WARNINGS AND INTRODUCTION:
This novel is a continuation of the D.A. universe, and although it is possible to read it without having read "Dumbledore's Army and the Year of Darkness," I strongly suggest that you do so, as you will otherwise be missing out on a great deal, and certain parts might not make sense at all. Be that said, however, this is a much darker, more mature story, and will contain some things both personal and political that may upset some people. You will find very grown-up themes, extremely offensive and hard language, racial, religious, and ethnic slurs, extreme graphic violence, character death, rape, dismemberment, cannibalism, and moderately graphic sexuality of both the heterosexual and same-sex variety. You will also be getting a crash course in Irish politics and Celtic mythology.
This is not your usual Harry Potter fanfiction. If you're okay with this, I can also promise you one heck of a ride, with some equally powerful themes of love, redemption, friendship, loyalty, and faith. The children of the D.A. are children no longer, and this is not a childrens story in any way, but I think it is a good one nonetheless.
"If this sort of thing is going to keep happening, love, they need to start issuing you boys helmets," Hannah pulled back her hand, letting Neville's hair fall over the pink line of the newly-healed gash on his forehead. It would fade soon - the Healers had done their work well, and it wouldn't even scar - but he knew that was the least of his new wife's worries. He took her hand, smiling gently as he kissed the tips of her fingers.
"It was just a piece of shrapnel. I ducked the curse itself fine. But it's part of the job. Death Eaters that got away once don't generally like to be taken in to Azkaban, especially if they've been there before. I don't fuss over the little scalds and scrapes you get working the Cauldron since your Gramps died."
Hannah snorted derisively, yanking her hand away and swatting him reproachfully on the chest. "Oh, you do too!"
"Okay," he chuckled, "so maybe I do. But that's only because I love you." Neville reached out, pulling her into his arms as he nuzzled the side of her neck with his lips. "And I know that's why you fuss over me. I'm just so glad you're this understanding about things. Not everyone's so lucky. Lee goes through girlfriends like Ron through breakfast."
"I don't like it, but you made a promise, Neville, and I respect that." He could hear the careful tone to her voice, and he knew that she was trying to skirt the argument that they had already been over too many times.
He squeezed her gently, turning her to look directly into the green eyes he loved so much. "It's only three more years. Then they'll have more people who want to do this, and they'll be able to let me and Ron and a bunch of the other ones go who just agreed to play stopgap after the veterans had been pretty much wiped out."
"And then no more waiting up? No more dark wizards?" Her fingers skimmed over his forehead again. "No more wondering if I'm going to get you back in one piece every day? No more 'sorry, Hannah, that's Need-To-Know'?"
"None of it." He nodded firmly. "We'll take a real honeymoon, start a family, maybe fix up that summer cottage you wanted, and I swear I won't touch anything dangerous that doesn't have leaves for the rest of my life."
One blonde eyebrow raised skeptically. "And yet you say you want to have children."
Neville cocked his head, "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Clearly," she laughed, "you have never dealt with a toddler, dear." Her hands went to the sides of his face, covering the scars that still crossed diagonally across his cheeks as she pulled him down for a kiss. "They're much worse than Death Eaters."
He returned the kiss, sliding his fingers through her hair and wrapping his other hand around her waist to pull her closely to him, but she knew him too well, and despite the genuine desire with which his mouth sought hers, she broke it within only a few seconds, her forehead creasing in suspicion. "Neville, you're holding out on me."
He tried to muster a look of surprise he didn't truly feel. "Why would you say that?"
"I can sense it. You're a crap liar, you always have been, and you didn't even pretend that you like this job...didn't feed me any of your usual lines about being proud to follow in your father's footsteps or anything." Her eyes narrowed, her arms folded tightly across his chest. "Did something else happen at work today? Was there - oh, what's the little euphemism the Ministry uses - 'collateral damage' on that arrest?"
Neville let out a deep sigh, pulling out a chair at the little table in the small flat they shared above the pub and sitting down, all casual pretense dropped as he allowed his shoulders to slump forward, his fingers running through his hair. "No. No collateral damage. But you're right, yeah, there is something." He looked up with a tight, sheepish smile. "Mind if I dip into inventory a bit?"
The worried look on her face deepened, and she sat across from him, taking his hand in both of hers. "If you want a drink to tell me about it, it can't be good. Did someone --"
"No." Neville shook his head quickly. "No one died. No one even got hurt worse than scratches - at least, no one on our side. I've just..." he hesitated, the words coming with greater difficulty than he had expected now that he actually had to talk about it. He hadn't yet. Not since coming out of Kingsley's office, and that had only been 'yes, Minister,' and 'at once, Minister' and refusing to let it sink in. Now, he discovered, it had sunk. He licked his suddenly-dry lips. "Hannah, I've got a mission. It'll mean going away for a while, I don't know how long. They've got a vigilante on the loose."
"A vigilante?" Her voice was guarded, waiting for the other spell to cast, and he nodded.
"In Ireland. People have been disappearing. Sometimes they're found again, sometimes they're not. When they're found, it's not pretty. The bloke who's doing it is calling himself 'Sluagh', which is an Irish word for an avenging spirit." He twisted his wand in his hands, staring down at the smoothly polished cherry to avoid her gaze. "Muggle government's all involved, because he's hitting both wizards and Muggles and they thought for a while it was part of their own problems, but both sides have been screaming bloody murder that it's the other, and we've got reason to believe it's a wizard who's doing it."
There was a long pause, and then her reply was a soft groan as her golden head dropped forward into her own palms. "Oh, Merlin...Seamus."
"That's why they want me to do it. They think someone that knew him..."
"But you don't know him!" Her eyes flashed as she looked up, and he saw reflected in them some of the hurt that they had all felt when their former friend and comrade had first vanished from their tight and treasured knot of the D.A.'s survivors. "None of us know him any more, Neville! We haven't known him since he didn't show up for the victory party, for babies, for weddings...for anything! And if he's doing this, he's changed even more." She shook her head fiercely. "You can't go! He was one of us, he knows --"
"Exactly. He knows every dirty spell and nasty little trick we learned trying to survive that year. And that's how he's been ducking the Republic's Aurors and the Muggle police and two others they sent before me. Besides --" he tried to force a light-hearted conviction to the statement, "Ducking out on bad memories is one thing, but he'd never --"
"Become a murderer? Turn his back on his friends?"
Neville's chin thrust out with a stubborn certainty he didn't truly feel. "He'd never hurt me."
She was silent for a long time, then Hannah stood, circling around at the table to kneel between his legs, her arms around his waist as she rested her head against his chest. "Don't say 'never'. We've all lived through too much that would 'never' happen. I just want you to promise me that you'll take care of yourself, and that you won't let a friendship that may be long gone take away everything you do have."
His eyes closed, and it felt as though she had struck him, the breath tight in his throat. What she was saying, what she was implying was nothing that he didn't already hate to know, and yet...
Slowly, he nodded, and he hated the voice of the Auror, the Commander, the soldier who spoke and fought and had far, far more hold over his life than he had ever imagined or wanted, but that he couldn't walk away from, hadn't been able to walk away from since fifth year. The nightmares had walked through laws and stone cell walls to escape into reality then, and there was no allowing for dreams until they had all been returned. So he did what he had to do, not what he wanted to do, and even in this, there was really no question. "If it comes to it, no, I won't pull the hexes. It's my job to run him down."
"Maybe it won't even be him," she offered thinly. "Maybe they're wrong. He's not the only wizard up there with a reason to be angry."
A dark, humorless laugh rattled his throat. "Maybe. But you're right, you know. It's not him. The only question, I guess, is whether it's Seamus Finnigan."
Neville was frustrated. He had expected to be stonewalled, warned of Mrs. Finnigan's absolute refusal to even allow previous attempted questioners into her home. So far, she had turned away both Aurors sent by the Ministry of Magic, as well as the Irish Republican Auror Division, and Muggle police from both Belfast and Scotland Yard, according to whose file she had even claimed not to speak English, and simply offered a stream of obscenity-laced obstinance when a Gaelic interpreter was finally summoned. Resistance, had therefore, been something he was completely prepared for, but to his surprise, she had welcomed him inside like a long-lost family member when he had arrived at her door.
He should have known it wouldn't be that easy. Kate Finnigan looked nothing like her son: a plump woman with dark hair and sharp green eyes, her skin was a ruddy-cheeked porcelain, devoid of the freckles that scattered every inch of Seamus' face and body, her features sturdy where his were almost dainty, but his mouth was hers, and so, very clearly, was his stubbornness.
For three hours now, he had listened to her lilting sing-song voice as she had gone on about the war against Riddle, the war in her own country which she simply called "The Troubles", her family, and her son. She had praised what he had done with the D.A., told him how much the resistance had meant to all of them, and insisted on feeding him, whipping up a delicious lamb stew in a thick, richly flavored gravy and cutting broad slices off a loaf of oat bread so fresh that the crust unleashed clouds of fragrant steam when she broke the crisp surface with her knife. He had heard about Seamus' childhood, about Ireland's win at the Quidditch World Cup, and about how they had been having an inordinate amount of rain that year, but that just drove down the tourists and wasn't, really, that a lovely thing overall, because they didn't understand that she lived in a country, old and proud and independent, not a quaint attraction built for their amusement.
She talked, really, an astonishing amount, freely and easily. But she did not give him a single bit of actual information.
Neville knew that he wasn't skilled at the kind of interrogation they taught in Auror training. Despite being tall and broad-shouldered, there was an innate kindness and empathy for others that showed even through his battle-scarred face, and he had never managed to come across as particularly intimidating unless he was on the edge of losing his temper. And then people didn't talk, because then he was very intimidating, and they tended to either employ their feet or their wands rather than their mouths.
Yet he had always been good at getting information out of people nonetheless. He was an excellent listener, good at making people feel valued, and he could patiently work a frightened witness all day until their fears eased enough and they felt him enough of a friend to tell him what he needed. Mrs. Finnigan, however, was proving a far more difficult spell to cast.
She wasn't frightened, she wasn't defensive, she wasn't refusing to talk…she was simply refusing to help, but not in any way he could call her on. With a deep sigh, he drained the last of his tea, then tipped it in his hands, musing over the brightly-painted little cup. Perhaps he could play her game. His voice was light, casual as he spoke. "This is Muggle work, isn't it, Kate? This tea-set?"
As he had hoped, she paused a moment, clearly surprised that he had stopped trying to ask questions about Seamus, and he saw a brief twinkle of triumph in her eyes before she nodded. "From me husband's family, such a sweet little set, do ya fancy it?"
He nodded, brushing a fingertip over the green leaves that swirled around the rim of the china. "It's well-done. A lot of the artwork you see passed off as shamrocks are actually depictions of clover, even here, but it's a completely different plant, and this is the real thing." Neville paused, giving her a slightly sheepish smile. "Plants are my real love. I'm only in the Auror Division for a few years as a favor to the Minister. They had a lot more Death Eaters on the loose than they did surviving Aurors, so they recruited a lot of us older ones to fill in the gaps. But my heart's not really in it, if you want the truth. I mean, a proper Auror would have had you on the record and drilled you this afternoon, and here I am thinking that those peas in the stew must have been locally grown, and wondering how it was done so early in the season."
Kate laughed, her smile more genuine now than he had seen it since he arrived, and she gave him an almost conspiratorial look as she turned to the kitchen door. "Ah, there's the lad me Seamus talked on, there. And you're not wrong once so far. Come, then…peas're from me own back garden, and I'll be happy enough show ya how twere done, though I can't reckon how ya knew."
"Peat," he answered quickly, getting to his feet and brushing the crumbs from his robes. "Lends a distinctive taste to things, but fades quickly from fresh vegetables. So they must have been picked today or maybe yesterday at the absolute most. It's wonderful soil, nothing but compost, even if it is a bit acid. But you've got the underlying limestone that combats that, and all the rain, but still good sun, and the peat holds the water while you still get good drainage…it's no surprise everything's so green up here. You really couldn't ask for better."
The back garden she brought them to was small but tidy, taking advantage of every inch of space in the cramped yard with pots and trellises, already surprisingly lush for barely the first week of April. Neville's face beamed in genuine enthusiasm as he skimmed his fingers over the shimmer that appeared when his hand neared the peas that climbed across the latticework against the back fence. "Oh, of course! I can't believe I never thought of it! Just a Protego, but it keeps off the frost, cuts the wind…it's like a little hothouse, but still lets enough chill through not to – it's brilliant!"
He turned, making no effort to hide his love for growing things as he scampered boyishly from one container to the next, rattling off names both common and scientific, exclaiming over the cleverer little tricks he noticed, and offering his own advice here and there. Containers, he pointed out, were rather prone to having the soil depress more heavily towards the center and pool water at the base of plants, leaving them vulnerable to rot, but piling a little more gravel in the middle at the bottom when you potted took care of that, and you could keep the ties from cutting into your climbers with an Automatic Expansion Charm.
"My Gran," he chuckled, on his knees beside a row of carrots whose delicate, lacy leaves were just unfolding brightly above the dark, rich loam, "still teases me sometimes that the worst part of never knowing if I were alive or dead from day to day during that year was that she didn't know if she'd have to hire a gardener to deal with the arboretum I'd made out of her house. I live with my wife now, of course, but I still go back pretty often. She's good with plants too, but she's kind of getting on, and there's a lot of manual labor where having a young wizard around is useful."
"Aye," she nodded, "I might ask ya to move a few of these half-barrels meself before ya go. Seamus never says a word about when he's comin' back, and –" She cut off, her hand flying abruptly to her mouth as her cheeks fell ghastly, suddenly pale.
Neville's eyes did not flinch from hers, but his tone remained gentle. "I knew you'd been hearing from him, Kate."
The flush returned brightly as her eyes snapped defiance, her chin raising. "Oh, really?"
"You love Seamus. That much is obvious, even if I hadn't known him, even if he didn't have a reputation for seven years as the biggest mama's boy in Gryffindor. If you honestly hadn't heard anything, anything from him in years…you wouldn't be trying to get rid of us. You'd be breaking down the door of every authority from here to Wales trying to find him." He reached out gently, wiping the dirt from his palm on the leg of his trousers before he lay his hand on her shoulder. "They've had you under surveillance for more than a year now, been watching your –"
Neville stopped, closing his eyes as the simple truth dawned on him. It was so easy, so obvious, he felt like an idiot for not having considered it sooner. "Kate, don't make me search your house for that Galleon."
There was a long, silence, then when she spoke again, her voice was low, hoarse and harsh. "I 'spose ya think you're a right clever little Toff, don't ya? Had me thinkin' there were a decent person under that shiny badge, but you're just another Copper, ain't ya? Want to be seein' me lad in Azkaban like the rest o' them."
He shook his head quickly, fiercely, and the intensity in his eyes was genuine as he squeezed the shoulder that was tense under his hand. "No! Seamus wasn't just one of my Lieutenants in the D.A., I care about him…if he's the one that's been doing this, there's something very, very wrong, and I want to help him, not just catch him."
Her laugh was one of the bitterest sounds he had ever heard. "Oh, there's somethin' wrong, aye. Ain't been a blessed thing right with him since he came back from the war, if ya can call it comin' back."
His hand slid down her arm to clasp hers in both of his. It was shaking, and she was staring at the gravel path beneath their feet, refusing to meet his eyes. "What happened to my friend?" Neville asked quietly.
Kate's answer came in a thin whisper, barely audible, but it carried to Neville's ears as clearly as a shout. "It broke him, it did. Just destroyed him. He weren't never a coward, he weren't – loved a good fight, little brawler since he were knee-high – but there were a heart to that boy as big and gentle as ya could ever want. He'd come home all bloody-nosed and beamin' about it like the sun itself, but he'd cry himself sick if he saw a wee bird lyin' dead on the sidewalk. Seamus were ready to die for ya without a moment's fear, but whatever he saw that night were things he couldn't…."
She trailed off in a little sob, and he nodded, biting his lip at the memories of hours that had been years and that years hadn't eased the pain of. "We lost a lot of friends."
"Ya lost him too, whether he were breathin' after or not," she spat. Tears fell from her still-downturned face to splatter against their joined hands, but she made no move to wipe them away. "He wouldn't even open the door to his old room. Told me I could burn it all, he did. Set himself in the cellar like a squatter, livin' on a cot in the corner and didn't see a day sober for near two years."
"Did you –?"
"'Course I did!" Her eyes snapped up now, blazing fury through the tears. "I did all I could! Talked to him, begged him, tried to reason with him…sent half the bloody family, two o' them blasted head-shrinkers, and even a priest down them stairs, and every one 'o them came back hexed and useless if they could even get the door open at all." She paused, taking a deep, shuddering breath, and her face dropped again, the fury turned inward again. "Shoulda done more, though. I failed him in the end, oh, I did."
Neville shook his head, "It's not your fault, Kate, if he wouldn't take help."
"Ah, but it is." There was an awful, quiet agony in every breath of the confession. "I got fed up with it. Two years, and him showin' no signs o' nothin' changin'…it were his twentieth birthday, and I could just see the boy's whole life vanishin' away from me. It were me own fault. Gave him an ultimatum. Told him he had to get off his bleedin' arse and do somethin', or I'd be turnin' him out."
"But that was fair," he protested. "It was the right thing to do. You'd tried everything else. It wouldn't have been really loving him to just let him keep doing that to himself forever…you had to try something drastic to get things to change."
"Well, they changed," she said darkly. "Next mornin', I rise to find the door open and Seamus gone, and on the table there were the Galleon and a note sayin' he were grateful, that he knew what needed doin' now. It's gone off once a day since, tellin' me he's alive, that he loves me, that I ain't to worry, but that's all, and a fair joke that last is. Ain't been a thought 'cept worryin' of him for 'most three years full since I done seen so much as a freckle o' me own and only."
Her chuckle was high, tight, almost manic. "Runs in the blood, maybe it does. Patrick didn't even leave a note, he didn't. Just gone like mornin' mist day after I told him the reason his boy were makin' biscuits float off top shelf were that his Mam were a witch. Father to son, ain't it the way?"
A knot of anger had formed in his chest for the amount of pain Seamus had so clearly put his mother through, and he choked it back, forcing his voice to remain kind and soft. "And you haven't heard anything else? Just the same message every day? Maybe a friend's seen him, someone in the family…is there anything you could –"
"No, and not that I would!" The pain was gone now, replaced by the fierce defiance he had first seen when he had caught her on the Galleon. "He's hurtin', ya bastard! Whatever he done, he ain't no criminal, and ya can take me off to Azkaban happy enough before I'd do a damned thing to see my baby landed there! An' if he's the Sluagh, then ya should be givin' him a medal, not a cell, and that's bald truth! The government, the law," the words were curses, "ain't shite, and ain't been me whole life. Put trust to them, and we gets rewarded with Bloody Sundays and Dark Lords and children's names wrote in cold marble on a monument at what should never o' been a battlefield!"
"Mrs. Finnigan," the bitterness he usually hid deep showed now, and he lifted one hand to unbutton the collar of his shirt beneath the Auror's robes and pull it open enough to show the white lines of the scars that still curled over his shoulder. "I haven't had the best results with trusting authority myself. I know exactly how bad the Ministry failed us. You know I'm the one that led that rebellion, and I understand if you can't forgive me for it after what it's wound up costing you, but I feel responsible if it's done this to him, and I give you my word I'm not going after him as an Auror, but as his old Commander, and as a friend."
Her brow creased in suspicious surprise. "Then ya won't be turnin' him in should ya find him?"
Neville hesitated, drawing a deep breath before he answered honestly. "I'd have to turn him in…but it's better that way!" He continued quickly over her harsh snort of disgust. "They're not just going to let this go! They're going to keep sending people and sending people, and eventually, he will be caught."
His hand went to his pocket, and he withdrew a piece of officially-sealed parchment, holding it out to her like something dirty. "They gave me permission to use deadly force if I had to. The next step is going to be outright sending Ministry Hit-Wizards after him. This is serious, Kate. I'm the best chance he's got left."
Her arms folded stubbornly across her chest. "Better he be killed clean and quick than Azkaban, if that's what we're comin' to."
"But maybe if I could get him to listen, get him to come quietly, I could convince them that it's just as you said – that he's hurting, that there's something wrong with his mind, something. Maybe I could get him sent to St. Mungo's instead of Azkaban…" he hesitated, swallowing hard, and his eyes closed as he was almost unable to believe what he heard himself promise. "And if it was going to come to life in Azkaban, if there was absolutely no hope, I'd make sure that he was killed cleanly 'trying to escape.'"
The green eyes showed a new, wary respect. "You'd swear to that?"
"Then you'll have my help, such as it is, though what I've told ya be all there is, and that's truth." She grabbed his chin in her hand with shocking strength, and her green eyes stabbed into his from only inches away, her warning the feral growl of a mother's protection, more dangerous than any wild beast. "But if you've lied to me, lad, if ya betray me son, your last hours'll be spent wishin' you'd never been born to this cold world."
"You're goin' to listen to me, and you're goin' to listen well. I've been put with two of ya lot already, and I don't care two Knuts what ya are in darlin' England. You're an outsider here, just another bleedin' Peeler, and on Draoidheil Road, the sun don't shine out o' Harry Potter's arse, and I don't see no glimmer from yours, neither. That lovely Order o' Merlin stinks to high heaven o' the Crown here, so you're gonna keep your big Brit mouth shut and let us deal with our own problems, do ya follow me?" The bullish Auror crossed his arms tightly over his barrel-like chest, his chin thrust out belligerently, but Neville met the blue eyes unflinchingly.
"I follow you, Callahan, but you're going to follow me, now," he replied coolly. "We're on this one together, whether you like it or not, and if you could deal with your own problems, I wouldn't be here. Have you sealed off the scene?"
"Believe it or not, Johnny Bull, we know a few things about dealin' with crimes in South Belfast," Callahan replied caustically as they began to make their way down the rutted cobblestone of the narrow alley.
To either side, the red brick of the two-story tenements was crumbling and stained, streaked heavily with overlapping graffiti that proclaimed nearly a hundred years of tensions and divided loyalties in the ramshackle neighborhood. Despite the confidence he tried to show his partner, Neville had not needed the other Auror to tell him he was unwelcome, and the uniform he usually felt so proud of made him feel uneasily targeted as he noted the number of suspicious and even downright hateful looks it drew.
A middle-aged wizard with a deeply scarred face made an obscene gesture with his wand from an upper window, and Callahan laughed as he saw it, tossing a salute back at the man. "How's the day doin' for ya, O'Rourke?"
"Not so well's since I seen ya bringin' the likes o' him down our way," came the answer, and Callahan snorted his agreement.
"Aye, but there's been another o' the Sluagh's little donnybrooks down by the Black Banshee, and he thinks he'll be able to tell us somethin' we don't already know."
"Ya can tell him he ain't gonna get no help from us!" O'Rourke shouted. "Whoever he is, he's the best thing since Wolfe Tone, and doncha be fearin' quote me on that. Not a soul he's sent to the next world ain't deserved it ten times o'er." With a gob of thick, frothy spit unleashed in Neville's direction, the window slammed shut again, and he turned to Callahan.
"So he's become a folk hero, then?" he said. "Why didn't you include this in your report? It's something I've got to take into consideration when I'm talking to witnesses."
"Because it ain't none o' your business, and ya won't be talkin' to no witnesses, neither, Johnny Bull." Callahan retorted curtly. "Ya don't know how things are here."
"I think I'm beginning to get the picture." Neville looked along the narrow alley, seeing the sign ahead of the dark-robed, wild-haired woman who marked the entrance to the Black Banshee. He stopped just outside, reaching out to grab Callahan by one thick shoulder and turn the smaller man to face him.
"Now it's your turn to listen, and listen well before we go in there. I'm not Johnny Bull, a Peeler, a Brit, or whatever else you've got ready to call me. I'm trying to be professional here, rather than calling you a thick-headed Paddy, a stubborn Mick, a dragon's arse, or anything else you would richly deserve. The Minister has put me in charge of this investigation, and that means you are here to help me. You say I don't know what's going on, that means you're going to brief me, and by the time we go to bed tonight, I'm going to be able to recite the grievances of every wizard in South Belfast backwards to the tune of God Save the Queen and the Soldier's Song, do you understand?"
There was a long, dangerous pause, then Callahan's dark, curly head tilted back, and his mouth fell open in a roar of laughter that brought startled looks from every witch and wizard within earshot. Neville forced himself not to react, rather holding his ground and waiting until the mirth had subsided and Callahan raised his arm to plunk one meaty hand jovially on the taller man's shoulder. "Neville, me darlin'," he grinned, "I think I might be able to stand ya after all."
Neville was exhausted by the time he sprinkled the handful of shimmering powder into the fireplace of his room at the small inn on Donagall Road, but he shook his head as the flames turned emerald green, smoothing back his hair and composing his features into steady professionality as the smooth, dark head of Kingsley Shacklebolt appeared. He gave a respectful little nod, folding his hands neatly behind his back. "Minister."
Shacklebolt's own nod was perfunctory, his deep voice gravely all-business. "I hear you had another one today, Longbottom?"
"Yes sir," he acknowledged ruefully. "It happened while I was at Mrs. Finnigan's, I'm afraid. But Callahan and I had a chance to get to the scene within the hour, and the local authorities had handled things well up to then. The body hadn't been touched." He grimaced, "It was fairly obvious there was no point in trying to take him to hospital."
"Same as the others?"
"In a lot of ways," Neville agreed, pulling the thick sheet of notes from the pocket of his robes and scanning through them. "Actual cause of death was a single knife wound to the left ventricle of the heart, eight-inch blade, single edge, inch and a half wide, but the poor bloke was probably grateful by that point. Approximately fifty pre-mortum incisions of various depths and lengths over the arms, legs, and torso, carefully avoiding major arteries. I say approximately, because there was a lot of overlap and we can't really be sure. Complete flaying of the interior left forearm, with the removed section of the dermis and accompanying Dark Mark found in the victim's stomach, undigested, but bearing evidence of mastication. Victim's wand had been snapped in half, both pieces were located in the rectal cavity, with evidence that would indicate forcible pre-mortum insertion. Sluagh burned into the forehead. No defensive wounds or evidence of resistance, no head trauma, no ligature, no potions or toxins and a relatively low amount of alcohol in the blood. Which means we can be pretty sure of a Body-Bind."
Shacklebolt had been taking notes of his own throughout, though Neville had already sent his copies by owl, and despite the horrific nature of the murder, the older wizard's face was as composed as if he had been reading the investment columns of the Daily Prophet. "So the most significant deviation from previous victims would be the timing of the attack. How specifically can we pinpoint it?"
"Within ten minutes, give or take, sir." He checked his notes again. "The barkeep saw him leaving with a gentleman in a gray cloak and hood at just before three, and at quarter to four, when he went to tip out the rubbish in preparation for the evening rush, the victim was extremely recently deceased. Footprints led from the victim's body to a location some eleven feet away, where they show rotation consistent with Disapparition. Time of death has been placed at around half three, based on coagulation of the spilled blood and victim's body temperature. He worked quickly. Broad daylight, and there had to be Silencing Spells, even with a Body-Bind, because there's a very well-traveled street not fifteen paces away from the site of the murder."
"He's getting cocky with us." Shacklebolt sounded as though this were a personal offense. "All the others have been under cover of darkness, the victims were in much more secluded locations. And no witnesses?"
"Not a one," Neville sighed deeply, allowing some of the tiredness to show now as he pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, rubbing at the headache that had deeply entrenched itself behind his eyes. "At least, sir, not a one that's willing to say anything. But the moment I started asking around, there was an amazing epidemic of blindness and deafness among the locals."
"What about the barkeep? What can he give us about the man in the gray cloak?"
"Just that, sir. A man in a gray cloak. Only he said it also might have been blue, green, black, or dirty white. And the gentleman could have been somewhere between my height and Callahan's, which gives us somewhere in the neighborhood of between five foot seven and six foot one." He couldn't entirely hide the sarcasm as he went on. "Couldn't even guess at build, never saw a face, hands, or hair, yet served him drinks for three hours before without bothering to collect a Knut. Incredible, really. And he hadn't even been Obliviated."
"Astonishing," Shacklebolt agreed dryly. "So all that gives us is that he was waiting for his victim, and what you're really saying is that our friend is being deliberately protected."
"That's putting it mildly." Neville nodded, "the locals think he's a proper hero. That's something else that I spent a lot of time with Callahan on today, and it does give us another link to the murders besides modus."
"Oh?" One dark eyebrow raised in new interest. "Go on, Longbottom."
"Yes, Minister. It's been confusing us why the murders are scattered between Muggle and wizarding areas, and why the Muggle victims appear to be random, but they aren't. We already know the wizards and witches have all been involved with the Dark Arts – outright Death Eaters or at least sympathizers and informants – but the Muggles were all in what they call their "Troubles" up to their proverbial ears. Both sides, but every one of them were real pieces of work; arms dealers, assassins, thugs…not the sort of blokes I'd want my daughter bringing home."
"And this is what's endearing him to the citizens."
"Absolutely. Callahan tells me that everywhere he's hit has been places not just in Belfast, but the other cities – Dublin, Bangor, Lisburn, Newry, Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Londonderry – where the local authorities have pretty much given up hope. Real nasty areas where rule of law is taken completely as a joke, and they like the Ministry about as well as they like the Crown or the Republican government, which would be about as well as a nice case of Dragon Pox. I got spit on twice and learned about fifty new words for 'British' and 'Auror,' none of which were really flattering."
He hesitated, shuffling his feet on the carpet before he continued, unable to meet Shacklebolt's eyes. "Can't say I completely blame them, sir. The area where the attack before this one happened – they call it the Village – it's awful. Not fit for rats to live in. Saw a kid with a knife there who couldn't have been more than eight years old. You and I've both been in resistance movements ourselves, and I know what it's like when you can't trust –"
"That was war, Longbottom," Shacklebolt interrupted firmly. "We've been at peace now for five years, and so have they. It is one thing to act independently when there is a government that is denying basic rights and liberties, where due process has been corrupted and there is no justice to be had, but to do so when there is a fair – if imperfect – government in place is nothing more than vigilantism, and that is dangerously close to anarchy."
"Yes, sir," Neville sighed. "I just don't like it. Especially if it is him."
"What came of your discussion with Mrs. Finnigan? Would she speak to you?"
"She spoke to me…." He paused, unsure how much he should admit, then decided impulsively that it would be best to keep the details to himself for now. After what he had seen that day, the loyalties which had already been conflicted about his former friend were even more tangled, and he needed some time to sort things out more carefully. He could always have drawn more from her later. "But she didn't give me much. Talked about what he'd been like as a kid, but she didn't want to say anything about what happened since the war." It was true enough.
The black eyes narrowed. "What do your instincts tell you?"
"That it's Finnigan," he admitted. "I wouldn't stake my wand on it, but…" he spread his hands reluctantly. "He's too good. The things he's gotten away with, it's obvious the Sluagh is well-trained, that he's not just someone with a grudge, but they don't have any Aurors who don't have strong alibis for at least a good number of the attacks. And he's got enough of a hot streak that the brutality, as wrong as it seems, isn't entirely implausible. Besides, he told me years ago that he had as much of a problem with the Troubles as with the Death Eaters, so that fits too."
"Have you tried any other known associates yet?"
Neville couldn't keep himself from laughing outright at this. "Sir, if you want associates, I'd recommend half the populations of at least seven counties. Anyone could be helping him, and they're not just closed-lipped, they've got their own bloody language when they don't want me knowing what's going on. Believe me, I heard enough of it today."
There was a resigned nod of understanding, and Neville was grateful that the Minister had once been an Auror himself. At least he knew what it was like dealing with difficult witnesses and didn't expect miracles where they couldn't be given. "Well, we have at least one," he said finally.
The younger wizard's eyebrows raised in surprise. "You –"
"They caught him in Craigavon this morning; he was trying to fence some items that had been missing from last week's victim, and he cracked under interrogation."
Neville leaned forward eagerly, so close to the green flames that he could feel their warm tickle against his face. "What'd he give us?"
"Rumor, really." Shacklebolt disappeared a moment, then appeared again with a sheet of parchment in his hand and a pair of reading glasses perched incongruously on the broad nose. "Gentleman by the name of David Rooney. Swore under Veritaserum that he had no knowledge of the Sluagh's identity, but that he'd followed rumor to the victim just in time to arrive moments after the murder. Heard the Disapparition, as a matter of fact. He also gave us some information that might help block the jinx on the next one."
"Just give me the name, sir," Neville responded quickly, "I'll get him – or her – under watch immediately."
"That's the difficulty, Mr. Longbottom," Shacklebolt frowned, "it seems we have shadows chasing shadows."
"I don't understand."
"The Sluagh's greater target is said to be a wizard known as Diabhal Dubh, and the current attacks are just means of warming up and cutting down on his followers. The name is an obvious pseudonym, just like the Sluagh himself, however, the existence of this wizard has never been confirmed. It may be a literal individual, or it may simply refer to the Dark Arts movement in Ireland, or even be a 'bogeyman' figure that is attributed to any unexplained dark magic." Shacklebolt shrugged, setting the parchment down again. "We simply don't know, and what you've told me complicates things further, because if the Sluagh is being seen as a folk hero, this may just be rumor trying to provide him a suitably mythical nemesis."
The headache had definitely increased now, and Neville rubbed at it again, glancing at his watch. He had a strong feeling that he wouldn't be talking to Hannah tonight. "I'll see what I can round up about this Diabhal Dubh, then, and I'll get back to you tomorrow. The strikes are getting closer together now, we can't afford to wait…I'll be on it tonight."
"Thank you, Longbottom," Shacklebolt smiled almost paternally. "You're doing an excellent job. I may have to try and tempt you into staying with the Auror Division permanently."
"All due respect, sir," Neville shook his head quickly, "you don't have a Niffler's chance in Gringotts. The second you graduate your first class of proper Aurors, I'll be out of my office so fast, you'll think I Disapparated. This isn't my idea of a life, and I don't just mean running down people that I'm more and more sure are old friends. I mean the danger, the ugliness. Had more than my fill of that with the D.A., thank you very much. I'm just a quiet little gardener at heart."
"Perhaps," there was an odd smile on Shacklebolt's full lips. "but you have certainly proven yourself of being capable of more than weeding and watering when the situation calls for it."
Neville chuckled. "You've never tried to weed a Venomous Tentacula, sir."
"Just don't let yourself lose sight of what's at stake here, Neville." The deep voice had grown stern, and Neville startled slightly at the rare use of his first name by the Minister. "The Sluagh, whoever he is, has put the existence of the wizarding world in serious danger of being exposed in Ireland. Especially now that his attacks are growing more bold and rumors are spreading so actively, the situation is extremely dire, not to mention the obvious and untenable brutal loss of life. I don't care if it turns out to be your own grandmother, you cannot allow your feelings to sway you from your duty."
He nodded, but the words were hollow on his lips. "Of course not, sir."
"Very well." Shacklebolt did not seem entirely satisfied, but he seemed to know there was no more that could be said, and the smooth head nodded. "Good evening, then, and I will expect your report again tomorrow."
"Good evening, Minister." The flames rose, swirled again, and then the fireplace was filled with nothing more than cool gray ash. Neville stared into the empty stone nook for a long time, his hands hanging loosely by his sides, his shoulders bent under a weight that was all the heavier for its lack of substance.
He understood, oh, he understood perfectly well all the Minister had said and the wisdom to those words. And yet….
His eyes closed, and a hundred memories swirled behind them. Memories of a laughing, innocent boy. A keen-eyed youth. A hardened young warrior who still grinned and tossed cheeky jibes at Hermione even during the cease-fire that they thought the final countdown to their own last moments. Tears on a dark, cold cheek. Naked pain over an amber-filled bottle in a charred and ruined room.
What Shacklebolt didn't understand, couldn't understand, what no one who hadn't been one of them that year could ever understand was what was really at play here. It wasn't about anarchy, it wasn't even about war. It was about betrayal, a kind of betrayal the Minister could never grasp.
He hadn't spent the last year of his childhood and the first year of his adulthood preparing to die because they were alone, abandoned, completely betrayed by everyone and everything that should ever have protected them, breaking their hearts and their bodies and their innocence to try and spare the very youngest from what no one had spared them. Seamus was just continuing that fight, bringing vengeance to those who had evaded the supposed protectors of people as desperate and hopeless as that eight year-old with the knife. As the fourteen year-olds whose names were, as Mrs. Finnigan had sharply reminded him, etched in lifeless stone.
How could the man who had lead them through that nightmare turn traitor on his own?
"I can't." The statement was a ragged whisper to an empty room, and Neville sagged to his knees, his head heavy in his hands. "But oh, Merlin, Seamus, where are the lines drawn this time?"