Disclaimer: I'm not J.K. Rowling; I'm only visiting her universe for nonprofit fun and edification. (No profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended).
"Take it outside, you two." To Andromeda's surprise, they did; Nigel Black bowed ironically to the assembled teenagers, who looked at him with keen interest. He walked out into the hallway with Ron Weasley, and Andromeda found herself listening to their colloquy, which proceeded at first in hissed voices.
"So our Miss Granger is a popular girl, it would seem. It's not only the little ponce taking an interest, and our hefty northern lad…"
Ron said, "Come off it, Black. She told me what you did. She's not working on your side of the border by choice. You had to threaten her, and try to blackmail her into sleeping with you." Andromeda recognizes suppressed rage, and flicks a glance at Justin to let him know that he ought to keep an eye on the proceedings in the hallway.
Justin shifts to stand at the doorway, in a plainly listening posture, wand not yet in evidence but at the ready. Even if no one particularly likes Nigel, he's after all a Muggle, and Ron a fully armed wizard.
One of the girls, with sleek auburn hair – probably clean and combed for the first time in months – and green eyes, tips her head to one side and looks at Andromeda. There's something alert, foxy if not vulpine, in the gesture.
Finally the girl says, "Remus Lupin, right? The bloke with his name on all this." She gestures with one hand at the room: the free hand (for the other hand is occupied, fingers intertwined with those of the boy on the couch next to her). One of the pregnant ones, Andromeda thinks, taking in the round face and the glow. "He was right, after all. Though Greyback was right too. They hate us."
Andromeda has on her listening face, which seems to encourage the girl, for she continues, "The wizards. They hate us. Even though we'd be witches and wizards, too, if they'd just let us. Mrs. F. told us that Nigel bloke's the only Muggle one."
Mrs. Finch-Fletchley says, "You're to be fully qualified, my dear. It's a matter of arranging the details."
The girl looks at her. "Greyback certainly didn't count on your lot interfering." She smiles, rather cynically. It reminds Andromeda of the look she's seen on Dean's face, that sits uneasily on features so young. "He told us that Remus fellow was all wrong, that the wizards would make use of us and then throw us away, as usual. Look at what they did to him: let him starve. It was only the Old Spymaster who fed him, you know, and that for his own purposes. Or so Greyback said."
Andromeda asks mildly, "So what did you make of Greyback?"
"He taught us how to be a pack," she says.
"Though he owed us," the boy next to her says. He's tall and rangy, though it's clear his frame would be burly if he were sufficiently fed. "He turned most of us, you know. And the ones who didn't go along …" He leaves the thought unfinished, with a look that tells her that he knows she's a veteran and perfectly well can fill in the details.
The girl turns her green eyes to her companion. "Wolves are better to their own than humans, that's certain," she says.
The boy looks at her with a protective and even proprietary glance. "We've been watching nature documentaries on wolves," he says. "They mate for life, you know. And look after each other's cubs." The girl's fingers tighten in his, and Andromeda suspects that the two of them would cuddle together if they weren't under the proper surveillance of adults. "More than you get from humans, that's for sure." The girl nods.
From the hall, there's a bark of laughter. Ron Weasley says, "Oh, you thought he was an art student? That's a good one. Malfoy never made anything useful in his life. Do you know what your cousin was about in the war? Torturer at a minimum, when he wasn't trying to save his own skin." His voice drops. "Believe me, Black, I see the resemblance. Slimy little blackmailing git. Throwing your money around, and she told me you went so far as to try to force her …"
There's no answer from Nigel Black. Justin is watching, an expression of faint disgust on his face.
Ron continues, "Hermione is worth a good hundred of you. I'd have let the wolves finish you off, after that."
Andromeda nods to the girl, to excuse herself, and steps into the line of sight to the hall. Nigel is staring at Ron Weasley, who has drawn his wand but has it pointed at the earth, in the at-ease position. The stubborn look on Nigel's face more than reminds her of her nephew, and the resemblance is underlined by the paleness of his face and the familiar bone structure. Nigel is scared but trying not to show it; Ron towers over him by half a head, not to mention the weapon very much in evidence. The Auror training has definitely taken, both in Ron's stance and the visible constraint in his manner.
Ron says, with eyes narrowed, "I never thought I'd say this, but your cousin's a better man than you. So far as I know, he's never tried to rape anybody."
Nigel narrows his eyes. "I wouldn't call it that."
"Oh no, what do you call it when you tell a girl she's to come with you and look willing for the cameras?" Ron says, with a tight smile, "Except you're a Muggle and it wouldn't be sporting, you'd have the whole lot of us drawing straws for the honor."
Nigel says, "Very impressive caveman impression you do."
Ron says, "It isn't the blokes that ought to worry you. Lavender said she'd personally cut off your descent, if you get my drift, if you ever even thought about it again. About Hermione or anybody else."
"And who might Lavender be, when she's at home?"
"Somebody you'd best thank your lucky stars wasn't the one to take the call that night." Ron adds, "And if the rumors are true, even your cousin wouldn't be too pleased to find out what you'd tried."
Nigel seems to understand that Ron isn't going to raise a hand to him, in spite of the posture of threat. Or maybe his social privilege has given him a sense of impunity.
In any case, he looks Ron in the eye and says, "He has a rather proprietary manner, my cousin. If that's what he is."
"If Marius Black is your grandfather, then Draco's your cousin." Ron's hand, the one not holding the wand, balls into a fist at his side, and then he catches himself and the fingers uncurl. "I ought to lock the two of you in a room to sort it out. Except that wouldn't be sporting." Nigel doesn't understand the threat, and Ron doesn't know that it's empty. She can't imagine Draco doing much in the way of damage to Nigel with his fists.
Ron says, "And what else your cousin has on you, is that he admits when he's in the wrong. Never thought he had it in him."
Nigel says, "I don't see what business it is of yours."
Ron says, "It is my business. Hermione is my friend. From the time we were eleven years old. You touch her, you even think about it, and you'll have the whole lot of us to contend with."
Andromeda looks back at the teenagers. They're listening raptly, as the television chatters quietly to itself in the corner. The drama going on in the hallway is far more interesting than anything on the screen.
The green-eyed girl smirks. "He's stupid, he is. Has to be a Muggle. No wizard would even try that."
Nigel narrows his eyes and says, "Nobody asked you."
She stands up, as does her boyfriend who's still holding her hand. Some number of those behind follow suit. They might well be the alpha couple of their little band, Andromeda thinks.
"You don't talk to us like that," the boy says. "It's our house."
Mrs. Finch-Fletchley says, "Everyone sit down. Nigel," and she fixes him with a gimlet look before which he quails, "I would have thought better of you."
"Not me," mutters the girl. "He's a right git. And he doesn't even make a good wolf, I'd bet."
"Should have chewed off his arm," says a boy in the back. Oh dear, Andromeda thinks. is this the band that turned up in London on New Year's Eve?
"Shut it, Collum," says the green-eyed girl. "It wasn't anything personal." She glares at Nigel. "Not then, anyway. They just dumped us there."
"Eaten 'im, too, except he hasn't got any meat on him to speak of." Collum stares very hard at Nigel. "Not worth the effort." The green-eyed girl and her companion turn and glare at Collum, as the others watch in mild interest.
Collum looks defiant, and then Mrs. Finch-Fletchley looks at him, and his expression changes. He sits down.
The others sit down as well. No question as to the identity of the alpha: it's Justin's mother.
Ron says to Nigel, "I think you might want to consider following your cousin's example. Write her an apology."
Nigel stares at him, as if he's speaking Urdu, or maybe Martian.
Ron looks at him, with an expression usually reserved for something nasty on one's shoe. "Apology, Nigel. Foreign notion for you lot, I know. But your cousin's been a right arse for seven years now and he managed it, so you can give it a try." Andromeda is even more intrigued. "Nearly killed me, the little … More than once. But he wrote me New Year's and said he knew it, too. Made a list, he did. Everything back to the Hogwarts Express. Starting with trying to burn me alive, and working back from there."
Nigel's eyes widened at that.
"Said that one thing led to another, and he thought better of it. Said he knew it was Azkaban and no mistake about it, but he wanted me to know … " Ron's voice faltered a little. "That he hadn't even bloody paid attention. That it was him tried to poison me, and it wasn't even meant for me. Not that it's exactly flattering to a bloke to say, 'Oi, sorry mate, meant to kill the headmaster and almost got you instead.' A good thing Harry's a dab hand with a bezoar…"
Nigel had gone white, clearly not having reckoned on Draco's apparent penchant for setting people on fire and poisoning them, in what order he wouldn't like to think. And attempted assassination of headmasters was something apparently not done at Eton, if Nigel's expression were any guide.
Ron said, "Although really it was his goon who cast the Fiendfyre. A gentlemanly touch, though, to take responsibility for it."
Andromeda had to confess herself impressed. Draco's letter of apology to Ron Weasley apparently had gone above and beyond the bare requirements, to a posthumous noblesse oblige in the matter of his late minion Vincent Crabbe.
"So you might consider a letter of apology," Ron sums up. "Though there's no guarantee she'll accept it. And you'll still be on notice from the rest of us, mind."
Bill speaks up for the first time. "Based on what I've heard, I'd say Ron's right."
Nigel bites his lips and his blanched complexion goes from white to pink, with hectic flush in his cheeks. He narrows his eyes.
"And forget it about who your people are. Because we don't care." Ron is leaning forward now, eye to eye with Nigel. "You're only alive by accident, as far as anybody can tell. Your little friends here –" though the expressions in the circle of teenagers wouldn't justify the title – "tell us that someone dumped them there to do the job. You weren't even the main target." He laughs, a short sharp unhumorous bark. "One of Umbridge's people. Thought they'd create an incident and get the weight of public opinion against the werewolves. Taking out Hermione would have been a bonus, too, though it didn't quite work out that way."
Andromeda says, "So they've been tracking the werewolves. They've known all along…"
"Someone has," Bill says. "It's tricky sorting out the factions, but Percy's best guess is that it's one of Umbridge's protégés in the Ministry. Not clear if there were direct orders from Umbridge, given she's on house arrest." He frowns. "On the other hand, given the nonsense in the Prophet, it's not clear that house arrest actually means anything."
It's been less than a week since the new year, and already all of those promises about peace and prosperity are looking a bit tatty. Andromeda looks at Bill and quirks an eyebrow.
"Oh yes, and your nephew," Bill says. "It appears he's been comprehensive."
Ron adds, "I had a note from Katie Bell. She said she'd gotten an Owl from him." He adds, "He went into detail about the cursed necklace, quite a bit." He frown, having forgotten about Nigel for the moment. "He's said the same thing to everyone, that the letters are personal and not to be brought into evidence in the trial."
Nigel is staring. "The trial?"
"Your cousin's a war crimes defendant," Ron says, which reply appears to leave Nigel even more in the dark.
Andromeda adds, "This is a civil war, and my sister's family was on the wrong side of it." Nigel stares at her. "Legally, morally, and militarily. My brother-in-law is a rather comprehensive failure."
"Do you mind awfully…" A look of unaccustomed confusion crosses his face. "I mean, I don't understand a bit of it. Clear as mud, the whole thing. And this one" – he indicates Ron – "seems to think he's speaking English."
Andromeda says, "Ron is from the other side of the border."
"I was born here but I crossed over. My husband's from your world." She says, "It's all very confusing at first, but it will come clearer in time." She adds, "In the meantime, I think you'd do well not to involve yourself in any more fights. I'm not pleased with your conduct toward Hermione."
"She threatened me."
Ron says, "Percy and Neville between them thought she'd been up for forty hours at least." He adds, "I thought my New Year's was busy. Turns out I had nothing to complain about. And if you did half of what she says you did, you're bloody lucky to be alive."
"Language," Mrs. Finch-Fletchley says, and Ron mumbles something that might pass for an apology if the words were audible.
"I think we should continue this conversation elsewhere," Bill says, sotto voce. Andromeda nods.
The tour continues as if nothing had happened, which of course fools nobody, least of all the wary and all-too-wise teenaged werewolves. Mrs. Finch-Fletchley is a stickler for the proprieties, though, and no mean diplomat. Nigel behaves himself, in front of the children. It's going to be an interesting full-moon season in three weeks, she reflects. They'll be snarling and snapping at each other before they're even in vulpine form.
When it's time to go, Bill takes her aside and says that they'll be going up to Shell Cottage. He has a few confidential inquiries to make, and then Percy will be joining them to discuss some other business. She nods, not missing the order. Whatever Bill has to discuss is something he doesn't want Percy involved in.
It's a good thing she has an excellent memory for which secrets she's keeping for whom, where Fidelius doesn't keep track for her.
Fleur is smiling at the door when they Apparate to the barrier. Andreomeda notices that the defenses are unchanged, and if she doesn't mistake they've been tweaked a bit. Once they're inside, Bill sweeps off his cloak and hangs it up, and takes Andromeda's cloak as well. Fleur brings them hot tea, and asks how the tour went.
"Our Muggle guest is making no friends," Bill says. "On the other hand, the young people are quite forthright about the uses to which they've been put. The lot from Manchester have been talking, too, and Millicent with them." Andromeda frowns; the Bulstrode girl had seemed quite uncommunicative a few days ago. "She's been talking to Derwent and Slughorn." He adds, "House solidarity goes a long way with her."
He says, "But really, we're here to talk about something quite different." He gestures toward the cup of hot tea on the table in front of her. "It tastes much better when it's fresh."
Obediently, she drinks. The tea is one she doesn't recognize, with a light floral scent. "Quite good," she agrees. Fleur presides over the tea ceremony like a priestess, although she and Bill put out a rather eclectic selection of treats. Today it's madeleines and something Greek, puff pastry and walnuts and honey. She chooses the delicate shell-shaped pastries; the other looks unmanageably sticky.
Fleur smiles. "Percy likes those," she says. Andromeda is too civilized to hurry things by bolting the tea and stuffing her mouth with pastry, but she finds herself feeling impatient; there's something in the air.
Bill says, somewhat ceremoniously, "You know that there's something afoot. Something dangerous."
"You mean the business for which you recruited Dean and Luna."
He nods. "We have the word back. The contracts between the Foundation and the Ministry don't bind you personally, even as an officer or employee of the Foundation," he says. "On the other hand, there's question as to whether we should try to recruit you for an active role."
She waits him out.
"After all, Teddy has been orphaned once already," Fleur says.
They both look at her. She says, "It might be a little clearer if you were to specify." She sighs and adds, "Of course, you have the option of Fidelius or even Obliviate, if it comes to that."
Fleur shakes her head, and Bill says, "No. Not Obliviate. That's precisely the problem. We want someone to remember… if it all goes pear-shaped." He says, "Percy is worried, about Hermione. So we thought we might want to have a back-up. More than one. Because Hermione's been carrying it alone, and her health is getting more than a bit precarious."
She shakes her head. "I don't think I understand."
"Hermione and … some colleagues … think they may have worked out a way…" She feels her eyes widen. Bill's pauses seem to anticipate that she'll be shocked.
She thinks about the evening drawing on, and the fact she really should be returning to Grimmauld Place, even though Ginny has been more than good-natured about looking after Teddy. She doesn't think that much will shock her.
"To do what?" she asks, trying not to sound too annoyed.
"To Banish the Dementors."
Bill opens his mouth to explain further, but then there's a knock on the door. For the first time, she hears him swear under his breath. "Percy, damn him. He's early. We'll talk about this in a day or two, all right?"
She nods, and Bill casts Fidelius.
Taken aback doesn't begin to cover it.
Percy has already Vanished the snow from his cloak, and for that matter dried it, before crossing the threshold. He is a punctilious and courteous guest, she thinks, and why is it that he's not to be trusted with a discussion of Hermione's project?
Percy sits down without preamble, takes the tea cup proffered by Fleur, and accepts a plate with three madeleines. "No more than that," he quips, "if they're worth a million words apiece."
Fleur smiles at what's apparently an old joke between them. "Only if you're Marcel Proust," she says.
"Who didn't write about proper use of time-turners," Percy says, "but maybe he ought to have." His slight smile vanishes. "Joking aside, that's the agenda item, you know." He sips the tea, and then adds, "It's not a secret anymore, if (let's see)" – he puts down the cup and saucer to count out on his fingers – "I know, and" (a glance at Andromeda) "you know, and Ron certainly knows, and Neville, and Augusta because Neville's confirmed her suspicions, and of course Minerva McGonagall and Boudicca Derwent." He adds, with the mildness of tone that tells Andromeda that he's deeply angry, "those unforgivable bastards at the Ministry. They signed off on it, because it seemed useful to them." He looks at each of his listeners in turn, and then frowns.
"Useful," he says, "as in they're counting on her to run herself into the ground trying to change what can't be changed." He adds, "They're half right. She's running herself into the ground."
Fleur nods. "She's looking worse by the day. I thought she was falling ill."
"She was up for forty hours on New Year's Eve," Percy says. "Ron and Augusta and Neville and I put our heads together on it. Augusta says she dosed her with Dreamless Sleep, but that sort of trick only works once or twice. And Neville says she seems to be convinced that there are things that no one else can do, that she's indispensable."
The thin vertical crease appears between his brows. "Which might be close to the truth, but only close."
Andromeda says, "So what are you proposing?"
Percy looks her in the eye. "We're going to step in before it gets any worse." He blinks, as if there's something in his eye—and there is, for Andromeda sees a brief glint of tears—frowns again, and says, "Augusta only just convinced me that I didn't have to carry everything myself. Convincing Hermione, on the other hand…" He sighs. "It's going to require a committee."
Author's note: It's been much too long since the last posting, I know. Factors include day job (thus far your Humble Author has escaped layoff), a burgeoning Original Fiction career (five projects currently in process), and a major struggle with plotting. I will try to be more regular with all stories from here onward, but must warn the Faithful Readership that weekly updates are probably a thing of the past. Thank you all for your patience.