Albus Potter coughed, spat the dust from his mouth, and swore. Keeping a tight grip on his wand, he scrambled to his feet. He could see next to nothing in the shadowy gloom, but was uncertain whether or not he should illuminate the darkness.
'Does your father know you use language like that?' the Senior Auror asked mildly. 'Lumos,' she added, and then she, too swore.
'Are you okay?' asked Al anxiously, as he blinked in the sudden light she'd created.
'No,' she said, sounding extremely annoyed. 'My tights are laddered and there's dust and cobwebs on my clothes, and in my hair,' she said. 'What about you?'
The Senior Auror was renowned for being pernickety about her appearance, and her tone of voice didn't bode well for the person who had inflicted such indignities on her. Al watched as she checked out her clothing for any additional damage. As he did so, he wondered why she had insisted on taking him with her on this supposedly routine job. She was supposed to be supervising Thomasina Nott, but she'd switched assignments with Dennis Creevey, left her team behind and removed him from his scheduled duties to accompany her. Now he was stuck in an underground chamber with her.
'A bit dusty, but uninjured,' Al told her. 'What happened? Where are we?'
'What do you think happened? Where do you think we are?' she asked sharply. She was obviously not in a good mood with anyone, although that was hardly surprising under the circumstances.
'We were dropped through a trapdoor,' said Al. As his eyes became accustomed to the glow of her wandlight, he looked around the room. They were standing in a long and wide barrel-vaulted chamber. It was built from bricks which were the red of his sister's hair, and which were so old that the mortar between them was crumbling. Apart from the circular hole directly above them, the only exit from the room was via a solid looking wooden door. 'And we appear to be in some kind of cellar, beneath Breeding Mansion,' he concluded.
'Correct. So now you've learned not to ask questions you already know the answer too,' she said brusquely. 'And you also know that even experienced Aurors, like me, can be trapped. Except of course, we aren't actually trapped, because we're Aurors. At least, I am.' She smiled grimly. 'You're doing very well, for a trainee,' she added, almost as an afterthought.
Al said nothing. She looked at him with a cool appraising look which made him feel uneasy. He looked worriedly back at her, and wondered what she knew.
At least I won't have to keep the secret for much longer. She'll find out tonight, after the party, after Mum and Dad find out,/i he thought. iI wonder what she'll think of me then?
'I hope that you've also learned that although checking for magical traps is standard procedure, and relatively easy, finding an old-fashioned trapdoor is a lot more difficult, especially when you aren't expecting any trouble.'
He watched as she, too, looked carefully around the room.
'Good work with the cushioning charm, by the way, Al,' she said. 'That was very fast wandwork. I suspect that the unpleasant Miss Breeding will expect us to have a few broken bones after that fall. It's the perfect drop distance; most people would have hit the bottom before they could get their wand out.'
With a wave of her wand, she removed the dust from her clothes, her hair, and then from him, too. She then hitched up her already rather short skirt, re-examined her tights, and repaired them.
'That's better,' she said, sounding a lot happier. Opening her Auror wallet, she pointed her wand into it and said, 'Accio goggles.' A pair of wrap-around mirror sunglasses flew out from the wallet. She looked meaningfully at Al, and he hastily followed her example.
'Let's get back to work,' she said conversationally. 'I've no doubt that Miss Breeding is trying to remove the evidence.'
Now that she was clean and tidy, Al's supervisor was relaxed. He was surprised by her calmness. She seemed unperturbed by the fact that the person they had arrived to question on behalf of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures had pushed a lever and dropped them down fifty feet onto a solid stone floor.
'I used to hate wearing these things,' she told him as she slipped on the glasses. 'The straps on the old ones would always catch in my hair. These new ones are much better.' She carefully adjusted the wrap-around mirror sunglasses, turned towards him, and pouted and posed. 'They make us look cool, or hot, or bad, or good, or whatever the Muggle word for good is these days.'
'Good always works,' said Al helpfully.
She chuckled. 'So, do I look good?' she asked him, preening and strutting like someone half her age.
Al gave a polite nod, but said nothing. She was old enough to be his mother. In fact, as she'd been in his father's year at school, he knew that she iwas/i older than his mother, but he could hardly say, "You look okay, for an old lady". Instead, he decided to reassure her that he knew what he was doing.
'Both the night vision and defensive mirror settings for the goggles, I assume?' he asked.
'Yes. The fixing spell is automatic, you know.' She reached up to his face and tugged at his goggles, pulling his head forwards when they didn't budge. 'That's one of your father's enchantments. He got into a lot of trouble a few years ago…' Lost in the memory, she halted mid-sentence.
'A few years ago,' she repeated thoughtfully. 'Merlin! It was before you were born … that makes me feel old! Anyway, someone Accioed his glasses and, as you know, he can't see anything without them. He made sure it would never happen again by inventing the fixing spell. Only the person who puts the goggles on can take them off again.'
She slowly looked him up and down. Because of the glasses it was difficult to be sure what she was thinking, but Al began to feel a little more uneasy.
'Keep your wand in your hand, and follow me,' she ordered, as she took a cautious step towards the doorway. 'I don't want you getting yourself killed, especially not today.' She put on a silly, little-girl voice. 'Because it's Daddy Hawwy's birthday, and Mummy Ginny has organised a surprise family party for him.'
'How in Merlin's name did you know that, Auror Moon?' asked Al, surprised. He followed his supervisor towards the door.
'Because I'm an Auror, Al. We know everything,' she said, looking smug. 'Plus, I'm on very good terms with, Martha, your Dad's PA. You really need to keep on her good side, Al. If you do, you'll find out all sorts of useful stuff. I know about your dad's party because Ginny told Martha about it yesterday. Your mum needed Martha's help to make certain that Harry leaves the office on time tonight. Don't you worry; I'll get you back in plenty of time. You're supposed to be getting to Grimmauld Place at six, aren't you?'
'That's right,' said Al, uncertainly, wondering what else she knew about the party. His father was expecting a quiet family meal, not the entire clan. In addition to the Potters, all of the Weasleys would be there, along with their spouses and girlfriends.
The previous weekend, his mother had cornered Al, James and Lily in the kitchen and dropped the bombshell.
'I've decided that we're going to have a big family party for your dad's birthday,' she had told her children. 'We don't see the family often enough. We were together all the time when you were all little. Now you've all left school we hardly ever see anyone.'
'Except Uncle Ron and Aunt Hermione at least once a week, and Granny and Granddad every fortnight, and…' James fell silent under his mother's gaze.
'I'm going to invite the whole family,' she said firmly.
'They won't all come, Mum,' James had said. 'If Moll and Dom are in the same room, they'll fight. So we'll get either Uncle Bill and Aunt Fleur, or Uncle Percy and Aunt Audrey, but not both.'
'Fighting over a boy,' his mother had shaken her head in disbelief. 'That was eighteen months ago, James. Surely it's all blown over by now.'
'Moll won, Mum,' Lily had reminded their mother patiently. 'So it will never be over. Dom doesn't do losing, you know that.'
'They will all be here,' Ginny Potter had said firmly. And then she had turned to stare at her younger son. 'And you, Al, will bring your girlfriend,' she'd told him firmly. 'I want to meet this mysterious girl of yours, and don't lie to me. Don't try to tell me that she doesn't exist. You've been seeing her for over a year.'
'Okay,' Al had said, knowing that denying her existence wouldn't work. As he'd looked into his mother's face, he'd known that, somehow, his mother already knew, or at least suspected, everything. He had contacted Vi the moment he'd left Grimmauld Place. He'd told his girlfriend what had happened, and warned her that their plan to finally unveil their relationship on her birthday, as they'd planned, was no longer an option.
'Why is she a secret, Albus?' James had said. 'Is it because she's a Slytherin?'
James had promised Al that he'd say nothing to their parents, not even the slightest of hints. Given the number of secret girlfriends James had had, all of which Al had kept secret, Al had immediately gone for his wand. Fortunately, Lily had got between her brothers and had prevented Al's attack by thumping James, hard. Unlike Al, Lily could get away with physical violence; she could get away with anything. The Harpies latest signing, the daughter of the famous Ginny Potter, could do no wrong in her mother's eyes.
'You're going to take my baby, my little baby girl, to your dad's party with you, aren't you? I thought that you might have done it on your birthday, but you didn't,' Auror Moon said. Al felt himself getting hot. He didn't like the way she'd emphasised those words and he was beginning to suspect that, like his mother, his supervisor also knew what was going on.
'You're going to finally take your secret girlfriend around to meet your parents,' she told Al, proving to him that her reputation in the Auror Office was well-deserved. He'd been told often enough by Senior Auror Creevey, and many others, that no secrets were safe from Lavender Moon. Al fervently hoped that this was not completely true.
'It's about time that your parents found out who you're going out with,' she said. 'I haven't said anything to them. But I can't, can I, because I'm not supposed to know either. Every time I ask Violet if she has a boyfriend, she denies it. So, last weekend, I tried asking her if she had a girlfriend. Did she tell you that?'
Unthinkingly, Al nodded. He cursed himself. The moment he confirmed the fact that Violet had told him Mrs Moon had grinned triumphantly. She had not known anything, she'd simply been fishing.
'I knew it!' said Lavender. 'I've no idea why Violet is embarrassed about having a boyfriend, especially one as good-looking as you. Perhaps she's been worried about what I might do to him.' She bared her clean, white, and very sharp, canines in a smile. 'I don't bite, at least not often. And it's not as if she's seeing that brother of yours. If she was, then I would be making him very worried. I'm not worrying you, am I, Al?' While she had been talking, she'd also been waving her wand carefully over the door.
'A reckless Auror is a dead Auror,' she said. 'No traps on the door, but you'd better double-check.'
'I'm not like James,' protested Al, hurt by the suggestion. She pointed at the door, and he did as ordered and began to check the door for traps.
'I know, Al,' she said, folding her arms and looking very serious. 'And, you really must start to call me Lavender, after all, you and Violet are sleeping together, aren't you?' she shook her head and tutted disapprovingly. 'She's only sixteen, and you are twenty. I think that's why you've been keeping it a secret.'
The silence which followed was quieter than the vacuum of deep space, and, like deep space, it seemed to stretch out into infinity. Auror Lavender Moon kept her arms firmly folded and stared at him. Al suddenly wondered if she'd actually allowed them to be trapped just so that she could have this conversation. Surely Violet's mum wasn't that crazy?
Although if even one tenth of the stories he'd heard from the other Aurors, and from Violet, were true…
'I…' Al hesitated and began again. 'Vi … Violet will be seventeen soon, in five weeks,' he protested. 'And I'm only ijust/i twenty; my birthday was a only a couple of weeks ago. The age difference is three years, not four, and three years isn't much of an age difference, not really.'
Lavender burst out laughing. 'Oh, it is so ieasy/i to make you give stuff away, Al. You need to be able to lie convincingly. Violet can. So, how long have you two been…' Lavender hesitated just long enough for Al to believe that the next word would be shagging, or something even cruder, before continuing, '…going out together?'
'We've been sort-of-friends forever, you know that,' Al admitted, realising that he'd have to tell her. 'Violet, and Flossie Longbottom, used to hang around with Lily, until Lily left school. Violet and I started going out just after the Durmstrang Exchange,' he said. He tried to concentrate on checking the door while also holding a conversation with his girlfriend's mother.
'Eighteen months ago. When she was still fifteen! I knew it! My daughter is a sneaky little so-and-so. I was convinced that there was someone last summer, but she denied it. When I pressed her she told me some story about a Durmstrang student who wouldn't leave her alone. My husband told me to leave it, that it was none of our business,' said Lavender, dismissing her husband's opinion with a nonchalant flick of her hand. Al fervently wished that she had listened to him. 'It's no wonder that the Sorting Hat put her in Slytherin. Thank you for confirming my suspicions.'
Vi is certainly sneaky, and cunning,/i thought Al ruefully, ibut it's obvious to me where she gets it from, and it isn't her dad. Besides, he was a Hufflepuff.
'So, my daughter has been lying to me for more than a year. All last summer she told me that she was meeting up with Flossie Longbottom,' Lavender continued, apparently oblivious to his thoughts. 'And Flossie has been backing her up. Hugo Weasley has been covering for you, too, hasn't he? Your dad mentioned that, since Rose went to University, you and Hugo were seeing a lot of each other.
She waited until he was concentrating on carefully examining the door before speaking again. 'So, if you and Hugo have been covering for each other, does that mean that quiet, swotty, innocent little Hugo is actually shagging the Headmaster's daughter?'
Al was grateful that, because of the goggles, she couldn't see his eyes. However, he suspected that his body language had given Hugo and Flossie away.
'You'd better ask them,' he suggested.
'I don't need to,' she said smugly.
Al stopped listening. His wand hovered over the door handle as he double, and then triple checked his findings.
'I, er, I think that you've missed something, Auror Moon,' he said. 'There's an Explosive Hex on the door handle.'
'Oh, I know about that,' she told him offhandedly. 'I simply wondered whether you'd still be able to spot it while I was distracting you. Well done!' She gave him a wicked grin.
Motioning him aside, she pointed her wand at the door handle and said, 'The ceiling in here is old and crumbling, so a large explosion might bring it down. Watch and learn, young Albus, and be ready with a Shield Charm just in case the ceiling is even weaker than I think it is.'
Her motions were precise and very delicate. She barely moved her wand as she formed a small bell-shaped Shield Charm over the door handle. After making certain that the charm was firmly sealed onto the door she motioned him backwards and, with a tiny wand flick, turned the handle.
The noise of the explosion was muffled by her Shield Charm, but even so, Al heard it. He felt it, too. The floor shook and crumbling mortar fell like gritty rain from the brick arch above his head. Behind him, a couple of bricks fell from the arch.
The door, now with a neat circular hole where the handle had been, swung open, revealing another long cavernous room. The room was wider and longer than the one from which they had just escaped. Glancing through the door, Al saw two long rows of metal tables, each row contained about a dozen nests of straw. Lavender strode forwards; as Al followed her into the room he heard her swear.
'Kill, my lovely darling, kill the nasty Aurors,' he heard someone shout.
'It's a bloody good job we put on the glasses, Al,' said Lavender, parrying several curses with short flicks of her wand. 'I didn't expect anything on this scale. Magical Creatures never give us enough information, and whatever they tell us is usually wrong. I thought that they were exaggerating the danger, as usual. I'll deal with Miss Breeding; you take care of the basilisk.'
'Me?' Al asked, worried.
'Bloody hell, Al, you're twenty years old! Your dad was only twelve when he killed his first basilisk, and this one's only a baby, no more than a year old, I'd say.' Lavender shouted.
She vaulted onto one of the tables and kicking at a nest. It fell to the floor, breaking the egg and allowing the toad which had been incubating it to hop off to freedom.
'Murderer! Baby-killer!' the portly, frizzy-haired witch shouted, continuing to try to curse Lavender.
Lavender advanced along the left hand line of tables, kicking over the nests and further incensing the witch. As Lavender continued to coolly parry and counterattack Miss Breeding, Al used his wand to begin to overturn the right hand line of tables. Meanwhile the young basilisk slithered rapidly towards him, its eyes flashing a deadly yellow as it approached. Grateful for the protection the mirrored glasses gave, Al thought quickly.
He transfigured the nearest overturned table into a flat sheet of shining steel and sent is sliding along the floor, the moment the basilisk slithered on top of it, he flicked the sheet over, sending the basilisk flying back towards the still cursing witch. He watched as she avoided the creature's deadly gaze, and swung the shining steel sheet around so that, despite her efforts, she caught the creature's reflection.
The second Miss Breeding collapsed, paralysed, to the floor, he lifted the steel sheet high into the air and brought it down as hard as he could, decapitating the basilisk.
'You'll do,' said Lavender quietly as she looked at the steel sheet quivering as the force of the impact dissipated. The steel remained vertical, as it was embedded into the stone floor. 'We'll destroy the remaining eggs, free the toads, and I'll call in Magical Creatures. Once we're done, I'm taking you home to meet my husband. He's a lot more scary than I am, believe me. He's even more scary than a basilisk.'
Al snorted in disbelief.