The snow underneath her shoes was thin with age, dark with dirt and grime and half-melted from the warmth of the shops continually opening and closing their doors onto the cobbled streets of Diagon Alley. Lavender Brown wound her way steadily down the gently sloping road with determined slowness. She stepped carefully over a blackened pile of snow; her bottom lip was already raw from how many times she’d bitten it in anxiety, and the morning was young yet.
Don’t move too quickly, or you’ll be spotted, she told herself firmly. You’re in no hurry. But paranoia had already wrapped its chilly fingers about her throat, and Lavender couldn’t rid herself of the feeling of eyes on her back, burning through wool and cotton and finding flesh to sear. She clutched the collar of her coat more tightly around her neck, as though to ward them off.
Lavender had never been to Knockturn Alley, and didn’t know the first sign of its whereabouts - it was stupid, foolish, not to have planned this part of her mission out in more detail. Somehow she had always imagined the beginning would be the easy part.
But she had heard enough to know that Diagon Alley would lead her there – swaggering students at Hogwarts had always bragged about setting foot into the mouth of the alley, acting as though they were so brave – but that was where the information ended. None of the narrow lanes between the familiar shops looked anything like they opened onto anything but heaping rubbish bins, and so she pressed on.
A stout wizard jostled her shoulder as he passed, blowing warm air on his reddened fingers in the absence of proper gloves. “Sorry,” he muttered, but she was already pressing onward by the time the word was out of his mouth. Her heart was beating a violent rhythm at the base of her throat. Would he recognize her later, if anyone asked? Would anyone ask?
Somewhere to her left, a bell tinkled, signaling someone entering or exiting Quality Quidditch Supplies; she thought she caught a glimpse of fiery orange hair, and gasped aloud, ducking right behind a large stack of marked-down cauldrons.
“Ron,” she whispered aloud, the name sitting heavily on her lips; she lifted trembling fingers to cover them.
But it wasn’t him – of course it wasn’t him. He was at the Ministry of Magic, right where she knew he would be. Lavender knew what time he arrived at work, what time he left at night. She could have found her way to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement with her eyes shut. Lavender breathed out a slow breath and pressed a thumb to her breastbone, willing her heart to stop beating so fast.
Eight months’ work, and she was not about to let it go to waste today.
She stood from behind the tottering cauldrons and moved off again down the street, taking great care to avoid a patch of ice on the final bend in the street. Gringotts Bank loomed up before her, crooked and imposing, and her eyes fixed immediately on the goblins stationed on either side of the doors. They seemed to be looking straight at her; even from this distance, their beady, full-black eyes seemed to glint with something like malevolence.
If it’s not down here, Lavender thought hard, then I’ll come back another day. She skirted the edge of the crowd, who all seemed to be pressing back the way she had come, towards friendlier shops and the promise of the warmth of the pub at the top of the high street. The frame of the display window of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes pressed painfully into her back as she avoided a group of loudly-chattering witches, all dressed in various, yet equally garish, shades of pink and purple. One clutched a magenta Pygmy Puff in her fat ringed fingers.
“ – a marvel, that one, simply genius,” she was screeching, to be heard over the voices of her friends. “But then again, he’s one of the Weasleys, you know –“
“His brother helped Harry Potter defeat You-Know-Who,” added another – a thin, wiry woman with frizzy black hair. The first woman looked rather put out that she couldn’t have shared this particular bit of news, though it was clear they all knew it anyway. “Married the girl who helped out, too… oh, why don’t those sorts of things happen to me…”
Lavender ground her teeth together as the women passed her, shoving off from the window so hard her palms smacked into the glass with a loud crack. Oh, yes, Ron had married Hermione, and wasn’t that just the perfect love story… That stupid, bushy-haired know-it-all didn’t deserve Ron, he could do so much better than her… And she was going to make him regret it. Untended jealousy, allowed to fester inside of her all these years, welled up within her now and brought a bitter taste into her mouth.
On either side of Gringotts, a sturdy-looking brick wall ranged in either direction, marking the end of the alley. But as she approached it further, she could see odd shadows cast on the right wall, and hope blossomed up to quell the envious storm. Lavender stayed close to the border of the alley, and, as such, didn’t see the signpost until she was nearly on top of it.
Knockturn Alley – Turn Right.
Friday, 8:38 a.m.
The air was much colder here, or so Lavender imagined; it tugged at the ends of her scarf, yanking her hair from its ribbon and tangling it about her throat. She tried to pretend that that was why her teeth were chattering, but it was a poorly-concealed lie, even from herself. The woman across from her seemed to sense her nerves, too. She grinned at Lavender from across her peddler’s cart with small, yellow teeth.
“See anything you like?” she said, her voice like shattering glass. From somewhere beneath the cart, a cat yowled in displeasure, and Lavender jumped.
“I – I don’t –“ Her eyes skimmed over what looked like, and what she fervently hoped was not, a tray of knotted bundles of human hair. “I’m looking for something that could… I want to…” But she was unable bring herself to say the words aloud. How could she go through with this if she couldn’t even mention it?
The woman cackled gleefully, apparently at the expression on Lavender’s face. “You’ll be wanting that shop down there.” She hooked a thumb at a dingy storefront a few paces away, the nail on the thumb as yellow as her teeth. The windows of the indicated shop were frosted over, but it was too neat to be accidental; the frost was clearly someone’s careful handiwork. Lavender shivered involuntarily; she didn’t really want to know why someone would go to such lengths to hide the contents of their shop.
“Thanks,” she said quickly, hoping that the curve of her lips came out looking like a smile on the other end. She hastened away down the street without glancing back, not particularly wanting to know if something was following her. That was knowledge best left aside.
The inside of the shop wasn’t dark, exactly; that wasn’t the right word for it. There was light coming from all corners of the minuscule interior, but it seemed ominous, somehow, and out of place – phantom, ghostly lights. Lavender blinked a bit, trying to get used to it.
“Can I help you?”
She jumped back so suddenly she nearly overturned an end table at her left elbow, and something on it rattled against the wood. From a nook Lavender’s brief sweep of the shop had completely missed, the disembodied voice appeared in the form of a tall, lithe woman. The woman reached out a hand and steadied the bell jar her customer had nearly shattered.
“Sorry.” Her voice was barely higher than a hiss, an echo of sound rather than something substantial. “I, erm – I need –“
“I know what you need.” The woman (clearly, Lavender saw now, the person who owned this queer place) had a slow, deep voice. She emerged from the darkness in pieces, rather than all at once; her black hair was pulled severely back in a knot on top of her head, and folds of black cloth that hardly looked real, that may instead have only been ephemeral shadows and fog, covered nearly every inch of her dark skin.
Lavender said nothing, but then again, she no longer felt she need to. The stranger reached out a hand and placed it atop the bell jar. “Look inside.”
Stooping slightly, she did as she was told; this was one of the sources of the strange light. A candle guttered beneath the glass, twisted slightly in the warped, bent surface. She wondered for a minute how it could burn without oxygen, and then realized that it was emitting small, wispy clouds of noxious green from its wick. “What is it?” Lavender whispered, awed in spite of herself. She couldn’t seem to draw her eyes away.
The woman’s eyes, dark as her hair, her dress, her lifestyle, gleamed at the interest on the younger woman’s face. “Poison candles,” she said. “Harmless. Beautiful. Until they get too close.”
Lavender felt a smile creep across her face again, and she didn’t need to wonder if it was genuine. Could she have found a more perfect weapon – a weapon more suited to her own personality? She spoke without thinking, as if the words didn’t even merit thought before she spoke them.
“I’ll take it.”
Friday, 11:04 a.m.
The polished wooden floors beneath her feet sounded like small explosions as she walked; each step felt like a detonation. And yet, it was remarkably simple to place one foot in front of the other, just to keep moving forward Anyone who said different was lying. Walking – even walking to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, knowing what she was about to do – was the easiest thing in the world.
Lavender reached inside the bag slung over her shoulder, and her fingers closed around the small, cool cylinder of wax. Death was deceptively innocent while concealed there, its wick still white and clean with the absence of flame.
Harmless. Beautiful. Until she got too close.
Nobody seemed to be paying her any attention as she walked, and there was no reason they should. The Ministry was large, and nobody knew everyone’s face. To passersby, Lavender was the new receptionist for the head of the Department, or the intern, or the precocious niece of the man two cubicles over. She didn’t have a name to her face; she might as well have not existed at all. And that was the perfect set-up for today.
Lavender knew exactly where Ron’s office was, and mentally counted the doors she passed on her way down the corridor. From a nearby alcove, just out of sight, she could hear the minuscule memos rustling their paper wings. Detail was heightened, every sound and sight and sensation extended to its fullest. She felt oddly calm and in control, and nearly giddy with anticipation.
A man rounded the far end of the corridor, his head bent over a sheaf of parchment he clutched in his fingers. Lavender drew up short, drawing in a quick breath before he got close enough to hear. There wasn’t a person in wizarding London, perhaps the entirety of the wizarding world, who didn’t know that thatch of untidy black hair, or those unnervingly bright green eyes behind their round wire frames.
Harry Potter looked up as he neared, muttering a quick pardon as he made to step around her, and then drew up short. He blinked at her in mild confusion. “Lavender Brown?” he asked at last, stumbling a bit over the name, as though he wasn’t entirely sure it was the correct one. Lavender shot him a winning smile she’d spent years honing.
“Hi, Harry,” she said brightly, fingers toying with the strap of her bag. She froze abruptly; would that look too suspicious? Perhaps she should come back another day, when – but Harry was already asking her another question.
“What are you doing here?”
But Lavender had practiced this, too. “I’m so lost,” she moaned, knowing even as she said it that it was a convincing performance. She shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, What’s new? “I’m supposed to find my great-uncle. He works” – her brain cast about feverishly for one of the departments – “with the Accidental Magical Reversal Squad.”
“Oh.” Harry’s brow cleared of its puzzled furrows. “You’re a level too far. One below.” He pointed his index finger at the floor beneath their feet.
“Oh, right! This place is confusing, isn’t it?” Lavender beamed again. “Thanks so much, Harry. Don’t let me keep you, you looked so busy…” She motioned vaguely at the sheets in his hand, and he looked down at them with a somewhat bemused expression, as though he nearly forgotten what he’d been doing.
“Right,” Harry said at last, slowly than she might have liked. “Well – yeah, I’d better get on. Nice seeing you.” He started forward again, but halfway down the corridor, he turned back to look at her; she waved, and then took two steps forward, just long enough for him to move out of sight entirely.
She started again for Ron’s office.
Three doors down, a small corridor on the left – four more doors, a second left – and there it was, at the end, the only door in sight now. Lavender walked toward it almost reverently, her breath catching in her throat. Her right hand closed again around the candle in the depths of her bag.
They had given him a plaque, small brass letters marching smartly across the wood of the door; she hadn’t expected that. It was a nice touch. With her free hand she traced the over the letters with her fingertips: RONALD WEASLEY, ASSISTANT TO HEAD AUROR. A proud smile crept over her face, her eyes alight with it.
And yet a sudden, crippling thought struck her suddenly, so new and horrifying that she couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to her before. She had imagined this moment for months now, planned it out down to the most minute detail (with the exception of the candle), but if Ron was in his office, it was all gone to smoke and ash… With a steady, hesitant motion, she lifted her hand and knocked.
Her smile stretched wider.
Friday, 11:15 a.m.
She shut the door behind her and lifted the neck of her robes down from over her nose. The candle wasn’t yet lit – she had charmed it specially to alight when the next person entered the room, she knew what she was doing – but one couldn’t be too careful, of course. Lavender slipped her wand back into the inner pocket of her robes, brushing a near-invisible speck of lint from her shoulder.
There was a narrow broom cupboard at the end of the corridor where Ron’s office sat, perfectly secluded. She couldn’t have planned a better spot, and almost laughed to herself as she found herself wondering if he had known, when he’d taken the office, if it would be his undoing.
Lavender squeezed herself into the cupboard, propping her shoulder into a mop handle to keep it upright. The fabric on the mop head waved feebly at her in protest. She pressed an ear flat to the door, her heartbeat thudding in her ears, and listened.
She didn’t have to wait long – footsteps sounded down the corridor, and Lavender knew whose they were. Hadn’t she spent almost an entire year memorizing everything about him? She knew every color his eyes really were, knew exactly the way he held his quill. And she knew his walk.
Ron was whistling as he walked past the broom cupboard, and she heard the handle of his door turn, the hinges squeal slightly as it opened. Every noise still sounded as though it were amplified a thousand times; she had never heard such clear sounds.
She heard him take a few more steps into the office.
She heard a sudden rattling, choked gasp for breath. And another. And another.
She heard him try and cry out for help, though nothing, it seemed, could get past his throat.
She heard something heavy hit the ground, and silence fell.
Lavender smiled, and let herself out of the broom cupboard.
A/N: If you've read previous stories of mine, you might know I have a slight penchant for writing... well, mental illness, really. It's something that fascinates me, and I think there's more than a touch of that in Lavender here. I very much hope you enjoyed the story, and if you've got the time to leave a review, it really would be so appreciated!
The Latin words ad venenum mean exactly what the chapter title says: to poison.