If someone had told Sirius two days ago, that he'd be sitting in Marlene's house with a cup of tea, he'd have been skeptical. If they'd told him that Marlene would be furious, he'd have believed them much more easily.
"-not a big deal?!" she demanded; she wasn't sitting, like Sirius was; she was stalking around the living room, rather like her Patronus might. She was still a bit pale from the potion yesterday, but she was alive and she was a little bit scary. "Sirius, they manipulated us!"
"To test us," he said. She gave him a scathing look.
"What's wrong with a written exam? Or starting a duel for no reason?" Sirius sipped his tea. "They made us think we were all going to die! In fact, they made me think I did die! Do you have any idea how horrible it felt, to feel nothing, and watch everything fade away and know that I was abandoning you-"
"Aww, Marly, I didn't know you cared," he said, grinning at her.
"Of course I care," she said stiffly, and his attempt to lighten the mood failed miserably. "They made us think it was Voldemort, Sirius, and they chased us and hexed us and terrified all of us and now that's okay because it's a test?!"
"I'm not saying it was fun," he said coolly, and she crossed her arms and lifted her chin. "But that's just what they do; they're trying to prepare us for what's out-"
"Yesterday, what's out there was them," Marlene snapped. "How's that supposed to help anything; our mentors, people we trusted lied to us- Remus knew, Sirius, you've already said that, and he lied to your face-"
"What was he supposed to say?" Sirius asked, jumping to Remus' defence. "It wasn't like I didn't know he was lying; I knew something was up. But if he'd said anything, then I wouldn't have taken it seriously, and I'd probably have said something to you, and to Dora, and Dora's a Hufflepuff, so she'd have told bloody everybody to make them feel better." He grinned fondly, but Marlene was not appeased. "I'm glad he didn't tell me. I wouldn't have taken it seriously." He'd lost far too many points in the arena for not taking things seriously, and wasn't entirely sure that he'd learned his lesson. "It was extreme, sure, and yes, it brought back a few awful memories-"
"Oh, just one or two," Marlene said sarcastically, and flopped nto the couch opposite Sirius, with her hands at her temples.
"-for us. The others don't have that. You think Brown's ever been properly scared? Or that Edwards knows anything about Death Eaters that hasn't been taught to her in a lecture? They'd have been scared, sure, but it's different for them-"
"So different makes it okay?" Marlene asked.
"If that had been real," Sirius said flatly, "we'd all be dead. It's not a nice thing to know, but it's true. We made stupid mistakes because we're out of practice, and the trainees made stupid mistakes because they don't know what it's really like when things get bad. And yes, it was bloody cruel to make them think that their friends were dead-"
Sirius made the conscious decision not to tell her what he'd dreamed about last night; it wouldn't help his case.
"-or that they were dead, but they're going to be Aurors. Their friends are going to die, and this isn't a job with a low mortality rate. And I bet most of them haven't even considered that properly." He shrugged in a helpless sort of way. "This time, they got their friends back. They get another chance. We know better than anyone that it doesn't work like that on the outside."
"You're already thinking like them," Marlene said quietly. Her voice didn't contain condemnation, as he'd half expected; it was just heavy, resigned.
"I used to be one." Sirius took a sip of his forgotten tea. "It's not hard to slip into old habits again. I wouldn't design a test like that – no bloody way – but I'm not going to hold it against the Aurors. They're not the enemy, Marly, even if they do have some unorthodox teaching methods."
"I still don't like it," she said, dourly. Sirius smiled.
"Then when you're fully qualified, you can change things."
"I will," she said, and he didn't doubt it.
"So how're you feeling?" he asked. That was why he'd come in the first place.
"A bit lethargic," she said, shrugging. "But I've had worse, and I was only under for half an hour, so the effects won't be long lasting at all."
"Good." Something that Sirius hadn't been able to stop thinking about for the last day made its way to the front of his mind. "So, er, when did your Patronus change?"
"I don't know," she said, apparently unable to make eye-contact; she stared very fixedly at her hands, which were clasped tightly around her teacup. "Sometime before I made it into the Program; it was that way in the interview."
"Was it a lioness before... you know, before-" Me. "-the Order?"
"No," she said, softly. "No, it was always a dog." She cleared her throat awkwardly. "It was- the way you change is-" She paused, apparently searching for the right word. "-brilliant." She smiled in a shy sort of way. "I'd heard you could... Gawain told me about the trial, when I came back from prison, but seeing it... It looks so easy."
"It is," Sirius said. "It wasn't to start with; I had to say an incantation every time, until my magic and my body got used to it, and it bloody hurt, but now I just think about it and I morph." He shrugged. "It's a useful trick."
"I'll say." Marlene glanced at the clock above the fireplace. She hesitated. "Did you want to stay for dinner, or-"
"Kreacher's probably expecting me," Sirius said automatically. "Thanks, but-"
"No, that's fine," Marlene said. She actually looked relieved, and perhaps a bit curious. "I'll see you around the Department, I'm sure. Who've they put you with?"
"Hemsley," Sirius said. "Someone's got a sense of humour, putting me with him and Brown; Hemsley, Black and Brown..." Marlene had an odd, amused expression on her face. "Hemsley should be all right." Nowhere near as good as James had been, but who could be? "It's the kid I'm worried about... bit of a git, as far as I can tell." He was, in all honesty, still a bit annoyed by Brown's civilian comment.
"You'll get used to each other."
"Yeah," Sirius said. He put his teacup down and stood. "Well, I'd better head home. I'm glad you're all right."
As soon as Sirius had mentioned Kreacher, Marlene hadn't been able to shake her suspicion. She let him out, and then went straight back to her sitting room; that window overlooked the street. She watched Sirius, and no, it wasn't spying, she told herself, she just wanted to make sure he got home safely... and find out if his home was where she suspected it to be.
Sure enough, Sirius walked toward Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place, up the front path, and promptly vanished on the doorstep. Marlene moved away from the window, smiling to herself. She and Gawain had searched every inch of that place, and found no signs of him... and he'd probably been right there, been her neighbour, since he first took Harry. And she'd had no idea.
Marlene couldn't keep the amused smile off her face as she wandered to the kitchen to make herself something for dinner.
To most, an open door wasn't cause for immediate alarm. To Dolores, it was, however; it was the cause of her stopping in the hallway opposite Crouch's office, it was what would have caused Prewett to walk into the back of her, had Prewett been anything but her quick self, and it was what caused an uncomfortable, bubbling, sensation to rise in her chest.
Prewett straightened the folders Dolores had her carrying, and glanced between her and the door. Dolores thought she might have seen her eyes roll, but the next thing she knew, the little trainee had dumped the folders in Dolores' arms, drawn her wand, and stalked forward.
She disappeared into the office and then called, "It's empty."
"Madam," Dolores said, approaching the doorway. "It's empty, Madam." She gave the folders back to Prewett who carried them to the desk without a word, and set them down. "It won't do for you to seem too familiar, dear. They might ask uncomfortable questions." Dolores smiled and Prewett turned and smiled back.
"Sorry," she said, still smiling. "I wasn't thinking." Prewett's smile widened until Dolores worried it might split the girl's face. "Madam." Dolores beamed, but it didn't last long. She had more pressing concerns; her chair had been moved, and there was a dirty smudge on the pale pink carpet beneath her desk, and the kittens on the walls had started making distressed noises as soon as they spotted her. Her filing cabinet looked untouched, but she couldn't be sure, and that was what concerned her most, because she kept everything in it. With the files in there, the right person could ruin her career.
"Hem hem," she said, getting Prewett's attention. The girl raised an eyebrow. Dolores straightened the bow in her hair. "Why don't you use those skills I let you learn by keeping you in the Program, to find out who's been in here," Dolores said. She didn't really think Prewett would decline, or lie because she'd been nothing but obedient since Dolores took her under her wing, but it was best to be safe.
"Of course." Prewett smiled again. "Madam." She flicked her wand. Dolores couldn't see anything, but Prewett's eyes darted around, following invisible traces. She bit her lip after a moment, and then shook her head. "I don't know."
"What do you mean you don-"
"I don't know," she said. "It's been hours since anyone was here, and they didn't really touch anything or use any magic."
"How long ago?" Dolores asked. "Exactly."
"Nineteen hours," Prewett said hesitantly.
"Christmas afternoon," Dolores said. She, like everyone else in the Ministry had been told not to come to work yesterday because the Aurors were running some sort of dangerous simulation. And, while Scrimgeour didn't even hold as much political power as Amelia Bones, what he said tended to be listened to, and the instructions he gave tended to be obeyed. Which meant the only people in the Ministry yesterday, at the time her office had been broken into, were Aurors, and Auror trainees. "Change of plans, dear," Dolores said. "You can have the afternoon off."
Prewett looked doubtful and said, "But-"
"Something's come up, and it simply must be taken care of. I'll see you here, at nine tomorrow morning. Good girl." She ushered Prewett toward the door, and locked it behind her. Then, she went over to her desk, and quickly wrote a letter to the Department of Magical Records, letting them know she'd be over for the photographs of all of the current members of the Auror Department in a few minutes, and that she wanted everything ready when she arrived. She stopped an owl in the corridor outside her office, gave it the letter, and then set off after it, toward the lifts.
"Was it her?" Dolores asked, holding up a photograph of Auror Chung. The Biting Begonia on her table sat still and unimpressed. "Him?" Photos of Auror Ackerly, and then Aurors Austen, Harris and Read, then photos of trainees Cooper, Morgan, Yaxley – though Dolores doubted it would be her, because she came from such a fine bloodline – and Bulkes. The flower didn't seem bothered by any of them. It stirred when Prewett's photograph came up, but that was only because the begonia saw her so regularly; she too, was a pureblood, and would have the sense not to snoop, especially since she owed Dolores for everything she had.
Moody, Blackburn, Finch and Proudfoot were all ignored too, and so were Tonks, Lowesly, Hill and Dale. Finally, when she was sorting through the last few photographs, Dolores found one that got her a reaction. She held up Sirius Black's photograph, and the plant snapped and growled. Dolores leaned back, satisfied with her discovery, but discontented with the knowledge that it had been Black of all people to force his way in.
Black was too inquisitive for his own good, clever enough to make himself a threat, rather than a simple nuisance, and, now that he was Auror Sirius Black, he'd be listened to if he were to speak out against her. If he'd been in her office, or more particularly, in her filing cabinet, who knew what he might have found; evidence of her meetings with Dawlish and Malfoy, or perhaps her exchange with Fletcher just before he 'confessed' to killing Greyback... She was careful with evidence, of course – she destroyed what she didn't need - but she had to keep some of it, for blackmail purposes, or to remind people of the promises they'd made her.
Dolores stroked her plant while she thought. Black would need to be watched, that was for certain. Attacking him, like she had last time, would be too risky, and if Black died, it'd be obvious – if they connected it to her – that she was hiding something. No, she'd have to be careful. She'd have to watch, and wait. Prewett would come in handy; she could give Dolores reports on the newest Auror, and Dolores herself could make enquiries on the Minister's behalf; such was her right as Junior Undersecretary. And perhaps it was time to patch things with Dawlish; he'd fallen off the face of the earth a bit, as had Malfoy, and both could provide other opinions, and information from other sources.
Yes, she thought, picking her quill up. Watch and wait. And if Black showed any signs of being a danger to her, or to the Minister, then she would act, and destroy him – physically, politically... any and every way that she knew how.
Sirius settled into the Auror Department easily enough, though Brown was a bit of trouble. Antagonistic was the word Sirius thought could best be used to describe their working relationship; Brown was obviously intelligent – he wouldn't be an Auror, otherwise – but he lacked common sense and practicality, which Sirius found annoying. And Brown seemed bothered by the fact that Sirius had managed such a quick promotion, and was now his superior.
One of Sirius' favourite things to do was to ask Brown to fetch him and Hemsley tea – he didn't do it often, just every few days – or a set of paperwork, or something equally trivial. Brown, in turn, took to asking Sirius obscure questions about every type of magic in existence, in the hope that Sirius would be unable to answer. So far, he'd stumped him on one – something about 'Time Turners' – which Sirius had had no idea about. Brown had gleefully shown him a newsletter from the Department of Mysteries and Sirius had learned that time turners were the name of the finished time travel devices that had been a work in progress for years.
Sirius, needless to say, had immediately subscribed to the newsletter that the Department of Mysteries issued irregularly, to avoid any such embarrassment in the future. He'd also gone down to the Department of Magical Discoveries and registered himself for the book they published every month, since that seemed like another likely source Brown might use.
Sirius thought Hemsley found the whole thing rather amusing, though he had no evidence to support that; Hemsley hadn't said anything, or made any gesture or expression to indicate that that might be true. The man was almost impossible to read, and very good at staying neutral. As a result, it was quite difficult to form anything other than a very professional working relationship with him. They got on, and there was a mutual understanding that Sirius could never replace McDuff, and Hemsley, in turn, could never replace James, but Sirius hoped they'd get friendlier eventually, or work was going to be very boring. Even Scrimgeour was easier to be friendly to.
Remus swore loudly, dragging Sirius back to the present in time for him to steady his motorbike against the chimney; Remus had just tripped over the stand. Behind Remus, Harry - who'd just come up the rope ladder that connected his bedroom window and the platform around Number Twelve's chimney - moved, ready to catch the box of fireworks in Remus' arms, but his help wasn't needed in the end.
"Picking up some new words from your girlfriend?" Sirius asked, sniggering; Remus swore occasionally, but it was uncharacteristic of him to swear that colourfully, or loudly, or casually.
"Maybe," Remus said a little defensively, setting the box down on the roof tiles. He then turned to Harry. "You didn't hear me say that." Harry just grinned as he picked a safe place to sit; comfortable as they all were with heights, thanks to flying, none of them really wanted to fall off the roof, and the bike really did take up quite a lot of space. "How much longer is that monster-" Remus nodded at Sirius' bike. "-going to live up here?"
"I was thinking about that today, actually," Sirius said. "I thought I might empty Dad's old study and make that into a sort of indoor shed." He nudged Harry. "Maybe next weekend-" Sirius had managed to arrange to have weekends off from the Auror department until Harry started school. "-kiddo, if you don't have too much homework?"
"I won't have too much homework," Harry said, confidently. "Hermione spends lunchtimes in the library on Fridays doing her homework, so I'll probably have mine finished before the day's even over."
"I thought you spent Fridays with Blaise?" Sirius said, frowning.
"Nope," Harry said. "Tuesdays and Fridays he's with his other friends."
"Oh," Sirius said, because really, what else was there to say? Blaise was a nice kid, and Sirius found it very interesting that he was already able to manage his time and attention so effectively. Sirius wondered if Harry had realised that, thanks to Hogwarts, he probably wouldn't see either of his friends much at all after June. Sirius thought he must have, but was loathe to ask. "So what did you two end up buying?" Sirius asked. He'd had to stay late at work that day, so he'd had to get Remus to collect Harry from school, and the pair of them had gone to Diagon Alley to collect a few things for the night's festivities.
"Filibuster's, and some of that Pixie Powder from the apothecary," Remus said. "A peddler was promoting some new stuff-"
"Partington's Poppers," Harry said.
"Paddington's," Remus corrected, "but I didn't trust them... they smelled like powdered doxy droppings-"
"And how would you know what doxy droppings smell like?" Sirius asked, grinning. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but Sirius thought Remus' face coloured a bit.
"Katelyn Reid," Remus said. "And James thought it'd be funny to-"
"Oh, right," Sirius said, chuckling fondly. "The cream-"
"What?" Harry asked, eager as ever to hear about James' school day antics.
"Trust me when I say you don't want to know," Sirius said, sniggering. Remus shuddered and Harry thankfully let the subject drop. Sirius continued to chuckle to himself for several minutes afterward though, which earned him looks of exasperation from Remus.
"It wasn't that funny," Remus snapped, pride obviously still a bit dented from that fateful day in seventh year.
"Yeah, it was," Sirius chortled, but forced the smile off his face for his best mate's sake.
"Look," Harry said, pointing out over the rooftops of the other houses. Over toward Kings Cross, a set of pink and blue fireworks climbed into the sky and exploded, raining glittery sparks down over London. "It's starting."
"Kreacher!" Sirius called, and Kreacher appeared, clutching a tray of freshly baked biscuits. He set them floating in the air where everyone could reach them, took one for himself, and then sat down beside Harry, who'd shuffled over to make room for him.
Sirius checked his Sidekick – it was only a few minutes until midnight – and then leaned back against the chimney, content. Next to him, Remus was trying to stretch out without kicking the bike, and was watching the display with a wistful expression; Sirius suspected he was wishing Dora had been able to make it, but she'd been invited to a party at Ted's station and she'd chosen to go there. Remus, had of course, been invited too, but he'd chosen to stay with the family, which Sirius appreciated more than he'd admitted.
And, on Sirius' other side, Harry was patiently explaining to Kreacher that muggles could be clever too. The old elf didn't seem convinced, but he certainly seemed to be enjoying the fireworks, and he hadn't yet began to contradict Harry, or criticise muggles.
"Shall we?" Sirius said, pulling a firework out of the box.
"Of course, Mister Padfoot," Remus said.
"Would you do the honours, Mister Moony?" Sirius asked, grinning. Remus pulled his wand out, lit the firework Sirius was holding with a simple tap on the fuse, and then sent it soaring up into the sky. It exploded with a crack not dissimilar to Apparition, and sent sparks of red and green spiralling outward.
They spent the next few minutes emptying the box, and enjoying the display – for Sirius and Remus, it was just like old times, really, but Harry wasn't without memories either.
"Do you remember last time?" Harry asked, tapping a small, star emitting firework with his wand. He threw it off the roof, and Sirius caught it with an Ascension charm and sent it shooting upward.
"Last time?" Sirius asked.
"With fireworks? At the cave," Harry said, watching the blue stars shimmer down toward the park across the road. A family of muggles sitting there looked around, apparently startled, but couldn't find where the fireworks had come from. Sirius pulled his eyes off them and turned to Harry, not sure what expression to expect.
He'd thought maybe a haunted one, but instead, Harry's expression was completely open and calm, though he wore a wry smile that Sirius knew he'd learned from Remus sometime in the past two years. Sirius ruffled his hair and together they set off the last firework. Kreacher vanished at the same time, using the firework to mask his Disapparition.
Two years, he thought, shaking his head as he sat down again. He couldn't decide if it felt like longer, or if it only felt like a few weeks. And what a year this one's been... I had my trial, Harry started school, Remus finally got his act together with Dora... And I got a job...
"Happy New Year," he called to the others; the muggles in the park had started cheering and playing loud music, and other fireworks were still going. Then he changed into Padfoot and licked them both from chin to temple, because what was New Years Eve without a kiss at midnight? Harry just laughed and made a big show of wiping his face clean, and then pulled Padfoot into a hug. Remus didn't seem even slightly surprised, and just smiled, shook his head, and pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his face.
Kreacher returned with three bottles of butterbeer, and passed them out – Sirius had to change back to receive his – and then wished them all good night and retreated back inside to go to bed.
"To a new year," Remus said, holding his bottle out. The other two clinked theirs against his. "To a job, Sirius, and Hogwarts for you, Harry."
"Wait for Tom," Charlie called, reining Swift in. As much as Charlie loved brooms, he thought wyrms were his favourite way to travel; they were long, serpentine creatures, distantly related to dragons, and could run very, very quickly for a very long time. They were also excellent swimmers, and could fly (but not when they were carrying humans). Zamira and Kate slowed up ahead, and Tom gave Charlie a weary smile through his balaclava; Charlie could see the corners of his eyes crinkling.
"You all right?" Kate asked, lowering her own balaclava so that she could speak properly.
"Tired," Tom said. Zamira spoke very little English, but she seemed to have understood that particular word; she rolled her eyes. Charlie rolled his too; that woman was as tough as dragon's hide and had little patience for any one or thing that wasn't equally tough. "My arse is numb, and it's cold-"
"We're all cold," Kate said, rubbing her wyrm's leathery ear. It snorted and blew a warm, smoky breath of air in Charlie's direction. He savoured the feeling, because mere seconds later, it was caught by the icy wind and carried away. The weather was foul enough that even the strongest heating charm anyone – Zamira – could cast, only lasted for an hour.
"I know," Tom said. He opened his mouth and then closed it again, then adjusted his balaclava again, so that it was covering his mouth and nose. Charlie knew what he wanted to say; Tom wanted to point out that he, as a dragon healer, wasn't used to roughing it quite as much.
He spent a fair bit of time wandering the reserve, but he didn't really wrestle with the hatchlings like Charlie and Kate did, didn't compete with the other handlers and see who could hold onto a dragon's tail for the longest, or who could get a dragon to fly with them. The only reason that Tom had come with them in the first place was because the senior handlers were too accustomed to their comfortable jobs at the sanctuary to want to go charging around in the wilderness after a rogue dragon, and so had sent him instead. And the only reason he'd actually agreed was because Charlie was going.
Charlie was glad he had come; he liked Kate well enough, but she wasn't very talkative, and Charlie, who'd grown up with a large family, and boisterous school friends would have missed conversation. And Zamira was older – three times his age, at least – and didn't speak much English, which made her hard to relate to on any level.
Charlie unwound his scarf - a nice, orange and blue one that Mum had sent him, along with his usual Christmas jumper – but kept hold of it, in case the wind caught it. Immediately, he could feel the cold on his lips and nose, and feel snowflakes catching on his two-day old stubble.
"I could say I'm feeling tired-" Charlie said in a low voice, but Tom shook his head.
"Let's just go," he said. "It's bad enough down here, on the ground. Our runaway's probably not faring too well."
Charlie disagreed; their escaped Norwegian Ridgeback would be at a lovely, constant temperature – like the wyrms – because, despite being coldblooded, she'd be heated by the fire in her chest... the wind though... well, that had the potential to be dangerous.
"Got any ideas why she might have headed South-West instead of North-West?" Charlie asked. In the history of the reserve, there had been several escaped dragons – those that were stressed enough to use their own magic to break through the wards – and all of them had headed in the direction of their natural country. Ridgebacks tended to head up to Norway, but this female, oddly enough, had headed down into Albania, which made absolutely no sense to any of the handlers, healers or behaviourists.
Charlie and the other three had crossed the border about an hour ago, and Charlie wondered what would happen when they hit the coast – since that was looking more and more likely. They'd have to get their hands on brooms, perhaps, or see whether their wyrms could handle the Adriatic Sea. Charlie'd rather brooms, because the sea would be very cold, and very wet.
"None," Tom said, shaking his head. "I can't even guess why she might have left; what mother dragon just leaves her eggs-"
"Spine's there," Charlie said, referring to the father.
"It's still odd," Tom said. Merlin, his wyrm, snorted in a restless way. "Yeah, all right," he said, rubbing Merlin's broad face. Swift chattered and Merlin responded in kind. "Keep up, Weasley," Tom said, nudging Merlin into a loping run. Charlie smiled, wrapped his scarf around his mouth and nose again, and prompted Swift forward.
Kate and Zamira hadn't waited; they were scouting the way ahead, but as soon as they noticed the men were moving again, they urged their wyrms into a proper run and then the four of them were ofn, staying low in their saddles to avoid any low hanging branches and to better keep their balance if or when their wyrms skidded on an icy patch, or sank a few feet into the snow.
Several hours later, it was well and truly dark, but they'd made it to the outskirts of Tomorri Mountain National Park. Ingrid, the Norwegian Ridgeback they were tracking, had made a few appearances – the most recent had been only five minutes earlier – to roar and breathe fire and swoop at them, like an overgrown, much scarier bird. Charlie could still feel Swift's heartbeat hammering against his ankle.
Charlie was absolutely exhausted, and what little of Tom's face he could see through the frost and wool was pale. Even Kate – a ranger with ten years of experience over Charlie's one and a half – was adjusting herself in her saddle rather gingerly and was slouched over Alf's scaly neck. Only Zamira didn't seem tired; she was still sitting straight backed, and Stig was pacing restlessly.
"Vi krysset," Zamira told Kate. Kate's shoulders slumped, but she turned to Charlie and Tom.
"We're crossing," she said heavily. Tom groaned.
"Crossing?" Charlie asked, and was ignored by everyone. Zamira took the lead, with Kate just behind, and Charlie and Tom once again brought up the rear. 'Crossing' made more sense after a few yards; What Charlie had assumed was icy ground was in fact a partially frozen river. Zamira reached it first and pulled out her wand.
"Diffindo," she said, and then added a Norwegian spell. The ice cracked, revealing black water, which Stig and Alf plunged right into. Merlin approached much more cautiously, and slid in, and Swift stopped to lap up a few cold mouthfuls and then lowered herself into the water. Charlie gasped; it came up to his thighs, and though his clothes and boots were waterproofed, he could still feel the chill.
The river, thankfully, wasn't too wide; they made it across in a few minutes, and a few minutes after that, they were well and truly inside the snowy forest. Zamira and Kate exchanged a few words, and then Zamira dismounted. Praying that she wasn't just stretching her legs, and that she was actually dismounting for the night, Charlie slid out of his saddle, but was careful to keep hold of Swift's shoulder – which was at his waist height – until he could feel his legs properly.
Kate dismounted carefully, but she was more accustomed to this type of travel, and was able to take a few steady steps after a moment. Tom climbed off rather ungracefully, and would have fallen if Charlie hadn't caught his elbow.
"Cheers," he said in a muffled voice. Charlie just patted his shoulder, extracted his wand from the folds of his heavy fur cloak, and lit it with a murmur. Kate and Zamira both glanced his way, rolled their eyes and disappeared off into the trees. Charlie didn't care; he'd get night vision as good as theirs one day, but he wasn't going to stumble around in the dark like an idiot when he was this tired.
He took a few very stiff steps toward a large, dead tree, and severed a few branches. He and Tom had a fire crackling merrily and were feeding the wyrms when Kate returned with frosted eyelashes and a pot filled with snow to boil. Zamira came back with a few odd looking plants, and a few large roots, which Charlie suspected would be dinner.
His stomach rumbled appreciatively, even if there wasn't any meat; Kate was a vegetarian, since she'd apparently seen too many people burned alive to stomach meat.
There wasn't a lot of talking around the fire that night; Charlie and Tom chatted a bit, as was normal, Kate kept to herself, and Zamira stayed over near Stig, picking at her soup.
"I've been thinking," Tom said in a low voice, "about Ingrid."
"About why she left?" Charlie asked.
"Dragons settle once they've got a clutch of eggs," Tom said. "Remember Frida, that Horntail?" Charlie nodded, and rubbed his shoulder absently; he had a large scar there from the one and only encounter he'd had with that dragon. "And she went from... well, feral, to... er... better."
"I'll take your word for it," Charlie said. He was still going to wait for Frida to have another clutch or two before he went back to her. "Can't wait until Csilla's old enough to breed. That's a dragon that could use settling." Csilla was another, younger Horntail that lived on the reserve of her own free will, but refused to have anything to do with people; she'd crossed the border between Hungary and Romania about three years before Charlie and Tom arrived at the sanctuary, fought with Frida over territory, won, and settled herself in the most spacious cave they had. She'd killed two trainers in the last five years, and was a bit of a legend around the reserve, but thankfully, she didn't tend to venture far outside of her territory. "But Ingrid?"
"Well," Tom said, "what if she's chasing something... or someone?"
"Away from her eggs, sure," Charlie said. "Across two countries? No way."
"What if she's chasing an egg?" Tom said, his eyes a bright, warm orange in the firelight. The flames also put extra emphasis on the bags under his eyes, and Charlie was sure his own were just as bad.
"Maybe," Charlie said. They'd had eggs stolen before; eggs were worth a lot in the trade, and could – he knew from Bill – also be sold to Gringotts for a hefty sum. The hatchlings were worth even more and could be used for all sorts of potions ingredients – blood was the biggest one, but their bones were used in potions and in divination, and their scales could be used for protective clothing. Or, a live, hand-reared dragon had a lot of potential as a guard – like at Gringotts (Charlie's stomach flopped at the thought of how poorly dragons were treated there) – as a weapon, or as a form of transport. "But getting close enough to steal a week old egg from an experienced mother...?"
"And who'd get close enough to check?" Tom asked.
"We're not all as dumb and brave as you, git," Tom said.
"I'm going to ignore the dumb part and just appreciate the part where you said I was brave," Charlie told him.
"You do that, Weasley."
"I will, Durban," Charlie said. "Maybe we should suggest that in tomorrow's letter back. Someone can check, and if an egg is missing, we can try to get that as well as Ingrid."
"Oh, good," Tom said sarcastically. "I was worried we might have to do something dangerous this trip."
"If you're worried about danger, you can be the one that Apparates back to the sanctuary to bring the rest of the handlers over to contain Ingrid."
"If you lot are going to be wrestling dragons, I think it's best that the only qualified healer here is around, don't you?"
"You're only qualified to heal dragons," Charlie said.
"I've still managed to patch you up more times than I can be bothered to count."
"What complete and utter dragon dung," Charlie said, snorting. "If you don't have a tally somewhere, I'll eat Swift." Tom just smirked.
The four of them went to bed shortly after that – Zamira had told Kate, who'd told the men, that they'd be up early – and Zamira stayed over by Stig, while Kate, Tom and Charlie curled up together by the fire, sharing blankets and body heat for warmth.
Charlie woke up in the middle of the night, extracted himself from the blankets without waking the others, and stumbled into the shadowy trees to relieve himself.
He was just rinsing his hands with snow, when he heard a twig snap, and hastily extinguished his wand. A rabbit sprinted past, toward their camp, and an owl hooted, and Charlie calmed down; animals tended to make themselves scarce if there was any sort of danger, so he was comforted by their presence.
There was silence for a moment, and then he heard snow crunching beneath boots not far away. Charlie'd spent enough time around the others to recognise their footsteps – Kate's were quick and light, Tom's were very deliberate and regular, and Zamira didn't make much noise at all when she moved (she tended to walk on rocks, or hold branches to lighten her steps) – and knew that these hurried, unsteady steps weren't theirs.
Charlie fully expected it was a muggle; it was possible that someone had caught a glimpse of Ingrid or one of the wyrms and come to investigate. And, while he admired their bravery, they were in a lot of potential danger. Charlie would have to, at the very least, take them back to camp until it was safe for them to leave and then Obliviate them. He sighed and crept through the trees toward the sound of walking.
Eventually, the person stopped in a clearing. Charlie shivered, and it had nothing to do with the cold; he hadn't seen or heard any other signs of wildlife for a while, other than the skeletons of small rodents, birds and the occasional snake. It made him very uneasy. The clearing itself was large and bare – very little grew there, and what did was sickly looking – and dark. Charlie knew it was night, but it seemed the dim moonlight and glow from the stars didn't reach through this part of the forest as well as it did everywhere else. Charlie shivered again, and wished he had one of the others with him.
The figure called something, a name, maybe; Charlie wasn't able to hear over the eerie howling of the wind. He shivered again. He'd always fancied himself as reasonably sensitive (as far as sensing auras and things, not because he liked to talk about feelings or anything like that). Maybe it was because he liked animals, and they couldn't talk so he had to feel and watch instead, or maybe it was because he'd grown up in a large family, and it was sense-Mum's-in-a-bad-mood-or-die, or Fred-and-George-are-up-to-something-so-duck-or-hide.
But right there, in that clearing, Charlie sensed something evil. Something that put a bad taste in his mouth, and made his heart seize in fear. He'd never been near a Dementor, but he imagined it was a similar feeling. An enormous snake dropped from a tree and onto the ground in the clearing, where it coiled and lifted its head. The other figure – a man, with a reasonably deep voice – started to speak to it. He'd actually have been less worried if the man had spoken parseltongue; the man spoke English, though, and had respect – not respect for the animal, but actual, proper, deferring to authority sort of respect - in his tone.
Charlie'd always liked animals, but there was something wrong with this one, and he was brave enough to wrangle dragons, but he was not going to stick around and find out what was going on. He was going to wake the others and get the bloody hell out of the forest.
He backed away, and tripped on something which broke with a loud, awful sound like a broom snapping. He landed in the soft snow, and looked around, frantic; footsteps were already moving toward him – probably the man, and possibly even that awful snake – and he crawled backward, before he knocked into the thing that he'd tripped over.
It was a skeleton; old, and worn down, but still whole... except for the leg he'd snapped. A detached part of Charlie suspected it was magic preserving the bones; he wondered if that magic was tied to the tarnished silver necklace with an eagle pendant that rested around the skeleton's neck, or if it was just a trinket. The rest of Charlie, the non-detached part, was screaming, and kept screaming until a fur glove clamped over his mouth and nose, and a wand prodded his temple. Snow swirled into his vision, and swallowed everything in bright, white light.
"-kill him?" A pause. "I know but if we kill them t- Yes, you're right, My Lord, it'll draw attention to the fact that we were here. Yes." Another pause, and Charlie was floating backward. "So leave them all?" Charlie's boot caught on a rock protruding from the snow and he winced as his leg twisted. "Sorry," the voice said, absently, and then he was floating, even higher, safe from anything on the ground . "Here? No." Another pause. "Yes, My Lord. Obliviate!"
Charlie awoke with a yawn and a stretch which almost hit Tom in the nose.
"Watch it," Tom murmured sleepily. Charlie got up, and wrinkled his nose; his leg hurt, though he couldn't for the life of him work out why; it wasn't riding pain.
Must have slept on a rock or something, Charlie decided. He left Tom and Kate with the blankets and went to sit with Zamira, who was tending the small fire; the wind and snow had almost killed it overnight.
"Morning," he said.
"Morning," she replied without looking up.
"Sleep well?" he asked. She shook her head. "Cold?"
"Dark," she said.
Dark? At night? Fancy that, he thought to himself, and fought for a straight face.
"Dark-" She moved her hands around as if trying to make a point. She obviously didn't know the word she wanted. "-evil dark." Charlie's eyebrows climbed. He'd slept well – the best sleep he'd had in a while, actually – and hadn't seen or heard or sensed anything 'dark' around the forest. Zamira was a highly respected ranger, and her intuition could usually be trusted, but he wasn't convinced this time.
"Uh huh," he said, nodding. She pursed her lips, obviously realising he didn't believe her, and stomped over to rouse Kate instead.
They had a quick breakfast and then Tom and Zamira climbed the trees to try to spot Ingrid. Apparently, it was a very easy task.
"She's flying again," Tom called down to Charlie and Kate. "Across the sea-"
Kate groaned and Charlie asked, "Toward Italy?"
"No," Tom said, sounding troubled. "North-West. Toward Britain."
"I suppose that rules out egg-thief," Charlie said, as Tom and Zamira appeared in the lower branches and then dropped down to the ground. Charlie plucked a leaf off of Tom's balaclava, and dusted snow off his shoulders. "Who'd steal an egg to take to Britain, but stop off in Albania first?" He chuckled and Kate snorted.
The man folded the newspaper – the headline read Flying In Circles? and on the front was a moving photograph of a large, spiny dragon being caught in an even larger net over the British Channel – and set it down on the table.
"He was worth keeping alive if only for that," he mused, looking at the stocky redheaded man from the forest; he was on a broom in the photograph, flying rather well. "Got a dragon off our tail if nothing else."
Indeed, replied the other, but he seemed distracted; his thoughts were - as they had been since the forest – looping through the same series of images:
The stone, the castle and the boy.
And that's it!
Thank you to everyone that has read and reviewed this, and stuck with the characters this far. Your support means so much to me. :)
And, you can find the next installment (I was busy this week) up now: Initiate, the sequel, is up on my author's page. :)