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Traitorous Hearts by Penelope Inkwell

Format: Novel
Chapters: 26
Word Count: 126,742
Status: WIP

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Contains profanity, Strong violence, Scenes of a mild sexual nature, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Drama, Mystery, Romance
Characters: Narcissa, Draco, Ginny, Luna, Neville, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: Other Pairing

First Published: 06/19/2013
Last Chapter: 08/15/2017
Last Updated: 09/20/2017

Summary:



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As the daughter of the Dark Lord’s chief spy, Astoria Greengrass is well-acquainted with subterfuge. When her family’s loyalties are called into question, their lives will depend on her biggest deception yet.  But she’ll need all her wits, because the Death Eater she must deceive is Draco Malfoy, and the truth is, Astoria has a secret that could doom them all.


Chapter 1: An Unwelcome Visitor
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Prologue:

 Greengrass Hall, Christmas Eve, 1986.

“Remember, little one, secrets are meant to be kept.”

“But you tell secrets, don’t you, Mummy?”

“I tell them to you,” her mother conceded.  “And to our benefactors.  But you must always keep our secrets.”

The small girl nodded solemnly, but then her brow furrowed.  

“But what if I told?”

Would you tell?”  

She shook her head, dark, springy curls bouncing in an echo of her firm, childish negation.

“No.  I just like to know.”

Her mother’s frown was a fissure between her eyebrows, a narrow turning-down at the sharp corners of her mouth.

“Bad things happen when you tell people things they ought not to know.  You must promise me, darling, never to tell a soul.”

“But what would happen?”

“Bad things, darling.”  She patted her daughter’s head, running elegant fingers through the black silk of her hair.  “Very bad things.”



***********

Greengrass Hall, Easter Holidays, 1998

 
Astoria Greengrass was a brilliant actress.

At least, that’s what she continued to tell herself as she made her way through the foyer towards the enormous wooden door.  She would have to be brilliant--utterly flawless--to face what lay beyond that door.  

Everything depended on it.

She paused for a moment in the entryway, clenching her jaw and forcing a deep breath to clear her head.  Her hand reached down to adjust the hem of her simple green dress--the one her mother would have chosen, had she been here to do so.  Green for Slytherin.  Slytherin for Purebloods.  Purebloods for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

It was incredible how a dress could be a political statement--how so much subtle meaning could be worked into the threads and knots of colour that she really just wanted to rip off her back and burn.  It was a load of rot, the lot of it. 

As far as she was concerned, it was green for Greengrass--that was where her loyalties lay.  The rest of it could go straight to hell.

She reached out, clenching her fist around the polished brass of the doorknob, and wrenched it open to admit the boy--the man?--the person who loomed on her doorstep.  Tall, blonde, thin and sharp as a rapier.  Draco Malfoy.

He hovered there on her doorstep, washed-out and pale, as if he might have emerged from the grey mist and spattering April rain.  

Astoria waited for him to say something, but he remained quiet.  

Her mother would tell her it was her duty to greet him--to make him comfortable--but she refused to break the silence.  He was the one who was invading her home, and he was the one who would have to deal with the consequences of that decision.

And her mother was gone.  

She stood to the side and opened the door wider, nodding him in.  He acquiesced and stepped across the threshold of Greengrass Hall.  And now there he was.  

He stood there in the foyer.  Her foyer.  An intruder, a stranger, framed by the antique mahogany breakfront and a tree-shaped coat rack with silver-edged leaves. This was not the boy she had known at school.  His features were sharper, flecked by the dappled green and gold light dimly filtering through the stained glass window that crowned the entryway.  

He was thinner, with cheekbones that were too pronounced and circles like purple thumbprints pressed into the pale flesh beneath his eyes.  His suit jacket, no doubt of expensive make and initially cut to his precise measurements, now hung loose on his frame.  It made him look like a child playing in his father’s clothes, filling a role he was not made to fit.

But Astoria knew that, despite the appearances, he did fit.  Draco Malfoy was here to do what he had to do to survive.

And so was she.

She met his eyes with hers, piercing their cloudy-grey depths with bright, clear blue.  She raised one eyebrow in a way that she knew would convey arrogance and expectance.

“Miss Greengrass,” he intoned, inclining his head respectfully.  “Thank you for your kindness in inviting me into your home.”  

“Of course,” she responded, her tone breezy, though she was biting back the urge to tell him that he had most certainly not been ‘invited’ into her home.  Nor was he welcome. “Shall we adjourn to the parlour?”  She didn’t wait for his reaction.  Rather, she swept out a hand to indicate their intended direction and turned on her heel, leading the way into a formal sitting room.

The room was her least favourite in the house, which made it the perfect place to receive her unwanted guest.  His presence would not leave a stain on any place she cared for.  If she had her way, her family and her house would remain as untouched by him as possible.

She motioned him towards a couch near the fireplace and took the seat opposite.  Astoria had specifically chosen to place him on the enormous sofa, which she had hoped would dwarf him and give her the mental advantage.  Unfortunately, she had forgotten just how tall Draco Malfoy was--the sofa didn’t make him seem any less of a presence.

On the bright side, the cushions were like rocks and he sat as stiffly as if he were perched atop a hot poker.  Then again, he was fairly stiff to begin with, so perhaps that was less a product of his discomfort than a reflection of his personality.

Astoria folded herself gracefully into her own chair, crossing her legs at the ankles like a proper young lady.  “Shall I ring for tea?”

“That would be kind of you,” he confirmed, and she reached out to ring the bell that was set atop the small lacquered table beside her.

Crack!


Right before her, head bowed low and greyish ears drooping, a House Elf Apparated into existence on the outskirts of the room.  Astoria bit back a smile as her eyes darted over to Draco and saw him startle, his composure flickering for barely a second.  Many Pureblood families frowned on allowing Elves to Apparate or Disapparate in their presence, but the Greengrasses had always considered it much more convenient to dispose of the formalities.

The small creature lifted its saucer-sized eyes and murmured respectfully.  “How may Filly serve Mistress Astoria?”

Astoria squared her shoulders and looked down the slope of her nose at the Elf.  

“You will bring Mr. Malfoy and I some refreshments.  A tea tray, with biscuits as well.  Th--” she caught herself before the words ‘thank you’ could slip between her lips.  “That will be all.”  

Astoria wanted to shudder with revulsion.  She had discussed this with Filly ahead of time--knew that the House Elf understood why her young mistress was addressing her in such a way.  But she still hated it.  Filly had practically raised her, and she never spoke to her with such haughty disrespect.  

But she had to keep up appearances, and families whose House Elves were treated with too many liberties were viewed as suspect.  She could not afford to be kind in front of Draco Malfoy.  

For a long moment, they waited.  Silence sat heavy in the atmosphere of the parlour, weighing down the empty air, hovering over the intricate furniture, the green and gold and ivory colour scheme, the gilded Greengrass coat of arms worked into the plaster of the wall.  When Filly returned with the tea tray, Astoria had to resist the urge to leap for it, so glad was she to have something to do with her hands to dispel her frenetic energy.  She reached for the delicate china cups and poured out the steaming liquid.

“Cream or sugar?”

“Neither, thank you.  I prefer it plain.” 

Astoria handed him the cup before adding a liberal amount of both products to her own.  Austerity in one’s tea additives had never struck her as admirable, but then, a Death Eater like Malfoy would prefer something bitter, wouldn’t he?

As she sipped her tea, she took the opportunity to study him, taking in all the minute details, just as her mother had taught her.  His appearance was much changed.  He wasn’t eating properly--that much was certain.  He had lost a certain vitality, a shine, that he had had when he attended Hogwarts.  

Back there, Draco had been popular within Slytherin House.  Astoria’s sister Daphne’s so-called friend, Pansy Parkinson, had dated him once, and had been the envy of half the girls in the House.  Astoria personally couldn’t see the appeal, but the knowledge that it had once existed made her look harder.

Even though he was now a tad too thin for his frame, his slender build could certainly be considered attractive.  His unusual hair colour and smoky eyes were striking and his gaze held a certain penetrating intensity. All these things could come together to form a pleasing whole.

If, of course, his purposes weren’t completely despicable.  She took a small spoon and stirred her tea thoughtfully.  She had thought to let him begin the conversation, but he wasn’t, and she felt that if she allowed the oppressive silence to continue she would blurt out something she oughtn’t to.  

There was nothing for it.  She was going to have to speak.

“So, Mr. Malfoy.  You have come here for a reason, I think.  Shall we discuss it?”  

He set down his tea, which, she noted, he had barely sipped, and leaned back, propping his hands on his legs.

“Yes, I expect we should.  As you know, I am here to assess your family’s loyalties.”  He delivered this information in a weary tone, as if he had done it a million times and it was not a task he much cherished.

“Of course,” Astoria replied, composed.  “But are my family’s sympathies in question?”  

A misleading question.  Her father was in no state to be concerned with such matters; her sister was too easily-led to think twice about them; and her mother...Astoria’s mother had been perfectly devoted--paid the ultimate price for her allegiance--and what had she gotten for it, in the end?

No, it wasn’t Astoria’s family’s loyalties that were divided.  It was her own.

“My family remains perfectly loyal,” she assured him, her voice calm--not too fervent to be taken seriously, not flippant enough to be seen as an affront.  

He tapped the manila folder against his knees, lining up all the papers before opening it up and spreading the contents out on his lap.  With one hand, he reached into his suit jacket’s pocket, pulling a pair of slender, black-framed reading glasses out of their case and setting them on his nose.  He lifted the papers closer, scanning them.

“Do they?” he asked.  “After the...unfortunate incident with your mother, it is not entirely out of realm of possibility to believe that some amongst you might have felt the urge to defect.”

Astoria felt her face go blank, whiter than a sheet of fine parchment, but no doubt all too easy to read.

“The ‘unfortunate incident’.” she repeated in clipped, hollow tones.  “Is that all you have to say about it?”

He gave no immediate response.  

The unexpected death of Lavinia Greengrass was a sight more than ‘unfortunate', from the perspective of her daughter.

____________________________________________________________________

Thanks so much for reading this first chapter!  I hope you’ve enjoyed it.  Please review!  I would appreciate it greatly.  The next chapter should be a good deal longer.  I’m just still organizing it, and I thought that this would be enough to get things started.  Thanks again!
: D

--Penny

 

 

 

 


Chapter 2: The Lady of Greengrass Hall
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Lavinia Blishwick had been unapologetically mercenary in her marriage to Felix Greengrass--it had been for money, and she had never pretended otherwise.  In that time, and from such an old, esteemed Pureblood family as Lavinia’s, there was little a gently-bred witch could count among her achievements aside from marrying well.  

Though possessed of a keen intellect, Lavinia could not be allowed to fall into a life of politics--the Blishwicks did not approve of women in such positions--and the dusty halls of academia would not have called to her, even if it would have been allowed.

Happiness in marriage did come later--Lavinia grew to care for her husband, and Felix positively worshipped her--but she never had much of a domestic personality, and found her role as the wife of an esteemed Ministry official to be a poor use of her talents.  The conversation of her peers--women of equal lineage--was insufferably inane, and any insight she might have had on matters of true weight must, according to convention, remain unspoken and unheard.

It could come as no surprise, therefore, that when her skills were noticed by the Death Eaters, they won her loyalty quite easily by offering her enticing employ: Lavinia Greengrass became a spy.

And quite an effective one, for who could suspect the haughty mistress of Greengrass Hall of such affairs?  Secrets were spilled before women like seed before birds, most too silly with idle prattle to snatch it up and make use of it.


But Lavina...Lavinia did.  

For years she worked, funnelling information to the forces of the Dark Lord. Her loyalty never wavered as she awaited his return, and she rejoiced when, in a crumbling village cemetery in Little Hangleton, her master (and, more importantly, her position) was restored to her.

Until one foggy evening in the air above Little Whinging, her mission complete and the whereabouts of the so-called Boy Who Lived revealed, she was caught by an errant spell and flung from her broom, plummeting three hundred feet to the unforgiving earth.

And that was the end of Lavinia Greengrass.  

***********


Back in the long-unused front parlour, her daughter cleared her throat and took another sip of tea.  Though it might not have been tea slipping down her throat, but pure poison, for all the venom that was held in her next words.  “A most unfortunate incident, to be sure, Mr. Malfoy.”


He pressed his lips together till they turned pale, regarding her with what, if he were human and capable of such feelings, might have been some measure of discomfort.  Shame at having to intrude upon her grief.  Sorrow for her loss.  

But these kind of emotions could not be expected from a Malfoy. 

“If you are cleared of charges,” he offered quietly, “it is possible that you may be offered some compensation--”

“That will be unnecessary.”

Blood money was what he was offering her, and Astoria had no intention to collect.  

She took another deep breath through her nose, trying to force air into her brain.  She needed to calm down.  She needed to protect what remained of her family.  She needed to lie

“My mother merely did her duty as a supporter of the Dark Lord.  To receive payment for service willingly given would be a disservice to her memory.”  

She reached for another cube of sugar and plunked it, defiantly, into her tea.  Then she took the china cup into her hands, wrapping her fingers around it and allowing the warm comfort to seep into the tense joints of her knuckles.  

She blinked, and smiled up at him.

“Now, you say that you’re here to determine our loyalties, Mr. Malfoy.  I assure you that you will find that my family is as loyal as ever.  So, if you don’t mind my asking, what is it exactly that you intend to do here?”  

Selecting a dainty silver teaspoon from the tray, she swirled it around within the confines of the cup, placing the spoon back on the tea tray before taking a small sip.  Still too hot.  Taking care not to spill any, she set the cup aside.  “I’m afraid I’m a bit ignorant about this sort of thing.”  

Her smile was well-practised, teeth a gleaming porcelain white, her azure eyes shining with girlish innocence.  Her mother had been raised as a debutante, wielding her wiles to catch men and money.  Astoria had been raised as the daughter of a spy, and she knew better than anyone: every expression was a weapon, if only one knew how to use it.

Still, despite her skill, her guest seemed to glimpse something beneath the surface.  For a moment, it seemed that he had noted neither her question, nor her charm, as his eyes did not flicker upward from the paperwork in his lap.  Then, almost absently, his mouth quirked into the ghost of a wry smile.  For a moment, a trace of his characteristic sarcasm bled through as he muttered quietly to himself.

“Honestly, Miss Greengrass, if there is one thing I doubt, it is that you are ignorant.”

Draco Malfoy didn’t realise just how right he was.  At least, she hoped he did not.

***********


Lavinia had not told anyone, while she lived, of what she had done, aside from one person.  

As a spy, her work was clandestine--though she provided the Death Eaters with their best tips, most of them would never know of her importance to their cause. But Lavinia was a proud woman, and she could not bear for her exploits to go entirely unknown among her own family.  While Voldemort lived, she kept her secrets to herself.  However, after his supposed death at the hands of a mere toddler, she finally believed it safe to lower her guard.

There was no question of telling her husband--he would not admire her any more nor less for her actions.  For someone who so wished to be respected for her achievements, this unwavering adoration was both a blessing and a curse.  Her eldest daughter, though it pained Lavinia to admit it, was silly and vain without the brains to make up for it, like most of the chattering, mindless young women of her class.

That left only her youngest daughter, untried and untested, but who had at least not yet been weighed and found wanting.  Astoria.

And Astoria had listened.  Though her mother did not reveal all to her, only Astoria knew the tidbits that Lavinia did let slip as she regaled her with tales of listening at doors, putting together clues, and paying close attention to every detail that could lead to a secret’s unearthing.  

After the Dark Lord had been forced to retreat that night, bodiless, defeated, and largely presumed dead, from Godric’s Hollow, Lavinia had not given up hope.  Perhaps because her loyalty had never truly been to the man who had once been Tom Riddle, but to herself.  Her work was an exercise in her own cleverness, and she’d hardly give that up just because one Dark wizard was bested by a baby.

She continued to spy, funneling her information to the Death Eater elite.  Namely, two families; the Malfoys and the Notts--the only people high up enough (who weren’t in Azkaban) to have been aware of Mrs. Greengrass’ involvement.  Lavinia suspected that they would continue the pro-Pureblood movement themselves.  Little did she know that, one day, she would be working for her master, himself, once again.

And work for him she did.  Until that night when, between one breath and the next, she fell from her broomstick and was snuffed out of the world.

But, as it was in her life, so it was in her death: with Lavinia Greengrass, all was not, perhaps, as it appeared.

The demise of the Dark Lord’s chief spy had been rather singular.  It was odd, in the first place, that she had been instructed to be at the scene the night the Death Eaters attempted to capture Harry Potter leaving his childhood home; Lavinia was a spy, not a fighter.  She had always worked exclusively in information--never combat.

Odder still that, although the Dark Lord’s forces had been battling the Order of the Phoenix, the Healer at St. Mungo’s who performed Mrs. Greengrass’ exam determined that Lavinia had been dead long before she hit the ground.  Avada Kedavra.

The members of the Order of the Phoenix rarely employed the Killing Curse.  But Lavinia had been surrounded, that night, by plenty of people who did.

Astoria was clever.  She knew that it would be easiest to blame the Resistance--the trouble-making rebels her mother had been tailing.

She also knew that spies had a tendency to make enemies, and that her mother was a very good spy.  

It appeared that Lavinia Greengrass had perhaps, in the end, learned one secret too many.  

A secret that had gotten her killed.

***********


Of course, the Death Eaters had found out that there had been a leak in information, and it was unsurprising that they had eventually traced the source back to the House of Greengrass. 

But the secret that slipped out of their clutches was not the reason for the death of the Dark Lord’s spy.  The Lady of Greengrass Hall was dead and gone long before the treachery that had brought Draco Malfoy to their door had ever occurred.

It was not Lavinia--nor indeed any other--who had betrayed the Death Eater’s plot.  

It was Astoria.

Two weeks after her mother’s funeral, she had still burned with anger.  Anger at her mother, for leaving her too soon.  Anger at her sister, who could not be serious for long enough to share Astoria’s grief.  And, most of all, angry at the heartless Death Eaters, who had cost her family its cornerstone and done nothing to help prop up the tottering structure now that it was gone.  

No condolences.  No concerns.  No knock on the door.  

Just an owl directing them to a body at St. Mungo’s and, months later, a Malfoy on their doorstep.

Little thanks for a life given in service to their cause.  

Not that Astoria thought much of the cause to begin with.  At the end of the day, neither had her mother.  Lavinia Greengrass had been on a search for the honour denied to her by her station and sex, less concerned with dogma than glory.  

Which, in the end, she hadn’t got much of, either.

Astoria was not really against Muggles or Muggleborns; she really didn’t care much either way.  What were Muggles to her?  She certainly didn’t know any, and she wasn’t the type of girl to like or dislike anything based only off the word of another.  Though she associated primarily with Purebloods, her time at Hogwarts had shown her clearly that differences in moral quality and intelligence were not defined by blood, but by character.  

Until her mother’s death, however, she had lacked any strong impetus to lean her politics in one direction or another.  

That night changed everything.  The Dark Lord was a menace, not only to the Muggle-lovers, but to his own followers, and she would not be so stupid as to go down that path.

She was bringing the Death Eaters down, in some small way, if it was the last thing she did. 



____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Yowza!  Lavinia Greengrass had quite a story, huh?  So, now we know where Astoria’s vendetta is coming from.  But what, exactly, is it she’s done?  Why is Draco Malfoy really there?  And can she convince him of her innocence?

Please review!  Whether you liked it, or want to give some constructive criticism--either way!  Even if you only say, ‘This is a thing, and I read it’, it’s still nice that someone put in the effort.  Just scroll down...it’s right there.  I dare you to. 
(*cough* deliberate challenge that will hopefully get all the Gryffindors).  
Thanks for reading! 


Coming up next:
  There were a number of reasons why Astoria settled upon Ginny Weasley as the best choice to get a message to the Order of the Phoenix... 


Chapter 3: A Dangerous Revelation
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*******
Astoria cleared her throat.  “Mr. Malfoy.”


“Come again?”  Draco glanced up from his files, and appeared wary once he noted her smile.  She made a note to turn it down a bit.  Perhaps after interviewing enough Slytherins for treachery, one grew tired of an excess of charm.  


Honestly, though.  The man was supposed to be here to determine whether or not a family’s heads would be handed to the Dark Lord--or, more aptly, his snake--on a silver platter, and he wasn’t even paying attention to her questions?  

She made a firm line of her mouth, but carefully weeded any bitterness from her voice before asking again.

“How does this work, exactly?”  

He eased the papers into alignment and shut the folder, tapping his fingers lightly against the manilla-colored surface.

“I’ll be asking you some questions to determine your family’s innocence.  Hopefully I can gain all the information I need from you, and there will be no need to track down the rest of your family members.”

She stiffened, unable to discern whether this was a threat, or just the desire of a spoiled young man to get back to...whatever it was he did that was more enjoyable than this.  She nodded her consent.

“Very well.  Feel free to begin.”

Draco Malfoy set the folder aside, reaching for his now tepid cup of tea and knocking back the bitter liquid as though it was a different, more invigorating beverage.  He cleared his throat.

“Very well, then.”  He stared at her with--was that a hint of apprehension?--over the thick black frames of his glasses.  “Do the words ‘Epping Forest’ mean anything to you?”

********
Hogwarts, Autumn 1998, Several Months Earlier

Astoria could not go off and fight with the rebels--it would bring danger to what remained of her family, and while she was willing to risk herself, she would not put them in Voldemort’s clutches.  She was a student at Hogwarts, and didn’t have much to offer.

Except...

One of the last snippets of intelligence her mother had imparted to her was the date of a planned attack.  Information had been found suggesting that there was a group of rebels concealed in Epping Forest, near Essex.  They didn’t know that they had been found out, and the Dark Lord’s forces planned to strike on a certain November morning, wiping out every man, woman, and child.

And Astoria was determined to stop it.

No, perhaps it wasn’t what her mother would have wanted--Lavinia had been a Death Eater, though as a spy she had lacked a Dark Mark.  But Astoria had had enough of Death Eaters, enough of death altogether, and this was all she had to offer--everything she had to give.

She couldn’t bring her mother back, but she if she could do something--anything--to exact retribution from those who had killed her, then that was what she would do.

Once the decision had been made, there was still the question of whom she could entrust with this information.  Astoria herself was a Slytherin, the House with the greatest number of Voldemort-sympathisers, and had been raised almost exclusively amongst fellow Purebloods.  No one within her acquaintance was likely to have anti-Voldemort sympathies, let alone be willing to do something about them.  

So she wracked her brain, looking at every student she passed, evaluating whether they might be the one who could help her.  It seemed ages, though really it had only been a few weeks, before she finally found the perfect candidate--just the person she needed to talk to.

***
There were a number of reasons why Astoria settled upon Ginny Weasley as the best choice to get a message to the Order of the Phoenix.  The Carrows certainly suspected the girl of such connections, as she was among the group of students they tormented with the greatest amount of glee.  One of her brothers was close friends with Harry Potter himself, and the family had been known to house him on a number of occasions.  Said family was absurdly large, and surely one them must have some connection to the rebellion.  

But, most importantly, Ginny would protect Harry Potter, and Merlin only knew where he could be.  It was possible that the Chosen One was in that very camp. 

Astoria had been paying attention--she was, after all, raised by a spy--and she could not help but notice that last year Ginny had seemed much friendlier with Harry Potter, that the girl’s jaw still clenched and her eyes grew dark with worry whenever his name was mentioned.   Apparently no one else had noted the signs of Ginny’s romantic involvement with the Boy Who Lived--else she would hardly be alive and at Hogwarts--but for Astoria, there was little doubt.

If she wanted to offer a clandestine tip to the other side, Ginevra Weasley was the girl to see.  

Seeing Ginny, however, had proved to be a feat in of itself.  Under the iron thumb of the Carrows, it was difficult to sneak around at night, particularly for Astoria, who had never been much of a rule breaker and who had precious little experience with nighttime wanderings.  But for a Pureblood of honourable birth to be seen talking to a Weasley during daylight hours would be considered most irregular.  After all, pureblooded though their family might be, the Weasleys were blood traitors through and through.

By the time Astoria managed to sneak into the Gryffindor Sixth year girls’ dormitory under cover of night, it was only four days before the raid.  She had ended up with six incensed young witches with drawn wands directed at her upon her intrusion, and barely avoided Ginny’s own infamous Bat-bogey hex, before finally managing to get a word in edgewise.

“I don’t want any trouble.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I need to speak to Ginny,” Astoria replied calmly, despite the eight-and-a quarter inches of oak baring down on her pulse point.  Its owner, a spindly witch with light brown hair, looked to the girl in question.

Astoria lifted her chin, extremely aware of the wand tip that was still pressed too-close against her throat.  “I’d hardly be here under cover of nightfall if it wasn’t important, would I?”

Ginny eyed her thoughtfully for a moment, measuring her up.  She turned to the wand-happy brunette, who looked as though she were cheerfully contemplating what sort of hexes she might attempt on the Slytherin girl in front of her. 

“Just...go down to the Common Room for a bit, okay?  Give me fifteen minutes.”

“And leave you with her?” the brown-haired girl sneered.  

Oh, who was being prejudiced, now?

Ginny cocked a hip and raised an imperious eyebrow.  “You don’t think I could take her?”

The brunette’s lips curled into a sour frown, but she said nothing in response.

Privately, Astoria believed that Ginny could take her in a fight, but was untroubled by the thought.  She lived by her wits, not by her wand.  Just because the Weasley girl could out-spell her didn’t mean that she could outsmart her, if it should come to that.  

Though she suspected that the fiery redhead, whose friends followed her lead so willingly, was probably no halfwit, herself.

Reluctantly, with plenty of loaded glances tossed over their shoulders, the other girls slouched out of the room and down the stairwell, leaving the two of them alone.

“Sit.”

Ginny gestured to a battered-looking armchair with her wand, and Astoria complied, perching delicately on the edge of the cushion.  

The other girl took a moment to ensorcel the gas lamps, brightening the room to get a better look at Astoria’s face.  As if that would help.  Astoria was perfectly capable of lying, if she so desired--her face would remain equally convincing in dim or glaring light.  However, in this case, she had every intention of telling the truth.

Ginny squinted at her, pursing her lips.  Finally, she waved over another armchair, which scraped across the floor towards them.  Leaning against the chair arm, not quite standing or sitting, she turned that same imperious nod upon Astoria.

“Talk.”

Astoria nearly scoffed--she had never been one to take orders.  Still, this was what she was here for, after all.  So she swallowed her pride and spoke.  

She told Ginny of what she knew: The camp at Epping Forest.  The men, women, and children whose lives were in danger.  The Death Eaters who would strike without mercy four days hence.  

For once in her life, she didn’t consider the best way to present the information, didn’t think about which bits might be advantageous to adjust or leave out.  For once, she told the bald, unembellished truth, with no attempt to twist it for her own profit.

And, in the end, Astoria wasn’t certain it would be enough.

Finally, having finished her tale, she sat back in her chair, awaiting Ginny Weasley’s verdict.

For the first time, Astoria’s eyes strayed from her audience, taking a moment to properly observe her surroundings.  The room was much like her dormitory in Slytherin House, though the walls were of a warmer-coloured stone, and the drapes and trappings were all of crimson and gold.  One bed was empty--the Gryffindor girl who hadn’t come back to school this year.  Half-blood, Astoria mused grimly.  Probably dead.

She looked back to Ginny, who was staring into the glowing embers of a dying fire in the grate.  The shifting light played across her features.  She was thinner than Astoria had remembered, but not in a way that made her look fragile.  If anything, she looked fierce.  The half-healed cut on her cheek, a left-over from one of the Carrows’ disciplinary exhibitions, leant her a dangerous air.

Around her neck hung a galleon piece on a chain.  Strange.  Astoria wondered how many taunts the girl might have received from her fellow Slytherins.  She could just imagine--Are you Weasleys so poor that you have to wear your money so you don’t lose it, then, Blood Traitor?  

Still, that didn’t seem right.  Something about the way that Ginny’s hand reached up to grasp it, fingering the coin thoughtfully as she contemplated Astoria’s tale.  She was quite sure there was more to Ginny’s unusual accessory than a need to keep her spare change close.

Her thought process was shattered when Gryffindor finally spoke, her voice ringing with quiet authority.

“You expect me to believe this?”

Astoria considered for a moment, her sharp-eyed gaze dissecting every emotion that fluttered across the other girl’s face.

“I think you already do.” 

The redhead took a deep breath, blew it out slowly.

Ginny dropped into the proper seat of her chair, drumming her fingers against her knees, her eyes closed in concentration.  When she opened them and leaned forward, her gaze--a much warmer brown than Astoria’s own cold blue stare--bored into the Slytherin as if she could see through to her soul.

“Tell me why.”

“Does it matter?” Astoria countered.  Ginny continued to stare her down, and Astoria rolled her eyes.  “I have my reasons.”

“Not good enough.”

“Well, why not?” Astoria demanded with great hauteur, pulling a rather masterful impression of Pansy Parkinson.  Of course, she could think of plenty of reasons ‘why not’--trust was not exactly a strong component of Astoria’s nature.  But she’d get farther if she knew Ginny’s own concerns.

Ginny’s eyes continued to blaze, her voice stony.

“Because,” she retorted, “You’re asking me to trust you with a significant number of lives.  If I know any rebels who might be able to evacuate a camp, who I could send a message to,” she qualified, “It would take a qualified team--all their lives would hang in the balance.”

“As do the lives of the people who are in the camp.  Right now.  So I’m afraid I don’t see the problem.”

Ginny glared at her.  “It could be a trap,” she snapped.  “You’re not stupid, Astoria.  Don’t think I don’t know it.  As good as you are at that Pansy Parkinson impression,” she raised an admiring eyebrow, “I know you’re not her.  You notice things.  You know the score.”  

Astoria stayed silent for a moment, to punctuate her next point.

“Exactly,” she replied, raising an eyebrow right back.  “I’m not her.” 

Check.  Mate.  

 
Ginny leaned back in her chair.  She didn’t sigh, exactly--the Weasley girl didn’t seem like the type of girl to give in and accept anything.  But she did give a sort of huff.

Astoria continued to watch her.  Ginny’s emotions were easily read--the strain of responsibility; the idea of leaving it alone and letting people die; wrestling with the choice of trusting a Slytherin, a Pureblood, or...the alternative.

What was totally absent from Ginny’s face was morbid curiosity--the expression that would be flickering behind the countenance of any of her Housemates, were she to come to them with such a tale.  Ginny cared about Astoria’s motives only so much as they might prove she was telling the truth; she didn’t want to dig into someone else’s sob story for her own amusement.  She wasn’t that type of girl, either.

Which is why, in the end, Astoria chose to tell her.

“They killed my mother,” she offered quietly, dropping her gaze to stare down at the stiff black fabric of her robes.  The words scraped against her throat, but her voice remained composed.

“They what?”

Astoria’s composure slipped, her back teeth grinding together as she spoke.  “They think they’re safe--if they’re on his side.  If they’re Purebloods.  They aren’t,” she spat.  “No one is safe.  He doesn’t care.

“Think what you want about people like me, but we always look out for our own.  The Dark Lord isn’t like that.  He’s out for himself.  So are the Death Eaters.  Whoever gets in their way, they’re...”, she shrugged, working to swallow, “eliminated.”    

She tried her usual trick--deep breath, in through the nose, slowly released.  She felt some of the chinks in her armour repair themselves.

“Most people do the opposite, you know,” Ginny pointed out.  “The last thing they want, after they’ve lost someone, is to get involved.”

Astoria rolled her eyes.

“Don’t make me out to be some kind of hero, Weasley.  I’m not out throwing myself at every cause that moves, like a deranged Gryffindor.”  She knew it wasn’t wise to toss out insults at a time like this, but she prided herself on her impassivity, and Ginny Weasley had just seen it crack.  

“So you’re saying this is about revenge.” 

“Exactly.”

“I don’t buy it.”  Ginny shook her head.  “I know you’re saying Purebloods are proud, you have to avenge your family, all that.”  She waved a hand dismissively.  “But you’re not just blindly striking out.  You’re trying to help people.  That’s more than revenge.”

Astoria blinked, pursed her lips.

“Maybe.”

For a few moments they remained like that, in a silent stare-down, each sizing the other up, each with her own stake in the game.

“Fine,” Ginny said finally, standing up.  Astoria rose gracefully to her feet as well.  “I’ll let you know what I’ve decided.  Afterwards.”

The Slytherin girl’s dark-blue eyes crinkled at the corners, though her lips remained set in their usual line.

“You’re not going to tell me now?”  This time, Astoria’s voice had no false note of affront.  Rather, it rang with approbation.

“Of course not.  If it’s a trap, I’m hardly going to let you have any more information.  I’ll consider what you said, and go from there.”

Astoria let out a very small smile.  It fluttered around the edges of her mouth, like the wings of a bird long kept in captivity, newly released.  She started for the door.

“Oh, and Weasley,” she tossed over her shoulder as she walked out of the dormitory.  “Nobody finds out about this.  Ever.”

Ginny raised an eyebrow.  “You’re sure? No matter what happens?” 

Astoria paused on the threshold.  Ginny Weasley was asking her if, against all odds, the Dark Lord were defeated, if she would want to be known as a hero.  If she would want people to know what she had done for them.


“No matter what happens,” Astoria affirmed, and exited the room.

**** 

___________________________________________________________________

Hello lovely readers!  Thanks so much for sticking with this story till chapter 3.  So, now you know Astoria’s secret (or at least one of them).  Still, perhaps you’ll soon learn a few others.  Can she keep the truth from Draco and the Death Eaters?  Or will Draco prove to be more observant than she suspects?  

Please review!  It really helps, both as a morale booster (oh, look, people have opinions about my story!) and helping me to construct the rest of it.  I like to know what things you like, and what things you don’t.  It’s important, so please let me know *cue puppy-dog, review-please eyes*.  No, I do not have any shame.  I will plead until the Nargles come home.  I value your thoughts.  You are my favorites!  
; )

Thanks!

--Penny


 

 










 


Chapter 4: The Malediction Perfidious
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Greengrass Hall, Spring 1998


Draco levelled a flat, grey gaze at the young woman sitting across from him, her expression as blank and pleasant as that of any witch who had ever sat across from his mother for tea, back at the Manor.  He could gather nothing from it as his question echoed between them, his voice catching and reverberating in the empty spaces of the lofted ceilings.

Do the words ‘Epping Forest’ mean anything to you?

She lifted her teacup once again, the placid smile on her face twisting wryly as the tea, still hot, burned her tongue.  She smoothly set the china cup back in the saucer and raised a brow.  “Epping Forest?” she repeated.  “It’s in Essex, isn’t it?”

“It is.”  A glimmer of light on the silver handle of the teaspoon caught Draco’s eye as she plunked yet another lump of sugar into her cup and stirred it about.  He should be focused, he knew, on nothing but the girl, but for a moment he had to allow his eyes to wander. 

Greengrass Hall was a large old manor house.  Built with warm red brick, it was smaller and less elegant than his own family seat.  The parlour they were sitting in was obviously a lesser-used room, but the whole place carried a certain air of dingy neglect.  It wasn’t dust or stains or the smell of mothballs--no self-respecting Elf would allow such disrepair to fall upon a Pureblood home.  Still, there was something.  

He looked down his nose at the empty cup of bone china seated on the spindle-legged table beside him.  It was nice enough, but his mother’s gilded tea set had belonged to some long-forgotten Russian tsarina, and was undoubtedly finer.

 
Of course, it had been shattered into a thousand sharp-edged porcelain shards when an ill-timed report had come for the Dark Lord.  His mother had been too afraid to put it to rights by magic; she knew well enough that Lord Voldemort liked for the things he broke to remain broken. 

Draco considered, again, the gloomy aura that seemed to have permeated the house, and then he had it.  Despair.  Someone had lived here, without really living.  Someone entirely without hope.  He knew that feeling--had seen it settle in at his own home, where boneless bodies were dragged across the oriental rugs to be burned on the grounds; where the walls of the third floor rooms were now painted in blood. 

He reached out his index finger and tapped the cup along the rim, looping his finger through the handle and giving it a tiny flick, so that it spun around in the saucer.  The dregs of the amber liquid rippled, and a cluster of tea leaves at the bottom coalesced into an almost-recognisable shape--dark, hunched shoulders, a lump for a head.   The Grim.  Draco almost wanted to laugh.  What an empty threat.  Of course death would be his companion.  The only question was, how would it touch him today?

The sound of her voice jarred him from his dark thoughts.  

“I’m afraid it doesn’t carry much meaning for me at all.”  

For a moment, he forgot where he was.  It was as though her voice was the echo of his own thoughts, of his own fortune.  Then Astoria Greengrass shifted in her seat, drawing his eyes away from his predictably prophetic teacup and back into the parlour room.

Ah, he thought, coming back to himself.  The forest.  The rebels.  The task at hand.  He turned his focus back to her, considering. 

 “And have you ever been there?” he countered.

“I have not.”

“You haven’t heard it come up in conversation, recently?”

“Not that I recall, Mr. Malfoy.”

Not a single flicker of emotion betrayed her.  He looked her over, knowing what signs to watch for.  He wasn’t sure why he bothered--he was, after all, fairly certain of the eventual outcome.  But still, she puzzled him.  Her hands did not shake.  Her eyes didn’t shift.  She regarded him with that steady gaze, the one that said I have nothing to fear from you.  The one that said, If this is a game, then it is one I will win.

He shifted in his seat, tapping the downy end of his quill against his knee.

“So you would not have any knowledge of why, seemingly overnight, a large group of rebels might have disappeared, mere days before a planned attack?”

“I would not,” Astoria affirmed, smoothing a hand across her skirt.  “I’m not sure what you mean by all this, or how I could be involved.  I’ve been at Hogwarts all term, Mr. Malfoy.  I’d imagine that could be easily confirmed.”

Draco nodded conversationally, scribbling down a nonsense note in the margin of his file.  Sometimes that was all it took to get them worried--to get them to talk.  

“I see,” he murmured.  “And who are your chief associates at Hogwarts?”  

For a brief moment, there was something in her demeanour other than the polite hostess or puzzled schoolgirl.  She scoffed, the corner of her mouth curling wryly, like the edge of a paper held over a flame.  But then it was gone, the sardonic curve of her lips ironed out and set in faultless order, though the tone of her voice remained dry.  

“I do not have many ‘associates’ as you call them.  People look away from tragedies, Mr. Malfoy.  The girl with the dead mother is no fun at a party.”  Her smile, now, was bright and savage.  Draco had the thought that, if he weren’t careful, he could cut himself on it.  

The thought struck him, and he shook his head.  Where was he getting such strange ideas?  He found that, in his other hand, he was still clutching the delicate silver tea spoon. He glanced into its polished surface, noting the unhealthy-looking purple crescents that had taken up residence beneath his eyes.  His image rested, small and turned about in the spoon’s hollow. 

It seemed to him an uncommonly accurate representation. 

It was time to end this.  It was time to go on the offensive. 

“Would you consider yourself a friend of Ginny Weasley?”

That odd smile slipped away, corners pulling downward.  A perfect, puzzled crease appeared between her eyebrows.

“Ginny Weasley?  From that ragamuffin pack of destitute bloodtraitors?  You must be joking.”  

Draco reached up to adjust his reading glasses.  “I assure you, Miss Greengrass, I am not here to joke.”

Astoria Greengrass drew herself up.  

“Nor am I,” she responded sharply.  “You’re here to ask questions, and I invite you to ask them, but please do not insult my dignity, or my family name, by suggesting that I would associate with...filth.”  Her voice caught, just the tiniest bit, on the last word.  A less vigilant observer would have never noticed.  It could have been distaste--horror--at being linked with such a family as the Weasleys.  Or, it could be something else.

“According to your recent medical records, she visited you in the Hospital Wing last term.”  

Suddenly, Draco felt a sharp pain pulse through him, heat coursing from the bend of his elbow to the top of his wrist.  His eyes darted automatically to his arm, where his Dark Mark was covered by the sleeve of his suit coat and the fabric of his shirt.  In a moment, without having realised it, his coat was off and his sleeve rolled up, revealing the tattoo, slashed across his pallid skin, black and unforgiving as the night.

Someone was coming.

He glanced up to see the girl eyeing him curiously.  Deftly, he rolled his sleeve back down and fastened it at the wrist.  

“Forgive me.  Aches and pains, sometimes.”  His mouth quirked sourly, not quite a grin, as he thought of how that made him sound--like an old man with a war wound, predicting the weather through his scar tissue. He saw that her eyes were still fixed on his Mark, and he met them, running a finger over the skin, tentatively, as if stroking the head of a snake.

“Hideous, isn’t it?” he asked, his tone almost affable, but there was an underlying current bitterness that surely she could not help but notice.  He didn’t know what made him say it.  His aunt would probably curse him for such a statement, but somehow, with that awful skull yawning up at him, the serpent peeking out from around its slithering coils, he couldn’t much bring himself to care.

The Greengrass girl, however, neither gaped in horror or stared in awe.  Her searching blue eyes considered his Mark for a moment, filed it away, and then turned to meet his own grey gaze, utterly unimpressed.  

Absently, she ran a hand down her side, over the bodice of her emerald dress.

“I’d not concern yourself with it,” she advised him cooly.  “We all have scars, Mr. Malfoy.”

*********

Hogwarts, Autumn 1998, Several Months Earlier


It had begun about half an hour after her confession, when she told Ginny Weasley to contact the Order of the Phoenix.  When she told her mother’s last secret.

The pain.

At first, it was just like a sting--a sensation of small, irritating bites around her midsection.  Then, an itching.  

Oh, the itching.

It had driven her mad, in that way only an incessant itch can do.  She had lain on the floor of her dormitory in the Slytherin dungeons, pressing her skin against the cool, damp stones, hoping to find some relief.

It wasn’t until the burning started that she began to scream.

One of her roommates--she never was able to remember which--must have gone to fetch her sister.  She’d have told them not to, had she been able to squeeze out words from behind her clenched teeth; Daphne wasn’t particularly good in the face of an emergency.  But she couldn’t tell them so.  The only noises coming from her were wordless, agonised shrieks.

Dimly, Astoria had felt Daphne’s hands tug away at her arms, which were clutched around her middle, and lift up her pyjama top to reveal her stomach.  

“It looks like some kind of rash,” her sister had squealed, quickly dropping them hem of Astoria’s shirt and brushing off her hands in case it were contagious.

Then, the grating voice of Pansy Parkinson, rife with indifference.

“She probably just ate one of those stupid Weasley candies or something.  She’ll be fine.”

Daphne looked down at her sister, writhing on the ground and hissing with pain.  She didn’t look as though she’d be fine.

“I don’t know what to do!” Daphne wailed, worrying her lip with her teeth.  

Pansy scoffed.  “Fine.  Take her to the Hospital Wing, like any person with half a brain.  We’ll give you ten minutes, but if you aren’t back by then we’re leaving without you.”

Astoria could not know what Daphne’s response had been, but she felt her sister’s arms wrap around her shoulder.  She screeched louder as Daphne’s attempts to lift her tugged on her tormented skin.  Daphne gave up, and Astoria slumped to the ground.  A moment later, she was lifted effortlessly into the air.  She caught sight of a mop of unfamiliar brown hair--one of Daphne’s boy toys, no doubt, drafted into the effort.  

She knew nothing more until she had been deposited in the Hospital Wing, which smelled of the comforting mixture of herbs and antiseptic.  Madame Pomfrey could be heard fussing about, and Astoria felt herself being lowered into one of the many open cots.  The starchy sheets scratched against her skin when the nurse lifted up her shirt to reveal her stomach once again.

She heard the woman gasp, and then her clipped steps hastening towards the exit.

Possibly she had been left there to die. 

She wouldn’t mind, actually, so long as it would hurry up.


*********

“You are employed at this school to heal its students.”  The voice: adult, male, set in tones of impolite disinterest, was known to her, but Astoria couldn’t place it.  She was barely conscious, and she prayed that, within the next few minutes, she wouldn’t be.


The voice droned on, “If you feel the need to call in help for every bloody nose that comes running to the Hospital Wing, I may have to look into your replacement.”

While Madame Pomfrey had been gone, Astoria’s condition had worsened.  It was as if there were a white hot snake coiled around her--a constrictor.  It squeezed against her ribs, her stomach, her hips, and she gasped for air.

The Hogwarts nurse made her way over to the girl’s cot.

“What those Carrows are doing is a lot more than bloody noses for me to patch up,” she snipped, and if Astoria had been in her right mind, she’d have been surprised at the nurse’s candour.  “But you can be sure I wouldn’t have called you in if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.”

“And what seems to be the problem?”

“See for yourself.”

Astoria felt the hem of her shirt lift once again, felt the momentary relief of cold air kissing the tortured skin.  Then the fire-snake coiled tighter, and she whimpered.

A beat of silence, and then,

“I will need infusion of wormwood, my vial of crushed dragon’s scales, valerian, moondew, and motherwort.  Send someone to fetch them from my office.  Promptly.”

Astoria dimly heard footsteps.  Leaving.  Returning.  Leaving.

The grinding noise of a mortar and pestle.  She couldn’t speak.  Couldn’t open her eyes.  Another rush of pain seared through her middle and she let out a yelp.

“Hush.”  It started out as a harsh command, but somewhere around the ‘sh’, the voice gentled, as if thinking better of its severity.  

“As if I haven’t had enough curses to heal,” the voice muttered.  She felt gentle fingers spread some sort of paste onto her stomach, working with medical precision.  She was moved onto her side so that he could put the salve on her back.  A spell was mumbled, though she didn’t catch the words.  

Immediately, the pain eased.  The heat drained from her skin, and the snake, after one last, crushing embrace, released her from its coils.

Her eyelids fluttered, and she caught a hazy glimpse of one image: a hand peeking out of a long, dark sleeve, reaching out to snuff out the candlelight.  A chair scraping back across the floor.  And, just as she drifted into a fitful slumber, a head of oily, black hair perched atop hunched shoulders, making his slow, exhausted way out the door.  

*********

Greengrass Hall, Spring 1998

“I can’t say I remember Ginny Weasley visiting me at all when I was in the Hospital Wing.”

“For,” Draco glanced down, skimming the notes in his lap, “A misfired Incendio, was it?  That’s what your medical records indicate.”

“It was,” she nodded.  “May I ask where you are drawing this accusation from?”

He nodded in turn.  “You may.  Everyone who enters the Hospital Wing, both patients and visitors, are recorded magically.  In the case of an epidemic, it aids the faculty in discovering the source.”  

“And it has Ginny Weasley listed as a visitor when I was there?”

“I am aware that she was supposedly there with her friend.  A Miss Megan Wimpole.  But it has been suggested that the two of you may have...conversed.”

“I admit that my, “conversing”, as you say, with someone like Ginny Weasley would be an odd occurrence, to say the least.  I can’t imagine why I would wish to associate with someone of,” Astoria gave a haughty sniff, “her kind.  But is that the reason you’re here, Mr. Malfoy?  The family is low-class, to be sure, but I am surprised to find them the centrepiece in an argument designed to declare me a criminal.” 

She spoke as cooly as possible, but was suddenly grateful for the high neck of her dress, which kept the young man across from her from seeing her pulse pounding in her throat.  He was entirely too close, too quickly.  And if speaking to Ginny could truly count as evidence for treason...then Ginny Weasley couldn’t possibly be safe, either.  

“The Weasleys,” he responded, his mouth curling around the name with a visible contempt, spitting it out as quickly as possible, “have been declared enemies of the Ministry.  They have gone into hiding, but it will only be a matter of time till they are found.”


*********

Hogwarts, Autumn 1998, Several Months Earlier


Astoria woke to bright morning sunlight and a mouth that felt stuffed with cotton.  She didn’t move, at first, choosing instead to take in her surroundings.  The spicy scent of a poultice tickled her nose, and she could feel long strips of cloth wrapped tightly around her abdomen.  Hospital Wing.  She turned her head, and then rather wished she hadn’t.  The room buckled and swam in her vision, and she heard a small, uncharacteristically pathetic sound claw its way out of her throat.

“Oh dear,” said a voice from across the room, and the rubbery sound of orthopaedic shoes shuffling over the stone floor replaced the slight ringing in Astoria’s ears.  Madam Pomfrey clucked, gently adjusting Astoria’s head back so it was centred on the pillow.  

“You children.  First instinct is always to jump straight out of bed.  Here, drink this.”  She held a metal cup up against Astoria’s mouth, giving her no choice but to swallow.  The contents tasted like liquified moss, but put her dizziness to rights in only a moment.

The nurse paused, her knobby, rheumatic fingers twining together in her spotless white apron.  Nervous, Astoria realised as the pain faded and her faculties returned.  That, more than anything, worried her.  Here was a woman who had seen every injury that Hogwarts had to offer--who had almost certainly seen death.  Anything that could faze Madame Pomfrey was worthy of concern.

Astoria longed to sit up properly, but she wasn’t fool enough to go leaping into another bout of dizziness.  “May I?”  She twitched her fingers vaguely, but Madame Pomfrey understood the motion, pulling her wand from her apron and pointing it at the bed so that the legs of the headboard side slowly grew upwards, creating an incline that had Astoria reclining at an almost-seated position.

Slowly, carefully, she leaned up a bit on her elbows, lifting her head so that she could look right at Madame Pomfrey, who was still standing at the foot of the bed, her chin tucked down, wiry grey eyebrows narrowed as if she were scolding any dust motes that might dare to settle on her pristine infirmary floor.  It was nearly impossible to imagine such a daunting personage avoiding eye-contact.  This was Madame Pomfrey, who would drag the gargantuan Hogwarts gamekeeper out by his ear if he was causing a disturbance in her healing sanctuary.  She was not a woman who was easily cowed.  


Astoria cleared her throat.  It felt a bit less like she had swallowed sawdust now that the potion was setting in.  Still, when she spoke, the words rasped out, more air than substance. 

“I’d like to know what happened.”

The nurse sighed, flicking her eyes toward Astoria and then away again.  Her voice, however, was as steely as ever.  “What you need is to rest, Miss Greengrass.  There’ll be time enough for explanations later.”

Astoria set her jaw, knowing she was wearing the same expression her mother had worn whenever someone had attempted to refuse her demands.  It was a very effective look.  

“Madame Pomfrey, with respect, I think you and I both know that I won’t be able to get any sort of rest until I know why I am in this hospital bed.”  

Finally, Madame Pomfrey met Astoria’s gaze and held it.  Whatever she saw there seemed to work some kind of change in her.  Her shoulders relaxed out of their tight, locked posture, and she shook her head.  

“Very well, then.  I suppose you’ve a right to that,” she allowed, moving from the foot of the bed to its side and setting the empty metal cup on the small wooden table resting there. 

Astoria glanced at it and licked her lips.  “Asphodel, knotgrass, star thistle, and...valerian?”

Madame Pomfrey’s eyes widened behind her wireframe spectacles.  “Indeed, Miss Greengrass.  Also, shavings of dandelion root, but that would be almost impossible to notice under the bitterness of the asphodel.”  

Astoria tasted again, and gave a satisfied sniff.  Ah, there it was.

“That’s quite remarkable.  You must be very skilled in Potions.” 

Astoria made as if to shrug, but thought better of it.  “I do well enough.”  

Suddenly, a new worry sparked in Astoria’s mind.  She sat up straighter, causing the room to blur at the edges, but she ignored the fuzziness, gripping tight to the corner of the fleecy infirmary blanket.  

“Has my father been Owled?” she asked breathlessly.  She could just imagine what a state he might be in.  Felix Greengrass wasn’t in a condition to handle a medical emergency.  He wasn’t in a condition to handle much of anything.  Careful not to move her head, she flicked her eyes over the room, searching out some sign that he had been there.

Madame Pomfrey pursed her lips, inhaling through her nose before speaking.  

“Considering the nature of your...injury, we thought it best to wait before informing anyone of the incident.”

“The nature of my injury,” Astoria repeated.  It went against her instinct to admit to being confused, but she let it bleed into her voice nonetheless.  If they were taking into account her father’s health, that would make sense.  But she couldn’t imagine why they would keep information from him on account of her own injury.  If it were that serious, one would assume they would tell him either way. 

She glanced at her informant, utterly at a loss.

“It was a Curse,” the older witch explained, easing herself into the uncomfortable wooden chair that sat by Astoria’s bedside.  The chair that had sat empty all day. 

Daphne Greengrass could barely be bothered to get her sister to the Infirmary, let alone visit her there, after all.  

Madame Pomfrey continued, busying her hands by pulling a long strip of gauze from her apron pocket and folding down one end, aligning the edges and rolling it into a bandage.  “Very old.  Called the Malediction Perfidious or, more commonly, the Secret-Breaker’s Curse.  It’s a rather crude version of the Unbreakable Vow.  With different limitations.”

“Such as?”  Astoria’s voice was a croak.  

“It’s not as good at killing you, for one.”  In some dim, far off corner, Astoria thought she might like to smile.  She hadn’t the energy for it, but there was something about the plainspoken nurse that was incredibly refreshing.

Madame Pomfrey went on.  “It can also be cast without consent, which makes it different from the Vow.  That’s a mutual agreement, you see.  A Malediction Perfidious is attached to a piece of information, or to any number of secrets.  All it takes is a physical connection, applied by touch, and the secret passed over to its keeper becomes sacred.  If that secret is revealed, the curse is enacted.  It’s old magic.  Blood magic.”  


Madame Pomfrey had managed to deliver the entire explanation in a completely clinical manner, her bandage-rolling set aside for the moment on the empty bed next to her.  But there, at the end, the nurse trailed off, dropping her patient’s gaze once again.  
Astoria knew what that meant; there was more.

“And...?” 

Madame Pomfrey’s mouth turned even farther down, the lines in her face etching themselves deeper. 

“And it can only be cast by a relative,” she answered, her words exhausted and reluctant, dragged from her against her will.  “A blood relative.”

So that was why they hadn’t told her father.  Out of fear that it might endanger her.  That he might endanger her.  Astoria resisted the urge to squeeze her eyes shut.  She needed to see the nurse’s face when she asked the question.

Although, for once, here was a riddle she did not want to solve, a secret that might best be left buried and cold in the grave.

But she had to ask, of course.  After all, she was her mother’s daughter.

“The Cursework,” Astoria began, hesitant, “is it very advanced, for this kind of spell?”

Astoria didn’t have much family.  Lavinia had cut off relations with her own parents, the Blishwicks, long before before her daughters’ birth, and Felix’s parents had died when Astoria was only a toddling infant.  

That left only three options.  Felix, who was excellent at both Potions and Charms, had never had much skill in Curses.  It was one of the reasons she suspected the Death Eaters had never recruited him, despite his blood status.  Daphne had also inherited their fathers’ gift for Potions, if not his mild temper, but she never had the patience to learn any sort of complicated spellwork. 

And then, of course, there was her mother, who had been near the top of her class in practically all her subjects; who was privy to all the dark spells a Death Eater might know.  
 
“Very advanced magic,” Madame Pomfrey confirmed.

One option, then.

Astoria closed her eyes.  She saw her mother, Lavinia, sitting next to her on the window seat in Astoria’s room, her eyes aglow with some new triumph, the tales she would tell only to one person--her youngest daughter.  She thought of her mother’s hands--pale and long, narrow-fingered and sure--always combing through Astoria’s hair, or clutching her daughter’s hands in hers during as she recounted an exciting moment of a particularly harrowing assignment, as she entrusted Astoria with knowledge intended for her and her alone.  Those were some of the best times Astoria remembered, the only times when Lavinia had truly been motherly.  

Remember, little one, secrets are meant to be kept.

She heard the rustle of gauze as the old woman set to rolling up yet another bandage.

“Can you understand, Miss Greengrass, why we have yet to inform your father?  We are, I am afraid, in a rather precarious situation.”  

“You don’t have to worry about my father,” Astoria whispered, voice soft as it navigated past the tangle of her vocal cords, which had coiled into knots.  She cleared her throat, forcing her voice to be strong, if uneven.  “Though I’d still prefer that you not tell him.”

The matron’s eyebrows settled low over her eyes, hovering like storm clouds.  “It goes very far against school policy, but under the circumstances...”

“It’s for the best,” Astoria finished.  “What will the records say?”

“Let me take care of that,” the old woman commanded.  For a moment, that steely glint left her eye, and her usual efficiency and detachment departed.  She lay a hand on the younger witch’s shoulder, as if to impart some strength.  Astoria felt the unfamiliar sensation of a drop of water slipping from the corner of her eye down the contour of her cheek, and Madame Pomfrey tactfully looked away as Astoria reached up and tucked a stray hair behind her ear, subtly wiping the tear away in the same motion.

When they met each other’s gaze once again, the uncharacteristic tenderness was gone from Madame Pomfrey’s face, and the uncharacteristic display of vulnerability had vanished from her charge’s .  

“And now, Miss Greengrass, you really do need to rest.  I’ll be changing those bandages, and then if you aren’t asleep in half an hour, I’ll have to give you a tincture.  Everything else can be figured out later.”

She didn’t wait for her patient’s assent, instead going straight to the task of tackling the bandages, lifting up the linen shirt that Astoria had been changed into and deftly unwinding the old strips of cloth.

It was all Astoria could do not to gasp as the bandages fell away and her stomach was revealed.  A band of shiny pink scar tissue wrapped around her middle, a little wider than her finger.  It coiled down the length of her torso, starting at her belly, circling around to her back several times, and ending halfway up her ribcage, where the band flared out to become a triangular head, an open mouth.


A scar in the shape of a snake.  


Her mind flashed to an image of Death Eaters’ symbol--a skull embellished with a wide-mouthed serpent, and she resisted the next tear that threatened to fall, blinking slowly until the danger was past.  If there had been any doubt as to who had cast the curse, it was gone now.


The ancient Hogwarts nurse was halfway through changing the bandages when a sudden commotion sounded out in the corridor and the infirmary door burst open.

“Madame Pomfrey!” a voice shouted.  Astoria knew that voice.  She quickly drew her shirt down over her scar as Ginny Weasley careened into the room, stumbling under the weight and excessive height of another girl--the gangly Gryffindor who’d had her wand to Astoria’s throat only the night before.  Had it only been one night ago?  Another of Ginny’s roommates was on the girl’s other side, and was chattering frantically.

“--don’t know what happened.  One minute, she was fine, and next thing we know, she’s half unconscious and her lips are all swollen and turning blue...”

Madame Pomfrey, with a strength that gave lie to her age, took the girl from her friends’ arms and lifted her into one of the empty beds, tucking her beneath the starchy sheets and beginning her investigation.  

While she was occupied checking the pulse and temperature of her newest patient, Ginny left Madame Pomfrey with her roommates and drifted over towards Astoria’s hospital bed.  Leaning casually against the empty cot next to her, Ginny’s eyes remained glued upon her friends even as she quietly, casually whispered, “What’s happened?”

Astoria’s eyes widened, darting over to Madame Pomfrey, but the nurse was too busy with the other girl, who had collapsed into a dead faint, to be concerned with them at present. 

Leaning back against the headboard, Astoria allowed her eyes to flutter shut, as if she was overwhelmed by the effort regaining consciousness had taken.  When she spoke, her voice was low.  You never knew when the walls might be listening.  If anyone knew the truth of that adage, it was Astoria Greengrass.

“I’m fine,” she lied.

“You’re not,” Ginny insisted, still not looking at her.  

“Why are you even here, Weasley?”  Astoria opened her eyes, just slightly, enough to see Ginny’s determined-looking frown.

“Look, you sneak out in the middle of the night to leak top secret, dangerous information, and then next morning I hear you’ve had some sort of accident that’s kept you unconscious in the infirmary for four days--”

“Four days?” Astoria gasped, turning to narrow her eyes at Madame Pomfrey, who was muttering about Azuracea and onset symptoms of Spattergroit as she shuffled through her potions cabinet.  The nurse most certainly had not mentioned that.  

The hard look in Ginny’s eyes softened.

“Well, technically this is the fourth, so at least you didn’t lose today, too.”  

Astoria felt this was an overly optimistic way of looking at it, but she inclined her head, all the same.  The room didn’t spin at all this time.

Never taking her eyes off her friend laying several beds away, Ginny leaned slightly closer.  

“I need you to answer me something.  Honestly.”  Ginny paused, her brown eyes flicking towards Astoria and then quickly away.  “Did someone attack you?  Did they find out that you told us?”

Astoria kept a blank face, considering this.  She had already determined that she didn’t want to lie to Ginny Weasley, but that was under different circumstances.  How exactly did one explain a situation like this?  Oh, well yes, I was attacked for revealing a secret.  But, the person who attacked me is my dead mother, so it’s not as though you have to worry about it happening again.

So, lies it was.

“It was an accident,” Astoria repeated firmly, reinforcing it with as much guilelessness as she could muster.  

Ginny’s focus darted away from her roommates for a moment as she eyed her skeptically.

“You know, you’re quite good at that.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d believe you.”

“Oh, but you know better?” Astoria snipped back, lifting a sardonic eyebrow.  It almost made her feel back to herself for a moment.  Ginny nodded, folding her arms across her chest. 

“I’ve grown up with six older brothers, all of whom have enormously outsized egos.  I know what it looks like when someone’s trying not to cry.”

Astoria blinked, surprised. 

“And,” Ginny went on, “You don’t seem like the sort to cry over an accident.  Unless you’re just in horrible pain.”  Her eyes darted back over to her.  “Which you don’t look like you are.”
 
Damn.  Astoria loathed observant people.  

She also hated having to cut her losses and admit the truth, but she knew when it was the wiser of her options.

“Fine.  You were right.  I am here because...because of what we talked about.  But no one knows.”

“How is that even possible?” Ginny countered.  “If someone suspected you enough to attack you--”

“They won’t be a problem anymore,” Astoria insisted, nearly surprised she didn’t choke on the words.  The truth came out even smoother than a lie would have, though it tasted twice as bitter. 

“How can you be so sure?”

“They’re dead.” 

Something--either the bleak look in her eyes or the woodenness of her tone--seemed to convince the Gryffindor girl, because she paused, stunned, and then nodded.

“Do you mind if I ask...?”  

Astoria nodded, giving a small flick of her hand as a gesture to continue.  There was no avoiding it now.  For the first time, the Weasley girl hesitated, showing more than a little reluctance.

“Oh, just spit it out.”

“Fine!” she snapped back.  Ginny’s fingers danced restlessly along the the headboard, chipped nails pinging musically against the brass frame.  She swallowed.  “Did you...did you kill them?”

“No,” she whispered, tracing one finger lightly along the outline of her scar, invisible through the linen of her shirt.  “She managed that all on her own.”  

Astoria wanted to hate her mother.  She hated what she had done. She hated that she didn’t hate her, that she couldn’t.  

No doubt it was a skill she could learn, given time.  

She already felt the place where her grief had nestled in her chest, a warm and living thing these past months, calcifying, turning hard and cold.  There were the kinds of betrayals that could be forgiven.  There were those that never could.  And there were some, like this, that defied all classification.

“Is that all?” she inquired, clearing her throat against its sudden tightness.

Ginny nodded.  

“So that’s why you came here, then?  To make sure that I hadn’t sold you out?”

“Well, it’s not the only reason.  I also wanted to see if you were okay.”

“Oh, please, Weasley.  Like you care.”  

Ginny suppressed a smile.  

“‘Course not,” she shrugged, sticking her hands into the pockets of her navy cardigan.  “I hate stuck-up Pureblood bints like you.  I didn’t say I was hoping you’d be okay.  I just said I wanted to come see.”

Astoria met this declaration with a particularly potent roll of the eyes--an arrogant gesture she had long ago mastered.  

“Yes, well, I despise you as well.”  As an afterthought, she added, “Also, that was a horrible reason to come.  The last thing we need is people connecting you to me.  You can’t be visiting me in hospital.” 

Typical Gryffindor.  What a foolhardy, thoughtless, stupid thing to do.

Ginny grinned mischievously.  “Oh, I’ve got an alibi, remember?”  She nodded toward her roommate on the other bed, who was coming round and whose lips looked to be returning to normal size and colour.  “A couple Swelling Sweeties and a Tinting Truffle give off the textbook symptoms of Azuracea.  Madame Pomfrey’s given her some Pepperup Potion and the effects will wear of in a few minutes.”  

“Hmph.  So you poison your friends to come ruin the peace of your enemies?”

Now it was Ginny’s turn to roll her eyes.  “Please.  Meg leaps at any opportunity to unleash her inner actress.  Besides which, I now owe her an entire box of Exploding Bonbons.”

Astoria would never fail to be amazed at the idiocy of Gryffindors.  All trips to Hogsmeade had been cancelled, and students were unable to receive packages by Owl Post.  Their letters were delivered with the seals broken, not even trying to conceal the fact that all correspondence was being monitored.

“So, you’re not only funnelling information to political insurgents.  You’re running a smuggling ring from your brothers’ bloody joke shop candies."

Ginny lifted a slender eyebrow.  “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you figured it out that quickly.”

“And I shouldn’t be surprised that, in a crisis, the Gryffindors would be so concerned with trivial--”

But,” Ginny cut in, “what you may not realise is how much good something like that can do.  A few Dung bombs might not be much of an upset to the Carrows, but any kind of resistance gives people hope.”

Astoria sniffed.  “Foolish hope,” she corrected.  

Ginny sighed, lifting a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose.  It was only then that Astoria, observant though she was supposed to be, noticed exactly how worn the Weasley girl looked.

“Maybe.  But it’s a precious commodity, these days.  I’ll traffic in what I can get.”  She straightened, and the confident grin Astoria had seen from her after a Quidditch victory lit her back up.  “Besides, chocolates are excellent ways of sending coded messages.  You read, you eat, it’s gone.  And getting caught with a box of sugary contraband is a lot less suspicious than getting caught with a two-way mirror, so I’ll take it.”


“Right then, Miss Wimpole.  A bit of rest and plenty of fluids.  You’ll be right as rain in not time at all,” Madame Pomfrey’s iron-clad voice announced as Ginny’s roommate, now looking distinctly less like a blueberry, struggled to her feet.

Ginny began to walk away, but stepped back quickly.  “I almost forgot.  Here.”  Astoria felt a small, crinkly little packet being shoved into her palm.  She clutched her fingers around it as Ginny marched quickly back to her fellow Gryffindors, throwing an arm about her friend’s shoulder as the taller girl pretended to stagger towards the door.

Astoria scoffed.  Gryffindors and their flair for the absurdly dramatic.

She kept the object tucked safely out of sight as Madame Pomfrey returned to finish changing her dressings.  As soon as the nurse had shuffled back to her office in the corner, nose stuck in what appeared to be a smutty Muggle romance novel, Astoria pulled it from its hiding place and held it cupped in her palms.

It was a chocolate truffle, covered in a nondescript metallic wrapper.  Cautiously, she removed the wrapper and bit tentatively into the candy, fearing that she might accidentally swallow a message or suddenly grow a pair of tusks.

One never knew with the Weasleys.

Finding no hidden message, she swallowed the chocolate, which was, at least, tasty.  Then she picked up the discarded wrapping paper and eyed it carefully.

She rubbed a thumb over it, smoothing out the miniature landscape of creases and folds.  Nothing.  Flipped it over.  

No sign of any message.  

This was ridiculous.  She refused to be bested by a fancy piece of scrap parchment!  She held it up close to her nose, as if proximity might reveal some new hint, and huffed out an irritated breath that made her wound throb.  Then, as the paper fluttered from the force of her breath, words appeared, not written, but burned into the wrapper, the edges of the letters glowing like embers.  

 

Epping Forest Evacuated.  Minimal injuries, no fatalities.  All safe.

 

The edges began to darken and curl in on themselves as the message burned itself up.  But there at the bottom, tacked on like an afterthought, appeared two blackened words.


Thank you.


The message barely lasted a moment more before the spell was complete, leaving her nothing but a headache and a handful of ashes.
 
Perhaps Ginny Weasley was not such a stupid girl, after all.

  ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hola!
 First of all, so sorry it’s been so long.  My excuse is that I was studying in South America.  But I truly apologize for the wait.  I have no intention of ever letting there be so long a gap between updates, and my NANO goal is to finish this story altogether.  Hopefully this--rather sizable--chapter makes up for it.  And a bit of Draco POV, even if it isn’t first-person?  I tried to make you something nice to make up for the time gap. Please review.  It really means a lot, no matter what you write.  It’s so encouraging to see a new review come in :D

Also, credit where credit is due: thanks to Elphaba&Boyfriends for giving me the idea that allowed me to break into Draco’s psyche for this scene, and helped to break me to out of my writer’s block!

Next chapter, if all goes according to outline, ought to be a bit more action-packed.  More drama!  More danger!  And after that we should, finally, leave the parlour!  Madness, I tell you!


Thanks for reading, lovelies.

--Penny



Chapter 5: The Stolen Truth
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“Miss Greengrass?” Draco prompted, voice brimming with carefully crafted solicitude.

She blinked up at him, long eyelashes and straight-set lips. The serene smile from earlier had been cast aside like a former season’s fashion, and though her posture remained at ease, there was a certain tautness in the room, a dryness in his throat.

Draco felt as if there were some invisible wishbone hovering between them, clutched by each in an iron grasp. Now all that awaited was to see in whose favour the lot would fall.

An absurd notion, of course. The system was rigged, and Draco had every reason to believe the situation would fall to his advantage.

It was about time something did.

“Yes, Mr. Malfoy?”

“Forgive me. It merely seemed as though you had drifted off for a moment.”

She folded her hands primly, tilting her head in a manner that, were it not for the thinness of her mouth and the keenness of her gaze, might have seemed coquettish.

“Oh, I assure you, Mr. Malfoy, I am entirely present. I’d hate to miss a moment of our riveting conversation.”

She paused to tuck an escaped lock of hair back behind her ear, then returned to the topic, tone breezy, as though it truly was just a polite chat over tea. 

“You were mentioning something about the absurd rumour that I would willingly associate with a harebrained little freedom fighter like Weasley.”

Draco inclined his head, shuffling his papers and setting them carefully on the table between them, the envelope closed. “So, then you can see why a connection would be grounds for suspicion.”

“If such a connection existed, then I certainly could. However, things being as they are...”


She shrugged, palms facing upward as if in entreaty to the room at large to take up her cause. And indeed, in some ways it did. The soaring ceilings, painted with figures who had gazed down on countless society events, from business dealings to betrothal agreements; the expensive ornaments, no doubt dutifully dusted by inherited Elves; the cold that leaked in from the large windows, a chill barely kept at bay by the roaring fire in the grate, bedecked with the recognisable features of twisting dragons, as well as other magical creatures he knew not the names of, all in a luxurious, if unfamiliar, oriental style. All of it spoke to decades, perhaps centuries, of Pureblood prosperity, of the elitist ideals that had been instilled in this girl, just as they had in Draco himself.

Astoria paused, as if allowing the room to speak its piece, before furthering her argument.

“You’re saying that, because the Weasleys are a wanted family, and because at some point in our shared education, I may have been in the same room with one of them, those are grounds for my family being deemed traitors?”

“Not quite,” Draco corrected. “I am saying that a friendship between Ginny Weasley, the youngest child of a family notoriously disloyal to the Dark Lord’s cause, and yourself might cause certain questions to be raised.”


“Mr. Malfoy, would you consider us friends?” Astoria queried, cocking her head and shooting him another of her dazzling, razor-edged smiles.

For a moment, Draco faltered.

Of course, the answer was no. Draco didn’t really have all that many friends, and it had been a long time since he’d seen those he did have. They were safe and sound, ensconced within the protective walls of Hogwarts Castle. Draco, on the other hand, was far, far from safe.

The Mark on his arm gave another painful pulse.

Perhaps even further from sound.


Still, settled in a gilded parlour on an uncomfortable sofa, over a cup of tea, did not seem like a setting in which you told someone you considered yourselves utter strangers, even enemies.

...To their face.

Astoria’s eyes narrowed, delicate blades honed to fine points. She leaned forward and lifted the teapot, bone china painted with delicate pink cherry blossoms, and held it aloft.

“I’m going to take that as a no,” she informed him. “More tea?”

She didn’t wait for his response, but poured a hot stream of amber liquid into the cup he had left on the side table. She then refreshed her own cup. Leaning back, she appraised her opponent, raising the cup to her lips.

A bit of colour rose in her cheeks as her throat moved through the motions of a swallow. Draco assumed it must be the heat of the drink, or the shame of the accusation--having bloodtraitor associates. Probably not because she had just admitted their fundamental opposition from over the rim of her afternoon tea. Unlike himself, she didn’t seem the sort to flinch at breaking out of the bounds of social niceties.

Something about her expression made him think that taking a Beater’s Bat to the rules of society might be one of Astoria Greengrass’ deepest longings.

Her eyes, such a strange, dark blue, like the shallows of the Black Lake on a warm day, seemed to be laughing at him as her brows rose in lively challenge.

“Now you see, Mr. Malfoy, you do not consider me a friend, or even, really, an acquaintance. This, despite the fact that we’re spending this delightful afternoon in each other’s company.”

The laughter in her eyes was cut off sharply, quick as a slit throat, replaced with a stare so cold that a man who had been exposed to fewer terrors would have felt the blood ice over in his veins.

“And, if I may be frank,” she continued, “I feel precisely the same. So how much less would I consider a girl, my inferior in almost every possible way, to be my ‘friend’ merely because she spoke to me one time while I was nearly unconscious?”

Astoria paused to punctuate her point with another sip of tea.

“Such suspicions can be based on only the thinnest line of connection, with hardly any logic to stand on at all. The fact that it’s being raised as a question of my family’s loyalty, if I may again be frank, smacks of paranoia, and is unworthy of the Dark Lord’s cause.”

She set her china cup back in the saucer with all the gentleness required when dealing with such a fragile article, but something about the gesture reminded Draco of a chess player moving her queen to checkmate, all the same. 


Draco frowned. He had to admit, she played the game neatly. What evidence there was, she managed to eliminate and undermine.

But, he reflected, that only worked if the game was being played by the rules.

Still, he might have wished for another opponent. This one was the most challenging he’d come across yet, and while it was novel, it was also far from what he had expected.

By all rights, it should have been her father under pressure in this interview. Felix Greengrass. Draco remembered him, vaguely, as a Ministry worker, the chief liaison between upper level Ministry members and the Unspeakables. A plump, jolly gentleman of no great height, he had always sported a rather impressive, well-trimmed beard and sparkling brown eyes.

The Greengrasses were an old pureblooded family from the Far East, who had relocated to England sometime within the last two centuries in efforts to bolster a highly successful intercontinental magical shipping industry. At least, that was what Draco had garnered from his investigation.

Of Felix himself, he could recall only a scrap of memory--a hollow-eyed man being led out of the Ministry by a team of Aurors. Rumour had it that, after his late wife’s death, the man had gone mad and burst through the Department of Mysteries, babbling about hearing his wife’s voice echoing through the depths of the labyrinthine headquarters of the Unspeakables. All the official report had said was that Felix had got ‘dangerously close to Death’s door.’

While Draco would normally take that as some sort of euphemism, the term in conjunction with the Department of Mysteries conjured up far more sinister possibilities. He himself didn’t like to think on it too much.

Since then, the patriarch of the Greengrass clan had been rarely seen in public, and spoken of only in the hushed tones reserved for discussing illness and particularly sensational gossip.

Therefore, when his owl had returned from delivering the letter that informed the Greengrasses of the imminent interview, he’d had no compunctions about allowing another family member to step in for the notedly dotty head of the family. He was, in fact, relieved to hear that it would be the younger daughter facing his scrutiny. It was one thing to have to condemn a former schoolmate, but to order the death of one’s ex-girlfriend’s best friend, to her face was...

Well, awkward, to say the least.

Now, however, he was regretting that allowance. Daphne had been nearly as much a fright as Pansy, and Draco could have dispatched her with much less hesitation than he was finding in himself now that the task had fallen to her quieter, cleverer sister.

Still, hesitation was a luxury not permitted in the forces of the Dark Lord. Like everyone else, Draco had to carry on.

Meeting her eyes and leaning forward, he spoke quietly, hands clasped before them on the table.

“You make a fair point, Miss Greengrass. I’ll give you that. And if all I had against you was a suspicious name in the Hospital Wing visitors log, perhaps we would find ourselves at an impasse.”

The girl across from him froze, her face a perfect mask of polite inquiry.

“But...?” she suggested.

“But,” Draco paused, reaching into the pocket of his suit coat, now laying beside him on the settee, and withdrawing a handful of flesh-coloured rubber. He tossed it onto the polished mahogany table between them, where it bounced a few times before unravelling and rolling to a halt.

He half expected the girl to rear back. After all, out of context, the thing was rather unsightly. Instead she leaned forward and, with the tips of her fingers, held it aloft as if it were a dirty sock. Dangling from her grasp, however, the object became more recognisable--a length of long, stretchy cord leading to an oversized rubber ear.

“What in Salazar’s name is this meant to be?” she demanded.

Something in her manner prompted a change in his face, just the slightest of smirks, before he leaned back to explain. There was something about the challenge she represented. For once, it wasn’t all pleas and cries and pathetic declarations of innocence. For once, it was a game, and Draco was good at games.

“Extendable Ears,” he responded, his voice lazy, laced with a conflicting mixture of admiration and contempt. “Yet another Weasley twin invention.”

“And you have one?”

He shrugged. “Of course. It’s a useful piece of technology, no matter who came up with it. And it’s important to have a thorough knowledge of your enemy’s resources.

“How does it work?” She lifted the Ear higher, eyeing it quizzically where it twisted and spun in front of her face, like a cat considering how best to attack a dangling piece of yarn.

  He honestly couldn’t tell if she truly did not know, or was merely pretending. If it was an act, it was an admirable one.

“It seeks out sounds and amplifies them for the listener. These have been adjusted slightly from their original form, enchanted to break through advanced security wardings.”

“Mmmhmm...” Astoria didn’t look at him, instead completely absorbed in the mystery of the object before her. She held the string up next to her own ear and glanced up in surprise when Draco’s voice boomed with an unexpected surge in volume.

“Wardings, for example, surrounding the homes of persons under suspicion by the Ministry.”

He paused, thinking he caught a flash of understanding in her eyes, but it disappeared before he could be certain it was anything more than a trick of the light. He shook his head and continued.

“To be more specific, homes such as that ridiculous structure that houses the Weasley family.”

Astoria remained silent as Draco hefted himself off the settee and made his way over to stare out the window at the dismal grey landscape beyond.

“The Weasleys, bloodtraitors though they are, are still an old family. Their wards are well-constructed, giving us only odd bits and pieces.” Fat drops of rain splattered against the wavy glass panes, sounding out an interminable drum roll, forever awaiting a grand reveal.

Draco spoke quietly, feeling something like an increase in gravity as he tipped his hand and let the proverbial cards spill out.

“Our Ears picked up the name of Greengrass, multiple times, in the days before the raid was set to take place. But, of course, that very raid didn’t happen.”

He waited a moment, but the girl said nothing.

“Even you must admit, Miss Greengrass, that is more than a bit suspicious.”

He glanced back to where she sat, stock still, in the seat across from his abandoned one.

Draco took advantage of the moment to consider her again. She hadn’t seemed so very sharp when their conversation had begun. Now she was a creature made all of angles--her face drawn, the room’s light and shadows playing over well-cut cheekbones. Her skin was pale, but of a shade closer to honey than the roses and cream of an English pallor. Her eyes were shaped like her fathers' - a gift from the Greengrass side of the family - but their piercing blue would be recognised by anyone who had ever had the misfortune of attending a Blishwick dinner party and walking through the portrait hall where long-dead, blue-eyed matriarchs sniffed in disdain at the pedigrees of passersby.

The Greengrass pedigree wouldn’t be worth a whit if a single one of them was proven guilty. The Dark Lord did not believe in sparing ‘innocent’ family members. He espoused the philosophy that a weed in the garden was best dug up, roots and all, leaving nothing behind but churned graveyard soil.

For that long moment, Astoria Greengrass remained completely silent. When she finally spoke, her voice was calm, somehow both soft and cutting, a sharp blade in a velvet-lined box.

“And this is your evidence against us? Our name mentioned by traitors? There could have been any number of reasons for that.”

“Like?”

She rolled her eyes in exasperation. “I don’t know, Mr. Malfoy. I hardly know what their sort might discuss over Sunday luncheon!”

The girl’s calm countenance, for perhaps the first time, cracked, and her voice rose in volume as she began to gesticulate.

“Perhaps they were gossiping about all that fuss with my father like half the country, instead of letting an old man recover his health in peace. Maybe they needed to ship something and wondered whether they should use my family’s company or parcel post! Perhaps they were discussing the remarkable freshness of their lawn! I can hardly be expected to know exactly why the name Greengrass might have come up.”

Draco eyed her with interest. Now he was getting somewhere. He plucked the Extendable Ear up from where she had thrown it onto the table and wrapped the cord back around the device, placing it once again on the table, the evidence staring her down. Or, it would have been, were it an eye and not an ear.

“As it happens,” Draco responded cooly, “I find all those propositions unlikely. The business with your father took place months ago, so I believe the gossips have moved on to fresher topics. Arthur Weasley is a confirmed Mugglophile and would take any opportunity to send a package by their methods--he’d never consider using a Pureblood-run service. And if you’d ever seen the state of their lawn, you’d know there’s nothing remarkable about it aside from a hideously overblown gnome infestation.”

She glared at him.

“You don’t really expect me to furnish you with every possible reason why my name might have been overheard,” she demanded, irritated, but Draco went on as if she hadn’t said a word.

“It could have been your mother, of course. She had access to that information.”

Astoria’s expression reverted to its careful blankness. “I was unaware.”

“Perhaps you were,” Draco allowed. “Perhaps your mother informed your elder sister of the Dark Lord’s plans. Daphne is a notorious gossip, always eager to flaunt a new rumour. It’s possible she allowed your mother’s secrets to fall upon the wrong ears.”

“My sister knew nothing.”

Draco nodded along. “One would hope the chief spy to the Dark Lord wouldn’t put such delicate information into the hands of such a nattering fool, but you never know...”

“You and I both know my mother was cleverer than that,” Astoria insisted. “If my sister is such a fool--”

“Oh, she is.”

Astoria gritted her teeth.

“Then what are you implying about the Dark Lord, Mr. Malfoy, that he would choose to entrust his secrets to someone so undiscerning? If you say that my mother was not trustworthy, and yet the Dark Lord trusted her, you seem to be saying that...he made a mistake.”

Astoria paused for effect, tapping a thoughtful finger against her chin. “Why, Mr. Malfoy, have a care. That sounds an awful lot like treason.”

“The Dark Lord trusts no one,” Draco snapped. “Your mother included.”

Astoria didn’t back down for a second, her voice ringing out with the same assurance and authority as his.

“The Dark Lord and my mother were much of a mind, then. I guarantee you that, of all people, she would not have put her faith in Daphne.”

“Mmm,” Draco hummed placatingly, allowing the accusation to be placed to the side for the moment.


He kept his expression light as he scrutinised her expression, his mind flipping through their entire conversation, searching out any cracks in the façade. He had to admit, she cut the legs of his accusations right out from under them, leaving his evidence wobbly as a two-legged stool.

An acute prickling sensation in his arm reminded him that it didn’t matter--he had no need to furnish proof, and usually Draco didn’t care much about whether a job was left half-done so long as it was all settled out in the end.

Still, there was something about her. Draco had good instincts, and he had a feeling. He had seen innocents. They panicked as much as the true offenders under the examination of an emissary of the Dark Lord. She was too composed, had been entirely too calm throughout this whole process. The truth was, everyone had something to hide, including Astoria Greengrass.

And he was going to find out what it was.

The questioning into her family appeared to be the key. A few inquiries about her mother and sister had her bristling more that the entire etiquette-riddled exchange up till that point.

“Of course, there is always your father.”  

She turned to him, her chin at a haughty tilt as it swivelled on a graceful neck, but the flare of her nostrils belied the calm grace. The air between them positively buzzed with tension, her words slicing through it as she snapped,

“That’s not possible.”

For once, she was doing just as he expected. He turned away from her, watching her reflection in the thick, wavy glass of the window.

“You’ll find that, in my line of work, very little is impossible.” The threat in his tone was unmistakable, but the girl made no response. Draco tilted his head upwards, as if admiring the half-faded frescoes, gods or demons trailing long ribbons, dancing between sharp-toothed creatures on the ceiling. His voice, when he spoke, was calm, casual.

“Perhaps it was your father, then, whom she entrusted with that information. He may have felt angry upon his enforced retirement. He and Arthur Weasley both worked at the Ministry. It’s not outside the realms of belief that they could have been in touch."

He noted a quickening of breath, a rising flush in the girl’s cheeks.

“My father has hardly left the house these last months. He hasn’t been in contact with his oldest friends! He would never have spoken to Arthur Weasley. He wouldn’t have had the opportunity.”

“Ah. But as you have been so quick to remind me, you’ve been away at Hogwarts,” Draco countered. “So how could you really know?”

“My father barely speaks to me!”

Draco spun to face her and took an instinctive step backwards, feeling his spine hit up against the cold glass of the window as Astoria rose to her feet, the flash of fury in her eyes something terrible to behold. If the Killing Curse could be cast with a look, Draco suspected she’d be glowering down at his lifeless body.

“He’s kept himself locked up with nothing but his books. He accepts no company. Speak to him, and half the time he just stares at you blankly. My father didn’t reveal state secrets to anybody!” She stopped abruptly, her voice lowering so that he only barely caught her final words. “He scarcely knows who anybody is.”

She sank back into her seat, not meeting his gaze.

“I suppose that leaves only you.”

“I suppose it does,” she answered tiredly. “But I’ve already told you about myself.”

“Indeed, you have.”

He took a breath, tapping his fingers restlessly against the windowpane. Something in her voice, the faint timbre of hopelessness, left him suddenly drained. He could hardly imagine why. Malfoys had never been known for their sympathy.

It must have been that he was simply growing tired of this--the charade of polite society, the illusion that there might be mercy left to spare when the prickling sensation in his arm assured him of how this meeting would end. He still wanted answers, if only for his own sake, but he needed to end this soon.



Besides, he suspected he’d already drunk a half-gallon of tea, and if he tasted one more china cupful, he believed he might choke on it. These games, entertaining though this one had been, were wearing him thin.

“So,” she spoke quietly, after a long and heavy silence. “What now?”

She lifted her head to glance up at him, that lock of hair drifting out once again from behind her ear. This time she left it there, as if it might shield her from an answer that could ruin all she might hold dear.

For the first time, she truly looked...young.

It was ridiculous, of course. He could sense that Astoria Greengrass was more dangerous than she appeared. But still, there was something...

Till now, he’d been caught in the challenge, one like he’d never had before. There weren’t many of these ‘meetings’ where he was able to forget his purpose for a moment, but Astoria presented a mystery that had distracted him, the first puzzle he’d wanted to crack in a long while.

For a moment, he’d forgotten why he was here, forgotten what the outcome of this judgement would be.

It was so easy to forget that she was just a girl.

She’s only one year younger, he reminded himself, reaching into his pocket to pull out his pocket watch and running a restless thumb over the burnished metal. But a year ago...Well, Draco had certainly been a different person a year ago. A year could make a great deal of difference.

But only if one lived to see it pass.

Draco sighed. He so wanted to lean his head against the relaxing coolness of the window. It would help him think. But he forced himself to remain standing straight--if there was one thing he had learned in the last year, it was that showing weakness was always an error. He stilled his tapping fingers where they hovered over the windowpane.

“I will admit that, at this point, the evidence is rather inconclusive.”

Astoria glanced at him, her gaze caustic and wary. “And what do you generally do when the answers are... inconclusive?”

*******

“Could you not,” Astoria suggested, “simply use Veritaserum on me? It would save you some time.”

A calculated question: risky, but potentially rewarding. If Draco Malfoy had the truth-telling potion on hand, he was hardly going to forget that he possessed it, whether or not she brought it up. As it was, Astoria’s asking gave the impression that she had nothing to hide. If he did have the means to force her to spill her secrets, he might opt not to waste such a precious potion on someone who was so certain of her innocence.

And if he had no such decoction to force her honesty, well, that was one less thing to worry about, wasn’t it?

It wasn’t the most flawless of plans, but it was all she had at the moment.

He gave a faint, humourless smirk. “I speak to a great many people in my line of work, Miss Greengrass. I doubt the entire Department of Magical Substances could brew the amount of Veritaserum I would require. I’m afraid we’ll have to resort to doing this the old-fashioned way.”

Astoria breathed in through her nose, feeling the muscles in her neck and shoulders seize up. She forced her knees to remain steady beneath her.

She would not allow herself to tremble.

She wouldn’t.

“So. Torture, then?”

Something flickered in Draco’s face. His eyes turned flat, flinty and remote and, though his expression was forced into the same mould of careful blankness Astoria had so often practised in the mirror, she sensed some unspoken emotion darting and shifting behind the mask.

Astoria was suddenly, forcibly reminded that the hollow-cheeked young man standing before her was a Death Eater, a devotee of cruelty. Surely he had cut his teeth on Curses, was raised partaking in sacraments of bloodied bodies and broken bones like some dark acolyte.

So why, then, did some strange emotion flutter behind the shuttered windows of his eyes when she asked of him what must have always been coming, what was only to be expected from someone like him?

He moved toward her. Astoria felt her stomach clench, forced herself not to flinch away. She’d always known this was a possibility, but being faced with the reality made the room waver at the edges and left a coppery taste clinging to her tongue.

“No, Miss Greengrass,” Draco answered quietly. “Not torture--nothing so messy as that.”

He continued to stalk forward, his wand suddenly in his hand--where had that come from?--and, in spite of herself, Astoria felt herself take two very small steps backwards, edging away. She felt her calves hit the coffee table, heard the sound of the tea things jostling about, the tea spoons clanging against the china, such a normal, comfortable sound for such an abnormal, hideous moment.

Draco Malfoy hardly seemed to notice that she had moved away from him. In an instant, he was before her, his hand outstretched towards her arm.

“Not torture,” he reiterated. “Though I daresay that, for someone like you, this may be much more unpleasant.”

His hand brushed against the skin of her upper arm, tingling with magic. Her body jerked, but he didn’t lose his grip. She spun, but he caught her.

All too late, she realised what was happening. She should have known, should have planned for this kind of magic rather than spending her sleepless nights wondering if she could hold up against a Cruciatus Curse. But here was one threat Astoria had no strategy for, one thing she hadn’t prepared to fight against.

She felt it. It resonated down from the base of her skull and shuddered through each of her bones, like claws scraping against a slate.

Legilimency.

Astoria’s hands clutched the back of the settee, her eyes snapping shut with the force of her concentration. She had never been taught to block her mind from attack. Of all the things her mother ought to have taught her, it occurred to her now that this should have been the most basic.

But that was just it. Lavinia had been too confident in her abilities to consider being discovered by the other side; too trusting of her own people to suspect that they might dig through her daughter’s mind.

And too sure of Astoria to imagine that she might, one day, have a secret of her own to hide.

Unable to help herself, she jerked an elbow back into his gut, eliciting a quiet grunt. She thrashed about, struggling as she felt her arms restrained, pinioned against her back by magic rather than his touch. Indeed, the only contact they had was his two fingers pressed against the back of her neck, as if he had seen into her mind already, had sensed that, beneath the perfectly coiffed and calm façade, something feral growled and snapped, itching to be set upon him, and to be further away was to be safer.

In the end, there was no way that, untrained as she was, she could hold out against a trained Legilimens, and she felt the wards around her mind as they creaked like rubber bands pulled taut.

And snapped, a riotous torrent of visions crashing over her, bearing her away.


She saw it all, played out against the velvet darkness of her clenched eyelids.

Her mother, sitting by her side, whispering her exploits into her ear like a fairy story at bedtime.

The owl arriving on a dark summer’s night.

The trip to St. Mungo’s. Identifying the broken body when her father collapsed into his private, unreachable grief. Wanting to turn to her elder sister, only to have Daphne run off to Pansy Parkinson and the rest as soon as she got to school as if none of it mattered at all.

Caring for her father, who had aged two decades in that one night and now seemed tired and absent. Her pain at being recalled to school and having to leave him behind.

Her horror upon finding that Felix had been released from his job at the Ministry, no longer fit to work, and at the new laws that made Hogwarts compulsory, keeping her from returning to him.

Her fury, burning deep and low and red, against the new regime, which had cost Astoria her family.

Her decision. Contacting Ginny Weasley. Secrets spoken in the shadows of the Gryffindor Common Room. A searing scar that snaked around her waist. A self-destructing note magicked into a chocolate wrapper that turned to ashes in her hand.

Astoria’s knowledge that, if anyone ever found out about the rebel lives she had helped to save, her family would lose their own.


Sated with all this, having gathered any number of damning pieces of mental evidence, the foreign presence slipped out of her mind, and Astoria swayed on her feet.

Spots swam before her eyes, and she crumpled toward the ground.

Unfamiliar arms caught her.



______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hello everyone! Sorry it’s been a while since the last update. Also, I know I told you that we were leaving the parlor in this chapter, and we didn’t. I’ve spent forever trying to fit that all into one chapter, and it jut wasn’t working, so I decided to split them up. But after the next chapter, we really should be done with this setting, and will be moving to someplace else. Where that is, I can’t tell you yet. But I can give you a preview!


“Somewhere, Draco Malfoy,” she said, tapping him lightly on the chest, those eyes, captivating and insistent as the tide, still pouring into his. “Somewhere, you still have a soul.”


So, that should be interesting ; )

Thanks for reading, and please (with sprinkles and chocolate frogs on top!) take a moment to leave a review!

--Penny


Chapter 6: A Changing Tide
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Darkness.

Astoria’s eyelids felt heavy, glued shut. A warning tickled at the edge of her consciousness, urging her to keep her eyes closed, her breathing steady.

She sensed a presence nearby, warmth radiating from a body crouched just beside her.

Beside her...where? Her spine was uncomfortable, its ridges digging into a hard, uncompromising surface. It felt as if she were lying on the ground, but the rich rugs in her house were far softer than this, and she could could smell the familiar scent of the lemon furniture cleaner Filly, their House Elf, preferred, and heard the small crackling sounds of the fire in the grate. She was still at home.

There was only one place this uncomfortable in the entirety of Greengrass Hall--the much-despised sofa in the front sitting room. The room in which she had been interviewed by Draco Malfoy.

Oh.

She felt the memories come rushing back, leaving a sting in the back of her throat and a tangy copper taste on her tongue. The Legilimency. He had read her mind.

He knew.

There was no way to discern how long she had been out. Hopefully only a few minutes. He was still there, beside her--she could tell it was him without opening her eyes. But how long did she have before he hauled her in before Lord Voldemort himself? She couldn’t sit around and wait for it to happen.

Astoria didn’t give herself a chance to think--waiting would lead to tensed muscles and short breath; it would give him time to realise that she had woken. Instead, she surged up off the settee, feeling the sharp crack of skin on skin, bone on bone as her forehead smacked against some part of her attacker’s body. In a second she was across the room, her back to the fireplace and her eyes on her opponent.

For a moment, she was blind, the whole world a series of shimmering orbs of light. One was turning and moving towards her, so she focused her attention on him, blinking away the false brightness.

She moved along the wall of the fireplace, the rough edges of the stacked stones catching on the fabric of her dress. Her head spun, and she reached out to grab hold of one of the twin brass sconces that stood affixed to the wall on either side of the hearth. She had always thought it rather absurd to have a light fixture beside a fireplace, but now she was grateful for the anchor.

Hearing the floor creak as Draco took another step, she fumbled for a weapon, reaching frantically with her free hand until it collided with the stand of fireplace instruments and coming up with a fire poker, which she brandished before her like a sword.

“Don’t. Move,” she panted.

Draco Malfoy halted his step, one hand held out as if to stay any rash action on her part.

Her vision was still dancing with obscuring ripples of brightness, catching in his pale hair and adorning him with a golden halo. Between the corona of light, his harsh, sunken features, and the dark circles under his eyes, he looked like an old icon, some tortured orthodox saint reaching out to instruct the world in righteousness.

The irony was jarring, to be sure.

The lights began to fade out, leaving the room dull as a sun-bleached tapestry. Astoria realised that she was shaking and huffed out a sharp breath, tightening her grip in an effort to steady her hand. Draco’s keen eyes didn’t miss it, and he lunged for her.

She whipped up the sharp end of the fire poker, slashing him from shoulder to forearm. He stepped back abruptly as a thin line of blood bloomed and expanded along the ripped sleeve of his white shirt. Draco pressed the fingers of his opposite hand to the wound, shock clear on his face when they came back stained with crimson. Apparently his victims normally didn’t fight back.

Or at least not with a weapon so mundane as a fire poker, she mused darkly, thinking longingly of the wand tucked into her sleeve. But if she reached for it, he would reach for his. She felt a frown etch its way onto her face. 

Why hadn’t he already?

Her eyes darted from Draco Malfoy to his crumpled suit jacket, still lying, discarded, on the floor by the settee where she had awakened. His wand must be there, hidden from view under the pile of rumpled dark silk. Perhaps the suddenness of her waking and the blow to his head had served as momentary distractions, but he would realise soon enough.

Astoria felt a thin line of sweat creep down the back of her neck.

She could drop the poker and pull out her own wand, but that would leave her with no weapon for too long. He could tackle her to the ground before she could free the wand from her sleeve.

Or perhaps he would take that time to dive for his own wand, as any moment now he must notice its absence. Then it would be a duel.

Astoria had never made note of Draco, in particular, but her mind suddenly flooded with dim snapshot memories. Draco Malfoy, darling of the of the Hogwarts Duelling Club, sketching a quick bow after the defeat of yet another opponent. Draco Malfoy striding out of the library, Cursing an older Ravenclaw who showed too much curiosity in Draco’s reading material; the cold-eyed blonde never even opened his mouth as piercing light snapped from the tip of his wand. Draco Malfoy, lounging in the common room as fellow students fawned over him or slithered away beneath his notice.



Some of it was due to the money, of course. But it was more than that. Draco was a top student. He was quick with a wand and knew more dark spells than Astoria had probably heard of. She couldn’t take him in a wand fight, and she knew it.

So that left only one option: she couldn’t let him reach it. 

Subtly, Astoria shifted her weight to the right, in the general direction of the sofa, and watched as he subconsciously countered.

“I don’t advise your coming any closer,” she warned, slipping another step to her right. “I’ve never quite felt the urge to skewer someone quite as strongly as I do now.”

A corner of Draco’s mouth curved upward in a wry, jagged grin.

“Are you always this welcoming to your guests?”

Astoria matched his mocking smile with a smirk of her own, her eyes never leaving his as she took another step.

“Actually, I’m usually considered to be a hospitable and charming hostess.”

“I must admit I have trouble believing it.”

“What can I say, Mr. Malfoy?” she spat. “People coming into my home, threatening my family, and mucking about with my brain tends to have a dampening effect on my usually warm and sparkling personality.”

She had completely lost her hard-won control of herself. Astoria felt the words spilling from her lips, and she wanted them to sting. There was no real point in holding up the pretence. He had seen her mind. He knew her secrets. Civility was now just one more burden she could shed.

Besides, she needed a distraction. She felt an uncanny sense of relief as the waves of scalding vitriol gushed forth from all the hidden corners of her bitter soul, for once unchecked by the dam of a sweet, bland smile. More relief as he kept his eyes on her, and off of his missing wand.

Another step. A baring of teeth.

“The tattoo is lovely. It really brings out the colour of your eyes.”

“Oh?” He tried to move toward her, but she swiped in his direction with the fire poker, driving him back.

“I’d call them Soulless Minion grey. Pretty, but not much depth.”

She was surprised when he barked a laugh. There was no joy in it. It was the sound of shards of glass rattling in an empty jar. But still, it was more than she would have expected from someone like him.

Another step to the right. She was close now.



Astoria tensed as Draco straightened abruptly, but his gaze didn’t dart away to seek out a missing stick of hawthorn. Rather, it remained focused on her, his head tilting as his eyes--Soulless Minion Grey, indeed--ran over her, starting at her head and working their way down to her toes. She only just now realised that her low black heels lay abandoned near the coffee table, and, absurd as it was, their loss made her feel much more exposed.

However, when their stares met once more, she noted that there was nothing lascivious in his expression. He looked like a tinkerer, trying to separate a befuddling device into parts in hopes that he might discover how such a thing could work. Then, his eyes softened, and suddenly he wasn’t trying to satisfy a curiosity or to puzzle her out. He was just standing there, watching her. 

Astoria’s bare toes curled involuntarily. She felt suddenly, thoroughly seen.

Draco cocked his head. “You really are...an unusual sort, Miss Greengrass. Not at all what I’d expected.”

Astoria shook her head, slowly, to clear it. She...she had to remain focused. She swayed purposefully on her feet, stumbling as if she might swoon once more. Not that Astoria was, generally, the swooning type, but it got her two paces closer. Draco Malfoy stepped forward, as if to catch her again. She could only imagine that he would be considered a failure if she cracked her head open on the marble-topped table before she could be dragged before the Dark Lord and his lackeys.

Blinking as though she were searching for clarity in a wobbling world, Astoria set a hand on the arm of the sofa, feigning a lack of balance.

“Well,” she breathed, “I do like to achieve the unexpected.” And with that, she lunged forward, scrabbling on the floor for the rumpled suit jacket, her fingers desperately searching out her goal, while her free hand kept the fire poker slashing out between them.

She felt through the pockets, tossed it aside. Nothing underneath. She glanced up at Draco, who had not moved an inch.

“Looking for this?” He drew a polished rod of dark hawthorn wood from his back pocket. His wand.

Her breath stalled in her lungs. “Wh--” The question petered out into nothingness, a mere vocal echo of shock.

He balanced it between two fingers, fighting for an air of nonchalance, but Astoria still noted the ratta-tap-tap of his pulse beating in his throat.



But if he’d had the wand all along, why was she still standing?

Astoria shook her head to clear it. There was no time for whys or what-ifs. She dropped her makeshift weapon to the ground in a show of surrender. She had to keep him talking. It was the only chance she had of drawing her own wand in time.

At least she’d have the element of surprise. Perhaps it would be enough.

“You think you’ve won,” she challenged, her voice not as steady as she’d have liked, but it leant her words another kind of power. “You’re wrong.”

Draco frowned. “I really wouldn’t have thought you’d so cliché. The moral proselytising? The ‘power of good versus evil’?” He gave his wand a casual twirl, the effect somewhat ruined when it nearly slipped off his still-bloody fingers. He wiped them carefully on the dark leg of his trousers. “To be honest, I’m rather disappointed in the direction this has turned.”

Her eyes took on a sardonic glint as she considered her situation. “To be honest, I feel exactly the same.”

There again, that ghost of amusement flickered across his features.

“But I’m also disappointed in you, Mr. Malfoy. I wouldn’t think you’d be so blind.”

“Oh? And who is it that has whom at their mercy, at the moment?”

“Neither of us.” He cocked his head, and she qualified, “You have no mercy.”

“True.” He attempted a careless shrug, but from the way his shoulder hitched, it looked like it hurt. The blood was still seeping slowly through the crisp white of his shirt.

“And neither does your Master!” Astoria pushed her arms behind her back as if she were clasping her hands, readying herself for a self-satisfied lecture. She tried not to allow her shoulders to move as her fingertips sought out the tiny pearl buttons on her sleeve cuff.

“Do you really not see that? He doesn’t need you. He’d be more than willing to destroy you for the smallest mistake. Or perhaps merely to make a point. He hunts down Muggleborns for sport. What makes you think he couldn’t decide that you’d be entertainment just as pleasing? Your blood status?”

Draco shifted.

“You’re here, in my home, and my blood’s just as magical as yours. You should know better than anyone that you’ve no protection at all.”

He crossed his arms over his chest, keeping his wand visible as deterrent to her taking violent action. “And I’m supposed to believe that you’re worried for me? That you’re telling me this out of the goodness of your heart?”

“You’re familiar with the concept of a heart?” She smirked. “I wouldn’t have guessed.”

“Oh, and I suppose it’s easy for you?” he countered, suddenly agitated. “To hold the moral high ground? To imagine that we’re all pure evil--”

“Mr. Malfoy, I don’t care to argue morals. I’m not some worthy heroine, and I’ve no pretensions to it. But at least I know what I am.”

“Do you? And what is that, exactly?”

Astoria’s jaw clenched, then loosened to allow her to spit out the words.

“I may not be good. I may not care about justice or fairness or telling the truth. And I’m probably going to die today. But at least I don’t fool myself into thinking I’m safe just because Lord bloody Vold--

He was across the room in an instant, his hand gripped around her forearm, his grey eyes burning into hers, intense. “Don’t say it,” he instructed quietly, the words heavy with the power of an order. Her eyes narrowed.

“Don’t say what?” she hissed. “Don’t say his name? Voldem--” His other hand reached forward, clamping down over her mouth, fingers wrapping around her jaw. She tried to wrench her mouth open--to bite him, to scream. When she met his eyes, she expected to see anger in them, but instead saw only wide-eyed panic.

His voice was low and strained.

“You can’t say the name. It’s dangerous. They’ll come for you...they always come.” He clenched his jaw and breathed deeply, dropping his head. Astoria swallowed. He smelled like mint and rain and tarmac. When he lifted his head once more, he seemed startled to find himself so close to her, his palm still pressed against her lips, keeping her from speaking. He jerked his hand back as if stung.

Astoria brought her hand to her cheek, but it wasn’t sore. Even in his panic, he had not hurt her.

He backed two slow steps away. Astoria rubbed her arm. Even though it wasn’t sore, it still felt odd. She spoke the first words that came to mind, to distract herself from the uncomfortable sensation.

“So it’s illegal, now? To say a name?”

Draco sighed. Her eyes wandered to the place, across the room, where his wand now truly did lay on the floor. He had dropped it in his hurry to get to her. Draco followed her gaze, but didn’t reach for the wand. 

Astoria didn’t know why, but she didn’t reach for it, either.

“It’s not about the name,” he explained, not looking at her as he spoke. He stared up at a vermillion dragon painted on the ceiling, its gaping maw full of wickedly-edged teeth.

“It’s about what’s behind it. People who use the name are not afraid of him--or are trying to prove that they aren’t afraid of him. Either way, it’s not the kind of attitude he wants in his...”

“Subjects?” she suggested. “Slaves? Mindless drones?” Once again, she expected him to be angry, and found herself surprised when the ghost of a rueful smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.

“You really aren’t afraid, are you?” He was looking at her as though she were stupid, and mad...and maybe a bit remarkable.

She tucked an escaped curl behind her ear and shook her head.

“I’m afraid all the time. If Vol--erm...he,” she corrected, and he gave a small nod of approval, “were to walk through that door right now, I’d probably collapse into a fit.”

“No,” he contended, walking near to her once more. “No, I don’t think you would.”

“You don’t know--”

“I know better than you,” he insisted, cutting her off. “I’ve seen the people that come to him...are brought to him...nearly convulsing from the fear, willing to say anything to save themselves before a threat has even been made.” He paused to give her a calm, assessing look. “You aren’t like them. You’re different.”

*******

And she was.

Astoria Greengrass was entirely, insanely, stunningly different.

He didn’t know what had driven him to keep her from speaking the name. He hadn’t thought. In that moment, he had only known that horrible things would happen to the girl in front of him if he allowed her to continue.

And, oddly, he found that to be an outcome that didn’t sit well with him.

It was then that he felt the pulse of pain in his arm, just where the serpent writhed in the shadows at the surface of his skin. And he remembered--it didn’t matter what she said. They would be here soon enough, anyways.

“Someone’s coming.” He heard the words echo through the grand room in his own voice, but it was a beat before he realised that he, himself, had spoken.

“You’ve contacted them?” Her brows raised in unison, graceful wings rising on a sudden wind. “That was fast.”



Draco shook his head sharply. “I didn’t.”

Why it mattered--mattered deeply--that she knew this was just another small block to add to the enormous pile of things he didn’t know. He could feel his confusion looming above him, swaying like a child’s haphazard wooden tower. Any moment now, the heavy weight of what he didn’t know, the feelings he couldn’t understand, would come spiralling down to crush him.

Draco felt oddly helpless. And, like so many things he felt lately, he hadn’t the slightest idea why.

“I didn’t.”

*******

Astoria cocked her head, assessing his face. Perhaps she flattered herself in thinking that she could tell when someone was lying--if there was ever an exception, it would be the man before her, almost pale enough to see through and, at the same time, the least-transparent person she had ever met. However, as her eyes scanned his expression, she felt a settling in her gut. He was telling the truth.

“They were coming anyway,” she posited, and his silence confirmed her suspicion. Her mind ticked backwards until it hit upon something. “Your Mark! Earlier, when it was bothering you. They were coming then.”

She could see him easing the suit jacket off his shoulders, careful to avoid the Mark, as if it were tender. He’d admitted himself that it was hurting him. Astoria remembered her mother telling her about the symbol that identified the Dark Lord’s henchmen. As a spy, Lavinia Greengrass had not been outfitted with a Mark. As a woman well-aware of her own beauty, she was not displeased to avoid being branded by a rather unattractive symbol, but she had once or twice remarked that the tattoos made for easier communication among Voldemort’s servants. 

Draco inclined his head.

Astoria’s mind reeled. She chewed at her lower lip thoughtfully. “That was before the Legilimancy. We’d hardly said a thing. You didn’t know,” she challenged. “You can’t have known. Not for certain.”

“I didn’t know,” he agreed soberly.

Something strange bubbled its way out of her chest. She considered tamping it down--but why bother?--and was surprised to hear a harsh peal of laughter push its way out of her throat. It was followed by another. An odd sense of relief filled her, and she shook her head, short bursts of laughter still struggling free at intervals.

He looked at her as if she had gone mad.

“What on earth can there be to laugh about?”

Astoria pushed herself up off the chair arm she had clung to, doubled over with laughter, and took three deep, calming breaths through her nose. She still felt odd, giddy flutters surging through her body, but she was under control.

“Well, it makes everything different, you see.” She reached up to pat down any unruly hairs, just out of habit. “If I failed my family because I couldn’t lie well enough to protect them, well, that’s one thing. But if they were always going to come; if we never had a chance...”

“Then you feel less responsible,” he finished for her, understanding dawning.

Astoria sniffed. “Still responsible,” she corrected, her shoulders slumped. “But yes, less.”

*******

She slid gracefully down against the back of the uncomfortable settee to land on the ornate rug at their feet. In the little time that he had spent with her, Draco could already tell that this was highly uncharacteristic. It was as though she were a marionette, with all the responsibilities stringing her upright suddenly sliced through. In a motion that seemed almost playful, she crooked a finger at him.

Hardly knowing why, Draco crouched down across from her. She leaned her head against the hard back of the sofa, closing her eyes. Draco’s own gaze skimmed across the curve of her jawline, the curl of her dark lashes where they lay against her cheek, and he felt suddenly rather uncomfortable. He didn’t know what this new, freer Astoria might do.

He didn’t like the way his breath came short at the thought.

“Tell me,” she ordered quietly, still not opening her eyes. “What’s the motive? Spoils of war, I’m guessing?”

“Hmm.” He shook himself. “How do you mean?”

She opened one bright blue eye to scrutinise him before allowing it to flutter back shut.

“Oh, come now. There’s nothing to be lost by telling me now. So, an accusation is all it takes. Guilty until proven innocent.”



“Sometimes,” he granted, unsure why he was admitting this to her. But as she said, where was the harm? He cleared his throat. “Wars are expensive.”

Another short bark of a laugh. “Ah. And I imagine murdering Muggleborns doesn’t exactly rake in the Galleons.”

Draco frowned. “You should be careful of what you say.”



“Why?” she asked lazily. 

He had no response. Why should she watch what she said? What did she have to lose now?

“So,” she continued, “the Dark Lord has an army of followers willing to give him all they have. But most will want to be paid back for their services.” Draco nodded for her to continue voicing her theory. “And because war is ‘expensive’ he needs to be able to take from those who have the most. He needs traitors.”

The corner of Draco’s mouth tipped upward. “Most don’t figure it out that quickly.”



Astoria opened her eyes to roll them. “Yes. If only I could have bent that cleverness to not getting caught.”

Draco opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

“So, he finds Purebloods, finds reasons to declare them guilty of betrayal, and kills them and all their heirs. The money gets re-appropriated.” She ticked off the steps on slender fingers. “I presume all aren’t as guilty as I?”

Draco blew out an amused breath. “Actually, most are. Small things, but most people are less loyal than you might suspect.”


Astoria scoffed. “I imagine that the Dark Lord’s richest followers being Pureblooded Slytherins wouldn’t have a thing to do with that. Tell me, Mr. Malfoy, would you be guilty of treason if you judged yourself on your own standards?”

Draco’s expression shuttered closed, and she had her answer. Quietly, he spoke.

“It’s not like this for everyone who is accused, of course. Some are found to be innocent, some merely charged fines.” He saw Astoria’s lips give birth to a brief, flickering grin that died within the moment. 


“My task is to decide who is truly a traitor and who will be spared. But sometimes...” he trailed off.



“Sometimes it’s not up to you?”



His jaw clenched. “Sometimes my compatriots become greedy.”

“How do you mean?”

Draco continued to speak through his teeth. “Politics among the Death Eaters are...more complicated than you might think.”

She snickered, and he cast an appreciative gaze in her direction.

“Well, perhaps you might think of it. I’m sent to judge, and a, well, you might call it an extraction team, comes after me, if necessary.”

“And sometimes, when their pockets are growing empty?”

“They deem it necessary.” 

“And, well you’re in charge, aren’t you?” Astoria asked, not baiting him, but genuinely curious. “I may not be innocent, but if someone was, if you care for that sort of thing, you couldn’t tell your team to leave off?”



There again was that wry flicker of a grin. “You can ask that. You don’t know what they’re like. My team aren’t the sort of men one simply says no to.”

There was something in his smile she didn’t like, the grinning mask on a moth’s dark wings, spreading to signal danger to anyone daring to touch it.

She swallowed. Whoever these men were--whoever it was that was coming for her--they didn’t care about guilt or innocence. They wouldn’t care about blood or bribes. And there would be no way to escape them.

Astoria felt a leaden weight drop in the pit of her stomach. 

Could it really end like this?

*******

“Well,” she answered after a lengthy silence, unable to bear the sound of her pounding heart, “I suppose it’s lucky they came for me, then. You won’t be troubled by sending a false traitor to their death.”

As if he would be bothered one way or another. Rumour had it that the Dark Lord was the honoured guest of Malfoy Manor. Surely if he had ever had a conscience, the heir to the Malfoy name would have smothered it by now beneath a heap of corpses.

But still, there was something in the way he hitched his shoulders when he admitted the truth, something in the way his eyes had lingered on hers. He had stopped her from saying the Dark Lord’s name. Those were not the actions of a man who wanted to see someone die.

It wasn’t much, but it gave her just the smallest glimpse of hope. ‘Foolish hope,’ she would once have said. But she thought of Ginny Weasley, who had told her that you have to take whatever hope you can grab onto, foolish or no.

Astoria didn’t have much left. To die a fool would not be such a loss if it gave her a chance at the one thing she most wanted.

She pictured again that reluctance she had seen flitting across his face. How he’d had his wand all along and yet hadn’t harmed her.

Maybe she had a chance to do one thing, the only thing left that was truly important.

“Can I ask you something?” she murmured, opening her eyes and leaning forward. There it was again. He smelled like spring rain, but in an oddly masculine way. She bit her lip, legitimately nervous, only later realising that it might possibly help her case.

Draco blinked hazily. He nodded.

“My father...” Astoria began softly. “He’s innocent.”

Draco closed his eyes briefly, shook his head. “The Dark Lord doesn’t care--”

“I don’t need for the Dark Lord to care,” Astoria whispered fiercely. “I need for you to care.”

Draco sat there, stunned speechless. He’d been the subject of countless entreaties, any number of petitions and pleas, but never one like this. Never a girl whose demanding glare burned against his eyelids even when they closed.

“I--there’s nothing...”

“I don’t care what you do,” she insisted, her intensity drawing her further forward, closer to him. “Spirit him away. Lock him up in St. Mungo’s. It doesn’t matter. Just so long as he’s alive. Alive, and safe.”

“There is no safe,” Draco rasped. “Not in this world.”

“Please,” Astoria breathed lightly, as if it took the last her strength to push the words from her mouth. “I don’t care about any of the rest of it, about what happens to me. This is the only thing I’ll ask.”

If anyone had asked Astoria Greengrass whether she suspected her last acts on earth would involve humbling herself enough to beg, she wouldn’t even have expended the energy it would take to scoff at them. But it wasn’t her life she was asking for. Daphne--she hoped Daphne would have the sense or the luck to escape. But her father...

“Please,” she repeated, only once more, before falling quiet, staring at him in the heavy silence.

She watched the young man across from her, his expression flickering from dread, to exasperation, to an unnamable emotion some distant cousin of desperation. He shook his head as if he could expel the pangs of a woken conscience. 

He turned his head aside, avoiding her, but then turned back as if fighting some invisible pull. His haunted eyes stared into hers, grey as ghosts, trapped, unblinking, unable to look away.

*******

Draco felt his stomach clench.

Those keen blue eyes stared him down mercilessly, giving no quarter. There was a power there; he had seen it from the beginning. Not the mundane sort of magic that had run in the veins of their families for centuries, but an indomitable force of will. Testing them was like shouting a challenge to the sea, its hidden currents waiting to sweep you beneath, crushing breakers rising up to slam you down beneath their weight.

They were the kind of eyes that stole from you--your breath, your sense, your train of thought. The kind of eyes that could make a man drown willingly.

They were so close, leaning toward each other, two moths to twin flames. Her forehead was only inches from his, and the sudden closeness was startling. He wanted to blink, to look away, but he found that he couldn’t. As much as he wanted to escape, he also didn’t want to miss one single moment of her nearness.


“Somewhere, Draco Malfoy,” she said, tapping him lightly on the chest, those eyes, captivating and insistent as the tide, still pouring into his. “Somewhere, you still have a soul.”

“I--”

His response, however, whatever it might have been, was cut off by an deafening bang, the front doors crashing open, slamming into the walls so hard that Draco could feel the vibrations in his teeth. A Ming dynasty urn teetered from its from its position on a high shelf, wobbling closer and closer to the edge before finally succumbing to gravity with a loud crash, as though it had decided that such an end was a better fate than whatever could be coming.

Astoria was on her feet in an instant, alert and wary, miles away from the desperate girl who had sat before him only a few short moments ago. Draco hurriedly followed suit and pushed himself upright, drawing a few steps away. 

Heavy footsteps reverberated along the floors, scarcely muffled despite the rich oriental rugs that covered nearly every inch of hardwood from the door to the front sitting room.

Draco caught a familiar stench in the air--the stomach-churning, savoury-sweet smell of decomposing meat--and knew who had arrived even before the last shiver shot down his Marked arm, before the door to the sitting room, too, was flung open, and the enormous shoulders were hunching over, squeezing their way through the entryway. The colossal man forced his way into the room and straightened, rising half a head above Draco himself.

He leaned his head back, a cruel smile spreading across his face as he sniffed at the air, catching the lingering scent of dread, always detectable to a werewolf, even among those who were best at hiding their fears.

And this wasn’t just any werewolf, after all. This was the werewolf. The Big Bad, the monster that stole children and turned them into beasts. This was the father of a thousand nightmares.

Fenrir Greyback had arrived.

*******

Astoria’s stomach roiled in revulsion. She forced herself to keep her breathing steady, clenching her teeth to ward off trembling lips.

Even as he sank into a half crouch, Fenrir Greyback towered over her. His hair was grey and wild, thick with twigs and leaves and...possibly those were bones. Even in human form, the werewolf seemed more creature than man, with pupils slitted and eyes glinting with the fever of starvation, though she had heard enough to know that he never lacked victims.

His was a hunger that could not be sated.

Greyback turned that esurient gaze on her, and it crawled over her skin, stinging and pricking as if to draw blood. His tongue--too long and too flat--lolled out of his mouth, and the way he licked his lips was both repellant and obscene.

“I see you’ve found our little morsel, Malfoy.”

Draco’s face was unnaturally calm, the face of a corpse.

Greyback took another step toward him, and she saw it--a flash of pure fear, writhing underneath the hard surface of his forced composure. If she had blinked, she would have missed it. Draco Malfoy was afraid.

No. He was terrified.

The werewolf failed to notice. His eyes remained fixed on Astoria, and he shifted, taking the first few steps her. She found herself astoundingly grateful for the rock-hard sofa in this, her least favourite room. It would be reduced to less than matchsticks if he decided to make a grab for her, but it afforded her some distance and, at this point, she would be grateful for any kind of security. Even the false sort.

“Looks positively scrumptious.” A thin line of spittle dribbled from the edge of Greyback’s mouth, trailing slowly down toward the carpeting. Astoria half expected it to be as acidic as his gaze, and to sizzle a hole right through the hardwood beneath.

He crept closer.

She couldn’t help herself. For all her pride, and for all that she still despised what he was, she cast a desperate glance at Draco, as if she were tossing him a rope, begging him to grasp it and pull her to safety.

She was unsurprised when he dropped it, along with her gaze. Honestly, she didn’t know why she had bothered. He was a Death Eater--no different than any of the others.

My team aren’t the sort of men one simply says no to. He might be a coward, but she could hardly blame him. This was no man at all. This was a beast, and calling him off could be no simple task.


Greyback continued to approach, and she felt her fists clench reflexively. She took a moment to be grateful for her short nails. If she had taken to the long, painted talons her sister preferred, she’d have drawn blood, and the scent of gore would probably only spur the monster before her into a frenzy.

Then she took another moment to berate herself for thinking about her nails. It hardly mattered one way or the other--she was going to die.

Astoria had thought she was prepared to die, if it should come to that, but she realised now that she was wrong. All along, she had been counting on living. If she were killed as a traitor, then what would happen to her father? Her sister? Her knees felt weak and her stomach squelched with dread. Would they be executed? Tortured? Would she?

It was hopeless. Entirely hopeless. The creature before her could crush her as easily as breathing. But even so, if there was nothing to lose, if there was the smallest of chances...

She wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Astoria eased her arm backwards as casually as she could, wrists crossed behind her back. Quick fingers blindly struggled to undo the buttons at the wrist of her left sleeve, where her wand was still tucked safely out of sight. She felt her fingertips touch warm cedar wood and paused, breathlessly contemplating her next--her only--move.

She would only get one chance.

Greyback was still salivating, licking his chops as he moved, slowly, forward, prowling in a circle around her, moving minutely closer with every round. She could taste the bitter tang of helplessness on her tongue; terror prickled at her scalp and tingled at the back of her neck.

The wolf-man was closing in. He had sighted her as prey, had caught the scent of her fear, and it was driving him mad. His nostrils flared. Powerful muscles gathered, prepared to spring. Sharp incisors peaked out from beneath a wet, thin-lipped mouth, ready to rip, to taste, to tear.

Astoria lifted her chin and forced her eyes to remain open as her fingers clutched at the wand behind her back, ready to take her one opportunity to strike.


Then, suddenly:

“What do you think you’re doing?”

The voice was empty, professional. It was arrogant and abrupt and privileged, a voice that had always received precisely what it wanted.

It was the voice of Draco Malfoy.

He might have been informing a waiter of the way he preferred his meat to be cooked, for all the force he put behind it, but the words stopped the wolf in his tracks.

From the look on Fenrir Greyback’s face, he’d be happy to gobble Astoria up. Extra rare. And he was not happy to be questioned.

“The Dark Lord wants traitors brought to Lestrange. Nobody ever said anythin’ about having to bring ‘em all in one piece.” He was so close now. His fingernails--long and thick, chipped on the edges, and a sickly yellow colour--dug into her arm, and she held back a yelp of pain. It would only egg him on.

Draco’s eyes darted to Greyback’s grip on her arm, and then back to the wolf-man.

“Indeed. Traitors are to be brought to my aunt. But,” he qualified, “Miss Greengrass is innocent of her charges. We’ll be leaving her here.”

“An’ I’m supposed to trust yer word on that?”

The tall young man with the white-blonde hair heaved an arrogant sigh too large for his diminished frame, absently picking at his nails as he rolled his eyes heavenward.

“There’s a reason they entrust me with this duty, Greyback,” he drawled. “Brains over brawn, and all that.”

For an instant, it was almost as if Astoria were seeing two of him: one, a wan, hollow-eyed boy fighting for air and composure, his left fist clamped tightly around his recovered wand as if he could squeeze a casual demeanour out of the ten-inches of hawthorn wood and pull it on like a Cloak of non-Invisibility, forcing all who saw him to take note and confer their respects. 

Yet, there was the other boy--a young man, really, suddenly filling his suit, and the room, with a strength of presence she had only barely glimpsed. His mouth was pressed into a thin line--the type of line on which orders were written in clear and concise language, meant only to be obeyed.

Astoria knew which one she hoped the werewolf was seeing.

“I don’t--”

“She’s innocent,” he snapped, some heat in his voice for the first time since Fenrir entered the room. Draco tapped his head, “I can read her mind, remember? She’s clean. Now let’s get out of here.”

Greyback turned around slowly. Astoria noticed that he walked only on the balls of his feet, so much less man than wolf. He faced Draco Malfoy and sneered down at him. “Oh? ‘As the wee pup decided it’s time to grow some teeth?”

Draco remained unimpressed. “The pup thinks you might not want the Dark Lord knowing just how often you abuse your power. Who do you think he needs more, his lupine thug, or the backing of his Pureblooded supporters? If it gets out that you’ll be coming for them, guilty or innocent, then there’ll be dissension.”

The werewolf snarled, shifted back and forth on the balls of his feet. “I’ll rip the smug little smirk right off your face, Malfoy, and swallow it down.”

“But not today, I think,” he said calmly, reaching into his trouser pocket and pulling out an ornate pocket watch. “As I thought, I have an appointment.” He walked over to the sofa, utterly composed, and reached down for his rumpled suit jacket, laying it neatly over his arm.

“A pleasure, Miss Greengrass. I am terribly sorry for the mistake.” He gave a small bow. “I suppose we can see ourselves out.”



Astoria, dumbstruck, gripped the back of the sofa. She nodded.



“Excellent. Fenrir,” he inclined his head toward the door, and the werewolf grumbled, growled, but stooped to precede him. Draco glanced back once, but she could read nothing in his face. It was as perfectly impenetrable as her own.

“Good day,” he said quietly. Then, before she could fathom out any appropriate response, he turned and followed the werewolf out of the sitting room. She heard the front door close behind them.

There were no sounds besides the crackling of the fire, the sharp inhale and exhale of her shaking breaths.

And still, in the air, the barest trace of spring rain.

*******

Draco strode confidently from the manor house, working to keep upright, his legs as shaky as a newborn foal’s. He felt sick to his stomach, and his head pounded out the rhythm of a drummer boy leading an army to war.

Why hadn’t he told?

Draco knew himself. He was no altruist. Not brave or selfless or charitable, nor was he likely to protect anyone but his own blood.

But he had saved Astoria Greengrass. Had, in doing so, committed treason.

What was happening to him?

What would he do?



_____________________________________________________________

Wow. So, first of all, hats of to
teh tarik for her awesome beta*ing of this chapter! I couldn’t have done it justice without having her there to pick all the nits.

Second, that was quite...eventful, huh? Happy? Upset? Share your emotions with me! I’d love to know what you thought about this hugely important development. And constructive criticism! I really appreciate when y’all give that. It helps a lot in improving my writing, and the story.

So, we’re finally leaving the parlour. Where do you think we’re going to go next? Any theories?

Here’s a snippet: “Tell me you’re not doing something stupid tonight, Weasley.”

What do you make of that? Hope you enjoyed the chapter. And now, there’s more of this story to be told...

--Penny



Chapter 7: A Family Affair
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Greengrass Hall, Easter Holidays, 1998


The steamer trunk yawned open in Astoria’s room like a hungry mouth, but there was nothing more to feed it. She had finished all the packing--robes and ties and stackable cauldrons, dried valerian and lavender, and an expensive pot of invisible ink. 

It was funny, a little, how easy it was to pack up the unimportant bits. 

Her restless mind, however, refused to be stowed away; her cracked and throbbing heart would not be bundled up and stashed safely. Try as she might, she couldn’t stop thinking, couldn’t stop feeling.

And now she was being maudlin, which made it all the worse.

Astoria smoothed her fingers over the soft weave of her black cashmere cardigan as she laid it atop the rest of the carefully packed items. Her trunk seemed unusually empty. Astoria had little use for keepsakes; there weren’t that many things she wanted to remember, anyway.

She reached a hand into the trunk, careful not to disrupt anything as she sorted through the layers, but everything was precisely as it should be. Nothing more to fuss over. Astoria sighed, tapping her fingernails against the brass-plated corners of the wooden chest. 

She had been trying to distract herself for days, rearranging furniture, packing and repacking, writing essays that wouldn’t be due for weeks. She had even stumbled into the kitchen one night after waking from a nightmare, her head dancing with shadowy skulls wreathed in serpents, their eye sockets glimmering with an inscrutable grey gaze. She had alphabetised half the ingredients in the pantry before Filly had come in, her enormous eyes wide with scandalised surprise, and shooed her away.

But, try as she might, she couldn’t keep her thoughts from straying to him.

Astoria prodded at the memory. Her restless mind was a tongue worrying a sore tooth to soothe it where only a drill would do. She knew she ought to stop thinking about what had happened--tuck the whole affair away and continue on as if it had never occurred, but eyes like storm clouds haunted her hours, dreaming and waking.

In real life, puzzles didn’t have missing pieces. There were only the clues you hadn’t been clever enough to uncover.

What Astoria couldn’t understand was why he had let her get away with it. She had briefly considered the possibility that he was a plant, a secret member of the Resistance who had burrowed his way into the Death Eater elite, but quickly dismissed the idea. He had intended on giving her up--she was sure of it.

So what had changed?

Could it have been her words? She hadn’t truly been trying to convince him to see the Dark Lord differently, but to stall him, when she spoke of the precariousness of his position. However, it was possible he had taken her warning to heart. It seemed unlikely that she had pricked his conscience--wouldn’t one of the so-called “traitors” who were truly innocent be more likely to do that? Astoria was as guilty as they came.

Perhaps he simply tired of being pushed around by Greyback and had used her in a power play. Perhaps there was something he had seen in her mind which had changed his. Perhaps...

It was a proper rabbit hole, to be sure.

Her train of thought was, thankfully, interrupted by a polite tap at the door.

“Come in.”

The door swung open on silent hinges and a large pair of pricked, bat-like ears peeked their way around the frame, followed by a pair of luminous, protuberant eyes. Upon seeing the orderly state of the room her tiny elfin nose twitched and she stepped the rest of the way across the threshold.

Filly had been the Greengrasses’ house-elf for longer than Astoria had been alive, and came from a long line of elves loyal to the family. Filly was dressed in a pink babydoll-style dress that had been pieced together from a thin fleece baby blanket and was overlaid with lace doilies. In younger years, it had been a game they had played, with Astoria finding odds and ends to create outfits from, since she couldn’t give the elf actual clothes. Lavinia Greengrass had never seen the point in keeping elves dressed in rags, remarking that it was unsightly and reflected poorly on the house.

Filly propped thin hands on her hips as her bulbous eyes surveyed the impeccably clean space. Astoria had forgotten to leave what Daphne had always called her sister’s “consolation messes”--a few broken quills, crumpled magazine pages and the like. Astoria was always the tidy sort, but there was nothing a house-elf hated more than having nothing to fix.

“Mistress,” the little elf greeted, performing a quick curtsy that Astoria could never convince her to omit. She then watched as Filly homed in on her school trunk. “Mistress’s belongings are already packed?”

Astoria nodded tiredly, standing up and easing the lid of her trunk shut. “All finished,” she announced, brushing imaginary dust off her skirt.

The elf’s nose wrinkled in disapprobation. “Filly would have packed for you, Mistress.”

A wry smile tugged at Astoria’s mouth “I promise I’m quite all right, Filly. I can scarcely imagine how we’d survive without you, but some things I can manage on my own.”

Filly sniffed. “Would Mistress like for me to bring up a tray?”

“A tray? I thought that...”

Astoria trailed off. She had not eaten with her father since she’d been back. Daphne was supposed to come home for the second half of the holiday, but had sent a note saying that she had decided to extend her visit with the Parkinsons. Astoria had read the missive and promptly tossed it into the fire.

She could understand why her sister might not want to return to Greengrass Hall; could understand it, but that didn’t mean she would forgive it.

Astoria had avoided the dining room, with its abandoned place settings that throbbed with their emptiness. But she had thought that maybe, for her last night at home...

“Well then,” she cleared her throat. “I suppose I’ll just pop into the library and make certain he’s...just to check.” She knew that Filly was doing her level best to care for her father in her absence, but he had grown quite thin. Astoria had spent the week creating menus with his favourite foods to tempt him. It was all she could do, since the elf would not allow her to touch so much as a serving spoon.

“Mistress, you may not wish to--”

“It’ll be fine, Filly,” Astoria insisted as she strode out of her room and across the mezzanine that topped the grand staircase, heading towards the library.

She passed bedrooms, drawing rooms, rooms with no real purpose other than to take up space. Astoria knew they were all polished to perfection, as perfectly untouched as museum articles behind glass. She should probably order them sealed off, have sheets spread out to cover the furniture that no one was using. She imagined white linens fluttering in a draft, painting ripples into the sea of dust that would settle over the parquet floors, bleached sheets haunting vacant spaces like spectres drifting through lost memories. 

She should order it done, but she wouldn’t. This house had enough ghosts.

Astoria paused outside the threshold, squared her shoulders, and reached for the knob, giving the heavy oak door a good push as she marched into the room.

She had always liked the library. She had spent countless childhood days flopped upside down in an armchair, flipping through novels, illuminated myths, and whatever else caught her fancy. Many a summer afternoon had she stayed there until Filly came to call her to dinner, or Daphne came looking for a playmate, or someone wandered in and ordered her to sit like a lady.

It was a magnificent room, with leather-bound spines stretching up to the vaulted ceiling, which danced with frescoes grander and stranger than those in the downstairs parlour. It was furnished not in the cool creams and greens of the rest of the Hall, but with warm browns and rich maroons. The vanilla perfume of old books wafted through the air, mixing with the tobacco of her father’s pipe. Unlike so many of the other rooms in the Hall, the library managed to be grand without really trying. It was a dowager secure in her position, naturally elegant, certain of what it was due, and without a particular need to impress.

And there, at the desk of the far corner he had long-ago designated his study, sat her father.

Astoria pressed her lips together, allowing herself to properly catalogue the alterations in his appearance. Despite Filly’s best efforts, her father had lost a significant amount of weight. Felix Greengrass had always been a stout man, frequently cheating on whatever diet her mother had instated, but now he looked too thin, his skin stretched tight across his cheekbones. Though his suit had obviously been taken in to account for his lost girth, his flesh hung loose on him, as if his form had grown too tired to hold itself up.

When Felix spoke, however, his voice was the same as always: comfortable, with a tone that wrapped around you like a firm handshake and welcomed you warmly

 Astoria couldn’t quite decide if it was a comfort that he still sounded so much himself. It meant it was that much harder to tell when he was there...and when he wasn’t.

She intentionally stepped on a squeaky floorboard to let him know she was entering the room. She barely breathed. Please please please...

“Lavinia!” he exclaimed cheerfully. Her stomach dropped. “You won’t believe what I have to tell you, darling. The --

“Father?”

He didn’t look up, hunting around on his desk, searching through piles of papers.

“What’s that, dear? No, I haven’t heard from your father. I doubt he has the courage to owl, after--”

“Papa,” Astoria broke in, her voice cracking on the name she had scarcely used since childhood. She cleared her throat and sucked in a sharp breath. “It’s me. Astoria.”

Her father paused. He shook his head, and when he looked up, his gaze seemed a bit clearer. 

“Ah. Yes, of course.” 

She breathed out. 

He set his book down on his desk and motioned for her to take the seat across from him. “What can I do for you, my dear?”

Know who I am. Remember what’s happened. Remember who you are, Astoria thought. But she said none of those things.

“What are you reading?”

Felix turned to pick his book back up. Astoria didn’t recognise the title.

“Hmm, this old thing? It’s a play. An old one at that. Bit dark,” he mused. “Your sister would hate it,” he added, smiling fondly. “You might like it, though, Tori.”

Her heart shuddered at the pet name. It made her feel five again, but without any of the comfort or security of knowing that the grown-ups will take care of the monsters.

“Who’s it by?” she asked, her thumb stroking the leather binding.

A smile played at Felix’s mouth. His hair had gone silver at the temples, but the rest was still the same shade of rich black as her own.

“Fellow from the sixteenth century, by the name of Shakespeare. Muggle, actually, but he was quite brilliant--”

Astoria gasped, cutting him off. She pulled back as if the volume had bitten her.

“You have Muggle books in here?” She turned her head from side to side, scanning all the bookshelves in sight as if she could discern the authors’ bloodlines just by looking at them.

Her father cocked his head, as if surprised at her outburst.

“Of course. I daresay I’ve read everything else by now, and they’re quite good.”

Astoria had no doubt that was true. Not about the quality of the books--she wasn’t concerned with that--but she could believe that her father had read everything in this library. After all, he had scarcely left it for months. However, she could hardly believe what she was hearing.

Felix, taking in her expression, raised an eyebrow.

“What’s wrong with a book?”

“But Papa, it’s...it’s illegal.” She stared him, aghast. What if she had chosen to hold her interview with Draco Malfoy in here? She still didn’t know why he had spared her, but would contraband literature have changed his mind? What if it had been anyone else? What if Greyback had seen?

Anyone could find out. It wasn’t safe.

“Oh, I doubt Rufus would go that far,” her father assured her, tucking his hands into his pockets. “I never noticed that he was particularly against Muggles, himself.”

So he didn’t remember that Rufus Scrimgeour had been ousted from office, killed, that the Dark Lord’s puppet was now Minister. At the moment, she didn’t feel it would be useful to correct him.

“But...we’re Purebloods.”

Felix shook his head ruefully. He sank down into an armchair and motioned her to come closer.

Astoria was a statue. She did not move.

“Mmm. Don’t let yourself get drawn into all that, Tori. I’m not saying we ought to invite the dregs of Muggle society over for tea,” he chuckled. Chuckled! “But there’s no reason we can’t appreciate art, no matter who makes it. Back when this author was writing, Purebloods were some of the greatest patrons of the stage. In fact, your many-times great-uncle funded a rather infamous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream*. Same author. The Ministry got a tad upset when an actor wound up with his head Transfigured into that of a donkey! And a few pixies got loose, too. Now that was an interesting business.”

Astoria was too stunned to formulate a proper answer. “I--how?”

“It’s all in The Complete History of Stage and Sorcery. Bottom shelf, there.”

“But...Muggles?” she murmured weakly. Felix gave a small smile, leaned forward, and chucked her under the chin.

“Muggles are just poor creatures without magic. Like...like those hairless cats. They’re really the same as a normal feline, but they must lead quite different lives, on some level. No hair balls, for one thing, but just think how they must shiver when winter comes round.” He leaned back in his chair and tapped his chin thoughtfully.

“You know how some people are concerned with the welfare of endangered species, like the Golden Snidget or Augury birds?” She nodded. “Well, more people ought to be conserved with Muggle conservation, I think. They’ve done astonishingly well for themselves, of course. And perhaps they haven’t got power as we do, and you can attribute that to whatever you wish: a divine hand, a superior level on the evolutionary scale, what have you. But once you read something like this,” he thumped his knuckles against the cover of his book, “you realise that, at their hearts, Muggles aren’t all that different from you and me. Same worries, same feelings, just different ways of operating.” He shrugged. “I’m not saying we should really get involved with them--history will tell you where that leads. But I’m not truly convinced we’re any better, at our cores.”

Astoria gaped. Her father was like this, sometimes, at least nowadays. He would go between bouts of wild energy and lethargy. Foggy and sharp. Long-winded, well-considered speeches and stretches where he stared into the distance and said nothing at all. She wondered if he had always believed this, or if it was the madness speaking.

He sounded sane, mostly, but the cat analogy made her a bit unsure.

She wondered if he’d ever expressed this sentiment to her mother. Not that Lavinia had ever said much about Muggles, but she had been a Death Eater, so Astoria had assumed she must have despised them.

For now, she didn’t know what to think.

“Papa?” she asked. He had trailed off into silent contemplation, but he looked up, his eyes still clear. “Where do you keep your Muggle books?”

He grinned, and it lit up his face. Despite the lost weight and the added wrinkles, this was the father she remembered. “That far bookcase,” he pointed, “just below your great-great-grandmother’s portrait.”

She wandered over. There, a woman’s face stared down at her, powdered lily-white. Her expression was severe, but it seemed to soften once Astoria drew closer to the frame. Her great-grandmother was painted in relative youth, of the same slender build as Astoria and her sister. In her portrait, she wore a pale pink qi pao and her hair was pulled into an elegant knot. Her delicate features reminded Astoria of the ones that stared back at her from the mirror, though the eyes were a deep brown rather than Astoria’s own blue, and they were set with a familiar gleam of shrewdness. Her shoulders, small and curved, seemed braced with determination, as though they could bear whatever was laid upon them. 

Her great-great grandmother looked like a doll, but the portrait gave Astoria the sense that beneath the porcelain lay a backbone of steel.

She heard her father’s footsteps as he came up behind her. “Do you know much about her?”

“Only a little. She moved the family over from China, didn’t she?” Felix nodded encouragingly. Astoria shrugged. “I don’t know much else.”

He indicated the portrait with a nod. There was something respectful in the gesture. It made Astoria feel as though she, too, should acknowledge her great grandmother. She resisted the urge to bob a Filly-like curtsy, though, because that seemed ridiculous.

Her father’s smile was nostalgic.

“Her name was Xing Li Ming. Cleverest woman I ever knew. And she knew how to use it, too. Ran the whole shipping company, and was a powerful witch, besides.”

“You knew her?”

“That woman had unbelievable longevity, even for a witch,” he said, shaking his head. "She was positively ancient when I was young, but still sharp as a tack--incredible presence of mind. One of the most admirable people I’ve ever known. You remind me of her, actually.”

Astoria felt a sudden pressure building in her throat, and dropped her great-great grandmother’s gaze. Maybe her father believed them to be similar, but she had the feeling her forebear might weigh her and find her wanting.

Astoria wasn’t all that skilled as a witch, at least not in the things that mattered these days. In a war, one was expected to know how to fight, and Astoria’s performance in Defence wasn’t her main selling point. Her mind plunged her back into the memory of Fenrir Greyback standing in her drawing room, her fingers clutching at the wand in her sleeve, knowing that she would try to fight, knowing that it would never be enough.

Her mind was her weapon, but these days she wasn’t even sure how sharply honed that was. She hadn’t been able to stop Draco Malfoy from invading it. She had let her weakness for her family slip out, and he had seen it. She had befriended enemies of the state and put her entire family in danger. 

No, Astoria wasn’t certain that she was much like her ancestor at all.

She swallowed and looked down, trailing her fingers along the titles, all of which had been penned by Muggle hands.

“Would you like to borrow one?” her father asked eagerly. “I’ve a few suggestions for you.”

Astoria looked up at him, managing just enough of a grin to convince him.

“Maybe next time. I’m a bit bogged down with school reading right now, you know. N.E.W.T.S. next year, and all.”

“Of course, of course. When do you go back?”

“Tomorrow, Papa.”

“Oh.” His thin eyebrows furrowed in surprise, but he quickly recovered. “Well, we should get you some dinner then, shouldn’t we?”

“We...should?” Astoria repeated tentatively. Then, glutton for punishment that she was, she continued. “Just you and me?”

She pressed her lips together, waiting for him to insist that her mother and sister would join them. She dreaded having to explain once again that her mother was gone, that Daphne couldn’t be bothered to come visit.

But no. Today, she was granted a reprieve. His warm brown eyes didn’t dim, didn’t wander off in search of the house’s ghosts.

“Just you and me.”

Astoria took a deep breath of shocked surprise, or perhaps relief, then straightened.

“That sounds perfect. I’ll meet you in the dining room. I just want to check on something first.”

And, to her astonishment, Felix left the room with no trouble, stepping out of the library doors for perhaps the second time all holiday.

“Fine. But don’t you alphabetise that shelf, young lady. I have it just the way I want it.”

A sudden warmth flared in her heart as her father walked out, leaving the doors open behind her. She walked back to where her father had laid his book down on the arm of his chair, and the warmth sputtered. Macbeth* was spelled out on the spine in golden lettering. Carefully, she flipped it open and glanced down at the page, her fingertips tracing the first words her eyes fell upon.

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”*

She felt her brows lift. There was a sentiment she could understand. Lately, she certainly couldn’t tell right from wrong, and as much as she’d always believed that she didn’t much care, she was beginning to think that, maybe, she really did want to do the right thing. If only she had some inkling what that was. If only what seemed “right” wasn’t always such a risk.

She glanced at the bookcase by her great-great grandmother’s portrait, full of contraband literature. How would such a practical, successful woman feel about guarding over these? Those books were dangerous, she knew. But her father enjoyed them. He seemed...better. Astoria didn’t really think the books had anything to do with that, but she was reluctant to upset the delicate balance that her father seemed to have found.

Of course, allowing them to stay was sentimental. They should be taken from the house and burned.

A bit of movement caught her eye. Her great-great grandmother had shifted, slightly. Unlike other portraits, she didn’t speak, but she pursed her lips as she looked at Astoria, as if trying to decide what to make of this offshoot of the family tree.

It was one thing to know your ancestor probably wouldn’t approve of you. It was another thing to be judged by a smear of oil paint and memories.

Astoria tapped her toe against the wooden floor, making a sharp, percussive noise. 

“Are you going to say something or not?” she challenged. 

The portrait stared at her serenely. It was very annoying. Astoria was certain it was the same calm look that she herself affected frequently, and she didn’t like to have her own tactics used against her.

“Well?”

No response. 

Fine. She’d deal with the matter herself.

“Filly.” Astoria didn’t need to raise her voice. She just spoke the name quietly and an instant later the elf Apparated into the room with a crack.

“Mistress.” Filly ducked her head.

“I need you to take care of something for me. This bookcase--” Astoria paused, shifted on her feet, felt her shoulders slump. “If anyone comes here, anyone but me or Daphne, I need you to make this bookcase disappear. Where no one will find it; that’s vital.”

It wasn’t the practical decision. It probably wasn’t an intelligent one, but she had decided. Despite herself, she found her eyes wandering back to the painting hanging above the shelves. The portrait of Xing Li Ming was as serene as ever, but, just before she turned away, she thought she saw the framed figure give her a graceful nod.

Perhaps she had imagined it, but Astoria was rarely fanciful. That touch of warmth blossomed again within her chest as she turned back to Filly.

“Yes, Mistress, of course.”

“And...” she hesitated. “And Papa and I are going to have dinner in the dining room. If you could--”

“But that’s wonderful, Mistress!” the House Elf squeaked, interrupting Astoria for perhaps the first time in her life. Her enormous eyes filled with tears, and her mouth started to wobble. “Filly is just so...so...” she sniffed and wrung her apron, “Filly will see to it immediately!” And she vanished.

Astoria paused. It really was wonderful, wasn’t it? With a real, small smile, she let herself out of the library and headed towards the dining room, where her father was waiting.


*******
Malfoy Manor, Easter Holidays, 1998


“Oh, for God’s sake, Narcissa, get off the ground!” Lucius bellowed, stomping off to kick at a decorative stone urn. It wasn’t the one to break. He grunted in pain and limped out of the room.

Numbly, Draco made his way over to his mother, crunching over fragments of broken crystal as he walked around the chandelier that lay in ruins on the floor. His eyes took in the distorted metal frame, stretched painfully out of shape, the teardrops of leaded glass dotting the scratched floor. A minute ago, he’d been staring across that expanse of floor at a ragged group of wizards, a goblin, and his former house-elf.

And now he wasn’t.

Amazing how quickly everything can fall to ruins, an emotionless voice in his head observed silently.

This place has been in ruins for a while, a sharper voice corrected.

Draco clenched his jaw.

His mother stifled a sob.

Draco was close enough now. He crouched down to look her in the face. His powers of speech felt dusty, strained, but he cleared his throat and reached for her.

“Mum? Come on, you’ve got to get up. It’ll onl--,” his voice cracked a bit, and he avoided making eye contact with his aunt. “It’ll only be worse if He sees you like this.”

Narcissa’s lifted her face out of her hands. There were tear streaks down her pale cheeks, and her eyes were bloodshot, terrified. Leaning forward, she scrabbled for purchase on Draco’s robes, gripping his arm tight as she stared intently into his eyes.

“You have to run,” she whispered, her voice barely more than a dry leaf trembling, clinging to a twig in the midst of a cold, strong wind.

“What?” he asked, glancing uncertainly at his aunt, who was, thankfully, too flustered at the thought of failing the Dark Lord to pay attention to her sister’s quiet pleas.

Narcissa shook her head and gripped him tighter.

“You have to go, Draco.” Her voice was tinted with desperation and, he hated to notice, more than a hint of madness. “He’ll kill you. He’ll kill us all. We’ve failed Him. My boy.” She paused, raising a frail, shaking hand to stroke his cheek. “My only darling boy.”

“Mum--” Draco reached for her arm, hoping to draw her to her feet, but she shook her head sharply and cut him off.

“You have to live, darling. You have to--” She paused to regain her breath. It appeared she was on the cusp of hyperventilating as he rubbed her back soothingly. “You have run.”

Draco continued rubbing his mother’s back with one hand, reaching into his pocket for a handkerchief with the other. He pressed it gently into her hand, and leaned forward to speak quietly in her ear.

“It’s too late for that, Mum.”

They would find him. They would hunt him down. They would use his parents as bait. Draco, as his subconscious reminded him nightly, might be reprehensible, a shameful excuse for a wizard and a man, but even he could never let that happen.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured.

Narcissa looked from her son to the place from which their prisoners had just disappeared and nodded. She allowed Draco to help her to her feet, her breathing raspy as she unfolded his handkerchief and carefully patted away any sign of tears.

Draco followed her gaze to the spot where Harry Potter had vanished. He stepped away, allowing his mother a moment to compose herself.

This was his fault. He was the one who hesitated. First with Astoria--no, first with Albus Dumbledore, then with the Greengrass girl, and now with Harry Potter himself. He couldn’t afford that kind of weakness--not anymore.

For the sake of his family.

He glanced again at his mother, still pressing the handkerchief to her haggard face. His mother. Her handkerchief, soaked in tears; the hem of her robes, soaked in blood.

Next time--next time he would not falter.

Next time, when he aimed his wand, he would shoot to kill.


_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
*A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a work by William Shakespeare.
* Macbeth is also a work by William Shakespeare
*”Fair is foul, and foul is fair,”...is also by William Shakespeare, as it is a line from Macbeth So many props to dear old Will on this one. Felix is obviously something of a fan ;)


Hi everybody! Sorry I’ve been bad! I could give the reasons and excuses, but probably I should just focus on giving you more chapters, huh? :) But I am truly sorry for the delay. And also that my previous snippet wasn’t actually in here. I ended up making some adjustments to some scenes and had to re-cut. I’ll have to go in and change that to something that is in this chapter. But for those of you who wanted to see a Ginny appearance, it should be happening in the next chapter, if nothing changes drastically in edits.

So, you’ve finally met Felix Greengrass, and on a (mostly!) lucid day. And there’s Draco, after the trio’s great Malfoy Manor escape! And a slightly more solid look at the Greengrass family heritage. Tons of thanks to Iellwen for being my consultant for Astoria’s Chinese roots!

Your thoughts, critiques, and insights are always soooo appreciated! Please let me know what you think!



Chapter 8: The Writing On the Wall
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King’s Cross Station, Spring 1998




The atmosphere at Platform 9 3/4 was strangely subdued, or perhaps not so strangely, given the circumstances.

A heavy grey fog hung in the air, and everyone had dressed in dark colours, as if trying not to draw attention. There was none of the familiar whooping, the exuberant roughhousing as friends leapt upon each other as though they had been parted for months, rather than weeks, no reunited couples snogging enthusiastically behind brick pillars. Rather, there seemed to be a universal note of relief as students looked upon the faces of their friends that--thankfully--hadn’t been taken, gone missing, or disappeared.

Astoria stood there, just another grim-faced figure on the outskirts of the throng. For all that she was surrounded by a crowd, as the wind blew a strand of dark hair across her face and she clutched at a green velvet cloak, she looked like she might be the loneliest creature in all the world.

She had arrived at the platform alone, having entered the library that morning to find her father looking bleary-eyed and muddled. As Astoria had peered around the frame of the door, she had done so hesitantly, afraid to replace the happy memories of the night before with that other version of her father, the one that forgot her so easily, the one she only wished she could forget.

Astoria, of course, had excellent instincts, and so the sight that greeted her was exactly what she had feared. When she asked him if he was ready to take her to the train station, Felix had blinked confusedly, and said that he hadn’t any plans for travel, and that he needed to remain at home because he was expecting a call from the Ministry, and could she please fetch his wife because he had to tell her something important? His eyes had skimmed over her as if she were the help--something less, actually, as Felix had always been courteous to elves--and Astoria had felt a fracturing in her chest that made her question whether hearts could truly break.

Not yet old enough to Apparate by herself, she had embraced Filly, who had hugged her with all of a house-elf’s surprising strength, and had then delivered her to King’s Cross and promptly Disapparated. Much as Astoria would have loved to have the Elf at her side, waiting with her, it would have stood out, which was the last thing she wanted. And so she stood away from the crowd, facing the oncoming train alone.

As the engine pumped its way into the station, its scarlet paint muted beneath a layer of soot, passengers began to board, and Astoria, having no one to wait for, shoved her way forward, tugging her half-empty trunk behind her.

Hoping to get a compartment to herself, she headed toward the back and slipped into a section that was, as yet, empty of students. The odds were good that she would be able to sit alone; enough people were missing, and Daphne obviously felt no urgent need to spend time with her sister as she had avoided the family for the entire holiday.

Still, as she shoved her luggage into the middle of the room, not bothering to put it away yet, and sat down on the cushioned bench, Astoria couldn’t shake the feeling that she was waiting for something, or someone. It wasn’t until the reedy form of Meg Wimpole, the theatrical Gryffindor who, months ago, had created the distraction in the Hospital Wing, walked past that Astoria realised that, in some absurd corner of her mind, she was waiting for Ginny Weasley.

It was stupid, because she had known that Ginny wasn’t going to be there, and it would have been utter foolishness to sit with her even if she had been, but Astoria felt irrationally irritated, as though Ginny had broken an appointment with her. She clung to the irritation, because that was far better than the worry.

She sat up and gave her trunk a harsh shove, jostling it into place and securing it.

Stupid as it was, she wanted to tell someone about her father, and what it was really like living in that vast, empty house.

She wanted to tell someone about how heavy the burden was, now that Daphne had given up even the pretence of helping to carry it.

And, most of all, she wanted to tell someone about Draco Malfoy.

Astoria had always depended primarily upon herself. She should have been able to comb through this tangled mass of feelings and worries: her gratitude and relief that he had saved her and her family; her wariness that he might hold it over her head and try to use her as some sort of pawn; that strange feeling that had bloomed within her when they kneeled, face to face, and his eyes had remained fixed on hers for far too long.

Draco Malfoy confused her. He knew too much. He was deceitful. He was dangerous. Far better that she should never see him again.

But, though she held fast to that logic and repeated it like a liturgy, and though all her reasons were rubbed smooth as prayer-beads, she couldn’t quite bring herself to believe them. 


To make sense of this, she needed her usual brand of militaristic, tactical sense, but that wouldn’t be enough. She also needed knowledge that was more archaic, harder to grasp: something ageless, mysterious, and deeply feminine.

More than anything, Astoria realised, she was in desperate need of girl talk.

But that was not in the cards. As far as she could think, there was no one to tell. Certainly not Daphne, who was entirely oblivious to the situation, and she didn’t trust any of her sister’s friends as far as she could throw them.

Astoria hadn’t lied to Draco. Well, she had, but not about her lack of ‘associates’. It was true what she said--people didn’t look at you the same way once they associated your name with death. They tended to look away, lest tragedy was catching.

No, the only person she could imagine telling was, strangely enough, a wilful redheaded blood traitor with a penchant for causing trouble. But the Weasleys were on the run, or perhaps already caught, their names tacked onto the list of dead and disappeared recited in solemn tones on the illegal radio shows that Astoria had heard tell of.

As the Hogwarts Express rumbled to life beneath her, Astoria remembered the last words she had spoken to Ginny, before the holidays. She’d told her to take care of herself.

As far as she could tell, the Gryffindor girl had done a rotten job.

***
****
Three Weeks Earlier

“Watch where you’re going!” Astoria hissed, her heavy stack of books toppling to the floor as she purposefully rammed into Ginny Weasley outside the Potions classroom.

“Well? Are you just going to stand there? Pick that up.”

Ginny frowned, but reached down for the textbooks and pieces of parchment and that had fluttered into the shallow alcove, one of the many recesses along the stone wall, just outside the shuffle of feet and the bustle of dark robes dragging down the corridor.

“Oh, for Merlin’s sake, you’re crumpling it!” Astoria rolled her eyes and muttered, “Idiot Gryffindors!” loudly as she fell to her hands and knees and began gathering up the fallen papers herself. The sound of chairs scraping across the stone and students slogging their way up the stairway covered her quiet words.

“Tell me you’re not doing something stupid tonight, Weasley.”

Ginny quirked an eyebrow, but allowed no other expression to pass her face, all her attention focused on collecting that scattered items.

“I was hoping, for your sake, that you had a good reason for all that,” she whispered, her voice laced with humour.

Astoria rolled her eyes but didn’t challenge the statement. She had a feeling that, if someone really had ordered Weasley to pick up their books, the girl would have managed to wreak all sorts of vengeful havoc.

It was probably why Astoria tolerated Ginny better than other Gryffindors.

“I’ve heard that you’re up to something,” Astoria muttered, her dark hair falling across her face as she crawled a bit closer to Ginny on the pretence of rescuing a dropped quill.

“I usually am.” Ginny shrugged. “Where do you hear that?”

“Your little ‘army’ doesn’t keep as quiet as they should.”

“Have to work on that, then. I guess it’s a good thing that the Carrows have more interest in our suffering than they do in surveillance.”

Astoria snatched a sheet from Ginny’s hand, rather hoping it would hurt. Then she was thoroughly disgusted with herself. What sort of Slytherin was she? What kind of curse was that? You stupid, thickheaded girl, I wish you a paper-cut!

Fate worse than death.

This was why she preferred to deal with people’s secrets rather than the people themselves. Astoria shook her head and added the last few papers to her pile.

“Someday someone will be listening who isn’t me, Weasley,” she groused, swiping her hair out of her face and tucking it behind her ears. “You lot need to pull yourselves together. And I would just like to warn you, because you obviously need constant supervision, not to do the idiotic thing you are planning.”

“Noted.”

Astoria huffed, rolling her eyes as she gripped Ginny’s elbow hard and jerked her to her feet. Ginny just smiled infuriatingly.

Astoria clenched her teeth.

“But,” she hissed, “on the off chance that you’ll continue with your imbecilic schemes no matter what I say...” Astoria paused, resisting the urge to groan. When exactly had she decided that it was a good idea to be a co-conspirator in this harebrained plot?

If someone was planning to do something completely against school rules in the second floor corridor...no one patrols that area from one o’clock to three in the morning.”

Ginny raised a surprised eyebrow.

“Well. See you there.”

Ginny may have beaten her at the one-eyebrow raise, but Astoria lifted her chin with admirable hauteur.

“And what,” she queried, “would make you believe that I have any desire to partake in your delinquent activities?”

A mad grin stretched across Ginny’s face.

“Well, don’t tell me you’re not curious.” 


*******

Astoria appeared in silence.

The shadows pooled along the far edges of the corridor. She moved comfortably among them, slipping through the folded edges of darkness that remained untouched by the dim moonlight filtering in through grimy arched windows. 


A few paces away a figure faced the far wall, their identity obscured by a heavy grey cloak.

She waited until she was near enough to be certain. A few more quiet steps put her at a close enough distance to make out a few loose strands of red hair, limned in silver by the feeble light leaking from a sliver of moon, escaping the cowl.

“Very dramatic,” she murmured, and was gratified to see the figure flinch in surprise. If nothing else, her mother had left her with one useful talent: Astoria didn’t need magic to become invisible.

Ginny whirled about, and Astoria could see the shifting of the whites in her eyes as she searched the dark corners. A smirk on her lips, Astoria stepped into the weak moonlight. Ginny immediately swatted at her with her free hand. The other held a thick paintbrush, dripping obsidian into a bucket of shadows.

“Don’t do that!” she hissed, but her expression was cheerful despite the censure, and it quickly veered into smugness. “I knew you’d come.”

Astoria rolled her eyes.

“And how am I dramatic?” Ginny demanded, crossing her arms over her chest. “Look at you, staging elaborate run-ins, popping up out of nowhere in the dark of night. I’m starting to think you and Meg would really get on. You could stage a theatrical together.”

“Meg’s the one who tried to spear me through the throat with her wand, yes?” Astoria asked drily. “I was, in fact, referring to your clothing.”

Astoria herself was wearing dark, fitted garments that could pass as nightwear, and which covered most of her pale skin. Her feet were bare, the better to claim sleepwalking, or being lured out by Peeves.

“This cloak and dagger bit you have going on here,” she motioned to Ginny’s ensemble, “is a bit obvious. I do hope you’re carrying a blade of some kind to complete the picture.”

Ginny grinned and nodded at the wall.

“Oh, I’ve got better weapons than that.”

There, on the inner wall of the cloisters, the words “DUMBLEDORE’S ARMY, STILL RECRUITING” screamed against the pale ivory wall, the letters uneven and the paint still dripping, but the message loud and frightfully clear. Something about the shape and sketch of the letters rang a distant bell in Astoria’s mind, but she was interrupted before she could think of why.

“So. What do you think?”

Astoria weighed her options for a moment. She could scold her for being reckless, but that didn’t seem worth her efforts. Instead, she tapped her foot against the cool stone floor as she considered.

“Your handwriting really is atrocious, you know.”

Ginny tilted her head, assessing, and wrinkled her nose.

“Yeah. Haven’t practised my calligraphy in a while.”

“Too busy thwarting authority figures, I suppose.”

“And stealing magic swords.”

“And serving detentions for attempting to steal magical swords,” Astoria put in helpfully. Ginny shot her a dark look.

“And, of course,” Astoria added, “rescuing hundreds of refugees from a camp about to be under attack.”



“I didn’t actually do that personally, you know.”


“Really? You were able to keep out of something?” Astoria smirked.

Ginny, however, didn’t smile back. She stiffened, her shoulders straightening with conviction.

“I can’t keep out of this; I was brought into it. I never had a choice.”

“I don’t believe that, Weasley. There’s always a choice.”

“Is there?” Ginny challenged, her hair burning like a crimson banner as she whirled on Astoria, dark eyes gleaming with defiance. “And what about when you’re eleven years old, and You-Know-Who possesses you? Where’s the choice there?

“You don’t know what it’s like to have your soul just...popped out of joint, to make room for something else. To do things, awful things, and you can’t stop yourself! To hurt people, and know you’re hurting them, and be able to do nothing!”

Ginny paused to catch her breath. Astoria could see the pulse pounding in her neck, her teeth clenched against truths she couldn’t unspeak. Overcome, Ginny punched the wall, slamming her eyes shut as blood bloomed between split knuckles.

Astoria had forgotten. Ginny Weasley was bright-eyed, happy. She was popular. She had played Quidditch, had dated boys and cast them aside, was generally well-liked by professors, at least before the Carrows and Professor Snape came into power. In their first year, everyone had known what had happened to Ginny Weasley. Everyone had known, and everyone had forgotten.

And, it occurred to her, that was probably just what Ginny had wanted--that maybe the Gryffindor girl’s insufferable swagger, her refusal to stay down, to lie low, had been born of a desire to erase a broken little girl from everyone’s memories, and to become something else entirely.

“I see.”

Ginny snorted, eyeing her with dark humour.

“I’ll bet you really do. And to be honest, I wish you didn’t.”

Astoria politely ignored the thickness of Ginny’s voice, which cracked with leftover emotion, as she turned back to the wall and cocked her head, considering.

“I knew this looked familiar.” The writing on the wall, the placement, even the awful handwriting--she’d seen it all before, five years ago. Only the words were different. And one other thing.

Ginny pursed her lips. “You are quick.”

“It was blood, last time,” Astoria noted. “So that’s why you wanted to write it here.”

Ginny brushed a loose piece of hair from her face, leaving a smudge of blood on her cheek.

“I’m taking back my life. We’re taking back this school. I’m not eleven years old anymore. This time, He doesn’t get to control me. This time, I’m going to fight.” She exhaled slowly, flexing her injured hand. “That’s what I choose.”

Astoria felt a twisting in her gut. Maybe this truly wasn’t something she could understand. Maybe life could whittle down your choices until a death wish was all you had left. But she didn’t say that. Instead, she stayed quiet until Ginny spoke again, her voice not yet steady, but shrouded in her usual good humour.

“I know what you’re thinking.”

“I doubt it.”

“You’re thinking, ‘Wow. Do the Gryffindors get classes on clichéd, heroic speeches on the side?’ I can hear you saying it now.”

Astoria quirked a small smile. “Well, I would never have said, ‘wow’. That would imply that I’d been impressed.”

Ginny’s answering grin was shaky, but it dared to peek out from around the corners of her mouth. Her face was still pale from anger and remembered-fear.

“True.” She flexed her hand again, wincing at the pain. “And you’re going to tell me that punching a wall was stupid.”

“Punching a wall was stupid.” Astoria rolled her eyes. “But I know a spell for that.” Pulling her wand from her sleeve, she murmured a healing charm over Ginny’s split knuckles.

“Ooof!” Ginny pulled back, shaking out her fingers. “That feels awful. Like pins and needles.”

Astoria shrugged, tucking her wand away again. “It feels better than your hand would’ve felt in the morning.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you should work on being more sympathetic?”

“Yes,” she shot back, deadpan. “Usually it’s someone who’s just done something stupid.”

Ginny wrinkled her nose, but the corners of her mouth lifted further.

“Well, I guess we’re done here.” She shifted, tugging up the hood of her billowing cloak before turning to gaze sadly up at the black paint, angry marks scrawled across the Hogwarts wall. “It’s sad how it’s changed, isn’t it? This place used to feel almost like home.”

Astoria wasn’t sure, exactly. With Easter holidays looming large on the horizon, she would soon be headed to Greengrass Hall, which felt less like a homecoming than a challenge to face. Still, she understood the sentiment. Home was something that no longer existed, not in any of the places it should have.

She had decided against any real answer and settled on a noncommittal nod when she felt an overwhelming sense of something, and whipped around.

Far down the corridor, in the spot where it joined the next, a small, blueish-grey light could be seen reflecting off the white stone walls. As if someone in the connecting gallery was walking down, preparing to turn the corner and enter the corridor where the two of them stood, frozen in the shadows.

Ginny turned to see what it was Astoria was staring at.

“What’s that light? I thought you said there were no patrols.”

“There aren’t.”

There was an odd quality to the glow. She could see it more clearly as it turned, now at the far end of their own corridor. It seemed, almost, to bounce as it reflected off the polished stonework, too high for a torch. There was no sound of footsteps echoing down towards them. And then there was the light itself. There was something off about that colour, almost ghostly, but not quite...



“Peeves!” Astoria mouthed, not daring to speak aloud.


Any moment he would see them. Ginny glanced around madly in search of escape. Seeing no obvious route, she took a quick step towards an alcove several yards down the corridor, but Astoria grabbed her arm in a vice-tight grip, holding her in place. Ginny glared at her, but Astoria shook her head sharply.

Silently, she began to ease along the shadowed side of the corridor, pulling Ginny along with her. The corridor took a sharp ninety degree angle and, now out of the poltergeist’s sightline for a precious moment, Astoria bounded silently forward, shoving her shoulder against a small arched door and rushing through it with Ginny right behind. She shut the door quickly behind them, taking care that it made no sound.


They had emerged onto a landing of an outdoor staircase, the stairway curling downward, attached to a tower that jutted out from the castle wall.

“Where--?”

“Shhh.” Astoria held a finger to her lips and nodded to her left, where a row of windows stood only a few feet away, and the ball of light that was Peeves bobbed along behind the darkened glass. She motioned for Ginny to follow as she crept down the stairs, until the stairway curved several times above them, hiding them from view.

Out of breath, she sunk down on another landing and leaned her head against the wall. Ginny plopped down beside her, breathing deeply. For a long moment, they sat in silence.

Then, predictably, Ginny broke it.

“That was close.”


Astoria didn’t waste her breath confirming it. Her lungs felt tight--her heart was beating against her ribs as though it might break free of them at last. It had been close. Far, far too close.

“How did you know that door would be open?”

“Merlin save me from plans made by Gryffindors,” Astoria muttered, leaning her cheek against the rough stones of the turret wall. “Rule One, Weasley: always have an exit strategy.”

She blew out a shaky breath, turning away from the wall to face the castle grounds. The spring breeze sent chilled fingertips gliding down her spine; it pressed cool lips to her forehead, where perspiration gathered at her hairline.

Easing down to sit on the ancient stairs, she let her gaze sweep over the castle walls. There was the rickety old bridge, the lake. There was the long stretch of lawn and beyond, past the wards, the Forbidden Forest, an oasis of shadowy branches. She could almost hear the rustle of their leaves as their branches shifted, opened like arms spread to welcome her dark heart among their own.

Deep breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth.



Always have an exit strategy.

It was a rule she always thought she’d lived by, but just now, she realised she had nothing of the sort. Not for all this. 


“Do you ever think about just...running away?” Astoria surprised herself by asking. She winced. It felt too honest a question to speak aloud, but, for some reason, she’d felt she could ask it.

“Every day,” Ginny answered grimly. “But I can’t. I’m stuck here, just like the rest of us.” She straightened slightly, casting off her melancholy tone. “Besides, the D.A. needs me.”

“Oh yes,” Astoria drawled. “You keep such a firm hand on the reins.” She didn’t have too look; she could feel Ginny’s glare. “I’m kidding--mostly,” she added, holding up a placating hand. “Knowing that lot, they’d get themselves killed in three days without you.”

“They may end up getting killed, either way.”


Astoria had nothing to add to that cheerful truth, and the conversation petered out. It was a dense sort of silence, with the weight of the truth heavy on their shoulders. Astoria was well-accustomed to silence and it rarely bothered her, but the wooden expression on the other girl’s face was becoming unnerving.

A subject change was clearly in order. It would be her good deed for the month. But she didn’t have to be entirely altruistic. Surely it was possible to lighten a dark mood and assuage her own curiosity all at once.

“Speaking of being on the run, how’s The Chosen One these days?”


Ginny sniffed. “What makes you think I’d know?”

Astoria turned to face her, but Ginny stared straight ahead. Her face remained admirably neutral, but there was a tightness to her shoulders, and something pinched about the eyes.

Astoria held her tongue, waiting.

“I don’t know why people are always asking me these things. I mean, I guess they can’t ask Ron anymore, but even when they could. Funny no one ever asks me about Bill’s best mate, or Percy’s. Well, I’m not sure Percy has one....” She trailed off, realising that she was babbling. Still, she didn’t blush, and redheads were prone to that sort of thing. Astoria couldn’t help but be impressed. Ginny Weasley was no novice when it came to keeping secrets.


“Bill’s best ‘mate’ isn’t the Supposed Saviour of Wizardingkind, or whatever they’re calling Potter now.” Astoria leaned back and stretched her neck before remarking casually. “Nor is Bill’s best mate your boyfriend, for that matter.”


Ginny glanced sharply at her. “What are you talking about?”

“Please. Don’t insult my intelligence.”

The other girl made a sound somewhere between a growl and a gurgle, tossing her hands up in the air. 

“Oh, of course. Hardly anyone’s supposed to know about that, so naturally you’re perfectly aware. I’m not even going to ask...” she trailed off. “Nope. Okay, I’m going to ask. How did you know?”

Astoria let slip a minuscule smile. But it deserved a proper answer. She tilted her head, considering.

“You do a good job of hiding it, really. I think I just put it together by chance. I pay attention to everyone, but something interesting’s always happening to Harry Potter at the end of term. It’s practically a school rule.” Ginny snorted a bit at that. “So I usually try to take a bit of notice. And at some point I suppose I noticed that you two seemed different last year. You know, subtle handholding, batting eyelashes.”


“I DO NOT bat my eyelashes.”


“I was talking about Potter.”

Ginny’s eyebrows shot upwards, and she barked a surprised laugh. She leaned back on her elbows, shaking her head.


“Ugh, you know, those eyelashes are wasted on him. When they invent a spell that will let me steal them, I’ll feel no shame.”


“I try to stay clear of boys who are on powerful people’s hit lists, however dreamy their eyelashes.”

Ginny sighed. “This is why I should just say no to PDA.”

“Because you never know when the government is going to be overthrown by extremists who despise your boyfriend?”

“Apparently. You wouldn’t envy my life-span if it got out.”

Frankly, Astoria didn’t envy Ginny’s life-span prospects as it was, but she was hardly going to say that.

“Well. I haven’t told anyone.”

“Obviously, since I’m not a hostage right now.” She leaned her head back, taking in the night sky above them. “It’s only a handful of people who know. Gryffindors, mostly, and they’re loyal enough to keep quiet. Still, it’s like I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“...I wouldn’t, you know?” Astoria said quietly, running a finger against the ancient stone step. “I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

  Astoria didn’t care much for making promises. One never knew what circumstances might arise in the future: torture, blackmail, or any number of factors that could necessitate breaking such an oath. Double-crossing someone might leave a few crumbs of guilt behind, but if you had promised not to, the conscience could manage some harsher blows.

Still, she was seventy--no, eighty-five percent sure--that she would never betray Ginny. Those were good enough odds to give her word on.



Ginny’s dark eyes narrowed, assessing her. “Are you just afraid I’ll try to Obliviate it out of you? Make you forget?”



Astoria eyed her mildly. “You could try.”

Ginny grinned, nodding approvingly. Then, suddenly, she deflated, her amusement vanishing. 


“And Harry’s not exactly my boyfriend anymore. He sort of...broke up with me. Kind of. It’s confusing, and he’s all ‘Ginny, it’s too dangerous for us to be together,” she imitated a low voice, tossing exasperated arms in the air.

“Good to know there’s someone sensible in the relationship.”

Sitting up, Ginny wrapped her arms around her knees, wresting her chin on top of them.

“I’m not even sure it is a relationship--no one’s heard from him in months. I mean, he’s...I don’t know what we are.”

Astoria frowned. The conversation had veered sharply out of her depth. She had meant merely to assuage her own curiosity, but somehow that had turned into a pseudo-slumber party. She’d been privy to enough of Daphne’s conversations with her friends to know what was expected. Petra Melthworp would sob over Blaise Zabini, or whomever she fancied that week, and Daphne would pat her back consolingly and assure her that he was completely in love with her, never mind the fact that he had snogged two other girls the previous weekend and had never shown a dash of interest in Petra. Because apparently that was friendship.



Astoria was good at lying, but that kind of falsehood had always struck her as uncomfortable and impractical.

She leaned forward and nudged Ginny sharply.

“Look. I know I’m expected to say something consoling and probably false here to make you feel better. I’m not going to do that. From what I can tell, Harry Potter is completely mad about you. You’ve got plenty to worry about in dating a wanted man, but I don’t think you need to fret about whether he wants you.”

Ginny eyed her speculatively. “How do you know?”

“Oh, a boy like that doesn’t bat his eyelashes for just anyone.”

Ginny snorted. “I do believe that’s the second joke you’ve made tonight. That’s got to be a record.”


Astoria lifted her chin and sighed. “No doubt among your lot it’s all scatological humour and slipping Tickling Potion into people’s porridge. You’ve simply forgotten what real wit is like.”

“Hmph.” Ginny shrugged. “I know it’s stupid. When there’s a war going on, and everything, we’ve all got more important things to think about, but...”


“I think that if you’re thinking about it in the midst of all this, then it probably is important.”

“Stupid boys. Doing idiotic things like breaking up with you, thinking they’re being all heroic and noble.”

“If you take out the ‘breaking up with you’ bit, you’ve just described my feelings about most of Gryffindor,” Astoria said wryly. “Don’t worry about Potter, Weasley. I’ve a feeling that if he really dumped you, they’d no longer be calling him The Boy Who Lived.”

Ginny smiled. It wasn’t all jagged edges, or brief flashes of lightning, like the other ones had been. This was a smile of true happiness, of real hope.

Astoria wasn’t sure she even had a smile like that, but it was nice to know that it was still a possibility in this world.


The moon had slipped across the sky, and was now poised like a teardrop above the horizon. In the east, it would not be long before the Sun gave birth to another blood-kissed dawn.

Astoria glanced up at the bank of windows. There was no Peeves-shaped glow bobbing along the corridor.

“The coast is clear, I think. We should go.” They both rose up and began making their way back up the curving staircase. They reached the landing and stood before the door, lingering to take one last breath of fresh air before heading back into the suffocating climate of the castle proper.

Once again, Ginny broke the silence.

“Hey, Astoria?” she whispered, still smiling. “Thanks. For everything.”

A shiver of uneasiness skittered down Astoria’s spine--those sounded too much like parting words. Which they were, but there was something...Ginny had spoken lightly enough, but there was a weight that rang in the silence behind her words. Something final.

“Well. Don’t be silly.” Astoria rolled her eyes, focusing on brushing imaginary dirt from her sleeves. 

Ginny’s grin broadened, as though that was exactly what she had expected. She pivoted and reached for the door handle. 

Astoria hissed, “And at least make an effort to stay out of trouble, will you? Take care of yourself.”

Ginny opened the door, and eased back into the corridor, shaking her head as if she were amused.

“Have a good holiday, Astoria.”

*******

The Hogwarts Express, Spring 1998

But Astoria had a miserable holiday, and Ginny hadn’t stayed out of trouble. And as the train sped its charges back towards the gates of Hogwarts, Astoria was struck with a strong sense foreboding. She knew, with a sureness she felt in her gut, that much more misery and danger awaited her behind those tall stone walls.

And, however much she would like to ignore the flurries of dread that spilled over her shoulders, weighing her down with apprehension, she knew better. 

It had been proven time and time again that, when it came to sensing trouble, Astoria had excellent instincts.


_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hi again, everyone! Thanks for reading! So...those who were rooting for some more Astoria & Ginny friendship/camaraderie, you got your wish! Let me know what you think. Sorry it took so long to get this chapter out. Writing two such strong personalities is very fun, but can also be difficult, at times. ;)

Please let me know what you think! I really love hearing your opinions. It helps me a lot, even if you just jot down a line or two. And CC is always welcome!

Hopefully the next chapter will be out faster. A good portion of it’s written, and the chapter after that is pretty much done, so more updates should be on the horizon! Hooray!


As for the next chapter, here’s a snippet: Astoria barely saw the arm that reached out of nowhere to grab her...Before she could open her mouth to scream, she was tugged into a small space, and the world around her was plunged into darkness.


--Penny



Chapter 9: Behind the Bleeding Walls
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Spring 1998

Hogwarts castle was brimming with whispers. 

The corridors, once full of rowdy children joking and jinxing, now corralled grim-mouthed students who kept their eyes downcast as they walked briskly to class. But the urgent murmurings, the passage of such vital information, could not be contained.



Classrooms buzzed with susurrations and speculations, which sputtered and fell silent when professors entered. Quills tapped, jaws clenched, and pressure built as, slowly but surely, the gossip erupted like a storm cloud, sprinkling snatches of stories down upon the student body. Rumours seeped through the cracks in lectures, swelled over the strict silence policies of study hall, as word went round.

As the reckoning came flooding in. 

It was the opposite of a body count. The bodies that could be counted, who were back at school, were the safe ones. Those missing were a question mark--and the answer was universally dreaded.

By the end of her morning classes, double Charms with the Hufflepuffs, Astoria was certain that at least three members of that house had gone missing. 

Gabriel Letterbee was absent, and he had received Flitwick’s Perfect Attendance cupcake every single year. Gabriel Letterbee had attended class when he had scrofungulus. So long as he was in the castle and breathing he would never have missed Charms. He certainly was not in the castle, though the vote was still out on the breathing.

Gabriel Letterbee also had two younger sisters. Neither of them had appeared at lunch.

The news continued to trickle in. By late afternoon, as far as she could tell, there were thirteen students missing in total: six Hufflepuffs, four Gryffindors--Ginny Weasley among them--two Ravenclaws...



And one Slytherin.

 



Isabella Pritchard, of the Salisbury Pritchards, was in the year beneath Astoria. Rumour had it that the family home, a sizeable mansion in Wiltshire, had been shadowed by the Dark Mark on Black Friday.

It would have been understandable if the dungeons were in an uproar. The Slytherins had not been untouched by the war, but of the four houses, they had certainly suffered the least. It would have been understandable if there had been howls of indignation, or a somber silence as they felt themselves being walked over, the silence of
eggshells afraid to be broken.


What was not understandable, to Astoria, at least, was what did happen in the common room.



“Do you think it’s really true?”



“It’s obviously true, Pippa. Honestly.”



“The whole family, then? Everyone’s just gone?”

“What is it that you think happens to traitors, Pip? If they’re dead as doornails, they’re luckier than most.”



“Well I can’t believe I invited her to my seventeenth. Imagine!”



People were clustered together, cast in the greenish glow that filtered into the room from the one large window that peeked into the Black Lake. The virescent lighting turned the flames crackling in the hulking obsidian fireplace to a sickly hue. Their voices were hushed, half a dozen conversations swirling round at once, all saying the same things: They couldn’t believe it. They knew it all along. It was shameful. It was a shame. No one daring to say aloud the one thought Astoria could see pecking at the corners of every Slytherin soul. 


I am not untouchable, and I am afraid.

Pansy Parkinson raised her voice, cawing loudly over the din of whispers, drawing everyone’s attention just as she intended.

 Her posture was casually slouched in a way that Astoria's well-trained spine could not have achieved if she tried, but there was nothing casual about the malevolent gleam in her eyes. It was the look of a true gossip, a huntress--someone who relished nothing more than the triumph of bringing down her quarry; preferably a victim the dogs had injured first.

Pansy was the sort that liked to have a little blood on her, so long as it was someone else's. That way she could claim a part in the victory.

“Well, if you ask me, they got what was coming to them. And the way she always put on airs. Pritchard! As if you could trace that bloodline back further than the 18th century.”

Astoria wanted no place among them, but she paused by the door to listen, pretending to adjust the strap on her satchel.

Pansy sniffed. “People who betray the Dark Lord deserve the worst sort of punishment. The blood will out, you know, and the Pritchards are just one more example. They’ve squibs in the family. Multiple. Probably they just had too much Muggle blood to produce proper wizards.”

Murmurs. Mutterings.

“It’s no wonder at all, really. They were practically born traitors.”


A large contingent of the group nodded, their empty heads bobbing along in the wake of Pansy’s words. 


As the daughter of a spy, her mother had frequently sent Astoria her own “extracurricular” assignments. Lavinia had been rather in love with the idea of passing on her craft. And so Astoria had occasionally been directed to slip into the Owlery, opening, reading, and resealing the odd letter, and informing her mother--in coded messages, of course--of what she had found. In this manner, she had discovered out more than a few details her schoolmates would have preferred to keep to themselves.



And sometimes, Astoria had found, the knowledge wasn’t at all satisfactory.



For instance, Astoria was, for the first time, a bit disappointed to know the Parkinsons’ jealously guarded secret--that they had been selling off properties at a loss, that their dragon’s hoard of gold in Gringotts had been gambled away by her elder brother’s poor abilities with cards, dice, and pegasi. If they’d still had money, perhaps she wouldn’t be listening to this. Perhaps it would be Pansy everyone was whispering about, and Astoria wouldn’t feel an ounce of pity for her.

“Alecto said that the Snatchers had a particularly successful holiday,” Hestia, one half of the younger set of Carrow twins, announced, flipping her long blond braid over her shoulder and bursting with self-importance. “She can’t say who they captured, but apparently there were some big names.”


Her sister, Flora, was not to be outdone. “Maybe the Pritchards tried to run and they caught them. Imagine that!”

“Serves them right,” a voice as familiar to Astoria as her own called out. “I’d hate to think of their sort just running free.”



Astoria’s eyes jumped to her sister. Daphne was sitting by Pansy, looking out at the room. Her voice tried--and failed--at artlessness, and she sat waiting for her friend’s approval like an affection-starved puppy.



“Exactly right,” Pansy approved. Astoria could almost see Daphne’s tail wag. A wave of total disdain flooded her stomach and threatened to make her physically ill.


Straightening her bag, she slipped out of the room, unwilling to suffer through any more of the conversation.

She made certain that her walk looked purposeful, so that she wouldn’t be stopped or bothered. And yet she felt as if she were floating down the corridor like a piece of dandelion fluff tossed by the wind. She had no real place to go, but she could not stand there and listen to her sister babble on against the girl whose fate should have been their own.



Astoria tried to be charitable, though it wasn’t one of her strong suits. Daphne didn’t know about the interview. She didn’t know how close she had come to having her head on the platter. She was blissfully unaware of just how little protection her pure blood offered her, of how her perfect little world could come crashing down in a trice.



Of course, if she’d bothered to come home and provide the smallest bit of help, she would have known all these things. If Daphne ever bothered to open her eyes and look around, perhaps she’d have a clue.



Astoria climbed up a flight of stairs, paused at the landing, but kept going. The staircases had adopted a sharper angle today, and she welcomed the exertion. It seemed a prudent way to burn off some of her irritation, though it was not nearly distracting enough.



Perhaps Draco Malfoy had not exaggerated when he called Daphne a fool. Of course, it wasn’t his place to say so--Daphne was Astoria’s sister; only she was permitted to malign her without consequence. But still, it was something of a relief to know that someone else could see it.

Astoria should forgive her sister, she knew. She should accept Daphne’s weaknesses and work harder to see her good points. But though she would have willingly died for Daphne any day of the week, she found it rather hard to like her.


It was one of the many, many reasons that Astoria wasn’t a very good person. But that was immaterial. Gabriel Letterbee had always seemed a decent sort, and now his entire family was probably dead.



She could live with not being a particularly good person, if it meant that she did get to live. 


Upon reaching the fourth floor, Astoria drew to a stop. It wasn’t a good idea to wander aimlessly these days, not even for a Slytherin. Hogwarts was a powder keg; there were too many people bottling up their grief, and when they snapped, something was going to explode.



She turned to the left and headed down the corridor, towards the third alcove from the stairway. There was a tapestry tucked behind the suit of armour that led to the upper level of the library. It was an area seldom frequented by students, where Astoria could generally count on being left alone.

She headed that way silently, mulling over her thoughts as she went.

It had been so very close. So easily, it could have been the Greengrass name that the rumour mill was grinding down to dust. 

She wondered if it had been Draco Malfoy who had sent the Pritchard family to their doom. If he hadn’t inexplicably chosen to spare her own family, would Isabella’s have gone free?

Isabella Pritchard was good at Herbology. She had a steady boyfriend who had been a reserve Keeper for the Slytherin Quidditch team--a boyfriend who, if he had any sense, would have to pretend that she never meant a thing to him. She had once leant Astoria a quill when hers had snapped, without being asked.



Isabella Pritchard did not deserve to be dead.


And yet, Astoria couldn’t help feeling somewhat relieved. She was glad that it was the Pritchards and not the Greengrasses. She was grateful that she was alive, even if it meant someone else was not. 

Probably that was another reason she wasn’t a good person, but she was what she was.


She felt, suddenly, a bit dizzy from the continuous whirring of her thoughts. Stopping several paces away from her destination, she closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, opened them. Even Astoria’s quick mind was having trouble processing all that was before her: so many deaths, so many disappearances, her father, her sister, their own near escape. Ginny. Gabriel. Isabella. 

It was too much. Entirely too much to take in.

And it was this distraction that was her mistake.



Astoria barely saw the arm that reached out of nowhere to grab her. She managed to whirl away just in time for it to miss her arm, but the billowing sleeves of her Hogwarts robes caught in its fist instead. Before she could open her mouth to scream, she was tugged into a small space, and the world around her was plunged into darkness.

She scrabbled backwards until she could go no further, knocking into a stack of boxes. There was a clatter as some long poles tumbled to the floor, and Astoria had an unnerving flash of déjà vu. Sweet Salazar, please not a broom cupboard. The knuckles that had clutched at her sleeves had clearly been male, and the last thing she needed was some ham-fisted admirer attempting to seduce her in the most cliché manner imaginable.

It had happened before. Daphne had once told Tiberius Flint, who had been nursing an ill-advised tendre for Astoria, that her little sister was “shy” and he should “just go for it.

”

Tiberius’ idea of “going for it” had involved, for Astoria, an unexpected trip to a broom cupboard, and, for Tiberius, an unexpected trip to the Hospital Wing. Astoria didn’t often entertain amorous advances. There weren’t a great many boys that she considered worth her efforts.

Her mind flashed, briefly, to a pair of storm-grey eyes and pale hair. She shook the image away. This really was not the time.

It was still too dark to see anything, including her company. There wasn’t much space. The astringent scent of industrial cleaner singed her nose and pricked at her eyes. Supply cupboard, then. That was probably better.

Lumos,” she spoke, hearing an unfamiliar voice mutter, “Muffliatto” in the same instant.

The dim, bluish light cast off by the tip of her wand made a feeble effort against the velvet blackness of the windowless room. She pointed the wand in the direction of her captor, and the darkness fled from the space between them, sweeping up to pool in the sockets of his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks.



She didn’t know him. He was tall, certainly a student, but not wearing his robes. The crimson and gold of a loosely-knotted Gryffindor tie just barely peeked above the collar of his dark blue cardigan.

He apparently didn’t notice that the colours clashed, red and blue and yellow pressed together like a child’s primary colour wheel. His throat bobbed as he gulped, loudly, and though his wand was raised in her direction, it was held at the angle to launch into a Shield Charm, not any offensive manoeuvre she was familiar with.



He was nervous. And he wasn’t going to attack her. Not right away.



That did not, actually, make her feel much more charitable towards her abductor. She raised her wand, shining the light directly into his eyes and forcing him a step back.

“Astoria Greengrass?” he asked, blinking the stars from his eyes.

She met his gaze, lifting her chin in that aristocratic manner that Gryffindors so hated, and gave no response.


The boy’s jaw set with determination.

“We need to talk.”


He raised his wand, and that was all the warning she had.

The room went dark.


***

The Forbidden Forest, Spring 1998


Draco was lucky to be alive.

He knew this, from a logical level. But, with the bloodstained soles of his black leather shoes resting on centuries of leaf litter, and the dark, spiring turrets of Hogwarts castle crowding his vision, he couldn’t say he truly felt it.

He also knew that his assignment was meant to be a form of punishment. And, in that regard, it certainly lived up to its purpose. Draco cast a disparaging glance towards his fellow Death Eaters, several of whom were still struggling to set up their tents. Oh, they could cast a Killing Curse in their sleep (which was more a hazard than an actual show of skill), but these, the Dark Lord’s mighty forces, could scarcely set up a camp to save their lives.


Well, most of them. There was a cluster of large black tents looming like storm clouds a few yards away that looked like a proper encampment. It was the commanders’ section, where Rodolphus and his ilk had settled. But Draco stayed away from there. He had no particular yearning to see his uncle, the husband of his mad Aunt Bellatrix.

Bellatrix, who had, when he last saw her, had come completely undone at the prospect of failing her master.

If Draco were inclined to be fair--which he wasn’t--he might concede that everyone had fallen apart in their own way. But while his mother had sobbed and his father had growled and snapped, his aunt had glared at him with murder in her eyes. When the Dark Lord had spared them, that look had disappeared, but Draco still felt a sharp fear in his gut whenever her gaze speared his.



Madness glinted there, he was certain.

It was an unwritten Malfoy rule that family always came first, so when Bellatrix had escaped Azkaban, his mother had welcomed her with open arms, Rodolphus gliding in as a dark and silent shadow at her back.

Draco hadn’t much previous experience with aunts. One was a blood traitor, a blight on the family tree, the other an inmate at Azkaban. His mother was always close-lipped about her sisters, but Draco was observant. There were two times a year, every year, when Narcissa pled headache and shut herself away in her chambers. One, as he had discovered from the old issues of the Daily Prophet in the Manor’s library, was the date of her eldest sister’s court trial. The other was a seemingly ordinary day in June which, Draco could not help but notice, was prime wedding season.



In spite of everything, his mother clearly held great affection for her sisters. 



Draco respected his mother’s opinion in all things, but here, he would have to disagree.



Bellatrix was less an an aunt to him than a tutor, a vicious and demanding instructor in all things unspeakable. It was she who had taught him how to fortify his own mind, and how to spring the locks on others.



He had been surprisingly quick at the former, for he’d quickly realised that Bellatrix Lestrange was one of the last people he wanted thumbing through his thoughts. That was horrid enough. 

Even worse was the rare occasion he managed to breach her mental defences.



Tortured screams.
Flashes of sickly green light.
An infant’s wail.
Dark windows squinting out of a grim, grey building.

Unnatural crimson eyes.

Flames.




What went on in his aunt’s mind did not bear repeating.

He hadn’t succeeded often in overcoming his aunt’s Occlumency, but when he had, Bellatrix had not displayed the pride of a teacher for her student, but a fury that stunned him. Her claw-like wand had scraped against his bare throat as she demanded that he recount everything he’d seen, and she shoved through his mental defences to be sure he’d left nothing out. It hadn’t been long before he had been thrust Muggleborns and sympathisers to practise on and, by comparison, it had been a relief.

Well, not always. He could think of one time in the recent past when his Legilimancy had been nothing but a complication.



Draco summoned another log to the pile that would form a campfire and stood back, trying to discern whether it would be enough. He had no idea. The Malfoys were not the sort of family who camped. 



Someone else should be doing this, but at the rate at which the underlings setting up those tents, it would be night before they got round to it, and then he would be freezing. As Draco had learned in recent months, sometimes it was worth doing a thing yourself, if only because you’d pay a price when others did it poorly.



He shoved a branch to the left with his foot. Surely it would do; its only job was to burn.

His self-imposed task complete, Draco assessed his options. There was his tent, or the rest of the Forbidden Forest.

It was an easy choice.


He steered his way around large roots and the heaps of canvas and wood that his companions had not yet managed to charm into anything that even the most generous person could deem ‘a structure’. Draco did not offer to help, but continued walking until he was on the edge the main encampment.


He had just reached the outside of the clearing when a familiar screech tore through the camp, and he spun, ducking behind a large oak. The bark dug into his back, catching on the fabric his shirt as he peered over his shoulder towards the knot of pitch-black tents.



Bellatrix was there, shoving aside the flap of the largest tent, leaving the entire structure to shudder and shift as she tromped away, Rodolphus on her heels.


“I have a right--” he began, only to be cut off by a jet of red light, which he narrowly avoided. Bellatrix whirled on her husband, her new wand’s tip pressed against his chest.



“It’s my decision, you miserable oaf! I am in charge!” She spun, and sent a spell whirling towards a wizard who’d stopped, mouth agape, to watch them. He fell to the ground, and Draco shifted further behind the tree.


“Bella darling, you must at least tell me where.”



“I don’t need to tell you anything. I am not beholden to you in any way. Take care not to anger me, Rodolphus. You are dangerously close!”
 


Draco rather thought his aunt sounded angered already, but he hoped Rodolphus wasn’t foolish enough to push her.

“I’m going.”



Draco leaned to the side again in order to catch a glimpse of the scene. Bellatrix appeared gaunt, the bodice of her dress hanging loosely around her ribcage. 

The stress of keeping in the Dark Lord’s favour had wreaked its havoc on the entire family, robbing his mother of her characteristic serenity and reducing his father to a bitter husk. Bellatrix’s weight had fluctuated significantly, sliding from slightly plump to skeletal. Rodolphus was as grim as ever, but his eyes now possessed a wild gleam where before they had always been blank.

Draco preferred not to think too much of how he himself had been altered. There was too much to catalogue.

He was brought back from his introspection when Rodolphus asked, his voice lowered,
 “When will you be back?”



Bellatrix sneered.



“Whenever I damn well choose, Rodolphus. I’ll give the Dark Lord your regards.”



She hiked up her tattered skirts, spun in place and, with a crack, she vanished.


Draco remained for a moment, watching as his uncle, head lowered, turned back towards his tent.

Rodolphus was blind if he couldn’t see that Bellatrix cared for him only so inasmuch as he was useful to her. But then, he wouldn’t be the first man to fall prey to feminine manipulations. Draco was not certain how much better he was, himself.


No longer fearing being caught eavesdropping, he stepped away from the tree, moving deeper into the forest. His shoes sank deeply into the loam, and a rich, woodsy scent enveloped him, but under it lay the cloying odour of decay.



Large, humanoid shadows darted from behind distant trunks, and Draco was careful not to stray too far. There were more forces here than just the Death Eaters. On the fringes of their camp, the werewolves had set up shop, and occasionally he could hear the booming thud of a giant’s step. Further out, he knew, were the acromantulas, and Draco was deeply glad to know that there were all sorts of creatures between him and the eight-legged monstrosities. The Dark Lord had called together his numbers in force: the larger group with Him in the English countryside, and a second, sizeable unit installed in the Forbidden Forest, Rodolphus Lestrange at its helm.

Draco found a toppled log and, deciding that it didn’t look too horribly infested, swept his wand over it to clear off whatever nature-related horrors might be hiding there, and sat. In the distance, he could see Hogwarts castle, its stone painted black against a brilliant sunset, the horizon exploding with reds and golds. Crimson light limned the towers that jutted into the sky.

It looked like the castle was bleeding.


Draco leaned his head back and groaned. He didn’t know why they were here in this godforsaken forest, but it would be nothing good. A few weeks ago, if anyone had raised the possibility that the Death Eaters might attack Hogwarts, he would have been sickened. Not for honourable, selfless reasons, like the fact that Hogwarts had been a home to him, or because people would be hurt. 



No. It was because he was afraid. 


He had not set foot on Hogwarts grounds since he escaped in the night nearly a year before. Not since he had disarmed one of the greatest wizards that had ever lived and Snape had finished the job. Even now, staring at the highest tower, he could imagine that one of the rooks that spiralled around it was a lifeless body, plunging toward the ground. Of course, the bird would level out before the ground, would fly back to its nest, safe and sound.

Dumbledore had not.

Draco’s stomach churned at the memory. He hated it, hated it, hated it.

All his life, he had grown up hearing his father rant and rave about the machinations of Albus Dumbledore. Draco had been prepared to do as he must. But that night in the Astronomy Tower, bathed by the sickly green light of the Dark Mark, Dumbledore hadn’t looked like the enemy. He’d looked like a wandless old man. A man who spent his last moments offering Draco his aide.



He’d been through it a thousand times, turning the memory over like a fossil. As if examining a death from the past could tell him anything useful.

Dumbledore had claimed that he’d known all along. He said that he would hide Draco, that he would hide his parents, too. 

Logic told him that the man had been bargaining, trying to save his own life. Draco had been armed and dangerous--he’d had all the power. And yet, an insidious voice inside his head would never stop reminding him that Dumbledore could probably do more magic without his wand than Draco could with his. If the Headmaster had wanted to destroy him that night, he would have, wand or no.

Draco didn’t even remember making a choice. It had all happened so fast.



He couldn’t imagine that he would have taken Dumbledore up on his offer. After all, his “Order” had hidden Potter’s parents, hadn’t they? And look what had happened to them. Still, that overture, the earnestness in the Headmaster’s face, was a parasite he could not expel from his mind, feeding on what little assurance he still possessed. Nor could he eradicate the deep-rooted dread that lifted its head at the idea of stepping again onto Hogwarts soil. There was a small, irrational part of him that firmly believed that the very ground the great wizard had once ruled over would yawn open and swallow him whole.

Draco no longer had the best sense of right or wrong. He knew he was fighting more out of fear than anything else; he knew that the Dark Lord was probably aware of this, and it suited Him fine. Draco didn’t know who the villains or the heroes were anymore--it was as hard to imagine the old man offering him one last chance as “evil” as it was to think of his aunt as “righteous”. Most days, he wasn’t sure he cared. Right and wrong might not even be real, but fear was.

And now, there was new fear. Draco was accumulating them like a well-funded collection.

Behind those bleeding walls, there was a girl.

A girl with dark hair, improbably blue eyes, and a smile like a keen-edged knife.

She had convinced him, somehow without ever really asking, to lie for her, and in a way that could have been his undoing. It nearly had been. That act of mercy, which had spawned another, had nearly meant the death of all his family.

She had confused him, or he had confused himself, and he wasn’t even certain which.

He’d often wondered in the weeks since if it had been her intention all along--if she’d played him. He wondered if she would laugh knowing that he still lay up nights, tossing and turning, punching his pillow, wondering whether each tilt of her head, each flutter of her lashes, had been a snare set for him before he ever set foot in that house.

Somehow, this slip of a girl had become his new fear. If the Death Eaters were commanded to enter Hogwarts, he might wish that the ground had swallowed him up. 



If they took the castle, he might have to see her.


He might never lay eyes on her again.



He might be asked to hurt her. He didn't know if he was more terrified of doing so, or of being unable to. Either way, he was weak.


Even after looking into her mind, Draco wasn’t certain what side she was on, and if he was honest, that frightened him. 

She frightened him. 

And amidst all of his bundled fears--the ones he banished to the back rooms of his brain, and those his mind kept close, polishing at odd hours, refusing to let them go for long--this one felt significant.



A twig snapped, and Draco jumped to his feet, his heart pounding as he berated himself for being caught unawares. His wand homed in on an oddly shaped shadow lumbering through the trees a few yards away. Something about the creature looked deeply wrong, and he kept an eye glued to its ungainly form as he edged his way back towards camp.



Astoria Greengrass was going to be the end of him.


Her, or this damn forest.


***

Hello, my loves! So, we're back at Hogwarts at last. Who is this, er..."mysterious" abductor? And what might he want with our Astoria? How will Draco fare in the Forbidden Forest? What will happen next?!

Well, here's a hint! Next chapter's snippet (*subject to change/adjustment) is:

“Who. Did. This?” Professor Carrow demanded, his voice quaking with fury.

Unsurprisingly, no one answered. Astoria felt as if her body had turned to stone.


Yikes! What could have caused all that, I wonder? Check back next chapter to find out!

I really appreciate your reviews! If you just jot one down--even a short one--it's very encouraging and helful to me. Also, this chapter hasn't been beta'd, so if you notice any spelling/grammar errors or anything of that kind, please let me know! Thanks!

--Penny





Chapter 10: In Dark Spaces
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

CI by katharos

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4th Floor Supply Cupboard, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Spring 1998

“We need to talk.” 



Astoria could see nothing. She smacked her wand a few times against her palm, but the light did not return.

In her last glimpse of him, the boy had been leaning leaning forward over his knees, one hand gripping his thigh as if steeling himself for an attack, his wand hand lifted and pointed at her own.

She could hear his breathing, a bit loud and too fast--wary, as if he was trapped in a cage with an angry dragon. 



He had no idea.

“Absolutely,” Astoria answered calmly, her voice milky smooth and sugared as a cup of freshly poured tea.

She sensed the boy’s eyes upon her, his sudden intake of breath. He was clearly surprised at her acquiescence. She grinned widely, dragging her tongue along the edge of her teeth as if to sharpen it.

“I think we should talk about how grabbing girls and dragging them into enclosed spaces is barbaric behaviour.” Astoria tsked. “I think we should talk about how gentlemen do not manhandle ladies into dark rooms without their consent. Not very becoming of a Gryffindor,” she chided, her words still sheathed in that eerily lighthearted tone that promised revenge, as she settled down on an overturned crate and gazed at him with all the contempt of a spiteful queen. “Aren’t your sort supposed to be chivalrous?”

“I, er, I didn’t mean...I--”

“Stow it,” she ordered, taking a certain pleasure in her use of such a low-brow command. It felt exotic on her tongue, an intriguing and unfamiliar texture. Astoria crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back against a tall stack of crates. “Anyone can see you’re not here to force your...dubious charms on me.”

Instead of taking offense, though, he made a small sound of negation. His response: “No, I’m definitely not here for that,” was tinged with good humour.

Leaning forward, she strained her eyes, trying to glean any detail from the darkness. There was none to be found.

“In that case, would you kindly turn the lights back on?” she snapped. “If you don’t mean any harm, then I can hardly see why whatever business you mean to conduct must occur in the dark.”

She heard a rustle as the boy shrugged.

“Sorry. But I don’t think I should.”


Astoria shifted on her box. A mop handle was jammed uncomfortably against her shoulder. She knocked it in his general direction and felt a small twinge of satisfaction when she heard the thump of the pole hitting flesh and a pained grunt.


“I promise I just want to talk.”

“To talk,” she repeated skeptically, not quite an acceptance, not quite a question.

Astoria quickly scanned back through her mental notes. She still had not discerned who, exactly, her captor was, which made her edgy and uncomfortable. No doubt in proper daylight Astoria, who had a solid mental catalogue of nearly every Hogwarts student, would have identified him in a trice. But her wandtip emitted not a single flicker, and the young man before her was a soft-spoken body of shadows. 



The boy was tall--she had caught that--with a gentle voice that carried a hint of a brogue. Age could be hard to pin down by sight, anyways, but whatever spell he’d done to counteract her lumos charm, he’d done it silently. That put him in sixth year, at the least. 

He was probably a Gryffindor, unless he had taken to wearing another House’s colours. That wasn’t impossible. Still, Gryffindor seemed a likely option; locking himself in a cupboard with a vengeful Slytherin witch was a characteristically foolhardy move. 

With what she had, Astoria could narrow down the list of suspects, but without more information or better lighting, there was no telling for certain.

She decided to table that concern for the moment, in favour of gaining some much-needed information.

“Alright,” she continued stonily. “You want to talk? Talk. Why am I here?”

“Weeeellll,” he began, slowly, and Astoria gritted her teeth with impatience. She could hear him scratching at the back of his head. “Because of Ginny, I s’pose.”

Astoria’s spine snapped to attention, her head jerking up so fast it almost made her dizzy.

“Ginny,” Astoria echoed faintly, scarcely believing he had spoken the name. As if it had a mind of its own, she felt her wand lower. Urgent questions immediately bubbled to the surface, but long habit sealed her jaw and kept her from asking too quickly.

“Have you...spoken with her?” she asked in carefully measured tones.

He paused, as if to gauge her response. 

“Sort of.”

Astoria mentally cursed the boy for being so cryptic, realising just how hypocritical it was and not caring a jot.

“What does that mean?

The sound of fabric rustling--another damn shrug.

“She sent me a message. Well, not just me. To all of us. But--”

Astoria felt the tense muscles of her shoulders, ever so slightly, release.

“So she’s alive.” The words rushed out of her mouth unbidden, carried on a whispered tide of relief. She hadn’t realised until just that moment how worried she had been.

It had been a long time since Astoria cared much what happened to anyone outside her family, and she wasn’t at all certain she much liked doing so. But her words seemed to have warmed the Gryffindor across from her up considerably.

“Yeah. She’s alright,” the boy confirmed. It sounded as though he were scrubbing a hand through his short hair. “All the Weasleys are. They’ve found somewhere to hole up for a bit.”

“Good.”

They stood there in silence for a moment. Astoria pushed back a strand of hair from her face, suddenly uncomfortable. Besides Ginny, no one at Hogwarts had been aware that she had rebel sympathies. But surely this boy wouldn’t have tugged her into a cupboard if he hadn’t known. She felt exposed. 



Ginny Weasley.

Draco Malfoy.

...Cardigan Boy.

How many people were destined to learn her secrets?

Her quiet reverie was broken as the young man cleared his throat. “Right. So, Ginny wanted me to talk to you. Soon as I could.”

“Whatever about?”

The boy shifted on his feet, the sound of his shoes scuffing against the stone floor set her on edge as he hesitated, considering.

“Can you keep a secret?”

She gave him a thin-lipped smile. “It’s something of a specialty of mine.”

He rocked back and forth a few more times, and Astoria, trained her whole life to be calm and collected, ground her teeth in suspense.

“Well?” she finally demanded. “If Ginny has some ‘secret message’ for me, are you going to tell me, or aren’t you?”



He stilled his rocking.


“She said we could trust you.”

Astoria scoffed. “You don’t sound convinced.”



“I’m not,” the boy said plainly, his voice threaded with a tenor of pure earnestness that Astoria doubted she herself was capable of. “But Ginny’s a fair judge of character, and she usually doesn’t err towards trusting the enemy. Er, not that you’re the enemy. I mean, you’re a Slytherin, so you’re not exactly--erm--but...”

Astoria huffed out a sigh and leaned back.

“Well, you’re going to decide whether or not you’re going to tell me soon, because I have classes to get to, and I am not sitting in a musty old supply cupboard for hours because some bumbling oaf cannot come to a decision.”

She heard, rather than saw, the wrinkle in his brow as he responded.

“You--are you always this...direct?”



Astoria couldn’t help coughing up a small laugh. 

“No. Not at all.”

The boy gave a small, grim chuckle as well.

“Alright, well, here goes. The message...it wasn’t so much to you as it was about you. I’m guessing you know that Ginny was partly in charge of the D.A., that is, er, Dumbledore’s Army?”



Astoria nodded, then realised there was no possibility he could see it.


“Yes.”

“Right, so without her we’ve been in a bit of a bind. We’ve got some people who--well, they can’t really afford to be seen.”

Astoria couldn’t help it, she gasped.

“You’re...hiding fugitives? At Hogwarts?!”


The young man didn’t seem taken aback at her tone. “Last place they’d think of, right? But there are problems.

“We can hide them, keep them safe, but we’ve got supply issues. Food, especially. And since the Carrows are now using starving as fair punishment, there’s not near enough to go around. Ginny was always good at finding ways around that, but it’s gotten worse since she left. I’m...worried,” he admitted. He swallowed nervously and continued.

“Within a month, maybe less, I won’t have anything to give them. The Order of the Phoenix can barely contact us, let alone send real supplies. We’re on our own. We need something to change. And, according to Ginny, we need...you."

His head lifted slowly, pinning her with a stare she couldn’t see, but could sense the weight of. Astoria could feel his gaze on her, imploring, could feel his desire to change and help and do good.

She almost choked.


“Oh no. No.” She tried to speak firmly, but the words rasped. They were pieces of gravel in her throat, scraping against her airway, dropping from her lips and falling heavily to the ground between them, marking a line she would not--could not--cross again.

The boy leaned forward, oblivious to the stones choking her airway, sinking heavily into her stomach, melting and calcifying into a rocky encasement that wrapped around her thrumming heart.

“Look, we need help. To be honest, we’re desperate.” Even through the anger that was prickling, spreading across her body, Astoria registered surprise that he could admit such a thing, that a Gryffindor could be so humble. “I’m asking you, for the sake of keeping alive any hope that’s left. Ginny said that you were our best chance.”

Astoria could barely breathe. Her entire body still felt cold as stone, but the prickling rage still raced across her limbs, a flashing blend of hot and cold. Anger churned in her stomach, heating and melting the words she choked back, grappling for control, until they surged forward with volcanic force, scorching the air out of the room.

Really?” she hissed. “Ginny said that, did she? Tell me something, then: what’s happened to Ginny now? Can you tell me that?”

The boy remained silent.

“She’s being hunted down. She and her whole family. Where does it all get you--being noble and helpful--if in the end you and everyone you love are destroyed? If everything you fought to save is lost?” 

Astoria’s voice broke. She quaked with rage. For a moment, the wand in her hand burst into bright light, and she could see him clearly--a fresh cut along his chin, messy hair, shoulders slumped. He looked like he’d already been defeated.

Astoria seemed to be the only one in the room that knew he had. Her breathing slowed. The room dimmed once again.

“I got involved once,” Astoria said tightly, “and nothing good came out of it.”

“Nothing?”

Her voice snapped like a flag in view of an oncoming storm. “Nothing good for me.”

Get dragged in with idiots once, shame on you. Get dragged in twice, you’re dead.

She could hear the boy breathing deeply, as if they had just ended a battle. She sensed a spark of anger blooming in him, but it quickly sputtered into sadness, confusion. Once again she felt his eyes, but this time she stared into the darkness, refusing to meet them.

“Can you really stand by and watch innocent people suffer? Can you stand by and do nothing?”


The heat, the anger, receded, and she moved backwards, leaning her head against the solid wood of the door. It was cold, like the pressure that had risen in her chest and built behind her eyes. It was solid and unfeeling, and Astoria pressed into it, as if she could absorb its qualities by sheer force of will.

“Yes,” she whispered. “I can.”

Reaching for the knob, her trembling fingers found the brass orb and turned it with a click. Astoria shoved outward, moving blindly in the direction of the bright corridor, reaching out for a wall that she would follow anywhere, as long as it was far away.

The boy didn’t follow.


***
The Great Hall, Dinnertime, Spring 1998


Astoria plunged her fork into a pile of mashed potatoes, pitiless, gouging out forkfuls only to turn them back onto her plate, uneaten. This--this casual dinnertime violence--was the only outlet she could allow herself. Otherwise, she appeared typically composed: spine straight, face blank, surrounded by fellow Slytherins. Mariane Fawley. Dimitri Yaxley. Constance Eckleworth-Baines. She knew each of their class standings, the intricacies of their bloodlines, and had blackmail-worthy information on two of the three, if it should ever come to that. Despite all this, however, she could hardly say she knew them.

By all accounts, these were her peers: the children she had grown up with, those she should know best. She had been to their mothers’ garden parties, their extravagant birthday fêtes; she had sat in the dormitories with some of these girls, quietly painting her nails as they compared magazine articles and gossiped about boys. Oh, she had always been on the periphery, as she preferred, but once upon a time she had been accepted.

People look away from tragedies, she had told Draco Malfoy, explaining her lack of “associates”.

And it was true. But, like so many things in her life, it also wasn’t.

Astoria could have been folded back into their ranks, had she desired it. Her will was strong, and if she had wanted to, she could have elbowed her way back from the edges, and they would have accepted her once more. Constance, her one-time Potions partner, had extended the occasional invitation--come watch a game of wizard’s chess, come try this new batch of facial potions, come study out by the lake.

No, it wasn’t entirely their fault that Astoria felt unwelcome among her Housemates. It was she who felt different, who was holding herself apart.

The hairs on the back of her neck rose up as Astoria registered the sensation of being watched. She didn’t glance behind her--entirely too obvious--but raised her silver goblet, searching for the reflection of her observer in its polished surface. She tilted the cup closer to her lips, finally finding the right angle. She recognised him even through the warped image: tall, poor posture, total lack of subtlety--of course he was a Gryffindor. She set down the goblet abruptly.

Cardigan Boy. Or, as she had discovered soon after their meeting, one Neville Longbottom.

It was odd that she hadn’t known him immediately once she had finally glimpsed him--she knew nearly everyone in the castle by sight, and he’d made quite a fuss in the past year. But Astoria had a good sense for trouble--could feel it brewing, and tended to slip quietly away before matters came to a head. So, while the majority of Hogwarts would have witnessed the young troublemaker being punished at some time or other, Astoria had mostly avoided it. The one time she had seen him, drawn up before the crowds at dinner to be castigated publicly, his face had been a patchwork of blacks and blues, quite different from how he appeared now.

When Astoria called upon the memory of Neville Longbottom, like flipping through the pages of some vast encyclopaedia, the picture by the name was years out of date: a chubby boy who hadn’t grown into his ears, his mouth puckered in a particularly mournful grimace.

Now the grimace was still there, but it was full of purpose, and the boy had changed more than she would have imagined. Changes that could lead to nowhere good.

Astoria ceased her potato-murdering, carefully setting down her fork. These were the associates she had inadvertently courted--fiery redheads who spent their free time scrawling revolutionary graffiti, glaring boys with questionable fashion sense and a gift for infuriating authority figures.

Obviously, she had made some poor life decisions.

And why? Revenge, certainly. But what else? If she was forced to be honest with herself--and Astoria tried always to be honest with herself, if with no one else--then it was possible her decisions had stemmed from loneliness. Ginny had not been a friend, exactly, but at least...a comrade in arms? For the first and only time since the death of her mother, Astoria had been part of something.

Maybe that was all she needed. Perhaps all this lunacy was really just the manifestation of a natural need for human interaction. A weakness, perhaps, but surely a common one? And weaknesses could be managed. Astoria could begin managing it, right now. All she needed to do was make better choices. She could interact with the right people, the safe people, and all would be well.

She felt a tightening in her stomach--breaking out of habit was never easy. But, she reminded herself, it could be simple. All she needed to do was speak.

“Mariane,” she began, her voice less steady than she’d like, but she doubted anyone else could detect the faint tremor. The girl glanced up, her blue eyes wide, and blinked in surprise.

“Erm...yes?” she answered politely, which meant Astoria had to speak again.

“How was your holiday?”

“It was...nice,” Mariane responded, her voice soaring an octave higher from sheer surprise. It wasn’t that Astoria Greengrass never spoke. Half a year ago she certainly had, if more sparingly than most. What she didn’t do was engage in small talk, at least not anymore. Which, Astoria considered, was lucky--it was a good thing that she had saved it all up, as she had certainly expended half a year’s worth of meaningless pleasantries in her encounter with Draco Malfoy, and it seemed she would now need more.

“What did you do?”

Mariane smiled beatifically, brushing her long golden hair behind her. Astoria had chosen her mark with her usual care--few people loved to talk about themselves more than Mariane Fawley, and giving the girl an invitation to prattle on about herself would unquestionably ensure her goodwill.

“It was marvellous, actually,” Mariane declared, eyes shining. “Uncle Aegeus took us to the the Wizarding Resort on St. Arnulf. Of course, it’s very difficult to leave the country right now, but Uncle works in the Ministry, you know, very important work, and he was able to pull some strings, so we rented the most delightful little villa. And you would not believe the weather there! It’s been so dreary, here, lately, but there, I swear, the sun is positively glorious--”

And on and on it went. Astoria nodded, and prodded with quiet hmmms, and of course, but she had the oddest sensation that the interactions were being yanked out of her mouth like loose teeth.

“The tropics really are so charming, but I’ll confess, I was terribly worried about sunburn, so...” and Mariane proceeded to jump into what was, judging from the reaction of her fellows, a very amusing anecdote about procuring sunscreen on a paradisal island. Astoria fixed a matching smile on her face, but felt the nerves that had thrummed in the pit of her stomach hardening like baked clay.

Here they were, in the midst of a war, of an arguable genocide, and her companions were gadding about swanning off to the Caribbean! A week ago, Astoria had stood before a Death Eater, her entire family’s lives hanging in the balance, and Mariane Fawley had been reclining on a sun-kissed beach. And what’s more, Mariane had come back! She had willingly come back to this place, because it was an environment in which her family thought they stood to gain, not lose.

But we will lose, insisted the voice in her head she had been trying to muffle ever since she left Neville Longbottom standing alone in a darkened supply cupboard. We’ll all lose.

Or maybe they wouldn’t. There was a danger in seeing yourself as the sole possessor of reason, the voice clamouring in the desert. Who was she to think she was the only one capable of seeing clearly? Who was Astoria Greengrass to think herself more knowledgeable than everyone else at the table?

“And the water--it’s unbelievably clear. It’s just the colour of the dress I wore to the Yule Ball--Constance, you remember--and--”


The low chatter--far less boisterous than dinnertime talk had been in all years past--ground to a sudden halt as Amycus Carrow stood from his place on the dais, his chair screeching against the flagstone, sounding ominously like a scream. There was an empty seat left for Headmaster Snape, who never took his meals with the students, and Professor Carrow had edged as close to that empty chair as possible, giving him a position that was meant to look important, but was really just unpleasantly off-centre.

“Silence,” he demanded unnecessarily, as the sounds in the Hall had already dimmed. His voice was like a whetstone, rocky and grinding, but the words that came from his mouth felt dagger-sharp. “Miss Donoghue. Come forward.”

Towards the back of the room, Astoria saw a flutter of movement. A third year girl, ashen under her ebony complexion, pushed herself up from the Hufflepuff table. She seemed to have some difficulty getting herself over the bench, and several hands reached over to help her. The girl tottered down the central aisle, toward the dais. Her head was raised, fists clenched, and it was only when she passed across from Astoria that her sharp eyes were able to detect that the girl was shaking.

She walked up to where Professor Carrow stood and stopped several paces away. Folding his hands into the long sleeves of his robes, the professor turned to the girl with an unpleasantly hungry expression.

“Miss Donoghue, would you say that Hogwarts is an unfair institution?”



The third year’s eyes were wide, skittering uncertainly between Amycus Carrow’s face and the rest of the professors at the high table, who sat like unseeing statues, scarcely breathing. Astoria’s eyes darted to Professor McGonagall’s empty seat--a sign that did not bode well.

“Do you feel that we provide insufficiently for our students?” The girl stood there, shaking but silent, obviously afraid to risk speech. “Perhaps you believe your teachers are fools.”

Amara Donoghue’s mouth opened and closed like that of a landed fish, but she made no sound. Finally, she managed to shake her head, silently.

Taking two steps down to the floor, Professor Carrow circled the girl widely, his predator’s eyes narrowing.

“Then what are we to think,” he drawled, “when we find a student smuggling rolls out of the Great Hall, despite direct orders to the contrary? Times are hard, Miss Donoghue, and the Ministry faces many challenges. We cannot afford thieving fingers roaming these halls.” 


Astoria gritted her teeth at such utter tripe. Everyone knew the rules against removing food from the Great Hall had nothing to do with the alleged budget cuts imposed by the Ministry, and everything to do with the Carrows’ practice of revoking mealtimes--sometimes for entire Houses--as punishment. They didn’t want anyone giving starving children something to ease their hunger.

Stealing rolls, Astoria thought, turning over the words in her mind like a loose brick, as if she could discover something written on their underside if she brushed off the dirt and looked closely. Instinctively, she glanced back at Neville Longbottom, whose eyes were fixed upon the scene in horror, face pale and eyes burning.

This girl--she was one of their’s. One of Neville’s. One of Ginny’s. Stealing food for whatever fugitives were hiding in the castle.

This was the problem he had asked her to solve.

Professor Carrow leaned down close the girl, but his rough voice carried over every table in the Hall. 



“Can you give me an explanation, Miss Donoghue? Is there any legitimate reason why you have taken what does not belong to you?”


The girl flinched, tucking her hands into her elbows, her eyes fixed on the ground in front of her. Astoria could hear nothing, but she could see the girl’s lips form the words, No, sir.

Amycus Carrow’s eyes glittered, even as he smoothed his grin into a mournfully disapproving expression. 

“Then, of course, I have no choice but to mete out justice, in accordance with the rules of the school. Bring it in!” he snapped, and two House Elves stumbled into the room, ears drooping, skinny arms struggling under the weight of an enormous redwood trunk. They brought it to the centre of the space beneath the daze, dropped it with a thunk, and scurried back out the door.

The trunk looked expensive, its surface a sort of red-lacquer, reminiscent of fresh blood. It stood there for a moment, just as any trunk would, before it began to rattle. A pounding noise came from within, and the hinges creaked as if something within was about to push its way out of its own accord.

Professor Carrow took several measured steps back.

“Open the trunk, Miss Donoghue.”

The girl took one shaky step forward before falling roughly to her knees. A charitable person would say she knelt down in order to open it, would not note the way that Amara Donoghue’s watery knees had gone out beneath her, but there was no charity in this. With trembling fingers, the girl reached for the lid, shoving it open. 

There was a moment of silence, a shifting from within the trunk, when out of it arose...another Professor Carrow.

Boggart, Astoria mouthed silently, before pressing her lips together in grim disapproval. According to the Ministry of Magic--or the old Ministry, at any rate--this was literal torture.

At first, it didn’t seem so awful. The Carrow lookalike crouched down to speak in the girl’s ear, his voice a sibilant whisper, words impossible to make out from this distance. Professor Carrow’s lips twitched in an amused smirk.

But then, his doppelgänger swung forward, his nose set inappropriately close to the third year girl’s neck. It breathed in deeply, even as one hand rose to slide up her arm, towards her shoulder.

Astoria’s mind flashed back to the front parlour, barely able to stand as a werewolf stalked around her, nostrils flaring, eyeing her with more than one type of hunger. Bile began to rise in her throat, and she was praying to anyone that would listen that Amara Donoghue’s fears were unfounded when the scene was interrupted by a slam. Professor Carrow had shut the lid of the trunk forcefully, the boggart sucked back into its holding cell. His features were curved into a scowl, his eyes dark as they bore down on the girl huddled before him.

“Again,” he snarled.

Whimpering, Amara crawled forward and wrapped her fingers around the trunk, lifting it open.

“Mum!” 

The girl’s voice was a strangled scream. On the floor, an elegant dark-skinned woman had appeared, laying still, her neck twisted at an entirely unnatural angle. She crawled closer, trying to muffle her sobs, but as Amara Donoghue reached for the body, its eyes flew open, clouded like those of a dead fish. Its neck lifted, snakelike, cheeks seeming to grow more gaunt as it focused in on the girl, who was sobbing louder as the creature approached. 



“Inferi,” Astoria heard a boy across from her say in a choked whisper.

Scrambling back, and with a surprising show of nerve even through her tears, Amara heaved against the trunk’s lid and managed to slam it shut. She sat there for a moment, her forehead pressed agains the trunk, audibly gasping, until the chest once again began to thump.

“Again!”

...One horror after another. Astoria didn’t know where the fault for this lay--if it was a particularly hungry, sadistic boggart or if the girl just had a great many fears, all of them terrible and none great enough to eclipse the others. It seemed too deliberate, too awful to have been left to chance. Astoria didn’t know what Dark magic was behind this, but her dread felt as though it would smother her as the girl finally fell to the ground, gasping, and did not reach toward the trunk again.

“Move,” Professor Carrow drawled, as if schoolgirls frequently collapsed in front of him and now it had merely grown tedious. The Hufflepuff girl continued to lay there, her body motionless on the stone floor. 

“I said, move,” Amycus repeated, his tone growing heated, and before Astoria could process it, his foot, sheathed in a thick black boot, was out from under his robes and he lashed out twice, doling out two sharp kicks to the girl’s knee.

Astoria thought she heard a crunch of bone, but couldn’t be sure. The blood was pounding in her hears, drowning out the appalling silence of the Great Hall. There was no cry, not even a whimper, and a calm, detached part of Astoria’s brain informed her that the girl was probably out cold, and that this was probably a good thing.

“Take care of that,” Professor Carrow growled, his thin lip crooking into a contemptuous sneer as he made his way back to the professors table to take his seat.

The sound of pumping blood grew louder in Astoria’s ears, till she thought she might be deafened by her own beating heart. Fine hairs rose on the back of her neck. She noted, distantly, the group of blank-faced Hufflepuffs who rose from their table and marched down to gently pick up the girl’s body and bear it away. There were more than the task necessitated, for the girl was small, seemed to be made of less matter now than when she had first stepped, shaking, down the centre aisle. The rest, those whose hands weren’t needed to carry the unconscious girl, still followed her out of the hall, a silent honour guard, drifting behind her like a flock of ravens trailing a corpse.

Astoria didn’t really see them, but she felt them. She felt the intensity behind those blank masks, burning with a ferocious, consuming anger. It trembled through her with every thundering beat of her heart, beating out a war-song. Her blood called for blood, it sang in her veins, tinting the edges of her vision with red. She was gripping her fork so tightly that it was digging into the flesh of her palm, but she didn’t feel it, didn’t care.

Her eyes fastened on Amycus Carrow, who had tortured a girl, ripped open the fears from her mind before an audience like some hideous passion play, and tossed them back to devour her. She saw his mocking grin, heard the snap of bone at the strike of his boot, and felt a surge of heat burst through her, flooding her body with a stream of bubbles that seemed as though they were surging out of her, hanging suspended in the air between her and the bearded man sitting just off-centre of the high table.

And then, with a rush like air punched out of a thousand lungs, they popped.

Astoria heard a humming sound, a faint, whirring vibration, and, all at once, a three-tined fork was sailing from somewhere down the Hall, glinting in the flickering lights as it whipped past the students, down the aisle, and just barely missed ripping through tender flesh as Professor Carrow dived out of the way. The fork hit the far side of the wall, lodging between two stones and quivering with a metallic thrum.

No one breathed.

For a moment, there was absolute silence. The Hall was utterly still.

Then, the calm shattered.

Amycus Carrow shoved himself to his feet, the sleeve of his robe ripped and his face empurpled with rage. Veins throbbed at his temple and throat as he gripped the table, searching the Great Hall with crazed, murderous eyes as he shouted, “WHO?!

Me.

The thought, the certainty, cut through the dissipating, fulvous fog still clouding Astoria’s mind. It was me, she realised, her pulse quieting down to a rhythm of even, eery calm.

Astoria felt for her wand, still tucked into the pocket of her robes, but she already knew she hadn’t used it. Astoria hadn’t lost control of her magic since the day she had first been presented with a wand, but she recognised this--the wild, emotional magic that came from children, that burst out uncontrollably, a result of temper or utter terror.



“Who. Did. This?” Professor Carrow demanded, his voice quaking with fury.

Unsurprisingly, no one answered. Astoria felt as if her body had turned to stone.

The Defence professor seemed to have regained some control of himself, as his voice was steadier, quieter, and infinitely more terrifying.

“If the perpetrator does not step forward, at this time, I will go through, House by House, and personally select whomever I think could have been responsible. You do not wish to know what I will do to those persons. Whichever of you thinks yourself so brave as to attack me had better...”

Can you really stand by and watch people suffer? Can you stand by and not do anything?

No. No she couldn’t. 

Not like this.

Well, nothing for it then. Time to face up. The phrase came to her in her father’s voice, echoing across space and perhaps a dozen years. It was the sort of thing he’d say when she or Daphne had caused some sort of ruckus, after he’d found whatever clever hiding place they’d holed up in. Time to face up, because if she didn’t, then Professor Carrow would just take it as an invitation to toy with whoever he liked, and she imagined that was quite a number of people. Quite a number of broken bodies, lying unconscious on the flagstones.

Astoria’s mother had taught her not to get caught. Her father had taught her to surrender to punishment, but never to surrender her dignity, when she was caught.

And, since what she had just done was thoroughly mad, it only seemed appropriate to take the advice of the madman. Nothing for it, then.

Astoria felt oddly steady. She tested the stone underneath her shoes and found that, probably, she could stand. It would probably be easy to walk to her death. She wondered if Professor Carrow would actually kill her, or if the fact that she had cast the spell would prove enough of a shock to knock the bloodlust right out of him.

She doubted it. The man seemed to have a limitless supply.

None of it seemed real, but she began to press her feet down, her legs began to lift her up, and just as she was rising from her seat, she heard a small, polite cough, a hiccup, and a chime.

The sudden sound in such a silent room was so surprising that Astoria fell back into her seat and, with everyone suddenly turning in the direction of the noise, the scrape of the bench shifting just slightly as students further down eased back and craned their heads, no one noticed the thud she caused when she crashed back into her place, an unnoticed meteor tumbling back to earth, all her fire sputtering out.

Astoria, too, turned and stared.

There, at the front table, Professor Slughorn, seated just to the right of Professor Carrow’s place, was holding up a hand, a small pile of silverware suddenly surrounding him. He hiccupped again, and a few pieces of cutlery sailed up from the main dining area and sailed toward him, clattering down on the table in an awkward semi-circle outside his place-setting.

“Forgive me, Amycus,” he warbled good-naturedly, his cheeks turning pink. “I fear there’s been a misunderstanding.”

Professor Carrow turned, his sneer still tilting his mouth at an odd angle, but on seeing that the speaker was the Hogwarts Potions professor, the man who had been Carrow’s own Head of House, a portion of the malice drained out of his expression.

“What?”

Professor Slughorn gave a short, hearty laugh. It was an unnatural affectation in such a tense environment, but the Potionsmaster didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m afraid this is all my fault. No harm meant, of course. It’s just that I was experimenting earlier with a new version of Hiccoughing Solution, and I forgot that the mixture can have a, well, a magnetic effect when combined with pumpkin juice.” He nodded to his goblet. “Terribly sorry, of course, terribly sorry. But, ultimately, no harm done.”

Professor Carrow’s eyes narrowed, and he stared for a long moment at Slughorn. The Potions professor emitted another small, “hic,” and the gravy-coated spoon balanced on the edge of his plate shot directly into his lap. He shook his head ruefully.

“Even academia has its fair share of perils, I daresay. That will probably stain.”

There was another long moment. Professor Carrow turned, surveyed the roomful of students, who still sat quietly, eyes wide and mouths pressed tight, before facing back towards Slughorn.

“As you say, Horace. No harm done. Though I suggest you be more careful in the future.” Everyone’s eyes remained fastened on him as, slowly, the tension seemed to leave his shoulders. Then he whirled on them and shouted, “Dismissed!”

There was the rasp of wooden benches grinding against flagstones, a clattering of dishes, and the sound of hundreds of feet pounding their way out of the room. The Slytherins alone left at a saunter, but Astoria was near the head of the pack, walking quickly to get herself out of the room.

As she waited her turn at the pile up of students blocking the doors, she looked back to Professor Slughorn, who was sunk in his seat in what she suspected was an attitude of relief.

Slughorn had lied, lied to a Death Eater. Of this, Astoria was certain: it had been her magic that had sent that fork barrelling down on Amycus Carrow, her fury that had nearly speared him in the throat.

Besides, unlike, apparently, her Dark Arts professor, Astoria was well aware that silver wasn’t magnetic.

And Slughorn, self-interested, self-indulgent Slughorn, had somehow broken out of his comfortable cowardice for one moment, and had risked Amycus’ displeasure in order to save them. To save her.

She couldn’t imagine why. Maybe because, in his time back at Hogwarts, he had truly come to care for his students. Maybe it was even possible that he, too, had been disgusted by Amycus’ display, had understood the fury that had loosed Astoria’s magic, and had wanted to help. She truly couldn’t know.

But in that moment, Astoria understood something.

She wasn’t like her fellow Slytherins, who could ignore these prandial cruelties and pretend life was just a holiday jaunt. She couldn’t stand by and do nothing while girls like the poor creature from this evening were tortured and abused for pocketing a few pieces of bread. And Astoria Greengrass would be damned if she allowed herself to be more of a self-centred coward than Horace E. F. Slughorn. If he could be brave, and if Ginny could fight, and if former-misfit Neville Longbottom could stand up against this, this...tyranny, then so could she.

From across the room, Astoria once again felt eyes upon her. Just as she was about to pass through the door, she glanced up, and there, across a sea of bobbing heads, was that very Neville Longbottom, staring across at her.

Feeling the weight, the importance of the moment, she held his gaze and, ever so slightly, Astoria nodded.

I’m in, Cardigan Boy, she thought. And this time, they will never know what hit them.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Edited 8 September, 2015. Thank God for my beta, bigblackdog, who helps me smooth out all the details and notices the things I never see! elise, you're a star *hugs*.

SO, how are you feeling? Astoria has officially met Neville, and is planning to join the Resistance--or, as insiders know it, Dumbledore's Army. But will the D.A. accept a Slytherin in their midst? And what's happening to Draco during all this, anyway? Stay tuned to find out!

And I'd like to say a special thank you to all of you who guilt-tripped me and prodded me about this chapter--it's largely thanks to you that I got myself in gear. It feels great to be adding a new chapter to this story! Thank you again!

--Penny



Chapter 11: An Admirable Thing
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

The Forbidden Forest, Death Eater Camp, Spring 1998

Draco lay in his cot, staring out at the thin strip of sky peeking in through the open tent flap, like light blue satin strung with pearls. 



He wondered, not for the first time, what it was about the Forbidden Forest that made everyone so eager to send him here. It seemed to be a favoured punishment, no matter what side of the war you were on.


A few hundred yards and a lifetime away, his friends were probably crowded around a table, laughing and joking as they lingered after dinner, the same night sky looking down on them, reflected on the Great Hall’s lofted ceiling.

They didn’t write. Crabbe, because he could barely wield a quill; Blaise, because he was his mother’s son, saving his ink and parchment for the girls he hoped to seduce, his charming notes as insubstantial as his affections. Pansy, because she still hadn’t forgiven him for breaking things off with her, though honestly that was more of a relief than anything; and Goyle, because he was jealous that Draco had been allowed to leave school while he suffered through another year of ineffective education, unaware that Draco would have given near anything to take his place.

He turned to punch his flimsy pillow in a vain attempt to make it more comfortable before groaning and rolling back over. Draco had never learned a Pillow Fluffing Charm. He had always been able to afford fine bed linens, goose down cushions with abundant stuffing. His skills at Transfiguration were considerable--the place could look worse--but his tent didn’t look anything like home.

Home didn’t look like home, nowadays, either. He closed his eyes, trying not to envision it. Trying not to envision anything.

Outside, a twig snapped. He flinched, his mother’s wand already in his hand and pointed at his tent’s opening, but the stumbling footsteps passed him by.

It was early yet. Too early to go to bed. But there was little choice. Outside, the Dark Lord’s forces sat in clusters, drinking and squabbling, laughing raucously as they tossed hexes at the House Elves that scuttled by with platters of food.

Draco wanted no part of it.

Still, sleep was slow to come to him. Draco had learned the way of it. These days, sleep had to be coaxed like a cat. If he beckoned, or even looked at it directly, it would shy away. It only came to curl softly around him once he had convinced himself he had no need of it at all, and then he’d have a few moments of dark, purring peace. 



Until the nightmares started, and the claws sank in.

Until memories came surging up to swallow him whole...



But for a week of nights, he had slept more soundly than he had in a year. All he had to do, he found, was call up someone else’s memories. Not just anyone’s recollections would do. Most of the people whose minds he had searched were no better than himself, and the crimes on some of their consciousness would have left a sour taste in even Greyback’s mouth.

But, as she seemed to be in most things, Astoria Greengrass was different here, too.

His Legilimancy hadn’t granted him full access to her thoughts. When he had shoved past her defences and glimpsed into her mind, it had been like clockwork--more moving parts than he could possibly hope to piece together.

 What he had left was a collection of cranks and cogs, memories that were less of a complex timepiece than a music box, with a new song each time it was opened....

A girl with dark pigtails runs from the room, leaving her baffled parents, a portrait artist, and a large canvas staring blankly after her. In the corner, an older girl snickers.

A flash forward to a garden, dainty white shoes specked with earth, not quite tucked under a curtain of willow leaves. Footsteps approach, stop, and a shadow is visible through the leaves. It bends down, reaching large, square-tipped hands to pull back the leaves, revealing a man. His once-muscled chest is giving way to stoutness and his beard is meticulously trimmed. Dark eyes dance in his face, though his expression remains serious.

Against the thin trunk of the willow, the pigtail girl leans, her arms crossed, decidedly not
crying, though her lower lip trembles mutinously.



“Tori.” The man’s voice, when he speaks, is comforting, smooth as warm honey. “Do you want to tell me why you ran out of the room?”

The child sniffs.

“Daphne said that man was going to turn us into a portrait,” she accuses, pointing a finger back towards the house. As if sensing a drawn-out argument in the works, the man sighs and sinks down to sit cross-legged on the ground in front of her.


“That man is going to paint our picture, yes.”



“But Daphne says if you get your picture painted, they trap your soul inside! That’s why they can move!”

The man’s facial expression remains admirably neutral, apart from a small twitch of his lip. 



“Your sister said that, eh?” He eases back, turning to face the same direction as the child, looking out through the spring green strands of willow leaves at the silhouette of the manor house beyond. “You know, sometimes your sister is not entirely truthful.”

“I know that!” the girl huffed indignantly. “But usually I can tell!”

“Ah, my duckling. Nobody gets a perfect record. You know that.”

The child frowns thoughtfully.

“So Li Ming isn’t trapped in her painting?”


The man is careful not to chuckle.

“No, little duck. I pity the person who would try to trap your great-great grandmother into anything.”

“Then how does she
move?” the child demands.

“Ah,
that is magic.”

“Oh.” The girl’s cheeks begin to flush. The man turns slightly to face her.

“I promise it’s perfectly safe. Are you ready to go back inside?” 



Digging her heels deeper into the flower bed, the girl shakes her head firmly, her pigtails flying. Her voice is barely a whisper.

“Daphne will laugh at me.”

The man clucks and shakes his head.

“Your sister may laugh at you. However, she will be writing a formal apology letter to Mr. Wakefield, to apologise for wasting his time and disrespecting his artistry. In this, you may just have the last laugh.”



The girl considers this, scuffing her shoe against the ground.

“Will
I have to apologise?”

The man gets to his feet with a groan, then reaches out a hand to the child. She takes it.



“No, duckling. It is an admirable thing, to protect one’s soul.”



She eyes him speculatively.

“And I’ll still have it, right?”

“Yes, Astoria. That is something that cannot be taken from you unwillingly. You certainly will still have your soul.” He takes a step towards the house, and she follows.

Outside, a clang sounded through the camp metal cups struck one another. Howls of laughter and toasts to the health of the Dark Lord reverberated against the trees, startling Draco awake, clutching the tail of his dream--of Astoria’s memory--like a kite.


That is something that cannot be taken from you unwillingly.
Somewhere, Draco Malfoy...Somewhere, you still have a soul.


He closed his eyes and let the words carry him back into sleep.

****
Hogwarts Castle, Seventh Floor, April 15, 1998.

It had been a simple enough thing to contact Neville; the frustrating element was his response. No, he couldn’t simply tell her more about the situation. It would be best if he showed her. 


Which is how, one day later, Astoria found herself in their designating meeting place on the seventh floor, leaning against a wall across from a rather hideous tapestry depicting a troupe of balletic trolls, waiting. Hulking grey figures with their beefy arms held aloft and their mouths hanging open, beady eyes squinted in concentration, were woven in gentle earth tones, their loud pink tutus fluffing up around them and clashing grotesquely with the colour scheme.

It was a lull time in the castle’s daily activities--an hour and a half after dinner, still another few hours before curfew. Most students were ensconced in their common rooms or the library, so the corridors were fairly empty. 


And, of course, Neville Longbottom was late. 

Astoria had been staring at the tapestry for a good five minutes, and it had occurred to her that the ancient art of warp and weft had never been so abused, and who had been Hogwarts’ interior decorator, anyways, and why did Gryffindors always seem so set on wasting her time, and for Merlin’s sake, here she was dissecting a bloody troll tapestry and where on Earth was he?--when the boy finally appeared.

He looks different in the light, was her first thought. Which, of course, was stupid, because everyone looked different in the light than they did in near darkness. But this boy’s differences stood out.

In the broom cupboard, he had seemed smaller--a bit hunched, perhaps embarrassed to have manhandled her as he had. But now Astoria could see that Neville was quite tall when he stood straight, his shoulders broad and capable-looking. He had good cheekbones, bright hazel eyes, and a couple days worth of stubble. What was more, he seemed the sort that hadn’t shaved because he truly had better things to do, rather than for vanity’s sake.

She did wonder about the cardigan, though.

He didn’t make her heart skip a beat or anything ridiculous like that--Astoria could think of only one person who had ever really done so, and he was an impossible prospect--but she could recognise, objectively, that if she were a different sort of girl with fewer things to worry about, she’d have found Neville surprisingly attractive.

She stepped out of the shadow of the alcove, and Neville whirled to face her.

“You took your time.”

He had his wand out already, which implied either that he went looking for trouble or that it found him often. It was a pretty red colour--probably cherrywood--with an elegantly carved handhold the colour of smoke. The wood was nicely polished, but it lacked the patina brought on by many years of handling, and something about the way it rested in his hand struck her--it wasn’t the familiar way most Seventh years held their wands, as if they were an extension of their own bodies. 

Neville’s wand was new, then. Not brand new--it fit too comfortably in his hand for that--but he’d only owned it for a year. Perhaps two, if he’d got hold of it before Ollivander’s shop closed.

Neville Longbottom: Gryffindor. Troublemaker. Old blood. New wand. Penchant for shabby knitwear, stubble, and hopeless causes.

It wasn’t much of a dossier, but it was coming along.

He lowered his wand.

“Sorry about that. Ran into a bit of trouble. In fact,” he said, glancing behind him a bit nervously, “we should probably be getting on.”



Astoria thought that she could hear, dimly, the sound of thumping feet in a distant stairwell. She had the good sense not to ask questions as Neville paced in front of the wall, eyes closed, only to have the stones melt out from in front of her in a bright burst of light. 

The footsteps were getting louder, but still out of sight.

Neville reached for her wrist and pulled her forward. It all happened in the blink of an eye.


The wall slid shut behind them.


____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Hey everyone!  So, I'm doing a little restructuring.  I've noticed that I've allowed my chapters to get a bit towards the absurdly long side, so I'm working on splitting some things up into more managable bits.  

One thing you may have noticed--we now have official dates!  It's April 15, 1998, which means that the Battle of Hogwarts is less than three weeks away!  And it'll be a packed three weeks!


If you can take a moment to review, I'd really appreciate it.  It truly does help keep me going.  Thanks to all my lovely readers for sticking with me thusfar!

--Penny












Chapter 12: Into The Sanctum
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CI by east of the sun


April 15, 1998
Hogwarts Castle, The Room of Requirement


Astoria dug her fingernails into her her palms at the gravelly sound of the doorway filling in. She resisted the urge to press her back against the wall, to see if it would open for her.

Always have an exit strategy, she had told Ginny.

  

That advice did not work quite as well when dealing with the whims of mythical rooms.

For a moment she wondered what she was doing here. She wasn’t a freedom fighter with a death wish. She had helped, once, to avenge her mother--a mother who had hurt her, betrayed her. Feeling a twinge at her middle, Astoria raised a hand to trail a gentle finger along the thin, ropy scar that wrapped around her waist.

No, if she took this risk now, it would be for her, because she wanted to. Her pulse hummed, her heartbeat as trapped in her throat as Astoria was in her cage of bespelled stone walls.

Neville had stopped a few steps in front and was looking back at her, curiously. She saw the fading bruise on his chin, a pale scar hovering above his upper lip. In her mind’s eye, she saw Amycus Carrow’s booted foot slamming into a young girl’s knee.



Astoria shook her head. She would do this. If only so that she could face her reflection in the mirror, she would do it.



Neville was still looking at her, head tilted in confusion, clearly wondering why she had stopped walking. Astoria pressed her lips together and lifted her chin, pretending that her feet hadn’t frozen in fear. No, she was simply taking in the scene before her.

The first thing she noticed was the explosion of colour. A forest of hammocks in brilliant House hues--deep reds, cheerful yellows, and serene lengths of blue silk--hung from the ceiling. Judging by their number, each House was represented by more than a dozen students. Well, not every House. Slytherin’s colours were glaringly absent. Astoria’s emerald and argent-striped necktie felt like a stamp of disapproval, a coiled presence around her neck marking her as other.



She stepped toward Neville, who had turned to make his own survey of the room, perhaps trying to see it as she would, a stranger among their ranks. 


“This is the Room, isn’t it? The Room of Requirement?”



Neville turned abruptly towards her, surprise plain on his face.



“You know about it?”

Astoria shrugged.

“One hears things. But I don’t make a point of passing on what I know. You needn’t worry.” 



She hadn’t truly expected her words to placate him, but he nodded as if they had. For a leader of an underground rebel army, Neville Longbottom was terribly trusting. Astoria didn’t approve of such poor judgement--absolutely didn’t--and yet, a warm feeling buzzed and bloom in her chest. Acceptance.

Tamping that down--she wasn’t accepted here, she was needed--she continued her survey, taking in the assorted clusters of mutinous schoolchildren.


It was a bedraggled-looking bunch. A group in the corner looked to be comparing detention injuries, and she noticed several more faces sporting bruises and cuts. But the overall mood in the room was cheerful.

There were several trunks laid about to form loosely structured seating areas, a few woven rugs laid haphazardly about over stone floors. Warm light shone from lamps along the wall and one crystal chandelier, which had varicoloured House neckties tossed over it so that it looked like an enormous Hogwarts-themed children’s mobile.  She could see a contraption that looked like it might be some sort of radio where a pair of boys sat among a pile of screws and metal, tinkering with the device. Along the far wall, there was a line of targets shaped like armoured men. One even vaguely resembled a werewolf--Astoria thought of Greyback and wondered if Neville might let her take a go at that one later.



Overall, it was better than she possibly could have expected, and worse than she had ever imagined. 

There were so many more of them than she had thought. And they had begun to notice her. A whole host of them were staring down at her from the hammock forest, eyes wide with curiosity, mouths pinched with disapprobation.

“You brought her into the Sanctum?!”

Headquarters, Ernie. We agreed to call it Headquarters,” a Gryffindor in the year above her--Dean something?--corrected.



“Oi, who exactly agreed--”

“Will you lot pipe down?” Lavender Brown shook her head haughtily, sighing in exasperation as she glanced up from her intensive study of a Ravenclaw’s palm. “It takes a lot of concentration to properly utilise the Inner Eye.”

“If you don’t shut up about all that mumbo-jumbo, Brown, I’ll give you a black eye. Inner, outer, I’m not fussed,” called another girl from her hammock.

It was warm, bustling chaos on all sides. A world away from Astoria’s quiet world in her dungeon dormitory. The volume spiked as more eyes fell on her, as the rumblings and whispers of disapproval began in earnest.



She propped her hands on her hips and whirled on Neville.



“Alright, I’m here now. Are you going to tell me what this problem of yours is, or wait until your friends have my head on a pike?"

Neville, taking her point, turned and gave his cohorts a surprisingly quelling look. She wouldn’t have thought he’d had it in him. The rumbles faded to quiet mutters.

A few glaring faces turned back to their previous tasks, away from the Slytherin girl in their midst, but she could still feel them watching her out of the corners of their eyes. 

Astoria felt the weight of a several dozen eyes on her and resisted the urge to fidget. She made it a point to never be the centre of attention. How, exactly, had it come to this?

Neville lead her away from the entrance, towards a far corner of the room, and navigated her so that she stood with her back to the wall and he stood with his back to the room, blocking her from sight, which was rather considerate. After a moment of silence, he scratched his head.


“Erm. Right, well it’s not so much a problem as it is, er, problems.”



Why am I not surprised? Astoria thought bleakly.

“Why don’t you begin with the most pressing issue, and we’ll go from there.”

Her guide clapped his hands together and nodded eagerly.

“Right, absolutely. So, like I mentioned, the food’s an issue. We’ve got a lot of people to feed. You see that lot over there--” he motioned to a trio of Gryffindors in the corner. “They’ve been on one meal a day for five days, and all we can give them is what little we can get out of the Great Hall.” His face grew grave. “There’re risks with that, as you know.”

She nodded silently, her mind on the unconscious body of a Amara Donoghue, broken by fear. 

“How is she?” 

Neville slumped.

“Better than could be expected, I reckon. Amycus didn’t give official orders that Madame Pomfrey couldn’t heal her, so she’s in the hospital wing.” He shook his head. “It’d be something like luck, if it was anyone else. But I don’t think you could call anyone lucky, not after something like that.”



Astoria resisted the urge to growl.



“Luck’s got nothing to do with it. Carrow didn’t want her limping around the castle, reminding everyone of the boggart that looked like him.” She almost feared to ask, but she felt she had to. “Do you...do you know if she had any cause to be afraid of...of what she was afraid of? With him?”

Neville’s expression darkened.

“I don’t know,” he muttered. “I think that if he were...like that, he’d go after the younger girls. Like Amara. They might be too...”



“Ashamed,” Astoria filled in quietly. "Or scared. They’d be too horrified to tell you, and too afraid.”



He inclined his head in concession, peering at her closely, a question in his eyes that she knew he wouldn’t ask. She met his gaze head on.

Nothing had ever happened to her--even if she still saw Fenrir Greyback in her sleep, his image pressed flat like poisonous flower petals between her eyelids, and just as fresh. Even if she felt his claws on her skin and his slavering tongue on her neck. Even if she knew in her bones that he'd wanted so much more than just to kill her.

Nothing had happened to her, not really. She had been lucky.

I don’t think you could call anyone lucky, not after something like that.

With a sharp click of her tongue, Astoria changed the subject. 

“You were saying? About the food--”



“Right. So we’ve got a few who’ve had too many meals revoked. We’re supplementing most of Gryffindor’s meals--they’ve been holding back the food at our table. Not for any stated punishment; you can just see it. There’s never near enough to go around, at least not so anyone gets full.”



Astoria had noticed. 

“Go on.”

“Then there’s the people hiding from the Snatchers. I guess it’s like you said--refugees. We have eleven of them, and obviously they can’t get anything from the Great Hall. They get the lion’s share of what we smuggle out. Not that it’s much.”



Astoria frowned, puzzled.

“How long have they been here--these refugees?”

“Er...” Neville squinted as he did a mental count. “Roland and Grace since September,” he pointed at a pair of Muggleborn siblings from Hufflepuff. “They hadn’t been in touch with anyone for most of the summer and didn’t realise...well, they got on the train.”



Astoria grimaced. She had seen the guards--Aurors, supposedly, all working for the new Ministry, hauling students off the Hogwarts Express crying and screaming. Not many--most hadn’t risked returning to school. But enough. At the time she’d been too numb from her mother’s death to even register it properly, but now...now she remembered.



She wished she didn’t.

“So you hid them?” Neville nodded. “But what about everyone else?”



“We got a few last term, but most of them have showed up in the last few weeks. The Snatchers--apparently they’ve got some new tricks. They’re getting harder to hide from.”

“And you let them stay? Even though you know you didn’t have enough food?” To Astoria, this seemed like poor planning.

 Neville looked at her, seeming as surprised as she was.

“Yeah, of course. Where else were they going to go?”


Astoria didn’t have anything to say to that, though she wasn’t so sure she’d have done the same. She reverted to the practicalities.

“So, you need to feed 11 people all their meals, supplement all of Gryffindor’s, then provide a bit of something for whoever’s been punished with long-term meal revocation? That’s...what, twenty-two full meals a day at minimum, just for the people who can’t leave here at all?” She shuffled the math around in her head, searching for alternatives and coming up with nothing. “Quite a problem, then,” she remarked grimly.

Neville Longbottom sighed.



“Don’t I know it.”


“So what’s that he’s eating over there?” Astoria asked, pointing to a nearby trunk where a boy whose mousy brown hair stood straight up from his head was gobbling down something at a remarkable rate.

For the first time in their conversation, the cardigan-wearing leader of Hogwarts’ underground rebels cracked a smile.


“Oi, Seamus, lay off the sweets!” he yelled, shaking his head fondly. “They’ve shared them round, but I s’pose they voted that he could have the rest. He’s skipped a lot of meals by pretending to eat and stuffing the food into his pockets. Fair flair for slight of hand, Seamus has. Among other things.”

From the very amused, very Gryffindor look on Neville’s face Astoria decided that these ‘other things’ Seamus Finnigan had a flair for were probably highly illegal and best left unquestioned for the moment. She cooly raised an eyebrow.

“You can’t get dinner rolls, but you can get candies?”



“It’s Ginny’s message,” Neville explained. “Well, what’s left of it,” he added with a snort.

Following behind Neville as he drew closer to his ravenous Housemate, Astoria could finally see the orange and purple candy box, embossed with a pair of W’s in gold.

“I wuuurv mersewges fwum Jwinny!” Seamus informed them, stuffing his mouth with the leftovers of what, Astoria assumed, had been a coded box of Exploding Bonbons, sparks flying out of his ears every time he got to the crunchy, explosive centre.

Clearing his throat, the boy reached out and grabbed Astoria’s hand, shaking it up and down eagerly, his own hand still sticky with sugar. Astoria pulled it from his grasp and surreptitiously wiped it on her skirt. Seamus didn’t appear to notice.

“So you’re the Slytherin Neville was tellin’ us about. Clearly ye’ve met our fearless leader. I’m Seamus. Welcome to the Sanctum.”

“Headquarters!” Dean called from across the room. 

Reaching for another bonbon, Seamus tossed it into his mouth and bit down hard. Lightning danced across his teeth as he grinned.

“My Gran would say you’ll rot your teeth,” Neville informed him, still grinning.

Seamus gulped down half of his last handful of sweets loudly.

“Well, I’d not need to gobble up everythin’ in sight if ye’d feed us somethin’ other than bleedin’ lentil soup.”

He wrinkled his nose in distaste, and bit down on another Bonbon forcefully. Astoria ignored the ensuing pyrotechnics and turned back to Neville.



“So, back to the task at hand,” she prompted.

Neville stooped down to pick up some of Seamus’ candy wrappers and crumple them into a ball. Then he stood up, rocked back on his heels, and began tossing the ball from hand to hand as he spoke.

“Right, so the thing is, this room’ll provide most everything we need. Everything except food. Problem is, Professor Sprout can only smuggle me so much in the way of edible plant life, and everyone’s getting rather tired--”

“Ruddy sick of--!” Seamus called out helpfully.

“--Of lentil soup,” Neville finished patiently. “Besides which, we’ll soon run out of lentils. I’ve about stretched the Doubling Charm to its limits to keep us going, but at this point the nutritional value’s decreasing, and it’s starting to taste less like legumes and more like...”

“Paste.”

Neville rolled his eyes and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Thanks for the support, Seamus.”

Before the two of them could get into some sort of absurd culinary sparring match, Astoria decided to intervene.

“I still don’t see how this has anything to do with me, specifically,” she pointed out.

Neville gave a small grin.

“Ah, that’s where Ginny comes in, you see. I sent her a message, explaining how much worse the problem had gotten over the break. I told her I needed some way to get us more food without getting more of us caught and punished. According to Ginny, not getting caught is your specialty.”

Astoria frowned. That’s what she had thought, too. Before the holidays. Before her interview with Draco Malfoy.


“She said for me to tell you she’ll owe you.”



“Will she ever,” Astoria muttered, then set her mind to the problem. “What about the kitchens? Can’t you sneak something out? Maybe the House Elves could help.”

Neville scratched his head.



“The Hufflepuffs are the only one’s who’ve been able to get down there, lately. Apparently things in the kitchens are looking pretty grim.”

Seamus, giving up on his bonbons at last, elbowed his way back into the conversation.



“A bloody nightmare, it is. Susan Bones was down there a couple days ago. She said the Elves are makin’ miracles out of what they’ve got, but the Carrows’re monitorin’ everythin’. She even saw them handing sacks of food out the kitchen door--Snapes’ orders. Couldn’t get a good look at ‘em, hidin’ where she was, but she said they looked like they might be Snatchers.”

“I’ll bet that’s where Gryffindor’s food is going,” Astoria said thoughtfully. “I wonder where they’re taking it. Why would there be so many Snatchers right around Hogwarts?”

“It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Food for a House full of teenagers--it’s probably enough to feed a bloody army! Can’t imagine what they’re doing with it.”

Something about Seamus’ words niggled at a loose place in Astoria’s mind, but she determinedly ignored it. Right now, she had a problem to solve. 


“I don’t know,” Neville answered, “but I don’t want to risk the Elves getting hurt.”



“No,” Astoria agreed. “That’s not an option.”

She caught a look of surprise on Seamus’ face. He had been friendly enough, but she knew that didn’t mean he was free of anti-Pureblood prejudices. Wisely, though, he kept silent as Astoria numbered the roadblocks off on her fingers.

“So, no useful access to the kitchens. No additional help from the greenhouses. And we can’t look forward to any aid from your friends in the Order of the Phoenix. Have I got that right?”

Neville and Seamus both gave solemn nods. Pensive, Astoria chewed gently on her lip. 

“I’ll have to think abou--”



She was interrupted by a loud boom and the hideous hiss of feedback that rang in her ears. In the corner, smoke was curling from the outsized radio, and Nigel Wolpert was standing beside it, his screwdriver gripped in his hand, spiky hair standing on end.

Neville turned to her apologetically. “I, er, better go check on that. Be right back.” 

He was off in a flash, headed toward towards the enormous mushroom cloud of smoke hanging over the radio equipment.



Seamus floated over to another seating area a bit closer to the action, and Astoria--having no where else to go--trailed behind. Leaned up against a veritable tower of trunks was a wraith of a girl, a bit too skinny, with a wealth of long, pale hair and a dreamy expression. She was scribbling in a book, but glanced up upon hearing Seamus’ footsteps (Astoria walked silently as ever). 


“Oh,” Seamus blurted, visibly disconcerted. “Didn’t see you there, Luna.” He turned to Astoria. “This is--”



“Luna Lovegood,” Astoria cut in. Of course she knew who she was. The Ravenclaw girl was infamous in a way that had proved to Astoria that anonymity was an underrated concept.

“And this is--”



“Astoria Greengrass,” Luna finished for him, glancing up at her with wide, hazy eyes.

“Uh...right. So, I’d better go and...help. Neville. With the, er, the explode-y sounding...things....”



With that smooth excuse, Seamus retreated a few steps away to where the boys were clustered around the smoking radio apparatus.


Luna didn’t return to her sketching. She stared at Astoria in the same way one might observe a rare and mysterious beast, except there was was no mistrust in her eyes, no fear that it would turn on her. Still, there was something oddly straightforward about her appraisal. 



“You’re the first Slytherin we’ve had here,” the girl announced after an uncomfortably long silence. “I think it’s good.”


Astoria’s mouth quirked wryly.



“So you’re not bothered by Neville’s inviting a snake into the lion’s den?”



Luna shook her head, her cloud of blonde hair undulating wildly.

“It’s not just a lion’s den. If we’ve got room for the eagles and the badgers and the lions, then we’ve room for the snakes as well. Snakes aren’t bad, you know. People don’t understand them, and they know that snakes are strong in a different way--one that they don’t know how to fight--so they fear them. But snakes can be very useful. Particularly for pest control.”

Charming.

“I thought...” Astoria paused and cleared her throat delicately, “I had heard that you were gone. Captured by the Death Eaters.”

“Oh, I was.”


“And you escaped?

Luna shrugged. “I doubt I could have on my own--I could have never left Mr. Ollivander, or Griphook--he’s a goblin--and I don’t know how I’d have gotten them out if it was just me. They had very good security at Malfoy Manor.”



“Malfoy Manor?” Astoria felt as if she were choking out the words, but they passed smoothly through her lips. She held a carefully neutral expression.

“Yes. That’s where they kept us. I couldn’t have got out if it weren’t for my friends.”



Astoria wondered what sort of friends this girl had, that they could help her escape from one of the Death Eaters’ most notorious strongholds.

“We had help from a House Elf,” Luna explained, “they’re very brave creatures--not everyone realises, though I suspect you do.” Astoria raised an eyebrow at that but did not interrupt. “A good thing, too, because if You Know Who had got hold of Harry and Ron and Hermione, we’d have been in real trouble.”



Ah, those sorts of friends, Astoria mused, before a sudden realisation crashed into her.



“Wait, you mean that you escaped from Malfoy Manor, and V--You Know Who knew about it?”

Luna nodded.



“When was this?”

“About a week ago. Halfway through Easter holidays.”

A shiver ran down Astoria’s spine.


Draco.


Had he been there? Would it matter? Could any family survive the Dark Lord’s displeasure, having his greatest enemy in their hands and letting him slip through their fingers?

She fisted her hands in the plaid of her skirt. It seemed wrong to even be questioning it. Here she was, talking to a girl that his family had held hostage and Astoria was worrying about what he might suffer for her escape.

What sort of monster was she?



And yet...she owed him something, didn’t she? Astoria didn’t like to think of it in those terms, but Draco Malfoy had saved her life. He had saved her entire family. She couldn’t wish him ill, no matter what else he had done. She thought of storm grey eyes, but she couldn’t imagine them glassy with death. In her mind those eyes were shining with pain and regret and fear, occasionally with malice or the thrill of a challenge, but they were always very much alive.

Surely if the Malfoy family had been wiped out, news would have reached the Slytherin dungeons. It would be made into an example--they wouldn’t be allowed to fade quietly out of existence. Astoria felt a small bud of hope bloom in her chest. It shocked her out of her reverie. Focusing her awareness on her face, she checked her polite mask, which was still firmly affixed, giving away nothing.

“--And then I came here,” Luna announced. Astoria wondered if she had been talking all that time and she had simply missed it. She pursed her lips.

“So, you escaped Malfoy Manor, made your way across the country without being caught by Snatchers, returned to Hogwarts, which is being run by Death Eaters, somehow without being caught?”



A few paces away, but still within earshot, Neville was listening, his eyes fixed on Luna, who didn’t appear to notice. She nodded. 



“Real life is often much less realistic than fantasy.”


“‘Things we lose have a way of coming back to us, in the end,”* Neville recited in a quoting lilt, never lifting his eyes away from the odd girl in front of him.

She glanced up, startled. “My mother always used to say that.”

A soft, warm smile broke across his face.

“I know.”

They beamed at each other, not breaking eye contact, for a long minute, until Seamus cleared his throat loudly, “Ahem”, jolting them from their trance.

“I was just meeting your new friend,” Luna announced.

“I wouldn’t really call--” Astoria began, but was cut off.

“I think it’s good Astoria’s joined us,” she continued, turning to the witch in question. “You’ll like it here. It’s nice. Much better than a dungeon. Well, the food’s about the same.” Astoria glanced over to see Neville sputtering and Seamus unsuccessfully attempting to contain a snort. “The people are mostly kind, though; sometimes they stare, but you’ll know all about that. And the Room’s always provided us with everything we needed. Well, except for the food, of course.”


“Wait,” Astoria broke in over Luna’s three-and-a-half star review of the refugee accommodations, a new thought occurring to her. “You said you’ve asked the room to give you food, but it doesn’t work.”

“It never works,” Seamus groaned, flopping down on top of one of the trunks.



“Well, perhaps you’re not asking the right questions.”

“Huh?” Neville glanced up from where he knelt beside Nigel Wolpert, who was fiddling with various knobs on an ancient-looking piece of radio equipment. Astoria turned, pacing in a tight circle as her finger tapped thoughtfully against her lower lip.

“The right questions,” she repeated absently, then she glanced up and smiled. “Magic can be...tricky. Sometimes you have to know just how to manipulate it, or it will manipulate you right back.”



From a canary-colored hammock well above them, Zacharias Smith snorted. “Sounds like a Slytherin to me."

Neville opened his mouth to admonish him, but the Slytherin in question cut him short.

“Precisely,” she snapped. “So I should know what I’m talking about.” Ignoring Zacharias, she turned to Neville. “What exactly did you ask the room for?”

He shrugged. “Food in general, at the beginning. Then we tried getting more specific--”

“Sometimes at night, when my stomach’s near cryin’ out for bein’ stuffed wi’ bloody lentils, I just repeat foods to myself, over an’ over. Reckon I’ve named near everythin’ edible in the British Isles, wishin’ for it, but nothin’ ever showed up.”

Astoria gave a sharp nod, her eyes narrowing to slits. “Mmm.” She came to an abrupt stop in the middle of her pacing, drawing everyone’s eyes to her with her sudden stillness. “So you’ve always tried to have the room create food for you.”

“Not that it’s been any kind of help--”



“But you never asked it to give you a way to obtain food.”

Everyone stared at her in silence for a long moment. Then Seamus scratched his head, brown hair standing up in tufts like a haystack. 



“Erm...I don’ get it,” he admitted reluctantly.

“Yeah, what’s the difference, then?” Zacharias Smith called down.



Astoria tapped her foot impatiently. “To put it simply,” she began, unable to keep her tone from veering towards the condescending. Zacharias squinted his eyes at her in an uncertain glare, but she continued, unperturbed, “If you’re asking the room to create food for you, you’re asking it to break fundamental magical laws.” 



Neville snapped his fingers.

“Of course! The exceptions to Gamp’s--”

“Law of Elemental Transfiguration,” Astoria finished. “Exactly.”

Neville perked up, surprised, and looked at her again, as if seeing her in an entirely different manner. Astoria crossed her arms over her chest. She didn’t care to be closely examined.

As if sensing this, he inclined his head, indicating for her to continue.

“If you ask the Room of Requirement to make food for you, it can’t do it,” she explained, and noticed that suddenly everyone seemed rather quiet. Every ear within hearing distance was tilted towards her. Squaring her shoulders, she forced herself to continue. “However, if you ask it to give you access to food, perhaps it could find a way.”

The crowd began to murmur while Neville pulled her aside. His hazel eyes gleamed excitedly.

“This could really work,” he whispered.

Astoria didn’t deign to respond. If she hadn’t thought it could really work, she’d hardly have suggested it.

“Right, you should do the honours, Astoria. I’ve a feeling you’ll be better at wording this sort of thing, anyways. Normally you’d have to clear everyone out and go outside, but we’re not asking for anything totally new. I think...I think it should work from in here.” He nodded to himself. “All you have to do is think of what you need--and you have to really need it, which of course we do. I find a bit of pacing helps. Maybe just right over there.”

He pointed her towards the wall across from the magical practice dummies. Before he could take it upon himself to give her more advice or, Merlin forbid, decide to come with her, Astoria took off for the distant wall, glad to finally have a bit of space to think.

“All right, Astoria,” she muttered to herself. “You can’t get this wrong. No loopholes.”

What was it she needed? Food. Safety. No Death Eaters. Erm...nutritional value?

Yes, that should do it. She focused, and...


Nothing happened. Had she left something out?

She glanced around to see that no one was watching her anymore. She must have been staring at a blank wall for a good fifteen minutes. They probably thought she was as mad as Luna.

What was it Neville had said? Pace. Right.

She began to walk back and forth at a brisk clip, muttering under her breath.

“I need safe access to an absolutely absurd amount of nutritionally sound food and drink, sufficient for a large group of teenagers, and I need for it to be completely undetectable by anyone who wouldn’t be trustworthy and loyal to our--their--by which I mean Dumbledore’s Army’s cause. And I need it to be part of this...hideout...place, that’s already here.”

She came to a stop. There. The fairies themselves couldn’t have negotiated a tighter magical contract. But still nothing was happening.

Astoria gritted her teeth in frustration, preparing herself to return to Neville and tell him she’d failed. But then, in a last ditch effort, she turned back to the wall.

“Er...please?”

The stone in front of her split with a loud crack, as the central point of the wall began to cave in on itself. Astoria stumbled backwards, bumping into Seamus, who steadied her, his face white with chalky dust. Neville and Luna had run forward as well.

When the dust had all settled, every pair of eyes was fixed on an odd-looking addition. Set on the wall was an enormous gilt frame, holding nothing but a wispy pastoral landscape.

Nobody spoke. But, after a long moment of silence, the frame swung open with a creeeeaaak.

“What now?” Seamus said, too loudly, but it broke the tension.



“Now?” Neville grinned. “We go in.”

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

*Quote from J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Hey everybody! Some of you may have noticed that Dean and Luna, among others, are present in this chapter, even though that deviates from the books.
  In this case, I have deferred to movie canon, as in the final movie both Luna and Dean are already present when Harry, Ron, and Hermione arrive at D.A. Headquarters (or the Sanctum).  So, yes, it's a difference, but still canon compliant.  It's tricky to keep it all straight, but so far I think we're good, canon-wise  :D  Thank you all for reading this far!

Everyone knows where we're going now, right? Field trip time! Here's a snippet:

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Luna, plucking a tiny ceramic goat from a flock that sat on a low wooden table. “It has a certain charm. I imagine the people who stay here prefer things to look a little more...rugged.” 

Astoria silently conceded the point. Though ceramic livestock didn’t really fit into her notion of ‘rugged’.

Got opinions on chapter length? Opinions on D.A. members? Guesses on how a meeting with a certain barkeep might go? Leave a review and let me know! Reading you guys' thoughts on the story really does keep me going!

--Penny



Chapter 13: A Rattle of Keys
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Unidentified Secret Passageway, April 15, 1998

It wasn’t really a corridor. It was a tunnel, and an exceptionally strange one, at that.

Astoria had explored her share of secret passages. She knew of five within the castle, though the three of those that led outside had been blocked off this year.

But her expertise ran further than that.

Most Pureblood houses had back rooms and hidden corners. She had discovered several at Greengrass Hall: a shortcut to the kitchens, where Filly would sneak her extra desserts; a seldom-used passage connecting her room to Daphne’s; emergency tunnels beneath the house, which had been her childhood playground until her mother objected to Astoria’s dirtying her nice frocks.



This passage didn’t have the usual musty, stagnant scent of underground space, but rather smelt of damp earth and the ozone scent of magic. There was something very off about it, though it was 1,032 paces before she could figure what it was.

A chill shuddered down Astoria’s spine, and her skin prickled with gooseflesh.



They continued on, Neville in front, Luna at the back, Astoria firmly ensconced in the middle--the most defensible position. Neville’s wand shone a steady beam of light ahead of them, while Luna’s was a dot of blue that flitted along the earthen walls, casting shadows that grew and shrank and glided, wraithlike, dancing away from the swivelling lights.

They walked for a while in silence, the only sound the soft pad of their footsteps and the whisper of their breath. 



“I don’t suppose you have any idea where this goes?” Neville finally asked, ducking beneath an exposed beam in the ceiling. His voice reverberated oddly in the space.

“Why would I?”

He shrugged. “You found it.”

“I didn’t,” Astoria corrected, eyeing the floor. “There’s no dust in this passage, and it can’t have been travelled regularly if you’ve had people in there for months.” The ground had sloped downward at first, now it was evening out. She shook her head. “‘Finding’ the tunnel implies that it was here before. I don’t think that’s the case. That room made it.”

Her grip on her wand tightened. Those were the facts.

She just wasn’t certain she liked the facts.

That was more power than an inanimate object should possess. It was one thing to charm a room to redecorate itself, but to create something like this? That was grand sorcery, the type that could only be performed by a sentient being.

Hogwarts was a fine old castle, built by magic, but it was just a castle. An enormous pile of stones. And stones couldn’t think for themselves--could they?



“I think we should trust the Room,” Luna offered dreamily. “It’s always been good to us so far.”



Astoria turned to stare at her. 



“Trust,” she repeated slowly, incredulously, “the Room.”



“Yes.”

The list of people Astoria trusted was exceptionally short. And there was no room on it for...



...well, for rooms.

How again had she ended up with these people? 

Astoria sighed.

“Let’s just keep going,” she suggested.

They did.


The three of them marched on for another fifteen minutes. Astoria began to notice subtle changes. The floor had been stone for an estimated ten minutes, and dirt for another twenty-five or so. Now, it was still dirt, but there was something different about it. It was hard to tell by wandlight, but it looked as though it were a different shade. And the floor was slanting upwards. 



Neville and Luna were chattering quietly on some inane topic. Astoria shushed them.

“I think we’re getting close.”

Her companions quieted immediately. Neville turned around and squinted at her, as if assessing her. Whatever he saw there, he nodded, turned around, and continued forward silently.



The tunnel began to shift slightly, curving. Here and there, the walls would abruptly cease to be dirt, turning to solid stone. Foundations Astoria thought.

So they were near some cluster of buildings. Within a half hour’s walk of the castle.



“Hogsmeade,” she whispered. It had to be.

Just then, Neville drew to a stop, raising his wand to illuminate the path before them. For a brief moment, Astoria worried (and perhaps a small part of her hoped) that there might be something blocking their way.

But no. Of course not.



“Looks like we’re here,” he murmured, glancing back at them. 


‘Here’ was what looked to be the upper floor of a building built into a hill. The wall was part stone, part wattle and daub, as if it had been patched together from the remains of an older structure.

And there, in the centre of it, was a rectangular object. It was large, vaguely door-shaped, surrounded by wood in a way that could have been moulding of some type, but wasn’t, with a thin, wooden board across the middle.

Something about it looked off, but Astoria couldn’t put her finger on it.

Neville, in typical Gryffindor fashion, had no trouble putting fingers on it.

“What are you--?!” she hissed, breaking off as he stepped forward.


Neville was undeterred.

He lowered his wand and approached slowly, with at least some caution, before reaching a hand out and gently brushing it against the surface. An odd expression crossed his face, and he turned and loped back.



“Canvas,” he whispered, nodding towards the rectangle.

Astoria’s eyes widened. “It’s a painting?”



“Looks like it.”



Then, something strange happened. The square of canvas seemed to warp in front of them, shimmering like the air above the pavement on a hot day. The pale pine edges and the central board vanished, a stretch of bleached cloth appearing in their place. The canvas began to fill in, first with greenery at the edges, and then a sketchy figure which slowly shifted into focus.

It was a girl. A painting of a girl.

Her hair was light, and her eyes were light, and she stared past them in a way that made Astoria rethink her stance on Luna’s stare. That wasn’t vacant--not really.

This was.




Neville moved slightly in front of Luna, blocking her, and leaned toward Astoria.

“Are portraits supposed to be able to do that?” he asked out of the side of his mouth.

Astoria shook her head.

“Not of their own accord.”

She knew a bit about portraits--they could be useful fonts of information, if given the right incentive. She spoke to a number of Hogwarts’ framed residents regularly. They could travel back and forth between paintings, yes, but turning the painting around in its frame? That was new.



Also, frankly, rather creepy.



Just then, the painted girl’s eyes flicked over to them, and her expression...filled. Suddenly she seemed shy, and perhaps a bit curious. A sweet smile peeked out around the corners of her mouth.

Astoria wasn’t so sure she bought it. She trusted paintings about as much as she trusted rooms.


Luna, however, warmed to the odd girl immediately--hardly a surprise. She stepped forward.



“Hello. I’m Luna. These are my friends. You’re a sort of guardian, aren’t you?”

The girl smiled wider in response and Luna nodded.



“I thought so. We’re looking for help. The castle sent us. Do you suppose you could let us in?”



Astoria, personally, did not think ‘the castle sent us’ was a highly compelling argument, but these two were apparently birds of a feather. The girl’s clear blue eyes scanned over them, lingering a bit on Astoria, before she ducked her chin in a quick nod and, suddenly, the painting swung open on a hidden hinge.



Neville led the way inside, turning back to help Astoria and Luna down the large drop into the room. The three of them took a few tentative steps forward, only to hear the painting slam shut behind them.

Neville turned about and attempted to pry it open once more.

  “It’s stuck.”

“Oh, of course it is. ‘Stuck’.” 



She had known they shouldn’t have trusted a portrait.

But now they were stuck here, and nothing to be done about it. Astoria crept forward, eyes darting about to take in their surroundings.

They were in a dim, dingy room. A cold fireplace sat beneath the painting, from whence the vacant-eyed girl had disappeared. Grey light drifted in from cracks between the curtains that covered the small windows. And, above all, there was a sort of stale, wet scent pervading the air. Astoria sniffed delicately. It was sort of...dank, and nutty.

Something like...

“Beer,” she announced decisively, careful to keep her voice low. “We’re somewhere where they’re storing beer.”

“The Hog’s Head,” Neville suggested, turning from where he had been observing the contents of a set of wooden shelves. “I think this must be it. I’ve only been here once before, when Harry first started the D.A., but we were in the pub downstairs.”

Taking in the the generally smudged atmosphere, Astoria sniffed.

“This must be where the proprietor lives. I can’t imagine it’s one of the rented rooms. Who would ever willingly stay here?

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Luna, plucking a tiny ceramic goat from a flock that sat on a low wooden table. “It has a certain charm. I imagine the people who stay here prefer things to look a little more...rugged.”



Astoria silently conceded the point. Though ceramic livestock didn’t really fit into her notion of ‘rugged’, it was certainly the kindest word any house agent could use to describe the drab rugs and rough-cut stone walls of the inn.

Her gaze drifted back towards the nearest window, where Luna had drifted and now appeared to be inspecting something along the sill.

“Luna, are you mad? What are you doing?! 



She rushed over and yanked the girl to one side of the glass. The dingy lace curtains fluttered.

“I thought I saw a Voolubog carapace on the windowsill. They’re very rare. It wasn’t, though. Just a garden variety beetle.”

Astoria closed her eyes and took a deep, cleansing breath.

“Alright. That’s nice. Stay away from the windows.”

Luna nodded serenely and wandered over to the other side of the room.

A knot had formed in Astoria’s stomach, and she knew it wouldn’t dissipate until she ascertained whether they had been discovered. Carefully, she edged toward the windowsill, her fingers slowly twitching the curtains to one side.

From the wet cobbles on the walkway below the in, someone was staring up at her.

She jerked back.

“Nev--” she couldn’t get the words out. Her heart was pounding in her throat. Pointing her wand at herself, she managed to throw up a quick Disillusionment Charm, and once again peered out the window.



The figure, the features of their face lost in the depths of their hooded Death Eater robes, was still frozen in place, staring up at the window. But, even as Astoria watched, they shook their head, looked down as if muttering to themselves, and trudged away, out of sight.

Astoria leaned back from the window, sinking against the rough stone wall with a sigh of immense relief.



“I think we’re safe, for now.”

Neville glanced briefly in her direction.

“Hmm? Oh, that’s good then. Luna! Come get a look at this!”

Astoria straightened up. Her companions might not have been as cautious as she’d like, but Neville was right about one thing--they needed to be looking about, not wasting time.


While the two of them poked around at Merlin knew what, Astoria wandered a bit farther afield, passing a locked door that she suspected might be a bedroom, until she approached the stairs. The sound of clinking pints and banging plates indicated that the evening crowd had begun to fill the pub below. 

Astoria paused, reluctant to go farther when there could likely be professors, even Death Eaters, down there.

As she hesitated, her ears pricked to a familiar noise. She froze for a moment, until she was certain; yes, there it was--the unmistakable sound of heavy feet lumbering up an old and creaky stairwell.

Astoria dashed back to the main room, hissing, “HIDE!” as quietly and urgently as she could manage.


Luna, sensibly and rather impressively, made directly for a large cupboard set, opened one of the low doors, and folded herself inside. Astoria headed for the coatrack, where she managed to tuck herself into an enormous, shapeless overcoat that took up the better part of the apparatus.

Neville, as the last to take cover, was left without many options, but he did make a go of it, scrambling for the fireplace. Astoria immediately saw some drawbacks in this choice of hiding place, but really there could be no help for it. It wasn’t as if there were anywhere else for a six-foot-something teenage boy to go.

He clambered his way up the walls until he was more or less firmly wedged in above the firebox, where he could not be seen.

There was a long moment in which they all tried to quiet their breathing and calm their pounding hearts, then came the sound of groaning floorboards on the landing. 



A rattle of keys.

Silence.



_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Hey guys! I'm on an updating role! Thank God! I still feel a bit bad for how long I left you hanging between some previous updates, but I'm doing better, yeah?  


This cliffhanger was brought to you by the help of bigblackdog on the forums, as Elise was the one who helped me figure out where to split this chapter, as well as some other odds and ends. (And for those who hate cliffhangers, please don't hurt us : ) It was totally the best option!)


Thoughts? CC? Opinions? Please put it in review form! I love to hear from you guys. It really keeps me going!



Chapter 14: The Edge of Insanity
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Hogsmeade Village, April 15, 1998

Draco pulled his cloak tighter against him as the chill wind whipped between the shops. It scraped against his bare knuckles, leaving his skin raw.

“Back in a tick, Malfoy,” Macnair assured him as he ducked into the Hog’s Head and made his way towards the bar. Gibbon followed suit, leaving Draco alone in the street, babbling a quick, “Nothin’ personal, mate. Seniority, you know? An’ one of us ought to remain sober on patrol duty, eh?”



Draco let it pass. He thought about going into the pub, just for a bit of warmth, but he didn’t allow himself to do it. He didn’t have much left in the way of self-control, but he knew that one shot of Firewhiskey would lead to another, and another, and maybe it would blot everything out for a while.

But it wouldn’t work. He would always need more. And he was far too dependent on one crutch already. Another weakness was the last thing Draco Malfoy could afford.

A freezing drop of water plopped from the sky to land squarely on his nose. Merlin, but it was cold.

He allowed himself to ponder that weakness as he leaned against the brick facade of the abandoned building across from the Hog’s Head. The tattered awning shielded him as the rain quickly escalated to a light patter, pounding against the pavement and leaving deep pockmarks in the snowbanks.

His mind flicked through various memories, like scrolling through a set of gramophone recordings, trying to make a selection. He saved the new ones--ones he hadn’t played yet--for the night, when things seemed bleakest. But in the daylight hours, he still could revisit the recollections that had grown familiar to him: Astoria’s father, lifting her up onto his lap to look at a colourful atlas; Astoria as a child, a sly smile on her face, sneaking a piece of marzipan from the kitchen while her House Elf pretended not to notice; Astoria, being taught by her mother how to expertly reseal a stolen letter; Astoria, arguing with Daphne about borrowing her library book without asking.

He had become completely dependent on Astoria’s memories. Without them he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t face the nightmares that reared up in their place. 



He hated that, and, what was worse, hated knowing that she would hate it. It was an invasion of her privacy. Those memories revealed the vulnerability beneath her hard shell, and she would despise him for it.



But...that was what he liked best about them. When he had first met the youngest daughter of the House of Greengrass, she had been so utterly inscrutable, more of a cipher than a being of flesh-and-blood. Seeing her memories, knowing her thoughts...it somehow made her so much more real. It proved she was more than just some fantasy Draco had imagined to escape his miserable life. 



Astoria Greengrass existed. She had thoughts, and feelings, and a past. She was somewhere in the world right now. She was...

In that window?

Draco looked sharply upward, and saw the curtain flutter. He narrowed his eyes. He thought he caught a glimpse of dark hair, but in a single heartbeat it had vanished.

He waited. Something kept him from looking away--it was almost as if he couldn’t. The curtains moved again, slightly, but no one appeared in the glass. Still, it was as if he could sense a presence. Her presence.



The wind kicked up and stung his face, forcing him to drop his head. 

There was no one there, or if there was, it was just a lodger at the inn. Lots of people had dark hair. Plenty of women could have skin of a similar shade, eyes that same impossible blue. 

He shook his head. This was madness.

Astoria Greengrass was supposed to be keeping him away from the edge of insanity.


He glanced back up at the empty window.

Instead, she was driving him to it.



*****
The Hog’s Head Inn, April 15, 1998


The door suddenly banged open, slamming against the wall, and it was only her mother’s training that kept Astoria from jumping out of her shoes.


There were twin thumps as a pair of boots were unceremoniously kicked off by the doorstep. Then the stranger lumbered over to the table and dropped a parcel down heavily, rattling the herd of caprine ceramics and knocking a small brown-spotted billy goat onto its side. He reached down to put the figurine to rights.

Astoria couldn’t be certain, but she was almost sure she heard him mumble something that sounded like, “Och. Sorry there, Alfie.”


Slowly, Astoria pivoted. From the right angle, she could see about half of the room. She heard a sniff and a loud “Hmph”. 

A stout man in sock feet was tromping towards the hearth, where he knelt.

Incendio,” a gruff voice barked.

Astoria bit her lip, unable to look away from Neville's regrettable hiding place.

There was no way that ended well.

But, fortunately, the logs only hissed wetly, producing a weak thread of smoke, but no flame. The man grunted his displeasure. Neville had apparently been clever enough to douse the firewood beneath him with a quick Aguamenti.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t considered the rather large pile of stacked logs sitting beside the hearth.

With a flick of his wand, the sopping logs were switched out for fresh firewood and a tiny flame was beginning to grow. The scent of smoke had begun to permeate the air by the time a familiar voice echoed down from the chimney.

“Er, please don’t do that!”

There was a puff of ash as Neville’s feet touched down inside the fireplace. The man grunted.

Hmph. Thought there was someone in here. Come out before I turn you into a tin can!”

Neville ducked out from under the mantel and stood up, brushing soot out of his hair. From her position Astoria by the coatrack Astoria could view Neville clearly, but could see nothing of the stranger but his back.

“Freeze. You move a muscle and you won’t have a muscle left to move, time I’m through with you. Now, why are you here? Who do you work for?”



Neville held up his hands in surrender. “I, er, don’t work for anyone. I’m a student. I just--”

“The Carrows are sending schoolchildren, now? Is that it? Or is it the new ‘Headmaster’? What’re you here for?”


“I was just--”

“Just pokin’ your nose where it doesn’t belong, weren’t you? People lose noses that way. I knew a fellow...never mind that. How did you get in here, eh? Can’t’ve come through the bar, unless you’ve got an invisibility cloak, and if you had one of those you wouldn’t be hiding up a fireplace, would you?”



Neville’s jaw was clenched with irritation. He was clearly nettled by the innkeeper’s constant interruptions, but he remained unfalteringly civil, which was wise when someone had their wand aimed straight between your eyes.

“Sorry. There was a door.” He pointed at the wall. “I didn’t know it would lead here.”

“A door! In my wall? You don’t think I’d notice a door in my wall?”



“Well it’s...new,” Neville finished lamely.

Astoria still could not see the man, but she heard him take in a deep, exasperated breath, and she thought she saw his wand arm twitch.



Fortunately for Neville, at that moment the cupboard in the corner emitted a delicate sneeze.

“Gads, there are more of you?” the man huffed irritably, keeping Neville in his sightline while pointing his wand to the offending piece of furniture. “OUT! NOW!”

Luna popped out of the cupboard door and rolled out into the room, standing with all the grace and composure of a debutante descending a grand staircase. 

“Hello.”

The odd girl gave him a disarming smile and a graceful curtsey. For a moment, the innkeeper was silent. Astoria saw his back shift and suddenly straighten, and thought he might have begun to bow, caught off guard by Luna’s peculiar entrance.

She did have that effect on people.




Overcoming his initial confusion, old man bristled, his wand back at the ready. He levelled it towards the space between the two students, prepared should they make any any move to reach for their own weapons.

They did not.

“I want to know why you’re here and then I want you out! The both of you!”

Neville had once again raised his hands, this time not in surrender, but in a gentling gesture like one might use on a skittish Hippogriff.

“Look, this is just a big misunderstanding. How about we all just lower our wands and lower our voices and stay right where we are, and we can talk this out.”

Neville carefully did not glance toward the coatrack as he said this, but Astoria knew the words were meant for her. Not that she was taking his orders--she’d had no intention of coming out. But it was a relief to know that he wouldn’t consider it some sort of betrayal. You never knew with those Gryffindor types.

Astoria did hope the two of them could talk their way out of this. She didn’t relish the idea of returning to the Room of Requirement to face the rabble’s response to a Slytherin having lost their leader.

No. That would not be pleasant. She grew distracted for a moment, imagining being lined up with the practice targets, bound by red and blue and yellow neckties, electrocuted by the visibly volatile radio set...


“Mr. Dumbledore--” Luna said cheerfully, snapping Astoria back to attention. What?



The old man eyed the girl warily. “How do you know who I am?”

Astoria felt that her jaw was gaping open most unbecomingly, but she couldn’t help it. What was going on?

Despite the man's bluster, Luna's tone was sanguine as ever. “Oh, there’s quite the family resemblance. You look a great deal like your brother, really, but much less cheerful.”

“Well, my brother had the good fortune to die before the world went to shit. Maybe I looked more cheerful then, too.”


Luna tilted her head, considering.

“I don’t think so. Frown lines that deep take a while to set in. That’s alright, though. When combined with all that grey hair, I think they make you look quite distinguished. Happy is far better, I think, but distinguished is still nice.” 


It was all Astoria could do to keep from slapping her forehead. These two did not know the first thing about dealing with a hostile mark.


However, she was intrigued. This must be Aberforth Dumbledore. She didn’t know much about him; no one knew much about him. He was the deceased Headmaster’s brother, but what did that mean for them?

Luna’s appearance evidently grounded Neville, because he sounded much more confident when next he spoke.

“We’re students at Hogwarts. We’re not with the Carrows--the opposite, in fact. We’re fighting against them as best we can. There’s a whole group of us, actually. We’re here because we need help.”

Aberforth grunted derisively.

“Oh, it’s help you want? You show up here, having broken into my home, telling me that a bunch of kids want to go against a powerful group of Death Eaters, and you want my help?

“That’s about the size of it, sir,” Neville answered genially. “We need food. Badly. You have no idea what it’s like up there, Mr....erm, Dumbledore. There are--”

“DON’T you try to tell me what I know or don’t know!”

“Well, you don’t, do you?” asked Luna lightly. “It’s not your fault. You couldn’t possibly know. You haven’t been there.”

“There are kids--children really--that will soon be starving.”

He shook his head, ambling over to ease himself into a large armchair with a grunt.

“Look, they can’t be starving. There aren’t any Muggleborns left in that castle, are there? And You Know Who doesn’t want to kill off ‘good wizarding stock’. ‘S not a part of their ideology. Snape,” he hesitated over the name, practically spitting it, “wouldn’t allow it.”



Neville raised his chin stubbornly.

“Well you’re wrong about that. There are Muggleborns still at Hogwarts, in hiding, with nowhere else to go. And Snape’s given the Carrows the run of the place. They’re sadists. I don’t think they care too much about ‘ideology’.”

Astoria felt a pang in the pit of her stomach at his words. 


Aberforth let out a low exhalation of breath. 

“Not my problem,” he muttered.

Astoria gritted her teeth, half certain they'd hear her molars grinding from behind the coatrack. This was not going at all the direction she would have hoped for.

Neville’s features hardened, his eyes narrowing to form a shockingly intimidating expression. He stepped forward, off the hearth. 



“‘Not your problem?’ These are children! They don’t deserve this. Dumbledore--your brother, he’d want--”



“My brother?” Aberforth spat, obviously incensed. “My brother? My brother was more selfish than you could possibly imagine. Everyone thinks he was such a ‘great man’. Well he wasn’t. They can think what they will about me--fools, the lot of them. Just because someone means well doesn’t mean they’re right. I don’t give a damn what my brother would have wanted! Where is he now? Dead! That’s what you get when you get yourself involved, eh? Dead, and nothing to show for it.”




“Oh enough!" Astoria shouted, stepping out from the folds of the enormous coat and into plain sight. It was quite clear that they were getting nowhere without her and she was going to have to take matters into her own hands.

At least the element of surprise did seem to work in their favour--Aberforth was clearly taken aback.

“Who--? Have you been here the whole time? I never heard you!”

“Of course you didn’t,” Astoria answered tersely, brushing a spot of lint off her shoulder. “I didn’t want you to. And I have heard quite enough.”

“You--”

“Oh no,” she snapped, not even bothering with civility--the time for that was passed. “It is my turn to speak.”

Everyone’s mouth, including Aberforth Dumbledore’s, dropped open.

Now that she could see his face, she did indeed notice a marked similarity between the innkeeper and the late Headmaster of Hogwarts. His features were rougher, his pale eyes, stormier, and the set of his jaw--though largely hidden by an unkempt beard--was infinitely more stubborn. And yet the stamp of resemblance was there nonetheless.


She cleared her throat and fixed the innkeeper with a look that would strip paint.

“I understand your point of view. Stick your neck out for others, and you’ll lose your head--that’s what I’ve been taught my whole life. And you know what? It’s true. Do you imagine I wanted to get dragged into all this madness? I didn’t. I don’t. But here we are.

“From what you say, I can gather that you didn’t much like your brother. I sympathise. I have a foolish, weak-minded sister myself. I can scarcely stand to be in a room with her.

"

She paused thoughtfully. “I would also die for her, I think.

“Whatever issues you may have had with your brother, I think you understand something about family loyalty, Mr. Dumbledore, and responsibility.” She glanced briefly towards the frame above the mantle, where the painted girl had reappeared, her eyes that same piercing blue. “We didn’t just come here--we were brought here, by the magic in the school to which your brother devoted his life. And by her.” She nodded towards the portrait. 


Aberforth’s eyes grew wide.


Her? You’re saying she let you in? That’s impossible!”

He spoke with great feeling, but from the way his hands clenched the arms of the chair, Astoria could tell he was not so certain.

It was Luna, in the end, who settled the matter, turning towards the portrait, whose subject was staring off serenely into the middle distance. She grinned up at it.


“Oh good, you’re back! Would you show him, please?”

The painted girl cocked her head, looking between all of them. Her eyes settled on Aberforth and, with a slight smile, she swung the hidden door open.

He rose to his feet.


“Galloping goats,” he whispered, staring up into the passage. “Now that didn’ used to be here.”

“No,” Luna replied. “It didn’t.”



For a long moment they were silent, as Aberforth Dumbledore, Innkeeper of the Hog’s Head Inn, stared at the dark tunnel reflectively.

He sighed. 

“Well that’s...it’s...hmph, well it doesn’t change anything.”

Apparently, Aberforth didn’t find “the castle sent us” to be a terribly compelling argument, either.

Neville and Luna visibly deflated. 


Astoria, however, refused to give up that easily. She had faced down Death Eaters. She would not be outdone by Albus Dumbledore’s goat-loving little brother.

Her lips curled into a sneer, and she felt her spine straighten as if it had been lined with steel as she drew herself up to her full height. Her mother had had a peculiar way of making a person feel beneath her, even as she stared up at them. Astoria took that expression now and focused its full force upon innkeeper Aberforth Dumbledore.



“Perhaps you don’t think your brother was a good person,” she said, her voice dangerously soft. “I didn’t truly know him, so I can’t speak to that. But it seems to me that you resent him just as much for being so admired as you do for his own faults.”

“You think I hated being in Albus’ shadow?” he thundered. “Well I did, as a boy. But this goes far beyond that.”



Astoria narrowed her eyes, her hands fisting at her hips. Her words snapped out sharply, as if she intended to draw blood.

“Frankly, Mr. Dumbledore, I don’t care how much of your reticence has to do with jealousy and how much it has to do with being truly wronged. You may have resented being outshone, and you may think you’re the clever one, because you’ve kept yourself alive. But you’re the one whose choosing to skulk about in the shadows, and as far as I can tell that’s exactly where you belong.” She curled her lip disdainfully. “Worms like the shadows--they feel safe there, where no one can see them. You’re not clever. You’re a coward.
"

"Now see here, young lady--"

But Astoria wasn't having it.  She stepped forward, and, much to everyone's surprise, Aberforth's words sputtered out, pausing at the sight of whatever was flashing in the girl's eyes.

“What is it you think will happen to you, once you’ve waited it out and the rebellion’s been crushed? You think they’ll forget you? Let you live your life in peace? No. They’ll remember you. They will hunt you down, and what do you think they’ll do to someone like you, with too many connections to all the wrong people? You aren’t safe, Mr. Dumbledore. There’s nowhere safe, so I suggest you pick a side, and bloody well stick to it.”

With a deep breath, she lowered her trembling fists to her sides.

“Or, short of that, you could at least give us some damn food.”


Astoria turned on her heel and walked towards the open portrait door, motioning for Neville and Luna to fall in behind her. She waved an arm in elegant dismissal.


“We’ll, er, be in touch,” Neville tacked on before ducking after her into the portrait hole.

She was running on pure rage and adrenaline, barely noticing Luna and Neville’s wide eyes as they followed her out. Two steps into the passage, and before the door had closed, they heard a loud, booming voice shout after them.



“Wait!”

Astoria’s lips twitched. She pressed them into a firm line and turned around.



“Yes?”

Aberforth stroked his beard, frowning.

“Just, wait here a minute, and I...” He sighed. “I suppose I can get you something. Can’t have kids starving. How many did you say there were of you?”

“About thirty-five, at present,” Neville answered.

“Thirty-five! What kind of group is this you’ve got, lad?”

Astoria smiled grimly.

“As it happens,” she informed him, her eyes sparkling with the steely glint of wry humour, “it’s really more of an army.”



_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Hello lovelies! Thank you so much for reading this far! I don't know when this'll get through the queue, but this will be the fourth chapter I've submitted in July! Whoo! I'm so thankful to have had time to really buckle down and get some work done on this story. So, what do you think? Astoria's finally coming into her own! She got to use the Slytherin talent of sneering for good : ) And we finally got to find out how the D.A.'s agreement with Aberforth first came about.

I'd love your opinions and ruminations and such on this chapter, and CC is always welcome. Please review! There's a little grey box down there that is just waiting to be filled with your thoughts! Make that little box's day (and mine!) and let us know what you think!

A big thank you to bigblackdog for helping me with splitting this chapter from the last, as well as some tricky word-choice bits. You're a gem, Elise!



Chapter 15: The Eyes of the Crowd
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Hogwarts Castle, The Room of Requirement
Wednesday, 15 April, 1998



Astoria found herself, perhaps two hours later, back in the Room of Requirement, staggering under the weight of an enormous basket of cheese and bread and slightly-stale pasties while Luna handed out bottled butterbeer from a case and Neville called for order.

A large table, like the ones in the Great Hall, had appeared in the centre of the room, and she dropped the basket down on it, busily setting out the food to avoid the questions, the mistrustful glares drilling into her.

Neville hopped up onto of the attached benches to address the crowd.

“Alright you lot, listen up!,” he said, clapping his hands together to gain their attention. “We’ve had a stroke of luck--well, that, and a few people have been very brave. We owe them a lot. 



“Most of you probably know that Professor Dumbledore had a brother.” There were a few quiet mutterings. “But, like me, I’m guessing most of you didn’t know that he runs the Hog’s Head down in the village.” 



A number of people audibly gasped, and several ‘I didn’t know that’s’ whispered through the room, but Neville held up a hand and they quieted. 



“Yeah. It’s a bit mad, right? But it’s Aberforth Dumbledore you have to thank for all this, and he’s promised to provide us with food through the end of the year. No more sneaking food from the Great Hall, no more surviving on scraps! We’re going to have a donation jar, if you can chip in a bit in return for his generosity.”

The small company roared with more enthusiasm than Astoria would have been able to believe, a few of them whistling loudly, and several began digging through their pockets for change right then. Neville held up a hand to stay the crowd.

“But before you do that, and before we eat, we also need to thank two other people. Luna, Astoria,” he nodded to them. Reluctantly, Astoria stood up straight and looked over the crowd, careful to avoid eye contact. “Without you two, this never could have been possible. Thank you, from all of us.”

There was a smattering of polite applause, quieter this time. Astoria suspected it was almost entirely for Luna’s sake, but she nodded graciously nevertheless.

“Now, let’s eat!”

The thirty-odd students surged forward in a mad rush for the food, and Astoria made use of the hubbub to slip out of the crowd. She was decidedly not hungry, and managed to drift away unseen, tucking herself into an unoccupied seating area and watching the cheerful mêlée from afar.

Neville, Seamus, and Luna took their food and went to sit on some trunks, along with Padma Patil of Ravenclaw, and Susan Bones and Ernie Macmillan of Hufflepuff. Astoria wondered if it was something like a council, all the Houses represented. All but one. 

Over at the food table a pair of waifish blonde children--Roland and Grace, the longest refugees-in-residence--fell upon a pair of cheese sandwiches with unsuppressed glee.

She settled against a large wooden trunk and leaned her side against it, her fingers digging into the rich pile of the faded red and gold rug beneath her.

Astoria shut her eyes tightly and sighed. It had been a very long day.


Behind her closed eyelids, Astoria could see Neville, standing on the table before the crowd. The way his face lit up when he spoke, spreading to light matching smiles in the crowd, like a flame passed along a line of candles--it made her feel so out of place. 


They were all so...passionate. They truly believed in what they were doing. For them, all of this--a begrudging ally and a meal of stale pasties--was a sign that they were on the right track. Doing the right thing.

Whatever the hell that was.

She resisted the urge to groan, setting her arm down on the trunk and resting her head atop it, her black hair spilling out before her like a veil, obscuring her from the inquisitive eyes.

She wasn’t like these people. They were here because they believed it was noble and right. Even the Muggleborn refugees, who seemed to have little choice, appeared to be fully devoted to the cause. Astoria couldn’t claim that kind of surety, not about anything. She knew the Death Eaters were wrong, but could these people do better? Could a worn group of resistance fighters and a handful of children really rebuild a world?


And that was assuming that they survived long enough to have the chance.

Astoria felt her misgivings bubble up; bile churned in her stomach, creating a whirlpool of anxiety, inexorable currents sweeping her towards a mental abyss.

What had she done, throwing her lot in with these people? Had she even thought? She had been driven by emotion, but what about the other considerations? What about her father, her sister, Filly?

How could she have done this to them? What was she doing? What would her mother say?


She jerked upright as a painful twinge worked its way along her scar, as if the ghost of her mother’s disapproval was dancing, white-hot, along its length. The sensation faded within seconds, and Astoria tried to brush the question aside like a troublesome cobweb, but fragments of it clung to her stubbornly all the same.

Her mother had lost any right to have a say in her actions. Her mother had cursed her. It was a betrayal so deep, so utterly opposed to all Astoria would once have believed, that it still didn’t seem quite real.

But it was. As real as the snake that was permanently twined about her waist.

Lavinia Greengrass may not have cared much about the ideals of Muggleborn elimination, but didn’t that make it worse, somehow?

She had helped these people--people like the Carrows--to set up their dream. This was their dream, this dark and twisted vision that had become Astoria’s reality. Her mother had helped to raise it on its foundations. And why?

For her own pride, for her own sense of value.


Her nerves were screaming and a pounding headache was digging in behind her left eye. Massaging her temple with cold fingers, she leaned up on her elbow and glanced again at the table.


She froze.


There, hobbling in on a pair of wooden crutches, was the Hufflepuff girl--Amara Donoghue. Her face was still ashen, her lips pressed thin with pain or fear, but she staggered to the table bench, where Dennis Creevey scrambled to help her get seated and hand her a selection of foodstuffs. She shrank, once, away from his accidental touch, but the boy seemed to take notice of it and continued to cheerfully bustle around her, now careful to avoid physical contact. He said something to her and chuckled, and Amara almost managed a ghost of a smile.

Astoria felt her heart stutter in her chest. That was bravery. Everything that young girl had faced, and yet here she was, back in the fray, pretending to smile.

She dropped her head back to her arm, this time allowing herself to groan audibly.

How could she abandon that? If Astoria had helped the first time she’d been asked, perhaps some of the horrors that poor girl had lived through would have never occurred. If she’d offered to help back when Ginny was at school, how many children might never have gone hungry, or been beaten?

Why did it seem like, whichever way she turned, so much was bound to be all her fault?

Of course, judging from the dark looks that were directed at her from plenty of the other students, perhaps they wouldn’t want her after all.

Maybe that was what she should be hoping for. But somehow, the idea made something in her chest feel a bit ragged around the edges.


She wasn’t sure how long she had stayed like that--angst-ridden, exhausted, but not quite sure if she should leave--when she was startled back into the here and now by Seamus Finnigan plopping down next to her.


“So, you came through,” he trumpeted, reaching towards her as though he might slap her on the back. Speared by her cold, warning stare, he abruptly thought better of it, but his expression remained incorrigibly sunny. “Knew you would!”



Astoria, feeling tired and rather irritable, rolled her eyes. “No, you didn’t. You were half sure it was all some evil master plan of mine to lead them straight to the Carrows."

Seamus considered this for a moment.

“True,” he conceded. “But I did give you the benefit o’ the doubt.” 



“For now,” she muttered, turning her head as she heard Neville approach. He ducked under a low-hanging yellow hammock, Luna trailing behind him, drifting along with her nose stuck in a book. The blonde girl said nothing as she and Neville came up alongside Astoria and Seamus, plopping herself onto a beanbag nearby without lifting her eyes from her current page.

“Actually, that’s what I’ve come to talk to you about,” Neville said. He spoke clearly, hands stuck in his pockets in a manner that Astoria could only assume was meant to make her feel at ease.

It did not, but she could appreciate the effort.

“We want you to stay on,” he continued. “Not just for now. For, well, for however long this lasts. You did well today, Astoria. I can’t think how we’d’ve convinced Aberforth without you. We need you here. That is, I mean, we want you here, too. So.”

Astoria eyed Neville severely, and determined that he, at least, seemed to be in earnest.

In spite of herself, Astoria felt her heart lifting, like one of those colourful rubber orbs she’d seen Muggle children clutching, clinging to the ribbons as their prize floated up, up, up, enraptured and unaware of the potential dangers--sharp corners and loose grips--that lay in wait.

Astoria shook her head, trying to clear it.

“And they told you that?” she asked skeptically, turning to glance about the room, seeking out the faces of the many students trying--and failing--to look as though they weren’t avidly observing the conversation.



Seamus, utterly unselfconscious in the face of the nosy crowd, elbowed his way back into the conversation and chimed in cheerfully.



“They did! Well, sort of. Most o’ the Hufflepuffs are willin’ to give you a fair shake. The Gryffindors think they can intimidate you into not talkin’--” Seamus was briefly interrupted by Neville’s doubtful snort. “And the Ravenclaws are runnin’ some sort o’ ‘algorithm’ to determine whether or not all Slytherins are ‘inherently deceptive’.”

Neville scratched his head uncomfortable. “Er, I’m...sorry about them.

Astoria frowned, shaking her head mournfully. “That is hurtful and demeaning.”


Neville stuttered, “I--”

“I can’t imagine how they think it’s inherent? We work hard at being deceptive. Some skills only come with practise.”

“Ha!” Seamus sniggered. “Ice Girl made a joke!”

Neville glanced between them uncertainly. “I’m not...entirely sure that was a joke, Seamus.”

Astoria smirked.

“Anyway, we do want you to stay.”

“You really do?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest and turning to Seamus. “You want to give me me free reign to come into your ‘Sanctum’?”



“Headquarters!” yelled a voice from across the room. Astoria sighed. Private conversation was really not a concept among these people.

Seamus, however, had his eyebrows pulled into an uncharacteristically serious line when she turned back to him. He braced his hands on his crossed legs and stared down at the floor.

“I’ve mistrusted people before--friends--and I’ve been wrong about it. If Ginny trusts you, that’s enough fer me.”


She had nothing to say to that, but that little bit of warmth that had flared in her chest--was it really only hours ago?--when Neville had first brought her in, when she had felt accepted, came back to life.

“‘sides,” he added, reverting to his usual mischievous expression, “you brought me somethin’ to eat besides sodding lentils. By my way of thinkin’, that makes you my queen.”

“Alright Seamus, that’ll do,” Neville interrupted, the corners of his mouth lifting into a rueful grin. He turned again to face her. “So, what do you say? Would you be willing to stay on?”


Astoria pursed her lips. She was tempted, it was true. Even given the fact that half the people here hated her on principle, there was more warmth in the Room of Requirement than she had experienced in the past year. There was something...hopeful about it.

But there was still her family to think of. There was still herself.

She couldn’t help feeling that she was clinging to reason by her fingernails.

It was terrifying,


“I...” Astoria faltered. Paused. Then she found her voice and looked Neville steadily in the eye.

“I’ll help you. I won’t be a part of your ‘army’ or whatever it is, but I’m willing to do what I can to keep you alive. Within reason,” she tacked on at the end, because really, there were quite a few Gryffindors here, and keeping the foolhardy lot of them alive might be more than any Slytherin could take on, no matter how cunning.

A strange expression rippled across Neville’s face and was gone before even Astoria’s quick eyes could identify it. He nodded solemnly.

“I’ll take that.”

He reached out a hand to hers. Automatically Astoria gave it to him, palm down, as well-bred Pureblood ladies’ hands were kissed, never shaken. Neville caught her fingers and hesitated, plainly confused as he stared down at her hand, which rested limp in his. Catching on, and feeling rather embarrassed, she abruptly twisted her wrist, squeezing his fingers firmly.

“It’s nice to have you with us, Astoria.” He opened his posture to include their surrounding company and clapped his hands together. “Now, for logistics.”

“Logistics?”



Neville nodded. “Yeah, I reckon we ought to have some way to contact you, y’know? I don’t think we can just send someone to fetch you. Might look odd, sending a Huffepuff down to the dungeons. And there aren’t any other...er, well, you’re the only..."

“Slytherin.” Astoria motioned to the mezzanine balcony that wrapped around the room, hung with bright banners of lions, eagles, and badgers. “Yes, I’d gathered.”

Neville winced, but kept at it, scratching his head thoughtfully. “It’s a shame we don’t have more of Hermione’s Galleon coins. The charm’s too advanced for me to copy.”

“We could give her Marietta’s coin, I suppose,” Luna chimed in, turning the page in her book--it possessed the unlikely title of My Life Among the Dabberblimps. She stuck her wand in to mark her place before setting it aside look at them directly.

“Well, we could if we had it,” he answered with a shrug. “I can’t imagine where that ended up.”

Luna gave Neville a befuddled look. “Of course we have it.”

She reached down and began untying her left boot, as if that were a completely normal thing to do in the middle of a conversation.

“We...do?”

Luna tugged at her bright purple laces and bent both hands to the task of wresting the boot from her foot. “We do,” she affirmed, grunting as she finally freed herself from the shoe, and nearly flying off her seat from the force of it. She would have, too, if Neville hadn’t automatically reached out a hand to steady her.

Astoria felt her lip twitch, curling disdainfully out of sheer habit. Removing one’s attire--shoes especially--in company, was unthinkable. It was a lucky thing that Luna didn’t appear to have horrible foot-smell, or the whole affair would have been even worse. But Astoria was surprised to find that there was, indeed, method behind the madness, as Luna reached into the toe of her clunky black boot and pulled out a small linen satchel.

The girl tucked her fuzzy, periwinkle-striped sock foot beneath her, legs folded lotus-style, as she poured the bag’s contents into the palm of her head. There were several sprigs of rosemary, an elegantly curved seashell; something that looked like a tiny, silver wishbone; and there, sitting right in the centre of Luna’s lifeline, was a single golden coin.

A Galleon.

Luna grinned. “After what happened with Umbridge, I didn’t think Marietta should be trusted with it.” Neville gaped at her, but Luna continued on, shrugging nonchalantly. “I imagine she thinks the nargles got to it, but it was me.”

Neville was still gawking, but he sucked in enough breath to manage, “Luna, that’s...that’s brilliant.”

And Luna, well, Astoria could scarcely believe her eyes, because that aloof, fey creature was actually...preening.

“I’m glad I was able to hold onto it. I had a feeling it would be useful someday.”

Neville nodded animatedly, not saying anything, just standing there awestruck by Luna’s foresight and ingenuity. Seamus caught Astoria’s eye, glanced knowingly towards the other two, and winked.

Astoria almost smiled. Almost.

“So, what’s this mean, then?” Seamus inquired, ruffling up his short hair. “You’re one of us, but...not?”

“I think that’s about the size of it,” Neville answered.

Astoria merely shrugged. 

On some level she knew that such a distinction was pointless. She’d thrown her weight behind one side now, and if they fell she was unlikely to remain standing. It might have been pure semantics--whether she was a member of the resistance or not--but it soothed her nonetheless. If she was going to be brave, then she needed this, at least. She needed the illusion of safety, even if it was so easily pierced.

Seamus didn’t argue or complain. He just plucked the golden coin out of Luna’s palm and flipped it into the air towards Astoria. Her reflexes responded automatically and it thumped into her fist, her fingers clenched tight around around the warm metal disk.

The coin was strangely heavy. She wondered if it was because of the Charm, or simply because accepting it felt so momentous.

Seamus grinned. “Congratulations, Astoria. You’re officially unofficial.”

She didn’t smile. Not yet. But she could feel the corners of her mouth felt strangely light, as though they might lift up and up, if she would let them.

Then she caught sight of a gaggle of girls standing half the room away, surrounding Lavender Brown, who was motioning towards Astoria and speaking with large hand gestures, her expression mistrustful.

Astoria shifted on her feet. It was time to go. Whatever Seamus might like to believe, there would be fallout over this decision, and she didn’t want to be present for it.

“Alright. That’s that, then. I’d better get back to the Common Room before someone misses me.” Not that anyone would, but they didn’t need to know that.

Neville snapped back to attention, the gooey smile melting off his face and replaced by a determined expression.

“Good. You’ll be back tomorrow? There’re some things I’d like to run by you. I’m hoping you’ll have some ideas.”



“If I can, then I will,” she said noncommittally.

Neville rocked back on his heels. “Right.” From the pack of girls around Lavender, there was a shriek and a titter, and then several scowls and a wave of whispers bent in Astoria’s direction. 

“Just ignore them,” Neville advised. “You did great today. Really. We never could have convinced Aberforth without you. You said just the right thing.”

Luna nodded solemnly, her eyes once again fixed upon the pages of her book. “Sometimes the best advice is the thing we’re wishing most to tell ourselves.”

Astoria shot her a sharp look, trying to discern what, exactly, the strange girl meant by that, but Luna was once again firmly ensconced in the literary diversion of Dabberblimps, and didn’t meet her gaze.

Astoria shrugged and turned toward the exit. “Well, I’ll be off, then.” She slipped the coin into a cunning little pocket sewn almost invisibly into her shoulder bag and headed for the wall that would lead out to the corridor.

She paused, not quite turning her head as she called back to Neville.

“What sort of security system do you have set up, anyway? How do I leave?”

“Er, what’s that you say?”

Astoria had turned, slowly, to face him. “Security. Surveillance. Bugging of some sort?” His face remained blank. “Merlin, don’t tell me your not at least monitoring the outside corridor?”

“Err...”

“What? I suppose you just look both ways over your shoulder before charging in here? That’s all the assurance you have that no one’s watching?"

Neville winced and scratched at his head. “Well...”

“Gryffindors!” Astoria sputtered. “Honestly, it’s like volunteering for the chopping block!”

Neville, looking sheepish, glanced down at the floor. Seamus, on the other hand, just waved goodbye to her, grinning maniacally.

“Sounds like a perfect problem for you to solve, eh? Did I mention how glad we were to have you on board? So glad. See you tomorrow, Astoria!”

And with that, Astoria pushed her way to the main wall, placed her hand on the stones and, hoping for the best, strode forward into the darkened castle corridors. Back to the dungeons. Back to the deceptions.

Back to the dark.


*******
Friday, 17 April, 1998


“Astoria!” Melody Veriworth, a Second year Hufflepuff, waved to her as she entered the Room of Requirement, having snuck up right after breakfast. “Neville was wanting to see you. He was wondering if you’d brought...something? Wanted you to pass it on to Seamus?”


“Noted,” sighed Astoria, dismissing the girl, who ran back to join the crowd watching a particularly savage game of wizard’s chess set up in the centre of the room.  She located Seamus among a smaller knot of people over by the radio, calling up encouragement to Nigel, who was being levitated by Dean Thomas as he fiddled with the device’s enormous antenna.

“Not much of a chess person, are you?” Astoria drawled as she approached. Seamus looked over at her and grinned.

“Meh. I like gettin’ to watch the pieces smack each other about a bit, but eventually it gets boring.” He shrugged. “Watching Dean try to levitate someone is much more interestin’. More likely to see some blood.”

“Charming.”

Seamus’ grin only widened. He seemed to have developed the absurd idea that disdainful dismissal was Astoria’s way of being friendly, and, based on that reasoning, considered himself to be quite a favourite.

“Did you get it?”

“Of course,” she answered, rolling her eyes as she produced a fleshy pink object from the pocket of her robes and tossed it at him. Seamus fumbled to catch the thing, finally getting a grip on it and dangling it by its cord.

“A real Extendable Ear,” he whispered reverently. 



He stared at it as if it were solid gold, when she knew for a fact they had been 15 sickles at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. Astoria pursed her lips.

“I’m curious. You seem like quite the patron of the Weasleys. Why don’t you have one?”

Seamus scratched his head self-consciously. “Filch, well, he filched most of our Wheezes stuff when he checked our trunks. Ginny’s managed to get us a few things, but not too much.” He frowned. “I’d say the better question is, how did you get it past him?”

Astoria shrugged delicately. Her first thought was that anyone who didn’t have their trunk sufficiently enchanted to fool a Squib-wielded Probity-Probe was an amateur. 



But almost immediately on the heels of that thought came another consideration: none of these people were raised by a master spy. None had spent hours on their summer holidays under their mother’s watchful eye, practicing concealing enchantments, picking locks, and forging letters. It wasn’t really a fair comparison.

But, of course, she could hardly explain all that. 


“Perhaps Filch simply wasn’t as careful in the Slytherin checks. They’re hardly expecting a grand revolution from anyone in my House.”



Lavender Brown, who had been sitting on the ground nearby, half-watching Nigel and half-focused on shuffling through a deck of tarot cards, had given up all pretence of watching the radio repairs and was indiscreetly eavesdropping on their conversation. She laughed scornfully.

“Yeah? Well me neither, Greengrass. You’re all lying, backstabbing...snakes! I don’t trust you any more than I trust the Carrows.”

“How my heart bleeds,” Astoria replied, deadpan. She turned back to Seamus.

“It should work for what we want it to do. It’s got extra enchantments, too, so it would hear someone even if they’ve cast a strong silencing spell.”

“Excellent!”

Seamus cracked his knuckles, eager to get to work.

“What are you even doing with that thing?” Lavender demanded.

Astoria didn’t deign to answer, so Seamus took up the task, grinning eagerly.



“It’s really brilliant, actually. It was mostly Astoria’s idea,” Lavender’s expression soured, but Seamus continued without remarking on it. “So, what we’re doin’ is puttin’ this Ear to our side ‘o the wall with a Sticking Charm, just in line with where that suit o’ armour stands across from the tapestry, right? An’ then inside the suit of armour, we’re gonna hide Terry’s old Sneakoscope. So if somebody who isn’t trustworthy is comin’ by, it’ll start whirlin’ around, which’ll rattle the suit of armour just a bit an’, with the Ear, we’ll be able to hear that from inside this room.”

It really hadn’t been mostly Astoria’s idea. As far as she was concerned, she had merely provided the supplies. Neville had asked her to discuss security with Seamus Finnigan, and she’d been quite surprised to discover that he actually wasn’t an idiot. Well, he was perhaps, but not when it came to matters of engineering. He certainly believed more problems could be solved by way of strategic explosions than was really realistic, but it had been his idea to find a way to get ears on the outer corridor. He simply hadn’t expected Astoria to furnish those ears quite so literally.

At any rate, she wasn’t about to correct him. Half the D.A. was, no doubt, out for her blood, so if Seamus Finnigan wanted to sing Astoria’s praises, she’d let him; she would take all the credit she could get.



“So long as we’re listenin’ before we exit,” Seamus continued, “no one should be able to catch us. It won’t help us with gettin’ in, but that’s another problem for another day.”

Lavender fanned herself with her deck of cards in a way that she clearly believed looked introspective. It looked to Astoria, incredibly stupid. Lavender frowned.

“I don’t see how you’re going to depend on her for our safety. How do you know that thing isn’t a fake?!”

Seamus, who had held the end of the flesh-coloured string to his own ear, winced and rubbed at it it. “Seems to be workin’ enough to amplify your dulcet tones. Ow.”

Ignoring this, the Gryffindor girl turned back to Astoria.

“I don’t trust you, Snake,” Lavender sneered.

“Yes. You’ve made that quite clear.”

“Lav--”

“No one asked you, Seamus.”



“Quite right. That’s very true,” Seamus said in a conciliatory voice, nodding excessively. A few heads had turned toward them--Lavender’s friends--their interest pricked by Lavender’s ever-increasing volume, though most still seemed to be focused on the Incredible Levitating Nigel.

The three who had tuned in, though, weren’t looking away. After all, how could Nigel, or even the chess game, be anywhere near as exciting as the fight Lavender was clearly itching for? As Seamus might say, Astoria thought wryly, they’re more likely to see some blood.

Astoria didn’t want trouble. She didn’t want to deal with girls like Lavender. And she didn’t want attention. She just wanted to do her part and put her conscience at ease, nothing more.

“I believe that’s my cue,” she muttered wryly to Seamus as she eyed Lavender and her friends, all of whom seemed to be eagerly awaiting a scene. “I’m leaving.”


Lavender stretched her legs out to obstruct her path, her lips quirked in a self-satisfied grin. A small group of her friends sat in a half-circle behind her, tittering.

Astoria scrolled through her mental cache containing everything she knew about the girl.

Lavender Brown was a Seventh year Gryffindor, who fancied herself Hogwarts’ premier seeress (excluding Professor Trelawney, of course). She was never spotted without some absurd accessory--star charts, crystal balls, runed knucklebones painted a sparkling shade of, sickeningly enough, lavender.

She had dated the youngest Weasley brother, but they’d broken up. Rumour had it that he’d cheated on her with Hermione Granger, but as Astoria was fairly certain that Lavender herself had started that rumour, she was reluctant to credit it.

She had a pet rabbit, now deceased, a proclaimed indisposition to ever date another redhead, and was deathly allergic to gurdyroot.


Astoria didn’t respond to Lavender’s petty tactics. In fact, she looked determinedly past her, continuing to walk by until Lavender shifted, her legs thumping against Astoria’s shins, determined to block her way.

Astoria stopped in her tracks and shifted, slowly, to face her.


“What?” Astoria asked, her tone almost bored. She looked lazily down at Lavender and waited for her to speak.

“Terry’s Sneakoscope can’t be that good, if it isn’t sounding the alarm when you’re about.”


Lavender’s pack of girls giggled.

Astoria began to wonder whether some gurdyroot would be terribly difficult to procure.

Seamus was looking back and forth between the girls nervously, clearly eager to change the subject. When he spoke, his voice was injected with an incredible amount of false enthusiasm. “I still can’t believe you got hold of a specially enchanted Extendable Ear. Ginny didn’t even have one of those. Where’d you get a thing like that?”

“Stole it off a Death Eater.”

“Are you serious?”

“As a heart attack.” Astoria shrugged, resisting the urge to smile as the three onlookers’ eyes nearly popped out of their heads. As a Slytherin, she wasn’t above a bit of drama when it suited her.

Lavender Brown pushed herself up off the floor, her tarot cards dropping, forgotten, from her lap. “Don’t you people see she’s lying? She’s making fun of you gullible gits!”

More people were glancing their way, and it made Astoria edgy. Her skin felt clammy and her pulse was starting to race. It felt like so many eyes, but it wasn’t that many. Maybe a dozen. Six people. She could handle that. She wouldn’t back down, not yet.



Astoria kept her expression placid.

“The only ‘git’ I’m interested in making fun of at the moment is you, Lavender,” she informed her dryly, moving closer. Lavender took half a step back, but stuck out her chin defiantly. Astoria drew near enough to snatch at the card still clutched in the other girl’s hand. She held it up.



“The Fool. How appropriate,” she murmured, soft enough that everyone leaned in to hear, but only Lavender would. “As a matter of fact, what I’ve said is entirely true. I pick-pocketed the Death Eater who was sent to my house over the holiday.”

He threatened me, tried to extract information from me, and I survived it, she thought.

But she didn’t say it. Everything with Draco was still so...undetermined. It felt private, personal. Whatever it was that had happened between them, it didn’t belong to these people.

Still, there was a part of her--a large part--that wanted to tell them, to tell them all. She had dealt with worse things than Loudmouth Lavender, and she had survived. She had suffered as much as the girl in front of her, as much as anyone in that room, save perhaps the refugees. How many had been personally interrogated? How many had risked not only a detention or a beating, but their very lives?

But she stayed quiet. She wasn’t certain the words wouldn’t catch in her throat, couldn’t be sure that she wouldn’t tremble in recounting one of her most vulnerable moments. Astoria refused to show weakness in front of these people.

Lavender sneered. “And you expect us to believe that you didn’t tell him anything?”


More people were looking now. Too many. The chess game and the wireless had been all but abandoned as nosy students leaned towards the commotion.

“No,” Astoria replied quietly. “I expect that most of you will distrust me, because of who I am and where I come from. But that can’t be helped. I don’t really care if you believe me. I care that we get things done.”

“Snakes don’t change their stripes!” One of the Patil twins--Parvati, judging by the mole on her cheek--cried out. Lavender nodded as though this were a completely sensible statement, and she wasn’t the only one.

They really were convinced that she was out to betray them. Astoria really wasn’t surprised--not in the least--but she found an uncomfortable sensation stirring in her stomach. There were eyes--so many eyes--upon her, the girl who was so rarely seen.

Lavender’s own brown eyes were flinty as she stepped toward her, spreading her arms wide to motion to the room at large. The expressions on the faces of the students around her were no more forgiving. 

“I don’t see any others of your type here. If you Slytherins were so well-meaning, the rest of you wouldn’t be huddled down there with your Dark Curses and your precious lineage books.”


She could think of many logical points to make, a dozen solid defences. It wasn’t as though the Slytherins were welcome in the Room of Requirement. A distant, braver corner of her mind hissed acerbically, I suppose the invitations to the secret room, from the secret army just got lost on their way to the dungeons, did they?

She wanted to say that a person was more than their House. That they, with their anti-Pureblooded prejudices, were no better than the assortment of Slytherins coiled up in the dungeons, nattering on about the evils of Mudbloods.

She wanted to say it, but...she couldn’t. Too many eyes. The entire room was quiet now, every one of them listening in. She felt her throat tighten and close, and struggled to suppress a gagging sound.

Lavender merely folded her arms over her chest.

“Neville’s just being softhearted. You shouldn’t be here; you’re not wanted.”

This comment sparked a memory, and Astoria’s fingers reached into the pocket of her satchel of their own accord. There. They stroked over the grooves and raised edges of her bespelled Galleon coin, which was always warmer than was natural. That warmth spread through her fingers, down her arm, thawing the tense muscles of her throat.

There were people who wanted her here. She had been of use.

“Neville and the rest of your little leadership crew were ‘softhearted’ enough to give me this,” she answered, firmly if still quietly, pulling the Galleon from her bag. “So I’m afraid I have as much right to be here as the rest of you.”



Lavender reared back, startled. “Where’d you get that from?” she asked, snatching at it. Astoria closed her hand, quick as a Muggle’s magic trick, and the coin disappeared. “We’ve been out of extras all year.”

Astoria allowed a self-satisfied smirk to creep around the corner of her mouth. She opened her hand and the coin was there once more.

“Let me see it.”



“Why should I?”



“I just want to see something.”

“What will you give me, in return for the opportunity?”

Lavender huffed something about ‘stupid snakes and their damned contracts’. “I won’t talk to you, or about you, for the rest of the day,” she offered.



Astoria considered. “An entire twenty-four hours.”



“From the time we finish this conversation.”

“And you’ll give that back within the next sixty seconds.”

Lavender wrinkled her nose, peering at Astoria with evident disdain. “Fine. Deal.”

Astoria held out her hand, the golden coin glimmering like a golden drop on her pale palm. She was surprised to find just how reluctant she was to extend her arm, to let Lavender touch the coin. In a matter of days, it had already come to mean something to her. It was hers. It signified that someone thought she belonged here.

Even if they were wrong about that, it still...meant something.

She didn’t allow herself to flinch as Lavender plucked the coin out of her hand and closed her fingers around it, lifting her clenched fist to her forehead and closing her eyes in concentration.

After about thirty seconds, her coffee-coloured eyes blinked open. 

“This belonged to Marietta Edgecombe.”

Astoria couldn’t even help it. She was still anxious with such an audience, but even that wasn’t enough to make her reign in her scoff as she snatched the coin back from Lavender’s open hand. “Surely you aren’t trying to tell me that you saw that with your ‘Inner Eye’? Simple deductive reasoning is all it takes.”

At this, Parvati, who had been standing dutifully at her friend’s elbow, shoved her way forward. “Hey, Lavender does have the Inner Eye, okay? And if she’s Seeing that you’re going to stab us in the back, I believe her! I don’t know what my sister was thinking, voting to let you in here, but you don’t belong with us!”

The crowd was simmering, seething, building up to a full boil.

With great effort, Astoria kept her voice low and even. She kept her feet, desperate to shuffle off to safety, rooted and still. “And is that what you’re saying you ‘See’, Brown? You’d swear on your ‘Gift’--if you really have one--that you have Seen that I’ll betray you?”



Lavender shuffled uncomfortably.

“Try, Lav,” Parvati encouraged her. “Try now, and prove it.”

The other girl pursed her lips. Her eyes drifted half shut, but Astoria could sense that all Lavender’s attention was fastened upon her. She rubbed at the centre of her forehead for a moment, then her eyes blinked open.

“You are an oddly shrouded person. I can’t even tell what colour your aura is. It’s like it just flickers out whenever I try to catch a glimpse of it.”

“How convenient,” Astoria sneered, her lip curling with disdain even as her heart continued to thump. Too many eyes. She wanted to run, but she couldn’t.

“I was thinking just the same thing,” Lavender replied, stepping forward to intrude upon Astoria’s space. “That coin’s already belonged to one traitor,” she spat. “It better not have ended up with a second.”


Neville’s voice suddenly boomed through the room, coming from unexpectedly close by.

“All right, everyone. That’s enough. You’ve all got better things to be doing, I expect. Marigold, weren’t you meant to be helping Luna fetch that basket from Aberforth? And Parvati, Padma was wanting your opinion on something...”

Neville continued to hand out orders, quickly diminishing the group.

Seamus and Dean flanked him, with Nigel behind them, holding an icepack to his head. Dean must have dropped him after all, and apparently everyone had been too absorbed in the drama between Astoria and Lavender to notice.

 Who would have thought that she, Astoria Greengrass, the girl who was invisible, could be so riveting?

Who would have known how desperately she’d wish to remain in the shadows?

It took a minute, but Neville’s gaze remained steadily on those who were left, and slowly but surely the crowd began to disperse, the tension in the room swirling briefly before draining away with them. When her mob had been disbanded, he turned his attention to Lavender.

“Your concerns have been noted. Several times now,” he said firmly. “That’ll be enough.”

The Gryffindor girl frowned at him, but said nothing aloud. With a disdainful sniff, she bent down to gather up her tarot cards, then turned and stalked away.

All the boys turned their attention to Astoria.


“Alright?” Neville asked--one of those false questions. He made as if to pat Astoria on the shoulder, but dropped his hand awkwardly halfway there.

She didn’t bother answering, merely bobbed her head. Nigel cleared his throat loudly, and Neville nodded at him, silently granting permission to return to whatever it was he had been fiddling with before.

Astoria pinched the bridge of her nose, drawing in a deep breath. “That girl is going to be a problem,” she announced finally.

“Probably,” Neville agreed.

“Yeah. You know, I’d say something to her about it,” Seamus offered, “but...I’m a coward.”

“Are you certain you’re a Gryffindor?”



“Oi. Those’re ideals. Nobody shows their House traits all the time. Sometimes, Padma gets a bad mark on an exam. Sometimes, you don’t seem that evil.”



“‘Evil’ is not an official trait of Slytherin House, Seamus.”



“Could’ve fooled me,” he retorted, grinning madly.

Astoria feigned a frown on principle. It wasn’t so bad when Seamus said it--she knew he didn’t mean it, really. Still, she folded her arms across her chest and shot him a glare.

“Now, why is it you’re afraid of Lavender?” 



“Other’n the fact that she’s scary and a bit mad? We had a thing in Fourth year. And in Fifth year.” He shrugged. “Now it’s awkward.”


“You had a ‘thing’ with Lavender Brown?!”

Dean finally spoke up, rolling his eyes. “Seamus flirts with everyone,” he informed her tartly as he turned to follow Nigel.

“Keep it up an’ you’re next, Thomas,” Seamus called after him with a wink.

Dean just shook his head, looking greatly put upon, and kept walking. 


“Alright, Seamus, if you’re quite done flirting with everything that moves--”

“Well, there’s no need to treat Dean like a piece o’ meat, is there, Neville? He’s special to me.”

Dean, who was just within earshot, couldn’t contain a snort.

Neville sighed deeply. “D’you think you could go ahead and work on getting that Ear thing rigged up?”

“Yessir, General Longbottom, sir!” Seamus answered with a cheeky salute.

Neville just smiled, nodded, and walked off towards another group. Astoria still hadn’t managed to find out what, exactly, he did all day. It couldn’t all be breaking into bars and breaking up fights.


Astoria raised a hand to her face, grateful that she wasn’t wearing makeup as she jammed the heel of her palm into her eyes, rubbing forcefully. 


“I don’t know why I put up with this,” she muttered.

“It’s ‘cause you’re in love with me, isn’t it?” Seamus asked over a yawn, stretching his arms out over his head. “Wouldn’ be the first time.”

Merlin. The boy really did flirt with anything that moved.

“Finnigan?”

“Yeah?

"

"Shut up.”

“Absolutely, Lieutenant Greengrass.”



“I’m not a lieutenant, Seamus.”



“Right you are! You ought to be much higher up in the ranks. Admiral Greengrass!”

Astoria rolled her eyes. She knew Seamus was trying to cheer her up. It was sweet, in a vaguely irritating way. “We aren’t at sea, Seamus.”


“Mhm,” he tapped his chin thoughtfully. "That does pose a problem. ‘Brigadier’ has a nice ring to it, don’ you think? Or Major Greengrass--unless you’re thinkin’ that makes you sound fat. I don’t think so, mind you--"

“Seamus!” Astoria huffed. “I am not a part of your mad little army!”


“Sure you’re not,” Seamus said with a knowing smirk. “That’s why you’re here every day, nose in the air, bossin’ me about.”

“It has been three days! And I am a...consultant.”



“Yeah? Remind me what we’re payin’ you? To consult? Because if you’re not one of us we ought to be payin’ you, oughtn’t we?”

This is the very definition of a charity case,” Astoria muttered, “keeping you band of blithering halfwits alive.”

“And we’re so glad you do.”



“I could leave at any time!”

“Of course you could.” Seamus nodded amiably.

“I’m leaving right now,” she announced, walking briskly toward the entrance wall. She reached it, paused.

“Well, not right now. The Slytherin prefects will be monitoring this corridor any minute. I need to talk to Neville about asking the Room to put in some sort of alternate exit--surely he’ll have some ideas. Why don’t you make yourself useful and go fetch him, Seamus?”


“Aye, aye, Cap’n!” he shouted, adding an elaborate salute.

“Leave me alone Seamus!

“Sir, yes sir!”


______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hi everybody! I'm so glad that you've read this far. Thank you! And I have some other thanks to hand out, too. To everyone who nominated and voted for Traitorous Hearts in the Dobby Awards, THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart. It's an incredible honor to have been a finalist. And if you have a chance, you should definitely check out the other nominees and, of course, the fabulous winners!

Also, a big thank you to elise (bigblackdog on the forums), my fabulous beta, who has helped this chapter (and this story) so much! I'd also definitely recommend checking out her story, Welcome to the LC, because I absolutely love her writing style.

So, new chapter! Astoria makes a decision about the D.A.! But clearly, all is not destined to go smoothly. She's already made some enemies, but...maybe some potential friends, too, if she can learn to let her guard down a little?

And, for a little sneak peek into next chapter, here's a snippet: "She didn’t want to do this. This wasn’t a minor cruelty--a mocking laugh or knocking the books from someone’s arms--to make certain that she fit in, that she wasn’t suspected.

This was an Unforgivable."



*snippet is subject to Terms & Conditions, whereby this snippet is likely to occur in the next chapter, barring unforeseen splitting of chapter. ;) As always, your reviews are so very appreciated! I'd love it if you'd leave one!

--Penny



Chapter 16: The Weight of the Curse
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Dark Arts Classroom, Hogwarts Castle, April 17, 1998


There was a low hum of impatience in the classroom. Even in a school run by Death Eaters, the last class on a Friday afternoon was bound to have students chomping at the bit. 


These days, it felt as though she barely attended class. The Room of Requirement, stuffed with young revolutionaries; back alley meetings in supply cupboards; delivery pickups from from the Hog’s Head Inn--those were real life, those took place in colour. 

The real education happened in the shadows. N.E.W.T.s meant little when tomorrow you could be dead.


Astoria sat at one of the tables in the middle row, on the edge, next to Jeremy Fischer, who was so tall that he more or less blocked her out. It was prime real estate. No one ever really looked at her here, Amycus Carrow included.

Rain pounded against the thick glass window on the other side of the room. Lightning flashed. A fly buzzed dully, periodically head-butting the glass with a thump, thump, thump. She didn’t even think it was trying to escape, not really; it was just attempting to put itself out of its misery.

Suddenly, the door slammed open, cracking like the thunder and electrocuting the roomful of students into perfect posture as Professor Carrow stalked into the room, water droplets flying off his cloak and falling like teardrops across the more eager students’ parchment.

His boots were still thumping their way up the aisle when his wand whipped out and the chalk rose to tap against the board, scrawling out a message in spindly white letters.

THE IMPERIUS CURSE

“What do you know?” he demanded. “You.” He pointed to a short, chubby Gryffindor who nearly choked.

“It--it’s an Unforgivable. Sir. Erm...Professor Moody, or erm, Crouch? He taught us.” Amycus Carrow frowned, and the boy scrambled to come up with more informaton. “There was the thing with, well they...it makes them do what they're told.”



“Within limits, yes. For instance, I’m not sure even the power of Imperio would allow you to give a competent answer. Flint!”

“Sir?”

“See if you can give a more comprehensive response.”

And Tiberius Flint--who had never been what one might call an academic--launched into a passionate description of the many uses of the Imperius Curse. Astoria barely heard it, her eyes flicking between the jagged letters on the board and the faces of the Gryffindors, which were quickly growing paler than the chalk.

Defence Against the Dark Arts class--or, as it now was, Dark Arts--had become quite popular amongst her Housemates, who had spent years hearing adults whisper of such spells and curses, waiting to be declared old enough to know the family secrets. 

Now, they were finally being taught. Astoria herself had felt a prick of intrigue at first--as much interest as she had felt for anything back in autumn, still mourning the loss of her mother.

But it had not been long before Dark Arts was decidedly the most horrid class Astoria had ever taken. And she didn’t suffer the worst of it.

“--best way to learn is by a practical application,” Amycus Carrow was droning on, his tone as bored as ever but his eyes glittering with gleeful malice. “I think...yes. Why don’t we pair up, Gryffindors with Slytherins, hmm? Have a bit of practice. Burke, you’ll be with Robins; Flint, you’re with Creevey; Greengrass with Wimpole...”

Astoria stopped listening. She stood up as the rest of the students moved out from behind the desks, the Slytherins quickly, with giggles and titters, the Gryffindors slowly, as if contemplating rebellion. With a flick of his wand, Professor Carrow sent the long tables flying back deeper into the room, and the Sixth years lined up against opposite walls.

“Don’t be all day about it. Hurry up,” Professor Carrow snapped.

The Gryffindors fell into line and Astoria reluctantly glanced up, meeting the hard-eyed stare of Meg Wimpole, Ginny Weasley’s one-time roommate and a member of Dumbledore’s Army.

Meg had never been friendly toward her--had, in fact, nearly speared her through the throat with her wand, once. She wasn’t one of Lavender’s groupies, but neither had she extended any acceptance toward the lone Slytherin to gain entrance to the Room of Requirement.

Astoria couldn’t say she much liked her.

Still. Looking at Meg then--rawboned and brittle, clenching her hands into fists to try to keep them from shaking, the colour draining from her cheeks--she didn’t want to do this. This wasn’t a minor cruelty--a mocking laugh or knocking the books from someone’s arms--to make certain that she fit in, that she wasn’t suspected.



This was an Unforgivable.

Professor Carrow swept into the centre of the room, with Jack Sloper, unluckiest Gryffindor of all, alongside him. His gravelly voice held a note of deep satisfaction and of imminent cruelty. A cruel smile ticked the corner of his thin lips upward.

“Now, you all know the incantation, I am sure, but so that you have a demonstration,” he brandished his wand at Jack. The boy flinched. "Imperio!"

Jack didn’t have a prayer of resisting. He was raised up onto his toes like a puppet on strings, his arms splayed out grotesquely and made to writhe.

“With this Curse, I now have full control of my victim’s body. He’ll do anything I require. He might,” Professor Carrow explained, lifting his wand, “appear mad enough to be locked in St. Mungo’s...”

Jack dropped to his knees. For a moment, all was silent, and then he let out a wild, ear-piercing howl. He scrambled along the floor, his robes tearing at the knees to reveal his khaki trousers. He pushed himself to his feet and staggered, let loose another wail, and sank his fingers into his sandy blonde hair, yanking. 




“He might become a weapon.”

Professor Carrow slashed his wand through the air, and Jack leapt toward the line of Gryffindors, pouncing on Demelza Robins and scratching wildly at her face. She threw up her arms to defend herself and two boys grabbed at Jack’s shoulders, trying to haul him off, but clearly terrified of hurting him.

Tiberius Flint began to chuckle.

Astoria tried to choke down the bile rising in her throat.

“Or,” Professor Carrow crooned, his voice oily and sickly-sweet, “he might do himself a grievous harm.”

Astoria looked on in horror as Jack rose to his feet, not sparing a glance for Demelza, and walked, quite calmly, over to the supply cupboard. The door creaked on its hinge as he pulled it open and reached inside, removing a small penknife, the type used to peel potion ingredients, and walked back to the centre of the room.

“Mmm, but how, exactly? Would you like anything in particular, Mr. Sloper?” Jack’s head jerked back and forth blankly. “No? Well then, there’s always the Dark Mark. It’s a specialty of mine.”

Amycus flicked his wand with almost surgical precision.

Jack held out his arm and, with an expression of total peace on his face, pressed the blade against the upper part of his forearm. Blood beaded on his skin as he cut a single curving line, unaware that his nerves must be screaming out in pain.

A few Slytherins tittered. Astoria could barely bring herself to look at her Housemates, but she did notice that several of them looked fairly green about the gills. Constance’s lips were pressed thin, and she was white as a sheet, while Mariane Fawley appeared to be fighting down a severe bout of nausea.

“Professor,” a drawling voice sounded from the doorway, and Amycus‘ head jerked up. Jack’s hand froze, the blade still against his skin, but cutting no further.

“Headmaster,” Professor Carrow returned coldly, inclining his head in reluctant greeting. 

Professor Snape stood in the doorway, his face more sallow than ever, the colour of rising dough, or skimmed milk left out too long. There was something frail about him, Astoria thought. But the line of his mouth was set firmly, and his black eyes were cold and unimpressed.



“I see you’ve been drawing inspiration from Bellatrix,” he said drily, glancing briefly at Jack and then away. 

Showing no care for the boy’s injury, the professor flicked his wand, and Jack obediently gripped his arm in his other hand and showed it round, like a grotesque show-and-tell. The Gryffindor boy had cut one long line down his arm, a shallow cut that looked, vaguely, like half a skull.


“The boy shows some artistic talent, don’t you think?” Carrow answered blithely. 

The Dark Arts professor failed to notice the Headmaster’s curled lip, but Astoria noted it with interest. He continued on as if Carrow had not spoken. 



“Forgive my intrusion, Amycus. I had thought this was a free period for you. Perhaps you can join me in my office later, and we can discuss the meeting.” He worded it as though it might be a question, though it was actually a summons. Nonetheless, Amycus nodded his assent.

Something about the way the Headmaster arranged his tone, so that even the arrogant Professor Carrow did not seem to realise that it was an order, not an option, struck Astoria as a very clever trick, and she resolved to employ it sometime in the future.

Snape turned, his long black robes billowing behind him, before turning over his shoulder and saying, almost absently, “Oh, and Amycus. I do not believe the Dark Lord would be pleased with such immoderate use of his most sacred Mark. Do send him to the Hospital Wing before he drips blood all over the floors.”

And, abruptly, he was gone. 


Professor Carrow was wearing a particularly self-satisfied smirk. “Now, don’t go dripping blood all over my floor. Get yourself to the Hospital Wing and get cleaned up. But do take your time. There’s no need to go straight there.”

And, without blinking, Jack left the room, out to wander the corridors until the professor felt enough time had passed and grew bored of his cruel game.

She hoped that Madame Pomfrey would be able to get a pain potion in him before the haze wore off.

She focused on controlling her breathing. Dark Arts class was bad, always, but this was a whole new level.

“Now,” Professor Carrow trilled, “Students’ turn!”

Astoria lifted her chin and looked at the line of Gryffindors, staring down the Slytherins as if they were facing a firing squad. It wasn’t an inapt comparison. She shuddered to think what Tiberius might do, now that he knew just how much free reign Amycus would grant them.

Meg caught her eye. She was paler now, and fairly trembling with fear or fury--Astoria couldn’t say which. Her gaze was flinty as it met Astoria’s and she lifted her chin as if in challenge. Her eyes were full of accusations.

How dare Astoria do this.

How dare Astoria stand by them in a secret room, but curse them in daylight.

How dare Astoria pretend she was anything other than a Slytherin, a relative of Death Eaters, a backstabbing snake.



Astoria could not say anything back. She could not allow her face, or her eyes, to convey the words she wanted to speak.


I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to do this. I wish things were different.


But she was there. And things weren’t different.

So she swallowed again, tried to keep the acid in her stomach from burning a hole straight through her chest.

She raised her wand.

“And, begin!”


”Imperio!

*****













The Room of Requirement, Hogwarts Castle, April 17, 1998

It was the dinner hour, so the refugees had trickled down the passageway to the Hog’s Head’s back room, grateful for a change of scenery, and everyone else had left the Room of Requirement and headed for the Great Hall. The food from Aberforth would be better than anything the Gryffindors would get down there, but they had to keep going, so as not to arouse suspicion.

Astoria hadn’t gone to dinner. Her absence wouldn’t arouse any suspicion--she rather doubted anyone would notice. She wasn’t feeling at all nervous. Instead, an unpleasant and altogether unwelcome sensation was twisting around in her stomach. 

Guilt.

 She lifted her chin and focused on the practice dummy against the far wall. She whipped her wand in its direction, her jaw set determinedly.



”Reducto!

The mannequin lurched backwards, but remained undamaged. Astoria clenched her teeth.

Reducto!

...nothing.

It was a weak attempt. She could almost feel the magical part of her wilting inside, even as she cast it. Astoria found that she was frightfully grateful Padma had suggested that Neville request the Room for a spell-proofed curtain partition between the training area and the larger living space. She had intended for it to shield anyone from a misfired spell, but at present Astoria was just relieved that it meant there were no witnesses to her current state.

"REDUCTO!"



"REDUCTO!"



"REDUCTO!"




“Whoa there, Greengrass,” Seamus called out, having suddenly appeared at the edge of the curtain. Astoria nearly dropped her wand in surprise. He walked over to her, eyeing her warily, though his expression remained genial. His voice, when he spoke again, was amiable and calm.

“I know that look. I’ve seen it in the mirror a few times. Lemme guess, you’re imaginin‘ the face of a Carrow on that dummy, eh?”

Astoria straightened, shocked to find that Seamus was, in fact, correct.

“I suppose you’ve heard?”

“Yup.”

Astoria stood stiffly, clutching her wand. She wanted to sink to the ground, she wanted to cry, but she wouldn’t do that. Not here.

Today, though, had been a special type of horror.  She could see it all, playing again and again behind her eyelids: the spiny chalked letters on the board, the thin red line along Jack's arm, Meg’s stolid expression. 

She couldn’t refuse. It would reveal everything. She’d be under suspicion as weak, a sympathiser, a blood traitor.



She had raised her wand.

She hadn’t even hesitated. She’d cast the curse.

Astoria spun about and levelled another curse at the line of dummies. It missed, ricocheting off the wall and heading back towards them. Seamus barely managed to duck out of the way.



“Godric, woman! Are ye tryin’ to kill me?” He scratched his head. “What even was that?”

“Haven’t you heard? I’m going to be the death of the lot of you.”

“Ah. You’ve been listenin’ to Lavender again. Rookie mistake.” He shook his head. “Now, seriously. What was that?

She looked at the ground, trying to keep down the blush she felt flaming to life along her cheeks.

“I’m...not the best at offensive spells.”

“Well I’ll say!” Seamus exclaimed.

The truth was that Astoria could cast a decent enough Reductor Curse, so long as it was at an object. But whenever she had to face a live opponent, or even a dummy built to look like a human, her magic simply...failed. She always felt as if her wand was rebelling against her.

It was a wonder, really, that she’d managed to Imperius Meg in the first place. It somehow figured that, of all spells, she’d be able to cast an Unforgivable. Whatever that said about her...

A burning sensation pricked at Astoria’s eyes, and she blinked rapidly.

Seamus stared off into the distance for a minute, then sat down on the floor, patting the stones next to him in invitation.

“I’ll stand, thanks.”



“Oh, c’mon. You don’t always have to be so bloody stiff.”



Astoria felt herself stiffen at the accusation, which only made her feel more ridiculous. She sighed and eased her way down to sit beside him.

“Why don’t you tell me what this is about?”

Astoria shook her head. “You know what it’s about.”



“Dark Arts class? The thing with Meg?” He shrugged. “Way I see it, you didn’t have much choice. You weren’t the only one who did it. One of these days they’re goin’ to figure out it’d be worse if we had to curse each other. It’s lucky, really, that they make the Slytherins do it.”

“It’s not so lucky if you’re me, Seamus. Everyone here is already looking for a reason to hate me. And I’m fine with that--”

 Seamus shot her a skeptical look.

“Mostly,” Astoria corrected. He continued to eye her. “Oh, fine, I don’t like it! Why don’t you go find a place where you’re surrounded by people who’ll think you’re scum and see how you like it!”

“Why Astoria Greengrass, are you invitin’ me to visit the Slytherin dungeons? It’s a pretty big step in our relationship, I must say, but--”



He was cut off when Astoria punched him in the arm. Hard. But she couldn’t help but crack a smile.

“Ah, there it is.” He grinned, elbowing her in return. “Look, Cap’n, you performed an Imperius Curse, yeah, but it’s not like you made her jump off a cliff or give you all her chocolate frog cards.”



“That would count as torture to you, wouldn’t it?” 



Seamus spread his hands out before him and shrugged. “Look, I’m jus’ sayin’, it’s not like you’ve ever, I dunno, Crucioed anybody.” He paused, frowned. “Have you?”



“No! Of course not!”



“Well that’s alright then. You did what you had to do. Nobody really got hurt. What’d you make Meg do, anyways?”

Astoria grimaced. “Well, I didn’t want to harm her, but it had to be...you know, embarrassing, at least...”

“Go on.”



“If you must know, it was a rather undignified dance.”

Seamus threw back his head and burst out laughing.

“Oh,” he gasped, wiping tears from his eyes, “dear Lord, what I wouldn’ have given to see that!”

Astoria crossed her arms over her chest and frowned disapprovingly.



“What? ‘S jus‘ a bit funny, that’s all. Meg does fancy bein’ an actress--song an’ dance an’ all that jazz. Pun intended. I don’ see how she can have got her nose too out o’ joint about it.”

“It wasn’t amusing in context.”

“Well then I’m glad I was out o’ the context. I need to be able to find my laughs somewhere.”

“Well, as all the Slytherins were snickering and congratulating me about it, I cannot imagine that Meg was thrilled.” Astoria shot back. “Besides, she gave me a...a death glare.”



Seamus rolled his eyes expressively. 

 “Astoria, you give me that glare every day. I think I might be immune to a basilisk stare by now.”


She gave him a speaking glance, and he clutched a hand to his heart.

“See? Barely a few palpitations. And that could jus’ be your overwhelmin’ beauty.”



“Do not flirt with me, Seamus FInnegan.”



“Wouldn’t dream of it, Cap’n,” he retorted with a wink. “No, but really, I’m gonna tell you what to do for once, so listen up. It’ll make you feel better. For one, we’re gonna get Neville to teach you how to cast a proper Reductor Curse. He might not be able to catch you up to the rest of us, but he’s a right good teacher. But before that, you’re goin’ to go find Meg and apologise to her. Get it off your conscience--which I didn’ know you had--an’ you’ll be golden.”

“Golden, hmm?”

“As a snitch. ‘Cept I should probably avoid usin’ that word around you, if Lav’s in earshot. That’s how rumours get started.”

“Just the kind of witch hunt I need,” Astoria groaned.

*****








Astoria kept to the shadows of the room as the students filtered in after dinner. It wasn’t a large crowd--mostly Gryffindors, as they were the ones who never got enough to eat. In a stroke of luck--bad or good, she wasn’t certain--Meg trundled in along with the rest. She was surrounded by some friends, two Gryffindors in her year, and a Hufflepuff girl from the year below. At least it wasn’t Lavender’s posse. Astoria’s stomach clenched.



“There ye are,” Seamus said, tilting his chin towards the group of them. He was leaning against the wall, calm as can be. Astoria hesitated. This was entirely outside of her wheelhouse, and there was a tightness coiling in her stomach. She gritted her teeth.



“Oh, fine, come on.” Seamus kicked off the wall, threw an arm around her waist, and marched her towards Meg and Co. so quickly she barely had time to become furious.

Upon arrival, he swiftly dropped his arm and raised his hand to cup his mouth. 



“Oi, Meg!” he called across the short distance. Her mousy brown head popped up, turning towards him.

Upon seeing Astoria she scowled. Her friends‘ expressions hardened, and they turned cold eyes on the both of them.

Seamus elbowed Astoria in the ribs. She whipped her head round to glare at him, but he was staring innocently at the ceiling, whistling tunelessly.



“Fine,” she muttered, before turning her attention back to the girls. Calling on all her breeding, she modulated her tone and asked sweetly, “Meg, might I speak with you for a moment? Alone?”

The girl’s mouth curled into a sneer.



“Why? So you can curse me again?”



Astoria bristled. Seamus sighed and walked towards Meg, stretching his arm over her shoulder in a friendly embrace. He murmured something quietly into her ear, and she frowned, but without the force of expression she had directed at Astoria. Ducking down a very little, for he was only barely taller than she, Seamus whispered to her again. Her mouth twitched upward. He leaned back and pressed a hand to his heart.



“Please? For me?”



Meg sighed, exasperated. 

“Seamus Finnegan, don’t think that I don’t know your tricks.” But then she sputtered out, all the wind gone from her sails, and huffed, placing her hands on her narrow hips. “Fine. I’ll talk to her. But I don’t see what difference it’ll make.”



“You’re a star, Meg.”



“Yeah, yeah.” She looked at Seamus and then lifted her eyes towards heaven, as if praying for patience, before turning to her friends. “You lot go on,” she insisted, waving her friends towards the long wooden table where the other students were unpacking a basket from Aberforth. “I’ll be along. Greengrass,” she said, looking sharply at Astoria, “you’ve got five minutes. Talk fast.”

The other girls looked reluctant, but were herded along easily enough as Seamus clapped his hands and asked them if they would be so kind as to join a lonely lad like himself for a meal.

Astoria shook her head in wonderment. Seamus glanced back over his shoulder, caught her rolling her eyes, and winked. ‘Play nice,‘ he mouthed at her before turning back to the girl at his left.

“He’s incorrigible,” she muttered, mostly to herself. Meg snorted. “Right. You wanted to say something, then say it now and get it over with. I’m hungry.”



Something Meg’s tone raised Astoria’s hackles, and her chin lifted into a defiant tilt.



“I’m not going to apologise.”

Meg’s eyes widened. Her face reddened, but she said nothing. Distantly, Astoria noted that Seamus had slapped a hand to his forehead in dismay, but she continued, her voice cold and clinical.

“It’s called an Unforgivable for a reason, so asking you to forgive me would be pointless. I did what I had to do. I didn’t like it, and if there had been another good choice I would have taken it.”

More words pushed their way up--words like I’m sorry, words like, I hated it, too.  She clenched her teeth against them. She wouldn’t show weakness, not here. Not before these people who didn’t even need an excuse to hate her. 



“That’s all I have to say.”

She turned on her heel, striding away from the tables, leaving Seamus behind to clean up the mess as best he could. She stormed back across the room, behind the curtain separating the practice dummies from the rest of the space. A group of first years scattered as she marched up to the long mirror that stretched along the wall. She saw her reflection, wand raised, cold-eyed and expressionless, staring back. 



"Reducto", she whispered.

Her image fractured, then exploded into a rain of glass shards.


___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________






Hey everyone! I am so sorry--I know it's been an age. I was on hiatus--some RL stuff to get sorted, you know. But I have definitely not given up on this story, and it feels so good to be back! :D And an enormous thanks to my absolute star of a beta, elise (aka bigblackdog). I don't know how I could have done it without her!

So, we launched into some intense territory, huh? The situation at Hogwarts is getting worse by the day, and Astoria is realizing how difficult it is to be a sort of double agent. Then there's the issue of her magical inconsistency. What's happening with that? Well, perhaps you'll find out in the next chapter...

Speaking of the next chapter, anyone up for a snippet? To those of you wondering how a certain blonde Death Eater is faring:

What could he do? There were people he cared about behind those walls, and perhaps he was a fool for it, but Crabbe, Goyle, Pansy, Blaise...Astoria...

...Maybe he really was mad.



Chapter 17: A Trace of Home
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

The Room of Requirement, Hogwarts Castle,
Saturday April 18, 1998


The next day saw Astoria once again in the Room of Requirement (Astoria flatly refused to take sides in The Great Sanctum/Headquarters Debate of ’98), in the portion of the room cordoned off for defence practice. The windows that seemed to wink in and out of existence--although the Room had no exterior walls--allowed beams of light to stream from far above, down to the floor, where Seamus and Luna sat on a rolled up carpet and Neville paced a wide circle around Astoria, humming thoughtfully. 


“Will you stop that?” Astoria snapped, glancing nervously at the heavy, bespelled beige curtain that divided the room from the larger living area. “You’re certain no one’s going to come in here?”

Neville ceased his pacing and his humming and made a calming gesture with his hands. 


“Everyone’s out and no one’s supposed to be back here for an hour, at least. The lot that can’t be seen are over at Ab’s, trying to clean up Raj--you know, the First year the Carrows had a go at?--and Michael. They’re bruised up pretty bad; the others’ll be busy for a while.”



“They should give him some Cure for Boils,” she said absently, trying to conceal her nerves. “It’s got a side effect of bringing down swelling.”

It was a trick her mother had taught her to deal with the swollen toes that followed a night of unbearably tall heels and unbearably dull conversations--the nights that would take up so much of her life, once she came of age, as yet another Pureblooded debutante. Nights that her mother would never see.

She felt so far from that life, here and now. She wondered if she’d ever have it.

She wondered if she wanted to.

“I’ll let them know when we’re done here,” Neville answered gently, pulling her back to her present fears. “Now, let’s have another look at this wand issue.”

He didn’t say ‘You’ll be fine’ or ‘Just calm down’, which, though she wouldn’t admit it, raised him several steps higher in Astoria’s estimation. She hadn’t been thrilled with Seamus’ insistence that she talk to Neville about her ‘problem’, but after her not-quite-apology to Meg and all the trouble Seamus had gone to, she couldn’t quite bring herself to refuse him.

A pile of ashes that was once a fruitcake lay on the floor across the room, a victim of her successful Reductor Curse, but the man-shaped practice dummy nearby had emerged entirely unscathed.

“Well, it’s weird, innit?” Seamus burst out, suddenly breaking the silence. “Ye can’t say that’s not really bloody strange, Neville.”

“Thanks, Seamus,” Astoria murmured darkly. He shot her a jaunty salute. 

“I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em, Cap’n.”

“Right,” began Neville, clearing his throat loudly. “Well, it’s certainly unusual. I know it’s a bit...well, but may I see your wand, Astoria?”

Her hand tightened reflexively around the stick in her hand. A wand was a very personal thing. It was the highest breach, to touch a witch’s wand without asking. Even then, it made her feel...vulnerable. But Neville just looked at her with that steady gaze, and she extended her arm, placing it gently into his care.

“Hmm.” He took the wand, taking a moment just to look at it. It had a rounded tip, and its sides had been sanded down to four flat edges, widening slightly as they got to its base. The top would seem plain, if not for the natural beauty of the wood, which swirled in a deep, reddish brown tone, highlighted with streaks of natural honey tones. The handle was rounded, and elegant swirls of gold were inlaid into the material, making for a wand that was dark and light; spare, and yet not without intricacy.

Neville brandished it a bit, getting a feel for it, and then whipped around to face the practice dummy.

“Confringo!”

The light of the spell coalesced at the tip of the wand, dove towards the dummy in an orange arc, and thudded limply against the thing’s chest, disappearing with a gasp. The dummy rocked slightly before righting itself, and Neville lifted the wand to eye-level, narrowing his eyes. 


“Huh. Seamus, could I try yours?”

And in but a moment, the practice dummy was another cloud of ash, spiraling delicately to the floor. Another one creakily rolled its way out of the corner to take its fallen brother’s place.

Neville held Seamus’ wand in one hand and Astoria’s in the other. He rattled Astoria’s briefly, as if that could solve it, and then lowered it, a sheepish flush spreading across his face. He handed Seamus back his wand.

“May I see it?” Luna asked politely, and Astoria inclined her head, watching as the girl reached out and took it. Almost cradling it in her palms, she lifted it up to her ear, as if she could hear it whispering secrets.

Neville’s eyes remained glued to her even as he asked,

 “What sort of wand did you say you had, again?”

“I didn’t.”



“It’s a cedar wand,” Luna answered blithely. She turned it again by her ear. “With a...unicorn tail core? Ten and three quarters of an inch, and,” she pressed down on it gingerly from either side, “reasonably pliant.”

Astoria nodded, taken aback. “How...” she paused, clearing her throat. “How did you know that?”

“I spent months as a prisoner with Mr. Ollivander. He taught me a lot about wands. They’re very interesting, you know. Yours especially.”

Astoria’s tone grew guarded. “Why mine, especially?”

Luna leaned forward, eager to share her knowledge. “Well, you see, unicorn hair wands are consistent. They aren’t often subject to blockages. Sometimes they’ll react poorly to negative thoughts and feelings--if you’re feeling particularly depressed. Are you feeling particularly depressed? I haven’t noticed any melancholianotes about you, but then, they’re only visible during the full moon.”

Astoria crossed her arms over her chest. “Not particularly.”

It was a half truth. She had struggled, of course, with her mother’s death, with her father’s failing mental state, with the scar of her mother’s betrayal. The school was a grim place for all these days, but most Dumbledore’s Army seemed to be functioning fine with their magic, though many of them had cause to despair.



In truth, she’d been happier in the past few days than she had in a while.

Luna merely nodded, her long, pale fingers tracing over the highly polished wood thoughtfully.


“Perspicacity and perceptiveness,” she said after a time. 



“Huh?” Seamus interjected, glancing up from where he reclined against the mirrored wall. 



“Those are the qualities of someone who carries a cedar wand. We can see them in Astoria. She’s as observant as a kneazle.” Knowing Luna, Astoria assumed she meant that as a compliment. “Mr. Ollivander told me his father used to say, ‘You will never fool the cedar carrier.’*”

Astoria scoffed. She was observant--she knew that much. But ‘never fooled?’ She had trusted her mother more than anyone in the world, and what had it left her but a snaking scar wrapped around her middle? She’d thought Draco Malfoy the greatest enemy she ever would face, but he had shielded her from Voldemort’s regime more than her own kin had done. And yet she still didn't know what to make of him.


‘Never fooled’ indeed.

“Unicorn, though,” Luna continued, breaking into Astoria’s skeptical thoughts. “That’s something different.”



“My mother didn’t like it,” Astoria said quietly, not really knowing why she was speaking, but unable to look away from Luna’s wise grey eyes. “She said unicorn hair wands weren’t as powerful. Ollivander tried everything else. About a dozen dragon heartstrings, and even a few phoenix feathers, but it was no use. None of them worked for me after this one.”

“It must have had a very strong claim on you.”

Astoria tilted her head, narrowing her eyes. “It’s not one of your creatures, Luna. It’s a wand.”

“There really isn’t much difference. He doesn’t say ‘the wand chooses the wizard’ for no reason, Astoria,” she admonished. “But unicorn wands aren’t weak, necessarily. It’s just that they’re rather a bit harder to turn to...”

She trailed off. Even Luna, apparently, could recognise such a monumental lack of tact.

“The Dark Arts,” Astoria finished for her, voice solemn.

She suddenly felt very tired. She lowered herself to the floor, leaning back against the rolled up carpet. Even with a wand that couldn’t cast a simple hex, a wand that didn’t lend itself to the Dark Arts, she’d managed to cast one of the darkest curses on the books. She wondered what that said about her.

She wasn’t at all certain she wanted to know.

“Yes,” Luna answered quietly.


She noted the long glance that passed between the boys as they were reminded anew that she wasn’t just a Slytherin--she was a Slytherin from an old, Pureblooded family. A family that they knew precious little about.

“But she was able to cast an Imperius Curse. How’s that?” Seamus interjected, and something about the question being out in the open allowed the odd freeze that had passed over the room to thaw.

Luna hmmed thoughtfully. “I suppose that’s the cedar at work. Mr. Ollivander said...” she pressed her eyes shut, as if trying to remember. “He said that a cedar wand usually chooses someone with...it was ‘strength of character‘ and ‘unusual loyalty’**.” 



Astoria pursed her lips, and Neville cast a sharp, probing look in her direction. 


“Right but...how does any o’ that explain why Astoria can’t do a basic Reductor Curse? No offence, Cap’n.”

Luna ran questioning fingers across the wood once more, before standing up, stepping closer to Astoria, and folding the wand gently into her fingers.

“The wand chooses the wizard. Or witch, in this case. Astoria’s wand can perform a Reductor Curse, or a Blasting Curse, when directed at an object. It works perfectly well. But when directed at a person, or something that looks like one, it fails.”

Astoria was beginning to rethink her position on Luna Lovegood. For all her dreaminess, she clearly had a scientific mind.

“I think your wand has a strong desire not to cause true harm. It doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Which means, since it chose you, that you must not wish to hurt anyone, either.”

Astoria blanched. “I...that’s not true. I’m not weak.”



“No, you’re not,” she agreed firmly. “Though that doesn’t have much do with your magic. I think that, if you really needed to--if you felt angry or threatened enough--you’d be capable of more than you’d imagine.”


There was a moment of silence, though, as everyone took all this in.

You’re like a...” Luna paused, tugging on a long lock of blonde hair as she considered. “Like a bowtruckle!”

Astoria blinked.

“I’m sorry?”

“Bowtruckles are largely peaceful creatures, preferring to avoid notice. But if they or their habitat are attacked, they become vicious--much stronger than one would expect.”

“...Ah,” Astoria said finally. It seemed the only appropriate response.

Neville finally spoke up. “So, you’re saying that Astoria could cast Imperio on Meg because she was backed into a corner--she felt like she didn’t have any other choice.”

“Exactly.” Luna came closer, though, reaching for Astoria’s hands, which were still wrapped around her wand, and clutching them tight. “Astoria, you’re as strong as you believe you are. You can’t doubt it. This is important.”

Seamus sat up and leaned toward her.

“Yeah, Cap’n, you’re not weak. Anyone here would know that, whether you could do magic or not. It doesn’ matter if you can’t go ‘round attacking people. Hell, it almost counts as a plus!”

“Not so much in a war,” she pointed out drily.

“But you could, Astoria. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Your magic doesn’t lend itself to destruction, but if you needed to...there’s really no telling what you could do. You just have to really want it.”

Astoria’s thoughts flitted, troublingly, to a memory of the day before--her wand in her hand, her own reflection in the mirror cracking and crumbling to dust. She'd seemed to have no trouble causing herself harm, which made Luna's theory a worrisome thought.

Of course, this was Luna Lovegood. She also believed in wrackspurts. There had to be another explanation.

Luna's gaze locked onto Astoria's, as if she could see straight through her. "You don't believe me yet," she observed cheerfully. "But don't worry. You will."

“And either way,” Neville began, speaking up at last, “not everyone has to be a warrior, Astoria. We need you for more than that. Here, can we show you something?”


He chivalrously offered her a hand up, which she ignored, standing on her own and dusting off her skirt. Neville accepted this in good grace, and she and Luna fell behind him as he led the way through the curtain, to the area behind the main table where the House representatives typically met. Astoria narrowed her eyes. The space beneath the mezzanine that bore the banners of Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Gryffindor seemed subtly larger. And that when she noticed it, tucked into the corner: a set of panels placed against the stones, forming what appeared to be a small room.

As they approached, she realised it was a screen, formed from several panels, plain from this side, but her heart kicked into a faster rhythm, as if recognising something before she did, herself.

One of the panels was folded back on itself, forming an open doorway. Breathless, she walked through it, the others hanging back to let her enter first.

She stepped inside.

The room was small, cozy. There was just enough room for a serviceable desk of reddish wood, an odd-looking cabinet with many drawers and shelves, a leather armchair, and a bright little lamp. Stepping closer, she eyed a shelf to see dusty, labelled bottles--a vial of Polyjuice Potion, Elixir of Invisibility, and Dittany. In the corner there was an elegant cheval glass standing on four legs, perfect for double-checking disguises. Down on the floor, she noticed an intricately woven rug that, while ratty and moth-eaten, reminded her of home. But none of that struck her like the other two walls.


As she approached them, her vision sharpened and she strode forward until she was sure she was seeing properly.

She was.

It was a large screen, silk stretched over wood, painted delicately with cherry blossoms of the kind that were eternally falling in her Great-Grandmother’s portrait. Faded characters had been inked along one side--she recognised “silence”, “serenity”, and “security”, though there were others she did not know. They glimmered with a golden sheen that indicated magic.

It felt like home--all the best parts of home, with none of the sadness. It felt like her .



“You did this?” she whispered, not turning toward Neville. Her hand reached out to chase the delicate flowers but froze in midair. She thought it might be trembling. She hoped they couldn’t tell.

“Er...well sort of. It was Luna’s idea, really.”

“I don’t always like when people stare. I don’t think you do, either,” Luna declared matter-of-factly.



“We thought it might be nice for you to have, you know, a place of your own. Astoria, let’s face it, you know a thing or two about...strategy,” he said, which was true, but she sensed he really meant something else.

“Anyway, the Room did it, really. I told it what I wanted, and who I wanted it for, but I didn’t, you know, decorate. I just asked it to give you what you needed.”

“What I needed,” she repeated quietly. 



Neville seemed a bit stunned, which meant more emotion must be leaking out of her cracks than she thought. Tenderly, she let her fingertips touch the screen.

She’d never been like Cho Chang, who wore her heritage as easily as the beautiful silver cheongsam she had worn to the Yule Ball, or the Patil twins, who came back from most summers with stories of visiting their grandparents and cousins in India.

Astoria’s Mandarin was shaky, and her knowledge of the history and culture of the Greengrass homeland wasn’t terribly impressive. But curled in her heart were memories of Filly working to make the noodle dishes that were her favourites--mee pok and liangpi and dandanmian. Of evenings in her father’s lap while he read her a story made up of intricate, non-English letters she hadn’t yet known. Of her Grandmother Xing’s portrait, looking down on her with expectation.

Her fingers traced the painted flowers as warmth blossomed in her chest. It was almost like a message. She had spent so long being her mother’s little girl, but here was a reminder of her father--someone with loyalty and honour, someone worth emulating. It was a reminder that maybe she had inherited more from him than her cheekbones and the shape of her eyes. 

Maybe she could be different.

This was what she’d needed. Just a trace of home.

Distantly, she could hear Neville babbling on, “--and it’s totally soundproof, so you don’t need to worry about that. And I think there’s some invisible ink in that cabinet, not that I was snooping, and--”


Astoria turned around to look at Seamus. She could feel emotions slipping out from behind her mask, and she widened her eyes, struggling for control. Seamus’ own eyes widened, and she thought she detected the glimmer of a smile peeking out around his mouth.

She glared.

“Okay then, everyone. What say we leave our Cap’n in peace to do...what is it you want her to do, mate?”

“Oh, right. Well, right now I was hoping you could maybe give us a rough idea of when and where all the patrols are run? Ginny said you had a good idea of those things.”



Astoria took a deep breath through her nose and gripped the back of the battered leather armchair, steadied by the thrill of a challenge, but still trying to keep her voice from quavering.

“I can do better than that.”

Neville clapped his hands together eagerly. “Brilliant! And if maybe you could--”



“Neville,” Luna said insistently, peering cannily at Astoria as she tugged on his his sleeve and pulled him toward the opening of the little room, “shouldn’t we go check on Michael?”


“Right! Michael! Yes!” He glanced back at Astoria. “We’ll be off, then. Let you get settled.”



“Don’t forget, Cure for Boils,” she reminded him quietly. “It will bring down the swelling.”

“We’ll remember,” Luna said kindly, pulling Neville out the door and leaving her in peace. 

Or, almost peace. There was still Seamus.



Astoria blinked rapidly and took a deep breath. She stared at the golden character for serenity, trying to keep a hold of the moisture that threatened to spill over her eyelids. She could hear Seamus footsteps approach.

“Alright, Cap’n?”

“Of course I’m alright!” she blurted out, horrified to hear her voice squeak. “It’s just...”



It was just, no one had ever done anything like this for her before. No one.

But she didn’t say it, and the two of them lapsed into silence for a long moment, until suddenly she felt Seamus’ arms come around her from behind. He drew her in until she was facing him and tucked her face against his shoulder.

“I’m alright,” she insisted.

“O’ course ye are,” Seamus lied soothingly. “So I’m just gonna give ye a hug, because that’s what friends do. An’ ye’re gonna manage not to be weird abut it, Astoria Greengrass. Alright?”



Friends, Astoria considered, wondering at how strange the word sounded. She had been friendly with some of her roommates, once upon a time. Constance had been a friend, back before her mother died and everything had gone to hell. Ginny Weasley had seemed like she could be a friend, of sorts, yet circumstance had snatched her away.

But Seamus’ hug was warm and unthreatening, and his shoulder gave her somewhere to hide her tears. Astoria had suffered so many terrible things and survived them, but it seemed it was this--this kindness--that might make her break.

But there was Seamus Finnigan--Half-blood, trouble-maker, Gryffindor...friend--and it seemed like maybe a friend could help hold her together. If she let him. If she could let down her guard, just this once.

Just this once.

“Alright.”



_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________




* Quote from J.K. Rowling--Pottermore, "Wand Woods".
** Quote from J.K. Rowling--Pottermore, "Wand Woods".


Hello! So, I know I had planned for this be a Draco chapter, and I hope you weren't terribly disappointed. But I thought that after the angst of last chapter, we could use a little bit of warmth. To those who said that Astoria was so on edge, she seemed about to break--you were right. But it looks like, maybe, she's finally learning to bend. A little ;)

Next chapter, Draco will definitely be getting some face time. But to hold you off, I'll give you another snippet of his chapter:

“Hello, Mother,” he whispered softly.

So, yeah. Some Malfoy family feels, coming soon to a computer screen near you! I'm just so excited to have gotten out another chapter so soon! Thank God! And a big round of applause to my lovely beta, bigblackdog, who took time out of a very busy end of the year schedule to help me get this chapter in gear. Thanks so much to all you lovelies! Please take a moment and let me know what you think in the review box!

--Penny



Chapter 18: Beyond Blood and Bone
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18 April, 1998
The Forbidden Forest



Draco pulled his tent flap fully shut, rotating in a slow circle, his mother’s wand extended as he cast a dozen different protection, silencing, and interference charms. With any luck, no one would be able to hear a thing that went on inside his tent.

But then, Draco couldn’t depend on luck. He’d long ago used up the last dregs of his, and since then had been surviving on some other substance--stubbornness or fear, he wasn’t sure which. He cast another spell, just to be sure, and sat down on his cot, thinking through his security measures, making sure he'd left no openings. The mechanism creaked and the springs dug into his muscles, but he didn’t bother with a Cushioning Charm. He had other things on his mind.

Taking a deep breath, he eased off the cot to kneel in front of it. His knees sunk into the damp, packed earth that made up the floor of the tent. Wedging his shoulder beneath the flimsy metal bed frame, he extended his arm and felt around until he hit something solid. He tugged out a small wooden chest, tapping the lock with his wand and muttering under his breath until it opened on silent hinges. Reaching inside, Draco slid his hands through the clothes until he found what he was looking for--intricate woven patterns of green and grey wool, soft to the touch. Carefully, he lifted the garment onto the cot, shutting the trunk and sitting back on his heels.

He knew he needed to be quick--at any moment, he could be discovered--but he moved slowly, gingerly, as he reached into the thick, knotted yarn of a Slytherin jumper and felt for the object hidden within its folds, drawing it out and cradling it to his chest. The silver was tarnished, and his fingers shook ever so slightly as they traced the snaking whorls and vines and flowers worked into the metal, wrapping around the cool, unscratched pool of silvered glass.

His fingers followed the path of the letters that were embossed upon the back of the mirror. It was a Black family heirloom, a gift from his mother with a very particular purpose. He knew it had belonged to another trio of Black sisters--Charis, Cedrella, and Callidora Black, but only two remained of the set. Cedrella had, after all, been cast out for marrying a blood traitor--a Weasley, truth be told. Draco wondered, briefly, what had happened to the third mirror--what would one do with a link to a family that was lost to them forever?

The question struck too close to home, and he shook his head, focusing again on the present.

A familiar scent tickled his nose--the lavender his mother had slipped between the layers of his clothes, for freshness. He held the mirror in his lap, reaching with one hand to pluck one of the dried purple sprigs off the jumper. Cradling it in his hand, he held it to his nose and breathed in.

It smelled like home. Like the untamed fields of lavender that had once grown just outside the perimeter of Malfoy Manor’s well-manicured gardens.

All dead now--nothing but bleached and crumpled husks. Just like so much else.

His fingers were still vibrating, both from eagerness and fear. He forced himself to take a deep breath, another. He had to appear calm. He lifted the mirror up, hoping to adjust his reflection, to look less wasted than he knew he must look, but little could be done about his jutting cheekbones or the bruises of lost sleep beneath his eyes. Still, he took a moment to comb his hair. Useless though the gesture might be, perhaps it would make her happy.

Pulling his mother’s wand from his pocket, he breathed deeply once, and then tapped it sharply against the glass, muttering the incantation. The mirror went dark, like a snuffed candle, and Draco held his breath until, abruptly, a point of silver light exploded from the centre, searing his eyes and expanding until, when he blinked, a new image awaited him in the glass’ surface.

“My boy!”

Draco forced his mouth upward into the best smile he could manage.

“Hello, Mother,” he whispered softly.



Narcissa Malfoy’s face was pale and drawn, her hair pulled up into an elegant bun, as always, though the strands appeared washed out and brittle. She reached out, pressing her fingers against the glass on her side--he knew it to be a larger wall mirror in the Venetian style, but with all the same markings of his own--and the image shifted to reveal a figure standing beside her.

“Father,” Draco greeted tonelessly.

“Son.” Lucius Malfoy closed his eyes, as if in pain. “Before...before you say anything, I want to tell you...” He paused, taking Draco’s mother’s free hand and clasping it between his own. “My son, I owe you such a great debt of apologies, but I know you won’t want to hear any until this one--I am so very, very sorry for the way I treated your mother the last time we were together. My behaviour was...unacceptable.”

His mind flashed back: His father, screaming at his mother; lashing out to kick an urn, the way she’d crumpled to the floor in fear--either of what was to come, or of what had become of them.

“It doesn’t seem as though I’m the one to whom you should be apologising,” he returned with a pointed look at his mother.

Narcissa shook her head. “Your father has already apologised to me, darling. Profusely. And I have forgiven him. But he knows you won’t hear a word he has to say until you’ve forgiven him, yourself.”

Lucius’ head sunk lower, but he forced himself to meet Draco’s eyes through the reflection. “My words and my temper were the actions of a coward. No man should treat his loved ones in such a way. It was a poor example to show you, Son, and for that I must beg your forgiveness.”

Draco’s throat felt dry, his jaw clenched. His father stared at him, his grey eyes and blonde hair so like Draco’s own. Lucius looked worse than any of them, his eyes and cheeks sunken, face unshaven, fault lines carved between his browns and below his mouth, a clear sign of recent disaster.

Unable to speak, Draco merely nodded. Lucius inhaled deeply, and some of the lines around his mouth relaxed.

Narcissa chimed into the silence. “Darling, it’s so good to see you. I--I’ve been so worried. How are you?”

He paused. “Well enough.”

It was, in fact, somewhat true. He was in a camp full of thugs and ruffians, sleeping in the woods, plagued by doubts and night terrors. But he was alive.

“You look so worn, my love,” Narcissa said, reaching toward the mirror as though she could brush her hair out of his face, just as she always had before kissing his forehead. How Draco had loathed the gesture in public. Now he would do anything for it.

“Lucius,” she whispered shakily, “this is all our fault.”

He saw his mother’s lip tremble, and hurried to distract her.


“Mum, I have some questions; there’s something about all this that doesn’t add up,” he interjected. “Why are we out here in the first place? I don’t mean--I know why I’m here. I understand that I’m meant to suffer. But this isn’t just a camp for those who have displeased the Dark Lord. Of course they send us through Hogsmeade on patrol, but Uncle Rodolphus does seem to be making some sort of plans, and then they have us doing drills and practicing attack spells...what’s all this about? Why does He want a standing army, when we could apparate anywhere at a moment’s notice? It’s almost...”

Muggle-like, he wanted to say, but didn’t dare. He knew his father understood him anyway.

Lucius paled further, looking about furtively, though there was nothing but the furnishings of one of the smaller guest rooms behind him

“It’s better not to ask questions--”

“No, Lucius,” his mother argued, her aristocratic chin raised determinedly. “Our best chance now is to be aware. We must share what we can. We’ve kept enough from Draco.”

She turned, now looking into the mirror full-on.

“Part of it has to do with who’s in the camp. I’ll wager there’s a large numbers of...creatures,” she said this with no small degree of distaste. Draco nodded. “Most of them cannot apparate, and so Voldemort wants these forces where he can keep an eye on them. Others are, I imagine, largely second-rate wizards, like as not to splinch themselves if they were to attempt to move large distances.”

This, too, made sense. Draco had noticed that most of the camp was full of lower order Death Eaters, most from no great family, and with little real skill at magic outside of clumsy cursing. He’d quickly learned to downplay his own skill during their magical drills. He could out-finesse most of them, but showing off before an angry mob would win him nothing but enemies.

“But why here?”

“Because,” his father added bitterly, reluctantly joining in the conversation, “He wants them there. Near to the school.”

“Surely the Dark Lord doesn’t intend to attack Hogwarts? It’s already under His control. Everyone inside is more or less a hostage.”

“That’s true enough, but the entire wizarding world doesn’t have children at Hogwarts, Son. It’s an effective deterrent, but only to would-be-rebels whose relatives remain in the castle. There are others. The French Ministry knows they’re next, and they’re beginning to consider interference.”

Lucius paused, looking expectantly at his son, waiting for him to put the pieces together.

“You mean to say, if the French Ministry, or any other, attempts to move against him...”

“He’ll threaten the school. Perhaps Hogsmeade, as well,” Lucius confirmed.


Draco’s mind was a roar. Hogsmeade and Hogwarts--two of the oldest and most sacred magical places in Britain. They were surrounded. Oh, surely Voldemort wouldn’t destroy everyone inside; he’d need to preserve the pureblooded lines, if nothing else, to retain his core followers. But an attack could have unforeseen consequences. Curses flew, and people died. There were people he cared about behind those walls, and perhaps he was a fool for it, but Crabbe, Goyle, Pansy, Blaise...Astoria.

He shook his head, as if to dislodge the thought of her from pure habit, but what point was there in pretending now? He was terrified. For all of them.

It would be effective, bluff or no. He met his parents’ eyes through the glass. None of them said it, but Draco knew that they had considered fleeing--escaping across the Channel to the French branch of the Malfoy family. It was a fool’s dream, but it had kept them going. However, once the Dark Lord revealed that He had an entire army surrounding the school...

The French wouldn’t risk an international incident of that kind. The other foreign ministries would hem and haw and try to negotiate, and by then it would be too late. There would be no stopping Him--nowhere to run.

“But don’t worry about that, now,” his mother added soothingly, reaching for her husband’s hand and squeezing it forcefully. “The time for planning is past. We must simply take each day as it comes, and make the most of our opportunities.”

Draco nodded, and for a while they simply sat there, gazing at each other silently, together as a family, despite the miles and heartaches and fears and regrets. His chest filled with a warmth he hadn’t felt in so long. He had been so lonely, without his family or friends--without even Astoria’s stolen memories to comfort him. He had been trying to wean himself off them ever since he had imagined her in the Hog’s Head window. His bloodline already had a propensity for madness, as anyone who met Bellatrix could attest. Draco could not afford to go mad.

But he missed this. He missed his family. He missed his friends, holed up in that castle, completely unaware that doom might be hovering over them. And, for some reason, even during this rare time together, somehow he still felt a hole in his chest, an almost physical ache of loneliness. Somehow, he missed her, too.

Maybe he really was mad.

“We should go,” Narcissa murmured reluctantly. Draco’s father continued to stare at him, as if he hadn’t heard. Narcissa reached out to grasp her husband’s hand, her other hand flying up to rest above her collarbone. “Dear, something isn’t right. I feel--”



Craaaaaaaaack!



The door burst open, and Bellatrix careened in in a swirl of fury. Her face was pale and shining with rage, a streak of black and white and red. Narcissa moved as if to cover the mirror, but it was too late.

“Bella?” she asked, voice quavering, “What are you doing?”

“What are YOU doing?” Bellatrix roared, striding over to shove her sister out from in front of the mirror. Draco lost sight of his parents, who were immediately replaced by his aunt’s bloodshot eyes and flaring nostrils.

“You aren’t to contact him! How dare you disobey the Dark Lord!”

“He never said--”

“Don’t start that with me, Cissy. You knew He sent Draco away for a reason. This is a punishment, and you’re a damned fool if you think--”

“You don’t understand!” Draco’s mother cried. “He’s my son, Bella! My son! You don’t know what that’s like.”

“HOW DARE YOU!” Bellatrix screeched, her eyes bulging from their sockets. “I would give up anything for the Dark Lord’s cause. Anything! And so should you!”

Bellatrix reached up and wrenched the mirror off the wall, dropping it to the ground and turning around, yet it was saved from breaking by its thick, elaborate frame. From where it landed, Draco was able to catch an oddly-angled glimpse of each figure in the room: Bellatrix shaking in fury, her fists pressed against her abdomen as though she could physically contain the bile burning viciously in her stomach; Narcissa shaking in fear, faced with the side of her sister she liked to pretend didn’t exist. Lucius, his expression still wooden, slipped an arm around his wife’s waist in support.

“I will tell him! One more time, one more attempt to undermine him, Narcissa, and I will tell him the truth.”

“Bella! We’re family! Do you really have no mercy?”

Draco took in the expression on his aunt’s face and shuddered. This was the Bellatrix, who had lived in their home for months, lashing out in temper and breaking things and people gleefully. This was the Bellatrix whose own husband parted from her with pleading eyes in slump-shouldered defeat. This was the Bellatrix who had ordered the house elves on ridiculous missions, demanding strange foods day and night, punishing the creatures when the rich fare made her ill after so many years of Azkaban crusts, laughing uproariously as she ran them ragged and the collapsed to the floor in grey-skinned heaps.

Draco couldn't claim to have given much consideration to house elves before, but that...her sheer delight in causing pain. That had been sickening.

No. Bellatrix Lestrange was not a woman who knew mercy.

“Family is nothing. Blood is nothing. Only my service matters.”

Narcissa flinched as if physically stricken, and Bellatrix stalked closer.

“Do not try me again, Sister,” she hissed, running a gentle hand down Narcissa’s cheek, her nails, thick and sharp as talons, tapping threateningly against her soft skin.

Without warning, she whipped around, pointing her wand at the mirror where it lay on the floor. A stream of green light arced toward him and Draco flinched instinctively, looking back to see the image shattering into a hundred--a thousand--pieces, and then go dark.

He clenched his hand around the handle, holding it like a lifeline and staring into its swirling surface.

“Mum?” he heard himself say softly into the mirror.


Only his own reflection stared back.



______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________







Hey everybody! I hope you enjoyed finally getting some time with Draco. And to those of you who were curious about why a portion of Voldemort's army would be in the Forbidden Forest--now you know! In the book, we only see Harry & Co.'s interruption of Voldemort's plans, but we never found out what they were. I imagine that, having the UK pretty firmly under his thumb, he would have soon set his sights on other nations. It seems natural that he would leverage the hostage situation
--already so successful--in the international arena, to keep any countries from attacking proactively.

As always, thanks to my beta, bigblackdog! And congrats to her on her graduation! She maybe said it best, as regards the other part of what I wanted to convey with this chapter: "showing the positive side of Slytherin qualities that are often disparaged- loyalty to one's own, pride in ones manner and appearance." Here we see some of the good parts of the Malfoy family--their love of one another. And it seems like someone hasn't quite been able to get over Astoria... ;)

Please drop me a line to let me know what you think. Someone recently told me they feel pressure to write really good reviews, and end up putting it off and then forgetting. Please don't feel that way! Of course I adore in depth reviews, but simply getting an idea of who is reading and enjoying is super helpful and encouraging to me, so if you could take a minute to leave a review, I'd really appreciate it.

Many thanks to you all! And for those of you keeping track, 2 more weeks till the Battle of Hogwarts!!

--Penny



Chapter 19: An Unofficial Assistance
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CI by east of the sun



Hogwarts School, Room of Requirement
19 April, 1996


Sunday evening saw Astoria and Seamus seated on the floor of her ‘office’, working on a particularly tricky bit of magic. With Astoria’s knowledge and magical help--she was perfectly adequate at Charms, cursing block or no--they had managed to build an elaborate seven-layer replica of the school. It had been put together out of broken-down Weasleys Wizard Wheezes boxes and populated by odd pieces pilfered from a dozen boardgames, which represented prefects, professors, Filch, and that damned cat, and which moved about the cardboard castle in accordance with the timetable Astoria had provided. It was six o’clock, and a chipped pawn and a purple gobstone were being magically scooted up the “stairs” towards the model’s sixth-floor corridor.

The model couldn’t track their actual whereabouts, but so long as everyone stuck to the schedule--and these days they did, with military precision--the D.A. should be able to run their operations smoothly.

Astoria flicked her wand as Seamus set a miniature troll figurine in place to represent Amycus Carrow. He was just remarking on the fact that Astoria was an evil genius when there was a loud commotion outside. Astoria stood up, dusted off her skirt, and plucked up her school robes from where they hung on the chair, wrapping them around her as she pushed aside the corner screen panel and rushed outside, Seamus at her heels.

“What do you mean the damn thing’s ‘still broken’, Nigel?!” Neville was roaring. “You have to fix it! Right now!”

Astoria glanced over at Luna, who had covered her mouth, eyes wide. It confirmed what she herself had thought--this was extraordinary behaviour for the typically calm, patient Gryffindor.

Seamus strode forward and put a hand on his shoulder, which was promptly knocked off. “Neville, mate. What’s the problem?”



“The problem? The PROBLEM?! The problem is that the Carrows are going after my Gran!”

“What? Okay. Right, let’s jus’ take a minute an’--”

“I don’t have ‘a minute’!” Neville shouted. Absolutely everyone was staring at him. A group of First years in the corner looked positively petrified. “I have to--”

Suddenly an explosion of blue sparks fired from someone’s wand, and everyone glanced over to see Padma Patil, her face grim, striding toward them purposefully.

“Okay, I think this is a private conversation. Everyone back to whatever you were doing. House reps, front table, now.”

She grabbed Neville by the arm and yanked him forward, the rest of their lot following. Without turning her head, she added, “That means you too, Astoria.”

“What? I’m not a--?”



“Better save it, Cap’n,” Seamus advised, linking an arm through hers. “Yer the only Slytherin here. That makes you yer House rep by default."

“I am not officially--”

“Don’ care,” he announced cheerfully, tugging her forward in much the same manner that Neville was being steered.

They all fell in at the table--Neville and Seamus representing Gryffindor; Padma and Luna for Ravenclaw; Susan Bones and Ernie Macmillan for Hufflepuff. Reluctantly, Astoria sat down between Seamus and Ernie, taking her place as the solitary Slytherin among them.

They were barely all sat before Neville pounded a fist on the table. “I have to get a message out of the castle!”

Padma’s calm expression shifted, and for a brief moment she looked thoroughly scandalised. Neville never acted like this.

“We said no more risks after Michael and Raj.”

“That was different.”

“That was yesterday!” she countered. Neville said nothing. The Ravenclaw could clearly see that she was getting nowhere. Taking a deep breath and rubbing a hand across her face, she tried again.

“Okay,” Padma began in a careful monotone, “why don’t you tell us what’s happened? And, if possible, try to do it calmly.”

Neville clenched his jaw tightly, then thought better of it. Astoria noticed a fresh bruise blooming along his cheek. He seemed to be struggling for control of himself and remained quiet for a long moment before he began.



“I was in Sunday detention--you know how many of those I’ve racked up. And Alecto had a go at me, the usual curses, you know. And I suppose I said something a bit mouthy, and she just seemed to snap. Suddenly she looks over at Amycus and says, ‘You know, Longbottom here has a grandmum, doesn’t he?’ Well, then I started to struggle, and I shouldn’t have done--it only made it worse.” He paused, sounding, for a moment, incredibly defeated. He shook his head and looked up, straight at Luna. “They’re gonna do what they did to your dad, but reverse it. They’re going after Gran, ‘cause they think that’ll keep me in line. And I have to warn her. I have to tell her--but the radio’s out, and they’ll stop any owl anyone would send her.” He dropped his head into his hands. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Oh,” Padma said softly. “Okay. Hmm...” The skin of her forehead wrinkled up, her eyelids screwed shut as she bent her mind to the problem at hand. “Could Aberforth help?”

“He’s out till Tuesday meeting with his suppliers. The pub’s closed. That stupid portrait won’t even let us in.”

“Maybe you could send a Patronus?”



“Can’t. None of us can make our Patronuses talk. Not yet. Ginny’s brothers are in the Order--they were going to teach her over Easter. But...”

Neville said nothing more. Everyone at the table still felt the loss of Ginny keenly. Every person there wanted her back.

“Ginny’d know what to do,” Ernie mumbled mournfully. Neville’s head sank even lower.

“There has to be a way to contact someone outside the castle,” Padma said thoughtfully. “I mean, even the Carrows have to do it from time to time.”

“That’s it!” Neville exclaimed, leaping to his feet with enough force to drag the whole bench backward. “The fireplaces! We can go that way!”

“Neville, they’ve got the Floo System on lockdown. You can’t actually travel through without the Ministry noticing--”

“No, no, no!” he cut in, waving his hands excitedly. “We don’t have to go anywhere. Harry used to do it with his godfather. He told us. You can talk through the fireplace!”

“Neville, you mustn’t,” Luna said at last. Neville looked utterly shocked not to have her support. She reached out for his hand, and he came crashing back down to his seat in sheer surprise.

“Doesn’t this remind you of anything?” she asked, and Astoria could sense the dread beneath her lilting tones. “We’ve already seen this go wrong once.”

Neville waved this away.
 
“She only caught Harry because she was keeping an eye on her office. Astoria!” he barked, turning his head to face her. “Who won’t be in their office for a while? Whose fireplace wouldn’t be monitored?” He looked at her pleadingly. “Please, Astoria. I know you know.”

She was silent for a long moment as she closed her eyes, imagining the same model that sat in her office--little chess pieces who represented far more important players scooting their way around a tiny castle--before shaking her head, glancing at Luna’s stricken expression as she answered, “Alecto Carrow.”

The table erupted.

“Absolutely not!”

“Do you think it could work?”



“I’m telling you, it’s a terrible idea!”

“Astoria, are ye sure?”


She nodded. “As sure as I can be.”

“That’s good enough for me.” Neville stood once again, and Astoria found herself standing as well, moving forward to block his way. “Astoria, you seem like you could give some advice on this, yeah? You seem like you would know this sort of thing. I need to--I need...”

“You need to calm down,” Astoria finished for him.



“Calm down? Calm down?! This is my Gran. She raised me. This is all my fault. I have to warn her.”

“You can’t do her any good in the state you’re in,” she answered, reaching for a calm tone and missing it by inches.

“Look, I’m doing this whether you approve or not. This is about family. Maybe you don’t understand--”

“I understand about family,” Astoria hissed, her voice filled with enough venom to temporarily shock Neville into stillness. The table behind them quieted. “I also know something about breaking and entering. And I know that, in your current, overly-emotional state, you won’t manage it. You’ll be caught.”

Neville shook his head, not really denying the truth of her words, but refusing to let them gain hold and wrench him back into reason.



“You don’t get it, alright? I have to go.”


“NO.”




They both looked up to see Luna standing in front of them, her arms wrapped around her, her voice, for once, not hazy, but steely and grim.

Neville blinked. “Luna, I--”

“No!” Astoria was legitimately taken aback. She had never imagined that dreamy, perpetually dazed Luna’s face could show such fierce determination. The girl’s large, silvery eyes flooded with tears. “Harry, Hermione, Ron. Ginny. My father. They’re all on the run, and who knows--” Her voice trembled, faltered, but she did not break Neville’s gaze as she took a laboured breath. “You’re all I have left, Neville,” she finished quietly. “I can’t lose you, too.”

Neville went to her as if Summoned, wrapping her up in a tentative embrace. Luna leaned into him, trying to contain a sniffle. He pressed his forehead against the top of her head, speaking quietly, but Astoria’s sharp ears missed none of it.

“Luna, I don’t have a choice. I have to warn Gran.”

“But Harry, he thought he could do the same thing in Umbridge’s office, and he didn’t manage it. You’re not a dragon, Neville--curses won’t just bounce off you. You’re a person.”

“A person with a grandmother,” he said gently, “who needs to know that the Death Eaters are coming for her.”

“Someone else could go, you know,” Luna pleaded. “Astoria’s right. You’re not in the right mindset to do such a thing.”



“Who else could do it better?”


“Me.”


Astoria nearly looked around before she fully registered that it was her own voice that had spoken. Volunteered. She nearly groaned--she really had to stop doing that.


Neville and Luna’s heads had both jerked up at the sound of her voice. “What?”

“Me,” Astoria repeated with a sigh, tossing her hand in a flippant, frustrated gesture. “I could do it better.”



Neville set his jaw. “Look, I can get in there--”



“No one’s questioning your ability to get in there. We’re questioning your ability to get out,” Astoria snapped. “Look, I went to the Hog’s Head with you, Neville. You’re not exactly stealthy, and the Carrows are out for your blood. They warned you. The odds are equal on whether that was a taunt or a trap. Either way, they’ll be on the lookout. You can’t go.”


Neville’s mouth twisted. He gave Astoria a long look, tinted vaguely with suspicion, enough that she might have been hurt if she didn’t understand so well where he was coming from.

“I--”

He was going to argue. She could hear it in one syllable.

“Listen, Cardigan Boy, you’ve got to think logically about this. The D.A. can’t afford to lose you. This place would go to hell in a hand basket without you heading it up.”

Finally, something seemed to have gotten through to him. Neville blinked, clearly perturbed. 


“Cardigan Boy?”

“Not the point.”

He shook his head, tugging thoughtfully at the sleeve the knitted blue cardigan he was, in fact, still wearing. “We don’t want to lose you either.”



“Not everyone would agree with you on that, but it’s a moot point. You won’t lose me. This,” she added, coaxing, “falls within my area of expertise.

“How do you know all this, anyway? I never asked you. How do you know how to...to break into rooms, and to memorise people’s schedules? All that?”



About time he asked, she thought wryly. Astoria, of course, had a story prepared.

“You’re aware of my family’s shipping company?”

Neville nodded. Everyone was aware of the Greengrasses’ company. It was more of a transcontinental shipping empire.

“I was trained, from a very young age, for corporate espionage. It’s how we take out the competition. It may not be pretty, but there it is.”



Surprisingly, neither Luna nor Neville looked disgusted by this. Perhaps Ravenclaw and Gryffindor morals were more flexible than she’d thought.

Neville didn’t release his hold on Luna--at this point, it seemed almost unconscious, an unmoored man grasping for an anchor, but he did turn his head toward Astoria. He stared at her for a long minute, silent.

“You’re sure you can do this?”

She wasn’t sure she wanted to do it. This was exactly the sort of risk she had meant to avoid. But she believed what she had said: if Neville went, he’d be caught, and that wouldn’t be good for any of them.

Besides, a very small, very stupid part of her revelled in the challenge. Breaking into Alecto Carrow’s office--now that was a test worthy of her skills.

She fisted her hands, tamping that part down--the piece of her that was like her mother, that would forsake sense, safety, or what was right for a moment of self-satisfied glory.

She didn’t want to be that person.

“I’m sure,” she answered finally.

Neville lifted one arm from Luna’s waist to scratch his head, a clear sign that he was agitated. “Fine. Alright. Fine. Who’re you taking with you?”

“Erm, no one? I work alone.”



“Yeah. That won’t fly; we have a policy here at the D.A.”

“I don’t care about your stupid policy,” Astoria informed him icily. “It was bad enough going into hostile territory with you and Luna. I can’t think of anyone here who would be an asset, and I’m not taking along deadweight.”


“Actually,” chimed in Padma, clearly startling Neville, who’d forgotten all about the others. Astoria had noticed her, as well as several of the Room of Requirement’s nosier denizens, edging closer. “I’m afraid that’s quite a strict policy. It’s part of the Dumbledore’s Army Charter that dates back to...well, it dates back to several months ago.” She waved a sheet of parchment, presumably the aforementioned charter, in Astoria’s face. “No one goes on a mission of any sort without backup. It’s statistically proven that the levels of success are higher in groups of two or more.”


Astoria gritted her teeth. She knew a lost cause when she saw it.

“One,” she pronounced icily, holding up a solitary finger. “I will take one person with me.”

“I think it’s clear there’s only one man for the job,” announced Cormac McLaggan, strutting forward. Having failed all his N.E.W.T.s, he’d had the misfortune to still be at Hogwarts when the school fell under the Carrows. The rest of them had the misfortune to be stuck with him.

“I’m very subtle. Like, super stealth,” he added, shooting Astoria a wink and slicing a hand through the air like some sort of pseudo-ninja.

Surely, Astoria thought to herself. Surely he cannot be as much of an idiot as he looks.

Cormac waggled his eyebrows at her, lifting his chin in a strange sort of nod.



Surely...

He puckered his lips in her direction and shot her another exaggerated wink.

Apparently he could be. He absolutely could be.

Well, she thought resignedly, it was only a matter of time before I killed one of them. He seems a solid candidate. Really, I’d be doing everyone a favour...

It was Seamus who saved Cormac McClaggan from some as-yet-unspecified but no doubt painful demise.

“Sorry, mate,” he interjected, clapping McClaggan hard on the shoulder. “‘Fraid I got dibs on this mission, being as I’m Astoria’s unofficial assistant and all.”

“Unofficial assistant?” both Cormac and Astoria repeated, equally startled. Seamus grinned widely.

“O’ course. I’d be her official assistant, ‘cept for that whole thing where Astoria’s ‘unofficial’ herself. Officially. Come to think of it, maybe I’m her official unofficial assistant. Or her unofficia--”

“

Right,” said Astoria quickly, cutting him off before he could take it any further. “Seamus is my assistant.”

“Unofficially,” he added.

“Yes. That.” Astoria cleared her throat loudly. “We’ll just need a moment to prepare, and then we’ll leave.” And quickly, before Cormac could start in again or Padma could invent some more rules, she eyed her corner office meaningfully and marched off in that direction, Seamus trailing behind her.


*****

She shoved back the screen panel that served as her door and entered, making a beeline for the odd wooden cupboard and reaching inside, rifling through the bottles behind one of its glass doors.



“So, I’m hopin’ you have a plan, Cap’n, because I’ve got no idea how in the hell you mean for us to pull this off.”



“And you signed on anyway?” Astoria answered distractedly, pushing aside a cluster of clinking glass jars filled with dark liquid.

“‘Course.”

“You’ll need to take off your robes. They won’t work. I think there’s an old coat in that drawer on the left. Put it on.”

Seamus complied without question, and Astoria finally extracted her head from the cupboard, pulling out two vials and lifting them up victoriously. “Aha! I have got to organise these things.”



He leaned closer, peering at the small bottles in her hands. The glass was chipped, and there was a fine layer of dust in the places her fingers hadn’t yet touched.

“What’s that, then?”

Astoria smoothed out a label, yellowed with age. “It says it’s Polyjuice Potion. This one’s for Filch. It was inside the cupboard the first day you showed it to me.”

Seamus raised an eyebrow. “Looks a little old,” he observed warily.

Astoria shook her head. “I can’t be sure it’s going to work, but we need to hurry about this, and this is the best I’ve got at the moment.”

“And what’s that you’re takin’?”

“Elixir of Invisibility. Supposedly.” Astoria eyed the bottle skeptically. It really did look remarkably unimpressive. She had no idea who had made this potion, or how long ago. But she’d meant what she said--there really was no other good option. Seamus noted her resolve and shrugged.

“If I grow a pair of elephant ears, I’m blamin’ you.”

“It would be an improvement. Maybe it would keep you from being such a terrible flirt.”

“Jealous?”

“I’m not the one you need to worry about,” Astoria responded cryptically. She had her own theories on who might not be best fond of Seamus’ generosity with his attentions.

Seamus narrowed his eyes, and for a moment it seemed like he might question her further, but then his eyes flitted back to the bottle in his hand and some gravity returned to his expression.

“Well, gotta do what ye’ve gotta do. Bottoms up!” Seamus bumped his vial against Astoria’s and the thick glass emitted a small clink before Seamus knocked his back like a shot of firewhiskey and Astoria tried to glug hers quickly without gagging.

“Oh!” Seamus groaned, twisting his lips in disgust, “That is foul.”

Astoria’s potion had been rather tasteless, but the texture--heavy and viscous, like spoiled cream--had been abominable. She felt her face contorting and couldn’t resist a shudder. Curious, she held her arm in front of her face. Her pale hand was still visible, but as she watched, her pinky finger began to fade slowly out.

She glanced up to see Seamus shoot up half a foot in height, his shoulders shifting forward into a slight hunch.

“Ugh,” he remarked as his nose grew more bulbous, “it’s like I can feel the attractiveness leavin’ my body. This is terrible.”



Terrible it was, but it seemed to work more quickly than Astoria’s potion. Within a moment, an exact copy of Argus Filch was standing before her, wearing a ratty brown coat and a far too cheerful expression. Astoria looked him over critically.



“You’ll do,” she declared decisively.

Frankly, she was just glad that he hadn’t grown elephant ears. Her hands flew to her head reflexively, just in case, and she saw a distinctly un-Filch-like smirk on Seamus’ face, as if he had guessed what she was thinking.

A novel experience, that. Was that what a friend was? Someone who could see through you?

“You’re only faded out ‘round the edges, Cap’n,” he pointed out, concerned. A quick glance in the cheval mirror confirmed his observation.

“It might take a moment to really get going,” she reasoned. “You’re the more noticeable one, anyway. This is just a precaution.”

She took a moment to stare at herself in the mirror. Astoria Greengrass, daughter of a Death Eater, a Slytherin girl who avoided notice, was disappearing rapidly.

Whoever was looking back at her from the glass was not quite who she had been. She was an unofficial member of Dumbledore’s bloody Army. She was about to break into Alecto Carrow’s office.

Sweet Merlin, what was she becoming?

But there was no time to brood over it. Neville’s grandmother’s life was at stake.

She led the way back out of her office, only to be met by a throng of D.A. members at the Room’s entrance. They were all staring at her. Or at least, what was still visible of her. Astoria shifted uncomfortably, but somehow, this time, it didn’t seem so terrifying.

“Good luck,” Padma said, clasping Astoria’s hand in a firm grip, her dark eyes serious as ever.

“Don’t die,” a group of Second years chorused. It had been a common enough joke on the D.A.’s forays out to make mischief, but in the face of the present task, it seemed to send a chill down everyone’s spine.

Oh well. It was the sentiment that counted.

“I can’t believe you’re going with her,” Lavender was fuming to Seamus, shooting a vicious glare at Astoria. She put a hand to her forehead, rubbing at her supposed ‘third eye’. “This is going to blow up in your face. I’m telling you, I can feel it.”

Astoria made an extremely rude gesture. She wasn’t totally sure of its meaning, but it felt incredibly freeing. One of the Second year boys whooped and applauded her.

“Right, so we’re going to go.” She grabbed Seamus and started toward the doorway, only to be stopped again by Neville.



“Astoria,” he said, laying a hand on her right arm--the only one that was still visible. “I just...thank you. Please warn her. She’s...we may not always have been close, Gran and me, but she’s family.”

“I will,” Astoria said. “I understand completely.”


Neville looked at her with that assessing look she rather disliked, and she turned around, plucked Seamus away from Dean, who had given up trying to appear masculine and distant and was hugging his best friend fervently. He glanced up at Astoria, boring into her with those brown eyes. He looked resigned, and deeply worried.



“Don’t get him killed.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Dean nodded, and Astoria turned around, Seamus following behind her, as the slipped out of the Room of Requirement and toward their mark.

*****
Hogwarts Castle, Back Stairway


Seamus followed behind Astoria, though he couldn’t quite see her, whispering lowly in the silent stairway as they spiralled down towards the second floor. 

“So, Cap’n, how’re we gettin’ in there? Are ye sure we shouldn’ have taken a minute to plan this first?”

“I have a plan,” Astoria snapped. Well, it was only half a lie. She had an idea, of sorts. So long as they could get there without anyone seeing them. She was invisible, mostly--just a flicker of movement passing through the torchlit stairwell. And Seamus only had to pass as...

“Carrow at 9 o’clock,” Astoria whispered. 



“Huh?” 



She elbowed him sharply.

Hush!”



She’d known Amycus would be climbing the stairs about now and, just as she’d suspected, he was right on time and headed directly towards them. Silent as a shadow, she ducked into a recessed window to make room.

“Filch!” Amycus barked as he approached, his mouth twisting sourly around the name. As a squib, Filch was barely better than a Muggle to the Death Eaters, a shameful thing that it might be kinder to drown, like a sack of sickly kittens. But Filch hated students nearly as much as the Carrows; he followed orders gladly and didn’t shy away from cruel punishment. That made him, at the very least, useful, worth keeping around.

Seamus straightened on instinct, a little too spryly, before stiffening around the shoulders and bending, nearly perfectly, into an imitation of the castle caretaker. He bobbed his head into a little bow.

“You said you had chains in your office?”

“Er,” Seamus answered haltingly. “Of course, sir. Chains.” He tilted his head, as if warming to the subject. “Big ones! Little ones, too. I’ve got my favourites. There’s the large-linked set steel beauties I found in the dungeons; I call ‘im Ol’ Clinker. And then there’s a nice set of leg irons, Bessie, she’ll hold whatever you need. Then there’s--”

“Yes, yes. Can you have them ready for detention?”



Filch--Seamus--seemed to pale, his playacting momentarily forgotten. “No!” Surprise registered on Amycus’ face, and Seamus shook his head, bobbing it in Filch’s particular way. “What I mean is, sir, er, Peeves--I think he’s pilfered the lot of ‘em. Damned poltergeist!”

“Mmm. Never mind then. I suppose we’ll manage.” The Dark Arts professor made as if to move forward before he stopped, narrowing his eyes. “Where’s your cat?”

“Oh. She’s off...looking for hooligans.”

“Ah.” 



“Yep.”

Amycus eyed him coldly, his gaze sweeping over the spitting image of the Hogwarts caretaker as he pursed his lips. Astoria clenched her fists nervously.

“Very well,” he said at last, a clear dismissal.

And, with a flair of drama that even Meg Wimpole would have to applaud, Seamus waddled his way down the curving back stair case, in typical Filch fashion. Amycus never looked back.

They finally came to the bottom of the stairs, where Alecto’s office waited just to their left. Seamus, still carrying himself in a remarkably Filch-like posture, stepped forward and rapped quickly on Alecto’s door. He turned back toward an invisible Astoria.

“No answer.”


“And what would you have said if she’d answered the door?” she hissed, hustling over to stand beside him.

“I’d’ve figured somethin’ out.”

Astoria groaned, then dropped to her knees to get a better look at the doorknob. She eyed the lock before reaching up and unknotting her tie, pulling it from around her neck and laying it out reversed. Slipping her fingers past the seam, she slipped a rolled-up bundle filled with thin metal tools out from inside and laid it out on the floor. Seamus started at the sudden appearance of the objects. Astoria selected three, which glowed slightly with oddly-shaped blue symbols, and inserted two of them into the keyhole.

“What’re those?”

“Lock picks,” Astoria mumbled around the third pick, which she held between her teeth. “I designed them. ’S the only reason I’m sitting the bloody Ancient Runes N.E.W.T.”

Her mother had taught her a number of unlocking spells much more advanced than the basic Alohomora, but the picks were of Astoria’s own devising. So long as she selected the right ones, they could successfully manipulate both the physical and magical portions of a security charm.

She glanced up at him. Seamus looked impressed.

Merlin, Seamus looked impressed. His body was still that of Filch--scrawnier, slightly hunched--but his features were quickly morphing back into those of a seventh year Gryffindor boy.

She supposed it was only to be expected with a mysterious bottle of old Polyjuice Potion no doubt long past its date. She glanced down at her hands to notice that they were growing more visible as well, and she took a deep breath in through her nose. This was no time to panic.

She had to hurry.

Jiggling the tool she was holding into place, she heard a tumbler click. She pulled the third pick out from between her teeth and inserted the end of it into the lock, twisted it with finesse and, with a light pop the door swung open.

Alecto’s office was dark, with only the last beams of a bloodstained sunset cascading in through the windows and the orange embers of a dead fire lighting up the hearth.

Astoria moved cautiously to the enormous fireplace, made out of heavy stones that seemed almost to defy gravity as they surged up to form a hulking mantle. She dropped down to the hearth, her elbows pressing uncomfortably into the flagstones, and waved her wand over the embers, murmuring quietly. First one spell, and then another.

“It’s clear,” she announced after a moment, coming to her feet and dusting off her robes. “None of the normal tracking spells, anyway.”



Seamus walked over to the mantel and felt around on top. “There’s no jar. Where d’you reckon she keeps her Floo powder? Got to be around here somewhere...”

“Never mind that. I always keep some,” Astoria turned away from the pull of the desk for a moment and reached beneath her robes to the pocket she’d sewn into her skirt. “Mmm, here we are,” she announced triumphantly extricating a small bottle of green powder and holding it aloft.



“Where do you keep all this stuff? Girls. Ye’re all mysteries, the lot of you.” Seamus shook his head in bafflement. Astoria’s collection of useful objects was about as ‘mysterious’ as an illegal Undetectable Extension Charm on the odd pocket here and there, but she was hardly going to tell him that.

“Just take the powder and get started,” she groused, shoving the glass bottle into his hand. “I want to have a look at that desk.”

Astoria edged around the room, her eyes flickering over the decor. She had never taken Professor Burbage’s Muggle Studies class--until it became a required subject this year under Alecto Carrow, it had been considered a most improper class for a Pureblooded witch to select. But, despite having never been in this office, Astoria was quite certain that it hadn’t been this way during Professor Burbage’s tenure.

On a shelf on the wall were a variety of human skulls. The three labeled “Muggle” were small and misshapen. Across the blackboard, THE FALSEHOOD OF MUGGLE INNOVATIONS was scrawled white letters; below it, The Lies of Electricity and The Muggle Moon-Landing Hoax of 1969. A poster on the wall showed a hunched, blank-eyed Muggle woman next to a vivacious-looking witch. Astoria refused to look too closely at whatever was contained within the formaldehyde-filled jars on the shelves circling the room.

She shuddered as she approached her goal, Alecto’s desk, and peered over at her companion. 

Before the fire place, Seamus tossed the powder on the fire, which flew upwards. Without hesitating, he stuck his head into the emerald flames. “Longbottom House.”

For a moment, he waited. Astoria looked away--Seamus could handle this himself--and focused once again on the large walnut desk in front of her. The top was littered with student files, all marked in red ink. She sifted through them quickly, careful not to displace anything, but she found nothing interesting, and didn’t expect to. Not even the Carrows were stupid enough to leave the most sensitive documents out on their desks.


“Augusta! You’re lookin’ particularly fine this evening. Is that a new hat?”



“Seamus? Seamus Finnigan? What in Merlin’s name are you doing?”

Astoria glanced toward the hearth, where Seamus was kneeling, his head stuck into the emerald flames. There wasn’t much time. Her eyes ran over the desk--too many drawers. She’d only have time to pick one lock. Where would she hide something, if it were her?



Then she saw it. A wide drawer set into the back of the desktop. There was a corner of parchment sticking out of it, as though it had been tucked away suddenly. She followed her gut and reached up to where her tie still sat like a scarf around her neck, eyeballing the small lock as she reached for the right picks. The thin one and...yes. That one. She pulled out her selection and inserted them into the lock, tilting her ear forward to hear the click of the tumblers.

“Why Augusta, anyone would think you weren’t happy to see me!” Seamus said charmingly. “Your goin’ to break me heart that way.”

Astoria could hear the old woman huffing something about “young people today”, but she sounded somewhat mollified. 


“What is it you’re calling for, Seamus? Is it my grandson?” she asked with sudden alarm. “Is something the matter with Neville?”

“No ma’am. That is, he’s as well as any of us.”

“Be more specific.”

“Few cuts and bruises. Nothin’ too serious. He’s givin’ the Carrows what for, I can tell you that.”

“Well, of course he is,” she answered proudly. “He’s a Longbottom.”

“O’ course. Well, the thing is, Augusta, it’s not actually Neville that’s in trouble, really. It’s you.”



“Me?”

“I’m afraid Neville’s given the Carrows enough trouble that they’re thinkin’ to use you against him. Kidnap you, the same way they’ve kidnapped kids to make their parents toe the line.”

“I see.”

“He’s worried sick. Wanted us to tell you to get out of there as soon as you can.”

Augusta Longbottom huffed again. “Foolish boy, as if I can’t handle myself just because I’ve got a few years on me!” Her voice lowered suspiciously. “Where is my grandson, Seamus?”



“Oh, he wanted to tell you himself, but he got outvoted. Under a little too much scrutiny right now, y’know. And, of course, I couldn’ go another day without seeing your face. I threatened to duel him fer the privilege, but he was kind enough to jus’ let me go. Good thing, too, since I don’ think I could beat him these days.”


Astoria was close. She moved her finger just a centimetre clockwise, and--there! She heard the lock catch. The drawer popped open, and Astoria tucked away her tools, leaning inside and pulling out the bent piece of parchment, her eyes running over it eagerly.

“That’s...” she muttered to herself as she scanned. “It’s just an inventory of inks and quills.” Disappointment sank within her chest. There was no time to open another drawer. No time.



But...

“Why would anyone hide something like this?” she muttered to herself.

It didn’t add up. No matter how paranoid the Carrows might be, no snooping student could do damage with a list of supplies. Astoria’s eyes narrowed as she looked at the drawer. From the outside, it appeared normal, but now that she got a look at it from the inside, it looked rather shallow. She reached forward with questing fingertips, edging around until her index finger sank into a hole.

“Yes!” She pulled up the false bottom of the drawer and plunged her hands in to draw out the sheaf of notes.

“What’ve you got there, Cap’n?”



Astoria’s eyes scanned the packet eagerly, first confused, and then excited. “Papers. They’re in code.”

“So you can’t read ‘em?”

Astoria scoffed, thumbing through the stack. “Of course I can read them. It’ll just take me a while.” She nearly groaned thinking of the work ahead of her. These were pages and pages of reports, and they looked a sight more official and complex than anything the dimwitted Alecto Carrow would be writing. Astoria had never been fond of codes--as soon as she broke the cipher, the challenge would be gone and it would just be long, slogging work. Still, this was a victory. They’d really found something.

She waved her wand over the sheaf of papers. “Geminio.” Instantly there were two copies in her hands. She shoved the originals back into the drawer and flung it shut before tucking the papers into the back of her skirt, hidden beneath her robes.



“Who is that? Who is that with you?” Mrs. Longbottom demanded, apparently sticking her head through the fireplace this time, as an ember-made image of a formidable-looking woman in a terrible hat popped into the space where Seamus’ head had previously been stuck.

“Aw, jus’ some Slytherin girl. You wouldn’ know her.”


Slytherin!” the old woman exclaimed, sounding mortally offended.

“This is a war, Augusta. Strange bedfellows an’ all that,” Seamus rejoined with a wink.



“Call me your ‘bedfellow’ again, Seamus Finnigan, and you will know what war really is,” Astoria shot over her shoulder.

The old woman chuckled. “Hmph. Spirited, that one. I like that in a young lady. Reminds me of myself.”

Astoria didn’t know quite how to respond to that, and so settled on remaining silent.

“She reminds me a bit of you, too, Augusta.” Astoria moved swiftly to the fireplace and pressed her toes lightly against Seamus’ knuckles, out of Neville’s grandmother’s sightline. He merely chuckled.

A flicker of movement against the stone of the hearth caught Astoria’s eye. It was as if the ash were...swirling.



“So, anyway, can we tell Neville that you’re leaving, give him some peace ‘o mind? They could be sending someone to your door any minute”



“Oh I’ll leave,” Augusta agreed. “I’ll just be giving them a little surprise, first. Try to blackmail my grandson...” she muttered darkly, her image disappearing as she presumably pulled her head from the fireplace, though her voice was still audible. 


“Seamus,” Astoria whispered in warning, eyeing the oddly-shifting ashes as she reached for her wand.

“Just wait until I get my hands on--”

The ashes were consolidating into a common form now, pulling together like flecks of metal dust to a magnet, forming dozens of small lizards--salamanders--which scurried around the fireplace. On each of their heads rested a brightly glowing ember, flickering wildly, lighting up the room with flashes of red. They turned towards Seamus, still kneeling on the hearth, and a dozen ash-coloured tongues darted out to taste the skin of his hand. The skin sizzled.

“Ow!” Seamus yelped, pulling his hand to his mouth as he stared, wide-eyed, at the odd little beasts. “Astoria?”

“Astoria? Astoria Greengrass? I knew your grandfather, you know, on your father’s side--”

The ash creatures tilted their heads in unison, and then each of them opened their mouths and emitted a horrible shriek that reverberated through the fireplace. The lot of them scattered, scrambling towards the back of the fireplace, which still glowed with the green of the Floo Network.

Astoria shot an arc of water over Seamus’ head, and cinder salamanders hissed, their bodies growing sticky and slow. Unfortunately, though, they didn’t fall apart. The embers set into their heads flickered, and then grew brighter red as they began to dry themselves. She shot another jet towards a few in the corner who had begun to move again. 


“Seamus, get out of that thing!”



“What?”

“They’re tracking it. They’ll know who you’re talking to. Get out!"

“I thought you said--”

“I said we were safe from all the normal tracking spells. This isn’t normal!”

“Augusta, it’s been a pleasure, but it looks like we’ll have to run.”



“You two have a care!,” she shouted through the Floo connection. “Don’t be idiots!”

“Tryin’!”

Astoria reached in and grabbed Seamus by the shirttails, yanking him bodily from the fireplace. He fell back against her legs, nearly knocking her over, but she caught herself on the mantle.

“We have to do something! We can’t let them track that message,” she said, running through spells in her mind.

Immobulus! Seamus cried. It bounced harmlessly off the creatures, as if they were somehow impervious to the magic.

They couldn’t just immobilise them--they’d have to destroy them completely. Astoria’s mind was whirring madly as she patted her pockets, searching desperately for anything that could be of use. Seamus caught on and dug into own his trouser pocket.

“I’ve got an idea. An’ ye’re not gonna like it.” He held out a hand, still reddened from the fiery lizard’s tongue, and proffered the contents of his pocket: a crinkled candy wrapper, a chipped button, and a strange, tiny bag made of clear--was that plastic? Muggle stuff, then. It had some sort of seal along the top, and was half-full of a shimmering powder.

“What does that do?”

“It...er...blows stuff up. It’ll take out the fireplace, if we do it right. Problem is, I don’t have time to measure it out right, an’ this stuff packs some punch--”

From the corner of her eye, Astoria saw a salamander shake itself free of the last of the water from her Aguamenti Charm. It scuttled toward the back of the fireplace, where the pale stones glowed Floo Powder green. Where they could follow it back, perhaps to Augusta Longbottom’s. Perhaps to whomever they reported to. 

Astoria didn’t give herself time to think. She snatched the bag from Seamus’ outstretched palm and tossed it onto a small pile of still-glowing embers. Time seemed to pass more slowly as she watched the clear material blacken and crumple. Then she felt Seamus’ hand on her elbow, yanking her forward toward the door.

“Dear God,” she heard him say. He grabbed her by the arm and tugged, muttering, “Get out, get out, get out,” as he shoved chairs and worktables out of their way. And then they were hurtling forward through the doorway, out into the blessedly empty corridor, up the back stairwell with one foot on the third, fourth, fifth step when...


BOOOOOOOM!


The sound shattered its way through the stairwell. The reverberations took the air out of her lungs as she lost her footing and hit the wall. A calloused hand reached back for her and she took it blindly, allowing herself to be pulled along behind Seamus as she regained her bearings.

Even through the ringing in her ears, Astoria could dimly hear the commotion beginning down out in the corridor. Chattering students, a distant voice screaming “Detention! Detention for all of you!” The muscles in her thighs burned as they pounded up the twisting stairway. Any moment, someone would think to check the back stairway, and they would be caught.

Somewhere near the 5th floor, they stopped by unspoken consent, hands on their knees, gasping for breath.

“Well,” Seamus panted, his voice strained from lack of oxygen, but still brimming with humour. “Maybe there’s...somethin’ to Lav’s psychicness...after all. She did say...goin’ with you...was gonna blow up in my face.”

Astoria squeaked--squeaked--her chest full of hysterical laughter, but her body too busy with the business of breathing to allow it to escape.

Suddenly, the sound of boot steps hammering up towards them came from somewhere further down the staircase.

“Go! Go, go, go,” Astoria whispered, shoving Seamus away from the wall. They flew up the last two flights of stairs, shoving their way out into the little-used seventh floor corridor. They careened out of the stairwell, with Astoria barely stopping them to ensure the coast was clear before they were running, flat out, pressing their hands against the wall, begging for it to open, until finally...

Finally the wall disappeared, and they tumbled inside, falling to the ground as the wall closed back behind them.

Astoria brushed her dark hair out of her face, fighting for breath as she rose to her knees. Seamus lay flat out on the ground.

Padma Patil and Dean Thomas were standing there, staring at them.

“What in Merlin’s name did you do?!” Padma demanded, hands on her hips.

“Well,” Seamus answered, struggling to sit up, “we had a nice conversation with Augusta Longbottom. What a woman.”

“And what was that noise?

“Might’ve been a little explosion. Like, a tiny one,” he held his thumb and forefinger close together and peered through them at Padma. 


Shaking her head, she turned and stalked away.

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Dean demanded, shoving himself forward and yanking Seamus to his feet, dusting the ash of his drab brown coat as he tried to reign in his worry. After a moment of hesitation, he turned to Astoria and helped her up as well. “Going off on crazy missions, not taking precautions...”

Seamus shot a look at her. Astoria felt the hysteria bubbling up in her chest. She slapped a hand over her mouth, trying to keep it down.

Suddenly, there was a roar of sound, a reverberation of feedback, static, and then a tinny voice that Astoria vaguely recognised echoing through the room.

“Radio’s fixed!” Nigel announced gleefully from where he sat, his hair standing on end, surrounded by a sea of rusted parts.

Seamus looked at Astoria; Astoria looked at Seamus.

They both fell back to the ground, gasping, laughing so hard they cried.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________



Hello lovelies! Finally! I've been waiting for this chapter forever--danger! action! the inevitable kaboom! Of course I couldn't write Seamus into this story without there being at least one explosion. It had to happen. And shoutout to fwoopersong8, who inspired Lavender's line, "This is going to blow up in your face. I’m telling you, I can feel it.” Also a big thanks to my beta, bigblackdog, who is such a huge help and encouragement to me.

I know it was a bit long, but I hope you enjoyed it! Drop me a line in the review box and let me know what you thought? Thanks! Love you guys!

--Penny



Chapter 20: A Dangerous Game
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Monday, 20th April
, 1998
Hogwarts Castle Inner Courtyard


Astoria knew something was wrong the moment the girl met her eyes across the courtyard.



She had been sitting outside, soaking in the last of the light as she bent over a Potions essay. War and plots would pass away, but homework was eternal.

The area was mostly empty, as people began to drift into the dining hall, and Astoria was just scratching the last few letters onto her parchment when the hair on the back of her neck stood straight up. Someone was staring at her.

Nonchalantly, she lifted her gaze to find a Ravenclaw girl making a beeline for Astoria’s bench. Arifa Shafiq. She was a Ravenclaw in Astoria’s year, a Pureblooded witch from a respectable family. From the outside, no one would think it odd to see them conversing--at least, so long as they were ignorant of the fact that Arifa was a newer member of the D.A.

Astoria hadn’t been into the Sanctum--no, the Room of Requirement, she corrected herself--all day. After the events of yesterday evening, she rather thought she deserved a break. But Arifa’s eyes were wide and held shades of deep concern; there was no question in Astoria’s mind that she was being summoned.

She reached into her satchel, pulled out her change purse, and peered inside. One galleon was glowing red and hot to the touch.

Damn. 



Arifa reached the bench and sat down next to Astoria. Her breathing was heavier than it ought to have been from the walk, and her navy headscarf was slightly askew. She reached up to straighten it, clearing her throat loudly.



“Astoria. Hi. You’re good in Potions, right? Do you think you could look over my notes for me? I think I missed a few things in class, and I need to keep my average up, and I’d normally ask Rebecca, but she’s busy. And--”

The girl’s foot was tapping wildly. Astoria gave her a cool look, hoping that a frosty welcome would make the Ravenclaw’s discomfort seem more natural. 

“Fine. Show me what you’ve got.”

Arifa pulled a rolled up sheet of parchment from her bag and shoved it into Astoria’s hands. She was certain it was a message, and wasn’t terribly eager to unroll it out in the courtyard--there were far too many prying eyes about. But Arifa gave her a pleading look and, glancing around and noting that no one seemed to be near enough to read whatever damning thing the girl had written down, she unrolled the parchment with a sigh.

And was pleasantly surprised. It was Potions notes. Or, at least, it looked like them. Astoria cast a brief look of approval in the Ravenclaw girl’s direction before turning her attention to the parchment. Several words were underlined. It was a crude code, but far better than she’d expected. Her eyes flicked down the page, pulling out the underlined words as she lined them up mentally to decipher their meaning.

Homework Questions





How many spoonfuls of curdled jambelot jelly
will improve consistency of Wurpurple Draught?

add some asphodel powder

- Belladonna
- Howlet’s wing
- Flitterbloom
- Dandelion
- Butterscotch
- Alihotsy
- Shrivelfig
- Billywig Stings (3)
- Sneezewort
- Nightshade
- Goosegrass
- Vinegar (1 cup)
- Moondew--can be substituted with Valerian
- Eye of Rat

Can Bandyroot ever be used in large doses in healing potions despite its poisonous effects?




The words shifted before Astoria’s eyes, arranging themselves almost without her conscious thought. The first letter of every underlined word.

H.Q. A.S.A.P. D.A.N.G.E.R.


"It looks like you wrote down everything important," Astoria confirmed.

"Oh. Good. Are you headed to dinner, then?” Arifa asked. Astoria didn’t look up.

“I’ll be in shortly.”



“Right. Well, I was wondering--could I get your Potions notes from yesterday? I wanted to compare them with mine. I didn’t quite get everything he said about Sneezewort written down, and I’d hate to think I’d missed anything, especially with exams com--” 


“Fine, fine. Here.” Astoria dug out a sheaf of Arithmancy papers from her satchel and shoved them into Arifa’s hands. It was a good thing the girl rambled on so. Anyone would think the tremor in Astoria’s voice was mere irritation, rather than the alarm that had dropped into her stomach like a stone, sending ripples of agitation through her words. 
 
The message, combined with the glowing coin now clutched in her hand, added up to an inauspicious portent.

Nodding farewell to Arifa, Astoria stuffed her papers into her bag, standing up and walking out of the courtyard at a calm, unhurried pace. 

She made as if she were heading to the Library, but turned, picking up her pace as she slipped through the empty corridors, toward the Room of Requirement.

She felt her heartbeat pounding in her throat, pounding wildly as she tried to keep her pace steady, tried to reign in her panic. 

Something was wrong. Very wrong.




*****
Hogwarts Castle,
The Room of Requirement


When she arrived in the Room of Requirement, most of the D.A. was still out--they must have called her specifically--but those who were present were milling about, all in a hubbub, and anxious whispers echoed through the chamber.

“What, you’re just getting here now?” Lavender Brown snapped the moment Astoria entered the room.

Astoria ignored her, turning to find Seamus sitting off to the left of the tables. “What’s going on?” Then she did a double take as he turned to face her. “Sweet Circe, what happened?!”

Astoria shoved Lavender out of the way and shot over to where Seamus was leaned back in an overstuffed armchair, Dean hovering over him worriedly.

“If you checked your bloody galleon, you’d already know, wouldn’t you?”



“Lavender, calm down,” Seamus interrupted. “It’s not Astoria’s fault. She--” He paused, hissing in pain and trying not to move his face, which was a patchwork of blue and purple. Astoria reached out automatically and gently straightened his chin.

“Keep still for a second, will you?”

She probed lightly along his brow bone and nose, checking for fractures. Seamus jerked away as she ran a finger along his eye socket, and Dean winced, looking deeply uncomfortable.

“What happened here?” she demanded. Seamus opened his mouth. “Not you,” she snapped. “You just keep your face still before you hurt yourself further.” She turned to Dean, who wouldn’t quite meet her eyes as he explained.

“It was detention tonight. They’d got everyone who was nearby when Alecto’s room exploded yesterday--it was mostly a crowd of ‘Puff First years coming up from the Library. Pretty much just them, and Seamus, and Neville. Well, apparently the Carrows got to going on about Neville’s grandmum. You didn’t hear it earlier, ‘cause you weren’t in here, but Potterwatch was reporting that she got away. Put some auror in hospital, too. Anyway, I guess they were sore about that, and they thought Neville probably blew up the Muggle Studies room, and they had all those First years in there. And--”

He paused for a long moment, which was worrying, but before he could complete the sentence, Lavender butted in.

“They wanted them to do the Cruciatus Curse. On the First years.”



Astoria gaped at her. “You can’t be serious.”

“What? You think your precious Purebloods aren’t capable of it? They are! It’s what happened!”


It wasn’t that Astoria didn’t think the Carrows capable of this and worse. It was just such a horrifying picture. She suddenly remembered what Seamus had told her mere days ago: that they were lucky when the Carrows had been making the Slytherins curse them, like in Dark Arts class; that one day they’d realise how much worse it would be to make them hurt each other.

“And did they--?”

Lavender scoffed. “Of course they didn’t. Unlike some people here, Seamus and Neville would never go around putting curses on innocent people."

“That’s how it happened,” Dean went on grimly. “I think they’d just really lost it by this point. Seamus and Neville refused, and I guess the Carrows had just got so angry, y’know? They had a go at Seamus, then they forgot him and started in on Neville. They knew he’d got past them, warning his grandmother. It was their own fault that he was able to warn her, I guess, and the Carrows didn’t like being made fools of. And they just were so busy having a go at him, they got distracted, and Neville motioned to Seamus to get the First years out, and he did.” There was a small kernel of pride in his voice as he relayed his best friend’s courage.

“I shouldn’t’a left him,” Seamus croaked. Astoria was at his side in a moment, tugging aside his collar to reveal bruises that wrapped around his throat.

“Hush you,” she said sternly. She turned back to Dean. “Where are the others? How bad are they?”

Dean nodded to a group of First years huddled up in a far corner. They looked so small. “They’re fine, physically. Not a scratch on ‘em. What they saw, though...” He shook his head.

“They’re too young for that; for any of this,” Lavender said solemnly.

We all are, thought Astoria, but still. It was the first point upon which she and the Gryffindor witch had ever agreed.

“And Neville?”

Dean looked up from where he had hunched over beside her, eyeing Seamus’ wounds. “It’s bad.”

“E’s the one you ought to be lookin’ at. Not me.”

“Shut up,” all three of them--Dean, Seamus, and Lavender--said in unison.

Astoria pointed her wand at him. “Episkey.” Abruptly, some of the darkness seemed to leach out of the bruises covering Seamus’ face. The place where his nose appeared a bit crooked straightened out. He sneezed.

“Oof. What was that?” Seamus demanded, rubbing his chin and pursing his lips.

“Minor healing spell. It won’t get rid of everything, but it’ll help out. Little things, like broken toes, split knuckles.” She glanced at Dean. “Could you drum up some ice?”

Dean shrugged sheepishly and reached behind him, holding up a dripping muslin cloth stained with pink, that appeared to be wrapped around a cold hunk of steak. “I’ve got this,” he offered.

Astoria eyed the dripping cut of meat dubiously. “I suppose...”

“I am not puttin’ that on me face.”


“Mate, come on,” Dean pleaded. “I can barely look at you. Please?”

“Fine,” Seamus grumbled, accepting the raw steak and pressing it gingerly to his face before heaving himself out of his chair. He wobbled for a moment on his feet before Dean caught him and looped an arm around his waist, holding him steady.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Like I said, it’s not me you need to worry about.” Seamus jerked his chin, indicating a table towards the back of the room.

“It’s Neville. He was tryin’ to distract Alecto, an’ I guess he did too good a job. She just went at him. I dunno the curses she used, but it’s somethin’ ugly. He’s a right mess.”

Astoria moved through the room at a brisk clip, a group of Hufflepuffs practically diving out of her way, Dean, Seamus, and Lavender following along behind her. 



“I’m going to need you to be more specific than ‘a right mess,’ Seamus,” she retorted as she approached the long wooden tables.

“No,” another voice broke in weakly, but with a snort of dark amusement. “I expect ‘a right mess’ about covers it.”


Neville lifted his head to meet her eyes. He was seated on the bench seat of one of the tables, bent over. His face was all shades of blue and black, his lip cut, but that was nothing. His shirt was ripped, and through it she could see bruises blooming along his sides, and three nasty slashes across his chest had turned his white shirt half crimson. Beside him was a bedraggled towel, partially soaked-through with blood. 



Astoria drew up short, swallowed. Her hands balled into fists.



She thought she’d seen the worst the Carrows could do, with Amara. How foolish of her. That had sickened her, had infuriated her, and she hadn’t even known the girl. But she knew Neville. She had promised she would try to help him, to protect him. He was her responsibility. 

Astoria felt the rage bubble up, threatening to overflow, but she took a deep breath and forced it down.



“Well,” she said, her voice coming out aggressive in her attempts to keep it steady. She clenched her jaw and forced it to smooth. “You seem to have got yourself into another situation.”

Neville laughed a bit, but cut off sharply with a gasp. “Looks like it.”

“Where’s Luna?”

“She’s out feeding Hagrid’s creatures--she’s the only one who takes care of them, now that he’s gone. Don’t send anyone to get her. I mean it. I don’t want her finding out about this a minute before she has to.”

Astoria sniffed, eyeing the way his arm was hanging slightly wrong. “It’s your funeral.”

“If the injuries don’ get you, it’s yer girlfriend. Or boyfriend. Terrible things, relationships,” Seamus jested. Lavender eyed him darkly.

A flush burned its way up Neville’s neck. “She’s not my...I mean, we’re not...”

“Whatever you say, mate.”

Lavender huffed and propped her hands on her hips. “Are you done joking around? Seamus, I don’t know why you wanted to bring her in. I don’t see why she’d be any help. That little spell of hers isn’t going to fix something like--

Without turning, Astoria flicked her wand, raising up a bright green barrier around them. She heard an “Oof,” as Lavender was shoved outside its parameters. Seamus and Dean, she allowed to remain.



She drew closer to Neville and cocked her head, assessing.



“Alright. We’re going to have to get your shirt off.”

Neville reached for the hem but stopped short with a grimace. “I...er, I think I’ll need a bit of help.”



Astoria marched over and sat down beside him. The shirt was already half in tatters. She rent it down one side with a rrrrrrippp! and shoved it aside, shifting so that she could ease it off his other shoulder.

“Well,” Seamus broke in. “This got steamier than I’d’ve expected.”



Astoria glanced over her shoulder at the other Gryffindor, who was leaning against the barrier, his eyes tight with worry, but a ridiculous grin pasted across his face.



“Seamus, perhaps I should remind you that I don’t need magic to kill you and make it look like an accident.”

“What? I mean, after all, ‘e doesn’t have a girlfriend.” Seamus waggled his eyebrows.

She turned back to Neville, whose ears were turning red.



“Well, it’s nice to know that you’re not in too much pain to be embarrassed,” she informed him, reaching over to run a hand along his side, applying gentle pressure with her fingers. Neville hissed in pain, his self-consciousness forgotten.

“Tsk.” Astoria’s anger had faded, replaced by a clinical sort of clarity as she examined Neville’s wounds. Gingerly, she prodded at the three long cuts that ran from his left shoulder to the bottom of his ribcage on his opposite side. The edges were blackened, but the skin wasn’t burned.



“Neville,” she asked sharply, rousing him. His head was slumped to the side, but he eased it up slightly. “Neville, how long has this discolouration been present, along the edges of the wound?”

“I dunno. From the start, I reckon. It hurts like hell.”

“Has the bleeding gotten better? Or has it gotten worse?”

Neville only grunted, his eyes clenching shut.

“Worse?”

He managed a nod.



“Wonderful,” she muttered, pushing herself back to her feet. Seamus stepped forward to meet her and she pulled him a few steps away.



“So? What’re you thinkin’?”

Astoria’s mouth pressed into a grim line. “It’s bad. He’s got at least one cracked rib, and I can handle that, but whatever curse made those cuts,” she shook her head. “They’re deep. Too close to too many organs. And that black crust around the edges...I don’t like it. This isn’t an injury you just toy around with. We’re lucky the bleeding isn’t worse than it is.”

“Madame Pomfrey can’t heal ‘im. Alecto ordered her, specifically. That’s why we set 'im up here.”

Astoria mumbled an Aguamenti charm, rinsing the blood off her hands. Dean gallantly offered her a handkerchief, which she used to dry them, and then stepped away, apparently looking for a fresh towel on the other side of the table.

“And why did you call for me?”



Seamus looked at her, his expression full of something she felt she hadn’t seen in ages. Trust.

“You always know what to do.”

She closed her eyes.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Seamus, but I’m not sure that I do.”

“You seem to have some idea. Where’d ya learn that ‘pixie’ thing? The spell you did on me?” He touched his nose to demonstrate and yowled.

“As you can see, it has its limitations,” Astoria answered drily. She shook her head. “I learned it for...” She hesitated, not sure she wanted to admit it. Everyone here already thought so poorly of Purebloods...

Seamus laid a hand on her arm, his expression so earnest. “Whatever it is, you know you c’n tell me.”

She shrugged his hand off and bit her lip. “I’ve always been close to our House Elf. Filly. You know, it’s not really necessary to punish a House Elf at all? They do it themselves, if they cannot fulfil an order. Sometimes, they get a bit carried away. And sometimes...” She took a breath. “Sometimes people punish them anyway, because they want to. Filly has friends--cousins, Elves she’d meet doing the shopping for us. If they were hurt, sometimes they’d stop by our kitchen. She’d show me how to patch them up. It was our secret.”

She looked up to find Seamus smiling at her, his eyes bright. It must have hurt him, with all the bruising on his face, but his smile didn’t dim as he reached for her hand and she allowed him to take it. He shook his head, looking out toward the rest of the room, where the other D.A. members milled about worriedly.

“They have no idea who you are, Cap’n. None at all.”

She shrugged. “Don’t make more of it than it is.”



“I’m not. I’m just...really proud to know you, Astoria Greengrass.”

Astoria felt a wetness gathering in the corner of her eyes and blinked slowly, looking up at the light. She had the strangest urge to hug him, but she clamped her arms to her sides, shaking her head.

“The point is, what I know...it’s really basic, Seamus; it won’t work on the kind of injuries Neville has. I know some potions that could help, but we don’t have time to brew them. I’m not a Healer--”

She stopped.

“I’m not a Healer,” she mumbled, her the gears in her brain grinding to life. 



“Well, yeah, I know that. No one’s expectin’ a miracle out o’ you, but Astoria...” He paused, staring at her, then his face, despite all the bruises, brightened. “Ye’ve got an idea, haven’t you?”

She tapped her foot against the stone floor. “I might have.” She turned abruptly and started toward the entrance. She stopped when she heard Seamus stumbling along behind her.

“Oh no. You’re staying here,” she commanded.

“You can’t go out there alone--”

“I can and I will. Or do you intend to tell me that Gryffindors always follow the rules?”

“Astoria--”


“Dean!” she snapped, and turning to where the taller boy stood, just steps away from them.



“Yes ma’a--I mean, er, yeah?”

“Keep him here. Right here. Do not let him leave this room. I don’t care if you have to tie him to you.” She thought she detected a faint flush beneath Dean’s dark complexion and rolled her eyes.

“Try to staunch the bleeding as much as you can,” she called over her shoulder before spinning on her heel and walking out of the Room.

This was turning out to be a hell of a night.

*****
Hogwarts Castle Infirmary


Five minutes later, Astoria strode through the door of the Hospital Wing. Madam Pomfrey was handing a bottle to a girl who was sitting hunched over--probably a ginger-fennel mixture for cramps.

“Miss Greengrass. What are you doing here?”

“I have a stomach ache,” Astoria answered calmly, eyeing the nurse meaningfully as her hand drifted to trace along the curving lines of her scar. 


“Ah. Of course. Just follow me then.” The matron turned to the young Slytherin girl sitting on the cot. “That’s all you’ll be needing, Miss Willowsly. I suggest you return to your dormitory for an early night.”

The girl, who looked to be perhaps thirteen, looked vaguely offended, but she obeyed the nurse’s directive and was soon out the door. Nodding to Astoria, Madam Pomfrey headed to the far back corner, where the small nurse’s office resided. Entering, she walked to a cabinet much like the one in Astoria’s office, clucking her tongue as she lifted her spectacles to read the labels on a row of different potions.

“Your scar should have healed considerably by now, Miss Greengrass. Does it still pain you often?”



“Not so very often.” Astoria glanced around the room. The walls of the infirmary had ears, she knew from her dealings with Draco. Her presence here would be recorded. She had little doubt that Madam Pomfrey would want to help her. If the Carrows had already forbidden her to heal Neville’s injury, that meant she knew about it, and Madam Pomfrey did not seem like the type to take that sort of order lying down. Still, she had to avoid asking anything outright. There had to be a way...

Just then, Astoria noticed something on the matron’s desk. Atop a stack of medical records, a paperback book sat, as though it had just been set down. A buxom witch was draped across the cover, clinging to a man with a tan, well-muscled chest. The name Fifi LaFolle was written in large, looping pink letters across the spine.

“Oh, I love that book!” Astoria lied, walking over to pick it up. She had never read such a thing and couldn’t imagine looking the cashier at Flourish and Blotts in the eye, should she want to purchase it.


“You read Fifi LaFolle novels?” Madam Pomfrey asked, turning around to raise her wiry grey eyebrows in Astoria’s direction.



“Sometimes. In fact, I was reading something of hers over the holiday, and it left me with a medical question.”



“Heavens,” Madam Pomfrey replied, “I shudder to think what you could be curious about, there. Some of the, let’s say, descriptions she uses aren’t what what I’d call particularly likely, anatomically speaking. I always told Professor Dumbledore we ought to include a health class, or at least a seminar. Teenagers, after all--”


“Er...not that type of medical question,” Astoria broke in hurriedly. “But I was reading this novel wherein the hero gets attacked by...a crazed hippogriff. With cursed talons.”



“Mmmhmm.”


“Three very nasty gashes across his torso, say from here to here,” she explained, touching her shoulder and stomach. “And the heroine treated him with a simple episkey, but I’m certain that wouldn’t have worked.”



“Ah. What book did you say this was?”

“The...Sorcerer’s Seductress,” she invented on the spot.

“Oh, I’ve read that one. I had thought the heroine suffered head trauma from a carriage accident after inheriting the family fortune.” Astoria was certain she detected a dry tone to Madam Pomfrey’s voice. The matron knew she was lying. Well, so much the better. 



“Well, perhaps I’ve got the title confused. They do run together. It was definitely a man. Three slashes across the chest. Some sort of curse that made the edges of the wound blacken. How would one treat it?”



“This is a dangerous game you’re playing, Astoria.”



“Dangerous? Now, Madame Pomfrey, don’t tell me you subscribe to those ridiculous ideas about ‘unsuitable literature’ for young ladies.”

She caught the edges of a smile peeking out at the corners of Madam Pomfrey’s mouth.

“Well, since you ask from a purely literary interest,” the older woman said wryly, reaching for an enormous book from a shelf of the cabinet. She plopped it on the desk and began to flip through the thick vellum sheets, stopping and running a finger down a page about halfway through the volume.

“There,” she tapped the page authoritatively. “For the young hero’s wounds in, er, your book. This would be the Potion you’d want. It’s a very particular version of the Restorative Draught. Very complex. It would take a number of skilled witches and wizards to manage it.”

Astoria skimmed the page, trying to memorise as much information as possible. Madame Pomfrey reached across the desk, plucked a mint leaf off a plant residing in its corner, and put it in to mark the place before slamming the book shut. She turned back to the cabinet, puttering about for a minute before removing a jar of salve from a shelf and handing it to Astoria.

“For your scar, Miss Greengrass.”

Astoria found she had nearly forgotten the actual premise of her visit.

“Oh. Thank you very much.” She lifted the flap of her leather satchel to tuck it into her pocket, repeating the list of ingredients she had glimpsed on the page. She remembered most of the items, but not their measurements or cooking temperatures, which would have to be precise. If only she’d had more time!

But still, she couldn’t linger. It would look suspicious, and the last thing she wanted was to bring down suspicion on Madam Pomfrey. She turned to leave the office.

“Oh,” the nurse added nonchalantly over her shoulder. “And if you’re looking for something to read, you may borrow my copy of A Healer’s Compendium, she said, waving vaguely towards the dark green tome. “It has my annotations, and might be useful to you...in passing your time. I suspect it may suit you better than The Sorcerer’s Seductress.” 



Astoria did not wait to be told twice. The book was hefted from the desk and into her bag before Madame Pomfrey had time to turn around again, and she was out the door, her hand clutched around the strap of her satchel.

“Be careful not to be linger in the corridors, Miss Greengrass!” Madam Pomfrey called after her. “It’s nearly curfew, and you wouldn’t want to be caught out of bed.”



Astoria kept walking, waving to the older witch in acknowledgement without turning her head. Madam Pomfrey was right; she certainly couldn’t afford to be caught.

She was running out of time.


________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________



First off, my dears and my darlings, I am so sorry that it's taken me a while to get this out! RL was giving me a really rough go of it for a bit there, but I've finally found the time and motivation to write again. So, we finally get to see the other side of Neville and Seamus' run in with the law. There's never peace at Hogwarts for long these days. Please let me know what you think! I really appreciate your thoughts and comments!

As always, many thanks to bigblackdog--my amazing beta, elise!

--Penny


Chapter 21: An Unexpected Ally
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Hogwarts Castle Corridor


Astoria walked quickly through the corridors, her ears pricked and her heart beating fast. She resisted the urge to run a finger along the spine of the book tucked inside her satchel, just to be sure that it was safe, that it was there, hidden in plain sight among her textbooks. It was a lesson she hadn’t even needed to learn from her mother. Could there be anything more obvious than to hide what you cared about? Showing that you valued something was the easiest way for someone else to know it was worth taking.

For 16 years, Astoria Greengrass had been an expert at hiding.

She hitched the strap further up on her shoulder, lifting her eyes to the ceiling as she tried to recall the writing on the page Madame Pomfrey had marked for her. Lacewing flies. Spotted toadstools. Shrivelfig. Moondew...

She wouldn’t have them all, she reasoned. Astoria was exceptional at Potions--it was her best class--and so she kept the equivalent of a small apothecary in her trunk. But it would be best to avoid the dungeons altogether, besides which, there were several items on the list that even the best-prepared student couldn’t possibly have on hand.

There was a little-known cupboard on the 5th floor, a faculty supply cupboard, which contained advanced potion ingredients as well as supplies for a number of arcane spells that required more than a mere wave of a wand. She wasn’t completely certain why it had been housed there--if upstairs faculty had complained about trudging all the way down to the dungeons for their materials, or if hosting too many rare and expensive items too close to the Slytherin dormitories had proven itself to be a poor idea. Or it could have been the nearby presence of the Hufflepuffs. All that “hard work: and “equality” talk had led to the “liberation” of more than a few items in her time. She remembered one time a band of ‘Puffs led by Alina Letterbee had staged a sit-in at the Kitchens, insisting that the school “release the means of production”--brownie production. They then raided the cupboards to host an inter-House bake-a-thon. Astoria hadn’t gone--no proper young Pureblood witch could ever be seen in a kitchen. But she’d wanted to.

In the end, it really didn’t matter why the cupboard was placed where it was. What mattered was that Astoria was already headed in that direction. She turned the corner of the empty 5th floor corridor and walked to the unassuming wooden door. She took a moment to fish the necessary lockpicks from her tie; she didn’t have to guess, as every supply cupboard that couldn’t be opened by a simple Alohomora was fitted with the same “heavy duty” magical lock. With a few flicks of the wrist she had the door open, and was up to her elbows in jars and thick glass bottles when she heard the stomping sound of footsteps fast approaching.

Alecto Carrow was striding down the corridor, and it took all Astoria had in her to continue at the same speed, to give no sign that she was troubled by being spotted. She stuffed a bottle of Lacewing Flies into her bag and took a deep breath.

It was difficult to remain calm in the face of a woman who had just nearly murdered a friend.

A woman who, incidentally, was the primary occupant of the classroom Astoria had recently blown up.

She took another breath. Deeper.


“Greengrass!”

Astoria did not jump. She lifted her head and pasted a delighted smile upon her face, as though running into Alecto Carrow were a wonderful and unexpected surprise.

“Professor Carrow!” she exclaimed as she calmly pocketed a vial of dittany. “Was there something you needed?” She struggled against the urge to justify herself, to give unasked for explanations of why she was there. There was no surer sign of guilt than an overeager excuse.

The short, stocky woman eyed Astoria, eyed the cupboard, and barked, “You’ve got permission from Slughorn?”

“Of course,” Astoria lied smoothly.

The woman merely shrugged and continued on, muttering something about “bloody nuisance kids” as she made her way towards the stairs. She stopped somewhere near the stairway, out of sight, to call behind her. “Hurry up, Amycus. I haven’t got all day.”

There was the scraping noise she recognised. Everyone had a distinct walk, and everything about Amycus Carrow grated on the senses: his gravelly voice, like stone grinding against stone; his slow, self-satisfied walk, allowing his heels to drag; and there was the feeling--what Lavender might have called an aura--that surrounded him, that simply felt wrong, like nails scraping against a blackboard. It was very nearly overwhelming.

It was, abruptly, right behind her. Astoria felt every hair on her body stand straight.

“Astoria Greengrass,” the voice rasped, utterly solicitous, and entirely too close. “What are you up to?”

She tried to back up, a bit, and found that she was hemmed in. There was no real space inside the closet, it was a solid wall of shelves that were situated just inside the door, so Astoria had nowhere to retreat to. She did her best to look unruffled and lifted her chin to meet Amycus Carrow’s eyes.

“Professor Slughorn gave me permission to get some things for a potion I wanted to work on before exams.” She reached one hand into her satchel, digging around inside. “I have the note here, if you’d like to see...”

“Unnecessary,” he assured her, moving infinitesimally closer. She fought against the urge to shift away, knowing that running from predacious creatures was a last resort. It urged them to give chase. “It’s just interesting to find you here. Alone.”

Astoria swallowed. “Is it?”

“Professor Carrow--that is, Alecto and myself, were just looking for a young man who left his detention early.”

“Oh?”

“A young man, and several accomplices. The trail ends on the stairs of this floor.”

“The trail,” Astoria repeated uncertainly. Then she understood. Blood. Neville had run from them. He must have left blood in his wake. She’d seen his injuries; there was no way that running up five flights of stairs had made him bleed less. Had Neville truly noticed his trail and had the presence of mind to clean it up, even while quite literally running for his life?

Perhaps she had underestimated him after all.

Professor Carrow took a small step forward, looking her straight in the eyes. “It’s very important that you tell me if you saw anything...suspicious.”

Astoria pressed her lips together, as if thinking, and shook her head. “I can’t think of a single thing out of place, Professor. I’ve not seen anyone else right around here, or anyone running or anything.”

She paused, wondering if she’d babbled a bit, let it get away from her. Professor Carrow gave her a long look, sucking in his cheeks thoughtfully. A corner of his mouth lifted in a terrifying, razor thin smile.

“I know you’re a good girl, Astoria. You don’t need to prove anything to me.”

She took a deep breath through her nose.

“I am glad to hear it.”

He glanced down the corridor, and Astoria did the same. It was utterly empty. She felt her stomach clench.

“I wonder, though,” he mused, pausing to brush a lock of hair away from his thin, blade-like face. “It’s dangerous for young people like you, these days.”

“Young people like me?” Astoria tried to keep her tone calm, casual. She wanted so badly to return her attention to the shelves behind her, but she couldn’t bear to turn her back to him, to be so exposed.

“I pay special attention to all my students.”

I’ll just bet you do, Astoria thought.

“And I cannot help but notice that you always seem...apart. Away from the fold,” he continued. Astoria began to feel rather absurdly like some wild creature, a gazelle cut off from her herd.

“I know how lonely that can be,” Amycus Carrow went on, and it was all she could do to keep from yelping when he placed an all-too sympathetic hand on her shoulder. He leaned a hairsbreadth closer. “But these are perilous times, Astoria. It is not wise to be so entirely alone.”

“I’m not...” She choked, unable to finish the sentence.

She was. In this moment, in this corridor, in her life. She was entirely alone.

Caught.

“You are,” he insisted, as if pulling the words from her own thoughts. “Wholly without friends. No parents to speak of. No Death Eaters in the family.” Astoria’s eyes widened. But of course he wouldn’t know; Amycus Carrow was not far up enough to know the identity of Voldemort’s spymaster. Besides which, it was true, wasn’t it? There were no longer any Death Eaters in her family.

“These are not safe times to have no friends, no connections. Alone and unprotected. You could go far after school, you know. I could put in a good word for you. My sister and I are always looking for talent at Hogwarts. Of course, there would be high expectations....”

He squeezed her shoulder more tightly, and it was as though a corresponding hand were squeezing her throat. As he spoke, she could feel it. Despair setting in as though Dementors trailed in the wake of his words. The loneliness, the sharp tang of fear, the knowledge that the Carrows had connections. The knowledge that, if she fell, there was no one in this world to catch her.

She straightened her spine and blinked away those thoughts. She wasn’t sure what rumours about the Carrows were false and which were true, but powerful though they might be, these were not people whose notice she wanted to attract. Owing the Carrows anything would come to no good, and she didn’t care to think about what the debt might cost her. There was something in his eyes that she did not like.

Astoria had thought her bloodline, her House, would be enough to protect her from everything short of being caught out as a resistance sympathiser. She should have been cleverer than this, should have seen it coming. Whatever he wanted, it wouldn’t be good.

She felt cornered, utterly trapped. Her body tensed, her hands tightening into fists, and Astoria knew she was about to do something terrible, something that would make him want to kill her as much as they’d wanted to kill Neville. And she would do it.

It would be worth it.

She hoped it would be worth it.

“Astoria! There you are!”

The voice arrived from the most unexpected quarter--Constance Eckleworth-Baines, her former Potions partner. Constance ran up to her, sounding rather out of breath.

“Oh, hello Professor Carrow,” she greeted, edging between him and Astoria and dismissing him in a way that somehow came across as deadly efficient rather than rude. “So sorry I’m late. I got confused and went downstairs. I didn’t realise you meant for me to meet you here.”

Astoria, startled and filled with that strange euphoria that comes from escaping an impossible situation, could only say, “Oh. Well, yes.”

“But then when you weren’t in the Common Room and you weren’t in the Library I figured you must have come up here.”

Astoria finally got her bearings and jumped on board the ship that Constance was very competently rowing. “Right. Well I thought we should get the supplies first.”

“Of course!” Constance shook her head ruefully. “Supplies. I swear I never think of these things. I’m so glad we’re working together on this. You’re not allowed to leave me alone for a single minute until we get this project done. Without your help, I’d probably manage to bring down the castle.”

“Well, there’s been quite enough of that lately,” Amycus Carrow drawled, reminding them of a presence that neither of them had, for a moment, forgotten. Constance rose to the occasion, flipping her short blonde locks behind her and giving the Professor a vague, oblivious smile.

“Oh, Professor. I cut you right off, didn’t I? I hope you don’t mind if I borrow Astoria.” She looked at the delicate wristwatch dangling from her wrist. “If we don’t start now, we’ll be up ages. Come on, we’ve got to go.”

Professor Carrow merely nodded, clearly unaware that he was being managed. “Of course. There’s nothing more important than a good education.” His gaze shifted to Astoria. “Remember what I said, Miss Greengrass. If you should ever need help, my door is always open.”

With nothing else to do, Astoria nodded.

Constance grabbed her by the elbow and nodded her own farewell to the Dark Arts Professor. “Have a good evening, Professor.”


Constance pivoted and tugged Astoria along, and she followed like a Niffler after a shiny sickle. They walked at a carefully unhurried pace, moving down another floor until Constance ducked to the side, shouldering her way through a door into a rather dusty classroom that clearly saw little use.
The door eased quietly shut behind them, and Astoria whirled about to stare at Constance, too relieved and surprised to reign in her wide eyes.


“Why...why did you do that?”


Constance was suddenly like a ship whose sails had gone slack. Before Amycus, she had been all cool efficiency, but now she seemed to flutter unsteadily, with no force at her back. It was so strange to see this girl turn so suddenly from steel to guttering flame. Constance remained quiet, rubbing nervously at her forearm.

Not receiving any immediate answer, Astoria leaned forward to check that the door had fully shut, muttering a few good silencing charms just to be safe, before turning back to her unexpected rescuer.


Constance stood there, biting her lip, frangible and uncertain. After a painfully long silence, she sucked in a breath to speak.

“It’s just...there’s something not right about that man.” She looked up, clearly trying to gauge how Astoria would take that statement. Astoria tried to relax her poker face into a more encouraging expression. “I was headed to the Library, and I heard your voice and, well...it’s not like you really talk to anyone.” Constance shrugged apologetically. “I got curious. So I peered around the corner and saw that Professor Carrow was there. With you. And I just...you didn’t look...comfortable.”

“I wasn’t,” she answered frankly.

Constance met Astoria’s eyes. She shifted her weight, nibbled on her lip.

“Astoria, back when we were Potions partners. Back when we used to...to talk and things? Nothing ever seemed to surprise you. Nothing. No matter what gossip Felicity carried into the room. If someone got into a fight, it was as though you knew about it before they did themselves. I...what I guess I’m saying is, you always seem to know what you’re about.”



“I don’t always. Not at all.” It felt like she knew less what she was about every day.

Constance shifted again, toying with the fragile chain of the watch on her wrist. “I don’t know if you’ve...heard things.”

“Things?”



“About Professor Carrow. Well, both of them.” Abruptly, Constance stopped shifting. She pushed back her shoulders and gritted her teeth, as though she were physically forcing the words out.

“There’ve been rumours about them, ever since that...punishment. With that poor Hufflepuff girl.” Her eyes darted around the room, as if their could be spies (there weren’t; Astoria had cast a silent Revelation Charm the minute they’d entered the room). “Some people are saying...well, look, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Alecto takes detentions too far. She likes making people bleed. And I don’t know what it is that Amycus likes, but...I don’t think it’s any better.” She hugged her arms around herself, looking suddenly small. “I’m not the cleverest girl in Slytherin House, but even their favourite students, what they’ve become...” She trailed off, shrugged.

“I’m sorry if I stuck my nose in where it doesn’t belong, but I shouldn’t like to be left alone with the Carrows. With either of them. And when I saw you, I just thought that I shouldn’t leave you there, either.”

Astoria felt the oddest urge, just then. She wanted to reach out and hug Constance, sweet, nervous Constance, to offer her some sort of comfort. She didn’t. She didn’t know how; physical affection wasn’t really her forte. But she did reach out and put a hand on the other girl’s arm.

“Constance. You were right. I was desperate for a way out. Thank you.”

Constance paused. If possible, she looked more upset, not less.

“I was right?”

Astoria nodded solemnly. “I think you’re right about more than you know.”

Constance nodded once, twice, and then it was as if she couldn’t stop. She kept on nodding her head as she sank down to sit cross-legged on the stone floor, getting dust all over the back of her robes. Astoria didn’t hesitate. She joined her.

“It’s like, a part of me just can’t believe it, you know. That it’s like this now. That people like that...that they’d be allowed to run a school.”

“It’s terrible.”

“It’s wrong!” Constance exclaimed, blinking sharply, as if shocked at her own emotion. “I’ve had a feeling about them for ages. And...and I’m not proud of it, but I just...I never thought they would come after...”

“People like us,” Astoria finished for her. Constance nodded.

“I know its shameful. It’s not that I want these things happening to others. But it’s just,” her voice wavered, and Astoria looked away as the other girl surreptitiously wiped her eyes. “I never thought it could be like this. I never thought there could be a time when...when Hogwarts wouldn’t feel safe.”

“There’s nowhere safe,” Astoria answered automatically, thinking fleetingly of the Death Eater who had told her so.

Constance nodded solemnly. “You know, I think you’re right.” She dabbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her grey cardigan and sniffed loudly. When she turned to look at Astoria, something in her face looked different. Her expression held a sort of determination. There was a shift in the air, and Astoria felt a strange sense of unease.

“But I’m right about something else, too. Astoria, you’re gone all the time lately. You miss meals, you’re never in the Common Room or our dormitory. I rarely see you in the Library.”

“I like to stay out of the way,” Astoria put in quickly, seeing where this was headed. She forced herself to keep her stance relaxed. “I don’t really like to be around people. You know that.”

“I know,” she agreed. “But it’s odd. If you were going to hide, truly hide, wouldn’t you have done it in the fall? When everyone was talking about your family? And I suppose sometimes you did, but it wasn’t like now. Back then, you’d be in the room and it was like you’d just look through people. But now...you’re just gone.”

“Well, that sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know. The life of a resistance fighter sounds like a dramatic one, don’t you think?”

Constance gave her a surprised grin, and Astoria got the distinct impression the girl was shocked by her own boldness. Astoria opened her mouth, but Constance held up a hand.

“No. Don’t lie to me. You don’t have to tell me; in fact, I expect it’s better that you don’t. But don’t tell me it’s not true. I know it is.”

“How? That is, why do you think you know?”

“Besides what I’ve already said?” Constance tilted her chin thoughtfully. “I don’t know. There’s something about you, Astoria. I know you’re smarter by half than the rest of us; you always have been. You like to remain in the background, and I think that’s all most people ever see. I’m like that, too. Mariane likes to take up all the space in a room, you know? And I’ve always been fine with that. She’s my best friend, and I’m alright in the background, I suppose. But there’s something about you that seems sort of...intense. Like you’d never truly be satisfied by that, that you’d always want something more.”



Astoria’s stomach dropped. She didn’t want to believe that of herself. It didn’t sound like the safe, careful person she’d spent the past half year wanting to be. It sounded like...

Her mother.

She shook her head, pasting on a sympathetic smile. “Are you certain you don’t mean you? No offence, Constance, I just mean, perhaps your reading a bit of your situation onto my own. I’m really quite happy on the sidelines.”

Constance looked doubtful. “Me? I don’t think I have a dramatic bone in my body.”

“I don’t know. You were masterful with Professor Carrow back there. I’ve known would-be actresses who would have overdone it, performed with less skill.”

Constance blushed, tucking a lock of pale hair behind her ear. “Nonsense. I simply did what I had to do.” She narrowed her eyes. “And you’re deflecting. With very great skill.” She cracked a smile.

“Look, Astoria, don’t tell me anything. I won’t say a word about it. Someone should be against them and...” She fiddled with the edge of her cardigan, her lips narrowing into a frown. “And it can’t be me. I just don’t have it in me.” She lifted her eyes to meet Astoria’s. “But I want you to know that I really...I admire you. For what you’re doing, whatever it is, against them. And I support you, and anything you need--anything that’s small, like covering for you if someone’s asking, or anything like that--I’ll do it.”

Constance stood, primly attempting to knock the dust fro her clothing, but soon giving it up as a lost cause. She smiled wryly, looking down at her dust-streaked robes.

“I’m an absolute fright. My mother would die.”

She immediately stood stick straight as she heard the echo of her own words, sending a mortified glance in Astoria’s direction. People did that; it was one of the things you grew accustomed to. She politely ignored that Constance had said anything, as addressing the matter would only make the girl feel worse. Constance’s expression flashed, briefly, to gratitude, and she extended a hand to Astoria, who took it and allowed herself to be helped to her feet.

Constance cleared her throat, nodding toward the door. “I should go. Just, keep an eye out. And do tell me if you need anything.” Then, with a brisk wave, she shot from the room, and her low, sensible heels clicked their way down the corridor and out of earshot.

Astoria hung back for a moment. She was almost tempted to remain in the dusty room. She felt that her brain needed time--perhaps a month or two--to get back on balance. She glanced down at her hands, covered in dust. At the satchel.

The satchel. Astoria startled. She’d almost forgotten, in the midst of it all, why she was here. The life she needed to save.

She could think about her failures of the night--and there must have been many--later. Now, she had to get back to Neville.

Before it was too late.


__________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Hello lovelies! I've missed you so, so much!!! I'm sorry that it's been so long. Some RL things happened that made me kind of unable or unwilling to write for a while, but I haven't given up on this story! I sincerely hope that you haven't given up on it either.

If you're willing to take a moment, I'd certainly appreciate hearing what you think. Hogwarts is definitely a dark place these days, but is it possible that there may be some hope with new players entering the stage? Thoughts on Constance - a truly unexpected ally? Do you think she can be trusted? Or is Astoria in a whole new mess of epic proportions? I'd love to hear your opinions!
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Chapter 22: A Dire Task
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Hogwarts Castle, Room of Requirement
The wee hours of Tuesday, 21st April
, 1998



It took Astoria at least fifteen more minutes of slowly creeping up back staircases, stopping to hide any time the old castle gave a groan and dodging Amycus and Alecto’s search party, before she managed to make it back. She walked right past Lavender, not even hearing whatever it was the girl was accusing her of, and directly up to the table where Neville was laying. He looked over at her and immediately tried to get up, only to be stopped by Luna. It appeared that someone had told her, much to Neville’s dismay.

“You can’t sit up.”

“I feel like a bloody idiot,” Neville groused.

“You’ll be a much bloodier idiot if you try to move,” Luna informed him matter-of-factly. “Did you know that Winged Dumbibumps spend their entire adult lives laying down?”

That was when Astoria tuned them out. She walked to the edge of the table and dropped her satchel on the wooden surface, jars clinking as she reached in and pulled them out. Lacewing flies. Spotted toadstools. Shrivelfig. She hadn’t got the Moondew, but it could be substituted for butterscotch and water drawn from a sprite’s well, which she was fairly certain she had on hand in the cupboard behind her screen. She yanked out the large healing tome and set it on the table, flipping quickly to the page she would need.

“Padma, Terry,” she called. Padma appeared instantly, and Terry took only a moment to lope to her side. “You’re in N.E.W.T.-level Potions. I need you to help me get started on this. Advanced Restorative Draught.” She pointed to the page. “It’s going to take three cauldrons, and we have to time everything just right.”

She turned to find Seamus just behind her. Somehow she’d known he’d be there.

“What’s the matter?” he asked lowly, drawing her aside.

“Nothing,” she said quickly, brushing her hair out of her face and starting to turn back to the table, where Padma and Terry were reading over the brewing instructions. She was halted by his hand on her elbow.

“Hold up, now. I know there’s somethin’ wrong. Don’t start lyin’ to me, Astoria.”

“Who’s to say I ever stopped?”

He gave her a long look, seeing right through her. Professor Carrow had been wrong about her not having friends; she had at least one, and at moments like this, friends were a damned nuisance. She studied his face, the concern that had bedded down in the wrinkles between his eyebrows, the odd, green-tinted shine to his skin.

“What’s that on your face?”

Seamus shrugged. “Cure for Boils. You said the other day it’d help bring down swelling. You were right.”

She lifted her hand to his chin and tilted it to the side, eying him clinically. “It has gone down a bit.”

Her eyes, sensing movement, darted to the side, where she saw Dean stuffing his hands into his pockets, his head dropped as he turned away. She dropped her hand and sighed.

“I think there are some collapsable cauldrons and burners in the office, in the bottom cabinet of the cupboard. Ask Dean to get them?”

“I c’n get them,” he insisted. “I’ve just got a bit of a limp.”

“Fine. Then take Dean with you.”

“Okay...” He raised an eyebrow at her and then winced; minimal facial movement had to be difficult for a person as guileless as Seamus. “Why?”

She rolled her eyes and cast about for an explanation that wouldn’t reveal more than she ought to tell him. “He’s worried about you. He needs some reassurance.”

Seamus cast a glance over at Dean, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “You think he’s still worried about me?”

“He’s your best friend. I know he’s still worried about you. Now, hurry up. I’ve got things to do.”

He started limping off after Dean, but stopped and turned back to her. “Somethin’s still the matter.”

She shrugged, giving up. “Fine. We’ll talk later. But I need your help with this now. Neville isn’t out of danger yet.”

Seamus looked over to where his friend still lay on the table and nodded, calling after Dean and motioning him in the direction of Astoria’s office.

Astoria closed her eyes for a moment and leaned back on her heels, exhaling deeply. She couldn’t think right now about all that had gone wrong. She had to keep it together. She had to help Neville.

Squaring her shoulders and opening her eyes, she marched over to where he lay, Luna’s restraining hand resting on his shoulder. Someone had covered his torso with a blanket, which was wise now that the chill of the evening was setting in.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, lifting up the knitted throw to get a look at his injuries.

“Like I’ve been run over by a crazed hippogriff,” he rasped.

He was paler now - too pale - and had lost far too much blood, but the spark in his eyes had rekindled. She wondered briefly if it had anything to do with the pale-haired girl sitting beside him, then shook her head. What a fanciful thought.

“Hippogriffs very rarely trample anyone,” Luna retorted. “Usually they spear you with their beaks if they really wish to attack you.”

Astoria’s mind flicked, briefly, to Madame Pomfrey, and cursed hippogriff talons, and cheap romance novels, but she didn’t have it in her to laugh. It was as though she were operating on auto-pilot. She noted that bandages had been placed against the gashes on Neville’s chest, and they seemed to have done a surprisingly good job of stanching the bleeding.

“Spidersilk,” Luna explained. “From an Acromantula. Hagrid left it in his hut.”

Astoria turned to Luna. “Well done. He looks much better than I might have expected. I wasn’t sure I’d be in time, but I think you’ve bought us some.”



Neville gaped at her.

“What, you thought I was going to die?”

Astoria shrugged. “You still could. We’re none of us medical professionals. But I think you’ll be alright. This potion is tricky, but feasible.”

Neville leaned further back, allowing his head to drop. He was clearly clinging to consciousness by a thread now. “Fine bedside manner you’ve got.”

Astoria glanced up sharply. It was arguably the first time she’d been the recipient of the slightest bit of sass from Neville Longbottom. Luna simply shrugged.

“Astoria may lie sometimes, but when she’s honest, she’s very honest.” Her voice was steady, but her eyes, when she met Astoria’s once more, were full of worry. “You’ll do your best?”

“I will,” Astoria answered honestly, and it felt like a vow. She was surprised to see tension immediately leave Neville, and watched as Luna’s hand, gripped in his own, relaxed as well. Did they really have that much faith that her best would be enough?

She didn’t.


Nerves swirling in her stomach, she moved down the table, which was being turned into a de facto workroom. Ingredients were spread out. A few extras that were listed in the book had been fetched from the cupboard in her office, undoubtedly by Seamus, and she saw that someone had found a silver paring knife and a plank of wood that could function as a cutting board. Dean was setting up the collapsable cauldrons and Seamus was leaning over, fiddling with the burners, making sure the temperature would be just right. Padma and Terry looked up at her, awaiting orders. She didn’t give herself time to think about it, any of it, just reached for that cool efficiency, the kind that Constance had feigned so well. She sank into it gratefully, glad to have her mind fully occupied.

“Terry.” She pointed at the Ravenclaw boy. “I want you on the bronze portion of the potion. Padma, you’ll be on silver.” She’d be on gold, the most complicated portion of the three-part Restorative Draught. “The three parts have to be combined exactly at the half-hour mark. Dean.” The other boy glanced up, just popping the last collapsible cauldron into place. “I need you to watch the time. Get an accurate clock and make sure we’re all keeping up. Seamus, I want you to keep an eye on the flames and temperature. Collapsible cauldrons aren’t always consistent in thickness, and its important that we keep each part of the potion uniform.”

She took a moment to glance down at the potion’s instructions, and heard a familiar voice.

“Padma,” Lavender was saying. Parvati and Gigi, both Gryffindors, were behind her. “We want to help.”

Padma, who was reorganising the ingredients she would need, merely shrugged her shoulders. “Astoria’s in charge. Ask her.”

Lavender was clearly not overjoyed at this directive. Her shoulders stiffened and she turned to Astoria, hands on her hips.

“Well?”

Astoria pursed her lips. For once, she had the power here, and even through her cool detachment she could feel the part of her that wanted to send Lavender packing. But there simply wasn’t time for it.

“You can chop the ingredients. But you have to follow the instructions exactly. And stay out of my way.” She clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention. “Has everyone got what they need? Dean, have you got a watch ready?” All parties bobbed their heads. She closed her eyes, breathed once, and nodded sharply. “Alright, on your marks, set, go.”



And they were off in a flurry of activity. Astoria poured out a measurement of butterscotch into her cauldron, stirring widdershins with her wand while running her finger along the next line of text. She noted, vaguely, that Parvati had fallen in beside her twin, and Gigi had gravitated immediately towards Terry, which had left Lavender with no choice but to assist Astoria herself. She was a bit annoyed to note that Lavender cut the Spotted toadstools into perfectly-sized chunks. She hated to admit that such an idiotic girl could be capable at something Astoria considered her best subject.

But there wasn’t much time for resentment; everything had to be done just so. There was a worrisome moment when Terry almost overheated his potion by forgetting to move it off the flame, but Seamus kept it from boiling over with a quick Cooling Charm. Padma made no errors and she and Parvati worked together in perfect tandem, a model team despite their differences. As Dean called out that they were approaching the thirty-minute mark, Astoria and Lavender’s potion was nearing the perfect shade of glimmering gold.

Light glittered at the edges of Astoria’s vision. She pressed a hand against the table to steady herself and swiped at her hair as she leaned over to check the consistency, desperately trying to keep it from falling into the potion, one hand bracing herself on the wooden table top.

“Here,” Lavender said gruffly, and Astoria glanced over. The Gryffindor girl was holding out a light purple scrunchy. “This potion doesn’t need any Hair of Snake.”

Astoria took it with a muttered, “thank you”--a knee-jerk reaction to having proper manners drilled into her from an early age. She tied up her hair and focused on the potion. It was nearly time. Very nearly. And...

“Now!” Dean shouted. Astoria and Terry hurried to levitate their cauldrons over to Padma’s, which was the largest, and pour them in, the three colours swirling together like molten metal. Astoria reached her wand in and gave it ten quick stirs and, in last-minute inspiration, reached for the clear plastic bear of honey that someone had placed further down the table, next to a pot of sugar and some napkins, and squeezed it in. The sweetness would help balance out the lack of Moondew.

She gave the concoction three more stirs before sticking her finger into the sticky brew and testing it between her fingertips.

“It’s done,” she said, and the lot of them, too tired to cheer, all went lax with relief. Astoria let Dean grab the cauldron’s handles, using someone’s old Huffle-ympics t-shirt as a pot holder. He shuffled over to Neville’s side, and Neville tried to lift his head. She noticed that he’d gone extremely pale, his dark freckles standing out noticeably against his chalky complexion.

“That smells delicious.”

“You don’t drink it,” she informed him, probing at his bandages. Neville winced as she tried to lift one away, but it stuck to his skin. “Could someone--?”

“Here.” It was Lavender again, and in that moment Astoria was almost willing to believe the girl was clairvoyant, which just went to show what sort of day she was having. Lavender extended a ceramic bowl filled with water and a small cloth. Taking the cloth and wringing it out, Astoria used it to dab around the bandages that wrapped around Neville’s chest, loosening them until she could pull them away without causing him too much pain.

The bleeding had eased, but the edges of the wounds were still blackened, and that blackness had crept further in her absence. She dipped a small cup into the cauldron and tested the liquid--it was hot, but bearable--before pouring it over Neville’s wounds. She made sure to cover every bit of his chest, not stopping until the shining metallic mixture coated him like a breastplate on a knight. Neville eased out a sigh, and she glanced sharply over at him. The lines of tension around his eyes and mouth had eased, and he leaned his head back.

“Thanks.”

Astoria nodded. It was done. She felt a little dizzy as the calm slipped from her, the worst of the crisis over. She was put in mind of Constance who, the moment after she’d gone toe to toe with Professor Carrow, had lost all her verve and become a nervous wreck. Astoria wasn’t nervous, though, just exhausted.


Luna tapped her on the shoulder. “Should I get more of the spidersilk to bandage him up?”

Astoria shook her head. “No. We’ll want to let the wound breath. The potion will seal it off enough that nothing will get into it.” She wasn’t sure how she knew, but she felt sure of it. It was instinct.

Luna nodded, looked at Astoria thoughtfully, but then shook her head and glided back to Neville. Astoria dipped her hands into the water that Lavender had left on the table top and wiped them on the bright yellow t-shirt/pot holder that Dean had abandoned on the bench.

Noticing that Lavender was still behind her, she reached up to pull the scrunchy out of her hair. She held it out to the other girl, who snatched it from her hand. Then, the oddest thing happened. As Lavender’s hand brushed her palm, something in the Gryffindor’s expression went strange. Her eyes took on a glazed look. For a moment Astoria thought Lavender might faint. Then she blinked at Astoria, her features rearranging themselves into an expression of horror, before she turned and darted away.

“Well, that was odd,” Astoria muttered, feeling rather faint herself.

“Ye’ll have that with Lavender,” Seamus said, appearing at her side. “Tomorrow she’ll probably tell you ye’re doomed to get terrible spots or somethin’, and she couldn’t bear the vision.”

Astoria shrugged. “Well, at least she was useful for once.” She stepped away from the end of the table, and everything pitched a bit funny. She stumbled and Seamus caught her.

“Whoa, Cap’n. Easy there.” He tossed an arm around her shoulders, and she felt his weight shift.

“Seamus Finnigan, if you try to pick me up right now I will give you a whole new class of injury.”

“Ye’re fallin’ over, Cap’n.”

You have a limp. And I can walk by myself. I’m fine.”

“Really?” He rolled his eyes, looking her up and down, assessing. Astoria imagined that she didn’t look fine: covered in dust, her hair going every which way, juices of various potions ingredients splattering her blouse, barely able to keep to her feet. She harrumphed in irritation. 

“You should worry about yourself,” she snapped, pulling him down a bit to eye the split skin over his brow bone. She reached one finger behind her, where the cauldron still sat, and dipped it in, smoothing the liquid over his wound. “It’s just been a difficult day.”

“I’ll say aye to that,” Neville said from his place a few feet away, apparently not as asleep as he’d appeared.

Seamus cracked a smile. “I dunno, ’s not so bad. Bright side is, Astoria’s had her hands all over me all evening. How many of you can say that, eh?”

Astoria poked him. Right on a bruise. He yelped.

“That’s what you get. I told you not to flirt with me.”

Seamus chuckled, rubbing at the bruise on his ribs. “Luna, remember that thing where you said you didn’ think Astoria wanted to hurt people? I think ye might’ve got that wrong.”

Astoria smiled, just barely. Then she sighed. “I need to get back to the Dungeons.”

Beside her, she felt Seamus stiffen. “I don’t think that’s the best plan.” She could hear in his voice that he was taking great pains to be diplomatic.

She pulled free of his support, still feeling a bit wobbly on her feet, but steadier. “I have to, Seamus. If I go missing all night--”

“A thousand things could go wrong,” he pointed out. “You could get caught on the way out. It’s a miracle that you weren’t caught already.”

Astoria opened her mouth to correct him, then realised it would only weaken her argument and snapped it shut. Seamus continued.

“Look, it’s well after curfew. Ye’d have to get all the way to the bottom of the castle. What’re you gonna say if someone asks where ye’ve been, or why ye’re such a mess?”

“I object to that,” she muttered.

“He’s right, Astoria,” Padma piped up from where she had appeared, next to Neville. “You really should stay for the night.” She didn’t wait to see what Astoria chose, but went back to consulting intensely with Neville and Luna.

Astoria wanted to protest. Her patient really should be trying to sleep, and she needed to go back to the dungeons because...

Because...

“Someone might notice I’m gone,” she said finally. She doubted it, of course. But she hadn’t expected anyone to notice her comings and goings before, and Constance had proved her wrong. Of course, if Constance had been telling the truth, she might cover for her. If...

“You aren’t going,” Seamus began again, sounding irritatingly triumphant. He paused before delivering the piece de resistance of his argument. “You aren’t going, because you really ought be here to check on Neville, oughtn’t you?”

Astoria sighed. She gave up. “Fine.”


She started towards a large leather armchair that was nearby, and Seamus kept his arm around her, the two of them hobbling along. He dropped her into the armchair before swinging up to the nearest hammock. It was blue, and couldn’t be his, but she supposed no one was going to object. Dean showed up a minute later, scuffing his shoe along the floor and casting a gaze at both of them.

“Is it alright if I camp down over here?” he asked, a rolled-up brown sleeping bag under his arm. There were dark circles under his eyes, barely visible. He was clearly exhausted.

“‘Course, mate,” Seamus answered immediately. Dean glanced at Astoria, and then in the direction of Lavender’s cronies. Strangely, Lavender herself wasn’t among them.

“Just thought maybe, if you were gonna stay here, you could do with some extra protection.”

Astoria cocked her head. She doubted that was the only reason, but she was still rather glad Dean had suggested it. She hadn’t even thought.

“Of course,” she answered after a moment. “Thank you, Dean.”

He nodded tersely and rolled out his sleeping bag. Within minutes, Astoria could hear Dean snoring lightly, a large, broad-shouldered barricade laid out in front of her. She leaned up to look over at Neville, who was still talking quietly with Padma. He should be resting. She pushed herself up on her arms to go over and scold him, and found that she quite literally didn’t have the strength. Collapsing back into the chair, sheleaned her head against the cushy leather headrest.

“Are we gonna talk about it now?” Seamus asked from where he hung nearby, his hammock creaking quietly. The torches along the walls had burned low; only a few still flickered.

“About what?” she answered exhaustedly.

“About whatever’s got you so upset. We’re friends, Astoria. You know you can tell me anything.”

Astoria closed her eyes and sank deeper into the chair, her muscles finally giving up the fight. She did know. Seamus was her friend, crazy as it might be.

“I made mistakes today. So many.”



Seamus snorted. “Join the club. If I hadn’t’ve left Neville, he wouldn’t be near dead, eh?”

“Don’t be dense. You did exactly what Neville wanted. If you hadn’t left Neville, what might have happened to those First years? It isn’t worth thinking on. Seamus, you did the best you could.”

She heard his hammock creak, knew he was leaning his head back on his arms, thinking.

“What is it you think ye’ve done that’s so awful?”

Astoria sighed. “I got caught.”

“What?” She heard Seamus scramble to sit up, heard his muttered “Ow”, and wondered which injury he’d worsened in his hurry. She could see his face, ever so vaguely, in the darkness. “What happened?”

She looked around. She scarcely had the energy, but she reached for her wand, cast the spell Neville had taught her, Muffliatto--more useful by half than anything she’d learned in class that year. Seamus was the only one who could hear. She hugged her arms around herself.

“I was coming back with the book, trying to get the ingredients. And I was so focused on that, and I knew how to get out of it when Alecto walked by. She barely even paused. But...” She heard her voice shake. “Amycus came up to me.”

“What happened?” His voice was low. It was furious, but controlled. It was filled with more worry than almost anyone had ever showed for her. Matched only by Filly, who had watched her family break apart. And by a grey-eyed Death Eater who had once saved her life.

“He just sort of...I was cornered. I don’t know. But I just--” She glanced over in the direction of a group of Third year Hufflepuffs, to where she knew Amara slept, surrounded by her Housemates.

“That man...”



“I know,” she said quietly. “Nothing happened. I think he was trying to recruit me for something, too. Something to do with the Death Eaters. But he made it sound like...” She shook her head. “He kept going on about how I was alone. No family. No friends. No one to speak for me.”

Seamus’ response wasn’t completely coherent, but she recognised a few curse words mixed in among a long stream of Irish that she doubted was any better.

“You have friends,” he said at last. “He’s--”



“I know what he is,” she whispered sharply. “I’m upset because he caught me, noticed me. Because I wasn’t sure how to talk my way out, because I--”

“Because you aren’t safe here.”

She sniffed. Her eyes felt strangely warm. “I knew I wasn’t safe.”

“Yeah, but there’s knowin’, and there’s knowin’. It’s different.”

She thought of Constance, and how she had said basically the same thing. On some level, Astoria had still thought she was untouchable - unnoticeable under the banner of Slytherin. She should have known better.

“I suppose it is.” For a moment, there was no sound besides the Muffling Charm, the creaking hammock, and Dean’s soft snores. She shuddered.

“Someone saw me. One of the Slytherins. She distracted him. I wasn’t good enough to hide it from her, though. She knows that I’m here, that I’m helping you.”

This time Seamus didn’t seem nearly as concerned. He asked his question as if he already knew the answer. “Did she threaten you?”

“I...no.”

“No blackmail? She didn’ say she was plannin’ to tell on you?”

“No.”

“Was she too friendly? Wanted to join right up an’ find out where we are an’ what we do?”

“No, she--” Astoria pulled her cardigan around her, wrapping herself more tightly. “She told me she was glad that I was doing it. But she didn’t want to know about it, or be a part of it. She said she would help keep my secret.”

“Well then. Do you believe her?”

She paused, nibbled on her lip, a habit that she thought she’d broken herself of ages ago. “I think I might. But it doesn’t change the fact that I should have been better than that, too. I wasn’t careful enough, and now someone knows.” She could hear her own frustration leaking out through her words and slammed her head back against the leather headrest.



This time when Seamus was silent for a long moment, she could tell that he was thinking, hunting for the right thing to say. He blew out a long breath. His hammock creaked loudly as he rolled to face her, but she didn’t look up.

“Look Astoria, I’m won’t pretend I always understand you--most o’ the time I don’t. I don’t know why ye’ve got it in yer head that you should never make a mistake here or there. An’ I know this is risky, an’ that there’s pressure, an’ I know that yer family had some sort o’ expectations of you, of what you would do with that ability to sneak around like you do.” He stopped, and she did look up, to see him rubbing an exasperated hand over his face. “Maybe you have to pretend to have it all together, Cap’n, an’ if that’s what you need, then that’s what you need. But you don’ have to be perfect to be capable. We’ve all of us made mistakes in this. We’ll likely make some more. And most of us aren’t gonna think less of you if ye’re not perfect. I certainly won’t.

She didn’t know what to say. Didn’t have any idea.


“Alright?” he asked after a long, heavy silence.

“Alright,” she said quietly. And there, between two Gryffindor guards, the only Slytherin in Dumbledore’s Army fell, finally, asleep.


______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hey y'all! *heaves huge sigh* Honestly, I don't know who is more relieved - me or Astoria. I haven't written very many medical emergencies before, so that was an experience. I hope you guys enjoyed the potionry, as well as getting to see the backstory on what went down with Neville and Seamus' beating, which Neville mentions in The Deathly Hallows. The lines between Astoria and the rest of the D.A. seem to be blurring. What could that mean for her future?

Please let me know what you think! Feedback means the world. And thank you so much for reading



Chapter 23: Gone to Ground
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Tuesday, April 21st
Hogwarts Castle, Room of Requirement



Astoria woke to darkness, her head--really, her entire body--aching dully. She knew immediately that she wasn’t in her bed, but it took her a moment to remember where she was. The Room of Requirement. Headquarters. The Sanctum of Dumbledore’s Army.

How strange it was to wake up here.

It was quiet, but there was a fullness to that quiet: mumbles, the rustle of blankets pulled overhead as the torches flared higher. All around her, students were in various states of wakefulness.

Rolling her head to work out the kinks in her neck, Astoria shoved herself to her feet. Seamus was asleep, facedown in his borrowed hammock, and she barely avoided tripping over Dean where he lay on the floor, only being alerted to his presence by his snoring, which had grown louder. One or two torches flickered on the walls, and Astoria noticed that the portrait hole on the far side of the room had swung open. Aberforth had to be back, then.

She made her way over to Neville. No one had moved him from on top of the table, but there was a blanket laying over him, not touching his torso, and a single pillow tucked beneath his head. Still, it couldn’t have been comfortable. Luna was a cloud of yellow hair, her head resting on the table as she sat sitting up, her hand lying beneath Neville’s as she slept.

She saw Neville’s hand twitch, his thumb lightly rubbing against the back of Luna’s hand.

“Did you sleep?” she whispered, coming to stand beside his head. He opened his eyes.

“Some.”

“We need to see about moving you somewhere more comfortable. Maybe a cot. Surely the Room could come up with that if you asked it. I don’t like the idea of putting you in a hammock with wounds like that. It would shift too much, and--”

Neville held up the hand that wasn’t clasped over Luna’s.

“Astoria, I’m going to be alright. I can tell. You did an amazing job. Have you ever thought of being a Healer?”

Astoria reached for a bottle that had not been properly corked and stoppered it. “Not really.”

Not before now. She’d been raised to be her mother’s protegee. In this moment, that set in in a way it never had before. Her mother had raised her to be a spy. A Death Eater spy. To seek out groups just like this, to infiltrate them, and to turn on them. Somehow, that had never quite sunk in.

She would never be that. Not now.

“I’d never thought of it,” she told him, rolling up an extra length of spidersilk bandage where it rested beside him on the table.

“Maybe you should,” he answered simply.

Astoria didn’t get a chance to answer. At that moment, the torches all flared to life, and the students, as one, rolled over and groaned. Luna did not even stir.

“You’d better hurry if you want to clean yourself up before classes,” Neville pointed out. “They’ll all be headed for the bathroom in a few minutes.”

“There are baths in here? Since when?”



“They’re new,” he explained, grimacing as he shifted slightly. “I just worked it out the other day. Also, you should be careful--I think the door won’t lead out to the seventh floor, anymore. I’ve asked it to mix it up a bit, like you suggested.”

Astoria dropped the rolled bandage in surprise. “That’s brilliant, Neville,” she said honestly. “You’ve really gotten a feel for this.”

He ducked his chin, abashed. “Yeah, well, you started it. And you really should head in there, if you want the chance. Girls’ Bathroom is just beneath the Ravenclaw banner.”

Astoria did want the chance to tidy up, so she took his advice. It wasn’t quite as nice as the Prefects’ Bathroom, but there was a row of tiled showers, as well as a few wooden tubs with circular, floral-patterned shower curtains hanging around them. There were toilets, which were inexplicably--and rather garishly--pink, sinks with generous amounts of counter space, and a cupboard full of fluffy (pink) towels, along with assorted bottles of shampoo and the same sort of soaps that could be found in the dormitory washrooms. There was even a basket of tampons and disposable razors. She really had to commend it; the Room (or possibly Neville) had thought of everything.

Grabbing all the necessities, she headed for a shower. Hot water pounded down on Astoria’s head, and for a moment, she let go of all the stress and questions. Some people said they thought best in the bath; for Astoria, it was the only place that she allowed herself to think of absolutely nothing.

She emerged from her shower clean and feeling significantly restored. Her clothes hung limply on the hook, and she sighed as she shrugged back into them. She wished she knew a freshening charm, something for cleaning, but the Elves had always taken care of that. She grimaced at a blotchy stain on the collar of her blouse, no doubt some potion ingredient that had splashed on her, her nimble fingers quickly buttoning up her black outer robes to cover it as best she could. The steam, at least, had taken care of the worst of the wrinkles.

Astoria exited the stall to find the room was positively thronged with girls, showering, brushing their hair, shaving their legs out of the sink. It was like the Slytherin Sixth year dormitory bathroom in the way that a lizard was like a Hungarian Horntail.

It seemed as though a larger-than-usual amount of Dumbledore’s Army had decided to spend the night last night, perhaps feeling more safety in numbers after the vicious attack on their leader had spun things even further out of control.

Astoria elbowed her way through to the doorway and exited the melee, spurred on by a familiar smell. A few Ravenclaw girls were carrying huge trays out through the portrait hole and plopping them on the table. Pancakes, with pitchers of warm syrup. Astoria nearly melted. She strode purposefully over to one of the tables and, spotting Seamus, sat down at his side. Dean nodded a silent greeting from across the table as he reached for a rasher of bacon.


“Cap’n! Good to see ye’re up.”

Astoria didn’t give any sort of greeting. Stretching out to snatch a pitcher of syrup with one hand, she reached up to grasp Seamus’ chin in the other. She turned it this way and that before she dropped her hand, satisfied, and reached instead for her fork. She speared a pancake and dragged it back to the plastic plate that had been set before her place.

“The swelling’s gone down,” she announced. “The discolouration will probably last the week, maybe two, but at least you won’t look quite so terrible.”

He scoffed. “I’m terribly handsome. Ask anyone. ‘Cept maybe my exes.”

Dean scoffed in turn. “So, that leaves...no one.”

“Hey, c’mon now. I’m not as bad as all that.”

“Well there was Lavender,” Astoria pointed out, drowning the piece of pancake on her fork in a small lake of syrup before popping it into her mouth and sighing. She’d never eaten off plastic plates before, but it was in no way inhibiting the experience.

“A mistake.”

“Lavender’s the least of it,” Dean muttered around a mouthful of bacon. “Lavender only really got angry with you when you went out Parvati--”

“It was one Hogsmeade weekend! It was casual.”

“...then there was Eddie Carmichael.”



Astoria gasped. “You can’t be serious.”



Seamus turned to her, his brow furrowed. “Why, ‘cause he was a bloke?”

As though that would surprise her. She dropped her fork onto the table and rolled her eyes. “No, you idiot! Because he was practically a drug dealer!”

Seamus shrugged. “Let’s not make too much of it. He tried to sell some Brain Elixir to the First years. Hardly the end of the world. Anyway, I did break up with ‘im.”

Dean continued his litany, “...that Céline girl from Beauxbatons. The Muggle last summer--”

He was briefly interrupted as Cormac McLaggen plopped down on Astoria’s other side. “Morning Astoria. You’re looking almost as delicious as these pancakes.” He turned to eye her up and down in a way that she sincerely hoped he never looked at a pancake. She picked her fork back up and prepared to angle it where it could do the most damage if a hand went the wrong direction.

“Shove off, Cormac,” Dean said, much to Astoria’s surprise. He normally seemed so mild-mannered, but she certainly didn’t mind in this case.

“I can sit where I like, Thomas,” the overbuilt blonde fired back.

“Actually, I agree with Dean. You really should shove off.” 



Cormac pressed a hand to his heart, and another against her arm. The arm she needed in order to eat her pancakes. “Astoria, I’m hurt.”



She shrugged. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”



The next second, Astoria’s wand was out and Cormac was in the air, upside down, and floating away.

“Mmm...so she’s got a temper. That’s hot!” he called, as Astoria quickly levitated him up to the highest hammock in the far corner.

“We should at least have finished our breakfast by the time he gets himself down from there,” she calculated, cutting into a short stack of pancakes drenched in syrup and taking another bite. Fluffy and sugary and warm. She hummed contentedly. It was heaven.

Seamus looked at her, eyebrows raised. “You know, it’s really terrifyin’ when you do things like that without even blinkin’.”

She shrugged. Being a Slytherin had its advantages.

“The girls in my year always said he was fit,” she said, only after chewing and swallowing her bite of pancake and dabbing at her mouth with a paper napkin. “But who on earth would ever date that?”

“Erm...” Seamus mumbled, ruffling his hair, and Astoria turned to stare at him.

“Oh no.” Astoria shook her head. This was unfathomable. 



“Oh yes,” Dean answered with dark relish, chomping down on a particularly chewy bit of bacon.

“You didn’t.”



“I might’ve done,” Seamus replied, his mouth twisted apologetically.

“Merlin, Dean’s right! You really will flirt with anything that moves!”



“Oi, that’s offensive! I have standards. I mean, sure, he’s an arse but...have you seen that boy’s arse?”

Astoria had noticed, purely objectively, that Cormac McLaggen was exceptionally well formed. More was the pity.

“I’m pretending I never heard that,” she announced decisively. “I’m drowning it out with syrup.”

“Here’s to that,” Dean answered, toasting her with his cup of orange juice.

Seamus rolled his eyes, slumping dramatically to the table. “And now I’m handsome and tragically misunderstood...” He opened one eye to peer at Astoria. “Now ye’ve done it. They’ll never be able to resist me.”



Dean choked on his juice.

Astoria choked on her pancake.

They all collapsed into helpless laughter.


It was the best breakfast she’d had in ages. And it was soon interrupted by Padma, who stood on the bench near Neville’s table, where Neville had moved himself into an upright position and was sitting on the edge of the tabletop. Astoria dropped her napkin and pushed herself to her feet, only to have Seamus put a hand over hers, urging her back down.

“He really oughtn’t to be sitting up like that!”

“Maybe not, Cap’n, but he’s tryin’ to look capable for whatever he’s about to say. Let ‘im speak his piece an’ then you can yell at ‘im.”

Astoria pursed her lips. From a strategic perspective, she could recognise the importance of presenting a solid front, but under the circumstances she still didn’t like it. Unhappily, she sank back to her seat just as Padma’s wand erupted in familiar blue sparks and every head in the room turned to face them.

Padma cleared her throat. “You’ve all probably heard about what’s happened. There are those among us--and not just the Muggleborns--whom the Carrows are no longer content with torturing. We’ve all seen what happened to Neville, and how the Carrows very nearly killed him.”

She nodded in Neville’s direction, and he grimaced, clearly still in pain, but he spoke, and the whole room could hear him.

“Right. We’ve talked it through, and here’s the thing: now we know how far they’re willing to go. They’re not just looking to control us anymore. They know there’s a group of us, and they’re looking for us. They’re willing to kill us.” He set his jaw, casting his eyes about the room, his gaze coming to rest on every one of them. Astoria felt chills. “All of us. And they don’t even know the whole of what we’re doing. None of us are safe.”

His pale lips pressed close together.

“From here on out, we’re all refugees. If it’s not safe for you to go to class anymore, don’t. If it’s not safe for you to sleep in your dormitory, stay here. We’re done playing by their rules, pretending this place is something it isn’t. This isn’t Hogwarts anymore. It’s time we started acting like it.”

With that, he leaned back against the table, and Padma stepped down from the bench. The room erupted in shouts and whispers. 


“So what does that mean, then?” Astoria muttered, crumpling her napkin still further, her appetite forgotten.

“It means,” Seamus said, sounding more serious than she’d ever heard him, “the D.A.’s going to ground.”


*****

Slytherin Dormitories


Astoria had got through her first two classes--a long block of Double Potions--feeling exhausted from her late night, and rather uncomfortable in yesterday’s clothes. She’d borrowed a too-large button down from Seamus so that the purple splotch on the collar of her own wouldn’t be visible beneath her robes, but it didn’t fit properly and she couldn’t help the feeling that someone would notice that she wasn’t properly put together.

Before lunch hour, she slipped down the corridor, heading for the Sixth Year Girls’ Dormitory. No one was inside. She crept in, knelt before her trunk, and pulled out a fresh set of clothes. She was just standing and had begun shrugging out of her robes when she heard a cackle, and Mariane Fawley, Felicity Templeton, and Constance appeared in the doorway. Their laughter broke off as they took note of her.

“Oh, Astoria. Didn’t see you there,” Mariane said, self-absorbed as ever, as she breezed into the room and deposited her rucksack on her bed.

Felicity, however, honed in immediately, her eyes narrowing on Astoria where her robes gaped open over her borrowed shirt.

“What are you wearing?” she shrieked, darting over immediately. She grabbed the corner and tugged at the too-large fabric. “This is a boy’s! I knew it!”

Astoria resisted the urge to cross her arms over her chest. She kept her face still while desperately trying to think of an explanation. Fortunately, Felicity wasn’t yet asking. The girl’s strawberry-blonde curls flew as she turned to Constance.

“See?” she demanded. “I was right! I told you she hadn’t come back last night, when we didn’t see her this morning. But there you were, with, ‘Not everything has to be a scandal, Felicity,’ and ‘She probably just came in late and got up early, Felicity.’ Well, you were wrong and I was right!”

It would appear that Constance had made good on her promise to try to help Astoria. Not that it had come to much. Felicity turned back to her, eyes gleaming with the promise of fresh gossip.

“Now that I think of it, I haven’t seen much of you lately. How long has this been going on?” She clung dramatically to one of the bedposts.

Astoria decided the best tactic would be to let Felicity continue until she ran out of steam. She continued changing her clothes as Felicity yammered on.

“Is it terribly scandalous?” she tittered, not really even looking at Astoria anymore, her gaze darting between the two other girls. “I mean, why keep it a secret? Is he destitute? Is he a Half-Blood?!”

Astoria barely managed not to scoff as she rolled her thick, black tights up her legs. After all, Felicity was a Half-Blood herself, for all that she might pretend otherwise.

Felicity finally turned back to her, eyes wide. “So do you have a secret boyfriend? I swear I won’t tell a soul.”

Well, that was a bold-faced lie. Felicity was the worst gossip in Slytherin House, perhaps in the entire school. Astoria’s found herself glancing over to Constance, who met her eyes and nodded surreptitiously.

Constance thought she should say yes.

When Astoria thought on it, it did make a certain amount of sense. After all, here was a solution, ready-made for her. Anyone who noticed that Astoria was missing from where she ought to be, was sneaking around in deserted corridors...well, if they thought she was meeting a boyfriend for a snogging session, they wouldn’t be nearly so likely to ask questions.

Besides, she was wearing a boy’s shirt after staying out all night. Hard to find another explanation for that one.

“Perhaps I do,” Astoria answered finally, buttoning her skirt at the waist and sliding her feet into her shoes. “Though I hardly see how it’s anyone’s business but mine.”

“But why the secret?” Felicity pressed.

“Oh, come on, Felicity,” Mariane butted in, no doubt tired of a conversation that had lasted so long without its focus reverting to her. “Astoria doesn’t like people in her business. So what? Anyway, like I was saying...” and she launched into whatever story the three of them had been giggling over when she entered, grabbing Felicity and sailing out of the room.

Constance shot her a long look, hovering in the doorway, glancing nervously after her friends to make sure they’d kept going without her. “You know,” she warned, “She’s not going to stop asking questions until she gets a name.” She then turned around, walking swiftly out the door to follow them.

Astoria flopped forward on her bed, burying her face in the pillows. Constance was right. This could help her as much as it could hurt her.

She’d just have to hope that bigger news caught Felicity’s attention. And soon.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hola! We are steadily moving forward toward the Battle of Hogwarts now - tick tock tick tock. On the whole, this is a lighter chapter after everything else that's happened. Have a moment to recover from the Drama. For those of you wondering when Draco will be back, the answer is - as soon as possible. I miss him too. There's just a lot of plot to get through before the Battle and very little time.

Also, for clarification, it is by no means the opinion of the author or the intention of the story to imply that bisexual persons do not have standards or are not choosey in who they date, because that is categorically untrue. Seamus does not have a reputation for making excellent dating choices, but that is in no way meant to represent the larger group of people who identify thusly. Just so ya know.

Please let me know your thoughts and opinions, as it is always so helpful and encouraging to hear them. Thanks again, lovelies! See you soon!



Chapter 24: An Intervention
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Wednesday April 22, 1998
Slytherin Common Room, Hogwarts Castle



Astoria did not have to wait long for bigger news.

Watery light was filtering into the dungeons through the lake, staining everything with shifting green shadows. Knots of students were chattering quietly, urgently.


The bodies had been found.

It had been on the wings of the owls this morning, news from parents in letters that were read and allowed to pass through--the Carrows took little issue with any information that might inspire yet more fear.

Astoria was prepared, this time, for the crowing, the nervous giggles--those who were attempting to cover up their own discomfort and those who legitimately believed the victims had received their just deserts.

The remains of Isabella Pritchard, her parents, and her two sisters--both too young to attend Hogwarts--had been discovered near the river outside of Hay-on-Wye. The act itself was hideous, the details, unbearable.



Judging by the state of the bodies, it had been a particularly gruesome death. Astoria found herself hoping, not for the first time, that Draco Malfoy had nothing to do with it.

The thought was shaken from her mind as her gaze fell across the room to a dark corner near the stairwell, where a young man with a Quidditch player’s build was huddled in the shadows, out of sight unless one was standing in just before the outer door, where Astoria herself had paused. Stomping down the steps, she reentered the common room, trying to remain unnoticed as she slipped around the perimeter and under the stairwell. She sandwiched herself between the stone rail and a rarely perused bookcase, looking down at the boy sitting on the floor.

Daniel Vaisey. Seventh year. Reserve Keeper for the Slytherin Quidditch team.



Isabella Pritchard’s boyfriend.

He had not raised his head, had done nothing to indicate that he registered her presence.

Something within her shifted uncomfortably at the sight. His stillness wasn’t another perfect mask; it was the glassy calm of the Black Lake’s surface, even when its depths were dark and churning. It was anguish. It was intolerable depths of emotion.f

She wanted to run from it.

Instead, she found herself sinking to the ground in front of him, her wand flicking out automatically with a silent Muffliato. She really wasn’t the best person for this, but then, who else was there?

“Daniel,” she said quietly. 

He made no response.

”Daniel,” she repeated, more insistently this time, reaching out a hand to jostle his shoulder.

Slowly, he lifted his head to look at her.

His green eyes were blank and cold, but ringed with redness that looked painful. He raised a meaty fist to scrub at them, pressing hard, as if he could clear away the images that had been seared into his mind, the barbaric description they had all received and the picture it had painted of his girlfriend’s final hours.

When he lowered his hands, he blinked, and his eyes cleared a bit, some glimmer of awareness returned to them.

“Greengrass?” She could hear his confusion, and wondered if he used her surname because he was a Quidditch player, or because he truly didn’t know her first. They had never really spoken.

“Astoria,” she offered, trying to keep her voice soft. “Look, you can’t be here. You can’t let the others see you like this.”



“Like this,” he echoed dully.

Her patience was already fading. “Yes, like this,” Astoria snapped. The gentle approach didn't seem to be working, and she didn’t have it in her anyways. She motioned to him, exasperation leeching into her voice. “Red eyes and sitting in a crumpled heap. They’ll turn you in as a sympathiser, and you’ll be next.”



Something finally sparked in Daniel’s eyes. Anger.



“You think I shouldn’t be crying, or some shite like that? You think I should hide it? I don’t care what they think. I just want to tell them all to go to hell where they belong. All those things they’re saying out there, that it was right, that they...got what they deserved.” He clenched his fists tightly. “This whole place is sick, and I’m sick of it. They can turn me in if they want.”

Astoria reached out and slapped him. Daniel’s reddened eyes popped open wide and he sat there for a moment, stunned.


“Snap out of it, alright? This isn’t doing anyone any good.”

“Maybe it’s doing me some good! Who are you to just come her and tell me what I ought to do, as if you know me? As if you know Izzie? I can’t just pretend not to...I--” His voice broke, sailing up an octave and cracking like glass. “I love her.”

He dropped his head into his hands. “Loved,” he corrected , his hands muffling the words, “Oh God.”

“Is it really past tense, already?”



Daniel snapped to attention. “What?"



“Already, you ‘loved’ her? Rather than love her?”



“No. It’s just--that’s what--I’m trying to figure out--to remember. It won’t even stay in my head. I can’t believe she’s...gone.”

Astoria sat in silence for a moment out of respect for his grief before ploughing forward once again.

“If you still love her, Daniel, you’ll pull yourself together. What would she want for you? What would she want you to do?”

He slumped, all the bones in his body crumpling under the incredible weight of his heartbreak. Astoria felt rather horrid—this was why she hated getting involved. She was no good with things like this. Daniel was quiet for a long time. Long enough that Astoria thought of leaving, but couldn't quite bear to.

“You’re right,” he whispered finally, staring down at his knees. “She’d want me to...to be alright. But I can’t be.”

 Astoria tried for a comforting smile, but it felt so wrong. She laid a hand on his arm instead.

“You don’t have to be alright, Daniel. You just have to make them think you are. That’s what she’d want.”

Technically, Astoria didn’t know Isabella well enough to know what she’d want, but she was willing to take liberties with the opinions of the dead if it could save the living. She reached into a pocket of her satchel and dug around for a bit before closing her fingers around a small glass jar. She pulled it out and offered it to him, setting the dainty container down on Daniel’s outsized, calloused hand.

“‘Bags Begone Witches’ Brew’?” he asked, raising a curious eyebrow as he read the label aloud.

Astoria nodded. “Put a bit around your eyes--it’ll take down the redness and puffiness. And get yourself somewhere where there’s no chance anyone can see you while everything’s still feeling so...”

She motioned with her hand, not even attempting to distill the agony chiseled into the lines on Daniel’s forehead into a single word.

“Maybe go down to the pitch?” she suggested.

He closed his hand around the tiny glass jar, gently, and looked up at Astoria with a new expression. She wasn’t quite sure how to describe it. There was still pain there--incredible pain--but also acceptance and...gratitude?

“Okay,” he breathed, shutting his eyes tightly before opening them and forcing himself to his feet. He reached down, politely giving her a hand up. He took one of the two steps that would carry him out of his hiding place before looking back over his shoulder.


“And Astoria? I--” The word cut off, and she saw his throat working, trying to choke down the myriad feelings welling up. He shook his head, apparently unable to complete his sentence, and merely nodded.

She nodded back, hefted her bag, and slipped past him between the bookshelves and out the door.


*****


“Tori! Slow down!”

Astoria reluctantly slowed her pace, allowing her sister to catch up with her. Daphne had been trailing her since she left the dungeons, but after going a number of floors out of her way and making several sudden turns, Astoria had rather hoped that she would lose interest.

Not so. Daphne could be a pitbull when she wanted something.

“Sweet Salazar,” she wheezed, bending over to catch her breath. “Do you always have to walk that fast? And why take all the back stairwells?”



Astoria shrugged. “It’s good exercise. It’s not like we’ve been able to go out of doors.”

It was true enough. Hogwarts had recently been besieged by terrible weather, rather reminiscent of her Second year days. Astoria wondered if that meant there were an unusual number of Dementors about, and shuddered at the thought.

Daphne grinned. “Well, yes, you don’t want to lose your figure. It would make you far less marriageable.” She wagged her over-plucked eyebrows. “Speaking of which, you’ve been disappearing a lot lately. Where’ve you been?”



“Around.”



“Things flaming up with Tiberius again?” Daphne tittered. 

Astoria scowled.

“Things never ‘flamed up’ with Flint in the first place.”

Unless you counted his eye. Or his lower lip. Those had been rather inflamed by the time Astoria was finished hexing him. She suppressed a satisfied grin. Apparently her finicky wand had considered that harm justified.

“Well, is there someone else, then? Ooh, tell me! Tell me!”

Astoria couldn’t help the image that came first to mind: stormy grey eyes in a hard, thin face, leaning towards her.

She slammed her eyes shut.

“No. There’s no one.”



“Oh, pooh. You’re no fun, Tori.” Daphne jabbed her with an elbow in a way that was clearly meant to be companionable. She didn’t quite carry it off. “Look, you don’t need to be hanging around Daniel, okay? He’s not in the good books after dating Isabella, and he might be alright for a snog behind the bookshelves, but he isn’t really a good prospect.”



“I wasn’t snogging Daniel--”

Daphne continued on as if she hadn’t spoken.

“I could set you up with someone, you know? Petra’s got a brother who’s a few years older, and he’s really dishy. I think you two could suit.”


“I’ll think on that.”

Astoria began to stride forward. Daphne ran forward to walk in sync with her.

“What are you doing up here anyway?” she asked.

Having realised that she was being tailed--Daphne really wasn’t the most skilled at subtle pursuit--Astoria had detoured onto the second floor, not wanting to venture anywhere near the seventh floor and the Room of Requirement until her sister was far, far behind her.

“I realised I needed to stop by the loo.”

“What, that one?! No one goes in there. It’s haunted by that hideous Wailing...Wanda, or whatever her name is.”

“It’s the closest one we can use, now. Didn’t you hear?”

All common areas where people from different Houses could potentially meet--and collude--were now officially segregated by House. And while there was something to be said for the centralised location, she suspected that most girls of Slytherin House would have preferred any lavatory to the one they’d been assigned. Second Floor. Otherwise known Moaning Myrtle’s favourite haunt.

To tell the truth, there was no way in hell she’d truly be going in.

“Then why were you headed upstairs before?”

“I was on my way to the study room before I realised I needed the lavatory,” she lied smoothly, hitching her bag up on her shoulder. “The Common Room was entirely too loud.”

“Oh, but then you miss all the good gossip! That’s the best part. Did you hear about the Gryffindors? A bunch of them have vanished! No one knows where. Some Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, too, but I heard it was mostly Gryffindors.”



“Hmm.”

“Oh, come on! You can’t say that’s not interesting, Tori!”



Astoria shrugged. “It’s noteworthy, but I’m sure they’ve just run off. They’ll be caught in a week and tried for truancy. What to I care about a bunch of Half-bloods?”

“Well I don’t care about them. But the scandal! They’re searching the whole castle. It’s so exciting!”

Astoria came to an abrupt stop, closing her eyes as she rolled them to the heavens. To Daphne, this all really was just a game. Not for the first time, she wondered if her sister had even a shred of real substance.


“What do you want, Daphne?” she demanded tiredly, rubbing a hand down her face.



“Want?” Daphne repeated, her expression twisting into one of exaggerated confusion.

It was quite clear that Astoria had fished the lion’s share of acting ability from the gene pool.

“You’re following me about, taking an interest in my love life, wanting to gossip with me? You never do that. You don’t care about what boys I’m interested in, and you don’t want to share your news with me. Now tell me what you want.”



“Fine,” Daphne pouted. “Sue me for trying to be nice! I just wanted to let you know, since it’s nearly end of term, that I’m not going home after N.E.W.T.s.”

“What?”

“Pansy’s invited me to her summer house on St. Arnulf--have you heard Marianne talk about it? The island’s supposed to be divine. So, anyway, I’ll be spending the summer there. I’d invite you along but, let’s face it, you wouldn’t want to come.”


Astoria bit her lip, trying to hide her shock.

She shouldn’t be surprised, she knew. Nothing about Daphne’s past behaviour had indicated that she was going to take up her responsibilities, but still, she had thought...


“What about Father?” 


Daphne looked at her blankly. “What about him? He’s a grown man. He can handle himself. Father would want me to be happy.”



Astoria wondered, briefly, whether she really believed all that, whether Daphne was really so utterly blind.



“He’s not...Daphne, you know he’s not well. He needs us.”

Daphne waved a hand dismissively. “As far as I can see, Filly seems to be handling things just fine.”

Astoria sputtered. “As far as--as far as you can see? When would you have seen? When have you been home? Not at Easter. At Christmas for, what, a day?”

“Well pardon me for having a life!” she huffed.

“It’s bad enough he’s without any family year-round. He needs for us to be there to help steady his memory. The Healers said--”



“Oh, bugger what the Healers said! What do they know? Father is fine, and if he is not, then he belongs in St. Mungo’s where they can take proper care of him. You’d do well to take note of that, before you give up your whole life!”

Astoria shook her head slowly, uncomprehendingly, though she comprehended all too well.

“I can’t believe you,” she whispered.

Daphne wasn’t listening. Instead, she was prattling on to herself.

“--knew I shouldn’t have even tried to tell you. Pansy told me it was useless, but I said--”

“Pansy?” Astoria sneered, her voice now ugly as her anger and bitterness bled through. “You know she’s just using you, right? The Parkinsons don’t have two galleons to rub together.”

“Wh-what?! That’s absurd! They have a summer home, for Salazar’s sake!”

“Probably because it’s cheaper living in the tropics, especially if Pansy’s got you paying her way. What happened to their estate, did you ask?”



“It’s...it’s infested with Bundimuns! It’s closed till they have it cleared out!” Daphne retorted, stomping her foot defiantly. Still, Astoria could see a hint of uncertainty glimmering in her eyes.

Astoria scoffed. “Even you don’t believe that. Pansy’s using you--she keeps you around for your money, and because she loves the way you nod your head at every spiteful little thing she says, but she couldn’t give a fig about you.”



“That’s--that is not true! You’re just...jealous! That’s what you are! You’re jealous because you don’t even have any friends!” Daphne snapped, her hands propped on her hips triumphantly.



“With friends like yours, who needs enemies?” Astoria muttered under her breath. She could tell by the narrowing of her sister’s eyes that Daphne had heard her.



“Why should I even listen to you? Pansy at least talks to me. That’s more than you do! You’re pathetic, you know? Trying to ruin my fun because you just can’t stand to see someone happy. Well have fun being a loner, lurking in the shadows or whatever it is you do with your time. I’m done!”

Daphne sneered dramatically and stalked off in the other direction, her nose in the air and her stride graceful as a swans. If it weren’t for that walk, Astoria would hardly have believed her sister was truly a Greengrass.

She stood there for a long moment, paused in the middle of the corridor, her fists clenching and unclenching.

It was fine. Astoria didn’t need Daphne. She didn’t need anyone. She could handle it all on her own.

*****

She took extra care in ascending the stairs to the Seventh Floor. There were more patrols now on the upper floors, as the Carrows tried to determine where the missing students were disappearing to. She’d almost got the hang of them, but she couldn’t be sure about the new schedule, and her stomach dropped at the thought of being caught out by either Professor Carrow again.

By the time Astoria arrived outside the Room of Requirement and its walls melted open to greet her, she was in a truly foul mood. She strode up to Neville, who still looked a fright but, thankfully, was sufficiently recovered that she didn’t have any qualms about her desire to strangle him.

“I suppose your grandmother thinks she’s very clever,” she announced, striding directly up to him where he was reclining in an armchair, studying a map with Padma, Seamus, and Luna. Well, three of them were studying the map. Seamus was peering over at it while attempting to feed a small decorative pillow to a Fanged Frisbee.

Neville glanced up, his face still smudged with bruises, looking baffled.

“Gran?” His expression shifted to wariness. “What do you mean? What did she do?”

Astoria reached into the pocket of her robes and threw down the envelope that had been burning a hole there since breakfast. “I received an owl today from a known outlaw,” she intoned icily. “Signed Cesaria Saggbaum.”

“Really?” Luna asked, cocking her head as Neville scrambled for the letter, pulling it out of the ragged envelope and gripping it like the words were writ in gold. “Well that’s rather transparent, isn’t it?”

“Damned bird bit me, too,” Astoria complained. She propped her hands on her hips. “When I agreed to be a part--tangentially a part, mind you--of this absolute madness, I said I would do what it took to keep you lot alive within reason. It is not reasonable to receive direct correspondence from fugitives with flimsy pseudonyms. Honestly!” Her head turned on a swivel to spear Neville with a glare when she faltered. He was cradling the single piece parchment in his hands, his expression positively glowing despited the abuse written there in ink-like bruises. When he tore his gaze away from the letter to look at her, his eyes gleamed wetly.

Astoria huffed out an irritated breath. Of course. Of course she’d have to deal with this, and he’d go and make a face like that, and then she couldn’t even be cross with him.

Well, not that cross.

“I’m sorry about that, Astoria,” Neville said earnestly, unwittingly clutching the letter against his chest. “Really. I know it put you in danger, and that wasn’t fair.”

She held his gaze for a moment before finally giving in with a sigh and sinking down onto the empty tufted ottoman next to them. “No one broke the wax seal, at least; I’d be able to tell. Just...don’t let it happen again.”

She glanced up to see Seamus looking over at her, his expression infinitely amused.

“What are you laughing about?” she demanded. Seamus’ eyes twinkled in a way that did not bode well.

“Oh, nothin’. Just that Neville isn’t the only one today with mail. You’ve got somethin’, too.”

That was when she noticed--really noticed--the toy snapping at Seamus’ finger. She’d have realised it immediately if she hadn’t been so distracted by Augusta Longbottom’s letter. The Fanged Frisbee looked new. And new Weasleys Wizard Wheezes products were hard to come by in the castle, unless...

“You’ve had a message from Ginny!”

“Give the girl a prize!” Seamus announced, whirling the toothy toy around on his finger. Astoria stuck out her tongue, then frowned.

“How is she getting these into the castle?”

Seamus tilted his head thoughtfully, looking from Neville, to Luna, to Padma. “You know, we could tell her, but...” He grinned. “Astoria has so many secrets. Only seems fair we keep a few, ourselves.”

Astoria stuck out her tongue at him, but the Slytherin in her was a little bit proud. Besides, she could ferret it out of him later.

“There was somethin’ in it fer you. In fact,” Seamus was saying... “It’s probably sensed your presence.”

Sensed her presence? “Just what is in this package?”

“I wouldn’ so much call it a ‘package’,” he hedged, waving a hand airily, and Astoria thought Neville might be hiding a smile as he hid his face behind the map he’d been looking at before she came in. “It’s sort of like...a letter.”

“A letter?” she repeated blankly.

Seamus nodded. “A--ah, there we are!”

Astoria followed his glance to the air behind her, and turned abruptly to see a crimson streak hurtling through the air in front of her. She couldn’t help but flinch as it snapped to a stop, just before her face, and crumpled into a familiar, red shape, sucking in air.

“What the--!”

“ASTORIA GREENGRASS, YOU ABSOLUTE BITCH!”

Ginny’s voice thundered through the Room of Requirement, and Astoria felt rather than saw every single head turn to face her. She fell back a step as the letter zoomed around her face.

“I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU!”

Astoria couldn’t believe this. She found herself seeking out Lavender in the crowd, wondering if this was some sort of trick, but when she found the would-be Seeress, the girl had a shocked expression on her face that made Astoria quite certain that this had not been something Lavender had foreseen, in any fashion.

“YOU ACTUALLY FUCKING BLEW UP ALECTO CARROW’S CLASSROOM? WITHOUT ME??”

The Howler abruptly turned the other way, crumpling up into a slightly different form. 

“GINNY! LANGUAGE!”

“WHAT, MUM?!” the Howler demanded, refolding itself and flipping back over. “SHE BLEW IT UP! I MEAN, SHE MADE IT EXPLODE. COME ON!”

“SOUNDS ABSOLUTELY WICKED,” boomed a third, male voice. “WHO DID YOU SAY THIS GIRL WAS, AND IS SHE ACCEPTING PROPOSALS?”

“SHUT UP, FRED.” The Howler straightened out, apparently having decided to address Astoria once again. “I MEAN, I KNEW YOU WERE GOOD, BUT SERIOUSLY? YOU FUC--ERM, DESTROYED THE MUGGLE STUDIES ROOM! YOU BURNED IT WITH FIRE! AND THEN I HEAR THAT YOU BASICALLY SAVED NEVILLE’S LIFE? NOT TO MENTION THE FOOD AND EVERYTHING ELSE.” The Howler’s paper lips curled up smugly. “CONVINCING YOU TO JOIN US WAS THE BEST THING I EVER DID. EXCEPT MAYBE THOSE DUNG BOMBS IN SNAPE’S CLOSET.”

“GINNY!”

“WHAT, MUM?!” The letter swayed back and forth, as if shaking its head. “ANYWAY ASTORIA, JUST WANTED TO SAY THAT I HATE YOU FOR RUNNING OFF AND DOING AWESOME THINGS WHILE I’M STUCK HIDING UNDER A ROCK OUT HERE. THANK YOU FOR TAKING CARE OF THEM FOR ME. YOU’RE A GOOD FRIEND. AND YOU TOO, NEVILLE! LUNA! KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!”

With that, the Howler spit a small, round object from its mouth and Astoria ducked, quick reflexes allowing her to catch the little ball instinctively as the Howler began ripping itself into confetti that rained over she and Seamus where they stood.

There was absolute silence for one long moment. And then, all around her, everyone was murmuring, craning their heads in Astoria’s direction.

“Well, that was clever,” Seamus announced, his voice low enough that only Astoria would hear, as he brushed some curls of paper off his shoulder.

“It...was?” Astoria was still a little dazed. What in Nimue’s name had just happened?

Seamus nodded. “This way, they can’t pretend that Ginny didn’t pull you into all this herself. She was already a bit of a legend around here, an’ disappearin’ has made her more o’ one. The only reason a lot of ‘em haven’t been worse about you is ‘cause Neville’s so clearly been on your side. It’s one thing fer them to know that Ginny trusts you ‘cause someone told ‘em. It’s another for them to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, or as close as it comes, anyway.”

“So...it wasn’t some sort of...prank?”



Seamus grinned widely. “Oh, it absolutely was. Gin’ll have known you’d have hated being called out like that. I bet she would’ve killed to see your face.” He chuckled, then reached over to pull a wisp of crimson confetti from her hair and flick it away.

“But here’s the thing,” he continued, nodding to the rest of the room, where people were staring at Astoria with open interest. She couldn’t help but notice that their expressions seemed less forbidding than usual. “I know you think none of us Gryffindors know a thing about strategy, but Ginny’s smart. She’s just announced to everyone how much you’ve helped us, that she considers you one of us. She called you her friend. Lavender an’ her crowd won’t have a leg to stand on, now. Just you watch.”

Astoria’s eyes flicked around the room, watching the scene unfold. Usually, the D.A.--with the exception of Seamus, Neville, and Luna, and of course Lavender and Co.--largely ignored her. She’d received a shoulder check here and there, and plenty of glares, but mostly people had just looked past her, as though she weren’t there, especially since the incident with Meg. Now a whole host of people were eyeing her consideringly, but without outright malice.

She felt an embarrassed flush burn her cheeks and tried to force it down; she never had liked being stared at. Clenching her fist, she found that she still had the round object in her hand, and lifted it up for inspection. It appeared to be a rather large Exploding Bon-Bon. Carefully, she began to unwrap it.

“You gonna eat that?” Seamus asked, and Astoria shrugged.

“All yours.” She was fond of sweets, but preferred them to be less combustable. Seamus reached out and snatched the candy, popping it into his mouth with unconcealed glee, while Astoria remained intent on pulling the crinkly orange wrapper flat between her hands.

As expected, the message appeared.

Seriously though, appeared on the material, the letters glowing red hot. Thank you.
—G.


Astoria felt a small smile stirring at the corners of her mouth. She waited for the wrapper to turn to ash, but was surprised to see another message in the same lettering scorching its way along beneath the first.

Seamus ate the candy, didn’t he? Shame.

Astoria glanced up as the wrapper finally disintegrated, to see smoke pouring out of Seamus’ ears and coiling atop his head, coalescing to form the words “BADASS BITCH”.

Noticing the onlookers tittering, Seamus strode over to Lavender’s scrying bowl and looked into it to see his reflection. His eyebrows shot up momentarily in surprise, and he winced as the movement upset the bruises remaining on his face. Then he struck a pose and turned back to Astoria, grinning.

“I think it suits me, no?”

Astoria shook her head. Her life had become a great deal less predictable—that was for certain.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________

Hello everyone! New chapter up already! Who's proud? :)

Some of you may remember Slytherin Isabella Pritchard going missing a few chapters back. This, sadly, is the conclusion to that. However, we finally do see a bit of Astoria's softened personality she sometimes reveals to her friends in the D.A.bleeding into her life among her fellow Slytherins. Poor Daniel. We also see Astoria's reputation among the D.A. changing and growing. Will Ginny's gesture make a significant difference? Well, that remains to be seen.

And we finally get a face-to-face chat with Daphne, Astoria's sister. Thoughts? I'm glad to finally introduce her, irritating though she may be.

I'm very excited about something that will happen - or which should at least begin - in the next chapter, and I don't want to spoil it, so no snippet this time. But hopefully it will be up soon!

Thank you so much to everyone who reads this, and extra huge thanks and SO many hugs to those who are taking time to write a quick review. You guys always make my day and it is such a huge encouragement to hear from you. Thanks again!




Chapter 25: An Uncomfortable Truth
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Wednesday April 22nd, 1998
Hogwarts Castle, Entrance Hall
Evening



Astoria was on her way into dinner, stalling her entrance into the Hall by pretending to be observing the details of the statue of the architect of Hogwarts when she noticed that, yet again, she was being followed. She saw Daniel a mile off; he didn’t have an especially subtle presence. Bulkily built, his face resting in a scowl, body language defensive. He caught her eye and nodded her over, into the little alcove tucked just outside the Great Hall doors.

“Daniel,” she greeted neutrally. He looked a bit better. His shoulders were still wrought with tension, and the redness around his eyes hadn’t totally vanished, but he was no longer so noticeably distraught. His voice, though, was low and exhausted, as though he could barely muster the strength to carry a conversation.

“I’ll cut to the chase,” Daniel announced, turning and blocking her her view onlookers. “I guess you’ve heard the rumours?”


“Rumours?”

“About you,” he said stonily, his brow wrinkling when she did not give any sign of recognition. “And me.”

“Oh,” she said slowly, realisation hitting. ”Ohh.”

She should have known, of course. Felicity never could keep quiet, and her sister had noticed her speaking to him, and there had been Daphne’s comments. She’d thought Daphne had just been reaching, trying to start a conversation, but now her warning made sense.

He nodded, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his robes and not quite meeting her eyes.

“I know it’s...not the best thing for you, really. Being connected with me. And I was about to say it wasn’t true when Constance stepped on my foot.” Here he did meet Astoria’s eyes, and for the first time, she thought she saw the briefest touch of humour there. “For a little thing, she can pack a punch. Anyways, she pulled me aside and she...er...suggested...” He paused awkwardly, scratching at his ear. “She said it might be better if I didn’t. For you.”

Astoria pursed her lips.


“Constance wants you to pretend to date me?”

“Constance wants me not to deny that we’re together,” he corrected, shifting on his feet. “I’ll be honest, I know that it’s...it’d be good for me. Merlin knows she pointed that out.”

Well, that made sense. Anything that would make it look less like he’d been pining for Isabella would be a smart move for Daniel.

“But the truth is, I don’t care about that,” he continued with a shrug. “I know I should, but I don’t. They can do what they want with me, as far as I’m concerned, but...you’ve been nice to me, Astoria. And you didn’t have to be. So if you want me to play along, I’ll do it.”

Astoria frowned. “What did Constance tell you?” she asked, suspicious and more than a bit worried.



“Nothing. She just said that I’d be better off if people could see less of me, and that the same thing was true of you, and we’d both be better off without anyone questioning our whereabouts. I guess if everyone’s assuming we’re off together, it means we’ll both be left alone.”

It was a fair trade, really. She’d get the security of knowing that no one would wonder where she was when she was tucked away in the Room of Requirement, and Daniel could spend as much time as he wanted away from everyone, have the time he needed to mourn his real girlfriend without anyone labelling him a sympathiser.

Daphne had thought it would be a bad idea for Astoria to be connected with someone whose last girlfriend had been killed by the Death Eaters. Daphne had no idea how mild that connection would be, in comparison to the other people her sister spent her time with these days.

“Constance is wiser than people give her credit for.”

“I dunno. I always thought she seemed to have it together. More than me, anyway.” He sighed, propping one hand on the alcove wall. “Look, I’m not going to ask questions. I’ve been thinking about what you said, and Izzy,” he winced, like saying her name caused him physical pain, “she’d want me to try not to get myself killed. You’re decent, Greengrass, and if it’ll help you, then I’ll do it.”

“I--”

A group of students tromped down the hallway behind them. She heard a wolf whistle and suddenly realised what this looked like, with Daniel’s head ducked near hers, blocking her into the alcove. She sighed, supposing she’d have to get used to it.

“Right,” she said resignedly, nodding for him to lead the way. “It’s probably for the best. Let’s just go in to dinner and try to ignore them.”



Daniel answered with another shrug, then turned to allow her to squeeze out of the tiny space. Making their way into the Hall, they sat themselves down at the very end of the Slytherin table, nearest the door. They picked at their food in companionable silence, Daniel’s hulking shoulders shielding her from the professors’ dais. She couldn’t see the Carrows, or Snape and, thanks to Daniel, they couldn’t see her. Even among the whispers she felt a sense of safety, of invisibility, drift over her like a blanket. The rest of the House might be talking about her, but they couldn’t see her, the real her. These days, that was as good as it got.


*****

Thursday April 23rd, 1998
Hogwarts Castle, Great Hall
Morning



“—This blatant disregard for the rules of this school will be dealt with in accordance with the severity of the offence. And keep in mind, should any of you be tempted to join this minuscule band of miscreants, the punishment will be….Most. Severe,” Professor Snape intoned gravely, snapping the scroll in his hands shut as he swooped down the centre aisle and out of the Great Hall.

Saturday had arrived with fanfare, and of the negative sort. At least 40 students—hardly a “minuscule” group, though it was hardly surprising that the new administration would try to play down just how much control they had lost—had now disappeared fully, and were hiding out in the Room of Requirement on a permanent basis.

There were dire announcements from the Carrows at breakfast after the headmaster had left the room, worded creatively enough that Astoria’s muesli had turned to sand in her mouth. The names of students who hadn’t been seen were read off a list, each student told that if they had any sort of information on the whereabouts of their peers, withholding that information would bring untold suffering.

Astoria glanced over at the Gryffindor table and noticed that, despite their efforts to appear reserved, they looked almost cheerful. There was an incredibly poor breakfast spread among them and Astoria glanced with guilt to the piles of fruit, fresh croissants, and steaming bowls of oatmeal at her own table. Still, they seemed pleased, presumably at the idea that so many of their compatriots had made it out. The Hufflepuffs had a barely-noticeable hint of levity, while the Ravenclaws remained admirably inscrutable. She wondered how many of them knew about the Room of Requirement; not all were in the D.A. Still, she knew Neville was planning to get word around to anyone who fell too far afoul of the Carrows that there was a sanctuary--or a Sanctum--to be had.

Daniel was skipping breakfast, but they had arranged to meet afterwards at the statue of the Architect of Hogwarts in the Entrance Hall. It was a main thoroughfare, so many people witnessed as they made their way up in the direction of the right hand side of the third floor corridor, which was all empty rooms and storage, and one of the more obvious snog spots in the castle. They didn’t bother with hand-holding or acting like a couple; no one would expect it of them. Being seen together would be enough.

Once they had walked far enough down the corridor that they were well out of sight, Daniel turned to her and and shrugged, fingers drumming against the strap of his rucksack.

“Right. Well, this where I leave and you go off to do...whatever it is you’re doing.”

Astoria nodded solemnly. “Organising my chocolate frog card collection.”

Daniel didn’t smile, but she saw a glimmer in his eyes, like maybe there was a part of him that wanted to. It was more of a reaction than she’d expected.

He shook his head.

“Well, I’m heading down to the pitch. I just want to fly around a bit. Try not to think.”

“Fly low,” Astoria advised. “You won’t want anyone to see you.”

“My broom’s got a built-in Invisibility Charm for flying over Muggle areas. No one’ll see me.”

“Oh, er, excellent. Well...bye.”

They parted awkwardly, the air weighted by the strangeness of their relationship--a camaraderie built of convenience between two lonely people who didn’t truly know one another at all. Still, Astoria mused as she ducked behind a tapestry into a passage that would take her several floors up, Daniel was proving useful. It had been foolish of her to assume that no one would notice her absences. Astoria might be good at blending in, but just because she’d spent months feeling invisible didn’t mean she actually was. Now she’d no longer have to worry about people asking after her whereabouts; she had a ready-made excuse.


She tripped up the passageway and tiptoed her way up the back stairs to the seventh floor, slipping behind a pillar as Professor Sinistra walked by; she really didn’t know where Sinistra’s loyalties would lie. When the wall blocking entry to the Room of Requirement finally melted out of existence, Astoria was greeted with a shocking sight. People met her eye when she walked by, waved, moved into her path to speak with her.

“Oh, hey there Astoria! Good to see you."



“I don’t think I ever thanked you, you know? For the whole food thing.”

“Yo, Astoria. What up, girl?”

Astoria raised her hand automatically to block as Luca Caruso’s open palm through in the direction of her face, only to smack against her palm with a resounding thwack.

Astoria blinked, completely disconcerted. Seamus popped up at her side, still limping, his bruises turning a sickly green.

“You look somewhat...oh, what’s the word? Bewildered, Cap’n,” he said with amusement.

“Luca just high fived me.”

“I saw that.”



“I’ve never been high fived in my life.”

“What, Slytherins are too fancy for high fives?”

She shook her head. They weren’t. Plenty of Slytherin House was more relaxed. It was simply that families of the Sacred Twenty-Eight were raised with more formality.

“Not all of them. I’ve just never been high fived before.”

Seamus grinned. “First time for everything, Cap’n. Looks like Ginny’s Howler did the trick.”

Astoria turned to him, narrowing her eyes. “Seamus Finnigan, did you ask Ginny to send that ridiculous letter?”



“Nah,” he chuckled, hobbling over towards Neville. “I may have sent a message to Gin, fillin’ her in on how we were doin’. An’ I may have mentioned that the other kiddies weren’t playin’ nice. Not that ye’re much help with that, by the way. You antagonise people when you think they don’t like you. Anyway, that was all Gin’s idea. She really does appreciate you, y’know.”

Astoria shrugged, following behind Seamus as he slowly wended his way around groups of students, alarmed by the number of waving hands and acknowledging nods she was receiving. It wasn’t everyone--not at all. But it was still more of a welcome than she had ever gotten before.

Astoria was almost relieved to run into Lavender a few yards away from Neville, sitting on a rug surrounded by teacups, doing some sort of reading. Gigi went to wave at Astoria before awkwardly dropping her hand and eyeing Lavender.

Lavender glanced up, her expression oddly wary. Her voice didn’t quite have quite the usual level of acrimony when she muttered, “Look who it is. The D.A.’s favourite scheming Snake,” her eyes still glued to the soppy contents of her teacup.

“Oh, go read some entrails,” Astoria muttered.

Lavender lifted her chin sharply, suddenly looking more like herself. “Great. Can I do yours?”

Astoria opened her mouth, ready to deliver a witty rejoinder, when Neville’s voice floated between them. “Alright, ladies, that’s enough.”

He hadn’t moved from his seat, where someone had pulled up an armchair to the head of one of the long wooden tables, but he was facing in their direction. Lavender sniffed and went back to her soothsaying, and Seamus nudged Astoria to keep on walking.

Leaving the fortune-telling fools behind her, Astoria walked up to Neville. He, Padma, and Luna were seated, papers spread out before them. Neville was tapping a pencil against a large map, Luna appeared to be doing some sort of complicated arithmetic, and Padma had a familiar-looking sheaf of papers in front of her. She was scribbling madly, occasionally glancing over to cross-reference another sheet.

“How are Alecto’s papers coming, Padma?” Astoria asked as she went over to check on Neville’s wounds. His face looked about as bad as Seamus’, and there wasn’t much she could do about the chipped incisor tooth, but at least he was looking more comfortable sitting up.

“They’re coming,” Padma answered determinedly, without looking up. “I don’t know how you cracked this code in the first place. It’s insanely complicated. I honestly don’t think I could have done it,” she added, with no small amount of disbelief. She got the feeling Padma wasn’t used to coming in second to many people, save maybe that Granger girl.

“I’m just glad you were willing to slog through it,” Astoria answered, wrinkling her nose at the huge stack of papers. “Cracking the codes is one thing, but I hate all the fuss of decoding the message piece by piece.”



“But it’s a fascinating process!” Padma exclaimed as she peered up at her, wide-eyed. “And the information I’m finding...”



“Ah, now that’s what I’d like to hear about.” Astoria turned to face Neville again. “Can you lift up your shirt please?” she requested. He did so, his face flushing. It was an improvement that this time he could do it himself. Astoria waved her wand across his bandaged wounds, trying out a new spell she’d read in Madame Pomfrey’s healing book.

“You’re doing well,” she informed him, smiling a bit in approval. “If it was infected the wand would be flickering blue, but the light has stayed yellow this whole time.”

“Awesome.”

She pulled aside a bit of gauze to check on the wound. The blackness had disappeared and the skin seemed to be knitting together nicely. It was a bit awkward, hovering alongside Neville’s abs, but she was getting over it. It was awkward that Neville had abs. Who knew? She noted that the scritch-scratch of Luna’s quill had gone silent, and suspected that Luna might have noticed this about Neville, herself.

Astoria stood upright, and Neville dropped his shirt back into place. 

“You’re doing fine, I think. Based on what I know, it looks like you’re healing well enough.”

“Thanks, Astoria. Seriously. I think you saved my life.”

“It’s nothing,” she said with a wave.

“It isn’t.”


Astoria didn’t know what to say to that. Neville was trying to make her out to be a hero again, and she simply wasn’t one. She settled for changing the subject.

“Luna, do you think you could do that hand cleansing spell for me?”

But Luna did not appear to hear her. The Ravenclaw girl was still staring in Neville’s direction, her cheeks tinted with the slightest bit of pink.

“Oi. Earth to Luna,” Seamus said, plopping into the seat between her and Padma and waving a hand in front of her face. “Alright there?” he asked, reaching for a bottle of pumpkin juice and taking a swig.

“I was just admiring Neville’s physique,” she explained. “He’s got some very impressive musculature.”

Seamus did a spit-take, pumpkin juice sputtering everywhere.

Astoria jumped back, wrinkling her nose, and Padma screeched, ”Not on the papers!, huddling protectively over them and then drawing out her wand to siphon off any stray orange puddles.

Seamus was still choking, laughing and coughing at the same time. Neville was firetruck red, staring at Luna, openmouthed. 



“Luna, you can’t just up an’ say things like that while a man’s tryin’ to drink his pumpkin juice.”

“Well it’s true,” she said with a shrug, going back to her maths as Neville continued gaping like a fish. Astoria reached out with her wand and helpfully tapped the bottom of his chin, reminding him to shut it.

Seamus turned to Neville, eyeing him speculatively. “Suppose she’s got a point. Not my type, of course, but ye’ve turned into a pretty attractive bloke, mate.”

Neville let out a sound that was something like a gurgle.

“It’s true,” Padma commented, her eyes still glued to her paper. “Your face has grown into almost perfect Golden Ratio proportions. Who would have thought it?”

“Please stop,” Neville begged.

Seamus stretched his arms behind his head, grinning widely. “What’s the matter with a few compliments? Astoria, wouldn’t you agree that our Neville is a fine lookin’ lad?”

Astoria couldn’t help it; she laughed, shaking her head. “You-Know-Who himself couldn’t compel me to enter this conversation.”


Neville was granted a reprieve when Zacharias Smith waltzed up to the table, plopping down in a seat across from Seamus. 



“Why, hello there, my fellow leaders. What’s on the docket today, eh? Neville, my good man, what’re you up to with that map?”



Astoria frowned. She’d never much liked Zacharias Smith and she had no idea how he’d been elected as one of the Hufflepuff representatives.

“Trying to see if there’s any other way out of the castle,” Neville answered evenly. From his tone, she could tell that their fearless leader didn’t care much for Smith, either. “They’ve got all the passages anyone knew that led out blocked off.”

“Leave?” Zacharias exclaimed, alarmed. “You want us to leave?! But we’re safe here.”



“Not forever. Eventually, someone will notice something. We’re trapped in a corner here, and I don’t want us to have to fight our way out; I’d rather sneak us all out in one piece.”

Astoria nodded approvingly. She wouldn’t have thought a Gryffindor would have seen things that way, but she was glad to see that Neville did.

“D’you reckon we could make it out through Aberforth’s?”

Neville scratched his chin; his eyes were worried. “They’ll notice that kind of a mass Apparition. The Death Eaters have tons of eyes and ears in Hogsmeade. No.” He pointed to a large, dark swathe of the map, and everyone leaned in. “If we’re going to get out, we’ll have to go through the Forbidden Forest. And soon. Before the school year’s out. Who knows what they might release in here once they can clear out the castle of other students? They’ll try to flush us out. Or kill us.” He shrugged, then grimaced as he felt the motion in his injured chest. “The odds are even on which.”

Everyone stared down at the map, solemn for a moment.

Zacharias shattered their reverie by pounding a fist on the table.

“Well, I think we should make a stand. Give them what for. I bet the Order would be on our side if we wanted to battle it out."



“That,” Padma announced severely, “would be foolish in the extreme.”

Zacharias sat up straight, offended.

“Well, maybe you think that way, but I think those of us with any gumption would be willing to face a good fight.” He drove a fist into his his other hand forcefully. “I’d think Gryffindor would be with me.”

He turned to face Neville and Seamus.

Seamus ran a hand through his messy hair. “I dunno, mate. If it comes to that, then o’ course we will, but half of us here are just kids. First an’ Second years. We’ve got no business gettin’ them into a fight to the death.”

“Well of course it isn’t ideal,” Zacharias expounded with a flick of the wrist. “I’m merely asking what we’d be looking at, if a fight should come. I mean, Hufflepuff would be willing to make a stand. And surely we’d have most eligible Gryffindors. Ravenclaws, I would hope, would make a show of it.” Astoria saw his eyes flick in her direction, almost undetectably, before he continued. “Of course we can’t expect much from Slytherin, but then again...”



He hesitated at the sight of Seamus’ murderous glare, gulped, and then attempted to look like he was at utterly ease. He wasn’t, though—the stiff way he held his body made that clear. He turned to see Astoria, who was still standing to the side and hadn’t taken a seat.

“Ah. Astoria. Didn’t see you there.”

A lie.

“Of course I didn’t mean...you, yourself, are excepted, of course. It’s just that most of your House is, well...you know.” He left a meaningful pause. “Perhaps more on the Carrows’ side of things.”



Astoria glowered.

“Stop while ye’re very far behind, Smith,” Seamus advised.

Zacharias did not heed his advice.

“It’s just, you know Slytherins, on the whole. Most of them aren’t going to be interested in saving Hogwarts. They’re simply more focused on themselves. Perhaps they can’t help it; it’s just inherent. All that about ambition and cunning and self-preservation...”


Luna looked up from her papers and squinted at Zacharias, frowning deeply.


“You’d do well to look to yer own self-preservation,” Seamus growled, his jaw tense as he stepped forward, attempting to move in front of Astoria. A sharp elbow in his side convinced him to stand beside her instead.

Zacharias didn’t seem to hear him as he continued blithely prattling on. “It just leads them to be more self-focused. There’s cowardice among the ranks, there. Besides that, they only ever seem to care about their own House, none of the rest of us. Once again, obviously you are excepted, Astoria. I mean, Padma, correct me if I’m wrong: do you see the Slytherins jumping in to help us? As a whole?”



Padma looked profoundly uncomfortable. “I...well I...” She hesitated, her eyes glued to her work. “I would calculate the odds to be against it.”

“Exactly!” Zacharias said, pointing to Padma.



“We’re hoping to avoid a fight entirely. At least at Hogwarts,” Neville slipped in, ever the diplomat.


Zacharias nodded emphatically, waving away Neville’s statement with two hands.


“Of course, of course. But you would, if we had to. It’s the Slytherins that baffle me. I just can’t see why they wouldn’t be willing to fight for Hogwarts--”

“That’s because ye can’t see an inch past yer own upturned nose, Smith.”

Zacharias let out a gasp and pressed a hand to his heart. “My. There’s no reason to be uncivil. Just because I’ve spoken some uncomfortable truths. I mean, are you going to fight with us, Astoria? If there is, indeed, a fight to be had?”


Astoria felt rage prickle down her limbs, putting her on edge. She forced her expression to remain eerily calm; she could tell it frightened Zacharias all the more. His eyes had widened, and she had seen in them both fear and dislike. Disdain. Maybe the rest of the D.A. appreciated her more thanks to Ginny’s Howler, but she saw that, for some reason, her newfound popularity had led Zacharias to hate her. She had a feeling he’d dislike anyone he saw as an upset to the small amount of influence he held. Zacharias had been the weakest link on the D.A. leaders counsel, save for Astoria. Now he clearly thought that might change, and he was willing to say anything to make certain everyone kept in mind that Astoria was a Slytherin—a coward, a liar, and a cheat.

It would be her pleasure to set him straight.

Besides, it was about time the rest of them got a healthy dose of reality.

“Let me introduce you to some uncomfortable truths, you self-obsessed, pigheaded lout,” she said, enunciating clearly so that Zacharias could understand exactly how much of an idiot he was. Padma dropped her quill, whereas Luna looked unruffled but extremely intrigued. Neville was unreadable.

Astoria was unfazed.

“You think all Slytherins are cowards? You don’t know us. If Slytherins care mostly for Slytherin House, perhaps that’s because they’ve been vilified ever since the last war. If you had come into Hogwarts, eleven years old, intimidated by everything, how would you feel if you got off that stool after that mad old hat Sorted you only to be booed by older students? To have people at other tables coming up with clever chants about how you’re all destined to be Dark Wizards? If there’s a lack of camaraderie between Slytherin and the other Houses, perhaps you’ve promoted it."

“I just--”

“You’d just better shut up,” Astoria thundered. Her voice had grown louder. The lot of them were staring at her, now; the House reps, as well as Lavender’s little cabal. But for once she didn’t care. There weren’t so very many of them, and she wasn’t so afraid of all the eyes. This had been inside her too long, and it needed to be said. The words bubbled up in her chest like lava, burning their way out.

If they hated her for it, she’d just be back to the status quo. Astoria cast her withering gaze over the lot of them.

“As for a fight, maybe most Slytherins wouldn’t take you up on that offer. For one thing, we’re not as likely to go hurtling into a fight where none is needed, and you’d do better to help Neville focus on a way to avoid one. But while we’re discussing it, have you once considered why Slytherins might not want to fight the Death Eaters?”



She paused and saw that Susan Bones and Colin Creevey had halted nearby. Gigi, Parvati, and Lavender had moved closer. Gigi raised a hand hesitantly.

“Because...they’re afraid to?”

“Of course they’d be afraid to.” Astoria couldn’t help rolling her eyes as she slashed a hand through the air, desperate for them to understand. “That’s just common sense. But that doesn’t make them cowards.” She turned to the Susan and Colin. “Hufflepuff is supposed to be about fair-mindedness. Calling all Slytherins cowards?”

She heard her voice break, and hated herself for the weakness. She felt moisture gathering in her eyes and blinked hard before anyone could notice the tears rising; her heart was pounding and her throat felt tight.

“That isn’t fair! It isn’t right. I know Slytherins, personally, that hate what Hogwarts has become, what the Carrows are doing. They despise it. But if you fight, you’re fighting some masked, unknown enemy. You’re expecting us to fight parents, brothers, sisters, lifelong friends. Yes, they’re wrong. Some of them don’t want to be fighting either, you know. Some of them are just as scared as we are, stuck on the wrong side.”

She thought of Draco Malfoy’s haunted eyes and shook her head. She lowered her volume, dropping her gaze so that she didn't have to look at anyone’s expression.

“If this comes to a war--a real and proper war--I don’t know if I’ll fight. I don’t know if any of us will. But it won’t just be because I’m a coward, or only out for myself. You all have a rosy little idea of war, and glory, but this is more than that. People are dying. People are going to die!

She paused for a breath, shuddering. Everyone around her was silent for a moment, the air heavy with whirring thoughts and widened eyes.

But Zacharias couldn’t remain quiet for long. He turned to Lavender, his only certain ally. There was a glint in his eye that Astoria didn’t trust. Had he set up this moment on purpose? Was this where Lavender denounced her, once and for all?

“What do you think, Lavender? What do you See? Is Astoria going to abandon us all when things get serious?”

Astoria clenched her jaw, closed a hand around the back of Neville’s chair, and braced herself.

Lavender looked at her speculatively. Her voice was strangely wan, tired.

“I don’t know what I See, Zacharias. The future is changing every day. I see a boy, about your height, running from a battlefield in his future. Maybe you’ll be the coward. We don’t know who we are till we’re tested.”

Zacharias turned pink, then white. He shoved back the bench seat and stormed away, shoving through Lavender’s line. Not too many people had gathered. Astoria was relieved to see that, but her spine still stood straight. She turned to Lavender.

“What’s come over you?”

“Nothing,” the Gryffindor girl snapped. “Ginny may like you; I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to demean the Gift by lying. I still think you’re a snake, Astoria Greengrass. We’d all be better off if you weren’t here.” To Astoria’s great confusion, Lavender’s voice broke on the last words, and she turned and marched away, her band of followers staring behind her in bafflement before picking up their crystal balls and loose tarot cards and hurrying after her.


Astoria was trembling, she realised with some surprise. She was shaking, and everyone was staring at her blankly. Her stomach dropped.

She’d given them everything, had somehow found the courage to wrench out the words that had been buried in her heart, and none of them understood.

None of them.

Astoria felt the tears coming again, and there was no amount of blinking that would will them away this time. She turned on her heel and bolted for the screen that contained her little office.

“Astoria!” she heard Seamus call after her, but she ignored him, knowing she could outrun his limp. She made it to the calm space that was all her own, slamming the cherry blossom screen shut and muttering a sealing spell. Her head ached fiercely and her knees felt weak.

She fell to the floor, face to face with her tear-stained reflection in the great claw-footed cheval mirror.

“I wish...” Astoria leaned her forehead against the glass and spoke on a sob, her soft words of longing forming a fog on the mirror’s silver surface. “I wish I could speak to someone who would understand it all. Anyone. Anyone who would just…get it.”

The room pulsed with the pressure from behind her eyes, and she leaned harder against the glass. An odd feeling came over her, almost like casting a strong spell, though her wand was tucked into her pocket. She wondered if she might be feeling faint.

“Astoria?”



She jumped, turning around wildly. She hadn’t heard anyone enter the small room. For a moment she knelt there, confused--no one stood in the entranceway, or by the desk. There was nowhere in such a small place to hide.



“Astoria, is that you?”



She turned towards the gilt-framed, full-length mirror, where a pale, familiar face stared back at her uncertainly.



“Draco?”

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Hello everyone! I believe I'll mostly leave this chapter - and its ending - to speak for itself this time ;) Many thanks to cannons for beta*ing it for me!

Thank you so much to those who have been reviewing! It totally makes my day and is so encouraging. If you do have a moment to leave a comment, CC, or an opinion, it's very much appreciated!

By the way, for those of you keeping track, there's only one week left until the Battle of Hogwarts!

--Penny


Chapter 26: The Man in the Mirror
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

The Forbidden Forest
Thursday, 23 April, 1998

“Draco?”

Draco stared disbelievingly into the mirror in his lap. He was dishevelled, his sleeves rolled to his elbows, having just completed a series of completely useless practise drills under orders that were, supposedly, from his Uncle Rodolphus. Not that anyone had seen the man in days. He’d retreated to his tent and pulled out his mirror, knowing that it could no longer show him his family, but unwilling to give up the only connection he had left.

He swept his hair, grown a bit too long now, out of his eyes, and focused on the image in front of him.

“Astoria? What...how are you--”

He narrowed his eyes and stared at the image with suspicion. It looked like the Astoria he remembered--sharp cheekbones, silky black hair, the Blishwick blue eyes that were currently wide with surprise.

“Tell me something,” he demanded, shifting the mirror closer, gripping it tightly enough by its tarnished handle that his knuckles went bone white. “Something only you would know.”

He didn’t think there was any way someone could have uncovered his weakness, but Greyback might have had his suspicions. The idea that he could be looking at--speaking to--Astoria Greengrass, truly speaking to her, was practically insane. He had to be sure.


To her credit, the girl in the mirror didn’t seem to think this an odd request. She tilted her head back, considering, and then leaned forward, closer to the glass, staring openly at his arm.

“That scar,” she said, pointing to the raised white line on his arm revealed by his rolled sleeves. “I gave you that. I stabbed you with a fire poker.” She sounded remarkably self-satisfied at the fact.

It was her. It was real.


“Astoria,” he breathed, but she held up a slender hand, forestalling him.

“Your turn.”

He hesitated, wondering what was safe to say. He didn’t know anywhere near as much as he wanted to, but at the same time he could admit to himself that he’d thought of her entirely too much. If she knew how many times he’d been over their interactions in his head, if she knew just how well he remembered...

She’d think he was more pathetic than she probably already did. A man had to hold onto some pride, after all.

“You called my eyes ‘Soulless Minion Grey’,” he settled on finally, feeling the corner of his mouth tick up in amusement. Astoria looked stunned.



“Oh. Well, yes, I suppose I did.”

There was an awkward pause. Draco wanted to ask her if she still thought that of him--that he was a soulless minion, but he didn’t dare ask. He wasn’t sure what the answer was, himself. He cleared his throat.

“You’re looking well,” he practically croaked, eons away from the smooth, cultured tones he’d spoken in on that day in her sitting room.. It was the most he could manage.

Then there was a long, quiet moment where they said nothing, each simply gazing at the other. Draco eyes drank her in. She looked different somehow, thawed, as if whatever she had been through in these last weeks had melted away some of that icy exterior. There was color in her cheeks, but he thought he detected tear tracks there as well—she had been crying. But then she tilted her head in that way of hers, looking at him as though she were cataloguing everything about him.

It was her, really her, this girl that he’d not, for the life of him, been able to get out of his head. In this moment, he didn’t want to.

It wasn’t Astoria’s beauty that captivated him. He wasn’t even certain she was what he’d call beautiful. In his house, “beautiful” was how his father complimented his mother, dressed up for some function in rippling silk and descending the marble stairs like a goddess alighting upon the earth.

Astoria had a kind of natural elegance, certainly. But beauty, as Draco had been taught it, was a well-ordered garden, a perfect face chiseled into marble and polished to shine. Beauty was cold and distant.


He thought of Astoria, her hair coming loose from its fastenings, her hands wrapped around a fire poker and her eyes blazing blue fire, daring him to come closer. She wasn’t cold, or distantly beautiful. She was...

Magnificent.

And he…he was an idiot, he realised. He’d been staring for far too long.


“Well...how have you...been?” Astoria asked at last, freeing them both from the fraught silence.

Draco didn’t need to see his own reflection to know that his expression had twisted into a wry grimace.

“Me? Oh, I’m excellent.” His tone was self-deprecating, but…it wasn’t entirely a lie. His chest felt lighter than it had in some time. There was a part of him that had almost convinced himself that Astoria had been a figment of his imagination. Was this even real?

“What?”

It took a moment for Draco to realise he’d asked the question aloud. He had to pull himself together. Straightening, he cleared his throat and continued.

“I--I just mean, how do you suppose this is happening? Where are you? How are you doing this?”

Astoria dropped his gaze, appearing to look around the room around her as though it might give her some answer.

“I’m not certain, to be honest. One moment I was...” He couldn’t be sure--the lighting was poor--but he almost thought he detected a flush climbing its way up her neck. “I was thinking out loud, really, and all of a sudden the mirror was rippling, and I touched it, and, well, there you were.”

“There I was.” He pressed his lips together, thinking. “A mirror, you say. Tell me what it looks like.”

“Well, it’s rather large--a full length cheval glass, and the frame’s made of gilt and silver.”

“Any distinguishing characteristics?”


“Some carvings,” she answered with a nod. “It’s got some vines along the front of it. And I noticed the other day there were some letters engraved at the back. It looked like maybe a GB?”

The pieces fell together in Draco’s mind with a nearly audible click

“Could it possibly be a C.B.?” he asked breathlessly.


“A...?” She ducked down for a moment, and he could only barely catch sight of her. When she spoke again, her voice was muffled. “Yes, I believe it could be.” She popped back into sight, breathing a bit more heavily, presumably from her efforts to reach the mirror’s back.

Draco’s shoulders relaxed, releasing tension he didn’t know he was carrying. There was no trick in this.

“Then it all makes sense.”

“What makes sense?” she demanded impatiently. He felt the smile threatening again. He ran a thumb across the matching letters etched into the silver back of his own mirror.



“It seems you’ve come upon the missing mirror of a relative of mine—Cedrella Black. It’s part of a set; they’re designed to contact one another. This one,” he knocked against the silver back of his hand mirror, “is a family heirloom from my mother’s side, passed down to my mother from a cousin of hers. My mother, she…used to have the second,” he said, edging around the memory of the broken mirror, of Aunt Bellatrix and her violent insanity. “I’d always wondered what had happened to the third.”

Astoria’s brow wrinkled in consternation. “Why would your family leave behind a precious heirloom at Hogwarts?”

Draco hesitated. Astoria herself had appeared to have some sort of affinity with Ginny Weasley. He wondered if the story would offend her. Still, what would no doubt offend her more was withholding information; he could see that she wanted to know.

“All three of the sisters had one. Charis, Cedrella, and Callidora Black,” he explained. “One of them—Cedrella—she was cast out of the family. Married a blood traitor.”

“Oh.”

Married to a Weasley, to be precise. It had launched a bitter feud between the two families that had an 11 year old Draco on edge from the moment he landed on Platform 9 and 3/4, ready to face the passel of redheaded villains that had tainted his family line.

For a moment, his mind flashed to his aunt Andromeda, whom he had never met. She, too, was a daughter of the House of Black who had been blasted from the tapestry, also one of three sisters who had left her lofty upbringing behind. Was one member of every generation of their house cursed to earn the disapproval of their entire line? To shame their family and taint their good name with Muggle sympathies?

Surely not. After all, Draco himself was the only proper left Black left in his generation, as one could hardly count his Half Blood cousin, Nymphadora, or the Weasleys with their mad ideas. Perhaps he’d had his doubts about the claims about Muggleborns—loathe as he was to admit she’d had any hand in affecting his views, Granger’s talents were difficult to reconcile with the belief that Muggleborn magic was inferior. Besides which, Draco had been forced to watch both wizards and Muggles die, and he could not help but notice that, for all the magical world’s pride, the wizards did not face their ends with any greater dignity—but all the same, he was a Malfoy, and a Black by blood. Surely he would never stray. He was not so radical as that. There was, after all, a difference in thinking that those without magic weren’t worthless and believing that they were worthy.

“Draco?” Astoria’s voice broke into his thoughts. It took him a moment to realise that she was calling him by his proper name, and not merely ‘Malfoy’ as she had before. Perhaps there was something significant in that.

“You were telling me about your mirrors,” she prodded, then stiffened as the manners that had doubtless been drummed into her for years took over. “Not that you need tell me anything more, if you don’t wish to.”

Astoria looked torn when he failed to answer immediately. Draco watched her lips pucker with irritation at the rules of society, the rules that stated that she mustn’t be too curious, that she must provide him with a way out. It was shocking, really, how good a facade she had put up when they’d first met. She’d seemed so polite, so tranquil, and yet he had the feeling that there wasn’t an ounce of tranquility to be found in Astoria right now. She felt things. She wanted things. And she clearly hated having to pretend that she did not.

How long would that last? he wondered with amusement.

“Oh, you didn’t seem very interested,” Draco answered, keeping his expression neutral. “I’m happy to move on to another topic.”

“There’s no need.”

“But I insist. I’d hate for you to be bored over some dusty old mirrors.”

“I'm not at all bored,” she insisted. Was she gritting her teeth?

“No, no. Why don't you tell me about Hogw—“

”Draco!” she exclaimed, finally exasperated, and he felt the triumph dawn on his face. She rolled her eyes at him. “You just wanted me to lose my composure, didn’t you?”

“I’ll admit, I enjoy it when you do.”

She huffed, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Fine.” She pushed herself to her feet, and his view of her suddenly became smaller.

“What? Where are you going?”

“I’m losing my composure,” she said, sounding profoundly irritated. Her normally soundless feet moved with loud stomps.

“What?”

Astoria shrugged as she reached for something outside his line of vision.

“If you’re not going to tell me anything, I’m sure I don’t need to stay.”

She swung a leather satchel over her shoulder and started to move out of view.

“Wait! I was kidding! I didn’t mean—“

Astoria stopped in her tracks. She looked over her shoulder at him, grinned evilly, and turned on her heel, plunking back down in front of the mirror.

“You’re too easy,” she informed him, clearly amused.

Draco ran a hand over his face. Merlin, he was too easy. Anyone else and he’d have seen right through it.

I want it too badly, he thought, leaning back against his cot. He’d have seen through her ploy if he hadn’t so desperately wished to speak with her, if he weren’t so convinced that she couldn’t possibly care as much, that it was too good to be true and in an instant she’d be gone.

“And you shouldn’t be so quick to goad me into losing that composure,” she admonished, teasing. “You were very literally scarred for life the last time I did. One wouldn’t think you’d be so eager to anger me.”

Draco kicked back, leaning back against the cot and letting the mirror rest upright against his chest.

“I think it might have been worth it.”

“Worth it? You’re mad!”

“A madman who knows about the mirrors, unlike some people…”

Astoria glared at him, and he relented.

“They were designed to allow my family to keep in touch. It’s a common enough charm in my family—there are several sets of two way mirrors floating around. But only these three can contact one another. And you’ve somehow managed to find one.”

The real question was, how in Merlin’s name had she managed that? What were the odds? If something was too good to be true, it usually was. Draco sharpened his gaze, taking in the space behind her. He could make out the chair she was sitting in, the wall behind her. No, it wasn’t quite a wall, it was...

“You’re in the Room of Hidden Things, aren’t you?”

“The what?”

“I recognise that screen behind you. I’ve seen it there. The room in the castle that’s full of bric-a-brack, that only appears when you have something to hide.”

He’d wondered, after all, what Cedrella might have done with her mirror. Where did you put something you couldn’t bear to part with, and couldn’t bear to see? Suddenly it all made sense.

Realisation dawned across Astoria’s face.

“Oh, well yes. I’d never...called it that. But yes. The Room of Hidden Things.”

Then, all of a sudden, her expression shifted. Draco had the strangest feeling that he’d made a serious misstep. She drew back a bit from where she sat, legs crossed, staring at him through the great mirror.

“What?” he asked, growing nervous at the sudden change in the tenor of their conversation.

“Why did you do it?” Her words were careful, but a bit defiant. She looked the way he imagined she would while facing a firing squad—calm and composed, but with fire in her eyes and an obstinate tilt to her chin. “Why did you save me?”

Draco pressed his fingers to his temple, hard, irritated by his own stupidity. Of course she was guarded; of course she’d want to know. All of his questions had dropped away the moment he’d seen her. Oh, certainly he’d pondered over these past few weeks whether he should trust her, whether she’d drugged him or cast some unknown spell to convince him to spare her. But in the end, he know he’d been casting about for answers, for ways to explain away the risk he’d taken. The truth was, Astoria had shown him exactly who she was, but she still couldn’t have much of an idea about who Draco was.

What could he even say?

“I…I don’t know what to tell you,” he admitted at last. “I can’t explain what I don’t fully understand myself.” He stared at the woven canvas wall of his tent, at all the invisible Silencing spells that meant that, if he wanted, he could be honest. For once.

“I just couldn’t bear to see you die. And what you said, you weren’t wrong. About Him, and how he doesn't care about us. I suppose I…I admired you.”

“You admired me?”

He looked up and met her eyes. She sounded more baffled than skeptical, her brow crinkled in a way that made her seem innocent and childlike, when he knew she was anything but.

“I still do.”


“May I…may I ask you something?”

Astoria’s mirror was larger and could capture more than just her face, so Draco could see her fingers, dancing nervously along her knee. He had not known Astoria to be hesitant. Cautiously, he nodded.

“I suppose you’ve heard about the Pritchards?”

Draco felt his face turn to granite.

“I have,” he answered, hearing the exhaustion in his own voice. “Did you know her?”

“No. I just…we heard, yesterday, what happened. The bodies.”

“Yes,” he rasped. He tried not to let his nightmare images wade into his waking hours. He tried not to let his mind’s eye imagine it all again. Surely he had seen it enough times.

Astoria’s expression shifted, and she was assessing him, unlocking him and looking straight into his head, and she needed no Legilimency to do it. “You knew her, didn’t you?”

“I knew her,” he admitted reluctantly; he so wished that he hadn’t. It would have made it all so much easier. “She was in my year, and Vaisey was always bringing her round to the Quidditch parties. She was very….” He trailed off, his throat closing in on itself, unable to speak.

“Kind,” Astoria finished quietly. “She was kind.”

Draco nodded.

Izzy had been kind, though he’d never really taken the time to appreciate that until, well, until what had happened. A clever witch, and opinionated. She had never had much patience with Draco—looking back on it, he couldn't much blame her—but she’d never been awful to him either, even when he’d deserved it.

Knowing that she was dead, knowing how she’d died…

“Did you…you didn’t have anything to do with it, did you?” Astoria asked, so carefully, all emotion nearly stripped from the question. But he could hear that she wanted to think well of him, that she wanted the answer to be no.

His heart lifted for a moment at that, at Astoria’s hope, only to sink like a stone as the reality set in. Draco might have been a liar. He might be willing to do almost anything to get what he wanted. But he couldn’t bring himself to lie, not now. Not even by omitting a portion of the truth.

“Astoria. I’m a Death Eater. You know what that means.”

Astoria shook her head. “It means different things to different people. Tell me.”

“Don’t be naive.”

“I—“

“No. I didn’t kill Izzy. I didn’t kill her family. But I am a Death Eater. This tattoo on my arm isn’t decorative! I have hurt people. I have—I’ve tortured them. And if I’ve never struck a killing blow, that doesn’t mean there’s no blood on my hands. I wasn’t sent on that mission, Astoria, but one day I will be. One day I will be, and I won’t be able to say no.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” she demanded. “Why not just tell me that you didn't do it?”

“Because you need to understand what I am. What this is. I shouldn’t even be talking to you, but by some miracle you’re here and…and I know that on some level you must hate me. I know that Death Eaters killed your mother. I know you hate everything I’ve stood for. But if you’re going to leave, leave now. Please.”

Because the longer she stayed, the more he knew her, the more it would rip him apart when she realised how utterly worthless he was. And yet, as soon as the words were out Draco wanted to take them back.

Please don’t go. One day you will, I know, but please, not today. Give me more time.

He couldn’t bear to look at her, to see the moment her reflection walked away, out of his life forever.


“Draco,” Astoria said softly. “I’m not leaving.”

His breath caught in his throat. He couldn’t bear to inhale, couldn’t bear to overbalance this moment that teetered on the razor-thin edge of hope. He dared to look

“You saved my life,” she continued. She’d leaned forward, eyes intent, her hand disappearing from view where she gripped the mirror’s edge. “And whatever you think might have happened with Isabella, if you had been there she might be alive, too. You’ve defied them once. Why not again?”

“Astoria, that was…a one time thing.”

“Oh really? Well this is the second time you’ve spoken to me, and you should know that my thoughts are as full of treachery as ever. Are you going to turn me in?”

“No.”

She shrugged, as if it was all so obvious it hardly bore explaining. “Then it isn’t a one time thing.”

“Astoria—“

“No, don’t go one telling me about how you’re a Death Eater and you aren’t brave and all that rot.”

“I’m not brave.”

And he truly wasn’t. Draco was more sure he was a coward than that he was tall or blonde or that he'd grown much too thin. It was an obvious quality, difficult to overlook.

“Perhaps not, but you have courage in you. You’ve shown it. I think…it’s easy to give credit to the people who are brave by nature—who are reckless and don’t think of the consequences. But the people like you? The people who are terrified, who know exactly what they are risking, and do something anyway? That’s the greatest kind of bravery, Draco. Even if you don’t believe it.”

“I couldn’t have done it. Not for just anyone. Just….” He trailed off, realising how dangerously close he had come to admitting it. But she was Astoria Greengrass, so of course she understood anyway.

“Just for me.”

Draco said nothing. He didn’t have to; she knew.

“Why, Draco? Why me?”

“Because,” he answered, terrified of his honesty, but knowing that she’d see through him if he attempted to obfuscate, “I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind from the moment I met you. You—you’re…remarkable.”

He couldn’t even begin to explain it. Astoria was…Astoria. If there was a part of him that had, for a moment, been truly brave, that had done something good, then surely it was all because of her. Draco had never put much stock in valor—better to be alive and kneeling than to stand for a moment before an inevitable end. He had never understood or truly respected the courage of a Gryffindor or the fair-mindedness so central to Hufflepuffs. He was something else, a Slytherin. But…so was Astoria. She was a Slytherin, a Pureblood, raised with all the same values and standards as he. And yet, she was brave. She lied when she had to, and lied well. But she was loyal to her friends, even to the point of death. She was frightened out of her mind, but she kept fighting.

It wasn’t that he had some delusion that Astoria Greengrass had made him a better man. It was that she gave some home some mad kind of hope that, one day, he could be.

He shrugged. “Who else but you?”

She laughed softly, and it was bitter and sweet, all at once. It was a laugh of understanding and commiseration. “It’s almost like justice,” she informed him wryly.

“What is?”

“You break into my head, and now you can’t get me out of yours?” She huffed. “Of course, the irritating thing is, I can’t seem to get you completely out of my mind, either.”

Draco froze. He tried to force air into his lungs.

“What?”

“I’ve been worried about you,” she admitted with a flick of her wrist. “It’s stupid, really—Merlin knows I’ve told myself that a million times. There’s a long, long list of things that should be keeping me up at night, and Draco Malfoy shouldn’t be on it.”

Draco couldn’t help himself—for just a moment, he felt like the person he used to be; someone who could laugh, who wasn’t afraid or sad all the time.

“Keeping you up at night, hmm? Intriguing. Do go on.”

A red and gold throw pillow suddenly flew at his face, and Draco ducked instinctively before realising that she’d thrown it at the mirror. He saw her tuck away a smile as he straightened, and she rolled her eyes.

“Up at night anxious about whether you were alive,” she clarified. “I should have had better things to worry about, but every time we get word from outside the castle, I can’t help but wonder if you’re connected to it, if you know about it. If you’re alright.”

Astoria leaned back against the bottom half of the leather armchair behind her, and he recognised her stance. It was the same way she’d looked at the end, in her sitting room, when she’d decided that lies were pointless and that she might as well let someone know the truth. At some point, Draco realised, she had dropped out of her formal, high society speech, and it made him want to crow. His eyes scanned her face, the twitch of her muscles—Astoria was still guarded, but she had let some portion of her walls come down. She was comfortable enough with him to speak casually, intimately, and it felt like a victory.

His eyes wandered again over her face and caught on the dried rivers of salt that stained her cheeks.

“Why were you crying?”

“I wasn’t crying,” she shot back instantly. Draco didn’t answer; he just gave her a disbelieving look. “I shouldn’t tell you, really.”

“Of course you should.”

Astoria groaned and flung a hand over her eyes. “I swear I used to not trust a soul.”

“Well, you know me. Soulless.”

“That’s not funny.”

“It was your description. Now stop changing the subject.”

Astoria huffed, shaking her head.

“I suppose I might as well. If you were planning to turn me in, you already have more than enough evidence.” Ever pragmatic, this girl. She paused, collecting her thoughts, and scrubbed at her cheeks with the sleeve of her robes. It made her look young. “It’s just...it’s like everyone around me sees the world in of black and white, and all I can see is shades of grey. No one gets it, you know? They don’t understand how hard it is. This school--it’s not the Hogwarts you left behind, Draco. You don’t know what it’s become.”



Draco said nothing, merely looked at her intently and nodded, allowing her to continue at her own pace.

“And I--I hate them. The Carrows. Just as much as anyone. The things I’ve seen them do to people, to children. Her voice cracked, and Draco clenched his fists. All those times he’d been jealous of his friends, safe and tucked away at Hogwarts. What a fool he’d been. Astoria had so clearly been anything but safe there. He’d met the Carrows—they were bastards, through and through.

He focused on relaxing his fists and paying attention to her words.


“And it’s not as though I can speak about it in the Common Room. Flora and Hestia Carrow are always in there, and they report everything back to Amycus and Alecto. I know the others suffer more than we do, and I know it sounds selfish, but sometimes I think they’re so damn lucky just because they can talk about it. The other professors would never turn them in.”

She paused.

“And even if I were to talk about it...you know, with someone from another House, they’d never quite understand. It’s like on some level, they all think we’re in on it. You-Know-Who--” She shot a look at Draco, acknowledging that she was following the advice he’d given her. “I hate him. I hate him as much as anyone. But who would ever believe me, truly?” She wrapped her arms around her torso, her eyes never moving from his. “Sometimes I just feel so...alone.”

“I’d believe you,” Draco said quietly.

“What?”



“I’d believe you, that you hate Him as much as anybody. I know what it’s like to be… suffering…when no one can see it.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know why I’m telling you any of this.”



“I’m glad you did.”

And he was. Of course she was saying mad, dangerous things, and half of him wanted to do what he’d done back in her sitting room, to leap forward and cover her mouth so that the most perilous of her words couldn’t escape to do her harm. But the fact that she’d confided in him, not in a moment of desperation, not thinking she would die, but of her own free will--it did strange, flighty things to the lump of muscle that had been beating so dully in his chest.

“And what about you? Do you? Hate Him, I mean?” Astoria was trying to look casual, like the answer didn’t matter to her. He wasn’t sure there was any change in her expression to betray her, either, just his certainty that it would matter. It had to matter, to a girl like her.

Almost compulsively, he gripped his mother’s wand in his left hand and, with a flick, refreshed the silencing spells within his tent.

Shifting the mirror in his hand, he gripped it tighter, making sure to look directly into those remarkable blue eyes that were so unexpected among her features. The truth sat like a hard little ball in his stomach, clenched up and hiding from sight--usually, hiding even from him. But he knew he had to tell her. If he lied about this, she would know.

“I hate almost everything. I hate this camp. I hate this damnable Mark on my arm. And, most days, I hate myself, to be honest. But I hate nothing--nothing--more than what’s become of my family. My home. The Manor. Hogwarts. And there’s only one person behind all that. So yes,” he whispered, barely able to force the words out from between his lips, which were trembling with fear and anger and truth. “Yes, I hate Him.”


Astoria paused, her head tilted, taking that in. Then she nodded and leaned back against the solid side of the redwood desk behind her. “All that hate. It makes me so tired. Do you get so tired of it all?”

Draco didn’t answer. She could see it on his face, in the slump of his shoulders. He knew that she knew.


“Let’s talk about something else,” she said at last, reaching out for the pillow she had thrown at him and tucking it behind her back, getting comfortable. “I don’t feel like being tired or hating things right now.”

“Alright,” he answered, somewhat bemused. “What do you want to talk about?”



“Oh, anything,” she said with a lazy wave. “Something...happy. Normal.”

The gears began to turn in Draco’s mind as it took to the challenge. Something happy. Not many happy thoughts passed through his mind these days. But he wanted to do it. It was as though some incredibly stupid part of his brain was telling him that, if he could only make her happy, maybe...maybe she would have him.



It was crazy. It was impossible. It was so damned foolish that, in the midst of all this, a girl could occupy so much of his mind. On a normal day he would deny that he’d even thought it. But telling the truth to Astoria had greased whatever small honesty mechanism existed in his brain, and he couldn’t find it within him to lie, not even to himself.

“What do you like with your tea?” he blurted.

“What?” Astoria shot back, mouth agape. It was clearly the last thing she’d expected.

He found he could finally manage a grin--a small one. He already knew so many of the important things about Astoria—her dry wit, her courage, the astounding weight that those delicate shoulders could hold. But he wanted to know her —her interests, her likes and dislikes. He wanted to know what he could do to convince her to unsheathe her smile.

“Well, I already know that you put unholy amounts of sugar in your tea, and I’m curious as to what you like to eat along with it.”

“--ridiculous, high-handed…” he could hear her muttering. “He drinks ditchwater instead of proper tea and he wants to tell me--”

Draco found his mouth curving upward into a proper smile. He held up a hand.

“I am not judging your terrible way of taking your tea. I just want to know.”

Astoria sniffed expressively. “Fine. I’ll have you know that our House Elf, Filly, makes the best scones in Britain.”

Draco had a hunch, and he followed it.

“Good enough that you eat them plain, savouring their natural flavour?” he teased.

“The only way to eat a scone is with butter, jam, and clotted cream.”

And with that, he burst out laughing. Out loud. It sounded so rusty, he almost didn’t recognise the noise. Astoria Greengrass. The girl who had defied the Death Eaters under their own noses, the girl who could act as though life was a chess game and untangle knots of subtext without blinking, the proud, fierce girl who had stared down a werewolf and refused to back down...

Of all things, that girl...she had a sweet tooth.

“What?” Astoria huffed, her crossing her arms across her chest. “What’s so very funny?”



Draco didn’t grind his laughter to a halt. It hurt his sides--the muscles were unaccustomed to this kind of movement. It had been so long. But he savoured it until the need to breathe, and to answer, slowed it down to a natural stop.

“It’s simply not what I’d expect,” he gasped at last. “But you did once tell me that you liked to ‘achieve the unexpected.’”

“I did,” she agreed.

It had been right before she had tried to steal his wand. Right before that time when, minutes later, they had swayed closer and closer, two planets pulled into each other’s orbit, bound to crash into one another, bound to change both worlds. To change, or to destroy. The thought sobered him, but he grasped at the edges of his laughter--the laughter that had been missing for so long--and managed to wrestle that small smile back from the void that was always waiting.

“Tell me why you like it. Your scones with every conceivable topping.”

“They’re better that way!” she insisted, her tone growing warm and dreamy. “Filly’s scones, fresh from the oven, spread with butter, covered in cream, and blended with the jam so it’s that perfect, light pink colour. It’s the colour of the cover of my favourite book that my father used to read me, and once when I was little I decided I had to have them together, because they matched, so I took the storybook with me to tea and I got these globs of creamy jam all over it. Filly tried to clean it out with magic, but she couldn’t. Papa didn’t mind, though.” She paused abruptly, coming back to herself, and glanced into the mirror almost shyly. “I--got a bit carried away with that description,” she conceded, tucking her hair behind her ear in a gesture that seemed almost nervous.

“I liked hearing it,” he answered simply. Something in the set of her shoulders relaxed, and she looked up at him, a curious glint twinkling in her eye.

“You’ve never had them, have you?”

“Your House Elf’s scones? No. I think I was just about to sample one when this mad girl stabbed me with a fire poker.”

Astoria waved that away. He liked that. He couldn’t stop thinking about a girl who had stabbed him and could casually wave it off. There was something very wrong with him.

“Proper scones with everything on them,” Astoria clarified. “You’ve never had them. How is that even possible? Are you just determined to rob yourself of the more enjoyable things in life?” 

Maybe. He held up both hands as if to ward off an onslaught.

“It’s true. I admit it. I confess.”

She lifted her chin so that she was looking down at him, a superior expression on her face.

“Then let the punishment fit the crime. I sentence you, someday, to having tea with me. And I can put as much sugar in your cup as I like, and you must eat your scones the right way.”

“That’s no punishment,” Draco answered, his voice low.

A future where he could look forward to having tea with Astoria Greengrass, could sit across from her or even next to her as she rhapsodised about scones—that would be a future worth having, even if it was only a dream.

He stared into her eyes. She lowered her chin, her gaze locked with his, and he would have sworn that something burned between them, even now, miles away and talking about tea.


Suddenly, a steady thumping noise shattered their charged silence, and Astoria started, her gaze jerking away from his to something behind her, outside the mirror’s view.

“Astoria?” a low, male voice rumbled into the space. “It’s me.”


A cold wave broke over Draco, and he shook his head as it yanked him back to reality with the force of its icy, drowning undercurrent.

“Just a moment,” she called back sharply, sending a fleeting, panicked glance in Draco’s direction and back towards what must be a door. She looked regretful, almost…guilty.

Of course. Of course he should have known. A girl like Astoria--pretty, poised, utterly brilliant? There had to be someone.

How big of an idiot could he be? It hadn’t surprised him--not completely--that she might have found the Room of Hidden Things; she was just that sort of person. But just to be sitting there, wasting time? That wasn’t like Astoria--at least, not how she seemed to be. Most teenagers don’t spend every hour hiding out in a room full of rubbish so that they can tinker with Vanishing Cabinets, Draco. It must have been the grim nature of his task, but it was only now occurring to him what else the Room of Hidden Things was: the perfect place for a secretive girl and her boyfriend to go for a snog. Or more. He clenched his eyes shut. Honestly, he didn’t want to think about it.

He really was an idiot.

It took a moment to realise that she was whispering again.

“Draco. Draco? Just hold on a moment, would you?”

She stood up and looked around nervously. He could see her reach out to the side and pull something--it looked like an ugly brown frock coat--out from somewhere, tossing it over the mirror’s frame, and leaving him looking at nothing.

He heard a scrape, and then quiet. After a moment, muffled voices made their way through. He strained to hear, holding the mirror right up to his ear.



“Tell Padma she’ll just have to wait. I’ll get to it when I can.”

A male voice was speaking; it sounded vaguely familiar, but Draco couldn’t place it.

“She says it’s ‘terribly important’. I know ye’re upset—“

“I’m not upset.”

“Don’ lie to me, Astoria. What you said…you weren’ wrong.” The male voice murmured something else—something Draco couldn’t catch.

“I don’t think most people would agree with you.”

“Give ‘em time, Cap’n. Most people don’ change their prejudices that fast.”

“I don't want to talk about this right now.”

“Please jus’—”



Their words descended into more quiet mutterings, and then ceased entirely. Draco clenched his fists, pushing back against the mental images that assaulted him. They were probably kissing now. They were probably…

And he had no right to be envious. She owed him nothing, just because he’d developed some stupid infatuation. He had no right—


The room--and the girl--suddenly popped back into view with a rustle of fabric as she pulled the coat off the standing mirror and threw it onto the back of a chair.

“Sorry,” Astoria muttered, still looking back over her shoulder, in the direction where the boy must have been standing seconds ago. “I have a minute. He won’t mind waiting.”

“Of course he won’t,” Draco drawled cooly. Astoria’s eyes flicked back to him, confusion wrinkling her forehead.

“What’s wrong? You’re upset.”



“I am not upset,” he answered, realising that he was parroting her earlier words and that he didn’t sound any more convincing than she had.

“You are,” she insisted. “What’s the matter? I just had to have one minute to talk to--” He saw it all happen. Understanding crossed her face, clearing all doubt away with a single swipe. She looked at him, blinked, and the knowledge was suddenly twinkling in her eyes.

“Merlin. You’re jealous.”

Draco bristled, the low, miserable feeling that had taken up residence in his gut receding for a moment as his pride made a desperate attempt to reassert itself. “I most certainly am not jealous,” he spat. “That’s completely absurd.”

“You don’t have anything to be jealous of,” she said. As if he didn’t know that. As if he didn’t know that he had no claim on her, no right to feel this way. “Seamus is--”



“Seamus?!” he blurted. “Seamus Finnigan? The Gryffindor? Have you gone completely mad?” He shook his head in consternation. The girl was going to get herself killed. “Dear God, are you in with that crowd again? I’d have thought you’d have the sense to leave well enough alone!”

“I have a great deal of sense, thank you,” Astoria snapped, her expression turning instantly forbidding.  “Of course I’m not involved with them again.  That would be insane.”  All of a sudden, the anger seemed to drain out of her.  She sighed, not breaking his gaze.  "I'm not with them, Draco.  I promise."

Draco ran a hand through his hair, gripping at the roots. He tugged at it in frustration. “I can never tell when you’re lying! Sometimes I think I know, but it’s impossible. You’re impossible.”



“Pot calling the cauldron black, don’t you think?” she retorted, but her eyes were no longer so cold. Some of her ire appeared to have died down. “Draco, Seamus is a...a friend.”



“A friend,” he repeated starkly.

“We’re...friendly. He’s a good source of information, and I like to be informed. But we’re not, you know...” Her cheeks flushed, ever so slightly. Draco wasn’t quite sure he’d ever seen her at a loss of words before. She cleared her throat. “Not that I see why you should care. But there’s nothing for you to be jealous of.”



The hard knot in his stomach uncoiled and eased, and Draco crossed his arm over his chest as if it could hide the sudden, absurd lightness there. It was a ridiculous pretense, the game they played. He’d all but told her he’d been thinking of her for months, and he knew he’d been in her thoughts as well. A ridiculous game, but still, they played.

“I was never jealous,” he corrected. “I was simply concerned when you said you were meeting with Seamus Finnigan. He’s not a safe sort of person to be around.”



“You were out of sorts long before I mentioned that it was Seamus.”

Damn. She was right. Which meant there was no response he could make besides, perhaps, ‘Was not’, and he refused to sink to that level.


“I’ll have to go soon, though,” she admitted reluctantly, brushing a lock of dark hair behind her ear. “We don’t have long.”

Draco knew she’d never tell him what she had to leave for. She might trust him to an extent, but Astoria was a girl with secrets.

There was still so much he wanted to know, to ask, to say, but they were running out of time. Who knew when—or if—they would get the opportunity to speak like this again? She could only spend so much time tucked away in that magical room, and he was only in his tent when he wasn’t out running drills or stuck on guard duty.

They were out of time, and his parents’ words danced through his head. Draco had to take a chance—Astoria was in more danger than she knew. He grasped the mirror hard by its edges, his thumbs brushing against the cool, silvered glass. He didn’t try to hide his intensity. She needed to know.

“What if I told you to get out?”

Astoria, who had been nervous and distracted ever since she returned from talking to Finnigan, if it had really been him, looked startled. “What? What do you mean?”

“If I told you to leave the school—that it wasn’t safe there? Would you do it?”

“What do you mean, not safe here? Of course it’s not safe here.”

Draco drew even closer to the thin magical membrane that separated them, even though they were miles and worlds apart.

“Not like the Carrows. Worse than them. If—hypothetically—if there might be something coming…”

“What’s coming, Draco?”

”I can’t tell you!” he snarled in frustration. He breathed deeply in, sighed, looked back and locked eyes with hers. “I wish I could,” he promised her. “I wish I could tell you everything.”

Her eyes held his, unblinkingly. Those eyes that had haunted his hours, waking and sleeping, ever since she'd stepped into his life, onto his chessboard, a queen he couldn't bear to capture.

“I can’t, though,” he finished gravely. “I don’t even know. Not for certain.”

“Then how—“

“Logic, Astoria. I know how clever you are. Think about it. It’s almost the end of the year. He’s had a castle full of children—hostages ensuring good behaviour—but in the normal order of things…”

“We’re about to go home,” she whispered, her breath shaky. Her head jerked up suddenly, her eyes piercing his. “He’s not going to let us go home, is he?”

“I think…he’ll learn from his mistakes,” he said, whispering also. To suggest that the Dark Lord made mistakes was treasonous. “People have used the holidays to escape. People like—“

“Ginny,” Astoria finished, a hand covering her face.

“Yes, like the Weasleys. Members of the Order of the Phoenix. Enemies of the state. They slipped through his hands by escaping when Ginny was home, when he had no hold over them.” Draco’s voice was haggard. “I just…I don’t think they’ll let that happen twice.”

“So what will they do?” She looked at him, her eyes weighing his expression. “You don’t know.”

Draco shook his head, and she continued, her mind clicking along at a frantic pace.

“They’ll either keep us all here, or let some of us go. And if they do that…someone will fight. They’ll attack the school, or the Hogwarts Express…something. Something will happen. People will get hurt.”

“I don’t want you to be hurt.”

“Oh, Draco, it’s far too late for that,” Astoria whispered solemnly, a hand rising to rest against her ribs. It made him wonder, and ache—what had happened to her? And could he keep her from the danger that was looming on the horizon.

“What if the others knew? The other students? They could try to escape.”

“They won’t be able to.”

“Why not? There has to be a way. We could find out how to break the Anti-Apparition Charms on Hogwarts, we could—“

“Astoria!” he interrupted, more loudly than he ought to have done. He glanced around, but heard nothing to indicate that anyone had noticed. “Look. I spent the better part of a year thinking how to get people into and out of Hogwarts. I’ve been through almost every way you can think of. Nothing works.”

He ran a hand through his hair and huffed a deep, pained sigh. Crabbe, Goyle, Blaise, even Pansy—he hated to leave them there to face whatever might be coming. But he knew he couldn’t risk it; he wasn’t in contact with any of them and had no good way to convey this. Besides which, the odds of getting caught were too great when multiplied by that many people. And maybe Astoria had found his family’s mirror for a reason. If this wasn’t God or the universe or great wizards past speaking to him, then what was?

He pressed three fingertips against the mirror, wishing he could touch her, as well.

“I can’t stop this from happening. I can’t save everyone I care about in the castle. All I can do is get you out.”

He was startled to see her reach a slender hand towards him, pressing her whole palm against his three fingers. He knew her hands would be cold, like the glass, wished that he could take them between his own and hold them until they warmed.

“I—how would I, even?”

“I could help you.”

She hesitated. “Just me?”

“Just you.”

Draco bit his lip, already plotting. He was reasonably sure he could sneak Astoria out through the Forest, could get her somewhere safer than Hogwarts. Across the Channel, maybe, where France was debating taking action themselves. He could get her to safety. Maybe he could even go with her. Maybe if they planned it right, his parents could find a way out. Maybe…

“Draco, I—I can’t.”

The words fell heavily into all the space between them. Draco shook his head in denial. She had to see sense. She had to—

“My family. My…my friends. I can’t leave them behind.”

The sails of his insistence collapsed as the wind was sucked out of them, leaving him near breathless with dread. Of course. He’d been so selfish; he always was. Even as he was planning a way for his own family to escape, he hadn’t thought of Astoria’s—of her mad, fragile father or her loudmouth sister. Knowing her, she’d probably also want to bring along the family House Elf. She could never smuggle them away quietly. They would anchor her here, amongst the danger and…he understood that. He knew, in the end, he could never leave his parents behind, either.

As for her friends, well, Draco felt guilty about those he had been willing to leave behind. But Astoria was better than he, and he’d known that from the start.

“I understand,” he answered quietly, his eyes still on hers. Her expression—all the hope and fire, briefly guttered. But Draco knew now what to expect. He waited a moment, holding his breath, and all at once the blue flames of her eyes burst back into life, blazing brighter than ever.

“I—“

She jumped, startled, then tilted her head, hearing some sound on her end that he could not.

“I have to go.”

Draco sighed. “I know you do.”

They hung suspended there for a moment, the images of their hands still touching through the glass. He nodded his head and dropped his hand.

“Be careful, Astoria. Be safe.”

“I will,” she told him.

And as her image faded away, it occurred to Draco that he’d gotten his wish; he now knew what Astoria Greengrass looked like when she was lying.


___________________________________________________________________________________

Whew! Oh my gracious, you guys, this chapter nearly killed
me. But here we are! Draco and Astoria--face to face at last! Well, in a way, anyways. So...what do you think? I am absolutely dying to know your thoughts on this one--the process of writing it was pretty brutal, but it finally came together--so please wander down to the comments section and let me know what you think!

ALSO, a big shoutout to you guys. Traitorous Hearts has now gotten more than 300 reviews and more than 20,000 reads, which is just a HUGE deal to me! Thank you all so, so much. I'd love to do a little something extra to celebrate--maybe a missing moment one-shot, some info on a character (if it wouldn't be spoiler-y)...OR something I haven't thought of yet. But I'd want it to be something that you all would enjoy, so if you have a vote and there's something you'd like to see, please let me know in the comments!

Thank you so much, again. Y'all are awesome! All my love!


--Penny







http://www.harrypotterfanfiction.com