Nora sat straight up in bed, her eyes wet. “Oh,” she whispered.
She felt as though an old wound had been ripped afresh; the worst memories she had tried to suppress had been unconsciously unlocked. Here they were, out in the open and throbbing with pain and guilt. The image of the young man came flooding back with such force that she collapsed her neck and shoulders to lean against the headboard. How many times had she seen him, talked to him…how many opportunities and still he had never mentioned it to her? He had saved her life. And, maybe…
Was he the reason Petula was not dead? She wasn’t really living – her existence was more along the lines of someone who’d been administered the dementor’s Kiss – but she had somehow been salvaged. She was somehow alive.
Would he know about Archer?
Of course he would. Nora had distinctly stated that people had come and killed her father, that they had captured her mother and brother. Severus Snape must have known all along that Nora had a little brother. Did that mean he knew what became of him? Why was he standing so close to Nora’s home on that night, at that late hour? If he knew all about it, then why had he pretended to be ignorant of the details when they invaded Desdemona Rupnik’s house? There was only one thing for it.
Nora had to confront him.
She would waste absolutely no time in doing so, either. Fingers trembling, she pulled on another layer of warm clothing and her green coat, and then she slipped into her boots. Knowing that Sirius would probably have a complete cow if he woke up and Nora was gone, she went and banged on his door. “I’m off to Hogwarts,” she shouted loudly. “Thought I’d give you fair warning.”
She could hear rustling from inside, and a muffled voice, but Nora wasn’t going to wait around and give more explanations. The only one who should be explaining anything right now was Severus Snape. And she did not care that it was an unreasonable hour to make house visits.
Nora thumped down the stairs. She reached the entrance corridor just as Sirius’s head leaned over the banister from above, yelling, “What’s going on?”
“No time!” she exclaimed. “I’ll be fine, don’t worry. Go back to sleep.”
“Are you mad?” He glanced at a grandfather clock on the wall. “It’s bloody two in the morning!”
Nora ignored him and pulled open the door. Cold, blustery winter air rushed in to swathe her face, blowing her hair back. Determined, she walked out onto the front step and closed the door behind her, and then disapparated.
It took a moment for her to figure out exactly where she’d popped out. Nora had expected to see the giant iron gates right outside the Hogwarts grounds, but there were none in sight. She was standing in a torrent of snow, falling in thick, soft flakes from the black sky. The ground was frosted with it clear up to the top of her boots, and stumbling over to a cheerfully flickering streetlamp she could just make out a street sign. Nora was on the outskirts of Hogsmeade Village. Turning, she could see that directly behind her lay a series of shops while ahead of her was the long, winding path to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Just as she was about to move forward, something bulky plowed her over and she fell onto the snow, its weight crashing down on top of her.
“Agh!” she yelled.
“What the hell are you doing?” came Sirius’s voice.
“You apparated right on top of me!”
“Not my bloody fault you’ve got an insane hankering to visit a school in the middle of the night,” he shot back defensively. “You think I’m going to just stay home and wonder what in Merlin’s pants you’re up to?” He stood to his feet and helped Nora up, and they dusted the snow off themselves. “You can’t just announce that you’re ‘off to Hogwarts’ and then leave.”
“This way,” Nora pointed. “If you’re coming with me, then I want to get moving. And why did we apparate here instead of at the gates?”
“Umbridge tightened security on the school and widened its scope of protective enchantments – probably because of that loony mass-murderer Sirius Black. But really, what are you doing? You can walk and talk at the same time, so fill me in.”
“I just woke up from a dream,” Nora told him as they lowered their faces against the frigid wind and began the journey to Hogwarts. “But it wasn’t simply a dream, it was a real memory. I must have repressed it, like I’d repressed my mother ever having another child…and I think I know why I did that. My brain had to protect itself because it was such a horrible, horrible memory. Oh, Sirius, I saw my father killed all over again!”
Sirius clasped her hand and gave it a squeeze. “How does this come to involve Hogwarts?”
“My mother told me to run,” she continued. “I was holding Archer, and she took him from me and eventually convinced me to get out of there. We were hiding in the cellar, and Mum told me to escape through this hole we had down there. And I got out, and I could hear Mum screaming behind me because they were taking the baby. I ran through the forest…and then I found Severus.”
Sirius stopped in his tracks. “Come again?”
She tugged on his hand to get him walking, which he reluctantly did. She couldn’t see Sirius very well in the darkness, but she knew exactly what he must look like – disbelieving. “He was younger. I had no idea who the man was, but I asked him to help me. Now I realize it was Severus, because I recognized him, but at the time I was just a scared seven-year-old. So I ran up to him, crying, begging him for help.”
“He was a Death Eater!” Sirius cried.
“He wasn’t.” Nora shook her head. “My father died after Severus had turned spy, remember? And anyway, he was the one who took me to the Burrow. I’d completely forgotten – and to this day Arthur remarks that he had no idea how I ended up there, that I just dropped out of the sky and landed on their doorstep. He reckoned that it was pent-up magic. You know how sometimes little kids can do powerful things when they really need to? He thought I’d somehow apparated. But now I know that it was Severus. It all came back to me – I remember everything.”
“Why didn’t Snape ever mention it?” Sirius asked heatedly. “That’s something he should have reminded you.”
“No idea,” she responded, her voice bitter. “That’s exactly why I’m here. After he dropped me off at my aunt’s house, he must have gone back and joined the other Death Eaters, seeing as how they were in the immediate vicinity and he was supposed to be pretending to be one of them. Voldemort’s people were still running around, you know, trying to wreak as much havoc as possible before they were captured by the Ministry. And if he went back, then that means he must know what became of Archer, and exactly what happened to my mother.”
“But if Snape was nearby to begin with, then he must have been there because he was a part of it,” Sirius replied angrily, walking faster. “I mean, why else was he so close to your house? He had no business being anywhere near there.”
“I don’t think he was in on it,” she said. “He seemed…disturbed…when I told him what was going on.”
Sirius laughed without humor. “Severus Snape knows how to pretend. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t still be alive right now, acting as a spy. The question is: whose side is he really on?”
“I cannot believe he didn’t tell me about Archer before,” Nora went on through gritted teeth. “He’d better have a brilliant excuse for it.”
Sirius was a cross between fury, confusion, and guilty happiness because Nora was so angry with Snape. He couldn’t wait to see her unload on him. And for that matter, he couldn’t wait to unload on Snivellus himself. The two-faced bastard! He gripped his wand in his pocket, feeling an ugly expression of vehemence spreading over his features. Tonight, Snape was going to be exposed for the lying scumbag he really was, and who better to do the exposing than Sirius and Nora?
It took about twenty minutes to reach the gates. Nora tapped it with her wand, already knowing the password from Dumbledore, and they entered. The rusty iron fence swung closed behind them with a loud clang, and Sirius glanced hesitantly at Nora. Her jaw was taut, eyes hard. “Let’s go,” she ordered darkly.
But five minutes into the grounds, they realized it was going to be a bit of a problem.
About thirty hooded creatures drifted like a fog over the Quidditch pitch, and several others circled the turrets of Hogwarts castle. Sirius felt the blood drain from his head. “Why…what are they doing here?” he asked, his voice hoarse.
Nora watched the dementors soaring around Hogwarts, even the ones lit up by snowy moonlight barely distinguishable. How many more lurked in the shadows? “I have no idea,” she responded in a whisper. “But we’ve got to get you out of here.”
Sirius gripped her sleeve. “You, too,” he urged. “You’re not staying here, either.”
“Are you kidding?” she hissed. “I’ve come all this way, haven’t I? There are questions I need answers to. These dementors aren’t going to be bothered by me – but they’ll know you straightaway. They’ll give you the Kiss before you take one step inside. And I hate to be the one to tell you this, Sirius, but you’re not very useful without your soul.” For a painful moment she imagined what that would be like – Sirius Black’s body void of any real life. For her to look into his eyes and him to not respond with any kind of metaphysical reaction…it was too much to bear. Nora blinked back tears the image had provoked.
“I’m not leaving you here,” he said.
“Alright,” she told him. “Let’s hide you, then. Hagrid’s hut – come on.”
They stooped low to the ground and rushed to the tiny house where Rubeus Hagrid dwelled. Smoke curled from its stone chimney, but no lights were on; knocking in the middle of the night was going to scare the half-giant out of his wits. Nora rapped on the door while Sirius tossed furtive glimpses over his shoulder, watching the dementors gliding in formation like a single shrouded entity.
“Who’s there?” came a deep, rumbling bellow.
“Open the door, Hagrid!” Nora pleaded. “It’s Nora!” They’d caught one of the dementor’s attention, and it was turning to face them, quickly gaining speed…
“I was ruddy asleep!”
“Hurry up!” Sirius yelled.
“Who’s that with yeh?” Hagrid’s broad, bearded face appeared between a crack in the door. “Why – Sirius!”
“Shh,” Nora pressed. “Just let him in. I’ll be back in a little while.” Hagrid ushered Sirius inside and the latter reached out to grasp Nora’s hand for a moment.
Nora shoved him into the hut and then faced the castle, transforming into an owl. She rose into the sky, devouring great swells of wind with her wings, searching…searching for an opening. Just as she was really starting to get frustrated with the lack of open doors or windows, she spotted the figure of a man standing with his feet placed evenly apart on the snowy ground, hands behind his back. It was Severus Snape, examining the Whomping Willow.
She dive-bombed down to the earth, skidding into the ground with human feet and startling Severus so much that he nearly tripped on his robes trying to back away from her. “Nora!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
“I might ask you the same thing,” she replied.
There was a long, awkward pause – both of them sizing up the situation, wondering cryptically what the other one was doing there in the middle of the night. Nora’s eyes were large and unblinking, more owlish than ever, and the way they pierced Severus made chills race along his skin. He spoke first, slicing into the gloom. “You notice that the branches are still.” He gestured to the serenely resting limbs, which Nora knew could thrash a person to death if they had a mind to. “It may not be a cause of concern to anyone else, but I’m rather interested to know exactly who pressed the knob and is hiding down there.”
“Probably just Crookshanks,” Nora guessed. “He knows how to get in.”
“Who is Crookshanks?”
“Hermione Granger’s cat.” She paused, lingering off to the side. Severus was not looking at her anymore; he was staring at the tree with an analytical expression. He radiated uneasiness despite the carefully crafted poise. “Severus, why didn’t you tell me that you helped me escape from the Death Eaters who murdered my father?”
Severus jerked to look at her, his pale face stricken. “You remember?”
She nodded. “My subconscious has a way of remembering thinks I don’t really want to remember.”
His eyes shifted to the ground, darting back and forth and giving the impression of a person thinking quickly under pressure. “I had forgotten about it until a few days ago,” he told her, finally looking up to meet her gaze. Severus’s eyes were wide, apprehensive. “I wanted to tell you, but I also didn’t…because it seemed that your memory must have suppressed it as well. Perhaps I wouldn’t be doing you any favors by trudging it up.”
Nora frowned. “Why would you need to suppress anything like that?” she inquired.
Severus rolled his shoulders, stepping a bit closer. He looked taller than usual, the shadows seeming to elongate his figure and exaggerating the lankiness like a caricature. “As impossible as it may be for others to believe, I am not particularly fond of the things I’ve had to do or witness while masquerading as a Death Eater. My mind did just as yours had done – protected itself. There are probably numerous events I can no longer recall, and I’m not sorry for it.”
Nora drew even closer. His black eyes were guarded, fearful. “Do you know what happened to my brother?”
He looked sorrowful. “I do not.”
She closed her eyes, inhaling sharply. A dead end. She would never find him. Harry Potter couldn’t come up with anything, Molly couldn’t come up with anything. Even Dumbledore had no idea. She’d never felt so lost in her life. “Why were you so close to my house the night they were killed?” she wanted to know. “What were you doing there?”
He shook his head. “Please do not make me answer that.”
She felt her heart constrict in its ribcage, like a fist was squeezing it. “You were involved with what happened to my parents…”
He didn’t respond right away. “Dumbledore knew that the Dark Lord was not vanquished permanently. He would return someday, and we needed him to believe that I was still loyal, that I had never abandoned the Dark ways. I was supposed to go along with the demolition of the Prewetts. I was not quite as…hard-shelled…in those days, and pretended I was too weak to do it. So I told the other Death Eaters that I would position myself in the forest in case any of the Prewetts came running. I was to kill anyone who tried to escape.” His voice was harsh-sounding, and he refused to meet her eyes.
“Dumbledore knew it was going to happen?” Nora whispered. “And he just…let it?”
“I passed Dumbledore the information of their plans,” he said. “Told him the exact date of when Dolohov, the Lestranges, and Alecto were to make an invasion. Dumbledore schemed that the Aurors would attack the Death Eaters before they even opened your front door, and have them sent to Azkaban. Unfortunately, the Aurors got it wrong. They thought it was for the following night, and did not come. I was under the impression that I would be waiting in the forest of the town where you lived – Adlebourne – until Dawlish arrived with word that all of the other Death Eaters were apprehended. But I waited and none of them showed up…and then you came running out of the woods…”
He tilted his head toward the sky. “And you told me your father was dead, and I knew. Everything had gone terribly wrong; and you were the only one left who could be saved. It was a tremendous victory for the Death Eaters – the loss of Gideon and Fabian. To this day, none of them know that there was ever a plot to stop them; that it never should have gone through.”
Hot tears stung Nora’s eyes, burning against the frigid wind. “And what happened after you took me to the Burrow?”
“The only one still at your house after I got back was Rabastan, who was setting fire to the place. They thought you must be hiding in there somewhere, so they thought a fire would kill you if nothing else did. I asked what happened to Petula, and he told me she was dead. He said they’d found an infant boy, too, and that Alecto had taken off with him. But after Rabastan left and I put out the fire, I found Petula. She was underneath a pile of rubble in the cellar, still breathing. I don’t know how they missed it…I don’t know how she managed to stay alive at all.”
“What did you do with her?”
“I took her to Madam Pomfrey,” he said quietly. “She never asks too many questions, and did her best. She managed to save her, but your mother was never quite right after that…as you well know.” He drew a pause, both of them fixing their gazes on hazy, unfathomable things lightyears away as they stood beneath the stark winter moon. “I thought that the baby Rabastan mentioned would certainly be dead, so I didn’t tell anyone about him; I confess, I didn’t see a reason to mention it. And then soon the Lestranges were caught after torturing the Longbottoms, and then Dolohov was captured as well. They all got sent to Azkaban, and I just…forgot. I forgot about your brother, Lenora. I offer you my sincerest apologies.” He sounded so rigid, as though he expected her to slap him at any moment.
“But Carrow was still out,” Nora commented, barely audible. All this time, she’d been so fixated on Dolohov because he was the one who ultimately murdered Gideon. She’d tried to hunt down Alecto, of course, but after a couple of years the passion had kind of dwindled. And as it turned out, Alecto was running with Nora’s little brother. Alecto had Archer.
Nora wanted to scream.
“And the letter from Rupnik didn’t trigger my memory,” Severus was saying. “Which surprises me. It was right after I killed Desdemona that it all came flooding back.”
Nora’s eyebrows shot up. “You killed her? I thought you were going to leave her for the Death Eaters to find?”
“I wanted to do it myself,” he said roughly. “And I didn’t want any of the others to know I’d been on your side about the whole issue, that I helped threaten information out of her. She had to die.”
Nora shoved her hands in her pockets. She felt empty. “Good.”
“I’m going to find him for you,” Severus promised her.
Nora looked up at him, a peculiar expression clouding her face. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck. “Thank you,” she whispered fervently. “People don’t tell you that enough. They take you for granted. I want you to know that I don’t, Severus, and that I have faith you’ll help me bring Archer home.”
Severus stiffened, but when Nora only tightened her embrace and he felt her quiet tears dampening his robes, he tentatively wrapped his arms around her as well. No one had hugged Severus since his mother when he was a very small child. It felt alien.
The dementors seemed to pick up on his newfound euphoria, because a few of them began drifting nearer. Snape pointed his wand and a silver doe shot out into the darkness, galloping toward the ghastly black creatures and hurtling them backward. “You shouldn’t have come alone,” he told Nora nervously, and she broke away from him to wipe her eyes and nose. She’d never seen him nervous before – he was always so stanch, so unshakable. “The dementors have been sneaking in constantly at night, and they could have gotten you.”
“I’m not alone,” she told him. “Sirius came with me. He’s at Hagrid’s.”
Ice filled Severus’s chest, strangling his thought process. Sirius. Of course. “Well, I’ll walk you back to him.” Sirius would not have been his first choice for someone to escort Nora back to Hogsmeade, but it was better than nothing. And if Severus got lucky, maybe a dementor would recognize Black… The beasts would be so overcome with greed for the escaped convict that Nora would pass right under the radar. Two birds with one stone.
Together they crossed through the frozen pumpkin patch to Hagrid’s hut, the windows of which were now orange with burning light within. And if Nora’s eyes weren’t deceiving her, the curtains rippled as though a person had recently been looking through them. She wondered what Sirius made of the whole exchange between the professor and herself.
Sirius strode out the door, closing it shut behind him and looking irritated. Hagrid’s huge face was now pressed up against the window, watching them walk to the gates. Sirius peered around Nora to gauge dementor activity, his features unsettled and his hand running absently through his hair.
“What’s the matter, Black?” Severus asked in a sneering voice. “Afraid to conjure a Patronus in present company?”
Sirius shot him a scathing glare. Then before Nora could grow too confused, he adopted a relaxed, nonplussed demeanor. “I’ve never been great shakes at Patronuses,” he said airily.
Severus snickered. Lying coward.
When they reached the gates, Sirius took Nora’s hand and led her through. “See you soon, Severus,” Nora called.
Severus merely looked at her, wishing he could say something lovely or poetic that she could keep with her on the walk back to Hogsmeade – words in place of warmth – but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. Sirius would spend the whole journey making fun of him, anyway, and there was no need to make himself more of a target for jokes.
“Don’t forget the Veritaserum,” Sirius told him in a deadpan voice, and then they turned around and began their departure. Severus stared resentfully at Sirius’s retreating back, wanting to curse him and that undeserving hand that held Nora’s. The snow swirling all around Severus had nothing on the coldness inside his heart.
It was Valentine’s Day.
And Nora wasn’t shocked to discover that she felt just a teensy bit of trepidation. After all, there’s only so far planning can take you – and then for the rest, you’re just winging it. So that’s how she felt. She was winging it and as a result, may end the day in a wooden box. Or in a hospital, preferably.
She was wearing Sirius’s phoenix ring on a chain around her neck, and Tonks’s plastic yellow barrette of a plimpy in her hair; she had also donned Arthur Weasley’s purple striped bow tie and had Kingsley Shacklebolt’s favorite two-headed galleon in her pocket. Nora appreciated all of these tokens of luck, but truthfully they only made her consternation worse. After all, it’s not every day that Emmeline Vance slaps you on the back and says, “It’s good to have known you.”
They were all crowded around the square mahogany table in Muriel’s kitchen; Muriel had expressly forbid Mundungus Fletcher’s involvement in the scheme because she didn’t want him nicking any of her stuff, and Severus was not present because he had to maintain the front of being a Death Eater, and it would look bad if Greyback somehow slipped away and repeated that Snape tried to Stun him. So that left Shacklebolt, Moody, Lupin, Tonks, Sirius, Emmeline, Arthur, Hagrid, and Molly to prevent Greyback from ripping Nora to shreds. Nine versus one; which ought to put the odds in their favor. Unless their spells rebounded and he killed her first…
Nora felt like she might vomit. By the time Remus Lupin handed her an old silver pocket watch and told her to stuff it down her sock, she really did vomit. Not that she would ever admit her inner fear to anyone, and she blamed the sausages. Really, it was only a tiny bit of vomit – nothing to fuss about.
Oh, she was going to die today.
“Maybe you should knock Sirius off his feet while you’re still breathing,” Tonks advised. “Just go start snogging him; you may never get another chance.”
But even if she did have half a mind to just start jumping all over Sirius in a wave of passion, Sirius did not look remotely like he wanted to be snogged on this particular day, and he just sat slumped in a chair with his forehead on the table. “He’s a bit peaky,” Molly whispered not-so-quietly, and Sirius groaned. In his opinion, it had been the shortest week of his life. How had it gone by so quickly? It was unnatural.
“Got the bloodstone?” Tonks questioned for the sixteenth time.
Nora nodded, her stomach all wishy-washy.
“Would you like a Chocolate Frog, Nora?” Mad-Eye asked, offering her a Honeydukes box. Mad-Eye Moody, offering her sweets and being all motherly? Oh, yes. Nora was definitely a goner. She glared all around the room.
“I’m surprised no one’s asked me to draw up a will,” she remarked.
“Hush, Lenora,” Molly admonished. “You’re not going to die, don’t be ridiculous.” She then did a double-take, smoothing Nora’s hair. “You do have the bloodstone, don’t you?”
“Ugh.” Nora rolled her eyes. “Let’s go. I’m tired of just sitting here with all of you looking at me like I’m going to explode. You’re making me nervous and I don’t even want to feel nervous! This is Greyback we’re talking about here. His brain is the size of a walnut. If nine witches and wizards can’t manage to keep him from mauling me, then we haven’t ever got a chance of defeating Voldemort.”
Molly gave a yelp at the name, and several people flinched – Hagrid dropped his tea and the china crashed everywhere. Remus sighed. “Honestly, you people…” Remus caught Sirius’s eye and gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Remember not to kill him right away, mate,” he warned. “We need to get into his head first.”
“Hark who’s harping,” Sirius muttered. “You’re the one who’s most likely to lose it and start going Avada Kedavra on his ass.”
Remus followed Sirius’s lingering gaze to Nora. “Somehow I doubt that,” he replied under his breath. Remus himself wasn’t the least bit nervous; in fact, the week had seemed to crawl by very slowly. He’d been impatient for this day to arrive for a very long time.
“Hey, Prewett, if you die can I have your diamond and moonstone necklace?” Tonks teased. “That could fetch a lot of gold, you know.”
“If you swipe my necklace, Nymphadora Tonks, I will haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Nora took a knife from the kitchen drawer and headed to the front door, the rest of them nervously shuffling behind. “Good idea,” Sirius said. “In case nothing else works, a knife might.”
“Oh, that’s not what this is for,” Nora explained, imitating dragging the blade across her wrist. “I’ve got to leave a blood trail, remember?”
“Not necessary,” Molly interrupted, dangling a glass vial of red liquid in front of Sirius, who was gagging at the thought of Nora slicing her own skin open. “I’ve made a donation.”
“You what?” Nora sputtered. “But – why?”
“You’re an Animagus, dear,” Molly replied. “Your blood’s going to smell a bit…off. It might throw him a little, because he probably finds normal human girls to be the most appetizing. He’ll be expecting you to taste like a woman and not like a bird. So…” she gave her niece a small smile.
Nora hugged her aunt. It was the strangest thing Molly had ever done for her, and she greatly appreciated the act of kindness.
Remus took the vial from Molly and began splashing the floor with droplets a few meters apart, leading from the open front door through the open back door, and across the grass into a thicket. Beyond this thicket, Nora would be visible and seemingly alone.
Kingsley checked his watch. “It’s time to go,” he instructed. “If Greyback’s taken the bait, then he’ll probably be arriving soon.”
“I hope so,” Remus replied just as Sirius said, “I hope not.” Nora, armed with her collection of lucky charms, a wand, and a bloodstone, marched across the vast meadow heading toward the hedge of snarled holly. Sirius placed a chair here so that the others could climb over, and then he Vanished it with his wand, turned into a dog, and jumped it like a horse. Nora sauntered parallel to the massive black dog, savoring the breath in her lungs and realizing much too late just how precious life really was. The others were all ahead of them, and it seemed that Sirius slowed his gait on purpose, wanting to fall back for a few seconds alone.
Nora couldn’t help herself – this might be the last time she ever saw him. She reached down and planted a brief peck on the dog’s forehead. It was easier to do that while he was an animal and not gazing at her looking all gorgeous; and she felt better having a somewhat proper goodbye, just in case. Sirius, meanwhile, was considering remaining a dog forever and posing as her pet if it meant she would give him more kisses. If Nora survived today, he bargained, Sirius would come clean about the way he felt about her.
Sirius then morphed into a person, and before he could stop himself he pulled her into a one-armed hug. “Don’t die,” was all he said. Tonks was walking backwards ahead of them, and gave Nora the thumbs-up. Nora rolled her eyes.
“I feel like I’m attending my own funeral march. I’m not going to die, Sirius. And if I’m wrong, let the powers that be draw a fake moustache on me while I’m lying in my coffin. And do remember to dress me in something risqué, just to shock Muriel.”
“Oh, be serious,” Tonks called out to her. “Or I’ll take your word for it.”
“I’m as serious as black!” Nora insisted.
“How can you joke?” Sirius said, exasperated. “I haven’t gotten any sleep all week because of this.”
Nora sighed. “It’s either I make light of the situation or I turn around and run for it because of how dangerous this is. We’re taunting a man who doesn’t even require the full moon to attack people. Please let me delude myself.”
This statement didn’t do much to help Sirius’s nerves, and he nodded tersely at her before splitting off with the rest of the Order. Tonks and Remus were busy climbing trees to get a bird’s-eye view, and Mad-Eye ducked behind a pile of brush about forty feet to her right. This left Nora standing in the middle of the clearing, surrounded by people hidden in trees and feeling utterly alone.
The Aurors and Lupin were so sure that this was going to work. But if it didn’t, what would happen? Perhaps they overestimated Greyback’s interest in Nora. Perhaps he was a thousand kilometers away, sitting in a dark room with Voldemort and plotting how to get into the Department of Mysteries. Nora and the others were all here on a whim, and could easily be wrong. They could easily have set themselves up for disappointment and go home empty-handed, the bottle of Veritaserum still full.
The air seemed to ripple, and Nora felt her skin tingle. It was an unmistakable sign of circulating magic, and the hair on the back of Nora’s neck stood on end. This was it. Nora glanced desperately at the twisting oak tree she knew Sirius was concealed in, and although she could not see him, she felt his eyes on her.
It seemed to Nora that she was tied to a burning pyre, immobile as death moved steadily forward to retrieve her, to drag her down below the earth’s crust into nothingness.
Minutes passed and nothing happened. Nora’s muscles were rigid and tense, but she was ready for this. She wanted this, and she found her body leaning forward subconsciously, her eyes narrowing and her mouth curling into a blood-thirsty leer. She was hungry for revenge; hungry to fool the wolf.
Only one question remained: where the hell was Greyback? There was definitely magical activity buzzing about, but he had not yet surfaced.
Several more minutes ticked by. Nora shifted her stance, eyes darting quizzically around the trees. She could feel their confusion as well, and then Remus dropped out of his tree and landed on the balls of his feet, silent and stealthy. His senses were keener than all of theirs, and Nora wondered what he was feeling when he cocked his head and analyzed the atmosphere. What could he hear that the others could not? His hazel gaze flickered over Nora, and he looked perturbed.
“Something is wrong here.”
His words raised more goosebumps on Nora’s flesh, and she involuntarily edged closer to him. “What’s going on, Remus?” she asked in a low voice.
Sirius hopped down from his tree as well, striding over to the two people crouched low to the ground, painfully anticipating the unpredictable. Nora felt a sea of vulnerability crashing all around her as magical traces once more undulated in the wind. Tonks, strongly uncomfortable with Remus, Nora, and Sirius exposed in the open, jumped down and joined the group. The four of them stood back-to-back in a tight circle, facing outward with tangible wariness. Nora reached into her pocket and wrapped her fingers around the bloodstone.
“Wait…” Sirius spoke into the stillness a moment later. “Do you smell that?”
Remus straightened up. “Yes, it smells like –”
“Smoke!” Tonks yelled, pointing over the grove of trees to giant, billowing black clouds rolling upwards; thick, heavy tendrils of smoke stretching out on all sides as though the sky itself was opening up and a portal to hell shining through. Flashes of electric green shot through the smoke, like lightning in a storm, and Nora gawked in amazement at the scene.
Arthur and Hagrid made it to the thicket’s edge first, and Sirius had to rip Nora from her hypnotized trance, dragging her with him out of the clearing. And when they clambered over the hedge, Nora’s heart plummeted thirty floors.
Muriel’s house was on fire.
Blackened walls were collapsing in on each other, the crumbling roof lying in a heap along the house’s stone foundation. Nora gasped in horror, the cinders licking broad daylight with a greedy luminosity. White-hot heat emanated from the raging inferno that she had once lived in, and no amount of Aguamenti could help it now.
“It’s Fiendfyre,” Moody growled. “We can’t put it out, not at this stage.”
“This wasn’t Greyback,” Remus whispered hoarsely.
Sirius stared at the burning wreckage, his perceptive eyes flashing with awareness. “Malfoy.”
The Order of the Phoenix watched as vivid, towering monsters rose through the flame – dragons of fire – and devoured every inch of Muriel’s home until it was nothing but an expanse of smoldering ash. Molly wasn’t choking on her own sobs because her aunt’s house was destroyed, however. Emmeline Vance had been stationed in Muriel’s attic as a lookout, and the attic was now obsolete.
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