After a taxing and sleepless night, a cot in St Mungo's wouldn't have been Kingsley's first choice of accommodation but for the demands of protocol. Lestrange was raving, and sodding protocol dictated that suspects not in control of themselves at the time of their arrests be taken to hospital for evaluation before charges could be brought against them. But that didn't mean that he was about to allow the mad bitch out of his sight, hence the cot in her room—of which Kingsley was not, at present, making use.
Scowling, his wand pressing into the young Healer's neck, he asked, "You're not assigned to this patient's care, are you?"
The man shook his head vigorously.
"So I won't be seeing you again, will I, Healer . . . ?"
"H—eath, sir. Healer Kenneth Heath."
"Or your gawking friends?" Kingsley asked, jabbing the wand in more deeply.
"N—no, no, not again!"
"Excellent. Now get out."
After casting a quick cleaning spell to remove the git's urine from the floor, Kingsley sheathed his wand and sighed. "They don't pay me enough."
"Your reward would be great if you knelt to my lord."
"Quiet, you," Kingsley muttered, sinking down onto the thin mattress of the cot and attempting to make himself comfortable in between its poking springs. "Voldemort's dead."
"He's always with me. He's always been with me," Bellatrix practically cooed, before throwing herself, again, at the restraint wards around her bed and shrieking incoherently.
"No, not nearly enough."
"At least you've got the old boy's gratitude," a man murmured from the door.
Kingsley looked up. "Spurlock. What are you doing here?"
"Albus hasn't told you?"
"Traitor! Traitor. How dare you show yourself here?" Bellatrix demanded, suddenly coherent and clutching the locket around her neck.
"She shouldn't have that. She might use the chain to—"
"It took six of us to get her behind a restraint ward, and frankly, I don't care if she strangles herself," Kingsley interrupted, moving towards the door until Spurlock took the hint and backed out of the room. "What hasn't Albus told me?" he asked, closing the door after indicating to a bedraggled-looking Bailey with a jerk of his head to replace him inside.
"Malfoy's dead, actually dead, this time. I've brought the body here for examination. Protocol, of course."
"Yes. Well. . . . Good."
"No doubt we'll be reading about the vast conspiracy to kill him in the morning edition. I saw that Skeeter woman about the corridors. Given all the company you've had, surely she'll have heard of Lestrange's arrival—and you know she'll sneak about until she learns more."
"Someone from the Ministry will have directed her here, I'm sure. What with all the questions surrounding the closing of the building, certain officials will want a win or two in the papers."
"What's the official position?"
"Marchbanks doesn't want publicity."
"Exactly. So, you came to see me because . . . ?"
"The locket. You know what it is."
"Yeah, and like I said, she won't part with it, and Spriggs thinks it keeps her calm to have it."
"Healer Spriggs is a good man, but I'll wager he's never seen a Horcrux."
"Hell, no, Kingsley. I've only ever read about them, but I've read enough to know that it would be best to destroy any that one comes across."
"Then you'd best apply to Albus. I'll catch hell for interfering with that restraint ward, and my superiors—on Marchbanks' orders—are insisting that I play this one by the book."
"I really feel that—"
"Greene?" Kingsley interrupted.
"Two coffees, black. Now."
"Yes, sir," Greene replied, trotting off down the corridor.
"Now then, Spurlock, you're welcome to wait with me until my orders change, but if you're not content to do so, then as I said, apply to Albus. No one's touching that locket until I'm ordered to remove it."
"If I could have erased the taint by losing my arm, I would have cheerfully cut it off myself."
"Mrs Parkinson, please," Albus remarked mildly, "there's no need to prove your intentions to me. I trust your sincerity in this matter."
"More fool you," Evessa replied, sipping from her cup, "but I suppose you have your own sources, don't you?"
"I know enough about you to trust that you wish only to see your brother safe, and the boy."
"Aries. He has name, sir."
"Aries, of course."
"I really must insist upon seeing Narcissa. I can't believe you allowed her here without questioning her. Surely you must know that she has information about the boy that could help locate him? And what are you doing about that, may I ask?"
"You'll forgive me if I decline to answer that. As far as Mrs Malfoy is concerned, I allowed you to enter Hogwarts without pressing you for information. Why then do you find it surprising that I extended her the same courtesy?"
Evessa smiled tightly at the Headmaster and sipped from her cup. The waiting was infuriating, but she could see that she'd get nowhere with Dumbledore by snapping at him.
"And what are you prepared to discuss with me, sir?"
"Why, any number of things—the weather is lovely this morning."
"Indeed, large fluffy flakes. I do so love the snow. When I was a boy, Aberforth—that would be my brother—and I used to make snow gnomes by . . . ."
"Are you mad?" Hermione called, leaning out the window of the Novitiate's kitchen. "It's freezing out there!"
"Come out!" Boot called, laughing as he was struck by a tiny snowball before turning to chase the gnome that had thrown it.
Hermione giggled and decided that she had time to play before returning to Longbottom House. Being honest with herself, she had no desire to get back to it so quickly, given that sooner rather than later someone was going to notice Malfoy's condition.
And no doubt Tonks will be in a right mood about it, she thought, pulling on her coat and joining Boot and the wee gnome children with whom he was playing.
She liked that about Boot, that even being such a pompous arse, he had a silly side.
"You're in high spirits this morning. Why?"
"You haven't seen the Prophet?"
Hermione swallowed. "No. Why?"
"Celestina Warbeck—just a moment, you lot! I'm talking, here!— is coming out of retirement to play the Aurors' Ball on Valentine's."
Hermione's heart started beating again. No news of Malfoy. Good. I'm not looking forward to telling Blaise—"
"Auror Granger, you're not being particularly vigilant. Did you not hear me? Warbeck! Aurors' Ball! Isn't it fantastic news?"
"Terry, you're too young and far too straight to be this excited about Celestina bloody Warbeck," Hermione retorted, kneeling to roll a tiny ball of snow between her fingers to the delight of the gnomes, who cheered.
Boot drew himself up and puffed out his chest in a comical manner. "I'm deeply offended. Warbeck is a wizarding institution."
Hermione took aim and threw her snowball, which sent one little gnome tumbling into a snow drift. "You all right?"
A hail of tiny balls pelted her knees in response.
"They really do look better. What was that potion you gave them again?"
"Oh, no potion, Hermione, at least, not much of one. I used dragon's blood. It's remarkably efficacious in cases of malnourished magical creatures, you know."
"Right, the eighth use of it?"
Boot stamped his feet. "Indeed." Turning to the expectant gnomes, he continued, "Right, boys, I'm cold. I'll see you later. Tea?" he asked Hermione, offering her his hand.
Tinny sounding voices greeted Boot's words. "We beated him. We ran off the big wizard!"
"You beat him," Hermione corrected, taking Boot's hand.
"No they didn't, did you boys?"
"That would be mean!" a lone gnome shouted.
Hermione laughed. "Well, that was a nice holiday moment," she said, as she and Boot entered the kitchen.
"Oh, yes. I am sorry to hear about your aunt."
"What? Oh, oh, yes. Thank you. I know I should be getting back there, but . . . ."
"It's no surprise, your dragging your heels. I've never liked dancing attendance on ailing relatives, either, but duty calls, doesn't it?"
"It's not as if we're waiting for her to die, Terry, and I do like Aunt . . . Aunt Mary, it's just that things have been so busy, what with the Courtship Ritual, and, er, she's very excited for me."
Sitting down, he handed Hermione her tea and took a sip from his own cup before saying, "Look, you don't seriously expect me to believe that you and old Snapey are truly considering matrimony, not when we all know that you and Zabini fancy each other."
"You might be more respectful."
Boot rolled his eyes. "Auror Zabini, then."
"I meant Severus. The man's a hero."
"Yes, and so is your Auror. One finds it all so tiresome, not being a hero with such men about."
"You're a tremendous Auror, and just look at how you saved all those gnomes."
"I'm glad about the little ones, given how happy it made you, and I never said that I wasn't a spectacular Auror," Boot replied, winking.
"Then why complain? Oh, and thank you, for the tea. Delicious," Hermione told him, before taking another swallow.
"Getting laid might be easier without such competition, is all."
"I'm not a lady. I'm an Auror."
"Yes, a tremendous one, and also a lady with whom I'd be pleased to spend time distracting, if you'd prefer to postpone returning to your familial duty."
"Stop it, Terry. Blaise and I are—"
"Not yet married. A bloke can always hope, you know."
Smiling, Hermione thought, Yes, male optimism is rampant, it seems. Now with whom can I set you up so that you'll stop hoping in my direction?
"Oh, speaking of hope, I've written up my work with the boys and the dragon's blood potion, and I'd like to submit the article to the appropriate journal. Would you have time to look at it before you leave?"
"I thought you said it was just the blood?"
"Well, there's a bit more to it, of course—enough to get me into the Journal of Magical Veterinary Remedies and Research, at any rate—and you know how important it is to develop oneself if one hopes for advancement."
"Brilliant. Of course I'll read your article."
Remus looked up from his book as Narcissa returned to the room, freshly showered and feeling more calm than she had in ages.
"Thank you for last night. You were right. It helped."
"Say that again."
Narcissa laughed. "You were right."
"I shall never tire of hearing you say so," Remus replied, patting the bed.
"Don't you have a class to teach? And shouldn't you be going up to the Great Hall for breakfast? What if Dumbledore has news?"
"Albus will contact me when he has something of importance to relate, and I'm confident that the students can do without me for one meal. Besides, I hunger for you more than food."
"I've just showered," Narcissa said, belying her implied protest by stretching out to lean against Remus.
"As I recall, Hogwarts is never short of hot water."
Draco splashed water onto his face and coughed, looking up to stare at himself in the mirror above the basin and wonder why his mother hadn't come to him as soon as she'd returned. The house elf to whom he'd applied for her room had told him that yes, Mrs Malfoy was at Hogwarts, but no, she couldn't tell him where to find her because "She is being in bed."
Frustrated, he dried his face and went to stare out the window of his room, worrying about more than Pansy.
Where is he? What did you do, Morgan? Why haven't you contacted me? Aries . . . .
If anything happened to his cousin, he didn't know what he'd do to Morgan.
"But it won't be pleasant."
The scents of lavender, wool, and sex woke her, and Pansy was momentarily disoriented. Carefully slithering out of the pile of cloth, she found herself gliding over stone. It was decidedly unpleasant for its coldness, but she didn't think it wise to change form before knowing more about her surroundings. Lured by the warmth of the hearth before her, she made her way to it and rose up in a coil to see who it was she could hear.
Narcissa. With a man. And is this . . . Hogwarts?
That was reassuring, if confusing, because Pansy had no idea with whom Narcissa could be having it off.
Of more immediate interest to her, now that she felt relatively safe, was the emptiness of her stomach, so when she heard the squeak of a mouse behind her, she turned her attention to catching it.
Everything was always so much simpler in her Animagus form.
"A snake!" one of the children exclaimed, nearly knocking his glass of milk over as he gesticulated in excitement.
"Very good! Now, what does a snake say?" Baird asked, looking at each of the breakfasting orphans in turn.
As one, they all answered, "Hiss!"
Ian tapped Morgan, who was leaning against the kitchen wall and watching the scene, on the shoulder, murmuring, "A word?"
"Of course," Morgan replied, following the man from the room. "They're all so happy," he told Ian, as they entered the lounge.
"Yeah, we work hard at that, given the circumstances."
"So, how is he?"
"Still sleeping, but Morgan, this is all highly irregular. I realise that you've got your reasons for not telling me what's going on, and I'm happy to help protect any child, but there are procedures to follow for this sort of protective custody."
"Look, I know, and I'll get you the appropriate paperwork as soon as possible—but it's like I said, protocol isn't as important as keeping Aries safe. You know that I wouldn't be here if I had another option."
"Speaking of safety, I have ten children here to protect, eleven now, of course, with Aries, and I need to know if we can expect—"
"Ian! I would never place the kids, or you and Baird, in any danger. I assure you, no one knows we're here. No one's going to come for Aries here. Please, just give me some time to sort this mess out."
Ian sighed. "Right then. You can have your time, but you'll have to take whatever charm you've employed off the boy. It's not right, leaving him like that."
Morgan swallowed. "If I do that, I'll need you to promise me something."
Ian crossed his arms and stared at Morgan.
"He'll ask for his parents, of course, and he'll no doubt say—"
"What? That he's been taken?"
"I swear, I haven't done anything wrong by taking him away from those people, and it's incredibly important—a matter of Aries' life, in fact—that no one be told he's here, no matter what he says to you."
"You're telling me that the child believes he's been kidnapped?"
"Yeah, but he's too young to understand—"
"The circumstances. You know, I'd feel so much better for that paperwork, Morgan."
"I'll . . . I'll bring it. Tonight. I swear—just please, keep him away from the other children, and don't allow him to alarm you with his protests. I can't stress how important it is that no one knows he's here."
Greer shut the doors to the wardrobe in time to avoid being caught by her dad and his guest as they entered the room. Her parents hadn't said anything about guests at breakfast, but she'd known that they had them when a tray had been sent up to the spare room. Well, she'd known because of the Morgan fellow, really, but there was another one.
And he's very tired, she thought, peering through the crack in the doors. What are they doing to him?
"That's a natural sleep, then," the older guest said, pocketing his wand. "I don't know when he'll wake, but just remember—"
"No worries. Just you remember to bring that paperwork, Morgan."
Bye, Dad, Greer thought, as the door closed.
She waited a bit before leaving the wardrobe and then went to sit next to the new boy on the bed.
I wonder if you're another orphan? Bet you're not, or they wouldn't have locked you in here, she thought, glad that she'd already had her breakfast because she didn't know when the bedroom door would be unlocked again.
Suddenly, the little boy coughed and opened his eyes, blinking rapidly before focussing on her.
"Who are you?"
"I'm called Greer. What's your name?"
"Where am I?" the little boy asked, his face screwing up in fear.
"Aren't you going to say your name?"
"If I do, will you tell me where I am?"
"Of course, silly. You're at the Home, my house. We've lots of kids here, and you're safe," Greer told him, patting his hand.
"Thank you. We should be friends, I think."
"All . . . all right."
"But first, what's your name?"
"Oh. I'm Aries."
"Like the constellation."
"Yes," Aries said, smiling.
"That's better. Now you don't look scared," Greer said, in approval.
Aries swallowed. "But I am scared. A man took me away from Uncle Draco."
"What man?" Greer demanded, instantly upset on Aries' behalf.
She knew well enough that nice people didn't do things like that.
"He said his name was Morgan."
Greer's eyes widened. "You sure? Because Dad and someone called Morgan were just here, but Dad would never have anyone bad come to stay."
"Maybe he doesn't know Morgan's bad," Aries suggested.
Greer thought about this, and she decided that it had to be right. But if there's a bad man here and Dad and Father don't know . . . .
Turning, Greer eyed the hearth speculatively. She was a big girl, and big girls didn't let bad people come into their houses. It wasn't proper. She thought it most improper, indeed, that a bad man was in her house with her fathers and the orphans. More than that, she knew that it might not be the right thing, saying anything to her fathers about the bad man, because he might hurt them, so she needed, she decided, to tell someone else.
That was a house rule: "Always confide in an adult you trust when something or someone is bothering you."
A bad man is a bother that Severus might help me with.
Severus knew how to deal with bad people, her fathers had told her so. They'd told her that he was a hero. She didn't know why he was a hero because, for some reason, no one thought it right to tell her. This had always vexed Greer and made her wonder if Severus truly was a hero, or if people just called him that because he was grumpy and needed cheering up, but it was good that she'd remembered Severus, she decided, because Severus had a proper hero staying with him, proper because everyone knew why Harry Potter was a hero.
Of course, that Haru woman had tricked him, but Greer supposed that no one was perfect, and everyone knew that girls were smarter than boys, anyway.
Lord Voldybad was just a boy, so Harry Potter ought to be able to manage a bad one who fools people into thinking he's good, Greer thought, before telling Aries, "I have an idea."
She was pleased to see how this news made him smile.