to it, but there was not the madness Elena had seen during the fight.

At last, Elena found a roll of thick parchment. She unfurled it and recognized immediately her mother’s handwriting. She skimmed through the pleasantries, instead focusing on a few words at the bottom of the letter. Printed, in her mother’s neat hand, was a copy of Oliver’s message: Ravenclaw’s relic, A. Gordon.

A wave of disappointment drowned Elena’s hopes. She had hoped that the letter would be important, but this was nothing to work with. Rowena Ravenclaw had been a founder of Hogwarts; she must have had many relics. And A. Gordon was only half a name—the only interesting part about it was that the Minister, too, had been Gordon.

Why couldn’t this be easy? Elena wondered, her former anger replaced with resentment towards the last months. She had lived through the war and knew that life was a dangerous, complicated thing, but it seemed like mysteries, at least, had a structure. There was the crime, the gathering of evidence, the dramatic revelation, the epic fight and the conclusion. Yet this search had been all out of order. Evidence had been followed by fights, skipping over revelation and confusing the whole process. More evidence was discovered, and there had been false leads, and confusion and a dreadful mixing of reality. The final goal of finding the Minister’s killer was far in the improbable future. Now, the joy of discovery came from small successes that only complicated the situation.

Albania, Elena mused, seemed to be present in every thread. The Minister had mentioned the country in his last breath. It was where her brother had died. Natalya had been gathering information about the country before her death. Wherever the country emerged in their search, it was always accompanied by death. By murder.

What secret lay in Albania that someone was willing to kill for? Who was the killer? Elena ran her fingers over the letter, as if her brother’s words might give her the answer. Yet there was no response. The parchment was only parchment.

A beam of light brightened the room as someone opened the door from outside. Elena heard three pairs of footsteps—Simon, Frank and Alice—enter the room.

After a moment, the others were beside her. “I see you found the letter,” Alice said, taking her hand from Frank’s and moving closer to the table.

Elena nodded, making a point not to look at Simon. “I just wish it helped,” she said with a sigh. Now she looked silly and reactionary for involving her mother in the first place. “Now we only have more questions. What is Ravenclaw’s relic? Who is A. Gordon?”

To Elena’s surprise, Alice laughed at the last question. “It’s me,” she said with a smile. “Alice Gordon. That was my name before I was married.”

The simplicity of the solution sent Elena whirling. How could she have been so stupid? She knew that Alice was the Minister’s daughter. Of course, her maiden name would have been Gordon. Of course Alice was a Longbottom now, but Elena should have seen the connection. “Do you understand the second part?” Elena asked, hoping that perhaps Alice knew something she didn’t.

To that, Alice answered in the negative. “No. We were speaking about it before I came to get you. None of us know.”

“The question is,” Frank said, stepping forward to join the conversation, “why did your brother mention Alice?”

Elena hadn’t had time to think through the ramifications of who A. Gordon was, in context, but it was an interesting question. “My mother said,” Elena began slowly, trying to process as she spoke, “that this letter was different than the others Oliver had sent. It hadn’t gone through the Ministry. And he begged my mother to keep what he’d written a secret.”

“The only thing I can think of,” Alice mused, sitting on top of the table, “is that he wanted it to get to my father. That would explain why he used my maiden name. I just don’t know why it couldn’t have gone through the Ministry.”

Simon, who had been quiet before, now spoke. “I’m only guessing,” he said slowly, “but the Auror Office seemed to think that Albania was no longer a threat after the war. Perhaps Elena’s brother wanted to alert Minister Gordon of something, but was afraid that it would be stopped if he sent it through the Office.”

It was a theory, maybe even a plausible one, but Elena’s head was spinning from this sudden influx of information. The problem she had thought was a dead end now had a thousand blossoming possible solutions. Briefly, she glanced at Simon, unable to avoid looking at him any longer. His eyes latched onto her, and she quickly directed her attention back to her mother’s letter. She would not forgive him when he was unwilling to explain.

Elena was about to ask another question when she saw a silvery light out of the corner of her eye. Before she could turn to look, Corinne’s voice spoke two words: “Come now.” As Elena reacted, moving towards the light, she saw the haze of a Patronus fade.

With worried glances between them, Frank and Alice began to walk rapidly towards the doors at the back of the room. Simon paused, turning to look at Elena. He gave a slight nod of his head, in the direction of the couple, before following them.

Elena pulled out her wand as she walked a safe distance behind Simon. He slowed pace several times, as if to wait for her to catch up, but Elena wouldn’t walk beside him. She was too afraid that she might be tempted to forget what he had done, and cave in to emotions. She would regret whatever she might say to Simon, good or bad. It was better to avoid the pain all together.

They found Corinne pacing in a narrow hallway. She had a manic energy to her, and seemed too confined in the small space, as if she could no longer contain whatever emotion she felt. It was not happiness, for her face was drawn into a frown, but it was something consuming.

“Here,” she said sharply, indicating to a door to her left when they were all squished into the corridor. With a flick of her wand, the door slid open.

Elena could not see what was inside because Frank was blocking her view, but as Corinne entered, she heard her say, “I’ve given him Veritiserum.”

Alice followed her husband inside, and as Elena went through the door after her, she saw whom Corinne had been referring to. A man sat on a chair in the centre of a tiny room, arms and legs bound with a glimmering magical rope.

With a gasp, Elena realized that this skinny, emaciated man was Ethan MacDonald, the man who had been a suspect in the murder. He had lost all of his previous vitality, however, and now looked as if he had not eaten in days.

The silence in the room was broken as Simon shut the door behind him and the latch slipped into place. Elena was aware of him standing behind her, and, after a moment, felt his hand take hers.

She wanted desperately to keep holding his hand, and to be reassured, in that small way, that she was safe, but this was not the place. She might have forgiven him, for a moment, if the others hadn’t been there to see the gesture. So, Elena bit her lip, and tugged her hand free. Instantly, she regretted the action, but was unwilling to apologize and instead crossed her arms across her stomach, as if hugging herself.

Elena was saved from having to think more about Simon by Corinne’s voice. The woman turned, with a glint in her eye, to MacDonald. “Tell me your name,” she demanded in a clear, triumphant tone.

The man’s face twisted into a grimace as he replied: “Rabastan Lestrange.”

“And who are you?” Corinne hissed.

“A servant of Lord Voldemort,” the man who had called himself Ethan MacDonald said with a smile. 


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