We, In Faith
Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Chapter Sixteen: Suspicion
The earth and the night were still. Globs of white light posed high above his head and the moon, almost a whole sphere, spilt its innards all over the land. He stood on a hill, a church nearby. A rambling, quiet village scattered below while in the other direction a great old house, almost a manor, peered down on everything, old and disapproving. But closer around him were the vertical monuments to those who were now merely horizontal. Silently, not really worrying about the queerness of the situation, he reached out and touched one of the gravestones. Many were old, cracked and others were young and clean with flowers at their feet.
He looked up and saw people coming from the large house. They were vague growths on the dark land, traversing with purpose. There were two of them, and as they entered the graveyard, he could see that one carried an awkward bundle. He suddenly felt something was wrong. A much more corporeal strangeness slinked around their ankles.
The two cloaked individuals approached a mammoth of a gravestone. The one with the awkward bundle kneeled. They seemed to be talking softly, but he couldn't hear it. He couldn't hear anything, he realized. With the realization, the world suddenly seemed to swing, lashing, on him and press down on his head. A terrible, high-pitched weight shoved down on him. Everything began to accumulate on a single point on his forehead.
Jean awoke, gasping and slamming his palms against his face. His forehead burned terribly. The pain arched and dug from the dermis to the epidermis, the cushy tissues, to his skull and he could swear it was trying to slash down through his brain. But finally the pain slowly faded.
Breathing deeply, he wrenched himself from bed and stumbled out the door. The floor of the hall felt cool to his feet as he passed down into the bathroom. Turning the lights on, he stood leaning towards the long mirror. He inspected his face. Skin pale and damp, his thick black hair laid on his forehead, oppressive. He lifted the clumpy strands. The lightening scar stood out startlingly pink and swollen. He traced the still throbbing scar tissue with a single finger. How bizarre.
What in the world had that dream meant? Had it triggered that sudden pain in his scar? He usually never noticed the thing – it lay hidden under his hair and had never meant much to him because he had no idea how he'd gotten it. He vaguely recalled asking François about it as a child, but not receiving any sort of definitive answer. Would the Potters know anything about it?
With a disgruntled noise, he let his hair fall back down. He was overreacting. A bad dream and a little sting shouldn't be getting him all worked up. He turned off the lights and returned to bed.
"Ackerly. Ackerly!" Ainsley hissed across the Great Hall. His voice did not, of course, carry over the loud clumps of morning chatter. The object of his attention had just entered the Hall, Oleander by his side.
"He's not looking," grumbled Ainsley.
Beside Ainsley, Dennis squirmed unhappily and stared off glumly at the Slytherin table. "Do you really have to do this, Ains?"
"Of course not," he chirped, standing up and waving. Ackerly, his attention finally caught, rolled his eyes and edged toward their table. "That git's had it coming to him for a while now. Especially lately." Ainsley was irritated. It seemed for the past week or so that a certain denizen of the house of Slytherin had been giving him odd smug looks (unusually so, anyway) and strange little taunts that made no sense. Ainsley did not like being screwed with. And in any case, he thought the school needed a little comic relief from the constant badgering of approaching finals. As a Triwizard champion, he himself didn't need to take them, but that didn't mean he couldn't cheer up a friend or two.
Ackerly swung his legs over the bench, Dennis scooting aside. He gave Ainsley a patronizing look. "Really, Potter, where would you be without me? Quite helpless, I'm sure."
Ainsley blew a loud raspberry in his face. "Shut it. You brought your wand, right?"
"Of course," Ackerly replied, unperturbed. "You know, if you bothered to stay conscious for at least one millisecond during Transfiguration then –"
"Yeah, well, I don't," he interrupted. "But you do. So shut it already, 'cause I think the owls are about to come."
Just as he said it, hoots and twitters burst above their heads, feathers flying everywhere. They looked up into the churning mass of owls, all of them craning to spot one particular bird. Ainsley squirmed and swiveled until he spotted what he wanted. He elbowed Ackerly, pointing up.
"There!" he said excitedly. He fumbled with something in his pocket but kept his eyes and finger on a certain eagle owl circling high against the ceiling. "Hurry up before it finds him!"
"I got it, I got it!" Ackerly squinted up at the bird, discreetly pulling his wand from his robes. He muttered something under his breath. The owl, once huge, fierce and with tufted ears suddenly became small, caramel-colored, and spotted.
Dennis scanned the tables nervously. "I don't think anyone saw." He stretched to peer at the Slytherin table. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Ainsley nudged Ackerly again. "Next part!" He squeezed something in his fist.
"I know," Ackerly hissed, shoving him away. "I'm going to hex you next if you don't shut it." He swished his wand and muttered something again. Instantly, the little transfigured owl swooped away from the ceiling to hover a few feet above their heads. Ainsley grabbed a piece of toast, waving to toward the confused-looking bird. It dropped unceremoniously onto his arm. He grabbed it, Ackerly and Dennis watching tensely, stuffed a bit of toast into its beak, and tied the object from his hand onto its leg. The size of a die but only marked on one side with the signature logo of Zonko's: Weasley's Wizard Wheezes Division, the grainy, minuscule cube dangled innocently from the owl's leg. Ainsley looked about surreptitiously before tossing the bird back into the fluttering, twittering air.
Ackerly watched it shoot into the air and flap about uncertainly for a moment. It suddenly changed from a twitchy little bird into a huge, soaring eagle owl. But the bird still looked confused, lingering up near the ceiling.
"C'mon, c'mon!" Ainsley muttered. The other two watched it impatiently, too.
Across the hall, Draco Malfoy suddenly craned his slick head around and spotted his owl fluttering among other owls already heading off to the Owlery. He whistled loudly, looking irritated. The bird seemed to recover itself and dived neatly onto his master's waiting arm. Ainsley started snickering excitedly. Ackerly grinned a little before pointing his wand carefully at the massive eagle owl and whispering a simple unlocking charm.
Instant chaos erupted from the Slytherin table. Angry shouts and surprised shrieks careened from one green-clad student to another, the unhappy noises loudest nearest to where Malfoy had been sitting. Sand. Tons and tons of sand had exploded upward from that tiny cube into the air. It rolled over the table and washed over the Slytherins like an angry tide, crushing them beneath its weight. Mounds of the stuff now stood where there had once been students and a table. The Slytherins clawed furiously or tearily from the sand's weight, coughing and splurting, rubbing their salty lashes.
Several teachers stood, shocked and angry, and rushed forward quickly to help them. Ainsley saw that while Uncle Remus had stood to help, Uncle Sirius seemed to have his head buried in his hands, shaking either in sobs or laughter. He'd bet his bottom dollar on which. Dumbledore was still seated, looking up at the floundering Slytherins with an unperturbed expression.
The teachers tried to Vanish away the sand, but it instantly retaliated by boiling back over some girls just getting out of a particularly large mound, rearing up into a huge sand-built hand and spanking a few fourth-years trying to edge away, and splashing coquettishly into whatever orifice it could reach of the Slytherin Quidditch team. They yelped and pawed at their eyes, smacked sand angrily out of their ears, and waddled around awkwardly, fidgeting with their pants.
Around them, other students gawked at them from their seats, or stood up to blatantly laugh in their faces. A large group of first and second-years gawped with open mouths while beside them upperclassmen from all three unscathed classes clutched laughter stitches. The Head Boy and Girl had rounded up the prefects (many of whom seemed torn between chortling and duty) and looked determined to help the teachers make even more of a mess of the situation.
No matter what charm or spell they tried, it only made the infuriating sand backlash upon the Slytherins. Finally, the bell rang, but no one seemed to notice, either helpless with sand digging into their backsides or helpless with laughter digging into their ribs. Dumbledore stood and shot very loud purple firecrackers into the air from his wand. The room gradually stilled and stared up at him. Snape stood near the headmaster in front of the head table, glaring nosily down at everyone, particularly towards the Gryffindors, still giggling.
Looking very austere, Dumbledore spoke loudly, "I would like whoever has pulled this little prank to know that they will not go unpunished. You may as well step forward now so as to prevent an even worse consequence." Nobody moved. Dumbledore's eyes twinkled a little. "Very well. Then I ask whoever has information on who might have done this to speak to a professor or myself soon. In the meantime, I must ask you all to scurry along to classes, even those now hexed, so that the day may continue as normal as possible. This evening, those affected by the prank are to report to Professor Snape's office before dinner."
The students twittered softly but did as they were told, heading for the doors. The noise grew again as everyone began talking rapidly about the prank. Laughter leaped high again when they saw the Slytherins angrily shoving their way through the crowds, glaring around, with lines of sand slithering behind them. The sand spelled out things like 'I'm a stupid git,' or 'I wet the bed,' or 'I'm a mama's boy.' Filch waded through the mass, looking furious and muttering angrily towards the unperturbed mountains of sand. Chuckling heavily, Ainsley, Dennis, and Ackerly were having a hard time walking straight for all the laughter tears bulging on their cheeks. They weren't aware of someone following them closely until they had made it halfway to their class, and someone shoved Ainsley into a side corridor. The excited chattering around died. The place was deserted.
Draco Malfoy looked down on him with an empty expression. His sleek hair was now gritty and sand dusted him in a thick coat from head to toe. 'I couldn't catch a snitch with no wings buried in cement,' was written out behind him. To Ainsley's alarm, Malfoy's thin lips spread in a slow smile.
"Oh, good show!" the Slytherin said amiably. "Really! Well done, old boy! Top notch!"
Ainsley shrugged off his hand. He crossed his arms defensively across his chest. "If you mean about the sand –" He struggled to keep a straight face. " – It wasn't me." He glanced over Malfoy's shoulder to see if Ackerly or Dennis had noticed him being cornered. Only a stream of distracted, amused faces swam past.
"Is that so?" Malfoy asked conversationally. He still smiled. "Because, I got a look at that little cube before it exploded."
"Did you?" Ainsley queried, sounding interested.
"Yes," he answered toothily. "And do you know what was on it?"
"The stamp of Zonko's: Weasley's Wizard Wheezes Division," Malfoy replied, still as nonchalant as ever. He was starting to make Ainsley nervous. "And I know, of course, how buddy-buddy you've always been with the charming Weasleys, old chap."
'The charming Weasleys'? Ainsley wondered if there was some strange side affect of insanity from the sand hex. "Well. They let anyone buy their stuff, you know. Not just friends."
"Yes, but I don't like coincidences," Malfoy said, his voice dropping an octave or two. "And I happen to know that you, Potter, are a nasty little brat." He no longer heard any hint of pleasantry in the Slytherin's voice.
Ainsley straightened, glaring. "I told you. I didn't do it. I don't know who did." He smirked. "They certainly do have a great sense of humor, though."
Malfoy didn't say anything. He gazed at him with slitted eyes and a thin mouth. He suddenly put on a smirk to undo any smirk. "You know, Ains, I feel bad for you."
Thrown, Ainsley stared. "What?"
The blonde tutted sympathetically. "So many secrets being kept from you... And your own family – Ah, well." He shrugged, backing away. "I shouldn't say anything. Ciao." He made to leave the side corridor.
Ainsley grabbed at his arm. "What are you talking about?" he hissed. "You've been hinting at some bull like that for weeks now. Spill or just shut your stupid piehole you ass!"
Malfoy looked down on him haughtily. "Language, Potter!" He brushed a bit of sand from his cheek. "It really isn't my place to interfere in family matters. Especially such a touchy topic." He patted Ainsley's shoulder with a patronizing hand. "Maybe your parents will let you in on it at some point."
Teeth bared, Ainsley lashed out at him, shoving as hard as he could at the taller boy. Malfoy only stumbled backward a few steps, standing still for a long moment. Ainsley stood prepared for a good brawl, but was shocked again when he only received a sinister smirk.
"Careful, Ainsley," Malfoy murmured, straightening. "Trust me, dying in the Triwizard would be much, much more preferable to the sort of horrors I could put you through." Ainsley did not care for the strange gleam in the Slytherin's eyes or the gentle curve in his lips. He abruptly walked away, out into the now deserted hall. Ainsley listened to the footsteps until they were indistinguishable from the quiet wind outside.
What the hell had just happened? What the hell was wrong with Malfoy? Normally he'd get a thrashing from doing something like that... not some sort of freaky reaction. He looked down and saw that his hands were white with the force he was gripping them with. He relaxed his fingers and realized his entire body felt stiff. He shook himself. He had to get to class.
Draco fruitlessly tried to shake the sand from his robes. Stupid snotty brat. He should have decked him then and there. But it wouldn't do him any good to get disqualified from the tournament. His father trying to get him to take a dive had made him suspicious, and had merely given him another reason to continue competing. And it was a lot more fun to mess with Potter's head than his face. He shoved his way into an empty boy's bathroom.
He inspected himself in a mirror. Slathered with sand, as expected. He scowled. That Gryffindork had it coming to him. One day. One day. He wiped off the grit on his face. Shaking his hair out, he pulled his robes over his head. Looking back in the smoky mirror, he started and whirled.
A disheveled Rita Skeeter stood leaning against the stalls, her arms crossed, her lips pursed, and her eyes on him. Had she climbed in through the open window? Or by some other route? Her roots were showing and she badly needed a good haircut. Her make-up was patchy, her nails chipped and broken, and her alligator bag looking very much worse for wear. One of her heels seemed to be missing its heel. She straightened when he turned around, and tried to primly straighten out her faded suit. She attempted a smooth smile. She failed.
"Mister Malfoy!" she exclaimed. "How lovely to see you. Er. You seem to be a bit sandy." She tried a chuckle.
He didn't return it, eyeing her skeptically. "Indeed. But it seems you're the one looking her absolute worst."
Her botched smile wavered. "Well. Everyone hits a rough spot or two in life."
"Rough? Try chewed up and spit out like rotten gristle," Draco returned frankly.
She looked sour, but kept up her congenial tone. "Yes, well, I didn't come here to talk about me. I want to talk about you."
"Me?" he asked indifferently, turning back to his robes. He shook them briskly. Sand splattered to the floor.
"Well, you and maybe any little juicy tidbit you could send my way," she said eagerly, stepping forward. The noise her shoes made on the tiles sounded pathetic and wobbly. Click, clunk. Click, clunk. Click, clunk. She tottered near.
Laying down his robes on a sink, he pulled off a shoe. "If you mean gossip, there's not much going on." He poured a puddle of sand out of his shoe. He glanced at her. Something wasn't right here with Skeeter. It would be very easy to tell her some nonsense to get back at Potter, but his instincts told him to test the waters first. Her eyes on him were overly keen and sharp.
She toed the pile of sand growing on the bathroom floor. "I think if you thought a little harder you might dig up a little something. Like all this sand. What's the story behind it?"
He tugged his sock off. "Just a little prank. Nothing major. What about you, Rita? Like all this mess." He waved at her vaguely with the sock. Her eye twitched. "What's the story behind it?" He was getting amused. They both knew that at any moment he could report her for trespassing. And there also seemed to be something she wanted from him.
Her entire face turned thin and hard. "Unimportant. Honest. Now, if you might explain this 'prank'? I'm sure it could have endangered many student lives! What are the teachers doing about it? Dumbledore isn't slacking or something is he?"
"Well, Rita," he said chummily, pulling off his other shoe. "I wouldn't know anything about that. Really, Hogwarts isn't that interesting." He put on an angelic face.
She didn't even seem to notice when sand from his shoe fell all over her heels. She had dozens of rungs in her stockings. "Look, what about the Triwizard? Lot of competition, lot of pressure in the air? Maybe somebody's not dealing well?"
Draco shrugged lazily. "Nope. We're all dandy. You don't seem to be dealing well though. Although I don't know what's happened to you, poor girl."
Her eyes slitted. "Is that how it is?" she huffed. "Despite how I look or what people say," she said this viciously, "I'm still a good reporter! They had no right –" She clunked about the bathroom, muttering as she paced.
"No right?" he asked politely, shaking out his vest.
"No right!" She stamped her foot, staggering as her lone heel flew off. "OHH!" she shouted angrily, kicking it. It careened across the room and ricocheted off the wall. She stood huffing furiously.
"I'm guessing you were fired," Draco commented dryly.
She glared silently for a while, but then her expression cleared. She was smiling again. "That's right, Mister Malfoy, I was let go recently." He looked at her with a touch of concern. Had getting the boot touched her in the head? "And I'm betting the circumstances would interest you."
Draco shrugged. "I doubt it." Sand from his button-up shirt contributed to the swelling pile on the floor.
"Do you?" she chuckled. "Don't be so doubtful, then. I'll tell you one thing, it involves the head of a very prominent pureblood family. Very prominent."
He snorted. She was bluffing, obviously. If she were telling the telling the truth, why would it be of interest to him anyway? Unless... If a 'prominent pureblood family' had something to do with her getting fired, than that meant blackmail. Skeeter hadn't been publishing very important articles lately. Not since the drivel last January about Pole. And the only pureblood family who would even mildly be interested in getting rid of Skeeter because of it would be the Poles...
He glanced at her casually. "I'm sure it's quite interesting." He began putting on his clothes again. He was guessing Skeeter had no clue exactly how interested he might be; she was just fishing around for anything that might help her get a story. "But you know, it's a little shallow to assume that every pureblood is out to know every bit of gossip about every other pureblood."
She tittered. "Yes, but it also involves, I believe, someone you've associated closely with."
"So, this person is one of your rivals, now, aren't they? Maybe if you helped me, we could even use this piece of info to bring him down." Her eyes, buggy and anxious, locked on him. So she wasn't completely stupid. At least she realized why she got fired, if not everything about the situation.
He didn't want to push his luck, so he straightened and looked at her cautiously. "I'm listening."
She smiled and came closer. Her perfume was stale. "One evening at the office, Mister Malfoy, I happened to pass by the editor's door and heard murmuring within. I caught my name, so naturally, I decided to investigate. I slipped unnoticed into the office, nevermind how –" She said this last to his raised brow. "And what did I see and hear? My boss conversing by Floo with one Madame Madeleine Pole." She paused to give effect. He obliged by looking faintly surprised. Undaunted, she continued, "Their little talk consisted of the Pole matriarch outright bribing the editor to fire me. She said her reason was merely 'discontent in the quality and content of my work.' As if it had anything to do with her!" She clenched her teeth. "And just like that, all of my long hours and devotion to my job are forgotten and a few galleons take my place."
Draco shrugged, pulling his robes back on and dusting them off. "You're taking this a little naively. People pay people off all the time." But inside he was excited; it was another interesting little tidbit about Pole! After all, it wasn't like Skeeter's articles had been particularly damaging to Pole's reputation or anything. Well, nothing that a week or two of downtime couldn't fix. So why had Mde. Pole interfered? Was she trying to prevent a certain secret from getting out? Did this mean she actually knew? And if she did, how many other people knew?
"—mean, think about it. What could she be protecting him from? What dirty little secret are they hiding?" Skeeter seemed to have gone off on a tangent along similar lines as his thoughts.
He shook his head. "Sorry. Wasn't listening." She gawked angrily at him. "Oh, well, it doesn't matter. Because, you see, I'm not interested, Skeeter. He probably just went and whined to her about the article you wrote a while ago and she went and spent a little pocket change on getting rid of you. In any case, you fail to interest me. I suggest you get lost before I report you for trespassing."
Her mouth fell even farther. "Malfoy." He turned his back on her and walked to the door. "Malfoy." He swung the door open and heard a loud thump on the other side. Someone groaned. Frowning, Draco stepped around the door. Lying at his feet, dazed and bewildered looking, was Neville Longbottom.
"Longbottom?" Draco said, surprised. He scowled and roughly pulled the boy to his feet. He looked at Draco wide-eyed.
"Malfoy?" Longbottom murmured confusedly. His neck swiveled around, his eyes focusing haphazardly on the area. "What happened?"
Draco snorted and shoved him against the wall. "If you're trying to act your way out of a beating, you've got another thing coming, Longbottom. What were you doing outside the bathroom? Thought you'd play the spy, eh?" He pressed down a little cruelly on the other's chest. Longbottom's breath caught, but he continued to stare at him without comprehension. Déjà vu slapped Draco back to the memory of several months ago. Chatting with Pole and Kurkov, and finding Longbottom nearby. And then there was the battle royale with Pole and Kurkov. Longbottom had been the one to set what Pole thought had been a false alarm. Draco's grip on him suddenly tightened.
An accusing bark began to rise out of his throat, but he stifled it. He suddenly grinned down at the Gryffindor.
"Fancy yourself a little peek, did you, Longbottom?"
The boy looked even more bewildered. "What?"
"I guess you're really not a pussy fan, eh?" Draco quipped snidely, letting go of him and giving his shoulder a not-quite-friendly smack.
Longbottom spluttered, horrified.
Draco continued, "Too bad there wasn't anything to see, right, Ske–" He stopped. He turned to the open bathroom door to discover that it was empty. Skeeter had disappeared somehow. He floundered for a moment before returning to himself. "Nevermind." Looking back, he gave Longbottom a good shove down the hall. The boy slipped on the polished marble and fell flat on his buttocks.
"Now see here, Longbottom, you little pervert," chirped Draco, "I don't want to see your snivelly little mug around again, so I suggest you make yourself scarce for a long, long time."
The Gryffindor didn't need any other encouragement. He stumbled to his feet and slid noisily away. Draco watched until the boy had turned down a different corridor. He glanced at his watch. Classes started an hour ago. Someone would cover for him, though. He swung towards the entrance hall.
If his suspicions were correct, then Longbottom would most definitely not follow his advice on the matter of disappearing from his sight. But if they were wrong... Well, either way the stupid Squib had something coming to him this evening. Crabbe and Goyle were getting restless after such a long celibacy from Quidditch. He shook his feet as he walked. Damn sand. Shaking his clothes out seemed to have done nothing. Must remember to punish Potter. Which he could have done through Skeeter, but there were better things to be doing.
Speaking of the ugly hag, where the devil had she gone? She couldn't have slipped by him while he was chatting with Longbottom; he would've noticed. Out the window? But they were several stories up. Perhaps she used a Levitation charm or had a broom hidden somewhere. Well, nevermind. She no longer mattered. Ms. Skeeter had lost her already mediocre little place in the world, and he had the feeling that she would be hard put to find her way out of unemployment's sticky little grip. He was betting that Mde. Pole had not only warned the Daily Prophet to keep their copy clean of Skeeter's name, but every other prominent wizarding paper in Britain.
Well, the woman had no clue what she'd given him. Something definitely was amiss about M. Pole. And the more he discovered, the more interesting it became. Tut tut. Such a busy day ahead of him!
A/N: This is a terribly, terribly short chapter, and it comes after an extremely long wait for you readers. I apologize. And I'm afraid that there will be just as much, most likely more, of a wait ahead. If you're interested in the reasons, please see my bio.