Ok, so here's a new chapter for you AT LAST.
Let me start now by saying that I am truly very sorry for leaving you all waiting for so long. Believe me, if there were any way to avoid my prolonged absence, I'd have taken it, but there just wasn't, I hope you can understand that.
So, WTF has taken so long, I hear you cry. Good question, I say, unfortunately its not one that I can answer at the moment. Without bothering you with details, let it suffice to say that my RL has been more than chaotic of late and will probably remain so for a while yet. But, at long last, I have finally managed to find some time to write again and, to be honest, it feels good, a way for me to relax for a few hours and have some fun for a change. So, that said, I hope to be able to update my story at least once every fortnight from now on. No promises mind you, I'm not good at them. All I can do is ask for your continued patience.
So then, on with the chapter we go. I hope it will be worth the wait. The usual thanks go out to my beta, Raela, and naturally, all reviews will be very welcome. Thanks and sorry again for the delay.
The portkey returned Etean to the third floor corridor of the Leaky Cauldron, dropping him neatly just outside the door of his room. The moment he landed he felt his knees buckle from under him. Bracing himself against the wall, he ground his teeth hard against the searing pain in his skull. Forcing his mind to focus, he worked the charm to summon his potion and then downed the foul concoction in one go. His stomach churned as the potion's effect spread through his body, burning away the pain in his head. Banishing the cup to oblivion, Etean took a moment to settle his mind before stepping forward and opening the door. The room was deserted.
'Damn!' Etean took a long look at the empty bed and swore under his breath. He checked his watch, a quarter past seven. His little excursion had taken longer than he'd planned. Blast it! Who knew Ginny was one to rise so early? It was still dark outside for crying out loud. What she thought when she'd woken up alone, he didn't really want to imagine. 'Damn!'
Etean bit his lip and glanced at his watch again, it was nearly time. He couldn't worry about Ginny at the moment. There were other things that needed to be done, and soon. By now the Etyar would have received their orders and started to mobilise. Even though the order had gone out earlier than expected, they wouldn't be late, the Etyar were never late. Etean pushed his mind outward. He couldn't sense them yet, but that didn't matter. Even now, he knew they would be moving into position, preparing to carry out their mission and it wouldn't do for him to be standing around wasting time when the moment arrived. Lifting his head high and settling his cloak about his shoulders, Etean spun on his heel and marched out the door.
The upper floors of the inn were practically silent. Here and there, as he passed by closed doors, he could make out the odd snore or grunt, but there was no sign of anyone moving about yet. That didn't really surprise Etean all that much. Yesterday had been a long day, and the few people who had managed to get some rest weren't likely to be waking anytime soon.
Voices floated on the air to him before he had even reached the lowest landing. By the sounds of it, some people in the main bar were most definitely not happy.
A large, glass fronted grandfather clock beside the bar door ticked the seconds away as Etean stopped to listen to the voices permeating through the door, trying to get a clearer idea of events in the bar before he entered. There wasn't much noise from the bar, but a general feeling of frustration and annoyance was clear. Etean wondered for a moment if Dumbledore had broken the news of the treaty yet. It didn't sound like it. From the sound of things, the place had yet to wake up properly.
Everything rested with Dumbledore. Etean hoped that the Professor was smart enough to realise what they treaty meant for the war effort, but he wasn't sure. He was nervous. He didn't like this. Showing the treaty to Dumbledore was an improvisation, a deviation from the carefully laid plan of action that he had gone to such trouble to set in motion. At the time, it had seemed like a good idea, but now? If Dumbledore decided to make things awkward at this juncture… Etean sighed. Catching sight of his own reflection in the glass of the clock, he set his jaw.
His hand reached out, but the doorknob turned before he even touched it. The door drew back and a familiar flash of red hair greeted his eyes.
"Oh!" Ginny exclaimed, as though startled to see him standing there, "There you are." Quick as a flash, she stepped through the doorway and pulled the door behind her. Etean braced himself, half expecting another slap across the face, but none came. Instead, Ginny simply stared at him for a moment and then seemed to shrink back. "I was just coming to look… I mean…" she paused, her jaw working silently for a moment, "Dumbledore asked me to fetch you."
Her voice was flat and devoid of any emotion. Etean wasn't certain if he would have rather she sounded upset. Ginny turned and made to open the door again.
Etean reached out and caught her arm. "Are you ok?" he asked her, feeling dumb the moment he said the words.
"Me?" Ginny let out a false laugh, "I'm fine… couldn't be better. How are you?"
"Gin, please," Etean took a step closer to her, "Don't be like this."
"Like what?" Ginny spat at him, shaking free of his grip.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly, it seemed like he owed her at least that much. "I know it was wrong of me to just leave like that, but I had some… business to take care of and I just…I didn't have the heart to wake you." He felt a twinge of guilt deep down inside when he saw the look in her eyes, but at least part of what he was saying was true.
"Business?" Ginny frowned. "What business?"
Etean shrugged. "It's a long story," he said, then added, 'One which I don't particularly want to tell you right now,' in the privacy of his head.
Ginny looked as though she was going to press the question, but at that moment, the noise of conversation from the room beyond rose in volume.
"…you're not listening to me!" a single elevated voice cut through the chaos. Etean recognised Potter's voice. From his tone, Etean could pick out a fair amount of frustration and anger.
"Is that Harry?" he asked.
Ginny shook her head. "Yeah," she said, sounding a little deflated, "He's pissed off."
"When isn't he these days?" Etean asked with a slight smile.
Ginny stared at him. "Well," she said, "at least he's honest with people."
Etean sighed and stepped closer to her. "I am sorry, Gin, please don't be upset."
Ginny shook her head. "Say that to me after you wake up alone, with no idea where I've gone or why. Now come on," she stepped back from him and opened the door, "I got the impression that Dumbledore meant me to fetch you quickly."
With that, she stepped through the door and walked into the bar. Etean shook his head slightly and followed her.
Ginny turned once inside the bar and then headed off toward the corner booth, where her mother was sitting. Etean didn't notice any of the other Weasley's in the bar. He presumed they were all still asleep.
"Oh," she said, turning back to face him again, "he's in the snug by the way." She pointed off toward the rear corner of the bar where the entrance to the snug was located. Etean opened his mouth to speak to her, but Ginny didn't seem interested in listening. He felt a sharp pang inside as she turned away from him, but he pushed it aside for the moment, and headed off to meet the Professor.
As he passed the bar, Etean could smell the aroma of cooking from the kitchens as the chef prepared breakfast, but he doubted that anyone here was particularly hungry. Everyone he could see looked tired and weary. A couple of weather worn Ministry officials were trying to keep busy, hunched over bar tables as they poured over stacks of documents. Sitting at an isolated table Etean recognised Kingsley Shakelbolt, nursing a glass of Firewhiskey as he made a half hearted attempt to write some report or other. At the far side of the bar, several of the smaller tables had been pulled together to form a makeshift meeting table which had been piled high with stacks of parchment.
The door of the snug stood half open, allowing even a mildly curious passer a clear view of what was going on inside the small antechamber. If the bar was serving as a meeting hall then it appeared as though the snug had been converted into a kind of office. Inside, Dumbledore was standing in front of a small table, which was serving him as a desk by all appearances, engaged in deep conversation with Potter. From what he could hear from Potter's tone, Etean assumed that Dumbledore had moved this conversation out of the main bar so as to try and keep it a little more private.
"Please, Harry," Dumbledore said, taking Potter by the shoulders, "Believe me, I understand what you are saying, but you must trust me."
"But Professor, this can't go on. I'm ready, really I am… please…"
"Harry," Dumbledore cut him off with a slightly stronger edge in his voice, "This is a discussion for another time. Now," his voice hardened again, "calm down. I know how you feel, believe me, but the time has not yet arrived for such drastic measures."
Etean checked his watch. Time was marching on and, as intriguing as this conversation was, Etean decided that it was time to make his presence known. Stepping closer to the door, he cleared his throat to attract the Professor's attention and then stepped into view. "You wanted to see me, Professor?" he said.
Dumbledore turned at the sound of his voice and looked at Etean. His face betrayed the same, tired expression of those in the bar, but in his eyes Etean could see no trace of the exhaustion the Professor had to be feeling. Dumbledore inclined his head in greeting. "Ah yes, Mr. Etean, indeed I did," he turned to Potter, "We will continue this discussion later, Harry," he said firmly. Potter looked for a moment as though he was going to argue, but it seemed that something in the way Dumbledore spoke to him changed his mind.
"Ok, Professor," he said and then, shaking his head slightly, he stepped past Etean and into the bar.
Dumbledore turned back to Etean. "Now then, let us not beat about the bush here. As I'm sure you know, I have many demands on my time at the moment."
"I understand, Professor." Etean nodded.
"Good," Dumbledore said, "then I will be plain." He reached inside his robes and drew out a long scroll which Etean instantly recognised. "I would like to know why you arranged for this document to come into my possession yesterday?"
Etean smiled. "I would have thought," he said in a deliberately neutral tone, "that the reason was quite obvious. You have read it I assume?"
Dumbledore studied him for a moment. "I have taken a look at it, yes," he said eventually, "To say that I have read it thoroughly would be inaccurate, but I feel that it is safe to say that I understand its meaning well enough."
"Excellent," Etean smiled.
"Is it?" Dumbledore asked. "I'm afraid I don't see how." He brandished the treaty. "This treaty, unless I am very much mistaken, bands the nations of Europe together in mutual defence."
"That it does, Professor."
"And," Dumbledore continued, almost as though he hadn't heard Etean, "it also appears that, since the parties involved went to great effort to ensure that nobody in the Ministry here had the slightest clue that this treaty was being negotiated, it stands to reason that it was their intention that England play no part in this…'Alliance'. Thus, the negotiations that this government has been pursuing over the last few months were destined to be fruitless since even before they started."
Etean nodded. "Again… that is a fair assessment of the situation."
Dumbledore sighed. "And you knew of this?"
"I did," Etean replied simply, so far the Professor was right on track, no need to push too hard.
"So then," Dumbledore said, almost as a grunt, "I arrive back at my initial question: why?"
"Why?" Etean repeated, "Why what, Professor?"
"Why did you show it to me? Why now, when it is too late for anyone to do anything to change the situation?" a touch of anger crept into the Professor's voice; this was a surprise to Etean. He wondered for a moment whether the Professor had in fact seen the real truth of the situation. He didn't get the time to wonder for long, however, as the Professor continued, "Why did you come here, Mr. Etean?" he asked, "Why did you arrange to come to my school when you did? You must have known that doing so would be to put yourself in harms way, and you don't strike me as the kind of person that would do such a thing lightly."
Etean narrowed his eyes. He had to tread carefully here. "I think, Professor, that you are giving me too much credit here."
"Really?" Dumbledore said. He unrolled the treaty and turned it round so Etean could see the part where his signature was burned into the parchment. "You signed this treaty, Mr. Etean, which means that you not only knew about it from the very beginning, but that you also had a hand in drafting it. So," the Professor rolled the treaty up again, "shall we get to it? When I said that I wanted to not beat about the bush, I expected you to do the same."
Etean relaxed inside; the Professor may be playing things somewhat more vigorously than he had expected, but he was on the right track nonetheless. Well, if that's how he wanted to play this… "Fair enough, Professor," Etean said, "as you wish. Yes, I did sign that treaty, and yes, I was more than aware of its contents since long before I applied to attend Hogwarts and…yes, it is fair to say that the spirit and intent of that treaty played a part in my decision to come to your school, but, I believe your question was…"
"Why?" Dumbledore finished for him.
"Why?" Etean repeated. "Good question, Professor," he smiled. "The answer is simple. I wanted to help."
"That is simple," Dumbledore commented, "perhaps… overly so."
Etean looked at him for a moment before he continued. "Perhaps, but you did ask that I not beat about the bush, Professor."
"I did," said Dumbledore, "but I think there is time for a little more beating in the best interest of this particular bush."
Etean nodded. "Very well," he paused, as though arranging his thoughts, "I came to Hogwarts because I was more than aware of just how bad things were going to get, and I knew that there were things that I could do to help if given the chance," he shrugged slightly, "Attending school in England gave me the one thing I lacked to have that chance, a reason to be here."
Dumbledore frowned, but he said nothing. Silence was his invitation for Etean to continue, so he did, "I may have signed that treaty, Professor, but believe me when I tell you that I don't like it one bit. I was opposed to it from day one but, unfortunately, my opinion was never going to change a damned thing. That treaty was going to happen with or without my support." He sighed. "That is the real irony of being Lord Etean. While my position…my name…may open doors for me, doors that are closed to others, and while I may be privy to certain information that others are not, I am not in a position to be able to do anything about…well, anything. Lord Etean may be an important man, but when it comes right down to it, I have no real authority whatsoever. At least," he paused and looked at the Professor for a moment, "not directly."
A slight breeze brushed across the back of Etean's neck. His ears pricked up at the sensation and he focussed part of his mind on the bar. His senses told him exactly what he had expected they would. Etean looked at Dumbledore closely for a moment, checking to see if the Professor had noticed anything odd, but Dumbledore's gaze remained steady and fixed.
With only the slightest pause, Etean continued as he pointed to the scroll, "I know the people who put that treaty together, Professor, and they will all tell you that they are doing what they believe is in the best interest of the people they are sworn to protect, but that's a lie. All of it is a lie, the whole treaty, every word of it," he scoffed aloud, "That treaty says 'defence', but that's nothing more than a figure of speech to the people who wrote it, one that has no meaning when it comes to it. The reality of the situation is that people, who like to think making decisions is their job, made a decision and that treaty is the end result. Those people looked at the situation with the coming war, they looked at what they would call the 'bigger picture' and, having done that, they chose to cut you off. They drew up that treaty, built their Alliance, their high wall to keep the bad men out and they kept you on the outside when they pulled up the ladders. Now," Etean paused for breath, "I can stand here and argue the morality of the decision with you till we are both blue in the face, but it will change nothing."
Another breeze touched Etean's neck. He looked at Dumbledore, and Dumbledore looked at him. For a moment, both of them just looked at one another, then the Professor spoke, "You still haven't told me why you are here. In what way does your presence at Hogwarts give you the power to help us?"
'Here goes!' Etean smiled. "Before I go on," he said, "Tell me, Professor, can you hear anything?"
Dumbledore frowned slightly, and then tensed to listen. Etean heard it too, or rather he couldn't hear it. He couldn't hear anything at all now that he had stopped talking. The noise and general hum of conversation from the main bar had vanished into silence. Etean's smile remained fixed as he stepped aside and gestured to the door. "After you, Professor," he said.
The Professor bustled past Etean and marched into the main bar with purpose. He didn't get two steps inside before he stopped in his tracks. Etean smiled wider. 'Perfect timing.'
Dumbledore turned to him as Etean followed him out of the snug. "I hope," he said in a flat tone, "that you have a very good explanation for this."
Etean scanned the room slowly. Just as he had expected, the conversations and private deliberations had all ground to a halt as, timed as though they were one man, two full units of Etyar had appeared in the bar, armed and ready. In an instant, they had taken over the room. Kingsley Shakelbolt was still at his table, sitting bolt upright with an Etyar talon blade at his neck. Both doors into the bar were covered and secure, the people had been rounded up and disarmed in less than thirty seconds and all of it in total silence. Now, even Dumbledore himself was held at wandpoint, unable to act. The Professor, for his part, didn't seem all that concerned with his current predicament. His hands remained stationary at his sides and he seemed relaxed as he stared down an Etyar wand. From the look of utter shock that graced the faces of everyone else in the bar though, the arrival of the Etyar had had every ounce of the effect that Etean had hoped it would. He felt a swell of genuine pride at their achievement until his eyes met Ginny's. The look of confusion and fear on her face tore into him. Etean tried to let his gaze settle her, but it didn't seem to work so he decided that it was best to just get this over with.
"Of course I have an explanation, Professor," he said, and then turned to the man holding Dumbledore at bay. "Captain," he addressed the taller, grey haired man, with a formal tone, "I am glad to see that you have carried out your orders perfectly, and with exemplary timing."
The Etyar Captain nodded curtly without removing his attention from Dumbledore. "Merci, mon Seigneur," he replied in a curt, clipped tone.
"May I assume that you have carried out the remainder of my directive with equal dedication?" Etean asked.
"I have, mon Seigneur," came the response in the same tone.
"Excellent!" Etean laid a hand on the Captain's arm, "then, of course, you may stand down."
The Captain relaxed and lowered his arm, but his body remained tense. Etean was a hair away from ordering him to relax, but thought better of it. Around the bar, the other Etyar followed their Captain's lead and stood down. Those who had taken wands from the people in the bar set about returning them while those at the doors stood at ease. Now that they were no longer being held as prisoners, the gathered people began to relax. There was a scrape of a chair on the floor as Kingsley Shakelbolt got slowly to his feet. His movements remained slow and calm as he turned to face Dumbledore. A small look passed between him and Dumbledore, but he did nothing more than stand in silence. All the same, the Etyar that had been holding his blade on Shakelbolt remained close to him, a visible reminder of the current situation. Etean glanced in Ginny's direction. She had gotten to her feet, and was helping her mother, who looked distinctly shaken, back into the booth. Again he felt a pang of guilt. He really should have warned her, but what could he do about that now?
Suppressing a shrug, Etean decided to get back to business. He turned to Dumbledore. "Professor," he said, "May I introduce Dominic, Etyar Lieutenant Captain and Chief Instructor of the Etyar Training Academy."
Dominic didn't so much as blink as he was introduced. Dumbledore seemed momentarily bemused, then he nodded slightly. "A pleasure, Captain, but, you will forgive me if I am still unclear as to precisely what is going on." His eyes had settled on Etean before he had finished his sentence.
"Like I said, Professor," Etean replied, "it is simple. This," he gestured around him, "was meant as a demonstration, nothing more."
"What's going on?" Potter's voice cut across whatever it was that Dumbledore was going to say. Etean turned to face him. "Is this your idea of a joke?"
"No, Harry," Etean answered him. "No joke, this is in fact as serious as it gets."
"Well," Potter sneered, "it certainly doesn't look that way. It looks like the world's least funny practical joke to me. Just what is it that you are trying to demonstrate?"
"Well, Potter, if you need to ask then clearly you weren't paying attention, were you? Now then, as I was saying, Professor…"
"What the hell…" Potter started.
"Harry," Dumbledore cut him off, "a moment, please?"
Potter looked at Dumbledore for a moment, and then backed off, shaking his head.
"Right," Etean said, clearing his throat, "where was I? Oh yes," he walked over to Dumbledore and plucked the treaty scroll from his hand, "It all comes back to this. Like I told you earlier, Professor, I knew that this was coming a long time ago, and I couldn't do anything to stop it. I could, however, nudge it a little in certain places, thereby creating a loophole or two, which I could then take advantage of when the time was right," he turned back to the Professor and lifted the treaty.
"This treaty is, essentially, a commitment by each of the signatory nations to devote fully two thirds of their current and future defence and law enforcement resources to the creation and maintenance of a single, unified multi national security force… an army in all but the name… an army that will have ultimate responsibility for maintaining the peace and mutual sovereignty of each of the signatory nations.
Etean was by now aware that his act was beginning to grate on his audience's nerves, but he carried on regardless, "Now, according to this," he unrolled the top part of the treaty, 'It is hereby declared that any threat to any signatory nation herein can and will be met by any response necessary to ensure the continued security of the threatened nation. Resources, both of wand and wizard, necessary for this response shall be drawn without reservation from the common defence alliance under the direction of the Central Alliance Administration. Furthermore," the scroll crinkled as he read, "'the identification of such a threat shall remain the sole discretion of the governing body of the threatened nation, who will at all times retain all rights and privileges of a sovereign nation. Such sovereignty will be guaranteed as prima coda by the Central Alliance Administration.'
Etean paused and glanced around at the watching faces, "What this means, of course," he continued, ignoring the mounting look of frustration on Potter's face, "is that, if any country decides that a given threat exists, their allies are, by the terms of this treaty, obliged to respond with whatever force may be necessary to eliminate this threat. Though, obviously, it says a whole lot more than that," he paused to smile at Dumbledore, the gesture was not returned. Etean shook his head slightly and carried on, "Personally, I like the wording of that clause. Short and concise and yet florid and quite strong in its wording with all those definitive terms and universal quantifiers. Despite all that, it is still almost perfectly vague when you really look at it, which gives room for interpretaion," he smiled, "but it gets better later on."
Etean returned his attention to the treaty, scrolling down until he found the passage he was looking for. "Ah," he said when he found it, "here we go. 'It is the declaration of this body, in recognition of services rendered in whole or in part to the formation of the Mutual Defence Alliance, that the title and estate of the Lord Etean, to be held in succession of blood and to remain in perpetual service to the French Republic, henceforth and forever be awarded national sovereignty in the eyes of this treaty and to be held as such by all signatory bodies. All holdings and assets of the Etean Estate are herby converted to and created as Property of the herein established Sovereign State of Etean.'" he paused, and looked up, "Oh it goes on, but that about covers this treaty's relevance to the current…ehem…situation."
That was it, all that remained now was to wait and discover whether Dumbledore possessed the insight to join the dots and make the final leap needed. Etean had no doubt that he would figure things out in short order, if he were given just a moment to absorb what he had just heard.
He hadn't counted on Potter's tenacity, however. "That," Potter's voice broke the silence, his tone full of sarcasm, "was a perfectly wonderful explanation, Etean, and yet somehow, we are still none the wiser as to just what in the hell is going on here."
Suppressing a sigh, Etean turned to face the irate Gryffindor, "And since when was I trying to explain anything to you, Potter?" he said, barely restraining his frustration, "Why is it you feel you have the right to know everything that goes on in the world? What is it that makes it anything to do with you?"
"I have been involved in this for a lot longer than you have, Etean, and unlike you, I don't enjoy playing jokes on people and scaring them out of their wits."
"Harry," Dumbledore's tone was a warning.
"No, Professor," Etean waved him off, "Harry wants to be heard, and he will be heard." He turned to face Potter again. "You know," he shook his head, "You're right, Harry, this really isn't your style, is it?" This was not really how this discussion was supposed to be going, but Etean was thoroughly annoyed now and past caring. "You just stick your nose in places where its not wanted time and again. You just have to leap in feet first where you don't belong and drag others with you, with no regard for them getting hurt or killed. And for what?" Etean stepped toward Potter. "Tell me, Harry, just what have you ever earned for yourself, or for anyone else, aside from danger and misery?"
"Why you…" Potter started forward. He only made it two steps, however, before Dominic's arm intercepted him. The Etyar Captain's hand seized Potter by the throat and held him firmly in place. The man moved so quickly that his actions set off a startled gasp from the direction of Mrs. Weasley. Etean could hear her whisper Potter's name in alarm.
"That," Dominic said calmly, "is not very polite."
"Its alright, Captain," Etean said after a beat, "let him go. Mr Potter here is just a little frustrated, that's all. He attacks with his fists because he's been having trouble holding onto his wand lately," he added with a smile.
Potter's glare was an inferno, which only made Etean's smile wider. Dominic held his grip on Potter's collar for a moment longer and then released him. Potter slumped slightly and rubbed his neck.
"How do you know about that?" he hissed, with a cautious sideways glance at Dominic.
"I'm sure, Harry," Dumbledore answered in Etean's place, his tone was soothing as he tried to diffuse the situation, "that you of all people are aware of how hard it is to keep anything secret in Hogwarts, least of all something which was not really a secret to begin with. But now," he turned to Etean, "perhaps we can get back to the matter at hand."
Etean nodded. "Certainly."
Beside him, Potter shifted uncomfortably for a moment on the spot. Then a hushed whisper from Mrs. Weasley caught his attention and, reluctantly, he sloped off to sit beside her.
Dumbledore's brow creased slightly. "Am I to assume, Mr. Etean, that those passages were added to the treaty as a means for you to 'nudge' matters, to use your term?"
"You may assume that, yes," Etean replied quietly.
Dumbledore nodded, "So then, and you will forgive me if my interpretation is incorrect, what you are saying is that this treaty grants each nation the protection of its allies to defend against external threats to its security. It also grants the governments of those nations the right to determine for themselves what is and is not a threat to them. Once a threat is identified, the threatened nation may respond to it, with the full support and backing of its allies. Am I essentially correct here?"
Etean inclined his head. "You are."
"And," Dumbledore continued, "as a signatory of this treaty, you, rather your family's estate is recognised as a sovereign nation with, presumably, you at its head?"
There was a hint of edge to Dumbledore's voice that gave Etean pause. There was something in the Professor's tone that suggested unease at what he was saying. Narrowing his eyes slightly, Etean chose his words with care. "Only in so far as the treaty is concerned, but yes. So, perhaps now my motivation for wishing to attend Hogwarts is a little clearer to you?"
Dumbledore's face remained impassive, "Coming to Hogwarts put you in harms way. Once you were here, it was only a matter of time before your life was threatened and…"
"Any threat to the head of state is certainly recognisable as a threat to state itself, wouldn't you agree?" Etean finished for him, allowing his smile to broaden. "That was the idea, Professor. And now that the treaty is law, I am free to declare yesterday's attack on the Ministry, in which I was injured, as a direct attack by Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters on me, which grants me the right to respond with whatever resources are available to me," he gestured to Dominic and the other Etyar, "and here they are.
"Last night," he made sure to catch Ginny's eye as he spoke, "I sent word to the Etyar academy in Marseilles that all Etyar available for mobilisation be transferred here to my direct authority."
"For what purpose?"
The question caught Etean slightly off guard. He was sure that Dumbledore already knew the answer to that question, making it redundant, and Dumbledore didn't strike him as being the kind to ask redundant questions. The Professor's face was still an impassive mask, but behind his eyes Etean could see thoughts and ideas sparking and shimmering with almost manic speed. Dumbledore was playing for time, trying to get a handle on events that clearly he hadn't been expecting. Fair enough.
Etean cleared his throat before he answered, "It is my intention, officially, to order that the Etyar carry out a full investigation of yesterday's attack and that they continue in their investigation until such time as each and every single person responsible is brought to justice."
"And unofficially?" Shakelbolt spoke up, until now he had been silent, watching Etean and the surrounding Etyar with hooded eyes. Now, he stepped forward to stand beside the Professor.
"Unofficially," Etean turned to look the Auror in the eye, "they are at your disposal. I have pulled over 50 Etyar from their posts and, now that they are here, their goal will be the same as yours." Etean reached out and tapped Dominic's breastplate with a knuckle, "Of course, direct command will remain with Dominic here, but he will, as I have ordered him, answer to you or to whomever it is that commands the effort to destroy this Dark Lord once and for all."
Shakelbolt looked at Etean as though unsure if he had really heard what he thought he had just heard. "Are you serious?" he asked calmly.
"Very," Etean nodded.
Shakelbolt's WHOOP of joy was so loud that Etean unconsciously glanced at the windows to see if they were still intact. All traces of exhaustion vanished from his body as he turned and clapped the nearest Etyar on the arm. He seemed to have forgotten that the man he was now welcoming to the fight so jovially had been holding a razor sharp, three-bladed weapon at his throat less then five minutes previously. Etean didn't begrudge him his moment of joy. He presumed that this was the first real good news that the man had heard in a long time. Shakelbolt's mood seemed to be infectious. All around him, Etean could sense the aura of general despair dissipate, to be replaced by an optimistic, almost hopeful feeling.
Professor Dumbledore alone, however, remained contemplative. His face remained blank as he looked at Etean. Once Kingsley's initial celebrations had died down, Dumbledore cleared his throat for silence.
"You have made a most generous offer, Mr. Etean, but I am forced to wonder whether or not you have thought this decision through. I cannot imagine that this decision will go down well for you back home. After all, and again, forgive me if I have misinterpreted events, but doesn't this go almost diametrically against the spirit of this treaty?"
Etean smiled, "But it goes with the letter of the treaty, Professor, and, at the end of the day, that is what matters," he waved off Dumbledore's next question, "Oh I'm sure that there will be some disquiet in the Adjutaire when they learn of this. I wouldn't even be surprised if there were some formal complaints made against me, challenging my actions, but I am more than prepared for that. Believe me, I have enough red tape lined up behind this decision to keep anyone who tries to meddle tied up till doomsday."
"You seem certain of that," Dumbledore said quietly.
"I am," Etean nodded, "It all comes down to bureaucracy. After all, this treaty hasn't been in place for even a day yet, not long enough for the ink to dry and of course, signing a treaty is one thing, implementing it is quite another. This," he brandished the scroll, "will have wide-ranging ramifications at all levels of quite a few government, which, as is always the case with such changes, won't be easy to effect. Realistically, though the Alliance exists today, it will be years before it is a reality, legally and politically. As it is, the vast majority of the administrative machinery that this treaty calls into existence to govern the Alliance are just words on parchment. As such, while there will be many that are not be very happy at my actions today, there will be precious little they can actually do about it," he paused and shrugged.
"The point is, as any lawyer will tell you, the word of the law is what matters and right now that word says that what I'm doing is legal, so I will be safe, at least for now. Whether it's something that I will live to regret or not will depend on the outcome of this war, but that really doesn't matter at this point."
"It doesn't?" Dumbledore asked.
"No," Etean replied. "You see, and forgive me if I misinterpret things here, but as I see it, if, with the help of the Etyar, you are able to win this war, then I think its safe to say that the voices of any dissenters to my decision will simply vanish. If, however, the war is lost…" he paused, "Well, then the petty objections of a few politicians will be the least of my worries, wont they?"
"I suppose," was Dumbledore's response, "but this still concerns me…"
"Albus, please," Shakelbolt interrupted, "I think its fair to say that Lord Etean knows what he's doing, and who are we to question his help?" There was, if you listened for it, just a hint of desperation to Shakelbolt's voice as he said this.
Dumbledore seemed to contemplate the situation for a moment longer, and then he nodded. "So be it," he sighed.
"So then," Etean said, relieved that Dumbledore was on side, "forgive me, but there is one matter that must be cleared up right away. May I assume that the Ministry will not be placing a formal objection to the Etyar's presence here?"
Dumbledore took a moment before answering, "The authority of the Ministry is mine to command, but only on a provisional basis. I can therefore make no promises for the long term, however, so long as the decision is mine to make, then yes, you can assume that," Dumbledore said.
"Thank you," Etean nodded, and then turned to Dominic, "Proceed with the next phase of your orders, Captain."
Dominic nodded and stepped back to salute. He had turned to leave when Shakelbolt's voice stopped him. "Wait!" Dominic's eyes darted to Etean, who nodded.
Etean turned to Shaklebolt. "Yes?" he asked.
Shakelbolt frowned. "Next Phase? What do you mean?"
Dominic stopped in place and turned to face Shakelbolt. He didn't reply, but instead his gaze fell once again to Etean. Etean turned his head slightly and nodded. The Etyar Captain's jaw bunched slightly as though he were frustrated at having to explain himself to Shakelbolt, but he turned and answered in a dry, forced tone. "As Seigneur d'Etean has already stated, my mission here is to seek out and bring down those who call themselves Death Eaters."
Dominic seemed to think that this was explanation enough, though Shakelbolt and Dumbledore clearly had other ideas. Before they could prompt for more information, Etean narrowed his eyes at Dominic in a warning gesture.
Picking up on it, the Captain contined, "The initial phase of our operation involved securing intelligence and information pertinent to our overall goal and then to deploy ourselves according to the most applicable of a number of pre-determined operation plans," he paused here, but only for a breath, "The next phase will consist of a series of actions designed to undermine and eliminate the enemies' ability to move freely and, therefore, reduce their ability to continue their campaign of aggression. As we speak, Mon Seigneur's Etyar are now moving into position to mount the first wave of these actions and it is my intention to begin as soon as they are prepared."
"Actions?" Shakelbolt asked, "What actions? Where? What exactly are you planning to do?"
Dominic again didn't answer immediately. Out of the corner of his eye, Etean noticed him turning, asking for permission. Etean resisted the urge to roll his eyes, why must this man be so pedantic? He nodded to the Captain again, "Full disclosure, Dominic."
Dominic cleared his throat. "On orders from Seigneur d'Etean, I directed the Etyar commander of the Adjutaire Wing to secure all relevant information on the movements and activities of all individuals known as Death Eaters currently at large. An examination of this material identified several locations that we believe these Death Eaters have been using as safe houses and staging points during their recent campaign of aggression. Our intention now is to deliberately and systematically remove these assets from our enemy, thus curtailing their ability to make war."
"The Adjutaire?" Shakelbolt asked. Etean was actually amazed that the man was still awake after Dominic's little speech. "Safe houses? Do you mean to say that the French Government has information about our war that we don't?"
"I would have thought," Dominic replied, "that that much would be clear. The Adjutaire's intelligence gathering operation is second to none."
Shakelbolt seemed taken aback. "I see," he replied, "well, perhaps it is easier to study a war when one is not actually fighting one."
Dominic opened his mouth to reply. Etean felt as though he were in a dream. Did this man not comprehend the reason he was here in the first place? "Captain," he said before the Etyar could say anything further, "Perhaps it would be best if you were to share the information you retrieved from the Adjutaire with the Professor and Auror Shakelbolt."
Dominic frowned, "Mon Seigneur?"
Etean sighed silently. All of this posturing was starting to give him a headache. "In the interest of co-operation, Captain," he said sharply, "This country is their jurisdiction after all."
"Your Etyar stand ready, Mon Seigneur," said Dominic, "to delay…"
"The Etyar will still be ready in twenty minutes, Captain, and I seriously doubt if it will take you any longer than that to bring these gentlemen fully up to speed."
Dominic's eyes glazed over slightly, but he stood straight and said, "Of course, Mon Seigneur."
"Good," Etean caught Ginny's eye. She was standing by the bar now, having just received a sandwich from Tom by way of breakfast, "Now," Etean straightened up and turned to Dumbledore and Shakelbolt, "I think you gentlemen have quite a lot to discuss. So, if you will excuse me, I think I'll get something to eat."
Draco blinked. That action alone made his eyes sting. Gods how long had he been staring? And staring at what? What in the world had convinced him that staring at a half finished game of chess would help him to sort out this whole mess. No, messes, he corrected himself. There was certainly more than one mess in his life right now. As if he hadn't been confused enough before his trip to the Academy, a few moments talking to Lord Menai had made things so much worse. He could honestly see now why Etean didn't like that man. He still very little information about the specific cause of their falling out, that was true, but the two of them were so… well, manipulative was the only word that sprung to mind, the two of them were so damned manipulative, that the idea of them ever getting along was laughable.
That was what Draco wanted to do, laugh. Seriously, what else was there for him to do? He'd been through the situation hundreds of times. He'd played it out one way, then another and then another and on and on in an attempt to find some explanation, any explanation that made this whole thing made sense.
He didn't know where to begin, he really didn't. Lord Menai's words had struck him as being too fanciful to believe at first, but then, after he'd been thinking for a while, he'd started see something in them. Lord Menai could be telling the truth, he really could. After all, why would the man lie? What possible reason would he have for sewing discord between Draco and Etean? If he wasn't telling the truth, then what possible good could come of him interfering?
And then there was Etean. He was hiding things, of that Draco was certain, but hadn't he been the one to stand by Draco throughout this whole mess? Hadn't he been the one to save him from the Death Eaters and his father? Hadn't he stood up for him when the Council had ordered a termination to this whole affair?
That counted for something. Etean had earned Draco's trust, hadn't he? Or had he? Could Draco be sure? What side was Etean on? Was this plan of his all that it seemed to be? Was this all about taking Voldemort down or was there something more to it? Was Menai right? Was Etean really trying to set himself up as some sort of new Emperor? Did that even make sense?
It could happen, Draco supposed. The groundwork was there. Etean was a pureblood, as pure as they came, his name and his title made him one of the most respected wizards alive. He had enough money in his vaults to do almost anything, and enough money could do almost anything, that was one lesson Draco had learned from Lucius. Then there was this plan of his. If everything went down as Etean had explained it, then Voldemort would be dead, Draco would be dead and Etean would be a hero, famous the world over. Could Etean become a new Emperor? Looking at it objectively, he could. He had the money, he had the pedigree, he would have the celebrity and soon, he would even have the bureaucracy with this Alliance that Lord Menai had mentioned, and with it, an army of loyal aurors stationed all over Europe. Now that was a sobering thought. If things played out according to Etean's plan, then he would emerge as the hero who destroyed the Dark Lord, with Draco being nothing more than some sort of pathetic martyr. Not that he cared about how he was remembered, but was that what Etean wanted? Was he really planning to use that victory as leverage to further his own success?
Draco shook his head. He was, once again, getting nowhere. What else was new? It had been the same thing over and over all night. He'd start down one line of thought and wind up going in circles before he knew it. That was what the chessboard had been for. He'd been wandering round the Slytherin common room in the wee small hours when he'd suddenly found himself staring at the tiny rows of chessmen and he'd thought, why not? Wasn't that what chess was? Strategy overlaid on strategy, each player trying to outsmart his opponent. Weren't the true masters of chess the players who could not only plan their strategy for victory, but who could also force their opponent to make moves that ultimately led to their own downfall? What if Draco was simply a bad player who was allowing someone with more skill to back him into a corner? Was Etean doing all of this, pretending to be his friend and ally, just so Draco wouldn't realise that his every action was playing right into Etean's hands?
Draco gave up; this was pointless. He couldn't answer any of these questions, and he was honestly starting to doubt whether the answers would do him any good. He didn't have any choice but to continue down this road he was on. Oh sure, Lord Menai had offered him a way out, but could Draco trust that? Why was he to suddenly believe that one manipulative bastard was better than another? What proof was there to say that Lord Menai, even if he were totally correct about Etean's motives, wouldn't turn out to have his own agenda at the end of the day? In fact, that was one thing that Draco was certain about: Lord Menai did have an agenda, as did Etean. Draco hadn't the first clue what either of their agendas was, but he knew they each had one. And what was his agenda? What did Draco want to get out of all of this? Well, a few weeks ago the answer would have been simple. Alive. Draco wanted to get out of this alive, nothing more. Now though, now things were not so simple. Now he had other concerns.
That was, of course, the real reason that he wasn't even considering taking Lord Menai up on his offer. If he left now, if he ran away from his commitment to Etean and went into hiding, or wherever it was that Lord Menai wanted to take him, it would mean he'd have to leave Hermione behind, and that was one thing that he just could not do, not when he could still help her. If nothing else, he could try to make things easier for her, in some small way, just by being there for her. If he left Hogwarts now, she'd have nobody. Her friends hadn't exactly been stellar companions of late. Oh, Draco had no doubt that they would rally round her once news of her… her condition reached them, but all the same, he didn't want them to support her. In some weird way, Draco felt that it was his place to be the one she leaned on, and he wouldn't leave her. Even if it cost him his life, Draco would not abandon her.
The realisation that Hermione Granger meant more to him now than he meant to himself hit him like a bucket of ice water. Draco almost laughed at the thought, but he knew that it was true. The realisation hadn't come quickly to him. It had been a gradual thing that he'd come to know over the last few weeks as he'd struggled to help her deal with her mysterious illness.
'Damnit!' Draco swore to himself. The whole night he'd fought so very hard to keep from thinking about how sick she was. He had been determined to think this whole thing through rationally and without the interference of emotion, but, the very thought of seeing her lying in that hospital bed made him choke up. He couldn't stand the thought of watching her fade away as she got sicker and sicker.
Suddenly, his thoughts were back at Etean again. His mind drifted back and he remembered how Etean's father had died recently under 'mysterious circumstances'. Poison, that was Etean's explanation for it, a suicide that had been hushed up to save the scandal, but could Draco really accept that? His father was just about the only topic that Draco had ever seen Etean really react to. Clearly, the subject of his father's demise was a very sensitive one for the current Lord Etean.
Draco found himself asking the same question over and over. Was it really poison that had killed Etean's father? Surely it couldn't be a coincidence that the man who buried all records of a mysterious and apparently fatal disease would then die years later in mysterious circumstances. It didn't add up. There was more to it; Draco could feel it. But how to be sure?
He stood up, stretching his muscles as he pondered that question. The common room was empty, a fact which mildly surprised Draco. It was a Saturday morning, and fairly late into winter. Normally, practically all of Slytherin house would be lounging about down here, killing time until lunch. There had been people here earlier; Draco had noticed them. They of course had paid him no mind, but that was no surprise. His friend Heather had said hello to him, but Draco had been too lost in his own problems to really talk to her. Now, he was alone.
Draco stood, perplexed, until his eyes alighted on the calendar on the wall. A big circle had been drawn around today's date with the letters 'RvH' scrawled inside it. Now it made sense. Today was the date of Ravenclaw's quidditch match against Hufflepuff. It was the last game before the Christmas break and was just about the only thing that the people in this school had to look forward to these days.
Draco shook his head and went back to the problem at hand. Etean was the key. The answers were out there, Draco had found them and now, Etean was his only means to get to them. Somehow, he had to convince Etean to open the records for him. It would be tricky, though. Those records were sealed, with access restricted to members of the Council, which meant that Draco was not supposed to see them. He doubted that he was even supposed to know about them, but he did.
Would Etean help him? That was the question. Somehow, Draco had the impression that breaking the rules of the Council wouldn't matter to Etean all that much, but that wasn't the problem. If Draco was right about the true fate of Etean's father, then any attempt by him to broach the subject to Etean would not end well, not in the least.
Still, Draco thought, he could just be honest with him. This was important after all. That information could help save Hermione's life and, painful or not as the subject may be to him, there was no reason for Etean to want to harm Hermione. Draco would just have to pick his moment, that's all.
The door of the common room slammed open, jarring Draco from his thoughts. He turned to see Theo Nott storming into the room, with Annabelle trailing after him, yelling at him to wait for her. Theo came to a halt in front of the fireplace, without even registering Draco's presence it seemed.
"Theodore Nathaniel Nott," Annabelle roared at him, "I demand that you answer me this instant. Just what the hell is in that paper that annoyed you like this?"
"Annabelle," Theo growled at her, "this… REALLY isn't the time for you to be ranting on at me. I'm not in the mood."
That much was clear. Draco couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Theo so angry. What was also striking Draco as being very odd was the fact that, despite Theo looking right at him, he had yet to make even the slightest sign of acknowledgement. Now, Draco was more than aware that he was less than popular in Slytherin at the moment, but he expected at least to have his presence noted. He was about to say something to Theo when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the mirror over the fireplace. In it he could see Theo clearly reflected, with Annabelle standing beside him just as she should be. What he could not see, however, was his own reflection. Draco glanced around and confirmed that he should be able to see himself, yet he couldn't. His brow creased with a frown, then un-creased just as quickly as he remembered that he was still wearing his cloak. Damn, the thing really did seem to have a mind of its own, though why it had chosen to hide him now was a mystery. He was just about to ask it when Annabelle's voice brought his focus back to the present.
"I don't care what kind of mood you're in, Theodore," she yelled. "You will NOT treat me like that. How dare you? What gives you the right…"
She never finished her question as, with a speed that startled even Draco, Theo spun on his heel and lashed out at her. The back of his fist caught Annabelle hard beneath her right eye. The force of the blow was enough to send her tumbling backward. She collided with the arm of the nearest sofa and spun off it onto the ground, where she landed with a heavy thud. Draco's hand was moving toward his wand before he knew what was happening. His fingers had just closed on the handle when Theo spoke.
"How dare I?" he bellowed at the fallen girl as he strode toward her. "How dare YOU speak to me in that manner? Just who the fuck do you think you're talking to?"
Theo didn't wait for an answer. Coming to a stop over the stunned and half insensible Annabelle, he bent down and seized her by the arms. Straightening up, he deposited her none too gently onto the couch as, behind him, Draco silently drew his wand. His eyes moved from one housemate to the other in silence. Annabelle sat still, frozen in shock. Her face was a mask of disbelief and growing anger. Theo paced. Draco felt wary looking at him like this. He wasn't afraid, not by any means, but he was seeing a side to Theo Nott. He had always been arrogant and chauvinistic, certainly, but no more so than any other of Draco's housemates. And sure, Draco had heard him talk about keeping his girlfriends in check, about being 'in charge' with them, but Draco had assumed that all of that was just talk and nonsense. This though, was certainly not talk and nonsense and, having witnessed it, Draco felt some of his anger from last night return. The urge to beat someone to a pulp was suddenly looking very attractive once again.
Theo stepped back from Annabelle and sighed. "How many times," he said as she raised a trembling hand to touch the already visible welt on her cheekbone, "do I have to teach you this lesson?"
Theo aimed his wand at Annabelle. Draco's eyes went wide. He hadn't seen him draw it. What the hell was he going to do to her now? Panicking, he rapidly levelled his own wand at Theo. He felt time contract around him, but even with that he knew that his cry of, "Expelliarmus!" had come just a moment too late.
At the same moment that Draco cast his disarming charm, Theo had said, "Emergence," with his wand levelled at Annabelle. To Draco's surprise, even with the slowing of time, he saw no spell or charm leave Theo's wand before it was torn from his grip and sent sailing through the air toward Draco.
Draco touched his cloak and became visible just in time to let Theo see him snare the wand from the air.
"What the…" Theo blurted. "Where the hell did you come from?"
Theo took a step toward him, but Draco flicked his wand and said, "Repulset!"
The charm struck Theo in the chest with the force of a hammer blow and sent him reeling backward, the air driven from his lungs. Theo stumbled and fell to one knee, clutching his chest as he fought for air. Draco took a moment while he was down to check on Annabelle.
Even though no curse had hit her, she was certainly not herself. Her trembling had stopped and she was sitting bolt upright, staring ahead with a blank expression on her face. Draco frowned, just what the hell had he done to her? It was a good question, and one he would have answered.
"Wha..wh," Theo spluttered, fighting to speak, "Malfoy? What… what the fuck… are you doing?"
Draco laughed. "Funny," he replied, "I was just about to ask you the same question."
"You… you can't…" came the reply as Theo made to stand up again.
"Uh-uh," Draco admonished him, "Don't make me put you down there permanently." Theo glared up at him through watering eyes, but he obeyed. "Good boy," Draco made his voice sound patronising, "Now then, are you going to explain yourself?"
"Wh…" Theo started, then spluttered and coughed for a moment. "What," he said again when he had caught his breath again, "gives you the right…"
"Oh please?" Draco asked. "Try to focus, Theo, and remember which one of us has the wand. Unless you want a lesson like you just gave her?"
Theo glared at him for a full ten count before he spoke again. "Look," he said, "this isn't what it looks like."
Draco rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah?" he said. "Well that's good for you then," he added, pocketing Theo's wand and stepping closer to Annabelle. Her face remained blank and her posture rigid. Close up, Draco could see that her eyes were glazed over as she stared straight ahead. "Because it looks," he continued, "as thought you'd be spending quite some time in prison for this," he snapped his fingers loudly in front of Annabelle's face, no reaction. He turned back to Theo. "Now, I'm no expert, but even I can recognise the Imperius Curse when I see it."
Theo snorted loud. "You're right, Malfoy, you are not an expert. Do you really think that I'd be dumb enough to cast an Unforgivable Curse on her… here?"
Draco frowned. "It's not like its never been done before," he said, remembering a very unpleasant encounter with the Terrible Twosome. Weasley had been intent on using Cruciatus on him that night, and would have too had Etean not intervened.
"Oh yes," Theo laughed again, "You mean in a classroom, when Moody showed them to us with Dumbledore's permission?"
"As it happens," Draco said, "I was thinking of another time."
"Really?" Theo coughed again, his breathing becoming less laboured as the moments passed. Draco tensed his grip on his wand, ready for some trick. "Well," he continued, "that must have been before Snape finished casting his charms."
"What charms?" Draco frowned again. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Gods, Malfoy," Theo sneered, "You really are out of touch these days. There was a time when nothing in this castle would have escaped your notice."
"Careful," Draco knew Theo was goading him, trying to get him to lower his guard, "Now," he stepped away from Annabelle into a more open area of the floor, "you had better start making sense here, real fast."
Theo sighed. "Snape," he sputtered, "he cast special alarm spells all over the castle; I overheard him telling Dumbledore one night. Seems the old man is worried that bad things might happen at Hogwarts," a slight snigger, "So he had Snape rig the place. Anyone tries to perform an Unforgivable Curse anywhere in Hogwarts, and every alarm in the castle goes off."
"Interesting," Draco nodded, "and bullshit of course. You think I'm going to believe you after what I just saw?"
"I don't care what you believe," Theo said. "Now, can I stand up? This floor isn't good for my knees."
"I don't give a damn about your knees, Theo," Draco barked. "You are going to tell me the truth…"
"Master?" Draco jumped slightly as a dull voice came out of nowhere. He turned to see Annabelle acting more like her usual self. She was looking at him with a slightly confused expression on her face. Then she blinked once and turned her head. The moment she spotted Theo, her face lit up with recognition. "How may I please you, Master?" she asked him.
Draco was flummoxed, his jaw hung open. What in the hell was going on? His wand never moved from Theo. "Master?" he asked him, "You care to explain that?"
"I would," Theo answered. There was a glint in his eye that Draco recognised as danger. His mind tensed as Theo spoke again. "Annabelle," he said calmly, "Attack Malfoy!"
Draco barely had an instant to register what he'd just heard. Without making a sound, Annabelle spun to face him, her face set into an expression of determined anger as she leapt off the couch. At the same moment, Theo burst from his crouch and came at Draco like a mad bull.
This time, though, Draco didn't panic. He had seen the glint in Theo's eye and was en guarde, ready for the strike. He hadn't really expected both of them to come at him, however, but that didn't matter really. He stepped backward from both attackers as his mind hauled on the fabric of time once again. Both Theo and Annabelle slowed in mid step until it appeared as though they were barely moving at all.
Draco turned to Annabelle and aimed his wand. "Stupefy!" he roared. The golden spell poured out of the end of his wand and slowed as it crossed into the area where time was altered. With Annabelle dealt with; Draco turned his attention to Theo once again. His first instinct was to stun him too, but then he remembered that he still wanted to extract some answers from the prat so, lowering his wand to aim at the rug in front of the fire, Draco shouted, "Accio!"
His mind released his hold on time and, in a snap, the actions he had started played out. His stunner hit Annabelle mid flight and she landed hard on the floor where Draco had just been standing. Her landing would have been painful, Draco knew, if she wasn't already out cold before she hit. Theo was not so lucky.
By the time Draco's Accio spell hit the rug and tugged it forward, Theo's foot was planted squarely on it. The rug moved, toppling the charging Slytherin in spectacular style. He spun in mid air, legs and arms flailing madly, and landed hard on his back across the arm of one of the armchairs. A definite WHOMPH told Draco that he had once again knocked the air from his fallen housemate and, he mused, with any luck at all, broken some of his ribs into the bargain. Moaning and wheezing, Theo rolled sideways and slid awkwardly onto the floor.
Keeping his wand aimed squarely at Theo, Draco walked over to look down into his eyes. He wasn't surprised to see proper tears flowing down his cheeks this time as Theo lay on his back, fighting once more for breath.
"Hhhheeeeehhhhhh," Theo wheezed, "Heeehhh…. Ho… How did you…"
"How did I do that?" Draco finished for him. Theo coughed hard in between nods. Draco smiled. "That, Theo," he said, "is something that you will never know. Nor is it important. All that matters now is that I am going to give you one chance, just one more, to tell me what the hell you did to that girl before I hex your brains out. And, please Theo," Draco stared down into his housemate's eyes, "don't for one second think that any imaginary alarm is going to stop me. After the night I've had, I wouldn't put anything past me right now."
Theo blinked away the tears in his eyes and fell into a fit of coughing wheezes. Draco stepped back and waited for him to catch his breath. Eventually, amid the nonsensical sounds, Draco heard, "I…I didn't…"
Stepping forward, Draco kicked hard at the side of Theo's ribs by way of encouragement. "Speak up you troll," he demanded, "and speak fast!"
Theo reeled from the kick. Folding up, he rolled onto his side and spluttered hard. Draco stepped back, expecting him to vomit at any moment, but somehow, Theo held his stomach in check. "I didn't do anything to her," he shouted rather forcefully after a time, then in a more composed voice, he added, "she…she was a…a present from my father."
"A present?" Draco asked, not really sure of his hearing, "what the fuck do you mean a present?"
"I…I mean…" Theo coughed again, "I mean… he gave her to me." Then, when he saw Draco stepping forward again, he added, "I don't… I don't know what he did to her, but he changed her…inside…made it so she'd do whatever I…I wanted her to.
"He made her your slave?" Draco asked, genuinely disgusted by the very notion.
Theo spluttered as he nodded. "Yes," he managed to say, "he told me that all I had to do was to s…say the word 'Emergence' to her like I was h…hexing her…and then she'd do whatever I told her to do…"
"And I can imagine what you told her to do," Draco sneered at him, "I did wonder, you know, why she suddenly took a liking to you lately. As I recall, she wouldn't touch you with a twenty foot broom handle last year," he shook his head and stepped away, "It all makes sense now," he turned to glare at Theo, "You disgusting piece of…"
A moan from the far side of the floor distracted Draco. Annabelle rolled over on the ground, coming to. Draco turned back to Theo, "Why her?" he asked.
Even through his tears, Theo managed to look smug, "What do you mean?" he replied in a hoarse croak, "Why not? She's pureblood… and shes got a good body… what else do you want in a toy?"
Draco ground his teeth. It took effort, real effort for him to resist the urge to hex Theo's skin off where he lay. He needed to get out, to get some air before he really lost his temper. But he couldn't leave Annabelle in her current state. Turning once again to face Theo, he spat through clenched teeth "How do you wake her up?"
When Theo didn't answer, Draco levelled his wand at him again, to angry to make any further threats. It had the desired effect, "You just say "Reversion"," Theo said quietly, "and she'll be back to normal…but…" he started to sound scared now, "but you can't…"
"Why the hell not?" Draco asked as he walked over toward the wakening Annabelle.
"B..because," Theo answered, trying to sit up, "You have to fix her injuries first and make it seem like nothing happened. Otherwise she'll know…"
"Yes," Draco answered, "I daresay she will, but," he smiled at Theo, "that is not my problem, is it?"
Standing over Annabelle as she opened her eyes, Draco pointed his wand at her and said, "Reversion!"
Instantly, her eyes snapped open and her body went rigid. Draco watched the same, blank expression come over her face. He looked over at Theo, "I assume it takes a minute for her to come round?" he asked.
Theo nodded. "Yes," he said, "b…but…"
"No, Theo," Draco cut him off, "no buts, not this time." Draco levelled his wand at Theo's chest and said, "Bindus!"
Out of thin air, heavy ropes appeared and wrapped themselves around Theo, binding him securely where he lay. "Now then," Draco said as he admired his handiwork, "I think that you are going to have some very fast talking to do in the near future if you want to keep your skin intact. I'll be keeping your wand by the way, just to make sure that you play nice when she wakes up."
"Wait…Draco…" Theo said.
"Shut it, Theo, or I'll shut it for you."
Theo's mouth clicked shut, but his eyes continued to stare at Draco with a mixture of fear and anger. Annabelle remained stationary on the floor. It was just a matter of time before she woke up and, judging by the bruises she was sure to have, she was not going to be a happy camper when she did. Smiling, Draco pocketed his wand and turned to leave. He felt a real sense of satisfaction at having unravelled one of the many mysteries that plagued him. He paused to glance at Theo as he passed. There was one other matter that occurred to him.
"Theo," he asked, drawing his wand again and stooping down to look the fallen Slytherin in the eye, "Just out of curiosity, what was it that you and Annabelle were shouting about when you came in just now? Something about a paper?" Theo's answer was to glare at him until Draco waved his wand in front of the other boy's eyes. "Theo," he said coolly, "Don't make me use this. What paper were you and Annabelle arguing over?"
Theo's eyes flicked from the wand to Draco's face. "The Daily Prophet," he said at last, "in my robes…"
That was all Draco needed to hear. Without a care for what pain it would cause him, Draco shoved Theo onto his back and started to dig about between the ropes to get at his robes.
"It would be easier if you untied me," Theo said.
Draco sneered. "No, Theo," he said, resting the tip of his wand on the other boy's chest, "It would be easier like this… Stupefy!"
There was barely enough time for Theo's eyes to flash wide in fright before the spell rendered him unconscious. With him safely out, Draco had no compunctions about undoing the ropes. Once they were out of the way, it was a simple matter for him to locate the copy of the Daily Prophet, which Theo had stuffed rather unceremoniously into his inside pocket.
Draco rebound Theo before he stood to read the paper, it wouldn't do for him to wake up before Annabelle was ready for him. Draco didn't know if the Slytherin girl was going to be able to get the best of his housemate, but that didn't matter. If he knew Theo at all, then the fact that Draco knew his secret would be enough to keep him from harming her anymore. As for what would happen to him later, Draco wasn't sure about that. By all rights he supposed that he should report him to the Headmaster; Theo's actions warranted expulsion at the very least, but Draco wasn't sure. Knowing what he did about Theo gave him a degree of an edge over the boy, and no Slytherin worth his robes would ever through such an edge away lightly. Draco knew that there may come a time when he might need Theo for something, and until then he'd happily let things play out.
Turning his attention to the paper, Draco unravelled it. One look at the headline on the front page and Draco knew why Theo had been so pissed off.
'Death Eater Captured!!! Aurors Receive International Support'
A large photograph covered most of the page. In it, struggling against his captors. A man that Draco recognised as Theo Nott Senior was being dragged down a ramshackle flight of stairs. In an instant, as he scanned the paragraph, he could hear Lord Menai's words from the previous evening telling him again how Etean was in this for his own gain and now:
'In a daring series of pre-dawn raids, members of the esteemed Etyar Guards, freshly arrived from France to assist the beleaguered Auror Corps, this morning conducted a total of five assaults on known Death Eater safe houses and, in the process, succeeded in capturing the known Death Eater, Theodore Nott.'
Draco's eyes went back to the picture. One of the two men restraining Nott was an Auror, but the other was certainly not. Draco recognised the uniform of the Etyar Guards, it wasn't one that was easily forgotten. He read on;
'Mr. Nott, who is currently wanted for questioning in relation to at least a dozen open murder cases by the Ministry of Magic, as well as for several lesser crimes, including the use of the Unforgivable Curses on a series of wizards and muggles throughout the country, was detained as he attempted to flee from No 23 Fitzwilliam Square, London, at a quarter past eight this morning. Nott has been taken into custody and will be transferred to an undisclosed holding facility to await questioning before he is brought to trial.
Speaking on behalf of the Ministry, Professor Albus Dumbledore, Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, expressed his thanks to the Etyar, without whom, the raids would not have gone so smoothly.
The Etyar Guards, widely considered to be amongst the finest Magical Law Enforcers in the world, are most famous for their stalwart defence of the French Government Buildings, known as the Adjutaire, a position they have held for over two centuries with distinction. Todays's operation to capture Mr. Nott was conducted in accordance with an agreement brokered only last night between the Ministry and Robert, Lord Etean XV. Though unavailable for comment, it is understood by this reporter that Lord Etean is exceedingly pleased that his agreement to involve the Etyar Guards in this operation should prove so critical in bringing about this victory….'
There was more but Draco didn't read it. Annabelle stirred on the floor beside him. Draco looked at her for a moment and then turned to leave. He had decided that it was best that she not see him standing there when she woke up. That girl had a temper and Draco wanted all of it to be directed at Theo Nott. Besides, he mused as the door of the common room closed behind him, he'd done his part to help the girl. Now… now he had to go back to unravelling the mysteries of his life and, he thought, things had just become even more complicated. He paused a moment to toss Nott's wand away into the dark, dungeon corridor, not caring whether Theo would ever find it or not as he heard it clatter off the flagstones.
So, Etean had joined the war had he? That was unexpected. Once again, Draco was left mired in aimless, never-ending questions. He sighed and set off towards the staircase, this was shaping up to be a long day.
Hermione sat up in her bed as Professor McGonagall entered the Hospital Wing. She couldn't be sure, but she could swear there was a look of relief on the Professor's face when she saw Hermione. This was odd behaviour for her, but that seemed oddly fitting. Madam Pomfrey had been acting strangely all morning too. Not angry or even upset really, just on edge. Every time they had made eye contact while the Nurse had been examining her, Hermione could have sworn that the Nurse looked… vacant. It wasn't what she was used to with Madam Pomfrey. The Nurse always seemed to be on top of things, no matter what. It was very unsettling to see her like this.
Professor McGonagall's demeanour was unsettling as well. Hermione would have expected the Professor to be angry with her. After all, between Draco and herself, they had broken at least ten school rules by brewing that potion, not least amongst which was her inspiring Draco to steal the ingredients for her. By now, Hermione would have expected to be knee deep in detentions and lost House Points, that was assuming Professor McGonagall didn't go the whole hog and expel her.
Then an odd thought occurred to her. But no, surely the Professor knew what had happened? Surely Draco had explained everything to the Nurse when he'd brought Hermione to the Hospital Wing? Hermione knew that he had brought her here, how else could she have woken up in this bed? Of course, she had had to assume that, seeing as how Madam Pomfrey wasn't being very helpful.
Indeed, the Matron had barely even spoken two words to Hermione from the moment she'd first woken up. That too struck Hermione as odd. Over the last few weeks, she had visited the Hospital so often for one reason or another that she and the Matron were all but on a first name basis. Maybe Madam Pomfrey was just mad at her, Hermione thought. She couldn't really blame her if she was. Brewing that potion had been foolish of her, especially given how it had turned out.
Hermione didn't remember much about what happened, or about anything from the night before. She could recall taking the potion and then feeling it start to make her all light headed and giddy and then… nothing. The next thing she knew, she was lying in the Hospital Wing with the Nurse standing over her, feeling about as lousy as she had before taking the potion.
Well, perhaps not quite as bad as before. She was, if anything, less bone weary. But that was to be expected, seeing as how she'd spent the night sedated. That much Madam Pomfrey had told her, but as for anything else… not a word would pass her lips. The only reply she had give to any of Hermione's questions was that there would be time for that later, after she'd had some rest.
It was somewhat of a relief to Hermione that she didn't remember anything of the night shed just had. Being sedated and trapped inside her continual nightmare was the one thing that truly terrified her above all others, but now it had happened and Hermione couldn't remember a thing. Perhaps the potion had worked after all; she felt better, and wasn't that the point? Her nightmares, if there had been any, didn't haunt her as they usually did. But Hermione couldn't fool herself any longer; she was in the Hospital Wing for crying out loud. Clearly, for what small benefit it had, the potion was not what she had hoped it to be. Gods, she didn't want to imagine what its effects had looked like to Draco. How scared had he been? Was he worried about her even now? Was he mad at her for being so stupid? He had every right to be if he was, and so did Madam Pomfrey when it came to it, and Professor McGonagall.
And now Professor McGonagall was here, but the look on her face was certainly not one of anger. As she came closer, Hermione could have sworn she saw a look of pity cross her features. She got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, which only got worse when the Professor nodded to Madam Pomfrey. As the Nurse withdrew in silence, Hermione was sure she saw Professor McGonagall swallow very hard as though she were fighting back tears. Hermione felt a shiver run up her spine.
The Nurse retreated into her office, leaving Hermione alone with the Professor. Professor McGonagall sat slowly on the edge of Hermione's bed and rested her hands on her lap.
"Is everything alright, Professor?" Hermione asked, finding speaking a little harder than she had expected.
"No," McGonagall sighed, "I'm afraid that everything is not alright, Hermione."
Hermione thought she heard a hint of disappointment in the Professor's voice. So that was it. Professor McGonagall wasn't mad at her because she was disappointed with her. To Hermione, that was almost worse than her being angry. Disappointed meant that the Professor was not just upset, but that she was personally hurt by what Hermione had done. Hermione felt wretched. How could she have been so reckless, so foolish? Hermione averted her gaze. "I'm sorry, Professor," she said meekly.
McGonagall gasped aloud. "Sorry?" she all but croaked, "Heavens above child, what have you to be sorry for?"
"For the potion, Professor," Hermione answered, still not meeting the Professor's eyes, "I know it was wrong to make it, I know that I shouldn't have done it and I… I know I've let you down," she sniffed back a tear, "I'm really sorry, Professor."
McGonagall didn't reply. There was no sound at all from her except her breathing. After a long moment, Hermione looked up, and felt her insides freeze solid. McGonagall wasn't looking at her, she wasn't looking at anything at all in fact. The Professor had shut her eyes and bowed her head to her chest. Silent tears slid down her aged face and were already starting to drip onto her robes.
The bad feeling inside Hermione turned into a cold knot in her heart. She wasn't worried anymore, she was scared stiff. Nothing, no situation she could imagine would evoke such a response from the normally stoic Professor.
"I..." Hermione started, fighting to maintain her ability to speak, "I really am sorry, Professor," she all but muttered.
"No," replied the Professor suddenly. "No, Hermione, it is me that is sorry. So…so sorry."
"F…for what?" Hermione stammered.
"For not…" Professor McGonagall began, but then she stopped herself. She paused and took a deep breath before continuing. "Hermione," she said slowly, "I am sorry, but what I have to tell you now is not…it is not going to be easy to say and especially difficult for you to hear. There is no easy way to say what I am about to say and I honestly don't know of any way to make this easier on you." The Professor paused to sniff hard. "You deserve the truth," she said at last, "you deserve to know what is…what is happening to you."
Hermione's frozen insides started to crumble in on themselves. "What is happening to me, Professor?"
"Yes," McGonagall sniffed again, then looked her in the eye, "Your condition," she said, "is more severe than Madam Pomfrey originally realised."
"What do you mean?" Hermione asked on reflex, "You mean I don't have Magical Polarity Disorder?"
Professor McGonagall stalled and shut her eyes again. It seemed to be taking her a moment to compose herself, much to Hermione's despair.
"You do have MPD, Hermione," she said after a time, "but… I'm afraid that things are not as simple as that," the Professor shuffled slightly in her seat and cleared her throat before continuing, "All of the things that have been happening to you over the last few months, Hermione…the MPD… the problems with your muscles… the fatigue… having are symptoms of a larger… disease. One which you have contracted though… though it's impossible to say how."
"What disease, Professor?" Hermione asked, feeling as though her whole world were about to collapse. In her mind, Hermione was eliminating possible explanations for the Professor's quite obvious distress and, the more the Professor spoke, the shorter the list became.
"Its called Nailar's Syndrome," the Professor answered, "and its very, very rare. There hasn't been anyone…"
For the first time in her life, Hermione found herself uninterested in what Professor McGonagall was saying. "What…" she said suddenly, startling even herself, "What will it do to me?"
McGonagall took a breath. "Nailar's Syndrome attacks the body in… lots of ways but… the most… severe is how it affects your blood. The disease forces your body to produce vast amounts of black cells, the things in your blood that allow you to do magic. They act like conductors, generating and channelling magic through you, and that's a good thing," Professor McGonagall added quickly, "normally," she swallowed again and took yet another steadying breath, "the trouble is, with too many black cells in your blood there is too much magic conducted through you and… and the body can't take it. The excess energy causes damage to the cells of the…of the central nervous system and…" the Professor tailed off. Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at Hermione.
"And what, Professor," Hermione urged though, really, she didn't have to. The list of possible explanations inside her mind had been reduced to one item. Only one explanation was severe enough to upset the Professor so much, "its going…to kill me…isn't it Professor?"
The Professor's response seemed to take a lifetime to arrive, but when it did, a simple nod and a muttered, "Yes," was the last thing that Hermione heard of the conversation. The Professor kept talking, and she seemed to be saying some encouraging things about not giving up hope, but Hermione was only dimly aware of the sound of her voice. She retreated from the world around her, ran away if that's the word to use, she simply didn't want to hear anything more of what the Professor was going to say. What did it matter anyway? She knew all that she needed to know. She was sick and she was going to die and there was nothing that anyone could do about it. It made a strange sort of sense to her really. It was almost like she had always known it was going to happen. She just couldn't bring herself to listen to Professor McGonagall's hollow, if well-meant platitudes.
'You know,' came an all too familiar voice, which, for once, Hermione wasn't upset to hear; in fact she didn't feel anything at all, 'you really should listen to her,' the voice continued, 'she is trying to help you feel better. What's wrong with that?'
Hermione tried to shut the voice out, which was remarkably hard since it was inside her head. She fought desperately not to respond to it.
'Come on,' the voice said, 'shutting out people when they are just trying to help you is not a very good idea.'
'What's it to you?' Hermione responded, unable to help it.
'So she does hear me," the voice replied, somehow lacking its usual sarcastic edge, 'good, and here I was starting to think that I was wasting my breath.'
'What breath?' Hermione thought, then instantly regretted it. Somehow the idea of another acerbic argument with herself didn't really appeal to her.
'Ok,' the voice replied, undeterred, 'you got me there all right. Whatever else I do, I don't breathe. It was just a figure of speech, Honey.'
Professor McGongall laid her hand on Hermione's shoulder. She could see the Professor's lips mouth words as she spoke and then she could feel herself speak as she answered but, for the life of her, Hermione couldn't tell what she was actually saying. That, naturally enough, was a shock to her. Her shock grew as she realised that she'd been speaking for a while now without realising it.
'Wait,' she though, a little alarmed, 'is that you? Are you the one speaking?'
'Yes,' came the rather frank response, 'I am. The woman is worried about you. Like I said, she's trying to help you, we both are.'
'Both?' Hermione tried to make the thought a scream. 'What have you ever done to help me?'
'Good,' the voice replied, 'get angry. Anger is good, we can use that.'
'Use it for what?'
The voice laughed. 'For what else? I said I'm trying to help you and I am.'
'Help me?' Hermione replied. 'How can you possibly help me? In case you weren't listening earlier, I'm going to be dead soon!'
'Are you just going to accept that?' the voice replied.
'What choice do I have?' Hermione asked.
'Honey,' the voice answered, somehow soothingly now, 'there is always a choice.'
Hermione's mind flashed back to the last time the voice had spoken to her like this, and she recalled what had happened afterward. 'What do you mean?' she asked, almost afraid of the answer.
'Trust me,' the voice said.