12: At The Gate
It was a nervous journey. For all involved.
And who could blame them? They had no illusions about what would happen if they were caught by Rebekah. Tonks was risking her cover. Felisha was risking her job. And Remus was risking his freedom.
"There'll be two guards at the top of the Resident's Level lift," Felisha informed them tersely as they sunk quietly back down towards the ground floor where the lifts to the two disparate parts of the Feral Institute met. "And another standing watch inside the Resident's chambers themselves but he's a friend of mine and shouldn't bother us or tell Rebekah if I say you're helping me with my research. The trouble will be the first pair. They won't take my word for it alone – you'll need to show passes. And since you don't have passes for that level, that means that you can't use the lift."
Remus and Tonks exchanged a long glance. "Then how…" Tonks began.
"The emergency stairs." Felisha's jaw tightened grimly as the lift emerged into the ground floor chamber and came to a gentle halt. "I have clearance to open the grates without activating the alarms or the stunning spells. I'll open the grate and you two can go up the stairs. Ignore the first floor grate; that just leads to the cages where the residents transform at full moon. But the second floor grate will take you into the secure corridor outside the resident's refectory. I'll take the lift and meet you there to open it. But don't touch the grate, whatever you do. Explaining to Rebekah why either of you are lying unconscious on the emergency stairs is something I'd rather not have to do."
She glanced around the empty lift chamber, stepped forward and then beckoned them out after her. The room was dark and quiet and almost uncomfortably still.
Felisha was casting anxious glances towards the large doors that led to the ground floor reception. "I'll check the coast's clear before I let you through. I really, really hope that Unwin Dempster won't be there – most of the caretakers are nice, but he's a mean old sod and a good friend of Croll's. Anything we say in front of him will be relayed straight upstairs at the first opportunity." She sighed. "Staying out of his way will be crucial." The sleeve of her robe twisted mercilessly between her fingers; her eyes were unmistakably nervous. "I must be mad. Any one of these things is enough to get me fired all on its own."
Remus felt a wave of guilt. "Felisha, if you don't want to do this, we would understand…"
But the researcher had already waved a dismissive hand. "I want to do it, Remus," she informed his sharply. "I'd rather be fired than live with the atmosphere that's taken over here of late. This is too important. I want to know what's going on as much as you do. And maybe you can spot something that I've missed." She sighed again, deeply this time. "Let's do it if we're going to do it. That way…"
Her voice broke off abruptly as her eyes snapped towards the Resident's lift shaft. They widened.
And then Remus heard it too – the rattle and clink of a lift descending.
"Someone's coming!" Tonks' voice was a hiss – abruptly she grabbed Remus' arms and hauled him round to face her, her expression dropping almost shockingly into Undine's vapid wide eyes.
"And the Professor has several interesting theories about the nature of the feral mind," she declared loudly, her gaze switching between the slightly bewildered Felisha and the instantly faux casual Remus as the lift ground to a halt behind them. She rustled pointedly with her clipboard as Felisha hurriedly rearranged her features into a look of mild interest. "In fact, I have some notes here that you might be interested in looking over…"
"Hathaway." The gruff voice drew their attention. "What are you doing?"
The man who emerged from the lift was short and wiry, dressed in well worn robes of grey and blue, his face grizzled, his clear blue eyes penetrating. In spite of his advancing age, he moved with ease and confidence and he had a squint that reminded Remus inexplicably of Mad-Eye Moody, along with an expression of distrust to match. He was looking the three of them over with outright suspicion.
Felisha mustered a smile. "Unwin," she said with apparent friendliness. "I was just escorting our visitors out and we got into a bit of a debate. Nothing to worry about."
Unwin the caretaker snorted. "That's what you say," he muttered darkly. "I've heard things about these visitors. Best get them off the premises, Hathaway. A werewolf loose in the Feral Institute is more trouble than its worth."
With a final, bad-tempered glare, the old man turned and strode away towards the door. With a tap of his wand, he passed through and moved out of sight.
Tonks' eyebrow rose with slow deliberateness. "Wow, Remus," she said dryly. "You just make friends so easily around here. Your instant popularity is startling."
Remus graced her with a long, slow look. "Thanks," he retorted sarcastically.
Felisha pulled a face. "Oh, it's not just Remus. Unwin and Croll have always been that charming. They're even like it with Dolph." She reached into her robes and drew out her wand. "But if Unwin's out here, he's not up there. So getting this over with before he comes back is going to be the best chance we'll get. Come on."
A few taps of Felisha's wand and a murmured clearance was enough to release the grate on the emergency staircase. Once the grate had been sealed behind them, Felisha vanished towards the lift and Remus and Tonks made their way hurriedly up the two flights of stairs to the Level Two grate.
The stairs were unlit, dark and narrow and Tonks' feet proved unequal to the task of negotiating them safely on more than one occasion. But Remus was quickly on hand to help her up and they reached the second floor grate with only a few bruises for their trouble.
And Felisha was not there.
Remus went cold. She'd said she'd be there to let them out. Where was she? Had they got the right grate? Or had something gone wrong? Had something happened to her?
At that prospect, the cold went glacial.
Tonks also looked deeply disconcerted at the lack of Felisha. Stepping past Remus, she leaned carefully closer to the grate as she peered into the short, predictably grey corridor beyond, taking in the broad double doors that filled the end to their left and the small, solid looking door indented into an alcove at the corridor's conclusion to their right. But there was no doubt. It was empty.
Remus frowned, trying to fight the chill that had settled in his chest as he forced himself to speak. "Where…" He broke off, lowering his voice carefully to stem the ripple of echoes that bounced against the stone stairwell at his words. "Where is she?" he repeated with a hush. "The lift should have been quicker."
Tonks' brow had also creased. "She had guards to get round," she whispered softly in reply. "Maybe they held her up."
"I hope that's all it is," Remus glanced up and down the corridor anxiously, almost as though the touch of his eyes would bring her into view. "I just hope she isn't trouble."
Tonks gave him an odd look. "So do I," she replied. "But if she's in trouble, we're doomed."
Remus glanced at her sideways. "Doomed?" he said. The word echoed softly against the walls and once again, he forced himself to lower his voice for fear of being heard. "That's a bit melodramatic, isn't it? We're safe enough for now."
There was a hint of exasperation in Tonks' expression. "Safe?" she almost hissed. "Remus, if you define safe as being trapped on a restricted staircase in a building you've been all but thrown from, sealed in by grates that'll stun you if you touch them, then I'd hate to see your idea of trouble. We couldn't be more trapped if we locked ourselves in Azkaban."
Glacial surged into sub zero. "Ah."
"Quite." Tonks gave a long sigh. Silence, potent and awkward dropped heavily upon them both. Side by side, they waited.
The quiet was frankly eerie. The thick walls of the Institute meant that they could hear no footsteps from above, no clanks or chattering from any direction. Drifting by echo up the stairwell came the occasional far distant creak of a door or hint of a footstep, but it was fleeting, ghost-like, barely heard and then gone before confirmed.
And still Felisha did not come.
Remus was good at waiting in silence. It happened for him on a monthly basis. Even given the powerful concern for Felisha's well-being that was gnawing at his heart, he knew that nothing was to be gained by fretting and panicking too soon.
Tonks however, was not such a graceful waiter. She shifted, as quietly as she was able, on her feet, she fiddled with her clipboard and sighed often, glaring into the dark silence as though to chase it away with her eyes. Remus could tell that she would not be able to stand the quiet much longer.
He was right.
Suddenly she was at his side. "So, Remus," she said, her voice carefully soft to combat echoes, "any bright ideas as to what we do if Felisha doesn't come?"
She was frustrated, he could tell. As an Auror, Tonks was used to action, to being able to act; she was not accustomed to standing caged and relying on another for relief. She needed to relax and he was the only one who could help her do that.
Remus forced a wan smile. "We could claim to be looking for the toilet."
Tonks snorted a chuckle almost in spite of herself, stifling it hurriedly as the sound carried. "I think I've used that one to death already," she informed him softly. "Surely the infamous Mr Moony can do better than that?"
"The infamous Mr Moony had access to an invisibility cloak. But I think I'd rather face the wrath of Professor McGonagall again than Rebekah if she finds us here."
Tonks' lip twisted. "Oh, I don't know. Even a potential Death Eater would probably be better than that glare over those glasses."
The banter was at least a way to stem the flood of cold, the sting of worry for Felisha and the realisation of their potential fate. "That's very true."
Tonks had apparently caught on to his tactic. "Oh yes," she continued with forced cheer. "We should have thought of it sooner. We send McGonagall in to interrogate the Death Eaters. Once glare from her and they'll be putty in our hands."
Remus allowed himself to chuckle, but the sound seemed to fade and be swallowed by distorted echoes in the unlit, empty well of stairs. His laughter died in the dark and coldness swelled once more. He could not keep it up.
"Tonks," he said softly. "What are we going to do? If she doesn't come?"
Tonks' bright smile was false. "Charades?"
His failure to even attempt a smile quashed her deliberate cheerfulness instantly. "I'm serious."
With a deep sigh, Tonks turned away from the grate and leaned back against the wall, toying her clipboard between her hands. "She'll come," she replied softly. "She has to."
Remus rubbed one hand absently across his brow. "I'm worried about her," he admitted.
Something indefinable glinted in the Auror's eyes. "I can see that."
"She didn't have to help us. I got her into this. If anything happens to her because of me, I'd never forgive myself."
A small hand touched his wrist in a gesture of comfort. "I know."
Remus shook his head. "This is too dangerous. I should never have let her get involved."
Tonks' look was pointed. "She works here, Remus. She was already involved."
"I know, but still I should have…"
His voice broke off instantly. At his side, Tonks froze.
"Was that the door?" she whispered softly.
Remus started to nod. "I think so."
Tonks started to smile. "There! See, I told it would be…"
A sharp creak cut away her words as the knob of the smaller door turned and jerked abruptly open. A high-pitched voice drifted down the corridor, accompanied by the rustle of paper and rapid, ungainly footsteps.
"She says the Residents Level. They say upstairs. What did I do to deserve this?"
Remus caught a flash of dyed red hair but he did not hesitate long enough to get a better glimpse. Grabbing Tonks by the arm, he hurled them both in the direction of the concealing banister of the next flight of stairs.
"Running around like an idiot all day just because…" The footsteps were closing. "Why if it wasn't for me… No gratitude! Do I look like some kind of…of…gopher? It's hardly…"
Already off balance from the sudden shove, Tonks stumbled, staggering sideways as her clipboard clattered onto the bottom step, her hand flying out in search of support as her momentum half dragged Remus down with her. He tried his best to grab her, reeling, frantic, but his own balance was long gone – with a jolting, painful thud, he tumbled back onto the rising stairs. He felt his fingers jerk as her robed arm was torn from his tenuous supporting grasp - he caught one brief glimpse of her falling form, of one hand stretched out to slap against the dark panel of what looked like some kind of hatchway in a desperate hunt for balance.
And then there was blue.
Half-fallen, disorientated, Remus only had the vaguest idea of what had happened. He saw Tonks' hand contact the dark panel and he saw the panel glow with an alarmingly familiar surge of blue light; and then, with a gasp of pain, Tonks was flung backwards, tumbling into his lap with a look of deep shock on her disguised features. Without stopping to think, Remus wrapped his arms around her waist and dragged her up with all his might, scrambling backwards a few feet up the steps to collapse in a heap just behind the merciful concealment of the banister. He felt her hand close around his arm, the heave of her breathless chest against his, met her wide but thankfully conscious eyes behind Undine's green spectacles and then as one, they froze.
There had been a flash. There had been several bangs. Had Cymone seen? Had Cymone heard?
They found an ominous silence.
The muttering had stopped. The footsteps had stilled.
"What the…?" Remus heard a voice murmur.
Tentative, uncertain steps moved in the corridor beyond. They sounded close.
Tonks' grip on his arm tightened. Her breath was shallow against his neck.
And then, again, they heard the rattle of a door.
"Cymone?" called a voice. "What are you doing?"
Remus felt a great surge of relief. Felisha!
To judge by the rustle of papers, Cymone had been given quite a start. "Oh! Felisha!" she gasped. "Come here, quick!"
"What in Merlin's name is the matter?" Rapid footsteps closed quickly towards them down the corridor. "What are you looking at? And why have you drawn your wand?"
"There's something on the stairs!" Cymone's voice was almost accusatory. "I heard noises in there!"
"Are you sure it wasn't just something going down the laundry chute?" Felisha's tone was carefully dismissive. "It does make a real bang sometimes…"
"I don't think they use that laundry chute any more." But Cymone now sounded blessedly unsure. "And anyway, it was more of a…scrabbling noise."
Remus held his breath. He could hear the pounding of a heartbeat against his body but given their proximity, he could not tell whether it belonged to himself or Tonks.
"Well…" It sounded as though Felisha was clicking her tongue. "It could be rats."
Rustle, rustle went the papers. "Rats? We…we d…d...don't have rats!"
"I'm not so sure about that." Perhaps it was his imagination, but Remus almost got the feeling that Felisha was enjoying herself. "One of the caretakers told me that he'd seen a rat scurrying around in the laundry room only last week. Came in off the moor, he reckons, maybe a foot long. And you know, a rat can climb almost anything. Maybe it got up the laundry chute and onto the stairs?"
To judge by the amount of paper rustling, this was not a prospect that Cymone found very appealing. "Y…You think?" she managed shakily.
"Oh yes." Remus could almost imagine the look of wide-eyed innocence on Felisha's face. "Maybe you should speak to Rebekah or Unwin – see about getting some traps laid."
"Traps?" There was a slightly faint note to Cymone's voice now. "You think we need t...traps?"
"Don't you? I don't think this is something we want to get out of hand."
"Absolutely!" The rustling was almost rhythmic against the sound of feet edging away from the door. "I… I'm going to… to find…U…Unwin…Traps."
There was a rattle. A moment later, a door slammed shut.
Remus released the breath he had been holding. He felt Tonks slump against his arms.
It was at that point that Remus became aware – uncomfortably aware – of the warmth of Tonks tightly pressed against the length of his body. Her fingers were soft presses against the flesh of his arm as her breath tickled his ear in gentle squalls and he could feel the rise and fall of her chest as each breeze came…
Fighting with all his might not to blush, Remus scrambled backwards and hauled himself awkwardly to his feet just in time to see Felisha standing by the now open grate with a quizzical expression on her face.
The blush redoubled instinctively. Damn!
"Sorry about the delay," she said softly. "I was checking inside and my friend from security decided to chat to me before going on his rounds of the sleeping chambers. I could hardly tell him I needed to come and let you out…" She squinted as his flushed face. "Remus, are you all right?"
"Fine." Remus could only pray he sounded rather more composed than he felt. "Just a bit of a close call, that's all. We didn't expect Cymone to be here."
Felisha pulled a face. "Neither did I. She almost never comes down here. I wonder why…"
"My fault." Tonks' voice drifted from the stairs as she began to struggle upright – courtesy quickly overruling his discomfort, Remus offered his hand and pulled her gently to his feet. "I told her Zelia was down here so I could get rid of her and have a poke in Rebekah's office. Sorry about that." She grinned slightly as she dusted herself off and glanced over at Felisha. "But you were great. How did you know Cymone was afraid of rats?"
Felisha shrugged with a slight smile. "I didn't. But since she's afraid of just about everything else, it was worth a try."
Rats. In spite of himself, a shiver ran down Remus' spine. "You didn't really see a rat here, did you?" he asked softly. He saw Tonks' eyes widen slightly as she caught up with his thinking.
But to both of their relief, Felisha was shaking her head. "Not in this Institute. The warding spells around the perimeter would never allow even a spider inside without clearance. But it's a good thing Cymone doesn't know that. Now, are you two sure you're okay?"
The shiver died a merciful death. "I'm fine. Tonks?"
"Bruised." The metamorphmagus fixed him with a cheeky-edged mock glare. "Honestly Remus, the next time you pin me to a staircase, I expect you to have put on some nice, soft flab. You have got the boniest elbows I have ever felt."
Remus managed a smile. "Well, pardon me," he retorted dryly. "If you can recommend a good diet to increase my elbow fat, I'll take it gladly. But otherwise perhaps you should refrain from landing in my lap."
Tonks glanced across at Felisha's bemused expression before giving him a wry smile. "Nah," she replied. "The look on your face was too priceless." Bending down, she scooped her fallen clipboard from the bottom step. "But what I want to know is why a rarely used staircase has a hatch with a strong enough wand-seal on it to propel me into your lap in the first place."
The blue flash…Of course it was! Harry's voice beyond a warded door flashed across Remus' mind. That was why the glow had seemed so familiar – he had used wand-seals himself every full moon.
"That's a good question." Remus stepped passed the Auror as he bent closer to the firmly closed hatch, running his eyes over its lines as best he could in the limited light whilst carefully avoiding contact. "Felisha, do you know what this hatch is?"
He felt the researcher's presence at his side. "It's just a laundry hatch," she said, her tone distinctly surprised. "And Cymone was right, it isn't even one we used any more. When Aylward realised it gave unwarded access to the emergency stairs from the ground floor, he vanished the door of the laundry room this chute led into and sealed it over. But I don't recall him doing anything to this hatch at the time. He seemed to think sealing the room was enough."
A sealed off room accessible only by a wand-sealed laundry chute in a high clearance stairwell. The conversation on the train when they had found the note from the mysterious diary swam into Remus' mind.
"Trapped." Tonks' voice was soft but crystal clear, indicating that her thoughts had followed the same path. "Remus…"
A perfect prison cell. But if so, why? And for who?
"I know," he said softly. "But there's nothing we can do now. Without the right wand, a wand-seal could survive anything the three of us could throw at it."
Felisha glanced between the two Order members uncomfortably. "Remus, what's going on?"
Remus shook his head. "There isn't time now. We have to get in and out before anyone else comes along."
Felisha shook herself. "You're right. As I said, my friend from security is on the next level at the moment, inspecting the sleeping quarters. If we want to get you in unseen by anyone else on the staff, this is the only chance we're going to get."
"Then let's take it." Tonks gripped her clipboard, as she gave an uncertain smile. "It's about time we went into the werewolf's den."
Remus smiled slightly as he followed the two women back into the corridor. But inside, he was cold once more.
This could have been my home. The thought slipped unbidden into his mind. Several times over.
Well, he had dodged such silver bullets before. He could only hope his luck would hold long enough for him to become the first werewolf to leave the Feral Institute's Residents Level alive.
Ahead, Felisha was tapping her wand against the smaller door in an intricate code. It released with a click.
With a deep breath, Remus gathered himself and followed her inside.
A/N: Many thanks to The Great RC, Rel Fexive, Hawkgal, Howling-wolf, Sky Spade, sylthian, Disco Shrew, Unheard Chime, Analia's Broom, Camilinha, mercutio-rane, felixgirl, Amanda, Kailin, SilverStar24 and Gilpin for your lovely reviews! Do I need to tell you how much I appreciate you all? Well, I shall anyway…:)
Howling-wolf – That's the thing about Rebekah's reasoning here. It can be viewed from both sides and neither side have the full story. ;)
Sky Spade – I planned this from near the end of Oblivious when I first had the sequel idea – if you skip back to one of the later chapters you'll find I name-dropped Rebekah Goldstein's book via Hermione has a kind of pre-preparation for when I wrote this. And Anthony's signature was deliberate and planned too. :)
sylthian – I'm not sure whether to apologise for putting you in a snit or be flattered! ;) Croll is one of those characters, like Snape actually, that you know you'd detest if you met them but are terribly fun to write for! ;)
Disco Shrew - blinks Ummm…a camel? Oookay…;)
Analia's Broom – If they failed to emerge, Dumbledore would certainly send in any cavalry he could muster, never fear in that respect. I think I've said before how pleased I am with Reynard – he turned out better than I'd ever dreamed. And I'm proud to have convinced you! Even before HBP, I always felt that any relationship they might have would be less a great, instant romance and more something that grew out of deep friendship and that's the way I always try to play it if I write them romantically. :)
Camilinha - Gosh, so many questions! I will elaborate more on the Prefect's Bathroom in later chapters, although I still worry that people will find it rather tame after the build-up! And I'm still not saying in regards to shipping, sorry…;)
mercutio-rane – The Katrina Zone? Goodness, I hope everything's okay for you (and everyone else around). That can't be fun. :( Rebekah's been dying to make this speech for a while actually – she originally tried to make it (without my consent!) the very first time she met Remus but I quickly realised that was far too soon and bumped it back to here. Hope you are okay and you continue to enjoy. :)
felixgirl – I think that it really was a no win situation for Remus. There is no force on earth more powerful than an angry mother….;)
Kailin – Croll deserves to be on a list. He is list material…;)
Gilpin – I know you reviewed IFTC and not here but you said you were reading this too so I felt I might as well reply here:) I can't abide people who write dull!Remus – I always feel they've rather missed the point. No man who can suggest dressing Severus Snape in a vulture-topped hat and red handbag can possibly be dull…;) I've always imagined that they came together as friends first in OOTP and what followed grew out of that too so even before HBP, that was how I liked to write them. :) And I'm not admitting anything in regards to Imperius although the chapter above ought to give you a clue…;)
The next part will be along this time next week. As always, reviews will make me very happy. :)