Sirius materialised in front of a small stone fence, and straightened his travelling cloak. Smoke was drifting out of the chimney, and golden light was glowing out of the house's windows. Sirius eased the wrought iron gate open and made his way up the cobbled path to the front door.
He knocked once, and heard noise inside, but a minute later, no one had arrived to let him in. Sirius knocked again, and then a third time. He glanced through the closest window; light was on in the kitchen, but he couldn't see anyone. Irritation crawled up his neck.
"Mr Morton, it's Auror Black," he called. There was a scuffling noise inside, and then a creak, like a door or window opening. "Morton, open the door." A thump. Sirius' irritation became unease. "Morton!"
It was so weak that it was almost a whisper, and Sirius didn't think he'd have heard it if it wasn't for his canine hearing.
"Ventus Maximus!"Sirius said, and the door burst open. "Point me," he said, and his wand spun and pointed into a room on his right; there was a doorway in there that led to the kitchen. Morton was slumped in his chair, face ashen, breathing heavily, as if he'd just been running, or to a particularly vigorous Quidditch training. He also appeared to have lost several pounds in the past two weeks.
Morton didn't respond when Sirius burst in; he was staring into space with droopy, unfocused eyes, and Sirius wasn't sure that he'd noticed him at all. He pitched sideways off his seat, and Sirius managed to cross the room in time to stop him from cracking his head on the stone floor. He managed to lower him to the ground, and started casting non-verbal diagnostics. Verbally, he opened his Sidekick, and, couldn't get Hemsley, but he managed to get through to Brown. He didn't think he'd ever been happier to hear the trainee's voice.
"Don't talk: listen. I'm at Morton's; big, stone house between Lockswood cemetery and River Avon, in Bath. Morton's- not well." Sirius glanced up at the list of diagnostics that had written itself in the air beside him. "He's bleeding internally at the base of his brain; lower skull-higher neck region-" Morton started to flail and choke in Sirius' arms. "I need you and Hemsley here now," Sirius said urgently, "and bring a Healer." There was no way that he could use any sort of transport with Morton in this state; it'd probably kill him.
He flicked his wand to cast a spell that would thicken blood; it wouldn't thicken it enough to clot arteries, but it would make small clots that would hopefully slow the bleeding. It was the only thing he knew that could help, and it wasn't even designed for internal wounds; brains were tricky for experienced Healers, and Sirius' healing abilities were limited to broken bones, torn muscles, and cuts and bites. The closest thing to this that he'd ever dealt with was a torn throat, but he'd been able to see what he was doing there, and had had Dittany to help.
"Accio Dittany," he said, but nothing came, or even rattled in the cupboards around them. Sirius cast a spell that worked like a blood replenishing potion - but was nowhere near as powerful – and hoped that it would do something.
Where are you, Hemsley? he thought desperately.
Morton's eyes suddenly locked onto Sirius'. He reached up, presumably to grab Sirius, but missed by several inches. "Please, don't let him-" He cut off with a choking noise. Sirius tossed his Sidekick to the ground.
"Him? Who?" Sirius asked, squeezing Morton's wrist. He moved down to his hand when that didn't earn him a response and squeezed again. Morton's face drained of what little colour it had left. "Morton! Morton, can you hear me?" For a moment, Sirius thought he'd died.
"Your fault," Morton slurred, without opening his eyes. "You did this, Black-" Sirius was startled by his direct address; he hadn't been sure that Morton knew who he was. "-you killed me, you didn't see, didn't help." Sirius held Morton down as he seizured again, and was so busy trying to make sure the older wizard didn't injure himself that he didn't have time to move as Morton's dinner made its reappearance all over his robes. "You-" Morton's voice faded as he slipped into unconsciousness.
"Rennervate," Sirius said, several times. Nothing happened. He cast two spells in quick succession; one to keep Morton breathing, and one to keep his heart beating, and then sat there beside him, helpless, waiting, until Hemsley swept in with Brown and Healer Leatherby. Leatherby came straight to Morton, his wand already dancing through the air. Sirius got to his feet and out of the way.
"Still alive," Sirius said. Hemsley nodded. Brown was eyeing the patches of vomit on Sirius' robes with revulsion, and the now-twitching Morton with fear. "Is there anything I can do to-" He cut off, and Brown stopped breathing as Morton went still. They were all silent for a moment. Leatherby continued to wave his wand, and then lowered a hand and put his fingers to Morton's neck.
"Dead," Leatherby said in a flat voice.
Sirius closed his eyes and took a deep breath... then wrinkled his nose, because the kitchen really did smell; like half-digested food and stomach acid.
"Take the body," Hemsley told Leatherby, who nodded. "And samples of that." He nodded at the puddle on the floor. "If it was poison, it'll show up in tests. Brown, search the rest of the house." Hemsley waited for Brown to leave, and Leatherby to take his sample - and Morton - and Disapparate. Then he turned to Sirius. "What in Merlin's name were you thinking?" he sighed.
"You made it obvious that you didn't think he was worth investigating-"
"He's dead," Sirius said. "Obviously he is- was. I couldn't shake the feeling that he was involved in all of this somehow, and I thought I'd speak with him again." Hemsley just stared at him. "I don't need permission to follow a lead."
"Lead? Your instincts?"
"People have found more, going by less," Sirius said.
"And you found a dying man," Hemsley said. "So answer this: would he have died tonight anyway, and the fact that you stumbled across the scene is an interesting coincidence, or did he die because you visited?"
"You think I killed him?!" Sirius snarled.
"No," Hemsley said, shaking his head. "But others might, because you kept your visit a secret. Scrimgeour trusts you, but if Dawlish gets wind of this, or one of the Ministerial staff... they'll have you investigated, Black, you know they will." Sirius did know that. He'd only seen Fudge on a handful of occasions since his trial, and the usually jovial man had been rather frosty. Dawlish had led the Anti-Auror-Black campaign after the trainee trial last Christmas – he'd complained to Scrimgeour at length, and even started a petition – and while Crouch didn't seem to care much, the few times Sirius had been around Fudge's other Undersecretary – the Umbridge woman – she'd reeked of fear and hatred... and that, Sirius knew, was never a good combination. "What I'm saying, is watch out."
"It wasn't a secret," he said, frustrated. "I decided to come here tonight on a whim. No one knew-" Hemsley opened his mouth, and Sirius waved a hand to tell him to close it. "- sure, but I'd have filed the report in the morning. It wasn't supposed to be a big deal. Just a check-up, where I was supposed to find nothing and spend the rest of the night telling myself that I'm just working too much and getting paranoid." Hemsley snorted, and then sighed.
"Except you're not."
"Not yet," Sirius sighed, staring at the place where Morton had been. "I sort of wish I was." They stood in silence for a moment; Hemsley looked troubled, and Sirius was feeling too much – sad, tired, worried, stressed, lonely – to feel much at all.\
"Make a list," Hemsley said finally, "of the magical traces in the area, and any identifiable spells that were cast or in effect in the last twenty-four hours. I'll handle the manual searching." He skirted the mess on the floor to get to the kitchen window, which was ajar, and started running his wand over the windowsill.
Sirius sighed, pulled out his wand, and got to work.
They were at Morton's for another few hours, combing the house in every way – magical, non-magical and canine – they knew how. The Mortons, it seemed, were very normal people, and they'd found no evidence of anything sinister, or even suspicious, other than the obvious; Morton himself.
Sirius left the house just after midnight, and went straight into the office, intending to find Scrimgeour and tell him what had happened; it was usually best to get these sorts of things out of the way as soon as possible, and the older man would be around, because he was taking a session with the trainees that ended at midnight, and meeting with Moody, Robards and Dawlish – the three most senior Aurors – until one, like he always did on Thursday nights.
Sirius had the lift to himself on the way to Level Two, which was probably for the best, and when he got to his cubicle, he pulled off his travelling cloak, robes and t-shirt, which were all damp and covered in Morton's vomit, conjured a bag and stuffed them inside it. He then Banished that to Grimmauld. He'd deal with them when he got home, or Kreacher would. His jeans, thankfully, were fine.
He used a few cleaning spells to get rid of the smell, and then went to dig through his desk, in search of something he could transfigure into a new shirt. He decided on a piece of parchment, and was just trying to decide which spell to use, when Marlene walked in.
"Oh!" she said. "Sorry, I just-"
"What?" he said wearily. "Never seen a bellybutton before?" Marlene rolled her eyes.
"You know I have," she said. She bit her lip. "I overheard Brown talking to Gelder." Gelder was the mind-healer that was counselled Aurors and trainees when they needed it. "Sounds like you've had a rough day."
"You could say that," Sirius sighed. "A man's dead and he said it was my fault... that I didn't see... whatever that means."
"If you're about to start moping-"
"I'm not about to mope," Sirius assured her. "I've thought about it, over and over for the last hour, and I can't think of anything I would have done differently... and that sort of makes it worse, because I was helpless. Do you know what I mean?" Marlene gave him a sad look, and came a step closer so that she could put her hand on his arm. "It's worse when it's not war time," he continued. "You don't expect this sort of thing. And- just- I mean, blaming me was the last coherent thing he said before he died. I don't know if he's just a git and wants me to feel bad, or if he was actually trying to tell me something, or- I don't know. And Hemsley's right – if the wrong people hear about this, then I'll be up for investigation, and off work until I'm cleared, and without Harry and Moony around, I won't have anything to do." Marlene was silent, and Sirius glanced down at her. She dragged her eyes away from his collarbone and met his gaze. "This is where you say something comforting."
"I've never been very good at comforting," she said dryly, and went back to staring at- not his collarbone, he realised, but the tattoo about an inch beneath it.
"It's my prisoner number," he said, unnecessarily. She just nodded, and ran a finger over it. Sirius shivered, and Marlene's mouth twitched. "There was a thing in the Prophet a few months back about them adding more compulsory tattoos for prisoners, but I got off with just the one, so-"
"It's seems strange there," she said, tracing it once more before letting her arm drop back to her side. A significant amount of Sirius' stress dropped away, and he watched Marlene with interest. "Unfamiliar."
"It doesn't have to be," Sirius said, winking. Marlene didn't make an excuse and leave, as he'd half expected her to, or turn and run, or slap him, or make a sarcastic retort. She just stared at him.
"Maybe it doesn't," she replied, and he could have sworn her voice shook. He felt his face twitch into a shocked expression before he could help it, and she smirked. Her eyes didn't lose their intensity, though, and Sirius didn't dare look away.
He reached for her hip, to see how far she was willing to take this. She didn't back away, though, and his hand met robes, and then she tilted her head up, ever so slightly, eyes still locked on his. It was an all too familiar gesture, and Sirius' stomach lurched in a rather pleasant way. He bent his head-
And then, for the second time in ten minutes, someone walked in, unannounced.
"Holy Merlin on a Hippogriff!" Sirius and Marlene leapt away from each other to see Dora standing there, with her hand over her eyes. Her hair was white, for shock, but her skin was pink with embarrassment. "Shit. Sorry, I'll just-"
"No, it's fine. I was leaving," Marlene said. Sirius tried to catch her eye, but she didn't look anywhere but straight ahead.
"What the bloody hell was that?" Dora asked.
"That," Sirius said, flopping down onto his desk with a groan, "was proof that relatives have rubbish timing, no matter how old they are." He transfigured his parchment into a shirt and pulled it over his head. "What do you want?"
Sirius thought his sulky expression might have withered any questions she had – or at least made her change her mind about asking them at that exact moment – because she pulled out a piece of parchment.
"An owl just arrived from Remus this was in there for you," she said brightly. "I was going to wait until morning, but your light was on, so I figured I might as well give it to you now."
Sirius decided he was going to punch Remus the next time he saw him.
Weasley One and Two, Draco reflected, had been right when they'd told Weasley that the school brooms were nothing special. Longbottom's tried to kidnap him when they first mounted, but Draco – who'd regrettably ended up next to him in the line - pulled him off the broom before he was even at shoulder height. Longbottom landed with a thud on the grass, startled, but unhurt.
"What?" Draco'd said, while everyone stared at him, and Longbottom picked himself up off the ground, embarrassed. "If he didn't kick me in the face while he was flailing around-" That had been a seriously likely possibility, in Draco's opinion. "-he'd have fallen on me." The Slytherins looked thoughtful, but a few smirked, and Draco relaxed.
"Ten points to Gryffindor," Madam Hooch said quietly, and the Slytherins groaned. Draco sighed. "Now, who can tell me what Mr Longbottom's problem was?" Granger, predictably, was the first to put her hand in the air.
"Thanks," Neville said, in a timid voice, as Granger said something about the magic in brooms sensing their flier's emotions – it was a word-for-word quote from Quidditch Through The Ages.
"Shut up, Longbottom," Draco said, and Longbottom fell silent at once, with a squeak. Draco wasn't sure how to apologise for the blood traitor comment last week – it wasn't really something he'd ever had to do before – but he thought helping him was a good way to start.
Madam Hooch fetched Longbottom a new broom, and this time, the entire class made it into the air. They hovered with their feet about a foot off the ground, and Draco looked around, interested. Tracey, Granger, Thomas and Longbottom were all wobbling horrendously, and the rest of the class – Draco included – varied in skill between them, and Potter, who was so stable that he could have been sitting on a bench in the Great Hall.
Madam Hooch spent a bit of time with each of them – some, like himself, Potter, Weasley, Hydrus, Daphne, Gregory and Finnegan only got a sentence or two – while others had several minutes worth of tips and corrections. It was rather satisfying, in Draco's opinion, to see that Granger wasn't the best at everything.
Once they'd managed that, Madam Hooch let them rise until they were level with the castle's second floor windows. She set up Cushioning Charms on the grass below, and then joined them in the air.
"The quickest way to learn," she shouted (everyone was spaced out, and Draco thought it was for the best; he didn't want to be anywhere near any of the new fliers until he knew they could steer), "is to fly." She flicked her wand and several courses, outlined in glittery orange magic appeared. She explained and then demonstrated each of course; there were three sets of two lines beside each other, (so they could practice going in a straight line, or race a friend), there were several squares (to practice turning), a wave like line (to practice varying height), five helical shapes (to practice turning and ascending at the same time) and there were also a series of hoops for the more advanced fliers to use, which would combine several skills.
The class spread out; Hydrus and Weasley went straight for the hoops, while Tracey and Granger went for the straight lines (very slowly, and very unsteadily) and Theodore, Morton and Brown all went for the helices. Draco was content just to watch everyone – people were interesting – but he made his way over to the squares, where Patil and Daphne were niggling at each other. Potter had ended up with Longbottom, and was coaxing him through the wave course, but Potter quickly moved onto a helix.
"Watch it!" Draco looked up in time to see Weasley yank his broom into a sharp turn as Hydrus zoomed past and then pulled up.
"Scared, Weasel?" Draco glanced over but Madam Hooch was helping Tracey and hadn't noticed the commotion.
"Only of your rubbish steering," Weasley retorted. Patil started to laugh, Daphne arched an eyebrow, and Longbottom looked over from the wave. Hydrus turned a furious pink.
"Why you little-"
Draco wasn't sure where Potter had come from, but he was beside Weasley in an instant.
"Careful, Malfoy," Draco heard him say. "You haven't got your little friends to protect you up here." They glared at each other for a few moments, and then Hydrus flew past Weasley, shoving him as he went. Weasley, though, was bigger than Hydrus, who wobbled a bit and then managed to stay on his broom. Draco watched him rejoin Vincent and Gregory.
"Did you see his face?" Weasley laughed. Potter grinned.
Draco watched Longbottom's face set determinedly as he eased his broom up higher than it had been so far; obviously, he wanted to join the other two, and laugh about Hydrus. Then he stopped at once, and his knuckles went white. Draco knew what was coming before it did. Longbottom's broom jerked and went speeding upright. Longbottom let out a wail and held on for dear life as it corkscrewed through the air, higher and higher.
"Madam Hooch!" Draco shouted, as Potter and Weasley flew off to the sides; Longbottom had just scattered them and kept going up. Potter shouted something at Longbottom, but Draco didn't hear it, or Longbottom's response. Potter flew up after him, still talking, but unable to get too close, because the broom was spinning and Longbottom was flailing. The Slytherins were laughing, but Draco didn't think it was funny at all; there were Cushioning Charms, certainly, but they'd only do so much. Longbottom could be seriously hurt.
"Madam Hooch!" Finnegan said, alarmed, finally getting her attention. Longbottom was a fair way up – even with the castle's lowest spire, but still rising. Potter was beside him, trying to grab the broom.
"Potter," Madam Hooch bellowed, as she zoomed up toward them, "get away from him before you get hurt!" Longbottom's broom gave a particularly violent jolt, and then Longbottom was off, falling toward the ground. Potter urged his broom into the tightest dive Draco thought he'd ever seen outside of professional Quidditch.
"What the-" Draco heard Blaise whisper. Granger let out a horrified noise, and Madam Hooch swore rather impressively – Father would have her sacked if he heard about it - and flew faster, pulling out her wand.
"Arresto Momentum!" she shouted, and Longbottom slowed, but continued to fall. Draco caught a glimpse of his face; he was absolutely terrified. Potter yanked his broom up only a few feet from the grass, and started up toward Longbottom this time. They were going to collide. Draco was sure of it.
"Ventus," Draco heard Potter say, and for a moment, Longbottom went up. Potter was level with him now – he'd moved to the side – and his hand clamped onto the back of Longbottom's robes. Potter's spell wore off, and Longbottom plummeted a few more feet, dragging Potter with him. Potter's wand fell onto the grass and his face scrunched up they jerked to a stop, level, once again, with the second storey windows of the castle.
Madam Hooch got there and helped Longbottom onto her own broom, and then blew her whistle. Potter'd gone rather white, but Weasley was beside him in an instant, so Draco thought he'd be all right.
"Everyone on the ground," she said hoarsely. "We're done for today. I'm going to trust you all to see your brooms back to their proper places in the shed, and then you're dismissed. Mr Weasley, help me with these two."
Potter passed his broom to Granger, left handed; his right was held awkwardly against his side.
"I'll take it," Draco said, taking Weasley's broom, when he tried to give it to Granger. She was already struggling with two. Weasley nodded at him, and left, with Madam Hooch, Potter – who appeared to have some sort of sprain or dislocation – and Longbottom, who obviously needed something for shock.
The first years were a very subdued lot as they put their broomsticks away, and made their way back across the grass. Hydrus, rather predictably, Draco thought, was the first to break the silence. He bent down, and picked something up off the grass, and then held it around for everyone to see.
"Look what Potter's left behind," Hydrus drawled, giving the wand a flick. It let out a stream of sparks. "He won't have much luck in lessons without this."
"Give it back," Granger snapped, holding out her hand. Several other Gryffindors made angry noises, and Blaise, Draco noticed, looked uncomfortable.
"No," Hydrus said. "I don't think I will. I think I'll-" Draco rolled his eyes and snatched it out of his brother's hand. Hydrus turned to him, smirking. "It seems Draco's got an idea. What should we do with it, brother?" Pansy, Nadia and Daphne all giggled.
"I'm going to give it back to Potter," Draco said, walking past him, and up toward the castle.
"You're joking, right?!" Hydrus snarled. Draco ignored him. "Draco!?"
"I'm here to visit Potter."
Harry felt sorry for Madam Pomfrey, he really did; he'd already been visited by Moony and Professor McGonagall, a boy called Oliver Wood, and had spoken to Padfoot through the mirror; Ron had left him to fetch that, and been with him the rest of the time. But his sympathy was overridden by curiosity; why was Draco visiting him?
"Tell him he can leave when he's ready," she said irritably, and swept away into her office.
"Malfoy," Ron said, as Draco approached.
"Weasley. Potter. This is yours." Harry stared at the very familiar wand in Draco's hand, surprised. He patted his pockets and, sure enough, they were empty. "It fell out during your heroics," Draco drawled.
"Thanks," Harry said, accepting it from him.
"Are you hurt?" Draco asked, after an awkward pause. He seemed worried.
"Madam Pomfrey fixed me in about ten seconds," Harry said, shrugging his newly-repaired shoulder. "I'm fine; she just wanted me to rest, but I heard her telling you I could leave, so I reckon I might." He climbed off the hospital bed, pulled on his school jumper and robes, and tucked his mirror safely into his pocket. He checked his watch, and smiled; it was dinnertime, and just as well, because he was starving.
"Can I sit with you?" Draco asked suddenly, when they were passing McGonagall's office on the first floor. Harry stared at him, confused. Draco winced, and then frowned. "I know I've done some mean things in the last few weeks," he said defensively, "but I helped Longbottom today, and I brought you your wand, so the least you can do is not make me sit with Hydrus because he's going to be furio-"
"You don't need to ask," Harry said, cutting him off. Draco blinked, and Ron looked like he might laugh. "If you want to sit with us, you're more than welcome to."
"Oh," Draco said in a small voice. "Thanks." Hermione was sitting with Percy when they arrived, and leaped to her feet.
"Oh, Harry!" she said. Harry grabbed her arm and forced her to sit down before anyone else started staring. Ron sat on the other side of them, with Draco, who was nervously avoiding eye contact with the Slytherins. "I was so-"
"Hermione," he said, "calm down; I'm fine."
"Did you get your wand back?" she asked abruptly.
"Yeah, Draco brought it," Harry said. Hermione looked surprised and then embarrassed. Draco pulled a face at her, and Harry and Ron sniggered. "I-"
"Here he is!" George said.
"Man of the hour-"
"Of the century, more like," George amended.
"Wood's just told us," Fred said, lowering his voice.
"Welcome to the team, Potter."
"There are no secrets at Hogwarts, are there?" Harry asked, grinning.
"Well, we can think of a few," Fred said. "But they wouldn't be secrets if we told you."
"Team?" Hermione asked. Ron looked at her, grinning.
"Meet the youngest Quidditch player in a century."