By all rights, he should have been able to Apparate directly to the school twice over; both as faculty and an Auror. That he couldn't - that he found himself outside the gates instead and looking down the important part of Sally-Anne's wand – was both frustrating and gratifying. They were doing this right, covering all the hoops, and he only just caught himself back from the proud smile at her as she confirmed his identity and performed the search. She worked for Harry now, she wasn't "his" anymore, but something about being back here made that so hard to remember, despite the obvious uniform, the passage of years, the unnatural glitter of her eyes as they shifted across the spectrum.
It was only worse when he passed through the gates at last, jogging quickly across the broad lawn towards the castle. He could almost have sworn he could still smell the bite of ozone that had been so thick in the air that night, hear the screams of spellcraft and pain, feel the grass too slick underfoot and crunched with glass. Neville shook his head harshly as he reached the doors, refusing to let the memories overtake him. There was no reason for it. No bloody reason.
But damned if he hadn't just touched his face in certainty that he would find thick scabs rather than smooth scars.
No. Absolutely no. Hell no. It was just – what had Justin called it? SPTDs? Flashbacks. Needing the Commander's headspace in this place and under the knowledge of death. That's all it was, and he could master it. Ignore it.
He closed his eyes, summoning all his self-control to demand his senses fall into obedience with what his mind knew to be the truth of now. Neville was not, even he knew, a person of any small amount of willpower, and by the time he opened his eyes again and started up the staircase, it was under control. He had lost maybe a few seconds, and that would have to do.
There were, oddly, no students to be seen anywhere, the entire massive building bizarrely deserted. Even the portraits seemed subdued, glancing at him in bitten-lip worry as he passed, and there were signs in every open-doored classroom he passed of a hurried but orderly departure. No furniture had been knocked over, no personal belongings abandoned, but lecture points were half-written on the boards, assignments half-completed on desks, and he did not hear another human voice until he was halfway up the tight spiral staircase to the Headmistress' office. It was Colin, and he sounded utterly enraged, mid-rant in a tone Neville had only heard once, shortly before Zach's memorable temporary departure from the DA. " – jog your memory or so help me I will have every single fucking one of you re-painted by Four Chan!"
He knocked as he opened the door, bracing himself for what he knew he would and yet still hoped he wouldn't find. "Colin?"
The ghost whirled around instantly, his cheeks slightly more opaque than usual in aggravation as he flung an arm towards the portraits surrounding the circular room. "Sir! I don't know what was done to them, Commander. A room full of witnesses and they all swear they don't –"
"As an occasional Assistant Herbology Professor, Longbottom, I'm sure you're familiar with the expression 'blood from a turnip.'" It caught him like a punch. Snape's rich, drawling voice, the arch sarcasm that he'd long ago learned to ignore, but not today. Not when he could see McGonagall's body slumped on the desk right through Colin. It struck a chord of blind, adolescent loathing and fear that snatched his breath, turning him on his heel with his wand out and up and crackling with sparks before he even knew what had happened.
He would have, could have, almost did blast the portrait into floating cinders, but Dumbledore raised a hand just in time, his voice like cool water on an open wound. "Neville…." It was a tone the old wizard had never used with him in life, all calm authority and sympathy woven together, and he was still breathing hard, his arm still taut as he lowered his wand, but lower it he did, and with a sudden new sympathy towards how Harry had been so easily lead. There was a small, satisfied nod of the brushstroke grey head, then the blue eyes behind the half-moon spectacles turned to the other painting. "I don't think he wants to hear from you right now, Severus."
It should have been entirely a rebuke of Snape, but somehow, Neville felt like he had also been chastised for his overreaction, and he took a deep breath, managing to regain himself yet again, even if he couldn't quite meet the black eyes and had to content himself with looking at the painted background of the potions lab. "Do you have anything useful to say?"
Snape seemed bored, or maybe he didn't want eye contact either, flicking a bit of nothing off his sleeve with a faint shrug. "Your mystery assassin has spent a great deal of time in this office."
Neville exchanged a look with Colin, the uncertainty palpable. "Headmaster?"
He had meant Dumbledore, but Neville realized even as he said it that the title could apply to over half of the portraits in the room, and it was actually Armando Dippet who answered. "He's right. A spell powerful enough to freeze every portrait, but no scorch marks even on the antique tapestries. They knew where every painting was exactly."
The door opened before he could give the matter any further consideration, and he was almost as relieved to see Harry as appeared to be the reverse. "Neville! How long have you been here?"
He checked his watch before he answered, grateful to have done so when he realized how dilated his sense of time had been. "Maybe a minute."
"The portraits – "
Colin made a face, crossing his arms tightly. "Frozen. No help." It was odd the way that one's mind noticed everything except things it really didn't want to think about, and just now, Neville found himself wondering just why it was, if the lad was transparent, the gesture still effectively hid the wound on his chest.
Harry nodded vacantly, not really listening as he seemed to glide across the room, his footsteps soundlessly absorbed by the rich carpeting. Neville wanted to stop him, to return to the useless argument with Snape, ask Colin exactly what he'd meant by Four Chan, anything to prolong the inevitable. But there was nothing for it, and once again, Harry had proved himself the braver man and the better law enforcement officer. He circled the desk slowly, bent to look beneath it. There was the snap of a glove like a hex, three fingers extended to a motionless neck, a long pause, and green eyes rising up to meet his with a look like falling from a cliff. "On the count of three," Harry whispered roughly, "we punch each other as hard as we can, see if we wake up."
Neville had joined him by now, notepad out like a shield as he examined the desk around her. There didn't appear to be anything volatile or unusual, the very opposite of Shacklebolt's case. The tea-soaked papers under her hand were a simple requisition authorization, her signature half-complete. Milk, eggs, chalk, toilet roll, laundry soap…the mundane workings of boarding school administration given a surreal weight by so inappropriately winding up this incredible woman's final act. "Same as all the others." Neville heard himself say mechanically. "AK. No sign of struggle. The only real difference is the freezing of the portraits; an action taken to nullify potential witnesses."
"They've done that before too, though." Harry's voice was equally numb. "With the Jones hit. They stayed very carefully just out of the angle of the CCTV."
In the corner of his eye, he could see Colin pacing, arms still wrapped around himself, and his voice was so tight that he sounded as young as his brother. "I know it's a crime scene, but do we have to leave her like that, guys? It's not right."
Softly, the gesture almost paternal, Harry let one gloved hand pass lightly over her grey head without quite touching, not so much as mussing a single hair. "We have to get pictures first."
He was right, of course, but oh, so was Colin, and he just couldn't do it any longer. He had known her for as long as he could remember. She'd been Gran's friend, her Maid of Honor, his Godmother before she was ever his teacher, his Head of House, his anchor to the ability to trust in anyone of authority when the very concept had been vitriol. He cupped her face gently, turning it to rest to the side rather than straight down.
Harry's warning was kind, but Neville ignored it completely, wiping clean the blood that had burst from her nose when she had struck the desk, closing the blue eyes for the last time. "Write me up."
There was a brief pause, then Harry took the hood of her robe and pulled it over her head, meeting Neville's look across the body with his voice casually lying about the tears falling freely down his cheeks. "Too much paperwork."
"Maybe Hermione saw them, Commander." Colin offered hopefully. "Maybe she's after them now. Maybe she's gonna –"
The name snapped Harry's head around from the grief-stricken tableau. "Hermione?"
"Harry," Neville said carefully, knowing full well the danger of the ground he was treading, "she ditched Ron. Not three minutes before this scroll came."
The still-boyish lines of his face had hardened utterly now, his demeanor all but daring Neville to continue. "What do you mean 'ditched Ron'?"
"I mean I overheard them in the Ministry." He kept his tone neutral, following Harry out from behind the desk and across the office. "They were fighting because she didn't want to be tailed –"
Harry had stopped at the soaring windows that overlooked the grounds, pressing both palms flat against them and allowing his forehead to fall between, glasses skewing unthinkingly to the side. "I kind of expected that. I was hoping she'd be more reasonable, but…" The word trailed off into a long, weary sigh, but as much as Neville wanted to leave it there, he couldn't.
"She ran off, Harry. Disapparated. And then Colin saw her here."
One eye cracked open, the window abandoned just enough to allow the glasses to be readjusted. "Colin?"
"I was near the entry hall with Rowan and Oison," he nodded, "and we were trying to –"
Why Neville hadn't noticed before, he couldn't have said. He should have. Maybe the news about McGonagall had just hit his brain like a backfired wand, maybe he'd still been reeling from what he'd witnessed between the Weasleys or nearly a month of mental and physical exhaustion, but the names had slipped past somehow, and now they hit him with a frigid shock up the spine that pricked every hair on his head. Rowan. Oison.
There were no current students with those names. Those were very distinctive names. Distinctive names that belonged to young soldiers long dead and not on the very short roster of DA ghosts which, as far as he knew, encompassed exactly two: Colin himself, and under extremely particular circumstances, Ernie.
"Oh, fuck!" His exclamation was anything but eloquent, but Harry seemed to have made the same realization at the same moment.
"When did they get here? How long? Why?"
"We don't know." Colin admitted. "THEY don't know. That's what we were trying to figure out when everything happened. It's getting pretty crowded on my side of things." He shifted nervously, but it wasn't for any fear of the living, and the sign of any discomfort in the notoriously courageous youth only underlined Neville's sense of foreboding. "Kids have been hearing things at night – things that I can tell you are echoes of the battle – and now Rowan and Oison have shown up, and the Bell Twins swear they got a glimpse of their sister yesterday, Hufflepuff dorms smell like char…something's happening, and I'm not anticipating ponies and rainbows."
"A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets…"
No one had heard Justin enter, and he was still clad in his Muggle-style suit beneath the Wizengamot robes, but his Auror's notepad was in his hand, the official evidentiary camera hanging from a strap around his neck. Harry held out a hand in welcome, chuckling darkly. "You do know how to make an entrance, Justin."
The dark, sleek head dipped a gracious acknowledgement of far more than welcome as Justin returned the handshake. "Draco told me."
Neville sucked in a tight, angry breath. "I can't –"
"As an Auror." Justin interrupted quickly. " Granted, he also told me to make sure you were back in under fifteen minutes, but I'm going to ignore that part and apologize for the bit of poetry there. I just…I heard what Colin said and I…I felt it too when I came in." There was a look in his eyes for which the only possible word was genuinely haunted. "I heard the laughter of old friends."
"As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star,
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.
And even the like precurse of feared events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on."
Harry's recitation was letter-perfect and Neville tried not to stare, something he knew he was managing better than Colin – who was openly gaping – but not nearly as well as Justin. Harry coughed nervously, taking off his glasses and rubbing them on his robes in a moment of sudden self-consciousness. "The rest of Justin's bit. Hamlet...or actually, I think that part was Horatio."
Justin gave a small, not entirely theatrical bow. "I'm impressed."
"I'm not Hermione, but I'm not completely uncultured." He smiled tightly, "Dudley hated anything that smelled like thinking, and I got bored a lot, so I stole the real books sometimes while he was reading Goosebumps."
In almost seventeen years of various levels of friendship, Neville had never figured out how to properly respond when Harry talked about his childhood with the Dursleys, but fortunately, Justin knew precisely when to change the subject. "Have you found Hermione?"
All traces of bashfulness vanished, the glasses instantly replaced. "How did Draco know about that?"
"He didn't." Justin clarified. "Sally-Anne did when she searched me on the way in."
"Well," Harry shot a reproachful glance at Neville. "I still don't."
"I was getting to that part." Colin broke in. "We were trying to sort out what was going on with Rowan and Oison and…." He took a deep breath – habit, Neville supposed – his words picking up speed. "…so we heard someone Apparate at the gates and then they were just blown open and Hermione came fucking sprintingup the walk and Zach tried to grab her and…Commander, I've never seen her face like that. She looked like she was going to tear his eyeballs out with her teeth. She goes 'there's no time!' and he let her go. Shock, I think, really. She runs up the stairs so fast she almost trips over, and we're looking at each other like –"
"'What in the Zaphod Beeblebrox was that' were your exact words, Creevey. Bafflingly eloquent as usual." The interruption came from directly behind them, and even had he not recognized the Welsh accent or been fully aware that there was no possible door or window there and that they were seven stories up, the sudden drop of temperature would have been enough for Neville to know that another ghost had joined them even before he turned.
"Oh, shit! I think I'm going to be sick." Neville had seen Rowan's body, helped search her pockets for anything to send back to her parents, but without the adrenaline and numbness of the morning after, even he had to admit a certain kinship with the more graphic reaction that currently had Harry parchment-white and clutching the edge of the desk.
Her face was horribly mangled, but even the broken teeth and jaw were still distinctly bent in a grin. "Nice to see you too, Potter." One eyebrow quirked up towards the short, spiked blonde hair. "Didn't stop by the morgue, I take it?"
Harry had fought down the initial gag response, standing upright again, if shakily as he passed the back of his hand across his mouth. "They had you under a sheet. I didn't go looking, no."
The grin was gone now, replaced by a look that was equal parts fear and hope as she shifted from one foot to another, the gesture nightmarishly girlish in context as a broken rib gapped in and out of the tear in her shirt with the motion. "Did…um, did Ginny make it?"
"Yeah." Harry nodded, holding up his left hand dazedly to show his wedding ring. "She…uh…married. She and I. Baby yesterday. Third." Rowan smiled again, positively beaming this time, both disfigured hands clutched to her mouth as her eyes welled with tears of relief.
Neville reached out, steadying Harry as the young woman's hideous condition and potent reaction truly connected for the first time with a decade of being told 'she gave her life.' He knew there would be the need to seriously talk about this later – maybe with Rowan and Ginny, maybe not – but for now, he let himself take over, meeting the eyes of his former Sergeant as evenly as if neither her state of living nor how she got that way mattered in the least. "Is Sally-Anne okay, Rowan?"
She snapped immediately to attention, all but throwing a salute as she nodded sharply. "Sir! She wanted to let you know she's confirmed the Apparation signature at entry, as well as the one used to demolish the lock on the door at the bottom of the staircase here. They're both Hermione. She's spreading the search for more evidence to the rest of the grounds. No news yet from Zach and the Weasley brothers."
"Pull them in." Harry took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, and Neville was impressed that he seemed to have recovered fully, shaking off the comforting hand and adjusting his robe crisply. His voice was all business again, completely dispassionate. "Hermione can take care of herself. We've got to secure the school completely. There are too many potential victims here. Justin, find Flitwick, Sprout, any other surviving faculty. I want you to put them under personal guard."
"I don't have time, Harry." Justin argued. "I'm supposed to be at –"
"Professor McGonagall is dead not six feet away from our little discussion, Justin. She's not even cold. Harry's eyes flashed a keen warning. "Are you an Auror or not?"
There was a moment's hesitation, but then the decision was made, the purple robes already being unclasped and shrugged off. "I'll give Draco my regrets when I see him next. Apologies that I don't have my uniform at hand. Do you know where I'll find the Professors?"
Colin pointed to his ethereal comrade. "Ro?"
"Great Hall." She informed them. "We've been doing sort of a consolidation-evacuation. Getting everyone together. Safety in numbers. Students and Profs all there. There's just Herbology and Magical Creatures to grab now."
Justin was already halfway out the door, the Wizengamot robes now tightly folded and bundled under one arm. "On my way."
"Right." Harry checked his notes, tapping something there with his wand. "I've sent to the DMLE for scene processing. They should be here within a few minutes. Nev, let's you and I start a grid for any other spell residuals that we might have missed."
"Make sure you get –"
Neville didn't want to do this. He had to do this. "HARRY!"
Everything about the other man's face was silently begging in the name of mercy, of friendship, of too much to bear thinking about as he looked up from the notes. "Nev, please…."
"We've got to find her."
Harry turned another page of the notebook, burying himself in it again, nodding too quickly. "Like I said, she can take care of herself."
"To arrest her."
Now he did stop. The notes were set on the edge of the desk, both hands folded coolly behind his back, his body language immovable, his eye contact ironclad. "No."
He could never completely understand what Harry was going through, even if he had tasted the bitter edge of it on Belfast rain and cheap whiskey, but it didn't matter. Compassion could only take them so far, had perhaps taken them too far already. He could try to temper the words with consideration of tone, but he could not back down. "She's our top suspect at this point. She has to be."
Harry did not budge. "I said no, Longbottom. She is not a person of interest."
"She's a lot more than a person of interest!" He did not mean to raise his voice, but even from beneath the makeshift draping, McGonagall seemed to be staring over his shoulder – all things considered, he supposed that wasn't even out of the question – and Harry's absolute refusal to see the obvious was grating his temper. He did not want to wonder, could not let himself wonder if any of those already lost might have been preventable, but letting it go on was another matter. "Harry," he pushed, "I don't care that she's one of your best friends; she's a person of means and opportunity in every single one!"
"But no motive." Harry insisted, his own temper starting to cast a glowing edge to his still-calm reply. "And no fucking possibility."
There was a long minute's silence, but the stalemate was broken by another burst of silver into the tower room. "Commander! Rowan sent me!" This time it was a boy who looked barely more than a child, his limbs oddly angled and the back of his head too flat and too wet-looking. Euan. Oh, dear Merlin, how did fourteen get so much younger from further away? Were they all going to come back now? Was he going to have to face each sin, each stolen life in turn?
Colin gestured at the new arrival, then at Neville, the corner of his mouth turned up in a terse attempt at humor as he mimed a telephone with his thumb and little finger. "It's for you."
This time, it was Harry who could speak when he could not. "Hermione?"
A terse shake of the transparent head. "Hagrid, Sir."
There was something about the way the boy said it. Neville and Harry looked at each other, and he could feel the thick knot of disbelief forming in the pit of his stomach again.
It was Colin who found the words first, or at least enough of them. "You mean –"
Euan nodded. "When they brought in the students a couple minutes ago, he asked to stay back to pen up the animals, and then…people heard the noise. Heard him go down. He's…uh…big."
No ravens. No diary. They were stepping it up, whoever they were. He could see the same realization written in Harry's eyes, firing deductions sharp over emotions there was not yet room for. "And no one's been able to get out since the Headmistress was found except Bill and Zach, which means –"
"They're still here."
"LOCK THIS PLACE DOWN HARD! If there's any form of no one gets out that hasn't been done, do it!" Harry's hands slammed together like the crack of Apparation and he turned hard on his heel, wand flicked out of his sleeve to yank the plans of the castle from the tall shelves. He was on his knees even before they had fully unrolled, a brilliant stag leaping past Euan's ear so closely the the boy jumped aside in surprise. Harry didn't care. "Neville, no one knows Hogwarts like you. I'm calling everyone. We tear this castle down stone by stone and cut down every tree in the forest if we have to."
Euan leaned forward nervously, twisting his shirttail as he glanced from Neville to Harry and back again. "What about us?"
"Anyone who forgives me, we can use," Neville replied quickly, "especially people who don't worry about walls." Euan nodded, gone at once, and he shouldn't have been so relieved to be back down to just the one ghost he was accustomed to as he joined Harry on the floor.
Harry's fingers were racing over the lines of the blueprints, seeking openings, opportunities, possibilities. They hit the basement, the dungeons, scrabbled to the kitchens and slammed down on an idea. "WINKY!"
The little elf appeared almost in the middle of Colin, who leapt aside just in time. She didn't seem to notice, but at least she didn't appear drunk at the moment as she swept a deep curtsy, ears flapping. "Harry Potter, Sir?"
"We have an intruder in Hogwarts. They murdered the Headmistress and a lot of other people. You and the House Elves have to help us find them!"
It was strange that even as he was trying to convince Harry of the need to treat her as a potential murderer, Neville cringed slightly at what Hermione would think of her friend taking that tone with Winky, although she didn't seem to mind at all. If anything, shock instantly chased to furious resolve as she noticed the body at the desk, and her heels clapped together in the sharp salute that he knew had been learned from Dobby in the days of H.E.L.P. "Yes, sir! At once!"
Colin was over by the doorway now, whispering something to the Grey Lady who had stuck her head directly through the wood, and Neville pitched his voice low, trying not to let him hear. The last thing he needed - no matter how much it had saved their collective arses last time - was Colin deciding there was cause for an encore of his previous legendary anti-evacuation. "Harry, we have to do something about the students. Not again."
"You're right." Harry agreed, and thankfully he also seemed to understand the flick of Neville's eyes towards the silver figures. "But we can't evacuate. Moving that many people out, it's too easy for the Nevermore to escape at the same time."
"But the Nevermore could be among them right now," Neville argued, "even if they don't use it to strike. Just hiding in the group."
The Grey Lady vanished before Harry could answer, Colin floating back out of the way as Sally-Anne opened the door, face flushed and breathing hard from what had obviously been a hard run up all seven floors of stairs. "Hagrid's definitely dead, Harry," she gasped. "And it's definitely the same killer. We've searched his hut thoroughly and the surrounding pens. Including the damned Skrewt pens." She leaned against the doorway in what he assumed was an attempt to catch her breath until she reached down, lifting the hem of her Auror's robe to show a nasty, blistered scorch on the side of her calf. "I've got a Skrewt burn for good old times, but no one's there, and I've closed off the area."
"Lets assume they're invisible then." Harry motioned her to join them, moving aside to give her space at the plans. "There's plenty of ways they could be doing that. They can't be Apparating on the grounds, so we know they were out at the hut just minutes ago and they aren't there now. Call them young and fit and fast. Where can they be?"
"They'd stay away from the lake." Neville waved his wand, fading that section of the image to a mere shadow of ink and letting them see the remaining possibilities more clearly. "Mud and water are too revealing. Likewise the forest. It's too thick and even invisible, people can see you pushing through the underbrush too easily and too many things in there could smell you just fine. They're either in the castle, the greenhouses, the Quidditch Pitch, or trapped out on the lawn." The remaining areas glowed at his words, the outlines throbbing a hot, heartbroken red.
"Zach and the Weasleys are back." Sally-Anne offered, taking the opportunity to cut away the leg of her trousers from the burn. Neville helped her numb it as she plucked the bits of fiber away that had stuck to the weeping injury, knowing it wasn't severe but wishing nonetheless that Demmy and Brian weren't half a world away.
"And Justin says to report that the Great Hall is secured." Neville hadn't realized Rowan had rejoined them until she spoke, though now he saw her standing at attention at the top of the stairs. "He has everyone back to back and arms linked with no room for anyone to hide between them, and everyone's had their identities confirmed by at least two other people with secure questions."
Harry smiled, shaking his head in fond amazement. "I love that man. He's the definition of posh twat and I hate his schedule, but God can he come through when I need him." The amusement suddenly froze, twisting Harry to face her on the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a potential breakthrough. "Does Hagrid have a new dog?" Harry asked suddenly. "Acid-breathing chicken? Anything that can track?"
"Dunno," Rowan shrugged, looking to Neville as if in apology and making it everything he could do not to react when it brought her collarbone through the ruins of her left shoulder. "Commander, I've been back on this side of reality for maybe an hour."
"Find out." He tried to make it sound like he was backing Harry, hopefully smoothing the issue of who, exactly, Rowan was willing to take direct orders from. "How many DA do we have back?"
"Colin, me, Oison, Jenny, Morag, Euan, Owen, Wayne, Katie, Lavender, and the Patil twins, though Parv's just a voice."
The list, recited so matter-of-factly, staggered him. But this was no time for feelings. He simply jotted the names in the initial-based shorthand they had used for the Galleon, surprised that it was no effort at all to remember each and every one. "Right. All searching?"
"We leave the castle to them." Harry confirmed, having made his own notes and changed the castle's glow from red to amber before looking up to the young witch. "What was your name again, love?"
"Rowan Glynnis, Sir."
Harry's eyes widened, and he snapped his fingers in sudden realization. "Glynnis Pitch! Harpies! I should have –."
It was a glorious kind of ache to see Rowan's reaction to the off-handed comment, the way she literally screamed with delight, bouncing up on the tips of her toes in a wiggling dance of sheer bliss that made Harry laugh and Sally-Anne close her eyes in pain before she calmed down again. "Sorry…I, uh, you wanted something?"
Harry's smile was deep and kind, no longer in the least disturbed by her charnel house appearance. "Yes, Miss Glynnis, namesake of Glynnis Pitch, home of the Holyhead Harpies; you're in charge of having the undead DA search the castle, unless Neville had a different hierarchy."
She saluted again, to Harry this time. "We've got that covered."
"Nev, I want you to take Bill and go for the greenhouses." Another tap of the wand turned those, too, to amber. "It's too dangerous to be searched by anyone who doesn't know what they're doing. Ron and I will take the grounds with Tony and Saz and whoever the DMLE sends us. Any passages still open?"
"Only the one to the Hogs Head," Sally-Anne reported. "That was restored for an emergency evac route and history. The rest were permanently closed."
"But the only way to get to that is through the RoR," Harry mused, "and they sealed that off after you showed them just how much epic shenanigans a kid could get up to in there. DA survivors and faculty only, isn't it?"
Neville hesitated at the gap of experience between how things were and how things were supposed to be before answering. "Theoretically."
"Then that's lowest on the list of possibilities and we check it last." Harry snapped the plans shut and returned them to the shelf, already on his feet and helping Sally-Anne to hers.
Neville paused only to give a last, respectful nod to McGonagall, touching his thumb to his brow in a gesture he had learned from his other mentor, Sir Kaye, but seemed oddly appropriate now before following Harry out the door. Harry was already halfway down the stairs, as maddeningly nimble as ever, and he raised his voice a little to carry after, hoping it wouldn't come off as confrontational. "Hermione has access."
"Don't start with that again, Nev." Harry's voice was casual, but the warning was clear. "I need you in that greenhouse. Now go!"
There was no time for arguing and really, no point. He resisted the temptation to take any of the remembered shortcuts through the castle, not knowing if they were still there after the reconstruction or how much he could trust to memory, and by the time he reached the greenhouses, Bill was already waiting for him. The other man looked exhausted, as though he hadn't slept at all, but though he was leaning heavily against the glass, dark circles standing out against pale skin and red-purple scars, his brown eyes gleamed indefatigably.
Neville greeted him with a terse gesture of his wand, immediately checking the locks on the greenhouse door, though finding them sealed with no signs of tampering wasn't nearly as reassuring as it should have been. "Any luck finding Hermione?"
"No," Bill replied darkly, his voice raspy and raw. "but we've got the kids hidden. Ron didn't want her to be able to use them as hostages."
"At least someone's thinking of her as a suspect." He circled the building, checking the other doors and testing each window that had the option of opening.
"It's killing him, Neville. If she's done this, I'm taking the bitch apart with my bare hands." There was something about the way he said it that was so unmistakably not hyperbole that Neville stopped, his wand still on the lock to the potting shed.
"Bill, the moon was just last night." It was a warning, but also an offer of understanding. "Watch yourself there."
The ginger head shook firmly, and Neville shivered to realize that while his illness may have been responsible for his rough appearance, his gaze was irreproachably lucid with no trace of the feral. "My dad. My mum. My baby bro. My family.Not my lycanthropy." There was a pause, a moment of understanding passed between them more complete than either was comfortable with, but at last Bill broke it off, turning away to stare at the glass structure with its lush tangle of greenery thickly visible inside. "So how do we do this? Anyone could hide in here."
"Not for long. You and I just need to cover the exits and be ready if they come through the sides." Neville had already opened the potting shed and checked the gauges on the intricate maze of piping inside, turning valves, entering codes, and adjusting levers. "I've got full atmospheric controls in here and a faculty override."
"What are you doing?"
Another twist, a tap of the wand to set it all so that it couldn't be changed without his authorization, and he ran out of the shed, covering the back door as he gestured Bill around to the other side. He raised his voice so that Bill could still hear him, aware that it could only help if there wasanyone inside to know what they were in for. "Plants will be just fine with a pure Carbon Dioxide atmosphere. A human, however, not so much, and my babies can't make that much oxygen before our Nevermore would find it unbearably uncomfortable. A nice pesticide mist won't hurt either."
Bill laughed terribly. "Don't kill 'em, mate."
"I'm not picky right now," Neville confessed, pulling out his watch. "Give it five minutes."
It seemed an eternity to watch the second hand crawl its way around each cycle, the minute hand edge fractionally further along with nothing happening, not the smallest sign of motion ruffling the foliage within. He'd known, really, all along that no one was in there, but he hadn't realized how badly he wanted to find someone anyway. Finding them in the greenhouse would mean they hadn't been able to take the passage.
At last he heard Bill's voice, almost exactly at the same moment that the watch clicked to five minutes passed. "Well, if they're in there, they're dead, dying, or incredibly unconscious, but they won't be able to deflect this." The greenhouse flared with the bouncing, branching light of hominum revelio, but it careened from place to place aimlessly before fading completely, and the answer was sealed.
"Empty." Neville felt sick, pushing it away in resolve as he shot a quick spell to melt the locks into formless slag. "I'm keeping the controls locked and the greenhouse sealed so it can't become a refuge. Let's find Harry."
It was Ron, however, whom they encountered first, finishing a sweep of the lakeside grounds with Zach, Sally-Anne and a team of three Enforcers. Bill grabbed him into an immediate, tight embrace that he squirmed out of almost at once as if he were still an embarrassed eleven year-old, smoothing down his hair as he turned to face Neville with an odd grimace. "There's dead people everywhere, Neville, mate. Gory, ucky, extremely disturbing dead people. Your dead people."
For some reason, he had to smile. "I know."
Ron smiled back, but there was something forced about the perpetual good humor. "If we're still shacking up at Zach's, I'm just saying, there will be nightmares."
"For most of us, I think," Bill agreed. "Any luck?"
"The DA's got the castle tight." Sally-Anne said. "We've swept the grounds full circle. Pincer formation, no getting away from us. Harry's starting to think they're like hiding on the roof or sommat. He and Tony are up there on brooms." She motioned up to where Neville could just now see the two figures dark against the blue of the afternoon sky, swooping low and trailing streaks of light from their wands.
"Could they have flown out?" Ron suggested.
"Not since lockdown," Neville pointed out, "and that was before Hagrid."
It was nominally a suggestion, but no one was fooled by Sally-Anne's too-light tone, and Neville took a deep breath, steeling himself for what they all knew they were going to find as much as for another go at the stairs. "Let's go."
He tried not to notice the ghosts as they passed through the castle. He tried to focus on the case, on possibilities where the Nevermore could be hiding. He tried not to see that was Lavender there, somehow still so much more beautiful than memory had been able to hold despite her torn throat. That was Morag, tearing through an empty classroom like a Scottish Valkyrie. And everything he'd wished about Demmy being here was completely revoked now, because there, waving at him with her one remaining arm as they turned for the seventh floor stairway, was Anwen. Back again and still willing to fight for him after he'd cost them everything. It was a kind of love and honor that would have brought him to his knees had there been time. But there wasn't. Not now. No more than there had been time to say goodbyes.
The seventh-floor corridor had been completely remodeled, the doorway permanently visible now, a little plaque of some kind of memorial that he'd never bothered to read bolted to the stone near the lintel. It didn't matter. He would have been able to find it in his sleep. He was wondering which of them should try to open it, if it still favored him, but Sally-Anne was the first to reach it, and she stopped as if burned, her hand hovering over the knob. "It's been opened. The latch is turned."
She ran her wand over it, checking for spell residue, but Ron's face was already hard and set when she turned around, the picture of sympathy. "You don't have to tell me," he said coolly, "I know what her magical signature feels like better than any of you."
Sally-Anne reached out anyway, putting her hand gently on his arm. "Ron, I'm so –"
"Shut it." He shrugged her off harshly, bouncing his wand against his palm as he turned to the rest of them. "So. How do we do this?"
"Zach, get Harry and Tony in here." Whether he technically had any right to the command didn't matter. Someone had to do it, and the instincts Neville was running on now were no longer those of a follower. Not here. Not with the ghosts of his DA everywhere and his face burning, back throbbing thick reminders of the prices already paid. "We leave the DMLE on this side, go through as a team. Tell -"
"Sir?" There was a note of alarm in Sally-Anne's voice that stopped him.
"What is it?"
"My…my eyes aren't working." The alarm had gone over to tightly held almost-panic now, and she was jabbing at her eyes with her wand in a way that was wrong on such a gut level that he had to look away even before she popped one out, working it desperately with her fingers to no avail. The orb that usually shined with multi-colored clarity was as blank and dead as a child's marble, her vacant socket the open-mouthed scream she was refusing to voice.
"Your face is bleeding, Commander." Zach's warning was shaking, hardly more than a whisper, but he knew it was true even before he reached up to touch and found the confirmation wet and thick and staining his fingers crimson from the old wounds.
Strange how, with everything coming apart, it was so much easier to be strong. Had he heard his answer come from a stranger's mouth, he'd have thought this sort of thing happened every day. "Hogwarts is incredibly strong magic – magic that's not happy right now - and for us at least, it's strongest here and strongest about that night. We've got to be ready to –"
The window at the end of the corridor opened, Harry and Tony arriving in answer to his orders. Harry dismounted immediately, lightly, propping his broom against the wall, but as he started towards them, he was stopped by an abrupt cry of pain. Tony's own attempted dismount had dissolved into a crumpled heap on the floor, and he was clutching his legs just below the knees, his breath coming in tight, hissing streaks.
"Shit!" Harry was at Tony's side immediately, pulling the broom away and cutting the trousers open. The stumps were livid red and purple, pulsing and grotesque above the rims of the prosthetic sockets. Tony had braced himself now, hands pressed flat to the stones, but the agony was still clear in the tight cords of his neck and the iron set of his jaw, sweat beading thick on a forehead that had gone ashen white.
Harry loosened the straps, easing the pressure a little as he glanced down the corridor at the knot of people in front of the RoR's damning telltale door. "Neville, take Saz and Tony down to Hogsmeade. Make sure we're not going to be ambushed at the other side of the passage. Auror credentials will get you through the barrier. Zach and Ron weren't in it like you guys. I'll take them through the passage from this end. Justin will stay with the students. The Enforcers will hold the entrance."
There was no discussion, no argument, no need for words at all. They moved fast, with an efficiency that made it seem as if this had all been rehearsed for years. Zach, Harry, and Ron vanished into the RoR. The Enforcers took up positions at the door as if carved there from stone.
Sally-Anne took Neville's elbow with her left hand, both eyes uselessly back in her head and her collapsible cane retrieved from her pocket to act far cruder substitute in probing the returned darkness. She let go only briefly while he knelt for Tony, and though he'd been afraid of how much this was going to cost him, the other man's strength was incredible, and he took all the work of lifting his own weight, holding himself so well that Neville's back barely registered protest as he stood.
They made it down three floors before anyone spoke, Tony's bitter laugh warm against the side of his neck. "Well. Aren't we ridiculously fucking useless?"
"You're bloody amazing to be Aurors anyway," Neville said immediately, "and this isn't your fault. It hit me too. We just need to get out of here."
Another silence, the swift tapping pattern of Sally-Anne's cane and his own increasingly heavy breathing the only distractions from the weirdly echoing voice of the ghosts confirming their fruitless search, greeting each other, realizing what it meant to see someone they'd hoped would live the night. Distantly, Neville knew that despite Tony taking the worst of it, there was still a toll being exacted that he would pay heavily and soon, but it didn't matter, and he was welcome for the distraction when Sally-Anne's hesitant question tightened her hand on his arm. "Do you…do you really think it's Hermione, Commander?"
He nodded grimly, then realized she couldn't see him and felt like an ass for it. "Looking that way."
"But why? I never really knew her that well, but it just doesn't make sense."
"I'm sure it does to her," Tony offered awkwardly. "Look at Seamus. Everyone thought he'd just snapped, but it was all of a piece in his head."
"It wasn't just in his head."
Neville hadn't meant the correction to sound so harsh, but he could feel the sudden tightness in Tony's arms and knew it had been taken as a rebuke. "That too."
"Do you think we've got another motherfucker rising then, Commander?" There was no levity in Sally-Anne's voice now, and even with her expression so oddly blank, there were volumes spoken in that she had stopped using the cane completely, drawing in nearer to him with her arm against his as well as the hand that still lay in the crook of his elbow. "With the Ravens and the diaries, are they trying to tell us they're bigger than Dumbledore, maybe?"
"I profoundly hope not," Neville answered honestly. "I've hit my quota for a lifetime, I think."
Another long pause, and she made an odd little noise, a corner of her mouth twitching up in not really a smile. "I hope it's a woman this time."
Neville frowned in bafflement, and he could feel the brush of Tony's curls against the back of his neck as the other man turned to look as well. "Excuse me?"
"Well, y'know," she shrugged, but there was still no real humor to it. "It's about time, I reckon. With the Elizabeths and Queen Vic and Boudicca and the lot, there's no question we can rule, but I was kind of disappointed at the way Lestrange went at it. She was at least as whackjob as Tommy lad, proper waste her being his lapdog. I'd love to see just once a good bitch hell-bent on world domination. We could bloody do it."
Neville shook his head slowly, pausing a moment to be sure of his balance before taking on the next set of stairs. "Saz, the way your mind works worries me sometimes."
Now she did laugh, though he got the distinct feeling that she was trying too late to make something a joke that hadn't been. "That's totally my point!"
"All seriousness though, Commander…" Tony hesitated, choosing his words carefully, his voice measured despite the pain in a way that put Neville immediately on alert. "Hermione's not…she's not been the same since Druim Cett. We all know that. You and Finnigan may have prevented the big part of what happened, but what if it was something like what Riddle did to Harry? He still had them for a full twenty-four hours and there were a lot of prep rituals they still endured…."
He trailed off, but the implication was clear in the air, and he was glad that Sally-Anne was the one to actually say the terrible words. "You mean the Diabhal Dubh as a Horcrux in Hermione?"
Tony nodded, sighing as if the thoughts themselves were an unbearable weight. "Neville, you said the whole point was in her kind of giving birth to his soul again, and the Avatars are right up his ancient magical alley."
"Correction, Saz," Neville said flatly, "I outright love the way your mind works compared to his."
She was almost as closely attached to him now as Tony, her steps shorter now and slowing them, but he didn't begrudge it. He couldn't imagine taking this in the absolute dark, the shadows of a night battle deepened by the sounds of the ghosts and the new obscenities of what was now being suggested. "It makes sense with it being so completely out of character for her."
"Ginny didn't even remember what she did when Riddle was active in her." Tony offered it like a comfort. It wasn't.
The idea of Hermione as a crazed killer was bad enough, but this theory frightened Neville in a way that he had not realized he was still capable of, and his mind careened wildly for evidence to throw against it. "But there was no activity on her wand at the Weasleys!"
Tony's reply was too quick, too understanding. "The Diabhal Dubh did plenty wandless."
Sally-Anne made a sudden yelping little scream of a noise and Neville stopped at once, afraid she'd hurt herself. But no, she was grinning in pure relief, her eyes shining bright again and dazzling through the hundred colors of their various settings as she blinked furiously. "Sir, I can see again!"
"Thank Merlin." He touched his face. The blood was sticky, drying, but there was nothing new; the wounds had closed again. Was the epicenter of whatever it was the RoR? Had they just gotten far enough away? Or did this mean it was getting better? Going away? Or getting closer? It really didn't matter, and there was no time to wonder about it with fuck-all they could do anyway.
There were other, so much more important things to worry about. Like unthinkable theories that were way, way too plausible. Like the return of old enemies in old friends. "Saz, you run ahead. I'm going to get Tony a little further and check the damage before we trust everything to work right. The second you're out those gates, Apparate to the Loch and use your authorization to spring Finnigan."
She started to dash off, but Tony called after her, almost throwing them both off balance. "Wait!" She stopped, half-turned back on the staircase below them, and Tony squirmed, pulling something out of his pocket and tossing it to her. It was a medallion of some kind, about the size of a Galleon but matte brass and engraved with a series of intricate symbols. "Ministry first. Take this to the DoM. Get the knife out of lockup."
Her eyes widened as she shoved the medallion deep into her pocket. "You mean…."
"That knife, yes. If he's going up against the Dubh again, it'll give him an edge, no pun intended." Her mouth opened, closed, but there was nothing to say, and she just nodded, sprinting down the stairs and away as if afraid the darkness would catch her again. And perhaps it would.
Maybe it was going to get all of them. Maybe it already had.
Neville took the next few stairs carefully, the weight so much heavier now even though he knew nothing had changed. He stopped on the next landing, lowering slowly until Tony was able to grab the railing and pull himself off. For a while, no one said anything, both men checking themselves, stretching, making sure that things really were better and trying to separate the pain of old and new, serious and nothing.
Even when Neville did speak again, he couldn't look Tony in the eyes, pretending that it was because he was trying to use the back of his Auror's badge with some spit and a handkerchief to clean the blood from his face and neck. "How long have you been thinking this, Tony?"
"Honestly, about ten minutes, Sir," he confessed, removing the prosthesis entirely and doing something with the padding inside the sockets. "I should have thought of it earlier, but it was all the ghosts. I just had a passing thought that it was so horribly beautifully wrong and strange seeing them as people again when I've gotten so used to them just being names on the monument or on Finnigan's chest…and then I thought of his scar and it was one of those ideas that just smacks you like a hex." One of the pads was very bloody. Tony took it out, cleaned it with his wand, replaced it. He still did not make any attempt at eye contact. "It makes way too much sense, but in a way, it's a relief…I…I could forgive her for that. We all could. We've forgiven Harry and Ginny both, and Harry wrestling that thing to the ground definitely demanded a butcher's bill."
"You ought to tell him that," Neville suggested, wadding the stained cloth and vanishing it rather than trying to make it come clean. "He thinks we still blame him."
Tony shrugged, tightening something on the left ankle with a look of too-deep concentration. "Some do."
A scream split the air, freezing them both for a terrible moment before it was followed by laughter, sobs, more screaming of a completely different sort but still tied up in too many feelings to be called so simple as good or bad. The scream had been nameless, but the voices, the other cries he knew, and he felt as though someone had taken hold of his heart in an icy fist and twisted it up into his throat, blocking all air. Parvati had found her sister at last.
Her bracelet was still in his trunk at home.
Neville closed his eyes hard, opened them again, found the Commander's center. "If it's the Dubh, though, why are we seeing the Hogwarts losses and not Rose or Russ?"
"Terrible evil?" Tony suggested pensively. "A threat at Hogwarts and those who died to defend her rise to defend her again?"
Neville nodded, agreeing that it was plausible. Tony had finished adjusting his legs and was preparing to fasten them on again, but Neville hesitated, gesturing towards the still-swollen and discolored limbs. "Those look awful."
"I've walked on worse." He had already fitted them in, yanking down on the straps so tightly that Neville winced in unwilling sympathy before the trousers were pulled down and mended with a casual swish of his wand. "Let's go…just spot me."
There was no use in arguing further, and Neville offered his shoulder to brace Tony as he pulled himself upright. There was an involuntary moan, a shudder of pain, but then he stabilized, the tight breaths slowing into iron control, and he took a step, then another, letting go of all support to toss back a cheeky grin over his shoulder. "Library lilies indeed, eh?"
It was wildly inappropriate, but Neville laughed, searching for a response and finding none before Colin materialized, sobering them both. "News?"
"Harry says join him at the other end anyway, he's not cross that they made it first. But there's another body in the Hogs Head."
"Mundungus Fletcher." Colin said distractedly, his eyes narrowing in concern as he took in the strained pallor of Tony's face, the open robes and sweat-soaked shirt beneath, but Neville stopped him with a look before he could say anything, and the boy simply sighed, continuing with his message. "Seems like he got in the way of whoever was making their big exit. Someone took something out of his wallet, too. Scattered money everywhere and didn't even pause for it."
Tony smirked. "That's the first one I'm almost tempted to say had it coming."
They were almost out of the castle, the staircase giving way to the wide sweep of the entry hall, but Neville hesitated, the tall, gleaming suits of armor jogging something in his memory that had little to do with Colin's report. "Tony, wait just a moment. Let me try something…."
It didn't matter who was watching, what they would think, if maybe it really was crazy. Neville knelt there on the cool marble of the floor, letting himself go back in his mind, back to the night when the stone had been a lattice of cracks and burns, the air nearly unbreathable with dust. To when he had been pinned beneath the wreckage of the stairs he had just descended, to the horrible shrieks of the girl who had thrown herself into a demon's jaws to try and save him.
Back and then forward again on the thread of moments he should never have survived to a dark forest glade, chanting and hell and the faces of monsters, the shine of a mask, the shock of suicidal defiance that had saved them all long enough for the kiss of flame to fall into the blue sky of a world that did or did not exist. Back and forward to a cavernous throne room, a mist-filled forest, the first weight of mail and plate on his shoulders. Back and forward to a training circle with a patch of scorched grass.
The old prayer, the offer made again, backed by the chorus of martyrs. You gave yourself to me. I give myself to you. I have since the very beginning. I've done it all for you. All of you. I loved you all. Heaven help me, I still do. If you need me again, I'm here. If he's back, I'll keep my oath. Is it my turn? Did I not do enough to stop him last time? Is this because I let Seamus take the blade?
His hands were open, truly willing, but there was no answering touch of cool, heavy steel or gilt, only a certainty that answered one question but not, he discovered, in a way that was any easier. He wanted to press forward, to ask if it was true, if he was back, if Hermione was harboring an unholy parasite, but there was something stopping him like a hand over his heart's mouth, and he knew those answers were not to be given yet. He opened his eyes, standing again to find Tony looking at him with an expression that held more curiosity and less judgment or confusion than he had expected. "What was that?"
"Nothing." Neville sighed, shaking his hands to clear the last of the lingering tingle there. Strange how he was coming to accept this as so almost normal. Strange how he had come to accept any of his life as normal, really. "It was nothing. Which means this time, even if the Dubh is back, it's not my fight."
Tony nodded quietly, pushing open the doors that would take them out onto the grounds and across to the gates and away to where it had happened yet again. "Is that better or worse?"
"I'd like to say better…"
"But with our luck?"
They had just reached the edge of the lawn when Harry's familiar stag came sweeping up the road from the village below, tossing its antlers eagerly as it relayed the message. "Zach found some papers on Dung that makes us think he's been spending a lot of time out at Diggle's place. Meet us there!"
Neville glanced at his partner, frowning in concern as he noticed how pale he still was, how he was trying to act as though it were entirely coincidental that he was bracing himself on the wrought-iron bars of the gate. "No heroics, Tony. Are you up for it?"
Tony smiled tightly, though he did not let go. "I'm a Ravenclaw, I don't do heroics."
"You lot keep saying that." It was everything Neville could do not to outright roll his eyes, but it was still clear in his tone. "For people so into facts, it's such complete bullshit."
"Not hardly, Commander," Tony corrected him archly. "Heroics are the ridiculous stunts Gryffindors pull for no good reason. We always have a reason."
"And reason says?"
The light, bantering tone was abandoned, and Tony closed his eyes, taking a deep, slow breath before opening them again, his demeanor fully sobered and the cost unshielded but pragmatic. "I can do this. Honestly. Safely. I'll need two days off, my wife'll be furious, and it's a good thing none of us have a problem with blood, but I can do it…and it'd be heroics for you to go in alone."
Considering that he'd been offered and denied a disability exemption himself at each of his own Auror physicals, it would have been the height of hypocrisy to push the point further, and Neville nodded, clapping Tony firmly on the shoulder. "All right then. Down we go."
They Apparated in at the end of the walk leading up to Diggle's house; an odd sort of thing that like many wizarding homes, including the Weasley's, displayed the architectural style of Late-Medieval-Stone-Cottage-That-Got-Stuff-Added-Here-And-There. At least one portion that was almost completely buried under ivy and climbing roses had probably been honestly Tudor, and three others had tried to follow that lead to varying degrees of success. Patches of slate were tucked among the thatch of the roof, and the overall effect should have been eccentrically charming, but at the moment, it rankled nerves that were hungry for order.
A quick glance confirmed that Tony had made it all right, and they pushed open the nasturtium-covered gate, unsurprised to find the door opened before they were halfway up the flagstone path. Harry met them with his wand leveled directly at Neville, his eyes hidden behind the reflection of the afternoon sun off the lenses of his glasses but his body language unmistakable. "Umbridge's office. Inquisitorial squad. Who was holding you?"
The question stopped him in his tracks, and Neville thought back desperately through the dozen years' gap. He remembered the gaudy pink clearly, the grating mewing of the kittens on the stupid plates, the thick, smelly arm across his throat and jabbing wand at his temple (and the retrospective embarrassment of now knowing a dozen ways to get out of that hold), but putting a face to the damned thing was proving far harder. "Ah…Goyle?" he guessed. "Crabbe? Oh, bloody hell, Harry, I don't remember! Someone large who belonged to Draco!"
A quick snort of almost-laughter cracked the professional façade as the wand swung to Tony. "That'll do. I don't remember either. You –"
Tony smirked, raising one eyebrow knowingly. "Black lace, top left drawer, the low-cut bikini kind."
The wand was promptly re-holstered up Harry's sleeve, and they both pretended not to notice the color the highest ranking magical law enforcement officer in the UK had turned. "Right." Harry coughed, recovering his voice. "So…where's Saz?"
"Quick go to the Ministry to get her eyes checked out." Neville startled at the smoothness of Tony's lie, but Harry didn't seem to have noticed, and he decided not to point it out for the moment. He had his reasons, surely, and there was no question that Neville had learned to trust in both his brains and judgment. Still, he didn't like it, and he was all the more concerned when he caught the motion of the hand so casually in Tony's pocket, the stuttered flexing of tendons from squeezing the Galleon. He couldn't read the whole thing, but it was enough to know he'd messaged Sally-Anne, and it bothered him.
"Good idea." Harry agreed blithely, leading them into the house with a surprisingly cheery attitude, all things considered. "We might actually have gotten a leg up here, gentlemen. Diggle's old Order and still breathing, that puts him in an incredibly exclusive club these days, and we've got the Nevermore running faster than they can plan. The pattern's clear enough - he's got to go - and we're going to be waiting."
"So we're setting an ambush?" Tony's question was more confirmation.
Harry made a noise of agreement as he sealed the door behind them, adding one of the near-unbreakable Department-issue locks to the common deadbolt.
"But not walking into one. Diggle's already been removed from the castle to a holding cell by the Enforcers, and he's under tight guard."
Even as Harry explained the situation, he had lead them the few steps down the narrow hallway to the cluttered, low-beamed kitchen, and Neville stopped, tilting his head in confusion at the elderly man sitting at the rough table who certainly bore a remarkable resemblance to the supposedly absent homeowner. "Then –?"
Harry's grin was boyishly mischievous, the mark of a man who truly loved his job, but there was a nastier undertone that spoke of a trap well-laid and baited. "Smith under Polyjuice."
Tony drew out the chair on the other side of the table, taking the opportunity to sit down as he made an exaggerated appraisal of their fellow Auror. "Seventy-one looks good on you, Zach."
Harry shook his head, rapping his knuckles on the back of the chair. "Sorry, Tony. No time. Let's go, lads. Full search of the house; I want it cleared quick, then we disillusion and wait."
There was no need for further orders. They split up immediately, Neville taking the sitting room as the other three branched down the hall. It was enjoyable in its way, the rote procedure of it. Everything was calculated, everything trained and practiced and by the book, from the way you entered the room with the check for people or alarms to the grid pattern that swept the walls, the joists, the floorboards, the ceiling, the windows. The scan of each piece of furniture, checking every object for charms and booby-traps. It was something you could get right, something straightforward, and he'd finished almost half the room without finding anything more sinister than a self-cleaning ashtray before the workmanlike quiet was cut by an old man's voice that he had to remind himself was Zach. "Back hallway! I got something!"
By the time he got there, making sure to seal the room behind him, Zach had already moved a large sideboard several feet to the right of the former resting place clearly marked by the fade pattern of the wallpaper, revealing a hidden panel in the wall that was nearly six feet tall and just over two feet wide. Harry tapped it carefully with his wand, eyebrows raising at the distinctively hollow sound. "Hello, hello…this isn't on the floor plan. Daedalus, you naughty lad, why didn't you tell me?"
Harry raised his hand, motioning them to take backing positions on either side of the no longer secret door and prepare for entry. A quick count of three, an exchange of glances, and the blast from his wand demolished the door so completely that there were barely splinters left floating in the air as they burst through. "AUROR DEPARTMENT, ON THE FLOOR, HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!"
It was a bedroom. Neville wasn't sure what he'd expected, but this hadn't been it. There was a rank, musty odor to the stuffy air, the light from the filthy oil lamp on the ceiling and the one narrow, equally crusted window so dim that he had to take a moment for his eyes to adjust before he could make out much of anything at all. It was maybe ten by fifteen feet, but it seemed far smaller, crammed floor to ceiling with boxes and crates and trunks that bulged at the seams and were labeled crudely in a dozen languages modern and ancient. In the middle of it all was a narrow iron bed and a small table balanced on two broken legs and a stack of books, an empty plate and a half-full mug of tea crowding for space.
The only occupant of the room barely contoured the thin, rough blanket, and at first, Neville was completely convinced that they had found another corpse. Then the skeletal figure moved, twisting to prop shakily up on one withered arm and peer quizzically at them, as though four strangers exploding his door was nothing of more than passing interest. His hair and beard were like spider silk, his skin like crepe folded into infinite fractals of age, but there was a familiar glitter to the eyes sunken deep within the hollow face as it broke into a smile over a half-dozen tombstones of rotted teeth. "Jim? Frank? Oh, thank Merlin you boys got here in time. I've been so worried…"
It took a moment for the names to sink in, but they seemed to hit Harry at the same moment, and he turned to meet Neville's look, his own eyes wide. "Oooh dear…."
Tony was the first to recover, stepping past them to check the teetering stacks for possible hiding places. "Smith, call a medic. Now."
Zach retreated back to the hallway to cast his Patronus, and Harry shook himself hard, motioning to Neville to follow as he took a slow, cautious step towards the bed. "Cover me. No chances." The figure in the bed continued to stare in a blank sort of friendliness at them, and they were barely three feet away when he heard Harry give a hiss of shocked recognition. "Ab? Aberforth, is that you?"
"Of course, Jim, who else?" The old man cackled weakly, flopping back down onto the patched and ragged pile of pillows with a sigh that stank of sour miasma. "But got to be careful these days. So careful."
"That's right, gotta be careful." Harry had dropped the harsh defensive completely, his voice soft as he crouched at the bedside, lowering himself to eye level, but Neville did not miss that his wand remained out, nor the hand signal directing him to hold cover. "Do you know what year it is?"
Fragile eyelids fluttered, yellow-nailed fingers playing vaguely at the sheets. "Seventy eighty ninety one two three, who knows, been in here so long, same four walls, but the birds come and the birds go…." His words rasped across the surface of guttering breaths, and Neville struggled to find something in the turn of jawbone or arch of profile to connect to the sharp, cynical barkeep he remembered as the benefactor and quartermaster of the RoR.
The reference to birds did not escape Tony, who had pulled up a trunk to the other side of the bed, his eyes narrowed keenly. "Ravens?"
Any answer was interrupted by a knock on the doorframe, and Neville turned to see that Zach had returned with a woman in red robes, a large satchel over one shoulder. "Auror Potter?"
"We just found this gentleman in here, Healer." Harry stood, motioning her in. "And he doesn't seem to be in very good shape. I was hoping you could help him."
She nodded, picking her way through the maze of boxes to the bed. Now that she was no longer just an outline in the light, Neville could see that she was a few years older than he himself, tall and strikingly beautiful, with dark hair and eyes and sculpted, even features that could have been severe but instead radiated warmth and kindness as she bent over the bed, tapping her wand against the inside of her forearm to dispel any residual static. "Good afternoon, Sir, I'm Healer Corner, and I'm here to help you, all right?"
The rheumy eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Don't need help from no drag queen. Still owe me money."
She laughed, already beginning her scans. "Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm all witch. I have quite a few relatives in the medical field, though, so you're probably thinking of one of my cousins or uncles."
He made a harsh, grunting noise, obviously not convinced, and Neville cleared his throat, interrupting quietly. "I think he remembers Michael, Healer. Elaine and Lionel's son. He knew him years ago…he was supposed to be our medic, and Ab got him the supplies he was going to need to build a battlefield kit. They spent a lot of time on it. You…" He hesitated, swallowing hard past the sudden thickness in his throat at the realization that he'd seen neither Mike nor Terry at the castle. "Well, there's a resemblance."
She froze, her face falling noticeably pale even in the faint, yellow light of the lamp, her full lips pressing together so hard they nearly vanished. "Oh. Right. I have been told that, yes. We were cousins…our fathers…well –" She shook her head harshly, cuffing at eyes that he hadn't noticed brimming as she turned back to her patient. "Anyway. Let's get you checked out so we can see about moving you to hospital."
"WON'T GO!" The shout carried a startling power, but it threw him into a ragged fit of coughing that seemed about to tear him apart, Healer Corner struggling to soothe him as a thick, yellowed foam brimmed to his lips. "Can't…" he gagged. "Can't go!"
Harry frowned, circling around to see his face more clearly. "Are you a prisoner, Ab? Is someone keeping you in here?"
His eyes had lost their focus, and if he even saw them any more, it was hard to tell. "Same four walls better late than never…."
Aberforth's hands moved fitfully on the blankets as the Healer took his vital signs with quick, practiced hands, an automatic quill already hovering to mark them down. She summoned a stethoscope from her bag, listening to his chest for a moment, but it was still heaving in agitation, and she cast a frustrated look over her shoulder at the Aurors. "I'm sorry, but could you officers step back for a moment? I need –"
"Right. Of course." Neville moved back almost to the hallway, the other three following to give her the space she needed to work. It was patently obvious that Aberforth was not a threat, but that didn't make this any less of a mess.
They watched the Healer work over the frail body, Zach chewing his lip thoughtfully. "Not what I was expecting, I'll give you that. Should I call in Ron from the yard?"
Tony shook his head, even though the question hadn't been directed to him. "We're still expecting the Nevermore, I think. But this…Harry, he thinks you're your dad."
"No kidding," Harry's voice was flat, his face unreadable as he motioned toward Neville. "Both of us. Dementia, obviously, but he's what…?"
"Older than crap?" Zach offered.
Tony's correction was automatic. "A hundred and twenty-four."
Zach rolled his eyes. "Like I said, older than crap. I thought he died in '03? We went to his funeral."
Harry hadn't taken his eyes off the bed, but there was something in his gaze that gave Neville the feeling that he could hear gears spinning in the messy black head. "Obviously not." He paused, tapping his wand against his chin slowly. "Or it's our Nevermore trying to throw us. Polyjuice, grabbed something from the Hogs Head that used to be Ab's before he sold it to Dung? Using the dementia act so that we can't ask him anything too exact to confirm his identity?"
Neville considered it, turning the theory over in his mind carefully. "How would the Nevermore know about the room here? Do you think Diggle's collaborating?"
"Don't have all the answers yet." Harry admitted. "I think –"
"Auror Potter, Sir?" Corner stood up from the bedside, professional enough to pretend she hadn't been able to hear them as she slipped into their tight cabal at the doorway. "If I may?"
"How bad is he?" Harry asked bluntly.
"I could give you the long, technical list, but the crux of the spell is that he's dying of the natural complications of extreme old age." Her answer held the equal candor of someone who was not working with law enforcement for the first time. "He might have a few days, maybe a few minutes. It's impossible to know."
Tony crossed his arms, leaning back against a tall wooden crate labeled in Cyrillic script. "Is there anything you could do to improve his lucidity?"
"There are things I could give him that would increase blood flow to the brain," she allowed grudgingly, "but I'd give it about a fifty-fifty shot between getting you about five minutes of clarity or blowing the whole thing like an old tire."
"I'm going to have to ask you to please attempt it." Harry already had his notepad out, putting the orders in writing even as he gave them. "The only link we've found in the Nevermore murders is that they've all had a connection to Albus Dumbledore, and that's his shouldn't-be-alive brother right there, so I have some incredibly important questions for him."
Neville wasn't so sure, even though he knew the decision wasn't his to make. "You said he's dying anyway, Healer…would it cause him more pain?"
She took the paper Harry gave her, studied it, then crumpled it deliberately and threw it off into the shadows without a second glance. "Sorry, Potter. A half dose. That's the most I feel professionally comfortable with, and I can't medically vouch for his mental state. You won't be able to use his testimony in court, which means the evidentiary override doesn't apply here."
He could see Harry gearing up to argue, but he could see just as clearly that Healer Corner wasn't budging any time soon, and they simply didn't have time. Especially if the stubbornness ran anywhere near as strongly as the cheekbones. Neville touched Harry's arm, trying to walk the careful line of friendship so newly re-drawn between them. "It's better than nothing."
For an instant, he thought Harry was going to ignore him, then the tension in the shoulders faded and he sighed, gesturing his agreement to the Healer's conditions. She gave that smug, 'see-that-didn't-hurt-so-bad' smile that Neville firmly believed was a requirement to pass medical school, and they waited as she returned to the bedside, opening her bag and injecting him with something from the portable potions kit before she signaled that they were ready.
Aberforth didn't look any better – still bearing a remarkable resemblance to a mummy, in fact - but Harry's face was hopeful as he knelt to take the old man's hand, squeezing it ever so slightly. "Ab? Ab, mate, do you know who I am?"
The blue eyes slit open, the creases of the liver-spotted brow arranging themselves into deeper furrows. "Jim…no…no…something's…come here. Come." Harry obeyed, and Aberforth reached up with his other hand, crooking the edge of the glasses and pulling them almost off the end of Harry's nose as he muttered seemingly to himself. "Not Jim. Jim's dead. Not Jim's glasses. And Jim…has brown eyes. You're…oh…." His expression of concentration broke into one of painful pity. "Ohh…."
"You remember now?" Neville wondered if Harry realized he was whispering.
"Harry. Harry Potter." Aberforth clucked his tongue, stroking Harry's cheek with a soft, paternal moan. "Poor little Harry. All grown up now, though. Good, good. Albus wanted to do things…I never agreed…not fair to do to a poor little boy. Tried to warn your parents. And Longbottom!"
Neville jumped, surprised that he'd even been noticed. "Yes, sir?"
"No, no sir," Aberforth made a distasteful face. His hand was still resting on Harry's cheek as if he had forgotten it was there, his attention entirely on Neville now. "Your little one, what did you name him?"
The question surprised him; when Aberforth had supposedly died, he and Hannah hadn't even been married yet. "I…I have three, actually; Trevor, Margaret, and Ernest."
"No, no, no…" The grey head shook in consternation and he smacked his mouth, struggling to find the thoughts. "I…the other one…Nigel? No, Neville. Yes, that's it." The triumph vanished almost as quickly as it happened. "I wanted to warn you, you and Jim. I found a book, it's all the things he's planning to do…I've been trying to warn you boys. I always liked you. Like the babies. Such cute babies." He seemed to remember his hand on Harry's face at last, pushing the glasses back into place. "Yours is squinty though, Jim. Holds his toys too close. Gonna need specs like you, I think."
Zach stifled a giggle, and Harry shot a frustrated, sidelong glance at Corner. "This is not what I'd call lucid, Healer."
"It's the best I can give you without essentially murdering him." She insisted. "You'll have to get what you can."
Harry sighed, turning back to the bed. "How have you been trying to warn us?"
Aberforth's eyes had drifted closed again, his answer a scarcely audible mumble. "Send you pieces of the book. Want to send more but can't make it…not strong enough for a better one. Can't carry more than a little piece."
Tony all but Apparated across the room, overbalancing and barely catching himself on the bed in his haste. "You're sending the ravens?! The avatars?!"
The Auror's fervor had absolutely no effect on Aberforth's dreamy whispers. "Birds come…birds go…have to keep it a secret. Not supposed to know what Al is up to with Nicky." He sighed, the sound as dry as the wind through a branch of dead leaves. "Not supposed to know Nicky's birds or steal his potions. Sneaky, always sneaky. Why did Al always have to be so sneaky? But I got him good, didn't I! I can be sneaky too…"
"Everyone thought you were dead." Neville noted. "That's very sneaky."
"Mmmm." There was a distinct note of self-satisfaction to the noise that was a bit uncomfortable to hear. "Ways of doing that. Mama's got ways. Old tricks from the islands. Enemies…."
"Your enemies, Ab?" Harry pressed hopefully. "What were your enemies trying to do?"
"Old man, sneaky. Secrets and stuff, get you anything. Everyone thought I had everything. Easy to kill an old man unless he does it first, unless he hides." Another black, rotted cackle of a laugh. "Took all the good stuff with me! Sneaky!"
"How did you get the book, Ab?" Tony's voice had started to rise sharply, but he caught himself, forced it back under control, if only just. "How did you get Al's book? I was sneaky too. My friends and I hid it. Where did you find it?"
"Birds come, birds go…." He faded away again, a thin, silvery strand of drool slipping from the corner of his mouth to catch in the wispy tangle of his beard as his head sank to the side on the pillow.
It was clearly the last straw.
As an Unspeakable, Tony carried a small kit at his belt that none of the rest of them did, and he heard the snap on it pop scarcely a second before his hand flashed up and down again, the needle of Veritaserum sparkling an instant under the light before its contents were plunged into the reed-thin arm. Corner made a sharp, strangled noise, lunging forward across the bed to grab his wrist and wrench away the now-empty vial. "You can't –!"
"Too late." Tony's eyes were burning in a way Neville had never seen before, his stare merciless as he leaned in low, his question a dangerous growl. "Aberforth Dumbledore, how the fuck did you get ahold of your brother's diary?"
For a moment, Neville thought he had actually died, then the blue eyes snapped open again, clearer and brighter than he'd seen them since they arrived. There was something like tone to his face again as well, and though he still looked like the decayed remains of his own corpse, there was, for the first time, something of the man he'd met as a teenager to be seen again. "I…the battle." Aberforth licked his lips, seemingly startled at the clarity of his own mind's response to the question. "The night the castle came down. I was…"
Harry leaned forward, the fury that had seemed to be building only seconds ago at Tony's renegade maneuver now seemingly forgotten. "Yes?"
"The morning after, I was helping with the bodies." He was still weak, terribly so, but every word was clear and deliberate. "At the morgue. Going through the pockets of the mangled ones, helping with identification."
The look he gave Tony would have frozen lava. "I wouldn't rob dead children."
Tony did not back down. "But you took other things that night."
"There were a lot of valuables in the castle, yes, but I only wanted his diary. I wanted to know the truth. He'd lied to me his whole damned life," the bitterness of over a century's rivalry was still sharp on his tongue. "I deserved the truth."
"But the library was destroyed, wasn't it?"
"Yes, yes it was." Aberforth frowned, struggling delicately over the effort to recall like picking a fragment of glass from clay without cutting your fingers. "I tried to move some…and then this chamber just opened up in the stones, and there was a bag in it. I looked inside, and there were his diaries. A lot of other books, too. I took the bag." He shrugged faintly, dismissively. "Never could find a safe buyer for the other books."
"The bodies you were handling…do you remember at all who they were?" There was something mesmerizing, strangely intimate about the intensity of Tony's need, and even though a voice in the back of his head told him he should intervene, he was no more capable of doing so nor looking away than the rest of them.
"No, I was given the mangled ones."
"Like a boy who'd been torn apart? Or one with his head half ripped off? Dark hair, model-pretty?"
Aberforth's eyes flicked briefly to the Healer, then back to Tony as he nodded. "Mikey Corner, yes. I remember him." A pause to consider, the grey tongue dabbing over his lips again uselessly. "Torn apart…that could be any of them. I remember one was ripped all the way in two. Indian boy, I think, or maybe Arab. Something exotic, anyway. Brown skin. Chinky eyes."
Tony's hand was shaking as he ran it through his hair, and it was impossible to tell if he was talking to himself or to Aberforth at first. "Oy…blood willingly shed. At least two of them. And maybe even mine…I remember you helped tighten my tourniquets while we were waiting for the cease-fire to be over…oh, it would have been all over your hands."
Harry was leaning in as well now, his own eyes matching Tony's in fervor. "Who have you been working with? Why the murders, Ab? Is this some sick way of getting even with your brother?"
"I don't know anything about any murders!" The surprise seemed genuine, but neither officer backed down.
"You've been sending the Ravens with the scraps of diary, and within the hour for all of them, people have been killed!" Harry snapped. "That's not a coincidence!"
"I…I don't know why I sent them." There was a broken, plaintive air to the confession. "I've been so confused lately…it must have seemed the thing to do. I know I wanted to show them to you for a long time, but then you boys became Aurors and Al had made you such good little obedient House-Elves…I didn't want to spend my last years in jail."
"Where are the books now?"
"They're in there." He motioned vaguely towards one corner of the vast heap. "With all the things that people would have killed me for or that I never quite knew what to do with. Fat load of dragon dung they do me now."
Harry had his notepad out, the quill suspended breathlessly. "Has Daedalus been working with you, then?"
"Him?" Aberforth made a scoffing noise, grimacing. "He just takes care of me and keeps his mouth shut. I pay him. Pay him in gold. Better than the little nothing pension from the Ministry. But he's not murdering anyone, Merlin's earhair no."
He seemed to be drifting off again, rubbing at his shoulder, and Harry and Tony exchanged an urgent look, Tony moving in again urgently. "Would he know when you're sending the Ravens? Would anyone? Be able to time it, then? Does anyone else know you're still alive? Aberforth?"
"Doge…" Maybe the Veritaserum was wearing off already. He was definitely fading, becoming more and more preoccupied with his shoulder, his eyes getting vague again, his speech slurring.
"What about Doge?" Harry sounded nearly panicked.
"Visits…only one…no one sees the birds…have to be sneaky…only Diggle and Doge…and…her…" The last word cut off in a horrible, choking gurgle, and his eyes rolled back in his head, his spine arching in a sudden convulsion that had Corner on him immediately, wand flashing.
"Goddamn it, he's coding…move!" She elbowed Harry unceremoniously in the ribs, shoving him back as she dug in her bag with one hand, the other working her wand quickly over his chest. "If we lose him, Auror," she spared a brief, wicked glare at Tony. "I'm filing charges! What the hell were you thinking?"
Tony was unrepentant as he got to his feet, bracing himself on the handle of a steamer trunk sitting atop a crate that could have held a moderate-sized lion. "I'm thinking we got more information in the last five minutes than we have in this entire case!"
Harry, though equally capable of pragmatism, was not nearly as cold, and Neville saw the flash of sorrow and guilt pass over his face before he pulled the mask back into place, turning his back on Corner's struggle over her patient. "Zach, Neville, start where he pointed. Let's see what the old boy's been stashing away."
"Well, I found the one of the diaries." Tony motioned with his wand, summoning a small, battered blue book from beneath the shadows of the bed. He flicked through it quickly, nodding in satisfaction. "This is definitely a hit. We shouldn't have a problem matching the pages to the parts he's torn out."
"I've found the rest of the books…" Zach was standing over an open crate almost exactly where Aberforth had indicated, an awestruck look on the face that wasn't his. "And it looks like about two thirds of the stolen goods and smuggling cases in our cold files, guys. Fuck."
"Him and Dung and Rosier out in a week." Harry gave a low, impressed whistle. "Do you know what this is going to do to the black market?"
"I don't care about the black market." Corner interrupted, shoving a piece of parchment under Harry's nose. "Sign this. I'm taking him to hospital, and you're releasing him, because I think I just might be able to save him from your man's –"
"Just do it." Harry signed, pushing the parchment back at her. "And I'm sorry. Please, do your best."
"I'm a Healer, Mr. Potter," she tossed her head, folding the authorization crisply and tucking it into her pocket. "I'd never do less."
Neville barely heard them. He had spotted something tucked into the corner, something that seemed distinctly familiar. It was a sword. He picked it up, stepping back from the others to test it expertly, feeling the flawless balance to the steel that spoke of truly brilliant craftsmanship. It was a beautiful weapon, a bit dirty, though not damaged or rusted. The amount of decoration and the inlaid jewels made it obviously ceremonial but still perfectly good for war, much like Ascalon had been, and the heraldry…there was something wrong there…
Tony was staying carefully out of reach, but the hunger of curiosity was still evident. "What's that?"
He turned the sword to the light, examining it carefully. It made sense now why he'd been confused by the heraldry. Someone had tampered with it, and not recently. The pommel had been replaced with the figure of a bird, though the soft gold had taken enough wear that he couldn't tell if it was an eagle, hawk, or other raptor. The quillion block had originally been inset with an enameled shield in some kind of blue stone – lapis? – inlaid with three pieces of gold, but it had been enameled over in purple and more gilt, most of which had rubbed off, but still...oh.
Neville gasped, setting the sword down carefully on the nearest trunk as he reflexively crossed himself, the gesture one of pure training. "I'm…um…I'm pretty sure we just recovered Clarent."
"I repeat," Tony said tersely, "what's that?"
"Mordred's sword. Well, Arthur's originally. He stole it. It's been missing for a thousand years."
Harry blinked hard, staring at Neville as if he'd just announced the discovery of a live dinosaur. "How can you be so sure?"
"If any living person would know," Zach pointed out matter-of-factly, "he would. I mean, unless you've done the knight of the cornerless dinette set bit. I know I haven't."
Tony nodded slowly, unable to take his eyes off the gleaming weapon. "Fair enough."
"Whoa!" Zach yanked back from a newly opened trunk. "Take a go at this!"
Neville was the first to reach him, grateful for the distraction from the sword. There was a collection of seemingly random old junk jumbled together at the bottom of the moldy trunk, but one coarse, chipped pottery bowl was filled to the brim with what looked and smelled like Megan's signature shepherd's pie. He looked up, smiling teasingly at Zach. "Hungry, were you?"
"Don't touch anything else." Tony looked and sounded like he'd been punched in the face in an impossibly good way. "I'm pulling rank as an Unspeakable. No one lays a hand on anything until the DoM gets here." He pointed at the steaming dish, excitement building. "That's the Crock of Rhyngenydd, which means I'm pretty sure that's the Halter of Clydno Eidden and someone's been compiling at least a good chunk of the Thirteen – DOWN!"
Tony lunged at the same time he shouted the warning, and it was still barely enough. The brilliant green bolt shattered the window, striking the side of the crate exactly where Zach's head had been and blowing it to a smoking ruin. Neville was already on his feet, his wand in his hand without having even been aware of drawing it, his own red streak answering the green almost before it had faded. It struck the caster full in the chest, knocking them back and off their feet even as Ron came running around the corner of the house.
They both recognized the crumpled figure at the same time, their eyes locking in impossible, sickened understanding. And then Harry was at the window, and Neville had rarely seen a man's face lose color so quickly. "No!"
He spun away, nearly knocking Neville over despite the difference in their size as he barreled towards the exit. Neville was almost immediately behind, Tony and Zach only a few steps after that, though Zach was clutching a cloth to his badly-bleeding jaw from where Tony's life-saving tackle had slammed his face into the rim of the trunk. There was not a second thought for the priceless treasures they were abandoning, all of them hoping against possibility that they were, in some way, somehow wrong.
The back yard was tiny and ill-kept, a few stalwart flowering quince rearing above the weeds in the earstwhile flowerbeds, the patch of lawn rimmed on one side by the edge of a pathetically algae-choked excuse for a fish pond, on the other by a quickset hazel hedge that was in dire need of trimming. An unremarkable space that could have been nice with a few hours work and currently monstrous because of a single body lying splayed and senseless with her head in the mud and her hair floating among the duckweed.
Hermione. She was still dressed for court, from her carefully tasteful and conservative pearls to her carefully tasteful and conservative heels, still wearing her Solicitor's robes over the neatly cut grey suit, not so much as a ladder in her stockings or a chip on her nails. So flawlessly together, even now, with the scorch of his Stunner in the direct center of her chest and a water beetle ambling across the sodden Hogs Head beer mat in her open left hand.
"It can't be!" Harry dropped without a second thought, pulling her head into his lap and stroking the wet, mucky strands back from her face as if he could wipe away her identity. "It's Polyjuice, it's…it's not her!"
Ron was still standing where he had first rounded the edge of the building, his wand loose in his fingers. His expression held a numbness beyond grief, an acceptance of the inevitable like losing a fight with a terminal illness. He raised his free hand vaguely towards his friend, then let it fall, shaking his head. "Harry, mate…."
"It can't be!" It was a challenge, an ultimatum, a cornered animal's roar, and Harry glared from one man to the next, daring the contradiction. "It's some kind of misunderstanding!" His fury landed on Ron, fishtailing into despairing confusion. "How the fuck can you just– she's your wife!"
"I know," Ron's face crumpled, and Zach only just caught him with an arm around the shoulders in time for his knees to fail. The first had been a confession. The second was pure helplessness. "I know…"
"Accio." Tony summoned the wand from her clenched right hand, and he turned it now to the blank stone wall of the house before Harry could stop him.
"Priori Incantatum!" Green. Ugly, livid, fatal, unforgivable green.
Slowly, Tony lowered the wand, taking a deep breath as he sealed it into an evidence pouch, marking it with the time, date, and exact location as he used the excuse to speak without having to make eye contact with either Harry or Ron. "I…I need to ask permission for something. I have a theory."
Harry's eyes narrowed to bare slits of suspicion. "What kind of theory?"
"Saz wasn't getting her eyes checked. I sent her to get Finnigan, because I thought that if it was Hermione, if she did show up here…I thought…I thought…." He was struggling, the weight of Harry's anger pushing hard against the social anxiety that camaraderie usually conquered so easily, and Neville took over, crouching beside Harry in the shallow water, though careful not to seem in any way like he was going to touch Hermione.
"Tony thought that maybe when the Diabhal Dubh had her…well, we all he wanted to use her for the rebirth of his soul. He thought she might be carrying some of that, like you were with Riddle. Maybe it's like a Horcrux. Maybe it's not her fault."
The surge of hope was frightening to see. "How would we know?"
"Let Saz bring Seamus to check. If I know Tony, they're close by already."
"We are, and aye, I'd know. Same's you knew Riddle." There was a darkness to his best friend's voice that he had prayed never to hear again, and Neville suppressed a shiver as he turned.
Seamus shouldn't have looked any different than usual, clad casually in his usual work attire from the Loch of blue jeans, boots, and a flannel shirt over a worn out t-shirt, but there was a gleam of ivory at his belt that transformed him in a way that was impossible to miss. It was in his carriage and his eyes, in the careful severing and setting aside of his soul that promised complete inhumanity if necessary. He moved like a predator, barely seeming to bend the grass under his feet as he crossed to the edge of the mud. "Better's to know, don't you reckon, Potter?"
Harry nodded blankly. "Just…don't hurt her."
"If it's him," Seamus pulled the knife from his waist, spinning it easily in his hand. "I'm gonna fuckin' end this."
"No." Neville made it an order, backed with all the authority of things between them no one else could share. "Do whatever you need to in order to find out, but if there's a Horcrux, you can't kill her. We have to try and exorcise it."
"T'hell with that!"
"We got it out of Harry and Ginny," Neville refused to back down, not in the least intimidated, though a part of his mind had visualized the exact location of the sword and was prepared to summon it if he had to defend Hermione…or if Harry did something stupid. "We owe it to her!"
"If that's him and he so much as thinks about openin' any kind o' –"
"We cross that when we get there," Neville conceded. "All we're asking you to do now is just find out."
Seamus nodded, and it seemed as if time itself hung suspended, unable to move a breath of wind or dare the leaves to rustle while he stripped off his outer shirt and tossed it aside. No one was quite sure what he was going to do, but when he was bare to the waist he took her wand hand in his and lifted it, breaking away her bracelet with a snap of his thumb and a scatter of beads so that he could press the lines of the scars there against the jagged slash of the one on his own chest. He closed his eyes, taking a long, slow breath before opening them again with a smile that couldn't have been more welcome in the simple fact that it was human again. "Jesus wept, she's clean." His voice was trembling. "At least o'that. He's still gone."
Harry's jaw set again, and he looked as though the news was a personal betrayal that might never be forgiven. "Then it's not her."
"Oh, that it is," Seamus corrected him evenly. "We both hold that bastard's scars, and that much I could feel just fine."
Ron had pulled away from Zach to join them, and Neville knew that no other man could have lifted her from Harry's lap without protest. Harry stroked her shoulder as Ron took her, cradling her against his chest like a sleeping child. "Maybe she can explain?"
Ron kissed the top of her forehead, carefully positioning her hands behind her back. "Cuff her, Harry."
Harry looked stricken. "You don't –"
"Mate, speaking as your Deputy here, if you don't get your head on straight, I'm going to have to relieve you." Zach's tone was sympathetic, but firm, the wand unsheathed but low by his side a quiet emphasis on his sincerity. "We've got our top suspect in situ. Now, I get it; she's your best friend, fucking near your sister, and this is breaking your bloody heart." He reached inside his robes, unhooking his cuffs and holding them out in offer. "Ranking officer be damned, let me do this one, okay?"
"No." Harry bit his lip, squaring his shoulders as he collected himself with one of the most painfully deliberate efforts at self-control Neville had ever seen. "I at least owe her the guts to do it myself. Just…give me a moment." He wiped his forehead, pushing back the hair that had stuck to the sweat gleaming there, then looked to his friend beseechingly. "Ron?"
"Can you forgive me for this? Please? I can't lose you too."
Ron nodded, the motion barely perceptible but more than either man needed. "Of course, Harry. Nothing to forgive. It's ok."
"No, it's not." Harry shook his head, and there was a last glimpse of almost unbearable betrayal before the mask of responsibility slammed down. "It's not ok at all."
The cuffs were clicked into place, his wand slid into the crook of her neck against Ron's chest. The light flared, her eyes blinking open, and Harry's recitation was perfectly, professionally exact and steady as the tears traced shining broken promises down his face. "Hermione Jean Granger-Weasley, it is my duty that you be made aware of your standing under the Provision of Magical Rights and Liberties…."
TO BE CONTINUED