A/N: The writer's block may be lifting. Thank you so much for your patience and your continued support, I know I've been horrifically slow with updating and everything. After the darkness of the previous chapter, this one should be a little lighter. I'd love to get this story wrapped up before the winter, but I don't know if that'll be possible. Anyways, hope you enjoy this one.
Chapter 45: The Badger Initiative
"Ah! Miss Greengrass and Mister Zabini. Thank you for volunteering for this arduous task." Professor Slughorn looked at his stockroom ruefully. "This will not be an easy feat, I'm afraid. I didn't realize just how disorganized my supplies were."
Blaise grinned and bowed his head. "Our pleasure, Professor. Anything for a little extra credit in your class," he said, with a wink.
Slughorn wiggled his finger at him. "You are quite the clever lad, Mister Zabini. I'll even do one better than extra credit; I'll excuse you from my assignments for two weeks. Would that be all right for you?"
Daphne and Blaise gave each other smug, knowing looks. "That's perfect, Professor," she replied.
It had been far too easy for the Slytherins to con their way into helping Slughorn with labelling and rearranging his supplies. After all, Slughorn was a jovial man who enjoyed socializing. Particularly with wizards and witches who were well connected. And wealthy. And charming. Enter Blaise Zabini, Daphne's key to Slughorn's kingdom. A little sweet talk here, a little verbal grooming there, and Blaise had Slughorn primed and ready to make them his own assistants for the rest of the term. As Daphne only needed access to his supply of Veritaserum to give to the Hufflepuffs, the arrangement here was practically perfect.
"Very well then! Both of you can get started, and I need to make a quick visit to Professor Sprout, for some ingredients." Daphne was about to reply that this was not a problem, but a knock on the doorframe interrupted her.
"Excuse me, Professor."
Slughorn and the two Slytherins turned towards the voice, Daphne staring at the speaker, befuddled.
"Er . . . why, Mister Corner. What brings you here?"
She watched, utterly baffled, as Michael, bearded and scarred from the attack a few days ago, set down his book bag. "Professor Slughorn, if you don't mind, I was wondering if you might need another set of hands here. After all," he said, nodding at Daphne, "hers are still healing."
Slughorn looked down at Daphne's bandages. "Oh! Oh my dear Daphne . . . I didn't even realize that your hands had been hurt. What . . . goodness! What happened to them?"
"It's all right, er, Professor. I-it was just a mishap and it won't happen again," Daphne stammered, pointedly staring at Michael, who was giving her a defiant look. "To be honest, I was simply going to work on cleaning up the area and see what needed labels and Blaise was going to do the writing."
"Well, perhaps having an extra set of hands would be nice. It couldn't hurt to extend the same offer to you, Mister Corner, if you're willing to work and help Miss Greengrass and Mister Zabini."
Michael ginned, but he pulled his lips to the right side of his face, his eyes sparking as they looked over at her. Daphne suppressed a groan; it was his stupid, smug grin — the same one he used whenever he said anything he thought clever, or cute, or flirty.
"I'm more than willing to help. Especially if this lovely witch needs me to assist her. Always up for a good deed. 'Good deed' Corner — that's what they call me. Here to lend a helping hand."
Now he was overdoing it. Daphne's stare turned into an outright glare as he winked at her. She puckered her lips and quashed her sarcastic comment, that no, she did not need his help, she could do just about anything with or without hands, and thank you very much for thinking she's weak and needed two men to help her!
Slughorn shut the door on the three students and Michael moseyed towards her, his hands stuffed in his pockets, smiling and looking far too pleased with himself for Daphne's taste. "Laying it on thick there, Corner."
"Oh, so I'm 'Corner' now? Come on, Daphne. Can't a bloke offer to help a fair lass without the negativity? Especially when said fair lass is also his girlfriend."
"And can the public displays of affection!" She swatted him, her bandaged hand not actually making contact with his body. "We're not supposed to be seeing each other. Or at least, no one's supposed to know."
Michael's brow finally fell; he stared at her darkly. "And what if I'm tired of hiding behind everyone's back? What if I don't like seeing you working with the Carrows and still getting yourself hurt?"
"We don't have a choice! We don't know how they'd react if they knew we were together."
He approached her, his eyes expressing a million different feelings. Daphne wasn't sure which ones were directed to her.
"You don't know what it did to me seeing you with your injured hands. You, unconscious, sprawled out on the floor in front of the hospital. And I caused that. Helping us did that to you." The tone of his voice, the sudden serious turn he had taken, surprised and humbled Daphne.
"You ended up injured, even after I tried to stop it." Her voice was soft and apologetic.
Michael shook his head, as if refusing to consider her sentiment. "You put yourself in that situation for me, for my mates, and I couldn't stop it. I couldn't help you."
"Hel-lloo!" Blaise's sharp voice cut through their conversation. "Hate to break up this sweet little lovers' moment, but," he said, gesturing to the small supply annex. "We've got some massive organization to do and some Veritaserum to steal."
Michael snapped his head, looking squarely at Daphne. "All of this was a ploy to get more Veritaserum?"
"Per Ernie and Susan's request." She held up her hands. "We've already given them the last few remaining doses that I had nicked back in September. But, apparently, they need more. As much as we can snag."
She waited, anticipating him to blow up at her. She knew how he felt about her twisting and breaking the rules. While it didn't destroy their relationship completely, there were times when Daphne wondered if something she did would drive a wedge between them permanently. It had been nearly the end of them last year when she told him about blackmailing Blaise.
Thus, he completely confounded her when he shrugged. "Well, what are you waiting for?" He pointed at the stockroom. "Let's do this before Slughorn comes back in here and catches us."
"You're not angry at me?"
Michael rolled his eyes and pressed his lips together. "How can I be mad at you after what happened this week? Now, do you know where it is?"
"He keeps the strong stuff on the topmost shelf." Her voice was barely a whisper; if she spoke any louder, it might make Michael snap out of whatever charm or curse he was under, forcing him to help her. "Left side, back shelf as far away from prying eyes as possible."
He walked to the storage area, and lit the light with his wand. "Well," he said, his hand on the rolling ladder that reached to the very top of the little room. "Come on then."
"If we get in trouble, we get in trouble together. That's the way I see it."
Blaise raised his hand. "I brought my Invisibility Cloak. No way I'm letting myself get caught here."
Daphne glared dangerously at him, holding up her fist in a sarcastic fashion. "One for all and all for one, Zabini?"
"Only when convenient. Now, Romeo and Juliet, get your arses in there so we can get this done!"
Daphne huffed and walked to Michael as he held the ladder. He gave her a little chivalrous bow.
"Prat," she said, smirking. But she took a quick look at her hands. "Actually, with me being part-mummy right now, maybe you should do the honours, Michael."
His eyes dropped to her hands. With a morose expression, he gave her a quick kiss on the lips and a single nod. "What am I looking for?"
"It should have 'Veritaserum' written on it; Slughorn's good about keeping the more powerful potions far back and clearly labelled. It's the ingredients and the lighter stuff that he's more careless about. Go to the top shelf. Far left back corner. Look for a blue glass bottle that's cylindrical in shape."
Michael smiled and moved the ladder down to the far end of the storage room, climbing up it effortlessly.
"Anything for you, M'lady."
She looked down at him. "What in the world's gotten into you?"
Michael shrugged as he extended his arm, pushing past several bottles on the shelf. "What can I say? I'm a sweet bloke."
"Less talking, more stealing!"
"Shut up, Zabini!" Michael and Daphne exclaimed at the same time. Shaking her head, Daphne's eyes moved down a little bit; with a start, she realized his trousered bum was just above her eye line. "Merlin, but is this a nice view!" she said with a sigh.
"Your arse, Mikey. Nice!"
"Hey." He peered at her through narrow eyes, although it was clear he wasn't annoyed in the slightest. "I don't appreciate being objectified, Greengrass."
"We can play 'polish the broomstick' later if you want." Daphne wiggled her eyebrows.
Michael's head snapped around so quickly, Daphne was afraid it'd come off. "Really? Wicked! Objectify me as much as you want."
"Sweet Salazar, you're too easy." Behind her, Blaise made a retching sound.
"And both of you are giving me nausea. Less talking! Merlin, what is it with straight couples?" he said huffily.
"Ah-ha!" Michael held the sought-after blue bottle triumphantly; the label a silver charm attached to the glass with a single word etched into it — Veritaserum. "He had two bottles up there. Do you need the other one?"
"No. Best not to get greedy. I'll give them one bottle and see if they'll need more."
He winked at her, again. "So Daphne, who's your Merlin, huh?"
Daphne grinned. "Neville Longbottom."
"Yeah, that's right — hey!"
She giggled. "Too easy." Michael hopped off the ladder and pulled her to him, kissing her as he slid the bottle of Veritaserum into her robes.
Having nicked the bottle, which Daphne estimated would be enough for about twenty to thirty doses, the three seventh years went to work, with Blaise and Michael using their wands to write out names and labels of various ingredients and potion solutions. They were so caught up in their task that they never noticed Slughorn returning almost two hours later.
"Well! I must say that you three did a marvellous job with this task." He bobbed his head, his ruddy face bearing a broad, toothy smile. "Well done. And you'll be free of essays for two weeks, as a genuine thank you for your efforts! Granted, you'll have to do the work in class, and keep up on the reading still."
The students couldn't have been happier. "Thank you, Professor." After Blaise promised he and Daphne would stop by the Potions Master's office the following week for a cup of tea ("Oh! But Mister Corner, you're more than welcome, too!" Slughorn added) they left his classroom.
"I'll get this to one of our 'Puffs tonight." Daphne patted her robes. "During our patrols. Merlin knows what they want it for."
Blaise pulled out his cloak as he was going to sneak a visit to Eddie before curfew. "Can't be anything too nefarious. They are Badgers, after all."
Michael raised his eyebrow. "Have you seen Cadwallader play Quidditch? Bloke'll shatter your ribs if it meant getting ten points, much less the Snitch."
"Whatever. You know, the pair of you could practice a bit more discretion, if you want my opinion," he said just before pulling the cloak over his head.
"We didn't ask for you opinion, Zabini," Daphne replied with a scowl.
The Slytherin wizard shook his head and regarded her seriously. "You know they're watching everyone now. More than ever. And the way you two've been carrying on, you're going to line yourselves right up for even more torture. You're making yourselves targets."
Daphne's eyes lowered to the floor. Blaise was right, of course; there was so much scrutiny on every student, and it already felt far worse than the previous term. From the way that the prefects were being punished for the littlest mistakes or acts of rebellion, to the way they were searched upon their return to the school, to the new rules and disciplinary procedures . . . it was stifling, the feeling of danger and oppression engulfing them.
The only solace she got were the moments she had with the D.A., with Ginny and Blaise and even Eddie Carmichael.
But the times she spent with Michael were always, always, the brightest spots of her day.
"Blaise, does all the danger stop you from living? From seeing or loving whomever you want?"
He flexed his jaw; the question had gotten to him. Slowly, he shook his head. "Touché, Daphne."
"Just be careful, Zabini. Back to the common room by curfew."
"When am I not careful." With one last smirk, he disappeared completely under the cloak. Michael and Daphne looked in the direction his soft footsteps walked away. She made sure the Veritaserum was still tucked in her robes, her book bag shouldered between her and the Ravenclaw.
"We do have some time before curfew, Corner."
He smiled. "Want to spend it with me?"
"No, I was thinking about having a tea party with Hagrid. Of course I want to spend it with you."
His eyes travelled down the length of the corridor. "There's a classroom down there, with the biggest, widest desks that you've ever seen." He leaned down and whispered in her ear; Daphne shut her eyes, listening to everything Michael was thinking about doing to her on top of those desks. His ideas were, for lack of a better word, wicked.
He kissed her temple, looking at her with his scruffy and scarred face, the bandages above his eye and across his cheek gave him an even tougher appearance. "Sound good? That way, you won't have to use your hands."
"Wh-what about your injuries?" Daphne was trying to regain her composure after hearing Michael's enticing suggestions.
He smirked. "I'm not injured down there. Wand's perfectly intact."
"You want to . . . even with our clothes on?"
"Well, the way I keep playing it in my head, you still have your tie on. And your stockings. And your skirt's bunched up all around you. And the book said—"
Daphne chortled. "There's a book?"
He raised his eyebrows. "There's always a book. And this one had pictures that move."
"They even gave suggestions about how to work on time. Speed. Stamina. Stuff like that."
"Stamina?" Her voice was a mere squeak.
Michael nodded. "Something about taking your time with the niffler. Make sure the niffler has fun during the hunt, and then really go for the gold."
Daphne said nothing. Instead, she practically ripped his arm out of his socket in her rush to get to the classroom. Just before she followed him into the classroom, she heard a noise, as if someone had run into a suit of armour. She held her breath. Had someone been watching them — her and Michael and Blaise — this entire time?
Did someone know about her and Michael?
Snapping her head down the hallway, she exhaled when she saw no evidence of another person spying on them. Daphne turned back towards the classroom, locking the door and casting privacy charms so Michael could show her the things he learned over Christmas holiday.
Unfortunately, they had to delay the first meeting of the D.A. for the term, thanks to the attacks on Neville and Anthony. But that did not deter the D.A. from their efforts to decorate Hogwarts with as much pro-Harry Potter graffiti as they could.
"Ginny, make sure someone gets the Dark Arts floor." Neville whispered her commands from his bed in the Hospital Wing. Ginny did not know how Madam Pomfrey managed to keep both Neville and Anthony in here with her for more than a couple of days, but she was not complaining. It gave them time to recover and other members of the D.A. could take the heat for the upcoming vandalism.
"Already on it."
Neville fell back onto his pillows and held his thumb up. "Knew I could count on you to keep things going."
At eleven o'clock that evening, Ginny, Seamus and Lavender set out for the ground floor where all the staircases converged to write. They were heading out to the main courtyard, where they were going to post a large sign — "WE'RE WITH YOU HARRY POTTER!! LONG LIVE HARRY!!" — with a strong Sticking Solution that the twins had developed and had given to Ginny.
The Hufflepuffs were going to take the first floor, right in front of the two classrooms in which the Carrows taught, with their most overt sign yet: "DUMBLEDORE'S ARMY! WE'RE HERE! NO FEAR! GET USED TO IT!" True, it pretty much annihilated any of their efforts to keep the D.A. under the radar. But, as Neville told Ginny, and Ginny told Seamus and Lavender, "We either go bold or go home. There's no in between. And it's time to start being bold."
"Or bloody stupid," Anthony Goldstein had added, rubbing his still-mending face with his bandaged hands.
Dressed in black, their faces painted to allow them to hide in the shadows and under tapestries if necessary, Ginny took the lead, staying close to the railings, and sneaking down onto the fourth floor. Seamus signalled for them to stop. He pulled out his Galleon.
"It's from Daphne. 'Fourth floor with Alecto. Moving up. Amycus in West Tower. Friendlies on North, ground, and first.'" He pocketed the coin and nodded down. "Looks like she's keeping the Carrow bint preoccupied."
Ginny grabbed the railing for the staircase as it shifted to meet the fifth floor balcony. "Sounds like she was able to shift the schedules with the prefects this evening and have the prefects that won't turn us in out here tonight."
Lavender laughed nervously. "She knows that for sure?" Staring ahead of her, she wrung her hands. "It's already a given that we're going to get caught. Maybe it's better to get caught sooner rather than later."
Ginny watched as Seamus put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Lav, as long as I can, there's no way I'm allowing you to get caught." Seamus' resolve nearly took both girls' breaths away. Feeling a small pang to her heart as she thought of Harry and not knowing how he was doing, Ginny smiled sadly as Lavender leaned forward to kiss him.
"Let's get moving," Ginny said with an apologetic smile. Her friends complied.
They reached the stairwell that lead onto the fourth floor. She threw Blaise's Invisibility Cloak over her head and looked down the corridor. She kept her eyes and ears open, watching and listening for any signs of movement that wasn't the Gryffindors.
She ran back up to meet Seamus and Lavender. "Coast clear. Let's get downstairs and get outside."
Finally touching down onto the ground level of the Grand Staircase, the three Gryffindors stood beneath a swirling stairwell, hidden in shadow. There were three prefects monitoring the large hall, and one standing next to the entrance.
"Crap," Ginny whispered, barely audible to the two other Gryffindors. "How to get past—"
As if on cue, the door opened, and out came Ernie and Susan. Ginny could hear them talking audibly to the other prefects.
"There are more signs. We counted four so far."
Ernie sounded out of breath. Ginny could see a flush spread across his cheeks as he stood in the candlelight, his blond hair shiny, possibly from sweat. "The North Tower and the Great Hall. Professor Carrow—"
"Uh, Ernie? Which Carrow do you mean?"
"Amycus," the Hufflepuff replied impatiently, "is heading towards Muggle Studies and Dark Arts from the viaducts to check if someone hit those classrooms. Go check out the towers. Susan and I will check out the ground floor and other areas."
The prefects nodded and made to leave. One witch that Ginny recognized as a fifth year Hufflepuff, Gilly Norton, turned around. "And if we find whoever put them up?"
Susan gestured to herself and Ernie. "Come find us before you do anything. We'll deal with them later. Just let us know if anything happens to you."
The prefects vacated the ground floor, with Ernie and Susan following them. Ginny looked; the two oldest Hufflepuff prefects had managed to leave the doors to the Entrance Hall open, just enough to let all three of them out.
"Well, I guess that's how we're going to get outside." She turned back to Seamus and Lavender and motioned for them to follow her.
Tiptoeing out of the shadows, they walked slowly to the open doors. Seamus signalled for them to stay back. He peeked his head out of the opening. Raising his hand, he sharply jerked two fingers toward the entrance hall.
Ginny and Lavender looked at each other and shrugged. "What the hell was that, Shay?"
Seamus huffed at Ginny. "Tha' was the signal to go! As in, the bloody coast is clear!"
Lavender rolled her eyes. She pressed her body against the door, and squeezed through. Ginny followed suit, and Seamus came out last. They cast their eyes around the hall. It was clear of prefects or professors. They crept out as silently as possible, Ginny praying that the entrance to the main courtyard was unlocked, as it was left up to Ernie and Susan to keep that door open.
And when they got to it, the three Gryffindors collectively let out a relieved breath; the door was open. Seamus gently tapped it with his hip. No alarm sounded.
"Ladies first!" he whispered, which didn't cover up his glee. Ginny and Lavender suppressed their giggles as they snuck outside.
"Murtlap Essence! Take it and use it for any burning spells he might try on you!"
Ginny could barely make out what Daphne was trying to say to her, much less thrust into her hand. Of course, that could have had as much to do with her nerves about what was going to happen with them than Daphne's harsh whispers. It was the morning after their insurrection in the courtyard; punishment was inevitable. As soon as Snape started speaking, they were going to get it. Punished. Whatever it looked like, they were going to take it like the Gryffindors that they were. They were not going to let any other students suffer for their transgressions.
The two girls had snuck into an empty hallway, obscured from the throng of students crowding into the Great Hall for breakfast.
"Daphne," Ginny hissed, "we need to get out of here! If we're gone too long, they're going to send out a search party and then all of us are going to be in trouble."
The Slytherin rubbed her eyes. "And here," she said with a sigh, showing Ginny two more small bottles. "These are all the wound cleaning and Blood-Replenishing potions that Eddie gave us."
Ginny pressed her mouth together tightly. "Thanks." Her friend nodded.
"I can't stop what they're going to do, but these should help most of whatever they will do to you."
Ginny took the bottles and nodded, smiling ruefully. "We need to get this over with."
"I hate that we even have to worry about this."
"I know, Daphne." Ginny turned toward the Great Hall, pausing for a moment. "Thanks, again." She left. Daphne hung back, watching her leave, knowing she felt the weight of what was about to happen fully on her shoulders.
The Gryffindor contingent of Dumbledore's Army limped into the Room of Requirement for their first official meeting of the term. Ginny grimaced with each step, as her back remained tender from the whipping earlier in the week.
She walked next to a still-bandaged Neville, who kept putting his hand on her back. This, of course made Ginny wince rather loudly; the scars, even with various pain-relieving balms and skin-regrowing solutions, were still quite painful. As she had dressed for the day, she noticed that her white button-up shirts were now showing some gruesome stains — long streaks of red criss-crossing from left to right that had not been there before this year. She felt the corners of her eyes sting with fresh tears as Ursula and Cosima helped dress her that evening. No one deserved this shit.
Parvati held Lavender, as her scars, for some reason, had been a bit harder to heal. Watching Lavender move was like watching someone stepping on hot coals. Same with Seamus, who walked next to Neville, and every so often had to lean against his mate for support. Alecto had used them to teach Crabbe how to cast the Flameless Burn spell, casting it with horrific effect on the feet of the two Gryffindor seventh years.
"Godric, but you look a wreck, Ginny!"
The sixth year grinned shakily at Daphne. " 'S . . . good to s-see you, too."
"Did the balms and stuff I give you help?"
"Yeah," Neville said, Ginny flashing something in between a grimace and a smile. "Seamus and Lavender used the Murtlap on their feet."
Daphne shuddered and raised her hands. "I know how that feels."
"I used the Blood-Replenishing Potion." Ginny said, her eyes shut. A pile of plush pillows appeared at their feet. Exhaling, Ginny lowered herself to the ground, much like a pregnant woman trying to find a comfortable spot on which to lie. "And did I ever need it. Pomfrey came to check on us in the dormitory and said that if I hadn't had something on me, things could've been a lot worse."
Seamus and Lavender collapsed next to her, the pile of pillows growing to accommodate the injured Gryffindors.
"Glad something went all right. I was a bit worried there, thinking that the Carrows were going to start cursing those first years right there in the Great Hall before you lot turned yourselves in." Daphne shook her head, and her eyes fell to the floor.
Fortunately, their remembrances of that difficult morning were interrupted as the door to the Room opened. Daphne waved over to Michael, who entered the Room with Terry, Anthony and Padma. Blaise strolled in after them, looking thoroughly bored with the whole affair, as he was checking his nails with a slight sneer on his face.
Anthony and Terry jogged up to them, as Michael swooped around to come up behind Daphne. Michael greeted his blissful girlfriend with a rather soppy hug and kiss on the cheek — all to a lovely chorus of his mates and the Gryffindors laughing, teasing them with gagging sounds.
"Keep it in your trousers, mate,' Terry said, laughing. Michael glared at him.
"Here," Anthony replied as he pulled out a shiny gold Galleon and plopped it into Terry's open hand. "You win."
Michael released the smirking Daphne and glared at his friends. "He wins what?" she asked Anthony.
"Terry bet me a Galleon that you can't be in the same room for five seconds with Daphne without being able to touch her. He clearly won."
Daphne snorted and patted Michael on the back. "Oh, stop flaring your nostrils, Corner. It's sweet that you can't keep your hands off of me." Below them, Ginny laughed and stuck her tongue out, making a small retching noise.
"Actually, Gin, this is for you." Terry flicked the Galleon with his thumb. The coin arched down to her. She cupped her hands and it neatly fell into her grasp.
"It's your shiny new D.A. Galleon," Anthony said, gesturing to the little gold object.
"Oh? Cheers, Anthony!"
He grinned awkwardly. "I had been meaning to give it to you sooner, but," he gestured at his scarred face. "Got a bit sidetracked."
"Don't worry about it. Thanks, though."
There was a cough coming from behind them. "I hate to break up the party over here, but we should get started before the Carrows send out the other snakes to look for us. I'm far too handsome to subject myself to target practice," Blaise drawled.
Neville rubbed his hands together. "It looks like all we're waiting on now are the Hufflepuffs. Have any of you seen them?"
He looked around the room, but was met with confused, slightly worried stares. The longer they waited, they were putting themselves at risk. Maybe the Hufflepuffs got delayed in their trip up to the room? Maybe they were already getting tortured by the Carrows — no. If the Carrows were torturing them, they would broadcast it like they did with most of their whippings.
Neville looked at the entrance to the room. "We'll give them a little more—"
The door burst open. Ernie and an oddly-grinning Susan led the way, followed by Hannah Abbott . . . and then, in short order, Tamsin Applebee, Wayne Hopkins, Eric Cadwallader, and Megan Jones.
No one said a word. They were far too stunned to do anything other than gape. Ginny stood up, with Seamus and Lavender doing the same, their faces all showing various degrees of astonishment.
With caution, the new Puffs stopped walking, keeping some distance from the rest of the D.A. Hannah, Ernie and Susan approached Neville. The de facto leader of the D.A. had an inscrutable expression frozen on his face. He too, was still recovering, gauze and ointments covering some of his bruises. His hair had grown out, and with the patches of scruff developing on his face beneath his bandages, Neville cut a rather imposing figure.
The closer the three Hufflepuffs got to him, the stiffer he became. When they finally reached Neville, he remained solid as a board, with his arms crossed. Ginny and Daphne both eyed each other; they had never seen Neville in such a state before. The only thing he allowed himself to do was blink. And flare his nostrils.
Calm fury. This was not a good sign.
"Neville," Hannah began, "before you say anything—"
"Clearly, even as the leader around these parts, the leader that you lot chose, I have people going behind my back and making decisions without talking to me first."
"Annie, it's all right." Susan spoke calmly and laid a hand on Hannah's shoulder. The prefect approached a still furious Neville and never took her eyes off of him.
"This was my choice, Neville. As Secret Keeper for all of us, I wanted to help recruit anyone that might prove to be loyal to us. We could use even more bodies, Captain. You know that better than anyone."
"But you're risking to expose us further, Susan — wait. Did you just call me 'Captain'?"
Terry stood up, "Er, that was our idea, I'm afraid. The Ravenclaws. We've sort of been calling you 'O Captain, My Captain' behind your back." He smiled, a wee bit nervously. "It's supposed to be a compliment, Nev. Some of us who've been reading Muggle literature over the holidays came up with that." He thumbed towards Anthony's direction; the prefect narrowed his healing face at Terry, wincing as his glare agitated his wound.
"We know you're our leader, Neville. Maybe it's time you had a proper name to go along with what you've done for us."
"'Neville' is fine, Terry. You don't have to go into that 'captain' business." He had to hold back a grin, though, as he spoke. "But as for all this, Susan, why bring more people in here. For what purpose? Do they know what we're intending to do? What risks we're taking?"
"They do because they I asked them how far they're willing to go this year." Susan drew herself up. She was still a fair bit shorter than Neville, but she regarded him with an intense defiance. "And, thanks to Daphne's efforts, we were able to question them, with their permission, with a few drops of this."
Susan held a round blue bottle in front of Neville. His eyes grew to the size of Bludgers. "Veritaserum? We're back to that again?"
She nodded. "I made sure they knew they would be dosed with a small amount, and they answered all of my questions. When we were done, I was satisfied with their answers and revealed the Secret to them."
At this point, Eric Cadwallader raised his hand. "Are you two going to talk to us directly, or are you going to carry on this lovely little chat without our input. Which, y'know, could be important when you're sussing out our intentions."
Tamsin Applebee joined in as well. "I know we haven't been properly introduced, Long-, er, Neville, but my mum's gone. Hopefully on the run. So I've got a right to help tear down these bastards, the same as all of you."
He nodded slowly, conceding her point. "Can't really argue with that. Wait," he said, his voice indicating something had just dawned on him. "Your sister's a second year Gryffindor, isn't she?"
"That's right. Theresa Applebee. Probably a right pain in your sides."
Neville smiled. "Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say that. She's a bit . . ." He searched for the right word. "Energetic."
"She's a beast when she's had sugar. And she bloody loves sweets." Tamsin snorted. "You should stuff her full of Honeydukes and let her have a go at the Carrows. That'll run 'em off for good!"
This finally broke the tension building in the room. A hearty round of laughs slowly increased, culminating in a very sharp voice cutting through the amusement.
"Oi! Can we get a move on? Seriously — we're going to have the Carrows, Snape, and pretty much the whole of Slytherin House reining down on us if we don't make it out of here by curfew!"
The Hufflepuffs stopped laughing and stared at the interloper.
"Blaise Zabini? Blaise – Effin' – Zabini's in this and, somehow, no one thought about telling us?" Eric said, his voice full of angry incredulity.
Tamsin threw her arms up and spun around to Susan. "Look, Greengrass was one thing—"
"Hey!" Daphne exclaimed. Tamsin held her hand up.
"I said you were all right. But that other snake? Zabini?" She stared at him, her eyes narrow and piercing and dangerous. "He said I was tainted. That I was every bit as dirty as a Mudblood." She sneered at him. "He doesn't belong here."
It was Daphne's turn to get up into Tamsin's face. She did so before Blaise could storm up to her himself and start Wizarding War Four — or whatever number it was they were now on.
"Applebee, you'd do your best to shut your mouth. You don't know Blaise like we do. You know that if he's in here, he's under the Fidelius Charm too, and he can't say anything even if he wanted to. So back off!"
Tamsin crossed her arms and advanced towards Daphne. Ginny watched as Michael shifted to move closer to his girlfriend. Indeed, the rest of the room tensed and watched the two girls stare each other down. Megan, Eric and Wayne started to approach them on the other side—
"Tamsin, Blaise is gay."
All heads snapped towards Ernie. Tamsin blinked, her body language and stance relaxing almost instantly. However, Blaise glared at him, completely livid.
"What the fuck, Macmillan?"
Ernie held his hands up. "You wanted to watch them fight?'
"I was considering it, yes." The Hufflepuff grunted indignantly at Blaise.
"Come on. We're all in this together. You're open in here, with us. And they're joining us. They're a part of this thing now, so might as well get everything out in the open."
Blaise stomped up to Ernie and jabbed his finger into Ernie's face. A couple of students made to reach for him in case blows were thrown, but it was not necessary. Blaise stopped short of touching Ernie.
"Next time, I tell them myself. You don't get that privilege."
Ernie swallowed and nodded. "I apologize for overstepping."
Blaise pulled back his furious digit and nodded at the newcomers. "Now you know. So, can we dispense with all these niceties and start the meeting? Finally?" There was no mistaking the sarcasm in his voice as he drawled. The Hufflepuffs all nodded. Tamsin looked uncharacteristically nervous and fidgety following Blaise's revelation, as if it had affected her more than the others. She remained quiet, however, her eyes locking onto Neville's, nodding at him to take over the meeting.
The leader rubbed his eyes, took one very deep breath and looked over the room. "Are we ready to begin?"
One by one, wands flicked to the ready positions, each student holding it in front of them. And after Ginny raised her wand, she shouted loud and clear — "Yes, Captain!"
"YES CAPTAIN!" came the reply from the other students. Slowly, Neville grinned.
"Then — let's do this."