Teeth gritted, he stood up and reached forward: whether to strangle her until she pleaded mercy, or to take her hand and squeeze hard until she was defeated by his manly grip, he did not know. He knew only one thing: no one mentioned the ferret incident and got away with it.
This meant war.
He grabbed hold of her hand and squeezed tightly, very tightly. So tightly in fact, that he could feel his veins pop up from the strain. Revenge would be sweet; he would squash her hand until it turned blue, until she begged for that all illusive Malfoy mercy, until...
Well, it would've worked; revenge could have been his - how was he to know that the pink-headed menace was skilled in the ancient art of hand crushing? Bearing down on his hand with a grip of steel, the candy-flossed haired one of mutant strength was doing a fine job of nearly bringing him to his knees.
By Circe, it hurt! And she was laughing -- how dare she? And, and--Ouch!
Relaxing his grip, Draco snatched his hand away and fell to nursing his sore feelings and fingers: his little finger had gone numb, which lead him to believe it would never work again, and his manly ego had taken a pummelling.
Lifting his nose to the air, Draco bestowed the wild-haired nuisance with a look of disdain: cousin she may be, but no one beat a Malfoy at the noble art of hand politics. Though his hand was injured and his pride was hurt, Draco felt the best way forward was to treat the situation with an air of Slytherin scorn and a good dose of denial.
Besides, blue veins popping out were not exactly attractive...
The pink-haired wonder wrinkled her nose and laughed. "Oh, it's too funny..." She paused to regain her breath and reign in her giggles. "You, y-your h-hand shake -- I..."
"I really can't see what it is that you find so humorous about--"
Choking back her mirth, Tonks managed to school her face into a serious expression, although her twitching mouth betrayed her underlying glee.
"I-it's just," she chortled out, "the handshake, the Black handshake... Even though mum taught it me, no one's ever tried it on me before... I just, oh..." Another gust of girlish laughter pealed out.
"Are you?" Draco peered at her through narrowed eyes, taking in the curve of her pointed chin: aristocratic in its tilt, it reminded him of his mother's. "Are you a Black then...?"
"Yeah, my mum is your mum's sis--I mean; Narcissa is my aunt, yes. We're related. Now," pausing, she took a step towards him, "how about a proper handshake, eh?"
Ignoring the bright eyes that now held a serious gleam, Draco allowed himself to be pulled back into a certain recollection that suddenly reared its head and nagged at him. He recognised that face and it was a quite recent memory, he was sure of it. And it wasn't so much her features that provoked the memory, but the way her eyes glinted, the way she held herself, the generosity of her smile.
Taking his silence as a positive, rather than negative reaction to her proposal, Tonks closed the remaining distance between them and began to pump the ponderous young man's arm up and down in a friendly manner.
"Well, then, "she said cheerily as she shook his hand with increased vigour, "Let's begin again, shall we? Only this time on the right foot.... I'm Nymphadora Tonks, your cousin, and I'm very pleased to meet you properly at last. Sorry about mentioning the ferret incident, but I--"
Draco's jaw suddenly dropped in a very un-Malfoyish manner; he'd finally placed her face in his memories. Pulling his hand from her tight grasp, he pointed an accusing finger.
"You're the witch in the tavern--the Leaky Cauldron! That day, when Emily insisted on staying... You smiled at her, at us. You were..." Draco's brow furrowed as he tried to link up all the dots, as he tried to make sense of things and search for a connection. "We met Harry at the station that day, then Ron later on at the Leaky--we fought."
"Then you were there, smiling at us, and, and..." Draco's eyes widened with sudden realisation. "Merlin save us! You were trailing us, weren't you? All of you! You bloody, rotten pillocks! You didn't even trust Emily enough to do her job, let alone--"
"It wasn't Emily I didn't trust, Malfoy, it was you!"
"Thanks for those words of wisdom, Potter; I'm sure that would go down well with Emily. I can't believe you halfwits had me, us, followed..."
"I wasn't tracking you! I was there on the job!"
"Oh, I'm sure you were, Weasley," Draco sneered with derision and a crude cock of the eyebrow, "was she good? Did you do the job well? Did she come back for more of Weasley seconds...?"
A firm hand landing on his shoulder stopped him mid rant; Draco twisted his neck round and observed Tonks coolly through narrowed eyes.
"He was meeting with me, actually, cuz; it had nothing to do with trailing you. Now, can we just calm things down, huh?"
Draco was not to be appeased, though. Ignoring Ron's red-faced glare, the twins gleeful side-glances at each other; Tonks pleading eyes, Harry's stubborn stance, and Luna's owlish stare, he continued undaunted: this was not going to be swept under the carpet, he would not allow this to go unpunished; he had standards, after all, and no Malfoy should be subjected to this new form of humiliation...
"NO! I won't bloody calm down! I stubbornly refuse to be mollycoddled with your hapless words! I want answers, and I want them now! I can't believe - the sheer nerve of all of you! Followed like a common criminal - I want recompense! I'll have your stringy Gryffindor necks for this ... I'll--"
"Well, you are a common criminal!"
"Shut up, Potter! I'll have you know that Malfoys are never common at anything. And if I were a criminal, then I'd be a master one!"
"Thinks a lot of himself, doesn't he?"
"Yup!" Intoned Fred and George cheerfully, enjoying the scene playing out before them immensely. "And not only that," Fred tacked on with a wicked grin, "he's a complete and utter prat, too!"
"I resent that! Slandering my good name ... I'll have you know that--"
"Just stop it right there, Malfoy!" Having had enough, Ron was determined to bring this to a halt and bring things back to the more important matters at hand, such as Tonks delivering over her package to him. Auror training kicked aside past grievances, and he ploughed straight ahead.
"You had just been released from Azkaban!" He punctuated each point the made with a poking finger. "You are a former Death Eater or, at least, sympathiser! You had been held in high security for a year! You are a bloody criminal! A criminal on a year's probation at that! Of course, the bloody Auror office had you on tracking orders! Otherwise, we wouldn't be doing our bloody jobs properly!"
An awkward silence followed the outburst; everybody looked slightly stunned. Then a surprisingly small, emotion-filled voice rasped out, "I was innocent; I was there for supposed protection... I was--"
"Yeah, well so what? Am I supposed to feel guilty about that? You cut the deal. You wanted protection from your dear old dad's friends. You were framed, certainly, but at your own request; it was you who wanted safety behind high-security bars, where no one could get to you...."
Harry stopped to gather his breath and to rub at his temples tiredly; he was tired of keeping this torrid secret to himself after all this years, and he was tired of the guilt that came with it. Even though his imprisonment had been a sham, that did not mean that Malfoy was not guilty. In fact, Harry was sure that Malfoy could be held accountable for many crimes during the war; only the sad truth was that no one, including himself, could prove it.
But that's why it had become so important to prove that he was still working with his father, that he was responsible for Emily's abduction, that Malfoy hadn't changed. Because if Malfoy had had a change of heart, then that meant that Harry would have to re-evaluate a whole lot things about Malfoy as well as about himself...and Harry didn't feel as if he had the capacity to do that right now.
Especially considering that he just knew the ferret was up to no good.
Taking his fingers from his brow, Harry pressed on in a tired voice that was intense with purpose - he could not afford the slightest tinge of sympathy towards the ferret now.
"Your prison sentence may not have been a real one, Malfoy, but that does not make you an innocent. I have not doubt you are guilty of many things..."
If he had expected an indignant outburst from Malfoy, he certainly didn't get one. Nor did he get the usual burst of icy rage aimed at him either: Malfoy stood still, as if frozen to the spot, seemingly lost in some nightmarish memory if his glazed eyes were anything to go by.
The awkward silence surrounding them became more indomitable than Harry thought possible. Pushing his slipping glasses further up his nose, Harry glanced around at his friends, willing them to say something, to say anything. Anything but this dreadful silence.
It was Tonks, who took matters in her own hands.
"Right, now that we've got all that angst and stuff off our chests - what do you say to getting down to the business at hand, eh?"
Putting a guiding hand on Draco's shoulder, she led him over to a nearby chair and gently pushed him down on it. She didn't know her cousin very well, certainly; in fact, what very little she did know about him came from second-hand sources, most of which were not at all favourable.
But Tonks had seen the look in his eye, knew that her young cousin was hurting, and also possibly reliving some trauma. She had seen this many times since the war had ended: traumatised folks that couldn't get past the old atrocities of the war, and her cousin was no different from the rest.
On their side or not, Draco was still a person, who still had to live through his own personal nightmares of the war. Tonks could see this, and her huge, generous heart held plenty of sympathy for her estranged cousin. In fact, her generous heart often got her into trouble on the job.
People told her that she was too soft, that she gave too much of her thought and time to people who didn't deserve it. But, Tonks knew better, no matter what they thought, she knew that she wasn't stupid, or a soft touch.
It was just...
She was fair, and could see more than the black and white of things. No, she would never lament the lost of that bastard, Fenrir, who'd been evil and a true monster to boot. But neither would she see all people that did bad things as truly evil; she knew that people could be blackmailed, or coerced, and she also knew people could change, repent, or even redeem themselves.
Plonking herself down next to her cousin, she smiled a sad smile, remembering that this was one of the things that Remus had loved about her. Her thoughts turned to a murky grey, and the tips of her bright-pink hair turned her natural mousy-brown.
"Tonks? You alright there?"
"Yeah, er, 'm fine..." This wasn't on. Now was not the time for her blue thoughts to be interrupting things, now was the time for getting on with it. Wrinkling her nose in disgust at herself, she gave her cousin a friendly pat on the arm, and concentrated on happy, bright-pink thoughts.
"So, what's first on the agenda then, boys?" Then noticing Luna, she tipped a wink. "Er, and girls, of course."
Ron jumped straight in. "Do you have that package for me?"
"Yeah, hold your Hippogriffs. Just a sec..." Tonks rummaged through several of pockets before producing a small vial covered in cloth. "There you go, five drops of Basilisk Potion for you - that should be more than enough--"
Ron snatched it from her excitedly, exhaling with relief.
"Bloody hell! At last!" Ron held the vial aloft, looking at it with what could be only called total awe. "You don't know how much this means to me--thanks, mate!"
Fred turned to George, watching his younger brother with disbelief. "Easily pleased, isn't he?"
"I'd say so, but does this mean all the drama is over?"
"So, who's going to tell me about what's been happening? I'm a bit out of the loop here."
"No, brother, I don't think it does." Barely suppressing a grin at Tonks question, Fred guessed, quite rightly, that there was more drama to come. "Just look at Harry's face - I'd say we're in for another round."
"So, who's going to fill me in then?" Tonks persisted, flashing her own particular brand of Cheshire-cat grin at the sniggering twosome. "Have I missed a lot? What's all this about a new dark Lord?
Several voices rushed to answer at once.
"Well, you see..."
"It's like this--"
"You wouldn't believe the half of it!"
"I've been tracking down Emily..."
Even though the voices clambered louder, each wanting to be heard, Draco's quiet tone somehow caught everyone's attention.
"Does it honestly matter? Like any one of you knows the whole truth, or cares about what I have to say anyway..."
The total and utter dullness of his tone startled Tonks, as did the lack of any malice. Turning to face her cousin again, she gave his arm a gentle squeeze of encouragement.
"I want to hear it, cuz - why don't you tell me?"
Draco snorted derisively, but didn't look up, choosing to keep his downcast eyes on the mustard stain on the far corner of the table instead.
"Go on, cuz - tell me! I'm all ears. Let me hear your side of things..."
Draco finally looked up and directly into her eyes. A slight flicker of a smirk touched the corner of his mouth.
"Are you quite sure about that - do you think you can handle the truth?"
Ignoring the sudden loud vocal protests at his words, Tonks met his gaze and matched his smirk with a spectacular one of her own.
"Spit it out, cuz - I can handle anything you throw at me. I've heard tales that would turn that would turn your silky locks curly!"
"Well, despite what those dimwits would tell you..." Waving an airy hand and finally pulling himself out of his morose thoughts, Draco let his smirk widen into one of Malfoy legend. "It all started when some idiot from the higher echelons of the ministry decided to palm me off with Carlisle for a year..."
Emily stroked the dark-haired boy's hair absently. The head nestled in her lap gave yet another hiss of pain, followed by a long, shuddering moan, which finally drew Emily's attention away from the staring contest she was having with a portrait (of some unknown Malfoy) that hung on the wall.
"It's ok - it'll be alright Sssha..."
Whispering the same mantra of words to comfort the pain-riddled boy, Emily resumed petting his sweaty, tangled mop with renewed gentleness and care, and doubled her efforts to concentrate on the soothing action of her hands.
Zabini was a wreck, Emily noted dully. The viciousness of Lucius' Crucio had left him so very physically weak; his nervous system was ruined, having taken mote than its fair share of brutal, punishing pain; his body still twitched with constant spikes of agony and, even though a few hours had now passed since the torture had ended, time had lessened his pain very little.
"It'll get better soon, I promise. Here, hold my hand - just squeeze it tight if you need to," Emily covered her free hand over his and held it, "just hold on there, yeah. Don't give in to the pain - it'll get better; it'll be alright..."
The sing-song chant of her soothing words lulled Emily back into a state of lucid unreality, which she found herself slipping into with alarming regularity ever since she had been held here.
The edges of her perception blurred and shimmered into nothingness, as if winking out of existence; some colours seemed sharper, almost too intense; absurd images formed out of thin air, lodging themselves deeply in her mind: laughing gleefully and jabbing mocking fingers, these abstract creations ridiculed her every thought and warned her of the insanity that lurked ominously ahead.
With death, or worse, waiting around the corner, Emily's train of thought ebbed and flowed like an oncoming tide: one minute she'd be feeling fairly sane and able to make sense of the world around her, but then the unwanted daydreams would invade again, leaving Emily with a sudden bizarre vision of epic proportions.
Lucius' hair ribbon unravelled itself from its master white-blond head, slinking down to his neck, where it coiled itself round and round, tighter and tighter, before preparing to strike...
"Miss Carlisle! What in Merlin's name, are you giggling about this time? Have you heard a word that I've said?"
Giggling? Had she been giggling again?
Gathering herself back together again and putting all thoughts of homicidal hair ribbons aside, Emily turned her face to look at the man who'd been sent to watch over them, thus preventing any attempt at escape.
"Why aren't you helping us?" Emily asked bluntly, suddenly alert and back in her normal frame of mind. "You're supposed to be on our side ... you should have a plan--"
"If you had been listening, Miss Carlisle, you would have heard my reasons - I cannot--"
Uncharacteristically pacing up and down the room, Severus placed his fingertips to his temple and dug them in hard. The confounded chit of a girl wasn't helping matters at all! She was in shock, obviously - Snape chided himself mentally for such a mundane thought - however, it did not excuse...
Snape halted his train of thought. He was not, at best, the world's most patient man and his patience was now wearing extremely thin; in fact, he mused, he had travelled far beyond his normal breaking point. The girl required aid that he could not give--her eyes demanded that he should just wave his wand and Apparate them all to safety, where she could then be free of this nightmare...
She wanted the promise of escape and assurance, when all he could give her was information and small hope.
He could not help her flee; Lucius would be on him as soon as he would so as much as tried. Neither could he give her the reassurance she needed: hope was fading with each new second that ticked past, and all he could really do was inform her of the necessary information that may be of some small aid... Now, if she would only listen!
He needed her to be aware of position; he needed her to know what she faced this coming night, of what lay ahead....
"Ah, fuck! It hurts - why doesn't it stop? Merlin it's never-ending... ahhhh!" Hissing through gritted teeth, Blaise gripped Emily's hand tightly as he tried to struggle up into a sitting position: the pain seared through him as his muscles screamed in protest and, instead of upright, he found himself leaning against Emily in an ungainly slump.
Unaware of what thoughts he's interrupted, he blinked rapidly to gain focus and found himself staring up at Snape's scowling face. Blinking up at him again, Blaise was able to discern some flicker of emotion glitter in his unreadable black eyes.
"Ah! You are coherent now - this is a positive sign - you're discomfort will begin to abate now, slowly, of course. However..." Snape swooped down on him and preformed a series of complicated swishes with his wand. "Hmm, I see no irreversible damage - you will heal, albeit slowly - Lucius obviously still has some use for you. Now, if you just--"
"Why can't you help him? Can't you do some healing with that wand swishing of yours?"
The sarcastic tone of Emily's words caused Snape to raise his eyes.
"I have informed you already, Miss Carlisle," Snape concealed his wand back into the folds of his robes and pulled himself back to full height. "I cannot perform any healing spells on Mr Zabini, it would not do for him to be seen healing quicker than expected. If Lucius suspected my aid, then I would be unable to offer what little help I can--"
"And what help is that?" Emily sniped. "You've done nothing so far! All you do is talk in riddles about me becoming a key, and poisons, and hallowed nights, and things that make no sense--"
"Oh, so you have been listening, have you? I had begun to think that your mind was lost to all sensibility, but it seems I was mistaken..."
Emily ignored the disdainful curl of his lip, and decided to greet his derisive statement with the silence it deserved. Tempers had frayed as time moved on, this Emily could understand. She could also understand the reason behind his sarcasm, but she loathed to admit that his words had stung her.
It wasn't that she'd been purposely ignoring him; it was just ... just ... that his words had frightened her greatly. Talk of her becoming the key, of wielding flesh to stone, of becoming a doorway to daemon-kind, of all things! Well, it was terrifying! And more than a little laughable, if she was being honest with herself.
It was as if Snape had recited a couple of leafs out of some second-rate fantasy tome, and had expected her to believe the rubbish between the pages.
And if he truly expected her to believe all that he'd said, then that was more than horrifying, and more insane that her shock-addled mind.
Was that really what Lucius had planned for her?
Was she really destined for that?
Blaise coughed a hacking cough, breaking the silence and her disturbing thoughts; Emily's hand flew automatically back to soothing.
"So, I take it she knows about the upcoming ritual?" Blaise asked hoarsely, directing his question to Snape, hoping to diffuse the intense silence.
"It all just seems awfully like a badly plotted stage drama, though. You know: like a pantomime or something equally as silly. It's unbelievable almost! Like you expect me to believe something so utterly ridiculous!"
"Thank you for sharing that observation with us, Miss Carlisle," Snape sniped drolly, "however, what you believe hardly matters - what is most imperative, though, is your understanding. Tonight, this pantomime, as you so adeptly put it, will take place. Lucius plans to make you the key. Nonetheless..."
Here Severus paused. He had little hope to give, however... while they were still all alive and with full command of their senses, that little spark of hope refused to cease and die. Snape ploughed on.
"I have on my person a small vial, an antidote. It will combat the effect of the Basilisk poison..."
"Oh, is that the poison you intend to shove down my throat? That is, if it even turns up!"
"I can assure you, Miss Carlisle, people are doing the best they can--"
"Hmm, that will make me feel better when I'm strapped down to the ground and have legions of daemons pouring out of me, ha!"
Flinching slightly at her forced laughter, Severus made another attempt, "Miss Carlisle, if you let me speak without interruption--"
"Sev-everus!" Blaise coughed out, "Emily's fears are understandable - it doesn't seem like m-much, I m-m-mean--"
"Yet!" Snape boomed out, obliviously reaching his limit as he slapped his hand down hard on the table he stood next to. "Yet, it is the only chance we have!"
At this show of temper, they each fell into silence, only to hear the door of the drawing room slowly creak open: Emily's head snapped round immediately, and she watched Neville shuffle in through thinly veiled disgust and narrowed eyes.
Keeping his eyes fixed on Snape, Neville ignored the glares he could feel heating his back. Lucius had given him his orders, and he was sticking to them. The prisoners could glare all they liked, if they so wished - it didn't effect him in the slightest - he was used to such things.
No, they could have their vicious stares, and he would have the last laugh. Neville scooted over to Snape, just stopping within an inch of his disdainful snarl.
"To what do I owe this pleasure?"
Unperturbed by his sarcastic demeanour, Neville kept his eyes fixed on Snape's hooked nose and continued with his duty.
"Your master wishes you to bring the girl; it is time to prepare her. Leave the traitor behind. Your master wishes me to check that he has not been healed...."
"My master?" Raising a questioning eyebrow, Snape's words were slick with oil. "My master? Is he not yours, also? I'm sure Lucius would love to hear about your form of address ... it gives much away."
Neville, who was inching past the table where Snape stood and towards the slumped Blaise, suddenly stopped in his tracks. Snape could always get to him, no matter what! The bastard still had that hold over him, even now, after all this years. Sometimes it was as if time had rewound and he was back in the dank, dark Potions classroom, back in the time before.
Shaking himself out of his recollections, Neville turned towards the door, letting his small eyes take a quick glance at all three faces before he showing them his back. Then he scuttled out quickly, calling orders over his shoulder as he went.
"Bring the girl! I shall wait outside - if you do not appear in five minutes, my Lord shall know..."
"Bloody coward! Bloody hypocrite!"
Snape had also noted this about the unappealing boy, but had no intention to voice his agreement. Instead, he strode over to Emily and Blaise, and took hold of Emily's arm. Easing her away from Zabini, he motioned her towards the doorway with a shooing motion.
"Go! Lucius will no be best pleased to be kept waiting! Go, and keep your thoughts to yourself."
Emily hesitated. Although she was sure this new callous attitude was just for show, she found herself hovering, uncertain. "Aren't you coming, too?" she couldn't help blurting out.
"Of course, I am, stupid girl! Do you not think I rush to his side, when my master calls? Go to Longbottom, and stop annoying me with impertinent questions."
His words were cold, but his actions told another story.
Emily stood for a moment, deep in thought, collating what she had just seen, then did what she'd been ordered to do. Walking to the door with new determination, she mused over what would come of Snape passing Zabini back his wand and if it would benefit future events in anyway.
And, as she stepped out of the room and into the cold awaiting hallway, she finally felt that elusive flicker of hope.
"Jeasus, you scared the shite out of me!"
Fred and George grinned in unison. "Told you he'd scream, didn't I?"
"I didn't scream!"
"Yes, you did, old chap! Jumped a mile high, too--"
"Well--youverynearlygavemeaheartattack! What do you think you were doing, Apparating in like that?"
Fred threw himself down on a Transfigured sofa, which still looked terribly like a car seat, folding his arms behind his head, as he got comfortable. "Well, you see," he began, "George and I had a small bet, one which I won by the way, so hand the winnings over, skinflint!"
Dean turned his head and rubbed his neck, feeling extremely happy to have a small break from being the lookout. When Fred and George turned up, things always looked a lot brighter, and Dean was glad they'd finally put an appearance in.
Leaning against the window, he watched all the fun with a wide grin in place.
"Hey! Wait a minute! What was the bet about then?"
Fred pretended to ponder. "Well, I bet that you'd scream like a Banshee, and George bet on you passing out!"
"I did not!" George took a friendly swipe at his brother before settling down next to Seamus on what could only be described as a badly transfigured worktable. "I put my Galleons on Finnigan running like a girl..."
George laughed, and didn't even stop when Seamus's shove sent him flying onto the van's floor. "Well, actually," he propped up onto his elbow, schooling his face into seriousness, "we were betting on whether you'd ward this, er, place or not."
"What's the point?" Seamus shrugged. "It's not like anyone's going to turn up."
"Oh, you don't matter - you know what I mean - I meant the bad guys!"
"Oooooooooh, not the bad guys! Whatever will we do?"
"Shut up! Don't be twisting me words, eediot!"
"But, honesty, Finnegan, where did you learn to be so articulate?"
"Oh, ha ha!"
Ignoring the light-hearted banter around him, George's mind, and eyes, turned to other things, like the state of the van they were using for the stakeout.
In all honesty, he'd never seen anything quite like it. What had once been an old transit van now looked like ... well ... a severely disfigured transit van. The seats up front had been ripped out and transfigured into oddly shaped necessities, such as comfortable seating and a small workstation.
That wasn't the worst of it, though.
Someone, probably Finnigan, had tried to make the stark interior of the van a bit more homely, but the end result had ended up looking just...odd: flimsy curtains, made of who knew what, hung limply at the windows, and a China tea set stood next to an old, copper kettle that had been placed on the floor.
The white walls of the van were covered in Quidditch posters; battered old cushions were scattered randomly across the floor --and, to top it all off, someone had hung a knackered chandelier type of thingy, so that it dangled garishly from the top of the van.
George shuddered out a groan--was he really expected to stay holed up in here all night?
Dean's questioning voice snapped him out of his wandering thoughts.
"So what happened when we left? What did we miss?"
And that brought George's thoughts back to a question of his own. "Why do you think no one is going turn up, then? Do you think it's a wild-goose chase? Don't you trust Ron? You believe Harry then, yeah? Am I right?"
"Well," Seamus's voice was hesitant, "Harry normally turns out to be right, doesn't he?"
"He accused my brother, so I suppose you think he was right about that too, eh?"
"I didn't say that! I don't think Ron is a spy!"
"Yeah, well that's what you were implying."
"I didn't mean it like that, it's just..."
"It's just that Harry is normally right, that's all! I'm not saying anything against Ron!"
Hearing Seamus's indignant tone and seeing the twins darkening expressions, Dean decided it was high time for him to jump in. Shooting Seamus a warning look, he said reproachfully, "Seamus, I remember a time when you didn't always think Harry was right, do you remember? Why don't you try thinking before speaking, yeah?"
Then he aimed an apologetic look at the twins.
"Look, I'm really sure Seamus doesn't think Ron is a spy - you know Seamus - his mouth just runs away with him. And you have to admit - things are just getting weirder and weirder as the day passes. Harry thinking Ron is a spy, Luna saying that stuff about Neville--Malfoy sounding almost truthful. Give him a break, yeah? With everything going on, it's no wonder things are getting a bit confused. Seamus may trust Harry, but that doesn't mean he thinks any less of your brother..."
Fred shifted in his seat, looking a bit uncomfortable as he shot his brother a contrite glance. George picked up on his silent message, and answered for him.
"Yeah, okay. Let's forget it!" He glanced over at Seamus. "Sorry. We didn't mean to gang up on you like that, but, you know, just be careful what you say about our family, right?"
"Okay," Seamus nodded, "and I'm sorry, too. You're right. Let's just forget it."
A silence fell then, leaving them with uncomfortable thoughts and nothing much to say: Fred refolded his arms behind his head and began to study the roof of the van intently; George pushed himself off the floor, ambled over to the window and, leaning his cheek against the cold glass, stared out up at the darkening sky. Seamus remained sat where he was, looking sheepish and dangling his legs, which left Dean to make the first move.
"So what did happen after we left?" he asked, hoping a new subject would clear the intensity from the air.
"Not a lot," George replied, not tearing his eyes from the storm clouds gathering outside the window. "It was pretty boring mostly; we just went over the same things as before. Trying to work out some stuff, you know. Just like before."
"I wouldn't say that, brother," Fred chipped in, sounding a bit more like his normal chirpy self. "You missed quite a good show actually: the ferret was whining, Harry was shouting, and dear old Ronniekins made quite a show of himself, too."
Dean could not suppress his grin. The atmosphere lightened considerably, and the questions began to flow. "Did you work anything out about Malfoy?" He asked.
"Yeah," Seamus had clearly finished brooding, "and what about that Omni glass? Did you work out who took it - was it Nev?
"Who said we worked anything out," Fred grinned. "We left them as confused as they were before: Harry was still harping on about the manor, and how he couldn't believe Neville was the spy; Ronniekins was still going on about finding Snape, and Tonks and Luna were debating over the ferret's eyebrows for some reason...."
"But, didn't you come up with any more plans?" Dean pressed, while snorting back an amused laugh. "Surely they must have come up with something new."
"Well, Ron and Tonks were going off to the ministry, to get backup and things--"
"What about, Harry?" Seamus interrupted. "What did he decide on?"
"Oh, he's still off to the manor, but he's dragging the ferret with him. You should have seen his face, it was priceless!"
"I think he had a valid point, though..."
All heads turned to George, who was still gazing out the window at the first drops of rain that fell from the darkening sky. Fred looked suddenly serious, and the expression sat oddly on his normally carefree face.
"You don't trust Malfoy, do you?" he asked his brother, sharply.
George shrugged noncommittally.
"Well, if you actually listened to his points, he made a lot of sense. Well," he gave another shrug, "more sense than anything else we've heard today."
"But, it's Malfoy!"
"He's a slimy git! A Slytherin! You can't trust him! Who in their right minds would trust that snake?"
"And who in their right mind would believe our brother was a spy? Or that Neville had turned traitor?" George snapped back, instantly defensive. "Are you telling me you'd believe all that rubbish first, before believing Malfoy?"
"I suppose not, but Malfoy? The ferret!" Fred shook his head in disbelieve. "I just can't believe you'd even think of trusting him."
"I never said that, I just mentioned that he's brought up some valid points. Points worth thinking about." George shifted around to face them, and leaned back against the window, hugging his knees towards him. "I just think he's being overlooked, and that could be a big mistake on all our parts."
"Well, I suppose..." Fred looked uncertain. When George told it straight like that, he couldn't really argue - it all seemed to make sense. But, Malfoy? What it came down to, he supposed, was that he just couldn't get over the prat he'd been at school. Things like that were hard to get over, and even harder to forget, but... could that be Harry's mistake, too?
Maybe they all needed to do some serious rethinking, and now, in this rapidly darkening Disillusioned van, was probably the best time to do it. He could not start with Malfoy, though; he simply didn't want to think about that pillock. No, he would start somewhere else, and with something far more important in his opinion.
"Do you think all that torture he went through, twisted Neville's mind?"
Fred started. Trust his twin to be thinking along the same lines as him.
"Well, he was in St. Mungo's for a long time, and the rumours back then harped on him being dangerously deranged. I remember it well: do you remember how Harry stormed Rita Skeeter's offices in an attempt to put a stop to it?--"
"Yeah, the rumours did stop rather suddenly."
"But, that's all they were, yeah? Rumours. I mean, St. Mungo's wouldn't have released him if it were true, would they?"
"Apparently, they would."
Seamus jumped up startled, "SHITE! I wish people would stop doing that! Me poor heart!"
Hand against his heart, he sank back down and looked accusingly at Ron, who had just Apparated noiselessly in. He was not the only one staring, though, as everyone else gaped at him openly as his words began to sink in.
"Wh-what do you mean?" Dean was the first to gain his senses. "What do you know? What did you find out?"
Taking off his soaked cloak and wringing it, Ron's mouth twisted grimly. "I've just come back from the ministry, and found out an interesting little tip-bit... Apparently, Neville's dear old Grandma brought them off with enough money, and a 'he's given so much up for this war already' plea."
Nobody could quite believe it, and all they could do was stare helplessly as Ron flung his cloak in the corner and stomped over to the window to peer out.
"Any sign of activity yet?" he asked, either ignoring their combined stupor, or just completely unaware of it.
"N-no, nothing, but..."
"What? Did something happen?"
"No, nothing happened," Dean answered, but pressed on with the question they all wanted to know. "But, what exactly does this mean; does it mean what I think it does?"
"Well, if you're thinking that Neville and the ministry may have been keeping secrets," Ron flashed them all a grim grin, "then you'd probably be right. It looks like we've found our traitor."
"OW! The bloody thing cut me!"
"Well, of course, it did, Potter!" Draco drawled disdainfully, "how else is it supposed to work out the purity of your blood? We can't be letting any old Mudblood in, you know..." Trailing off deliberately, Draco flashed Harry one of his most evil smirks and snickered. "Did it hurt, Potter? Do you want me to kiss it better?"
Harry glared at Draco, infuriated at his use of that derogatory phrase, while sucking on his throbbing thumb. Honestly, where had his brain been hiding when he insisted that the ferret had to tag along with him? Still nursing his sore thumb, Harry jabbed accusingly at Malfoy's chest with a digit that was still relatively pain free.
"Not funny, Malfoy!" Harry muttered over a mouth full of thumb. "You could've at least warned me."
"And spoil all my hard earned fun?" Malfoy opened his eyes comically wide, and Harry could see he was he was about to go for a killer punch line. "What do you take me for, a Hufflepuff?"
"Is that the best you can do, Malfoy?" Harry rolled his eyes, and finally took his wounded thumb out of his mouth--he was a Gryffindor, and he was brave, and nursing his war wounds was something to be kept from enemy (make that Slytherin) eyes. Harry squared his shoulders, moving in for the kill.
"You know, Malfoy," if he could purr his words, he would have, "this is all stacking up against you: your attitude, your obstinacy--your total failure to help in anyway..."
That seemed to have done the trick; Draco instantly nettled.
"Fuck you, Potter!" Draco fumed, "I've given all the help you lot need. It's not my fault that you choose to ignore it!" And, with that, he turned his back on Harry, and stormed off.
Harry watched Draco turn his back on him, and walk over to a point in the looming hedge that seemed a slightly darker than the rest of the monstrous growth: tall, ominous, but neatly clipped, the hedge-of-bloody-doom (well, that's what chose to Harry call it) was typical of a Malfoy.
Many people may have been amused to learn that the infamous Malfoy Manor was warded by mere greenery, but having been attacked by said shrubbery, Harry had to disagree--the tall, elegant and stately hedge, with its sneaky, bloodthirsty thorns, emanated Malfoy sneakiness from its roots to its uppermost twig.
Put it this way, Harry had learnt a sore-thumbed lesson: don't be fooled by the innocuous, because you never know when it might turn around and bite you, and bite you hard.
Harry sighed: the day had been long, and the weariness that he'd carried around all day had finally seeped into his bones, making even the slightest move he made lethargic. Removing his glasses and then sliding them on again, Harry refocused his sight and energy.
Luna, he saw, was at Draco's side, questioning him with wide-eyes and utmost attention.
"Why is this patch here darker than the rest?" Harry listened intently as her dulcet tone echoed in the night. "Is there any particular reason for it, or has it always grown that way?"
"You can see it?" Draco demanded, his forehead furrowing into a frown. "It's not meant to be noticeable - only true Malfoy's are meant to see - how can you?"
"It's really obvious, though - is it meant to be secret?"
Sensing Draco's internal aggravation, Harry stepped forward, between Draco and Luna, and laid a warning hand on his shoulder.
"I can see it, too," he told him flatly, "what's the problem? Why shouldn't we be seeing it? Is it down to bloodline thing? Because Luna is as pure as you are, Malfoy - so it really shouldn't be a problem."
"No! It has nothing to do with that," Harry watched Malfoy clench his hands to his head in what could be only called distress. "You shouldn't be able to see, only I should be able to tell it apart, unless...."
"Unless what, Malfoy?"
"Unless the wards have come down..."
"Oh!" Harry wracked his brains for more. "Does that mean?--"
"If you can see the entrance to the secret path," Draco retorted dryly, "it means that my father, the master of the wards, has taken his leave of the manor."
"Oh!" Harry realised he sounded quite daft, but could not help himself. "And why does that enable us to see it?"
"Because," said Luna, almost wistfully. "Because, with Mr. Malfoy away, the house recognises Draco as the true master, and because he sees us as welcome guests, we can see the where the opening of the secret passage begins..."
"Oh," Harry said again, unwilling to break the pattern he'd set up
Rolling his eyes, Draco shot him his most withering look. "Are you going to stand there all day, Potter? Or are you going to follow me?"
"I'm not your follower, Malfoy," Harry quipped back at once, only to regret it when he saw Malfoy disappear into greenery with Luna tagging along after him. And, not wanting to be left behind, Harry dived in head first, forgetting to worry about the thorns that surrounded him.
He needn't have worried, though--the thorns drew back, making his journey forward a fairly pleasant one, and Harry followed Luna and Draco with hardly a word. Content to peek through random gaps at the manor and its grounds as he passed, Harry walked on with a strange sense of serenity.
Walking quietly down the secret path, Harry found a strange zone of contentment: it was as if he did not belong to the here and now, and as if the path that he straggled along did not know tomorrow. But, all too soon for his liking, Harry found himself coming to an untimely halt.
"The hedge ends here," Draco told them, his tone sounding haughty but also slightly nervous. "From now on, we'll have to cross some open spaces: the trees and shadows will cover us for awhile, but, as
we draw closer, we'll face a greater risk of being seen."
"That really shouldn't matter, though," Draco continued to inform them, "as I'm quite certain my father and his latchkeys aren't at home at the moment. But, it's best not to take unnecessary risks. Follow me and keep to the shadows--I'll try and veer us to the south door, where we should pass unnoticed."
"From there we can proceed to father's study," here Draco swallowed, finding it hard to conceal his nervousness to the others. "And if, indeed, my father is gone, then we should be able to find some sort of documentation to his plans and whereabouts, but if this is some elaborate trick of his..."
Neither Luna nor Harry needed him to continue; both of them understood the perils that this path could lead down. Giving Draco the go-ahead nod, Harry wondered where his sudden trust of all things ferret had sprung from--but, not having the time to linger long with his thoughts, he soon found himself following his former schoolyard enemy blindly down shadowy paths.
"Are we safe now?" Harry asked, struggling to regain his breath, as he allowed himself a moment to rest against the ornate marble wall. Remembering the mad dash across the endless grounds, Harry just felt thankful to be out of sight of the hundreds of windows that had glittered menacingly down on him, and to be finally safely inside away from the disabling cold.
"Safe?" Draco laughed harshly, "we're we ever?"
Harry narrowed his eyes in a baleful glare: if Malfoy wanted to play cat and mouse with him, then Harry was more than ready. Piercing him with his best glare, Harry prepared himself for the mind games that he knew were about to begin.
"Shut it, Malfoy, and just lead on. Don't tell me you're frightened - does your daddy scare you?"
Draco's brow furrowed into a scowl instantly. How dare he? Trust Potter to think that this was all game! Honestly, did the prat really have no idea at all? Before Draco could voice his thoughts aloud, though, a low moan echoed from the room adjacent from them.
"What was that?" Potter all but yelped, his eyes darting towards the direction of the sound. Then he lowered his voice to vibrating hiss. "Malfoy, you'd batter not be..."
But Harry never got to finish his sentence. Distracted by Draco suddenly darting ahead towards the source of the groans, Harry found himself somewhat disorientated and out of place. Luna pushing past him, wide-eyed and looking eager, soon snapped him out of it, though.
Racing forward, Harry caught up with her just as she reached the doorway.
"Luna, wait! Be careful, don't - stay back!"
Grabbing a hold of her arm, he whirled her behind him, and out of harms way. Then stepping forward, with his wand at the ready, he entered the room first.
Zabini froze on hearing the voices outside. Was it over already - had he calculated time wrong? No, surely, enough time had not passed; the ritual could not be over so soon. But, why then, was he hearing voices in the hall? Why had someone returned so early? And, even more importantly, what did it mean for him?
Blaise decided it was for the best to scuttle behind the couch and hide. This proved to be his downfall, though. Even the wand in his hand could not prevent the low, agonising moan that escaped him as his muscles screamed in protest at being forced to move so quickly.
Knowing he was as good as found, Blaise decided it was best to face what unknown foe lay beyond the door and gripped his wand more tightly in his hand. Then Draco had appeared, closely followed by Harry Potter, and then Blaise had felt his grip on reality slip before passing out.
Zabini came around to a gentle buzzing sensation that seemed draw all the pain and weariness from his body, and Harry Potter looking down on him with intense concentration. Blinking, he wondered about how absurd his dreams had become before passing out again.
The next time Zabini came round, he came round to Draco arguing loudly with Harry Potter about how much he hated him. Then he had smiled, thanking Merlin to be back where he'd belonged, and had somehow managed to stay conscious.
"So, you're saying that he's taken Emily to Stonehenge?"
"Yes," Blaise answered for what felt like the millionth time. Really, he was more than thankful for the healing that Harry had given him, but if Harry asked him that question again, he might very well explode. And Draco keeping on saying that he 'told him so,' wasn't exactly helping matters either. Zabini was seriously considering passing out again.
"So, what do we do now?"
"We go to Stonehenge, of course!"
"Then I'm coming with you..."
Draco snorted derisively, but his face looked concerned. "You can't, Zabini," he told him matter-of-factly, "you're still too weak! You've only just come round again - you'll get yourself killed if you come with us!"
Zabini watched Harry closely.
Harry chose to ignore the conversation between Luna and Draco, deciding to concentrate on other things instead, such as the things that Zabini had confirmed for him. Zabini, who sat there quietly, with eyes that never left him.
Did he know? Harry thought that he probably did. Zabini looked like he knew a lot of things, and Harry had the feeling he probably knew too much.
But, did he know how much he hated to be wrong? And did he know that he felt like he'd been delivered a disabling punch to guts?
Harry hated to be wrong, certainly. But, he also knew how to roll with the punches and get on with things--it was an integral part of him that kept him glued together, when he should be falling to pieces instead.
He was wrong and everybody else was right, Harry accepted that with out hesitation. But, instead of dwelling on just how wrong he'd been this time, it was time for him to put his wrongs to right.
He apologised stiffly to Draco, and refused point blank to see the self-satisfied smirk that crawled over his face after he did so. Then his thoughts drifted to Ron, who had been right. More right than him, anyway. That was another wrong for him to right, and that meant he had to keep going.
Harry made a sudden movement, and pretended not to see how Zabini's watching eyes had widened in anticipation, or how Luna's lips had worked quickly to form the question that now danced there.
"What is it, Potter?"
Unsurprisingly, it was Draco who asked the question that needed to be asked first. This caused Harry no surprise whatsoever, as he could see the determined glint that lit up his cold, grey eyes. Ordinarily, this might of caused Harry some small concern but as he still had to put his wrongs to right, Harry simply decided to ignore it--he had other things to be getting on with for now.
"What is it?" Draco repeated impatiently, "what the hell is wrong, Potter?
This time, though, Harry chose to answer the question.
"We're wasting time here," he answered simply, "and I think it's time for us to go."
"Where's Tonks then? Shouldn't the backup be here, by now?"
Ron ignored the question, choosing to stare into the rain sodden night instead. The same question had been asked of him many times and in many ways as the day had passed slowly through late afternoon, into early evening, and then to darkest night.
Not wanting be rude, Ron had answered the question dutifully each time it had been asked, giving the same old, trusted answer every time: I don't know!
But now the question was starting to wear on him.
The truth of the matter was this: he had no bloody idea where Tonks and backup was right now! And if things had gone as planned, well, they should have Apparated in hours ago. He had no idea what was going on, and the fact that he didn't grated on his already frazzled nerves.
So much could wrong tonight; too much depended on him and what he decided to do next. And, at times like these, he sometimes wondered why he'd ever really wanted this much responsibility. Why on Earth had he wanted to become an Auror? What had made him choose the path that had led to this?
Finally tearing his gaze from the dark, eerily silent world that lay outside, Ron rubbed viciously at his tired, dark circled eyes. Self-questioning wouldn't help him now; he really needed to get past this... But, despite his mental self-scolding, Ron couldn't help the sinister feeling that swept over him, an ominous feeling that seemed to promise a night filled with doom.
Would he be able to get the poison to Snape in time?
Could he lead a team of only five through this night safely?
Would he be able to get Emily out to safety?
Would Tonks arrive anytime soon with back up?
Had he got it all wrong?
Was he doomed to fail?
His thoughts turned briefly to Harry at the manor...
Would Harry turn up?
And, if he did, what would he bring with him?
Was Harry the missing ingredient in this fucked up mixture?
Was Harry the one, who could turn the night's fortunes around?
The door of the van slid open and a breathless Seamus fell in, bringing the cold, icy chill of the night air in with him. "A small group just Apparated in!" he rasped out. "They--"
"Look!" Dean interrupted, dropping his Omnioculars with a clutter. "Over there! There's even more arriving!"
Ron stared into the night, watching carefully as the dark, indistinguishable figures Apparated into the hallowed circle of stones; one by one, they appeared, all hooded, and heavily cloaked. And as soon as their feet touched this holy ground, Ron watched them as they scurried off to their appointed places, where they stood like silent sentinels waiting patiently in the night.
The ritual was about to begin...
Dressed in a robe of virgin white, Emily stepped forward into a living nightmare and promptly stumbled.
Lucius held his arm out to Emily in a most courteous manner, and Emily felt her unwilling hand stretch out to take his arm in hers.
This is nothing but a dream!
A night terror!
She would awaken from this bewildering haze at any moment...
"Come, Emily," he spoke her name almost as softly as a loving caress, "come, it is time. Your final moment has come. Step forward, girl; come, follow me... Come; let us partake in the 'Turning of the key.'"
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