Chapter 6: Unsatisfying Conclusions
Amelon could not remember a case where he had enjoyed himself quite so much. Despite what mystery novels and plays suggested about solving murders, it was usually a very straightforward and tedious affair. He could count the number of cases on one hand that he hadn't been able figure out the murderer within an hour and then use the other to count the number of cases where the motive wasn't discovered within a day. Usually the most challenge the inspector found was in divining the method, which often involved magic and therefore could get very creative… and gruesome.
The Malfoy case, however, was a gem of exceptional rarity. The victims were very powerful men with a number of enemies, which meant there were a number of suspects, most of them powerful within their own right or at least intelligent. The original prime suspect had disappeared off the face of the earth and was likely dead. Motivations were so numerous as to be useless. Political red tape was blocking him at every turn, except where the suspects lifted it themselves just long enough to point their accusing finger at someone else. Everyone was lying. Everyone was hiding something. The Dark Lord was pushing for results, and he would be expected to deliver them by the time he returned from France.
Amelon had to stop himself from giggling several times a day.
He was having a marvelous time.
But as much fun as he was having, it couldn't go on indefinitely. He was a professional, after all, and his profession was solving crimes. For the moment, that meant sorting through a small mountain of Crouch's personal files that had been released from the Court of Foreign Intelligence earlier that morning. He had been petitioning for them over a month now, but hadn't made any headway until Morgan had taken over as Director and forwarded them along (after heavily censoring them). He had specifically requested the files of all the involved victims and suspects, and with the exception of Hermione Granger, all of them had more than one file. Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange had the most files, but Harry Potter was very close behind them. Amelon had spent hours leafing through each of them, studying photographs and reading between the words, lines, paragraphs, and pages of blacked-out text, his imagination filling in the blanks he was certain were not nearly as astounding as the truth.
With the exception of Hermione Granger, Reginald Stratus' file was the least censured file of the bunch. This was fortunate because the newly appointed captain was currently Amelon's prime suspect. He hadn't originally considered Stratus very seriously. The man was a glorified secretary, which had been a step up from his previous position, and he had no conceivable motivation for harming Lucius. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Lucius was taking steps to elevate the man's position in society with a betrothal to his adopted daughter. And yet, the more Amelon looked into the man the more suspicious he became, especially after reviewing Crouch's files on the man.
Crouch had clearly already suspected that Stratus was causing Malfoy's slip into insanity and had been planning to extort the man for information. No motivation was offered in his notes, but a man like Crouch probably hadn't considered it particularly important. Amelon was not Crouch. Why something was done was almost as important as who had done it. Extortion seemed like a pretty good 'why' if Stratus was indeed the 'who'. But then, why poison Lucius, then stop, and later kill him at the Christmas Ball? How had Potter been involved? Was he an accidental victim, a target, or the impetus for the murder?
Forensics had shown Malfoy wasn't under the influence of the Imperius curse at the time of his death and according to both Ira Snape and Reginald Stratus, Malfoy hadn't pushed Harry down the stairs, although they had been in a physical altercation at the time. That meant Potter likely had not been an intended victim, but his accident had been what had brought the intended victims together in the first place. Was it possible that Potter's accident had been the catalyst for the murders?
Harry Potter being the motivation would make Hermione Granger the most likely suspect given their friendship and speculatively romantic feelings for each other. However, she had not been seen, and once the security measures had been activated upon Lucius Malfoy's death, she would not have been able to have escaped the mansion. She would have had to curse Crouch before she made her escape, and that seemed too great a risk without enough motivation. Ira Snape, then, might be suitably positioned for the deed but the subterfuge was far more than a woman of her training or temperament could have improvised on the spot.
But Stratus? What was Stratus' relationship with Potter? By all accounts they barely knew each other. Had Potter then been a motivation or had he merely created the opportunity Stratus had been seeking? Lestrange had said Stratus had been strangely intent on Potter, and Amelon had found circumstances in which the man had gone out of his way to get closer to the boy, often as a bodyguard of some kind. Was this simply a form of hero-worship, political maneuvering, or was he attempting the same game of trust and poisoning he had potentially performed on Lucius? Or was Stratus in fact one of Potter's conspirators? Potter had confessed to cursing Lucius in the first place with Snape's assistance, which had never been fully verified, so could it be possible that Stratus had somehow fallen into their circle? Certainly both Potter and Snape would have seen the benefits of having Stratus as an ally at the time, but how would such an alliance have come about?
Amelon had started his search in Stratus' files to see if he could find the answers to any of these questions. The first thing he needed to determine was how Stratus had first met all of the involved players. However, the further back he read into Stratus' history, looking for some previous connection between the others, the more he became aware of a sudden and highly disturbing factor.
Reginald Stratus had a sudden and unexplained change in personality and skill while fighting in Berlin.
Prior to his deployment to Germany, Stratus had done nothing to distinguish himself in service. His training assessments revealed generic results, his leadership assessments had been subpar, and magically speaking he was of middling rank and uncreative. A favor from a cousin of considerably higher rank had pushed him up to the rank of 2nd squadron leader, but he had not merited a promotion after that in the two years he served in the position. There had been a number of reprimands on file for minor infractions of sloppiness and laxness in procedures. Prior to his enrollment in the military, Stratus had been a student at Rookbridge, with average grades and a position on a few sports clubs he had done nothing to distinguish himself in either. He was the third son of a minor Pureblood family, had no accomplishments to his name, and no prospects outside of the military.
By all accounts, Reginald Stratus was exceptional only in his complete lack of exception in anything.
What did it mean then, when after a mere two months in Germany, he should suddenly become a war hero? There were several accounts of cunning and dazzling displays of magical prowess that had previously been completely absent, and he had quickly begun climbing in rank and popularity thereafter. Opportunity might have accounted for some of it. Nothing created rank mobility in the military like actual battles, but that certainly didn't account for all it. Even after he had returned to Britain and withdrawn from the firsthand fighting, he had still been working ambitiously. Asking around headquarters, Amelon had determined that Stratus was not only a hard worker but also exceptionally charming and popular with almost everyone, whereas all of his instructors and fellow cadets in basic training were hard-pressed to even remember him at all.
Even in his photographs, he didn't look quite the same after Germany. It was like looking at the picture of two brothers rather than the same person.
But what did that mean? If it meant what he thought it did, it meant Stratus wasn't only a murderer but an imposter and possible spy. That would account for more than enough motivation to have killed Malfoy and Crouch.
Alone in his office, Amelon didn't bother to hide the smile that spread across his face. At least until a knock on the door drew him sharply from his musings.
"Just a moment, please," he called and then flicked his wand over his desk, banishing the stacks of files safely back to his office safe. Without the clutter of the files, his office looked comfortably nondescript, as if it could be the office of an accountant or a school administrator. Filing cabinets, bookshelves, a coffee maker, uncomfortable wooden chairs, a desk and lamp, a small cabinet that hid the coffee supplies and his bourbon. Most of it years old, distinctly masculine, and well-used. Perhaps the room's only unique feature was the evidence board positioned directly behind his desk.
It was a large board, four by six feet, and covered completely with photographs and maps and notes written on scraps of paper. It was not so dissimilar from what one might find in a muggle detective's office, but unlike a muggle's board, this one was magicked to be self-organizing and self-updating. Lines of connection moved and disintegrated as he directed, new photographs appeared and old ones bloomed x-marks over them daily, tiny pins moved over maps to track prospective culprits and witnesses, and notations glowed at varying brightness depending on likelihood of truth.
Most conveniently, it all disappeared to show a window into the park across the street whenever someone other than him opened the office door.
"Enter," he called.
He could not say he was entirely surprised when the subject of his deepest suspicions opened the door and stepped inside. Not surprised, but perhaps a little alarmed.
"Captain Stratus, how… unusual of you to visit. Have a seat. Is there something the matter?"
The Cultie did indeed look as if something were the matter. He was oddly pale and tense, hands gripping tightly to a folder he was carrying, and eyes flickering about nervously. He looked shaken, but looks were often deceiving as Amelon was in a position to attest.
"Inquisitor Amelon," Stratus said, moving to take the offered chair across from the desk. "I think someone is trying to set me up for something."
The detective tilted his head, staring at him curiously. Well, this was a new twist in the game.
"For 'something' or for the Malfoy-Crouch murder?" he asked.
Stratus shook his head.
"I don't know, but something is definitely going on and I can't figure out what. At first, I just thought it was you, going about your investigation discreetly, but now… now I'm not so sure."
"I am afraid you're going to have to explain a little more clearly, Captain. I am not sure what you are referring to," Amelon said, playing along to see where this was all going. With Stratus sitting in his office, practically trembling, it was hard to imagine the man as a master manipulator. Then again, if he were a master manipulator, then he was hardly going to obvious about it. Nevertheless, he opened his notepad and started to jot things down.
"It started shortly after I saw you that day outside General Lestrange's office. I got this feeling that I was being watched, followed even, but… I thought it was just you having one of your people tail me."
He looked to Amelon for affirmation, but the inspector just stared back at him patiently. If he thought he was going to confirm or deny one of his people was following him, then he was mistaken.
"But then it continued even when I was within headquarters, which Sentinels would have required special clearance to pass through, and I would have known… anyway, then other things started to happen. My office was broken into, and later I found out my private room at the barracks was too. I kept everything secured, thank goodness, so nothing was missing but the audacity of it is truly concerning. I was going to initiate an investigation myself, but then I found out two of my soldiers went AWOL this morning. They never reported in to their barracks last night."
Amelon took a deep breath to calm himself. It wouldn't do to look too eager.
"You suspect foul play? They couldn't have just snuck out for some fun last night and ended up passed out somewhere?"
"I run a tight command, Inquisitor Amelon. My people are more than just a pack of the usual grunts. They are highly disciplined and motivated, which is why they're serving directly under General Lestrange in the first place. They would not just… go off. Especially not to get drunk."
"You've organized a search for them, I assume?"
"I have people looking both around headquarters and checking the local hospital just in case. I'll start checking with family if they don't turn up by tomorrow. I don't… I don't think we'll find them."
"So why come to me? While kidnapping and possible murder are my specialty, this would be outside my jurisdiction. Unless you still suspect I am involved?" he asked, letting a touch of humor enter his voice.
Stratus seemed to take that as him laughing at him and donned a look of indignation.
"Of course not! But if it's part of your original investigation, then you would certainly have jurisdiction!"
Amelon leaned back in his chair and tapped his quill against his notepad thoughtfully. He didn't miss the way the other man's eyes darted down to the notepad, eying it hungrily as if it were something that he wanted. Something he wanted desperately. The look disappeared as quickly as it had appeared as he tore his gaze away to look back up at Amelon.
"You believe Crouch's and Malfoy's murderer is responsible for the disappearance of your soldiers? I think Miss Granger would be rather conspicuous for a saboteur and kidnapper."
"Sir, I would thank you not to mock me."
"Not Granger then. Lestrange?"
"You are aware, of course, that she is in Bourges and can't have done these things."
"I know she could not have done these things in person, but that doesn't mean she couldn't have arranged it. She's a general, for Merlin's sake, and a Death Eater. It would be easy to arrange for someone like her."
"You think she killed Malfoy and Crouch?"
"More and more every day. Not in person, perhaps, but I think she arranged it somehow."
"I don't have any, and you know it. No one has any proof. Probably the only person who might have half a clue what really happened was Miss Granger and she's… if your suspicions are true she's not going to be much help to anyone."
Amelon wrote some more and didn't miss Stratus' looking away from his notepad once again when he looked up.
"These are very serious allegations to make without proof. You could face charges yourself if you make them erroneously."
"This may be my one and only chance to voice my suspicions, so I am going to risk it. I think she means to frame me for murder. The missing soldiers or Malfoy and Crouch or both, I don't know. That woman is insidious."
Amelon caught himself before he nodded in agreement. He had reviewed several files on Lestrange from several different sources including Malfoy's and Crouch's records while investigating. Was she capable of what Stratus said? Absolutely, and with motivation to spare. But that didn't explain away Stratus himself or his dramatic change in personality.
"Alright, captain, I think you need to take a moment to calm down. Sit there, I'm going to pour you a drink and see if we can't sort some of this out."
He closed his notebook and pointedly tucked it into the breast pocket of his suit then went to the cabinet to make that drink as he said he would. He had two bottles of bourbon: the good one he kept for himself, and the mediocre one he kept for company. The mediocre one was only a little cheaper, but more importantly it was very lightly laced with Veritaserum. Not a high enough dose to force someone to speak the truth uncontrollably or cause any nasty side effects, but enough so that, tempered with the alcohol, people found it difficult to concentrate on their lies.
He poured the glass and brought it to Stratus, who accepted it glumly with the free hand that wasn't clutching the files.
"Now then, why do you automatically assume it is General Lestrange? Couldn't it be someone else just as easily? And why assume something so drastic? Perhaps your two missing soldiers were the ones to spy on you and then, fearing you had caught them, made a run for it? And if Lestrange did in fact order it, perhaps they think she will protect them once she returns from France."
"But why? I know these people. They hate Lestrange. Even if she would have compelled them, they would have warned me," Stratus said despairingly, and took a sip from the glass. He grimaced at the taste, and for a moment Amelon wondered if the man recognized the distinctive aftertaste of Veritaserum, but then Stratus took a second swallow and he relaxed.
"Perhaps they hated you more."
Stratus gave him a startled look, which Amelon supposed was actually quite genuine.
"Is it so hard to imagine?" he said continued. "You are something of an upstart, I am sure you are aware. Prior to deployment and through half your stay in Germany, your military career had been… lackluster to say the least. Then all of a sudden you're hopping up ranks like it's a game of tiddlewinks and in the span of a year you're a captain. You said it yourself; your soldiers are highly motivated and disciplined. 'Ambitious' in a word. Do you think it unreasonable to assume that some of them might have resented your sudden rise in rank? Especially when you were first promoted as a result of nepotism rather than merit? Would none of them attempt to usurp you in hopes of taking your place?"
"I…" the captain hesitated. "I hadn't thought of that."
"Perhaps it need not be any of your people even. Is there anyone other than General Lestrange you think might have a grudge against you? Someone who you may have outmaneuvered for a promotion? A superior officer you managed to embarrass? A fellow soldier injured in a battle you yourself received special recognition for or might have felt otherwise slighted?"
"No… No, I don't… I don't think so. I… I'm pretty sure I proved I earned everything I got. I proved myself. No one would resent me for that, would they?"
Stratus looked uncertain, perhaps even a little confused. An effect of the alcohol or possibly the Veritaserum or both.
"How did you rise up the ranks so quickly, Captain? Your file was pretty unimpressive for a long time, and then all of a sudden you're playing Merlin on the battlefield. How do you account for it?"
There was a sudden, strained silence in the room. Stratus looked at him curiously and then around at the room, as if trying to remember how he had gotten there and why. Then he looked down at his hands, at his glass, then at Amelon. Amelon waited. Stratus, staring directly at him, brought the glass to his lips and swallowed the rest of it.
"You know, no one has ever bothered to ask me that. Never. Not once. People have noticed. It's hard to miss the snide little remarks or blatant surprise when I run across my old unit or some of the cadets I trained with. But they never ask. Even my family never asked. I get a medal from the ruler of wizarding Britain, and my parents and my brothers don't even bother to show up. That should tell you something about what life was like growing up."
Amelon nodded. Being the second-born son, the 'spare' to the firstborn heir, in a pureblood family was more than enough to breed resentment in most wizards. Being the third born could be downright unbearable.
"Before Germany," Stratus continued, "I didn't want to live. I wasn't suicidal, per se, but I didn't believe my life had any value whatsoever. And why would I? My family had said as much and genuinely believed it, and no one had ever bothered to tell me otherwise. I was just muddling through life, not really caring if I failed or succeeded in anything."
"But that changed in Germany?"
"It's funny how much nearly dying makes you want to live. I had a lot of close calls, we all did, and an existential crisis sort of followed after. You know what I eventually concluded?"
"Please do tell."
"I concluded the only reason I wasn't actually doing anything with my life wasn't because I couldn't, but because in some twisted way I thought I owed it to my family to be exactly what they said I was. No one. Nothing. And once I figured that out… I let it go. I decided if I wanted to live, then I damn well was going to do it on my terms."
Stratus thumped his empty glass on the table and then scrambled to catch it when it nearly toppled off the edge. Amelon wondered if the man had eaten at all that day. He seemed rather tipsy from just one glass. Perhaps the man wasn't a drinker. Perhaps he was faking it. Difficult to say.
"And that was all it took?" he asked.
"Yes and no. When I actually started trying to succeed at things, I was surprised to find I actually succeeded at them, even when I didn't think I would. Success builds confidence for better or worse. It could have gone wrong just as easily as it went right, out there on the battlefield. I was rather reckless there for a while. Sometimes I wake up at night thinking about those times when I did something so brazen and foolhardy I could have gotten myself and everyone with me killed. It worked out though. Until now anyway."
"You honestly believe someone is trying to frame you for murder?"
"I honestly believe Lestrange is trying to frame me for murder."
Amelon nodded and stood.
"Alright, I'll look into it. You keep looking for your missing people. What are their names?"
"I have a copy of their personnel files here," Stratus said and held up the files he had been clutching the entire time. Amelon accepted them from him and set them down on his desk. Later, he would add their photos to his board and try to sort out what role they played in this theatre of murder and intrigue. For now, he needed to sort out if he believed Stratus or not.
He had spun a convincing tale, one that would have been difficult to come up with if he hadn't been expecting it and nearly impossible under the influence of alcohol and Veritaserum, albeit only a small dose. Amelon's instincts were making him hesitate to trust him so easily, however. His appearance so soon after the attack by the anthifold was in and of itself suspicious, and then there was the fact that he hadn't mentioned Crouch's attempt to extort him for supposedly cursing Malfoy, although Potter's and Snape's confession to this drew some doubt to Crouch's claims (or did it verify Stratus was in collusion with them?). Even if everything Stratus said about his transformation in Germany was true, that still didn't necessarily make him innocent of murder.
This all really was entirely too much fun for one case.
"I have some leads I can look into," he said. "I'll be gone for the rest of the day, so if you find them just leave a message with Paige or Lyssa up at the front desk, and they'll get in contact with me."
"Thank you, Inquisitor Amelon. Thank you so much," Stratus said, sagging in his seat in relief.
"Don't thank me yet. For all we know, this is all just random circumstances and your imagination running away with you."
Or a ploy that could very well backfire on you spectacularly.
That evening, Hermione and Enid shared the cake she had bought in their room and put everything back in its place.
"What was all this about?" Enid asked as they shoved her trunk back to Hermione's side of the room.
"A false alarm. I thought I recognized someone from my old life and ducked out for the afternoon, just in case. It turned out to be nothing."
Hermione didn't look her in the eye when answered. Enid might have figured out some things about her, but she wasn't anywhere near the full truth of it. Hermione wasn't sure yet if she should tell her. She trusted the other girl and felt trusted by her, but to reveal the whole truth was to make Enid an accomplice.
"You think if someone found you they'd try to drag you off?" Enid asked, looking alarmed.
"Something like that. I was engaged to a very cruel man and things ended badly between us. I must have angered a lot of people when I left."
"So that's why you left? Cor. It sounds like plot in a romance novel. So you just climbed out the bedroom window and disappeared into the night, then?"
"Not exactly. My brother and I tried to get the engagement called off first, but when that didn't work my friends helped me escape. There was no climbing out windows involved."
Enid was smiling at her in an admiring sort of way she sometimes did.
"How about duels in the moonlight? Roving bandits? A dragon maybe?" she asked, grinning at her playfully.
"It's nothing that fanciful. And perhaps I'll tell you about it someday, but not tonight. It's late, and I'm tired."
Enid didn't ask anything else until after they were both tucking themselves into their beds for the night. Hermione turned off the lamp and closed her eyes, but she could feel Enid staring at her even in the dark.
"What is it, Enid?" she asked tiredly. There was a long hesitation, then…
"Heloise… are you from England?"
Hermione's eyes opened wide, her breathing stopped. Then she released it.
"Yes, that's where my family is from. We have a lot of muggleborns and half-bloods in the family, so the whole clan just up and left when things got bad."
There was another silence.
"That's not what I meant," Enid said after a while and then turned in her bed. Hermione felt the weight of her eyes disappear. She knew what Enid had really meant. She meant had 'Heloise' escaped her family in England. Sleep didn't come easily after that. Hermione's mind was fraught with unease. How much did Enid know and how much was she guessing? Had she been trying for more information or had that been her invitation for Hermione to make her full disclosure at last, and explain what Enid had already discovered? Did Enid know she was really Hermione Granger; a fugitive wanted for murder and treason? Had she known Hermione was lying and no longer trusted her? Should she just tell her everything?
Part of her wanted to. Not because she trusted Enid, although she did, but because it was so lonely without having anyone truly know her. Only Viktor knew her here, and that alone made him a dangerous temptation.
Another part of her wanted Hermione Granger to disappear completely and leave only Heloise in her place; poor, independent, and uncontroversial. She didn't want to have to explain herself or take responsibility for those terrible things that had happened because of her.
The scare she had had that afternoon had reminded her how precarious her position in the world truly was. She had almost forgotten. Had wanted to forget and just enjoy her simple life, but it was useless.
Tomorrow, she decided. She would tell Enid tomorrow.
It was late when Natalie stepped out of the floo station and made her way towards home. She was tired, yet satisfied with the day's events. She had left Draco sober, freshly showered, and belligerent but looking more human than when she had first seen him. She had given Mr. Reicher strict orders that Draco would get to bed at a reasonable hour. Tomorrow she would return to see if he had obeyed her. Tonight, however, she wanted to spend with her own family. No doubt her mothers would start to worry soon if she didn't show up, and she needed to pack a few things before she went back the next day. While the house elves could launder her current set of clothes every day until eternity, Lady Malfoy would eventually take notice and offense at the unladylike behavior.
Lady Malfoy, despite her insanity, was still quite sharp. Natalie suspected that on some level Narcissa knew her husband was dead, because she made absolutely no action that would have forced her to face that truth. She didn't go out, she didn't read the paper, and she didn't open any of the letters she received in the mail. They had had tea together earlier that afternoon while Draco was sleeping off his hangover, and the woman had spoken coherently and confidently about Draco's upcoming graduation, a trip to Paris in the summer she had planned, Lady Lucinthia Belmont's scandalous affair with a squib, and the latest fashion trends in Witches Weekly.
All in all, dealing with Draco had been far more taxing than dealing with his mother. At least Narcissa was self-sufficient in her own delusions. Her son was another matter altogether. Natalie could understand the boy's grief and bitterness, but it grew tiresome very quickly. Draco was so much better than all this. She knew it. She had seen it. She saw it even now as he managed to hold together the family estate and reputation with a grim savageness that bordered on bestial. Yet when it came to himself, he had seemingly given up all self-respect. Every time he had opened his mouth today, she had wanted to slap him. Had slapped him a couple of times in fact.
She hoped it was merely fatigue. Draco had been under a great deal of stress with little help to be found. Reicher had done what he could from a business standpoint and seemed to be dealing honestly with his client despite being a lawyer, but he wasn't in any position to support Draco personally. It should have been Hermione's role to step into that position, to make sure Draco was being taken care of and to look after Narcissa. But Hermione was missing, yet another thing to weigh down on her foster brother, and Natalie had to take her place. It was impudent of her but necessary, and she couldn't help feeling a twinge of resentment toward Hermione because of it.
Nevertheless, she was a Slytherin. She would make the best of it. Certainly, it couldn't hurt to have the Malfoys in her debt.
She took a moment to consider her plans for tomorrow while dusting floo powder from her coat in floo station foyer when a familiar but unwelcome voice called to her.
"My goodness, where have you been, Cypher?" Pansy Parkinson half sneered, half insinuated from behind her. Natalie turned to see the unpleasant girl and her ever present companion Millicent Bulstrode. The floo station was small, only four fireplaces, two inbound and two outbound, a clerk on the outbound side of the office collecting fare, and a map with the waiting bench beneath it on the opposite side. Pansy and Millicent were both sitting on the bench, apparently waiting for someone. Natalie hoped they hadn't been waiting for her.
"Around," she replied dismissively, and forced herself not to hurry her actions. Pansy was a nasty little weed, but she wasn't going to run away from her. She wouldn't give the other girl the satisfaction.
"Around the Malfoy estate?" Pansy asked in the same unpleasant tone. Millicent snickered stupidly beside her. Natalie mentally cursed, but didn't react outwardly.
"Among other places. Lady Malfoy invited me to tea," she said with just a touch of smugness. Pansy had been invited to tea with Lady Malfoy once and only once, and Draco had laughed about it for weeks afterwards behind her back. Tea with Narcissa was always an audition, and one Pansy had failed spectacularly. Natalie had tea with Narcissa at least twice a year since attending Hogwarts with Draco. Part of the reason was to make sure she was still Slytherin enough to be Draco's friend and the other no doubt was to make sure she hadn't fallen in love with him.
Normally, the comment about the tea would have silenced Pansy in embarrassment, but today the little weed was in rare form and didn't immediately wilt.
"I suppose she misses having her little pet mudblood around. What do you think, Cypher? Think she'll go ahead and adopt you now or try her luck back at the pound? Oh, excuse me, at WYRA."
The comment caught Natalie off guard. While the matter of Natalie's origins was always a factor in her relations with other Slytherins, in the confines of Hogwarts it was an unspoken factor. Draco was the de facto lord of Slytherin, and she was his favorite, after his sister, of course. She had a bite of her own on top of Draco's protection, and few had dared crossed her and none with something as vulgar as her breeding. Not since Ron in first year, anyway.
"Why Parkinson? Wondering where you'll have to hang out for her to notice you?" she said blandly, but her hesitation had cost her. The retort sounded forced. Pansy's remark had stung, unexpectedly, and Natalie had revealed the hit. Mentally, she cursed herself. It seemed Draco wasn't the only one who needed to get their act together.
"Oh, I bet that just makes you feel so special," Pansy laughed. "The fact that they notice you. And you really are cute in your way."
In your way held about as much condescension as a pureblood witch could muster, which was a lot. Purebloods stored up condescension from the moment they could speak, in Natalie's experience. She didn't flinch from this jab. It was too obviously a result of the other girl's own insecurity. Pansy still thought she had the upper hand, however, and kept going.
"And maybe it would be enough for someone like Potter, whose taste runs towards mongrels to begin with, but Draco? Don't kid yourself. Do you honestly think he gives a damn about you? He might let you hang around. He might even condescend to fuck you, but it's not because he desires you, Natalie. It's because you're there and you're easy."
Natalie's wand was in her hand and lifting, but so were Pansy's and Millicent's, prepared for the response. Of course they were prepared; there was no way an insult like that could be forgiven or pushed aside. They were fighting words, and if Natalie was lacking anywhere it wasn't in nerve.
"Go ahead," Pansy laughed shrilly. "I dare you. This isn't Hogwarts. The head of house isn't going to hush it all up with a detention and lines on a chalkboard. I'll just tell my father and then we'll see if the Malfoys really give a damn about you. So if you really believe they do, then go ahead and hex me. See if they come to your rescue afterwards."
Natalie's hand clenched around her wand, a thousand curses resting on the tip of her tongue. She could feel her magic inside her writhing with the heat of her anger. She wanted to free it, to let it fly, to hurt and destroy with cathartic violence.
She didn't. Not because she didn't think Draco wouldn't come to her defense, but because she knew he would. It was an unfortunate aspect of his personality to be irritatingly gallant at times. On top of everything else that he was going through, Draco would attempt to ride to her rescue when he could least afford to do so. A family feud between the Malfoys and the Parkinsons (and possibly the Bulstrodes) was more than he could handle.
On the other hand, when had she ever needed Draco to truly protect her?
Natalie mouthed the first syllable of a spell, and Pansy's eyes widened.
"Hey!" the clerk shouted from the other side of the room. All of them jumped and turned in surprise to a middle-aged wizard with a thick moustache glaring at them angrily. "I don't care what you're going on about, but you keep your wands in your pockets until you're out of here. You damage one of these floos and I'll see all of you up on charges, I don't give a damn who your daddy is!"
Pansy sneered at the man but pocketed her wand and Millicent followed her example. Natalie was the last to put hers away, and she did so only reluctantly.
"Pansy," she said coldly, "I know your life's ambition is to be a baby factory to some Pureblood with more money than sense, and as such you lack the imagination to understand the motivations of someone like me. So don't try. You'll only embarrass yourself."
With that she turned to leave. She was not satisfied. Her anger and her magic were still boiling underneath her skin, but she could have consoled herself that it was a draw if not a victory. Then as she reached to door, she heard Pansy and Millicent suddenly shrieking in laughter. And just like that she felt sick with humiliation. They had stolen her dignity with their clumsy, petty insults, and she had let them. She hadn't been prepared or armed against them, and now they had won. She didn't turn around to see what they were laughing about, that was already obvious, and she wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing her expression.
On the street, she pulled up the hood of her cloak and kept her head down. This was her neighborhood, and she didn't want to be recognized or greeted. She didn't want anyone to see the redness in her cheeks or the wet brightness in her eyes. If anyone had shown her pity or mockery then and there, she knew she would have killed them.
A medi-witch had come to examine Harry and make sure he wasn't suffering the effects of poisoning shortly after he returned to his private quarters. He was already half stripped down, preparing to take a hot bath when she arrived. Harry recognized her as one of his attending physicians during his recovery from the Battle of Berlin, and she seemed to remember him too. He supposed his stay had been memorable for a variety of reasons.
He had not bothered to redress for his examination, as she seemed to find poking and prodding at him without his shirt on that much easier. The collection of new scars he had acquired since last he had seen her were of particular curiosity to her.
There had been some confusion about whether he needed treatment for poisoning or not, because despite his apparently having avoided exposure to the poison blade, his blood still carried traces of Voldemort's blood and suffered under its detrimental effects. He was still recovering his magic slower than he should have, and now his magic seemed to be fluctuating strangely. She wanted to take him to the hospital for more tests, but he refused. If he couldn't find his answers from Voldemort first, then maybe he would go but not before.
The medi-witch clearly wasn't pleased with his defiance, but she had no real authority over him. In the end, she could only prescribe rest and some mild potions to help stabilize his magic.
Once she had left, he went through with his original plan to take a bath and spent the rest of the day in indolent restlessness. He didn't dare leave his room for fear of confrontation. Confrontation with whom, he didn't know, but it didn't matter. He had no answers to give, only questions. Even his feelings over what had happened were unclear to him. He had seen death before, several times in fact, but it had been bad today. Very bad and very close. He didn't dare dwell on it for fear of inducing a panic attack, and he couldn't afford to fall apart here and now.
He tried to distract himself as much as possible. He tried reading. He tried writing letters. He tried sketching. All of it ended in frustration and disgust. He flossed. He trimmed his toenails. He listened to the radio. He ordered food and then tried fruitlessly to figure out what precisely they had brought him. He sent Vicky out to gather news about the negotiations and then regretted it when he found himself alone for over half an hour.
"The negotiations ended some time ago," Vicky had said when she returned. "But things are still chaotic. The Musketeers are investigating how weapons were snuck into the assembly in the first place. It should have been impossible."
"No one has come to question me," he said. It was one of the few things about the day that he had let himself wonder about. He might be able to avoid going out, but that didn't prevent anyone from coming to see him.
"The Dark Lord has been holding them off. He says you can't be questioned without your legal guardian present with you being a minor."
Harry gave her an incredulous look.
"Seriously? He wants to play that card?"
Vicky gave him a helpless look.
"I doubt it will hold for long. He's just trying to buy time, and everyone knows it."
No doubt the Dark Lord wouldn't want Harry speaking to anyone before they had had a chance to come up with their story. Yet Voldemort did not seem to be in any hurry. It was two hours later when there was a knock at his door, and Harry opened his eyes to find he had fallen asleep curled in his chair and night had fallen.
"Vicky?" he muttered, but the room was empty. There was a second knock on the door, and he stood to answer it. A small blanket fell from his shoulders as he stood, which meant Vicky must have been there when he fell asleep. Where was she now?
He cracked the door, half expecting a small army of Musketeers to be standing on the other side, but the figure standing there was considerably more welcome. He pulled the door open fully to let Voldemort in. He had changed out of his red clothes and into a less ostentatious outfit of black and dark green, but he retained that air of supernatural menace. With a flippant gesture, the darkened room suddenly blazed with light, and the Dark Lord stalked into the room.
Even as Harry stood blinking and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he could feel the Dark Lord's magic radiating from him, power and the pleasure of seeming invincibility. Tonight, Voldemort felt every inch the conqueror he was. Harry felt strangely small in his presence, as if the slightest gesture could wipe him from the face of the earth, and he didn't know if this were an accurate assessment or just his magus hypersentia interpretation of it.
"It's ours, Harry," the Dark Lord said once the door was closed. "Germany is ours."
The younger wizard nodded, wondering at his own lack of elation. He had wanted this. He had wanted this since the massacre of the Goddess Colony, but now that it was his he felt uneasy. Perhaps it was only that he didn't know where to go from there.
"Yes. Congratulations are in order," he said, trying to force some semblance of happiness in his voice. Either he had done a good job or the Dark Lord was too distracted to notice. The elder wizard barked a laugh.
"Save your congratulations, I am sure we will both be heartily sick of them before long. Tomorrow morning, this will be the front page headlines of every newspaper in the wizarding world! There will be news conferences and parties and parades. Just open the window, you can practically hear them singing in the streets from here."
Harry tried to imagine everyone back home when they received the news. Indeed, there would be celebrations, wouldn't there? He could imagine the Red Weasel full to bursting with revelers and the streets above Diagon Alley alight with fireworks charms. But there were still too many absent from the revelry for him to warm himself with the thought. Hermione nowhere to be found, Draco lost in his own grief, Snape off on his own secret mission, his godfathers still locked in their own battle with Luna and Jane. Tonight was supposed to be a night of great victory, but all he felt was tired at the realization that there were still so many battles left yet.
"So the Queen's people aren't upset about what happened during the negotiations?" Harry asked, turning the conversation to more practical matters. Practical matters Harry could deal with. Voldemort gave him an exasperated look.
"Honestly, have you been hiding in here all day worrying about that? Who cares? If anyone should be upset about the attack it should be me. The Musketeers were in charge of security, and they failed abysmally. It may have worked to our favor, but that doesn't mean I can't hold it over their heads. How did you get that razor in there in the first place?"
Harry told him about the anti-cutting charm allowing the razor to be snuck in without setting off alarms and the simple matter of breaking said charm when needed. The Dark Lord laughed. He laughed because he wanted to laugh, not because it was actually funny. The young wizard was starting to wonder if Voldemort hadn't partaken in a celebratory drink or two before coming to see him.
"Very clever. I will have to tell Morgan about that trick. It was far more elegant a method than Preuss had."
"Preuss? Is that the woman who attacked you?"
"Yes, that was her name. She was a formidable woman in her own right. It is a pity that she lost her nerve in the end. How did you know she was going to attack anyway? You were already climbing to your feet before security even realized anything was happening. What tipped you off?"
Harry took a deep breath and let his false gaiety drop. This was what he truly had been waiting to talk to the Dark Lord about all day. The elder wizard seemed almost startled by his sudden shift in demeanor, and something in the other's expression sobered him.
"I don't know quite how to describe it. One moment, I was sort of dozing off and then the next… everything felt so clear. It was as if I could see everything and knew everything. As if my magus hypersentia suddenly multiplied a thousand times so that it wasn't just a sixth sense, but all my senses at once. I was moving before my mind had even caught up to what was happening. I'm still not sure I know what happened. The only time I've felt anything similar is... was during the last battle."
By the time Harry was done, Voldemort's expression had actually changed into something resembling concern. For a long moment, neither of them said a thing. Harry waited for some sort of explanation, any sort of explanation, or at the very least a few theories. But his mentor said nothing, merely looked him up and down slowly, as if trying to figure out how he was put together.
"Unbutton your shirt."
Harry blinked at him, opened his mouth to question him then changed his mind. He pulled out the shirt from his trousers and undid the buttons. He hoped Vicky didn't suddenly open the door and get the wrong impression of what was happening here… not that he knew what was happening, precisely.
"Push down your trousers just a bit."
Suddenly, the situation seemed strangely familiar. Voldemort had asked him to do this once before, although he had been lying down at the time. He had a terrible idea.
"You think there's something wrong with the wards, don't you?" he asked shakily.
The Dark Lord regarded him seriously.
"Yes, I think so."
"I need to examine it to find out."
Harry hesitated, but shifted his trousers down a bit to expose Svadhisthana, the sacral chakra point, where the wards protecting him from possession were anchored. No sign of the wards were visible, but there remained a faint hint of scar where he had intentionally cut himself during the Final Battle of Hogwarts. He felt a touch of fear as he looked at it. Had he somehow damaged the wards when he had only meant to temporarily deactivate them?
Voldemort came to kneel in front of him and pulled out his wand. Harry couldn't hear the spell that he murmured, but he felt it against his skin like the minute shocks of a static from a wool blanket. The ward reappeared, red lines of indecipherable squiggles and shapes. He could not see it well from his position, but judging from the Dark Lord's angry expression, it couldn't have been good.
"What's wrong?" he asked anxiously.
"It's deteriorating and rapidly at that."
"What? Merlin, how can… Why?"
Voldemort stood and started pacing the room, thinking in earnest. Harry tried to lean down to examine the ward, but it had already faded when Voldemort's wand had pulled away from his flesh. He quickly redressed and righted his clothes, and by the time he was done the Dark Lord seemed to have come up with some ideas.
"They are too weak. They were never intended to be under the strain they have been subjected to. The multiple beings attempting to take over your body, the different types of magic in your body, first from the Sword of Gryffindor and then from my own blood, several near death experiences, and finally your own violation of the ward… really there is no end to the stresses it must be under. I suppose we should be glad that it has lasted as long as it has."
Gladness was not what Harry was feeling at the moment.
"What do we do?"
"I'll have to request another one from the Japanese. A stronger one. At least until I can come up with something better. Dammit. Dammit."
The Dark Lord's good mood had evaporated, and Harry felt a twinge of guilt over it. Today had been a major victory, after all, and deserving of celebration. Under different circumstances, Harry would be out there with him, but there were still a number of crises that needed to be resolved.
"Tomorrow's the full moon," Harry reminded him. Voldemort let out a hiss of annoyance.
"We have appointments all day tomorrow."
The Dark Lord finally stopped pacing and turned to him. His agitation had settled into grim determination.
"Yes. This is our victory. I have been the mind of the fighting, you have been its heart. You're a war hero, Harry, the symbol of Britain's strength and righteousness. You cannot be seen as weakened or evasive once victory has been achieved. It will make everyone uneasy."
Harry stared at him. It was like being told he was Voldemort's prince all over again. It had taken years for him to understand and eventually accept it, and now once again he was being told his role in the world was more important that he had ever understood. He had known he was a celebrity of sorts, but the heart of the war? Gods. Gods and goddesses, he didn't want it. Had never wanted it. Would never want it.
But it was his. It was his because Voldemort said so, and there was no point in arguing it after the fact. He took a deep breath to gain control of his rising frustration and tried to be reasonable about it.
"So what do we do? If it's breaking down, I'm going to start… getting weird by tomorrow afternoon, and by evening I'll be… I'll be a damned lunatic."
Voldemort rolled his eyes.
"Don't be so dramatic. It's not like you go raving mad and gibbering nonsense."
"No, I just get these funny ideas about running off to start fights with people; like the centaurs or Dumbledore or the Germany army!"
Despite Harry's obvious irritation, the Dark Lord had the gall to start laughing at him. The younger wizard threw a sofa pillow at him in annoyance, which was easy knocked aside.
"Now that would make for an interesting evening," the man chuckled. "But perhaps it is not as bad as all that. The ward is still intact, although weakened. Tomorrow, I'll keep you close. First sign you're losing it, I'll get you back to your room and dose you with sleeping potion for the rest of the night."
"Sleep would only make me more vulnerable."
The pillow Harry had thrown was still on the floor, and Voldemort walked over and kicked it at him.
"Don't be a brat. There's no clean solution, only the managing of symptoms."
"I should go home," Harry said.
"And then what? Mrs. Snape is hardly qualified to help you under these circumstances."
"I meant back to the Goddess Colony."
There was a moment of silence, and Harry realized he had said more than he had intended to.
"No," Voldemort said finally. He didn't elaborate, and Harry didn't dare ask him.
"I don't see why I have to go. We already won. We don't have anything else we need to prove," he said sullenly, leaning heavily in his chair.
"Must you persist in playing the brat? I know politics aren't particularly interesting to you, but I would have thought you had picked up something along the way. The physical fighting might be over, but the battle for the hearts and minds of the German people hasn't even begun."
Harry was once again reminded of his conversation with Queen Ophelia the day before. He had been embarrassed about his own ignorance of the Dark Lord's motivation, or rather how his actions tied in with his motivations, which underneath everything was tied to the will of the Earth. Now, again, he was wondering what the war had to do with those motivations. At least part of it had been necessity. The Germans had initiated the hostilities and once Britain had responded they had escalated them until they were in a full blown war. However, Harry wasn't so naïve as to think Britain, the Dark Lord in particular, didn't bear some responsibility for it. Voldemort might not have started the war, but he hadn't really given the Germans much in the way of choices aside from it.
But why? Why had Voldemort been so ready for the fighting? Now that he was victorious, what did he intend to do?
"Did you always intend to go to war with Germany?" Harry asked before he could stop himself.
"Of course, I did."
Just like that. No hesitation. No shame or regret. Just a matter-of-fact reply to a truly terrible question. Harry could only stare at him, horrified. Voldemort glanced at him and shrugged.
"Well, not Germany specifically, but someone in Europe. The Netherlands or France would have worked just as well and I would have settled for Italy, but Germany really was ideal. They have such a rich pagan history themselves and a great deal of private wizarding land ready for use. They practically gift wrapped themselves with that incident at the Triwizard Tournament. I mean, Merlin, how stupid could they possibly be? The conditions were perfect. It had to have been Her will."
"'Her'? You mean the Earth?"
"Yes, the Earth," he practically purred, his eyes going distant and soft at the thought of Her. Harry felt a warm shiver run up his spine and didn't know if it was him or something else seeping through the wards.
"You conquered Germany… for the Earth?"
"I conquered Germany for the Earth," Voldemort agreed. "And for Britain. And for wizarding kind. And because I could."
Harry was horrified, but the horror wasn't from his mentor's answers but from his own lack of surprise. The answers were… were reasonable. They were the answers of a fanatic, a megalomaniac, but they made perfect sense. Voldemort had conquered Germany, not out of self-defense, but as the first step of spreading paganism outside of Britain and further isolating wizarding kind from muggles.
"Are you going to conquer the world then?" he found himself asking, surprised when his voice didn't catch in his throat.
"I will conquer a fair share of it," Voldemort said nonchalantly, glancing back at his protégé from the corner of his eyes to gage his reaction to the revelation. "But the true beauty of my plans is that I will not have to. My purpose isn't to make myself king of the globe, Harry. I enjoy ruling, but I am more than happy to make Britain my only Kingdom. What I am doing is not for my benefit, it is for the great Goddess. It is to create a renaissance."
Harry felt he had suddenly lost the pattern of the Dark Lord's logic. His mentor must have noticed, because he smiled indulgently and explained it to him.
"You must have learned about the Renaissance in school. The emergence of Europe from the Dark Age and into a time of cultural rebirth and growth?"
Harry nodded. For the wizarding world, the Dark Ages hadn't been nearly as desperate as it had been for muggles, but it hadn't been a good time either. Much of the Old Magics were lost with the spread of Christianity with nothing better to replace it, and plague had wiped out wizarding villages as easily as it had muggle villages. It hadn't been until the Renaissance that the still relatively primitive style of wand magic, its origins rooted in the Mediterranean, had been recognized for its power and diversity of purpose and the sudden influx of exotic plants and animals had expanded the field of potions exponentially. It had been an end to the age of paganism in the wizarding world and the birth of modern wizardry.
"Do you know what started the Renaissance?"
Oh. Now it made sense once again. The same horrible, practical sense.
"Yes. The Europeans were ultimately unable to hold their holy land, but they did manage to pillage enough in the way of riches and scientific knowledge from the Muslims to spark a cultural and intellectual rebirth at home. So too will we spark the rebirth of wizarding kind through conquest. They will see our magic and our methods, and find them so superior to their own that they will take it up themselves. They will return to the Earth and be reborn as a people. This is a holy war, my young friend, and we are fighting for the minds and hearts of our race."
He turned to face his protégé fully, his crimson eyes pinning him.
"The question now is whether you will help me now, knowing fully now what I intend."
The shiver of warmth Harry had felt before returned, this time pooling inside of him, heavy and pervasive. Absently, he massaged his stomach gently, as if he could soothe the sensation the same way he might a cramp or a stomach ache. The sensation didn't fade, and he sighed.
"It would seem that at this point, I don't really have much of a choice, do I?"
Voldemort smiled back at him grimly.
"No, you really don't."
La Sanglante Chanson was like most vampire run bars in Paris. Dark, elegant, and partially decaying. Snape felt quite comfortable there, and certainly the mortal patrons might have mistook him for an employee. He would not tell Potter about this portion of his investigation if he told him about any of it, he decided. The brat would probably laugh at him.
And there really wasn't anything funny about this situation. He was surrounded by blood-sucking fiends and people who wanted to be blood-sucking fiends, and both groups of people were eying him speculatively. He had ordered wine while he waited for his appointment and took a sip occasionally but was otherwise very careful to keep a clear head. This was not a place he could afford to be careless.
"Your first time here?" a woman said, sliding into the seat across the table from him. She was very beautiful and very pale, dressed to match the décor in ancient black lace and red satin that was practically disintegrating off of her. If she weren't a vampire, Snape would have mistaken her for a whore by the way she eyed him up and down. Perhaps she was both.
"I have an appointment," he said, looking back at her with disinterest. She was not dissuaded.
"Really now?" she purred. "Are you sure I can't change your mind?"
"It is highly unlikely you could provide what I am looking for."
She gave him a disappointed look.
"Oh, you're one of those."
He wasn't entirely sure what she meant. If this were a regular bar and she were just a prostitute he would have assumed she meant homosexual, but she was a vampire and it could mean any number of things. For all he knew, she had assumed correct.
"If it assuages your ego, you're free to think so."
She sniffed and strutted off to find someone more amenable.
Snape took another sip of his wine out of principle.
He wasn't even half done with his glass when another woman came to retrieve him. She was better and more thoroughly dressed than the previous vampire, and the look she gave him said she would draw blood if he mistook her for the chattel. He followed after her, carrying his cane rather than supporting himself with it. His leg ached, but he was very careful not to limp. Limping could set off the predators.
Like most of Paris, the building was tall and narrow but the bar was not so deteriorated that it couldn't maintain an elevator. It was an iron cage contraption that squealed and groaned as it moved, but Snape was still thankful he didn't have to climb the stairs. The upstairs was in better condition than the downstairs. Still dark and elegant in an old fashioned way, but everything was in good repair and clean. The smell of blood was barely noticeable.
The woman opened a door for him, and he stepped inside an office. Clarion was immediately identifiable by his position behind the desk. There was another man behind him, likely a bodyguard, and the woman moved to a settee placed along the wall to lounge in apparent boredom. Behind Clarion was a fireplace, large enough to be a floo, with a fire burning inside it, providing light and heat and sinister shadows to the room. Snape moved forward and took a seat across from the master vampire without prompting.
"I understand you are looking for an introduction," Clarion said without preamble.
"An opportunity to introduce myself to someone is all I require."
"Is there any reason why I should do this for you?"
"Money and no reason not to."
The vampire gave him a cynical smile.
"I had thought the English were known for their subtlety."
"Depends which part of England they come from. I come from the part that doesn't like to waste time."
"So, Harry Potter," the vampire continued. "A difficult target-"
Snape interrupted him.
"I am not looking for an introduction to Harry Potter."
"I was given to understand that was who you were hoping to meet."
The vampire was regarding him cautiously now. Behind him, his bodyguard shifted ever so slightly. Snape merely leaned back in his chair as if to get comfortable.
"I apologize for the subterfuge in advance. I have my own means of meeting with Lord Potter. What I was really looking for was someone who would be looking to arrange a meeting with Lord Potter."
Clarion just stared at him. Snape gave him a name. The vampire remained perfectly still, revealing his complicity as surely as if he had confessed it aloud.
"I don't know how I can help you."
Snape shook his head.
"We both know that is not true."
They remained very quiet for a moment. Then Clarion leaned back in his chair.
"Why are you here, Monsieur Prince? Assuming that is even your name."
"More or less," Snape replied. "I am a representative of the British government under instructions to investigate rumors of a terrorist plot against Lord Potter during very delicate negotiations with the German government. I don't think I need to explain to you how seriously this is being taken. And I seriously hope I don't need to explain to you the consequences of impeding my investigation, but I will if you like."
Clarion looked like he had bitten into something rotten, but didn't say a word.
"Master Clarion, I honestly don't care what sort of deal you made with Dumbledore. You are not my mission. Dumbledore is. I would rather not deal with the paperwork of involving you or your people with my investigation and would just as soon omit that from my report. That being said, if this attack does occur I will be very, very put out with you, which means the British government will be put out with you. Do you know where I'm going with this?"
"I know where you are going with this," the vampire said, nodding thoughtfully. He took a deep, unneeded breath and then let it out. He looked back at Snape. He did not look afraid. "I also know… you are lying. Renee, if you would please."
There was movement behind him and Snape jumped to his feet on instinct, but a hand grabbed his shoulder and shoved him back down. He struggled against the hold, but it remained immovable and another hand scurried across his pockets and then his sleeves, until it found a wand and pulled it free of him. He reached for the wand, but received a harsh slap to the face for his efforts. His lip split from the blow and his mouth suddenly tasted of blood.
"Monsieur More-or-Less-Prince," Clarion continued, rising from his seat. "I have been Master of Paris for over sixty years now, and I have served the previous Master for even longer than that. I have been here through four muggle wars, two wizarding wars, and more anti-government campaigns than I can count. And do you know something? This is the first time a foreign government has been allowed a private investigation without a French liaison. They don't like not knowing what others are up to inside their own country. It's just something they are finicky about. So you can understand my confusion that you are here alone, not only without a French liaison, but without a partner of any kind."
The Master moved in, coming to kneel down in front of Snape. Snape glared back at him, defiant even as his racing heart betrayed his fear. The vampire lifted his hand, and in a quick, playful gesture that made the wizard flinch, he wiped a spot of blood from man's split lip with his thumb and then licked it clean. He gave made a considering look at the taste and then shrugged, straightening.
"You know what I think? I don't think you're a 'representative of the British government'. At least, not officially. I think you're a dog with a bone, and you've come here digging for a bigger one."
Clarion gave him a smug little grin.
"You're making a big mistake," Snape said, then hissed when the vampires holding him down squeezed his fragile collar bone.
"Hmm… we'll see. Renee, Oswald, take our guest downstairs and find out what he knows. See if any of the girls want to play with him."
"With pleasure," Renee purred and hauled Snape to his feet. He quickly grabbed his cane and used it to steady himself, and he continued holding onto it tightly as the servant vampires led him forcefully out of the office. They crowded him into the elevator, one on either side of him, the woman hissing the things they were going to do to him. The elevator squealed its way down to the first floor and then lower to the basement. It was dark and wet there, and the smell of blood was strong. Snape wasn't impressed. Just because vampires lacked magic didn't mean they had to lack imagination.
For instance, they might have tried to imagine all the myriad uses of a walking cane.
Oswald stepped forward to pull the cage of the elevator open, and with his back turned he didn't immediately see his prisoner suddenly press the head of his cane to Renee's ribs. He did, however, hear the spell.
Oswald swung around, fangs bared even as Renee collapsed to the ground without a mark on her. There was no room and no time to get off another spell before Oswald was on the wizard. Snape brought up the cane to block the remaining vampire, and it caught on the sides of the cramped elevator, momentarily saving him from being crushed as he was thrown into the corner.
The tiny elevator exploded in hot, white light and a deafening bang. Panicked and blind, Oswald shrieked and threw himself through the open door of the elevator and into the safety of the basement. Snape staggered after him, slamming the cage door behind the vampire and smashing the elevator buttons until it started to move. He half fell against the cold metal walls as the cage lurched upwards. Far from feeling secure, Snape frantically unscrewed the top of his cane and pulled his wand free. Clarion might have thought he had seen it all, but this was an old trick Lucius had introduced to him to.
A vampire was standing in the hall when the elevator finally crawled to a stop on the first floor. She was one of the scantily clad voluptuaries that filled the main barroom, and her eyes widened at her undead sister crumpled at Snape's feet. Snape tried to cast a spell at her through the cage, but she was already running for safety and calling for help. Snarling out expletives the situation so richly deserved, the wizard struggled out of the elevator and hurried down the hall, abandoning his cane in favor of his wand.
Vampires appeared at the end of the hall, but two angry slashes in the air with his wand and they disappeared just as quickly, looking for more advantageous positions from which to leap out at him. He kicked open a door in the hall and found a windowless bathroom. He kicked in another door and found a maintenance closet. The third was a parlor, occupied by a lanky man only half-dressed and an equally naked vampiress draped over him.
"Do you mind?!" the man shouted in outrage. The vampire snarled her own displeasure, gnashing her bloodied teeth at him.
Snape barely bothered to sneer at them, instead hurrying across the room to the windows covered by sets of heavy, moldering drapes. He forced them open with a flick of his wand and climbed hurriedly out of the window and onto the street.
It was still early evening and the street was crowded with people. They stared at him.
He stared back, brushed himself off with a haughty gesture, and strode away. He strode all the way to the back alley where he had every intention of apparating to entrance of his hotel clear on the other side of the river and try to decide what he would do next.
Intended, but didn't quite manage when he turned into an alley and found himself face to face with Viktor Krum.
It was cold outside, but Sirius couldn't stand the idea of being cooped up inside. The moon was nearly full and his wolf stirred restlessly inside of him, so he wandered into the night with Remus close behind him. His beta looked as unaffected as ever, his wolf so quiescent that one would question whether he was a werewolf at all. It was a trait unique to Remus, his apparent apathy towards the moon except when it was at its fullest or he willfully chose to enjoy it. It was a trait Greyback had chosen to taunt him with.
It meant 'one who could barely be considered a werewolf' or 'a werewolf without spirit'.
Greyback had been an idiot as far as Sirius was concerned. Remus was by far the most levelheaded and dependable werewolf in the entire colony, and his presence had proven itself invaluable even before Sirius had become Head Alpha. For every question and consequence Sirius considered in any given situation, Remus would think of ten more. For every irritation and delay he encountered, Remus would give him perspective and opportunities. For every loss he gave comfort and every victory he provided temperance.
Sirius knew he wouldn't be half the Head Alpha he was if it weren't for Remus, which was the only humble thought he had probably ever had and even that he would never say aloud. It was fortunate then that one of his beta's many innate abilities appeared to be reading his alpha's mind, which made it unnecessary to voice.
"You've decided what to do," Remus said knowingly as they slipped further from the settlement and into the trees. Patches of snow glowed in the moonlight, illuminating their way down the narrow game trail clearly. It was beautiful and quiet, and Sirius needed the balm to his frazzled nerves. It had been a difficult couple of days.
"And you don't like it," Remus added.
"But you're going to do it anyway, because you're a mature and responsible adult."
"Rub it in, why don't you?"
"You're going to have to start wearing ties now, Sirius. No one is going to believe you're a mature and responsible adult if you don't wear a tie."
"Oh, shut up," he grumbled, but the corner of his mouth twitched upward in spite of himself. Remus could also be good for a laugh when he put his mind to it. They walked along for a little longer in comfortable silence.
"You're doing the right thing, Siri."
It was good to hear Remus say it, because as often as Sirius had said it to himself it hadn't made him feel any better.
"Doesn't mean I have to like it."
"I know, but in the long run we can't keep fighting with Jane and Greyback. It's not fair to the rest of the pack. It is better we do it now when we're on more equal footing, than waiting until some desperate situation forces our hand," the beta continued.
"Still rubs my fur the wrong way, thinking of Jane back in the pack, plotting with Greyback. They're going to be so damn smug when everyone starts making sacrifices to him again. They're going to think they can get away with anything."
Remus patted his shoulder.
"That isn't true. Jane at the very least has learned to respect you, and it's better to keep her close where you can keep an eye on her. The packs love her, she's the daughter of their Goddess, so of course they do, but they're still loyal to you. They'll obey their head alpha over a naughty child any day."
"Pfft, don't let Harry hear you say that."
They both paused and turned to look at each other, then burst out into roaring laughter. They laughed long and hard, and finally let it fade into a feeling of relief. Sirius felt something in him loosen, resigned to his decision to let Jane and Luna back in to the pack and to allow the worship of Greyback to resume.
"It's good to know we can still make decisions without the help of an adolescent wizard," Remus said, bringing another round of giggles.
"Yeah, I'm glad we could keep him out of it this time around," Sirius said. "Although… hell, I just thought of something."
"We won't be able to keep Luna and him apart after this," Sirius sighed.
Remus rolled his eyes.
"I doubt that was ever really a possibility."
They fell silent, a genuine sadness creeping in. Finally, Remus said the painful truth of it. Yet another thing his beta was better at than him.
"It was doomed from the start. They're meant for each other, but… they can't really be together. Not in any way that will last."
Sirius closed his eyes. He didn't consider himself a sentimental person, but when it came to Harry, he admitted he had a soft spot. In his heart he felt the boy wasn't just James' son any longer, but the son of all the Marauders. He had bits and pieces of all of them. James' nobility, Remus' thoughtfulness, Sirius' own fearlessness, and even a bit of Peter and his desperate need to be loved by others. At the same time, Harry was so uniquely himself as to be a mystery and a wonder. He wondered if all parents felt like that sometimes.
He knew Remus did, at least, if his perpetual exasperation for their boy was anything to go by.
"He'll be okay," Sirius said, heaving a deep sigh. "He's strong. He'll be okay."
"You're right. Eventually, he'll be okay." Remus paused, looking thoughtful. "Of course, we don't know he's immune to lycanthropy. If he became a werewolf, all this angst would be rather moot."
That shocked another laugh out of Sirius.
"Don't tell Luna that. She might get ideas."
*'Ligananimus' is a spell used to turn the heart to wood. It's a transfiguration spell most often used in defense against vampires, as 'avada kedavra' has no effect on vampires. Better than even a staking. It's just as effective against regular people, of course, but easily blocked by various shield spells and magical pendants.
*'Ignatus lumina' is a fireworks spell. It's more flash than bang and relatively harmless, but damn frightful if you're not expecting it.