Chapter 22 : Achilles' Heel
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Nora pressed one hand against the cold stone wall, feeling her way along in the darkness. She squinted through the cavernous cellar, and was barely able to distinguish the gleaming whites of someone’s eyes. Judging by the height of them, she ventured, “Remus?”
“Are you alright, Nora? How’s your arm?”
She winced, for pain was shooting up her left arm in torrents. “I’ve had worse.” They’d all tried to struggle against the Death Eaters, and definitely ended up shoddier for it. She gazed at the ceiling she couldn’t see. “What do you think they’re going to do with him?”
He found her hand and squeezed it.
“Remus…” Tonks was stirring.
“Dora!” Remus moved frantically away from Nora, stumbling over a figure lying in a heap on the floor. The figure moaned feebly and Remus continued onward, probing with his hands in the darkness until he found the person he was searching for. “Your head’s bleeding,” he said quietly, feeling the wetness in her hair. He wiped the blood from his fingers onto his trousers. “Do you feel like yourself? You may have a concussion.”
“I’m alright, I think,” she mumbled. “How’re the others?”
“Nora and I are relatively fine. They put Cargan and Bill into another room upstairs, trying to separate us so that we’ll panic, I reckon. Diggle’s here, but he doesn’t sound so good.”
“Well, it doesn’t help that you stepped on me,” came a muffled voice. Nora could hear rustling, and the sounds of someone getting to their feet. “Won’t be long and the rest of the Order will come for us.”
“No,” Tonks replied worriedly. “They’ve gone and put up a Fidelius Charm; I could feel it as they brought us in. The last thing I can remember is the distinct sensation of being transported through a Fidelius barrier without being a Secret-Keeper. You may recall feeling like there was a balloon expanding in your stomach – that’s a side effect of the Fidelius trying to resist you.”
“So no one’s going to be able to find us?” Diggle asked, his pitch climbing an octave.
“Not a chance. And Nora…have you tried your Animagus form?”
“There’s no way I can transform into an owl,” Nora lamented, “even though I can’t see how much of a help it would be. With my arm like this, though, I wouldn’t be able to fly.” She gingerly held her left arm with her right one. Malfoy had been just a little rougher than necessary.
“Wait a minute,” Tonks spoke abruptly, and Remus helped her to her feet. “You said Cargan and Bill were separated from us. Then where’s Sirius?”
Nora put her face in her hands, a lump rising in her throat. “They took him,” Remus replied for her, his voice close to breaking. “They wanted him especially.”
Unexpectedly, the cellar door opened and light streamed through. Bill Weasley’s body tumbled down the stairs and the door shut again, cloaking them in darkness once more. “Bill!” Nora cried, and brushed past Tonks to reach her cousin. She patted him, noting that he was clutching at his side. “What’s going on up there? Why’d they throw you down here?”
“Tried –” Bill gritted his teeth in pain. “Ugh. I tried to escape. I almost got through the window, too, when they dragged me back.” His breathing was ragged. “Didn’t come out empty-handed, though.” He reached into his robes and a soft green light emerged. He was holding a jam jar, and inside it was a bright, glow-in-the-dark emerald liquid with several globs of what looked like bat spleens drifting eerily in a circular, tornado-like pattern. “No idea what it is.”
“Then why’d you grab it?” Diggle inquired.
Bill shrugged. “Why not? It could come in useful.”
Nora saw in the diffused light that Tonks had dried blood streaked in her hair and trickling down over her right eyebrow. “Have you seen Sirius?” she asked desperately. “Have you heard him?”
Bill looked uncomfortable. “No.”
Nora bit her lip. Diggle’s face was oddly distorted under the green illumination, his cheekbones jutting out and eyes gaunt in their deep sockets. Tonks glanced from Remus to Bill to Nora, listening hard for any sounds from above. The lack of it was ominous.
Bill sighed. “Anyone got anything on them that can help us escape, by chance?”
“Prongs,” Remus replied softly out of nowhere.
“Come again?” Bill furrowed his brow.
“Prongs.” Remus’s voice was coarse this time. “I said ‘Prongs’.” Nora’s heart pounded, knowing just as Tonks and Diggle did that Bill was supposed to say ‘Stag’.
“What about him?” Bill asked.
There was silence, and Remus lunged at the man. “You are you?” he demanded.
“Are you mad? I’m Bill Weasley!”
“Yeah?” Remus countered viciously. “And what’s your father’s middle name?” When Bill did not answer, Remus growled, “Wherever Bill is at right now, I’ll be damned if he’s not being guarded by at least two Death Eaters. There’s no chance he could nearly escape through a window, or conveniently get his hands on an object that radiates light. You’ve just brought that thing along because you knew it was dark down here and you’re scared that we might overpower you. So I’ll ask again: who the hell are you?”
Bill whipped a wand out of his pocket, pointing it at Remus’s throat. He stood to his feet, tall and powerful. “Back away from me.”
Nora knew she would not get another opportunity. The Bill-person was focused on Remus and didn’t see her, and didn’t have time to stop her from jumping on him from behind and seizing his wand. “Aghh!” he shouted.
Remus clapped a hand over Bill’s mouth. “You’re going to be quiet, or my friend here will kill you. Do you understand?” Bill nodded, eyes wide, and Remus relinquished his hand. “Answer this question: what are they doing to Sirius?”
“Tor-torturing him,” Bill sputtered. “They want to know where Dumbledore is.”
“You’re Peter Pettigrew, aren’t you?” Remus mused quietly. There was no response, and Remus made “tsk tsk” noises with his tongue. “Only you would have sold them out so quickly just to save your own skin.” He paused. “Why did they choose Sirius?”
“He lives at Headquarters,” Pettigrew went on rapidly. “He’s the most likely to know. They planned to give him Veritaserum, but Snape was supposed to bring that yesterday and he hasn’t shown up.”
Nora stared impatiently at the ceiling. She could faintly hear the voice of Bellatrix, but there was no screaming, no thunderous vibrations of people attacking each other. “Torture?” she repeated sharply. “I haven’t heard him.”
“He-he won’t yell,” Pettigrew stammered. Nora had never seen Bill’s eyes so large and fearful – or him trembling, for that matter. “He’s too proud, he just takes it without a sound.”
Nora closed her eyes for a few seconds, a wave of nausea sweeping over her. She passed the wand to Tonks, unsure if she’d be able to react in time if Pettigrew tried anything. She tasted bile burning in the back of her throat, her head swimming with images of Sirius writhing under the Cruciatus Curse. She backed into the wall and slid down to her knees, palpable terror clinging to her. She stuffed her hands over her ears to drown out the horrible silence, a silence that filled her brain with hazy buzzing.
The cellar door opened again, flooding the room with yellow light. Two men moved swiftly down the stairs, their wands pointed. “Stupefy!” Tonks cried. One of them fell tumbling down the remaining few steps and knocked Bill over.
“Expelliarmus!” the other man roared, and the wand in Tonks’s hand was tugged away from her. He examined it closely, and then his eyes narrowed at Bill, who was rubbing his elbow. “You really are worthless, aren’t you, Wormtail?” he said disgustedly. And to Tonks, he replied, “You’ll pay for that.”
Tonks scowled insolently.
The man revived his fellow Death Eater and returned Pettigrew’s wand to him. Wands out, the taller one declared, “Come with us. If you make any sudden movements, I will Petrify you and let you rot down here until you die.”
After a quick exchange of glances, Dedalus, Tonks, Nora, and Remus walked single-file up the narrow stairs. They reached a wide hallway that branched off into a vast, circular room with wood-paneled walls and ceiling and rich burgundy carpet. The stoic wooden furniture had been pushed up against the walls to provide easy access to a high-backed chair in the center, fashioned from green wrought-iron metal. Sirius was occupying this chair, and Nora felt a mixture of gratitude that he was alive and horror because of the state of him.
Ghastly bruises were developing under his left eye and on his cheek, and blood streamed freely from his nose and a slash on his chest. His eyes were worn and emitting dread as the others were herded into the room next to a bewildered Cargan and the real Bill. Sirius briefly met Nora’s gaze and then looked away, face taut.
“Glad you could join us,” a woman with wild black hair and a square jaw crowed. “We’ve been unsuccessful with my blood-traitor cousin so far, but let’s see if we can provide a little motivation to crack your silence…” Sirius watched her with diligently masked loathing, and did not utter a word.
“Now, now, let’s see if you’re rather fond of any of your little mates here,” Bellatrix hissed, creeping behind the troupe of prisoners. “Your oldest friend, the werewolf…”
Remus and Sirius exchanged determined looks that plainly meant neither were going to protest. Dumbledore’s life meant more than either of theirs.
Bellatrix slowly pulled a short knife from where it had been concealed inside her sleeve, lifting it in front of her face for a moment to admire the way the blade’s edge glinted in the chandelier’s light – and then she unexpectedly twisted it into Remus’s thigh. Blood spurted, and Remus clenched his teeth, veins popping out in his forehead while he fought the urge to yell. Bellatrix yanked the knife from his leg and wiped the blood on Diggle’s shirt. Dedalus couldn’t seem to tear his wide eyes from the bloodstain on his clothing.
“Your cousin, Nymphadora Tonks…” Bellatrix slid her wand across her niece’s cheek, eyes bulging with hatred. Sirius’s face was void of emotion. Nora noticed that his fingers curled slightly, indicating the surge of agony from behind his calm pretense. Bellatrix pointed her wand at Tonks and smiled maniacally. Tonks’s body arched backwards in a sickening, unnatural way, and Nora heard several bones pop. Tonks did not shout, but Remus did. Sirius, however, remained quiet.
“Not a family man, I see,” Bellatrix continued without catching his slight reaction, content with dragging out her game of torture. “What if I cast the Cruciatus Curse on little Romeo here? Would that convince you to tell me what I need to know?” Bellatrix grasped Cargan Dearborn around the shoulder and pushed him away from the others.
Cargan, completely confused about what was going on and why they were in Malfoy Manor at all, was stationary as he silently anticipated for his back to arch or for her to stab him in the leg. They all waited, Tonks and Remus collapsing against each other for support, for Cargan to endure Bellatrix’s wrath. Like the others, he tried to be brave and bite back noise, but eventually the invisible stabbings being inflicted upon him proved to be too much and he erupted into shrieks of pain that echoed throughout the enormous mansion. Bellatrix laughed, her eyes dancing. Sirius’s expression did not change; he didn’t even twitch a muscle. Cargan fell to the floor, gasping and sucking hoarsely for oxygen like a fish out of water.
“Cold-blooded, are we?” Bellatrix chortled, piercing Sirius with her heavy-lidded stare. “No reaction even when I’m causing this boy to feel as though someone is repeatedly puncturing his lungs with a knife? My, my, there could be a little bit of Death Eater in you yet.”
“Maybe I do have something to say,” Sirius replied. Everyone turned to stare at him. He smiled impudently at his insanity-stricken captor. “Fuck you, Bellatrix. And fuck your snake-faced master, too. May you procreate with him and give birth to snake babies who will turn around and fucking devour you both.” Nora groaned inwardly.
Sirius looked a lot bloodier after that.
Bellatrix was determined to discover the fault line in his apathy. Bill Weasley didn’t even resist when she screamed, “Levicorpus!” and flung his body across the room, landing perilously close to the fireplace. Pettigrew, who was still identical in appearance to Bill and had been standing in front of the blazing fire, gave a yelp and dashed out of harm’s way. Onward Bellatrix continued, leering at her victims and pointing her wand at Dedalus Diggle, growing impatient and steadily angrier because she forced Diggle to hang upside-down in the air for so long that all the blood pooled in his head and he fainted; and still it garnered no animation from Sirius.
“Try the little blonde one,” Lucius suggested with a knowing gleam in his eyes. Nora wondered why he was pretending not to know who she was, and realized he must have been embarrassed that she’d eluded him at the Ministry. It would not look good for his mates to know he’d been defeated by a girl of Nora’s size and age. At the suggestion of trying ‘the little blonde one’, Sirius’s head snapped up, eyes frozen on Nora’s face. Don’t react, Nora thought, willing the telephatic message to reach Sirius’s head.
Bellatrix glanced fleetingly at Nora without taste, looking merely bored. “Who is she?”
“I think she’s involved with Sirius,” Peter breathed, his eyes beady. “She was practically convulsing when I said he was being tortured.”
“She was with him when we showed up at their little party,” Dolohov mused. “Stood in front of him, in fact.” He chuckled derisively. “As though she could stop us from taking him away.”
Bellatrix’s eyes were lit with a fiery malice. “Protecting the good-for-nothing blood traitor, was she? Let’s see if she will protect him again.”
“No!” Sirius hollered, the calm façade dissipating into rage. Bellatrix looked half-crazed with delight, and she turned blissfully to Nora and said, “Well then! Looks like we’ve found the Achilles’ heel of dear Sirius Black. Tell me, who are you?”
“Didn’t catch your surname there, Nora.”
“Prewett.” Her voice was stiff.
A grin split over Bellatrix’s pale face. “Gideon’s girl! Oh yes, I remember him.” She winked at Nora. “Gave Rodolphus quite the scar. But I got him in the end, you know. Dolohov and I fired curses at precisely the same moment, so I can’t be sure who gets the credit.” She sighed as if this were sad news to her. “He wasn’t that good of a dueler, if you ask me.”
Nora felt anger pulsing through her, but she remained, for all appearances, quite unperturbed.
“Now, Nora, do tell me…would you rather I sat here and spent the next several hours slowly peeling the flesh from darling Sirius or would you like to volunteer a little blood donation from yourself instead, and spare him entirely? Come on poppet, you or him?”
Nora didn’t hesitate. “Me.”
“No!” Sirius shouted again. “No!” He turned to Bellatrix, shaking with ire. “Torture me, kill me. Leave her alone! She knows nothing about where Dumbledore is; she can’t tell you.” Remus was shaking his head and Diggle’s face was tight, both clearly disapproving of the way Sirius was exposing his weaknesses.
“He will tell us himself,” Lucius replied softly. “He won’t be able to stand seeing her in pain.”
“Oh, this is lovely!” Bellatrix clapped her hands with joy. “Move him, Antonin – put him over with the others. I want Prewett in the chair of honor now.”
“No,” Sirius began. “You BITCH –”
“Don’t you dare tell them anything,” Nora threatened him as they passed each other. “No matter what they do to me.” Sirius’s face paled and Lucius threw Nora into the chair. Ropes appeared from nowhere, binding her wrists and ankles to the metal piece of furniture so that she couldn’t move. The ropes were tight and burned her skin – she could already feel the rough texture begin to chafe her arms raw. It would be much worse if she ended up thrashing against it.
“The other prisoners will not be necessary at this point,” Bellatrix said to Narcissa. “Go fetch Greyback and have him make arrangements for them until Snape gets around with the Veritaserum.”
Narcissa looked annoyed at being told what to do in her own house, but huffed away to do as she was instructed. When she returned, Greyback had the expression of a child who’d just been told that Christmas was coming early. Before anyone could stop him, he loped over to where Nora was strapped into her chair, his gangling arms abnormally thick with silver hair. She wrinkled up her nose in repulsion.
“Touch her and I swear your death is mine,” Sirius vowed. Bellatrix merely laughed.
Fenrir leaned in close, his stench like corroded flesh and rust, and pressed his nose to Nora’s neck. “Mmm,” he whispered after pulling away to look in her eyes, and Nora’s stomach heaved to see that his gums were outlined with a black tar, and his slithery tongue was forked. Even when he wasn’t exhaling, she could smell the ripe, rancid breath in his mouth. “You smell delicious.”
Sirius felt light-headed. This could not be happening. “Where the hell’s Snake-Face?” he called out. “Isn’t all this being done on his orders? What, the bloody bastard’s not going to come and wish me a happy birthday?” Nora groaned again.
“Besmirch his name and you will suffer,” Bellatrix snarled.
“Looking forward to it,” Sirius replied loudly.
Bellatrix smiled. “You’ll regret that. The girl will be receiving punishment on your behalf.” Sirius blanched, his eyes wide and incredulous with shock.
Greyback trailed a finger down Nora’s arm, and she shuddered. His nails were long and yellow, with strange horizontal striations in them. He kneeled before her and cupped her face in his hairy hands. “We’re going to have a lot of fun when they’re done with you,” he told her. “Can’t wait ‘til you’ve been given the truth-tellin’ potion so I can get to know you a little better.”
Nora spat on his face.
He slowly raised a finger to wipe at a bead of saliva on his cheek, and inserted it into his mouth, sucking on it. His eyes rolled back into his head for a moment, and his blood-encrusted lips spread into a depraved grin. “You taste delicious, too.” Nora leaned back as far as she was able to in her chair, horrified. Greyback kissed her shoulder – she felt that patch of flesh burning as though she’d been stabbed with a hot poker. “Good, I like them feisty,” he said, and then reluctantly crossed over to perform the duties delegated to him.
“Where do I put ‘em?” he grunted.
“These three,” Bellatrix indicated Cargan, Dedalus, and Bill, “go into the chamber underneath the drawing room. And these two,” she now pointed at Tonks and Remus, “go back into the main cellar.”
“What about ‘im?” Greyback inclined his head toward Sirius.
Bellatrix smiled wickedly, tapping her wand against her chin. “He stays to watch.”
Greyback started to shove the first group along into the hallway, but then he stopped and glanced hesitantly back at Nora. “Leave her clothes intact, if you please,” he addressed Bellatrix. “I like to do the honors m’self.”
And Nora couldn’t even feel terrified for her own sake, because she felt so sorry for Sirius, white and aghast, who looked like he was going to pass out. Lucius Malfoy trained his wand on Nora. “I am going to thoroughly enjoy this.”
“Do you reckon they’re just keeping us alive so that they can question us with Veritaserum later?” Tonks asked Remus, her voice low. Her words sounded somewhat like garbled music to Nora, who was only vaguely aware of them. She and Sirius were sitting across from each other in the cellar, staring at each other as though in a trance. Neither of them had spoken since Nora had finally been released after three hours of torture. Bellatrix told her to expect it all day tomorrow, with a few intervals in between for Sirius to decide whether or not he was going to tell them what they wanted to know. Nora was too exhausted and sore to be frightened – her nerves were fried from all the confused signals of pain that did not have a direct physical source. The Cruciatus Curse.
Sirius wanted to tell the Death Eaters anything they wanted, everything he knew about Dumbledore, to make them stop hurting Nora. But he also knew that as soon as he handed the information over, it would be like issuing death sentences for himself and all his friends. Simply put, none of them were going to make it out of Malfoy Manor alive. They were all going to die here, and the only question was how long it would take for the Death Eaters to get Veritaserum. Their lifespan probably didn’t extend longer than a week, and Nora was destined to die at the hands of a werewolf. Sirius hoped his death would be equally painful, after all he was putting her through.
Remus turned the green-glowing jam jar around and around in his hands. “We thought these were bat spleens, but now I’m not so sure,” he said suddenly, his eyes riveted on the slowly moving globs within the jar. Tonks edged closer to take a look, her face lit up with neon ambiance.
“What do you think they are, then?”
He shook his head. “I probably don’t want to know. It’s nothing that can help us, at any rate. Unless they’re poisonous, in which case maybe we should eat them straightaway.”
“Don’t say that,” Tonks reproached in a hushed tone.
Remus shrugged, emotionless. “Personally, I’d rather die this way than let Bellatrix Lestrange play with me first.”
Nora was only halfway coherent. Somewhere in a far corner of her brain, she was thinking about Sirius; he was the sole member of his family who did not worship the Dark Arts. Everyone before him had been pure-blood fanatics, and somehow Sirius had been sorted into Gryffindor, and somehow he had turned his back on everything his family stood for. He had more than turned his back on it, though – he fought against it with every fiber of his being, risked his life countless times to resist Voldemort’s influence in the wizarding world. And yet, his surname followed him everywhere like a curse. Everyone thought he was just like all the other Blacks, hating Muggles and Muggle-borns and half-bloods, and he had to live with that stigma and carry its weight every day. He had known Bellatrix and Narcissa all his life, had probably played with them as a child. And now he was their prisoner and would probably die by their hand. Sirius was truly the black sheep of the Blacks.
“How’d they get through my mum and dad’s enchantments?” Tonks was wondering aloud.
Remus shrugged again. “Doesn’t matter.”
She scowled at him. “Way to give up.”
His eyes were serious, concerned. “Nymphadora, we’re going to die. You realize that, don’t you? Every single one of us – Dedalus, Bill, Sirius, Nora, Dearborn, you, and me. We’re all just sitting here waiting to hear our execution date. We’re not the first prisoners to be held here and we won’t be the last – this cellar is very likely where Caradoc Dearborn was taken and killed, after all. Our families won’t get our bodies back. No one will ever know exactly what became of us. It’s over.” Tonks looked all around as though searching for the ghost of Caradoc, the ghosts of the many prisoners who had probably wasted away in that cellar over several generations. It truly was an execution waiting room.
“It’s not over,” Nora replied. The other three gave a start.
“It’s not?” Tonks hedged, reaching for hope.
“We’re still alive, aren’t we?”
“Only just,” Sirius murmured from across her, hidden mostly in shadow. Nora pursed her lips and he desperately wanted to tell her how he felt about her, how much she was worth to him. But how could he do that, when it was because of him that she had to endure so much torment from the Death Eaters? Really, it was selfish; he was prolonging their deaths, but at what price? He just couldn’t force himself to give her up yet, to watch her die. And Bellatrix would most certainly make him watch that happen.
Remus swallowed. “If we’re still in here tomorrow night, I’m opening up this jar,” he announced.
“And doing what with it?” Tonks wanted to know.
“Eat it. Die within seconds, hopefully.”
Tonks rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous, Remus. You’re not committing suicide.”
He tilted his head back to look at the ceiling. “It’s better than the fate that awaits me up there,” he replied. “Those people are psychopaths and will drag it out for as long as they can.”
Tonks reached out and grabbed the jar from him, and then sat back against the wall with it. “We’ll think of a way to get out of here,” she told him firmly. “Right, Nora?”
“Right,” Nora commended, slightly breathless. Tonks crawled over and Nora leaned against her friend’s shoulder. They would think of something; they had to.
After a long stretch of time, Nora could feel Tonks’s head drooping in sleep. Sirius and Remus were still wide awake and silent, their eyes shining in the dim light. “I’ve been thinking about something,” she told them quietly. Neither moved, though she knew both were listening. “I’m wondering why they divvied us up the way they did, being specific about who goes where. If you think about it, it would make much more sense for them to separate Sirius and me. They’re pushing for him to crack because of all the hell they’re putting me through, so why aren’t they keeping me locked up somewhere else?” Remus leaned forward, thinking hard. “They should have isolated me so that Sirius wouldn’t know what was happening to me or if I was even still alive. If they think I’m the catalyst for Sirius’s surrender, then keeping my whereabouts mysterious would increase his paranoia and make him more likely to just confess everything.”
“You’re right,” Remus replied. “It was an odd choice to let the four of us stay down here unmonitored, free to plan and discuss.”
“There’s got to be an ulterior motive,” Sirius said aloud. “I was thinking about that myself, actually.”
Remus glanced at the sleeping Tonks, eyes narrowed, and Nora said, “I know what you’re thinking, Remus. And it’s really Tonks, not an impersonator. I don’t think a Death Eater would start crying after seeing my bruises.”
He sat back again, relaxing. “You’re probably right.”
“Perhaps they’re not separating us from Dedalus, Bill, and Cargan,” Sirius stated slowly, his eyes darting back and forth between Remus and Nora. They were wholly black and eerie, the pupils dilated to take in more light. “Maybe they’re separating them from us.”
“What do you mean?” Remus questioned, but Nora was already beginning to understand.
“They’re spares, if you think about it,” Sirius continued. “As cruel as it is to say, they’re not as important as the four of us. We’ve been right in the mix of things: I own the house we use as Headquarters, which they know; Nora has escaped Malfoy at the Ministry, so he’s going to consider her a risk; Tonks here is an Auror; and then you’ve got the werewolf who used to be a Defense Against the Dark Arts professor.”
They were all quiet for a moment.
“And the others…”
Cargan was virtually useless. He was a nobody in the Death Eater’s eyes, and could immediately be discarded. Diggle was older and had been in retirement for a long time before the Order was called back, but even now he wasn’t as active as many of the rest. Bill Weasley worked at Gringotts, which seemed harmless enough, and even though he was a member of the Order, like Diggle, he wasn’t extensively active in it. As Remus had mentioned, these people they were dealing with were psychopaths. They delighted in killing others, and wouldn’t hesitate to get rid of those they considered insignificant.
Sirius cleared his throat. “The Death Eaters know we aren’t going to cooperate very well if we think that our mates have been murdered, so they keep us down here where we know nothing about what’s going on.” He bit his lip. “But that still doesn’t explain why they haven’t split us up. If they were smart, they would stick us all in separate places, and let the worry and unknown eat away at us.”
“That requires several Death Eaters guarding individual people all night,” Remus responded, “as it sounds like they’ve only got the two cellars. Here, they don’t have to worry about us escaping. Or perhaps they’re just really stupid and don’t realize how they could be manipulating the situation in their favor.”
Sirius grunted. “Damn idiot Death Eaters.”
“Don’t let your guard down,” Nora warned. “The minute we have them pinned as stupid, they’ll take us by surprise. We can’t afford to not overestimate them.”
Nora lifted the jam jar out of Tonks’s tight clutch to shine on her watch – it was almost three-fifteen in the morning. Sirius remained motionless and quiet, feeling too sick with himself to talk much. Nora shivered a little; the temperature down in the cellar was dropping, the wall behind her was chilled like ice. She regretted wearing a dress with narrow straps and thin fabric. Although her shiver had been barely detectable, Sirius stripped off his suit jacket and tossed it to her. “Can’t believe I haven’t noticed how cold you must be,” he apologized, gesturing to the jacket. “Put it on, then. Can’t be having you die of pneumonia and deprive our dear friends upstairs of doing the job themselves.”
She smiled sadly. “Stalwart gentleman, right?” But then she sighed and tossed it right back. “I am cold,” she admitted, “but I’m not wearing your jacket. Bellatrix would have a heyday if she saw it and I think me wearing your clothes might just add fuel to the fire.”
“Good call,” Remus said, and threw his jacket at her instead. “This will confuse them.”
Remus’s jacket was warm and it smelled like tea leaves. Sirius didn’t look too pleased about Nora wearing Remus’s clothes instead of his, but he didn’t say anything. Nora smiled sympathetically. “Not much of a birthday,” she told him, “but at least it wasn’t your worst.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“You spent twelve of them in Azkaban,” she explained pointedly.
He looked away. “The dementors of Azkaban have nothing on Fenrir Greyback putting his disgusting hands on you.”
Half an hour passed and Sirius’s eyelids began to droop. She recognized that he was waiting for Nora to fall asleep first before giving himself permission to do so, and she hastily closed her eyes. Tonks gave a light snore beside her and Nora stifled a smile. Mad-Eye would be going out of his mind right now if he knew Tonks had managed to fall asleep in her enemies’ house. He was always saying “Constant Vigilance!” to his protégée, always pushing her to do just a little more than she was capable. Moody’s brain would explode before he allowed himself to succumb to such vulnerability as taking a nap at the Malfoy’s.
In pretending to be asleep, Nora found herself actually starting to drift off into unconsciousness. During the few, lightning-quick seconds of hanging in limbo between sleep and reality – the seconds that no one ever remembers upon waking – she pictured her father’s face in her mind and wondered if she’d be joining him soon. She also hoped to be whisked off into a dream, to spend her time in a refuge of ignorance before dawn approached and she had to be subjected to who-knows-what by Voldemort’s servants again. Even scrounging around in a cupboard in Grimmauld Place while a frightening phantom version of herself hovered nearby would be a slice of heaven in comparison to this very real, very inescapable nightmare.
Did they have a shot at survival?
Nora was reminded of walking home from primary school in Adlebourne, holding her father’s hand and sniffling. Gideon had been quiet during their walk thus far, not even pointing out the spotted fish in a bubbling brook under the bridge. It was a shortcut (at least that’s what Nora called it, just because she always loved skipping over this wooden bridge – in reality, the scenic route tacked an additional seven minutes onto the trip from school to home) that usually accompanied lots of jabbering about her day. It was usually around the point of crossing the brook that Petula would ask Nora if she’d eaten all of her lunch and if she had any homework. Today, however, Petula had gone somewhere and it was Gideon who walked with his daughter. Nora was grateful – her mum would have been bristling with indignation at the sight of her – covered in mud, her dirty face streaked with tears.
She kept her eyes on the ground, feeling like the world had dropped onto her shoulders and she would never be happy again. “He hates me,” Nora finally said in a small voice. She hiccupped.
“This is the boy with the glasses again?” Gideon inquired. The little girl did not look up at him, her somber eyes glued to the grass. She stumbled, the tears in her eyes rendering it difficult to make sense of her steps.
“Yeah. He tells everyone I’m weird.”
Petula would have spun her daughter around right then and there and marched back to the school, threatening the staff and probably ending up hunting down the boy’s parents. Gideon did not do this. He was silent for a long while, and when Nora saw their house looming into view from a block away, her heart sank like an anchor. What would her mum think? The more Petula raised a fit about Nora getting teased at school, the more she was teased. Parents didn’t like being told that their kids were bullies, and more often than not their kids returned to school the next day with more fuel to be mean. A parent ignoring their child’s bullying is a parent granting permission for such behavior.
“Do you ever throw mud at him, too?” Gideon questioned softly.
Would she get into trouble if she answered yes? Nora could not consider lying – she never lied to her father and he never lied to her. It was an unspoken promise. “I tried to, once,” she admitted. “But Pauleen Dorset tied my arms behind my back. She’s a lot bigger than me.”
“Hm.” Her father sounded thoughtful. They were very close to home now, the piney scent of the forest wafting in the air. The neighbor with all the cats was outside rattling a bell to call her horde of animals to supper, dumping an entire bag of cat food right in her driveway. She stopped with the bag upended in mid-air and gaped at Nora, her bifocals dangling crookedly on the tip of her nose while bits of cat food rained down on her mismatched shoes and in her grey beehive hair. Nora felt her face growing hot.
“Do you know who wins the fight, Nora?” her father asked her all of a sudden. They stopped walking and Gideon knelt down to eye-level with her. His clear blue eyes weren’t concerned or angry. They had a certain intensity to them, as though he wanted to convey something very crucial to her.
“The person who’s strongest,” she responded sullenly.
He shook his head. “No. The person who wins the fight is whoever wants to win it the most.” His blue eyes darted all around them, spying for witnesses, and then he tapped his wand on his daughter’s skin, clothing, hair, and shoes. “Tergeo.”
Neither of them told Petula about what had happened at school that day, and the very next afternoon Nora was sent home early, a satisfied smile etched on her face as a bespectacled boy sat crying in the mud behind her. She’d gotten the lecture of a lifetime from her mum (violence doesn’t fix violence!), but Gideon had taken her out for ice cream – four scoops. None of those Muggle children ever bothered her again. They regarded her as odder than ever and were somewhat scared that she might scream at them like a wild animal, waving her arms and pushing them down onto the ground as well. Presently Nora wondered where they all had gotten to nowadays. Some of them might be married by now, with rotten children of their own. She would never be able to imagine the boy with glasses anywhere except for sobbing in that mud puddle.
Good. Some people belong in memories such as those.
Was Sirius ever bullied as a child? She began to conclude that Walburga and Orion would have taught their sons at home for their lower-level education, not wanting to expose them to Muggles; and that once Sirius arrived at Hogwarts he was probably the one to do the bullying, if anything. And then she swiftly recalled that his parents had always bullied him. Her heart seemed to stiffen when she wondered what the little boy with glasses had endured from other people to make him lash out that way. These thoughts merged into a dream about Nora tromping through mud, weaving from wailing little boy to wailing little boy and trying to decipher which one was a six-year-old Sirius. Somewhere off to the side, Gideon was watching her with a proud expression on his face, beaming behind those gingery whiskers.
Tonks dreamed that Remus issued his blessing for Gaspard to propose to her, which deeply affronted her. Sirius did not dream at all. Since entering Azkaban so many years ago, his brain had developed a way to refrain from dreaming when he consciously chose to. It was a defense mechanism to protect him from envisioning dementors and the lifeless bodies of James and Lily in his sleep. Now, it protected him from watching Nora’s suffering all over again.
Remus alone stayed awake all night long, keeping watch over the sleeping three.
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