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Rabbit Heart by Pixileanin

Format: Novel
Chapters: 31
Word Count: 137,192
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Mild violence, Substance abuse, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Horror/Dark, Humor, Romance
Characters: Albus, James (II), Rose, Scorpius, OC
Pairings:

First Published: 01/01/2014
Last Chapter: 08/31/2015
Last Updated: 09/01/2015

Summary:
::Winner: 2015 Dobby Award for Most Original Fic::



Awesome rabbity banner by milominderbender
When Wren Longbottom gets uprooted from the only home she's ever known, she meets someone who takes all her worries away.  But when her new best friend in the world becomes the world's worst nightmare, will she have the heart to let them die?


 


Chapter 1: 1. Have a Heart
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Wren Longbottom perched on the narrow wooden bench by the windowsill and stared out into the deep woods behind her house, trying to memorize every leaf and twig so she'd have something to remind her of home when she was gone. Her camera had captured everything she could think of, from the finials on her bedposts to the sunrise through her bedroom window, but pictures just weren't going to be enough.

Earlier, when she'd been dumping things on her bed, she'd thought she'd seen a flash of light out near the lake, not exactly on the surface of the water, but near it, as if it came from the shoreline under the large oak tree. Sunlight played on the crystal surface of the water, making it look so inviting. And wait, there it was again, that flash. It definitely hadn't come from the lake.

She peered through her omnioculars to get a closer look. No, this was no good, she needed to get out there and see what that was. Wren slid off the bench and ignored the pulled out drawers, piles of books and mountains of clothes that had been strewn all over her room. As she waded through the sea of overturned photography magazines, her leg bumped against a stack of empty boxes.

She slung her camera strap around her neck and was just about to reach for the knob when an insistent knock came from the other side, making her jump back. "Wren, it's Rose. Open up!"

Her hand froze on the doorknob. Wren turned to survey the wreck that was her room. She was supposed to be packing. The last time Rose had offered to "help" speed-clean her room, it had taken hours to sort through her camera equipment to find the high-speed film.

"Just a sec!"

She caught her reflection in the dresser mirror and shook her head roughly to distribute the spiky pixie cut around her head. Rose had always complained that Wren's hair was too short for a brush, but that was just the way she liked it. Easy. No fuss.

A scuffle broke out behind her door, and then another knock. "Wren? It's me, Albus."

Albus? She'd only invited Rose over to help her get her stuff together, but it shouldn't have been surprising that he showed up too. The two cousins usually came as a team, which she didn't mind at all. Except maybe when she had everything she owned dumped all over her room.

Wren jolted into action, swiping the mess of books into an open box, letting them spill in all jumbled together, and rammed her dresser closed. "Hold on!" she called, tossing the omnioculars onto a bare spot on her covers.

She paused at the mirror and smoothed down some of the spikes, then threw the door open.

Albus stood there with playful eyes. Wren did a brief check, almost on an unconscious level, like she did every time she saw him; an eyebrow taller than her, five feet exactly. She was forever grateful that she still had a friend who couldn't call her short and mean it.

He raised an eyebrow, making it a quarter inch higher. She threw her arms around him, laughing. "I'm glad you're here."

"Glad I came," he said. "See?" he said to Rose, "I told you it'd work. I'm her best..."

"Oldest!" Rose's voice cut in behind him. She stood half a head taller than both of them and tossed her long braid over her shoulder. "By four days, and only because you were born premature, Albus Potter!"

He rolled his eyes playfully. "We're sixteen, and you're still bringing that up? Amazing!"

Rose Weasley hugged Wren too, while shooting a disgruntled look at her cousin. "Open the door for him and not for me?"

Wren shrugged as Rose shouldered her way into the bedroom. "Oh wow. Looks like your closet blew up in here!" She started throwing magazines into an empty box and muttered something about trying to uncover the floor.

Albus shuffled in the doorway, but Wren pushed at his chest. "Sorry, I can't let you in. Rose is better at this sort of job. Faster, anyway." Wren didn't want to think about all the hours she was going to spend trying to find all her stuff after...

"She's better than me at moving boxes?" Albus leaned against the doorframe, craning his head to see inside. Wren quickly grabbed the doorknob and pressed it into her back, blocking his view.

"Packing underwear," Rose called from behind the half-closed door. "Are these even clean, Wren?"

Wren blushed when Albus didn't move away.

"I see," he said slowly.

"No, you don't. That's the point."

Rose called out from behind a stack of photography equipment. "Boxes, Albus. You're supposed to be here for the boxes."

He stuck his tongue out at his cousin and turned back to Wren. "Well, is there anything I can do?"

"We'll call you back up when the boxes are ready," Wren said, pushing him back harder.

"Fine. I'll help downstairs," he said with a pout.

She plastered a grin on her face and pretended that the flush of red wasn't creeping up her neck again. They'd known each other forever like she'd known those woods forever. She'd been looking out that window since she was tall enough to climb up on the toy chest and press her nose against the glass. She knew every tree, every sparkle on the water.

Albus blew his hair out of his eyes and trudge back down the stairs. He was probably just curious, having never seen her room before. If her great-grandmother was here, he wouldn't have gotten farther up than the landing.

Wren's thoughts turned sour, wiping the grin off her face. Moving was inevitable since her parents had bought the Leaky Cauldron Inn. They'd promised that she could have one last summer here, in her home. But then Gran...

She closed the door to her room, numbed by the swirling vortex of change around her.

"You alright, Wren?" Rose asked.

Rose's family had moved three times in the last five years, and she didn't seem to have suffered any ill effects. It shouldn't be that big of a deal.

"It's just... a lot," Wren said, trying to still her hammering heart.

Rose looked around the wreck that was Wren's room. "I have no idea where to start. How do you want to do this?"

Wren needed something to focus on. If Gran were here, she'd say something pragmatic.

If Gran were here, she wouldn't be packing.

Stop thinking, Wren told herself. Stop feeling. Be practical.

She heaved a sigh. "One box at a time, I guess."


***

Two hours later, Wren carried her photography equipment bag (that she'd insisted on packing herself) down the stairs and almost tripped over Albus. "Please tell me you haven't been sitting here the whole time," she said.

He stood up and took the bag off her shoulder. "Course not. I was taking a break. Your mum's got everyone packing the downstairs."

"What?" Wren leapt over the bottom step and scurried into the living room, stopping short as one of Gran’s storage boxes spun past her from out of the broom closet. Albus’ older brother flicked his wand, and the box dropped in front of him, its lid flipping open..

"Wow! I think my great Aunt Muriel had one of these!" James, an older (only by sixteen months) and taller (by a lot) version of his brother, held up a curious red handbag, and then another one. He dug around inside the box. "Hey, there's a load of 'em in here! And, wow. What's this?" He pulled out a small plaque with a small animal's head attached and held it up, chuckling at the inscription. "That lady's been hating on fanged gerbils since 1947!"

" What are you doing, James?" Wren cried, running up to him. "Why are you even here?"

"Mum brought me to help." He replaced the lid and tapped the box with his wand, shrinking it down to a tiny cube before placing it into a bewitched trunk in the center of the room.

The walls were bare. Even the furniture was gone. Albus started boxing up the cupboards under the window seat by the back door, pulling out birdseed and pellets and old blankets.

"Not those!" Wren said, rushing over. "They're for the wild animals."

Her dad came through the room with potted plants in each arm, muttering in concentration. "I know it's going to be a shock to you, but I think you'll like it in your new home," he was saying. It took Wren a second to register that he was talking to the plants instead of her.

"Those are Gran's snapdragons. We're only supposed to be taking our stuff."

"Mr. L said to get everything," James said.

"Everything?" Voices were coming from the front door and Wren rushed through the house to see who it was.

"Yes, I understand. I just wasn't expecting this. Thanks for keeping her as long as you could," her mum said, and closed the door. Hannah Longbottom looked frazzled from head to toe and had a large envelope in her hands.

"That was Albus and James' mum," she explained. "Something happened while they were watching Gran this morning. They took her to St. Mungo's for observation."

"Gran!" Wren cried. Her great-grandmother had been so stubborn, but she was always strong…

Her mum hugged her. "She was showing Ginny old photographs of Frank and Alice when they were young, and then she just shut down. The Healers say that it might just be the stress of last week, finally having to let her son go after all these years. Wren, I know you were hoping she'd change her mind, but we need to get everything ready in our new place. They don't want her living alone."

"What do you mean? I thought she wanted to be by herself. I thought that's why I couldn't stay here for the summer like she promised."

Wren's mother sighed. "I know, Wren. I'm sorry things didn't work out the way we'd planned. Gran's coming to stay with us now." She put the envelope in her bag and sighed heavily. "She wants to sell the house."

"But..."

"I don't want you to worry over anything, Wren. You can still go out with your friends when we're done here. Your dad and I are going to visit Gran at St. Mungo's."

"No, Mum," Wren said quickly. "I want to see Gran too."

"Are you sure?"

Wren looked back at her friends who were piling the last of the boxes into the trunk. "They'll understand."

She felt herself tearing up. The day was weighing heavier on her by the minute. Gran selling the house... getting ill...

No, she told herself. Don't break. Mum needs you. Gran needs you.

"Give me a few minutes," she said. "I have to see to the animals."

"Of course. We'll go right after lunch.."

Wren walked past Albus to the back door and escaped outside before the tears began to fall. She turned away from the house, not wanting anyone to see, and tore off into the woods.

***


Albus finished with the cupboard, having boxed up harnesses, weaning bottles for small mammals, clippers, tweezers and something that looked like a first aid kit for garden gnomes. He'd filled up another box with Wren's framed photos from her bedroom, finally getting a glimpse of the room he was never allowed in. It had lost its mystique without the underwear. Lots of pictures of wildlife, the sun reflecting off the lake, and landscapes had mixed with snapshots of Rose and himself, and Wren too, taken at strange angles with the camera looking up their noses.

That was Wren, quirky and fun.

He was about to ask if there was anything else to pack, but Rose grabbed his arm and beckoned back to the window. "Someone should go talk to her. She's been out there for ages."

“But I thought you said I was only here for the boxes.” He grinned at Rose’s familiar glare.

Mrs. Longbottom brought a tray out from the kitchen. "Anyone seen Wren?"

"Ooh, sandwiches!" James dropped his armful of brooms into the trunk and practically leapt across the room. "By the way, nice funeral, Mrs. L."

Rose gasped. "I don't think you're supposed to say that sort of thing out loud, James."

Hannah smiled kindly as James helped himself to three sandwiches before she could even put the tray down. "Thank you, James. I'll let Augusta know."

Albus was about to join his brother, feeling suddenly hungry himself until Rose gave him a pointed look and jerked her head at the window. "Right," he said, "I'll get her."

He headed down to the lake, where row of cages sat empty under the large shade tree. Above him, two swallows fluttered on the lowest branches, one still nursing a broken wing.

Wren sat cross-legged on a large root, her short cropped hair auburn in the filtered sunlight. As he got closer, the dappled sunlight gave her pale skin a ghostly sheen. Her eyes were focused on her lap, where she held a squirrel with a large gash, still pink and swollen, running across its eye.

"He's not ready to go back." Wren sniffed. “I'm going to miss this place."


"Me too," he said. Albus sat down in the wet grass next to her. "You took pictures of everything?" Wren's ever-present camera hung around her neck.

"Yes." The squirrel gnawed on her finger, looking for another treat. She laughed softly. "It's all gone, little one. You're going to have to find your own nuts from now on." A breeze flowed by, sweeping a cluster of leaves into the water. "Whether you're ready or not," she added with a sniff.

He wanted to tell her that she'd be back later, just to see her smile. "You'll come by my house," Albus said instead. "We'll rescue wild animals there. You can teach Lily how to take care of them. She'd like that."

Wren shrugged. Her eyes were red and she looked like she'd break out in tears again at any moment.

"We'll eat Mum's toffee pudding 'till we're sick."

"Sounds great," Wren said. She wiped away tears, making Albus feel like he was doing something wrong.

"You're not coming over later, are you?"

"Can't. Gran's ill. I need to help her, and then... she threw such a fit, Al. It was so unlike her."

They all saw. In public, the stern Mrs. Longbottom, Wren's great grandmother, loudly refusing to go back to the country home for hours until Wren's mum promised to get her a room at the Leaky Cauldron Inn. They all thought she'd change her mind eventually and come back home.

"Now she wants to sell the house. If I throw a bigger fit, do you think she'd let us stay?"

Albus put his arm around her so he wouldn't have to see the tears. "It's just a house," he said, not knowing what else to say.

"Like this is just my camera," Wren cried. "And you're just my friend." She rubbed her face against his shirt.

"It's going to be so awesome with you living at the Leaky Cauldron," he said, trying to cheer her up.

Wren clenched at his shirt harder. "But we're never going to climb this tree again. Or swim in the lake, or..." She trailed off. "Never mind."

"Make a list. We'll do it all."

"What? Right now?"

"Sure," he said. "Why not?"

Wren finally smiled, but then a loud popping noise came from the house. They watched crate after crate float out of the large bay window and disappear into thin air.

"Apparition Team is here," Albus said. "I guess we're out of time."

Wren wiped her arm across her face and tried to smooth down the wet spots on the front of his shirt. "Sorry for getting you all wet."

He patted her arm awkwardly. He was used to his little sister's tears, always bursting into dramatics over everything, but Wren never did this. Suddenly, he felt so sad for her, almost like he should cry himself and he didn't know why. His throat closed up and he hugged her tighter. That seemed to help.

She blinked up at him, eyes puffy, wet cheeks, her nose might be running too, he couldn't tell, and suddenly he wanted to...

"Al?"

Albus blinked. "Yeah?"

Wren sniffed. "What if I'm more upset over leaving this place than I am about my own grandparents dying? Gran always said it was selfish to think about yourself before others." She squeezed her eyes shut. "Not that she's setting a very fine example, making us leave here."

Albus shifted in the grass, the wetness had seeped into his trousers and his pant legs were sticking to the skin underneath. His insides had twisted into knots.

"If I had to leave my house or was told I'd never see the Burrow again, I'd probably throw a fit." Then his stomach growled.

Right.

"Your mum has lunch ready," he said, finally getting to the point of coming out to see her.

"I'll be a bit," she said. "I have one more thing to do."

"I'll umm, go back to the house and let you get on with it."

Wren nodded and he as relieved to see her smile again. Albus waited until he got a good distance away from her and then broke into a short sprint back to the door. He looked back at the girl with the pixie cut, his oldest-best friend in the world and his chest became lead again.



***

"Fly. Be free."

Wren struggled with the last latch, alarming the little rabbit hunched in the back of its cage, his foot rammed into the water dish and his little nose twitching in nervous panic. She looked back at the cottage through the trees and thought "wands", but the baby rabbit was already at risk of twisting his bad leg and injuring it even more.

She tugged harder, rattling the whole line of empty cages. There wasn't time for stuck cages and injured rabbits anymore. The rabbit shoved itself further to the back, struggling with the stuck leg as Wren rattled the cages again.

Wren let out a cry of frustration and backed away from the cage. The squirrel with the barely healed gash sniffed at her sandal. One of the swallows had flown off, leaving its companion still struggling to keep its balance in the branches above her. None of them had taken well to their early release, and Wren wondered if they'd survive the night.

If Gran hadn't lost her mind after the funeral, they wouldn't be packing up everything they owned. They wouldn't be moving somewhere that didn't have a garden for her dad to tend, and too small for her mum's large soaking tub. Wren wasn't going to have these woods and a lake to escape to. She'd lived at the cottage her whole life. How could any other place be her home? Their new home wasn't even a real home…

If Gran would just come back…

She snatched up the rock and pounded it into the latch. Wren had to stop for a minute and catch her breath before she opened the cage and pried the little rabbit's foot out of the water dish. She lifted the tiny bunny carefully out of its cage and held the trembling creature to her chest. "It's alright," she whispered. "You're going to do fine out there."

The bits of metal had fallen away, half-buried in the leaves and dirt. It didn't matter. The cages would rust to pieces without her.

Wren swiped the wet pricks at the edge of her eyes. She knelt down and placed the baby rabbit onto the leaves, letting it sniff around and get used to the grit under its feet. The squirrel had already scampered up to the lower branches of a nearby tree. She sat down and watched the baby rabbit hop around in a small circle.

"There's a nice burrow out there just waiting for you," Wren said as the little rabbit wedged between her knees. She felt herself begin to cry all over again. She hated crying. It always gave her a headache for hours afterward.

Wren scanned the trees and forced herself not to think of foxes and snakes and hawks and things out in the deep woods that were much worse than a sprained foot. A moving shadow caught her eye in the deeper woods as the little rabbit pressed harder against her jeans. She scooped him up and pulled him close. "I'm sorry," she mumbled into its fur. "I'm so sorry."

She'd wanted so badly to keep this one. He'd been lying in the middle of the country road with a broken leg as if he'd fallen or been dropped - an unlikely injury for an animal that burrowed into the ground. Wren had scooped him up and braced his leg, and he'd healed miraculously fast.

Rabbits didn't generally like to cuddle, but this one had. All she had to do was support his thick hindquarters on her arm, and he'd bury his little nose into the crook of her elbow. She kissed it gently on the head and put it back onto the ground. It hopped off into the nearest bush.

In the distance, the last trunk floated out of the window and landed in the grass, waiting to be sent away. Wren was going to miss this place so much. She had pictures of all of it, but there were things that she couldn't take pictures of, things that she wondered how long it would take to forget once she left this place for good. She knew all the places where the water puddled after a fierce rain and how the wind brushed against her cheeks when she sat on the branches of the tree over the lake. The cottage was empty except for the memories of her childhood.

She held her breath as the tiny creature slipped out of sight. Wren strained her ears, tracking the baby bunny by the way it rustled through the dry leaves. He'll be fine, she told herself. There were wards all around the property. He had fresh water down at the lake, and early summer was the best time of year for fresh clover.

Then she saw a ball of light growing steadily larger and larger, covering the entire bush where her little rabbit had gone. Wren let out a short cry as the ball flashed very bright, and then just as quickly as it came, disappeared, taking the tiny bunny with it.

She scrambled over to the bush and searched and searched, but the little rabbit had vanished.
 




A/N:   Hello, and welcome to my story!  If you are new, I'm so glad you came to check it out.  If you're returning to read again, I'm doubly blessed.  As of July, 2015, this story has gone through a massive revision, mostly for cohesiveness.  If you've reviewed before, I'd love to hear your comments on the changes, so you can either send me a PM on the forums or include your thoughts in the later chapters.  All comments are absolutely appreciated.

 I had a lot of help putting this together, so thanks to patronus charm, CambAngst and ladybirdflying for all of their eyes and for agreeing to beta this, even though I made them read the first draft (twice), and then changed almost everything.  I can't thank NeoMiniTails, 1917farmgirl and WriteYourHeartOut enough for the motivation to get this posted.   Without you guys, I'd be sitting on this for another year.  ;)  

Another thank you goes to justonemorefic for her critical eye and guidance through the revisions of the first three chapters.  Also, thanks to Oldershouldknowbetter for the fresh eyes on the new text.  Revision is a beast.  Take a friend into the fray.

Giving credit where credit is due: the title of this fic is inspired by Florence and the Machine (Raise It Up).

If Mad-eye Moody was a writer, I believe his motto would be, "constant improvement".   Comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated!

[Edited on 30 August, 2015]


Chapter 2: 2. Trusting Hearts
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 Wren leapt two steps at a time, her camera swinging from the strap around her neck, as another wail echoed through the back stairwell of the Leaky Cauldron Inn. She’d only left her great-grandmother alone for a little while, tending the front desk while her mum had gone out for groceries. As she climbed the steps to the family suite behind the rented rooms, she called out, “Gran?”

No answer.

When she got inside, she snatched a floating pillow out of the air and returned it to the couch where she’d left Gran sleeping a half hour ago. Then she saw the white bun poking over the high back chair in front of the window. Wren’s eye caught the fanged gerbil plaque that her mum had hung up because it used to make Gran smile.

Augusta Longbottom (they all called her 'Gran' to make it easier) slouched against the cushions, her fists balled into a pillow. Wren hesitantly touched her arm. Gran’s fists relaxed, and her eyes slid open, blinking up at Wren.

“You’re here.”

Worry ran across Wren's face.. “What can I get for you?”

Gran’s eyes opened wider with a smile. “Your color has come back.” Her gravelly voice halted and she coughed. Wren helped her sit up and propped the pillow behind her back for support, just the way she liked it. The older woman reached out to touch the side of Wren’s face. “It’s so good to see you,” Gran told her. “Where’s Frank?”

Wren’s heart sank. “Gran,” she said, gently removing the fragile hand from her cheek. She hated doing this to her. “They’re gone. I’m not Alice. I’m Wren.”

Gran’s face changed slowly, as if her mind was taking its time to accept what Wren had said. She drew back and covered her face with shaking hands. “Oh, Frankie, I’m so sorry!” Her expression dimmed and another pillow flew up from the couch. Wren chased it down the hall, and by the time she got back to Gran, the woman was openly weeping.

Wren put an arm around Gran’s bony shoulders and rocked her until she settled down. After a while, they both moved to the couch, where Wren whispered calming words and tucked a blanket around her. When Augusta quieted down, the crease around her closed eyes loosened. Her chest rose and fell slowly, haltingly.   Wren swallowed her fear, scared to death that each breath would be her last. She sat by and kept watch over her great-grandmother's troubled sleep. Her mum wouldn’t be gone much longer.

It would have been easier if Gran had taken the Calming Draught, but Gran hated the potions. She said they put a cloud over her mind.

Something sharp dug into Wren’s elbow. Wren swung the strap from around her neck and set her camera on the table. “I almost had that picture you wanted, Gran,” Wren whispered. She had been out in the courtyard that morning, counting weeds behind her lens. “Remember the one with the dandelion seeds? I was only off by a half a second.”

She brought out the photo book, a compilation of pictures she'd taken right before they'd moved - it had been a whole week, but Wren still felt the sting of losing the little rabbit to the mysterious ball of light. There were any number of predators out in the woods, a hawk or a snake could have easily done him in, but they didn't flash. It made Wren afraid that there was something still out there, behind the home that wasn't hers anymore.

Ugh! This was horrible! All Wren could do to ease her worries was to stay close to Gran, hoping she wouldn't disappear too. She flipped past the baby bunny pictures and described the images for Gran of the lake, the trees and then farther into the book, newer pictures of the Inn and some of the shops down in the Alley.

Gran used to be the best listener, and Wren still pretended that Gran heard every word. “Rose is helping me plan my birthday party at the end of the summer.” She forced a smile, but the waver in her voice betrayed her. She fingered the Gryffindor crest on her necklace, a gift from Gran right before… right before Gran’s world changed. “I’m turning sixteen, remember?”

Rose had come over a few hours ago, but she hadn't stayed long. Wren was too focused on the old woman in front of her, unable to get excited about a party where there'd be no swimming in the lake and all the other stuff Wren missed about home.

She’d been sure that Gran would snap out of it by now. There wasn’t anything physically wrong. The Healers had said that she’d suffered from stress and anxiety over the state of her son and his wife for a long time. Now that they were gone, it was assumed that she was going through a hard adjustment period. They guessed that her mind was filtering through everything, and reliving the past was her mind’s way of easing into her new reality without them.

The Healers had said a lot of things. There was every chance that Gran would wake up one day and be fine… But every morning was the same, and Gran still hadn’t stopped waking up crying or hurling pillows through the air with wandless magic.

Wren had done everything she could think of to make Gran better. The family's old medical tomes lay open on top of the piles of books on her bed. Faded notes filled the margins, mind-clearing charms and restorative potions added over the years by Gran as she tried and failed to rouse Wren's biological grandparents from their permanent waking sleep. When they'd finally passed away and Gran had fallen into pretty much the same state, the potions and charms hadn't worked for her either. Two weeks after the double funeral, Gran still stared into nothingness for hours at a time and refused to speak. The Healers had only offered the brain-numbing potions and useless advice to give Gran more time.

They said that some things were impossible to fix, even with magic.

Muffled sobs shook Gran in her sleep. Wren gently rubbed her back to calm her. Gran had been tough as nails, the center and rock of her world. After the funeral, the old woman had broken into so many shards that she was hardly coherent anymore, and when she was, it was painfully obvious that she had left the best parts of herself with the people who had moved on without her.

The first week of summer had been a whirlwind of unpacking as the Longbottom family settled into the connected rooms behind the Inn. It was more space than a typical three bedroom flat, but far smaller than their home. They owned it, she reminded herself. It was their Inn now, their home - the word sounded foreign in her head. Part of Wren’s childhood had been here too - visiting her mum when she did weekend shifts for old Tom, having family dinners in the kitchen when her mum pulled the night shift. But there had always been a real home to go back to, a suitcase to unpack with souvenirs from Diagon Alley and a sticker from the sweets shop.

It was so different here. Street lights from the Apothecary across the street shone through her window, keeping Wren awake at night. The quaint lake and the deep woods were replaced with a bustling street than never slept anyway. Her parents called it a new start. They did it for Gran, but Gran wasn’t getting any better. Wren was starting to think that she never would.

Wren wiped her face and ignored the pain that knotted up inside her. All the little injured animals... She missed them terribly, especially that little rabbit who’d disappeared.

“Wren,” her mother called as the door to the suite opened. “How is she?”

“Sleeping now.”

Hannah Longbottom closed the door and came into the living room, weary and worried. “The potion is still on the counter with her lunch.”

“She wouldn’t take it, Mum.” Wren hated giving Gran the potions as much as she hated taking them. “They’re not helping her get any better.”

“They keep her calm enough to eat. She’s getting weak, Wren.”

“I know.” Wren blinked back the tears. “She did so well today, up until a little while ago.”

She sat by Gran’s side while her mother opened and shut closet doors in the bedroom. When she came back in a fresh set of clothes, she flicked her wand to reheat the untouched plate. “It’s only seven thirty and your dad won’t be back for few more hours. Why don’t you get out for a while?”

Wren’s days had blurred together, either watching Gran or taking shifts down in the Inn while her mother watched Gran. Her dad had been busy at the Ministry, changing records, or at the property, preparing it to go up for sale. He’d offered to take her with him, but Wren kept hoping that if she held out just one more day, Gran would wake up and be alright. She’d nursed plenty of animals back to health out in the back of the cottage. Gran had showed her how to set bones, feed babies who had lost their mothers and administer Healing Salve to injuries. The most important lesson that Gran had taught her was how to recognize a lost cause. Some injuries were beyond repair, even with Gran’s magic.

She kept telling herself that it was too early to tell. But the truth was that the longer she stayed like this, the less likely she'd recover. “I just feel like she’s not…”

Her words clamped up in her throat. She wouldn't allow herself to think it, let alone say it out loud. She grabbed her bag and camera case and headed for the door. When she looked back, she saw the potion in her mother’s hand and the cup of tea in the other.

“Go on. We’ll be fine.” It was the resignation in her mother’s tone that Wren hated the most. All her mother knew how to do, all any of them could do was follow the Healer's orders, but potions weren’t fixing Gran.

Wren didn’t want to spend another evening watching her great grandmother slip into the stillness. Yes, it made her calm, and yes, it helped her eat and rest, but the woman that stared listlessly out the window every evening with a cloud over her mind wasn’t the Gran that Wren knew.

“You’re right, Mum.” Wren took in a shaky breath. She would be strong, like Gran used to be. Wren gripped her bag tighter and opened the door, wishing Rose had stuck around a little longer.

“I need to get out.”


***


Wren wove through the bustling London streets, not caring where she was going, only that she was getting away. If she’d thought about it, she could have written her friends and met up with them for a few hours. But whenever she found herself with time on her hands, it was either too late to make plans, or she was too tired, or she hadn’t thought about it…

The people on the street had barely given her a second glance when she'd come out, of a shabby little pub squeezed between a bookshop and one of those strange electronic gadget stores. They wouldn’t have even seen the pub entrance if she hadn’t stood right in front of it. The city lights pierced through the dusk as the sun went down. A honking car startled Wren and she started moving again.

She marveled at how different and how familiar it felt all at the same time. Wren was used to hiding her magical world from the rest of the town she’d grown up in. Back there, if she wanted to get away, she’d tuck her wand into her pocket and climb a tree in the woods. Here, she hid in plain sight amidst the bustling traffic.

Wren walked on until she reached a quieter section where trees sprang up along the sidewalk. Huddled forms sprawled across park benches every few feet, blending into the shadows. Wren wanted to wrap herself up in the darkness like she used to back home, when the sun went down and the forest came alive with sound.

Something moved off to her left. Wren’s eyes immediately narrowed in and flitted over the shadows instinctively like she scanned the woods back home, searching for the odd shape in the leaves. It was small, moving awkwardly. She lost track of it for a minute, but there it was again.

On the opposite corner of the street, a short, thin figure slowly emerged into the dim lamplight.  It was a small boy clutching a large basket to his chest. He sat down on the corner of the road and wrapped his arms protectively around the basket.

When no one came for him after a few minutes, Wren waited for the lights to change and crossed over. He shrank back as she approached him. “Hello,” she said, stopping well away from him to give him space. “Are you lost?”

The little boy looked up with vacant eyes. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old, and he looked like he had forgotten how to smile. Wren's mind spun; she'd know which wizard to go to in Diagon Alley, but Muggles had their own method of returning lost children to their families.

“Let me take you to someone who can help.” She immediately felt better when he nodded at her and started following her back down the street, lugging the big basket with him. A policeman had been on patrol a few blocks back. He’d know what to do.

“Excuse me,” she said when she reached the man in uniform. “I’ve got a lost little boy here, and I was hoping you could help him.”

The man looked past Wren and down the street. “Did you come from the park?” A black box buzzed at his side, and he took it off his belt to mumble something harsh into it.

“No, not me. He’s…” She looked behind her and realized she was waving at nothing. “…gone,” she finished lamely.

The man stared down at her, but he was really listening to the static voices coming through his little box. He tore a pen from his breast pocket and began scribbling notes onto a worn pad. Wren hated how he made her feel so small. “Go on home," he told her. "It’s not safe.” He murmured something guttural into his box and then brushed past her.

As the policeman headed off in the direction of the park, Wren wondered what had happened. The boy had been right behind her, she was sure of it, and then he wasn’t. She turned around to see if there was someone else she could tell, and there he was again.

“You disappeared. I was trying to help you and you ran away.”

“That man can't help me,” he told her.

“But you can’t stay out here alone in the dark." She turned to call out to the policeman, but he'd already disappeared down the path. "Let’s sit down somewhere and talk.”

She kept a careful eye on him as they walked back to where the city lights were brighter and found a bench. Wren sat down next to him, but not too close. He already looked uneasy and she didn't want to spook him and have him running off again.

"My name's Wren. What's yours?"

He didn't answer at first, his eyes darting back and forth between the moving cars and the people bustling around them. “Dillon,” he said in a half-whisper. In the lamplight, Wren noticed dark circles under his eyes. He smelled like a sewer when he reached out and touched the Gryffindor crest that hung from her necklace. Wren didn't flinch. She'd taken care of injured animals that had smelled worse.

"I know this," he said. "I know you."

Wren sat up straighter and the boy's hand fell away. "Maybe I look like someone you know," she reasoned.

The boy shook his head. He looked tired and hungry, and she'd seen how the mind could play tricks on a person.

“Dillon,” she said, “Is your mum around somewhere?” She’d had enough Muggle Studies classes to figure this out, and she’d been in London enough times to know most of the main streets. If she couldn’t help Gran, she could at least help this lost, little boy.

"No," he said. "I don’t belong here.” His eyes grew distant, and Wren couldn’t help thinking of Gran again. “My mother has magicks.”

“Magic?” Wren repeated, startled. She looked around quickly to see if anyone else had heard, but the closest people to them were a couple of men across the street, smoking cigarettes as they headed towards the park. Witches and wizards could get sent away for talking to Muggles about anything related to magic.

She let out a shuddery breath as the Muggle men turned the corner. No, that probably wasn't what the little boy had meant when he'd talked about his mother. Muggles hid coins up their sleeves and performed sleight-of-hand parlor tricks and called it magic all the time. That's probably what he'd meant. Muggles didn't believe in the real magic. To them, it was only make-believe.

She looked down at the boy and her heart ached. He had a mother. All they had to do now was find her.  "Is she coming back?"

"No," he said. "She said I had to find it on my own."

"Find what?" Wren asked, wondering what on earth a mother would send her little boy out in the dark to find all by himself.

“Magicks,” he said again, looking dead into her eyes. “Just like you.”

 


***


Dillon eased his basket onto the worn pavers of the courtyard and watched Wren press the pattern of bricks into the magical wall. His mother had always told him that if he said the right things and acted the right way, and pretended to be what everybody around him assumed that he was, then he would get what he wanted.

It worked.

"Mummy always told me never to speak to anyone about magicks, but somehow I knew that you were the same as me," he told Wren as they walked together through Diagon Alley. He'd seen her from across the park, noting her Muggle jeans, first thinking she was just another lonely girl in the night, but then when she'd come over to him, he'd caught sight of the school crest on her necklace. "You go to the wizard school, don't you? Mummy says I'm going there too someday."

Wren looked worriedly down at him. He didn't know how he looked to her, with his sunken eyes and his clothes hanging down like they weren't meant for him. All he knew was that Wren had helped him get into Diagon Alley when no one else would. It had been a long time since anyone had taken care of him like that. He was so busy looking up at his new friend that he stumbled in the road. Wren caught his arm before he tumbled down with his basket.

“Where do you think your mum might be?" Wren hadn't spoken much until they'd crossed into the Alley from the magical entrance. "You’re not out here all by yourself, are you?”

Dillon clung to the over-sized basket.  "No," he mumbled. “Are you?” Now that she was asking questions, he was getting nervous.

“No. I live over there." She pointed to the Inn. The early evening was already casting tall shadows over the building, bringing the lamp posts to life and putting everything in a flame-lit haze. It looked like all the other Inns that Dillon had seen, and he'd seen enough of them to know that they weren't anyone's real home. Maybe she was more like him than he'd first thought.

Wren nudged him gently with her elbow. "Would you like to come with me and get something to eat? We could talk to my mum for a bit. Maybe she can help.”

“Help,” he repeated, drawn into her kind eyes. Dillon looked at her with more purpose.
"Yes. I do need help.”

"Come on. I’ll take you inside.”

“No,” he said, a whine starting to creep into his voice. “That’s not where I want to go.”

“Um, alright. Where do you want to go? I can walk you home.”

Mummy had said it was easier to hide among the Muggles, and they didn't pry into anyone's business like wizards did. But Wren had shown him how to slip in and out of both worlds with ease, something he didn't know people like him or her could do. And she was going to the one place that he'd wanted to be all his life. Mummy would be so proud of him if she knew that he was finally going there himself. All he needed was someone to show him the way.

"What's it like?" he asked suddenly. "Do you get to use a wand?"

Wren laughed. "You're really excited about Hogwarts, aren't you?"

Dillon nodded eagerly. "Can you show me your magicks?"

"I'm not old enough. I can't do magic outside school until next year."

"Next year!" he whined and clutched at the basket. "I can't wait another year!"

"I was eleven when I got my letter. How old are you?"

"I'm old enough for a letter! It should have come by now. That’s why I need to go there," he whispered, "to see why my letter never came.” He blinked away tears and peered at her intently. His mother's words flitted around in his head.

Ask nicely.

"Do you know the way to Hogwarts?"

"Only by train. It leaves from King's Cross Station every September first."

"I know where that is!" He'd been to the train station loads of times. Dillon's mother used to sit him up in her lap while they rode the rails so he'd be tall enough to see out the window.

Wren shook her head at his delighted expression. "You need your letter to get on the train." His face fell at her words. He couldn't help it. He didn't have a letter. Wren patted him reassuringly on the shoulder and then brightened. "I have an idea. Wait here."

Dillon watched with interest as she crossed the street to the Inn that was her home and went inside. He waited patiently for a few minutes. He was very good at waiting. But soon, his enthusiasm dimmed and he thought she might have abandoned him for the night. He started to turn away and lug his basket in the opposite direction, but then there she was again, hurrying back across the street towards him.

"Here." She pressed a folded piece of glossy paper into his hands. She helped him unfold it, revealing a web of dots and squiggles. "This is a map of Britain that my mum gives to visitors. Here is where we were in London," she said, pointing to the large green area at the bottom. "And here," she pointed to the top of the map, "is where Hogwarts is."

He peered at the blank spot on the map labeled "Highlands", set apart from all the major towns and roads. In fact, all the squiggles indicated that there weren't even any small roads going in that direction. "There's nothing there."

"It's magic. You can't see it." She pulled a Muggle clicky pen out of her jeans pocket, just like the one that the police officer had clipped to his breast. "Here is the castle, and there's a large lake, and right out here is the town of Hogsmeade." She sketched the scene onto the blank section of the map, bracing the other side against her knee so the marks would show better. There was a bubbly circle for a lake and little boxes for the town. Wren's drawing was only a small collection of hash marks, but the deliberate way that she placed them made the whole thing come alive. In his mind, he could see it: a little train station by the lake with a path around it to a large castle with towers and turrets and bridges... and then she was adding little dashes down the middle of the map in a wavy pattern all the way down to the dot labeled "London".

Dillon traced the dotted line from the city to the tiny castle that Wren had added. "If I follow these blue lines, I can get to Hogwarts too?"

“I guess so. That's the way the train goes, but it’s a long, long way,” Wren admitted.

“What about how wizards do, with the turning and spinning?” He was thinking out loud now, having watched several men in robes and pointed hats doing that very thing. Mummy could do that, before she stopped doing her magicks.

Wren shook her head at him. "The castle is protected. No one goes in without permission."

"If I came, you'd let me in, wouldn't you?" He lowered his boyish lashes at her. "Because you're my friend?"

"Sure I would. Here, let me take your picture. Smile!"

Dillon pulled a toothy grin. When his eyes recovered from the blinding flash, Wren was winding the film. "Now I will remember you forever. Do you need help with that basket? It's awfully big."

“No.” He set the basket down gently and kept a protective hand over it. Then he paused and looked intently at her. Having a friend was fun. “Yes." He gripped the lid of his basket and pulled it open, letting Wren see what was inside.

She gasped. Dillon loved watching people discover what was in the basket. "Baby rabbits!" She beamed at him. "Can I hold one?"

Dillon nodded. He felt a surge of excitement as she reached in and pulled out a small snow-white bunny from the bunch. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “This looks just like the little bunny I once had.”

Dillon peered up into her smiling face. "Do you have any friends?"

Wren stopped smiling. "Well, yes."

"Where are they?"

"Not here right now." She looked sad.

He cocked his head towards the rabbit and listened. "He likes you. Take him."

Wren cuddled the little fur ball close to her chest. "But I don't think I can have..." she started to say, but then the little bunny nipped her finger. "Ouch!" She pulled her hand away from it. "He's got sharp little teeth." The little rabbit licked where he bit her, and Dillon could almost feel her relax.

Wren smiled kindly at him and held the bunny in her arms, making soft, comforting sounds as it suckled on her bit finger as an apology.

She'd take the little rabbit with her for sure, now.

"Mummy wanted me to keep them safe. You'll keep him safe. Promise?"

"Yes, I will. The poor thing looks so tired. I need to get him settled."

Dillon watched with interest as the girl cuddled the baby rabbit in her arms. He knew he had chosen wisely.

Her eyes glistened.  "You're going to be the best taken care of bunny in the whole world!  Thank you," she said to Dillon gratefully. "I love him!"

Dillon gripped the map tightly in his fist, finally having everything he needed to make his dreams come true. He watched as Wren crossed the street with the little rabbit in her arms. Then he hefted the basket up to his chest and slipped back into the night.








A/N:  Bets are on for whether I can keep up the chapter titles for the duration of this fic. 

Another gracious thankyou goes out to my betas for their wonderful eyes.  Also, a big thankyou to milominderbender@TDA for the rabbity banner!

Revised as of 12 July, 2015.




 

 












 

 












 

 








 


Chapter 3: 3. Cold Toes, Warm Heart
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

 
Wren woke with something warm and soft nestled into the top of her head. She was sure she had put the little rabbit in his hutch last night, but when she opened her groggy eyes and sat up, there he was, cuddling into the dent where her head had left the pillow.

She stroked him gently and then got up to put fresh water and pellets in his bowls. "There you go, little bunny," she said, smoothing back his forehead as she returned him to the hutch.

When she first started helping Gran care for injured animals, she never dreamed of having a pet of her own. Gran always believed that animals belonged in the wild, that too much cuddling would spoil their natural instincts. They'd cared for all sorts of small critters, mending wings and healing fractures. She examined the bunny gently as he nibbled at the alfalfa hay, noting with a keen eye the alignment of his hip bones and the healthy pink skin. It was impossible, but everything about him seemed familiar. The snow white fur and dark beady eyes looked very similar to the rabbit she’d helped to heal that summer. He would have grown to about this size too.

This time, Wren wouldn't have to let him go.

She grabbed her camera off the writing desk and shot a few pictures of her little bunny in his new home. She smiled, imagining taking him out on the green outside of Hogwarts castle. He'd enjoy sunning himself in the afternoons, and creeping through the tall grasses to nibble on clover.

A light tapping drew her to her window. A tawny owl with a small envelope in his claws pecked insistently until she let him in.

"Hello, Earl!" Albus' owl hooted and flew off as soon as she detached the letter.

Wren felt a strange prickling behind her eyes. Suddenly a picture popped into her head of vast meadows, the Highland hills and lonely paths through deserted villages. Her mind fogged up and the visions swirled and then faded away. Wren managed to shake herself out of it and returned her attention to the little rabbit. She absently set Albus' letter on her desk, knocking over a thick stack of unopened mail.



 

 



 

Wait a minute. When had she gotten so many letters? Her surprised reflection in the mirror was a shock too. Wren ran her fingers through a plastered mass of hair just above her ears, wincing as it pulled and hung down to her chin.

Maybe she should get a trim down the street, and then...

Bunny yawned and Wren's heart melted. "Oh, look how cute!" Soon she was taking more pictures of the little rabbit - soft fur, little feet, twitching nose... she stopped when the camera made a dull clicking sound.

Wren pouted and popped the spent cartridge out of the camera. She threw it on her bed to rummage around in her closet for the box of photography supplies. Her pout turned into a frown.

"That was the last roll of film.  I guess I need to get more."

Shuffling feet and low muttering in the hallway pulled her out of her thoughts.

Gran.

She closed the rabbit hutch and hurried down the hall to see if Gran needed anything. Her father's soothing voice was already ahead of her.

“Good morning, Wren.” Neville Longbottom was already sitting on the couch, handing Gran a cup of tea. His long legs (something Wren hadn't gotten from him) bent over the couch cushions, and his deep brown eyes (something they shared) gazed at her kindly. "Happy birthday."

"That's not till the end of summer, Dad."

Her dad smiled sadly. "It always goes so fast, doesn't it? We tried to keep you from wasting your whole vacation indoors, but it was all you wanted to do."

"Waste? Helping Gran get better wasn't wasting my time!"

"You never met up with Rose, did you?"

"But I'm going to owl her, and we were going to..." It suddenly hit her. That was supposed to be two weeks ago when her mum had said something about Rose not coming.

Because Wren had never sent the owl.

Gran and Bunny had taken up so much of her attention that she'd completely lost track of the days.

"She's going to be so mad," Wren said, thinking out loud. "But I have a good excuse. Gran needed me."

Bunny needed her too. Wren smiled. Thinking about Bunny made her insides warm and fuzzy. He'd made Gran smile too, or at least that was Wren's impression.

"Morning, Gran." Wren waited for a response, but Gran continued to stare blankly into the center of the room. Disappointed, Wren went downstairs for breakfast.

 


***


"Wren, is that you?" A tall, willowy girl in a floral apron squeezed herself through the kitchen door with a balanced tray of empty coffee mugs on her shoulder. She tapped the faucet twice, watching the sink expand to hold the full load of mugs. Then she tapped her wand on Wren's kettle, which began to whistle instantly.

"Thanks, Nellie." Wren gave her a grateful smile and poured steaming water into her mug.

"Don’t you have the day off?” Nellie tucked a flyaway hair back into her tightly braided plait and leaned back to watch the mugs scrub and rinse themselves. She was two years out of Hogwarts, working morning shifts at the Inn, and afternoons drafting patterns and making alterations at Madam Malkin's Robes down the road.

"I was awake anyway."

"Gran's up?"

"Yes and no." Wren rubbed her face with the back of her hand and picked up a dish towel.

“Let me do it.” Nellie did a complex swish of her wand at the row of wet mugs and a blast of hot air dried them instantly. "Next year, you'll be able to do this part."

Wren scrunched up her face. "Next year, I hope I'm doing something more exciting than washing dishes."

"Probably taking pictures of famous people with that camera of yours," Nellie said smiling. "They'll be here soon."

"Who?"

"Your friends."

"But I..."

"Oh, I almost forgot. This came yesterday." She handed an envelope to Wren with big block letters that read 'READ ME' on the front.

"Uh oh." Wren tore it open and read the note from Rose. "She says I've been hiding for long enough and to be ready by ten. What time is it?"

"Half past nine." Nellie looked Wren up and down. "Is that what you're wearing for your party?"

Wren flicked a soap bubble with her fingers. "It's not really a party."  At least she didn't think it was.  She tried to remember her last conversation with Rose.  "Anyway, it's my birthday. I can wear what I want, right?" Famous or not, the Potter brothers and the Weasley clan were her closest friends. They weren't going to judge her based on her clothes.  She vaguely rememberd Rose making a guest list.  "Besides, Rose promised to keep it small. Our roommate Callie, James and Albus, and a few others..."

"Ahh," Nellie said with a glint in her eye. "Still crushing on Albus?"

Wren turned pink. "I never said that."

"You didn't have to.  You've been coming down here, telling your pet rabbit all about getting his letters every week, and I just happened to eavesdrop."

"Hey!"

"I think it's cute. What does he say in those letters?"

"I... err..." It occurred to Wren that she hadn't opened the one from this morning, or any of them. How long had that been going on?

Nellie wasn't going to leave it alone. "You're going to wear that for Albus?"

"No," Wren said, turning a deeper shade of embarrassment over Nellie's teasing. "I'm wearing it because it's comfortable." She liked her faded jeans and loose-fitting olive green t-shirt, and was quite sure that Albus Potter wasn't going to care what she wore.

Most times, when she went anywhere with James and Albus Potter, she dressed like this.   When photographers showed up, she made sure to duck behind someone before the flash went off.  There were usually plenty of fangirls around to use for cover.  Those girls loved being in front of the camera.  Wren preferred to be behind it.

"At least let me do your hair."

"Why?"

Nellie gave her a knowing look. "Accio brush!"

A hairbrush flew into Nellie's outstretched hand, and Wren let Nellie's dishpan hands fuss over her for a few minutes. "This looks nicer than the pixie cut you usually have."

When it was all smoothed out, Wren's hair settled to just above her shoulders. "That's what happens to hair when you forget about it, I guess."

She liked not having to mess with it in the morning. It never got tangled up her camera strap... wouldn’t get in the way of her cuddling with Bunny… was that what she was going to call him? She had a sudden flash of the woods behind the cottage, a yearning to go back there…

Nellie was telling her something and Wren was jolted out of her head. “Sorry, what?”

“I was saying how you should have gone to visit your friends, instead of being locked up in the Inn all summer. They could have at least come to visit you.”

Wren shrugged. No one told her she had to stay, but Wren felt like she couldn't abandon Gran, just in case.  Besides, who would take care of Bunny?

They all had such exciting, event-filled lives. Why would they want to come out and watch her help out at the Inn or care for Gran?

"You could use some rouge," Nellie commented.

"No thanks, I just want to look normal," Wren said firmly.

Nellie threw her brush up into the air where it vanished with a pop. “Well, that was easy.” They both heard the sparks go off in the other room, signaling that someone was about to arrive through the floo. In spite of her declaration that no one would care, Wren smoothed down her shirt and gave Nellie a nervous glance.

"They're here already?"

"You look nice," Nellie told Wren. "At least your hair does." Wren stuck out her tongue as Nellie called out, "Have a happy birthday!"

Wren came out of the kitchen, expecting to see familiar faces, but she didn't recognize the tall, lanky form sitting with his back to the fireplace. She shrugged it off as the fireplace flashed green and a girl in a cloak with long fiery hair came tumbling out. Wren watched her sort herself out and throw silvery dust back into the flames, signaling the floo network was clear for the next traveler. Then the girl caught sight of Wren from across the tavern.

"Wren!" Rose called out and rushed over to her. "You never wrote me back. I missed you!"

She squeezed Wren tightly as the fireplace flashed again. She craned her neck to see the taller of the two Potter brothers step out of the fireplace.

Rose beckoned to her cousin. "James! She's over here!"

He shook the soot and floo powder off and then tossed his robe onto the back of a chair, revealing jeans and a t-shirt underneath. "Hello, birthday girl!"

Wren let out a little "oof" as James squeezed her tight and lifted her off the floor. “Lily would have been here, but she’s at league practice. Thinks she’s going to be the next Quidditch star like Mum.” His grin faded as he looked around the tavern. "Where are all the balloons and streamers?"

"We've been busy," Wren said lamely. She hadn't even thought of decorations.

"I'll fix that!" James brandished his wand, but Rose grabbed his arm.

"You'd better ask first. This isn't like being at their house."

"But they own the whole place, don't they?" James looked to Wren for confirmation. The cottage flashed inside her mind, but Wren shoved the image away.

James cocked his head and gave her a quizzical look. "Yeah, you're right, never mind." He ambled over to Wren's mum who was coming down the stairs to relieve Nellie. "Mrs. L, I got a question for you." He trailed behind her mum like a lanky ogre, gesturing with his wand arm around the room. Her mum patted James on the shoulder as they exchanged words. He bounded back over to the girls and pointed up to the balcony.

"Mrs. L says I can decorate up there, but after the lunch crowd clears out. We'll have an afternoon party, yeah?" His eagerness was catching until he ruffled her hair. She was sure that sixteen was the age limit for hair ruffling and cheek pinching.

“Where’s Albus?” she asked, ducking away from him as he tried another swipe at her head.

James snorted. "He's over there, too embarrassed about his pants or something." He snatched a stray fork from the cutlery tray on the bar. “Watch this!” Rose groaned as James commenced a balancing act with the fork on his forehead.

Wren half-expected Albus to sneak up behind her and crack a joke. She went to the unknown figure still sitting by the floo to ask if a short, wiry dark-haired boy had come in when she wasn't looking. "Excuse me," she said as he turned around.

Wren's eyes widened as Albus stood up, a half head taller than her. He rubbed at a strange glow coming from under his shirt sleeves and shuffled something in his hands. "Happy birthday."

She felt silly having to look up at him and urged her brain to form a thought, but the stuff between her ears had temporarily shut down. Wren floundered. "You're not supposed to be taller than me."

"You let your hair grow," he said with a quirky smile.

Wren reached a hand up to her hair and dropped her eyes quickly. Then she saw what James had been talking about. Albus' ankles were bare between his socks and the cuffs of his pants. "Your pants are too short." She looked back at his face and squinted. Her words were finally coming back, thank goodness. "Last time I saw you, I didn't have to look up."

"Last time you saw me was six weeks ago. I shouldn't have listened to Rose. I wanted to come and see how you were. You never wrote back."

Wren's stomach knotted up. "I wouldn't have been any fun."

"You wouldn't have been alone." Their eyes held for an awkward moment, and Wren finally blinked it away. Just because he was taller now, didn't mean that things had to be any different. She mentally berated Nellie for making her second guess her choice of a drab t-shirt. If Wren wore anything dressier, and with him being so tall now... Wren took a step back. Even if she'd had a reason to show anything off, would she really have wanted him to look at her like that?

He shrugged his comment away before Wren could think of anything else to make things weird between them. "Mum says I have to pick out new clothes while I'm here or she's threatened to go shopping for me. Oh, and this is for you." He pressed a small package into her hands.

Wren immediately noticed the little tag that had her name on it in the shape of a leaf. She had to look up again to thank him. “Uh, thanks.”

Albus was still smiling, but it wasn't the comfortable smile that used to be eye level with her. That had definitely changed. But something else about him was different. It was his whole... everything. Not just the long arms and legs.

A clatter of cutlery made her jump. James laughed, spilling another fork onto the floor. "Two minutes, that's a new personal juggling record!" He scooped up the utensils and dumped them on the nearest table. "I know! Give me your camera, Wren. I'll take a group photo."

"You can't," Wren said.

"What do you mean, we can't?" Albus asked. "You're always taking pictures. It's what you do."

"I ran out of film," she breathed.

Albus' smile changed to disbelief and he eyed the small box in Wren's hands. "You never run out of film."

Wren's last frame was spent on the little rabbit. She was supposed to get more, and then... What happened? A fog settled inside her head and an image of the little rabbit popped up. Long ears. Beady eyes. She shook herself out of the sudden daze and Albus was in front of her, looking at her funny.

Two more flashes in the fireplace and soon, Wren's roommate Callie joined them, along with Albus' roommate, Scorpius Malfoy
.
Callie rushed over and gave her a tight squeeze, her wavy hair brushing against Wren's cheek. "Happy birthday, Wren!" Then she hurried over to do the same to Rose.
.
The tall, blonde boy raised his hands at her. “Air hug,” he said, passing her by without contact.

“Thanks,” Wren said, distractedly as he shook the soot out of his hair.
As Albus exchanged greetings with Scorpius, dark and light hair towered above her. Wren felt small and inconsequential all of a sudden. She should have written back, or visited. Or something. The conversation buzzed around her as they talked about the summer she had missed out on completely.

Had it really been six whole weeks?

Wren stood motionless as the room threatened to spin. Images came rushing at her out of nowhere, a grassy hill, and clouds above her moving at an accelerated pace. She involuntarily ducked as glasses clinked together across the room. She tried to slow her breathing, concentrate on where she was, but she was overwhelmed with a detached floating sensation, like she was somehow separated from the things happening around her. She tried to focus on the people in the room, hoping that whatever this was would go away.

Off to her right, Rose was whispering to Callie and James, while Scorpius pretended to listen in.

Albus ignored the group behind him. "Birthday hug?” He blew the hair out of his eyes.
Wren swallowed the strange feeling in her gut and nodded. She squeezed her eyes shut and buried her head in his chest, trying to block out the strange visions as Albus' arms wrapped all the way around her.

Panic welled up inside, and she had this sudden urge to flee, to run for cover. A fluttery heartbeat. Danger. Heat pricked at the edge of her eyes. Wren tensed up and tried to blink back the unshed tears that threatened to fall for no reason.

She didn’t know what was happening to her. Wren pushed herself away from the hug and felt the panic subside. Albus frowned at her.

"Hey," he said, looking at Wren critically. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Wren said, plastering a smile onto her face. But then it was back, stronger this time. She felt short of breath, the pressure behind her eyes to the point of pain. Something was very wrong. Her eyes darted to the stairs. "I'm sorry," she said. "I... I have to... I’ll be right back."

She bolted up the stairs and ran through the living suite past her dad. Wren ducked under pillows hurling through the air and opened her bedroom door. Her eyes darted around until they found Bunny clamoring at the hutch door. She discarded Albus' box on her bed and scooped up Bunny into a hug. Outside her room, she heard her dad's soothing voice and the plops of pillows falling to the floor as Gran calmed down. Her eyes watered as the pressure finally let up and her beating pulse slowed back to normal.

"You're alright, little Bunny," she whispered to the quivering ball of fur. "I won't let anything bad happen to you. Everything is going to be alright."

 








***

 

[Edited 19 January 2014]

[Revised 12 July 2015]


Chapter 4: 4. Hearts and Minds
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

As Wren practically flew up the stairs, Albus wondered where he'd gone wrong.



“She looked upset,” Callie said, crossing the empty tavern. The rest of the group migrated over to Albus, who was still staring up where Wren had disappeared.

Scorpius scratched soot out of his hair. "Can't wait for that apparition license. I hate the floo." He winced as a door slammed above them. "We should get her presents. Girls like getting stuff."

Albus felt like he'd just swallowed a Bludger. He'd held the plan in the palm of his hand. "I already got her a present," he said. But instead of being delighted, Wren had taken it and bolted.

And she'd run out of film. What was wrong with her?

“Perfect,” Rose said. “You can keep her company while the rest of us go shopping!”

James groaned like a giant five-year-old. “Can’t we just get ice cream?” He waved to Mrs. Longbottom as Rose pushed him towards the door.

Scorpius gave Albus a clap on the back. "You should go for it," he said quietly. "We wouldn't mind waiting for the two of you." He snickered loudly.

Albus shot a look at his brother, in case he'd heard Scorpius' jab, but James was hanging back to inspect the balcony from a different angle.

"Balloons there. Streamers from there to there," he hummed to himself, seemingly oblivious.

When James had moved on to the other end of the tavern, Albus sighed in relief. "It's not like that," he said. Scorpius snorted. "Alright it is," he conceded, "but it's complicated."

Albus' neck started to prickle, a sensation that he'd grown way too familiar with over the last few weeks, no thanks to his brother. He put his hands defensively into his pockets.

"How can it be complicated?" Scorpius asked as the air around them got thicker. Albus quickly felt around the coins and other items in his pockets, searching for the one with the ribbon, as Scorpius gestured with an aristocratic arm. "You tell her you like her and...oof!"

Albus shoved Scorpius out of the way. He quit trying to feel for the specific item in his pocket and gripped the handful of trinkets in his fist. A cold sensation enveloped his lower half. And then it faded. He stood still and wiggled his big toe inside his shoe to make sure he wasn't going to topple over before bending over and offering a hand to his friend.

"Jelly Legs Jinx," he whispered to Scorpius as he helped him up. They both shot a glare at James, whose grin faded as he snapped his head back around and ambled out the door, pretending that nothing was out of the ordinary.

"That blue arsed chancer! My boots are all scuffed up!" Scorpius brushed himself off. "How'd you manage to block it?" he added excitedly.

Albus pulled out the two-inch braid of unicorn tail that had saved him from an embarrassing fall and silently thanked it for working. "I've got fifteen anti-charm items in my pockets and old Kreacher's put anti jinxes on practically everything I own. Plus, I'm still sussing out these anti-hex arm bands. I'll have to tell the seamstress not to use the fitting charm on me, or Madame Malkin's shop will be blasted clear into London.”

“Awesome!” Scorpius hissed.

Albus shuddered. "Pins are not awesome. And remember, you can't tell anyone about the...." He waved his arms around himself awkwardly. "You know, in case it's illegal or something. My dad doesn't' know."

He didn't want to get his dad, Head Auror of the British Ministry of Magic, sacked over a sibling dispute. The age-old 'Work it out amongst yourselves' had gotten more complicated than when they were younger and simply arguing over a racing broom.

"Got it."  His friend gave a knowing nod.  Scorpius' dad had remained blissfully ignorant of how he spent most of his summers with Albus - getting up to all kinds of non-shenanigans and anti-trouble.  They really were just bored and restless most of the time, especially since Wren had been too busy to hang out - or even answer his owls. That still stung, but deep in his gut, he felt like he should give it a go.

“See you later,” Scorpius waved and followed James out the door. Albus leaned against the stairwell, waiting.

For what, he wasn't sure anymore.

A few minutes later, Albus was glad to see Wren come down the stairs, still pale, but a lot calmer. He opened his mouth to tell her so, but suddenly all the second-guessing slammed back into him.

She'd truly had an awful time of it with the moving and her Gran's condition. Maybe she wasn’t ready. Maybe she wanted to be alone. Maybe she wasn't interested in him, and he was just spinning his wheels and heading for a fall. He tried to picture his remaining two years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, with Wren never talking to him again, ignoring him in the halls and sitting as far away from him in class as she could. The nightmare inside his mind expanded, leading to schisms between their friends and being taunted in the Great Hall by the entire House of Gryffindor.

"Albus?" Wren tilted her head. "You look like you've just seen a ghost."

He shook his head, banishing the worst-case-scenario from his thoughts. Wren would never do that to him. If she was going to turn him down, she was going to be nice about it. Somehow, an image of Wren politely reasoning out the ways that dating him wouldn't be a good idea didn't boost his confidence either.

He cleared his throat and attempted to sound casual. “Ready?"

She looked at the empty tavern. "Where is everyone?"

"Shopping for your presents. They want it to be a surprise. Since I already got you something, they said I had to stay with you."

He'd meant it in a joking way, like he always did, but Wren's face fell.

"You didn't have to wait if you didn't want to."

"No, I meant..." Albus' hair fell into his eyes and he blew it to the side. "I wanted to. I have this fitting appointment in a little while and thought you might want to come along. We could catch up on things." Yes, that sounded like a safe thing to say. There were so many things he wanted to say to her and obviously he'd gotten off to a rotten start. He shoved his hands in his pockets. "We could talk, maybe?"

Wren studied him silently, like she did when she was trying to fit one of her photographs into a frame. "Is this about what happened earlier?"

Earlier? Albus wracked his brain, searching through the last twenty minutes for a reference. All he could remember was working through the knot in his stomach so he could talk to her and give her his gift, and then forcing himself to go through with his plan, which by the looks of things, wasn't going at all the way that he'd imagined.

Wren wrinkled her nose. "Because if it is, I don't want to talk about it." Before he could open his mouth, she spun on her heel and was out the door.

Puzzled, Albus followed Wren out of the Leaky Cauldron. "Wait," he called out, and caught up to her in a few long strides. "You don't have to go with me. We're all supposed to meet up for ice cream so if you want to go there instead, I'm sure they won't take long." Albus fell into step next to her as she continued walking. "I didn't mean to make you mad."

She shrugged without slowing down. "I'm not mad."

Albus remained quiet as Wren automatically led him up the Alley to a hovering pair of oversized, gilded scissors. She ducked under the sign, as if she'd agreed to go with him all along.

Wren had helped Albus with loads of problems (like that time she'd had to explain to him why it was unacceptable to substitute the word "banana" for "wand" during study sessions with his girlfriends) and he was almost positive that if he staged his current situation as a question, she'd talk him through a logical way to move forward. Unfortunately, she didn't want to talk about it, he reminded himself. Which... what did that even mean, exactly? He caught the door before it closed and stepped into the clothing shop.

Albus hadn't a clue about what he was going to do or say next. She'd said that she wasn't mad, but he'd learned (from her, actually) that even practical girls didn't always mean exactly what they said.


***


Wren sat next to the big display window with her feet tucked under her chair. Bunny was fine. He just needed to see that she was alright.

She was alright, wasn't she? Wren stared out into the street while the seamstress ushered Albus to a raised pedestal and bustled around inside Madame Malkin's Robes for All Occasions.

"No fitting charms? This will take a little longer." The seamstress disappeared behind a thick curtain in the back. Both Wren and Albus heard a high-pitched squeal of "Potter!" and then a second, disappointed cry of "the shorter one?" which made Albus flush and Wren cringe. A younger seamstress came out from behind the curtain wearing a polite smile that widened at the sight of him. Wren watched as Albus gave the seamstress a distant, yet courteous nod. He eyed the measuring tape and cup full of stick pins warily when she stepped onto the fitting platform.

Wren's head was still fuzzy from a mixture of quivering Bunny and a taller Albus. She must have looked like an idiot, rushing away and then brushing him off. As the younger (and prettier) seamstress began pinning him up with brown paper, Wren wondered just how many girls would be interested in him this year.

Next to her in the display window, the shop's newest life-like mannequin stared blankly ahead, reminding Wren suddenly of the stillness in the Hospital Ward, her grandparents in their beds, unmoving, unblinking. Wren had confided in Albus once about her irrational fear that they'd rise up out of their beds like zombies. It had creeped her out so much that she had to tell someone.

She was creeping herself out now. Wren shuddered and shifted her back to the window, concentrating instead on Albus and his new paper pants.  Somehow, he pulled off the look, standing tall and poised in the ridiculous outfit, at least until the seamstress got too close with her pins and he nearly jumped.

Wren felt a warm sensation crawl up her spine when the seamstress left the dais for more pins.  Albus had always been nice to look at, but now she wanted to look at him even more. Wren wished she had her camera. If she could take a picture of how she felt inside when he did that... what would it look like? She let the fluttery sensations dance around her insides for a short while before she squashed them out and curled up tighter in her chair.

The strange visions and the panic attack had scared her silly. Disorientation, fatigue, losing track of time... Those specific symptoms had been highlighted in Gran's magical maladies texts which Gran had scoured for clues of Frank and Alice's condition. Wren felt like she'd lived through some of those symptoms an could totally relate to the descriptions in that book, which scared her even more.

She could quite possibly be starting to lose her mind.

Albus stepped off the fitting dais to pay for his new clothes, and Wren did her best to shake herself out of it.

"I'll bring your packages when the others are ready," the woman said sweetly, and disappeared behind the curtain.

Albus nodded politely and turned back to Wren.

"You alright?"

Wren blinked up at the sudden worry on his face. It was her birthday. She was supposed to be having fun, not going crazy! Before she said anything, she had to know if she really was losing her mind. She'd test it and see.

Wren stood up and wrapped her arms around him, waiting a beat to see if the strangeness would come back. She felt the familiar nervous zing, but that was all. No panic, no strange visions. It was just a one-off. She wasn't going insane.

Sighing in relief, she let the flutters bounce around, just for a second longer, before she forced herself to be sensible again and stepped back to put space between them. "I'm alright," she said.

She wasn't though. Some strange, nagging thing inside of her made her wish she could run back up those stairs and curl up on her bed. But that wasn't going to happen. This was her birthday.

"Really," Wren said. Now that she'd said it once, she could say it all day if she had to.

"I'm fine."


***


"Freakishly tall. We get to call you that now, right?" Rose said with sass, bumping Albus out of the way as they all gathered around the cold cases of ice cream at Fortescue's Parlor.

Before Albus could ask if the featured flavor was really Dragon-puss green, or if it was a trick of the faulty lighting, James elbowed him aside. "Since we're all here, the birthday girl needs ice cream first. Aunt Hermione made that a law last year, right Rose?"

"Not yet, but I'll owl her straight away."

Scorpius motioned Albus over behind James and gave him a knowing nod. Albus shook his head. "Not here," he murmured, and tilted his head at Wren.

James swung his arm around Wren's shoulder and led her up to the counter like she was his little sister. Albus could imagine if Lily had been here, chatting up every bloke within three blocks, nannering endlessly so that no one around her could think straight. Even though she got along well with Wren, he was glad Lily hadn't been able to show. "Choose your flavor," James said, and Wren peered through the glass at the many colored tubs.

"Aren't you supposed to be doing that?" Scorpius ribbed Albus. Albus gave his friend an annoyed look. "Oh," Scorpius said. "Not there yet."

"Not even close." That hug inside the shop had gotten to him, but immediately afterward, she'd backed off. It left him puzzled about his next move.

He'd never had to ask a girl out before. His first girlfriend had basically thrown herself at him, and he hadn't even really liked her. It had taken him two weeks to break it off, only because he'd enjoyed himself too much the first week, and then he'd spent the next seven days trying to figure out how to let her down without hurting her feelings. (And before Scorpius could tell her that she needed to take her fake nails and suffocating perfume and sod off already.)

There were a few others, not many, or at least not many that he remembered. They'd all been nice (sort of) and interesting (sometimes) but eventually someone (usually Albus) got bored and they drifted away.

Wren had thankfully remained neutral, but he could tell that she hadn't liked any of his girlfriends much. When Albus thought about it, maybe he hadn't liked them much either. After undesirable girlfriend number three, he'd realized that if a girl seemed wrong from the start, he could just say no up front and save himself loads of trouble.

Wren passed by with a bowl full of blue on top of blue and Rose laughed. "That's going to stain your mouth for days!"

"I know," Wren said, the blue already seeping into her tongue from the first bite. Albus watched her relax in the company of friends, glad that the awkwardness had faded away. That was what he liked the most about her. She didn't hold grudges and never overreacted to the little things, like most girls did.

"She's not the one who wants to impress the Ravenclaws when we get back to school," Callie piped up from the front of the line.

"Why is it always about the Ravenclaws? What’s wrong with Slytherins?” Scorpius voiced over the crowd.

“Nothing's wrong with us, except you,” Albus jabbed.

“Gryffindors are a bunch of big fakers, that's what they are," Scorpius said as James tried to sweet-talk the server into a free round of fizzy drinks. "Except Wren. Remember Care of Magical Creatures last fall? She owned that skrewt!"

Rose turned around to give Scorpius one of her signature glares, and Scorpius met her gaze with his own. "They’re just slow to acknowledge our brilliance is all,” he said, punctuating his superiority by sticking his tongue out.

To most people, Scorpius appeared like an upper-crust snob. But when Rose was around, he quickly devolved into an immature prat. To her discredit, Rose didn't act much better. Albus figured it was probably his fault that the two of them bothered spending their free time in the same room together.

He sat with Scorpius at a table across from Wren's and watched her friends chatting animatedly around her. Scorpius wavered between picking lint off his leather jacket and stealing glances at Albus' cousin. At least Albus and Wren were friends, or he'd thought so until this morning. She'd always been the most level-headed girl he'd ever known. He'd almost gone mental when Ian Sloan asked her out, and then really did go a bit mad when she accepted. Wren had never criticized any of Albus' dates (to his face) so even though Sloan was a gobby arse, he'd done nothing about it, other than pull Gina (Gillian? Geranium? He'd lost track) off his arm and stew in his room. And then on moving day at the Longbottom's, he'd completely lost his senses.

It had taken the better part of a week for him to sort out what it all meant, but once he did, he'd never figured out how to put it into words. What was he supposed to say to a girl he'd known almost as long as his sister? That he liked her? Fancied her? He'd come off sounding like an idiot.

Scorpius let him know exactly what kind of idiot he'd been. Besides the 'of course you fancy her, you dolt' speech, he'd reminded Albus of when Sloan had split with Wren (the longest week of his life) and how he'd waited for Wren to come to him, expecting her to be broken up, ready to offer comfort that only a guy who'd known her for years and years could offer. But she'd walked into the Great Hall the day after the break up, completely unbroken. She'd even looked relieved about putting the entire ordeal behind her.

What scared him the most now was if he got what he finally wanted, and then messed it up somehow - she could do the same thing to him. Too many scenarios had played out in his dreams, both good and bad. If she felt the same way, it would be the best thing that had ever happened to him. If not, it'd be the worst screw up of his life.

Wren bit into her ice cream and looked only half-interested in the talk around her. Normally, he'd expect her to hold her ice cream at a funny angle, or take everyone's cherries and arrange them on a napkin so she could take weird pictures of them.

She obviously had something on her mind, except she wasn’t talking about it.

After ice cream, the group set back out onto the street and Albus slowed to walk behind with Wren. He flinched as James waved his wand around ahead of them.

"I wish he'd put that thing away," Albus muttered.

Wren looked up at him. "Why? Did he set the house on fire over the summer?"
Before he could mention anything about James and his unrelenting pranks, the seamstress flew out of Madame Malkin's with an armful of packages.

"Yoohoo!" she called, bobbing her head to get his attention. Albus had no choice but to stop in the middle of the street and collect the packages from the woman. When his arms were full, he started passing them to Wren, who was equally puzzled.

The seamstress gave him the last package with a sly smile and eyed his brother with an appraising glint. Albus didn't like the way she'd ogled him at the shop, and he was even more uncomfortable with her open stares in the middle of the street. If his mother hadn't made the appointment, he wouldn't have gone at all, no matter how short his pants were getting.

What was wrong with wearing his old clothes a little longer? At this rate, he might get taller than his brother by Christmas, and then he'd have to do this all over again.

Thankfully, the woman took out her wand and shrank the parcels to a more manageable size so that Wren and Albus could stuff the tiny boxes into their pockets. When she left to go back inside the shop, Wren was smirking at him.

"That lady liked you, I think," she said.

He looked over at his friend in her faded jeans and her plain t-shirt and half of his school wardrobe in her pockets. He shifted his gaze to the group ahead of them, judging that they were well out of earshot. Well, this was as good a time as any.

"She probably thinks we're dating," he said, testing the waters. He thought he saw a small smile begin on her face. Albus swore his heart picked up a few beats, or maybe skipped a few, he wasn't sure.

"Huh," she said. "That's funny."

Albus' hopes sank into the gutter. No, it's not funny, Albus thought. He hunched his shoulders and tried not to follow that with any more thoughts.  Maybe it was just bad timing. He'd narrowly escaped one of his brother's pranks, and nearly gotten pinned in his sensitive areas. And who goes to a pants fitting in the middle of a birthday party? Blame his mother and her overzealous insistence to schedule things "conveniently".

Mum would be so proud, he thought sarcastically. He'd just conveniently botched his first attempt at asking Wren out.

They'd almost caught up to their friends by then, who had stopped to gape at the window display in front of the Quidditch Shop. "Look at these! They're the new set that Madame Hooch said she wanted for the pitch this year." As James' wand arm came around, Albus involuntarily flinched again.

He pretended not to see Wren's questioning look. It wasn't the best time to bring up the constant hexing he'd been getting ever since James' birthday, not when his brother was close enough to listen in. Albus had only shared that last bit with Scorpius, and that was because Scorpius had been at the house with him and watched it happen. Or rather, the effects of it. James' magic was so skilled that no one could see it coming, which was why Albus had loaded his pockets with charm-repelling items.

James led the group across the street like a tour guide on a power trip. Albus winced as the trash bin they passed levitated an inch off the ground. A sudden gust of wind took the hat off an unsuspecting stranger a few yards away. James had always said that his last year at Hogwarts would be filled with the greatest pranks ever, but Albus hadn’t appreciated being the practice target all summer. Just because it was legal didn't make it right.

Albus and Scorpius had been planning James' final year as well. As soon as they got back to Hogwarts, Albus had a whole summer's worth of payback waiting to be dealt out.

And Wren... something was going on with her, but she had chosen not to tell him about it. Whatever it was, he wasn't going to try asking her out again now, especially since they'd caught up to the group. Between Wren's strange behavior and James' pranks, there was too much weird in the air.

 


Chapter 5: 5. Distant Hearts
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At the Leaky Cauldron Inn, Wren's mother served everyone a piece of coconut pecan cake under the canopy of James' balloons. Then Wren walked with Rose and Callie to the fireplace, where Rose handed her a bag full of fist-sized ribbons and bows.

"These are from all of us. I'd stay and watch you open them all up, but Mum will be annoyed if I'm home late," Rose told her. "Remember to act surprised!" she said over her shoulder and threw powder into the flames.

"I'm next. Happy birthday, Wren. See you in a few days!" Callie called cheerily, and disappeared in the green flash after Rose.

Wren spent a few minutes curiously watching the boys; James had gone off to take down the ribbons and balloons, while Scorpius and Albus huddled together at a table in serious discussion. Most likely about the Quidditch gear they'd seen in the window that afternoon.

They looked like they'd be busy for a while, so she hoisted the small, dense bag of presents over her shoulder and made her way to the back stairs, passing her mother at the edge of the bar.

"Did you have a good day?"

"Yes I did, Mum. Thanks for making my favorite cake. I don't know how you found the time!"

Her mother gave her a quick hug. “It’s good to see you smiling, Wren. You haven’t taken any time for yourself the whole summer. I'm sorry, Wren. I wish things weren't so... well, the way they are now," she finished and sighed. "It's not how I pictured your sixteenth birthday."

Wren’s worries eased up. "Don't worry, Mum. I'll help out later."

Her mum gave her a tired smile and continued to polish the counter with long, purposeful strokes. Wren smiled back and went up the stairs to put her presents in her room.
"Don't forget to say goodbye to your guests!" her mum called.

"I'll only be a moment."

Wren went straight to her room, closed the door and dropped the bag of presents on her bed. She scooped up the soft white bundle in the middle of her pillow and flipped open the hutch door. Even with the latch undone, she couldn't imagine how the little rabbit had gotten out by himself.

"That's where you belong," she said sweetly, putting it down in the soft hay. She spent long minutes staring at it, and then remembered the presents.

It’s my birthday after all, she thought to herself.

Wren opened the first small roll, a canister of film. She popped it into her camera, discarding the ribbons on the floor. She opened another small package, another canister, and then another. All the small rolls in the bag were the same shape and size and Wren had to laugh, figuring that her friends had gotten her enough film to last the whole year.

She dug around to find something else, and remembered Albus' present, still lying on the bed. Under the leaf-shaped tag, he'd attached a card with her name on it in his signature scrawl. "Look Bunny, he made me a card." Wren grinned and held it up to the sleeping little fur ball.

It was a cartoon they'd drawn together in Divination. An ink version of Roderick the Thestral, his moon pie eyes staring at her, and a word bubble above his head, wishing her "many happy returns". She laughed, remembering how many prophecies they'd made up, and had Roderick act out on parchment when the teacher wasn't looking.

When she unwrapped the package, she let out a little squeal of joy, and then covered her mouth with her hands and looked towards her door. It was still closed. Wren let out a sigh of relief that she hadn’t disturbed Gran and focused back on the box in her lap.

Wren opened it and pulled out a heavy metal cylinder. She sucked in an excited breath.
"Oh, wow!"

Wren grabbed her camera and pressed the lens on. It snapped together perfectly. She eagerly looked through it, noting all the latest zoom features.

Albus must have written down the model number from the Photo Magic Magazine ad that she'd drooled over last spring. When had she seen it last? Months and months ago, at least. Wren suddenly felt guilty for being inside her head for so long.

She focused the lens on her little bunny stirring in the hay. It opened its little beady eyes and a heady sensation washed over her.

Bunny needed her. Bunny needed her right now. Right now, there was a little rabbit that needed her more than anything. With Bunny around, Wren's whole world had suddenly narrowed until only one thing mattered.

Wren blinked, confused. She pulled away from the camera. "I have to go and thank him," she said aloud, and glanced back at the little rabbit. "I'll be back later." She felt a slight tug from behind her eyes and winced. It felt a lot like the headache from this morning. "Not now," she muttered and ran back down the stairs to find Albus.

When Wren got back down to the tavern, she saw Albus and Scorpius by the Floo and couldn't resist. "How good is this thing, really?" she wondered, pointing the new lens at the boys across the room.

Scorpius' sharp features came into focus as he laughed at something Albus said. She dialed the lens more and almost bet that she could count the blonde strands on his head.

"Amazing," she breathed. The camera lens was definitely living up to its claims.
She dialed back and caught Albus in the viewfinder. The new pants definitely fit him properly. The bottom cuffs hung neatly pressed and brushed up against the top of his trainers.

She followed his feet into the fireplace and got a few spectacular shots of the glowing embers in the hearth that flared spitfire orange as they got shuffled about. Wren clicked through different settings as she scanned back up to Albus' face through her camera. The clarity from this far away was incredible. His eyes were searching for something, sparkling like the embers at his feet. His hair fell forward and he blew it out of his face. He started to turn, but then stopped and squinted. He was looking at her.

Wren pulled away from the camera, her face reddening at being caught staring, even if it was through her camera. Albus gave her a strange look from across the tavern.

"Umm... thanks for the present, Albus!" Wren called out, trying to recover. "It's fantastic!"

Albus seemed to turn a little red himself. "You're welcome," he called back. "I'm glad you like it!" He hesitated, looking like he had something more to say, but after a long pause, he simply smiled and waved. Then he tossed the powder up and was gone in a flash of green.

She dropped the camera to hang from its strap as the green flames faded back to orange. She hadn't been gone that long, had she?

"Why did he look at me like that?"

"Probably the same reason you're stalking him with that camera." Wren jumped as James chuckled behind her.

"Just because he's got nice fitting pants and needs a haircut doesn't mean that I was staring."

James' eyes sparkled. "I'll tell him you like his pants so much," he said, crossing the room as he adjusted a strange squirming bundle under his cloak. "Do you think that Albus is the furry type? I just got him a surprise from this little boy outside with a basket full of free pets." Then he tossed his powder and leapt into the flames.

Wren hoped that James wasn't going to mention the bit about the pants. She'd had enough awkward moments today and just wanted things to be normal again.

With James gone, the tavern was suddenly quiet. Wren looked through her camera again, focusing her lens on an oddly balanced fork sculpture left behind on a plate.

She thought she heard her name coming from the stairs. "Mum?"

Her mum came out of the kitchen, carrying a large tray of frothy glasses and set them down on top of the bar. "Wren? Did you call me?"

"I thought I heard you calling me from upstairs." Wren rubbed at the tension building in her head. "Never mind."

"Maybe you should lie down a while," her mum said, frowning. She grabbed another tray from under the bar and whisked her wand. A new set of chilled glasses appeared, ready to be filled from the tap. "You look tired."

"I'll come help you. Is there some Pepperup upstairs?"

At her mother's nod, Wren made her way back up the stairs. She felt that tug again, and this time, it was stronger than before. Her head was starting to ache. When she reached her room, she went straight to the bath and retrieved a small vial of Pepperup Potion.
She sat down on her bed as the headache pounded. Wren couldn’t remember it ever coming on so forceful and strong. She set the vial on the dresser and tried to breathe through the pain, afraid that she'd drop the potion if she tried to unstopper it. Minutes ticked by - she could hear the clock in the kitchen - Gran's snores - her father turning pages in the other room, sheaf rubbing against sheaf.

The cage rustled. Bunny stared at her with alert eyes. Wren dropped on her knees next to the rabbit hutch and lifted Bunny out of his cage.

The ache in her head dulled to a soft buzz as she cuddled her furry friend. Wren could hear the dull buzz from downstairs too, as the evening crowd came in. She heard her father's footsteps down the hall, checking on a sleeping Gran and then hurrying out the door to help her mum.

Wren's mind frizzed. Her anxious, over-worked mum, her half-dazed Gran, the strange feeling she got being around a taller-more appealing Albus - everything was smothered by soft, white fur and a feeling of being needed by a helpless little creature.
Nothing hurt anymore. In fact, Wren felt nothing at all. Soon, she was snuggling under her covers with the little bunny, who had taken to suckling on one of her fingers. It burrowed further under the covers with her and Wren drifted, content with the little furry animal in her arms.

***


In the shadows across the street from the Leaky Cauldron Inn, Dillon gazed up at the many flickering lights set in rows that loomed high above him. One of those windows was Wren's, and even though the magic made it impossible for him to see which one it was, he could feel where his rabbit was, and he knew that she was with him.

Dillon reached into the basket, brushing the soft bundles of sleeping bunnies aside and got out his mother's journal, old and worn. The pages were brittle with age, filled with her elegant script and carefully-sketched diagrams of the places they'd traveled to for as long as he could remember. He folded the map that Wren had given him and placed it inside the front cover.

As he gazed back up to the windows of the Inn, a small pang of loneliness touched him, muffled by a brush of soft fur. He narrowed his eyes until he found it, the connection to his rabbit, and nodded as he felt the little bunny snuggle closer to Wren's mind.

He smiled. The bond was working. He knew exactly how Wren was feeling. Dillon had lost someone too. "Take care of my new friend," he whispered, and felt the little bunny respond.

He would see Wren again soon, the rabbit too.

Dillon picked up his basket and lugged it with him to the courtyard behind the Inn, happily humming to himself. He set the basket down and counted the bricks like Wren had done. One tap opened the wall to an archway, and once again, Dillon lugged his basket out into the London streets.

There was a little coffee house on the corner where the waitress loved his rabbits and would give him all the day-old beef pasties he could eat. She'd been nice to him before, the waitress with the wide-eyed smile. Young too, and eager to help. He wondered if he told her it was his birthday, would she buy him a new traveling hat? Did the students at the wizarding school wear hats? Dillon had forgotten to ask, but it didn't worry him. He'd find out soon enough, once he got to where he was going. The whole idea put a big smile on his face: he didn't have to be alone any more.

"Once we get to Hogwarts," he said to his basket of baby rabbits, "we're going to have all the friends we want."

 






A/N: Hello, reader!  It's been a while, but I wanted to thank my heart-working betas, ladybirdflying, CambAngst and Patronus Charm for the continued use of their eyes.  You guys help so much to make these chapters shiny and clean!  

Also, if you noticed any changes from before, I'd love to hear comments about that too.  Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 


Chapter 6: 6. Big as Hearts
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"Malfoy!"

Scorpius half jumped out of his skin and grabbed the latch of the rattling compartment in front of him to keep from toppling over. He stuffed the Saunders' Invisible Silk back into his pocket with his free hand, making a mental note to set it up later... preferably when no one was rushing up from behind and shouting out his name. He turned around, all innocent smiles, to see an out of breath James Potter coming from the train compartment ahead with a squirming sack in his hands.

"Have you seen my brother?" James Potter asked breathlessly. With the way he kept jerking his head over his shoulder, he looked like he’d been running away from something.

"Hmm, let's see," Scorpius pondered, loving the way that James squirmed with impatience. "Looks like a Potter, dark hair and light eyes?" Even though they were separated by houses in school, he admired James for his tenacity and his inclination to push the boundaries of polite society. Always one to return the sentiment, Scorpius raised his hand above James' head. "Tall, like this?"

"Ha. Hardly." James' arms squeezed tighter as the sack lurched, this time having nothing to do with the movement of the train. The carriage connector opened behind him and he craned his neck to see who was coming. "Gotta run. Could you get this to Albus for me?" James shoved the sack at Scorpius' free arm. "Tell him it's a sixth year gift!"

He scampered into the next train carriage as Ford Chatham, followed by a small band of prefects stepped into the corridor from the other end. His badge flashed as the train passed a low copse of trees, letting the harsh mid-day sun through the windows. Scorpius tried to act casual in front of the new Head Boy, feeling suddenly crowded by all the official, law-abiding students surrounding him. He pretended as hard as he could that he wasn't holding a potentially incriminating sack and that his pockets weren't full of pranking supplies.

"Where'd he go?" Ford peered into the nearest compartment window. Six sets of innocent second year eyes stared back at him with gaping mouths.

Scorpius tried to blend in with the paneling. "Who do you mean?"

"The bloke running round setting off dung bombs. Did you see him?"

"Oh him," Scorpius waved it off. "Yeah. Next carriage. What a twat!"

Ford eyed the sack in Scorpius' hand. "What's that you have there?"

"This? Not a sack of dung bombs." The sack jerked in his hands. "See?"

Ford and his prefects nodded and headed off into the next carriage. Scorpius sank to the floor, relieved that he hadn't been searched by association. Chatham wasn't a bad chap, for a Gryffindor. Albus' big brother wasn't going to have an easy year of it with the Head Boy as both his roommate and best friend. He chuckled to himself. The whole situation took the phrase "sleeping with the enemy" to a whole new level.

When the passageway was clear, Scorpius looked inside the sack and found a large, fat rabbit staring back at him. He grabbed it by the scruff of its neck (something he'd seen Wren do once or twice to angry Kneazles) and pulled it out. "What is this?"

The animal peered at him from heavy lids with its beady eyes. Then it bared its teeth and he swore he heard it growl.

"Someone piss in your pie?" he asked it. "I suppose you've got every reason to be barmy, what with being thrown into a sack." He roused to his feet, still scruffing the rabbit by the neck. "Come on, then. Let's go find your new daddy."

The rabbit twisted to nip at Scorpius' hand. "Bloody beast!" he yelled and flung the rabbit away. Its fat belly slapped onto the ground, but it spun around fast and lunged forward. Scorpius danced around it, dodging its attempts to attack him and resisting the urge to kick it in the head.

When it made another move for his ankles, he drew his wand and fired off a Stunning Spell. He hit it square between the ears, but before he could check to see if any prefects had heard the commotion, the animal shook it off and lunged again.

"You're supposed to be stunned, you stupid..." Scorpius barely dodged out of the way in time, and in a heated moment of quick thinking, tore off his boot and pitched it hard at the little beast's head. It instantly collapsed on the floor.

Scorpius checked both corridor doors and the windows of the train compartments, waiting a beat. When he was sure no one had seen him stun the animal, he picked up his boot.

"Blimey! I'm never going to keep a shine on these things!" He made a feeble attempt to polish up the fresh scuff with his sleeve. Then he gave up, slipped the boot back on and hoisted the limp rabbit under his arm.

Two carriages down, Scorpius found his best mate feasting at the snack trolley. He tipped an invisible hat at the Trolley Witch and flashed her a smile. "Should have known you'd be stuffing your face here, Al."

"What is that thing?" Albus asked, unwrapping his third pumpkin tart. Scorpius had conveniently counted the wrappers littering the floor. He'd definitely rib his friend about all the eating later, after he got this half-crazed, seemingly hex-resistant creature off his hands.

He shrugged. "Sixth year gift from James." He held the grey lump out to his best mate.

Albus swallowed and gave the Trolley Witch a handful of sickles for several bottles of pumpkin juice. "I can't take it now, Scorp. I have prefect rounds." He tucked some bottles into his robe, twisted off a cap and downed half a bottle in a few gulps. "Besides, what am I going to do with a rabbit?"

"Oi! You're on snack break! This is the perfect opportunity to fix what you bodged up last time," Scorpius said, thinking back to Albus' half-cocked attempt to woo his best girl. "Take it into Wren's train compartment and start up a conversation. Girls like furry animals."

Albus eyed the animal warily. "It looks dead."

"Nah," Scorpius told him. "It's sleeping off the trip." He patted the drooling rabbit's head and then made to hand it over again.

Albus backed up several paces. "I'm on rounds," he said tiredly. "I'll see you later."

Scorpius stopped patting the head and tried to wipe the drool off his sleeve. "What am I supposed to do with this thing until then?"

"Whatever you're supposed to do with rabbits." Albus paid the Trolley Witch again and shrugged, stuffing two more tarts into his robe.

Scorpius thought hard as he watched Albus' retreating back. Then he grinned, arranged the stunned rabbit in his arms and headed three carriages back to where he had last seen Wren and Callie, telling exaggerated stories about the resident poltergeist to a group of first year girls. She was good with animals, he surmised. She'd know what to do.

When he slid the door open and stepped inside the compartment, Wren had her camera out with the new lens attached and was snapping pictures of a cuter, much smaller rabbit in her lap. A cluster of open mouthed eleven year old girls around her whipped their heads around to stare at him. One of them giggled.

"Oh, you've already got one," he said before Wren could comment on the comatose creature under his arm.

What now whatnowwhatnow, he thought quickly. Then Scorpius got an even better idea.

"Where's Rose? I've got something to show her."



**


After the opening feast, Wren carried her little rabbit gently up to her room. She felt a familiar pang of disappointment when the younger girls without their own pets fawned over him. Wren shared with them her own story of how Gran had half-heartedly told her that she could pick out a toad from under the porch. Wren had dreamed of having something soft and cuddly for years. She gazed down at the small animal in her arms as the moving staircase took her up to the Gryffindor Tower. Just like this one, she thought, smiling.

The little rabbit had mostly slept through the train ride in a small satchel that hung around Wren's neck. She'd even snuck him into the Great Hall for the opening feast. For the first time in years, Wren jumped at the appearance of Peeves the poltergeist, feeling the bunny tremble against her at every sound. Wren thought he'd leap out of her arms on the first moving staircase, but with some reassuring words, she'd gotten him to calm down.

"We're almost there," she whispered, climbing the extra flight of stairs to her new dorm room.

As she pulled open the door, she was hit with a swath of Gryffindor colors. The walls, papered with vintage floral patterns from the floor to the ceiling, made the whole room glow in red and gold overtones. Rose was busy at her side of the room, swishing her wand back and forth in front of her bookcase. "Alphabetical by author or subject?" she pondered, then swished her wand again as her books rearranged themselves on the shelf.

A dark mop of hair hovered at the ceiling above one of the beds, balanced on her broom with large paper rolls under one arm and a roll of spell-o-tape under the other. It looked like she was hanging every poster that the Kenmare Kestrals had ever produced in the same spot. "Oh, hi Wren," Trudy called from the ceiling. "Sorry I missed your party," she said, not really sounding too apologetic.

Wren hadn't expected Trudy to say anything about her birthday. As first years, they'd all thought Trudy didn't like them, but after a while, they realized that she just liked to keep to herself. Trudy swore to herself as the edge of the poster slipped. "A little help here?" she called down to them.

Rose flicked her wand and threw a sticking charm to the wall above Trudy's head. They'd stopped holding her antisocial ways against her a long time ago. She was just Trudy. They tried to include her when they could (and when she was willing). Mostly, they just left her to her Quidditch obsession and tried not to get in her way.

Callie's school trunk still lay untouched. Albus had mentioned a prefect's meeting when he'd stopped by her train compartment to say hello (and she'd said "hi" back while her stomach fluttered, even though she'd sternly told it not to). Her roommate was probably at that meeting too, Wren reasoned.

In Wren's corner (which wasn't really a corner, since the tower rooms were circular in shape), she found the usual note from her dad wishing her good luck in the new year, and a curious book on her night table, titled "Seven Stages of..." Wren brushed the book off the table and let it tumble into her open trunk before her roommates noticed. Then she gasped with delight at the lovely, well-furnished rabbit hutch next to her bed. She lifted the bunny out of her satchel. "Look! It's all for you!"

Rose flicked her wand at the posters. Bunny stared wide-eyed and quivered, which made Wren nervous for him. "It's alright, I'll hold you a little longer," she said to him.

"You can see the Quidditch pitch from the window! This is awesome!" Trudy exclaimed, still holding her broom. Wren went to peer out Trudy's window next to hers. They all had windows in the tower, but this year, the view was even better. Wren's eyes drifted from the pitch to the mountains on the horizon. She shuffled the rabbit in her arms and unsnapped her camera from its case to shoot a few pictures of the landscape.

"That's a new lens." Rose said from across the room, after Trudy's posters got sorted.

Wren looked down at her new lens. "It was for my birthday," she said, smiling and remembering. She hadn't mentioned to anyone that Albus had given it to her. Suddenly, she wondered if that was something she should tell them.

"It'll be perfect for this year," Trudy nodded eagerly.

"Perfect for what?" Wren wondered at Trudy's sudden enthusiasm.

"You didn't tell her?" Trudy shot at Rose.

"Tell me what?" Wren asked again. Obviously, she wasn't the only one who hadn't mentioned things.

"I might have talked to some people on the train about getting their pictures taken this year," Rose said. "And I might have told them that you'd do it for them."

"Rose!"

"And I might have also told them that your rates are less expensive than the photographer they used last year," she hurried on.

"And you're better, too," Trudy added.

Wren stared in shock at her two roommates. "I'm not a professional photographer!"

"But you could be!" Rose protested. "We all saw your photographs last year and they were much better than anything that hack gave the Quidditch team."

Wren had to agree. Last year's Quidditch pictures from the "professional photographer" were horrid. Even with her old lens, she'd taken some much better pictures from the stands. Ford's little sister had paid twenty sickles for a copy of the frame where Wren had captured James' goal from the last match of the season. The fourth year fan girl was probably spell-o-taping it above her bed at that very moment.

Bunny quivered next to her, and Wren remembered the dropped conversation. "Wait. You talked to the Quidditch captain about hiring me to be the match photographer? But you didn't even ask me about it first."

"Just for the try-outs, and if they like what they see, you're hired. Wouldn't that be great? You'd be getting money for your hobby!" Rose let the rest of it come out in a rush.

"And we'd get better pictures," Trudy murmured from the other side of the room as she straightened the bottom of her poster collection. "The last ones looked like the photographer forgot to watch the game."

Wren's eyes trailed over the shiny new lens in her hand. While her rabbit was sleeping, she'd spent most of the train ride figuring out all the new switches and dials it had come with and flipping through the instruction booklet. The wicked zoom feature would take great close-ups of a moving broom, and the instructions had hinted at a spell that would capture up to ten seconds longer action than normal magical photographs.

"I'm not promising anything," Wren warned, but Rose was already vaulting across the room in celebration. Sometimes Rose's enthusiasm was infectious. Right now, it was just plain irritating.

"Hi all!" Callie said, coming into the room at last, which thankfully dropped the photography discussion. She went over to where her trunk had been propped and hung her robe neatly on a peg near her bed. Then she flipped open her trunk and swished her wand at the closet door which opened on command.

Bunny shifted nervously in the crook of her arm as Wren reset the lens and took a few experimental pictures of her surroundings. Rose's trunk. Trudy's broom. Callie's clothes floating out of her trunk and marching towards the closet door by themselves. Wren lowered her camera and stared.

"I am so glad to be back!" Callie exclaimed, swishing her wand again to fetch more hangers. "I thought I'd die from magic withdrawal over the summer!"

"It's much easier to organize books," Rose agreed.

"And hang posters," Trudy murmured under her Quidditch shirt. She pulled it over her head. "Wait a minute. What is that thing?" She eyed the rabbit in Wren's arms. "We've got a smelly rodent in our room now? Oh, that's just great." She shoved her trainers over her yellow and green striped knee highs and laced them up.

Wren felt the little bunny flinch again as Rose pointed her wand at her bed, making all of her shoes jump in a line beneath the footboard. Then she pointed to the dresser, and then her trunk again, causing all of her neatly folded clothes to fly inside the drawers in perfect piles. Each time Rose used her wand, the bunny flinched. Wren's head began to throb. All the while, Callie was unpacking too, all with magic, and Trudy had charmed a small chart to execute Quidditch moves that she was staring intently at. Bunny was shaking so much that Wren had started to shake too.

"Everyone stop!" Wren cried out as Bunny trembled like a leaf against her. "Can't you see he's terrified?"

Her roommates all stared at her. "Of what?" Callie asked.

Wren clutched Bunny to her and heard his heartbeat thudding like an over wound watch inside her head. "All of this!"

"Wren, are you feeling alright?" Rose asked her. "If you're mad about the Quidditch team pictures, I can go and talk to them and tell them to find someone else."

Wren looked wildly around the room to each of her roommates. If she hadn't been holding her rabbit, she would have been doing the same thing as them, using her wand to unpack as quickly as possible and get it out of the way. She felt foolish and stroked the rabbit to settle him down.

"Sorry. I guess I'm just tired. And I'll think about the pictures, Rose. Just not right now." She went and placed Bunny in his hutch and sat down on her bed.

"Yeah, we'll talk later, when you're not losing your mind. I think there's a welcome party down in the common room. Anyone coming?"

"I told the team I'd meet them out by the pitch after dinner." Trudy said, slamming her trunk shut. She checked her watch. "There's a pick up game in ten minutes."

"Quidditch already? We've only just gotten back from the opening feast. Don't you want to unpack and relax?" Callie asked her. "Tryouts aren't for weeks."

"It's Thursday night, we've got two hours until curfew and no classes for three days." Trudy grabbed her broom and marched to the door. "See you all later." She gave Wren a concerned glance as she headed out.

The frantic, panicky feeling faded as Wren sat on her bed staring at the floor. She hadn't had anything happen like that since... her party?

"Wren, are you coming?" Rose tossed her braid over her shoulder and swept by.

"Sure. In a minute or two." She glanced down at the little bunny who had instantly curled up in the hay and fallen asleep again.

Callie waited for the door to close. "She thought you'd be happy about the photography job," Callie told her.

"I am," Wren said, unsure of why the thought had made her uneasy in the first place. She loved taking pictures. "I wish she'd talked to me first. But doing pictures for the Gryffindor team sounds like fun." In spite of her misgivings, Wren's mind was already formulating possible shots to showcase their team spirit.

Callie turned to face her in the doorway. "Wren, you should probably know now. Rose was talking about all four Quidditch teams."

Wren's stomach dropped as Callie pointed to the hutch.

"Why is your rabbit glowing?"

"Glowing?" Wren rushed to the hutch, where the tiny creature had been sleeping. Her eyes darted around the lower section of the room, looking for any sign of white fur. "He's gone!"

"He's in here somewhere, Wren."

"I have to find him!" Breathing suddenly became harder for her.

Callie shrugged. "I'm sure he's fine. It's just a rabbit."

"Not just a rabbit!" Wren cried. "He's my best friend! What if some magic whisked him away and he just... disappeared?"

"Wren?"

Wren dove under her bed.  She didn't notice when the door quietly latched closed, or that Callie had gone on without her.

"I've got to find him, I've just got to!"




***


Up above the streets of Diagon Alley, Hannah Longbottom hurried to put the kettle on as Augusta's quiet wails drifted through the family suite.

"What have I done?" the older woman murmured over and over weakly, rocking back and forth in her seat by the window.

Hannah tapped her wand to get the kettle hot. Tea had a calming effect when Augusta got too worked up to think straight. Hannah had to admit though, that the ranting had gotten less over the last few days. In fact, she hadn't seen a floating pillow since yesterday. But she knew from experience that when the fits took over, Augusta would hit bottom all over again.

"I've got your tea coming." She tossed the bag in the hot mug and balanced it on a saucer on her way to the window seat. If she hurried, she could sit a few minutes and get some dinner into Augusta before the evening shift began. Hannah hated to leave her alone for so many hours a day, but the Inn couldn't run itself.

Hannah had a fleeting thought about how her daughter had spent most of the summer talking to Gran when she thought no one else was listening. The Healers said it could take days or years, or maybe never, but it hadn't stopped Wren from spending as much time as she could showing off her photographs and describing the day's events in the tavern. The older woman always seemed calmer, more peaceful when Wren was around.

Her daughter always talked as if Augusta could understand her. Hannah decided that she should do the same.

Hannah wiped her hands on a dish towel and set the tea down next to her grandmother-in-law. She looked out at the darkening clouds and tried to think of something to say. "Neville says that the cottage has had a few offers, but they were on the low side. We're hoping that something better will come along soon."

"Get rid of it."

The gravelly voice, weak from disuse, startled Hannah. She almost knocked her elbow into the tea, realizing that her grandmother-in-law had stopped rocking and had actually responded to her. "Augusta?"

"You're working too hard," Augusta croaked, still staring at the wall. "When the cottage sells, the debts will be paid and you can hire all the help you need."

"You're right," Hannah said conversationally, trying to contain her excitement at the sudden topical outburst. It was the first time in months that her grandmother-in-law had said anything directly to anyone.

A million things flitted through Hannah’s mind. Should she call the Healers to get her checked out? Did Augusta need more potion? Should she owl Neville? Would he want to come out and see his grandmother straight away, or would it be a bothersome distraction so early in the term? Hannah hesitated over what to do next. Too many questions might send her back into her mind.

"Tell Neville to stop dithering around and take the first offer," Augusta said, and sipped her tea.

No, Hannah decided, Augusta was fine for now. She went back to the kitchen to bring out a plate of dinner and sank into a chair next to the older woman.

“I wish it was that easy." Hannah trailed off, thinking about their original plan to buy the Inn after Wren was finished with Hogwarts and they'd saved up enough money.

Instead, they'd taken out a loan. When Tom signed the papers, he declared his immediate retirement and she had to prioritize the essential tasks to keep everything running. She felt about as tired as Gran looked, and that was on a good day.

“I’m sure you were around when we discussed the broken water line and the basement that’s overrun with doxies. Neville fixed up the gardens and the lawn at the cottage, but he’s hopelessly lost around the plumbing. If we get a good price for the place, the loan can be repaid and whatever's left will go to repairs and improvements.”

Augusta nodded passively at the conversation. After a while, her head stopped moving and she stared into nothing. She hadn't said a word the whole time.

“Augusta? Are you still there?”

Someone knocked with light, frantic raps at the door. Hannah stayed where she was, afraid that if she moved, Augusta would be lost to her again. They sat quietly next to each other as the rapid knocking got more urgent. Suddenly, the older woman blinked and set down her teacup.

“Oh, for Merlin’s sake, go and answer the door!” the old Gran grumbled, making Hannah smile.

“I’ll be right back.” Hannah hurried to the door and opened it, but her smile fell. “Nellie!” she gasped. “What's going on?”

"Mrs. Longbottom, I'm sorry to disturb you, but there are a lot of people downstairs."

"They’re supposed to be downstairs. And you're supposed to be serving them." Nellie had offered to help with the weekend shift after Neville and Wren left for school, but it was becoming clear that she wasn't comfortable in the large evening crowds. Hannah glanced back at Augusta who was calmly picking at her dinner.

"I know, but there's a LOT of people. It started raining and then everyone just kept coming in and demanding things. I can't do it fast enough."

"Do what we always do,” Hannah told her. “Serve them, one person at a time." Through the open door, she could hear the crowd building, getting more restless with no one to serve them.

"But..." Nellie's hand gripped the doorframe, the whites of her knuckles showing. "There's so many of them!"

Hannah looked back at Augusta's form sitting at the window. She ushered Nellie into the hall, feeling bad for the poor girl who looked like she was on the edge of a panic attack. "I'll be downstairs as soon as I can to help you. Tell everyone to be patient."

She closed the door and watched Augusta sip her tea in silence. They couldn't afford to lose customers, but her family had to come first. Hannah felt like she was split in two, trying to take care of Augusta and the Inn by herself, but at the moment, she didn't have much choice in the matter.

"Give it to me." Augusta had set her dinner plate aside. “Give me the potion, Hannah. I feel it coming on again and quite honestly, I'd like to sleep through it this time."

“Are you sure?” Hannah didn’t want to do anything to make Augusta fall back into the trance she’d just come out of, but the older woman held out her teacup impatiently.

“I’m getting better, but it’s not done with me yet. I can feel it.”

Hannah stared at the old woman for just a moment. Then, she poured the potion into Augusta's half-empty teacup and watched her drink it down. Augusta hadn't been given enough credit. She knew what was happening.

Even through the closed door of the suite, the noise from below was growing. "I have to go downstairs now. Will you be alright without me?"

Augusta's eyes drifted closed in response as the potion took hold.

A continuous stream of people filled the tavern to get out of the torrent of rain that pounded against the windows outside. An overwhelmed Nellie shuffled by with a tray of drinks on her shoulder, shying away from the rowdy tables as soon as the drinks were served. Hannah got bumped and tussled as she slipped behind the bar and assessed the state of the pub; the heavy rain was driving more and more people inside. She and Nellie together could get out a first round for everyone and worry about orders later

Her plan seemed workable for about two minutes, until Nellie came back and put her empty tray onto the bar, followed by her apron. "I'm sorry," she said, tears glistening in her eyes. "I can't do this.” She wrung her shaking hands together. “I'm going home."

Hannah nodded to the distressed girl and carried on. She placed the next set of mugs under the tap and watched Nellie escape the sea of wet robes and run out into the rain. The last thing the Innkeeper needed was her mild-mannered and very reliable breakfast server suddenly suffering from a panic attack in the middle of a crowd like this. The temperament of the room was growing worse, and Hannah sensed that even with Nellie’s help, things were going to get out of hand very quickly. It was probably wise for the young woman to leave. Hannah wouldn’t have allowed Wren down here for anything.

"Just a moment, lads." She ignored the boisterous posturing in front of her filling station and reached under the bar for a large bottle of Tom's secret ingredient.

In more than twenty years of working the crowds, she'd rarely seen the old Innkeeper use it, but on a night like tonight, Hannah decided to put Tom’s special reserve bottle of Calming Draught to good use. She added a splash of the potion to the drinks on the tray and shoved it forward, staying clear of the tangled hands and elbows that reached out and emptied the tray in a flash.

The rain kept coming, and so did the people. Tom would have cast an extendable charm over the place by now, but Hannah couldn't catch a break to lift her wand. She quickly snatched the tray back and slid the next batch of mugs under the tap.

"I'm next." One of the loud men elbowed his way to the front of the crowd, so close that Hannah could smell his last drink on his breath.

"No, I am." A burly-bearded fellow in a tattered cloak blocked his way. Even the disgruntled crowd eased away from the bar.

Hannah reached into her robe for her wand. Tom had never Flooed the Ministry for assistance, but she would do it if she had to. On nights like this one, she dreaded not having any backup.

Just as the two men aimed their wands at each other, they suddenly rose straight up in the air by at least two feet. Hannah didn't waste another second and silently banished their wands to a jar above the door. She'd deal with whoever cast the levitation magic in a moment.

"Gentlemen, you'll each get a drink when it's ready." She shoved two glasses at them (half watered, double dose of Calm). These were going to be their last drinks of the night if she had any say in the matter. "Now, who's levitating people in my bar?"

She leaned forward, expecting to banish another wand, when she noticed that both men's shirts were bunched under their chins and stretched up the backs of their heads.

A single fist gripped each collar, attached to a strong pair of arms that slowly lowered the two men back to the floor. A tall, lean figure stood behind them and shoved them towards the counter. The men looked up uneasily at him, and then quickly took their drinks to opposite sides of the tavern.

"Sorry for the use of force, but things looked like they were about to get out of control." The man shook storm water from his robe and threw some coins on the bar.

Hannah was half relieved that her unexpected assistant hadn't used magic, and half put out by losing control of her bar. If Tom had been here, he'd have given her an earful.

She ignored the coins and passed him a drink. "It's on the house for you," she said. "Thank you for your help."

The crowd had eased away from the bar when the trouble started and hadn't closed in again yet, so Hannah performed a quick extension charm, giving the patrons more elbow room and more seats. No one else stepped out of line with the tall stranger sitting close by, but it still took a solid hour of filling glasses until everyone was sated.

Now that she had time to breathe, Hannah took stock of things. Maybe it was the foul weather, or maybe it had been a rough day (she'd had plenty of those), but now that the men had finished their spiked drinks, they nodded agreeably at each other from across the room.

The tall man ordered another drink and she refused his coins again. She noticed his black clothes were cut more like a Muggle trench coat than a wizard's robe. "You're not from around here," she said, not really wanting to chat, but it was part of her job and he’d been more than helpful.

"Passing through." The man looked around at the relaxed patrons, full of beer and Calming Drought. "Looks like you need some help."

"I can't afford the right kind of help."

"You can afford me. I have a few weeks of business here, and I prefer the night shift. Room and board sound affordable enough?"

"Any experience running a tavern?" It was the first question that Tom had asked her. She hadn't had a clue, but she had a sharp determination that Tom liked, and she knew how to handle a wash rag and broom. The man’s slender, well-manicured hands around his mug didn’t seem to be in the business of wiping down bars.

"I'm fast and I know how to read a drink card." He looked at her with a shrewd, almost dark expression that made the patrons near him squirm. Hannah was torn between the comforting thought of a barman who would keep the nights quiet, and the possibility of his cold demeanor chasing off all her regulars to Abbey’s pub down the road.

Practically, she should do a security check on him through the Auror’s Department. Reasonably, the Inn had a fantastic set of magical wards against vandalism and theft. Besides the register downstairs, the only thing she had to worry about was waking up in the morning to find her entire supply of meat pies gone.

The man saw her sizing him up and added, "I don't eat much. The name is Smeed."

With Neville gone until Christmas, at least she would feel safe with someone like him behind the bar. She’d have time for Augusta – and she was so tired of worrying all the time about tomorrow.

Hannah put aside her doubts. "Smeed." She thrust out her hand. "You're hired."


 
 







A/N:  Thanks so much for reading!  Cookies for your thoughts!


Chapter 7: 7. Heart To Handle
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 Monday morning, Wren breathed a happy sigh, eager to put her summer behind her and slip back into the rhythm of Hogwarts. Gran wasn't here, there were no dishes to be washed, and for the first time in a long while, she felt like she was allowed to forget about her family's troubles and let it all go.
And of course, there was Bunny.

She went straight to the Great Hall and waved down the Head of Gryffindor House, a thick, bald wizard with white tufts of hair sticking out of his ears, who was sorting through a large assortment of parchment at the end of the table.

"Longbottom," he greeted her, placing a half-sized sheaf of parchment into her outstretched hand.

"Thank you, Professor Ackerly." Wren gave her lesson schedule a quick glance, saw all of her requested classes and then tucked it into her bag, along with the ink, quills and new books for sixth year.

"Wren, wait!" Callie called out. "What's your first class?"

"Advanced Charms. See you there!" Wren called back. She paused long enough to snatch a piece of toast and a handful of apple slices and hurried out of the Great Hall.

It took forever to climb all those stairs and finally get to her room. Wren knelt down in front of the rabbit hutch. "There you are," she said, placing the apple slices into the hay.

Her heart filled with a mixture of bewilderment and regret when his sleepy eyes opened to look up at her. She hadn't meant to wake him up. But then Wren's anxiety quickly changed to delight when his little pink nose twitched towards the apples.

Friday night had been one of the scariest moments of her life. She was in a crying heap, thinking she'd lost another rabbit just like the one at the cottage when he'd hopped out from under Rose's bed and into her lap. Wren had cried even harder and snuggled him into the crook of her arm until she fell asleep.

Her dreams had been plagued by visions of Bunny falling down a bottomless hole into nothingness, and she'd woken in a heart-pounding panic, half tangled on top of her covers, only to find the little rabbit curled up on her pillow. After she calmed down, Wren had spent most of the weekend sorting her clothes and stacking her books and camera equipment by hand, afraid that Bunny would freak out and disappear again, or worse, that something would try to take him from her.

She'd already lost Gran. She couldn't bear to lose anyone else.

The first bell chimed, pulling Wren out of her head. She mentally ticked off the things she needed for her first class: book, parchment, quills...

Her wand! Wren gasped and dug around in her trunk for it. She found it at the bottom, under some used film canisters. "I'll be back soon," she whispered, and ran off to her first lesson.


***


Wren slid in between Rose and Callie in the front row of Advanced Charms and pulled the long polished stick out of her bag. She blinked a few times to clear the sudden small ache that had formed between her eyes.

"You alright?" Callie asked.

Wren tried to smile through the pain. "Fine."

Professor Ackerly began the class with a dramatic leap into the middle of the room. He muttered to his wand, wavered it a little to the left and then back to the right, producing a delicate spark of colors that twirled in the air above his head.

Wren was caught up in the subtle movements and colorful display. It was beautiful! She hadn’t been this excited about Charms work since third year, when they’d used Carpe Retractum on a row of organ stops during the Music Class’s recital.

"Turn to page thirty-seven of your text," Professor Ackerly announced. "Use the words in the text for focus, but by next class, I expect you to do it in silence. Visualization is key. Watch again."

A rainbow of sparks flew out of the professor's wand a second time. When he asked for volunteers, Wren raised her hand, along with Rose and Callie.

“Miss Longbottom, give it a try.”

Wren pointed her wand at an angle, like the professor had done. The wood felt heavy in her grip, the strange words thick on her tongue as she flicked tiny ringlets in the air. She glanced up from her text to see the results.

Aannd… nothing.

Embarrassed, she sat down. The two Ravenclaw boys on the other side of Rose snickered.

“No making fun,” the professor said, diverting the class's attention. “Everyone give it a go now.”

Wren scooted lower in her chair as she watched the Ravenclaws at the next table. Charles McGhee managed a little spark out of the end of his wand, and she silently cheered when Ian Sloan’s charm did nothing at all. Callie's wand spit out a spark of blue. Rose was getting a single spark of green, and then orange, but the mix of color was beyond her. Wren swiveled around to see if the boys behind her had done any better.

Scorpius looked like he was in Advanced Curses instead of Advanced Charms as he sucked on burnt fingertips and swore under his breath. He poked the tip of his wand at Albus. "You haven't done it yet."

Albus shrugged and pointed his wand into a corner. With his hair flopped over his eyes, he looked genuinely surprised at himself as the colors sparked out of his wand.

“Well done, Potter! Undetermined points to Slytherin!”

“Undetermined? What does that mean?” Rose piped up.

“It means,” the professor said, “that I have yet to determine the amount of points to Slytherin."

Rose shot Albus a furious scowl. Then her mouth slackened.

Wren looked back at the Slytherin boys to see what had caught Rose's attention. “What is it?” she whispered over Callie's shoulder.

“Nothing.” Rose snapped out of her daze.

Callie giggled. “Rose fancies Scorpius.”

“Do not!” Rose hissed and concentrated on a spot in front of her. She mumbled under her breath, flicked her wand and got a spurt of goo on her shoes. "Rats!"

As the class wore on, Wren's head felt like it was being squeezed through a vice. She brought her hands up to her nose and breathed the lingering scent of fresh hay, relaxing into thoughts of Bunny happily munching on apples.

Wren was still lost in her daydream when Callie nudged her to pick up her quill. "Tonight's homework," she whispered. "Write it down."

It wasn’t that Wren hadn’t been paying attention. Well, actually she hadn't heard a word of Ackerly's sporadic lecturing over the exclamations of dismay and frustration in the last twenty minutes. She wrote down the assignment, careful to make sure she got the page numbers correct.

"Trudy was right to call us crackers for joining this class," Callie said as they walked together to their next class. "That's the last time I'm going to let you twist my arm, Rose!"

"I'm starting to wonder if Advanced Charms is worth the hassle," Rose grumbled. "Professor Ackerly's asking us to do impossible things on the first day. And stupid Scorpius Malfoy is in there!"

"He's rather bright, Rose, or he wouldn't be in our class," Callie pointed out.

"I know he's not stupid, but he never wants to work at anything."

"The lesson gave me a bit of a headache," Wren added, as the pain bounced around inside her skull.

Rose peered into her face as if she could diagnose Wren's issues with a simple stare. "You don't look so good."

Honestly, Wren was having a hard time seeing straight. "It's like a ton of bricks inside my head every time I move."

"Do you want us to walk you to the Hospital Wing?" Rose offered. "Pomfrey has a great potion for that. After that class, I might need something myself."

"No." Wren shook her head and immediately regretted it. "I'll grab a bottle of Pepperup from the dorm."

Callie patted her soothingly. "We'll save you a seat in Potions."

Wren grabbed the handrail of the moving staircase when a sudden bout of dizziness slammed into her. Her body moved through the castle on its own as her mind drifted to Bunny, sleeping in the hay. When she found herself in front of the portrait hole to the Gryffindor Common Room, her head was ready to burst from the pain.

"Blubbering basilisk."

The password spilled out of her mouth on its own, not even bothering to wait for her brain to acknowledge it. The Fat Lady's portrait swung open. As soon as she stumbled into her room and fell on her knees in front of Bunny's hutch, Wren's worry and pain melted away.

She lifted the rabbit onto her lap, his nose twitching happily at her. "I'll just close my eyes for a moment," she said, leaning back against her bed. In seconds, she drifted off.


***

Two hours later, Wren barreled towards the Magical History classroom, trying to beat the end of the last bell. With one last push, she squeezed through the closing door and slid into the nearest empty seat.

Wren set her bag down on the round table and mouthed "sorry" to Rose and Callie, who waved at her from across the room. The boy next to her (that she strangely didn't recognize) twirled his wand between his fingers, his nose buried in a paperback book. The short brown curls on his head shifted like tiny wound up springs when he turned a page.

While a young-looking man wrote something on the board at the front of the room, Ian Sloan and his roommate Charles flicked their wands silently in the pattern they'd learned from Advanced Charms at the table next to hers. Wren melted into her chair. Ravenclaws again!

The man turned away from the board. "Hello, class," he began. "My name is Mister Summers. This is my first year at Hogwarts."

"Obviously," snickered Sloan.

The man ignored him and went on. "I am an intern here, finishing up my teaching certification. You may also see me around the castle in my other capacity..."

"Janitor," Sloan coughed.

"...as part-time caretaker. Unlike Mr. Filch who retired in July, I have a wand and I know how to use it."

Ian's snickers continued until someone cleared their throat in the back of the room. Sloan settled down under the watchful eye of Professor Babbling, the Runes teacher. No one had noticed her in the back corner of the room until now.

Mister Summers paused until Babbling nodded for him to continue, making little marks on a notebook with her quill.

"If we all get out our books and turn to chapter three..."

"I love this part!" Rose said excitedly. "Oh, sorry Professor... I mean, Mister Summers."

"You love all the parts, Rose," Scorpius said loudly. "Your mum wrote the book."

Rose and Callie's table was the only one in the room with a fifth, empty chair. Albus and Scorpius sat opposite them, and Rose was already scowling, expecting Wren to have been her buffer against Malfoy.

"Ah, Rose Weasley. What a pleasure it is to have you in my class." Mister Summers smiled at her. "I do hope that you relay to your mother what a fine text she has written and how honored I am to have it for my class."

Rose grinned from ear to ear, taking in the compliments for her mum, while Albus squirmed a little from the attention drawn to their table. He'd often complained to Wren about the pressure of having famous parents and all the attention that came with their public past. Rose’s parents were equally well-known. But she wasn’t bothered by the attention. She reveled in it.

As a first year, Wren could remember her dad's Herbology lessons and how embarrassed she felt whenever the other students made the connection. All she wanted to do was slink into a hole in the ground and disappear. In third year, it got much worse when she overheard students (who weren’t her friends, thank goodness!) calling Professor Longbottom “dreamy”. Then there were the comments about his bottom… Wren didn’t want to go through that again, not even in her head.

The teacher's lecture shifted from grading policies to interesting anecdotes of his editorial days at the Daily Prophet. Wren tried to stay awake by dividing her classmates by school colors on their robe trim: green, Slytherin. Blue, blue, Ravenclaw, Ravenclaw. Scarlett, for the four Gryffindors, including herself. Wren looked around her own table and paused at the unknown boy.

Hufflepuff? The boy with the curly hair adjusted his yellow tie, chuckling along with the teacher's poor attempt at humor. He seemed alright enough, and Wren wondered why he had been sitting by himself in the first place (and why he chose the seat nearest a sticky green handprint on the wall). And then she wondered why she hadn't noticed him before.

He raised his eyebrows at her curiously. Wren smiled to be polite and quickly turned back to her own notes, embarrassed to be caught staring.

"And so," Mister Summers said, pulling Wren back to the non-lecture, "our class will partner with Madame Pince the librarian and have weekly Book Club meetings in the library, where we will combine Ancient History with myths and legends of the same period. Also, this term, you will be doing group essays and projects, instead of individual assignments.”

As the teacher went on about how fun it would be to meet in the library dressed up as historical figures, Wren saw Scorpius' face break into a scowl and mouth "extra work" to Albus, who rolled his eyes and stretched his arms behind his head.

He had very long arms. She glanced down at his shoes and admired the well-fitting cuffs. Then she blushed, suddenly remembering James' comment about the pants.

"Our first activity," Summers announced, "will be to introduce ourselves to each other. Now, get up everyone."

The class shuffled to their feet and eyed each other at the strange request. Then Ian Sloan stood up and extended his hand to the student next to him. "Hello, Charles," he said in a theatrical voice. "I've been your roommate for the last five years. Nice to finally meet you." His grand display elicited more snickers from the Ravenclaw table.

Mister Summers grinned at them, completely missing the absurdity of his request. Either the reality that they’d all spent the last five years in the same castle together had completely escaped his notice, or the man just wanted to start torturing them straight away.

"Remember," he called out, "you will be working in groups of two or three. Oh, hello Miss Weasley. How very nice to meet you."

While Rose chatted with the teacher about her mum, Wren met her friends somewhere in the middle.

Albus turned away from two Hufflepuff girls who looked more interested than they should be and shook her hand. Wren steadfastly avoided looking anywhere near his pants. It still wasn't fair that he was so much taller than her now.

"Missed you at lunch."

"Headache," Wren said, reluctantly letting go of Albus' hand as Scorpius offered up a fist.



 


"Longbottom," he greeted her. Wren was about to tap his fist with hers, but Callie pushed him aside and pulled her into a hug.

"Are you alright? You missed the entire first class of Potions! And we looked for you at lunch, but you never came."

"I'm much better, thanks." Wren felt almost like the strange headache had never happened, except for the empty pit in her stomach where her lunch should have been.

Callie patted her shoulder. "Rose and I have the notes from Potions. You can borrow them tonight."

"Thanks, Callie."

"We saved you a seat."

Wren looked over to their table where Albus and Scorpius were settling back in. She could go over there now, and take the seat next to Albus. Rose would just have to move and deal with Scorpius like she always did. Then she noticed the boy with the curly hair politely waiting at her original table, and felt guilty for running out on him. "I would, but I don't want to be rude and just leave."

Callie nodded. "There's not room for six," she agreed.

Wren took one last look at the empty seat next to Albus, and then went back to her table.

He'd probably just make her feel short again.

"Hi," the new boy said and offered his hand.

Wren smiled tightly and shook it. "I guess you're new here."

"Not unless you count being here for a whole year still new."

"Oh." Wren felt silly for not remembering something like that. New students in the upper years were rare. She should have noticed him, but then again, he wasn't in her House.

He was still smiling at her, trying to be friendly. It got her thinking about Dillon's smiling face. Where would he be sorted once he got to Hogwarts?

She watched the new boy lean back in his chair. "Watch out for the ectoplasm on the wall behind you."

"Back to chapter three..." Mister Summers intoned, at which point Wren realized that she hadn't even opened her book. The boy next to her mumbled something and flicked his wand at his book, flipping to the next page.

Wren shuffled in her bag for her wand and muttered her own book-opening charm... which did nothing at all. She tried a few more times, unsuccessfully. Her eyes darted around the room, making sure that no one was watching, before she calmly opened her book to the right page without magic.

"I'm Nate. Nate Berkshire," the boy was saying to her. "You're Professor Longbottom's daughter, aren't you?"

"Umm, yeah." Wren's wand arm slid under the table and went through all the fifth year charms in her head.

"Tarantallegra," she whispered to her ink pot. No legs sprouted.

Nate Berkshire was looking expectantly at her and Wren couldn't help but feel like she was once again on display. After Rose's enthusiastic outburst about her mother's book, he was probably waiting for Wren to spit out poetic virtues of Herbology.

Everybody knew by now that the Potters and the Weasleys (with the freaky exception of Rose) weren't keen on constant reminders of what they did (or in Scorpius' case, as a Malfoy, didn't) have to live up to.

She tapped her wand on her desk nervously. Her family didn't have the grand reputation like her friends had to put up with, but her dad was still a professor, which meant that she should be good at something.

Why wasn't her wand working?

"Did I say something wrong?" Nate asked. He was looking at her sideways, with his head cocked.

"I don't have it," Wren said, running through her mental list of spells again. She tried consecutively summoning and banishing the chair next to her, which stubbornly didn't budge.

"Have what?"

Frustrated with her wand and starved from skipping lunch, Wren didn't want to go through the explanations all over again. She thought that after second year, she'd made it clear that things like this were not alright with her.

But Nate Berkshire hadn't been at Hogwarts in second year.

"When people start with 'you're Longbottom's daughter'," she began, rehashing the old speech she'd given too many times in the past, "it's usually because they think I have some magic scroll with all the Herbology exam answers on it."

"Glacius!" She hissed, aiming at her quill. It remained dry as a bone. She shook her wand. "What's the matter with this thing?"

Nate frowned.

"Look, it's my first time taking sixth year Herbology too." she snapped. "Colovaria!" When her bag remained a forest green, she backtracked in her head. What hadn't she tried yet?

"I'm not taking Herbology," Nate said calmly.

"Well, err... good." Wren whispered through a battery of second-year charms, but nothing happened: the clock didn't slow, nothing caught on fire (she was getting desperate by now), the chair stayed rooted to the floor and Peeves' ectoplasmic handprint glowed, bright as ever on the wall.

Not good. Then it dawned on her what Nate Berkshire had said, and her dad's worries about sixth years dropping his class. "Why not?"

Nate's head righted itself. "My summer studies covered the same text, so I tested out. Besides, double Herbology wouldn't let me take Alchemy and Ghoul Studies."

"Ghoul Studies? Is that even a class?" Wren wondered aloud. Then she saw the hurt expression on Nate's face. "Oh, sorry."

He put on a good-natured smile like she'd seen earlier in class, and Wren felt bad for being so short with him. "It's fun," he said. "It's not one of those waste-your-time trying-to-prove-yourself classes. Can you believe they tried to sign me up for Advanced Charms? That class is too much pressure if you ask me. I heard the professor starts off with some ridiculously impossible assignment. That's not teaching. It's torture."

At Wren's face, his smile faded. "You're in Advanced Charms, aren't you?"

Actually, Wren couldn't fault him on the "torture" description, because that's exactly what it had felt like. She'd exhausted every spell she knew, except for the first-year charms, and still, nothing had worked. She couldn't even feel the vibration of her wand's core.

"You must be quite talented to get in," Nate said.

Wren could sense him backpedaling as she hissed "Wingardium Leviosa" as loud as she dared at her textbook. It zoomed into the air, knocked into the wall and slid down to the floor with a resounding "thunk". Wren almost fell out of her chair in surprise.

When she regained her balance, the class had gone dead quiet.

"Sorry Prof... err... Mister Summers," she said meekly.

Wren spent the rest of the lesson staring silently at her notes. Now would be a great time for the floor to open up and swallow her... if that hadn't been so close to her nightmare about Bunny last night.

The teacher allowed the last few minutes of class for students to get with their "groups" and work out a plan. Still mortified Wren threw her wand back into her bag and tried not to turn fifty shades of red.

And Nate was still trying to be pleasant. "We could meet in the library for our group assignment. When do you have a free hour?"

Be friendly, a little voice inside her mind told her, and then Dillon's face swam behind her eyes. His boyish grin bloomed until it blocked out all other thoughts. Wren squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. She'd had flashes of memories before, but they had never been this clear.

It was starting to freak her out.

"Are you alright?"

Wren busied herself with her bag, not meeting Nate's eyes. "Yeah, fine," she said. "I'm sorry I'm such a mess. This headache won't leave me alone." She gathered up her books, including the history text that was still lying half against the wall. Maybe she should go to the Hospital Wing and beg for a mild Sleeping Draught and an excuse note for her Potions professor.

She turned back to Nate, who was staring awkwardly at the wall, waiting for the class to be over, probably wanting to get as far away from her weirdness as possible. Everyone knew who she was (even the students she didn't know, apparently), and she had no reason to hold that against him.

"Wren," she said, sticking out her hand like a peace offering. "My name's Wren."

Nate's face cleared as he shook her hand. "I know."


**


"I'm too short," Dillon complained to the rabbits nibbling on the grass below him. He'd scooted a bench over to the bell hanging from the covered porch at Rothley Station, but even standing on his toes didn't allow his small fingers to reach the clapper.

It was the fourth village they'd been to in four days. Nights, rather. The trains stopped running by this hour of the night - especially along the smaller country routes, making it the best time to follow the tracks in the cool air when no one was around to see him. That's when it was easiest to take what he wanted. But right at that moment, he wanted to see someone very much. He stomped down off the bench. It was no use being so small. Dillon picked up a small pebble and chucked it at the bell. The tiny rock made a satisfying ping off the side, startling the rabbits in the grass.

His letter hadn't found him in Diagon Alley, so he'd followed Wren to King's Cross station. He imagined that if he was closer to the other young witches and wizards, somehow an owl would find him and give him the recognition that he deserved.

He hid behind the pillars and watched all the other happy, lucky children vanish between platforms nine and ten. After the last student disappeared, he kept waiting, but still, no letter came. Then he'd gotten over himself and started walking, following the squiggles on the Muggle roadmap that Wren had given him.

A nice woman from the tea room came out to him, holding one of the rabbits in her arms. "Isn't it a bit late for a lad like you to be out? The place is closing in a few minutes." She peered out at the smattering of stars in the sky.

Dillon shrugged. The woman didn't know that he'd been holed up under the covered porch all day, or that he'd sent one of his rabbits into the tea room earlier to make a new friend. He was hungry and tired of crouching behind the stairs.

The rabbit was sucking on her finger possessively like the nipple of a bottle, while the woman cooed at it softly. All of them, his friends, had grown at least twice the size of the tiny, helpless forms they'd been just days ago.

Dillon always liked this part, the part where they loved the rabbits so much that he could sink into their minds. It had happened by accident the first time. All he'd done was share himself with the rabbit, nothing too much. They had become a part of him. And then they had brought him friends.

He could feel that the great grey rabbit and his favorite baby white rabbit were safely tucked away inside the Wizarding castle by now. Each of them had made a home there.

"Could you bring some food for me?" he asked the woman.

The woman acted like she hadn't heard him, still cooing at the little rabbit in her arms.
Oh, that's right. It didn't work quite like that. Dillon directed his thoughts at the rabbit in the woman's arms and instantly got a mind full of green meadows and shady bushes. He gave the rabbit an image of a beef pasty and a glass of milk and concentrated on the empty feeling in his stomach, which rabbits understood perfectly.

The woman's eyes glazed over. Dillon showed her his little boy smile, baring his missing front teeth.

"I'll be right back," she said, and went back inside the tea room. A short while later, she came out with the rabbit still in the crook of one arm and a plate of egg and cress sandwiches and some sliced apple in the other. She held it out to the rabbit, who munched happily on the apple slices.

Dillon took the plate from the cooing woman, who was still mesmerized by the little twitching nose of her rabbit. He sat down on the hard boards of the porch and grumpily bit into one of the sandwiches. It tasted funny, but sometimes he liked the feeling of chewing something between his teeth, even the missing ones. The downside to his plan was that his friends tended to care more about the rabbits than him. It wasn't much of a down side when he thought about it; he could ask for virtually anything he wanted, and often he would get something close enough.

He directed his thoughts at the little rabbit again as he chewed, showing it the map of Britain and the town he was heading to.

The woman with unfocused eyes said to him, "Peebles is a long, long way away."

"Where," he prodded into the little rabbit's mind.

The woman pointed north. "I know a man who runs a pub in Newstead Village. It's at least a day and a half on foot." An image floated through his mind, of wide fields and a flat, open road with a pub off to the side.

"Then that's where I'll go," he told the rabbit.

The woman merely nodded.

At first, the whole process of talking to his rabbits had been disorienting. He'd been overwhelmed by the smell of grass and clover. He'd heard the rustling of the wind through their ears and the sudden rise of panic when noise startled them. Then there was the gut wrenching twisting and he saw through their eyes that they were somewhere else entirely, somewhere that they'd seen just moments before, far away from where they had been.

He liked being able to go places that quickly.

He thought about it again, like a repeating dream, how wonderful it would be at Hogwarts. His mother had told him that the headmaster was a wise and powerful wizard who would help him learn the magicks.

He already had his mother's wand. It didn't do much except shoot out a few sparks for fun, but he knew that once he got to the wizard school, they'd show him exactly what to do with it. He reached into his basket and took it out, examining the fine polished wood in the station's lamplights. Tonight, the wand felt like it was talking to him. Dillon got a strange zing through his arm when he pointed the wand down at the ground. He suddenly felt like he could do something with it.

Dillon pointed the wand at a nearby walnut tree. "Move!" The rabbits out on the grass looked up, startled. They scrambled for cover under the stairs when he pointed his wand at the tree again. In his mind, the tree swayed wildly. Dillon felt a prickling down his arm and scrunched up his face.

"Move!"

Plunk.

An apple fell from the highest branches and landed on the ground. The little boy cackled and scooped it up with glee. He bit into the fruit and chewed thoughtfully. It was sweet, but not too sweet. It tasted a little bit nutty. He gazed up with great satisfaction at the walnuts waiting to rain down.

He'd just made an apple out of a nut. Dillon had never done something so... useful with magic before. But how?

A flash of white fur filled his mind, followed by the face of the sweet girl who he'd sent ahead to make a place for him at Hogwarts Castle. Wren, he thought. Then he smiled. He was ready. So very ready for school.

Dillon discarded his sandwich on the plate and got out his mum's journal. All the places they'd been were listed in chronological order. She'd always said they used to live near Hogwarts, and now with the map as a reference, he could trace the towns backwards through her notes and match them up to the dots on the map that Wren had given him. He tucked the map back inside the journal and stowed it away in his coat pocket. This was the year that he was going to Hogwarts. "Take me to Newstead," he told the rabbit.

The woman gasped when the little thing hopped down from her arms and went to the boy instead. The boy gathered it up in his arms, patting it gently. He felt inside it, finding the need to flee, hugging it tightly to his chest, along with the basket, now filled with the rest of the rabbits who had instinctively felt his need to be on his way.

The rabbit in his arms shimmered. All at once, the boy was bathed in a bright light. As his insides twisted, he felt for the other rabbits, calling them, showing them the new place where he wanted to be.

The woman shielded her eyes as the light grew brighter, surrounding the boy and his basket. When she finally was able to peek through her fingers without hurting her eyes, all that was left of the boy and his rabbits was a fading ball of light.


***







 



A/N:  There's definitely more information about Dillon and the rabbits now, and I love reading about your guesses. 
 Thanks for the favorites and the reviews, and most of all, for reading!


Chapter 8: 8. Hearts and Spades
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Friday after classes, Albus perched high in a tree with a perfect view of four separate entrances to the castle. Suddenly, his shoe crackled. Albus almost lost his balance as he tore the shoe off and held it up to his ear.

"Any sign of him yet?" Scorpius' voice broke through the sole.

Albus spoke to the heel of his shoe. "Not yet. Are you sure he took a right after leaving Potions? Maybe he went into the Great Hall."

"Nah, he went right. Right and then left, and then... wait. Something's happening." Albus heard a rustling sound through the shoe and pulled it away from his ear. Then there was more crackling and Scorpius' voice came through again. "I've got him in sight. Get ready."

"Which door?" Albus asked.

"Garden entrance."

Albus swiveled around to aim his wand at the double doors leading to the greenhouses, but the quick move knocked the shoe out of his hand. He grappled for it as it fell to the ground. Albus snapped his attention back to the entrance just as James was coming out. The tip of his wand glowed, ready to banish his brother's wand back up to his room. He aimed and cast a perfect shot. He grinned as his brother stopped short and felt around in his pockets. James looked confused and then turned around to hurry back inside the castle.

Phase one was complete.

"Accio shoe." Albus caught the shoe as it zoomed up to him. He spoke excitedly into it. "Did you see that? I think it worked!" Static came through the heel so loudly that Albus had to hold the shoe away from his ear again.

When the noise faded, he put the shoe back up to his ear. "You still there?" he asked it.

A shrill bell rang out across the lawn, dismissing the last class of the day. Students started coming out onto the green in droves.

Albus sat up straighter. Wren was exiting the castle and heading straight for him.

His shoe crackeld and Scorpius' voice broke through. "Al? Are you there?"

Albus fixed his gaze on Wren, stuck his wand inside the shoe and cancelled the communication charm. This was his chance to talk to her alone.

"There you are, Bunny," she said to the little animal under her arm. She settled under the tree and took her camera out of its case. She crouched down to get a few shots from different angles in the grass, and disappeared from his view beneath a cluster of leaves.

Albus brushed aside a twig so he could see her better. "So that's Bunny."

Wren rolled over to look at him through the leaves. "Isn't he adorable?"

He tore his eyes away from her and looked at the little white rabbit munching on clover. "Yes it is. Definitely cuter than mine."

"I didn't know you had a rabbit," Wren said with interest.

Albus shrugged. "Still trying to figure out why. James gave it to Scorpius to give to me, and I've been stuck with it ever since."

Wren wrinkled her nose, quite like her little pet. "You make it sound like a disease. Was that the same rabbit that Scorpius had on the train? Rose said it was an absolute monster."

Wren's rabbit happily nibbled away, hardly comparable to the oversized grey blob in Albus' room, with patches of hair missing and an attitude the size of Manchester. He hadn't been sure that it was a real rabbit, or just an elaborate prank that might blow up in his face (since it came from James). He'd applied every anti-charm and anti-hex spell he knew to the cage before tossing the drooling beast inside. Then he'd added a few extra wards for good measure. After it woke up, he made sure to keep his distance.  Between the rattling cage and the demon-red eyes that followed him around the room, he could hardly stand the thing.

"He's definitely not like yours."

He jumped down from the tree and squatted beside her. "I didn't see you last weekend." Or much at all the last few days, except in classes.

"I was helping Bunny adjust to his new home. I think he likes it here now." Wren patted her rabbit and looked at Albus with a smile.

He smiled back. "That's good." Actually, it was very good. If she was done worrying about Bunny, then maybe...

He took a breath, intending to start a normal conversation that didn't involve any strangeness. "What do you think of the new history teacher?"

"I think he's interesting. Look how he twitches his nose when he eats."

Oh, the rabbit. He sat down on a large root and watched her pat Bunny on the head, incredulous that he could be jealous of a pet. "Yeah, twitchy."

"He likes you," Wren said, "but he thinks you smell funny."

Albus sniffed the air automatically. What was she trying to say? Was it his shoe? Wait. How come she was blaming it on the rabbit?

"I told him that he had to like you," Wren said, "since we've always been friends."

Even for weird, this was getting out of hand. Albus tried to figure out what to say next, but he came up with nothing.

"Bunny, look over here!" She clicked at the rabbit again, seeming to forget that they were in the middle of a conversation. "I love this lens. It's perfect!"

Not that they were having a real conversation. Was this her way of telling him that she wasn't interested? She wasn't even looking at him anymore. He had so much hope riding on that lens when he picked it out for her. He was glad that she loved it, but he'd hoped that she'd read more into it, that she'd see him differently afterwards.

This wasn't the different that he'd imagined.

He tried again. "What are you doing on Saturday?"

Wren's face contorted. "I have to go home."

"Home already?" Albus sat up straighter with worry. "Did something happen with your Gran?"

"No. Mum needs my help is all. I'm going to miss him so much." She scooped up the little rabbit and stood. "I have to get him settled with Rose and Callie. Headmistress McGonagall set up the portkey to leave here first thing in the morning, and then I'll be gone for the day. Do you think he'll be alright without me?"

She was talking about the rabbit again. "Yeah, sure he will." Albus' rabbit was doing fine without him, obviously, but Wren hadn't asked. He was starting to feel like she was having this discussion with herself, whether he was sitting here beside her or not.

Albus got up and brushed himself off. "I'll see you later then, maybe on Sunday." He was almost afraid to ask what she was doing when she got back. The old Wren would have at least asked him why he was so high up in the tree, or she might have even climbed up on the lower branches to join him, like they used to last spring. Together.

They hadn't done anything together since they'd gotten back to school. Not once. She hadn't even come over to sit at his table in Ancient History. Instead, she’d partnered up with Nate Berkshire. Last night in the library when Albus and Scorpius were arguing over their essay topic, he’d seen them working together. Smiling. Happy.

The pain in his gut flared. Had he missed his chance already? She wasn't even looking at him anymore. Would it have made a difference if he had stayed up in that tree and ignored her completely?

Albus waited for Wren to say something else, anything else… but she was too focused on her pet rabbit. He sighed and walked back to the castle. Obviously, she wasn't affected either way, which made it hurt even more.


***


Albus and Scorpius ducked down the set of stairs into the Hogwarts dungeons. They stopped at a blank stone wall. Albus kicked at the wall, and Scorpius gave him a questioning look.

“What?” Albus kicked at the wall again, needing to take his frustration out on something.

"Did you tell her?"

"I tried."

"Merry merfolk," Scorpius announced. The stone wall opened to the Slytherin Common Room, bathed in a green-filtered light. "Who's in charge of these passwords, anyway? They're getting worse every year."

He ribbed Albus with his elbow. "Anyway, tried how? Did you snog her senseless, or did you two have one of those girly talks where no one gets to the point?"

"She's not interested," Albus grumbled.


They passed a small crowd trying to mob the seventh-year Quidditch captain who was passing out tryout pamphlets. Scorpius snagged one away from an eager second year. He glanced at it and tossed it to Albus. "Right. I'll believe that when the Great Lake freezes over." Albus' scowl deepened and Scorpius wisely changed the subject.  "So this plan with James..." He reached inside his robe and pulled out a folded piece of ratty parchment. "He hardly looked up when I bumped into him, but I didn't find the enchanted stone in his pocket. Just this smelly old thing instead. What did you have in mind for phase two?"


Albus tossed the Quidditch practice timetable to the eager second year hovering around them. Tryouts were weeks away. That could have been time spent hanging out with Wren, but after the non-conversation this afternoon, he wasn't keen to set himself up for another letdown.

"She's going home this weekend to help out her mum."

Albus kicked himself again for not checking up on her over the summer. Something strange was going on.

"I'm not talking about Wren! You de-charmed your shoe in the middle of the mission," Scorpius hissed at him, not wanting to be overheard by the entire room, which was filling up fast once news of the timetables spread.

"The mission went off fine." Albus wasn't thinking about their plan anymore. He was more worried over Wren.

Scorpius punched his arm. "You're not listening. All I have to show for my troubles is this ratty old thing." He shook the yellowed parchment in front of Albus.

Albus' eyes almost bugged out of his head. He snatched the parchment out of Scorpius' hand and shoved it inside his robe. "Don't wave that thing around!"

"Fine, you keep the scrap. It stinks worse than sweaty socks. What are we gonna do now?" When Albus didn't say anything else, Scorpius punched him in the arm. Hard.

"Godric's gobstones, would you quit punching me! I'm not sure." Albus was at a loss. She'd never not wanted him around before. What if she was trying to get rid of him? "She was never like this before."

"I'm talking about the stone, you skrewt. And Godric can shove those gobstones up his..."

"Shhh! First-years," Albus interrupted him, letting the smaller group of students cross in front of them, before turning on his friend. "Give it a rest. I can't think about that right now."

"No, you can't think about anything - too busy moping about because Wren's not giving you the moon eyes." Scorpius made a disgusted clicking noise with his tongue that Albus would have expected from his friend's uppity mother.

"She's been through a lot. I thought I'd give her a few days."

"A few days? You've given her the whole summer. What are you waiting for? She's been hanging out with you for years."

Albus didn't respond. He hated to think that Wren was acting weird because of him, but as the days wore on, it was becoming a possibility that she just might not want him hanging around like she used to.

"And she's cute," Scorpius added. "She's a love."

Albus' head jerked up sharply. "What are you trying to say?"

Scorpius chuckled. "Only that if you don't move soon, someone else will." Suddenly his smirk disappeared. "I didn't mean me! Blimey! Her hair's too short. And ergh, that thing she does with her..."

Albus' eyes narrowed as Scorpius' words trailed off. "What thing?"

His friend waved his hand in the air. "Completely not my type. All I'm saying is you're going to fanny about too long and when you finally get your head out of your arse, she'll be settling into someone new."

"Says you," Albus shot back, his thoughts going back to the library and Wren sitting with Nate Berkshire. "I don't see you making any progress."

Scorpius had recently come clean about the fact that he fancied Albus' cousin Rose, though he sure had an idiotic way of showing it. She'd almost slammed her book down on his knuckles in History today.

"But I am," Scorpius said, waggling his fingers in the air. "And here she comes now."

"Who?" Albus looked around the common room for his red-haired cousin. It couldn't be Rose. The one time she’d even entertained the thought of setting a toe into the Slytherin common room was when James had let a swarm of gnats loose in the library.

"Opportunity." Scorpius pointed to the pretty blonde girl in their year who had just taken a timetable from the captain and was on her way out the door. "Oi, Platt!"

She turned around and Scorpius winked at her.

"What are you doing?" Albus hissed. He didn't care that Rose wasn't interested in his friend, preferred it even, but Serena Platt had a habit of going through boys like a cheap pair of sports trainers. Albus thought of the shoe he'd lost in the tree that afternoon, and his spirits sank to a new low.

"Employing new tactics, my friend. You're obviously too distracted to think about the mission, so there's no use discussing it now."

Albus never got too close to Serena and the other Slytherin sixth year girls, mostly because she and her friends were always a breath away from a bin full of gossip and a bottle of body lotion. Other than that, all he knew about her was that she was ruthless at wizard chess, and last year she had made a decent Chaser. "She's likely to be on the team again. It's bad luck for Quidditch players to date each other."

Scorpius shrugged. "Better than dating no one. And she's in the Photography Club with Long-knickers. Inside information!" He scampered off before Albus could try to convince him further that chasing after Serena Platt was a bad idea. Though it didn't look like Scorpius had to do much chasing. "I hear you like smooth skin," Scorpius said, holding out the crook of his arm. He flexed with strained effort before a soft bulge formed above the inside of his elbow. "Would you like to feel my bicep?"

Serena giggled. "Ooh! Can I bring my camera?"

Albus collapsed onto a couch and tried not to watch as they left the common room together. When the room emptied out, he pulled the folded parchment out of his pocket and spread it out on the table in front of him. He tapped it with his wand and whispered the activation spell. Hogwarts corridors came alive on the map, and Albus followed little trailing footprints with his fingers over the students moving through the halls outside. James was going to go into a fiendfyre frenzy when he realized what Scorpius had done.

Forget about the stone. This was a game changer!


***


When Wren got back to her room, the little animal had fallen asleep in her arms. She placed him gently into the hay and hovered over the cage for a few minutes to watch his soft, steady breathing and an occasional twitch of his tiny paws.

She felt a sudden sense of loss. For some reason, she couldn't remember why she'd come up to her room in the first place.

“Oh well,” she whispered to herself. “I guess I could find something else to do, until he wakes up.”

Her bedside table was covered with too many rolls of little plastic cylinders to put her books down. She pushed at the clutter to clear a spot, and a flurry of canisters spilled onto the floor. A few of them rolled underneath her bed.

There were so many things that she normally did that she hadn't done yet. The pictures, for one. Wren had never allowed the film to go more than a few days without being developed. Fresh film always made crisper images. She had to fix this.

Tossing her books onto her bed, Wren swept the pile of black cartridges into her bag. Then she got down on her hands and knees and fished the stray rolls of film from under her bed. Casting one more glance at the sleeping rabbit, she slung her camera strap around her neck, grabbed her broom and headed down to the greenhouses.

Wren stepped out onto the castle grounds and squinted into the late afternoon sun. She wandered past the first of a long row of whitish-grey domed glass buildings and a small two-level brick building that sat behind the vegetable gardens. The modern architecture of the Herbology Professor’s office looked like it belonged on the streets of London, rather than inside the ancient walls of Hogwarts. At the far end of the greenhouse row, Wren had to step around a deep, muddy ditch that she was sure hadn't been there the year before.

Her dad was up to his knees and elbows in a bed of muck. Whatever he was doing must be for the seventh year class because she didn't recognize the strangely shaped, iridescent tubers that he was tossing into the wheelbarrow.

Wren almost turned around before he noticed her, not wanting him to ask her how her first week of lessons was going. But before she could scoot away, her dad’s head came into view as he shoveled a clump of dirt out of the ditch. He caught sight of her and swiveled around.

"Hello, Wren!” He gestured to her camera and her bag of film. “I'd help you clean up the shed, but..." he shrugged, holding up his muddy hands.

"It's alright, Dad," she called back. "I can do it myself." She waved her broom in the air. Last year, after sitting vacant for an entire summer, the cobwebs were so thick that it had taken the two of them a good half-hour to get the doorway clear.

"Good, good," her father said, shoveling more dirt on top of the last pile.

Wren hurried by before the conversation turned too personal.

Beyond the professor's quarters and around the back of Greenhouse Two stood a smaller tool shed. Together, Wren and her dad had cleared it out and set up a darkroom when she was in third year and had discovered photography for the first time. Anyone in the Magical Photography Club could use it, but Wren was one of only a handful of students who ever went out there.

"Oh, and Wren?" She halted on her heel, two greenhouses short of a spidery escape. "Did you get your mum's letter?"

Wren nodded. When she'd first seen her mother’s handwriting, she’d instantly gotten images of her mother tearing her hair out over a room of floating pillows. "Is Gran alright? Is something wrong?"

"No, no! Nothing of that sort," her dad said, wrestling his hand out of the mud to grab a pair of shrubbery shears. "St. Mungo's needs someone to gather the rest of the boxes from the err..." he struggled with one of the long roots and snipped it off where it met the dirt, "... long term care ward. I have another meeting with the bank and your mum's got her hands full at the Inn."

"I can do it," she said quickly. "I'll write back to her tonight."

She hadn't minded at first, when her parents had asked about going home for a weekend or two. But now that she was at school, she wished she didn't have to go back and face the possibility that Gran was never getting better. Or that there might be something wrong with her.

She ducked around Greenhouse Two and approached the old tool shed. When she was away from home, she didn't have to think about Gran. She had Bunny now. After she got the film soaking in the developing solution, Bunny might be awake again. They could wait together out on the grassy hill next to the tool shed while her pictures dried.

On the outside, it looked like a lopsided shack that hadn’t been completely attached to its foundation. Several spiders scurried out as she swept over the doorframe and squashed them with her broom. Strangely, there were fewer cobwebs than she had thought there'd be.

Wren raised her wand and tried out a basic domestic spell and sighed with relief as the rest of the cobwebs disappeared. After three days of failure in Advanced Charms, she had thought something was wrong with her wand, or worse yet, with herself. Thank goodness her ineptness hadn't bled over into her Potions class, where she could still competently brew her assignments. Then her sixth year Transfiguration had started with a three-week review on magical theory, which had made her even happier.

Simple spells were all she could manage since getting back to school. Wren had meant to go through Gran's Magical Maladies texts to see if they had documented cases of a witch or wizard starting to lose their magic... Wren tried not to think about it like that, but the other night she’d had a nightmare where the Healers had told her that she'd contracted some rare condition brought on by hereditary mental instability, and then they'd locked her up in a room full of empty people, just like her grandparents...

Wren shook off the memory. It was only a dream, after all. She hadn’t told anyone about it either. Rose and Callie would make a big deal out of it and drag her down to Madame Pomfrey’s to get herself checked out. And Albus...

She didn't want to worry anyone - not until she was sure. It was only the first week of school. Her spells were slowly improving. Maybe in another week she'd be back to normal.

Maybe not. Wren opened the shed door and was greeted by a small wooden statue of a garden gnome that seemed to leer at her. Maybe she couldn’t go back to normal… maybe if things had changed, there was no going back. Or maybe she should stop thinking such fatalistic thoughts and keep believing that things were going to get better.

The gnome held closed a thick, drawn curtain that portioned off the rest of the shed, a clear signal that the darkroom was in use. Out of habit, Wren lit her wand with a soft red glow and shut the door before moving through the curtains. Inside, the walls were lined with old Potions lab tables. A cauldron of developing potion bubbled gently in one corner. In the other corner, a beat up old sofa from the Hufflepuff common room sat unoccupied. Judging by the small parchment squares drying on the line over one of the tables, someone had clearly been here before her.

The hanging images showed different angles of soft, curved surfaces. There were no faces, just skin-colored, extreme close-up shots with views too narrow for anyone to tell exactly what the subjects really were. It didn't take a Seer to figure out that the photographs belonged to Serena Platt, the Slytherin in Wren's year who was also in the photography club.

She reached out and gently traced the curves in the air in front of one of the images that caught her eye. The color was softer, paler than the others, with tiny diagonal ridges running along the crease in the center. It was oddly warm and feminine, and Wren had to turn away before her imagination took her to places she didn't want to go.

Wren busied herself with clearing the dust off of the opposite table. When the blank parchment squares were laid out, she ladled the developing potion into a spare bucket. Then she dropped the film canisters in and waited with her wand ready.

As the transparent pictures unraveled from her film and lifted into the air, Wren zapped each of them with her wand and guided them over to the small parchment squares on the table. The pictures settled onto the parchment in a watery haze and began to seep into the heavy-stock.

She felt a tickling sensation behind her eyes, and immediately thought about Bunny. He was probably awake by now and wondering where she was. Wren fretted in the darkroom. Had she stayed away from him for too long? Was he panicking without her? She looked around at the parchment squares and the ghostly images that continued to rise from the cauldron. It would only take a few more minutes, and she’d be done here. She needed to finish it, or a whole week’s worth of photographs would be ruined.

After Wren caught the last of the pictures in mid-air and placed it on the final parchment square, she tucked her wand behind her ear and looked over her watery pictures. She picked up the first adorable image of Bunny, remembering how quickly the little rabbit was able to get from the floor to her bed and back down again. She didn't think such a little animal could jump that high or move that fast.

Wren tested the corner of the parchment with a finger, and when it came away smudge free, she eagerly got out the instructions for the animation charm and applied it, anxious to see how the new charm worked.

A sprinkle of powder. One, two, three taps with her wand, and the charm was done.
In the red glow of her wand, Wren gasped as Bunny disappeared entirely from the picture. She stared at the blank parchment, wondering what had gone wrong. It was supposed to be a simple spell, “as easy as Levitation and twice as fun”, was what the instructions had said. Ten seconds later, Bunny reappeared on the parchment, but a bright ball of light flashed where Bunny had been, and then he was gone again. Wren frowned at the blank photograph, now only showing an empty bedspread in her room at the Inn, instead of the adorable creature she'd meant to capture on film.

The new animation captured five additional seconds of action. Or non-action, in this case. Maybe the picture hadn't dried long enough for the animation charm to take hold. Or maybe the charm was more delicate than it claimed. She strung up another line across the shed and hung the rest of her pictures to dry. Wren watched the picture again, and something tickled the back of her mind. That light...

Her eyes began to itch, and Wren remembered that she had to get back to Bunny.

Later, when the warm sun began to set on the little rabbit in her arms, Wren felt much better. "We have a whole hour together while the pictures dry."

Things were going well for Wren so far... well, except for Charms lessons and not seeing enough of Albus. She'd seen him today, hadn't she? Under the tree... she tried hard to recall what they'd talked about and then realized that he'd gone away mad.

"I've got to fix things with Albus, Bunny. I've got to..."

Bunny snuggled into her hand.

"I've got to..."

He licked her palm and Wren giggled.

"I've got..."

He burrowed into her arms and she held him tight.

"Bunny... how soft you are!"

 

 


Chapter 9: 9. Stone Hearted
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Wren stepped out of the floo and into the cold, sterile air of St. Mungo's Hospital, her feet automatically taking the route to the Magical Maladies Ward without thinking. She'd gone there so many times before... too many times. Every Christmas, every summer. Sometimes in between holidays if Gran felt nostalgic. Like the time they'd been out in the country and come across a field of sunflowers. Gran had to pick several armfuls and bring them to the Ward straight away. "Alice loves yellow," she'd said.

It was strange to visit without Gran. It was even stranger knowing that they might never have to come here again, not after Wren picked up the rest of Frank and Alice's things for her mum. Wren had wanted to sit down and talk for once, but as usual, her mum had her hands full with the Inn and Gran, and there was no time for Wren.

"Wren! How nice to see you!" Wren looked up and found herself at the Healer's station in the Magical Maladies Ward. She hadn't even realized that she'd come that far already.

Wren had expected old Healer Strout, but when she looked up, she saw a fresh, new face behind the counter. She recognized her as the young Healer that had shadowed the old woman just a few months before her grandparents died. When she was a little girl, Wren would always bring a second set of flowers for Healer Strout’s room, thinking that the woman must live on the same floor as her grandparents. It was strange seeing a new face in an old place like this.

"I have a packet from my mum," Wren said, handing it over to Healer Stebbins.

The young Healer opened the packet with an efficient smile. "Yes, we've been waiting for these to be picked up. The boxes are packed and ready to go. They've been sitting here for months, but I'm sure your family has been busy. Stay here while I verify the signatures. I'd hate to have you come back for more paperwork."

Wren silently agreed. She would hate to come back for any reason. A loud moan rose from down the hall and she shuddered, trying not to think of prone bodies lying under crisp white sheets.

"Oh dear, I'll be right back. Looks like Mister Snurfly is having another episode." The Healer hurried down the hall, her white robes swishing behind her.

Wren rubbed at a small ache between her eyes.  She thought about Gran and how her mum had said she was doing "better". It could mean a thousand different variations on "same as always but we're not losing hope", which was the unspoken line that the Healers had plastered to their faces every time the family came to visit Frank and Alice Longbottom.

She wondered, if Gran didn't improve, was she going to end up here?

If Wren lost her mind and her magic, would she end up here too?

It wasn't the first time she'd thought about it. When she was fourteen, the family had come for a regularly-scheduled winter visit and Wren overheard Healer Strout discussing hereditary conditions with a family in the suite next to theirs, and how overjoyed the woman had been to hear that her sister could go home for the holiday if she was able to physically function on her own. Ten minutes later, Wren thought she'd seen her grandmother's hand move under the sheets. She didn't go to sleep for two nights. At the Potter's Christmas gathering, she’d huddled up in a ball on the floor of Albus' room, exhausted and terrified with visions of her grandparents rising up out of their beds and brainlessly stumbling around.

"They'll make us take them home like that!" she'd whispered.

"St. Mungo's won't let you," Albus said. "They have a strict policy on housing the undead. Aunt Hermione told me so."

"But what if they're already dead and we just haven't realized it?" At that, Albus had pumped her full of eggnog and cracked zombie jokes at her until she calmed down.

"What's the safest place in your house from a zombie? The living room."

"Why did the zombie go crazy? Because he lost his mind."

It was so stupid, but Wren had laughed hard enough that she had to pee.

"Don't worry," he'd said, putting his arm around her and shoving another eggnog in her hand, "If it really happens, I won't let them eat your brains. Oh, I got another one. What do vegetarian zombies eat? Graaaiiins!"

It was why she loved him so much. As a friend, Wren reminded herself. A very good, bad-zombie-joke telling friend.

The pain in her head suddenly grew more insistent, and she leaned forward against the counter. If anything happened to her, if she lost her magic completely, would he come and visit her in the cold, sterile ward at St. Mungo’s? Would the Potters allow their son to be friends with a crazy girl?

Would he even want to?

Her eyes fell to the papers scattered in a heap, just beyond her reach over the lip of the Healer's station partition. At the end of the hall, Healer Stebbins' voice rose above the moans. "Lie still, now. It will only take a moment."

Wren's heart pounded as she frantically reached down and shuffled through the forms. She was just putting them in order, she would say. She skimmed the top of the stack, orders, instructions, nothing new. The Healer had pulled their charts too, so Wren took those and flipped through them.

It was the same malady as she'd always known: curse by Death Eaters. Down at the lower half of the page, the names of the Death Eaters responsible were listed - Lestrange, Lestrange, Crouch - along with the treatments prescribed to reverse the damage.  She flipped through the old history until she came across a dog-eared report dated immediately after the war trials, describing how they'd talked to Frank and Alice Longbottom after the sentencing, hoping that when the torturers were brought to justice, it would improve their situation.

Later, there was a record titled “condition watch”, during the twenty-four hour period after the last of their torturers was finally pronounced "deceased". At the bottom of the page, it was noted that Frank and Alice were “unchanged".

Wren hadn't thought of that before. Curses were broken by death, but if long-term physical or mental damage was inflicted by the curse, the condition could be... she turned the page.

Irreversible.

Wren scanned through the list below the Healer's report, dated a month before her grandparents' deaths. Her eyes stopped at each blackened box: "permanent physical deterioration", "healing droughts ineffective", "projected six months until internal functions shut down". She turned to the last page with an equally disturbing list. Highlighted in green were the lines, "experimental treatments", "life extension potions" and "M.H.E.", all with a big red "declined by family" stamp over them.

Wren’s insides churned. She was ready to put the whole file back down where she had picked it up, when a silver ticket slid out of the stack with large bold letters on it.

She jumped as the Healer came up next to her and put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry about the delay."

"I put them in order for you," Wren mumbled, shoving the ticket back inside the file and handing her the stack guiltily.

"Thank you.” The Healer didn’t act like Wren had done anything wrong by snooping through her family’s records. She opened the file and the silver ticket slipped out again. The Healer caught it before it fluttered to the floor. She turned it over in her hand. “Oh, yes. I remember when Healer Strout told me about the family's decision. It must be the hardest decision your family has had to make."

Wren's head swam as she nodded faintly. "Um, I must have forgotten. What does the M.H.E. stand for?"

"Mystical Heart Equilator. It keeps the heart beating when nothing else will." The Healer placed the silver ticket on top of the file and closed it. "When she signed the DNMR, she said she wanted to remove them herself. Brave woman. Healer Strout was certain that there was nothing more to be done." The Healer looked sympathetically down at Wren. "How is Mrs. Longbottom?"

Removed them? Wren's heart almost stopped in her chest. "She's fine," she said weakly. She knew what the "do not magically resuscitate" option was, but she’d always thought that it was only used for patients who were going to die no matter what. Gran would never have agreed to it. She’d always held out a hope for Wren’s grandparents to get better. None of this new information made any sense. If Gran hadn’t signed the form, then it must have been the other Mrs. Longbottom.

Wren’s knees felt wobbly. "I have to go."

"Shall we send the boxes to the new address?" the Healer asked her.

Wren nodded faintly and hoped her knees would hold out long enough to get to the floo.


* **


Wren burst into the kitchen, breathless and flustered. Tears streamed down her face. She didn't even wait for her mum to set the trays of meat pies onto the cooling racks. "Why didn't you tell me?" she cried.

Hannah took off her oven mitts and ran to her. "Wren, what's wrong?"

"You killed them!" Wren sobbed, shrugging out of her mother's arms. "Everyone knew but me. And then Gran... is that why she's so messed up?"

"Oh, Wren!" Her mother led her into the store room, sat her down on a stack of rice bags and closed the door.

When she turned back to Wren, her expression was calm, but serious.  "Gran wanted to do it her way."

"I saw the papers. You signed the DNMR," Wren said, still shaking.

"Augusta signed the form.” At Wren’s disbelieving stare, Hannah continued on, “I would have told you what was happening if there was time, but you know how stubborn Gran can be, once she puts her mind to something. We walked into St. Mungo’s that day, and she decided that it was time." Her mum eased onto the rice palate with her. "We'd been talking about it last spring while you were still at school, going over the options. They were both deteriorating fast, and nothing was helping. Augusta felt like everything had been done that could have been done. No one could tell if they were in any pain."

"Why didn’t you tell me what was going on?" Wren remembered how Gran had given small, round stones to the Healers right before the magical monitors had gone black. She hadn't known what they were at the time.

"Gran was afraid that you wouldn't understand."

"You don’t think I can face reality?" Wren's voice cracked as it rose an octave higher. She was the one who sat with Gran all summer. She had helped out whenever her mum needed another set of hands. She had ignored her friends all summer and never complained.

"No, it's just that you're young, and we didn't want to burden you."

"I'm sixteen! I had a right to know!"

If her mum didn’t think that she could handle the truth about her grandparents, what would she do if Wren told her about losing her magic? Would they take away Wren's choices about her own life?

“Wren, over the summer? You handled Gran better than anyone,” her mum said. “I’m sorry you had to go through all of that. I'm sorry you have to go through all of this too.”

"I could have handled it, Mum." Wren hiccupped and sniffed.

"I know, but Gran..."

"Gran can't handle anything," Wren said, getting upset all over again. Her head pounded relentlessly and her vision was starting to blur. "I have a headache," she said, and stomped up to her room.

She passed a sleeping Gran, propped up in a chair by the window. Her hair was arranged in a careful silver bun on top of her head and a brochure from the Leeds Getaway Resort lay across her chest.

Of course she had handled Gran. Gran had needed her and no one else was doing anything about it.

"Mum is right. I don't understand."

The charts and the long-term diagnosis still didn't make it right. Gran's rule had always been to heal the animals when they could, and when they couldn't, to let them sleep peacefully until the end.

What if Frank and Alice Longbottom had woken up? What if Gran had let them rest another day and the miracle had happened then? Or what if someone had found a cure the next week? All the possibilities vanished when Gran decided to stop trying.

"They weren't voles or weasels or polecats, Gran. They were people. Don't we try harder with people?"


***


Wren woke hours later with her head still trying to split open. She stumbled downstairs and helped herself to whatever was on tap behind the bar.

"I've been waiting for you."

The strange barman with the thick accent she couldn't place swiped her beer out from under her and emptied it into the sink.

"Wait!" Wren croaked She swallowed painfully. "I need that." 

"You need this more."

"Tea?" Wren squinted at the steaming mug in front of her and then back at the dark-haired stranger. Her head hurt too much to put up a proper protest. The tea was hot and scalded the back of her throat, but as soon as she gulped down the first mouthful, the urge to curl up into a tiny ball and die started to ease up.

"Where's Mum?"

"Errands." He slid an envelope over to her. "She said to give this to you."

For a barman, he didn't talk much. Wren took the envelope, sealed with wax. Mum didn't trust him? He was tall, lean - unassuming the way a rook on a wizarding chess board just stood around until it was challenged by an illegal move. Curiously, he was drying the beer glass with a rag by hand.

"Where's your wand?" she asked him.

"I don't need one,” he said simply. “Where's yours?"

Wren’s mouth snapped shut. The way he stared, almost like he was seeing through her, made her feel like he already knew about the failed charms and her troubles with using magic since getting back to school. She tried to rationalize in her head that she was still underage for another year and it didn’t matter whether she had her wand with her or not since she wasn’t allowed to use it. The truth was that it was useless and she hadn’t seen the sense in carrying it around.

"Drink the tea," he urged.

Wren did, surprised at herself for doing as she was told.

"Be careful around your new friend." He slid a packet of dried herbs across the bar and it bumped her tea mug. "If you need more, I'll be here."

Wren tried to think of something to say to his retreating back. What did he mean by that? She had great friends!

Wren frowned. She didn't need him or his tea. She raised her hand to rub her forehead and it dawned on her that the pain was gone.

She experimentally shook her head gently from side to side. Her vision had cleared. She sat up in surprise and stared down at the tea. Whatever it was, it had worked.

Weird. Making sure the barman’s back was turned, Wren swiped the packet of herbs into her bag. She read the letter from her mum, an apology for this morning, that they should have told her before the funeral so Wren had understood the situation better. It said that of course she was mature enough to handle life and how sorry her mother was that she wouldn't be back before Wren's portkey was due back at the castle.

"Have a good week," Wren read aloud, sniffing. As if that was even possible. She folded the letter and stuffed it into her bag.

The barman stared at her from the far end of the bar like she was meant for the dinner buffet. Wren tried to shake the uneasy feeling. Knowing her mum, she'd probably already run the background check through the Ministry or she wouldn't have left him alone in the Inn with Gran sleeping upstairs.

She could already hear her mum, telling her that she was imagining things. Between her nerves, Gran and the headaches, and missing Bunny, she possibly was. Stalker or not, he had at least helped her with her headache. Besides, she was already sick of being mollycoddled by her family.

"It helps you recover when you've been abandoned."

Wren yelped in surprise as the barman stood in front of her. Had she... had she said something out loud?

"Did you put Verataserum in the tea?"

"No." He looked confused. "Should I have?"

"Never mind." For a Squib, his mannerisms were far from Squib-like. If that's what he even was.

Wren bundled her bag against her chest, remembering how Gran used to tell her that life was change. Well, she had definitely found that out the hard way, and she needed to start embracing the weird if she wanted her family to stop treating her like a little girl.

The next time the barman turned to look at her with a creepy, penetrating stare, Wren gave him a quick, brave smile of her own. When he turned away, she frowned.

Who was that man?





A/N: I can't believe we're already up to chapter 9! Are you still reading?  This chapter was a bit on the heavy side, but there's more crunchy goodness coming up next time. By the way, if anyone is missing Dillon and his basket of rabbits, we'll see him again very soon. I promise!

I've noticed in my massive revision frenzy that some chapters have slipped around and are out of order.  I am numbering the chapter titles to hopefully keep things straight.  Please drop me a note if you see a chapter out of order.  *crazy brain*

Thank you so much again to CambAngst, patronus charm and ladybirdflying for being the best betas in the world, and listening to my half-baked, crazy plot ideas! Thanks to YOU for reading, and thanks to everyone leaving reviews! It's like candy!

 


Chapter 10: 10. Losing Heart
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Daylight filtered through the slats of the aluminum siding, casting long bands of yellow across the shadowed floor of the churchyard shed. Dillon ran his tongue along the insides of his teeth to chase away the stale metallic taste that lingered from yesterday's snack. It hadn't filled him completely, but it had been enough.

Scooting over to the darkest corner of the shed, he peered through the slats and saw no one except his rabbits nibbling on the grass under the shade of a tree. He sat up straighter, his eyes darting around the shed for the rest of them. Three furry lumps huddled together on top of an overturned wheelbarrow. Dillon pressed inside his mind and breathed with them, moving through their restful dreams of dense thickets and lush forest foliage. In a few hours they'd be fully recovered and ready for travel.

Dillon sensed his other rabbits around the corner of the shed, and found their presence immediately comforting. He leaned back against the sacks of manure and tried to relax.

The anticipation of finally reaching his ultimate destination excited him more than anything in his life. Dillon picked up his mother's journal, full of maps and squiggles that he'd only recently begun to understand, and tucked it behind his head as a pillow. She had been so weak the last time he’d seen her. So pale. Her smile had been a dim reflection as the light faded from her eyes.

He took everything his mother had given him, until he'd taken too much - and then it was too late. Dillon had tried to make her drink, like she had done for him. When she'd refused the thick, dark sludge, even when he'd put it in a glass for her, Dillon had taken it for himself.

"My boy," she'd whispered and closed her eyes.

He loved his mother for what she gave him, but he hated what she had taken away. There had been a father, Dillon recalled, a real family, once. That was before the blood and death… and the blood... and then the running far, far away from everything. It didn't matter how far they went, there was always more blood. It was why no other wizards would understand. “Don’t tell. Never tell,” his mother had told him. “They will hunt you down and hurt you.”

Dark hiding places had become his home. He'd held on to the last letter his mother had written to the wise old wizard at Hogwarts... until the parchment yellowed and flaked away. She'd written so many that he didn't see the harm in keeping just one. Night after night, she would send those letters about him, and then they would wait, he and his mother, for a reply that never came. If the wise old wizard was the only one who could help him, why didn't he ever write back?

Dillon grabbed the journal and leafed through the brittle pages. "I'm going to make it," he said to the hanging rakes and shovels. "I really, truly am. And then I'll never have to be alone again."

His mother's heart was still beating when he left, promising her that he would never take so much from anyone ever again. Only a little bit to stave off the cravings, and only when he needed it, just as she’d taught him. Dillon glanced over at the sleeping rabbits. It was best fresh, and they were so sweet.

He had a new friend now, waiting for him at the castle. Dillon reached out farther in his mind to the little white rabbit that he'd given to Wren.

As Dillon saw through the little white rabbit's eyes, he spotted the door to her dormitory. He wondered where everyone was, and reached out to her, expecting to slip easily into her mind like before, but all he got was a view of the table legs from the rabbit hutch. Bunny hunched over and scratched at a belly itch with his hindquarters. Dillon tried to make the leap into Wren's mind again, but Bunny shook his head.

She called him "Bunny". And then, quite unexpectedly, Bunny blinked, and the dormitory room was gone.

Dillon let out a cry of frustration. The startled rabbits on the overturned wheelbarrow looked wide-eyed at him as he banged his fists into the manure bag.

He wanted Wren back! She had been so sweet and she had strong magicks. She couldn't leave him, not when he was so close!

He shut his eyes and reached out to the grey rabbit that he had sent away with the boy. It had never befriended the boy like the little white rabbit had bonded with Wren.

Dillon felt the creature respond with a great desire to fulfill his wishes. He grinned and thought hard about Wren, until the grey rabbit understood.

"Find her. Get her back for me."

 

 

***


In Monday's Advanced Charms lesson, Wren was wedged between Rose's "Ravenclaw this and Ravenclaw that" and Callie's "I think he looked at me". They'd jabbered nonstop since breakfast and Wren considered running off to the toilets to stuff paper in her ears.

Elbowing a space between her boy-crazy friends, Wren flipped open her Advanced Charms textbook and fished her wand out of her bag. She'd meant to practice while Bunny sunned himself in a patch of clover. But she was so afraid of failure that she'd spent the entire hour tapping her wand like a nervous tick against a tree.

Rose turned to Wren suddenly, almost knocking her off her stool. "Hey, I have an idea! We should go out to the Quidditch pitch and take some practice shots with your camera this afternoon!"

Wren's wand hummed in her hand, stronger than it had since she'd gotten back to Hogwarts. "Maybe." When no one was looking, she flicked her wand towards the small bowl on the floor and squealed triumphantly as sparks flew on the first try. It wasn't the stream of water that the professor wanted, but it was something.

When she'd fallen into her bed and snuggled up to Bunny, the blissful haze never came. Neither did the headaches when she went down to breakfast.

Everything felt more real than it had before. She could hear the rhythmic swishing of her friend's wands on either side of her. The room echoed with low murmurs and soft giggles and the occasional melodic hiss as someone hit their mark with a spray of water into the metal bowls.

Rose paused to sigh longingly. "I was talking to the captain of the Ravenclaw team over the weekend. We thought you could start with them first. Ian Sloan said…”

Ian Sloan... Wren's brain frizzed, remembering how just the thought of having a boyfriend had been exciting and new. It must have been why she'd put up with his excessive arrogance, until that one miserable kiss had killed the whole thing. Worst waste of time, ever.

Rose was likely only interested in watching last year's waste of time fly around on a broom... Something clicked in Wren's brain. Wait a minute. Rose had been the one calling him the worst names of all: Gillyweed tongue... Harpie breath...

She tugged on Rose's sleeve. “You can’t possibly be interested in Ian Sloan. Don’t you remember last year?”

Rose put down her wand and looked at Wren with a straight face. “Took you long enough. Welcome back, Wren.”

“I was only gone a day."

“More like the whole summer. This is the first time in forever that you’ve gotten out of your head to join us.”

Callie agreed. "We thought that if you didn't react to Sloan, we'd have to drag you off to Madame Pomfrey for a head check."

Wren squinted at Rose. "Does that mean you’re not into Ian?”

Rose half-grinned. “I might be. Does it bother you?”

“No.” Wren twitched as Rose's eyebrows went up. “Yes,” she corrected herself. “Only because he’s such a troll. The worst thing about him was how nasty he got when I said it was over. No one needs to go through that.”

Callie nudged Wren and winked. “She'd have better luck with Malfoy than him.”

“I don’t want to get lucky with Malfoy!” Rose retorted, and then immediately turned beet red. “Shut up!” She buried her face behind her Charms text, and for the next few minutes, Wren concentrated on their assignment without interruptions. Almost.

“Yes, she does." Callie whispered, startling Wren just as a jet of water finally sputtered out of her wand, missing the bowl she was aiming for.

"What the..." Ian turned around, robe dripping from Wren's mistake. "Oh, it's you. Try to watch where you're pointing that thing." He turned back around, shaking his head.

Wren was partially mortified, partially mad at Ian for dismissing her like she was nothing. She was a good witch. A good student. She should be decent at Charms like Callie and Rose, not making her ex-boyfriend’s robe all wet.

Why was all of this so impossible?

Professor Ackerly held up a hand to regroup the class that had degenerated into shrieks and giggles. "It doesn't matter which bowl you put it in, but the water must land in the bowl. If I see anyone else aiming their wand at another student, it will be an instant detention!"

Wren gave up on her water stream and let her eyes wander to the table across the room. She watched Albus bounce his water stream from his own bowl to Scorpius' and then back again. How could anyone gain that much control over a spell so quickly?

"What about you, Wren? What do you look for in a man?" Rose's words cut through her observation like a knife, but Wren kept her eyes glued to her subject, hoping she'd glean some secret that Albus wasn't sharing with the rest of the class.

"Great aim," Wren murmured, watching the fluid wand work. She suddenly wished she had her camera. "He could probably do it wandless and wordless if he tried."

Callie looked where Wren was staring and giggled. "Shirtless too!"

Rose made a face. "He's got enough attention as it is, and eww, that's my cousin!"

"He's not Wren's cousin." Callie stuck out her tongue.

Wren's concentration finally broke. "You two are impossible."

As Professor Ackerly circled around the room making observations, she tried going back to her wand work, but her eyes wandered back to Albus and his incredible technique.

She thought back to her birthday and Albus at the robes shop, all pinned up in brown tissue paper. They hadn't really talked then, but now she wished they had. She'd finally gotten around to reading his letters from the summer. She'd laughed at his repeated invitations to come over for his mum's toffee pudding. As the summer wore on, his suggestions had gotten more and more bizarre - underwater macramé, tree-hopping, meeting for lunch in London and going to a museum he'd never been to... at least Wren thought he was still joking about that last one. It would have been fun to hang out with Albus. The past year, his time had been taken up with other pursuits, each one more annoying than the last.

Giggling drifted from the back of the room. "Ugh!" Rose said with disgust. "I wish those leeches would just leave him alone. The last thing Albus needs or wants is another stupid girlfriend!"

"He said that?" Wren blurted out before she had the sense to control her mouth.

"No, but just look at him," Rose said.

Albus, concentrating. One of the girls tried to get his attention and he actually cringed.

"Too nice to tell them to bugger off," she concluded.

Wren shook herself, trying to clear her head. This was all Callie's fault, she concluded, as Callie gave Wren a wink and giggled again.

Stop that. Stop it stop it stop it.

"Stop!" the professor called. "Wands down."

Everyone shuffled back into their seats as the scores for the day's efforts began floating down to each desk . Wren's eyes widened. She hadn't realized that they would be graded today.

Professor Ackerly made some general announcement about their upcoming assessment. "Think of this as a practice test. And furthermore, House Points will be assigned to the top achievers of the day."

"Albus Potter received the highest mark.” He paused for the audible groan from the class to die down. "Followed closely by Scorpius Malfoy and Rose Weasley."

"Third?" Rose muffled her shriek behind her hands.

Wren's evaluation appeared in front of her and all she could do was stare at all the red marks. It was her first mark lower than an E on anything. She buried her face in her hands. How was she going to explain this to her parents? To her dad??

Rose was livid. "I can't believe they both outscored me!" as Ackerly announced "Double points for Slytherin."

Callie patted Rose on the back. "You were only one point behind Malfoy. You shouldn't be too hard on yourself."

Rose sulked at her table while they gathered their books. "He's so pompous!"

"Rose," Wren said, waving her hand by Rose's ear, "Do you have time later today?"

"I can't believe it! One lousy point! I studied!"

"Maybe Scorpius does it better," Wren offered.

Rose turned on her. "Better than me?"

"Well," Wren began, frantically reaching for something to say that would soothe her irate friend, "you're usually brilliant at Charms, which is why I need your help."

"My help?" Rose's face was a keen scarlet by now. "Why don't you go and ask them for help, if you're so desperate!"

The red-tempered girl stomped out of the room as Wren sucked in air, blinking back her desperation.

Rose wasn't usually so… like that. Rose was her best friend (she'd claimed many times), wasn't she?

There was Callie, Wren thought, as her other friend gathered up her books and ran after Rose. But last time Wren had doubled with her on an assignment, she'd had the concentration of a Pygmy Puff.

What if practice didn't make it better?

Was it even possible for a witch to suddenly turn into a Squib?

Wren sucked on her lower lip and gathered up her things.

She wasn't going to cry.


***


Albus had spent the better part of the lunch hour watching Rose sulk at the Gryffindor table. Wren sat next to her, strangely subdued, as Rose waved her arms about, obviously still upset about the Charms points.

He and Scorpius had earned those marks, and all she could do was rant about one lousy point. But Rose's tantrum wasn't the issue. It was Wren. Last time he'd tried to talk to her, she'd acted very strangely. If he didn't know her so well, he'd have thought she was trying to get him to leave her alone. Well, that wasn't going to happen.

He gulped down the rest of his pumpkin juice and crossed the Great Hall.

"Hi Albus," Lori Chatham called out as he passed the Hufflepuff table. Albus tried not to notice how she waved wildly at him with one hand, while adjusting her pet ferret wrapped around her shoulders with the other.

An older group of Hufflepuff girls whispered to each other, shooting him glances. Albus had dated at least three of them last year (that he could remember) and was glad they were at least keeping their distance.

As he got closer to the Gryffindor table, his brother James flashed him a conspiratorial look. Albus shot back a knowing grin, slipping a corner of the folded parchment out of his robe pocket. James' face faltered. Albus was so sick of his brother getting the upper hand. Now, at least he had something of his brother's to even out the score.

A half-table down, his little sister Lily rolled her mascara-framed eyes, nodding to the Hufflepuff table and mouthing "fan girl" at him.

Albus ignored her and pushed onward.

When he got to the sixth year Gryffindor girls, it was just his luck that Rose looked up first. "You can take my class ranking, but you can't take my lunch, Albus. Leave us alone."

"I'm not here to earn more points for Slytherin," he told her flatly. "I need to talk to Wren."

"Take my friends too, won't you?" Rose shot him a death glare as Wren stabbed sullenly at a carrot in her salad.

Albus wasn't in the mood to deal with his cousin. The longer he waited, the worse it was going to get. It was now or never. He ignored everyone else and faced Wren. "Can I talk to you alone?"

When Rose opened her mouth to throw out another insult, Wren dropped her fork onto her plate and stood up. "Give it a rest, Rose." When Callie snorted, Wren turned to her and said, "You can stop too. Everyone's got their shirt on around here." She grabbed her bag and a mug and marched out of the Hall.

Albus blinked. This was more like the old Wren he knew, sacking Rose's emotional outbursts before they got out of control. But her walk out of the Hall wasn't as confident as her words had been.

When they were far enough away from the double doors to not be overheard, he stopped and leaned up against the wall. Wren's hands wound tightly around a mug of tea and she looked slightly impatient and a little distracted.

"Wren?"

"No, no, " she said. "Fine now. This tea... Bunny, Gran." She stopped rambling and looked up, her eyes regaining focus. "What was it you wanted to ask me?"

A small inkling inside of him was already telling him that this was a bad idea, but it was Wren. Albus cleared his throat a few times, and then just let it out. "I have this problem and I was hoping you could help."

She nodded, fidgeting with her bag. He took the fact that she wasn't interrupting or running away as a good sign.

"Remember that rabbit I was telling you about?" Albus was pretty sure she didn't, because she'd zoned out on him so many times the last time they talked. "At first, I thought James got it as a gag gift, something transfigured to look like one, but it turned out to be a Scottish mountain hare. They're huge. Mean tempered, too."

"That sounds awful," Wren said, looking bewildered. "Why do you need my help?"

Albus looked around, making sure no one was within earshot, and then whispered, so only she could hear.

"It's gone missing!"


***


Madame Pince hummed softly to herself while she stacked the returned books on the re-shelving cart. She derived much satisfaction from putting them in alphabetical order by hand, instead of relying on the cart to do it for her.

In truth, she wasn't humming at all. It was more like imagining a little tune inside her head without the sound coming from her lips. She pressed her mouth tightly shut, wishing that the young people around her had such ingenuity. Humming wasn't allowed in the library.

The old librarian flipped open a monster manual and checked the binding for any wear, then she placed it down into the cart. It snapped angrily for a minute until she stunned it with a simple look. The book slapped onto its side with a thump.

There. That would hold it until it got safely locked up. She'd have to remember to shelve it away from the set of ancient tablets that had been delivered. She was eager to get a good look at them when she had the time, along with a rare first edition series of cookery tomes, dating back to 1458 by Fust and Schaeffer.

She couldn't stand the thought of students getting their grubby, fudge-fly fingers on those.

Madame Pince wheeled the squeaky cart towards the back of the library where the lamps were darker and the shelves were dustier. Once upon a time, when she was young and inexperienced, she had insisted on cleaning the entire library at the end of each term. Over the years, the dust had become her friend. It tracked the footprints and fingerprints of mischievous students who dared to sneak in after hours, or into places where they didn't belong, particularly the Potters, who seemed to get exponentially worse with every generation.

She shook her head, remembering the prank that James Potter (the second, she grumbled to herself) had pulled last year. It had taken an entire month of student detentionees casting release charms to get the encyclopedias unstuck from the ceiling and back to their original, unblemished condition.

If he had aimed the same hex at the monster manuals, he'd have lost at least three fingers and learned a lesson, but the thing about the Potters was that as they kept getting more and more mischievous, they were also becoming more and more insidious. If she wasn't happily retired before the next generation of Potter-Weasley children entered Hogwarts, she promised herself that she'd make a point to quit.

One of the reference manuals smacked its hardcover flaps against the cart, but another stern look from the librarian silenced it, like its twin. Madame Pince didn't usually allow the special collection to leave her guard, but in this case, she felt like she could trust the young man who had requested them. The new History professor had a good head on his shoulders and seemed eager to expose his students to the pleasurable adventure of historical research.

Not sticky-fingered first years, mind, but the advanced level sixth years who had already excelled in their subjects. A Historical Book Club, he'd said. How lovely. If Madame Pince hadn't developed such a distaste for children over the years, she might have come up with the idea herself.

The large wall clock chimed the hour. Right on schedule, the shelving cart rolled to a stop outside a section of books that were locked in a large caged room.

It was lunchtime in the library... technically not in the library. Food was never allowed through the doors. Madame Pince, always in order and on schedule, left her shelving project and headed towards her little office, where an apple and a wheat toast with sliced mutton was neatly tucked away in her personal cabinet.

Before she reached her office, she caught sight of a strange flash in her periphery. She whirled around, but it quickly faded into nothing, and then, well, nothing. She moved slowly along the corridor, eyes peeled for signs of any misdeeds, determined to get to the bottom of whatever this was that didn't belong in her library.

For well over fifty years, Madame Pince had vigilantly kept order in her parchment-filled domain. She didn't like surprises. Or disorder. Or veering off her personal schedule, befouled books or any of that. Sometimes she wondered why she hadn't pursued her first love of Healing Elixirs. But then she'd have been in line for a Healer's career in St. Mungo's, and she'd have to deal with open wounds and unwashed hands and the loud wails of the unfortunate souls who had become the victims of their own stupidity or someone else's carelessness. She shuddered.

People were worse than children.

She turned quickly to a scrabbling sound off to her right, and there it was. The librarian stared down at the patch of grey fur that had appeared on the carpet right where the ball of light had been. What was this?

"A rabbit??" she shrieked, and then quickly covered her mouth with her hands and looked around to see if anyone had witnessed her unruly outburst. Then her eyes fell back on the offending animal. "You smelly beast!" she told it. "Out with you!"

The rabbit sniffed and wriggled its nose, but didn't budge.

"I said, out with you!" she raised her voice another notch.

The rabbit hunched over, and then took a small hop to the left, leaving a small cluster of brown pellets behind it.

Madame Pince's fury rose. She un-tucked her wand from behind her ear and aimed it at the thing, planning to levitate the filthy animal into the air and carry it out of the library that way. She'd have called the caretaker in an instant, but she had a better mind to crate this filthy thing and its nasty pellets and deliver it straight to McGonagall's office. She'd had words with the headmaster a long time ago over allowing rodents into the castle. Maybe this time she'd listen!

The furry intruder seemed to sense what was coming and lunged at her ankles, biting and clawing while the old woman toppled to the floor screaming "You monster! Get off of me this instant!"

A sharp pain stabbed through her leg, and then instantly faded, along with all of her hostility and irritation. Suddenly, her head was filled with the most delightful thoughts; bounding through a meadow, the sweet, tranquil scent of daffodils. A peaceful lull came over her, along with a strong desire to burrow deep into a pile of fresh hay.

The grey rabbit suckled contentedly on her ankle. Then it withdrew its pointy teeth and licked the wound closed. It lunged forward, rolling over its huge belly and chewed noisily on the tip of the librarian's wand.

She shook herself and sat up groggily. "Nice rabbit," she said, patting it on its head with a strange mix of fear and adoration. "Now you come with me, and I'll make you the most comfortable home you can imagine."

Staggering to her feet, the old woman led the way to the back of the library, jangling a set of heavy keys at her side. The rabbit followed closely behind, dragging its extended belly over the floor as it half-hopped, half-crawled after her.

Madame Pince pushed the shelving cart aside and unlocked the door to the caged room. She led the rabbit behind the gates to where her beloved cookery tomes were carefully stacked. The picture of the cook on the cover smiled politely as she approached, but something in her glazed eyes must have tipped him off that things weren't as they should be. He waved his cookery pot and knife frantically, a silent scream on his lips as she sat down automatically and picked up the top issue, leafed through it to the center and tore it in half, casting the fluttering pages onto the floor.

"There now, dearie." She looked on with mild satisfaction as the rabbit dutifully shredded the ancient pages to bits at her feet. "Let's make you a safe home where no one can hurt you ever again."

 




 








A/N:  Thanks again to my fabulous betas, CambAngst, patronus charm and ladybirdflying, for helping me along!   The little box below has cookies in it.  Drop me a note to tell me how I'm doing with Dillon and Wren and everyone else!


Chapter 11: 11. Hearts Enthralled
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Mister Summers had been lecturing for the last ten minutes about the first wizards and their legends, and for all the Galleons in the world, Nate couldn't find the reference in his Ancient Magical History book. How could he be so lost after only one week into the class?

He leaned over and whispered to Wren, "Where are we?"

"Footnote three, page-twenty-seven, but I think he's off topic now." Wren said, unfazed. She didn't even have her History out. Instead, was making lazy circles with her quill in the margin of her Potions text, muttering about ingredients. The combination of herbs she had scribbled down looked familiar, but what he really wanted was to follow Summers' lecture.

He flipped over to page twenty-seven and made a small note on his parchment to read through all of the footnotes after class, just in case. By the way the teacher was bouncing around the topic of the day, Nate wasn't entirely sure what he was supposed to study.

In fact, the teacher hadn't once looked up from his notes, occasionally leaving a trail of completely illegible scrawl on the board behind him.

Nate whispered to Wren again, "Are all the history classes like this one? I feel like he's talking to himself up there."

Wren shrugged. "At least this teacher's real. Last year, we were taught by a dead man."

"Dead?" Hogwarts was supposed to be safe, his uncle had said. "What happened to him?"

"Retired."

"I meant how did he die?"

"Oh." Wren was silent for a minute as the teacher droned on. "I guess Professor Binns has been dead so long, no one ever asked."

A few more minutes into the lecture, Nate was convinced that Mister Summers wasn't even talking about history anymore. Malfoy from Slytherin looked like he was sleeping with his eyes open.

Then the teacher stopped rambling and threw out a question. "Who can tell me..."

Fifteen hands shot up and Ravenclaw got a tally mark for the correct answer. Ian Sloan smiled widely from the front of the room.

Nate looked wildly around the room. "How did he even know that? The lecture's been about Elvish artifacts for the last ten minutes."

"We read ahead." Wren seemed preoccupied, fiddling with the ever present camera around her neck. "I usually read the chapter again after he assigns the out-of-class essay. It tells me what I need to concentrate on for the exams."

"Huh." Nate thought about that. "Why do we show up to class then?"

"To get credit for reading ahead. How'd they do things at your old school?"

"Before last year, I didn't have a school. I studied at home and had weekly tutors."

"This must be weird for you."

"You have no idea."

Yes, it was weird sitting in a classroom, only getting to read about things. All his life, if he ever wanted to know about people or places, his parents would just uproot and go there, or schedule an interview and then he could see everything up close and personal. It was amazing how many people would open up to his mother when they found out she was a performance artist.

Learning new things became unforgettable when your life depended on it too. At the age of eight, he'd experienced a crash course in the equivalent of years one and two of Care of Magical Creatures when his parents had sent him on a two-week summer camp with Newt Scamander's great nephew (who, as reported by several witnesses, should have lost several fingers and the tip of his nose from constantly poking at the wrong things).

Wren, sitting beside him, had been locked up in a castle for most of her formative years. How did she survive the boredom?

He did have to admit that the lecture had started out interesting enough, something about the culture clash between vampires and wizards. He jotted down questions in his notes so he could look them up in the library later. Nate had learned two very important things about classroom etiquette at Hogwarts: never be late to class, and don't irritate the professors with questions that they deemed 'inappropriate' or 'off topic'. Early last year when he was new at the school, Professor Vector had given him a detention in Arithmancy for interrupting her lecture by asking how to spell "pseudo scalar".

Nate sighed in relief when the lecture shifted back to a topic that he could finally track. He didn't mind the detours into particulars that the text didn't cover. It quite reminded him of his great-great-uncle when he got into storytelling mode at Christmas time. No matter what he talked about, he always made it sound like he'd been right there in the thick of it... actually, Nate's uncle was so old that no one doubted that he really could have been present at the coronation of Queen Victoria, though the bit he always added about the exploding pomegranates was still under suspicion.

Wren penned something in her notes when Mr. Summers mentioned a treaty. Nate figured he should probably do the same. If he'd done the assignment on his own, he'd have written fifteen feet of essay, detailing each contribution of the Ministry with a timeline and its long term effects on society, instead of a concise summary of each point. He was finished in less than a third of the three hours he'd set aside for the project, and had Wren to thank for it.

It probably came from years of experience proofreading his dad's style of reporting. Crop Circle study required acute observation, and any minute detail could be of monumental importance. Nate hadn't told anyone about his parents' highly-specialized careers, but the more he got to know Wren, the more he felt like she was the sort not to throw blanket judgments on anyone... well, besides that first day when they'd nearly insulted each other over nothing. He and Wren were well past that by now.

She rubbed at her neck and glanced over at the table where her friends sat. She always seemed so distracted. "Why were you late?" he whispered.

"I needed to get something in my room," she said noncommittally, and looked back over at the other table again.

Nate looked too, and saw one of the boys from the group smile at her, and wondered again why she had chosen to sit with him instead of her friends.

He hadn't made any close friends yet, but then he'd only been here a year. Nate was too used to spending his free time by himself, instead of congregating in the Hufflepuff common room. Since meeting Wren, he'd been trying harder (at her suggestion) to find something outside of classes to do that would give the others a chance to get to know him. He just wasn't into Gobstones, Quidditch, Wizarding Chess, Slugs-and-Bugs, or anything else they had around here.

Wren was staring at the back of the boy's head again, and this time Nate couldn't ignore it. "What's going on? You keep looking over there."

"Nothing." Wren's eyes slid down to her book. "It's just... he asked me something today during lunch."

"Oh." By the way that he'd been watching her since the beginning of the year, Nate figured that it was only a matter of time. "Did he ask you out?"

"No!" she said quickly.

"You told him no?"

"No, I said yes. But we're not dating," Wren said. At Nate's puzzled expression, she added, "Never mind."

Mister Summers paused his dry regurgitation of chapter twelve to remind the class about the Book Club and the extra credit. Wren scribbled the time in her notebook. "Are you coming tonight?"

"Can't," Nate said. "I've got Astronomy prep tonight. Why are you going? You don't seem the type that needs extra credit."

"I don't," Wren said. "But I thought I'd start the year ahead. Haven't got the faintest idea of who to dress up as." She flipped through the book as the teacher started lecturing again, and sat back to listen, tapping her quill against the open pages of her book.

Mister Summers batted the chalk dust off his sleeve. "So as you can see vampires as a society can be largely misunderstood if you limit yourself to looking solely at their basic method of survival." He tapped the board with his wand. "Blood."

"What about blood lust?" Ian asked. He even had the indecency to turn around and smirk at Nate as another mark got tallied for participation. "If they go round draining people, don't they become uncontrollable, like the werewolves on a full moon?"

Scorpius audibly muttered "Bloody show off!" from across the room.

"Vampires can sustain themselves without killing their victims," Summer clarified. "Most people they feed from aren't aware that it has happened."

"What about being turned into a vampire?" Rose asked. "In my mother's book on chapter twelve, it says..."

"I know what your mother says." Mister Summers nodded to the book on the podium. "The truth is that vampires don't want to populate the world with their kind. They prefer to be a limited species. It's what makes them unique to this world - they are immune to every other being's natural, basic instinct to procreate. They stay on the fringes of society and don't like to draw attention to themselves."

Nate's mind ticked through a similar topic he'd read about in Ghoul Studies, something his uncle talked about frequently, but the professor had used a different term and sounded unfamiliar with the concept as if reading it from the text for the first time. Nate gagued his question carefully, trying to use the right words. "Don't vampires sometimes create ghouls and feed from them?"

Summers rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. "Are you referring to the pesky things that live in attics?"

"No," Nate said patiently. "The other kind of ghoul."

Ian snorted from the front table. "What kind is that? The ghoul kind?"

Mr. Summers interrupted the verbal sparring. "You must be referring to the practice of bonding with human companions who willingly provide sustenance to a vampire."

"Wouldn't the Ministry regulate that sort of thing?"

Albus Potter, Nate labeled in his head. He saw Wren's eyes shift. The guy who asked her something.

"That would be as unproductive as the Ministry trying to regulate snogging between classes." A few snickers floated around the room, this time, not coming from Ian. "It looks good on parchment, but it's not practical or feasible to track something entered into willingly and with consent."

Their teacher checked his notes. "Technically, 'ghoul' is a generalized term. The hosts who choose to live among the vampires and create a blood bond with them are called Thralls."

Nate's head shot up. "Did he just say 'thrall'?"

Wren nodded, nonplussed.

At that point the bell rang, and the teacher closed his book.

"I believe we'll pick up on that in our next class. I'll see you tonight. Dress sharp!"

Wren's friends were giving her an eager thumbs up. "Don't worry, Wren. We've got your costume all sorted out!" Callie winked as she and Rose left the room.

Wren gathered up her books. "As long as it doesn't clash with my camera. See you later, Nate."

Nate packed up his books slowly. Most wizard texts portrayed vampire feeding as amoral and animalistic, but this was the first time he'd heard any wizard mention a little-known aspect of vampire culture.

He looked at Summers carefully, who was straightening his tie and setting his glasses properly. There wasn't anything weird about him, simply the picture of academia. He bet that man had never set one foot outside of a wizard community.

Why would a man like that know anything about Thralls?

***


"Well look at you!"

The older-than-dirt librarian shimmied up to Wren in a robe that sparkled when it moved. She eyed Wren's costume that Rose and Callie had thrown together at the last minute. "The spitting image of the famous Thrall of Drakul, just as lovely as her portrait! Punch?"

"Err, no thank you." Wren shuddered under the unwanted scrutiny and automatically began gravitating to the back of the room. She should have chosen her own costume, but by the time she'd gotten back to the room and taken care of Bunny, Rose and Callie had already made up her mind for her. She would have been more grateful if they hadn't gone out of their way to choose the most uncomfortable outfit ever, both in materials and design.

"And you doubted our skills!" Callie scoffed, pulling Wren towards the small crowd already gathered by the checkout desk. "Look over there! There are three King Arthurs here already! Didn't I tell you that your costume would be memorable?"

Wren rubbed her arms nervously. "You could have made me Hengist of Woodcroft, instead of this trampy thing." She eyed Callie's baggy pants and battle axe with open envy.

Callie straightened the collar under her vest, and prodded Wren along with her broom-transfigured axe. "Are you kidding? It looks fantastic on you! Besides, you never go to parties. We wanted to be sure that you dressed special for the occasion."

"Hey, I go to parties," Wren put a protective hand to the camera hanging around her neck. "I've got the pictures to prove it." She remembered all too well the end of term festivities last May, and how she'd hidden behind the camera lens in the middle of the Gryffindor common room filled with cheery teens and loud music blaring from the Wireless. She also remembered the panicked dash when their Head of House came knocking and everyone melted into unassuming poses after hiding the Firewhisky under sofa seats or tossing it into the hearth.

"Singed eyebrows. Nicked Pepperup potion. Good fun." She pulled at the high neck of her Renaissance gown. It was starting to itch.

"You look good. Really, really good." Callie shoved her the rest of the way through the crowd.

This was definitely not the library Wren had been in last week. For one, there was punch. Madame Pince was over in the corner, ladling the clear liquid out of an ornate crystal bowl and handing it out to the students in costume. The librarian herself, who usually frightened students into being silent and treading lightly in the stacks, was talking in a boisterously loud voice and calling everyone by name. Wren didn't realize that the woman knew anyone beyond "young man with the chocolate frog" and "you there, holding the every-flavor beans, step away from that catalogue".

Madame Pince closed the library doors with a nod of her head. When she faced Wren, she wore a beaming smile, largely out of place under her large, hooked nose. "You brought a camera! I would love some photographs of these marvelous costumes. The good Mister Summers would appreciate them too."

Rose nodded eagerly. "Don't worry, Wren. The boys won't be able to take their eyes off of you."

"I don't think that's the point of this party, and oh god! Mr. Summers..."

"Will think you are historically accurate and give you high marks for effort." Rose moved ahead through the crowd confidently as Queen Maeve, her red hair making more of a statement about the Irish Sorceress's identity than her gown or crown combined. She'd already read her mother's text from cover to cover (including the footnotes and appendixes), and had picked out the perfect costume to show off her natural assets.

Wren felt like the little assets that she had were on display. The long, lacey gown clung to her like a second skin. Rose had wrapped red swaths of gauzy fabric around her, before squeezing her into the gown, but somehow that only made it worse. The layers pulled tightly against her curves and peeked out in gaudy splashes of color along her thighs.

If she had been thinking straight, Wren could have thrown together an easy outfit, like Daisy Dodderidge the first matron of the Leaky Cauldron, or Ignatia Wildsmith, which would have been simple. A large pointed hat and a bag of floo powder, and she'd have avoided this whole embarrassing situation altogether.

But it was too late for that. Wren took a deep breath and took to the task so she would have something to do. She carried on a few short conversations with people that consisted of "Hi, what's your costume?" and, "Mind if I take a picture?" Strangely, no one asked Wren what her costume was supposed to be. But she did get looked at. A lot.

And there he was. Ian Sloan, the boy that Rose had been going on about. His costume was completely unoriginal, looking exactly like the three other Merlins who were his roommates. From halfway across the room, Wren could see that he held his head higher than anyone else, and it wasn't because he was the tallest boy in the room.

He was coming over to her.

"Punch?"

She didn't like the way his eyes raked over her. Her shawl was in her purse, which she'd insisted on bringing, along with the camera against Rose's assurance that they'd be "fine without it, what do you need a purse for?" She squinted up, recognizing the lines of cynicism in his brow that had made her feel smaller than actual size.

Wren had dated this last year? No wonder she was half crazy.

He handed her a cup of punch. "Here, Longbottom. Madame Pince wants everyone to have some."

"Thanks," she said, taking the cup. Wren forced herself to stand up straighter. Suddenly she needed him to notice that she looked different... that she was daring and edgy and unafraid. She didn't feel any of those things, but that wasn't the point. Rose had gotten her here and that's what girls did, right? They flirted with boys and made their heads spin.

How hard could it be?

"So, Sloan," she started, not sounding at all as confident as she'd imagined. "What character are you?"

Ian gave her a patronizing smile that made her cringe. "A normal one?" he told her in his deep, compelling voice that had fooled her for an entire week. "I don't see why you're trying so hard."

"Right. Thanks a lot, Rose, wherever you are." Wren muttered as Ian walked away. She searched the room for her friends. "It's all your fault for making me feel like a..."

Words caught in the back of her throat when two girls, a Rowena Ravenclaw and another student dressed as a strange mix of Alberta Toothill and Babbity Rabbit stopped mid conversation to size up Wren's costume, putting her in the center of unwanted attention.

"...freak," she whispered as they murmured to each other. Within moments, they had turned back to whatever they had been doing, but Wren was left shaken by her five seconds of fame.

Fortunately, the new group that entered the library was even more outrageous. One girl had on nothing but a skimpy bikini and had charmed her skin to look like she'd just walked away from being burnt to a crisp at the stake. Three Godric Gryffindors were in heated discussion about whose beard looked the most authentic. A rather short version of Ethelred the Ever-Ready was poking his wand menacingly at the strange guy with a large jellyfish on his head, just like Uric the Oddball.

Wren snapped more pictures and then caught the back of Ian's head in the frame. Who did he think he was, criticizing her costume like that?

Ian tapped Rose on the shoulder and Wren scowled. "Hey!" He turned back in Wren's direction and caught her eye, just for a second before turning back to Rose and whispering something that made her friend's face light up. Rose had obviously forgotten everything that Wren had told her about Ian Sloan and his pain-in-the-rear attitude... but if Rose didn't mind being treated like a cuff link and being kissed like someone was siphoning her brain through her throat, then that was her problem!

In spite of the brush off, or maybe because of it, Wren eyed the suspicious Madame Pince, and with a bit of pent up hostility, rebelliously put her untouched cup of punch on a table without a coaster, thank you very much. She pulled the shawl from her purse and draped it over her shoulders. Who cared if it wasn't a sixteenth century shawl? It made her shoulders decent. Plus, it was cold in the library. All she wanted to do now was slink into the stacks and search through the Potions section like she'd planned earlier. The card catalog had listed the books she was looking for off to the right...

Wren found the correct stack, but the volume she needed was on the top shelf. The step stool didn't get her anywhere near it, and as of this year, students had been banned from using magic on library books.

Grumbling, Wren pushed one of the small reading tables over to the tall shelf and clambered onto it in her tight-fitting gown. She glanced around, making sure Madame Pince wasn't watching. Then she levitated a chair onto the table and climbed on top of that too.

She just barely pried the book out of the stacks with her fingertips, but then her heel caught in the lace of her gown and she felt herself toppling over, with books raining down from the shelf above.

"Hold on!"

Out of nowhere, strong arms caught her and set her down on the ground.

"That could have hurt." Albus let her go.

"Thanks," Wren said, happy to see a real friend at last.

"What were you doing all the way up there?"

"I was given this tea," Wren said. "It helps with my headaches and I wanted to know what was in it."

"And you were looking for this?" Albus handed her the Potions book that had fallen to the ground.

"Yes, thanks. You're not in costume." She raised the camera up out of habit and snapped a picture of him in his plain Slytherin clothes.

"And obviously you are. Very authentic." He squinted when the camera's flash lit up his quirky smile. "Thrall of Drakul. Interesting choice."

Wren wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders. She should have expected Albus to know who she was. He was almost as academic as his cousin. "It wasn't my choice."

His smile widened as she straightened up. "Did you lose a bet?"

She cringed. "Is it that bad?"

"Actually, it's good. Quite good." Even in the low light, a tinge of pink appeared on his cheeks.

She adjusted her shawl again. That's not what Ian had said. Albus was just being nice. "Thanks for the lift. Literally. You saved me from a broken ankle." She looked down at the pile of books on the floor. "Or two broken ribs, by the looks of things. This outfit is hazardous. Rose forced me into it."

"Looks like her," Albus said, smirking, then his face cleared. "I mean, you don't look like Rose. But it's definitely something that she would think of."

"Great," Wren said with more than a hint of sarcasm. "I've always wanted to be ogled as Rose Weasley's doppelganger."

Albus stared at her for so long that Wren started getting goose bumps. "I could ogle you as yourself if you'd like."

She shuffled her feet around the spilled books resisted a sigh. It would be different if Albus did it. Wren would like it. Too much.

"No ogling," Wren said, poking him in the chest with her finger. "Did you find your rabbit yet?"

"No. Well, maybe. I tracked it into the library, but I haven't found it yet."

"I'll help you look."

"What about the Book Club?"

Ian's sneer popped into Wren's head. "Stupid party. I don't care about the extra credit anymore." Inexplicably, she was drawn to the small line that had formed in the middle of his forehead. She raised her camera and took a few shots, up close.

Albus' head suddenly moved forward out of the frame and she felt his punch land lightly on her arm, jostling the camera. "No fair. If I can't ogle, put that thing away."

"Right. Sorry."

Wren lowered the camera and peered up at him. His forehead had smoothed back out and his eyes were smiling down at her. She flicked the flash button and it went off in his face. There. The line was back again. Something inside her wanted to reach up and smooth it out with her thumb, but then a second flash lit up the corridor a few yards away. Wren jerked her head around.

"That didn't come from me. What was that?"

Albus shrugged. "Probably nothing. You never know what Pince has down there." Then he got that familiar Potteresque expression on his face, like he was thinking about something that he shouldn't, but he was going to do it anyway. "Let's go look!"

Wren drew her shawl tighter around her shoulders and followed Albus down the dark corridor between the tall stacks of books until they came to a large walled area. It looked more like a chain linked cage from floor to ceiling surrounding more shelves of books, presumably too dangerous for the general student population. Beyond the gates, one of the shelves shuddered, and a low rumbling sound came from one of the dark corners.

"Can you believe that this used to be set off from the rest of the library with just a rope? I think something in there just growled."

Wren looked around nervously. "Are you sure it's coming from in there? It sounds a lot closer to me."

"Maybe you're right." Albus searched the darkness around them. "And that growl sounds familiar..." Suddenly, he pointed to a lump on the carpet in front of them. "There it is!" he hissed, and lunged forward, but just as he reached the spot, it burst into a bright ball of light and faded away. Albus fell to his knees and patted around on the carpet. "Did you see which way it went?"

"I've seen that light before! It's just like back home when..." But it couldn't be, Wren thought. Rabbits didn't glow and pop and... Apparate? Was that what happened to the baby rabbit over the summer? Is that what she'd captured on film with Bunny the other day?

Wren heard a soft rustling from beyond the bars of the caged doors. "Look, Albus. Over there!"

And there it was, inside the caged-off Restricted Section of the library. Its belly swelled out like a large balloon that stopped its hindquarters from comfortably reaching the floor. The large rodent rolled over on its side and let out a short snorting sound. Then it nestled its loppy head into a nearby stack of periodicals and munched loudly on the parchment.

It could have been a rabbit once.

"That's yours?" Wren asked as the large grey blob covered in patches of thinning fur sprawled contentedly on the pile of shredded paper.

"Yeah," Albus said. "I'd recognize that hateful glare anywhere. It was a lot smaller, and more rabbity the last time I saw it. Look at the size of that thing! He's got to weigh in at least two stones!"

"There you are, Longbottom!" the librarian announced, making them both jump away from the restricted section gates. Her voice was unusually enthusiastic and she put her arms around their shoulders awkwardly. "And Potter." She made a face. "What a surprise that you'd be back here where you don't belong." She firmly turned them around and directed them back to rest of the students. "You know how I feel about loitering in my stacks."

Wren politely smiled through the librarian's compliments about how authentic her costume looked and how she had immediately recognized the outfit from the famous painting catalogued in their art history collection. "Marvelous! Have some punch." Madame Pince was suddenly shoving a cup into her hand. "I insist." She pushed a second cup at Albus.

"Thank you," Wren said. With the old librarian almost glaring at her, she took a sip. It tasted like overripe apples and something tangy mixed in. At Madame Pince's urging, she took a few gulps of the stuff and faked a smile.

It was awful!

"There now, that's better." She patted Wren on the shoulder with a bony hand. "And you?" Madame Pince turned to Albus, but he had already set his cup down and walked towards Rose to share a few words. The librarian snatched the cup off her polished desk with a scowl and wiped the spot with one of her long sleeves. "Careless children," she muttered under her breath.

Wren's head went fuzzy. It was happening again, she thought miserably.

"Now that we're all gathered," Mr. Summers began, stepping to the center of the room, "Let's introduce ourselves. Ten points to anyone who can guess who I..."

"Felix Summerbee," shouted one of the Ravenclaw girls.

"Uh, yes. Very good. And how..."

"You pinned a smiley face to your robe," Callie announced from the other side of the room. She smiled brightly as the teacher nodded. "Wow, these points are easy."

"Err, correct on both counts," Summers said, the wind definitely knocked out of his sails at the effortless guesses of the students. "Now gather about and let's see what the lot of you have represented."

"Oi! It's Potter," Sloan shouted out, raising his punch cup in salute. "What are you dressed as? Son of a war hero?" The group he stood with erupted in a chorus of rude snorts.

Albus' back stiffened, and Rose scowled at the assorted Merlins. Wren put her cup down and stumbled towards her friends.

"Don't listen to them, Albus," she said, and caught her balance on the edge of the table to still the tilting room.

"Wren, are you alright?" Albus had taken hold of her arm, she couldn't remember when. He felt strong and sturdy and she was weaving a little on her own feet so she just went with it as they moved through the crowd together.

"I don't feel very well," Wren said. "Can we get out of here?"

Madame Pince approached Mr. Summers and handed him a small cup. "I made it special for the adults in the room." She cackled gleefully and Summers smiled appreciatively.

"Nice. Thank you," he said and downed it in one. "Oh," he said with wide eyes, "it's got a bit of a kick to it."

"Let's go," Albus said, pulling Wren towards the double doors.

Wren's world spun as she nodded. "Anywhere but here."

The teacher's eyes bugged out as they passed by. "Thrall of Drakull, nice," he said, and then drifted down to the floor in a heap.

Behind them, they heard Ian Sloan comment above the hubbub. "Must be some punch!"


***


Out in the corridor, James slowed his pace when he saw Albus and Wren leave the library together. He slipped the smooth, pulsing stone into his pocket and thought for a second about hexing his brother out of habit, but the way that Albus was holding on to Wren clued him in that something was going on.

Wren looked as if she would topple over at any moment.

He couldn't help it. "Don't you two look cute!" By the looks of things, Albus was going to be preoccupied for a while. Perfect.

James whispered, "Accio," and the folded piece of parchment flew out of Albus' back pocket. He grinned from ear to ear. Plans and schemes begged to be made with the magical map.

After he stopped up the Prefect Bathroom toilets.

 




A/N:  You are awesome for reading this, and as always, the little box below is full of brownies.   

 

 


Chapter 12: 12. Heartburn
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"It hates me."

Wren couldn't help staring at the broken cage, the bent bars of the door and the splatters of dried up... it looked like blood but she wasn't going to say that out loud. Albus' forehead creased as he started pacing around his room. Normally, Wren would say something like, "Albus, you're being melodramatic. Your rabbit doesn't hate you." As another wave of nausea washed over her, she just swallowed and silently urged the room to stop spinning so much.

As bad as she felt now, she was thankful for any excuse to leave that miserable party. If she could keep from getting sick, that would be fantastic.

Wren took a slow breath and the room slowed down. "You did feed it, right?" she ventured.

Albus stopped pacing. "I'm not stupid. I took care of the rabbit, Wren. I even nicked fresh carrots from the kitchen."

The hurt in his eyes made Wren feel bad for even asking. Of course it hadn't been Albus' fault. But something had gone terribly wrong. That animal in the library was ghastly.

"How long ago did it... he... what do you call it, anyway?" Wren asked.

"Uh, I just called it 'the rabbit'. He got out two days, and I don't know what to do about it. You saw the thing. If I tell Madame Pince about him, she'll probably have him exterminated."

Tufts of rabbit hair clung to the remains of the cage. Her insides clenched uncomfortably, and she sank onto the nearest bed, leaning against the bedpost for support.

Suddenly, she was very aware of how she looked, wearing a corseted lace gown in Albus' room (on his bed even), and shot back up to her feet, but the chairs (that she could see) were piled with books, Quidditch padding, sweaters and discarded robes from last week. She sorted visually through socks strewn on the floor, past the wall full of Quidditch posters to the sea of shoes jumbled by the door, trying to find anywhere else to sit.

No empty chairs.

Wren brought her thoughts to a full stop. She was acting stupid. If Albus didn't want her sitting on his bed he would have said something.

Just be his friend, she chided herself.

Albus shoved a pile of things aside and perched on what used to be a writing desk, his blue eyes looking at her in concern, dark tousled hair, not so boyish anymore...

She eased back gingerly onto the edge of his bed. "I must have had too much pudding at dinner or something."

Slytherin beds were actually quite cushy (which squelched the rumor floating around last year that the dungeon rooms were nothing but slabs of granite... Wren couldn't remember how that had gotten started, and she hadn't really believed it anyway). Even though the rooms weren't round like hers in the Gryffindor Tower, she could still see around the room clearly.

Four canopied beds were draped in the traditional silver and green, different colors from her own room, but the hangings were basically the same style. The walls were bare, besides the Quidditch posters, but then there were no windows either. The place seemed so isolated from the rest of the castle, with the door closed and the greenish lamplight from the wall sconces.

There were odd bits on the bed next to his, including a decidedly girly hair clip on the pillow in a deep forest green, and a magazine that Wren was sure any boy wouldn't be caught dead with. The partially open sack of dung bombs that had been carelessly tossed on the covers had Wren guessing that was Scorpius Malfoy's bed. He'd obviously had company, which made her wonder if Albus had brought his girlfriends here last year...

Of course he had, Wren thought, so bitterly that it surprised her.

"Those are Serena's," Albus stated blandly, as Wren's eyes finished their tour around the room.

"Platt?" Wren remembered the pictures from the photography lab and then tried not to. "Are you joking?"

Albus sighed. "I wish. Scorpius hooked up with her a few days ago."

"A few days, and she's already leaving her stuff in the room?"

"Every time she's around, it's Quidditch this and Quidditch that, and oh have you seen my hair clip? Then she and Scorpius snicker at each other like they have some secret joke about it, and then they ask me if I wouldn't mind studying out in the common room for a while because I'm 'in the frame' too much." He used fingers for emphasis.

"She was taking pictures?" Wren tried extra hard not to think about the photo lab again. She fiddled with her camera, taking it out of the case and looking through the viewfinder at the cage, Serena's things... the floor... Bunny hated magic... "Maybe your rabbit hated her camera flash."

"Not likely. It disappeared before Scorpius lost his mind." Albus kicked a tuft of grey hair on the floor with his foot.

"Wait a minute," Wren said. "This is going to sound strange, but remember at the library, when your rabbit started to glow and then disappeared? Has it ever done that before?"

"Now that you mention it, no. All it ever did was stare at me and growl."

"Bunny... sometimes he gets out of his cage even though it's locked, and I can't find him. Callie saw a light flash the night that I lost him..." Wren remembered the tiny rabbit and the light at the cottage.

"What are you saying? That these rabbits can Apparate?"

"Maybe."

"But that's impossible," Albus said. "I charmed this cage with so much stuff, all the anti-hexes and everything would prevent anything from getting out by magic..."

The bent bars were starting to make sense to her. "He was trying to escape from all of the charms. Bunny hates it when I even think about picking up my wand."

"I didn't know," Albus said, and he actually sounded sorry about it. "I didn't even think it was a real rabbit for a while. Just another trick so James could get a laugh."

He looked so down, but it clearly had nothing to do with the missing rabbit situation. In all the time she'd known him (which was a long, long time, since she couldn't remember a time when she didn't know him), Wren had never seen any kind of animosity between Albus and his brother, except for the occasional dispute over space or stuff, all small things, really. She'd assumed that they'd always had a decent relationship - and James had always treated her so big-brother-like. She couldn't imagine that he'd do anything truly horrible to his younger brother. "I know he's into pranks, but that sounds extreme, even for him."

"You didn't see him over the summer," Albus told her. When his face crumpled into a deeper frown, Wren felt even worse than before about how the summer had turned out. Gran wouldn't have minded if she'd gone off to spend some time at the Potters' house. She probably wouldn't have even realized Wren was gone.

Albus got up and started pacing the room again. "When he turned seventeen, it was like his brain shorted out. Everything had to be done with a wand in his hand. Most of it was directed at me." He said that last part quietly. "I felt like I had to protect myself."

"From your own brother?"

He lifted up his sleeve, and for a second, Wren braced herself, imagining horrific scars, but he'd just wrapped protective bracelets around his arms. Except there were so many, she realized, clear up his forearms all the way to his elbows.

"I got these when he wouldn't stop. And these," he lifted up the cuff on his pants to reveal the same type of bracelets around his ankles. "After he... did something unforgivable to the laundry, I didn't feel safe in my own home."

"What about Lily? Did he bother her too?"

"No. She'd squeal to Mum in a heartbeat... and did you see the way he looked at us in the corridor earlier?" He dug around in his trunk and unrolled a small piece of parchment. "Accio quill! I've logged everything since the whole thing started, just in case, you know..."

Albus scrawled something on the parchment and then handed it to Wren. There were dates and lists of spells, some of which she couldn't make out clearly. But the thing that drew the most attention was the sequence of numbers crammed into the margins, counting up to something. She pointed to the largest one. "What's this?"

"Oh." He took the parchment back from her. "It's been sixty-eight days since I've been pranked last, not counting the failed attempts at Diagon Alley. Sixty-nine if I get through tonight."

He tossed the parchment back in the trunk and let the lid slam shut. " I don't know why I told you all that. It's stupid really. Never mind."

"It's not stupid. I sometimes think I'm being watched. At home, it was Gran but I got used to that. But at school, I think my dad has the house elves spying on me. He just knows things."

Albus hopped back up onto his desk, knocking over a bag of gobstones that spilled onto his half-written Charms essay. "That sounds more like paranoia to me."

Wren made a face, thinking back to the start of the term, when she'd shoved the 'Seven Steps To Grieving' booklet into her trunk before her roommates found it. "I'm not making it up. Every time something happens, a book appears on my nightstand out of nowhere. Sometimes things are highlighted in the text... my dad never says anything about it, but it's so embarrassing."

A vivid memory from second year popped into her head, when she'd found a worn copy of Hogwarts Rules and Regulations on her pillow, complete with side notes about dangerous places like the Chamber of Secrets. The way the text had been marked was so familiar, that she just knew who it had been. She blushed suddenly. "Sorry. I never told anyone that before."

Albus waved at the closed trunk where he'd thrown his tally sheet in. "As much as I love a good prank, this isn't funny either. I guess that makes us even. I told you one of my secrets and you told me one of yours."

Wren wrinkled her nose. "Does that make us like some kind of creepy club? Because I'm really not into that sort of thing." It didn't matter how fluttery her stomach got with Albus around, there were some things that Wren had to draw the line on.

He laughed. "No, of course not. At least you're talking to me again."

Even after all the craziness of the last few weeks and the entire summer, her friend, her very good friend Albus was still the same as ever. She shouldn't have shut him out. Or Rose or Callie either... but mostly him. Actually, now that she thought about it, her stomach was perfectly fine for once.

"I'm really sorry about the last few weeks, Albus. And the summer, too. I don't know what was wrong with me. Well, I do, actually."

She'd felt so overwhelmed when Gran had sunk into her condition, and then when they'd had to move, she'd been too focused on Bunny... and Gran... and then Bunny again... and now the Hospital papers... everything piled up on top of her again, making her clamp her mouth shut.

"You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."

She smiled weakly. "Thanks."

Albus grinned. "Hey, if you weren't Wren Longbottom, the Herbology Professor's closely watched daughter, we could sneak over to the kitchens for a snack and actually get away with it."

"Very funny," Wren said, wondering how he could still make jokes after everything. "I don't want another rules book to end up on my pillow." She twirled the edge of a frayed silver thread around her finger. His rabbit was still missing, and she hadn't really talked about anything, but she still felt better than she had in a long time. She'd missed all of this (minus the dirty socks and the sweaty Quidditch padding), she'd missed him, even if it was sitting around and talking about nothing, and she didn't want to leave.

But it was late. If she stayed any longer, she'd have to sprint to make it all the way back to the Gryffindor Tower before curfew, and she wasn't in any condition to move beyond a slow shuffle.

Wren stood up. "I'd better go, I'm feeling..."

She tried to focus on something, anything at all, and then her limbs felt weak and she felt like she'd just lost control of everything. It would have looked better if she swooned, but the way she hit the floor was anything but graceful.

Albus’ worried face hovered over hers. “What happened?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” Wren tried to blink back the sudden fog that blanketed her brain. Albus had managed to slow her fall and she hadn’t hit her head on anything. But that didn’t stop the pounding inside or the blurred vision. She rolled to her elbows as her stomach lurched.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

 

***


Nigel Summers didn't remember how he'd ended up curled into a ball on the floor next to the circulation desk. All he knew was that it was comfortably warm where he was. The carpet was thick and soft, and he'd been having such a good time naming costumes and discussing research materials with the librarian. From somewhere far away, Madame Pince's cackling voice echoed through the empty stacks as visions of the party came back to him in vivid splashes of color.

Unholy mother of all Minotaurs! He'd fainted at the party in front of his students!

He sat up, and immediately regretted the hasty move. His ears rang and his head pounded with the worst pain he'd ever had. Everything hurt when he tried to move, or even open his eyes. Nigel sat very, very still for a few seconds, holding his breath. Then, slowly, he breathed in.

That was good. He exhaled just as carefully, and then took in another breath. Breathing. Breathing felt good. After a few minutes, he oh so slowly eased himself up against the solid desk, patting his hands around the corners so as not to bump his head against anything sharp, and tried to take stock of his situation.

"How did you like the punch, Meester Summers." Madame Pince's voice came from somewhere on the other side of the desk. Nigel didn't want to risk opening his eyes yet. He felt like it wouldn't be worth the agony to actually see. He already knew what the librarian looked like anyway. By the sound of things, she was moving away from him. But then curiosity got the better of him and he cracked one eye open, this time, without the (literally) blinding pain.

Her voice seemed to fade in and out with his vision. "Don't you worry. I spent a lifetime surrounding myself with things that didn't talk back. Completely worth it, I must say."

A key ring jangled. A loud creak echoed through the library. Something scratched across the carpet and thunked off to his left. He continued inching his way up until the top of his head brushed against the edge of the desk.

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry. Watch the corners."

Nigel tried to surmise exactly what had been going on at the moment of his worst nightmare ever: showing weakness in front of a group of students. They'd started off neatly enough. There were at least twelve students present. That was eighty-five percent of the class, if his math was still functioning. Eighty-six if he rounded up.

He had to admit that the students' costumes had been remarkable. Even with the three King Arthurs and Godric Gryffindors, there was plenty of creativity in the group.

"But you know what I miss, my dearie? Friends. Careful with the corners, my sweet. We're almost there," Pince's voice soothed, notably closer. "There's someone here I want you to meet. He's become a very good friend of mine, you see. And in just a moment, he will become your friend too."

Nigel blinked his eyes open to see who exactly it was that Madame Pince was talking to, and was hit again with a searing pain. Everything blurred, including the punch bowl sitting on the large oak desk across the room. He remembered Madame Pince offering him an "adult beverage", the jolt... numbness, and then nothing.

Did the students all go back to their rooms? Ethelred the Every-Ready, Uric the Oddball... Had Madame Pince sent for the nice lady in the Hospital Wing? Nigel had so many questions, a million tiny needles poking at his brain.

The shuffling and sliding started up again. He heard a grunt. They must be bringing a stretcher for him.

"That should do it. Come along. No time to dawdle when we have a guest waiting."

She's bringing help. Nigel Summers relaxed himself against the desk, which was nice and solid behind him. He thought for one second about hoisting himself into a chair, but opening his eyes was one thing. Even considering moving any other part of his body was too excruciating to fathom. Soft footsteps padded closer to him. She was getting closer, the nice old lady.

"Don't try to move, dearie. You need rest. The others had to leave early, I'm afraid."

Good, he thought. Queen Maeve and Alberta Toothill didn't need to see him sprawled out on the floor.

"They're not ready. But I've made some adjustments, so next time they will be."

What's she talking about? Another party? Professor Babbling had approved the concept of the Book Club, but after tonight's behavior, he couldn't well ask her to condone another one. Or perhaps there was a chance that he could persuade the librarian and the Healer that his mentor didn't need to hear about this little mishap. He was going to be a stand up teacher from now on... literally. No more drinking on the job.

A muffled grunt startled him. He tried to open his eyes again, but the pain hit, right over the bridge of his nose. Searing, unbearable. His head was on fire. Nigel shut his eyes and concentrated on his breathing.

The shifting and sliding came closer, but if he opened his eyes or tried to move, it was like needles through his eyes. He remained very still. Madame Pince was right there. Relax.

The labored breathing was not his own. Nigel wanted to see it, but he was afraid of the pain. A puff of hot breath on his face startled him and he flinched away. It stank like the sewers, and he would know, having mucked them out last week.

Nigel cracked an eye open. If he had the strength, he would have screamed.

Large, grey. Black pools for eyes. He lay frozen against the desk when it opened its maw, spittle splayed across the oversized incisors. He always thought he'd been destined for greater things, but his twenty foot dissertation on Magical Beings didn't answer the burning question in his head at that moment.

What were vampire fangs doing on an oversized rodent?

His professors had warned him about not balancing his education with field knowledge, his last thought before sharp, needle-like fangs slid into his neck.

A sick, slurping sound. Summers drifted. He didn't even realize that his eyes were still open, staring into nothing.

Madame Pince's crackly voice echoed all around him. "Do you like what I've brought you? Tomorrow, I can bring you more. Ah, you're feeling better already. That's good. That's very, very good."

When the pain receded, he was grateful. The slurping stopped. There was something wet and hot running down his neck, soaking into his shirt. All he could think was that it would ruin the starch on his collar.

He floated for a time as the shifting and sliding moved away from him. His head cleared. He felt better. That wasn't so bad. Nigel Summers had a great need to snack on raw carrots and to prepare for something important that was coming. Something very important. An honored guest.

A million things ran through his head, a million gnats buzzing around, telling him how he could help. How he could help her get ready, but there was a greater need overshadowing the preparations.

She is hungry.

He could help with that too. Madame Pince's face came into focus. "There now. How do you feel?"

"Better," he agreed. "Everything's in order." He brushed off his robe, the ordeal forgotten. He knew what needed to happen next. "We have work to do."


 



 


Chapter 13: 13. Hungry for Hearts
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A/N:  Hi again, and thanks for coming back!  I wanted to thank CambAngst, patronus charm and ladybirdflying for their extra special beta talents, as well as Writeyourheartout and 1917Farmgirl for the extra, extra eyes for this chapter.


I always want to hear your thoughts.  Thanks in advance!






Three o'clock in the morning, and the bar had run down to a standstill. Smeed clinked glasses together and shoved them to the back of the shelf to make room for more. The Leaky Cauldron was empty and still. If he broke a glass, it would probably shatter the silence so loudly that everyone in the rooms above would wake up. Not a soul wandered through at this hour of the night. Hannah had told him that when it got this late, he could put the sign on the door and lock up until morning, get some rest. For Smeed, the best part of the night began now.

Lately, his nights had been anything but good.

He'd spent the early mornings searching for the stranger that he'd tracked from the streets of London, thinking that whoever it was might have business with the magic users. Smeed had followed the stink to Diagon Alley, played Squib with the Innkeeper and bought himself room and board. It smelled strongest on the corner across the street. For days, he'd kept his eyes open to any clues. Too quickly, the smell faded, and he hadn't heard even a whisper.

Still, he grabbed his coat from the peg behind the bar and intended to do the same thing he'd done every night since landing in the gateway to the wizarding world: combing Diagon Alley for clues that had gone stone cold.

Then he smelled it. Clear. Distinct. The front bell rang, as the door opened and then quickly slammed shut with a swift breeze. Smeed took his time as he threaded his arms through his coat. He didn't appreciate theatrics, especially from someone old enough to know better.

"Burns," he said evenly as he straightened his collar.

He slowly turned to face the clean-shaven man, who could have been any normal, boring human that belonged more in the world outside the front doors of the Inn. The blazing white hair was the only remarkable feature about him - which Smeed suspected was purposefully stuck up in a strange pattern of spikes.

Burns' darting eyes landed on Smeed and lingered. "That coat."

"What of it?"

"It dates you."

Smeed tensed up defensively. "Only by about forty years."

"Not long enough to blend into the vintage look. You're glaringly out of style. Anyone with a brain could pick you out of a crowd."

"It's traditional," Smeed argued. "And it keeps me dry. This constantly wet weather is for ducks and madmen. Why are you scowling? Has the phrase gone out of style as well?"

"The Council is getting restless. I've been instructed to help move things along." He put a hand in his pocket and paused. "I can't show you here. There's too much magic in the air."

Smeed looked around at the empty tables. He was finished here anyway. The bar was closed. He took the fanged gerbil plaque and hung it on the door. When he closed it from the outside, it would only open for himself or the owner of the Leaky Cauldron. Neat trick, he'd decided. And convenient. Hannah was a good woman to provide him with a means of locking up since he had no magic of his own to set the wards.

A block away, Burns led him through several small London alleys and over a cross street. They shuffled up to a small establishment, nearly as old as Smeed's coat. Several letters were burnt out on the neon sign, one of them flickering dangerously, as if it would go dark at any moment.

Burns tapped on the glass with the tip of his umbrella. They heard a click from inside, and then the door opened, revealing a bright light and the smell of rising bread. A stout woman worked behind the counter with a white baker's hat and apron, her hair up in pins and a hairnet. Burns lifted two fingers for coffee and perused the items in the display case.

Smeed leaned over the glass, appreciating the traditional fare of scones and biscuits as much as the traditional baker's uniform. It was refreshing to see the classics, blueberry and lemon, with no unusual, trendy ingredients.

"Smeed, over here."

Burns had already paid for the coffee and picked a small booth for two in the back. By the time Smeed sat down, the woman was setting plates in front of them, with small squares of puffed pastry covered in so much icing sugar that they looked buried in a deep snow drift.

Smeed stared down at the plate and immediately mourned the lack of scones. "We're supposed to eat these? They're not even British!"

Burns was already pulling out a small, handheld electronic device and running his fingers along the screen. Smeed waited for him to pull out the requisite black cord and attach a keyboard - like the one he had stashed away - somewhere - he loathed using the thing. It was too cumbersome, and always needed charging.

"Two weeks ago, the police reported a severe case of anemia in the park not too far from here," Burns said, prodding at the screen that came to life with no back tangle of wires that Smeed could see. He stared, transfixed at the bright display of a map... an actual map that moved when Burns touched it.

"What sort of magic is this?" he whispered.

"Oh, come now!" Burns retorted. "Don't tell me you've never seen an iPad before!"

Smeed shook his head in disbelief.

Burns snorted. "Probably haven't upgraded your technology since you got that trench coat." At Smeed's silence, Burns scoffed. "Unbelievable! How does the Council even know where you are?"

"The Council knows where I am because I tell them. When I'm off assignment, I'm off the grid." That's what the post was for, he grumbled to himself. Smeed had been living off the grid even before there was a grid. "And stop making fun of my coat," he growled.

"There was no death," Burns said, still caressing the screen. "No one was turned. It's typical sloppy novice behavior, not like a rogue at all. Why are we still dallying about? "

"Because I tracked him into there," Smeed pointed to the little pub, barely a tiny blip on Burns' screen. "He crossed over into Diagon Alley, and the Council is worried over the Treaty. Your little box didn't tell you that?"

Burns grunted. "No. We identified two other strange happenings north of here. One at Rothley Station, and a small thing in Northallerton. The scent falls off a little beyond the edge of each town. I have people scouting the countryside, but they haven't found anything yet." He flicked a finger over the lit up screen. "No records, no names, no witnesses. If it's all the same person, he's more off the grid than you are. Are you certain you have found nothing?"

"There's been no sign of unusual activity in the Alley." Smeed leaned forward, breathing over the powdered icing. "But four days ago, I ran into the innkeeper's daughter. She saw straight through my Squib act."

"I always told you that you made a terrible squib."

"Burns, she saw me. I sensed it."

Burns looked up from his handheld contraption. "Only Thralls have that ability. Are you saying that someone's enthralled a wizard?"

"Didn't smell like a Thrall. But she was suffering like one. I gave her the tea on a hunch."

"Did it work?"

"She seemed more aware of me afterwards, but then she went back to that wizard school. There's no way a vampire could get into that place without permission. It's probably some experimental defense spell they're working on. Who knows? Have you spoken to the park victim?"

"Street rat. Didn't see a thing. Said he fainted - they pumped him full of carbohydrates and treated him for severe anemia."

Smeed instinctively licked his lips. Burns chuckled. "How long has it been since you've eaten?"

"A day or two." Not counting the meat pasties from the Leaky.

Something pinged on Burns' screen, and his face lit up. "Ahh! Just a moment. I have to take care of this." He tapped rhythmically on the screen and his face split into a grin. "Very nice." He spun the screen around to Smeed, who peered closely at the images popping up.

"Vintage quilts? That looks like the style from Queen Victoria."

"Not vintage. Heirloom. Brings in serious buyers. EBay never knew what hit them. Look at the ratings! If you get your hands on anything valuable while you're rubbing elbows with wizards, let me know and I'll turn it over for a sizeable profit. You'll be living large for months. Years, if you do it right."

Two more men came in, ordered the same small squares with icing sugar and two coffees, and huddled in the corner with hand-held devices that looked just like the one Burns was using.

"See? It's what regular people do."

Smeed watched one of the men pull out a large, thick envelope and hand it over to the other. There was a brief exchange of words, and then a smaller envelope changed hands as well. They could very well be private investigators too. They weren't like the P.I.'s he remembered, who drank blue-tinted beverages and let their moustaches grow thin and wide. He adjusted the lapels on his coat. "We need to find him, before the Ministry of Magic gets a clue."

Burns nodded. "Ministry's messy. Once they're involved, it will take decades to get them out of our business again."

"Not to mention the Council will hold us personally responsible."

Burns' face went whiter than it already was.

"I take it that wasn't in the email either." Smeed grinned. It was coming back to him, slowly. It had been years since he'd had to use his communication devices. That didn't mean he was wholly ignorant about it. "Get me a list of anything unusual, anything at all, in the area. He's not here, but we can't have our people roaming round the countryside for too long. We don't have the time for that. Too many of us show up in a place like this, so close to the Ministry's Headquarters, and we won't go unnoticed for long."

They left their plates and coffees untouched and left the bakery. In a nearby alley, Smeed smelled the most delicious thing, and he suddenly ached for something more filling than pastry.

Burns noticed. "How about we share a drink?" he asked. He nodded towards the street, where a bar had just closed, and several people stumbled out into the taxi queue. "Your choice," he said, indicating a young couple leaning against each other for support, giggling softly. "Spiced rum, or brandy?"

Smeed grinned in the lamplight, his incisors lengthening to sharp points. "Brandy gives me a headache. I'll take the one on the left."

 

***

Wren lay in her bed, surrounded by piles of pillows and blankets, as if her roommates were afraid she’d roll off the mattress and end up on the floor. She winced at the mess she'd made in Albus' room. He must think... Wren tightened her grip on Bunny. She couldn't imagine what he thought of her now.

Bunny butted his little head against her chin in protest. Wren relaxed her hand around the little rabbit. “Sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to squeeze too hard.” She vaguely remembered leaning on Albus for support.

She didn't care how she'd managed the stairs to her dorm. Wren drifted in and out of a strange haze. Her stomach was fine now, but every time she thought about getting up, it turned over with another wave of nausea.

Rose's hushed and irate voice cut through the lull in her head . "Albus, what's going on?"

"I think she got hit with one of James' pranks. I'm going to kill him!"

"Why would he do something to Wren?" Callie's voice drifted over her like a cloud.

"I don't see how it could be James, he wasn't even there," Rose said. "But did you see what happened to Mr. Summers? He passed out right in the middle of his own party. Madame Pince said he had too much punch. It smelled funny. I took one sip, and let Ian finish mine."

"Me too," Callie said. "We both had a bit of a headache afterwards, but we split a dose of Pepperup and it went away. Ian drank a lot of it, and you saw how he was, almost like he'd spiked his with Firewhisky or something. Did you have any, Albus?"

"No. I wasn't even in costume."

"Maybe Wren drank more than she should have. She was really nervous about going to the party."

Albus' anger deflated some. "Wren only had a little. I still think it's James. If he is responsible, this should help, I think."

Wren heard rustling and felt a cold snap against her wrist. Bunny shifted to the other side of her bed, away from the thing he'd put on her arm. She thought about asking for the tea, but she still didn't know what was in it. She'd never gotten the chance to check the Potions book.

"We'll take care of her." Callie's soothing tone came next to her ear. Something heavy shifted on her bed. How many people were sitting around her? Wren moved her head to the side to glance at the clock and felt her head pound with every tick of the hand, like there was a big lead box that banged against her skull . She managed to read the time through the blur. It was still an hour before curfew. She didn't want Albus to get into trouble because of her.

Albus' voice sounded closer. He must be leaning over her. "If she's not better in ten minutes, take her to the Hospital Wing."

Bunny sniffed at her cheek. The pain in her head had lessened enough for her to open her eyes a tiny bit, but she wasn't willing to try sitting up.

"You're awake!" Rose's face was a blur above her. "You two left the library right before Mister Summers passed out. I think he was drunk. Albus says that James tried to hex you. What's going on?"

"I need to lay here for a while. That's all." Wren gave up trying to say anything else. She lay absolutely still on her bed. If she didn't move, there was no pain.

Rose listed off a flurry of poisoning and hangover symptoms, all of which Wren didn't have. When Rose went to suggest stripping off the costume and checking for rashes, Wren distinctly heard Albus excuse himself from the room.

Callie's voice hovered over her. "We should let her rest, Rose. We'll check on you in a little while, Wren." Her bed curtains closed and she heard her roommates shuffle off to their sides of the room. Occasionally a muffled whisper floated over to her, but she was too tired to make out any words.

The little rabbit snuggled into the crook of her neck, and Wren finally drifted off. Some time in the night, she dreamed that she was standing in a large field of dandelions. The air was thick and heady with the scent of night blooming jasmine. The rush of the wind, the sweet smell of grass and the peaceful sunset made her dizzy with pleasure.

Wren smiled in her sleep and snuggled into the warmth of Bunny against her face. She felt a sharp prick against her neck, but was too weak to bat it away. Something pulled at her skin. Dizziness faded into sweet release.


Chapter 14: 14. Guarded Hearts
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Seven o'clock on Thursday morning, Rose Weasley was already pacing back and forth in front of her bed, occasionally stopping to shake the dust off the red and gold curtains. When Rose plotted, she cleaned.

Wren couldn't think of what had caused her to get so sick. Dillon had appeared to her in a disturbing dream, like a niggling reminder of something that she'd forgotten. He'd whispered to her, softly and insistently, about bringing people to the library - told her that he was coming soon.

It wasn't like a memory, more like a vision. A vision in the present tense, where things could happen while she was asleep and still be real. Wren couldn't wake up fast enough.

Rose reached for her hairbrush and started smoothing out her red mane of hair. Wren watched Rose deal with the unruly strands as they constantly stretched and tangled around itself.

"I felt fine before the punch. Maybe I'm allergic to something." Wren ran her fingers through her own hair. It was still a few inches longer than she usually kept it (which had nothing to do with Albus noticing that she hadn't cut it at her party or anything…).

"Albus was sure that it was one of James' pranks." Rose swished the brush through her hair again attempting to tame a stubborn curl. "This time, he's gone too far!"

Wren rubbed at the charmed wristband that Albus had put on her arm. She kept it on, even though she couldn't see how getting sick had been James' fault.

She picked up one of the curious tea packets and this time took the effort to read the instructions on the back. (brew first thing in the morning, and take every day as symptoms require) Right now, Wren would do just about anything to keep her sanity... and wow, that tea really cleared her head! She sat up straighter and blinked as the entire room brightened and came into sharp focus. Just to be on the safe side, Wren refilled her cup with hot water and steeped another packet. Then she started packing up her bag for her classes.

"Rose, have you ever heard of a version of Pepperup Potion that also erases nausea and increases focus?"

"Why? Is that what James gave you? Should we tell McGonagall?"

"Never mind," Wren said, too exhausted to explain that James had nothing to do with it.

"What were you two doing anyway?" Callie asked her. "You almost missed curfew."

Escaping from Ian's humiliating comments at the Book Club, Wren thought bitterly. She looked pointedly at Rose. "How's Sloan?"

Rose stopped put the brush down and began pinning her hair up out of her face. She deliberately adjusted the pins evenly on either side of her head and put on an earring. Then she reached for the other earring, staring steadfastly at the mirror to avoid Wren's gaze. It made it look like she was evading Wren's question, too.

Wren's gut rumbled nervously at Rose's silence. "What happened?" she asked softly, needing to know and not wanting to hear it all at the same time.

Callie sat next to Wren on her bed. "Just after you and Albus left, Madame Pince shut down the party and Ian asked Rose if she wanted to take a walk."

Rose turned around, scrunching up her face so the freckles lined up straight across her nose.

"It was going so well at first. He told me how marvelous my transfiguration of my headpiece was, that it looked identical to the description in the Highland Witches and Warlocks Manuscript. I was flattered that he'd noticed, and impressed that he'd taken the time to read the source material from the chapter, because not everybody does that sort of thing, you know? But when we got to the Ravenclaw Tower, what he really wanted was to take me up to his room."

Wren shot Callie a disbelieving look, and Callie mouthed back "I know!" Rose was too wrapped up in her story to notice.

"When I told him I'd rather stay in the common room for a bit, he had the nerve to get upset with me. As if I was one of those girls that just walks into a boy's room just because I'm all dressed up and he has a nice smile!"

Trudy came out of the shower and shook out her wet hair. "Ian's a tosser."

"So I told her next time I catch her staring at the back of his head, I'm going to remind her of his adorable leer," Callie joked.

Rose stuck out her tongue and picked up her books. "I'll see you at breakfast. I need to rethink my Ravenclaw plan, and figure out how to get back at James. Oh, and Wren, don't forget that there's a Quidditch open practice this afternoon. You're supposed to take pictures."

When the door slammed shut, Wren looked questioningly at Callie. "She has a plan?"

Callie shrugged. "Not anymore. So what's up with you and Albus?"

"What about me and Albus?"

"You were gone for hours, and in that costume...."

"Which was all your fault, and Rose's." Wren reminded her. "We went to his room and..."

"You went to his room?" Callie's unexpected shriek caught Wren off guard.

Trudy sat down to do up her socks and shoes. "What did you talk about?" she said to Wren's stricken face. "What? I'm curious too."

"Mostly about his rabbit," Wren said. "It wasn't a big deal. And we talked about his brother too."

"And then James hexed you," Callie concluded.

"No, that's not it. I started feeling bad in the library, which is why we left, and we ran into James in the corridor. We saw him again on the way here, which was a little strange but he didn't do anything." Wren double checked the film in her camera, and snapped the case shut.

"So," Callie said, snatching up her books from the bed. "Rose refuses to go to a boy's room because he's..."

"A tosser," Trudy supplied, while rummaging through her trunk and tossing Quidditch gear onto her bed. A beater's bat thunked against the bed post. Her helmet bounced off the bed and rolled to a stop in front of Callie's foot.

"And you end up in Albus' room for hours and won't tell us what you've been up to." Callie added, kicking Trudy's helmet back to her bed.

"We talked," Wren said, exasperated. She ignored the small voice inside her that was still clamoring for her to tell them that maybe she did still have a little crush on Albus, but what was the point if he didn't want things to change?

Callie shrugged and left the room, but Trudy leaned back from her trunk to look at Wren as she fingered her gloves thoughtfully. She was staring so intently at her that Wren was afraid she might burst into flames from the glare.

"I might have believed that 'friends' line last year."

Wren looked wildly at Trudy. "We're just friends!"

"Suit yourself." She pointed disgustedly at Bunny.

"By the way, your rabbit snores."

 

***


"Albus, we've got to get closer."

"Can't. He'll know it's us. He knows where everyone is all the time."

"Then why are we even bothering hiding behind this wall hanging like a pair of sotted tarts? What kind of spell does he use for that? Can we block it?"

"No, Scorpius. It can't be blocked. That's why we're here."

"Shove over, mate. You're squatting on my peppermint toads. What's the use, if we can't block it?"

"Remember that parchment you nicked last time? It's charmed."

"That smelly scrap is his big advantage? I thought I gave it to you already."

"That's the one. But he managed to nick it back when I was helping Wren back from our room last night."

"That angly scratter thinks he's so... hold on. You had Wren in our room? Where was I when all the fun was going on?"

"Off somewhere with Platt, I guess. You completely missed all the fun of me cleaning the sick off my shoes... and you should have the house elves double wash your socks. Wren says she's sorry, by the way."

"You got Wren drunk and brought her up to our room?"

"No! She was sick already, and... look, there's Lori coming by to chat him up just like you said, and she's even got her pet ferret wrapped around her neck."

"Right on schedule. Just like I told her. Time to... Merlin, that thing stinks up the place!"

"Never mind her stupid ferret, look! The map is sticking out of his back pocket. This is too easy. Wait a minute. What did you tell Lori?"

"No need to panic, mate. I only told her that James hadn't decided who he was going to ask out for the first Hogsmeade weekend this year."

"You don't know that."

"Yeah, but she doesn't know that I don't know. Oh, and I told her that he especially likes a girl who takes charge, who isn't afraid to round him up a bit. The more she harasses him, the better her chances. That sort of thing. See? Look how she just walks right up to him like he's hers already!"

"You're a right nutter, but this is brilliant!"

"That's why you love me, Al. You could learn from this. Next time, just get Wren some flowers instead of getting her sloshed..."

"Scorp, I didn't get Wren drunk! It was..."

"Oi, here they come! When she circles him round, I'll create a diversion and you nick the scrap."


***

 


“Hello, are you even here?” Rose waved in front of Wren’s face as Charms class started. “Maybe we should have taken you to the Hospital Wing last night.”

“I told you, I’m fine,” Wren insisted, shooing away the annoying hand.

Her mum's letter from breakfast was stashed in Wren's bag, still unopened. Wren had been too nervous to read it before class, not wanting to remember and deal, and probably face more bad news about Gran. The woman who had taught Wren to be kind and compassionate, and then had made that horrible decision... and then never told her...

“Yeah, we’ve heard that one before,” Callie muttered on her other side.

Wren sighed. She'd tried bringing up what was going on at home to Callie and Rose at breakfast, but all she got from it was pats on the back and a command to cheer up, neither of which was what she needed.

Behind her, Scorpius let out an exclamation of shock, and Wren forced herself not to turn around in her seat again to look. It was probably just Albus, shooting off another perfect charm.

“Did you even hear what I was asking you?” Rose went on, as if her words were more important than the lesson, not that Wren had been paying attention to either. “Are you coming this afternoon to the practice?”

“Yes, I'm coming." She'd broken down and drank the tea again, even though she still hadn't had the chance to figure out what was in it.

A loud crack made whole class jump as the table next to them exploded into tiny pieces. Wren and Callie ducked as flying bits of wood sprayed around the room. Ian stood in the middle of where his desk had been with a dazed expression on his face. He blinked a few times, shook his head, and then scowled at his snickering classmates.

"You've been out of it lately, Wren," Rose said, picking bits of table out of her hair. "We've been worried about you."

Wren stood up defiantly, still not completely over Rose's blow off and the constant chatter about the Ravenclaws. Rose didn't want to hear about the hard stuff if it didn't involve her personally.

"I'm not the one you need to be worried about," she said. "Maybe you should go ask Ian what his problem is.”

Rose snorted. “He’s…” she looked in Ian’s direction and fell silent.

The girls watched as Ian frantically whisked his wand, swirling bits of splintered wood into a small, funnel-like tornado looking thing, but none of the pieces were re-joining together. In seconds, the whole pile fell to his feet. When he tried again, his wand sputtered and let out a little wisp of black smoke. The professor ran over and gave him a few choice words, which made him shrink a couple of inches in height, or maybe it was finally his ego deflating. Then the bell rang and Ian swayed unsteadily to his feet.

“Stop staring, Rose. Ian's a toad, remember?” Callie said.

"Not him." Rose pointed to the boy next to Ian, still picking splinters out of his sandy hair. "What do you know about Charles McGhee?"

Callie shrugged. "He's in Ravenclaw."

Rose turned to Wren. "Can you tell me anything else that the whole school doesn't already know?"

Charles McGhee moved away from the wreckage and stood at Ian's side while Professor Ackerly fixed their table with a powerful Sticking Charm. He'd barely said three words to her last year, and she vaguely recalled a brief visit to the Ravenclaw Common Room when Ian had brought his roommate some liniment for a peculiar rash he'd developed from Potions.

"He's quiet, and I think he's allergic to salamander blood."

"I can work with that." Rose looked determinedly at the boy who sat alone and unaware at the battered table next to theirs.

Callie gasped. "Wait, Rose. What are you doing?"

"I've got a different plan." Before Wren or Callie could stop her, Rose launched herself out of her chair and over to an unsuspecting Charles.


** *


In the corridor outside Ancient Magical History, Wren punched at one of the jammed knobs on her camera. Somewhere between Potions and now, her anger at Rose had faded to mild irritation. In spite of having given Rose a hard time about the Quidditch photography job, Wren couldn't wait to try out the new action features. Her lens gave her twice the capacity for capturing the players in mid-flight. She shook the camera in frustration. None of that was going to happen if the knob was stuck.

Wren clicked the flash off and adjusted another knob that controlled the zoom.

She looked up, searching for a good test shot and frowned. A group of sixth year Hufflepuff girls had camped across the corridor from her. They didn't even have Ancient Magical History. Wren tried not to think about why they were there and focused back on her stuck knob.

Photography was almost like brewing potions, minus the standing around for hours waiting for something to happen... actually, it was a lot like that too. But then afterwards, the standing around paid off in a big way. When Wren developed a great picture, it was like the parchment absorbed the magic behind the moment.

She pointed her camera at the students passing by on their way to classes. Albus came into view a little ways down the corridor. The Hufflepuff girls quieted down as he approached and hid their smiles behind their hands. Wren tracked him through the lens until he was standing right in front of her.

She had to put the camera down to see him properly.

"Are you still feeling alright?" His eyes fell on the wristband that she still wore. "No more dizziness or getting sick?"

"No, I'm fine." If fine meant completely mortified from last night...

Albus' confused look smoothed over. "I'll see you this afternoon at the Quidditch practice?"

"Of course. Gotta work out the kinks in my camera," she said brightly, eternally grateful that he hadn't brought anything up about last night. Even though he was too close up, she raised the camera up to her face and peered at him through the viewfinder.

Half of Albus smirked at her.

Click.

Wren lowered her camera as the group of Hufflepuff girls moved on down the corridor, whispering and giggling. They'd traveled like a herd to her Advanced Charms class right after breakfast too. Wren tensed up just thinking about it.

Why did they have to act so obviously stupid and follow him around like orphaned pygmy puffs?

Wren fisted her camera strap and yanked it off her neck. It was going to turn out like last year, she just knew it. Eventually, Albus would look around and find someone else to spend his spare time with, and it wasn't going to be her.

Face it. Last night, she'd thrown up all over his shoes.

Maybe she'd try harder to get along with his next girlfriend, as long as he didn't pick a complete fangirling idiot. No, really, she told the protesting butterflies that churned her lunch around uncomfortably. If Albus truly liked someone, she should be able to find something to like about her too. Wren eyed the Hufflepuff girls as they ran to catch the moving staircase to the floor below. As long as it wasn't any of them.

Wren whirled away from the moving staircase and ran smack into the back of someone trying to get through the classroom door. At that moment, the knob came free and the flash went off. Wren blinked back dark dots from her vision.

“Sorry," she muttered to the other person who'd also been momentarily blinded. But when the little black dots cleared from her vision and Ian's face appeared, she wasn't sorry at all.

As Wren tried to come up with something derogatory to say about his intellect, Ian squinted and rubbed at his eyes, red-rimmed and glassy. He looked like he'd hardly slept all night.

Serves him right, getting plastered and then being a total prat to Rose. How could someone with his lack of concern and personality have been chosen as a prefect? They could have just picked an extra student from another year. Or another House.

Wren wound up the flash to full strength and snapped straight into his scowling face.

“Oops!” she said as Ian staggered back. "I guess the flash works after all."


Chapter 15: 15. Heart Tracks
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Nate looked up from his notes as Wren put her books down on their table.

"Hi?"

"This is still my seat, right?" Wren asked.

"As long as you want it."

After almost two weeks of classes, Nate still acted surprised when she sat down next to him. Maybe it was because Wren hadn't done a very good job of pretending not to stare at Albus' table where the rest of her friends sat... did she really do it that often? Rose and Callie waved at her from across the room, even though they'd spent all morning practically attached at the elbow. She could surely survive an hour a day without them.

Wren waved back and then resolutely sat down (in her seat) next to Nate. There would be no running out on her History partner. Not for the term, anyway.

Nate threw his notes on the table next to hers. "I heard Summers fainted last night. Must have been some party."

At the blackboard, Mr. Summers slashed out a series of instructions, looking as white as the chalk in his hand. He offhandedly announced the topic for the day, briefly recapped the lesson from their last class, and then fell into the chair behind his desk. Within seconds, soft snores came from behind the magazine propped in front of his face, leaving the students to follow the lesson plan on their own.

“Page forty-three. I read that last night," Nate said, flipping his book open. Wren's friends at the other table had already started a heated debate about the topic - mostly Rose and Scorpius from the sound of it. Oddly, the table next to theirs was very quiet.

"No Sloan today,” Nate commented. “Sure makes class run smoother.”

“He wasn’t feeling well in Charms. Or out in the hallway just now, either.

"How do you know?"

"I have a practiced eye." She tapped her camera case for emphasis. "I notice a lot of things."

"Really," Nate said in a tone that clearly said he didn't think so. "Maybe it's just me, but you people miss a lot of things that are happening around you."

Wren stopped smiling. "Fine," she said. "I bet you a Honeydukes chocolate bar that you can't tell me something I don't know about the people in this room."

"Easy odds." Nate scanned the room. "She," he pointed to the girl in the front row, looking puzzled at the scrawl on the chalk board, "has needed glasses since last year but is afraid of how they'll look on her. He..." Nate pointed to the boy sitting opposite from the Ravenclaw group, "needs to eat more fiber."

"Clearly," Wren said as the boy scooted uncomfortably in his seat, adjusting his Hufflepuff tie to cover for the extra movement.

"And he..." Nate pointed over Wren's shoulder to the table where her friends sat, "has the biggest crush on you."

Wren spun around in her chair just in time to catch Albus averting his eyes, but he hadn't been quick enough. She squashed the bubbly thoughts that rose from somewhere they shouldn't have and turned back to Nate.

"You don't get any points for the fiber guy. You'd know, since you're his roommate. And the glasses thing is obvious. Anyone who has eyes can see her squinting all the time. But you're definitely wrong about Albus."

She scanned the room, looking anywhere except at Nate (and definitely not at Albus,, because Nate would notice that immediately). Her eyes landed the Hufflepuff boy across the room, whose face was now buried in his textbook. "He's in your House. How come you don't sit together? "

Nate tapped his nose. "Fiber."

Mr. Summers snorted behind his magazine, and the quiet chatter around the room came to a halt. Then when the deep, rhythmic breathing started up again, the class resumed their soft murmuring.

Page forty-three suddenly shifted out of focus in front of her, replaced with flashes of Bunny all alone. Bunny’s water dish having a bit of hay kicked into it. Bunny running low on pellets…

“…the essay…” Nate was saying.

Wren looked up at him and blinked away the rabbit thoughts. "I'm sorry. You were saying?"

“You haven't started the assignment," he said, annoyed like it was part of his score too... which it was, actually. Then he peered closer at her. "Are you …”

“Fine,” Wren said. She was definitely fine, since she'd had two cups of the special tea that morning (three, actually). The headaches were gone, so she should be able to finish the lesson without worrying over Bunny for a little while longer. But as soon as she got out her parchment to make notes, the bell rang for class to end.

Wren looked frantically around at the rest of the students, who herded up to the teacher's desk to turn in their assignments. She wiped off the nub of her quill, that hadn't even touched the parchment during the whole class. "I'm sorry, Nate. I'll get this done tonight and hand it in first thing tomorrow. He can't take off too many points, right?"

"Guess not," Nate said, not smiling.

Another flash of Bunny in her head made her squirm in her seat. Wren could feel the pull, an inexplicable need to go back up to her room right now. She sank deeper into her seat, so tired that she didn't want to get up.

“I could walk you over to Madame Pomfrey,” Nate offered. "The Hospital Wing is just down the hall."

Wren shook herself and straightened up. "That's alright. I need to go lie down, and then I'll be fine."

"Or maybe Potter wants to take you instead," Nate suggested.

Wren mustered up the energy to stand as Albus and Scorpius made their way across the room. Nate was wrong about Albus, of course. Wren comforted herself with the fact that he'd specifically said that Albus was the one with the crush, and not her. She'd prove it to him right now that nothing was going on.

"Bye, guys," Wren said to them casually, the way a friend would. Scorpius did his natural head bob thing, which was Malfoy for 'I recognize you but I won't put the effort into acknowledging it'.

Wren's face strained with a plastic smile when Albus stopped in front of her. "Wren, what's wrong?"

"I'm just tired, "Wren said, giving him a quick half-hug. They used to do that all the time, right? If Nate hadn't offered, she would have asked Albus to walk with her. But it was better this way, because that would have looked like something. She had to prove to someone that her life was still in control, that things weren't weird and wrong and she wasn't so completely exhausted for no reason.

A chorus of laughter rang out from the corridor, signaling the return of the Hufflepuff girls and the familiar churn in Wren's stomach. Albus didn't look like he was enjoying their attention any more than Wren did, but Nate just didn't know Albus like she did. Last year, Albus had always been on about "what do you think about her", or "she seems like a good one", but never once had he asked "how about you". Besides, if he told those girls to go away, he knew they would. But he hadn't yet, and that looked more like something than anything he'd ever said or done to Wren.

No, she wasn't jealous, that wasn't what this was. Or maybe it was... just a little... But then there was Nate, watching her being friends with her best friend, and Wren didn't want to give up on showing him that she knew her friend better than he did.

Wren stepped away from Albus, giving him space to leave. "I'll see you later. Nate is walking me back to the common room."

Nate gave her a questioning look and Albus sort of stood there and stared at her while she ignored the both of them and finished packing her bag. By the time she was ready to go, Albus had gone, and Nate was still looking at her funny. Several times on the way to the Gryffindor common room, he opened his mouth to say something. But each time he ended up shutting it again. When they got to the portrait of the Fat Lady, he waited until she stepped inside, and then he just shook his head at her in disbelief.

Wren didn't ask. She figured that she'd gotten her point across pretty well. There. See? Friends. If she could prove it to Nate, the guy with the epic observation skills, then it had to be true.


***


Less than half an hour later, Wren woke up in her bed and patted Bunny's snuggling head beside her. Everything in her body said to stay and lie in a bit more, but the Quidditch practice was starting soon. Reluctantly, she rolled to her feet and double checked Bunny's food and water.

“I knew it,” she whispered sleepily, brushing the stray bedding out of the water dish and tidying up the hay. Then she lowered Bunny into his hutch and gave him one last pat.

Wren quickly sorted through her photography equipment for an extra handful of film canisters, and slung her camera strap over her head. "See you later, Bunny," she said softly.

Wren was closing the door when Bunny shimmered. A glowing sphere formed around him and brightened. Wren looked on in horror as the light faded. The hutch was empty.

"Bunny!" she cried out, but then a movement by her feet caught her attention. She scooped him up gratefully. "How did you..."

Bunny sniffed at the crook of her arm and Wren fell silent. A sense of calm washed over her and she forgot all about the light.

“Of course you can come with me. I don't know why I hadn't thought of that before!"

Callie and Rose saw her heading down the stairs as they were coming up.

"Wren!" Rose called out. "Wren, wait! I'm sorry about earlier. Can we just sit down and..."

But Wren didn't want to hear. She kept walking out of the Gryffindor common room with Bunny.

"Come on," Rose said to Callie. "Guess she doesn't want to talk after all."


**


For some strange reason, Wren wasn't worried about leaving her little rabbit alone under the stands of the Quidditch pitch.

"Everything's fine," she whispered as she walked through the tall grass on the field. All the nervousness about being the Quidditch photographer had miraculously vanished, replaced by the thrill of putting her new equipment to the test. Wren noted the positions of the hoops for each side. She knew how to play the game, every witch and wizard at Hogwarts could barely get through a day at Hogwarts without Quidditch coming up at some point. But she'd never been to a Hogwarts practice before and wasn't sure where she should set up for the action shots that she had in her mind.

A swift whooshing came from her left. "Wren!" Albus dismounted and squinted at her through the afternoon sun. "After class, you left me to deal with them all by myself," he said.

Wren didn't actually leave Albus. As she recalled, he'd been the one to leave the classroom first, thankfully taking the girls out of her earshot. She didn't think she could stand another day of seeing them follow him around, but if that was what he wanted...

"Did you tell them to leave you alone?" Wren asked, scanning the field.

"Oh," Albus said. "I didn't think about that."

"What were you thinking, then?" she asked.

"I thought that if you and I walked together, they wouldn't try to come up and talk to me. But you abandoned me! I would have gone seven flights of stairs in the wrong direction with you just to get away from them."

Wren's stomach fluttered. This was definitely a different thing... even though it sounded like he only wanted to use Wren as an excuse... but should that even mean anything?

Come on, Wren, she coached herself. That thing at the end of Magical History was a nothing thing. Wren pushed her thoughts back to Quidditch and photography and the afternoon sun that would ruin all her shots if she stood on the wrong side of the stadium.

"Which goals will you use for practice?" she asked.

Albus shielded his eyes with a gloved hand. "Dunno. We'll run the field for a while, and then line up for shots and drills."

Just like that, the subject was dropped and things were easy again. Wren half-listened to how the captains had planned to get all four houses to cooperate without killing each other on the field, half mesmerized by the afternoon breeze. A combination of leather padding, freshly scuffed up dirt and clover blooms blew all around her.

"...we can't help sizing each other up. Last year, it turned into a huge pissing contest..."

She'd missed half of what Albus was saying, but he was entirely focused on the field, counting heads and murmuring to himself about drills and plays. His eyes were glued to a large group of players forming under the Ravenclaw stands.

Relieved that he hadn't noticed her zoning out, she tugged on his arm to get his attention. "I guess they're ready to start. Where should I set up?"

Albus pointed up to the Professor's viewing box. "That's where the photographer was last year."

Wren squinted at the box situated in the center of the field. That was why all of last year's photographs had looked so flat. He had been too lined up with the action.

She weighed the advantages of shooting at certain angles before she made her decision about where to go for the shots. Looking over at Albus, she made another decision.

"Is your rabbit still missing?"

"Yeah," Albus said. "It seems to like the Restricted Section. At least that's where it is when I look for it on... when I track it down."

"With a spell?" Wren asked. "You're tracking it with magic?"

"Sort of," Albus said.

"Bunny loves sweet grass and pellets. Maybe if we put out some of his favorite things, we can lure your rabbit out."

"Which is how, exactly?"

Wren thought about Bunny and the light and how he always ended up back in his hutch, no matter what. "All we have to do is give him a reason to come out, and he'll get out the same way he got in."

Albus nodded. "Sounds like a plan. When do you want to do this?"

"Are you free after dinner tonight?"

Albus frowned. "History essay with the group. Friday after class?"

Wren sighed. "Runes project. And the library is closed Friday night. What about Saturday?"

"I've got a prefect meeting at five, and then..." Albus stopped mid-thought. "Nothing after eight o'clock."

Wren grinned. "Great! We'll lure it out then."

A shrill whistle pierced the air, causing the remaining few players to hustle to the Ravenclaw tower where the four captains were organizing the warm-up exercises. Wren pointed to the opposite end of the field. "I think I'll try that tower first." No one liked sitting there during the game because of the limited view, but if that's where the drills were aimed, it made sense to sit as close to the goal hoops as possible.

"You're taking this photography thing to a whole new level."

"That's the idea."

As Albus kicked off to join the warm-up, Wren broke into a jog to the nearest set of stairs and climbed to the top.

The players started lifting off from the ground as Wren hooked an arm around the guardrail at the top of the stands. Her camera wedged between her elbow and her forehead as she focused it in on the moving targets.

It was almost like shooting birds in flight back at Gran's place. Wren suddenly got a vivid image of the cottage in her mind. She shooed it away and clicked the shutter at three brooms whizzing laps around the lower field.

The players had started lining up in threes on the ground, and Wren adjusted her position. It was a common drill that Trudy talked about all the time. Wren lifted up her camera and set up for her first shot.

Her toes flexed inside her trainers at a sudden familiar sensation, like grit had gotten inside her socks.

Wren tried to focus on the zooming brooms in the viewfinder, but the image blurred. She adjusted her dials quickly and tried again on the next pass. Several times, the brooms flew by and instead of taking the shot, Wren's vision got knocked out of focus. She pulled the camera away from her face, squeezed her eyes shut for a few seconds, and then tried again.

This time, instead of just the brooms, Wren saw a faint image overlaid on top of the action on the field. She focused on the second image. If she could identify it, maybe she could get it to go away.

All of a sudden, the Quidditch pitch disappeared, and Wren found herself staring through her camera at the lake behind her old home. It felt like a memory, but it looked so real.

Wren instinctively tilted her head when the memory's angle shifted up at the animal cages that held the swallows and a small squirrel with a gash in its eye.

The skewed angle was from the ground, looking up. Soft, gentle arms enveloped her... being cuddled by a short-haired girl and being placed into a clean, empty cage with alfalfa sprouts and hay... sniffing into the cool night air as the moon rose over the lake...

The images shifted to dirt and grass and large wooden braces at the base of a rickety structure, covered with Hufflepuff colors of yellow and black.

Somehow, she knew exactly where her little rabbit was cowering under the stands, almost as if she was looking through his eyes instead of her own.

"Bunny?"

She recoiled at the brush of dirt kicked up under the stands, frightened, skittery, and unsettled. The fliers had reached the goal hoop and split in three different directions. They were now on their way back to the starting position and lining up for the next drill.

Wren drew back from her camera. She'd completely missed the shot.


**


"Is she out there?" Scorpius pulled his padding up over his arms and then threw a large plain shirt on top of it all. McGonagall had expressly forbidden anyone from wearing house emblems at school-wide open practices, but it didn't stop the second year hopefuls from tying house colored scarves to their arms to get noticed by the captains.

"Yeah, she's taking pictures of everyone."

"I meant her, not her," Scorpius said, with a tetchy twist of his head.

"Rose? I think you should focus on one thing at a time." Albus got a jab in his ribs from Scorpius as Serena passed by in her gear, giving Scorpius a wink on her way out. He wondered if she was really Scorpius’ type, or if Scorpius didn’t care what type she was, as long as she kept him from getting bored.

"Is Serena really in on your plan?"

"Didn't ask," Scorpius said. "She'll do it because it's me. What’s not to love?"

"You want me to name the first thirty things off the top of my head? First off, you're supposed to be dating her, not using her to get my cousin's attention. She's going to slaughter you afterwards."

"It’s a chance I'm willing to take. Did you see her out there, or not?"

"Yeah, she's there." Albus ignored his friend's wicked grin and kicked off to line up for the next practice round.


***


On the field, Albus focused on the drills, getting the rare opportunity to fly side by side with players from other teams. He gauged speed and agility of the Gryffindor beside him as they rounded the turn. As much as he didn't want to admit it, Gryffindor had a lot of talent in their House this year. He watched as a Quaffle hurled past him and then looked to see who had thrown it with such a tight spin.

"Lily has a mean pass," he called to James as they switched places in the drill.

"Lil' sis might be good with a Quaffle, but she's a nightmare at following plays," James called back grudgingly

Albus ticked off another reason to be thankful he hadn't been placed in Gryffindor with his siblings. He swooped low enough to catch James' attention and called back to him, "Not my House, not my problem."

As he finished his lap and flew back to the starting line-up, Rose's little brother was kicking off with two other fourth years, who'd wrapped yellow ribbons to their brooms. They all flew off in a cloud of dust, and Albus watched him score the hoop without even trying. Hufflepuff was a load of fools if they didn't consider Hugo for a spot.

The Slytherins had some solid prospects as well. Serena flew straight and focused, but her drill partner was too intent on showing off his flying stunts and missed the shot completely. When they got to the ground, she jumped off her broom and marched over to him, waving her arms madly.

Albus did another run and slowed down long enough to find Wren in the Ravenclaw stand at the first bend of the stadium. He waved, but she seemed distracted... or focused on the goal post.

He watched her zoom in on the players on their brooms, moving the camera as they flew, tracking their every move. She looked like a professional already. And his lens was a part of it.

His lens. (Well, hers actually, but he deserved a little credit for giving it to her). While she was taking pictures, she looked happy. Carefree. Like the Wren he'd known forever.

“Here it comes,” he said to himself Scorpius swerved to miss a poorly aimed Bludger. Then another Bludger seemed to come out of nowhere and grazed Scorpius' shoulder, knocking him into a spin. Albus kept his eyes on the spinning broom as he flew closer to Wren. At the last moment, Scorpius pulled himself up and skidded across the grass to a full stop. Albus was close enough to Wren to hear her gasp as the crowd from the nearest stadium seats rushed to the field.

It looked exactly how Scorpius had planned it. Dangerous and stupid. She snapped a tentative picture of the scene and then turned to him frantically. “Aren’t you going down there?”

“Nah. He's just doing it for the attention," Albus said, parking his broom and climbing into the stands with Wren.

"That was on purpose? He's an idiot!"

"That's what I told him."

Wren took more pictures of the milling crowd. “Rose is down there,” she said. “Oh, and Serena. This looks bad.”

“Let me see.” Wren handed over the camera and Albus got a close up of the two girls hovering over Scorpius, and then Rose backing off with a sour look.

“That’s gotta be awkward.”

“Yeah.”

In the changing rooms, Albus caught Scorpius limping over to a bench, nursing his new, self-inflicted wounds. His arm was wrapped up in a bandage, and he propped his swollen ankle up on his Quidditch gear bag.

Albus didn't understand how what he'd done was worth the trouble.

Serena came up behind them and helped him get a sling over his neck. Then she angrily tossed him a set of crutches. "Pomfrey wants to see you straight away," she said. "Better take care of that grass burn, or it'll leave a scar."

"So, I'll see you later?" Scorpius asked her with a grin.

"I don't think so," she said, and walked out in a huff.

"You're an idiot, Scorpius. You should just go and talk to Rose if that's what you want."

"Yeah? How's that strategy working for you?"

Albus punched Scorpius in the un-slung arm. "At least we're on speaking terms. See you in an hour."

"Sure," Scorpius said. "Then we can not talk about the fact that Wren isn't any closer to being your girlfriend than Rose is willing to even speak to me."

Scorpius winced as Albus punched him again, and limped out of the changing rooms. Albus pushed his way to the showers as a jumble of players came out.


At least, he repeated to himself and kicked the wall. When he tried to flirt with her, she'd ended up all weird, and it had taken him a solid week to come back from that. He wasn't going to mess things up with her again.

He tossed his gear down on the floor in front of the Slytherin showers, and suddenly had a brief bout of panic. Albus patted around in his bag, and breathed a sigh of relief that the map was still there.

He threw off his clothes and grabbed the soap.

After a quick shower, he reached for the towel, but his hand grabbed at empty air. Albus peeked out and found his towel hanging at a stall two pegs over. He swiped for it, trying not to get out of the stall, but it flew off the peg and landed on the floor ten feet away.

Albus fumed, dripping wet in the shower stall as James' cackling echoed through the changing rooms.

"See you later, little brother!" James called, his voice fading out onto the pitch. Albus listened for evidence of anyone else around before he ventured out of the shower stall to catch his towel.

It took several tries, but finally, after sliding across the wet floor in his bare feet, he caught hold of the edge of the towel. As soon as he touched it, it fell limp in his hand. Albus wrapped it around his waist quickly before it decided to change its mind.

He'd been careful all summer, and James had still gotten him. But how?

Albus left puddles of water everywhere he stepped and grappled for his wand as it rolled away. He tried his pants, his shoes, but every time he grabbed for something, it scooted out of his reach.

Finally, he had enough. "Accio wand!" The Summoning Spell worked. Within seconds, Albus broke the enchantment, grabbed his anti-jinx wristbands and searched the locker room. He found nothing out of the ordinary until he got to the shower stall. As soon as he stepped near the shower stall, his wristbands vibrated so much that his arms started shaking.

James had jinxed the soap. But what else had he done?

All of Albus' clothes were still there. His Quidditch gear, the wristbands... James hadn't taken anything. What would he have to take, except for... Albus grabbed his pants and rummaged through the empty pockets. He searched his Quidditch bag too, his socks, everything.

Albus scanned the tiled floor, the pile of wet towels, the mosaic snake border along the shower room walls with their open fanged mouths mocking him.

The map was gone.



 


 





 



A/N:  Happy Easter everyone!  Thank you for all the wonderful comments and guesses about Dillon and Smeed!   

Special thanks to Writeyourheartout for the Aunt Muriel's whiskers line! 

As usual, all comments are welcomed.  It's the only way I get any better!  Oh, and I also respond to PMs over on the forums, if you want to discuss... things...

Thanks again for reading!  Deviled eggs to anyone who cares to leave a note in the little box down there. 

 
 


Chapter 16: 16. Cross My Heart
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Alohomora.

James entered the empty classroom as the door swung open. It hadn't even been locked, but why use his hands when he could use magic?

He whispered "Colloportus," and the door squelched itself shut.

Alone at last, he pulled out the prize he'd taken back from his brother in the Quidditch changing rooms, the charmed parchment that his father had handed down to him.

James unfolded the parchment, and tapped it with his wand. "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good." That bit always made him giggle-snort. But when the parchment revealed a magical map of the entire Hogwarts castle, complete with names of students and professors, and everyone else, all moving about the corridors and passages, James was once again all business.

He studied the magical map, watching Mister Summers jaunt down the same hall that he was in. James could hear the clang of a pail and mop following the part-time caretaker, and the squish and swipe as the mop scrubbed double time up and down the hall. The pail and mop didn't show up on the map, but James had seen it enough times to know from the sound of things what was happening. On the parchment, little labeled feet of the students padded around the main corridors. Sometimes an animal or two showed up, but only if they were in motion. James wondered if he could alter the spells on the fabled marauder's map to show items of interest... but the magic was old and complex, and he didn't want to disturb the fine mystical balance of the thing. His father would never forgive him for wrecking a family heirloom.

After checking that Summers had moved on and no one else was in his hallway, James set up his books and his parchment, and his Hands-Free Quill (he didn't want to get a cramp during hours-long writing sessions). He uncorked a small tube, swallowed the gritty potion and stuck the quill in his left ear. When the nub became too hot to bear, he set it on the parchment and watched it go.

It wasn't cheating. Those were his thoughts on the subject, and his words... his rhythm and phrasing. But with Uncle George's new potion, James didn't have to be consciously present during the essay portion of his homework. James drank another potion, this one with strange lumps, chewy, like raisins... he hoped... and took out a second quill and set it to writing his assignment for Transfiguration.

Satisfied that his essays were literally writing themselves, James grabbed the map and resumed his scheming.

The year was going swimmingly, but there were still a few hitches to his plan. For one, his little brother had been constantly targeting his map. James had to admit that he'd underestimated Albus. At that very moment, he spotted Albus and Scorpius on the floor above him, doing Merlin knew what. He'd gotten the feeling that Albus was tracking him, even without the map, but he hadn't figured out exactly how he was managing it.

James chuckled, wondering how long it had taken Albus to catch his towel. It was the first time in months he'd gotten one over on his brother, who'd somehow become near un-prankable, forcing James to switch tactics and come at the problem sideways. If James had learned anything at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it was that pranking a genius wizard like Albus, meant thinking beyond the pointy hat. The soap trick had been a stroke of inspiration.

After he'd convinced the Potions Master to let him use the lab after hours, bribed Uncle George to give him some Slippery Powder in exchange for his mum's fudge (he'd work out the details of that exchange over Christmas Break - how hard could it be for her to make an extra batch?) commandeered a pack of new soap bars from the House Elves (when they weren't looking) and snuck into the Slytherin shower room to charm one of the stalls to only let his brother in...

Yeah, after all that, the rest was easy.

The other complication he'd run into was that his best friend's little sister had taken to relentlessly following him around the castle on her off hours. It had become more irritating than that time he'd accidentally loosed the doxies in the dorm room.

He wished Lori would find someone else to fan girl over. She was the same age as his little sister, but unlike Lily, who had grown into some style, Ford's little sister thought that pigtails and popping gum still looked cute.

James was startled out of his head by the doorknob jangling. Before he could check the map, he heard a muffled "Alomahora," outside, and then, like a new whisker on his great-Aunt Muriel, there she was.

"Lori!" James plastered a fake smile on his face and moved swiftly in front of the two busy quills, grabbing his Transfiguration text for added effect. He shoved the charmed map off the table and it folded in on itself as it hit the floor. He bent over to retrieve it and popped back up in front of the scribbling quills.

"Hi, James."

"Mischief managed," he whispered, tapping the map, and the parchment swiftly blanked out. James pretended to read his textbook, partially hiding the folded parchment in between the pages. "How'd you find me?"

"You came here yesterday," Lori said innocently, her pet ferret draped around her neck and a lolly hanging out of her mouth.

"You were following me?"

"Are you impressed?"

James tried to smile politely. Ford would hang him upside down for a week if he callously told her to piss off. He probably shouldn't insult her stinking ferret either. Merlin, she was such a pain in his arse.

The kid stared at him with her moon cow eyes, while James frantically stuffed the map in one of his back pockets and rearranged himself in front of the scribbling quills.

Lori's eyes widened and she rocked back on her heels, almost looking cute. She shuffled closer to him. "James?"

Alarmed, James moved forward, trying to keep her from getting closer to the table behind him. What was she doing? He could feel her small fingers on his back. Was she trying to give him a hug?

Had she seen the quills? Would a Confundus Charm be out of line?

"Uh..." he backed away from her. "Personal space, Lori."

She flushed. "Sorry. I got you biscuits. Ginger snaps. Your favorite." She said it all in a rush.

"That's er... nice." How'd she know his favorite biscuit? Was she stalker-girl now too, recording every hint of his conversations in a secret diary somewhere in her room?

But wait, she didn't look like she was holding biscuits. "Where are they?"

"Oh," she seemed startled. "Down in my room. I'll go get them, if you're going to be here a while."

"Sure thing," he said, and watched her leave in a hurry. As soon as the classroom door slammed shut, James whisked everything away with the wave of his hand. He reached in his back pocket to check if the halls were clear.

He patted his left side. Then the other. Then the front of his robes.

No map.

Why that little... wait, how'd she even know?

James fumed, only one name coming to mind.

"Albus!"


***


Dillon appeared at the edge of town and set down the basket of rabbits. Fat, plump things hopped out and scampered off to the nearest building ahead of him. He’d learned that by sending them in first, his rabbits had found people, helpful people who wanted to love them and take care of them.

Storm clouds gathered and the distant roll of thunder echoed off the hills surrounding the shallow valley in the Highlands. Dillon had wanted to get closer to his destination, but the coming weather made him pause here for the night. He wouldn't have to stay long. The highland winds were fast and fierce, and the rain would likely blow over quickly.

He could feel the big grey rabbit from far away, still collecting friends for him. They warmed the inside his head with their eagerness and concern. Dillon was excited to meet them all!

Speaking of more friends, Dillon saw a light in the pub up ahead. He thought hard about a warm fire and a grand rabbit feast and felt his little friends perk up with interest.

They flashed and disappeared, and he waited patiently for the feeling that things were ready for him.

Tonight, this was home.


***


Harold sat at the bar of the local tavern, next to the "you catch 'em, we cook 'em" sign. His neighbor, Bob from the next farm over, nursing a beer. Empty rabbit traps hung at Bob's side, the fresh carcasses having been taken to the back by the cook to get cleaned.

"Turnips aren't as good as spring vegetables, but I caught 'em right up under my porch," Bob was saying. "The pelts will come in handy too. I figured I could put the leftovers in my freezer. Maude here says she could..." Bob's words faded into a loud belch. "Be right back. Loo."

Behind the counter, Maude shrieked. "Ouch! What was that?"

Harold looked down and saw a rabbit scurry away from behind the bar. They both fell silent, eyes locked on the little boy who entered the pub and sat himself down by the fire.

The little boy listened intently to the empty air, and then he said, “We are hungry.”

Maude set down her rag. “I’ll get it.”

Quick as a wink, she presented the little boy with large platters of turkey legs, salads, rolls, and anything else that a little boy could want. Harold wondered about the little boy. Had Maude been expecting him?

Strangely enough, the boy only nibbled at the food. Then he made a sour face.

“Pasties and milk,” the boy said, and then stared off into the distance. He blinked, remembering.

“Please.”

Harold watched Maude scurry back into the kitchen to make it so. As he waited for his own supper, he watched the boy take out a map and circle the town with a piece of coal. The map was dotted with little black circles. Then the boy took out a ratty journal and opened it to the back. Some of the names, Harold recognized, but the last name... Hogwarts... he'd never heard of that town.

The boy looked up at him. "Do you like rabbits?"

"Yes," Harold said. "Very tasty." He almost missed the little boy's frown as he got up off his stool to check on Maude. He found the great big pot with the rabbit carcasses, barely skinned, lying on the counter next to it. Well, he was hungry, and the vegetables looked ready. Harold ladled the hot liquid into a bowl, mostly half-cooked turnips and carrots. Maude hurried past him with a large platter of salad.

He blinked. Maude sure was acting strangely all of a sudden. Harold ladled another bowl for Bob and threw the swinging doors open, carrying the tray back to the dining area.

“I've got some…” he stopped mid-sentence, eyeing Bob, motionless on the ground, the feast in front of the boy, the rabbits all over his fallen neighbor.

Something was very wrong here. Why was his friend on the floor, and why was there a speck of blood on his collar?

He moved to look closer, but the boy stopped him. “Leave him. He is sleeping.”

“But he’s bleeding,” Harold insisted, watching in horror as one of the rabbits lapped up the trickling blood from Bob’s wound. In an instant, the blood had stopped and Bob no longer looked like a victim, except for the fact that he was passed out on the floor and no one was doing anything about it.

“Go back into the kitchen,” Maude told him. Harold saw the butcher’s knife in her hand.

“Oh dear,” he said and moved cautiously to the door. “I’ll get help, I’ll…” but then the boy turned his head, finally realizing that Harold wasn't like the others.

“Talk to him,” the boy said, but he wasn't talking to Harold. The rabbits descended onto Harold in a flurry of white, tripping him and scurrying out of the way as he fell to the floor. He held his hands up to his face, trying to block the assault of sharp claws and teeth. “Nooo…” he wailed as one of the rabbits finally made its way to his neck and sank its teeth where it belonged.

Harold fell silent. The rabbits milled about like rabbits do, wiggling their little noses, sniffing the air. Then the rabbit at his neck finished, licking the open wound to still the blood.


***


“Now he is sleeping too,” Maude said. “And when he wakes up, he will understand.”

She crouched down, getting eye to eye with one of the rabbits. “Yes,” she said. “Yes,” she agreed. “That would be very nice.” Maude got up and went to the back kitchen and when she returned, she put another large platter of fresh salad onto the floor. The rabbits swarmed like flies.

When they finished, the boy stood up from his seat by the fire. “The weather is clear," he said eagerly. "Let's go!" He gathered the larger rabbit up into his arms and a soft glowing light enveloped the boy and his rabbit. When the light faded, the boy was gone.

Soon, all the rabbits began to glow and fade and then they were gone too.

Hours passed.

Maude finally looked around at the tavern, the mess of half eaten produce on the floor, the bodies, the specks of blood.

She fell to her knees in the middle of it all.

“Come back,” she whispered. "How will we live without you?"



 


Chapter 17: 17. Whispering Hearts
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Two full weeks into the school year, Wren realized that she'd already been home once, and that this was her first real Saturday at Hogwarts (not counting the first weekend after they'd gotten off the train, since she couldn't remember much of what had happened).  So much was going on every single day that it was hard keeping up with timetables, assignments and photography.  She didn't feel like she had a bigger load than normal this year.  Their OWLS year was last year, and she'd been busier with school than ever and still managed to make room for her favorite hobby.  

But this year, everything seemed to pass by in a blur, and Wren had barely found time to develop her photographs.  In fact, she couldn't actually remember when she'd found the time to go out to the shed.  Obviously she had, because she found herself surrounded that afternoon by three rolls of film, loosely divided into broom stunts, scoring drills and speed laps around the stadium. A smaller stack detailed Scorpius' fall from grace and the girls who had rushed out of the stands to save him.

"You can burn those," Rose said, motioning her foot to the image of her tripping over herself and shoving people out of the way. "I scuffed up my new trainers for nothing."

Wren swiped the small stack out of view. Bunny shivered as she pointed her wand at a set of pictures floating in front of her. She tilted her head to the side and then began plucking squares out of the air.

"Not that one. That one either. Hmm.... he's not even on his broom in that one." Wren snatched the last picture away, the one of Albus winking conspiratorially. It was a test shot, a focus experiment, but she liked it too much to throw it out. Those eyes had shone brightly back at her in a particularly vivid dream a few nights ago.

Bunny snorted and hopped away as she stifled a yawn that came on top of yet another. Other dreams, she'd rather forget. Dillon had been creeping into her head more and more. She was getting a little freaked out by how familiar the little boy had become.

The letter from her mum poked out between her school books where she'd shoved it several days ago. She knew it was childish, not dealing with whatever her mum wanted to tell her, and her dad was eventually bound to notice that she hadn't come round his office to say hello in almost a week, but every time Wren thought about going to see him, her stomach did an uncomfortable sideways lurch.

Dillon's face. Pictures, letters, parents... the thoughts jumbled together inside, weighing her down like a tethered Hippogriff.

Later. She'd deal with it all later.

Callie bounded into the room and spilled Rose's mound of pillows onto the floor in a fit of giggles.

“Shhh!” Rose said conspiratorially, tossing the pillows back onto the bed at Callie. “You’re going to give it all away!”

Wren ignored her two roommates and scrutinized her work. "What do you think, Trudy?"

"She can't hear you. She's muffed." Callie fell back into another fit of giggles.

Trudy pulled a set of wild Augurey feather ear muffs off her head, music from the latest dungeon band blaring through them. "What? I heard my name."

Wren waved to the school-wide montage floating in mid-air. "What do you think?"

Trudy pointed accusingly at the picture hovering near Wren's left ear. "Godric Gryffindor! Not that one, I'm smiling!"

"All your pictures are like that," Wren said. "You love to fly."

Trudy grumbled and examined the rest of the board with a critical eye.

Wren held her breath. She'd been very, very careful to select only the best shots, and not the ones with her favorite player in them. In fact, she'd held back a few very good photos of Albus, out of fear that the display would look like a Featured Player of the Week, instead of a general practice.

"Fine. They're all fine. Very actiony," Trudy finally declared, and Wren breathed in relief.

“What should we wear?” Rose asked suddenly scooting into her bed next to Callie, spilling her pillows over the side again.

“Something dark and unnoticeable,” Trudy said, still squinting at the photographs. “Wouldn’t want any of your shiny objects to get you caught on your first time out.”

“Oh, right,” Rose looked disappointed. “I don’t want to attract attention, do I?”

“Why? Is Scorpius coming too?” Callie asked.

“No! I’m not going anywhere near him and his girlfriend.” She said that last part like he’d contracted an infectious disease.

“Go where?” Wren asked, and immediately wished she hadn't. If this was another one of Rose’s “plans”, she didn’t want to get involved.

“We’re sneaking out to Hogsmeade tonight!” Rose whispered loudly. “With James and some of the other seventh years. Oh, I know!” Her eyes lit up dangerously. “Come with us, Wren! I’m sure James won’t mind one more person tagging along.”

“Can't. My dad." Sometimes Wren felt like he had Sneakoscopes all over the castle, watching her. "And besides, I already have plans.”

Rose reeled back and clutched at her heart. “Plans? On a Saturday night?” Three sets of eyes landed on Wren.

“I’m studying in the library.” Wren said. And helping Albus with his rabbit, but they didn't need to know that. She could just let them think that her plans were normal and boring, like they always were.

Bunny snorted from under her bed. Rabbits like carrots.

Well, of course they do. That was a silly thought. Wren would definitely take some carrots with her to the library.

Rose twisted her hair into a sloppy bun in front of her mirror and eyed herself critically. She swept an escaped strand out of her face. "Don't think that I'm breaking the rules just for fun. I'm going to make James confess!"

"About what?" Wren was trying not to look Trudy in the eye, suddenly very glad that she hadn't mentioned who she was meeting in the library. Some of Albus' pictures had still managed to make it onto the board, just because he was a great flyer. Trudy was leaning in to a different set of pictures, rubbing her chin, which was a hopeful sign that Wren hadn't biased the display.

"About pranking you Wednesday night," Rose answered

Wren wanted to tell her that it wasn't about James the other night, but then she'd have to explain herself even more: about Bunny and the headaches, the stuff that was going on inside her head that was so messy that she hadn't put it into words yet.

She felt a tug at her mind, and something whispered to her that maybe words weren't necessary. Wren shot a look at Bunny, who had found a piece of stray alfalfa hay near her shoes.

That was amazing! It was almost like her rabbit was communicating with her!

“That's rubbish!" Trudy scoffed. "James isn't going to spill his secrets to you just because you’re playing rebel for one night.”

"I can be very convincing," Rose retorted. “It's for Wren!”

Trudy let out a loud snort and turned back to Wren's board. "Can you copy that one for me?" She pointed to a shot of McCormack from Hufflepuff doing a very complex, very illegal double loop around a goal hoop in slow motion. "I've always wanted to know how he does that and he goes so fast that no one can see what's going on. How'd you keep the action so clean when you slowed down the playback?"

Wren held up the omnioculars. "Got the idea from these."

"It's a spell? How'd you do it? No, never mind." Trudy waved a hand, erasing any possibility of starting an academic discussion about magic. Wren sometimes wondered why Trudy never tried harder at school - they were all decent witches or they wouldn't even be in Hogwarts. Trudy's magic had always been on the average side. She put more effort into optimizing her broom for speed and balance, and anything associated with the game of Quidditch. If there was a class for advanced flying, Trudy would be all over it.

"Gemino," Wren whispered, and an exact duplicate of McCormack's photograph fell into her hand. Wren let out a grateful sigh that her wand had cooperated again, and gave it to Trudy, who was still staring at the floating display.

Trudy held up McCormack's photograph and nodded appreciatively. "Thanks for this! No wonder you're in the 'special class' with them." She eyed the giggling girls on Rose's bed. "Deviants."

Wren conjured a cup and saucer in the palm of her hand. Ever since the man at the bar had given her the tea, her wand work was slowly returning to normal. She still braced herself for failure with every spell, but sometimes, when she forgot to be scared, she accomplished the most amazing things.

McCormack had been flying low, showing off his moves to whoever was watching. Wren remembered holding the omnioculars in one hand, her camera in the other, and all of a sudden, she'd simply thought of the idea that the movements could slow down when the shutters went off. Her camera glowed, she'd snapped the picture and it wasn't until she sat in the dark room, staring in awe at the resulting photograph that she'd realized what she'd done.

Wren had begun to link her anxious feelings to her strange visions of Dillon. During the day, she could push him aside, but at night he came like the boogeyman, invading her sleep, whispering things she couldn't remember in the morning. If Wren could choose her dreams, there would be more Albus and less creepy little boy.

Besides the haunting dreams of creepy little boys, things were getting better. Not everything, she admitted, shoving her mum's letter in between the covers of her Runes text and slamming it shut. Her headaches had almost completely vanished and her magic was back, getting stronger by the day.

She felt better too, better than she had in a long time. Wren hoped that meant that she wasn't going crazy like she'd feared earlier. She finished her tea and grabbed an extra bag from under her bed, bumping the little rabbit's foot.

"Sorry, Bunny," she whispered. Bunny didn't 'say' anything back. Well, don't be stupid about it, she chided herself. He's a rabbit.

Her worries about becoming a textbook basket case had eased up, and had given her the confidence to show her pictures to the Quidditch captains for their final approval of her new appointment as League Photographer for the year - which she suddenly realized that she wanted more than she thought she did.

Callie called from across the room, "Hey Wren, if you go with us, James will know that you know, and he'll give up the charade for good. Then we can tell Albus he was right all along."

Albus... Wren's stomach fluttered. Yes, she wanted to tell him things, but it wasn't about James. She was suddenly dying to tell him about Bunny, believing that he'd be the perfect person to understand how important the little animal was to her. It had been so long since they'd had a proper, clear-headed best friend chat about anything that she was looking forward to just sitting down with him, like they used to do all the time - except if she was honest with herself, it wouldn't be exactly the same, not if she was sighing every time he smiled at her...

She blushed at her own thoughts and self-consciously looked around the room. Trudy was right, things were different. For one, small moment, Wren allowed the butterflies in her stomach to dance around unfettered.

"You guys have fun without me," Wren said to Callie and Rose, who were now decked out in the darkest colored clothes that they could gather between the two of them. "And be careful," she added.

"Sure you want to be in the library on a Saturday night?" Rose asked her.

Wren swept the floating pictures into a neat stack and thought about Albus and all the catching up they had to do.

"Where else would I want to be?"


***


Albus hastily folded up the ratty parchment as the library doors opened. He'd just finished stuffing the map into his pocket when Wren hefted an overstuffed backpack onto the sturdy library table and blew out a shaky breath.

He didn't know why she hadn't charmed everything smaller - but maybe Wren was still having trouble - she'd been absolute rubbish in class at the start of the term.

"I brought everything we need," she said, and started pulling school books and papers out of her bag, along with rabbit snacks and a bundle of fresh carrots. She blew a wisp of hair out of her eyes.

"He's still back there," Albus said. "I checked the, err... charm."

"That's good." Wren's hair was almost as long as his now. He rather liked it that way. It didn't actually matter how long or short her hair was, but this way, it made her look more... she blew her hair out of her face again... yeah, like that.

She popped the cap off her camera and took a picture of the bright green tops and orange roots splayed all over the table. "What did Priscilla Whitby want?" she asked from behind her camera.

"Nothing important," Albus said. "Wait, you saw that?"

Wren pulled her camera away from her face and studied him. "It was in the main hall, in front of the whole school. She couldn't have been more obvious if she'd worn a basket of fruit on her head."

It was why he'd been so early, actually. The girl had cornered him after the prefects meeting in the main corridor, sauntered up to him and asked him to help her with a Transfiguration assignment - he would have fallen for that last year - but there was something about her - her hair, the sparkle in her eyes - the way she moved deliberately - like she thought she was having some kind of effect on him - his bracelets vibrated against his skin.

Ahh, that's what she was about.

"Sorry," he'd told Priscilla and her poofed out lips, "I've got to be somewhere," clearly seeing that she wanted to do anything but schoolwork.

The girl had put on a pouty face, also strangely deliberate, and Albus left her in the hall, while she called after him, "Don't you think I'm pretty?"

Hardly.

Wren shook her head and pulled more things out of her bag. "She looked so wrong. Scorpius would've called her a chav. Anyway, doesn't matter. You're here." She wiped her brow with the back of her hand, then turned away and self-consciously pulled her t-shirt down that had ridden up a little too high.

Albus stared at her back. "Where else would I be?"

Wren hummed and emptied the rest of her stuff onto the table. Then she absently stared at the large library doors and took a few shots at those, stepping closer and closer, until her last shots were pointing almost straight up at the ceiling.

"You've got a plan?" Albus asked when she returned to their table.

"We'll set up a trail of treats from the restricted section to the main area to lure the rabbit out. I brought Bunny's favorite treats to lure it into your cage. Then we can snap it shut and carry him out of here. It shouldn't take that long, and if Madame Pince asks what we're doing, we can just tell her we're cleaning up after your brother." She grinned at her own plan, and Albus grinned back, liking that he could possibly pin this on James if it came down to it.

Across the room, Madame Pince loudly scraped her chair away from her desk, and Wren scrambled with her History text, trying to look busy. Albus did the same. The old librarian walked past their table without a word, and Wren let out a sigh of relief.

"I'd hate to have to explain the carrots," she whispered.

They took turns watching out for Madame Pince and setting up a treat trail from the edge of the south-facing stacks to the Restricted Section gates, and in not too long, Wren came back from her turn in the stacks, brushing crumbs off her shirt from the rabbit treats.

"All set," she said. "Now all we do is wait."

Albus scooped his books off the couch into his arms. "Saved you a seat." He held his breath a little until she fell into the space beside him. He didn't want to look too obvious (or desperate, like Priscilla Whitby with her half-dozen Glamour Charms), but if Wren had noticed the table across the room, which had recently acquired twice as many chairs crowded around it, she didn't say anything. (He'd have to thank Scorpius later for the idea.)

When Madame Pince shuffled back to her desk and started stamping returned books without looking up, Wren quickly started in on her History assignment, partially adjusting herself so she was leaning against his side.

"Look busy," she whispered.

Albus opened his own book and stared at it blankly. With less than a breath between them, there was no way he was going to concentrate on schoolwork. He sniffed her hair and heard her sigh in rhythm with her scratching quill.

Fine, maybe he'd try to get a rough draft started - he'd be happy if she just agreed to do this with him every night... no, he wouldn't. He wanted a whole lot more, but this was good. For a start. He scribbled some random thoughts down onto parchment, slogging through the assignment like he did that time his mum had ordered him to shovel snow... except this was warmer and cozier than that had been. Before he knew it, he was done. Albus stared thoughtfully at the parchment. Wren was comfortably warm next to him, and her quill had stopped moving. He wondered if anything was going through her head other than that History assignment.

More would be better...

"Albus," she said, looking up at him, almost upside down from the way she was leaning against him.

"What is it?" If she were just a bit closer, he could...

Wren sat up. "Could you proofread my essay?"

Albus willed himself to stay calm, and took the parchment from her. "Sure," he said as steadily as he could. "Trade?"

She settled back at his side and they both read silently. Albus tried breathing slower, this time not smelling her hair on purpose. He tried concentrating on what they had come into the library for in the first place. "Are you sure this is going to work?" he asked, cocking his head at the stacks where the trail of treats disappeared into the darkness.

"It should. Maybe." Her voice was small. "Probably." She frowned, tapping his essay. "Do you really think that the Ministry of Magic should have authority over vampires?"

Albus shrugged. "Who else is going to control them?" He hadn't thought too hard about his essay. With Wren being so close, it just seemed like the easiest topic to write about. Most of the ideas had come directly from the book.

"But vampires are so old. Wouldn't they have their own form of government or something? The last vampire-wizard dispute was over two hundred years ago. Why should we start meddling with them now?"

Albus squinted. Obviously, Wren wanted him to have a real conversation about this, which was a change from the flakey way she'd acted at the start of the term. He forced himself to read through Wren's essay as he'd promised, and was surprised to find that her topic was the polar opposite of his. By the end, even though he didn't personally agree with self-governing, non-wizard societies, he felt that she'd made a solid argument against imposing wizarding rules on societies whose cultural differences would be more harmed than helped by them.

"This is really good," he said, handing the essay back to her, "even if it would only work in a perfect world. Aunt Hermione and my dad work with non-wizard beings all the time, and I've never once heard either of them talk about organized vampires. They're not even classified as magical."

Wren handed back his essay. "Yours looks fine." Albus could tell she wasn't pleased with his conclusion, which he had simply parroted from the Ministry's current policy of regulating things just because they were a thing to be regulated.

They both tensed up as Madame Pince got up again and shuffled into her office. Then she came out with keys in her hand, looked a little lost, and then walked out of the library without a word about the trail of pellets or the bunch of carrots on the table.

Wren peered into the stacks. "This shouldn't be taking so long. Bunny can't resist those pellets and your rabbit must be starving."

"Yeah," Albus agreed. "Strange though, how we both got weird rabbits from that kid. Yours glows and mine holes up in the Restricted Section."

"Dillon," Wren said. "That's his name."

"Who's that?"

"The little boy with the rabbits in Diagon Alley. He wanted so badly to come to Hogwarts this year, but he looked so young. I wonder why he thinks he'd get a letter before he's old enough."

"Weird," Albus said. Like all the other things he'd been noticing about her since the year began. Since before that. He didn't want to bring it up now, when they were finally together without Rose or Scorpius or anyone else, but if something was wrong, he needed to know about it. "Speaking of weirdness, you've been out of it lately. Not just from getting sick the other night. Before that. You freaked out on your birthday before the term started, and ever since then, you've been different."

He put a hand on her arm. He didn't want Wren to think that it affected the way he felt about her - if she even noticed.

She stared down at his hand. She was noticing now. For a second, he thought she was going to pull away, but she stayed where she was. "Albus, there's something I need to tell you."

Albus almost told her that he had something to say too, but he just nodded. If she was ready to tell him what was really going on, he was ready to listen.

"It's Bunny," she said. "He's... it's hard to explain."

"I can't even begin to explain my rabbit either," Albus said. "I was thinking maybe we should tell someone..."

"No, we can't," Wren said quickly. "I mean, it's just an overgrown rabbit. We can get it back into the cage on our own, and then turn it in to the gamekeeper or something, if you don't want it anymore. Besides, there's nothing wrong with Bunny. He's just like the little rabbit I had back home. This is going to sound strange, but he's..."

She stopped talking. She frowned and shook her head. It looked like she was arguing with herself inside her head.

Albus squeezed her arm gently. His frustration made him want to push harder for her to talk to him, but at the same time, whatever it was that Wren had to say was giving her fits. It wasn't like her to just stop mid-sentence and shut him out. She used to talk to him all the time, about everything, about nothing. He didn't care if she was talking rabbits or last year's style of gnome hats, he just wanted to get rid of the silence somehow.

Wren took a breath and Albus held his own. She opened her mouth. "I..."

Albus' brow creased and Wren tried again. "I..."

Suddenly, she stood up, dumping her book on the floor, parchment spilling everywhere. "I'm going to check the pellet trail." Wren fled down the darkened corridor.

Albus looked after her, some of Scorpius' colorful language floating through his brain, but he had the sense not to shout it out in the middle of the library. What was going on with her? She was seriously starting to worry him, and frustrate him... what was so horrible that she thought she couldn't tell him about it?

He gathered up her things that had tumbled onto the floor when she'd bolted. Curiously, there was a letter with a broken seal on it. He knew he should just put it on top of the pile, not open it and see Mrs. Longbottom's familiar handwriting...

"Dear Wren..."


***


You can't tell.

Yes I can, Wren thought fiercely.  Albus is my friend, he'd never hurt me!

They'll take me away from you.

Wren sucked in a breath, getting visions of Bunny being carted away in a cage by stern, old men. She couldn't let anything happen to Bunny. Not now, not after everything she'd had to give up. Her home, and Gran, and her sanity, knowing that her family didn't trust her... Bunny was the only link she had to her old life. She needed him.

No one is taking you away from me, I promise.

They won't understand. Bunny's thoughts flooded Wren's head with a sudden urge to run.

Anxiety filled her, coupled with astonishment. Bunny's thoughts pushed farther into her mind, making her want things, making her twitch.

Nothing abut this was right. She shouldn't be arguing with a rabbit, especially when it was all in her head.

Get out, Wren demanded silently, and pushed back, hard. Her mind jolted free, and she had to blink a few times to reorient herself to where she was.

Wren took a deep breath, gagging a little at the sudden strong stench of rotten apples in the stacks, and then walked back to where Albus was sitting. If she could just figure out what to say...

Start small, she decided. Just say something, and the rest will come on its own. She checked again inside, but Bunny's presence had vanished. Good. For now. He couldn't have gone very far.

"It smells back there," Wren said a few minutes later, more under control and projecting all the confidence she could muster. "Worse than mooncalf dung." Albus was just sitting there, looking at her strangely. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

Wren noticed all her papers and books neatly stacked on the table. Albus looked down at his hands guiltily and handed her mum's letter back to her. "This fell on the floor when you left."

Her insides seized up. When she didn't take it from him, Albus put it on the table with the rest of her things.

"I'm sorry. Yes, I read it. You've been so... I just want to help."

Wren sat down next to him. Her gut clenched. She squeezed her eyes shut, but this was Albus, and he wasn't going to disappear like some unwanted vision, or Bunny's thoughts inside her head.

"I think it fell out of your History book."

Wren snatched the letter from the table and folded it until it couldn't be folded anymore. She squeezed it into one more impossible fold, the edges bulging between her fingers.

"What does it say?" she asked.

"You haven't read it yet? But I thought... since the seal was broken." Albus shook his head. "You should read it, Wren."

Wren nodded and unfolded the parchment. She scanned through the letter, hardly digesting it, just looking for the things that she'd have to explain to Albus... not wanting to think too hard... not wanting to get upset all over again.

Her mum had apologized, of sorts, saying how sorry she was that she hadn't told Wren what was really going on, and that she hoped that Wren would forgive her and try to understand Gran's decision.

"Is this why you stopped talking to us over the summer? Is that why you didn't write back to me?"

Wren glared at him. "What good would it have done? You couldn't fix it!" Then her face crumpled. "No one could. I tried everything. Gran had... she killed them. I watched her do it and I didn't even know what was happening. No one told me what those stones were... I was right there, and I could have stopped her!"

Wren's lip trembled. Her hands, everything shook. Thankfully, there was no one left in the main part of the library to see her like this.

"Oh Godric, you're going to cry. Okay, okay," Albus said softly, almost sounding like he was saying it more for himself than her. He took her hands in his and waited.

A few tears fell. Then a few more. Wren sucked in a breath, and figured that as long as she was making a mess of things, she'd at least explain about why she'd avoided everyone and kept to herself for so long. She started talking about her family and the summer, and cried some more.

Thankfully, Albus didn't even try to make up any jokes this time. She'd had this conversation with him before - Wren used to get weirded out by all the doubts and second guessing about her grandparents' condition - Gran's constant worries about if they felt any pain, if they still had thoughts... But now it hurt inside, like it never had before. They were gone, completely and utterly. All the hope she ever had for them was gone too.

The last of her mum's letter had ended with a heartfelt "I love you" and "see you next weekend" and something more about Gran's improvement that turned Wren's stomach sour. All she could think about was that her whole family had betrayed her.

Wren's head started to ache, right behind her eyelids, but this time it was from the crying. "It wasn't fair. She took them away from us, and then she just left too, without any explanation. Mum says Gran's getting better now, but what if I don't want her to? What am I supposed to say to her now?"

Albus squeezed her hands. "Maybe Frank and Alice are in a better place," he offered.

She jerked her head up angrily. "What place is that? They're not here anymore, and they'll never come back."

A low growl startled both of them into silence. It had definitely come from the back of the library where they'd laid out the trail of treats.

"What was that?" Albus asked.

"I think that's your rabbit," Wren said, disbelievingly. They both jumped out of the seat as a low moan vibrated through the library, horrible and rasping.

Albus looked for signs of Madame Pince, and then grabbed the cage and started putting treats in it. Wren just stood there, unsure if this was such a good idea after all.

Suddenly, she heard a small voice whispering inside her head. "Come and meet my friend." The voice sounded distant, not like Bunny. It felt like Dillon, but not the lost little boy that she remembered from Diagon Alley.

She followed Albus into the stacks. "Albus, wait!"

"It's coming out, Wren. Just like you said. We can get it out before Pince gets back, and no one has to know. Let's go!"

Albus stopped as another low growl came from the back section. Then silence.

He put the cage down. He threw some carrots through the chain links. "Here, rabbit, rabbit..." He lit his wand and peered through the chain links. "Or not."

It was a mess. Shredded piles of parchment behind the shelves... strong stench of rotten apples.

"I can't believe Madame Pince hasn't noticed this yet. She'd have gotten rid of him first thing."

Another fainter voice whispered in Wren's mind. It was a dark, needy presence, not like Bunny at all, and it kept saying one word, over and over.

Hungry... hungry...

Albus pointed as a large, pink nose poked out from the shelves inside the restricted section. "There it is, and oh..." The nose and maw alone were twice the size of Albus' rabbit cage. A long tongue snaked out and slurped up the carrots on the ground.

My friends... my friends... the voice whispered, over and over.

Another image of Bunny flashed inside her mind, but it wasn't from Bunny. It was from that thing in front of her. She could feel it seeping into her, something ugly and wrong... Bunny changing into something sinister and controlling.

Wren bit her lip to keep from crying out. I won't let you turn Bunny into a monster!

He's my friend, he will do what I want. Dillon's voice was commanding.

He was my friend first, Wren almost screamed inside her head. The best friend I've ever had!

Images of Bunny - no, wait - this was confusing. Wren felt like it was Bunny who was showing them the cottage, the trees... in his mind, from his perspective. It was Bunny, soft, gentle Bunny who she'd rescued over the summer. Before Dillon, before Gran...

Dillon's thoughts turned dark. You left me. I want you back.

You can't have me. You can't have Bunny either! Wren didn't want Dillon, or anyone inside her head anymore, and then, just like that, she shut everything out.

The giant rabbit let out a screech and lunged forward. Wren screamed and threw everything she had at it. She wasn't going to let it near her, or Albus or Bunny. She didn't think about it, she just pointed her wand and willed the spell to come - and her magic worked!

Wren's wand let out a jet of fiery sparks, aimed directly at the large beast... except it didn't have any effect on the large rabbit. It squinted at her as the sparks flew all around it and dissipated. Then it let out an angry snort. It began to glow...

Albus pulled Wren away from the gate and started chanting under his breath. The length of the enclosure shimmered with strong anti-apparition wards. The rabbit screeched and lunged against the Restricted Section barrier, shaking the chain link, and then retreated back into the stacks.

Suddenly, Wren didn't know what to do. A raw ache was building inside her, which was weird, because when Bunny was with her she didn't .... feel. When she'd shut out Dillon and the monster rabbit, she must have shut out Bunny too. The lull she had relied on, the comforting furry presence was gone.

Albus pelted the retreating rump with the rest of the carrots. "I don't want a rabbit anymore. Pince can keep it. I can't believe she just lets it back there. Did you see? It lunged at us, and then it just stopped. Like something was controlling it."

"Did you hear any voices?" Wren asked faintly.

"No, of course not. If I was, I'd go straight to Madame Pomfrey and get checked. Voices in your head that aren't yours are generally bad." Albus sucked in a breath. "My parents can attest to that. It's just an overgrown rabbit with bad breath, right?"

Wren couldn't form words, thinking of Dillon whispering in her head, that thing invading her mind, greedy and demanding.

At the same time, Bunny wasn't like that at all.

She had longed to tell Albus about the visions, seeing her old home again through someone else's eyes - how the shared memories made it so vivid, and if she closed her eyes, she could imagine that she was still there...

But then after what just happened, what if Bunny was right about not telling? What if she told Albus, or anyone, and they decided that the danger wasn't with just Albus' rabbit? What if they decided that Bunny was dangerous too, and tried to take him away?

Wren sank onto the seat at their table, glad to be out of the dark aisles. The library was silent around them, and it was then that she looked up and realized that all the other students had packed up and gone. She peered past Albus, who was madly pacing around their table, occasionally glancing back into the stacks for any sign of the monster rabbit attempting to get out. Madame Pince was nowhere to be seen either. Wren's eyes flitted up to the large oak library doors, blowing a wisp of hair out of her eyes. They were still unlocked Then she saw the clock above the doors, and her blood ran cold.

"It's past curfew," she said softly. Somehow the offense paled in comparison to the large, salivating beast they'd trapped in the restricted section.

Albus stopped pacing and swore under his breath. "I didn't even think to watch the time." He swept his wand over the table to clear their things. "We'd better get out of here."

She took her bag from Albus, which was much lighter than before. He must have used a Shrinking Charm, because nothing was left behind on the table.

Albus and Wren took turns putting wards on the library doors when they got outside, just in case it managed to break through those. When they left, the reality that there was a large, pointy-eared monster trapped inside the Restricted Section made Wren want to crawl into the nearest broom closet and never come out. Conversely, Albus wouldn't shut up about the thing. Having found something so obviously wrong inside the school, his school, he seemed to take it as a personal affront, and chattered on and on, as if talking about it would make it less... wrong.

"Pince will be able to get in, but that thing won't be able to get out," Albus said with a tinge of excitement, flavored by the edge of hysteria. "I feel like we should leave a note or something, but how could she not know about it? It's so big, and it smells horrible. It's been there for days."

Wren followed Albus onto the revolving staircase, trying to not think too much about what had just happened, and what it meant for her and Bunny.

"I know you said we should handle this on our own, but I think we need to tell someone," Albus continued. "Not just anyone, because Merlin knows we're going to get into hot water for breaking curfew. Whoever deserves the blame, it's likely James. He's the one that gave me that rabbit. We should at least tell a Head of House, the Headmistress, someone."

Albus was talking sense, but Wren was barely listening. A cold, creeping numbness had been working its way up her spine since leaving the library. Her shoe caught in the gap between the staircase and the seventh floor platform, and she pitched forward as her socked-foot came loose. Albus caught her arm, hauling her upright as the edge of the staircase slid into place, crushing her shoe between the two marble platforms.

They both stared silently at the crushed shoe hurling seven stories below them as the staircase scraping away from the platform. Albus grasped her hand and pulled at her gently, until she took a step away from the edge. When he spoke, it was barely above a whisper. "You alright, Wren?"

Wren opened her mouth, expecting the word to tumble out on its own, but this time it caught like a lump in the back of her throat and she could barely breathe around it. She'd pretended for so long that nothing was wrong, but now, it wasn't just Bunny, or Dillon anymore. That thing... whatever it was... had been inside her mind, and it had wanted her..

She wasn't even close to being fine.

"Albus," she said finally, "about your rabbit... You're right. We have to tell my dad."


***


Ian Sloan spotted Albus and Wren leaving the fourth floor, from across the hall of moving staircases. Ian could call out to them now and the game would be up. He'd make it back to the Ravenclaw common room to play Hide the Hinkeypuck in no time. But something itched behind his eyes and stopped him from revealing himself. Ian shrugged the unsettling feeling aside, adjusted the prefect pin on his robe and smoothed down his dark, wavy hair in the reflection of the marble centaur's shield from his vantage point on the fifth floor. If he timed it right, he'd catch the culprits again in the main corridor...

He'd been patrolling hard along the corridor of the prefect bathroom, intent to find the culprit who'd trapped doxies in the toilets - it was like they'd targeted him specifically, for what, he had no idea. He'd set out that night, unwaveringly determined to catch that bogrolled minger of a bovver boy, if only to regain his dignity. Two hours later, he was still empty-handed and completely clueless.

This was almost better. Albus was a prefect. Double points, Ian calculated in his head. And perhaps a grueling detention.

As he passed by the History classroom, Ian stopped short. Loud snores vibrated through the thick wooden door. He could turn them in, but then again, he could do that other thing. His mind fogged over. Yes. That other thing that he wanted.

They needed more friends, Dillon had said. He'd wanted Wren especially, chanting the words "bring her back" over and over inside Ian's head. He'd be so pleased...

Ian knocked sharply and waited. After a long moment, the door creaked open and Mister Summer's head poked out. He was wrapped up in a heavy dressing robe, and his hair stuck out savagely from a tight-fitting black cap. His pale skin flickered in the torch light, dark veins creeping down his face and neck.

"Mister Sloan?"

“Wren Longbottom," Ian said excitedly. "She's so close to the library already. I could bring her there, and you could take care of things after that."

Mister Summers coughed uncomfortably. "No. Not now."

Ian's vision blurred, and a giant, screeching maw appeared inside his mind. He reeled back, startled that it had come so suddenly, out of nowhere. He clawed at the air in front of him, blinking rapidly. Then it was gone, replaced by a tired and worn out professor-in-training, leaning against the door frame for support.

"What happened to the plan?" Ian asked, still teetering from the nightmare behind his eyes.

"We'll discuss that later. Now it is time to rest." Mister Summers yawned, and then closed the door.

Ian was left alone in the corridor. As the staircase scraped against the stone steps, back to its original position, the fog cleared out of his head. He caught the moving staircase on its next rotation, and headed up, assuming that Albus was taking Wren to the Gryffindor Tower... where else could they be going at this hour?

She just wasn't that type of girl to go anywhere else. Seeing her with Albus, breaking the rules of all things... he snorted. Last year, she wouldn't even have sneezed past ten o'clock in the evening, having her dad right there at the castle every day.

Part of him was eager to pounce on Potter, get him good for anything. It wasn't Albus Potter's night to patrol, so that ought to be worth something. Ian could just wait at the base of the Tower stairs. He wouldn't have to mention Wren... he'd talk to her later and tell her what he saw, see what that would get him...

Not her. She's not our friend anymore.

Dillon's whisper faded as Ian heard footsteps above him. He sank into the shadows and watched intently, waiting for the right moment. Albus looked carefully around, worried, a little anxious... rocked back on his heels, and a faint smile bloomed on his face before he sobered and caught the staircase before it came to a complete stop, (another violation noted).

Ian stayed hidden, thinking. Dillon might not want Wren anymore, but someone else obviously did. Someone else, who had convinced her to be out after curfew, doing Merlin-knows-what. He could even say Albus was pickled stupid if he wanted. No one could prove otherwise without witnesses.

And Wren had been too good for too long. He shouldn't leave her out of the fun.

He shivered with excitement, knowing exactly how to get the most out of the situation. The scandal... The House Points...

"This is new for you, Longbottom," he whispered to himself. "I can’t wait to hear what your father has to say.”

 

 















A/N:  Hello all!  For the three people who were waiting for this chapter, I hope you weren't disappointed!  A big thank you goes to Cambangst, for his superior beta skills, and also 1917Farmgirl, who talked me off the edge of a cliff a few times to get this done.  

As usual, if you have anything at all to say about Dillon or Wren or Albus, or those pesky rodents, click away in the box below and make me the happiest author ever!


Chapter 18: 18. Hearts of Curiosity
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Professor Neville Longbottom always considered himself to be a fair man. What wasn't fair was the upsetting visit he'd had shortly after midnight from a strangely pale, strung-out Ravenclaw prefect who'd spouted nonsense about his daughter breaking curfew.

Neville's groggy eyes lost focus for a moment. This should be Ackerley's job as Wren's Head of House, or Sinestra's for Albus, but unluckily for him, they were both out on weekend leave, which meant that matters of discipline fell on the professor with the next highest seniority. Five o'clock on Sunday morning had come too early, even for a seasoned Herbologist like himself. Plants needed a day of rest too, he'd always said. He remembered affectionately the days when his daughter would greet the sunrise with him, just so she could get her hands dirty before breakfast.

He'd braced himself for the inevitability that she would naturally pull away from him as she got older, but he'd never expected her to get into trouble. The last five years of stellar behavior had convinced him that Wren didn't have it in her to break rules. Something about this whole situation didn't feel right to him.

Ian Sloan, he remembered hazily as watered the plants on his desk, had even written up an account and pinned it to his door before he left, close to one in the morning. The boy had gone and duplicated the report and pinned it to the door of the Headmistress' Office, so the matter of avoiding a conversation with Minerva McGonagall at five o'clock sharp had been impossible.

The vine nearest to him curled up into a tight coil. Neville stroked it with his thumb and the coil slowly relaxed. Which was why he was now preparing, at the crack of dawn (on a Sunday), to dole out a second practiced litany of rules and regulations and the importance of upper level students setting a good example for their younger counterparts... et cetera, et cetera.

Neville had this speech down cold, having delivered it once this morning to Albus (and countless times in the past to his brother, James - Ackerly liked to take frequent weekend leaves, and after a few times dealing with the older Potter brother, Neville understood why) but he'd never imagined giving it to Wren.

"I'm around children every day, and I don't even know how to talk to my own daughter. What do you think about that?"

The vine didn't respond, and he snorted into his coffee. It shouldn't be surprising that her rebellious streak finally came out now: she'd been half-raised by Gran.

That thought sobered him. Neville had let go of his parents long ago, pretending for Gran that the regular hospital visits had meant something. Over the years, he'd come to understand that they were really for Gran and her inability to let them go.

He sighed. Gran hadn't wanted him to say anything to Wren about how she'd finally given up on them. After Hannah told him how Wren had found out the truth, he wished he had said something to his daughter earlier, regardless of what Gran had wanted. They to have a proper sit down about things, but this wasn't the time. Later, he told himself. The last letter from Hannah about needing Wren for another Saturday would be another issue altogether. McGonagall didn't grant day passes to students with infractions, no matter whose daughter they were.

He hoped that Wren would have some logical explanation that excused the matter entirely. But when she sat across from his desk looking suitably guilty, Neville's hope for an easy out vanished.

He cleared his throat and looked her in the eye. Merlin, he hated that she just stared back at him, wide-eyed, like he was the enemy.

"What happened, Wren?"

"We were looking for Albus' rabbit."

As he sat and listened to his daughter explain about how Albus' rabbit had run away, how they'd tracked it to the library and sat patiently for half the night trying to lure it out of the Restricted Section with treats, Neville's face got stonier and stonier. When she was done, Wren looked down at her hands.

"I don't know what to say to that," he told her. "Albus gave me the same story half an hour ago. I spoke briefly with Madame Pince, and she insists that she closed the library early. She doesn't recall seeing either you or Albus in the library at all yesterday."

Wren gasped out loud. "She must have seen us! She left early, and didn't tell us to get out, but we were there. There's something really dangerous in the Restricted Section that's not supposed to be there! You have to believe me!"

"You're my daughter, Wren. Of course I believe you, and I've known Albus forever. We've always trusted the two of you not to do anything stupid." Neville continued with a sigh. "But this is a difficult situation you're putting me in. You and Albus are accusing a faculty member of lying."

Wren remained silent, which he hated even more.

"It could be all a big mistake. You could have thought she saw you, she could have passed by without noticing the two of you if you were somewhere in the stacks. I'm sorry Wren, but not only were you out past curfew, but Madame Pince insists that you broke into the library after hours and were attempting to access the Restricted Section without proper approval.  Regardless of the circumstances, there will be a detention."

"We were sitting at one of the tables, Dad! By the circulation desk. She was sitting right there!"

Wren was almost crying on the other side of the desk while Neville wracked his brain for an appropriate response. As her professor at school, there were procedures that had to be followed for situations like this, no matter who the student was. As her father, Neville just wanted his daughter to be safe. Who knew what Madame Pince had locked behind those gates.

Neville sorted through the list of professors: Ackerly, Zeller, Sinistra, Brocklehurst, Summers...

Nigel Summers had yet to be given a detentionee, and even though he was technically an intern, he was also the part-time caretaker. He would have plenty for them to do.

He cleared his throat. "You and Albus are both restricted to your dormitories and common rooms for the remainder of the weekend. Your mum wants you home a few Saturdays from now to help out. I can't in clear conscience ask for a day pass if you get into any more trouble."

"I understand, but we aren't making this up. Albus' rabbit is stuck somewhere in the library and we were trying to get it to come out. There's something wrong with it." Wren waved her hands about for emphasis. "It looks all hairless and blobby, with its veins sticking out, and it's grown twice the size it was when he first got it. I was just trying to help."

Neville's eyes narrowed. That sounded like the absolute last thing his daughter should be helping with. "Maybe Albus needs to take care of his rabbit by himself."

"No, Dad!" Wren turned beet red, but she wasn't backing down from her story, remaining just as insistent as Albus had been. "There really is a giant rabbit in the Restricted Section. Or it might not even be a rabbit anymore... if it ever was one. It's huge and it smells bad, and it's dangerous. We were going to tell you about it first thing this morning anyway. Please, you have to do something about it!"

Neville's eyes softened. Wren was a good girl. She had no reason to lie to him about anything. She'd told him the basic truth, that she and Albus had been out past curfew. When he was Wren's age, it had been maddening when the adults never took what he and his friends said seriously. He'd never forgotten how it had felt like a life-or death battle at every moment. The fact that he and his classmates had actually fought for their lives (and some no older than Wren had lost their lives as well), made him take pause.

The old librarian was hardly sympathetic to the students, never had been in all the time he'd known her, even when he'd been a student. She had been acting odd at the last few faculty meetings, occasionally getting a strange look in her eyes. But why would the librarian lie?

What if Wren and Albus had really run into something and Madame Pince hadn't bothered to notice them at all? It had happened too many times before, where the word of a student had been dismissed because of their age or inexperience. That didn't make the threat any less real.

Neville had spent many sleepless nights wishing that his word would have been enough for someone to listen to him. He needed to see for himself what was going on, and he was going to do his best to keep his daughter out of it.

"Stay in your common room for the rest of the weekend, Wren. I'll see what I can do."


***


"He's here," Ian called after a few quick knocks. The large double doors opened, and the librarian's eyes lit up as he nudged Charles into the darkened stacks. "He's made it all the way to the library on his own, without falling over in a faint."

"Yes," Madame Pince whispered behind them. "I think the punch is ready now."

Ian's head was like pins and needles and his stomach churned. He hadn't had the punch, but he'd given it to his roommate like Mr. Summers had asked. Next to him, Charles blinked languidly and shuffled forward without any prodding. He could probably feel it too, the ache for... something.

Madame Pince swung the Restricted Section gate open and ushered them through.

Ian sat down into one of the reading chairs with a short plunk, as Charles was guided to a chair across from him. He laid his head back and was about to close his eyes, when something moved next to him. He was temporarily jolted out of his daze as the woman's head lolled to one side, her eyes closed.

"Professor Babbling?" Someone had placed her hands neatly in her lap and her feet had been propped up on a short step stool. Her breathing was steady and deep, and dark veins bulged through her cheeks and rolled under her chin.

Madame Pince brought a shawl and covered the woman's arms. "We don't want her to get cold while she's resting."

Ian felt a sudden chill run through him, but it wasn't from the cold. They needed... but this was another professor. He watched as her breathing got slower and more shallow, until it looked like she was barely breathing at all. "Why is she here?"

Summers' voice drifted from somewhere nearby. "You look tired, yourself, Mr. Sloan."

Ian's insides were so prickly that he could barely roll his head back to see his roommate across the room. Charles had become still, like he was in a deep trance.

"I told him it was a Strength Potion," Ian mumbled to his teacher. "That clear stuff you asked me to give to Charles this morning." It had seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time. But seeing his friend here now, Ian wasn't so sure.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ian saw Summers smile. Next to him, Madame Pince rubbed her hands together, her eyes glued to the darkness behind the stacks.

His nose filled with a strong smell of earth and wet fur. The wrongness washed through him, but there was nothing he could do now. All he had the strength to do was close his eyes and wait.

Doubts snaked their way through his head. He'd brought Charles because it would make Dillon happy. But the tiny reading nook inside the Restricted Section was getting crowded... the librarian, Mister Summers, Professor Babbling... how many more...

Something big latched onto his neck and began to slurp, and Ian's irritation fizzled. He relaxed, letting his mind drift into the hazy nothingness. The first time he'd seen it, he'd mistaken it for an oversized Nogtail by it's narrow, black eyes. The pale, grey skin and the large hindquarters were more like a Mooncalf. Ian wondered what kind of creature it was that had introduced him to Dillon, and why he was lucky enough to be chosen. After a few seconds, he stopped caring about even that.

As the face came into focus, he saw the same skinny boy, smiling a big, toothy grin from somewhere out in the wilderness.

Ian was overwhelmed. There was no right or wrong, just need. This wonderful, powerful boy made things like becoming the youngest member of the Wizengamot or a summer internship with Elphias Dodge seem tiny and insignificant. The only thing that mattered was Dillon.

"What can I do?" he mumbled through the fog.

The boy smiled wide, and Ian felt a rush of admiration and affection. Inside his own head, he heard the soothing plea.

Be my friend.

Madame Pince clasped her hands together in delight. "It's perfect!" she crowed. "When we give the punch to everyone else, it will be so easy. So many eager children to show you around your new home!"

More? But what about me? Ian thought. Aren't I enough? Why do you need everyone else, when I can show you everything you want to see? He was Ian Sloan, Ravenclaw prefect, destined for great things. Surely Dillon would know, being inside his head, how valuable he was.

Dillon peered at him. Ian thought he felt a hint of sadness as Wren's face flickered past, but then the boy nodded. You are a good friend. A great friend! He saw a picture of Charles, resting in the chair across from him... and then Dillon's compelling smile. You brought me more. You're my first, true friend.

Ian's mind flooded with delight. He couldn't wait to tell everyone that he was Dillon's first friend.

Dillon laughed and clapped his hands together. When I get to Hogwarts, we'll all be friends together!


***

Rose was softly snoring, and Callie's bed curtains were drawn. Trudy's bed had a lump under her covers too, but she always slept late on the weekends.

Wren closed the dormitory door as quietly as she could, slipped into the bathroom and locked it. She splashed some water on her face and tried to breathe.... tried not to cry... tried to make sense of things and figure out how she got to the place where she couldn't even talk straight to her dad. Finally, she leaned her head against the sink and gave up on the not-crying part. She hadn't told her dad everything, but she'd told him more than she'd told anyone else. It had been just like Bunny told her it would be... actually it was worse.

He said he believed her, but the look on his face was part disbelief, part shame. She hated knowing that she'd disappointed him. She was supposed to be good... follow the rules, be a good student. But so far, the whole year felt like failure.

Through the bathroom door, Wren heard her roommates finally stirring. Last night, Rose and Callie had come in even later than last time. Her stomach turned over as she realized she'd have to say something to them about... she tamped down Bunny's panic that snuck into the back of her head... She had to say something to someone, because now, Bunny wasn't enough.

Wren flipped the lock and pushed through the bathroom door before she lost her nerve. A bleary-eyed Rose stumbled towards her with a sleep-deprived grin on her face.

"Wren, you wouldn't believe it! Last night was so much fun!"

"Looks like you brought the fun back with you," Trudy said, sliding off her bed and scooping up a bottle from Rose's desk. She squinted at the label, and then dug around in one of her drawers for a tea cup.

Rose looked horrified. "You can't be drinking so early in the morning, it's Sunday!"

"Who made that rule?" Trudy asked, holding the bottle up to the window so she could see the label clearer. "This stuff looks good."

"I don't know, it's just not done," Rose said indignantly.

"Is now," Trudy poured herself a drink and took a sip. "Nice," Trudy said, and propped her feet up on Rose's desk.

Rose shrugged. "Fine. Give me that." She took a short swig right out of the bottle and coughed. "Okay, maybe not." Her smile faltered when she saw that Wren hadn't moved from the bathroom doorway, clutching her towel like a security blanket.

Wren was too tired to be embarrassed about how she looked, fully dressed, eyes red and puffy from crying. Rose had stopped asking if Wren was alright weeks ago, because Wren always said she was fine. She wished Rose would ask now, just once more, so it would be easier to change the subject.

Instead, her friend plastered on a smile and picked up where she'd left off. "You absolutely have to come with us next time. Sneaking around the castle at night is such a rush, you don't even know!"

"Wasn't much fun for me," Wren muttered, earning a quick head jerk from Trudy, but before Rose could respond, Callie's bed curtains opened and she hopped out, half-dressed already.

"You've got to come," Callie said insistently, as she ran a brush through her hair and slipped on her shoes at the same time. "We're going again tomorrow night. Can you believe it? On a Monday! And James was so great! He didn't get us caught at all, and next time, it's going to be even better because he said he's going to bring a secret map of the castle that shows where all the professors are. It's going to be even more amazing!"

"Callie!" Rose cried out.

Callie looked guilty. "Oops! Don't tell anyone I said that. James doesn't have a secret map... at least not yet..." She ducked her head and headed for the door. "I am so hungry! See you all downstairs!"

Trudy snorted. "That girl doesn't need Veritaserum, just keep her up all night and she blabs everything. I'm taking a long shower." She shuffled into the bathroom, clicking the lock behind her.

The room fell silent while Rose whisked the bottle to the bottom of her trunk and tried to act casual about it. Wren couldn't remember how long it had been since she'd been truly alone with her best friend. It wasn't supposed to feel so awkward. A full minute clicked by, and then Rose finally turned to face her.

"No Bunny?"

"He's sleeping," Wren said, meeting her friend's gaze.

"Well, that's good," Rose said decisively. "I mean, he's a cute little thing and all, but you've been obsessing over him ever since we got to school."

"He needed me," Wren said, as Rose charmed the dried mud off her trainers from last night's escapades. "I can't believe you actually snuck out last night."

Rose threw her trainers into her trunk. "I can't believe it either. I mean, I was so nervous at first, but it was so much fun! You absolutely have to come with us tomorrow night!"

Wren sighed. "I can't."

"Yes, you can!" Rose said, getting that manic look in her eye that meant that she wasn't going to be talked out of this. "It's like my Uncle George always says, if we do everything right, we'll miss all the fun! We've heard all the stories about secret passages, and how big the castle really is. Callie was right, with James around, we didn't even come close to being caught!"

"No, I mean I really can't. I have an appointment with Mister Summers tomorrow night." Wren's cheeks warmed with embarrassment. "For detention."

"What??" Rose nearly knocked into the bedpost. "But you were studying. What happened?”

“I was in the library,” Wren said, and then chewed her lip nervously. Now she'd have to deal with Rose freaking out on top of everything else. Where was she supposed to start? With her rabbit? Albus' overgrown, fanged monster? The visions?

Rose's lip twitched. “And?”

"I was out too late.”

Rose looked at Wren skeptically. “I know the rules, Wren. In fact, I've broken about a gazillion of them in the last twelve hours. People don’t get detentions for studying too hard."

“It doesn't matter what we were doing. We were clearly out past curfew. The worst part is that Madame Pince insists that we broke into the library without permission, which we didn't."

Rose cocked her head. “We? Who else was there?”

“Albus,” Wren mumbled.

“You and Albus were out together past midnight roaming the halls?” Rose asked disbelievingly. "He never said anything to me about meeting up with you. The last I saw, he was with Priscilla Whitby."

"No, he was with me," Wren said, feeling weird about how that sounded. "We were studying, and then we got to talking about my... stuff, and then his rabbit... and the next thing we knew, it was past curfew."

Rose was oddly quiet for a while. "You told him stuff? You'd rather talk to him than me?"

"That's not what I meant. It was just that he was around, and you weren't... "

"I was here, Wren. All the time. I tried being there for you this summer too, but you pushed me away." Rose's voice rose, getting higher, shriller.

Wren's frustration rose higher as well. "And now you're mad at me?" The pressure behind her eyes threatened more tears, and the towel she was holding began to blur.

Rose huffed. "I know you're going through... stuff, or whatever you want to call it, but you keep saying things are fine, and then you spend all your time with that rabbit and won't come out of your room for forever. How can I help you if you don't talk to me? I just want to be your friend."

Wren's mind jolted. Friend? Images of Dillon's creepy grinning face jumped into her head, and she clenched her hands together to stop herself from batting them away. Inside my head, she reminded herself and made it go away. She shook herself back to reality. No, that's not what Rose meant.

"But I guess..." Rose continued, "did it help, talking to Albus?"

Wren picked at the fluff on her towel that now looked just like a towel again. "Some."

"Well that's... good. You ought to have someone to talk to, even if it's not me." Rose was smiling, a little, but she still sounded mad. Wren knew that Rose was going to stay mad until she got over it, however long that was going to be.

"But detention for being in the library too late sounds really harsh," Rose said after a while, not sounding quite as upset.

"I know, but..."

The towel blurred again and the images came faster now: Ian in the library, and Albus' rabbit, large and mostly hairless with a big, fanged maw. Wren clutched at the towel, fighting the scene that was so ugly and wrong. Not now, she thought. Bunny, stop!

She felt Rose patting her arm. "Wren, are you still with me? You had a scary look in your eyes for a second."

"There is something I have to tell you," Wren said. Somehow, it was alright now, like Bunny wanted her to tell someone.

Rose put her arm around Wren. "It's alright. You can tell me anything."

She took a deep breath. "Right. This is going to sound completely daft, but it's true. Albus' rabbit has turned into a mutant monster. I think it's trying to take over the castle."

 

***

 

That's crazy.

Rose's exact words. But the most important part was that she hadn't called Wren crazy. In fact, Rose spent the next half hour interrogating Wren on how they could stop it and whether or not she'd told anyone else besides Albus.

So Wren talked. She told Rose about the boy who'd given her Bunny and who'd also given James the rabbit that Albus had. After that, it had been easier to tell Rose about her family situation and Gran - and though Rose was an arse about it, giving her a hard time for not saying anything sooner, she'd vowed to help Wren in the same breath and find Madame Pince to sort things out.

Wren didn't think Rose would have much luck with the librarian, but she had to admit that she felt better afterwards. She just hoped that Rose would stay away from the Restricted Section and Albus' rabbit, like she told her to.

That afternoon, Wren sat on her bed and cleaned her photography equipment, half-sulking, half-thankful for the solitude. Even her head had been empty for the last few hours, which was a welcomed relief. Three rolls of used film sat on her bedside table. She'd have developed them by now if it weren't for the fact that she wasn't supposed to leave the Gryffindor Tower.

Wren felt a little prick behind her eyes as Bunny sent her images of the sunny patch he liked so much near the lake..

"I can't, Bunny. I'm already in trouble enough." Ever since the library, Bunny had been talking to her more and more. Sometimes in words, mostly in pictures. Wren wondered how much trouble she'd be in if she told someone about that.

It was trouble she didn't deserve, that was for sure. Rose and Callie had gotten away with being out of the castle half the night. She and Albus were the ones stuck with detention. It was hardly fair.

She suddenly pictured a Bunny-level view of the house elves at the bottom of the laundry chute. Wren blinked. How do you know about the house elves?

Another image came to her, this time right outside the Gryffindor common room. Wren could tell because the Fat Lady had left her frame and a group of second years were giggling over something as they climbed through the open portrait hole. They never looked down to see the little rabbit in the hall who watched them.

Wait a minute. Are you there right now?

Wren grabbed the canisters, and flew down the Gryffindor Tower stairs, her mind whirling with possibilities. The second years in the common room looked up at her curiously, but they wouldn't know that she wasn't supposed to leave, so she doubted they would say anything. She pushed through the portrait hole and peered out at the empty corridor.

Maybe James had a secret map (and maybe that was the thing that Albus had too that he was always folding up and tucking away before she got too close to it), but Wren had Bunny. She moved quickly through the halls, letting Bunny lead the way.

Wren made it out to the greenhouses without being seen. "Thanks, Bunny," she whispered, stepping into the greenhouse shed and slipping the door closed. Then she got to work.

It was crazy that Wren had to break the rules to prove that she hadn't broken any in the first place... except for being out past curfew... but she and Albus had a reason for that, and if anyone was going to take her seriously, she'd have to give them hard evidence.

She hung up the squares on the line to drip dry, checking each one. Wren found the series of photos taken of the carrots on the table, which were interesting angles, but not helpful. She sifted through the pictures of the library doors, and found one of them showing the big clock, with the time at a little past nine. That was exactly the picture she needed to prove that her story was true. They had been in the library, and they hadn’t lied!

"Dad!" Wren called, running up to him as he trudged up to his office wearing a frown. "Before you say anything, I had to give this to you." Her dad silently regarded the photographs that she handed him. "I'll do the detention. But I wanted you to know that Albus and I were telling you the truth. Look, the library clock says nine o'clock from last night. And here's another one at ten thirty. I don't know why Pince lied. Please, you have to believe me."

"Albus' rabbit," Wren pushed on breathlessly. "There's something wrong with it. It's immune to magic. It glows when it's about to Apparate, and smells like rotten apples. Madame Pince... she's been acting strangely. At the Book Club party last week with Mister Summers... can you at least tell McGonagall about it for me? Something's going on."

Her dad looked at the pictures she'd given him. "I believe you, Wren. I did some checking on my own, and several of the professors haven't been seen or heard from all weekend. Babbling's not in her quarters, and Madame Pince won't answer her door. Rose came to me earlier and told me that the library is closed for the weekend. I was even cornered by Peeves just now. He's getting upset over the fact that Summers hasn't been attending to the ectoplasm build-up on the fourth floor. Whatever is going on, it's not just about rabbits in the library."

Wren nodded as Bunny showed her a group of students coming out to the lawn. He'd been playing the "show me" game so long that it came automatically now.

"I'm going back to the common room now," she told her dad. "If you need any help..."

"Thanks, Wren. But I think the safest place for you is in the Gryffindor Tower. I'm going to talk to McGonagall to sort this out."

Wren nodded. Her dad believed her. She gave him a quick hug and then began heading back to the Gryffindor Tower. On the way, she saw a glimpse of long ears in the tall grass, but Bunny had been by the garden entrance just moments ago. It was too far away to see clearly, obstructed by the bushes and the darkening sky. Wren reached out to it in her head.

Bunny, is that you?

She saw herself through its eyes, and felt it shudder with need and hunger. Wren pulled back quickly in shock. The wind whipped around her as the rain came. She hurried to the castle steps and glanced back. A dark, furry head bobbed up and down through the tall grass. It looked very rabbit-like, and it was getting closer. Black as midnight, it stared up at her with moon eyes, opened its mouth to show off a full set of tiny needles.

Bunny was suddenly inside her head, frantic.

Run!


***


Smeed and Burns had interviewed the humans at Rothley Station a few days ago, but outside of a dazed woman who worked the deli, there weren't any strange signs other than a large pile of rabbit droppings under the porch. Smeed had been relieved at first when they were called to investigate another village further north. He'd hoped for more clues, more direction, an escalation of some kind that would make them more aware of who was going round the countryside snacking on people without the common decency to cover their tracks.

He just hadn't expected this.

"Someone was here alright. Just look at this place. They're half expired," Burns said, nudging one of the fallen humans with the toe of his boot. He earned a nasty look from an EMT who was assisting one of the dehydrated victims regain consciousness.

"Don't taunt them," Smeed said. "We're supposed to look like we're helping."

One of the humans, a stocky woman, sat up groggily. "Is he back yet?" she asked weakly. "My friend?"

Smeed stepped forward and flashed something that passed for a badge to the EMT who treated her. It must have been enough, because after he inserted an IV in her arm and helped her into a chair, he backed off far enough for Smeed to get a good look at her.

"Do you remember anything?" he asked her.

She shook her head.

Smeed checked the ID that had been pulled off of her. "Maude, is it? Can you tell me what happened here? Who did this to you?"

She looked up at him with bleary eyes. "He said he was going someplace magical... such a sweet little boy." Her eyes lost focus and she stared at the floor.

"Where is this place?" Smeed prodded. "Did he tell you which way he was going?"

The woman pointed a lone finger towards the door. Her chin dropped and she began muttering unintelligibly under her breath.

Smeed gently turned her head to the side and saw two puncture marks in her neck. "Look here," he said to Burns.

"Too small to be from one of us," Burns said. "How odd."

"Even for a child," Smeed said. What a horrible thought. They didn't turn children into vampires. It just wasn't done. "What do you think we're dealing with?"

"Someone who's Enthralled an entire village and left them to die," Burns said. "We have to stop this."

Smeed surveyed the rotting vegetables strewn all over the floor, covered in writhing maggots. Three victims, no trace of the one responsible. "The place feels like wizardry."

"Accusations, Smeed. Careful with those. Though I suppose you'd know, camping out in Diagon Alley for all this time."

Smeed thought about that. "The young witch I saw a while back. I need to talk to her again."

"Mmm. You always liked them young and curious," Burns said, staring down at the immobile woman. "Even the smallest trace of Enthrallment can take weeks to wear off, and by then she'll have expired. This one will be better off if I take care of it. I'll meet up with you when I'm done here." He leaned in close to her and sniffed. "Unfed, unwatered. Such a waste. Maude, is it? Look into my eyes..."

Smeed turned away from Burns and the poor woman, stopped at the door to give the EMTs some reasonable excuse to leave them be, and stepped outside.

Maude had pointed north, and Smeed knew what lay beyond the seemingly impenetrable mountains. It was in the direction of the school for young witches and wizards called Hogwarts.

Was the young witch from the Inn connected to any of this?

He thought back to the strange, yet familiar presence he'd felt when he met Hannah's daughter.

The girl was a young thing. He'd thought to ask Hannah if she'd seen vampires about, but it was in poor taste to stick his nose in the business of other vampires, as long as they weren't breaking any rules. But now he felt like he needed to know why a young witch had signs of being enthralled so close to the origin of this... outbreak of irresponsibility. Though it wasn't outright breaking the Treaty, it was walking a very thin line that he was more familiar than he would like to admit. She might know something, or she might lead him to someone who knew more about who had left an entire community to waste away into nothingness.

He stepped in something soft and brown, and then scraped the bottom of his boot on the sidewalk. And why were there rabbit droppings everywhere he went?


 


Chapter 19: 19. Hearty Heart Heart
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Is it gone?

Wren's heart was still racing as she peeked out of the girls' bathroom. When he let her know the way was clear, she sprinted up the stairs to the Gryffindor common room.

Bunny's panic had slammed into her so hard that she could barely catch her breath. She felt silly hiding from a tiny thing, not any bigger than he had been that summer, helpless and injured in the woods. What exactly was she running from?

Stay away from it!

In between classes the next day, she couldn't help scanning the floor, several times imagining something dark and furry that made her jump. Each time, it had just been a shadow or a crumpled up piece of parchment. After a while, Wren wanted to dismiss Bunny's insistent pleas that echoed through her head, but then she remembered how wrong it had felt to stare into those small beady eyes, which put her back on the edge all over again.

The only bright part of her day was when Albus and Scorpius had come over to sit with her (and Rose) at lunch... which was nice until Rose had taken great offense to Scorpius scooping the cherries out of her pudding.

Wren walked into Mister Summers' class with that sinking feeling that bad things were happening without her knowledge. Bunny had remained suspiciously quiet, and Wren had hoped that whatever it was would go away on its own.

She reached out, just to check.

Bunny, is it still here?

"I think he's asleep again."

Wren jolted in her chair. "What??"

Nate pointed to Mister Summers' soft snores, partially covered by the new issue of Magical History In the Making. Over to her left, Scorpius still hadn't let up, this time making faces at Rose, while Albus and Callie steadfastly kept their heads in their textbooks.

They could all usually brush off Scorpius' stupidity, but today, it seemed like he was making an art form out of being an idiot.

"He reminds me of my cousin," Nate said.

"Albus?"

"No, that Malfoy bloke. He's just like Greggory. Still hasn't learned how to talk to a girl."

"Scorpius talks to plenty of girls. It's just Rose. Ever since she called him a 'cocky, elitist snob' back in second year, he's been out to prove her wrong every chance he gets." Wren's eyes lingered on the table across the room, hoping he'd get whatever it was out of his system because after class, they had plans. She smiled, remembering Albus' suggestion at lunch, which they'd all happily agreed to. Finally, there was something normal to look forward to.

Nate prodded her with his quill. "Anyway, I saw the Hufflepuff team looking over your Quidditch practice montage last night. Great framing. You've got to have an incredibly fast shutter speed to catch McCormack with the Bludger. It looked like you were hanging over the railing when you took it.”

Wren looked over in surprise. "You noticed the camera angle?"

"My uncle is fascinated with photography. He used to be a professional painter."

"It was good timing," Wren said, thinking about the loud crack of McCormack's bat against the hurling ball, and the way that Hugo had tipped his broom up at the last minute to avoid getting hit by a stray Quaffle during scoring drills. That last shot had been sheer luck. The lightning-fast shutter helped too.

A flash of yellow came from the front of the room. Summers' signature loopy script appeared on the chalk board, reminding the room that they still had an assignment due by the end of class. The chalk continued to scroll up the board and write a note about this week's Book Club meeting in the library, which was circled and punctuated by several asterisks.

Wren flipped through her text, not really searching for anything. She already knew all about vampire misconceptions, ways to recognize a vampire and the dangers of becoming one (as if anyone would do that on purpose). They'd been on the same subject for so long that it should have been thoroughly exhausted by now. Clearly, Mister Summers thought otherwise.

“Nate, what do you think about vampire rights? Should they be excluded from equal say in the Ministry just because they're classified as ‘undead’?”

Nate cocked his head to the side. "Why? What do you think?”

“It seems to me that if they’ve been around for as long as everyone says they have, why would they need to be regulated? I bet they already regulate themselves, and we don't even know about it.” She blushed a little at Nate's blank look. "Sorry. I guess that’s what happens when you spend too much time with Rose. I almost started sounding like her mother.”

"You're right,” Nate said. "They've been around way longer than the Ministry. Think about it. How would all the wizards in the world feel if the other magical beings joined up and decided that we were too dangerous to govern ourselves because of what happened with Voldemort?”

Wren nodded. "Exactly. Wizards don't have the only kind of magic in the world."

"Technically, it's not magic like the way we understand it. They get their strength and power from consuming someone else's blood, which contains their life-force... alright, fine. It's sort of like 'magic', but no wizard has been able to duplicate it with a potion or wand."

"Well, who would want to? It sounds like a horrible way to exist."

Wren quickly finished the conclusion of her essay, and with more than ten minutes left in class, aimed her camera at the fluttering magazine over Mister Summers’ face. Then she rotated her view across the room to Scorpius... Rose... Albus...

Nate's quill stopped scratching parchment. "Still haven't told him yet?"

Wren lowered her camera. "What?"

Nate stuck the quill behind an ear and crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Save the clueless act for someone who doesn't have eyes. I know you better than that."

Wren sank into her chair. "Am I being that obvious?"

"Am I really the only one who's noticed?"

During their weekly homework sessions, history essays had bled into personal topics. Nate had spoken a lot about his fascination with Astrology, and Wren had told Nate stories about her and her friends at Hogwarts over the years. She hadn't meant to, but her stories kept turning into Albus stories, and before long, Nate threatened to make a drinking game out of it. In a fit of giggles, she'd surprised herself and stopped denying how she felt. It had been weird, talking to a boy about her feelings for another boy, but also a relief. Nate was a good listener. He just didn't get what was so complicated about the situation.

"So what are you going to do about it?"

Nate had asked her this before, and often. "We're meeting up after class is over," she said, proud to have an answer this time.

"Just the two of you?"

"Not exactly. Rose and Scorpius are coming too." A small worry knotted in her gut, but she shooed it away. As long as there weren't any more creepy little rabbits out there, like yesterday, she had nothing to worry about. "They're all my friends," she said, more defensively than she meant.

Nate scribbled down a last sentence in his parchment. "I wouldn't want to be there, and I'm your friend. We are friends, aren't we?"

"Yeah, of course we are," Wren said. "That's why you say nice things about my photography."

"I wasn't just being nice. In fact, I wanted to ask you..."

From across the room, Scorpius let out an undignified shout. Instinct took over, and Wren hid behind her camera. She couldn't hear what Rose was saying to make him clench his jaw like that, but everyone in the room heard his retort.

"You think I like blokes?"

Rose's voice rose above a whisper. "Isn't that why you and Albus are always joined at the hip?"

“Oi! I’m sitting right here!” Albus' face turned red, and Wren clicked the shutter.

Scorpius opened his mouth to retort but stopped short. He looked like he was thinking things over, scheming, which was a dangerous thing for a Slytherin.

Click.

“If I told you I fancied your cousin, would you think it was sexy?”

Many things happened all at once. The bell rang to signal the end of class. Students pushed for the door, Rose was on her feet in an instant, and the slap rang through the classroom. Wren framed each image as it happened: Scorpius’ shocked face. Rose’s equally horrified expression. Scorpius moving towards the door in stunned silence, and the stoic face of Headmistress McGonagall in the doorframe.

Wren lowered the camera to let it hang by its strap around her neck as the headmistress surveyed the emptying classroom.

“These are your friends?” Nate muttered from behind her. “Good luck with that. I'll see you later."

McGonagall's eyes shifted from the teacher collapsed behind his magazine, to Scorpius Malfoy scooting out of the room under her outstretched arm. Everyone else froze as she took a deep breath.

“I heard the entire exchange and I believe that punishment for this incident has already been given to both parties. Mr. Potter, tell Mr. Malfoy not to take my kindness for weakness. The next time he chooses to act rudely to another student, he’ll be scrubbing toilets with a toothbrush.”

Albus nodded dumbly. Then he was moving to the door. He stopped at Wren's table and gave her a helpless look. "I should go. I have to tell him... guess I'll see you later."

“Right.” Wren said, disappointed, watching him leave the room. Callie's whispers on the other side of the room reminded her that Rose was still there... was the reason that they weren't going to meet after class like they'd planned.

McGonagall's voice softened when she reached Wren. "I appreciate the photographic evidence, but too many students in this school have gotten into trouble trying to handle things on their own, your father included. You can come to me any time."

"Thank you, Headmistress," Wren said.

McGonagall rapped on the desk with a sharp knuckle, causing the bleary-eyed teacher to jump to attention. "Mister Summers, a word in my office, please."

Wren turned back to Rose, who was as still as a statue, and tried not to be mad. "Rose? We have to go now. Class is over. Rose?"

“I’ll take her books,” Callie said, scooping them up.

“Oh no!” Rose wailed, finally breaking the silence. "What have I done?”



***



Albus could have sworn that portrait had been watching him since he exited the dungeons. He nervously adjusted his tie. "We aren't supposed to be here."

"It's fine," Scorpius said, shuffling next to him. "No one's around to see."

The halls were dead quiet. Albus could think of a trillion things he'd rather be doing. Everyone was either in their common room, or at Gobstones Club meeting or somewhere else - dinner had been over for at least an hour.

The year wasn't shaping up into what he'd imagined. Quidditch was stressful, with Serena not getting on with the new prospects who had shown up to practice, and his brother was still king of the pranks. It irritated him that he hadn't been able to shut James down like he'd planned. He'd had so many plans for the year, and one by one, they were failing. Even his decision to try to ask Wren out hadn't gone anywhere.

When had things started going wrong? His steps slowed as they got closer to the portrait. Wait a minute, he realized, it was actually Scorpius who'd convinced him to say something to Wren when they'd met up in Diagon Alley.

The studious old wizard with pins sticking out of his large-brimmed hat continued to frown at the two Slytherins approaching from the other end of the Great Hall corridor. Albus came to a halt right beneath his frame.

Stupid idea. Who asks a girl out in the middle of their birthday party?

""Hurry up," Scorpius urged. "I'm starving!"

"You're an idiot," Albus muttered, getting a glare from the portrait.

"What did you want me to do? Walk into the Great Hall like a cack-handed tosser so I can be publicly ridiculed by your cousin again?"

"You could have kept your mouth shut in class, and we'd have been out on the lawn instead of hiding in the dorm with a welt the size of Durmstrang on your face. That wasn't in the plans."

Albus remembered Wren's face brighten at lunch when he asked her if she wanted to hang out by the tree after classes. Scorpius had followed him to the Gryffindor table, for moral support, he'd said. Right. For someone with morals of a Grindylow and all the support of an overstretched....

"You know who messed up your plans? It was Rose." Scorpius pretended to toss his hair, as he mimicked Albus' cousin, "Oh, we haven't been out to the tree in ages, that would be so much fun!"

"You didn't have to stick your fingers in her pudding."

"I figured that while you were chatting up Wren, I could..."

"Act even more annoying than any wizard should be allowed?" Albus whipped his head around at a strange scraping coming from somewhere behind them. "What was that?"

Scorpius peered around too, but saw nothing. He shrugged. "Probably just Peeves again. I think."

Albus' stomach growled, which brought him back to the portrait above them. It was his third year when Headmaster Fronsac had been moved from McGonagall's study to the entrance of the kitchens. The switch had dramatically reduced between-meals snacking. Most of the students were afraid of the portrait, but Albus knew him well from Aunt Hermione's rantings when she'd been working on "The History of Headmasters, an Anthology". ("That man is truly daft. All he cares about is alliteration and low glycemic foods!")

"Gingered grapefruit," Albus said, and the portrait swung aside to reveal a small wooden door. He looked around at the empty hall again, just to be sure. "Gah! I'm going to be in so much trouble. I can't believe I've got a week of detention!"

Scorpius shoved him through the passageway. "A little detention isn't going to ruin your whole life. It's only three days. You're practically golden. "

"But people like me don't get detentions!"

"And people like me do? I haven't got detention since that collision on the field with Durmack back in fourth year, thank you, and I didn't deserve it either. It was a bloody accident, even Madame Pomfrey in the Infirmary said so. And just because I'm expected to be a jerky arse like my father doesn't mean it's who I am."

"No, I didn't mean that. But my mum and dad..."

"They probably won't even notice another owl flying in from Hogwarts, since your brother's earning an O in detentions all by himself. And if you don't help me, I'm going to starve. What is the punishment for letting your best mate become malnourished..."

"Shut it, Scorpius. I'm here, aren't I? Seriously, I can't get caught this time. Where's the map?"

Scorpius shoved his hands in his pockets and ducked under a low beam. A little house elf scurried past them in surprise.

"I sort of misplaced it. Look, this afternoon, I ran into James. The map was in my pocket, and then it wasn't. I don't know how he did it, I swear."

"Again?? He's going to catch on eventually, if he hasn't already, and then we'll never get a leg up on him." The elf scurried back with a small bag of ice. "Thanks," Albus said, proceeding to run it through a series of well-practiced anti-hex charms.

“It’s an ice pack, mate. No need for all that. Just hand it over,” complained Scorpius.

“Can’t be too careful,” Albus said, and moved his wand in another semi-circle around the bag.

“Yes. Yes you can,” Scorpius argued. "Give me that!"

Albus shrugged and tossed the bag of ice to his friend, who pressed it gently against his cheek.

Scorpius moaned. “I think she broke all the blood vessels in my face."

They both heard it. The portrait door creaked from down the passageway. Several elves passed, carrying a half-eaten pudding through a tiny door that probably led to one of the hidden passageways. Scorpius clutched at Albus like a little girl. "Someone's coming!"

"It's too late now," Albus said, and slouched into the wall. For a second, he considered crawling through that door after the pudding, but what good would that do? "They'll know someone was here." He counted the footsteps getting closer, and pictured Professor Longbottom's disappointed face from Sunday morning.

The footsteps slowed, and Wren appeared in the doorway, looking at them both like they'd done something stupid and should have known better.

"Oi!" Scorpius exclaimed. "Did Rose send you to wound me some more?"

"No, Rose sent me for dinner." The same little house elf ran up to her eagerly. She handed him a short list and a basket. He nodded and ran off. "Why are you looking at me like that? She's my friend."

Albus didn't even try to hide his scowl. "You're not supposed to be here. What if someone catches you?"

"No one saw me, Albus. I know how to get around the castle just as well as you now. Besides, maybe I'm tired of following rules all the time. Rose needs me to do this." She looked at Scorpius. "She didn't mean to hit you, by the way."

"How can you 'not mean' to slap someone?" Scorpius flexed his jaw.

Wren winced. “I'm sure if she was here, she'd tell you how sorry she was."

Albus could almost hear Rose's tone of regret through Wren's voice, and she usually meant it. Rose was nothing but truthful ninety-nine percent of the time. He could only remember one time she'd even lied, and that was to save him from getting his hand caught in Grandma Molly's cookie jar - literally - and that was when they were five.

Scorpius scoffed. "Yeah, sorry that she hates me so much. Probably telling the whole school all about it."

"She's been curled up on her bed for the last two hours. She's really embarrassed about what she did.”

Albus had never in his life known his cousin to hit anyone ever. He'd never known Wren to break the rules - at school, anyway. He frowned at the elf who ignored him and brought Wren an overloaded basket of food. She thanked him (at least her manners were still like the Wren that he knew). Then she turned to go. "See you later tonight." At Albus' blank look, she added, "Detention?"

"Right." He watched Wren leave through the passageway. Then elves swarmed around them with mashed potatoes and steaming bowls. Albus shoveled a spoonful of mutton stew into his mouth and temporarily forgot why he was so mad.

After the last dinner roll was fought over and a second bowl of pudding ("Merlin, Scorpius, use a spoon or I'll hex you to the Dead Sea!"), Scorpius nudged him with his foot. "What's wrong with you? Wren shows up and you act sick as a parrot."

Albus shook his head slowly. "I don't get it. What's going on? Rose has turned violent, Wren's sneaking around the castle like all of a sudden the rules don't matter, and her dad probably hates me."

Scorpius snorted. "If he hated you so much, he wouldn't have set you two up this week."

"It's detention, not a date."

"Yeah, but you'll be with Wren for three nights. You'll get a chance to work things through. You two always do."

"I should stop listening to you," Albus told him.

"Who else is gonna make you get off your arse and act? Nothing happens if you just sit around thinking about things. Besides, there's worse people to listen to than me." He popped the pudding spoon out of his cheek and sighed. "I guess my mum was right about acting posh when there's cutlery about. Rose is probably never going to talk to me again."

 

***


Wren plunked the food basket in the middle of the dorm room. Albus had acted so... how could he be mad at her for helping Rose, when he was sitting on the floor with Scorpius in the kitchen? Her brain buzzed with furry paws scraping over stone. She ignored it and passed a bar of sweet baking chocolate to Callie, who handed it over to a slightly less hysterical Rose. Rose smiled with watery eyes.

"Best friend ever! Thanks, Wren. And you too, Callie. You didn't have to stay with me like you did. And the flowers are so beautiful, my favorite!"

Callie's Transfiguration skills had turned a stack of quills into rainbow-tinted Calla lilies, and she'd used an ink pot to fashion a stuffed bear. "Wren's got a rabbit. I thought you could use something to cuddle too."

Wren shook the fuzziness away from her mind and concentrated on unpacking the food. Bunny had been quiet all day, even when she'd called out to him. It was Bunny's turn to wait on her while she took care of her friends... the ones that she'd shut out for too long.

“I just wanted him to stop for one second. He makes me so crazy. Why does he have to do that?”

“Because he’s Malfoy," Callie said.

“I didn't mean to hit him. Well, I did, but usually, I just visualize wiping that satisfied smirk off his face whenever he gets like that and then I'm good. Never in real life. Never in class... Godric's garters! I assaulted someone!”

Wren dug out a plate of sandwiches, and Callie gave Rose's back a reassuring pat. "I'm sure he'll be fine. He deserved what he got, after all."

Rose clutched at the chocolate like it was her last grip on reality. “But what he said was true!” she wailed with banshee-like abandon. “And I hate it! I’m not supposed to fancy someone like that.”

Wren froze, almost dropping a chicken sandwich on the floor. “You fancy Malfoy,” she repeated.

Rose nodded, wiping snot from her face. She bit into the bar. “I can’t help it," she continued, chewing around her words. "Why couldn’t it be someone nice, with a respectable family and a sense of chivalry?” She sniffed. “I've been trying for years to make him go away, but I can't get him out of my system. He just grows, like a bad rash.”

Callie drew back. "Wren, I think the chocolate has made her brain go soft."

"That's why I needed him to just go away," Rose said. "I get goose bumps every time we're in the same room together and I know he makes excuses to sit next to me and brush up against me. It makes me want to smack him."

"You did," Trudy called from across the room.

"I know. And then all I want to do is wrap him up in a big hug and tell him how sorry I am." She shuddered.

"You mean all this time he was picking fights, and you were enjoying it?" Wren asked incredulously. At the same time, a slight pressure built up behind her eyes, and then a strong smell of wet dirt. What had Bunny gotten into this time?

“I didn’t want to. I tried to like Charles instead, I really did,” Rose said dejectedly. "He's sweet and kind, but he's so..."

"Boring," Trudy finished as she caught an apple out of the air. "Thanks, Wren."

"Yeah, boring." Rose sighed. "And Malfoy's such a prat."

"Uh, I'm not sure what to do here," Callie said with a confused frown. "Are we supposed to hate Scorpius with you, or help you with a plan to break him up with Serena?"

Rose let out a dramatic sob. "It's too late! He's obviously over me, now that I've publically accosted him! The worst part is that he's really smart under all that bravado. And he's sensitive too. I can see it in his face when he thinks no one is looking."

For a split second, Wren tried to imagine Rose and Scorpius alone together. Her stomach turned over, like she was falling down the Gryffindor Tower stairs. Tea. She needed tea. Wren dug around in her dresser drawer for the packets.

"And he makes me laugh," Rose continued, "on the inside," she corrected. "Because I didn't want him to see, you see?" She hiccupped back another sob and whispered, "We could have been good together." She gazed at the flowers Callie had gotten her and broke into another round of sobs.

Wren opened her eyes when things steadied around her. Suddenly, she was hit with a surge of panic. Strange, dark balls of grime rushed behind her eyes. She felt like she was running through dark tunnels, cold and scared. A blast of air jetted out of nowhere. Wren blinked rapidly to clear her head. Rose was still talking, but Wren couldn't make out anything she was saying.

Rose's voice droned on in the background as Bunny sent her more disturbing images, Albus' rabbit, swirling black balls of fur and fangs around him, clicking together in a frightful chatter.

Wren waved her hands around her head, trying to shoo the visions away. "Stop it!"

Rose sighed heavily. "You're right. I'm so pathetic..."

"No, not you," Wren said hastily. Her three roommates were looking at her like she'd finally lost her mind, which she felt like she was about to do at any second. Wren didn't know what Bunny was trying to say, except that it felt wrong. Those things, whatever they were, shouldn't even exist.

She had to get out and clear her head. She shoved her dresser drawer closed and grabbed her bag. "Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to yell."

"Where are you going?" Callie asked.

Wren's mind flailed with excuses, and then she remembered where she had to be in twenty minutes anyway. "Detention with Mr. Summers."

Rose gave her a sympathetic look. "I'm sorry."

"Not your fault," Wren said, and left.

The castle torches made the shadows loom uncomfortably tall around her. Wren didn't want to be anywhere near those things that Bunny had shown her. She definitely didn't want them inside her head.

It's too much, Bunny. Why are you doing this to me?

Bunny's thoughts were coming faster, more frantic as she took the stairs two at a time... small black things rolling towards him, gnashing, razor-sharp fangs, and then... everything went black.

Wren froze, mid-step. What happened? Where are you?

There was no answer. Nothing.

Wren frantically reached out, feeling for her friend. But as far as she went out of her mind, she couldn't find him.

She momentarily forgot her fear and raced out of the common room, tapping her foot impatiently for the moving staircase to roll to a stop in front of her, then she dashed down as fast as she could. He had to be somewhere on the fourth floor... that's where she'd felt him last.

Bunny! Where are you?

They're here.

Her eyes darted around, trying to look everywhere at once. If she could have cocked her ears at attention, she would have.

Where?

Bunny didn't answer straight away. Wren's pulse quickened. She pressed her back against the stone wall of the corridor, listening.

Bunny's reply was faint and sent shivers down her spine.

Everywhere.

 




 




A/N: As always, thank you to my wonderful betas, CambAngst and ladybirdflying! You guys make me look so good! 

So here we are, in chapter 19. I think I had a little too much fun at Scorpius' expense, but I'm not gonna apologize. Please leave your thoughts in the little box below. I have nothing to give you in return except my deepest gratitude and virtual German Chocolate cake.

Thanks for reading!
 


Chapter 20: 20. Tenderized Hearts
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Despite the fact that she’d convinced herself (eleven times in the last half hour) that Bunny’s fright shouldn’t be affecting her like it was, Wren walked on eggshells all the way to Summers’ office. It took her twice as long to get from Gryffindor Tower to the second floor as it should have, mostly from flinching at every shadow and halting at every unfamiliar sound. She’d spent almost three minutes huddled behind a suit of armor on the fifth floor landing, waiting for the wind to stop howling through a crack in one of the window panes… she didn’t even know what Bunny wanted from her, and it was at that point she’d had enough.

They’re just little rabbits, she insisted, sending the message firmly to Bunny. It wasn’t fair that she’d almost turned back to her dormitory twice, just because some random flicker of light made her start to hyperventilate. It was well past nightfall. There was supposed to be dancing torchlight and little noises as the castle (and an occasional house elf) reset everything for the following day, while students finished homework, or gossiped… or fulfilled their detention requirements.

Summers’ door was propped open. Wren stepped inside. Her heart was still double-timing, and her eyes darted around the room until she spotted a brass desk clock on a small pedestal by the door. Thankfully, Bunny’s hysteria hadn’t made her late.

She slid onto the bench by the wall next to Albus, who was already waiting. Wren couldn’t look at him. A few hours ago, he’d been mad at her for sneaking food from the kitchen (out-of-bounds to rule-abiding students), which was the exact thing he’d been doing (at exactly the same time). Wren was getting irritated at having to carry the guilt and panic of other people (and furry animals) around inside her. Hadn’t she been through enough on her own?

At first, she didn’t see the teacher, just a large, double-locking trunk that lay open so the lid was facing her. Then she heard the shuffling going on behind it. Summers’ voice came from the other side.

“Very disappointed…” He mumbled something else incoherent. A thin arm sprang out from the side of the trunk and jabbed a finger at his desk, punctuated by mutterings about “persons in the public eye” and “social responsibilities”.

The latest Britain's Wizard Watch was splayed over his work desk, featuring a two-page spread on Albus' world-famous father. Head Auror Harry Potter had a sickening greenish hue to his face, probably from the poor flash quality reflecting off the merpeople's tank next to him. Behind him was Albus (when he was still shorter) leaning to the outside of the frame. Unfortunately, the surrounding crowd didn’t allow his escape from the shot.
Albus shifted next to her on the bench. Wren watched a drizzle of rain start up outside the window, and hoped that detention wasn't going to be out there. She didn't mind the mud or the wet, but Bunny's constant fretting over the little rabbit had unnerved her to the point of not wanting to go anywhere with shadows.

She'd heard loads of stories about detention at Hogwarts: mostly from James. She was prepared to go anywhere that could be brightly-lit: cleaning the flagstones of the Great Hall with a toothbrush, or polishing the brass in the trophy room without a wand... anything but being in the dark where the shadows were. A bolt of lightning sliced across the window pane, and then Mister Summers stood up, dressed in thick protective wear, complete with rain boots and goggles.

Wren shrank back, and Albus stiffened. "You can't expect us to go outside in this weather," he said.

Summers threw two waterproof robes at them. "No, you're staying indoors."

Wren gaped at him. "Then what are the robes for?"

"Protection." Lightning flashed again. "You're going to need it.”

Albus and Wren looked at each other . "Against what?"

"Clogged drains."


***


Summers led them down an unfamiliar staircase that veered off to the right of the Potions Wing.  Another set of steep stairs followed, leading somewhere below the level of the Slytherin common room. He stopped about halfway down, gave them some brief instructions and a warning to fasten their robes tightly. Then he left them to find their way to the next sub-level on their own.

Albus reached the sub-level first and shifted the heavy waterproof robe over his shoulders. “Next time I see a camera out in public, the only thing they’ll get a shot of is my backside. I hate that picture they took of me.”

Wren stopped herself from making a quip about how photogenic Albus' backside was, remembering the way he'd stared her down in the kitchen. “You looked fine.” she said, lugging her own robe on. He'd looked better than anyone else in the miserable lighting of the Ministry's lower level conference room. "I'd have framed it differently," she admitted. Maybe to bring his face more in focus. She had trouble imagining a photo where he'd actually look bad.

She could feel Bunny’s pestering start up again, but refused to listen to it. Wren tamped down the rabbity feelings of alarm and dismay as she struggled with her own robe. The waterproof layer was thick and slick. The robe slid around on itself and was difficult to grasp. It must have some repelling qualities to it, probably to keep it waterproof. It was heavy, and it slipped through her fingers more than once.

When she finally got it on, she noticed Albus had been watching her and trying not to laugh. He looked like he'd been done for a while. The thick robe collar clung to his neck and draped the full length of him - he'd gotten his arms through the rubbery sleeves that sealed around his wrists. He held his wand loosely in one hand. "Ready?"

Wren stared down at her ridiculous robe, dragging the floor and waved her floppy sleeves that hung below her knuckles. It might be worth it to get wet, but then she thought of what might be in the drains... ugh. "I guess so."

They rounded the corner and were faced with a dark, dank corridor of large gated storage rooms. They passed one filled with old cracked cauldrons, and another that held defective brooms. Some of the brooms clanged around, still trying to take flight.
“I didn’t even know there were drainage ducts in the castle. I suppose it makes sense, since everything has to go somewhere.”

Albus found the unlit torches and set them aflame. Then he started tapping the walls with his wand, like Summers had instructed. When the hollow knock became a thick thud, he stopped. "Wanna go first?"

Wren's nerves flared. She hadn't done magic in front of anyone else outside of class. She'd been steadily improving, but it still might not work.

“It’s a simple flushing spell using pressurized water. We don't have to do it wordless like we did in class.”

“Yeah, alright." Wren traced her wand along the wall where Albus had located the pipe. There was a little thunking sound behind the stone. “What was that?”

“Dunno. Flush it,” Albus said.

Focusing her magic behind the stone wall was different from shooting water straight out of her wand. Wren pushed her intent into the water that was already there, and then just added to it. She held her breath and forced it through whatever the obstruction was. A hole the size of a bean tin opened at the base of the wall. The corridor flooded with murky water all the way to the toes of her trainers, and out floated a tiny, elf-sized sock.

Three more flushes and soon an assortment of quill nubs, a Firewhisky bottle that someone had forced down a loo, and some nondescript wads of parchment were piled in the middle of the corridor. Wren's trainers were soaked, while Albus stood a fair bit away from the growing puddle. “Your turn, Albus.” Wren said, as something bumped, like a big, wet hiccup.

Albus traced the pipe behind the stone with his wand. “Stand back. Let's see what it is.” He performed the flushing spell and the whoosh turned into a gurgle. The wall groaned. He pushed more pressure into the spell and a small black ball came hurtling out of the pipe. It hit the pool on the floor with a small splash, splattering Wren with a slimy dark gunk. She conjured a bucket and let it float inside.

“What do you think it is?” she asked, peering into the oily mess.

"The old Potion master's toupee'?" Albus chucked at his own joke and leaned over Wren's shoulder.

"Wait a sec."

Wren added a little clean water to the bucket. The ball shuddered. “Hey, it's moving.”
They both peered into the bucket as it spluttered and coughed. “Oh no, it’s alive!”
Wren siphoned the murky water out - little legs began kicking. With the oily slick washed off, it looked like a tailless rat. It's eyes popped open. Somewhere in those beady eyes was a wrongness she couldn't explain, the same wrongness that Bunny had warned her about.

Albus reached over her. "So this is what cute baby rabbits are supposed to look like."
"Albus, wait!" Before Wren could pull the bucket away, the animal bared a full mouth of needle-sharp fangs. It leapt up and latched onto Albus' hand.

He yelped and flung the thing off. Wren dropped the bucket and scooted away from it. The tiny fanged rodent hit the stone and squealed.

“Do we catch it, or let it go?” Wren asked as the thing’s noises kept rising in intensity and pitch. It sounded like a weasel with a sore throat.

“I don’t know,” Albus said, still clutching at his hand. “Can you get at it from behind? It’s got a nasty bite.”

Wren nodded and Summoned the bucket. Before she could move closer, a horrific shriek caused her to stop short. “What was that?”

“What was what?” Albus asked her.

Run! Hide! Get out!

Wren fought off Bunny’s demands and focused on the baby rabbit in front of her. The wall groaned, and the animal cowered closer to it, moving slowly towards the drain opening, keeping its beady eyes on Wren’s bucket.

“It’s trying to escape through the drain.” Wren lunged at it and Albus flanked its other side, wand ready. Then the whole corridor rumbled.

A slew of little black balls tumbled out of the drain.

Bunny’s panic took over. Wren screamed and leapt away from them, throwing the bucket in their general direction. Albus waved his wand wildly, throwing several well-aimed hexes at the things, but all he managed to do was make them mad. They spread across the floor in a line and crept towards him.

Wren felt herself tremble. Real, real… all real, Bunny chanted. When one of the rabbits was within five feet of her, she finally came to her senses and did the first spell that came to mind - she blasted the thing with a thick stream of water.

The burst hit it square in the face. It squealed and shook itself off. All beady eyes suddenly turned to her.

Wren sprayed water on them again, but she could only do one at a time. Then Albus was beside her, turning her stream of water into a thick wall, pushing the tiny monsters together.

Soaking wet and incensed, the clump of critters bared their vicious needle-sharp fangs and blinked away in a single flash of light.

Albus cursed under his breath and clenched his hands together. "It took a bite out of my wand hand. Can you heal it?"

It took two breaths to steady Wren’s trembling wand. "Episkey," she said earnestly, pointing at the shredded skin between his thumb and forefinger. At first, nothing happened. Then Albus grunted in pain, and the wound sealed itself.

"What the hell were those things? None of my spells did anything to them. How did you know what to do?"

“Bunny warned me about them yesterday. It was dark and cramped, and he was so scared."

Albus rubbed the puncture marks that were left in his palm. "Bunny told you this? If you knew about the monsters in the walls, why didn't you tell me?"

It took Wren a second to register that she'd said all that out loud. Her stomach lurched. "I... I didn't know, exactly."

Albus stood there, covered in wet muck from head to toe. His hair was matted to his head. Wren figured she looked just as bad. "But you just said..."

"It's hard to explain."

He looked slightly mad, and Wren's gut churned more. "Try."

"Bunny's inside my head," she cried. "He sends me pictures of things. I don't know how it works, but I had... visions, I guess, of being chased by those things. They eat flesh. I don't know how I know that - Bunny told me, sort of."

"How many are there?"

Wren counted from her recent memory. "Six. One in the bucket and five more came out of the wall after that."

"No," Albus said calmly. "Not just now. In your vision."

"I didn't see them like that. It was more of a feeling of panic, like a bad dream. Wait. You believe me?"

Albus frowned. "Course I believe you. We were just attacked by the things you said you saw in your head. Is that why you didn't tell me?" He looked up at the ceiling in exasperation. "My best friend is having freaky visions and didn't say anything. Did you tell Rose instead?"

"Not all of it. I didn't want to sound like I was going insane. I kept telling myself that the things Bunny showed me weren't real."

“What else has your rabbit told you?” Albus asked. He still looked skeptical, but he seemed open to whatever she had to say.

Wren thought about the little boy Dillon and the snippets she’d seen from his journey. She hadn’t figured out what any of that meant, but until now, she hadn’t taken any of it seriously.

If Bunny knew more about these little black monsters, where they came from and more importantly, how to get rid of them, maybe Wren could get him to tell her... show her more. Logically, if Wren was going to spout off crazy to anyone, she should at least get as much useful information as she could.

Albus was still staring at her, waiting for an answer. The underground air was starting to get chilly, or maybe that was just because Wren was soaking wet.
"Can we get out of here first?" she said. "I don't want to be around if those things come back."

"Right," Albus said. "Mister Summers ought to be told what we found in the drains. Where do you think he got off to?"

An image of two huge double doors with giant handles made Wren’s stomach growl, and this time it wasn’t from nerves. “The Great Hall,” she said immediately. Albus raised a skeptical eyebrow, and she added, “Bunny told me.”


***


They found Summers teetered dangerously on the top rung of a ladder, lubricating the hinges of the double doors to the Great Hall. Wholly unimpressed with their report of the potentially dangerous balls of fur and claws, he waved off the incident and injury.

"But they're dangerous," Wren said. "Albus got bit by one."

"Mmm. I'll tell the Gamekeeper to set traps tomorrow. Take your robes off and hang them over there," Summers said.

"Over where?"

Summers removed his goggles and looked down at them. Wren gaped at how sunken in his eyes were. He flipped off a glove and rubbed at a web of veins that ran dark and thick down the side of his face and under his collar. He hemmed again.

"Just, err... pile them on the floor." He waved to a spot beneath the ladder with his oil can, splattering black drops over the muck and grime Wren and Albus already wore.

Albus shrugged out of his robe. It made a squelching sound when Wren's robe landed on top of it.

Wren looked up at her teacher, who had swung his leg dangerously over the end of the ladder. "Are you alright, Mister Summers?" she asked as he climbed down.

"Fine, fine,” he muttered, more to himself than to her. “It’s time. Need to go..." Summers wandered down the hall, leaving Wren and Albus in the entrance corridor.

They were filthy. And they smelled. Wren wrinkled her nose and shook some of the goo out of her hair.

She aimed her wand at her hair and whispered, “Augamenti”. A burst of water much greater than she’d wanted hit the top of her head.

After the water blast on her face and neck, her clothes were mucky and wet. Albus had fared better. His waterproof robe was well-fitting, so beyond his hair and feet, the rest of him was dry. He took his shoes off, took a few steps back and blasted them with a jet of hot air.

"Traps won't work if they can pop into nothingness," Albus said, pointing his wand at Wren's clothes. "Scourgify." The muck and grime disappeared, leaving Wren clean, and slightly damp.

She tried Scourgify on her hair with limited results. The water, along with Albus’ cleaning spell had taken most of the yuck away, but she was still going to take a long hot shower before bed. Albus finished tying up his shoes and stood. “We better get going.” He had one of those half-smiles, but it was probably because her hair looked so crazy.

Wren frowned and followed him down the corridor. It was better than how he'd been acting before, but she hadn’t deserved his criticism, not when he’d been just as guilty.
"I thought you were mad at me, back in the kitchen earlier."

"I was, a little."

"Why? Rose needed food. I knew how to get it. Like you did with Scorpius. He was such a twat today!"

"Yeah, he was. But that stuff you said about not needing to follow the rules started sounding too much like James.” He tried to blow the wet hair out of his face, but it just stuck to his forehead until he wiped it away. “I guess I was more mad at myself than you. I know you've been through a lot, but you were so different after this summer. I thought that maybe you got tired of hanging around with me."

"After all the stuff with Gran, things are different. I’m different. And Bunny..." Bunny, who she'd been ignoring all of her friends for. Why, exactly? “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want you around. I couldn’t ever get tired of you.”

When they got to the portrait of the sleeping Fat Lady, Wren turned to say good bye and ran smack into Albus' chest. "Ooof," she said as she was pulled into a big hug.

The Fat Lady let out sharp snort from her portrait. Wren peeked around Albus' shoulder, but thankfully the portrait's eyes were still closed. The Fat Lady let out another soft snore as Albus let her go. Wren didn't know what to do, where to look, so she dropped her arms to her sides and swayed on her heels.

"We hardly spend any time together anymore. Too bad it had to be detention."

Albus put his hands in his pockets. "I miss you too."

Comfort, she told herself. He was only trying to keep her from crawling out of her skin. Except now, her skin was crawling with all kinds of things. She wished that it would stop so she could look at him without him reading all her stupid angsty feelings all over her face.
"Wren, I know you said those things were dangerous, but I've never seen you so scared around any animal, ever. What's going on?"

"I was afraid of you thinking I was nuts. And for Bunny, that he'd be blamed for everything, just because he came from the same place as your rabbit. He’s not like them at all, and he’s trying to help. You should have seen what he showed me, Albus. It was terrifying!" She winced at her own words. "I sound crazy, don't I?"

“No, you don’t sound crazy. You sound like Wren. Always trying to save the furry things." Albus hugged himself this time, rubbing at his wet sleeves. "Promise me that you'll talk to me about stuff like you used to, or I might start thinking you don't like me anymore."

"Promise."

Wren watched him shake off a chill. She felt the cold too, and raised her wand to dry them off more, but stopped short when she saw his hand. The skin around his fingers had turned a deep purple.

"Albus, your hand!"

Had she done the spell so wrong that it was now hurting instead of helping him? "I'm so sorry. My charms are rubbish. I shouldn't have..."

No, no. She'd done it right. So what had gone wrong? Maybe… then Wren remembered what Albus had been up to all summer and it suddenly made sense.
Albus pointed his own wand at the wound, about to cast the spell himself. Wren swatted his wand away and started unbuttoning his sleeve.

"Wren, what are you doing?"

"Your arm bands, Albus. Take them off!"

Albus dropped his wand and pulled at his sleeve too. “I can’t do it with one hand. Help me!”

There were at least five bound to his arm. Wren had a hard time stretching them so they didn't rub against the dissolving skin between his thumb and forefinger.

She tried the healing spell again. This time it slowed the darkening of his skin, which was now up to his wrist, but the wound was still ugly and open. Albus swayed on his feet.

"Get Madame Pomfrey. I think I need..."

Albus turned pale and fainted in the corridor.


***


Madame Pomfrey met them at the entrance of the Hospital Wing and took over the levitation spell, immediately setting him down on a gurney.

Wren was frantic. "He's got anti-hex bracelets that kept the healing spell from working. I think he's got them on his legs too."

As the nurse rolled the gurney into position, Wren called out, "Take his pants off! Check all over!"

Pomfrey arched her eyebrows and shut the curtain, blocking Wren from everything.
Wren fell back into one of the chairs along the wall, exhausted. She’d never been more thankful for Wingardium Leviosa in her entire life. Under pressure, her spells had worked.

A few minutes later - hours - days - Pomfrey came out. "Thank you for your help, Miss Longbottom. If I hadn't known to look for the anti-hex bands, he might have lost an arm."

"How is he?"

"Sleeping." Pomfrey gave Wren a once-over, noting her damp clothes, the dried muck in her hair.

"You were out doing detention, I gather?"

"For Mister Summers," Wren said. “We were sent to unclog drains and all these flesh-eating rabbits came out of the walls. One bit him. Is there anything I can do to help?”

"You can go back to your common room and get cleaned up." Pomfrey scribbled a note and gave it to Wren. "This will excuse you from being out past curfew. Don't worry about Mr. Potter. He'll be right as rain in the morning."

Wren reluctantly took the parchment out of the older woman’s hand as Madame Pince came in.

"Ahh, Poppy!" The old librarian noticed Wren and frowned. "Am I interrupting something?"

Wren wanted to ask her why she'd lied to everyone about not seeing them in the library on Saturday. But she was exhausted and wet, and cold. All she wanted now was a hot shower and some sleep. So instead, she just said, "No," and headed to the door. As she left, she overheard the old woman speaking in hushed tones to the nurse. Wren turned curiously, wondering what they were talking about so late at night. Pince must have noticed, because she suddenly stopped and looked up. Wren shuddered and left quickly. The old librarian’s eyes reminded her of the baby rabbit monsters, dark and empty.

The fat lady was so tired that she barely bat an eye at Wren's second visit that night, and was already asleep by the time the frame creaked shut. On her way up the stairs to the dorm, she could hear the drip of the faucets behind the stone walls, now that she knew what to listen for. She bet Galleons that the castle was never going to sound the same to her ever again.


 




A/N:  Must thank my wonderful betas, ladybirdflying and CambAngst for their patience and persisitence.  Also thank you to 1917Farmgirl and Writeyourheartout for those word races that helped get this thing done!

If there's anything at all you want to comment on, the little box below would love to be filled with words.  Thanks for reading!


Chapter 21: 21. Somewhere in the Heart
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 It’s only veins.

Wren stared at her reflection in the dormitory bathroom vanity. Everybody had them. Here, here and here. She traced the fading ribbons across her cheeks and down her neck. Ten minutes - she’d timed it - until the dark lines disappeared back under her skin.

She remembered the way Summers had looked last night - much worse than her - but it couldn't be the same thing, because Bunny wasn’t like Albus’ rabbit at all. He helped them, didn’t he?

He’d been so mopey this morning, with his little head hanging low. He’d missed her terribly, Wren could feel it. After she’d given him pellets and water and even a fresh carrot and he hadn’t moved, Wren had lifted him out of his cage to check on him. And then suddenly, he’d come alive, snuggling up to her, burrowing up to her neck and latching on.

He was present, in her thoughts, through her veins, everywhere. He’d soothed her. He’d given her a way to escape her worries and fears like nothing else in the world. This time, Wren pried him off of and put him back into his hutch before he could get into her head.

She squeezed her eyes shut, remembering how a little splatter of blood had landed in his water dish, and how Bunny had eagerly lapped it up. She knew what it looked like, but how was that even possible? There were several species of animals that drank blood for sustenance, but that was different from making a connection with a human, being someone’s friend... wasn’t it?

Wren heard noises of her roommates beginning to wake up and wrapped a scarf around her neck, just in case anyone noticed the marks, which they shouldn’t because everything had faded already.

Bunny protested in a silent whine while Wren finished her morning tea and felt his presence shrink away. She grabbed two handfuls of tea bags from her drawer and stuffed them in her bag. Bunny pressed into her mind, and Wren shoved him away, welcoming the sick, empty feeling inside her.

No more, Bunny, she decided. Not after today.

 

***


“The plan,” Rose was saying during lunch, “is to put as much distance between us as possible. Then it will be easier to get over him and move on.”

“There's a Hogsmeade trip planned for Saturday," Wren said, agitated by Rose's daft plan. She was still sulking after her mum's letter that asked her for one more tip home to help, which meant she'd miss the first day in the village with her friends. “What kind of madcap sneaks out to Hogsmeade in the middle of the week?”

“I’m not crazy,” Rose told her with a toss of her hair. “You’re sneaking around too. Getting detentions, even. I’ll be distracting myself and stretching my personal boundaries at the same time. Why can’t you see the brilliance in this?”

Wren checked the Slytherin table and saw Albus favoring his heavily bandaged hand next to Scorpius. He’s okay, she told herself, looking him over for the thirtieth time. He'd looked fine in Charms that morning too, no dark veins or sunken eyes or any other strangeness. That was good, wasn’t it? He hadn’t been enthralled by those things last night.

Rose coughed. “Wren, if you keep looking over there, he’ll know I’m talking about him. I’m supposed to be forgetting about him, remember?”

Ever since Rose had slapped Scorpius, she couldn't stop talking about forgetting him. It almost made Wren feel like her worries about going insane weren't all that bad.

“Rose, about detention last night.”

“Oh, yeah. How was it?”

“There are things living in the walls. They look like baby rabbits, but they’re really flesh-eating monsters.”

Rose cringed. “Really? Ugh! Do you mean like Albus’ rabbit?”

“No. Much smaller,” Wren said.

“Like Bunny?”

“Exactly not like Bunny!”

Rose pretended not to look at Scorpius again, stabbing her salad and missing several times. She could have chosen to sit on the other side of the Gryffindor table and avoided eye contact altogether, but Wren guessed that would have been too easy.

“Listen,” she said, “if you see any rabbits in the castle, or anywhere, don’t go near them.”

Rose didn’t answer, and Wren sighed. “I’ll explain later.” She flagged down a house elf and asked for a mug of hot water. This was her third cup. she was determined to have a clear head until Bunny decided to tell her what was going on.

Her plan was working well, except now Wren was quite full of tea. She excused herself and left the Hall, not realizing until she was halfway out that she’d taken the mug with her. Not wanting to go all the way back to the Hall, she stowed it on a window ledge and ducked into the girls’ loo.

When she came out, Wren retrieved her steeping tea from the ledge. Compared to the dull roar of students behind the thick double doors of the Great Hall, the corridor was almost void of sound. Basil Fronsac cleared his throat gruffly from the kitchen entrance, and Wren moved away from him to look out at the still grey weather. The large windows overseeing the courtyard framed the choppy waves moving over the lake outside.

A faint pull drew her to one of the windows overlooking the castle grounds. Wren scanned the sloping lawns for anything out of the ordinary. She’d had too much tea for it to be Bunny. And she was curious.

She’d told Albus last night about Bunny talking to her in her head. It was the first time she’d told anyone. But she hadn’t mentioned anything, or anyone else to him. She could explain Bunny, sort of. Those other things, she didn’t understand and hadn’t really wanted to.

“Wren!”

Wren turned away from the window to see Albus jogging up with an apple in his hand. “I saw you leave the Hall. You’re not eating lunch?”

“I got tea,” she said. “How is your hand?”

“Oh, this.” Albus waved his bandaged hand around like a Beater’s bat. “The skin has to grow back slowly. Pomfrey said I can’t wear my bands again until it’s completely healed.”

He blew on the apple and rubbed it against his shirt. “Last night got me thinking.”

“About what?” Wren asked, sipping her tea. Suddenly the window was much less interesting.

“We used to hang out all the time, and now…” he munched on his apple, mid-sentence, “maybe we should plan to spend more time together.”

A group of students suddenly filled the corridor, apparently Potions lesson had gone late, and they rushed into the Hall, late for lunch. Wren was briefly separated from Albus by the moving crowd. Albus looked irritated, but stepped back so he wouldn’t get knocked about. A trio of girls laughed around Wren, chatting about weekend plans. The word “Hogsmeade” floated through the air.

Was that it? Was he going to ask her…

The crumpled note from home jabbed her in the leg as someone bumped into her (by accident). Wren backed into the wall and waited for the crowd to clear out. She couldn’t go anyway. If he didn’t ask, that was alright.

Except it wasn’t, because Wren suddenly wanted him to. Her heart beat against her ribs double time, and she felt like she was catching Rose’s hysteria. Breathe, she told herself.

Albus shot the retreating crowd a dirty look and came over to Wren’s side of the hall. He had an apple core between his fingers, and glanced around for a place to put it.
“So, umm…”

She smiled at him. They’d hugged last night. Twice. “We were going to hang out more.”

“Right.” Albus cleared his throat. “You still need help with Charms?”

Wren tried not to let her smile falter. Logical. Friends. “I guess I do. There’s a practicals test on Friday.”

Albus brightened. “I'll see you in detention too. You got assigned to Vector, yeah?”

Wren sagged against the stone. “No. Professor Ackerly needs his walls scrubbed. The second years charred up his classroom with excessive Incendio practice.”

“Then how about tomorrow? An hour before classes at the bridge.”

Wren smiled weakly. He was rather enthusiastic for Charms practice. She warmed to the fact that he wanted to meet up with her at all. "Sure.”

“Gotta grab my things and finish lunch.” Albus waved and went back to the Great Hall.

An unmistakable itch built up behind her eyes. Out of habit, Wren reached out to the little rabbit, and instead of soft, fluffy comfort, her mind filled with a familiar, yet disturbing image of Dillon. His vacant stare bore straight through her. Dark and wrong, like the monster rabbit babies. His toothy grin warped into a grimace. His eyes slanted - the whole face twisted until it dissolved into a swirl of unrecognizable shapes.

Wren blinked hard and gulped down the last of her lukewarm tea. The bitter dregs settled in her mouth, but quickly cleared her head. She looked down at her empty mug.

She wasn't even asleep this time, so how did Dillon get inside her thoughts?


***

That afternoon, Summers had ditched the magazines and was up in front of the class. Wren didn't miss the tip of McGonagall’s pointy hat that drifted past the doorway several times during his lecture. Today's lesson consisted of repetitive content from a chapter they’d covered last week, but he was really into it this time, as if everything he said was new to them. And of course at the end, he assigned a lengthy group essay for their out of class assignment.

After dinner, Wren hurried to the library as fast as the moving staircases would take her. Out of nowhere, the Head Boy came rushing around a corner, holding a huge stack of parchment. She rushed over and steadied the teetering stack in his arms.

“Thanks, Wren,” he said, out of breath. “Hogsmeade schedules are completely wrecked. The whole castle is going to be mad as dogs when they find out we've got to move the trip to Sunday. All the time tables were correct yesterday, I swear.” He leaned against the wall and pushed the parchment into a manageable pile. “We used this new parchment that was donated anonymously to the Prefect staff to schedule everyone and… oh bugger! The git’s going to pay for this!”

Ford stalked off with his stack of ruined schedules. When Wren got to the library, Nate had a seat waiting for her. She headed over to him, but got pulled up short by Charles and another boy from History class.

“Wren.”

“Working on your History essay too?” Wren asked, trying to move around him.

The other boy, Elias Cootes, flanked her, blocking the way. They circled slowly around her, land sharks in a sea of books. Charles wrinkled his nose. It reminded Wren strangely of Bunny. Behind them, she saw Nate start to stand up.

“Didn’t see you at the Book Club,” commented Cootes.

“Yeah, where were you?” voiced Charles in the same strange tone.

Cootes cocked his head at a weird angle. “We need you, Wren. We need you with us. At the Book Club, yeah?”

“Maybe next time,” she said. That seemed to be enough explanation for them, and they shifted their unfocused gazes to the librarian, who was lining up chairs along one wall.

Wren hurried over and sat down next to Nate. “What’s going on with those guys?” she whispered.

“Bizarre, isn’t it?” Nate observed.

Charles stumbled as if in a trance back to the librarian who said a few things into his ear and patted him on the shoulder. He handed her an empty glass and stumbled again.
Wren frowned as Madame Pince led him to the back, towards the...

No, it was fine. Her dad said he’d take care of things. Albus’ rabbit was probably long gone by now. Wren tried to forget about it and get back to work, but a buzzing suddenly startled her in her head, clamoring against the effects of the calming tea. If a rabbit could ring alarm bells and shout out a warning, it would feel exactly like that.

"Don't go!" Wren insisted to Nate.

"The book club?" Nate chuckled. "Not interested. I’m not that bored."

Wren laughed nervously, tugging up the edge of her scarf. "I know, but just in case you were considering it. Let's get to work."

Half an hour later, Nate set down his quill. “Did you hear about the schedule change for Hogsmeade?”

“Yes,” Wren said. “Rose is probably rearranging her weekend plans as we speak.”
"What about you? Any plans for Sunday?"

Wren looked curiously at Nate, who smiled and leaned closer. "I saw Albus leave the hall to go after you at lunch. I thought he might have..."

"It wasn't what you thought," Wren said quickly.

“I’m thinking about visiting my uncle for a bit.”

“The artist?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. He’s the only reason my family let me come here. They thought if there was someone nearby to keep an eye on me, it would be safer.”

“Safer than what?”

“This school doesn’t have the best history of security. There have been accidents. Deaths. Even wars.” Nate blew on the last sentence of their essay and then picked it up and waved it around for good measure to get the ink to dry. “Look, if you’re sure you don’t have a date…”

“I think I’d know if I did,” Wren quipped.

“I can ask my uncle if he’d take a look at your photographs.”

“Really? That would be great!”

“I’ll have to owl him first. He keeps an unusual schedule, and he’s not too keen on surprise guests.”

“No, that’s… thank you. What do you think he’d rather see?” Wren was getting excited over the prospect of someone professional looking over her work. “Quidditch or stills? I don’t have a lot of portrait-style shots.”

“I guess just bring a sample of everything. Do you have a portfolio or something?”

“No, but I can put one together by Sunday.” Wren realized her schedule was going to be tight. Two more nights of detention. That left Thursday and Friday afternoons to put something together before she went to the Inn on Saturday, if she didn’t have a lot of homework.

Nate nudged her arm. “Look over there,” he said as Charles staggered from the back of the library.

“Notice the veins on his neck and the dark circles under his eyes?” Nate lowered his voice. “Does that look familiar?”

Besides what she saw in the mirror before her naps? That would mean that... Wren swallowed the lump in her throat. Say something reasonable! “You mean the librarian’s turning everyone into vampires? That’s insane!”

"Not vampires. Thralls. Like your costume.”

"How'd you know what I was wearing?

"People talk. I heard it was great."

Wren made a face. "Sure, if you think wearing a walking lace-covered disaster is great."

Nate shrugged. “Look at the facts. We’ve been studying this all month.” He pointed at the students lining up along the wall, waiting for their turn at whatever Madame Pince was doing in the back.

Bunny sent an icy chill up her spine. “It’s still back there,” she whispered.

“You know what it is?” Nate asked.

Wren nodded. She’d been ignoring the signs, hoping… but that didn’t change the facts. It was all right there in her History book. That monster that Albus had brought to school was somehow enthralling the students, and probably Madame Pince as well.

Nate reached out to tug at her scarf. Wren shied away before he could pull it off.

“Wren, what’s going on?”

 

***

 

Burns was tapping on the iPad screen and nothing was happening. He cursed and closed the notebook. "No signal. We're out in the middle of nowhere. I lost it."

"So we do it the old way." Smeed inhaled deeply. The soggy air was filled with split birch and squelched moss. He could smell the unmistakable essence, now that he knew what to search for, but tracking it over long distances was beyond his abilities.

The dog ahead of them started baying. Smeed picked up his pace and they followed the sound instead.

"Thought you were going back to London," Burns said as they sprinted through the lowlands in the dark.

Smeed leapt over a fallen stump, landing lithely on the other side. "Don't' need to be there until Saturday. No use wasting time when I could be tracking for a few more days. Good thing too. Your technology failed you."

"Your cover at the Inn..."

"I sent word that I'd be back for the weekends. I gave the Innkeeper a story about family issues. My cover is secure."

Up ahead, something glowed, pulsing at the foot of a loch-side birch. Smeed came to a halt a few hundred yards away from the pulsing light. Burns appeared immediately at his side. "Will-o-wisp?"

"Too early in the season."

The last village they visited was celebrating an early harvest. They'd found someone who talked about a boy standing in the tree line at midnight. "They all laughed at me, said I was blootered, but I’m telling you, the lad grew fangs, changed a nut into an apple and ate it," the villager had said after five pints of mead. "Then he disappeared." After the bloke passed out, Smeed hadn't been so sure about the integrity of his testimony. They were already full up on questionable evidence as it was.

They caught up to the dog, who was snuffling around the roots of the tree. Smeed patted the dog's head. It gave a pleasurable grunt, pleased that its master was pleased. The dog sat back on its haunches and stared at the ground a few feet away from the tree.

It was a rabbit. Eyes bulging. Gasping - laying on its side. There was a gash in its leg where the root had snagged it. Smeed hunched over and gingerly untangled the limb. The animal shivered under his touch.

His nostrils filled with the strange scent. He brushed a finger across the stained fur and tasted the blood. Sweet... tangy... he spit it out before it dissolved on his tongue.

Magic.

Smeed opened the creature’s mouth and found tiny fangs, the size of the marks on the woman from the village a few miles back.

"Those aren't natural," Burns said, peering over his shoulder. "See where the gums are a dull purple color, sort of like a bruised..."

"Got it," Smeed cut him off. "There are puncture marks on its neck. It was made, not grown." The animal attempted to bare its fangs, but it was too weak, and its head lolled to the side. "It's been left behind."

The animal glowed, pulsed once, but then the light faded and the animal went still. Smeed laid it down on the ground. There was nothing to do for it now. A few paces away, he picked up a half-eaten apple core, only about a day old. It disintegrated into walnut shells in his hand. He looked up. Walnut tree. Magic.

Enthralled rabbits, to the point of almost becoming vampire creatures themselves. A vampire with magical powers. How can this be? This was a direct breach of the Treaty. Things had suddenly turned very serious. Their subject was moving faster than they were, northwards, stopping for a bit, and then moving farther north still. The hound sniffed the air, and loped off into the night.
"The weather is starting up again. The rain will come soon." Burns peered out across the hills, where the clouds were steadily rolling in.

Smeed adjusted his collar and appraised his associate. The white spikes on his head had softened in the damp night air. "Not making fun of my coat, now."

"Call off your dog. I saw a cabin a few miles south of here. We should go back and take advantage of their hospitality."

"In a moment. We need to send a message."

Burns slapped his coat pocket, bumping the iPad case. "No signal, remember?"

“Not all of us have forgotten the old ways.” Smeed settled on a boulder and penned a letter on a scrap of paper he dug out of his coat.

He eyed Burns disdainfully. This message couldn't go through normal channels. It was too urgent. He spotted something shadowy in the trees. In one swipe, he leapt up and snatched it out of the branches. He deftly tied the note to the bat and pricked his finger with a long fang. He let the bat lick it, and the thing took off, like a ... bat.

Smeed shrugged off his unimaginative musings. Burns would have come up with a more ominous description that paralleled the situation they were in… a dark, shadowy messenger of doom… or some other literary nonsense.

It fluttered high above them, screeching and weaving through the air currents that were swiftly bringing the rain from the north. Smeed only hoped that his estimations were correct, that they still had a few days before the person they were tracking reached the little wizard’s town on the edge of the Black Lake. Whoever it was, it could not be let into that castle.

 

***


Dillon stood before the castle gates, clutching his precious basket of friends, trying to shelter them from the whipping Highland winds. He 'd braved the wilderness to get to this place, roughed up, cold and hungry. So very hungry. He looked down at the basket as the gnawing ache rolled through him again.

Just a nip, he considered, but what he really wanted to do was get inside. The excitement overwhelmed his basic needs, and he was almost hopping from one foot to the other with nerves. He was finally here!

"Hello?" he called out through the iron bars. He'd imagined so many times how he'd walk up the long, hilly path to the castle entrance. He was so close, finally here after all this time, but the gates were closed to him. Beyond the steep hill, the castle towered out of his reach into the distance. Shadows passed between the flickering lights in the windows, here, there... and over there. There were people, wizards inside. Like him. Even in the highest towers he had watched them, moving about all day and learning magicks.

It was well past dinner time now. Why hadn't they come out to greet him?

"I'm here! Haven't you been expecting me?" he called again, but no one answered, not even the wind.

He put the basket down and waved and shouted until his throat hurt, but still no one came. Even the winged boar statues on top of the gate pillars were silent.

He shook his fist at them. "I'll show you that I belong here!"

The boy pulled out his mother's wand and pointed it at the sky. Squishing his face in concentration, he felt the power within him build, and then surge. He opened his eyes just in time to see a sputter of sparks fly out of the narrow tip.

He grinned. "See? I have the magicks too! Let me in!"

An owl sailed down from one of the towers, clutching a scroll in its claw. Maybe it's for me, he thought fiercely. They saw me!

Dillon craned his neck to watch it pass. Then, as if it were teasing him, it swooped down low to catch one of the mountain breezes and then sailed up and over the castle towers to the south.

No fair! He'd been waiting for his letter forever. He was so close that he could touch the gates. There were great magicks at work around this place, but he had come prepared, thanks to his friends inside.

Dillon thought hard about the old woman, but she was asleep. The man too. He could almost hear the snores. There were boys too, but they were weak and couldn't come to him, even if they'd wanted to.

Some friends, he thought bitterly. That grey rabbit had been difficult to begin with, and now he knew why. But he thought he'd had a real friend in the girl... he'd felt it. Now she wasn't talking to him and she'd taken one of his special friends away in the process.
He'd tried for hours since sundown to get her to come down and let him in. The hunger knotted his stomach and twisted inside him. It was getting too strong to ignore for much longer.

A clacking sound alerted him to movement up ahead. A group of people in heavy cloaks were climbing out of a grate in the ground, just a few yards away from him. Dillon watched, interested, and caught sight of the insignia on one of the cloaks.
Students.

He watched as they whispered to themselves, and then fell over each other into the sloping bushes towards the small town. Dillon waited until he could no longer hear snapping twigs and whispered curses, and then scooted over to the grate. He lifted. He hefted and strained. He looked at his thin arms and got mad at how little he was.

It would be easy to follow the students into the town, take them now and make them his friends straight away, but Mummy had told him never to do that to people. But that was alright, because Dillon had another idea. He lifted the lid off the basket and brought out one of his special friends, its beady eyes neither afraid nor angry.

"Good little rabbit," he said. He could smell the warm pulse inside. Hunger surged through him.

He lowered the rabbit down into the wet grass. If he wanted to get into that castle, he'd have to wait a little longer. He’d waited for so long that a small delay wasn’t going to be a big deal. Several more rabbits hopped out of the basket, sniffing nervously, ears laid back against the strong winds. Their eyes glowed in the moonlight. They'd given him everything and they'd brought him here. Now, they were going to get him inside.

"Go," he ushered as they squeezed through the bars of the gate. He watched as they hopped silently through the tall grasses along the path until he couldn't see them anymore. "Go and make me some new friends."

 


Chapter 22: 22. Charmed Hearts
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Wren set her empty mug on the bridge railing. The tea had chased away the fog in her head, and in another hour, the sun would be high enough to melt the cold mist that still clung to the open air between the castle and the mountains in the distance. By then, she would be in class with the wet still clinging to her skin.

Her nerves flared. Albus was supposed to meet her soon, and she was going to have to do magic in front of him. She didn’t want to look like an idiot. It had been embarrassing enough, the way she must have looked when he didn’t ask about Hogsmeade yesterday. He already said he wanted them to hang out together. When had she started needing him to like her more?

She cast a Hot Air Charm and felt her tension melt away as the warm air spurted out of her wand with no resistance. Lazy circles appeared in the fog where her wand guided the steady stream.

“Hey.” Albus raised his chin at the patterns in the mist. “You started without me.”

How did he just appear and make her feel like she was wearing the wrong skin? "Didn't sleep well. Might as well practice."

Her unease wasn’t all about Albus. About three in the morning, Bunny had returned to her. She hadn't given in to his doleful eyes and his little twitchy nose that begged to snuggle with her on her pillow, still haunted by the discussion with Nate in the library about Thralls and monster rabbits. Wren felt bad for him, she could feel his hurt, and something deeper below the surface that she was too afraid to explore. After hours of lying stiff in her bed and staring at the ceiling, while Bunny butted his head relentlessly against the door to get her attention, Wren had given up on sleep.

She lowered her wand and watched her spell work blow away in the morning breeze. “I think I'm finally getting this.”

“It’s good,” he said. “Better than you’ve managed before.”

Wren blushed at that. The whole class must have seen her flail around for the first few weeks of school. “I never used to have trouble with magic, ever. I kept thinking there was something wrong with me.”

Albus looked affronted. “There’s nothing wrong with you!” he said, like he’d taken her words as a personal insult. He held up a small paper bag. “I brought muffins. Blueberry. And hot tea, but I see you’ve got your own.”
Wren dismissed her mug that still balanced on the railing. “It’s finished.” She lifted one of the steaming mugs out of the bag to warm her hands, and then reached back in for a muffin. When she bit into it, she got a burst of ripe fruit flavor. “These are perfect. Thanks.” Wren said around a mouth full of blueberry. She stifled a giggle and tried not to spray muffin crumbs everywhere.

As she ate, Albus pointed his wand out into the mist, charming the tiny droplets into a circle of fire. His spells were more vibrant than hers, more alive.

“You make it look so easy. I guess that stuff with your brother paid off."

"When the itch powder ended up in my shorts, I nicked James’ Charms text and learned some stuff that helped out. Too bad there’s no charm for detecting stupidity."

Wren frowned. "Your mum and dad let you use magic at home over the summer?”

"They didn’t know.” Albus' wand lowered, letting the flaming circle fade into nothing. “There's a place in my dad's study that has so many protection spells on it that you can't detect anything from the outside. When no one was around, I found a way in. Anti jinxes aren’t as complicated as they’re made out to be.”

Wren hadn’t counted the armbands as she’d ripped them off of him during detention, and Pomfrey had found even more. "How many did you have, Albus?"

He scratched at his upper arm. "A lot. Sometimes I think they’re still there, but they’re not. I feel sort of naked without them. We should keep practicing. Your turn."

“Alright.”

Something not too complicated, she decided, silently coaxing the mist in front of her to change blue. It held for a few seconds, and then faded.

“What were you thinking?”

Frustrated, Wren looked up at Albus. “What do you mean? I was thinking ‘Colovaria’. Didn’t you see?”

“I meant, what were you thinking about when you did the spell? Just the name?”

“What else would I be thinking?”

“When we changed the wool to silk in class, Professor Ackerly didn’t give us a name for the spell until after we’d tried it. Remember how knowing what it was called didn’t help? The magic isn’t in the words. All you need is the intent to change.”

“Did you get that from James’ textbook?” Wren teased. Albus just shrugged. “Alright, I’ll try it.”

She aimed her wand and thought ‘blue’. No, not just blue. What did she want? Wren thought for a second, and decided on a specific shade of blue, something brighter than before, that could easily be seen against the sky. Her arm brushed against Albus and she started to move away, but then she decided that she wanted that too. Wren stayed where she was, arm outstretched, and pushed a stream of blue mist out of her wand.

“Nice,” Albus said.

Wren began tracing patterns again, painting the air with blue spirals. “Do you see that?” she asked excitedly. “I’m doing it!”

“Yeah, I’m a little jealous here. It took me weeks to get that.”

“Thanks, Albus,” Wren said, giving his shoulder a friendly bump. She changed her mist color to a deep purple, and laughed at how easy it had all become.

A green stream of mist appeared near hers, looping around and under her shapes. Albus guided his wand alongside hers. “Glad I could help. From the looks of things, you're doing fine without me now.”

Wren's charm danced around his, making pretty colors. “I wish our practical exam would be as fun as mist painting.”

As they practiced, the patterns became more complex, intermingling at some points and chasing each other away at others. Wren felt a small tug at her insides to get closer to Albus, if only to be warmer next to him in the chilly air. She could feel the static between them, an irresistible pull to duck under his arm and be right there.

Wren’s charm faltered. What was she doing? It didn’t feel exactly the same as when she needed Bunny or how Dillon seemed to need her, but how was this any different? Albus was looking at her like he needed something too - Wren’s breath came in short gasps - she wanted, needed… oh god, did that rabbit get to Albus too?

“Wren,” Albus said, almost in a whisper, but then the double doors opened behind them and a crowd of Hufflepuffs spilled out onto the bridge.

Wren spun around, knocking Albus away from the bridge railing. Flustered, she looked out and saw Nate among the Hufflepuffs.

“Hi Wren!” he called, and dropped his hand mid-wave when he saw her stricken face. “Morning, Potter.” His greeting sounded like a question, and Wren didn’t have any answers, so she stayed awkwardly silent. Nate looked warily between the two of them, a letter in his hand. “I got word back from Hogsmeade. We can go on Sunday. That is, if you didn’t have other plans.”

Wren shook her head dumbly.

“Alright then. We should talk more about your zombie friends from the library. See you later.” Nate went to catch up with the group of Hufflepuffs who'd already gotten to the other side of the bridge.

Wren turned back to Albus, fully expecting to give him an explanation, to get back to where they had left off… no, wait… to see if that rabbit had... But he was gathering his things and strangely quiet.

“What’s wrong?”

"I thought you hated zombies."

"It's just an expression," Wren said, frowning at his sudden clipped tone.
He dropped his Charms texts and had to pick it up again. “So," Albus said when his book was securely under his arm, "you and Nate.”

Wren opened her mouth to tell him what it really was, but he interrupted her. “That’s great.” Then he snickered. “Sorry. It also rhymes."

"But Albus..."

"Sorry. I didn’t mean to make fun. Nate's a good guy. I’d better get on."

Wren watched him stride away on long legs as the bell rang to signal the five minute warning for the first class. He was halfway across the bridge before she called out, "It's not really a...", but Albus didn't turn around. He was already too far away to hear her.

"...date," she finished lamely, pushed aside by a cluster of third years on their way to the Transfiguration corridor. Wren picked up the brown paper bag, stopping for a moment to flick her wand at the abandoned mugs. They disappeared from the railing, and Wren imagined that they had immediately been snatched up by the hands of some capable house elf as soon as they appeared back in the kitchens. Her sense of pride at her progress faded along with the mist as it burned away in the sun's rays peeking over the mountains.

By the looks of things, you're doing fine without me.

Albus was right. She could do it without him, but she didn't want to.


***


Defeated, Albus kept his head down, counting stones as he trudged off in the opposite direction of Charms class. I should have left Wren Alone, he told himself. But that wasn't possible, not with every thought about her becoming this intense, uncontrollable thing... He couldn’t tell if the familiar prickling sensation on the back of his neck was from his anti-hex bracelets or from the embarrassment of thinking that things would finally go his way.

"Hey, little brother!"

Albus stopped short of running into James and groaned. "Not now, I’ve got lessons." He wasn’t in the mood for another game of map-exchange, and fully intended to ignore whatever it was that James would throw at him, because...

He wasn’t wearing his arm bands!

Instinctively, Albus ducked. A hot flash skimmed over his right shoulder and slammed a bright purple blotch onto the wall next to him.

That's the last straw, Albus thought furiously. They were in Hogwarts, and he had a wand. He could easily blast his brother into the next corridor. He didn't care about another detention, or three. It would be worth it, just this once, to fire off the Stunning Spell he’d been practicing all summer in his dad’s study.

Red light poured out of his wand, just as he saw movement behind his target. He pulled up fast, redirecting his aim higher than he’d intended. The light shattered harmlessly against the wall near a lit torch just as a golden head of hair came bouncing around the corner.

Lori looked like she’d just sprinted the whole way down the last corridor. "James! You walk really fast."

James ignored her as if she wasn’t there and raised his wand. She ducked under his arm in irritation. "Are you even listening to me? I said how'd you like the cookies?"

James' grin faltered. "Go away, Lori. I'm busy."

Lori pouted and turned around, locking eyes with Albus. Her face glowed. For a second, he thought she’d been hit with his blast after all.

James used Lori’s distraction to his advantage and threw a curse straight at Albus’ head.
Arrogant prat! Albus shoved Lori into the wall, cast a shield charm and swung his wand to deflect the blue light right back at his brother. “Get out of here, Lori!”

James’ grin grew, and instead of dodging the rebounding curse, he thrust his own wand in the air and yelled, “Protego!” In a split second, the curse turned back on Albus.
Albus grimaced, bouncing the curse back to James. His brother’s expression of glee quickly turned to shock as the same curse hurled back at him a second time. On the sidelines, Lori’s head bobbed back and forth, watching the blue jet of light shoot back and forth between the two brothers as if they were playing a game of Toad Toss.

After another agonizing volley with no end in sight, Albus flicked his wand and wordlessly softened the shape of his shield to deflect the curse away from his brother. He just wanted get to class without growing two heads, getting his legs fused together or whatever else his brother had planned.

The blue light spun off his shield and pitched harder than he’d counted on, hitting Lori squarely in the chest. She gasped and stumbled backwards, and would have hit the floor too, if Scorpius hadn't come barreling around the corner. They ended up in a heap in the middle of the corridor with Lori on top.

"Oi!" Scorpius waved his arms from under Lori. "What's going on here?"

Lori stumbled to her feet, dazed, and James smiled wide. "Ask her," he said with a smirk, and ran off before the bell let out its final warning.

Scorpius brushed himself off and turned on Albus. "Are your trolleys right round?" he hissed. "You're already down one tick for detentions! What do you think they'll if they catch you dueling in the halls?"

"He started it," Albus said, pointing down the corridor to where his brother had vanished. It was a lame excuse, but if James hadn’t shown up, Albus would’ve likely hurled a curse at something else instead.

Scorpius spun Lori around. “Oi!” He waved his hand in front of her face. "She's still out of it. What’d the tosser hit her with?"

Albus shrugged. "Dunno. It was meant for me."

Scorpius snapped in Lori’s ears, but she still didn’t react. "Don’t suppose we should leave her like this. She's on her feet, so it can't be too bad. I guess we'll just wait it out and hope it's good enough for Professor Ackerly to excuse us from the bell. We're late anyway." He picked at his teeth with a nail. "How'd it go with Wren?"

"She's going to ace the Charms Practicals," Albus said flatly. He wasn’t in the mood to be reminded about that.

Scorpius waggled his eyebrows. "I was talking about the other thing. Hogsmeade’s coming up, and I thought you..."

Albus put his wand away, and forced himself to let it go. "She's going with someone else." He wished his friend would take the hint, but Scorpius put on a smirk and kept at it.

"Told you it wouldn't take too long."

Suddenly, the duel with James didn’t feel like it had been enough. Albus was ready to punch something. Scorpius' face looked awfully convenient.

Scorpius wisely backed off with raised hands. "Alright, alright, I'll leave it alone." He jerked a thumb at Lori. "What are we going to do about her?"

Albus grabbed the girl by her shoulders. "Lori?"

She blinked rapidly, and then smiled with the brightness of a thousand-watt Lumos. "Albus! Oh my god! I have so much to tell you... or maybe it was your brother... but he's not here, is he? That's alright. I think you're keen too." The blacks of her eyes kept growing until they blocked out all color.

Albus winced as she kept babbling nonsense. He caught sight of the 'all seeing eye' on the cover of the book in her hands. "Divination. Right." With a hand on her back, he steered her in the direction of the North Tower.

To his dismay, Lori took the contact as an invitation to throw her arms around him. "Where are we going, Albus?” Her voice wobbled, almost like a drunken slur, confirming that James’ curse had definitely had some kind of mental effect. “Are you busy this weekend, because I don't want my new dress to go to waste.”

Albus tried to push her forward, but instead of prodding her on, she leaned back into his hand and batted her eyes at him, words rushing out of her mouth the whole time. If his brother’s curse was to make Albus regret ever getting out of bed, he’d done a smashing job.

“Besides, I don't think James would appreciate it like you would.” She held onto him tighter, leaning her head against him with a deep sigh.

As he guided her down the corridor with a curious Scorpius in tow, there was a blessed pause in Lori’s chatter. She loosened her grip on him slightly, but just as Albus thought that the ordeal was over, she took another breath and started up again. “You're nice, Albus." She swayed slightly and gripped his arm tighter for support. "And steady,” she cooed. A smile blossomed on her face. She looked up at him. “I like steady boys."

Scorpius watched them with his signature smirk. "Well, this is fun."

"Shut up. I'll walk her to her class. James’ hexes have never lasted long enough to be traced."

Albus hoped he hadn’t misjudged his brother’s usual intention of not actually hurting someone. Even the pranks that he’d endured over the summer had only gone to the point of extreme irritation. If he could avoid taking Lori to the Hospital Wing, he wouldn’t have to explain his own involvement in the situation. trying to come up with a reasonable excuse without getting blamed for being part of the problem was going to be near impossible.

What was the point anymore? Wren was going to Hogsmeade with someone that wasn’t him. He might as well give up now and save himself the heartache.


***


On Friday afternoon, Bunny had been silent for four days straight. And as the time drew nearer, Wren’s anxiety about going back to the Inn and Gran had ramped up so high that she just decided not to think about anything at all, which hadn’t helped either. Pushing her problems out of her mind just made them all come back in a rush, making her dizzy with indecision.

Albus hadn’t suggested that they try to get together again. By the way he was avoiding her, it was clear that he didn’t want to talk about what had happened on the bridge. Which was good, she told herself, because that meant he hadn’t been affected by the rabbit biting him… but then why had they both felt so out of control?

She passed the open door to Greenhouse Four, where her father was explaining the proper way to pot seedlings to a collection of first and second year students. The two boys in the back of the group were too busy tossing clumps of mooncalf dung at each other to notice that they were standing dangerously near a Devil's Snare vine.

What did her dad find out since they last talked? She hadn’t had time to see him all week, and he was obviously busy now. Albus’ rabbit was still in the library, so whatever her father had done wasn’t working. A sickening thought occurred to her that maybe he hadn’t done anything about it at all.

Wren hurried to the dark room. There wasn’t much time before the Portkey left for Diagon Alley. She entered the shed and passed through the thick curtains. Her pictures from last weekend were still on the line, bone dry by now, along with a few others that hadn’t been there before.

Ugh! Those were more of Serena’s pictures.

The strange curve of the newest photograph was an extreme close up… of what, Wren didn’t want to guess. The texture of whatever-it-was was slightly grainy, with a shallow dip on the edge. At the far right of the frame, it became bumpy… no, wait… were those smooth ridges? And was that a… single hair?

The heavy fabric rustled behind her, but Wren still couldn't tear her eyes away from the strange image.

“It’s not what you think it is,” Serena told her, going straight up to the picture Wren had been staring at. Wren was embarrassed to be caught staring at it, but it wasn’t like she was going to be able to pretend she hadn’t been looking. Serena hadn’t done anything to hide her pictures either. “Things look different from different angles. I call it my skin collection.”

Obviously, Wren thought to herself, busying herself with the task she had come to do. She adjusted the developing potion, poured her rolls of film into the tub and covered it with the lid. All those rolls were going to take hours to finish, and Wren's Portkey was leaving right after supper. She definitely had enough work to justify ignoring Serena’s pictures.

“That’s the inside of my elbow, by the way.”

Wren stared at the incriminating photograph in disbelief. The animation charm hadn’t been applied yet, so the static picture definitely resembled some other part of the human anatomy.

“And that one over there is a close-up of my palm. My hand,” Serena clarified. “I’ve got a wicked zoom. See?”

She handed Wren her camera, with a shorter, fatter (and much heavier) lens. Wren pointed it at her stack of undeveloped parchment squares and curiously peeked through the viewfinder. She gasped as the thick, crisp corners appeared. From this hyper-focused perspective, it was impossible to guess what she was looking at if she hadn’t known beforehand.

Serena was looking at Wren's dry photos now, holding up the glowing point of her wand to Bunny’s clear eyes. "Wow,” she said. “Look at how detailed his whiskers are! They’re almost popping off the parchment. The image isn’t even moving yet and I can almost see him breathing." She stepped back from the picture. “That’s a keen close up.”

“I got a new lens too,” Wren said, not expecting Serena to care.

“Really? Let me see!”

Wren handed her camera over and Serena brought it up to peer through the viewfinder. “I wish I had something like this for action shots. Mine specializes in high-powered close-ups.”

“What’s this?” Wren dared to ask of a picture that was still hanging up. It was definitely still skin, but the texture was stubbly and rounded... very different from the others.
Serena said, “Oh, that. That’s Scorpius’ chin.”

“Ahh, I see.” Wren said. It got her thinking what kind of angle the camera had to be in to get that shot. Wren's head was almost bent upside down when she thought she had it.

Serena giggled. "Something like that. I just like to have fun with the boys. I let them say their crude jokes and stare at my thrumpenny bits, as long as I get the shot. I keep my shirt on, “ she said emphatically. “And I take pictures like these. Oh, I just remembered! You're friends with Nate Berkshire, right? I noticed that he’s got nice hair. Tell me, how are his hands?”

Wren stumbled back in surprise, hitting her head on the dangling legs of a tripod hanging from the ceiling. “What? Why are you asking about Nate?”

"You sit next to him in class, right? Are they smooth or rough? Does he use lotion? Does he eat cucumbers? What's his collagen level, do you think?"

"Umm," Wren said. "We're not that close.”

She suddenly wondered if Nate was the sort to be interested in Serena’s “bits” and got a little nauseated. Did this girl have no shame? And besides, Nate was already occupied on Sunday, with Wren… on a non-date, with no bits involved… She found herself getting slightly irritated at the notion of Serena fixating on his hands, or his big toe, or whatever. Besides, Serena was supposed to be dating someone else already.

“Aren’t you with Elias Cootes now?"

Serena rolled her eyes. "Don't remind me of that twat. Cootes was a complete waste of my film. Nevins, on the other hand, has got real potential. Don’t get me wrong, Scorpius was great, but you can only ask a boy to hold his head in the right spot and swallow so many times before it gets old." She tapped the top print. "This is Nevvin’s Adam's apple. Isn’t it a fine one? When I charm it, it should bob up and down. But I’m going to need someone new soon. He’s worse than Malfoy, with his fascination for bare knees. It's getting too cold to prance around in a mini..."

She saw Wren's disbelieving expression and her words halted. "Wait a minute,” she said with an indignant scowl. “What did you think I was talking about?"

"Nothing. Never mind." Wren turned away before Serena could see her turn beet red. “I’ve got loads of pictures to process here. Better get started…” She shuffled things around and cleared a space on the table for her prints.

Serena bumped shoulders with her, reaching out to pluck her photographs off the line. "Here, I’ll make some room. You look busy, so I'll leave you alone. Ask Berkshire about his skin tone for me, won't you? See you later, Wren!"

With a flip of her hair, Serena parted the curtains and left the darkroom, taking her questionable art with her.

Thankfully alone again, Wren checked the soaking potion to make sure it was still active before she opened her camera and dropped the last finished roll into it. She left it to soak while she performed the last step to the dry set of pictures.

The photography animation spell should work this time - her Advanced Charms assignments were coming easier - the morning session with Albus had gone well… the practicing part, anyway.

She hovered her wand over the first of her pictures and said the incantation like her camera instructions had said. The parchment square glowed softly as Wren counted slowly to ten. Sure enough, the photograph came to life on its own. Nothing faded or disappeared like last time. Relieved, Wren watched the full ten seconds repeat over and over, just as the instructions had described.

She couldn’t tell in the dark exactly what was happening in the frame, but it didn’t matter. At this point, she trusted the process enough to finish the rest of the film.
Wren stacked up the photographs when they were dry. She stared at the top photo, the one of Bunny in her room that she’d taken sometime late at night, right before she’d gone to sleep.

Even with her misgivings about the animal, a surge of affection ran through her. There was no denying such a cute, wiggly nose, and when he yawned, his little pink tongue stretched… his mouth widened and...

She froze in horror as the animated picture of Bunny transformed...


***


Wren’s world was still reeling, even after the Portkey had finished twisting her gut inside out and hurled her to the ground into the courtyard near the Leaky Cauldron Inn.

The stack of pictures swished around in her bag as Wren stumbled into the Inn. She hadn't had time to examine them all. The little that she had seen that afternoon was bad enough. Wren had wanted to run to someone and tell them what she’d discovered, but Headmistress McGonagall hadn’t been in her study before supper and there wasn’t time to go and find her dad before the Portkey left.

She’d been afraid before. Afraid of overreacting… just afraid in general. Wren had put so much energy into her excuses: it was just a rabbit… he was just her pet… she was just tired or anxious or going insane with some mysterious family condition, or the horrific possibility that she was turning into a Squib.

But her pictures showed it all - the red rimmed eyes of the strange-acting students in the library, Madame Pince included, particularly on the night she’d left the library without locking up. Enlarged, the photos had shown fang marks on some of the students’ necks.
Thrall symptoms - Wren had seen them in the mirror every day. Bunny hadn’t slept on her pillow... fed on her… for almost a week now, and every morning she checked - no more red-rimmed eyes, and dark veins on her face and neck.

The signs were all there. She and Bunny were no different than the enthralled students in the Book Club. She’d thought he was her friend all this time, but was he even that?

Wren stepped into the warmth of the Inn and shook off the chill from outside. Her thoughts still rattling around like ice cubes in her head. That last picture had bothered Wren the most. Bunny's long, pointed teeth that grew unmistakably into needle-sharp fangs...

Bunny couldn't be responsible for everything that had happened. He was only a rabbit, not a full-blown vampire.

Then who?

Wren didn’t see her mum around, and followed the sound of rattling dishes. As she walked into the tavern area near the kitchen, she noticed that it was empty except for a few stragglers from the supper crowd. Everything seemed normal. An older wizard with a pointed hat sat at the end, nursing a pint of something dark and a woman with a snake-skin clutch had her steel-toed boots wrapped around the bar stool a few paces away from him. And the man behind the bar, Smeed, who had given her the tea...

didn't use a wand

never smiled

Wren had never seen his teeth, but then her gut clenched and she felt the pull, just like Bunny, and just like Dillon. There was her irrefutable proof, more than the books and Nate's conspiracy theories.

Wren looked around at the room, full of unknowing people. He was in the middle of it all, and no one around him seemed to suspect a thing.

She knew now. She knew a lot of things. About Bunny, about the boys and the librarian… about the disturbing images in her head and the man that her mother had hired to work behind the bar. She hadn’t done anything about it, but that was about to change.
Wren was going to say something. She had to. She couldn’t just let things around her spin out of control without trying to stop it. She forced herself to go straight up to an empty spot at the bar and face her fears head on.

"I know," Wren said with a shaky voice.

Smeed stopped polishing the glasses, looked up at her. "Miss Longbottom."

Wren swallowed her nerves and spoke louder over the din of clanking dishes from the other room. "I know what you are!"

Smeed put the set of glasses down and looked into her eyes, deep and unsettling. “Yes, I see that. But the real question is, what are you? Come, we should discuss things.”

Wren had never felt this kind of pull before. It was compelling, not forceful. She found herself following him around the bar willingly, not that she probably should. It just felt like she didn’t have a reason not to...

"Get away from her!"

The commanding voice made heads turn to the old woman on the stairs with a traveling cloak on her arm. The stuffed vulture on the top of her hat bobbled as she grasped the railing for balance. Her shocked expression mirrored Wren’s.

For a second, Wren was elated. "Gran?" The old woman's eyes were clear, focused. Furious. She was up. She was talking and she knew who Wren was.

"Upstairs, Wren," Gran said to her. Her no-nonsense tone was back in place where it belonged. Wren was almost ready to forget everything she’d learned at St. Mungo’s if it meant having Gran whole again.

Gran stomped her foot, making Wren jump, along with everyone else in the room.

"Now!"

 


Chapter 23: 23. Hearts in the Flesh
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Rose Weasley's shoes clicked along the third floor corridor. She was frustrated and just plain tired of it all. The Arithmancy study group had completely wasted her Friday night. All she had done for two tedious hours was to help everyone else understand the rudimentary aspects of last week's lesson. The more complicated bits, the theorems that she needed help comprehending, hadn't even come up in conversation. And she'd had to interrupt her classmates' whispered personal conversations twice to get them back on topic. As if it mattered who was going with whom to Hogsmeade!

She wasn’t going with anyone special, so why did everyone else have to flaunt their social conquests in front of her? Not that she wanted to date anyone in particular. It would just be nice if a certain someone would simply talk to her again.

For someone who was a veritable genius when it came to interpreting and graphing complex number charts, she had come to the sad conclusion that she really didn’t have a clue when it came to boys. Her younger brother, Hugo was so easy to get along with; if he was happy, he was happy. If he was upset, it was simple to get to the bottom of the issue and fix things, usually with a nap or a snack, and then he was back on even ground. They'd had a cordial relationship ever since... mostly ever. She’d always assumed that once she became interested in boys (other than competitors for the top marks in class) all she had to do was pick one, preferably someone smart and successful... maybe a bit of cuteness wouldn't hurt... and the rest would fall into place. She hadn't counted on her heart betraying her to the most scurrilous, intolerable git she’d ever known...

Rose's steps faltered. Her heart?

That... that... she didn't even know what to call him, had managed to worm his way under her skin, and more recently, into her dreams. Each time she'd try to replace his face with someone else - anyone else - once she'd even tried to picture him with Professor Ackerly's scruffy beard - it was no good. She got flustered just thinking about it. How dare he interrupt her sleep of all things! The things she'd dreamed about made her face flush redder than her hair.

And finally, Scorpius Malfoy was leaving her alone. That smirk that she had wanted to wipe off his face for years was gone.

She should be happy now. Right?

Not even close. The strain between them made her miserable. The hurt in his eyes every time he passed by... she'd never felt so bad about anything, ever. No one had looked at her like that before, or had caused her so much guilt and remorse.

If she was honest with herself, she wanted to be the one to put that irritating smirk back on his face where it belonged... whatever it took. The twisted truth was that she needed to apologize. It wouldn't fix the awkward silence that had built up between them, but it would be a start.

The clicks of her shoes were suddenly joined by another set of clacking footsteps from somewhere behind. Rose's heart started racing. Scorpius? Her hopes rose, then sank an instant later. If she'd learned anything from having a cousin in Slytherin, it was that they were all about payback. He was probably planning some horrid prank to embarrass her for what she'd done.

Rose sighed, partly with frustration, partly with resignation... was she really going to apologize to Malfoy? The footsteps were getting closer. This was her chance. Even if he insulted her, it would be something.

She lowered her wand in surrender. "Whatever you're going to do, I deserve it," she said. The footsteps stopped just a few paces behind her. Her resolve faltered. She could still make a run for it, if she didn't mind looking like an idiot. Shaking her head, Rose took a deep breath and finally turned around. "I just want you to know that I'm really, really sorry..."

Her words halted as Ian's bloodshot eyes bore into hers, the tip of his wand dangerously close to her face. He swayed slightly in the low light of the corridor. She noticed a shadow moving at his feet, but her eyes jerked back to his face when he spoke, his voice raspy like he'd almost yelled himself hoarse. "I'm sorry too, Weasley."

A small shower of sparks burst from his wand and tickled the tip of her nose. If he hadn’t looked so scary, Rose would have laughed at his ineptness. She backed up a few paces, and was just about to turn and run (or hex him into next week, she hadn’t decided yet), but something tripped her up from behind. Her head hit the floor, and Ian's strained voice drifted above her. "It’s nothing personal. He just needs more friends. You'll see."

Fur brushed against her neck. Darkness took over, partly interrupted by visions of a little boy laughing and clapping his hands together gleefully.

Hello, friend.


***


Above the Leaky Cauldron Inn, Wren sat uncomfortably on the couch where she used to take care of Gran. The last time Wren had been here, she’d been coaxing Gran to eat a bit of soup. Now, Gran was standing right in front of her, peering into her face like she was looking for some kind of sign of the apocalypse. The worry lines on her forehead folded like accordion lungs. Wren had worked so hard to ease those lines over the summer. Now it seemed she was the cause of them and she didn’t know what to do.

Gran took hold of her chin and turned her head to the side. "I thought you had more sense than to consort with creatures of the night. It isn't proper, illegal in most regions, and could very well create an international incident... ahem." She rubbed a wrinkled thumb across the marks on her neck. "These are too tiny to be fang incisions. What have you gotten yourself into?"

She sniffed at Wren’s breath. “Chamomile and muttonwart. At least there’s that.”

Wren almost gagged. “Is that what’s in the tea?” Her gut immediately gave an uncomfortable jolt. Not knowing why, she said, “I think there’s someone at the door.” Too eager to get out of Gran’s grasp, she went to open it. She wasn’t as surprised as she should have been to see the barman - the vampire - standing there, arms wrapped across his broad chest.

He raised a singular eyebrow at her. “I haven’t knocked yet.”

Augusta looked indignant. "I have nothing to say to you, Mister Smeed. You will have to find someone else to patch up that tired old coat you still insist on wearing."

"You know him?" Wren blurted out.

Smeed shifted his weight from one foot to the other and darted his eyes to the hall where the sounds from the bar drifted up the stairs. “The coat is fine, but this conversation would be better had in private.”

“Close the door,” Augusta said, not looking at all pleased. “And yes, yes, come in first.”

He loomed over the threshold and stepped inside. Gran settled into her usual chair, but Smeed remained standing, his head inches away from the ceiling. His mere presence made the living room look tiny and cramped.

“So out with it. Why are you here, and what does it have to do with Wren?” Augusta demanded.

“Your great-granddaughter is in grave danger. The safety of your wizard school is being threatened by a rogue vampire. We have been tracking him for some time."

Gran sat up, straight as a board. "A rogue vampire! How could this have happened? Don’t you have any control over your own kind?"

“This one is unknown to us. I tracked him through London to Diagon Alley, where I encountered this girl.” His gaze rested on Wren. “A witch, and yet there were signs of enthrallment. She appeared to be having some difficulty so I gave her the tea. I assumed her situation was of her own choosing.”

“Wren, do you understand how serious this is?" Gran snapped at her. "You need to tell us who did this to you.”

They looked to Wren. The pressure in the room was too much for her, and she broke down. "He's just a rabbit," she cried. "He's helpless without me!"

Augusta's steely eyes narrowed. "You turned a wild creature into a domesticated pet?"

Smeed ignored Augusta and continued. "How many?"

Teary-eyed, Wren could see him clearly now. Something inside her told her that he wasn’t hiding who or what he was anymore. A ragged scar ran across one eyebrow, almost touching the ridge of his distinctly crooked nose. He didn’t look any older than her mum or dad, but his eyes… his eyes were black and hungry, and very, very old.

"Two rabbits, and they can apparate,” she said. “One's my Bunny and the other one has grown into a huge monster thing. We trapped it in the library with Disapparation charms."

"There are likely more. We found another one near death, cut off from its master. I suppose that a mature vampire could coerce any warm-blooded creature into service, if he desired to do so, but rabbits are an unusual choice.”

“There are tiny monster rabbits in the drains too,” Wren added quietly.

“Tell me,” Smeed said, “are there people in your castle with dark veins? Do they have sunken eyes, and are they behaving unlike themselves?"

Wren nodded. “That pretty much describes the entire Book Club.”

“And the vampire. Did you see him?” When Wren shook her head, he prompted, “A small boy, perhaps?”

Wren’s voice cracked in surprise. “You know about Dillon?” The compulsion to protect Dillon’s identity still hummed under her skin. Until recently, it had been everything Bunny had been about. It was hard to say his name out loud, but it felt even more wrong not to tell Smeed everything she knew about him. Which also felt weird… she glanced at Gran, who saw her hesitation and gave a quick nod for her to continue.

"There was a little boy in Diagon Alley..."

"A boy?" Augusta looked even more alarmed.

"Not a boy,” Smeed said gruffly. “At first, we thought he was merely a youngling, enthralled just like you, but the reports and the evidence prove that he’s the one responsible for the enthralled rabbits. Have you seen him?"

Wren shook her head. “Not since the day before I got on the train. Unless he shows up in my dreams, or when I see him in my mind. Sometimes.”

“How close is he to the castle?”

“I don’t know.” At that, Smeed merely nodded, not looking even the slightest bit horrified by her admission.

Gran, however, had turned a keen shade of pale. “Only the Headmistress has the power to lift the enchantments and allow visitors onto school grounds. He shouldn’t be able to get in at all. And why ever would he even want to go there in the first place?”

“I think it might be my fault,” Wren said quietly, remembering the day she met Dillon. “He told me that he wanted to go to Hogwarts. I gave him a map. I showed him the way.”

Smeed’s dark eyes turned on Wren. “Go to your Headmistress. Tell her that we are coming.” He suddenly closed the distance between them. “Let me see you.”

Augusta stiffened. “You can’t!” she exclaimed.

“To examine the marks,” he clarified. He lifted her chin and brushed away her hair with cold fingers. “It’s the same as the woman from the village. These aren’t fresh. You’ve stopped feeding it.”

Wren nodded. “Almost a week.”

“Good. Your enthrallment is almost broken. Stay away from it. Stay away from any rabbit, until we are sure.”

"What will happen to me?" Her history book never said if Thralls had ever been un-enthralled. The only story she’d gotten from the text was about how the Thrall of Drakul had fallen ill and died during Lord Drakul’s month-long journey to Spain. It was rumored that she had died of heartbreak, unable to bear the separation. After Wren’s ordeal with Bunny, she could only imagine...

"When the effects wear off, it will feel like a terrible sickness. Do not be alarmed. Drink the tea, and you won't die," the vampire stated.

The way he said that last part should have made her more worried about herself, but she had to know. "What about Bunny?"

The vampire didn't answer. He handed her a drawstring bag that smelled like chamomile. "I must alert the Council. We will send help. In the meantime, give the tea to the others who have been affected. It will disengage them from the mind-link and make it easier to resist the pull."


Wren shook off the slight pull of him as he left the room. What Smeed said about the boy not being a boy made all kinds of sense to Wren. Dillon didn't feel young. He felt as old as the blackness in the vampire’s eyes, and now she knew why.

Gran's eyes were on her when the door closed, her stuffed vulture hat bobbing its head from side to side in wordless disapproval. Wren waited for the inevitable lecture. She’d been stupid to think that Bunny wasn’t dangerous, and even more daft when she’d decided to handle things all on her own. But instead of telling her how she’d let everyone down, Gran only sighed and picked up her traveling cloak. One of her red handbags was sitting on the bed, and a small suitcase that Wren hadn’t noticed before sat at her feet. Gran plucked her wand out of her bag and levitated the suitcase to the door.

"Wait, you're leaving?" She couldn’t believe it. “Now? But I just got you back. You need rest, and food, and…”

Gran regarded her with tired eyes. “I have been resting for months, my dear. Hannah has been very good to me. She deserves to have some breathing space after what I put her through."

"That’s it?” Wren tried to breathe, but it came out as a bitter sob. “After the funeral, I thought you were gone.” This was supposed to be the woman who’d been so strong for all of her life, the woman that Wren had to be strong for all summer. She blinked back the tears, but some of them fell anyway. It didn’t matter whether Gran tolerated out-of-control tears or not… it was how she felt, and she wasn’t going to pretend to be calm when she wasn’t. Not anymore. “How could you just let Frank and Alice die? We had to leave our home because of you. I tried everything to help you get better. How can you just leave?"

Her great-grandmother stood silent, her normally hardened face slack with contrition. The skin around her mouth sagged. Wren’s eyes filled with tears a second time. She had a sinking feeling that what Gran was about to say would be difficult to put into words, which meant that it would be twice as difficult for her to hear.

Augusta dabbed at her eyes with a gloved hand. "Raising my son without a father, raising Neville without any parents at all... I’d taken care of everything for so long that I didn’t know how to do anything else. I fought for them, you know, with your father in the last war. That should have been enough. For years and years I tried to save them, even when my heart knew there was nothing left to be done for them. After they died, I was so lost in my own failure, I was blind to the pain I was causing you and Neville and Hannah. I couldn’t see that I was failing all over again, only this time, it was with the people in my life that mattered the most."

She grabbed Wren’s hand and held it firmly. “I heard every word you said to me, Wren. You did help me this summer. You helped me see what a beautiful and compassionate young lady you’ve turned out to be. I doubt I would have found my way back without you.”

Wren stood, wordless as the old woman let go of her hands and rummaged around in her bag. She heard a thick snap. Gran pulled out an amulet with a mouse trap attached to it. She disengaged the mousetrap and threw it back into her bag, which snapped shut.

Augusta put the amulet in Wren’s hands. “I want you to have this. Put it on.”

Wren fingered the long, thick chain and stared curiously at the large pink opal hanging between her hands. As it slipped around her neck, she immediately felt the pull from downstairs where Smeed was milling through a completely unsuspecting crowd.

“I haven't needed this for a long time, and now I don't even care to keep it as a memory.  It will alert you to the presence of vampires,” Gran told her. “It contains no magic other than that. The only protection it will give you is the knowledge to run in the opposite direction as fast as you can.”

Wren didn’t need the amulet to sense Smeed. She’d felt him as soon as she’d walked into the Inn, but Gran was right. The amulet amplified the pull of him, leaving no doubt about what he was.

"But won't it keep you safe too?"

"Wren, I knew who that man was the minute he set foot under this roof.  I don't need any help identifying vampires, and I doubt anyone will need that amulet where I'm going.  It should belong to you."

“Where will you go, Gran?”

Augusta straightened her traveling robe. "There's a beautiful place in Leeds that I've been eyeing for a while now. It has a lovely garden and has plenty of things to do for an old lady like myself."

"What do we do about them? Does Mum know what he is? Isn’t it dangerous to have a vampire right here, under everyone’s noses?"

"Your mother knows well enough," Gran said, which as far as Wren knew, was nothing. "I spoke with her this morning."

Wren didn’t fight the tears. Gran really was leaving. After everything Wren had been through, and the whole summer, and just not being there, Gran was going away. The look that Gran was giving her now was painfully familiar, telling her that she didn’t need what she thought she needed, and that she was just going to have to trust that things would work out the way they were supposed to. Wren wanted to protest more, to bang her fists like a child and demand… something.

Augusta Longbottom set her suitcase down for a moment to center the stuffed vulture on her hat. “You’re sixteen now. You’re strong and smart, and I won’t love you any less from Leeds. I’ll only be an owl away. Trust Smeed. The council will take care of their own. They always do.”

Wren's head spun.  Gran could sense vampires, and she had known Smeed?  “How do you know him?”

Wren hoped that her great-grandmother would give her something more, or at least delay her departure for the night. But Gran was already opening the door to the suite.

“It was long ago. A story for another time, perhaps.”

She gave her hat one last pat and sent the suitcase floating down the hall ahead of her. “There are things in this world more dangerous than vampires, Wren. Wizards getting involved with vampires is one of them."


***


Scorpius couldn’t believe that he was holding a Potter family secret right in his own hands. He strutted down the third floor corridor with the map open like Albus had shown him. With this piece of charmed parchment, he could track anyone in the castle at any time. Right at that moment, James’ name hovered over a spot just a floor above him. He couldn’t have planned the timing any better himself.

This thing that he’d once called a smelly scrap was incredible! When James' name started moving, he matched pace with the tiny footprints on the parchment. They would both come out into the room with the grand staircase about the same time. Scorpius felt a successful ambush coming on.

A sound ahead made him quickly stuff the map inside his robe, just in time for someone to push past and knock him into the wall.

"Oi! Watch it, you pompous..." He shoved back and turned to see Ian Sloan bump awkwardly against the opposite wall. He righted himself and kept going. The git must be feeling off to not even throw back an insult at him. And he looked horrible.

"Get yourself checked out," Scorpius called out, following that with a muttered, "Hope it's nothing contagious." He quickly Scourgified himself with his wand - better safe than sorry. He'd been reading one of those Muggle spy books Rose had lent him, back before the advent of drama-central when she’d become aggressively slap-happy. That story about airborne contagions had creeped him out to the point where he jumped every time someone around him sneezed. He squeamishly rubbed his arms with his hands.

"Thanks a lot, Weasley," he muttered. Even when she was nice, she gave him a complex.

Girls, he’d decided, weren't worth that kind of trouble any more. Instead of being out in the halls, tracking down James with the map tonight, ("No, Scorp, you go on without me,") Albus was pining away in his room (refining the spells on his anti-hex bands, now that Madame Pomfrey had given him the all-clear) after spilling the story about Wren having Hogsmeade plans without him.

Adding insult to injury, Serena had given some barmy excuse about soft cuticles and superior skin tone earlier that afternoon and run off with Ichibod (no one called him by his first name, but Scorpius was unusually spiteful at the moment) bloody Nevvins, leaving him without a distraction for the evening.

If he’d known it was a deal breaker, he could have beat anybody in the hands department. Why, he put the man in manicure, if he did say so himself. He had very nice hands, he’d been told on several occasions (and not just by his mother). Maybe Serena wasn’t worth sitting idle while being accosted with callus rasps and buffing files. But there was one girl he’d have done it for in a heartbeat.

Gotta stay sharp, he reminded himself... use stealth... put those tracking skills to good use. James was up to something in the fourth floor prefect’s bathroom, and Scorpius, with the help of this genius map, was going to expose him!

His target was two halls away on the level above him. He would have to cut him off by taking a sharp right and the next staircase up… but instead of picking up the pace, a second blip on the map slowed him down almost to a halt. Around the corner from where he was right now, the map showed Rose Weasley's name, strangely out of focus.

Scorpius blew on the parchment to clear off the fuzz. They'd always had a rocky friendship, if that's what he could call their loose acquaintance through her cousin (and his best mate), punctuated by disagreements and verbal assaults.

She was too easy to tease... and he couldn't leave well enough alone.

Rose had always goaded him on, returning barb for barb. Raised on eye-for-eye, hex-for-hex stories all his life, Scorpius had always admired how well she gave as good as she got - sometimes better. It gave him a thrill when she turned that shade of red - brighter than her hair - it resonated deep into his bones, which compelled him to do it again, and again, and again...

The day that she slapped him had been the only reason Rose had ever given him to stop. It had jolted him out of the foolish illusion that there might have been something else underneath all the verbal jousting they'd been doing for years. For the first time, he didn't know what to do about it.

He almost turned around to avoid her altogether. But curiosity got the better of him. What was she doing standing alone in the corridor? What was that unidentified blob on the map next to her that looked like a smudge? He licked his thumb and rubbed at it, but it wasn’t going away.

After everything that had happened, why had he been counting the days since they last spoke? Scorpius dismissed the impropriety of it all and turned the corner. "Rose?"

He had to scan the corridor before he saw the heap of crumpled robe on the floor. If it hadn't been for the map, he wouldn't have noticed until he was almost on top of her.
All the stories his dad used to tell him about the war, about the dangers in the castle rushed through his head. Had she contracted some deadly disease? Was she dying of food poisoning from a disgruntled house elf (be kind to the Hogwarts elves, his father had warned him. They’ve got free will and will retaliate when provoked)? Was this someone's idea of a stupid prank gone bad?

Scorpius rushed to her sprawled form on the floor, eyes closed and a small blob of fur huddled into her neck.

"What is that thing?" he shrieked.

The fur jolted, startled from its business. A splatter of crimson sprayed across Rose's cheek as it tore itself away from her body. Tiny red eyes almost glowing, needle-sharp fangs bared back at him.

Scorpius jumped back, almost expecting it to hiss and spit at him. He didn't bother with his wand and kicked the thing away from Rose's still form. "Get away from her, you blood-sucking monster!"

He’d expected it to lunge at him like Albus' rabbit had on the train - instead it skittered away, nails scraping on the stone floor. Then it began to glow, and with a small pop, it disappeared.

"Lumos!" he hissed, thrusting the lit tip of his wand into the darkness. It was gone.
He knelt down and felt for her pulse. She was still warm, and when he lifted his fingers away, he saw two small puncture wounds in her neck.

"Rose?" he said, frantically jostling her shoulders and more worried than he’d ever thought possible. "Rose, can you hear me?"


***


Chapter 24: 24. Guilty Hearts
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 Wren's body felt like it was being squeezed through a funnel. Everything hurled sideways, and then the ground settled beneath her feet. A sudden whipping wind blew her off balance, and the Portkey, a small sardine can, clattered onto the cobblestoned courtyard. Headmistress McGonagall was nowhere in sight to greet her, so she stumbled into the castle, still riding high on anxiety.

Images flashed through her mind, snapshots from her confrontation with Gran, the message from Smeed, and the calm acknowledgement from her mother about the barman’s true nature that had come too easily. There wasn’t a dark vein on her mother’s pale skin or pricks on her neck, but still, knowing what he was, and then knowing how close he had been all this time, Wren had expected the whole thing to unnerve her mum more, or upset her. Or something.

“He’s a vampire, Mum. How can you trust him?”

Hannah hadn’t batted an eye when she replied, “I trust Gran, and so does your father. Do as the man says.”

The dark corridors filled with low whistling echoes from the wind outside. Wren nervously fingered the amulet that hung loosely around her neck. According to Gran (and the absence of the gut-pulling sensation she’d felt at the Inn), there were no vampires inside the castle, at least for tonight. Smeed had promised to come soon, but two days seemed like two forevers away.

After the bar had closed for the night, the stern vampire had penned his instructions on a long roll of parchment and directed Wren to deliver it to the headmistress straightaway. The order not to approach any vampire - specifically no one who resembled a lost little boy - until he arrived with reinforcements had seemed harsh. Instead of explaining himself, Smeed promptly rolled up the decree and fixed it closed with an official seal in deep red wax. Wren thought she could make out the jagged letters surrounding the large ‘V’, but all of the vowels were nearly identical, so she couldn’t be sure if it said ‘Council’, or ‘Carnal’... she flipped it upside down… “Caramel’... and then the second word… ‘Endives’... ‘Elders’... Before she could ask anything about it, Smeed had swept out into the early twilight, and her Portkey was due back to the castle.

And no Gran. Wren’s heart ached at the way she had left, as if she’d woken up just to tell them goodbye as an afterthought.

She hesitated at the Grand Staircase, and then took a sharp left that led to the stairwell tucked behind the Astronomy Tower instead. It would be a steep climb and take twice as long to reach the Gargoyle Corridor, but her stomach was still in knots after the spinning Portkey. At least this way, the stairs wouldn’t move under her feet.

Somewhere ahead, a door opened. A familiar light mop of hair appeared, stopping to stuff something into his school robes before stalking towards her. She jumped as the door behind him slammed shut. When he got closer, Scorpius’ normally playful eyes were flint-hard. His mouth spread into a tight line.

“Where is it?” he called out sharply.

“Where is what? I just got back to the castle.”

“Your rabbit. It just attacked Rose, and then it disappeared.”

Wren’s stomach dropped clear to her shoes, and she gripped the railing for support, even though her feet hadn’t even started up the stairs. “Where is she?”

He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I took her to the Hospital Wing. That thing you call a pet took a bite out of Rose’s neck and now she’s unconscious. By Merlin’s ruddy... you gonna tell me what’s going on, or am I going to stand on a rock like a piff? This is all ballsed up.”

“I know,” Wren said, her voice shaking a little. “I mean, I didn’t know, but I do now.”

Guilt rolled around inside her. She’d been lured into some kind of awful nightmare. Bunny had gotten closer to her than she had thought possible. He’d lived in her mind and become a part of her. He’d been her pet, her friend… and then turned out to be the creation of a monster.

A cold shower of chills washed over her for even thinking her next thought, but she couldn’t help it. “Are you sure it was Bunny?”

“Are there any other white blood-sucking rabbits in the castle that I should know about? I thought Albus was all mouth and no trousers about the gray one in the library, just to make it sound horrid, but it’s really as big as a house now, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “It’s still trapped in the Restricted Section, I think. Scorpius, there’s a vampire somewhere out there, and he’s trying to take over Hogwarts!”

“I figured that,” he said dryly. “With the tiny fangs and all.”

She fidgeted with the letter from Smeed in her hand. “I’ve got to see McGonagall straight away. But I promise to tell you everything in the morning.”

At this point, the Scorpius she knew would have gone out of his way to make a joke, or a snarky comment, but all he did was stalk in the opposite direction of the Slytherin common room.

“Where are you going?” she called after him.

“I’m hunting a rabbit,” he said with a completely straight face. “I swear on my grandfather’s balding hairline, Wren. You better get that blinkin’ thing locked up in the Gryffindor Tower. Because if I find it first, it’s dead.”

Wren let the tears fall silently as she made the long, winding climb to the headmistress’ office. She took a shuddering breath and knocked on the head of a large stone statue. It cracked one sleeping eye open and stared at her. Not ever having been to McGonagall’s office before, Wren wasn’t sure what to do next. Even though the headmistress had given her a verbal invitation to see her anytime, she probably didn’t mean to have visitors past curfew on a Saturday night either. Wren wasn’t even a prefect, plus, she hadn’t a clue what the password was.

All she had was a burning need, and the message from Smeed. She held up the wax seal of the letter to the gargoyle’s impatient eye.

“I have to see Headmistress McGonagall straight away.”

To her relief, the statue stepped aside. Wren rode the circular moving staircase up to a large oak door, which opened immediately to a worried looking McGonagall in her nightcap and slippers.

“Come in, Miss Longbottom,” she said and ushered Wren inside.


***

Wren woke suddenly with a searing pain between her eyes. She summoned a hot mug of water and the herbal bags without even getting out of bed. In three minutes, she'd washed her morning headache away with a strong cup of tea, followed by a Pepperup potion to take the edge off. Considering that she’d been enthralled by a blood-sucking rabbit, she was probably doing alright. It made her skin crawl to think of how she’d been used by a creepy little boy to help turn Hogwarts into his new home. Smeed’s words swirled around her head, making it throb through the effects of the potion. At least she wasn’t going to die, he’d said.

“Rose, are you awake yet?” she whispered.

Memories from the night before slammed into her at the sight of Rose’s empty bed. She’d told McGonagall everything she could think of, including all about Bunny and Dillon, cringing at the alarm that spread across the headmistress’ face with every word. She’d sat silently then, as McGonagall fished for the spectacles that hung on a cord around her neck and read Smeed’s letter.

“This is highly unusual. What does the Council of Elders want with a little boy?”

“He’s not a boy,” Wren blurted out. “He doesn’t feel like a boy inside my head. He feels...cold.”

McGonagall hadn’t seemed too convinced about Smeed’s tea either, sniffing skeptically at the strange herbal blend. Wren made sure to tell her how the tea could break the bond before it settled. McGonagall had placed the tea and the letter on her desk and walked Wren to the door.

“I will meet with this Mr. Smeed if and when he arrives. In the meantime, I have full confidence in the abilities of the school staff to handle this matter. I can assure you, no vampires will be taking over Hogwarts, little boy or otherwise.”

Wren descended the steps with a sinking feeling that her plea to give the tea to Rose hadn’t been received with any gravity.

The hutch sat just as empty between their two desks. She completely believed Scorpius when he said he’d kill the rabbit. The possibility of Bunny going after anyone else’s blood hadn’t even crossed her mind when she decided to cut him off. She hadn’t thought about his need… and now after what he.. it... did to Rose… after how it had blinded her to what it was and the control that it had over her, she didn’t blame Scorpius for wanting to make sure Rose didn’t end up with a mind-numbing rabbit obsession too.

Wren got up quietly and dressed in a pair of old jeans and a tired-out jumper. She hugged herself for warmth, and then checked the water dish and pellets out of habit. The part of Bunny that was still her lovable pet needed to eat real food. He’d be back eventually, and when he did, she'd... well, she'd have to do something. Keeping him in a place where he couldn't harm anyone else seemed like a good enough first step.

She wove anti-Apparition charms between the bars of the hutch - not enough to keep anything from getting in, but strong enough to prevent anything from getting out again. Out of the corner of her eye, Wren saw Callie stir in her bed and watch the last charm settle over the hutch door.

“I filled the dish and brought up fresh carrots, but I haven’t seen your rabbit. I stayed up waiting on him, just in case he popped in, but he never came back.”

“It’s not your fault.” Wren grabbed another jumper out of her trunk, and squeezed her arms through the double sleeves, but the chill that had seeped into her wouldn’t go away.
Callie squinted at her. “You’re not wearing that to Hogsmeade, are you?”

Wren leaned back against the bedpost and sighed. “I’m not going.”

“But this could be your big break. A professional artist looking at your photographs! What if he wants to show your work at his studio? Then we could all go down to his shop and say, ‘That’s a Wren Longbottom in the window. You could have autographed prints!” Callie’s enthusiastic chatter stopped when Wren picked up Gran’s amulet and slid the chain around her neck. “That’s pretty.”

Wren self-consciously tucked the amulet under her outer jumper. “It was Gran’s.” The talk with Gran and Mr. Smeed replayed in her mind many times over, and each time it made less and less sense. How could any of this be happening? This was Hogwarts, one of the most magically warded fortresses in England…. or at least that’s what everyone said…after the last wizarding war, the security of the place was doubled - if that was possible. Wren had heard Albus’ dad talk about it all through her childhood… “Safest place on the continent,” he’d said.

Callie’s face dropped. “Oh no! Is she…”

“Fine," Wren said sullenly. "Completely cured. Then she packed up everything and moved out to a Wizarding retirement community in Leeds.”

“What? She just left? That’s awful! Did she say anything at all to you?”

“Yeah.” Wren sank onto her bed. “She told me to stop consorting with vampires.” At Callie’s shocked look, she added, “Bunny’s not what you think he is.”

“But Bunny’s not...he can’t be! That would mean he would have to…” she pointed at Wren’s neck, “and he’d have to be… and you… That’s horrible, Wren! What are we going to do?” She looked frantically around the room, passing her gaze over Trudy’s area where their roommate was still tucked in bed, snoring lightly. Her eyes landed on the untouched bed between them.

“Wait. Where’s Rose?”

***

Callie didn’t even notice the scones drifting over their heads at breakfast. “I can’t believe there are vampires trying to break into the school! And Ian Sloan’s a thrall too, which makes sense, actually, and you… but Bunny was so sweet! I’d never have imagined him capable of attacking anyone, much less Rose, and turning her into a… ooof!”

“Slide over.” Scorpius elbowed Callie away from Wren and climbed onto the bench in between them. He reached over Wren’s plate, grabbed the pumpkin juice pitcher and made a rude gesture at it. The deep orange hue transformed into a roasted brown. He poured it into his cup and it started steaming. “Need this so bad.”

“This isn’t your table, Scorpius. What are you doing?” Callie whispered nervously at him.

Wren wordlessly watched him close his eyes and take a sip. “Not sharing the coffee, mates. Make your own.”

Wren couldn’t believe how haggard he looked. He must not have slept much, if at all. The way he had inserted himself at the wrong table completely caught her off guard, especially after how coldly he had spoken to her last night. If he noticed the strange looks he was getting from the fifth year Gryffindors, he wasn’t showing it.

“So.” He opened his bloodshot eyes. No sleep, then, Wren assumed. “How’s Rose?”

Callie turned a bit green at the mention of Rose. “She wasn’t in the room this morning.”

Scorpius paused, mid-reach to the plate of sausages. He swore under his breath, and Wren expected to get hit up with another bucket of blame. Instead, he changed the subject. “What’d McG say last night? After I couldn’t find the blasted thing, I thought maybe she took care of it.”

Wren blinked rapidly and told herself that she had no reason to feel sentimental about Bunny. Not after getting proof that her rabbit was responsible for hurting Rose, and who knew what else it had done.

“She didn’t say anything to me about Bunny. I told her what Smeed said…”

“Who’s Smeed?” Scorpius interrupted.

“He’s the vampire that the Council of Elders sent after Dillon.”

“The twerp in the Alley who was giving out rabbits?”

“How did you know…”

“I may be a goob, Wren, but I pay attention. So, Dillon’s a thrall too?”

“No, he’s a vampire.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense. He’s just a kid.”

Wren continued filling in the pieces for Scorpius, retelling all the things she had just told Callie. It didn’t get any easier to say it out loud a second time.

“Do we at least get to blast them?” Scorpius interrupted again, when Wren explained about the rabbits.

“Just avoid them until Smeed gets here. They’re immune to magic, anyway.”

“Bollucks,” Scorpius muttered and took his frustration out on another sausage.

Wren didn’t know what to say after that. Callie seemed to struggle with her words too, throwing uneasy looks at the boy who stewed between them. “I never thought Bunny would go after anyone else,” she half-whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” he said. “I know I was a beast last night, but when I saw Rose on the floor I just lost it. I’m not blaming you. This is sort of my fault too. Hell, I gave that rabbit to Albus. What are you, exactly, a thrall of a thrall? Is that like second-degree thralls? I must’ve re-read chapter fifteen at least a dozen times last night, and now I feel like such an enabler.”

Callie leaned around Scorpius and peered at Wren. “Is that why you were so out of it at the start of classes?”

Wren nodded her head, ashamed.

“So what made you snap out of it?” Scorpius asked. His seriousness had softened to a less-intense stare that she could stomach better.

“This.” Wren reached into her bag and pulled out one of the tea bags. Scorpius sniffed at it warily. “It’s a special tea that breaks the thrall bond without the side effects.”

“The headaches,” Callie said. “That’s why you were feeling so bad. We should’ve seen it weeks ago. Why didn’t anyone catch on? The professors, or Mister Summers, or McGonagall even?”

“Maybe because I was hiding it from everyone,” Wren said guiltily. “I couldn’t think straight, and all that mattered was Bunny.”

At the end of their table, Ford stood up and started gathering a group of prefects together. He passed out sheaves of parchment (probably the revised schedules) to each of them. Wren couldn’t see Albus with them as they left together to set up the check-out for leaving the castle.

Scorpius snorted. “And McG is still letting people out to Hogsmeade?”

“It’s kind of hard to explain to everyone that they can’t leave the castle when the danger is already inside,” Callie said. She nudged Wren. “You’d better get going if you want a good place in line.”

Wren shook her head. “I’m going to tell Nate to cancel the appointment. I can’t just leave after my rabbit sucked blood out of one of my best friends.”

Callie shoved Wren’s bag at her. “That’s exactly why you have to get out of here. From what we learned in class, you have this mind-link with it, right? There’s no way we’re going to catch your rabbit when you’ll be giving our plans away in your head. It’s like you’ll be projecting all over the castle.”

“She’s right,” Scorpius agreed. “You need to leave.”

“But what about Rose? Smeed told me that if anyone else gets bitten, they need to drink the tea. McGonagall didn’t look convinced that she needs it, and I was going to bring her some myself.”

“Right. Right, right. Gotta sneak it past Pomfrey.” Scorpius took the packet from Wren and got out of his seat. “I got this.” Then he sat back down, hard, all bravado melting away. “Nope. Don’t got it.” He stared helplessly at the packet in his hand. “What if Rose doesn’t want to see me?”

Callie shoved at him. “Of course she’ll want to see you, you big arse. You saved her.”

“Yeah, I did. I just… need her to be okay. Oi. Made you say ‘arse’.”

Callie shoved at him again. “Don’t be a tosser about it. Be nice to her for once.”

Wren glanced once more around the Hall, saw that the prefects were in place through the open doors, but still no Albus. They hadn’t really talked since Tuesday morning. She grabbed Scorpius’ sleeve quickly before he walked away. “Have you seen Albus?”

“Yeah,” he said. “He’s got… plans today. Completely un-rabbity plans. Don’t worry. Callie and I will take care of things while you’re gone. Gotta go sneak this past Pomfrey.”

“I’ll grab a holding sack from Magical Creatures class, “Callie told her. “Just in case it comes back to the hutch. I saw you place the anti-apparition charms this morning. It trusts me, I think. But it can’t read my mind, right?”

“Not unless he… it… bites you.”

“Someone has to warn Trudy too. Though she hates rabbits, so she’s probably safe.”

“Thanks, Callie. I can’t believe you’re doing this for me.”

Callie gave her a tight squeeze. “I can’t believe you were trying to deal with things all by yourself for so long. Oh, and if you can, pick up something from Wheezes Too for us. Mr. Weasley has the place locked up tighter than Gringotts at night. Even James can’t get us inside.”

“It’s no problem,” Wren said, still processing the fact that she was leaving everyone to fix things without her. She stood up and tugged her jumper over the waistband of her jeans. “I can get whatever you like.”

Callie scooted in, closing the gap that Scorpius had left behind. “I want details. All of it. And not just pictures, Wren. Don't just capture the moment. Live in it.” She hung the bag over Wren’s shoulder. “Here. We’ll be fine. Good luck with your portfolio.”


***


Wren stood in the impatient line of students, watching as Ford pointed his wand at the cluster of sacks that a third year had brought back from Hogsmeade. The boy, along with a string of other students, seemed unusually eager to return early. He shrank back as Ford’s wand flashed orange and extracted several banned items out of the sacks.

“Doing stuff like this just makes my job harder and your lives miserable. Go back and tell everyone still in the village that if I have to confiscate any more items today, we’ll have to cancel the November weekend.”

Wren adjusted the strap of her bag that had dug into her shoulder and watched the whole lot of them scamper back down the path to Hogsmeade behind Ford’s back, either to deliver the message or get rid of the contraband in their pockets, or quite possibly both.

“Next..." Ford groaned at another orange flash from his wand. He spun, grabbed the third year sneaking behind him by the shoulder and pulled a bag of stink pellets out of the boy’s pocket. “Really? If you wanted to help the Potions Professor catalogue his supply cabinet every night for the next week, you should have said so.” He shoved the sack back into the boy’s hands and pointed to a stone bench with an angry gargoyle head wrapped around the arm rest. “Sit over there. I’ll deal with you later.”

While Ford resumed the check-out, James came up behind Wren and flicked her ear.

“Hey, that hurt!” Wren shoved him away. At least he hadn’t patted her on the head this time.

James smiled mischievously. “Watch this,” he whispered in her throbbing ear, and went over to the sulking boy at the bench. “You should be ashamed of yourself for trying to get this past the Head Boy. Do you think he’s an idiot?” He snatched the bag out of the boy’s lap. When the third year dropped his head in shame, Wren saw James slip the item into his pocket and saunter off with a grin.

Wren wondered if the poor boy, who was obviously also in Gryffindor, would find those pellets in his pillowcase later that night. Then she wondered if she should have said something to James about thralls and rabbits. She was suddenly shoved forward into Ford’s view. He tapped his wand on the clipboard.

“Hi, Wren. Checking out at ten forty. Three hours, yeah?”

Wren nodded and scooted out of line.

“Sorry I’m late,” she told Nate at the gates of Hogwarts. “Third years were trying to sneak things past the Head Boy.”

Nate checked his watch. “Already? It's not even lunchtime.” He looked up as they passed under the stone-carved eyes of the boar statues. “Do you ever get the feeling these things are watching you?”

“Not really.” Wren shrugged. Maybe their beady eyes didn’t bother her because she was used to the feeling that everyone watched her all the time anyway.

Headmistress McGonagall stood at full alert on the other side of the gate. “Miss Longbottom.” She motioned Wren to step aside. “I sent Professor Ackerly to deal with the rabbit situation in the library. By the time you get back, things will be under control.”

“Okay, thanks.”

Relief came slowly, a strange release in the back of her mind. Maybe all she had to do was tell the right people the right things, and things would be taken care of. As she fell into step with Nate, Wren told him about what happened with Rose, and her talk with Smeed at the Inn. She also told him about Callie and Scorpius and their plans to capture Bunny.

“Callie’s right about Bunny,” she finished. “He’d know everything if I was back there trying to cage him up.” Thankfully, the third telling wasn’t as hard as the first two times she’d recounted everything. But then talking to Nate had always been easy.

“I heard no one can get in or out of the castle without McGonagall’s permission. Is that true?” he asked.

“As far as I know. Unless someone breaks through the castle’s defenses, which hasn’t happened since McGonagall became Headmistress.” But it had happened when her dad was at school… she could see in Nate’s face that he knew enough about Hogwarts history to be thinking the same thing.

The quaint village of crooked chimneys came into view. They trekked down High Street to a smaller, much less flashy version of Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes (minus the mechanical man with the tall hat and rabbit sitting on his head, which Wren was grateful for). Rose’s uncle had only gotten the license to revive the old Zonko’s Joke Shop (which her dad still called it from time to time) under the order that he keep the building “historically accurate”. It didn’t stop him from giving the students a show on their weekends out. A small blast came from the back, showering the street with sparks.

Nate let out an excited yelp and pulled her inside. Wren took some extra time to select a few items for her friends, including a small tube of Ten Second Pimple Remover that Rose had wanted. After she checked out, she found Nate with a Happy Bubble Box tucked under his arm.

“It looks fun, but I have no idea what it does,” he said when they walked away from the registers.

Wren pulled out an old notebook bulging with parchment squares sticking out everywhere. She’d tucked an entire stack of unsorted pictures in the back, just in case Nate’s uncle wanted to see more. “Will this be alright?”

Nate found a vacant bench near the door and sat down with it. “These are even better than what you posted from the Quidditch practice.”

“I think so, too.” All of her photographs had good composition, and showed off her subjects in interesting ways. She thought about the other pictures in the dark room, the ones that weren’t hers, too daring, too edgy, and not at all her style. “Nate, have you ever seen Serena Platt’s photography?”

“Once or twice. They’re more visual trickery than what I’d call art. This one,” he said, pointing to the one he liked best… but Wren’s attention drifted, having seen a tall head of dark hair pass by in the crowd.

Nate bumped her shoulder. “Not the same as the real thing, eh?” he said.

Wren noticed that he was pointing to one of her better shots of Albus scoring a goal with the Quaffle.

“It’s probably not him.”

“But you wish it was.”

“No, I...” Wren said, flustered. “What?”

“You should tell him how you feel, Wren. He’s your friend, right?”

“Yes, but there’s so much going on, and I haven’t…”

“If he’s such a good friend, then treat him like one. He deserves your honesty, right?” She nodded miserably. Nate carefully closed the notebook and handed it back to her. “Come on, then. We don’t want to be late.”

The main road narrowed, and Wren had to stop and rewrap her scarf around her neck to block out the wind. She sidestepped around a fallen street sign, and saw a heap of old rubbish bins near a tree. As they walked farther away from the center of the village, the buildings became more run down and overgrown with weeds and vines.

“Nate, are you sure this is safe?”

“Trust me. It’s just down the way here.”

They stopped at a thin structure, not much sturdier than the Shrieking Shack, at the south end of the village. A peephole had been crudely drilled in the door, just above Wren’s head. A heavy curtain hung in the window, displaying a painting of a landscape, which she recognized as the mountains outside her window in the Gryffindor Tower. Two man-sized topiaries flanked the door. Roots sprawled out of the bottoms of the pots. From the grey, crinkly leaves and the cobweb that connected them at the top like an arch, she could tell that whoever lived here was a serious, single-minded artist… either that, or the place had been abandoned.

Her gut knotted up again. She tried to breathe through her nervousness, but the amulet tugged at her neck as Nate opened the door.

“Wait!” she shouted, but he had already disappeared into the darkness.

She shoved through after him and cried out in alarm as she ran into his back. He hadn’t gone far. There really wasn’t anywhere to go. Or sit. The room was tiny, or maybe it only felt that way because of all the framed paintings and photographs covering the walls. Easels jammed together in any bit of floor space available. The collection contained a mix of oil paintings and charcoal sketches. A lone easel stood in a corner with a freshly painted black canvas. To Wren, who was accustomed to portraits that moved and gave their admirers winks and waves (and occasionally a piece of their minds), the room felt strangely unmagical.

A large man came out of the back, and Wren’s amulet felt like a half ton around her neck. He ran a hand through the crown of bushy hair that surrounded a deep, receding hairline.
“So this is Wren Longbottom,” he said in a deep voice. Wren couldn’t help staring at the untamed beard that fanned out around his collar line, stopping just above a large bowtie and vest. The jacket he wore looked at least a century older than Smeed’s trench coat.

Nate looked at her stricken face. “I should have mentioned earlier, but my uncle’s a…”
Wren tried to speak, but the word only came out in a hoarse whisper.

“Vampire!”

 




A/N:  Thank you again, ladybirdflying and CambAngst, for being the best betas ever!  And thanks to everyone else for reading!  I took the double spacing out, it was too... spacey. Comments, questions or any other words are greatly appreciated and will be repayed in virtual brownies.  

 


Chapter 25: 25. Beating Hearts
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“I was going to say he’s a Muggle, but yes, he’s that too.”

Wren held her breath as Nate's uncle regarded her. He was so obviously a vampire, now that she knew what to look for. His closed-lipped smile put a strain on his face, strangely resembling Dillon, even without showing his teeth. His eyes were black pools, just like Smeed’s. She would have immediately known what he was, even without the amulet’s pull.

The older man moved aside a stack of oils and pulled a neat little tray out of an old-fashioned ice box that had been hidden behind the canvases. He set about arranging small bottles of water, an assortment of nuts, and a plate of meat pasties. It was as if he was completely ignoring her initial outburst, just like Gran would when she wasn’t pleased with something Wren had said or done.

He hummed thoughtfully, and then tweaked the plate into the center of the tray, dividing the pasties neatly from the nuts. “My name,” he said deliberately, “is Jeremy Austin Travers William Low.” He set the refreshments on the counter and straightened to his full height, which wasn’t much taller than Nate, maybe a hair shorter than Albus, Wren couldn’t be sure. “Most people call me The Baron. The title is shamelessly auspicious, but it’s good for business.”

“I call him Uncle Toby,” Nate offered as a suggestion. “It’s easier to remember.”
Wren fought the tug at her navel to go to him… he wasn’t the one, but he was alone and here, much too close to the castle to be a coincidence. Wild thoughts ran through her head of exactly what his business was so near a school of wizards and witches. “Nate, what’s going on? Why did you bring me here?”

Nate looked surprised and disappointed. “I’m sorry, Uncle Toby. I didn’t mean to put you through this again. I thought she saw things differently now, more like we do. Maybe she’s not ready yet.”

His uncle lifted a stack of folding chairs out from behind one of the easels containing a working landscape of a sunset over Hogwarts. The sunset itself was complete, with all the brilliant hues of orange and red fading into the darker tones on the edges of the canvas, but the vague silhouette of the castle in the foreground hadn't yet been detailed. If she hadn't been close to panic, she would have marveled at the expertly blended colors and soft edges of the wispy clouds. Wren's eyes tore away from the unfinished painting as the large man sat down with a creak in one of the chairs and motioned for Nate to set up the other two. “We should try to make her a little more comfortable. From what you’ve told me, it would be a shame to allow her to leave.”

Wren’s panic rose. They weren’t going to let her go! The whole scenario played out logically and horrifically in her mind. Another vampire was trying to take over the school.

Uncle Bloody Toby had sent his boy Berkshire (who was probably some sort of Thrall himself) to gain the trust of one of his rival's thralls and lure her here but for what?
So he could use her and his mental vampire blood-link powers to take over the rabbits and their zombie-like minions? Or maybe he’d planned to eliminate Dillon’s thralls one at a time, right here in Hogsmeade.

The Baron… Uncle Toby.... it didn’t matter what she called him, he was going to off her at any second... was staring intently at her while she worked it all out in her head. He picked up the tray from the counter and held it out to her. “Meat pasty? Nate tells me that you haven’t had lunch.”

“No, thank you,” Wren said weakly. She took one of the sealed bottles of water and clutched it in her lap. There was no need to die dehydrated… oh, what was the use? She was going to be a shriveled husk of a witch at the end of this, wasn’t she? Her hands started shaking.

“Go on and eat, Wren. It’s okay...” Nate was using his most trust-inducing tone, tinged with exasperation.

“It’s alright, nephew,” the old man said kindly. “Most sane people should be nervous in the presence of a vampire. It’s a healthy reaction. Did you know, my dear, that my sister went off to school, just down the road here?”

“But Nate said…” Wren started, and then decided that it wouldn’t be wise to contradict the man. He wasn’t acting like a predator, but then maybe he was just trying to catch her off guard before he made a move.

“Yes, I was a Muggle, and she was the first witch in our family. Quite soon enough, she left to pursue her magical life, and I…” he sighed in reminiscence, “I fell in love. Like you, Wren. And at about your age too. Oh, she was a big, bony thing, all smoke and leggy tripods everywhere, not like the compact contraptions you use today. I was lucky enough to land a dream job at The Times, taking photographs of famous people, and we were never apart.”

He uncapped a bottle of water and took a long sip. “After an unfortunate indiscretion at the local pub, I thought my life was over. Realistically, it had just begun, but I couldn’t picture myself,” he stopped to chortle at his own choice of words, “living in the same town for endless centuries. There would be eventual questions about the man who never aged.” A sadness resonated in his dark eyes.

“For a little while, I continued to dabble in photography, but I stopped doing portraits. You can understand why.” Wren relaxed the grip on her water bottle. She did understand. Vampires didn’t show up on film, and people were generally afraid of getting near something that they didn't understand. Her eyes flitted around the shop, noting the repetitive motif of sunsets in the framed paintings all around the shop. There weren't any photographs at all. Or mirrors that she could see.

“The Council taught me what I needed to know, and then sent me back out into the world to create my own destiny. I learned to paint. My sister married a good man, and they introduced me to this quaint little village where I could still do what I loved without being hassled. The last hundred years has given me an extra lifetime of pleasure, and my family keeps me from getting too lonely.” He looked fondly at Nate. “I have all of the childrens’ birthdays to look forward to.”

Wren waited for the inevitable ‘and now I’m going to eat you’, but the older man continued to smile fondly at Nate, who had a look on his face like he’d just sucked on a lemon. It was directed at her.

“Do you really think I would lure you to your death? On a Hogsmeade weekend?”

Wren felt like she should be embarrassed by her reaction to Nate's uncle, but the rational side of her brain told her that it was perfectly reasonable to have a healthy fear of dangerous things. She did have to admit that the man was a master of his work, and it made her exceedingly curious about what he'd think of her own pictures.

Nate’s uncle cleared his throat gruffly. “Show me your photographs, Wren.”

Wren passed her notebook gingerly over to the Baron, brushing against his icy fingers as she let it go. She pulled her hand away with a jerk, but if he noticed, he didn’t let on. His bushy eyebrows did most of the talking as he flipped slowly through the pages. They waggled weirdly up and down, furrowing a few times.

He lingered at a few photographs, tapping them with his index finger and nodding his head… but then he’d look up and stare at her for several seconds before going back and turning the page without comment. Finally, the vampire closed her notebook. He looked at Wren thoughtfully, with a finger to his pursed lips. He wasn’t smiling anymore.

“You are very talented,” he said. “I’d like to look through these more thoroughly, but first, we need to discuss something of great importance.”

“What do you want to talk about?” Wren asked, feeling like she was a picture on display.

“You, Wren Longbottom,” the vampire said. He brought out another tray, from where, she couldn’t see, and held it out to her. On it was a small collection of tea bags, neatly tied with packing string. "May I offer you a cup of tea?”

Recognizing the smell of chamomile and muttonwart, Wren gagged a little. If he was offering her the same tea, then he was like Smeed, then she could trust him… a little. “No, it’s fine. I already drink the tea, thanks. I have a cup every morning, in fact. Smeed gave it to me.”

“Smeed? Good man, he is.” Nate’s uncle looked her up and down. “I’d thought he had outgrown his tastes for a young thing such as yourself by now.”

“No, he didn’t do this to me,” she said, alarmed that he would think Smeed had touched her. More alarmed that this vampire thought Smeed would even think of… but then she’d thought the same of him, just moments ago.

“I, uh, got a rabbit from someone before the term started. I didn’t know it was enthralled.” Wren dug in her bag until she found the pictures of Bunny.

The vampire flipped through Wren’s pictures of the little white rabbit, lingering on the last one that had captured the moment when the creature’s eyes became dark and the fangs appeared. “You say you have one of these… rabbits?” He said it like normal people would say “toffee” or “tasty jam-filled biscuit”. Wren shivered, as if his eyes were as cold as his fingers had been. "Who gave you this animal?"

“A little boy. His name is Dillon.” Wren flipped back through her pictures of Diagon Alley before school started. “I have his picture.”

Nate’s uncle’s eyebrows rose in a bushy arch as she pulled out the picture of the basket on the ground… the corner by the apothecary where he was standing… the bench where they sat and talked about Hogwarts...

“Right,” she said, feeling incredibly foolish. Vampires didn’t appear in pictures. They didn’t need to eat real food, and the meat pasties were just a way of making her feel comfortable. Nate’s Uncle Toby was genuinely interested in her art and wasn’t about to suck her dry.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend either of you. It’s just a lot to take in, and I don’t know who to trust anymore.”

“Do you know why this 'Dillon' chose you?” Nate’s uncle asked.

“I really have no idea. He was lost, and I thought I was helping him find his way home. He knew about magic and wizards, so I thought that he belonged in Diagon Alley.”

Then she had another thought. "Maybe somehow, he found Bunny at the cottage... or maybe he brought him to me in the first place. I always wondered how a tiny rabbit could have hurt his leg like he'd fallen down from somewhere, since they're always so close to the ground."

Dillon and his basket... and the baby rabbits. And he could Apparate so it was all possible. "But he's living off rabbit blood. Why does he go through the trouble of trying to get to Hogwarts?"

“Magical blood runs through us faster than a shot of whisky and lasts ten times as long. It addles the senses. We can take it as a light snack or an after-dinner cocktail, nothing more. Though I never have.” He looked fondly at Nate, who looked a little bored, probably having heard all of this before.

“But Dillon didn’t bite me. Bunny did. Will he turn into a wizard if his thralls drink too much wizard’s blood?”

“No. A person is either born with magic, or they’re not. But on one thing, the Council is clear. Wizards should never be turned.”

Nate’s uncle picked up a walnut from the tray and crushed it in a single squeeze of his fist. He sprinkled the dust onto the floor at their feet. “Imagine a creature with lightning fast speed and immense strength, immune to any spell performed directly on them because of the tainted blood running through their veins. They seek wizards’ blood because it makes them stronger, but it also makes them lose their minds, and then the Council must deal with them.”

Wren’s blood ran cold. Of course she didn’t want the whole castle enthralled by Dillon’s rabbits, but she never imagined what it would take to stop him. Somewhere in the vampire’s words was an unmistakable threat, and it sounded like whatever would happen to Dillon was going to be much more severe than a letter home and a week’s worth of detentions.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Nate’s uncle said. “Clearly, you hadn’t asked for this. I hadn’t asked for this either, and here I am. Here we both are.” Uncle Toby spread his hands. “We didn’t have a choice in the matter of what we became, but we learn to make the best of it. I am relieved to know that thanks to Smeed, you have the tea. You are in control of your own mind. So now, Wren Longbottom, what will you choose to do?”

Wren looked away from his penetrating stare. She knew why he was asking. He understood the thrall bond better than anyone. Maybe not better than Smeed, but Smeed had told her to let him handle things. This man was asking her what her intentions were, and suddenly Wren felt as if her decisions finally mattered.

“I won’t tell Dillon that they’re coming for him,” she said. “I was able to block him out of my mind before, and when I get rid of Bunny,” her gut rolled at the thought, but she pressed on, “it will help keep him from enthralling anyone else and having them let him into Hogwarts.”

“I’ll help too,” Nate said.

Uncle Toby’s brows furrowed deeply, connecting at the ridge above his nose. “This is why your family didn’t want you anywhere near that wizard’s school. All it took was a bad string of the flu, and your mum yanked you out of primary school.”

“And you promised her that you would keep me safe, remember? If it wasn’t for you living so close, they never would have agreed.”

“It appears I’m not doing my job well enough,” Uncle Toby said. “You’d better get back to the castle now. I have a letter to write. Even if Smeed is on the job, it’s my responsibility to keep the Council informed as well.” He looked pointedly at Nate, who suddenly seemed unsure of himself. “You'd better go too, nephew.”

Wren and Nate walked back to the castle without saying anything until they were in sight of the gates and McGonagall's’ pointy hat that bobbed and shifted to and fro, searching for any unseen dangers. The winged boar statues on pillars stood guard on either side of her. It really did look like an impenetrable fortress.

They passed through the gates under the headmistress’ nodding gaze. When they got closer to the castle, they saw a row of charmed suits of armor lined up along the path, clanking and marching back and forth, all the way up to the entrance and back. Nate looked back at the path that led to the little town.

“I was so sure Uncle Toby was going to notify my parents, but he wants me back at the castle for some reason."

“I’m sorry,” Wren said. “You’re probably wishing you’d never come here at all.”

“Are you kidding? My parents are going to freak when they find out a vampire is trying to take over the school.”

Nate grabbed Wren’s arm and shook it excitedly. “This is so awesome!”

 


***

 

A chair scraped against the library floor until it knocked against Albus’ seat, jolting him out of a passage in the text that he’d just found. It was something about defensive magic that was cast around, instead of directly on an object. Scorpius plopped down without an invitation and shoved a pile of books aside.

“Still avoiding everyone?”

“Damn James,” Albus muttered. After that stunt with Lori, he wasn’t going to take any more chances. “Gotta find something to give me an edge without the wristbands.”

Scorpius thumped the cover of a worn seventh year Charms text with several dog ears in it. “I’d like to get a leg up on the bugger too, even if it means studying ahead. Found anything yet?”

“Maybe. But I’ll never figure it out if you keep interrupting.”

Albus flexed his almost-healed hand and watched the new skin stretch taut between his thumb and forefinger. It was going to be another week before Pomfrey gave him the all-clear to wear his bands again, so they wouldn’t interfere with the fast-healing potions he’d been downing twice a day. Until then, he didn’t want to be caught up in another hallway duel, or with his pants down in the shower, or whatever James had in for him next. This time, he was determined to get at his brother before his brother could get to him.

Scorpius thunked his elbow on the table and scratched at an ear. “I saw Wren.”

“Yeah, me too. Heads together with Berkshire all week.”

“Oi, mate! When are you going to give that a rest? There’s more important things going on around here, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“Is that what kept you out all night?” He hoped that whatever Scorpius had gotten himself up to wasn’t going to somehow end up biting him in the rear later… like if anyone found out about the map he’d let him borrow.

“Rose was attacked last night.”

Albus looked up sharply. “What?”

“Wren’s rabbit did a number on her. It’s got sharp pointy teeth and is controlled by a rabid vampire who wants to break into the castle. Ah, now I’ve got your attention, haven’t I?”

Albus had completely lost his place in the text, but he didn’t even try to find it again. “Rose? Attacked by Wren’s rabbit? How? Is she going to be alright?”

“Yeah. Wren says she’ll be fine as long as I give her some of this tea. It’s supposed to break the mental bond that the rabbit thralls create when they suck on your blood.” He eyed Albus rubbing at the new skin on his hand. “You want some?”

Albus’ mind reeled with the new information. Thralls inside the castle? What kind of crazy had Scorpius gotten into now? Then his logic kicked in. “That thing that took a bite out of me, it wasn’t trying to drink my blood. It’s a flesh-eater. I’ve found pictures of them in this book. Here’s one of a rat, and this is one of a weird cat-like thing with glowing eyes, but those little buggers I saw certainly looked like rabbits. Mutant, zombie flesh eating rabbits, but still basically rabbity. I swear I still hear their scrappy claws scraping inside the walls at night. It says here that they're 'adverse by-products of Blood Magic when excessive veinipunctural techniques are employed', whatever that means. The point is that they turn into uncontrollable monsters with an insatiable appetite for anything warm-blooded. What did Wren say about them?”

“Didn’t mention flesh-eaters. Just the bit about thralls. Said McGonagall will take care of things. From the sound of it, she’s gonna fix your monster thing in the Restricted Section too.”

“About time,” Albus said. He’d wanted to tell someone straight away when the whole trouble started, but Wren had convinced him not to. Ordinarily, he would have said something anyway, but it was Wren. She usually made sense about things, and she was supposed to know animals better than anyone. It was good that Wren had finally asked for help, but it still stung that she hadn’t bothered to include him in her plans.

Scorpius was blessedly silent for a few minutes. If he’d just go away, Albus could concentrate, and re-locate the passage he’d found that might save his ars…

“You know they’re not a thing,” Scorpius interrupted again. “Berkshire’s uncle is some kind of big time artist down in Hogsmeade. Wren’s been putting together a portfolio of her best pictures all week because he got her an appointment.”

“I knew that,” Albus said, fixating on the spell that caused an intense shield-like bubble around the caster and enabled them to walk around as it moved with them. That could work. The magic didn’t touch the caster at all, and his hand should be unaffected...

“Loads of pictures with you in them.”

“Right. Thanks for the update, Scorpius,” Albus grumbled.

He hadn’t known any of that, actually, but then he hadn’t given Wren the opportunity to say anything to him all week. He’d been so down on her for her obvious attraction to her history partner, which now that he thought about it, wasn’t anything but Wren being her usual friendly self. Damn. It didn’t help that he’d been ducking away to work on charms and hexes and a plan to thwart his brother every free moment he got.

Scorpius wasn’t taking his silence as a cue to leave. “Forget James. He’s a prat, but he hasn’t tried anything all week. Maybe he’s done with you. Besides, Wren was looking for you this morning. You should meet up with her, like me. I’m gonna meet up with your cousin. Make her a cuppa. Chat a bit.”

Talking had never been in Scorpius’ game plan. It was always ‘impress with this stunt’ or ‘get her attention by acting like a complete wanker’, which miraculously worked with some of the girls easily enough. But Rose never fell for it, which was one of the reasons why he could ignore Scorpius’ constant hedging about his cousin.

“You’re going to talk to her? As in, have a conversation, with words? What was in your juice this morning?”

“What’s wrong with that? It’s all you do, anyway. Thought I’d try a different approach… hey, there’s someone you should be talking to. Professor of Charms just walked in. You could ask him about spells, you know. Make it sound like academic curiosity, or something noble like that. I bet he’d fall for it too.”

“For once, you’ve got a good idea.” Albus got up and followed Professor Ackerly as he wove through the stacks. He was about to call out, but decided not to interrupt when Ackerly stopped at Pince’s office and rapped on the door. After a short pause, the old librarian appeared.

“I hear you have a rodent problem. McGonagall sent me to fix it.”

“Problem? There’s no problem here,” came Pince’s rickety voice. “But I’ll show it to you, since that’s what you came for. Punch?”

The two adults disappeared from sight, still talking, but from where he was, Albus couldn’t make out what they were saying. Scorpius was suddenly at his side.

“What’s going on?”

“Give me the map, Scorp.”

“Shite.”

“You lost it again?”

“Not ‘lost it’, exactly. James…”

“Merlin! Again? You can’t be serious.”

“Oi! I was distracted by Platt’s new prints on the Photography board. I swear I was still with her when she took those shots, but those parts weren’t mine. Whose nose do you think she was looking up when I wasn’t around, eh?”

“This is the last time I’m letting you… argh, never mind. What do you think they’re doing?”

They followed behind, keeping a long row of shelves between the professor and themselves. A stench of rotting apples hit their noses as Madame Pince unlocked the gate to the Restricted Section. From where Albus stood, he could see Ackerly wobble unsteadily on his feet, and then fall heavily into a chair. Then the big maw of the rabbit appeared. It opened its jaws and clamped down onto the professor’s neck. Soon enough, it let go and nudged the professor with its big black nose.

Scorpius gaped at the sight. “Shouldn’t we do something?” he whispered.

“Like what? Charge them and get pricked by that monster ourselves?”

They watched in silence as Ackerly came out of it and rose out of his seat. Pince patted the drooling rabbit on the head and scratched under its chin. Mister Summers appeared, and they put their heads together in quiet conversation.

“Always thought Pince was a loopy old bat. Now I know why. Thralls, the whole lot of them.”

Then Pince had a large vial in her hand and was draining a thick, clear liquid from the monster rabbit’s fang. A disturbing chittering rose behind the animal, and at least twenty tiny black balls of fur surrounded Pince and the giant rabbit, nipping at its legs. The monster rabbit drew its fang out of the vial and let out a yip. The chittering stopped, and the little things scurried away.

“Mother of Merlin! Those are it’s…”

“It’s spawned demon flesh-eating rodents. That’s… oh god, what’s she doing now?”

They looked on in horror as Pince poured the liquid into a large pitcher. She turned to Mister Summers. “Take this straight away to Madame Pomfrey. She’ll be preparing for our new helpers. I’ll fix up some more, and we can serve it at dinner. Dillon will be so pleased that we’ve found him so many friends!”

Scorpius clutched at his stomach. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

Albus hissed through his teeth. “Didn’t you hear them? They’re taking that stuff to the Hospital Wing.”

“Rose!”


***


Dillon watched from the shadows as the final students filed inside the gate. He’d tried. When no one was looking, he tried to go through the gates, but he couldn't.

His lean face pressed against the invisible barrier. It stretched all around the boundaries of the castle property, not just where the gate house stood, and didn’t give way any better than the other fifty times when he tried to push through. With rising irritation, Dillon watched again and again as the young witches and wizards passed through the gates effortlessly. He dug the toe of his worn shoe into the dirt. They needed to tell him it was alright.

“You’re too strong,” his mother had told him, old and pale, the last time he had seen her. “I can’t let you in anymore.” After she’d collapsed, from old age or from too much blood loss, he wasn’t sure which, he still couldn’t go to her. With her last breath, she’d whispered to him as he stood at the doorway of their small rental in Lingfield, the last home he'd ever known. “It’s time to find your own way in the world without me.”

He thought back to his mother's journal and the map.  They'd taken trains.  They'd ridden busses.  They'd walked through the night when they had to.  She'd moved them so much, each time farther and farther away from the place that she'd always told him that he belonged.  

Dillon had found his way. He was here. This was his way.

All of his new friends had stayed inside the castle against all his prodding in their heads, and he couldn't understand why. It had been a whole week, and they hadn’t come out to get him!

That grey rabbit must have had too much wizard’s blood. His mum had warned him about wizard’s blood. It made people like him crazy. That’s why he had the rabbits. That’s why he never drank from people, because he didn’t know who was magical and who wasn’t. Except at the end, when his mummy had made him drink. He’d needed more. He ached for it.

The remaining rabbits in his basket were longer, stronger, leaner and more intelligent than any other rabbits he’d ever known. Dillon would like to think that it was because of him… because of the blood that he had given them. They shared, like good friends did.
His fangs descended and he lifted it up to his mouth and bit down. Just a nip, he reminded himself. The blood tasted sweet. He patted the rabbit on the head and used his fang to prick his own finger. He gave it to the rabbit to lick. Dillon put the rabbit back into the basket where it curled up to sleep.

Their fresh blood swirled around inside him. He'd never made so many new friends all at once before. It was going to be such a wonderful thing!

Dillon watched the tall, thin woman usher in the last of the students. When everyone was past the gate, she swung her wand around in a large circle. The wards hummed so strong that he had to step back.

That woman. She had the magicks to control the gate.

As the gates swung shut, Dillon thought hard about that woman to his friends who were hopping and loping inside the castle grounds.

She was going to be his best friend of all.


 


Chapter 26: 26. Straight Through the Heart
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As soon as Wren set foot into the castle, something felt very wrong.

She’d agreed to meet Nate in an hour to check that the monster rabbit in the library was gone. It wasn’t second-guessing McGonagall as much as it was Nate’s excitement that made her uncomfortable. The growing ache behind her eyes unnerved her even more.

When she finally got to her room, the fire in her lungs had her sinking to the floor by her bed. She assumed that Callie had done what she’d said and taken Bunny away. Maybe that was why she felt so awful. Smeed had said that losing Bunny would make her sick. She picked a spot on the floor and stared at it, breathing slow and steady through the pain. Wren would have completely missed the flash of light if she hadn’t been eye-level with the hutch.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” she whispered. Heat prickled through her arms and legs as she scooted gingerly over to where the little white rabbit lay. Maybe she could take him down to McGonagall herself, or just sit here and wait until Callie came back. Either way, he had to go, he just had to.

Bunny wheezed, causing Wren to sit up immediately. "What's wrong?" she asked, finally taking a good look at him.

His hind quarters had collapsed, and the side of his face and whiskers drooped into the water dish. He wheezed again, eyes bulging, like he couldn't get enough air.

Wren’s chest suddenly felt heavy, like someone had squeezed the air out of her too. The pain, the… everything… was coming from him.

"Oh, Bunny!" She didn’t know what to do at first, staring at the suffering animal in front of her, but then she snapped out of her shock. The tea… Smeed had said to keep drinking it.

She fumbled with her wand and managed to squirt a superheated stream of water into her mug - it should have surprised her more that the magic had worked, but she was too focused on keeping the dried leaves from spilling out of her hands. She wasn’t going to die, she reminded herself. That’s what Smeed had said, wasn’t it?

It scalded her throat going down. Almost immediately, her limbs became her own and her breathing got easier. The connection to Bunny was dulled, and Wren was herself again.

“It’s almost over. I’m here.” The little animal shuddered as she tried to soothe him with her touch. Wren knew she shouldn’t try to make contact with him, but she couldn’t help it. She closed her eyes and focused on the tiny spark where he used to be, the feelings of security and happiness that he’d given her when she’d needed it the most.

Bunny responded with a watery picture of Rose in the southern corridor. The perspective tilted upwards to Ian holding a white rabbit with a patch of brown over one eye and little flecks of yellow in his fur. She could smell blood on Ian’s rabbit... Rose’s blood… and then she was falling...

Wren’s eyes shot open and her free hand reached out and fought with a fist full of curtains, almost yanking them off her bed frame.

Dizzy from the vision, she lifted him out of the hutch and into her lap. “You didn’t attack Rose,” she murmured into his fur. “You didn’t attack anyone!”

Even if she felt like she could navigate the stairs after all she’d just been through, it was no use trying to take him anywhere now. He was so close to being gone. Wren struggled to find the good in what was happening. She’d have her mind back, think her own thoughts, be her own person. There wouldn’t be little voices in her ear, showing her pictures… that part of her mind would be empty.

And Bunny… she could remember him as the kind, gentle animal that she believed he was. The bundle of fur in her arms barely hung on a breath. Wren stroked his fur and murmured to him. If she was the last thing he knew, she was going to…

His dulled eyes drooped shut.

Wait. No. Not yet. Bunny? There was no answer.

For the first time, Wren allowed herself to imagine what it had been like for Gran watching Frank and Alice slip away in the hospital. She tried to hold onto the vision of Gran’s kind face accepting their fate and letting them go, but it twisted and morphed into what had happened next…. flashes of anger, mourning, shutting down…

Wren sobbed silently with the little rabbit in her arms. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. He was her friend, her companion... he'd comforted her when Gran had been at her worst. He'd made her horrible summer bearable, given her something to care about that wasn't broken.

And he hadn't hurt Rose!

She could feel the truth flowing through his labored breathing. He hadn't had any blood except hers, and nothing since she'd stopped feeding him almost a week ago. No wonder he was so sick. What kind of friend would she be if she just sat there and watched him die?

She snatched up the strap of her camera and dug the pointed end of the buckle into her finger. Then she pried his little mouth open to rub the small bead of red off her finger and onto the rough surface of his tongue.

Nothing happened at first.

Then, slowly, his jaw worked up and down, swallowing against the hand that helped to prop up his head. His suckle strengthened, and he shivered with relief.

"Come on, Bunny. You can do it," she whispered, caught up in a wave of dizziness.

Bunny’s eyes snapped open. He released her finger and scrambled to his feet in her lap. Wren lay still, watching the color return to his skin, watching his mouth open wide, the fangs descend… the maw widen…

This was barely a rabbit at all, with its pointy fangs and devil-red eyes, a miniature of the demon animal in the library. It seethed with need and waited.

If she wanted to, she could still refuse.

Wren squeezed her eyes shut and remembered the baby rabbit that she had rescued in the woods all those months ago. She didn’t care what Scorpius or Callie or anyone thought. They were wrong. He wasn’t a monster, he was hers, and she still loved him. She hugged him close and hoped that it wasn’t too late.

Take whatever you need.

Fur rubbed against her neck. She felt a sharp prick, and the gentle pull turned desperate and needy. Images flooded her mind. Fresh carrots, warm pillow… sensations that didn’t have form… swirling colors... companionship... gratitude...

Wren drifted.


***

Smeed found Burns prying at the jammed door of an old farmhouse due west of Hogsmeade where the dogs had picked up the trail. He’d apologized to his genteel employer for the short notice of his absence. Hannah hadn't spoken much since her daughter’s last visit, but he could tell that her mind was filled with questions.

Until this was over, he certainly didn't want to give her any answers.

Seeing the amulet again had jolted free old memories of complications and regret. Decades hadn’t yet erased the crystalline vision of a youthful Augusta as he liked to remember her… if he chose to… which he hadn’t, just to be clear. The past had a way of dulling the pain, or magnifying the loss, depending on how one looked at it. Neither of which did any good. Smeed would rather not examine his past at all, if he could help it.

“I think I’ll start a new hobby,” Burns murmured, finally getting the hinges to squeal. “Poetry, perhaps. I’ve never tried my hand at fustian intellect.”

The door gave way, and they stepped into a modest, one-room living space with a hearth. Years of garbage lay strewn all over the floor, mixed with splintered furniture, and a heavy coating of dust.

Burns assessed the scene. “Fireplace hasn’t been used in an age, the foot trail through the brush is almost invisible, and this door…” it squealed in protest as he worked the hinges.

Smeed took pause at the photograph above the fireplace, skewed at an odd angle with a cracked frame and no glass. Damaged as it was, he could still make out a woman with her hand on the shoulder of a young boy at her side, eyes fixed forward, grimacing as if his shoes were too tight. Smeed adjusted the frame on the wall, and continued his survey around the room, his attention landing on a pile of wood in the corner. Something inside of him stirred uncomfortably.

“We’ve been here before,” he said.

There had been a woman huddled in the corner, but the man on the floor had commanded his attention, gasping with a gash that should have destroyed him, half-healed from a spell or a potion. Wizardry hung thick in the air, which was why they had come.

Before bleached hair and iPads, Burns had been his mentor. Tracking a rogue vampire who had turned the nearest town into a bloodbath had been their first assignment. New and nervous, Smeed had crouched down to the man, whose eyes had drifted sideways.

“What happened?”

The man’s labored breathing hitched. “It attacked.”

Smeed’s irritation flashed again at the words. It could have been him, or Burns, or anyone.

“What did it want?” he pressed.

“It attacked my boy like a rabid, angry beast. So bleedin’ fast. Never saw anything move like that, even if it were spelled.” He coughed, bits of red splattered over the floor, mingling with the rest. “But I got it.”

Even in his waning condition, the man’s hatred pounded, ten times stronger than his pulse. His eyes flickered to an upturned table by the scorch-marked window. Burns helped to right the table, and that’s where they found the slain vampire, a wand sticking out of his chest, dark essence pooling on the floor next to the immobile boy.

Smeed once again forced himself not to recoil at the memory. The endless night had still been new and exciting. The mission had forced his younger self to face the truth about what came after. This was what would happen if he slipped out of his civilized skin and became the monster that the world expected him to be.

The boy was dead. The man was dying, drained but unturned. Smeed had been too close to human to understand the necessity for any further precautions.

A knock on the threshold brought Smeed back to the present. A portly gentleman in a last-century traveling cloak leaned forward, and, finding no barrier, dipped his foppish hat to clamber into the one-room farmhouse.

Smeed nodded at him. “Austin.”

The newcomer smiled, baring his glistening incisors. “Nice to see you again, Smeed. After I sent off a message to the Council about a young thrall needing their assistance, one of your little furry friends brought me even more disturbing news. I had to come and see this mess for myself.” He turned to scrutinize the broken hinges. “Burns. Should have known it was you.”

“Travers,” Burns greeted, and got a frosty glare. “What? You’ve got so many names, they ought to be kept in rotation.”

“Oh dear,” Jeremy-Austin-Travers said, shaking a fat finger at the frame. “I saw this boy in Hogsmeade, lurking in the shadows. Was going to keep my eye on him, when I got your message.”

“It was the woman,” Smeed said, everything clicking into place like a puzzle assembling itself in his mind. “She was whispering ‘my boy’ like a mantra of grief, over and over. We looked for evidence, but not intentions. She must have revived him somehow.” He shot a questioning glance at Burns.

“You know how,” Burns said, straining to push the door open farther to clear the stale air. “There was blood everywhere. As I recall, you fell for the proper burial line from the grieving mother. Such a green tosser, you were.”

“You could have just as easily taken the bodies out back and lit them up. You would have enjoyed yourself doing it, too.”

Burns sobered. “Nah. You were young. Didn’t want to scare you. Besides, the man and boy were wholly unviable. We couldn’t have known how desperate she was.”

“His name is Dillon,” Travers said, pointing to the boy in the photograph. “A girl came to see me today, lovely photographs, real talent. She mentioned him, and you, Smeed. A noble gesture, assisting a thrall that isn’t yours. It’s a shame such a nice girl got mixed up in all of this.”

He moved aside a chair full of rubble and swept half a century of dust off of the writing desk. “Here we are,” he said, uncovering a stack of scrolls, most addressed to Hogwarts. All of them unopened and stamped with “Return To Sender” in bold letters.

“Looks like the mother was trying to get him into the school,” Burns said, hovering. “And look at the dates. She tried for years.”

“Seems as if he never stopped trying,” the portly man concluded. “From what I heard, he thinks he’s still a child. Unfortunate and dangerous." He picked out the tip of a broken wand in the rubble. "Evidently, both parents were wizards, which means he's doubly tainted. Well that seals it." He slapped his thick hand over the letters, sending a plume of dust into the air. "Someone should move along to the castle before that youngling finds his way in. The last thing we need is a blood-thirsty defect tearing into a school full of wizards’ blood. My nephew is at that castle. His family will never let me hear the end of it.”

Smeed watched the artist disappear through the gaping threshold and into the night. No decent fellow would have questioned his kindness towards the girl. She was in over her head and needed it. Then again, if he hadn’t acted quite so charitable with that woman and her dying family all those years ago, he’d be sipping Scotch in Piccadilly Square, instead of tromping through the wilderness, tracking a petulant, needy, selfish thing with the attention span of a dust mite and half the intellect of a blade of grass.

He didn’t like little kids. Then again, neither did the Council. They didn’t have the patience or the resources to deal with children who were literally still children.

Burns kicked around a bit of rubble and regarded Smeed keenly. “Green, like the sprouting grass after an eternal frost…”

“Shut up, Burns.”

“Speaking of poetic justice, how does it feel to be right about being sent to clean up someone’s mistake?”

“Didn’t know it was going to be ours. Let’s go.”

***


“Catch!”

Scorpius volleyed the packet of herbs over his head to Albus and yelled, “Expelliarmus!” at the Hufflepuff seventh year hot on their heels. Ferguson’s wand skittered across the floor, but instead of slowing him down, the bleary-eyed chaser lunged at Scorpius, who took off down the hall, giving Albus a blessed moment to catch his breath.

“Oi! Potter!”

Albus had almost forgotten there was another one after them.

Ernie McCormack skidded to a halt at the junction in the corridor with the tip of his wand on fire. Albus took Scorpius’ cue and fled in the opposite direction that his friend had taken. Ten steps into dodging jets of light, Albus was already wheezing. His sprints from the Quidditch penalty box onto a broom hadn’t prepared him for outrunning the co-chair of the Track and Field Club. The school didn’t even have a track, but McCormack’s swift stride pounding into the stone floor behind him made Albus reconsider just how much field there was around the Great Lake.

For lack of a better plan, he took a sharp corner, froze in place, and cast a Concealing Charm over himself. His pulse raged inside as he tried not to make a sound. If he was lucky, the git would just run on by… before Albus passed out from holding his breath.

McCormack barreled around the corner and skidded to a halt in the empty corridor. He carefully backtracked, the dark veins on his face twitched, and his bloodshot eyes peered right through Albus, standing inches away. With a grunt, he swiveled around and launched himself down the southern corridor.

Albus released the charm and gulped in buckets of air. If he had to guess, Scorpius would double back to meet up for another go at getting the tea to Rose. The secret passage behind the suit of armor looked promising. Scorpius had run past it before they’d been separated. Albus followed it to the third floor, where most of the secret passages hooked up. He headed towards the one they used the most, thinking that his friend would likely meet him there.

Something clicked against stone, and Albus rushed forward towards the sound. Scorpius must be coming out of the other tunnel just this side of the library...

But it wasn’t Scorpius. He skidded to a stop and stared at Wren as the wall slid shut behind her. How did she even know about that panel?

For a split second, she had that wide-eyed look, like she was about to turn around and pretend that she hadn’t seen him at all. If she were anyone else, he’d have expected a cold shoulder for being avoided all week, except Wren didn’t usually do paybacks.

She pointed to the bag of dried leaves crushed in his fist. “Why do you have the tea? Where’s Scorpius?”

“We had to split up. He told me…” Albus couldn’t think where to begin, out of everything she hadn’t told him, but she suddenly grabbed him by the arm.

“Quick, in here!” She pulled him behind the nearest wall hanging and made a shushing motion with her hand.

“What are you…” Albus fell silent as heavy footsteps came down the hall. McCormack and Ferguson passed by, gruffing to each other with stilted words.

“We lost Malfoy.”

“No matter. Get Potter. We need him at the prefect meeting in an hour.”

Albus strained to hear the rest of the conversation, but only caught the words “plans” and “feast” as the voices faded around the corner.

“I think they’re gone.” Wren moved aside the wall hanging like she was about to make an excuse to leave. She hadn’t even asked him what that was all about.

Because she knew.

Rabbits. The Restricted Section. They hadn’t talked since their practice session on the bridge where they’d almost, well… not quite… he had no idea what that was, but it had ended badly. And that thing with Nate… He hated not knowing where he stood with her. And this was the worst time to bring up any of that, when he was on the run from punch-drunk thralls.

Albus wanted to at least say that he was sorry for being such an arse all week and avoiding her for no good reason, but as she stepped out of the shadows, the apology stuck in his throat.

“Wren, your face.”

Her skin was chalky-white against the dark veins running over her cheeks and down her neck. Albus stared blatantly at her, trying to rationalize what could possibly have caused her to look exactly like McCormack and Ferguson, who'd just been chasing him through the castle. He almost didn’t notice the footsteps down the corridor until Wren said, “We don’t have to hide this time. It’s Nate.”

A sick feeling invaded Albus’ gut as Nate appeared, just as Wren said he would. He halted in the middle of the corridor. “Oh Wren, you shouldn’t have.”

It wasn’t just him, Berkshire saw the veins too. “What happened?” Albus demanded. “You were with her. Did someone slip her the punch at Hogsmeade?”

“No, no punch,” Wren said. “Scorpius was wrong. Bunny didn’t attack Rose. He didn’t attack anybody, I’m sure of it.”

“You believe a rabbit over Scorpius? Are you crazy?”

“Look,” Nate said calmly, “what’s done is done, and we can’t stay here. I dodged some patrols coming up here. Before they catch up to us, there’s something you both need to see."

“If it’s that monster in the library, I just saw it. It’s the secret ingredient in Pince’s zombie punch. They’re taking some to Rose right now," Albus said.

Nate nodded. "Yeah, but the punch isn't our only problem. It gets worse."

They followed Nate down to the ground floor, Wren avoiding his gaze, and Albus getting hotter by the minute. He watched her silently guide them through the castle, stopping and closing her eyes, and making right and left turns, taking roundabout ways to where they were going.

Nate's last words rang through Albus' head like a warning. She'd done something, he thought, half-expecting her to freak out and attack him at any moment, like McCormack and Ferguson, half-kicking himself for thinking she'd be capable of that. With Wren’s direction, they made it safely to the west wing. Nate threw the door open to the green by the lake.

“Out there.”

Blankets were scattered across the lawn, students taking the chance to be outside after the bad weather. Clouds rallied in the distance. They maybe had an hour left before the rains came again.

Albus stared into the afternoon glare. “What are we supposed to be looking at?”
Nate pointed at the students scattered all over the lawn. "Look closer. Stop seeing the normal."

“What are they…” Albus started to say, and heard Wren catch her breath. Each student had a rabbit in their lap, in their arms, or beside them and each rabbit was nibbling, sucking rather, on a finger, the inside of an arm, one of the girls was cuddling her rabbit up to her neck.

“They’re all around the castle. And more are coming.” Nate pointed to the woods where small white balls of fur appeared through the bushes.

All of a sudden, the students got to their feet and swelled in a large, jerky mob, heading to the castle doors.

Wren gasped. "Look! Trudy’s out there!"

Wren’s roommate clumsily shuffled along with the crowd, still in her Quidditch gear. Albus winced as the handle of her broom dragged behind her. She finally just let go of her broom, letting it clatter to the ground for a better grip on the animal in her arms.

“Wait!” Wren called to her, grabbing her by the arm. “What are you doing? You… you hate rabbits!”

Trudy blinked like Wren's words were tiny buzzing gnats. She cuddled the brown rabbit in her arms and looked at the darkening sky. “Smells like rain,” she said in a hollow voice. Then she turned away and joined the line of students shuffling into the castle.

Albus jerked Wren away from her roommate, harder than he'd meant to. The look she gave him twisted his insides, and he let her go. She rubbed at her arm and whispered something to Nate, who nodded in agreement and squeezed through the slow-moving procession to get back into the castle.

“He’ll be alright,” Wren said with that glazed look Albus had begun to hate. “They’re not after anyone. They need to go inside and rest before dinner. Nate’s going to warn the rest of his House to stay away from the punch and all the rabbits.”

Albus suddenly wished with all his might that Wren had done that too.

The Thralls weren’t paying them any attention, being driven by some unseen force, with a steady, unstoppable momentum. Most of the Ravenclaw Quidditch players were also coming off the field. Like the Gryffindors, they’d apparently boycotted both the field time and their brooms for the freaky little pets. Thunder raged in the distance. Or, it could be the weather coming on. Wind swept over Albus’ hair, and he blew it away, searching Wren’s face for a reason not to be completely disgusted… her veins had faded to the light tan of a mostly-healed bruise. If he hadn’t seen them before, he wouldn’t have noticed them at all now. That’s how she’d kept it from him for so long.

"All those times we were together," he said in a low voice, "the flashes of light, the mutant rabbits... the connection to Bunny. You never told me what was really going on.” Before she could say anything, he went on, “You knew there were Thralls running around the castle, and I had to find out from Scorpius in the library this morning. How could you not tell me about this? It’s the first time you've ever kept secrets from me. First time in... ever."

Wren looked up weakly. "How was I supposed to tell you that I'd been letting him use me as a…, I can’t even say it. It was going to be over and done. I wasn’t going to tell anyone."

"Nate knows."

"He guessed it on his own, and then when I found out that his uncle was a vampire..."

"Wait. What?" Albus did a double take. "Nate's uncle is trying to take over Hogwarts?"

"No!" Wren said forcefully. "It's Dillon." She sagged, the energy that she’d had up until that moment seemed to just give out on her. "All I knew at first was that I had this wonderful little furry friend that I loved so much, and when I found out what he really was, I couldn’t stop… taking care of him. I never meant it to go this far. But you need to know..."

“I got it,” he said, cutting her off. “Blood sucking rabbits. Vampires trying to get into the castle uninvited.”

Wren looked down at her trainers and rubbed her neck, revealing two pinpricks when she moved her hand away.

“You’re one of them too,” he said. “Even after drinking the tea. How?”

He knew what she’d done, had all that time sneaking through the castle with her to figure it out, but that wasn’t enough. He wanted her to admit it, to say it out loud without having to hear about it from someone else this time… that she’d done this horrible thing.
That she’d hidden it from everyone and that she cared more about that damned rabbit than she did about him.

The thrall parade had finished, leaving them out in the cold. Albus’ mind reeled from the image his mind had conjured up, a little beast that latched on and drained the life out of the girl who stood in front of him. “I need to go,” he said suddenly.

“Wait,” Wren said. “If I go with you, I can…”

“Can’t,” Albus said. “They’re expecting me at the prefect’s meeting. I need to find out what they’re up to, they’re after me anyway.” He had no intention of becoming a mindless slave to a rodent and its creepy kid-master. He could put up an act, stare weirdly into the air, and maybe they’d be fooled.

“They’ll get to you as soon as you walk in. I can’t bear to see anything happen to you…”

“Like what happened to you?”

Like what she’d done to herself, he’d meant to say. Wren looked agitated, like she might actually care, but Albus couldn’t deal with whatever it was that she was struggling to put into words. He’d already had too many revelations for one day. “Look, as much as I’d like to hash it out with you, it’s just not practical right now.”

His words landed with the force of a Sticking Charm. Wren visibly shrank back, and he immediately felt like a heel.

“You’re right,” she said. “I’m better suited to get to Rose anyway, with… this…” she gestured to her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to find out like this. It was bad timing, and… I dunno. It’s harder than it looks. I wish I could… had … explained it to you earlier.”

It hurt that she was right, that he probably would have thought worse of her if he had known, but he would have helped… because it was Wren, and he… his chest twisted painfully, and he wasn’t sure how he would feel about things when this was all over. Logically, he saw the evidence right in front of him. She was different, not a zombie-with-a-hidden-agenda like McCormack, or brainless drones like the students on the lawn. He could still trust her, even if he didn’t like her very much right now.

Albus pressed the tea bags into her hands. “I better go, before those goons come around again.”

“They’re not coming back,” Wren said. “They have to… in the library… I… I need to find Callie and get to Rose. Just stay out of their way if you can. They didn’t choose to become thralls. None of us did.”

“You could have chosen differently the second time,” he countered. “You could have ended it today.”

Wren looked down at her trainers. “It wasn’t that easy. Bunny was dying, and I had to save him. It was like my grandparents all over again. I just couldn’t.”

“I can’t either. Not right now.” Albus stopped himself, unsure of where he was going with that thought when her head suddenly snapped up and she looked at him intently, like she hadn't done in a long, long time.

"We're both doing what we have to. Be careful, Albus,” Wren said tightly, and went inside without him.


***




 


Chapter 27: 27. Racing Hearts
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Prefects lounged around the room on lumpy, couch-like seats with glazed looks in their eyes. The girls cuddled together on an oversized cushion with wooden legs sticking out at odd angles. Albus could tell there used to be actual seats and desks in this classroom. It was the sloppiest transfiguration attempt he’d ever seen in his life.

Ian shoved him out of the doorway, carrying the first half of an empty stretcher. Beyond the door, Elias Cootes bellowed out, "Hold it open!"

They dragged the stretcher into the room and sat on top of it, both winded. Ian rolled his shoulders, letting out a crack in his back.

Albus snaked along the wall of the room, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. He stumbled over something… someone, and then leapt back in surprise as Ford got up from the floor and rubbed his face with his hand and then mussed his own hair. Albus tried to look back at him like he knew what the Head Boy was thinking. Didn’t it work that way? Wren had said they were connected.

"You're late," Ford said, grabbing the back of the couch for balance. His eyes darted around the room wildly for a second, and then he relaxed. “Potter.”

A small brown rabbit sniffed at the floor near Ford’s feet. Albus stepped over it gingerly, and moved to the other side of the couch.

The rabbit paid him no mind, thankfully, and hopped over to a couple of prefects passed out on the floor. Elias stood up sharply from the stretcher. "Hey Albus, you really should try the punch," he said.

"Yeah, it's quite tasty," Ian agreed, moving aside to let the fifth years by.

“Had some,” Albus said, staring at the prone bodies on the floor. “Just came from the library.”

A few prefects started nodding their heads. Soon the whole room was nodding in silent assent, except for the bodies who moaned as they were lifted up and laid out on the stretcher.

“How many are left?” Albus asked, nodding with them and hoping he was doing it right.

“A few more prefects to go,” said Ford. “Tonight at dinner, we’ll take care of the rest of the castle. Then, everything will be ready.” His eyes glazed over for a moment, and then he snapped out of it, his attention focused on Albus. “McCormack’s looking for you. I told him that you’re already here with us.”

Inside, Albus began to panic. If McCormack showed up, he’d know. Better to get out sooner than later. “Maybe I’ll meet him halfway.”

He began moving an inch at a time back to the door.

Ford picked up a cup of the clear liquid and stepped right over the stretcher towards him, careful not to disturb the little rabbit that had opened his mouth to yawn, showing long, razor-sharp fangs. "Have some more punch, Albus."

Albus hesitated. “Umm, sure.” He took the cup, but there was no way he was going to drink that stuff.

Ford cocked his head to the side and smiled at him. “Hey, I know it’s weird at first. And wrong in lots of ways, but then it’s alright, mate. We’re like, one person.”

Albus' shoe started buzzing. As if someone had cast a freezing charm over everything, no one moved, waiting for him to take off his shoe and hold it up to his ear.

"This isn’t a good time," Albus whispered fiercely into his heel.

The shoe made a crackling sound. Then Scorpius’ voice floated through the sole. "They're taking over the whole castle. It's just like that Muggle moving picture show with the zombies that your dad made us watch last summer. Watch your back, mate. They're everywhere!"

Albus laughed nervously. “Ixnay on the ombieszay”, he muttered back, before shaking his shoe. “That’s what my brother calls it...stupid chattering shoe charm...”

"What?” Scorpius crackled back. “Stop talking gibberish. I’m locked in a broom closet with Serena. Mister smooth-cuticles is after us... he's enthralled with her..." Static interrupted him. "...wants to attach a rabbit to her jugular... not for pictures either... don't trust anyone, especially that git, Sloan!"

The last bit was loud enough for Ian's eyes to get wide. "Punch," he said, and the prefects surged forward as one.

Elias reached him first and grabbed him by his arms, trying to hold him in place.

Albus whispered harshly at his arms, activating one of his defensive bracelets, and broke free of the prefect’s grip. Too easy, he thought to himself. They should have felt that and thrown up a counter-hex to take him down. He shrugged the stunned thralls aside and drew his wand.

Elias and Ian weren’t done… they were just slow. Like the students from the lawn, they moved in a singular fashion and lunged forward as if in slow motion. The rest of the room, Ford included, surged forward too. Like one person.

Now he felt incredibly stupid. Yeah, of course he’d thought he was going to get away with walking into a room full of people who could read each other’s minds. He backed up to the door with the rest of the prefects stumbling towards him. What did he think he was going to do anyway? Go on and ask them to stop being thralls? As if that was going to work.

Albus was flat out of options. He did the only thing he could think of.
He threw open the door and ran.


***


James was well into spreading a thick, slimy translucent substance all over the south-facing wall, when he first heard the door. He shuffled in his pocket for the parchment and whispered, tapping at it with his wand.

He was staring at the map, not twenty yards away from the prefect meeting. He wondered if there was really a pool in the Prefect’s bathroom, and if so, why weren’t there pool parties instead of boring meetings in classrooms? James chuckled to himself and glanced back at the map. Ford was in there, along with ten other students. And Albus. He checked his watch. They'd be in there for a while. Prefect meetings always ran late, and the Head Boy always stayed later.

Which meant it was the perfect time to prank the prefects and clean it up before Ford ever found out.

Just when he thought it was safe enough to come out, he heard the door slam open and someone running straight for him. He stayed hidden. More voices, more running. Ian and Elias came into view. "Which way did he go? We have to find him. This way!"

James checked the map and saw Albus lingering behind them. When Ian and Elias went off down the north corridor, his brother paused, and turned in the opposite direction. James grinned. Maybe his little brother had finally cracked and joined the ranks of the fallen after all. This would be fun.

Albus came running up the hall, one shoe in his hand, and his wand in the other. James watched him hop on one foot, trying to put his shoe on without stopping.

This was too easy. James flicked his wand and pinned Albus to the floor. "Got you now, little brother!"

Albus' face contorted. "Not now, you idiot!"

James stared at his brother, stunned. Albus was supposed to be immobile on the floor, not berating him. "How are you still talking?"

"You’ve got the map, I know you do," Albus told him. "James, look. Look at it!"

James looked at the map and saw prefects exiting the room, breaking into small groups and spreading into different directions through the castle. Off on the fourth floor, the Hospital Wing was filling up.

"Was there a Quidditch accident I didn't know about?"

"The whole castle is in trouble. Stop being a git and do something useful."

James glanced back at the map. He recognized some of the names that were already laying in hospital beds. Even from the look of her name on the parchment, Rose looked unwell. The letters flickered, shifting form a deep, clear umber script to a ghostly shadow and then back again. Ford’s little sister’s name did the same – in fact, when he peered closely at the little box labeled ‘Hospital Wing’, all of the names seemed to lose their sharpness.

Stunned at what the map had shown him, James studied Albus’ serious expression. “It’s that bad?”

Albus shrugged off the stunning charm and stepped forward, breaking free from his brother's hold. James was shocked. He hadn't moved his wand, and Albus had just walked out of his grasp like he hadn't been affected by the spell at all.

"That was my strongest... how did you..."

"Remember the stories that dad told us? Something's happening right now! We've got to do something."

Albus pointed at the map and James saw the prefects slowly circling back around, calling out to each other, "Did you hear that?"

James looked at his brother, bewildered. This was bigger than a prank. "What's going on?"

Albus gave a pitch-poor impression of their dad's no-nonsense tone. "We have to get out of here. That rabbit you gave me, it's not normal. I don’t have time to explain everything to you. We’ve got to do something now, before things get out of control."

James nodded, all remaining thoughts of pranking and joking evaporated from his mind. "How can I help?"

"Give me the map."

James hesitated. They’d fought over the map all term, and he’d won it fair and square… not really, but it was in his hands, and… Ah, never mind. Albus was acting way too serious to brush this off. James handed over the magical parchment. “What do we do now?”

“This way,” Albus said, heading down the southern corridor.

"When we're done with whatever this is, you're going to show me how you got out of that body bind, right?" James smiled to himself as alarmed shouts came from behind him. Someone had sprung his trap.

Then another shout got his attention, and his smile slid sideways. “Ford? Ah, shite. He’s gonna have my hide for that.”


***

“Wren! You’re back!” Callie skipped off the moving staircase and ran to Wren, giving her a strong hug. Wren pulled back and stared into her eyes.

They were clear.

"We have to get Rose," she said.

Callie’s face fell. “But Scorpius and Albus were going to…”

Wren held up the bag of tea leaves. “They didn’t. It’s up to us, now.”

Wren was still upset over Albus’ reaction. He didn’t understand why she had to save Bunny, and she was going to have to live with that. But Godric, it hurt. Like that time she’d stumbled across him kissing Missy Whatsherface back in fourth year, but worse, deep and aching. A few moments ago, Bunny was all that mattered. But was it really worth losing her best friend over?

“Wren, are you alright?”

Wren tried to keep it together. “Yeah, of course. It’s just all this stuff with… everything. And Albus is upset with me over Bunny.”

“Don’t worry about Bunny, Wren. I did just like we said at breakfast. Bagged him and took him to McGonagall's office straight away, so everything’s fine.”

“That wasn’t Bunny,” Wren said, leading her off the staircase and onto the fourth floor.

“But he’s the only white rabbit in the castle… oh.”

There was a whole mess of rabbits in front of them. Up ahead, two prefects were struggling with a stretcher that had two students, laid on top of each other. The eager rodents swam between their legs as the door opened, and poured into the Hospital Wing before them.

Callie gasped. “What do we do?”

“We have to go in there,” Wren said simply. “And get Rose out.”

They cracked the door open and peeked in at a small room jammed full of students. The space had been partitioned off from the rest of the Wing and emptied of cots. Students were propped up along the wall or against each other, some looked like they hadn’t slept for days. Wren prodded Callie to go inside, knowing that none of them were in any shape to do anything. She knew the Thrall symptoms well enough by now.

Derek, the kid from Hufflepuff that ran the Wizard Card Collector’s Club, slumped against a wall. His eyes were blood-shot, and there was a slight tremor in his hands. A rabbit sniffed at his sleeve. The boy, as if in a dream, scooped up the little animal and cuddled it to him. Soon, he was zonked out on the floor.

A younger student, who Wren didn’t recognize, was trying to get to his feet with blood slowly trickling down his neck. Wren remembered all too well what that felt like. The boy stumbled. There. There it was.

Wren tried to block them all out and connect to Rose with her mind, but found nothing. She pushed onward, dragging Callie and her open-mouthed stare along. “I don’t see Rose. She must be in the back.”

Callie whispered frantically, “They’re all...those look like...oh my Godric, they’re everywhere! And they can all talk through their…” she made a weird slicing motion across her forehead. “What do we do?"

"We keep quiet," Wren whispered, and pulled her friend behind a tapestry.

Wren peeked around the wall hanging, but she was too far away to see much. She got her camera and looked through the lens. The low light made it blurry. Wren muttered under her breath, switching and clicking, then tried it again.

Callie's hand clapped over her mouth, muffling a horrified squeal. "We have to get Rose out of there!" she whispered frantically.

“Come on, be there,” Wren murmured to herself as she and Callie pushed open the partition.

There were rows and rows of cots.

Students were laid out on their backs with crisp white sheets drawn loosely over them. Wren steeled herself against the memories of her grandparents in the mental ward.

Don’t think about zombies.

She was yanked down behind one of the empty beds. Callie pressed a finger up to her lips.

Voices. Madame Pomfrey and Madame Pince were walking through the ward.
"Soon," one of them said. "Shall we get a rabbit for each of them?"

"Oh yes!” Pince replied giddily. “They'll be so full and content!"

They heard the door to Pomfrey's office open and the two adults went inside. When the door clicked shut, Callie peeked over Wren's shoulder. "She's over there. What do we do now?"

Wren tried to control the shaking in her own hands. "You start on this row and look for punctures in their necks. If they haven’t been bitten yet, try to wake them up and we’ll bring them with us." She pulled the last tea bag out of her pocket. "I’ll go to Rose."

"What about the rabbits?"

"They're only interested in an easy meal," Wren said. Unless they're mutant flesh eating monster rabbit babies. “We’ll be fine, as long as we…” She batted Callie's arm away from a rabbit that had hopped over to sniff at them. “Don’t touch them!”

Callie nodded, and started checking the exposed necks of the sleeping students. Wren was thankful that Callie understood. She glanced back at the little brown rabbit and its pathetic doe eyes. “Go away!” she whispered at it.

By the time Wren got Rose's cot in the back, a rabbit had already embedded its little fangs into Rose's jugular.

“Get away from her!” Wren hissed, waving her arms around. The rabbit’s head shot up, a little drip of blood landing on the pillow.

“Away!” Wren half-shouted, and cast an anti-hex at the thing. The first thing she could think of, which was silly, but the magical energy drove it away. It hopped down and slunk under the bed.

She shook her shoulders gently. “Rose, are you alright?”

Dark purple veins were visible just underneath the paper thin skin on her face and neck. “The storm is here,” she said cryptically, and slumped back against the pillow.

Wren conjured up a steaming mug of water and tossed in the last packet.

“Rose, I know you can hear me. Your head will feel like a solid block of steel, but you’ve got to sit up and drink this tea or I’m going to have to leave you here." Rose's limp form still wasn't responding, and Wren was getting desperate. "You’re going to miss this incredible opportunity to mock Scorpius. He was asking about you. Come on, Rose. Get it together!”

Wren’s pleas broke through, and Rose stirred. “Ow, my head! I need to sleep this off before I mock anybody.”

"Drink the tea."

"Wren, I found Nate," Callie called softly from halfway across the room. Nate was sitting up and squinting. “Oh, my head,” he groaned.

“Stay with him, Callie. Don't let him go back to sleep."

Rose finally got to her feet. "Wren, over there. Lori!"

Lori rolled her head over and opened her eyes. Wren saw a dark bruise on the side of her forehead, but that was all. "Wren? What happened?"

Wren started to explain, but only got as far as opening her mouth, gaping at the bed next to Lori.

Trudy. Wren's stomach twisted. She grabbed the mug out of Rose's hands. It was less than half a cup. Wren didn't know how much of it she needed, but she had to try.

She shook the girl awake, jostling the sleeping rabbit at her side. "Hi, Trudy. Nice rabbit. Drink this."

Trudy was confused by the mug shoved into her hands, but then she took a sip. Then another. Then her eyes opened wide. "What am I doing in bed with a rodent?"

Wren helped her to her feet. "No time to explain. Let's go, before..."

The door to Pomfrey's office opened and the Healer stood there, mouth set firm. They stared at each other for a solid beat, and then the woman began muttering to her little friend.

Ears pricked up all over the room. Eyes opened.

The sleeping students rose up like the tide. Rabbits came out of nowhere and sat at attention, twitching. Waiting.

Madame Pince took charge. "Block the exits.”

A cluster of students rose out of their cots and moved to block the door.
Rose cast a stunning spell at the nearest animal, but it only made the thing bare its pointy fangs. She scooted out of the way as it lunged at her. “My wand’s not working!”

"Don't aim directly at them," Wren instructed. "They're immune." She aimed slightly ahead of the nearest rabbit, throwing herself into the strongest shield charm she could muster. The rabbit hit the shield and bounced backwards into a cluster of fur, knocking the animals down like dominoes.

Trudy’s eyes glazed over. She grabbed Wren’s wrist and tried to drag her into the cot with her. Wren squealed and shoved her away. Trudy lunged for her again, and Wren leapt away. “We’ve got to go,” she shouted, shaking even more.

The rabbits within five feet of her shield charm backed off and cowered under the beds. Wren cast more charms, trying to clear a path to the double doors. Callie followed her lead, while Nate set off a scatterbomb of fizzing lights behind them. The students stumbled around, confused by the sudden changes in the rabbits' direction. Unsteady, still reeling from the effects of the punch, some of them grasped at the empty air in front of them.

Wren grabbed for Rose and moved to the doors. “Hurry, while they're distracted!”
They barely made it out and shut the Hospital Wing doors behind them.

“Use an anti-jinx on the door. The rabbits don’t like it, and the new thralls will have to sleep off the effects of the first feeding before they’ll be any use. I couldn’t even save Trudy. There was no more tea, and I couldn’t break her connection.” The scraping, scrabbling and pounding on the other side of the door got weaker. "I used the last of the tea on Rose, and I could only give Trudy less than half a cup."

“Wait, Wren. The tea! You said there was more up in your room.”

“Only enough for a few people,” Wren shook her head, but then her eyes lit up. “There’s more than enough tea in McGonagall's office! That’s how we’ll stop them! Pince and Pomfrey are going to serve the punch at dinner tonight to enthrall the entire castle. All we have to do is get the house elves to switch the punch to tea. Everyone will snap out of it, and there will be no one left to let Dillon into the castle for at least a few hours, which will give us more time to figure out how to keep Dillon out of the castle. That’s a fantastic idea, Callie!”

There was a quiet “pop”, and a small white rabbit appeared in the corridor ahead of them. “It’s Bunny,” Wren said. “He’s come to tell me something.”

“Okay,” Callie said, “but what I don’t get, is if that’s Bunny, then what’s McGonagall doing with the rabbit I gave her?”

Before she could answer, Wren’s mind reeled with a new sensation, overwhelming and compelling.

She saw McGonagall, or rather she felt the headmistress through the thrall link. She was happy, giddy… held open her arms with joy and expectation.

The whole castle shifted in her mind. Instead of the longing, she felt… victory.

Wren leaned heavily against the wall with her head in her hands, shaking. No, no. This couldn’t be happening. They needed more time. Then suddenly, the banging behind the doors went silent.

Rose and Lori exchanged worried looks. Callie kept her wand aimed at the doors. “Wren, what’s going on?”

“It’s too late,” she said. “McGonagall just opened the gates for Dillon.”


 




A/N:  Hello, all!  If you've read this story before and you have some time, I've revised the previous chapters for content and flow, and to strengthen some of the story elements.  I'd love to hear what you think of the changes!

Thanks for reading!


Chapter 28: 28. Reflections of the Heart
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A/N:  Thanks for coming by to read my story!  If you haven't read it in a while and you have time, I suggest that you re-read from the start.  There have been revisions and adjustments to make things smoother.  Thanks to Cambangst for the one-liners that he's so good at. They are a continuous inspiration.  My betas haven't scoured this for errors yet, so if you spot anything, please let me know.   Also, on the revision front, thanks so much to RavenclawFTW and OlderShouldKnowBetter for the fresh eyes to help tidy up some loose ends.  Of course I'd love to hear your thoughts too.  Reviews are gold!





The potted plant behind the Head Table shuddered as the Great Hall doors opened and students started coming in for dinner.

“I know,” Neville whispered to the plant. “It looks bad.”

Glazed eyes traveled stiffly to their seats. A few terrified faces followed the lead of their classmates, too much in shock to do anything but play along.

At the last faculty meeting, Neville had snatched the goblet of punch out of Professor Pocklington’s hands and dragged her out of earshot to tell her what was really going on in the castle. That was just a few hours ago, but it had given her enough time to set up a rodent-free haven in the Hufflepuff common room for students who hadn’t been affected by the enthralled rabbits. Taking notice of the Hufflepuff table now, most of the students hadn’t shown up. He nodded to their Head of House, a seat away from him. She'd gotten to them in time.

He’d tried to do the same for the other houses, but Ackerly was already enthralled, as well as the Potions Master from Slytherin. Babbling, Summers, and even the Divination teacher were all linked to whoever was running the place now, because it certainly wasn’t McGonagall anymore.

Leaning back in his chair, he noted that Pince still had that wild glint in her eye, staring greedily at the mass of children like they were a tasty meal.

Not if he could help it. There had been a letter on the Headmistress' desk, unopened from the Vampire Council. Hannah had written, telling him to expect a message from a man called Smeed. The message had never come, and Neville hoped that McGonagall would see the practicality of the letter being in his hands instead of hers when this was over.

Something had to be done.

He fisted the folded parchment in his pocket. All he had to do was get it to his daughter, if he could find her.

He hated that she had to be so involved in all of this, but clearly with the way that enthrallment worked, there really was no other way.

As he scanned the students’ faces, he didn’t see Wren. Her friends were missing too, and with over half the seats empty, that could be either a good thing, or very bad. The Ravenclaw table was nearly all enthralled and eagerly staring at the back doors.

A collective stir rose up as the double doors opened. Headmistress McGonagall made a sweeping entrance, followed by a little boy. In spite of his dirt-smudged face, he looked proud in his new school robe, smiling and waving like he’d won the wizard lottery.

Neville checked his charmed disguise in the reflection of his goblet. Bloodshot eyes, dark veins. It looked pretty good. He glanced over at Pockington who itched at her neck. She’d used a bleaching powder on herself to add to the willowy, drained appearance. Also quite effective, he thought.

Only a week ago, Wren had told him about the monster rabbit in the library, and now all this. Neville mentally kicked himself for not doing more than just passing along the information to the headmistress.

McGonagall reached the front of the Hall. Ravenclaw began a slow chant, “Dillon, Dillon, Dillon…” When she raised the Sorting Hat over the boy’s head, the Hall fell silent.

Within inches of the boy's head, the Sorting Hat jerked up at McGonagall’s hands. After some kind of silent exchange between the Headmistress and the little boy, she tossed the hat across the room and announced to everyone, “Dillon will be put into Ravenclaw because of his brilliance. A toast to our newest member!”

Goblets appeared in front of them, smelling of rotten apples. Neville quickly took his goblet and poured the clear liquid into the potted plant, whispering a soft apology to it.

He didn't understand why they'd be serving the punch to active Thralls... unless it was a sure way of fleshing out people who hadn't been turned. “Augamenti,” he whispered, refilling the goblet with water. Pockington even paler than her disguise after the horrific confrontation, hastily did the same.

Neville lifted the goblet to his lips, smiling curtly at the other professors. He noticed Dillon looking curiously at him and saluted the boy with his drink. The boy seemed satisfied, and turned back to his adoring crowd.

Professor Ackerly leaned over. “Alright, Longbottom?”

“Feeling a bit tipsy,” he said. “Must be a stomach bug.”

“Hospital Wing,” Ackerly said.

As enthralled eyes were on him, he swayed for effect and made his way down the side aisle of the Great Hall, making sure to trip up carelessly along the way. He still needed to find Wren.

He scanned the crowd again. If they weren’t here, that meant they hadn’t been turned, but that also meant that they might be laid up in the Hospital Wing. Neville tried to recall some of the hiding places he’d used during his seventh year. The Room of Requirement had been a second home, but had been destroyed in the war. There was the secret passage to Hogsmeade behind the one-eyed witch, or maybe...a sudden low movement caught his eye, and he watched the tip of a tattered hat disappear under the red and gold tapestry straight ahead. The Gryffindor banner covered up a shallow alcove dug into the wall. He'd hidden there loads of times during his seventh year.

Neville slowed and pretended to regain his balance by grabbing at the banner, and felt a large lump behind it.

“I know you’re there,” he whispered. “Stay here, and I’ll come back when everyone leaves. There’s something I have to give you.” He shuffled towards the double doors, and then teetered back to the banner once more, just to be sure he'd guessed correctly.

“Give me a sign that you heard me.”

The wall hanging rustled.


***


"Dad?" Wren whispered from behind the banner.

Rose stifled a yawn and leaned against Wren’s back, while Callie, Lori, and Nate were smushed against the wall behind them. They'd Transfigured their feet to blend in with the rest of the castle wall.

The cramped alcove wasn’t the best hiding place, but with the castle overrun by thralls, it was the only one that she was certain her dad knew about, and McGonagall didn’t.
All the prefects were Thralls now. She pictured Albus laid up in the Hospital Wing with a rabbit attached to him and felt sick. He'd probably blame her if he could... except he’d already be thinking happy, fuzzy bunny thoughts. How could she have been so stupid?

The Ravenclaws had rushed out of the Great Hall with their newest member, spouting how excited they were to show him to his new room, and fighting over who would get to be his roommates.

Silent minutes ticked by as Wren waited for her dad to return. She tried to shift against the growing weight on her back. Rose was slipping forward. Nate put up an arm to stop her but Wren lost her balance and pushed against the banner.

A chair scraped against stone, and they heard a set of footsteps heading towards them. Wren thought frantically. There was nowhere to run if they were found out. The footsteps grew louder and then stopped directly in front of her.

Lori squeaked in panic as a corner lifted up, and Serena Platt peered into the tight alcove at them with an 'I-told-you-so' expression. She hissed off to the side. "They're in here!"

Scorpius squeezed himself in front of her. "What?" he snapped, affronted at their tight lipped faces. "She's clean. I checked."

"I bet you did," muttered Rose.

"Look, I don't have to be here," Serena started to step back out into the hall, but Scorpius pulled her inside, letting the banner drop down behind them.

"Don’t be daft. You're safer with us," he told her.

Lori pointed a shaky finger over Wren’s shoulder. "But she drank the punch. Everyone did!"

“I faked it, just like Professor Longbottom. Didn’t you see the potted plant trick he pulled? His complexion charm was spot on! I didn’t know he had such a keen eye for detail.”

Wren pushed into her mind, but there was no connection to Serena. "No, Scorpius is right. She's not a Thrall."

Callie tapped Scorpius on the shoulder. "We didn't see you in the Great Hall. Where’d you come from?"

"Under the table," Scorpius said. He stuck a thumb at Serena. "She wouldn't let me have my dinner."

"Because it was poisoned," Serena said.

"McGonagall has clearly gone over."

"And my brother!" Lori wailed over the din. "It's hopeless!"

In the dark, Wren withdrew into herself as the last of the castle's sanity crumbled around her.

“It’s too cramped.”

“I can’t breathe.”

“I’m starting to sweat. Eww, this is gross! I’m going to smell like a boy!”

Someone shoved her from the left. Someone bumped her on her right.

"Stop pushing!" Wren said heatedly. The alcove wasn’t meant for seven teenagers to hide in.

Scorpius' voice whinged above the rest. “We're brown bread if we stay here faffing about. Just sack this sticky wicket before they stow the crows and everything goes square!"

"Shut it, Malfoy. No one even knows what you're saying anymore!"

"Are you chewing a brick in your baffies??"

Wren got knocked to her knees as the tousling started up again. "No, you're not listening," she said heatedly to the tangled arms and legs around her. “We have to wait for my dad!”

The Great Hall doors creaked open, silencing them all. "They're coming back!" Lori squealed. "We're all going to die!"

"Wren?"

She was on her feet and out of the alcove in an instant. "Albus!" James stood behind him, holding a folded piece of parchment. Wren was so relieved that he was here instead of anywhere else that she hugged him tightly without any reservations.

"You smell like rain," he murmured into her shoulder.

Wren was suddenly jerked away. Nate's wand shook in Albus' face. Faster than a blink, Albus drew and aimed a much steadier wand at Nate's forehead.

"What the hell, Berkshire?"

“Nate, stop!” Wren pleaded. “He hasn’t been changed. Look at his eyes!”

Nate peered at him intently and dropped his wand arm. "It's what they all said, when they brought the rabbits inside, they were all saying how it smelled like rain. You were there, remember?”

Albus lowered his wand and glared at Nate. "That's not what I meant. I was only saying that about her hair. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice.”

Nate sank onto a bench wearily. “Sorry, Potter. We're all on edge. Can’t be too careful."

The rest of the group finally came out into the empty Hall. Rose's arm was around Lori, who shook like a leaf. Wren pulled off her Gran's amulet that she’d kept under her shirt and placed it around Lori's neck. "This will help keep you safe."

The younger girl fingered the chain reluctantly. Wren didn't need the amulet to detect vampires. She could sense them, with or without Bunny.

“Unless that necklace is a Portkey out of here, I don’t see what good it will do her,” Serena said. “The castle is swarming with zombies.”

James patted the parchment under his arm. “Actually," he started, but Rose interrupted.

"Why are you even here, James? We don't have time for you to act like a prat like you've been treating Albus and Wren all term!"

"I'm here to help," James said stiffly. "And I never did anything to Wren, but yeah, I'm done with that. I thought you all should know that since everyone's cleared out of the Great Hall, loads of thralls have gotten off to either in the Hospital Wing or Ravenclaw Tower. There are a lot of unthralled students gathering in the Hufflepuff common room, and not all of them Hufflepuffs.”

The doors creaked open a second time, and Wren's dad finally came in. His bloodshot eyes focused on Wren.

“I didn’t mean to scare you earlier, but there's not much time. I’ve tried contacting the Ministry, but the Owlery has been abandoned. Every other method of communication is locked up inside the headmistress’ office. This is for you, Wren." He gave her the letter. "It’s Smeed's plan. With McGonagall enthralled and Dillon already in the castle, there’s only one thing left to do. You’ve got to convince McGonagall to meet with Smeed. And here. I thought this might help.”

He passed out packets of insta-grow-garlic seeds. “Just add water. It might not do anything for the rabbits, but if Dillon tries anything, it should slow him down. Be careful, all of you. Nate, Lori, your Head of House is still herself. She’s agreed to use the Hufflepuff Common Room as a haven for anyone we can find who hasn’t become infected.”

Wren stared at the note in her hand. “McGonagall? Me?”

“If you don’t think you can do it,” her dad started to say, but Wren shook her head.

“No, I can do this.”

Neville studied her for a moment. “Alright, if you’re sure. Bring her to the castle gates at midnight. I’ll be waiting for you.”

“Thanks Dad.” Wren hugged him gratefully.

Nate came up to Wren after her dad left. "I don't get it," he said. "Wren, how can you be so practical about all this? Aren't you freaking out, because I’ve been through some hairy things and I'm having a hard time thinking straight right now. Thralls? Rogue vampires?? This isn't supposed to happen at Hogwarts."

"I just do what's got to be done," she said. "Sometimes it isn't fun or easy, but if it helps people, I just do it. I'd feel awful about myself otherwise."

Nate gave her a quick hug. "Good luck. I'm going to take Lori to Hufflepuff."

When Nate left, Albus came up to her. "I heard that," he said. "I still don't agree with what you did, but I understand. I think."

"Thanks," Wren said quietly.

“So what do the rest of us do?” Rose asked.

“Someone has to keep an eye on Dillon. I can’t do it because if he senses me trying to listen in, he’ll know.”

Callie frowned. “But he’s gone to the Ravenclaw Tower. No one here is from Ravenclaw. How would any of us even get in?”

Rose piped up. “I can get in, no problem.”

Wren nodded. "Good."


***


Scorpius followed Rose down the main corridor and hopped onto the moving staircase beside her. She hadn’t acknowledged him. He decided that he was going to take it as a good sign that she hadn’t told him to sod off. Everybody needed something, and right now, Scorpius needed to know that Rose wasn’t all alone.

"How are we going to do this?"

“Keep pretending that everything is normal,” Rose finally answered, still not looking at him. Scorpius wasn’t sure if she was referring to the thralls or something else entirely.

Spying on Dillon wasn’t the best plan, but Wren was right. They needed to know what he was up to without tipping him off that Wren could still link to him. James had the map, and Scorpius felt naked without it.

Rose’s lips pursed in concentration. Beads of nervous perspiration caused her hair to frizz around her face. Scorpius tried to keep his mind on the task at hand, but his thoughts kept drifting back to the same thing, over and over again. He finally had to say something.

“What was that back there, with Berkshire being all protective?”

Rose looked at him sideways. “What do you care?”

“Oi! I’ve gotta look out for my friends. If there’s something going on with Wren and that bloke, I ought to know. Is there?”

“No,” Rose said definitively. “At least I don’t think so.”

“Aren’t you her best mate?”

“Sort of. She doesn’t talk about stuff like that. When she dated Sloan last year, it just kind of happened, and even when it was over, she didn’t say much about it.” Rose stopped short and stared at him. “Wait a minute. Are you crushing on Wren?”

Scorpius clutched at his chest theatrically. “What? No! She’s scary when she zones out. It looks like she’s plotting someone’s premature death or something. You know, when she gets too quiet. Not that there’s anything wrong with her. I love Wren, but not the way Albus does. I probably shouldn’t have said that - ah, forget it.”

Rose wrinkled her eyes. “What do you mean, not the way Albus does? I know they’ve always been close, but…” she scrunched up her face even more. “You’re serious! Why am I only hearing about this now?”

Scorpius had always chalked up her overreactive moods to the entertainment that was Rose Weasley. She'd obviously just discovered something she should have known all along and now she was looking for someone to blame for her ignorance. He decided that laughing was out of the question, but poking fun was fair enough.

“You never figured it out?”

Rose shrugged. “I mean sure, the girls tease her about him, but I never took them seriously. I just thought they were saying it because it was something to say - I never thought it was real. Why didn’t Albus ever say anything to me about it?”

Scorpius snorted. “Because you’d act like you are now,” he said, waving his fingers around her personal space. “All freaky and upset, and it would give you a reason to call someone else besides me an arse-head.”

Rose looked affronted. “I never actually said that!”

“Ahh, yeah. You did.”

Rose was quiet. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.”

“You shouldn’t have said it to my face? I mean, if that’s how you really feel.”

“I shouldn’t have said it, period. And no, I don’t feel that way about you at all.”

Scorpius shrugged it off. “I’ve been called worse. But hey, you’re talking to me now without spitting. That’s progress, right?”

“I’m sorry I slapped you too,” Rose said unexpectedly. “Really, really sorry. I shouldn’t have hit you at all, no matter what you said. You don’t deserve that. No one does.”

Scorpius didn’t know how to respond to an apology, and he sure as anything hadn’t expected her to sound so sincere.

They finally stopped in front of the Ravenclaw entrance. The large door knocker, shaped like an eagle looked like it was staring them down. He’d never seen Rose this nervous about anything before.

“I guess once you let me in, you can go,” he said.

"I'm going with you," Rose said.

"No," Scorpius said firmly. "Last night, I saw you on the ground with that little bloodsucker attached to your neck, and I thought you were dead. I can’t live with myself if that happens again. If… if something bad happens tonight, I don't want you anywhere near it."

Scorpius was surprised at himself for saying a lot of that out loud. And irritated too, since he wasn’t used to losing control over his mouth like that. He scowled indignantly.

"I'm going in with you, whether you like it or not," Rose said, scrunching up her nose. If you go in there without me, you won't last one minute. I'm the only way you're getting in, and I'm your only chance of getting out, so get used to it!"

“Brass knobs, Rose! You were all balsy, sneaking off with James those two nights last weekend. But this is different." He waited for her retort, but all she did was stare him down. He couldn't... he just... "Fine. I don't have an exit strategy. So are you going to do this thing, or what?"

Rose hid a smile from him, and he could have sworn her cheeks turned pink as she stepped up to the door and gave the knocker a hard rap.

Scorpius had heard the stories about intellectual riddles with double meanings, and how the Ravenclaws would sometimes camp out for an hour to figure things out, but he hadn’t expected what he heard next.

“What is yellow and always points to the north?”

That didn’t sound intellectual at all. In fact, Scorpius could think of several rude answers that would fit the description straight away. “What is this bollucks of a shite riddle?” he cried out. “Do you know what’s going on in there? Don’t you bloody well know who we bloody are? We’re here to save lives!”

His words died out as he felt something latch on to his fingers. He flinched and almost jerked his hand away, but then he looked down and saw that Rose was holding his hand. She squeezed gently, and he squeezed back, not sure who was reassuring whom.

“A polarity-charmed banana,” she said softly, and the door slid open.

***

Rose stared into the Ravenclaw Common Room, a swath of blue and silver. The circular room was framed in arched windows and a domed ceiling, painted with stars.

The tables and chairs were full of students, some holding rabbits. A few wandered around with blank expressions, then changed direction without warning, as if they'd received other instructions in their heads.

And bookcases. Holding thousands of books. There must have been half the Hogwarts library in here.

Scorpius got over the lack of welcome and pulled her over to an empty table with two chairs. Rose shook her head mutely and urged him to follow her to a set of bean bag chairs by a low bookcase.

"It's more isolated here," she whispered. "All the books in this section are copies of the ones over there. No one will bother us."

Scorpius shrugged and didn't bother to ask how she knew that. "So this is it,” he whispered to her, trying to look nonchalant as he sunk into the cushion. “The Ravenclaw common room you’ve been trying to get into. What’s the appeal? You trying to count all the doorknobs in the boys’ dormitory, or what?”

Rose made a sour face. How could he be so encouraging and downright annoying all at the same time? Sparks landed almost in her lap, and she half-jumped out of her chair as Dillon pranced to the middle of the room, swishing his wand around.

"Magicks! Magicks! Look what I can do!"

The students around them began clutching their heads and moaning as he sang at the top of his lungs.

"Woin Gardinum Levo Sana!"

The books from the whole first row of the nearest bookshelf didn't care that he had mispronounced the levitation spell. It might as well have been wordless magic. They flew into the air and hovered three feet over the blue carpet. With a flick of his wand, the boy sent the books hurling across the room. He cackled with delight as the books slammed into the wall and fell to the floor.

He prodded his wand into the arm of a sleepy Ian who was curled up on the floor next to his feet. "What else can I learn?"

"History," Ian said with a yawn.

The boy wrinkled his nose. "What use is that?"

Ian forced himself up and staggered over to a table with a flaking leather trunk.

“Madam Pince discovered this case buried deep in the restricted section, locked away from everyone. She knew our friend would want to see it.”

He pulled a tarnished key out of his pocket, and slowly turned the lock. Mechanical clicks and thunks worked their way around the case until it finally popped open, a cloud of dust wafting into the air. Ian lifted out a book with faded lettering, its cover barely holding the frayed pages together. He carefully opened it and ran his finger down the first page.

“This book tells the story of how vampires and wizards vied for dominance over a small Muggle settlement in Italy in the early 1700’s. Wizards were attempting to force the vampires into the Black Forest, saying it was the ‘proper place’ for them to exist. A fight broke out. Vampires drank wizard blood from the fallen - and some turned them in the hopes that wizards would be more sympathetic to their cause.”

“Then what happened?” Dillon asked eagerly.

“The turned wizards became so powerful that even the other vampires couldn’t control them. They were able to wield both blood magic of the vampires and all other magic of the wizards.”

“Hungry,” Dillon whined. A little rabbit hopped up and offered itself to him. The boy took it in his arms and had himself a snack as Ian recounted how several towns were decimated by this new breed of vampire-wizard hybrid.

“But the real danger was wizard’s blood. The more this new breed drank of other wizards, the more powerful they became.”

Dillon stopped mid-slurp. “Mummy told me not to do that.”

Ian nodded and continued paraphrasing. “The story of a horrible plague spread in that region. Hundreds of lives were lost. The vampire council and the international wizard's ministry met on neutral territory and proclaimed that the new breed of vampire-wizard was an abomination, mentally unstable and unfit for either wizard or vampire society. Wizards and vampires worked together - beheading the hybrids and burning their bodies to ash. It took months to hunt them all down.”

“After that, they agreed to leave each other alone. The vampires vowed to keep themselves in check, and the wizards agreed to keep their distance. The potential for catastrophe was too great if the two societies mixed blood again.”

Dillon's face changed from keen interest to stony resolution. He looked like he’d aged ten years right in front of her. “Do you mean that if I drink wizard blood, I can be a better wizard?”

“There is a detailed account of vampire-wizards, describing exactly what will happen,” Ian said eagerly.

Please stop talking, please stop talking, Rose willed him in her mind, but Ian kept on.

After Ian finished summarized the entire record of 17th century vampire history, the little boy left the room, looking like he was silently pondering what he had heard.

“Ian just told him everything!” Rose said, trembling. “How are we going to stop him, now that he knows how to become unstoppable?”

Scorpius‘ face was pursed like he'd just eaten a lemon. “We've got to tell the others. Let's get out of here.”

 

 

***

 


Chapter 29: 29. Secrets of the Heart
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

 

At half past eleven, Rose whirled into the room and collapsed onto Wren’s bed. Wren finished potting the last of the insta-grow and handed it to Callie to put near the door. She went to sit by Rose, who scooted over and propped herself up against the pillows. The dark circles under her friend’s eyes were a telling sign that she needed to rest after the ordeal in the Medical Wing. In true Rose-fashion, she’d pushed herself hard to do more than she should have.

"He knows," she said. "Dillon knows everything. On the up side, Scorpius says that Serena’s organized an anti-rabbit barricade in the Slythern dungeon. It’s supposed to prevent anyone else from ending up on the wrong end of Dillon’s master plan to make friends with the entire castle."

Wren nodded. “We’ve done the same for Gryffindor. The first and second years are all together with Alice and Keryn from third year. Callie and I placed anti-apparition charms and insta-grow-garlic all over that room, and James is doing the same for the boys'.”

“I don’t think we can help the rest of them,” Callie said sadly. “Trudy’s still down in the common room with all those rabbits. I tried to talk to her, but she just stared right through me, as if I wasn’t there. And there’s no more tea, so...”

Wren felt a tear slide down her cheek. “I tried, I really did.”

“It’s not your fault,” Callie said. She offered a bag from their share of James' candy stash, but Wren was too disturbed to take a peppermint toad. They never sat well in her stomach in the first place, and she was sure she'd be sick if she tried to eat them now.

“You got me out,” Rose added. “Thank you for that.”

Wren pushed the curling sensation out of her stomach. She had gotten Rose out, that was true, and as far as she knew, Albus was safe too. From what Rose said, Scorpius knew what to look out for as well, so that should keep more students from falling under Dillon's control. For now.

She remembered what it was like when she thought Bunny was the cutest little rabbit she had ever seen. She missed being in love with her little pet, missed the absolute adoration, and how she had been able to lose herself in the enthrallment, where everything else simply faded away, and it was just her, and just Bunny, and the world was a perfect dream.

That dream had twisted into a living nightmare, and all Wren wished for now was to wake up as if it never happened. But then her dad had said... her thoughts slid dangerously away from her, and she quickly scrambled in her brain to think about something else... what she might have had for breakfast, if she’d been calm enough to eat. Maybe the tea made it so that Dillon couldn’t get into her head, but she didn’t want to take any chances, having him somehow find out about her dad’s note, their biggest hope for getting everyone back to normal.

“By the way, why haven’t I seen these before?” Rose asked suddenly.

"Seen what?" Wren asked, but then her cheeks went hot and she lurched forward when the entire stack of Albus photographs spilled out of Rose’s hands and spread all over her bed.

“Those were just... test shots. They're nothing special," Wren mumbled as she gathered up the photographs and awkwardly stuffed them back under her pillow.

Rose’s eyes glittered. “Scorpius was right. You’ve got a thing for my cousin, it's all right there!” She jabbed a finger at the pillow Wren had stowed behind her.

“She’s just going to deny it,” Callie said. “Even though we all know better.”

Rose scooted closer to Wren, looking suspiciously like Scorpius as she waggled her fingers above her head. “You didn’t take those pictures simply for 'artistic purposes' like that weirdo, Serena Platt."

Wren looked between Callie’s eager smile and Rose’s penetrating stare. She couldn’t tell what her best friend was thinking, whether she was angry about being left out (like that other time Wren chose not to tell her things), or angry about the new revelation, because it was Albus, Rose’s cousin. Either way, there was no way Rose was happy about this.

“Are we really going to talk about this now?”

“Absolutely.” Callie poked Wren in the arm with a licorice stick. “I’ve waited three forevers for you to admit that something was going on. The way things are going, there might not even be a tomorrow, so spill it."

Callie’s unwavering enthusiasm was infectious, and Wren relented. “Fine. I do like Albus. A lot.” Callie let out a highpitched squeal. Wren flushed with embarrassment and would have thrown the covers over her face, but Rose was sitting on them, so all she could do was watch them watching her, and get more unnerved by the second.

Rose hadn’t moved or said anything.

“It would never work though," Wren countered out of habit, gauging Rose’s non-reaction carefully. "He’s too…”

“He’s too what?” Rose demanded.

Rose waited while Wren’s imagination ran through all the horrific scenarios from Hogwarts years past, Albus complaining about bad dates, girls crying from crushing break-ups and awkward rumors that she’d known weren’t true, even though they had hurt people. None of that had ever happened to her, but could anyone blame her for not wanting to stick her foot in all of it?

Never mind the public photos that were being printed in the magazines each time any of the Potters set foot outside of their homes. And then there was the fact that Albus had changed too, just one look at him and she could tell he wasn’t the same boy she’d known for years. More serious. More focused. More… he’d probably have to get his pants adjusted again before Winter Break, maybe even before Halloween, which was only two weeks away.

Callie, eternally impatient, jabbed her with a toe. “Well?”

“He's too tall!” Wren blurted out, still fixated on her last frantic thought.

Rose’s cold stare wavered. “You’re an idiot,” she said, and then burst out laughing.

Wren slumped over on the bed while Rose cackled at her uncontrollably. “You’re not upset?”

“Upset? You’re so much better than any of those girls he’s wasted his time with. Why would I be upset?” Rose wheezed, tears streaming down her face as she broke out into another fit of laughter.

Wren was doubly glad that she hadn’t had dinner. She had expected Rose to be mad for some stupid Rose-reason… to tell her all the ways that it would be wrong to feel the way she did and not give her a knut of support. But that wasn’t happening. She was so used to telling herself that she shouldn’t feel the way she did, that she hadn’t allowed herself to imagine for even a second, that anyone else would think she'd even have a chance at being with Albus as more than a friend.

Something deep within her uncoiled, sending a shiver through her body. What would it be like, actually being with him?

Rose stopped laughing long enough to catch her breath and looked Wren in the eye. Maybe it was the absurdity of the timing. Maybe Rose couldn’t leave it alone because everything else in the castle was so screwed up that talking about what they had seen in a handful of photographs was better than facing how bad things had gotten. Wren understood losing oneself in something silly so she didn’t have to face an ugly reality, but that didn’t make this confrontation any easier. She braced herself, the coil of tension in her stomach returning, tighter this time, squeezing the air out of her as she waited for whatever mortifying thing Rose was going to say to her.

Rose drew in a deep, serious breath. Then, before she could find the words, she doubled over onto the bed in a fit of fresh hysterics. Soon, Callie joined in, and they were both red in the face from the sheer hilarity of everything. Rose was acting stupid, but Wren somehow felt better... lighter than she had in a long time.

Wren threw the pillow at them, giving up. “Worst best friends, ever,” she muttered.

The laughter died as something shimmered on Wren's bedside table next to the potted garlic. Everyone held their breath, expecting a rabbit to appear and attack them. They all let out a collective sigh when a folded parchment appeared.

Wren scanned her dad’s handwriting. “McGonagall’s in her office. It’s time.”

Callie and Rose walked with her out to the common room. The newly enthralled students stared off into nothing, barely breathing. Wren had another terrifying thought, and gripped Rose's robe.

“Before the tea, was I really that… bad?” she whispered.

"A bit," Rose said as they all huddled together at the top of the stairs.

Bunny appeared at her feet, and Callie scooted away.

“He won’t.”

“Why are we keeping him again?” Rose asked skeptically.

“Because I can’t do this without him.”

“We’ll go with you instead,” Callie offered.

“You can’t. McGonagall will know you're not connected, but since I have Bunny, they can't hurt me... and the tea...”

At least she hoped that was how it worked. If she could get through to McGonagall with the last bit of tea... if Wren could keep Dillon out of her head, surely the Headmistress could do the same long enough to leave the castle... and besides, this was Smeed's idea. He was a vampire, so the plan had to work.

“But what about the prolonged exposure?” Rose asked. “Dillon was in my head for just a few hours, and I can still feel the ick of him between my ears. How long has it been for you, Wren?”

“A few months,” Wren said, hearing the gasps from her friends. “I know it’s bad, but half the castle is enthralled, and I’m the only one who can get through without getting hurt. I know exactly what they’re all going through, all of them. I thought I was going crazy at first with this other… thing in my head.”

“But Wren, if you had the chance to give up Bunny, why didn’t you?” Callie asked. They’d had this discussion before, when Wren told them about coming back that afternoon to save her dying rabbit. The History text had been vague about a lot of things, but it had been very clear that a second enthrallment was highly risky.

“Maybe I’m going to end up comatose. A zombie, like my grandparents..." She swallowed her fear and went on. “But before any of that, I have to get help so it doesn’t happen to the rest of you.”

Regret gnawed at her insides. She should have just let her friends come over and act silly and distract her last summer. Here they were, on the edge of something truly horrific, Wren had told them everything, all the gruesome details about Bunny, and they still hugged her as tightly as ever. If she’d just trusted her friends instead of hiding away from her insecurities, they would have shouldered some of her burden like they were doing now, and made her stronger because of it.

They whispered their goodbyes, and she started down the stairs, catching a glance at Trudy, who was lying half-asleep on one of the couches. Wren closed the Fat Lady’s portrait door gently. The Fat Lady gave her an encouraging nod and zipped her lips shut.

Wren took a deep breath and cleared her mind. She focused singularly on arriving at McGonagall’s office with no one getting in her way, and sent that need to Bunny. The little rabbit appeared at her feet and showed her that the corridor was all clear.

“Alright, Bunny. Lead the way.”

***

Albus snuck past the zoned out students in the Gryffindor common room and made his way up the boys' stairs. Snuck wasn't quite the word for it since no one even cared that he was there. He held his nose and walked into the jungle of insta-grow that filled James' room, coughing.

"You think there's enough garlic in here?" Albus tossed the map to James, who eagerly unfolded it and took a look.

"They're all still in the Hospital Wing," he said, and then frowned at the map. He suddenly snapped out of his funk, thrust the map at Albus and shoved him towards the door.

“You've got to go,” he said.

“What?” Albus braced himself against the doorframe. “Why are you giving this back to me? You’re the one who wanted it so badly.” He tossed the parchment back at his brother.

James caught it and shook it back at him. “You’re going to let Wren deal with McG all on her own?”

“She knows what she’s doing,” Albus mumbled. “She doesn't want my help. I don’t think she wants me anywhere around her right now anyway.”

"That's not how she looked back in the Hall. You two are so busy avoiding the bloody obvious that you can't see straight. If she was still just Wren without the bite marks, would you be letting her go anywhere out there alone?"

“God, no,” Albus shot back. "But she's all... thrally with a blood-sucking rabbit inside her head. How am I supposed to help with that?"

“You know what mum says. It’s not just how you feel…”

“It’s what you do, yeah, I remember.” Never mind that James was taking the opportunity to rib him about Wren, using his sickeningly-sweet-mocking voice. As much as he hated to admit it, his pompous arsed brother was right. If something happened to Wren tonight and he wasn’t there to at least try to stop it, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.

James chucked the map in his face. “Go, you fool, or maybe I should go if you’re too chicken to deal with her right now. She's going to talk to McGonagall, right? Look, she’s already two flights of stairs ahead of you. Take the...“

“Yeah, I know. The south passage.” Albus checked the map and sure enough, Wren was heading to the spiral staircase. The hidden tunnel would get him to the fourth floor in half the time.

He took the map and ran.

***

Albus scanned the fourth floor corridor from end to end. He figured he'd probably come out ahead, so he waited a few ticks. As if on cue, the rabbit appeared in front of the Gargoyle statue first, followed closely by Wren a few steps behind.

The map showed that McGonagall was in her office alone, with a fuzzy thing next to her, which Albus decided must be a rabbit.

He put the map back in his pocket and watched Wren give the password. She must have gotten it from her dad, he thought as the large eagle rotated to reveal a spiral staircase. Forcing himself not to think about whether she would actually want him there or not, he jumped on the bottom step with her.

Her eyes darted to him, mirroring a scared rabbit. Albus was on the edge of panic. He didn’t know if she was Wren or…

“Albus,” Wren said. “What are you doing here?”

“Following you,” he said honestly, and with relief that she was still in control. No matter what she said, he didn't trust that rabbit.

“Checking on the crazy girl?”

“You’re not crazy, and even if you were, it doesn’t matter.”

“You can’t be here. You’re not…” she looked exasperated. And sad.

“I want to help,” he said hastily. “Any way I can."

Wren looked nervously at Bunny. "In order to do this, I need to be... like them. McGonagall will sense that you're not connected to the rabbits."

“I’ve got prefect business,” Albus said confidently. “I can be a distraction for you while you… whatever you are going to do.”

Wren closed her eyes, looking like she might cry, or send him away, he wasn't sure which. “Don’t need a distraction,” she mumbled. When she opened her eyes, they were glassy and unfocused, and he could tell she was seeing more than just him. "Try not to talk," she said softly and rapped on the door.

At first, Albus thought the white rabbit sitting in Headmistress McGonagall’s lap was identical to Wren's, but when it turned its head, it had a black circle of fur around it's left eye.

The sack of tea that Wren had given her lay forgotten on the table next to the Headmistress's desk. She seemed unconcerned by the visitors standing in front of her, completely focused on the rabbit in her lap.

Wren set about gathering up a teapot and heating some water. They said nothing to one another as she prepared the herbs from her bag. McGonagall looked up, as if out of a dream. “Miss Longbottom. How very nice to see you. Dillon tells me you used to be the best of friends.”

Albus stood by as Wren and McGonagall had some kind of silent discussion. Wren was right. He couldn’t fake this.

"Where are your rabbits? Everyone in the castle should have a rabbit."

It took a minute for Albus to catch on that McGonagall was talking to him. He looked sharply at Wren. But apparently Wren had anticipated this. She closed her eyes and hummed to herself, almost looking like she was in some kind of a trance. Then she opened her eyes, and with a soft "pop", Bunny appeared at her feet. Wren scooped up the rabbit and held it to her chest.

He took a step closer to Wren under the headmistress’ expectant gaze. "We share this one." He tentatively patted it on the head. Bunny's ear twitched.

“Umm, yeah,” Wren said, shooting him a disbelieving glare. She dumped Bunny into his arms and smiled the fakest smile Albus had ever seen. He tried not to drop the squirming animal in his arms. Maybe he was holding it wrong.

“We take turns,” Wren said, and put her hand on the rabbit’s head. Bunny went still all of a sudden.

“How unconventional. I didn't realize the two of you were so close," the Headmistress said with an arched eyebrow.

Heat creeped into his face. He didn't... he couldn't imagine what Wren had gone through - all inside her head like... like... he never wanted to find out what it was like to have someone wrap themselves up inside his mind. He kept glancing at the double doors to the Headmistress' office, hoping that the thralls weren't on their way up to deliver a new rabbit for him.

If he was going to play along, he needed to go all the way. He threw an arm around Wren and shoved Bunny back into her arms, glad to get it away from him. “We hadn’t told anyone yet. It just sort of …. came out of nowhere.”

It was hard to ignore Wren’s weight shifting into his side. He pushed on, and hoped that McGonagall bought the charade for long enough to let Wren do whatever she had planned. He hadn’t even asked what Wren was going to do. There had been no time. “If it’s not too much trouble, the prefects have made a long list of suggestions for your approval, and I told them I’d get to it, but Ackerly’s class has been keeping me way busier than I thought. So if I could just go over them with you now? It could take a while.”

“Yes, we brought tea.” Wren chimed in. She brought a cup of steaming liquid over to the Headmistress.

"Oh, how lovely." McGonagall untangled an arm from under her rabbit to accept the cup. Her rabbit shifted in her lap, but didn't show any signs of being spooked. As the Headmistress sipped at her tea, her eyes came more into focus. A startled expression bloomed on her face as she looked at the rabbit in her lap in horror.

“Oh dear!”

“Professor, we only have a moment,” Wren said quickly. “There are people outside the castle ready to help. But you have to meet them by the gates at midnight.”

McGonagall regarded them over her spectacles. “I’m not sure what to say. This is quite an embarrassing predicament.”

“Just be there,” Wren said.

“Dillon can’t know,” Albus added. “If he…tell him you’re bringing more friends, and that it’s a surprise.”

McGonagall nodded slowly.

“Thank you for the tea. You’d better go before…”

“Yes, I know,” Wren said quickly, and made for the door.

Back in the corridor, Wren put Bunny down and seemed to hold some kind of silent conversation with him like she had with McGonagall. Then in a ball of light, Bunny disappeared.

Albus let out a shuddery breath. "Is that really what the bond is like? Is it that...personal?"

Wren suddenly looked uncomfortable. "Can we talk about that later?" she pleaded. "Bunny says that Dillon's wandering the castle again."

Something else came to Albus’ attention. He suddenly had an idea. “Did you see how fast she snapped out of it when she drank the tea?”

Wren nodded, but didn’t look happy about it. “It breaks the control, but it's too late to break the connection. I know what you’re thinking, and I’ve already considered it. If we wake up the whole castle, Dillon will know, and who knows what he’ll do next. He already knows how powerful he can be.”

“So what do we do?”

“There are people waiting for McGonagall at the gates. Bunny will show the way,” Wren said.

“Or I can get us there.” Albus took out the map. He whispered to it, and the blank parchment came alive with tiny moving dots.

"That's a map of the castle," Wren said, looking at it closer.

"It's been in my family for generations. James and I have been unofficially taking turns with it. And Wren, I’m not supposed to tell anyone about it."

Wren didn’t look as surprised as she should have. “I know. My dad told me stories about it. He said not to say anything - family secret - Potter Weasley secret anyway. I knew you had something, but I didn’t want to get you into trouble.”

Albus checked for the thrall patrol and found them on the floor above them. He could only guess what they were up to. “We’re here.” He pointed to their fuzzy names floating over the corridor on the map. Then he looked closer. The patrol was up in the Ravenclaw Tower, gathering around another dot, but the name was so faded that he couldn't make it out. Nothing had ever been unreadable on the map before.

"What's that?”

Wren peered closely at the moving dot with the blurry label. One of the professors came up to it, and the blur left the group of fuzzy thralls to go with the professor. "Dillon," she said breathlessly.

"Why doesn’t his name look like the Thralls?"

"I guess you can't be half-dead. Thralls are still alive, they just have rabbit saliva running through their veins."

"That's so disgusting." Albus shuddered, but then he saw tears welling up in Wren's eyes. "Oh Merlin, Wren. I didn't mean you."

Wren wrung her hands together. "I'm sorry, Albus. About everything. If I could do it all over again, I would have told you everything. About Gran… and Dillon. If I hadn't shut myself off, we wouldn't be in this mess. This is all my fault."

"Dillon used you." Albus' anger welled up again, but this time it wasn’t aimed at Wren. "He found your weakness and he used it to make himself stronger." He pointed to the thrall patrol retreating from the unreadable dot on the map. "But look at you.” He pointed to where they were standing in front of the Gargoyle statue, Wren’s name clear as his own. “You’re stronger than him. You're not one of them."

Wren’s face bloomed with relief, and suddenly the Nate-knowing-more-than-her-best-friend thing wasn't an issue anymore. He got it now. She hadn’t been in complete control, and her little rabbit… well, he was obviously still important to her.

Albus decided that he needed to live with that. Wren would never willingly hurt anyone, especially an animal like Bunny.

When they got to the castle entrance, Wren managed to smile. "Thanks for coming with me. You didn't have to."

“Yeah I did. I wanted to, “ Albus said.

“Since we’re so close now?” Wren questioned quietly.

“About that…” Albus started, but his thoughts vanished when they saw dark forms in the distance, waiting by the gate. He’d assumed Wren meant that they were meeting wizards from the Ministry, maybe even his dad. He checked the map, and they weren’t on it. Not just that they didn’t have names, but no dots appeared at the gate where those people were. He looked up and confirmed that they really were still at the gates. One of them was pacing impatiently. That should have shown up on the map.

“You sure this is a good idea?”

Wren nodded. “It’s the only way.”

Albus checked the map again, but there were no footprints, not even a shadow showing on the charmed parchment where the dark figures stood right outside the gates. There was only one reason why something didn’t show up on the map, like pieces of furniture or potted plants, or insects and mice, and things like that.

“Wren, those people out there aren’t like Dillon. They have no souls.”

***


The cool October moonlight bathed Headmistress McGonagall’s face in a pale glow. She smiled down at the bundle in her arms.

“He’s sleeping like a baby,” she cooed, cuddling her rabbit like she was taking an infant on a mid-morning stroll. “The poor dear was so exhausted after his first day at Hogwarts.” Affection twinkled in her eyes as she gazed down at the soft animal in her arms.

The woman with the tall pointed hat made her way down the castle path to the entrance gates where Wren and Albus waited in the shadows. “She’s a complete nutter again,” Albus whispered “How are we going to convince her of anything now?”

Wren understood all too well what the woman was experiencing, seeing reality through the enthrallment haze. The fact that the Headmistress had shown up at all was a sign that she wasn’t as far gone as she looked. If they could get her through the gates without drawing attention to Dillon, things would be alright again. At least that’s what she hoped.

When the Headmistress reached the end of the path, she snapped her head up and addressed the students in front of her. “What is it you wanted to show me?”

Albus and Wren stepped out of the shadows. Wren strained her eyes through the darkness hoping to catch sight of her dad. But no one else had come out of the castle after McGonagall.

“This is highly irregular, Mister Potter,” McGonagall began, and Wren’s hope ratcheted up half a notch as the headmistress sounded like her old self again. Then it died quickly as McGonagall’s voice hardened. “You know that you aren’t allowed outside those gates. No one goes in or out of the castle grounds without my express permission.

Wren felt a familiar twitching presence just out of sight. Bunny was watching them. She thought hard to her little friend hidden in the bushes:

Can you hear your brother? Tell him the package is important. Tell him to tell her. It will help the boy.

McGonagall’s eyes lost focus and she cocked her head to the side, listening to some indiscernible murmur from within. “Yes,” she cooed again, stroking the rabbit in her arms. “The package. The boy needs it. We must keep the boy safe.”

McGonagall took a purposeful step forward and willed the castle gates to open.

Wren’s stomach felt like lead. She wanted to reach out and take Albus’ hand, squeeze some comfort back into herself somehow, but she didn’t dare. She had a hard enough time making her feet work without bolting back to the castle.

The panic wasn’t her. It was Bunny. His little heartbeat raced out of control as he hid in the bushes, not too far away. Whatever was out there terrified Wren too, but they had no choice. It was the only way to stop Dillon.

“Wren,” Albus whispered. “The map doesn’t show anyone out there, not even them.” He looked worriedly at the figures in the dark. “I don’t think we should go out there without your dad.”

“You can stay and wait if you want, but I’m going out there.”

“I’m not leaving you out here alone. You need someone to...” Albus trailed off as they cleared the columns.

A blur raced towards them from the guard tower. McGonagall's rabbit let out a startled hiccup as its neck snapped like a twig. The limp ball of fur was flung away and skidded into the dirt. The vampire gripped McGonagall under her chin with one hand, looking like he’d snap her neck at any moment too. McGonagall’s eyes bugged out of her head, struggling with the vampire’s penetrating stare. For one terrifying moment, no one moved.

Then McGonagall slumped forward and the vampire lowered her to the ground. The winged boars shifted as the gates began to close. Wren stared at the prone Headmistress, the dark man hovering above her and then frantically back to Albus’ ashen face.

“I didn’t know. They weren’t supposed to…” she hiccupped, not knowing what to do anymore.

Someone shouted from the castle and ran down the path, robes billowing behind.

“Dad!” she cried out.

“Wren!’ he shouted through the bars, as the gates swung shut, locking Neville inside the castle grounds.

The vampire raised his head from the Headmistress, fangs bared and fixed his eyes on the Herbology professor.

Wren shrank back in absolute horror. That face. Wren knew the face of that monster.

“Smeed!” Neville’s voice shook. “What have you done?”

 

***

 


Chapter 30: 30. Into the Heart
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

McGonagall’s chest rose and fell in a slow, deliberate rhythm contrary to the rapid pounding inside Wren’s head. Smeed knelt over the prone form with quiet concern. He didn’t look like the same person who’d just come out of nowhere and attacked the woman lying on the ground.

Wren crept closer, wanting… hoping that she hadn’t made some horrible mistake in trusting the vampire. “Is she…”

“Sleeping.” Smeed lifted a wrist, checking for a pulse. “It’s the quickest way to break the bond.” Behind him, another vampire stood and watched, his face dark and unreadable.

Neville rattled the gate, pressing fruitlessly on the latch. The two vampires didn’t acknowledge him, or Albus, who had his wand drawn but otherwise seemed to have no intention of using it. Wren was grateful that Albus was with her, even though they were both utterly powerless against the vampires. Smeed could kill them in an instant if he wanted. But he hadn’t. That had to count for something.

McGonagall moaned. Wren rushed to her side and slowly helped her up. The older woman winced in pain and then straightened as much as she could, replacing and adjusting her hat that Wren had recovered from the ground.

“You must be Smeed.”

“And you are the Headmistress. This is my associate, Mr. Burns.”

Burns stepped out of the shadows. His fangs extended slightly beyond the rest of his teeth, just enough to be a warning. “We’ve come to take care of your problem. Open the gates.”

McGonagall stiffened. “We need to discuss matters first.” She looked at Wren’s dad, who still gripped the iron with white knuckles. “I’m sorry, Neville, but I won’t open the gates until I am satisfied with the plan. Can you discreetly keep an eye on Dillon until we are ready?”

Neville’s pained face nodded, though he didn’t look happy with the situation. “Wren,” her dad said, “if there’s anyone I trust, it’s Professor McGonagall. I’ll be waiting inside. Be careful.”

Wren scooted back from the vampires and felt Albus’ arm settle onto her shoulder as her dad trudged back to the castle. When he disappeared through the double doors, McGonagall addressed the vampires again.

“The Ministry…”

“...will not be involved,” Burns interrupted with a finality that made Wren’s toes curl. “This operation cannot afford to be exposed through sloppy memory charms and a country-wide persecution of anyone who hides in the shadows. We have not forgotten the Treaty. You must allow us to deal with this on our own terms. The Council…”

“I know who you are.” McGonagall interrupted, just as forcefully. “Your Council is notorious for its extreme lack of concern for innocents who get in the way. I am sworn to protect the students within those walls, and I want to know how you intend to proceed. And who is that?”

They looked up sharply as a thick-coated man joined them, carrying what looked like an enormous bag slung across his back. It was big enough to fit a body, or maybe three.

Wren recognized him immediately. “It’s Nate’s uncle,” she whispered to Albus.

The burly man’s eyes landed on her first. “Ahh, my little artist friend.” He flashed a toothy grin and nodded to Smeed and Burns. Then, as if he was simply inviting the whole party to tea, he extended a polite hand to McGonagall and introduced himself.

“You may all call me Toby, for the sake of our company. I believe that you asked about the plan. The rabbits are immune to magic and directly linked to the wizards inside, isn’t that right, Wren? We should take care of them first.”

He tossed the bag to the ground and unzipped it. Smeed and Burns began grabbing an assortment of weapons, stuffing knives, small hatchets and other things into their boots and belts.

“You might need this.” Smeed threw something metal at Wren’s feet. Its edge glimmered in the moonlight when she picked it up, a small-handled knife with a thin, wicked-sharp blade.

“Isn’t silver for werewolves?” Albus asked, examining it with her.

“I grabbed the multipurpose pack,” Toby said, unaffected. “No one is certain what those rodents are capable of.”

Wren dropped the knife on the ground. “What? You’re just going to kill them? There are so many… all of them?”

Burns attached a short, rounded-off sword-like thing with a handle to his belt. “It’s the only way to break the bond clean. Besides, once their master is destroyed, the animals will die anyway.”

McGonagall gasped. “You can’t kill the boy!”

Smeed’s coat clinked and hung heavy at his shoulders as he stood. “He’s not a boy. He’s a mistake. An error that needs to be corrected.”

Wren shook her head, not believing what she was hearing. “But what if he’s not? He didn’t choose to be the way he is. What if he realizes that what he’s doing is wrong and agrees to make everything right again? We’ll never know because you’re going to take away his tomorrow and the chance for him to be whole again!”

Smeed’s eyes glittered from the torches above the boar statues. Flecks of red congealed around his pupils, making him look as dangerous as he really was. He stared her down until she felt like she was shrinking into the ground.

“You’ve been in his head,” he told her. “Tell me one thing you saw inside that monster that makes you believe he is redeemable.”

Wren’s eyes watered as she wracked her brain, trying to come up with something to prove Smeed wrong. All she’d experienced through Dillon was an obsessive compulsion, an endless need. Behind those child-like eyes was an empty longing that would never be sated. He was a vampire gone wrong, being exposed to the one thing he wouldn’t be able to resist.

“But you don’t… I mean, you’re standing here and we’re still alive, so… Blood is what you do, right? Can’t you teach him how to control it?”

“Wren.” Smeed’s stare was commanding, but his voice was kind. He picked up the knife at her feet and wiped the blade on his coat sleeve. Then he pressed the hilt back into the palm of her hand. “There is no cure for insanity. He will eventually succumb, and when he does, he will become untouchable. If we don’t stop him now, there isn’t going to be a tomorrow. Not for us, or anyone within a hundred miles of here.”

McGonagall regarded the vampires who had emptied the contents of the zippered bag into their boots, up their sleeves and under their coats. “How are you going to ensure the safety of the young witches and wizards that he has under his control?”

Toby coughed politely. Smeed discreetly moved the iron studded pike behind his back, and Burns struggled to cover a flamethrower under the lapels of his overcoat.

“The girl is still connected to that rabbit. Could be useful,” Burns said.

“Wait, isn’t that dangerous?” Albus interjected, not quite moving in between Wren and the vampires. “Won’t he notice someone poking around inside his head?”

Burns snorted. “What’s not dangerous about any of this? Mutant blood-sucking rodents, controlled by a rogue vampire who’s a breath away from becoming immune to magic, and they’ve taken over a school for witchcraft and wizardry.” He turned to Toby, thumbing at the headmistress. “I don’t think they’ve got that bit figured out yet, about all their powers becoming useless when the little snit goes over the moon.”

McGonagall muttered something under her breath about the Educational Council spitting nails that Wren couldn’t quite make out because suddenly Bunny was trying to mentally break into her thoughts. She winced and started to close her mind, but Smeed cleared his throat and pierced her with a red glare, cold and demanding.

“What is Dillon planning?”

Wren stared into his speckled eyes. She felt the pressure, but there was no compulsion behind it. “Okay,” she said in a shaky voice. “Burns is right. Through Bunny, I can do it without Dillon knowing.” She felt Albus squeeze her shoulder as she stared into nothingness and allowed Bunny’s images to pour in. Scuffed trainers shuffled along the fourth floor main corridor to the rotating staircase. Through Bunny, she heard Dillon’s excited, high-pitched voice babbling to the thralls around him, and then she blinked them away.

“The Thralls are gathering in Potions Lab Number Four. Dillon’s found a book on Blood Magic.”

Smeed’s eyes intensified in the low light, almost glowing red, making his face look as white as bleached parchment. He sniffed the air. “We should end this now, before it gets out of hand.”

McGonagall recovered her official stance and waved the gates open immediately. “We’d better hurry,” she said, and ushered Wren and Albus through. “Find your friends and gather as many unaffected people as you can. We’re going to need everyone!”

Wren was halfway through the gate when she realized that the vampires hadn’t moved.

Burns shuffled his feet, antsy to get a move on. Smeed stood his ground several yards away from the property line. Toby readjusted the pack on his shoulder, yet the three of them, as anxious as they were to depart, were waiting for… something.

The headmistress waved her arm in a swoop around the gates. “Gentlemen, welcome to Hogwarts.”


***


Madame Pince’s scratched ankles peeked through her torn robe, like she’d waded through a sea of thorns. A little black ball of fur nibbled on her toes as her frail body sprawled on the floor of the Potions Master’s dungeon.

Dillon took no notice of her shallow, unsteady breaths as he sifted through texts piled high on the desk. He ran his finger across a line from an old book, almost half his own size, while the Potions Master quivered in his chair, waiting for the next command.

“If we’re to be friends, I should call you by your name,” he said softly to the man in the chair. He thought hard at the rabbit by the man’s feet. “Smithers. Is that it?”

It wasn’t really the man’s name, but Dillon decided that he could call anyone whatever he wanted.

Mummy would be so proud of him. He’d finally gotten here on his own, and he hadn’t even needed a letter. She was right about Hogwarts being the best place ever. He’d expected to meet that old man with the long beard, who he’d heard about in so many stories. But the nice lady with the pointy hat had been good to him. She’d given him a home in the place called House of Ravenclaw, and this man was helping him become a stronger wizard than his wildest dreams could ever conjure up.

Smithers was a good name. Dillon pointed to a rather long word that he’d never seen before in the text. “What does this part mean, Professor Smithers?”

He relaxed into his chair and listened to the shaky explanation, and then waited patiently as a line of students formed, snaking around the room and out into the corridor.

The first one, a girl who looked no older than Dillon felt, shivered like one of his rabbits when they got wet from the rain. He grinned at her as she picked up a small pointed tool (he’d been told that it was used to adjust the handles on the flying brooms they rode on for the Kwidditch games, whatever that was) and pricked her thumb. Then she held out her hand and let a few drops of blood splatter into the large goblet at his feet. She stepped aside. The next student winced at the prick and added another drop of red.

Dillon watched as the cup filled, drop by drop. He wouldn’t harm his friends, because that wasn’t right. The woman on the floor had given him too much, and she was hurting. From now on, he would only take what he needed, like Mummy had taught him.

He could feel them all, faint sparks through the bond of his rabbits, nervous, but willing. When he drank, it would be like opening a great big present. They would give him their strength, and then they would all be friends together.

“Let’s go where everyone can see.” Dillon sensed Mister Summers thinking about the library. “Yes, that’s a great idea,” he said. Summers, Smithers… all of them moved as one and formed a line. They carried him above their heads and moved with purpose, around the corner, up the stairs, through the corridors flickering in the dim light of the wall torches. They passed by large, darkened stained-glass windows and stood like soldiers as the large staircase rotated them through the air. Stone ground against stone as the steps slid together on the fourth floor.

As the jerky parade of thralls brought him closer to the library, something tickled the back of his senses. It was familiar and comforting, a flicker on the edge of his sanity that he thought he’d lost for good. Dillon looked around at all his new friends. They weren't warm and caring like that. A tuft of white disappeared into nothingness ahead of him, and Dillon’s grin grew.

Wren was nearby, he was sure of it. He'd get her back, too. This was going to be the best day, ever.


***


“I don’t need another,” Smeed said through red stained lips. “Why are they moving?”

Wren held the knife in a trembling hand, another drop of blood on her fingertip. The vampire had been in her head for only a second, but it was enough to get Dillon’s attention. She wiped her finger on the hem of her sleeve and tucked the knife away. She never wanted to have to do that again.

“They’re going to the library, where there’s more room for everyone to see.”

Smeed pushed through the handful of unenthralled students and professors gathered in the corridor outside the Great Hall to consult with McGonagall and the other vampires. Albus instantly sprang to Wren’s side, helping her to steady herself.

“I tried to tell him that I’ve got a map for that. He didn’t need to do that to you,” he muttered to her, shooting a dark look at the vampires..

Wren sighed and wiped her finger on her trousers. “It doesn’t matter. Smeed had to be sure. If Dillon’s had human blood, he won’t show on the map anymore.”

“I hate that you’re right about that, you know?” Albus tried to shrug it off as he led her past Smeed to join the rest of the group. Wren doubted that he understood, really, but he wasn’t blaming her anymore. Still, she felt like she was being forgiven for something that wasn’t her fault.

“Fifty thralls, maybe more,” Smeed told the others. “He saw the rabbit. I had to get out before he figured out where we were.”

Scorpius was there, along with Rose, Callie, and James. Toby glanced around to the people in the group. “And this is all we have to go against that? Where is my nephew?”

“I’m here,” Nate said, following behind Wren’s dad and Professor Pocklington, who seemed both determined and terrified to be included in the strange group of wizards and vampires. She cleared her throat. “We’ve got thirty-five first and second years safely tucked away in Hufflepuff. Tell me what I can do to help.”

Smeed regarded the group with an expression that Wren interpreted as we’re-all-doomed-but-we’ll-go-down-fighting. She slid her fingers around Albus’ arm and held on tight as the vampire spoke.

“How many of you have experience with these animals?”

Callie raised her hand. Rose pointed to the fang marks on her neck. Scorpius stepped slightly in front of the girls. "I kicked one in the head."

A scuttle of little feet drew their attention to a rabbit, small and brown, who peeked up at them from behind a nearby tapestry.

“Stay away from it.” McGonagall pointed her wand at the thing. “We can’t do magic directly on it, but shield charms will keep it from getting close to us.”

Before she could cast, a snap like a brittle quill echoed through the corridor. Burns fixed the group with a cold stare, holding the limp creature up for all to see. “That’s how it’s done. Any questions?”


***


McGonagall must have done something to the grand staircase, because it rotated faster than she’d ever thought possible. Wren clung to the railing as tight as she could, and when it stopped, she ran to keep up with everyone’s long stride, nearly bumping into Smeed’s back as he halted in the corridor.

The double doors of the library opened wide. Students… all of them thralls, lined up at the entrance, creating a wall of bodies. Smeed marched forward and came to a rough halt about a foot away from the line of thralls.

“Magic,” Burns spat, stopping beside him at the invisible barrier. He reached into his overcoat and pulled out a stack of throwing knives.

“Don’t harm the children!” McGonagall cried as he threw the first one.

“I’m not aiming at children.” The knife struck inches away from a student’s shoe, stabbing through the neck of a small brown rabbit with a black patch over one eye. Burns shot down a few more rabbits, and the students in front of them began to collapse. Wren caught the nearest rabbit-less girl and lowered her gently to the ground.

Burns reached for another knife from his coat and came up empty-handed.

“Wait!” McGonagall cast a general sleeping spell over the line, and the rest of the students collapsed into each other.

“They’ll be safer if they’re not awake.”

“Agreed,” Smeed said, and moved through the doors.

Burns shrugged at the pile of students. “Guess that works, too.” He stepped over the fallen students, followed by McGonagall and the rest.

"Wren," Neville called to her, and wrapped her up in a big hug. "I love you. Be careful."

"I love you too, Dad," she said, and went inside to face the boy who'd invaded her mind.

Dillon looked like a little prince of the library overseeing his kingdom. He was perched on a chair set on top of Pince’s circulation desk with a mob of restless thralls around him. His face contorted and then smoothed into a happy grin.

“I wanted everyone to see, and here you all are!”

They were outnumbered by at least twenty to twelve, but it shouldn’t have been a problem with three lightning-fast, triple-strengthened vampires on their side.

“He’s baiting us.” Smeed’s voice was low in Wren’s ear. She didn’t know when he had gotten to her side. He was also focused on Dillon, gripping some nameless weapon under his coat. “Don’t do anything stupid. We don’t know his plan yet.”

She gulped and nodded, still watching the boy-turned-monster. The thralls were moving, making a tighter circle around Dillon’s teetering throne.

Dillon raised an empty goblet and turned it upside down over his head. The thralls surrounding him raised their wands as one.

“Protect me,” he whispered.

Spells flew. The library flashed with swaths of green and red light, sometimes blue and yellow crisscrossing through the air.

Wren spotted Trudy among the thrall protectors, and spied the cluster of rabbits under the circulation table, hidden behind their legs. Maybe if she could figure out which rabbit it was… but then she’d have to stun the animal, maybe even kill it, according to Burns.

Wren threw up a shield charm, deflecting a weak jet of blue light that came too close.

She didn’t know if she could… if she was ready to go that far.

Trudy’s spells were random and unfocused, going every which way - knocking over shelving and furniture, but leaving no scorch or impact marks on the targets.

Scorpius swore somewhere off to her right. “Albus,” he hissed, “I don’t think they’re aiming at anything.”

“Doesn’t mean we won’t get hit with a jelly-legs, or worse,” Albus called back.

Wren yelped at the sting of a hex that brushed by her leg. She followed behind fallen bookshelves and overturned chairs until she found the boys crouched behind an overturned table. She added her shielding charm to theirs and caught her breath.

Everyone took note when Mister Summers blasted a hole in a reading chair.

“They might have bad aim, but they’re not playing around.” Scorpius threw up his wand and hurled a red flash at the thralls. Ian caught his stunner square on the forehead and went down hard.

Scorpius whooped and ducked back behind the table. “I get points for that, yeah?”

One by one, thralls fell, leaving Dillon open on his stacked throne. He stood up and waved his arms around wildly, catching McGonagall in the face with a simple hex. She shook it off and cast another spell at him and then another. Professor Pocklington started doing the same.

Dillon stared them down with overflowing arrogance. “Now look what you’ve done! You’ve hurt my friends!” The constant barrage of lights crackled and dissolved around him.

The vampires had maneuvered into position and took advantage of the weakened shield. They pounced.

Dillon screamed a long, childish screech. Magic flowed from his fingertips, spilling the vampires back in an angry wave of purple light. They knocked like blocks against the back wall and scrambled for cover as he cast another unruly repelling charm at them.

“You think you’ve got them all?” he taunted. “Well, you’re wrong!”

Frenzied chittering rose up from all directions. Small, black balls of oily fur swarmed from under tables, behind bookcases and headed straight for the remaining wizards.

Instant shield charms went up all around the room, pushing the tiny mutants back. Then the whole room rumbled. A giant drooling maw rose above the stacks. Its head filled the domed ceiling of the library, knocking down one of the candle-lit chandeliers.

Massive bookshelves collapsed as the oversized rabbit forced its way out of the Restricted Section. Stomping paws gouged into the stone floor. A splintered oak column suddenly separated Wren from Albus and Scorpius, and they fled for cover.

Scorpius aimed at the beast’s nose, its ears, cursed again and sent another set of hexes straight into its chest. “What is that thing?” he yelled out as everything he threw at it bounced back at him in a shower of harmless sparks.

“That’s the rabbit you gave me!” Albus shouted back.

“Sorry for that,” James called out, somewhere behind them. “No magic, yeah? Cover me!” He split a broken chair leg in two and chucked it, casting a nonverbal spinning charm on the object as it flew up and lodged itself into the beast’s oversized nostril.

The beast roared, spewing foul smelling drool over their heads. Wren clambered over the huge column and got a clear view of Dillon, still perched on top of his library chair throne. His glittering eyes filled with cold, boyish mischief. He’d been waiting for this moment.

“I had their blood. They were mine. And now I’ve got your friend, Wren Longbottom. Mummy would call it a fair trade.” He held Bunny up by the ears.

Wren’s face went pale with fear as Bunny struggled in Dillon’s grasp. She couldn’t speak when Smeed landed on the column ahead of her and pulled back a dagger, aiming it straight at Dillon and Bunny.

“No, wait!” Albus shouted, distracting Smeed just as the dagger left his fingers. It spiraled off-center and deflected off a magical shield, clattering to the stone floor.

Smeed turned on Albus. “Why did you interfere?” he snarled angrily.

“That rabbit,” Albus said in a strangled tone. “It’s connected to Wren. Without it, she’ll…”

“Suffer, maybe die. You get in my way again and your fate will be more certain,” Smeed threatened before jumping from the column, another weapon in his hand.

“Shite,” was all that Albus said to that.

Wren knew what Albus was thinking. She’d fed that rabbit for months… ignored their advice and saved him from death. Wizards around them were fainting after getting bitten and sucked in for a mere handful of days. None of them could be sure what would happen to her if a link as strong as hers was suddenly cut away.

Dillon’s grin turned into a pained grimace as Bunny fought back, kicking hard against his hand. “Ow!” he whined and his fangs popped out fully. He opened his mouth wide and clamped it around Bunny’s neck.

Wren’s frantic screams were drowned out by another roar from the monster rabbit that commanded everyone else’s attention. Her guts plummeted as the flicker of Bunny went dark, and her consciousness balanced on the bead of red forming on Dillon’s finger. He’d pricked it with his own fang, and squeezed until it became too large a bubble and spilled over into Bunny’s mouth.

Bunny’s legs twitched. A cold presence crept in, ruthless and demanding. There was wrongness inside of her. A darkness like she’d never known before. Wren was meeting Dillon, fully and unabridged inside her head for the first time.

He was cold. Colder than Smeed's touch, colder than the icy Black Lake in winter. Wren recoiled as her legs moved on their own, carrying her forward, closer.

She fought for control, but her feet kept going, stepping over broken desks, slipping on piles of shredded books until they stopped on their own accord right in the middle of the library atrium. When she looked up to see where she was, Dillon’s face stared down at her from his perch on top of the circulation desk. “Mine!” he said, putting a cold grip on her neck, stronger than any boy should be.

Wren’s body lifted up in the air. The zap of freshly conjured shields went up around the circulation desk.

The little boy’s breath came like death in her face. “Why did you shut me out?”

“Why did I ever let you in!” she shot back. Wren scrambled to find the edge of the desk with her toes and pried with her hands at his iron grip. Surprisingly, it was easy to let go of the fear when there was nothing else to lose.

Wren fished her wand out of her robe, where it had miraculously slipped into one of her pockets. She shoved it at his desk and cast the first thing that came to mind. “Nox!” she shouted hoarsely. Darkness shimmered around Dillon, and then disappeared into smoky mist.

“You can’t do that to me! I’ve got magicks now!” He laughed his little boy laugh, warped and mirthless.

“This isn’t your magic,” she told him. “You took it away from someone else. You don’t even have any real friends. You never did!”

“I’ve got you,” he said, but inside, Wren felt his control slipping.

She didn’t like the idea of hurting anything. She saved them, animals, people, friends…. Dillon wasn’t any of those things.

“You can’t have me!” Wren rammed her wand right through Dillon’s gaping teeth. He squealed like a pig and clutched his mouth. Her feet slipped off the table and she tumbled to the floor.

The giant rabbit head hovered above her. Smeed and Burns were on its back, hacking away. The whole floor rocked as the animal came crashing down.

Wren’s eyes watered from the stench of the monster’s last breath. Her leg stung, and her shoulder ached. She’d been a giant hair’s breadth away from being crushed.

Burns climbed over the giant rabbit’s ear and held out a hand. Wren grabbed it and was hoisted up.

The utter decimation of the library hit her harder than she thought it would. Chairs, desks, books everywhere, fallen from shelves, knocked over by the monster carcass. The tiny monster rabbits were still, frozen in place.

Her dad saluted her with his wand. Wren allowed herself to smile.

Her friends, her family, classmates appeared, climbing up for air above the settling debris. Albus stood on a mountain of rubble. Aside from a dark spot on the side of his face where some bruising had started, he looked unharmed. Wren suddenly wanted to go to him, tell him that he meant everything to her, tell him…

“That’s why!” Dillon wailed suddenly. “You like him better than me!”

Dillon’s table began to glow, and Wren saw Bunny disappear. “You took my friends,” he seethed. “Now I will take away yours!” He thrashed his wand criss-cross in front of him, painting the back walls with swaths of colorful spells.

The chittering resumed, and the black creatures surged forward with renewed effort at anyone who was still left standing. Wren vaguely heard Scorpius saying, “If we haven’t pissed them off before, I think that did it. Mummy’s dead.”

She frantically scanned the room, trying to reach out to Bunny, but all she found was empty need, and a dark intent that froze her blood. Deep inside, she felt Dillon twist around her, grappling for the control that she refused to give him. Bunny’s need crystallized. He wasn’t going to turn Albus into a thrall. He was going to kill him.

“Get them!” Dillon shrieked in a little-boy tantrum. “And him! Get rid of him too!”

Burns jolted Wren out of her head. “The knife. You’re going to need it. Here they come.” Wren shook, holding the knife in her hand. The vampire readied next to her, intent on the mass of black scrambling towards them, but Wren had her eyes glued to the white rabbit that had Apparated at Albus’ feet.

“Help him!” she shrieked, but the rodents were everywhere and everyone was too busy shielding, stabbing. Scorpius was closest to him, too busy crushing tiny skulls with his boots to notice Bunny, or the animal that used to be Bunny, leap at Albus’ throat.

Beside her, Burns hacked at the first mutant that came at their feet. Wren could only stare at Albus across the room, who had managed to throw Bunny off him, twisting his body away from the fangs and falling to the ground. Wren felt the need, the strength as Bunny surged with intent.

Wren felt her own intent well up inside. The knife disappeared from her hands. Bunny lunged forward and rammed his head straight into the knife that had appeared in mid-air directly above Albus. He grasped the hilt on instinct, rolled over, and drove it through Bunny’s skull.

She watched Albus suck in air at the sight of Bunny under him. He hovered on the edge of panic, searching the room for her, and looked visibly relieved when he spotted her still standing.

Wren scrambled behind Burns who swung a machete low, swiping the little beasts away from them. Her head had become a black hole trying to suck her mind into nothingness, but she forced herself to move, casting her strongest shield at the black balls, pushing them away until all the shields in the room merged. The mutants strained against the barrier between themselves and everyone else.

Dillon was sobbing openly. “It’s all her fault! Mummy said… Mummy said…” He threw crisscrossed lights across the library so fast and furious that Wren couldn’t tell which spells they were, doubted Dillon knew himself, or cared.

His eyes swam in tears. “You were supposed to be mine! You were supposed to like me best!”

Maybe the little beasts could sense his weakness. Maybe their mother had been the only thing that could truly control them. No one knew why the hoard of flesh eaters turned slowly, a carpet of black on the library floor, and went for the easiest thing within their reach.

The mutant rabbits swarmed over the table. Wren watched, transfixed as Dillon drowned in them until Burns dragged her away from the boy’s screams. The remaining wizards and vampires retreated ahead of them and gathered at the library entrance.

Smeed’s coat hung heavy at his shoulders, covered in black goo.

Scorpius stamped his horribly ruined boots on the ground.

Callie and Rose, exhausted and unharmed, huddled near stunned bodies in the corridor.

Her dad, McGonagall and Uncle Toby did a head count, discussed… things… while the black mass writhed on the spot, no longer needing charmed shields to keep them in place.

And Albus. She fell into him, nauseated by Dillon’s screams fading into the sound of tiny teeth scraping on bone.

“That’s it. That’s everyone,” Nate called from the library doors.

McGonagall nodded wearily at Burns, who’d hoisted the flamethrower over his shoulder. He might not even have been waiting for permission, having already taken aim. “Finish it,” she told him.

The library lit up in a blaze, but Wren was too busy looking up into Albus’ eyes. They reflected the flames, growing in intensity, watering from the heat. Someone cast a fireproof shield around the room. Someone else ushered the remaining witches and wizards out of the library and spelled the doors shut.

Wren was only vaguely aware of the people shuffling around her. Dillon was gone, but the black hole in her mind was still expanding. She clung to Albus’ arm with everything she had left. There was something she wanted to tell him, something important, but she was so tired. Her thoughts swirled into memory, and memory faded into singular bursts, half-moments of the past.

Gran used to stare out the window into nothingness…

Mediwitches told her that they fluffed Frank and Alice’s pillows every morning…

Crisp white sheets… always clean...

Albus held her up even as she slipped away. Was this what it was like, to allow the people you cared about to care for you too?

“Stay with me,” he pleaded. “Smeed says he’s going to fix you. Just a few minutes. You can do it.”

Darkness crept in, comforting and cool. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to let everything go.

Words were difficult to form, but she made the effort. Because it was Albus. Because he deserved to know.

“I chose you,” she said, “over Bunny. Over everything.” Then she lost her mind.

 






A/N:  Thank you to everyone who has left me comments and suggestions for the revision.  This story is much tighter, more squeaky clean because of all of you, and I am forever grateful.

Ladybirdflying, Oldershouoldknowbetter, RavenclawFTW, Cambangst, Cherry_pop94, and probably others that I've forgotten, thank you for your critical eyes.

Please don't throw anything.  This is the penultimate chapter.  There is one more to go, which should be posted by the end of next week.

 

 


Chapter 31: 31. Closer to the Heart
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Wren slowly drifted in and out of a fog.

“They said her mind needs time to heal. Don’t wake her yet.” Albus’ voice trailed circles in the haze around her, but then he’d be gone.

The place she’d thought he would fill remained empty. Each time she drifted back from the void, emptiness closed in on itself, shrinking into a point far beyond her reach. Wren was left alone, rediscovering what it meant to be herself.

Sometimes his voice met her in the stillness, angry, sad, pleading - sometimes it was her dad, telling her how sorry he was that he hadn’t done more… she had a vague awareness of someone holding her hand, stroking her hair.

Sometimes it was Rose or Callie or Trudy. Wren couldn’t react, she could only feel. The sensations around her triggered hidden anxieties of falling, being left behind, watching people die...

Sometimes there was no one at all. That’s when the emptiness nagged the hardest, begging to be filled with something… anything… anyone. Relentlessly gnawing at her unrest with tiny teeth. It took her a while, but she finally came to terms with the line between fear and uncertainty… the wall between loneliness and being alone.

Wren woke, feeling miraculously whole.

The first thing she reached for was the glass of water near her bed. She gulped it down on impulse to soothe the dryness in her throat. Flowers sat on her bedside table, because Callie sent them to everyone who felt blue, next to a stack of parchment with neatly quilled lettering, obviously notes from Rose. An assortment of cards stood like a horizontal frame around the hardcover edition of Meditation and Advanced Occlumency, which could only be from her dad... Wren shifted her gaze which landed on a familiar hand-drawn picture on a bent piece of parchment that jutted out from under Rose’s notes, a stick-shaped thestral with an empty bubble above its head, like it had been abandoned mid-creation.

She lay back on the pillows. There had been so many voices. What had the Healers done? How many potions had she been drowned in? Countless questions bounced around inside her mind. The sheets were soft, she noticed as she snuggled into them, and the pillow… something bumped against her cheek. She felt around and discovered her lens cover wedged under her pillow. Without thinking, she reached over to the bedside table, tugged open the top drawer, and found her lens sitting inside, right where it should be. She squinted out at the sunlit room, bathed in warm red and gold rather than cold white light, and saw the chairs assembled around her bed, as if people had been sitting around watching her sleep. Wren sat up gingerly and took in her surroundings.

She wasn’t in St. Mungo’s. And she wasn’t alone.

Trudy. Leaning against a pile of pillows, she stared at a blank spot on the wall across the room. Someone had set a collection of miniaturized Beater bats in a Quidditch helment and placed it near Trudy’s bed. The bright yellow bow around them was a dead giveaway that Callie had done it. Trudy didn’t appreciate flowers, but she’d love something like that.

Wren fought the sick sensation that washed over her, that her friend might not be whole and sat up. “Trudy?” she ventured.

Trudy sat up straight as a board and tore off her augurey feather headphones. “You’re awake! Thank goodness!”

“Are you alright?” Wren asked, her voice hoarse.

“I’m fine. How are you? Wait, don’t answer that.” Trudy slid off her bed and rushed to her side. “You’re supposed to drink this when you wake up. Don’t try to get out of bed yet.” She picked up a light yellow potion next to a package of Wren’s mum’s coconut cookies. “They wanted to be here when you woke up, but nobody knew how long it would be, and the Medical Wing was so busy, so they moved you up here, which pissed off Albus, but he’ll get over it now that you’re awake.”

Trudy hovered as Wren drank the potion. “They said you’ll get this tunnel vision and the things around you won’t seem real. Is it like that?”

“No,” Wren said, surprised that it wasn’t. “I think I just got dizzy sitting up too fast.”

Trudy settled into one of the chairs near Wren’s bed and shuffled through a Quidditch Days magazine, the Bludger on the front cover exploding and reforming every few seconds. “By the way. I know what you did in the Medical Wing.”

Chills went down Wren’s spine at the memory of leaving Trudy behind in that rabbit-infested room. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get you out …”

“No, not that. That wasn’t anyone’s fault. I meant the tea. That little bit, they said it made my recovery faster than most. I was only out for an hour.”

Wren looked at the stack of notes from Rose. “How long have I been asleep?”

Trudy snorted. “Well you haven’t missed Christmas, if that’s what you’re worried about. Ten days. Halloween’s on Monday. You're the last student to wake up. They had to take Mister Summers and Madame Pomfrey to St. Mungo’s, along with Madame Pince, who lost a lot of blood, as well as being bloody old. Rose is upset about the state of the library. They’ve closed it until further notice. And your friend Berkshire has started an Unenthralled Support Group. I'm supposed to tell you that they're meeting Wednesdays at six-thirty in the Hufflepuff common room.”

Trudy rushed through her words until there were no more. She hadn’t said so much to Wren all at once in all the time they’d been roommates. “Anyway, do you want me to get someone, your dad, or Rose, or…”

“I’m kind of enjoying the quiet,” Wren said. Snatches of time were slowly catching up with her, people bustling around, talking over her, strange fleeting dreams that made her warm.

She fingered the hand-drawn card, wondering how much had changed in ten days. “What’s everyone doing right now?”

Trudy smirked at her question. “Albus just left, actually. He was threatening to move in so he could sit with you through the night, but McGonagall wouldn’t let him. Anyway, he’s on the pitch. Slytherin tryouts are today.”

“Today?” Wren grabbed her camera hanging by its strap from the bedpost and snapped on the lens, thumbing through the dials and checking the film. She silently summoned her camera bag. It came without resistance. Her magic was back, strong as ever. Wren heaved a sigh of relief.

“I’m going to grab a quick shower.” Wren slid out of bed on shaky feet, but the strength potion was already starting to work. By the time she made it across the room, her fatigue had faded. Finally, her head was clear. She drew in a sharp breath and added, “Then I think I’ll go down to the pitch and take some pictures. And find Albus. I have to talk to him.”

“Ha!” Trudy shot at her, relief evident on her face too. “It’s about time!”


***


On the way to the pitch, McCormack and Ferguson jogged across her path, winded but still pushing themselves. Wren breathed in the crisp fall air and slipped her shoes off to feel the grass between her toes, every sensation hers alone. Her heart ached, missing the sense of connection but not the intrusion. She didn’t want to see another rabbit for a long, long while.

“You’re awake!” Serena ran down from the top of the Ravenclaw stands and squeezed Wren’s breath away. “I covered for you. Jealous that you got this job by the way, but you deserve it, and really, I can’t play on the team and be the photographer at the same time.”

“Are they done already?” Wren asked, feeling prickles of disappointment that maybe she’d missed everything.

“Halfway,” Serena said. “You look… good. A little pasty.” She shrugged. “Nothing a good moisturizer can’t fix. I was on my way down to the dressing rooms anyway to get suited up for the second half. The captain said that no one’s a shoo-in from last year.”

Wren climbed the steps and perched on the rails by the goals - the cool breeze felt good against her skin, raising goose pimples on her arms. She’d not thought to take a jacket, but autumn was swiftly giving way to the colder season. She readied her camera as a pair of fliers did some complex maneuvers and snapped them as they passed by.

Scanning for the next player, her heart flipped when she saw the dark haired boy leave the ground. She turned her flash up and aimed at the nearest metal object, the goal post. The flash went off, and as his head popped up, she quickly ducked down, instantly feeling guilty for being so impulsive and possibly messing up his drill if she’d been spotted.

After the last trial, a race of five laps around the field, she scrambled down the stands and squeezed between helmeted shoulder padded Slytherins to get to their captain.

Nevvins smiled wide when he saw her. “It’s good to see you up, Wren.”

“Thanks,” she said. “It feels good to be moving again. I’ll get these pictures to you before dinner.”

"Wren!" Rose came out of nowhere and threw her arms around her.

Wren hugged her back and asked, "What are you doing down here? I thought you didn't watch the tryouts, especially when it isn't our team."

Rose's cheeks got red. "I lost a bet," she stage-whispered. "Scorpius made me come."

"Oi!" he said, appearing at her side with a sweaty helmet tucked under his arm. He squinted at Rose. "I thought you were giving me a fair shake."

"I guess it's not that bad." Rose rolled her eyes for effect. "We're occupying the same space and nobody's died yet."

Wren left them stupidly grinning at each other and couldn't help grinning a little herself.

She found Albus outside the changing rooms, half-surrounded by a group of Hufflepuff girls, with Lori hovering dangerously nearby. He was gesturing excitedly to the rest of the Quidditch players, talking plays and steadfastly ignoring the girls.

“Albus is the real hero,” Lori was saying as Wren elbowed her way closer. “He saved my brother from the rabbits, and… oh, hi Wren. We’ll catch up later.” Lori led the other Hufflepuffs away, and Wren found a clear path to Albus. She tugged on his sleeve to get his attention.

“Hi.”

There was a full beat of silence and then Albus swallowed her in a tight hug. He mumbled something into her shoulder that sounded like “worried”. His hair was matted to his head from the Quidditch helmet, and his cheek was smudged with dirt. The relief on his face told her everything she needed to know. She could probably get away with not saying anything at all, but somehow that wasn’t enough.

Except his teammates were staring at them.

“I need to talk to you. Can we go somewhere without people?”

He nodded and led her behind the changing rooms where a large tree hung over the building.

Wren looked around, checking that no one had followed them. It was quiet except for the beating of her heart and the low creaks of heavy branches swaying in the wind above them.

Albus stopped under the shade with her. “I know what they said, that you needed to sleep it off, but seeing you like that for days… you’re back, right? All of you?”

“Yes,” she said, feeling like she was answering more than just a simple question. “Albus, I… umm…”

His hand wrapped warmly around hers and she struggled to define the bubbling sensation that rose up inside, this strange, inevitable pull. This time she allowed herself to be swept up in it. She tugged at his Quidditch jersey to bring him closer. Maybe if she whispered it in his ear?

“Yeah?” he questioned, so close, so sweet…

This wasn't like Dillon’s persistent overwhelming lure. She could ask herself what this was, and what it meant, fall into it or away from it… the choice was hers.

Everything she wanted was so close, she could taste it. So she did, standing on her toes to reach. Her lips touched his briefly, tentatively, and then she pulled back, blushing.

"Sorry. I didn't know how to say it."

Albus' blue eyes changed from surprise to an intensity that Wren had never seen before. "I heard you," he said, and kissed her back. Everything clicked together, almost audibly, just above the breeze - leaves rustled above them… the crackle of the branches. Feeling was everything, his hand pressing into her back, his breath on her face.

When they broke apart, his hair flopped into his eyes. Wren's fingers tingled as she traced a line around the side of his face, tucking some of the strands behind his ear. His hair was damp with sweat, half his Quidditch gear still hanging around his shoulders. Wren couldn't help thinking how perfect he would look framed just like that.

"So what do we do now?" he asked, twining their fingers together.

Wren adjusted the camera strap that had dug into her shoulder. "I was going to go and develop these pictures, get some of the shots ready for the Slytherin team. It takes a few hours, so if I start on it now, the photos will be ready by dinner tonight."

"Let's go." Albus started pulling her towards the greenhouses.

"But Albus, it’s going to be at least an hour of..."

The thing about photography was that it only took a few minutes for the actual doing, and the rest of it was waiting around in the dark on the lumpy couch to make sure no one interrupted the process.

Wren rethought that last bit. An hour. In the dark. With Albus.

“Oh.”

He grinned down at her like a Kneazle who had eaten the Snitch, reeking of sweat and leather, which wasn't so bad out in the open, but the tiny room could get stuffy...

Wren’s cheeks practically caught on fire. “You should change,” she said. “And shower,” she added.

“Right. I’ll meet you there.” He gave her a last peck on the lips, which could have lasted ten times longer if she’d allowed it, but some things like soap took precedence over other things, like knobbly knees.

The tree above her crackled, and then laughed.

Laughter.

Someone was laughing at her.

Serena practically fell out of the lower branches, but somehow managed to land on her feet. “Oh wow, that was… just, wow!”

Wren stared at her, embarrassed, but angry too. “You were watching us?”

“Better!” Serena tapped her camera that still swung from side to side across her chest. Wren hoped Serena was getting strap burns on her neck from it. “I got the whole thing. All the unspoken words!”

Red-faced, Wren stared at the camera. The tree where she and Albus had just been… kissing.

Serena was still talking. “It’s all right here. I had to finish the roll anyway, because of Quidditch pictures, right?”

“What?”

The cartridge popped out of Serena’s camera, making a sound like smacking gum. “This is going to be epic!” She rolled the film into a small metal canister and snapped the lid shut. “Should have happened ages ago, if you ask me.”

Which she hadn’t. Wren thought she heard a cackle escape from Serena’s lips, and fought the urge to slap her. This was supposed to be her private moment, and…

“Here, take it.” Serena held out the canister. Wren stared at it like it was on fire. “It’s yours, darling. You need those Quidditch shots anyway. But I want a peek at the rest. You two are so nauseatingly cute together. I can’t wait to see what develops.” She shoved the canister into Wren’s hands and brushed back her hair. “See you later!”

Wren blushed furiously as Serena sauntered away. What had just happened? Her bubble had burst. The dreamy atmosphere had been forever shattered by that nosey… and here she was, holding hard evidence that it hadn’t been a dream at all.

She clutched the canister to her chest and practically sprinted to the greenhouses.


***


The rest of the term flowed swiftly. Charms became almost as easy as Potions (not so much Transfiguration, but that was what study sessions with Albus were for). Photographing the Quidditch teams took up a lot of Wren's time, and so did Albus. She couldn't have been happier.

Albus had made good on his promise that things wouldn't change. He continued feeding her with normal best-friend banter - with occasional eyebrow raises, a suggestive comment thrown in, and pecks on the lips when no one else was watching - encouraging the flutter in her stomach that she’d learned to welcome when he was around.

Okay, it wasn’t just like always. It was infinitely better.


She talked now, about anything and everything to Rose and Callie, and sometimes Nate, but mostly Albus. Sometimes Albus talked too, and then they didn’t talk at all, because sometimes being with each other was worth more than words.

On the second day of Christmas Break, he hadn't needed excuses to show up and steal her away from the bustling Inn. She shoved her bare hand into his pocket when the brisk air hit them. St. Mungo’s was always cooler than comfortable. Coming in out of the winter weather hadn’t helped, but Wren soothed herself with the thought that they wouldn’t be very long.

Mister Summers, and anyone else who’d had prolonged exposure to the enthrallment needed to be tested - for a while - regularly, until the Mediwitches were satisfied that they didn’t have any long-term damage or ill-effects. Smeed had said it was unnecessary, but he conceded that one night of mutual cooperation hadn’t overridden the centuries of distrust between the two cultures.

Ian appeared in the hallway, face red with angry blotches. "What do you mean, it's 'Thrall Pox'? Is that even a thing?" he yelled to the Mediwitch shoving him out of the door.

"Go home," she ordered, pushing him forward. "The vampires said it would clear up on its own. In a few months or whatnot."

Ian huffed and wrapped himself up in a thick cloak, giving Wren a severe look. She ignored him and went towards the beckoning witch. The examination room was colder than the hallway. Wren sat down dutifully in front of the indifferent witch who placed the tip of her long wand on her forehead. “Nothing,” she said. “You may go.”

Albus was waiting for her. She smiled up at him and rubbed the worry lines off his forehead.

“Good?”

“Good.”

“Shall we say hello to her?”

Wren led him down the familiar wing. The room was identical to how Alice and Frank’s had been, the usual empty dresser mostly for show. There were no personal effects. She wouldn't be here much longer.

The Mediwitch greeted them by the door. “Hello Miss Longbottom. Mr. Potter.” She shook her head, meaning there was no change in condition from last time.

Madame Pince, old and frail, laid back in the bed, crisp white sheets tucked around her. Her flesh wounds had healed, her breathing was light and steady, but her chart showed that she'd lost too much blood and her brain had shut down. Wren glanced at the stones and nodded to Albus. She pulled up a chair and started talking. She paused when Pince’s breath hitched, or her face tightened. After a little while, the Mediwitches came in to administer potions to keep her comfortable until the end. They said she only had a few weeks left.

It was still cold outside when they got ready to leave. Albus pulled her close and asked, “How did you know what to say?”

“I just told her what I’d want to hear,” Wren said. “She didn’t see the end, so I thought she’d at least want to know that everyone was okay, mostly, and that it wasn't her fault how things ended up.”

She grabbed Albus' arm, clinging to his warmth. “Gran’s coming to visit.”

“You going to tell her?”

“What, that we finally do have some ailment in common?”

Ian and the rest hadn’t been enthralled long enough to retain the sensing like she had. The Mediwitches hadn’t detected it, but then they were only using wizard magic. Smeed had done his own tests and called it a gift - the ability to sense vampires. He said it made her special… useful… And then he’d given some cryptic warning about not being useful to the wrong people.

There had been a lot of changes since Bunny. Most of them around Hogwarts, the way people looked at her appreciatively, not as the Herbology Professor’s daughter, but as part of the crew that had saved them. It took some getting used to, having people actually see her for who she was, but she was managing.

She was managing other changes too, some of them weird, like how Rose acted around Scorpius - hot and cold sometimes, and other times, like he was her only friend in the world. She spent less time fretting and more time laughing - at - with - Scorpius, which made him smirk more than he should be allowed.

Wren looked up at Albus and couldn’t help smiling. Right beside her was the best change of all.

"You really didn't have to come with me, Albus."

"No, I really did. It's what oldest best friends do. And if you end up going to Smeed or Nate's uncle for whatever treatment they want to do, I'm going there, too."

Her hand felt small inside his as he squeezed it. Other things had grown too, some of them blossoming inside of her. It wasn’t as scary anymore. It was wonderful, and larger than life.

"Yeah, I'd like that." Wren wasn't sure what vampires did for recovering thralls, if they did anything... most vampires didn't concern themselves with the fate of their victims, but Smeed was a good man. He made Wren feel like a survivor.

Her mum had brought the Inn through its financial rough patch - six months of eighteen hour days (and Smeed’s intermittent help) had gotten them stable enough to finish the much needed repairs, open another wing for guests and hire a full-time staff.

“When is she coming?” Albus asked.

“For dinner tonight, but then she wants me to scram afterwards.” Gran’s last letter had been firm. She’d wanted a visit, details, and then she wanted Wren scarce, to enjoy her holiday on her own terms while Gran and her parents did boring, grown-up things like have tea and comment on the renovations.

“They don’t need me anymore,” Wren said.

“That's perfect, because I need you,” Albus said, pulling her close, “to help me finish off Mum’s toffee pudding at my house so she can make us more.”

Something itched at the back of Wren's mind. Thoughts of toffee-colored swirls danced in her head, framed at odd angles. She blinked as her vision came back into focus, and then stood on her toes to kiss Albus on the cheek.

“I’ll bring my camera.”


 

Fine

 



A/N:  How can I express my gratitude to all of the eyes that have made this story so much better than its first draft?  I can't, except to say thank you to everyone who has commented or beta'd, or listened to me whine endlessly about the stupidity of teen characters and how my next fic is going to be about grumpy old men.

The chapter title, "Closer to the Heart" is from the song of the same name by Rush.  It's the favorite band of the kid who inspired the character of Albus and his cartoon drawings.

After finishing my second novel-length fic, all I can say is that this has been another wild ride.  I'll miss Wren and Albus, and Scorpius and yes, even Rose a bit.  Smeed is still chomping for more words, but I can't promise anything.  Please visit the little grey box below and tell me anything you want to, even if it's only to say that you read the whole thing.  That would make me excessively happy.

Pix


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