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Chapter 1 : Dorcas Meadowes and the Sin of Pride
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Author's Note: This is a forty-years-ago prequel to Unwritten and may be considered a slight AU since I am working from my own timeline, but contains no spoilers for that story and may be read independently.
Written for the TGS Summer Lovin' Challenge #2, where the prompt included writing an action scene where the protagonist must overcome a weakness to succeed. Perhaps "overcome" and "succeed" are gray areas in this story.
I've added a few lines to clarify my vision of Minerva's character -- many thanks for your comments in the reviews! Hope you enjoy!
Dorcas Meadowes and the Sin of Pride
Head Girl Dorcas Meadowes hated it when her prefects were late. She itched to check the dainty pearl-faced watch hanging from a thin gold chain around her neck; with supreme self-control, she tucked it down inside her collar. The little watch ticked insistently against her chest, vibrating the fabric of the smooth white blouse she wore underneath her school robes. She could just kill McGonagall.
The trophy room door creaked open. Dorcas stood up abruptly and strode toward the two dark-haired figures approaching through the ranks of polished glass cases. She hadn't called for Tom Riddle, fifth-year Slytherin Prefect. He'd managed to attach himself so tightly to Minerva McGonagall's side over the past few weeks of term, he couldn't be dislodged without a Severing Charm.
Even the girls in the Hufflepuff common room were nattering on about Riddle and McGonagall before Dorcas slipped out. Dorcas had always been vaguely irritated by the younger girl and couldn't put her finger on why -- McGonagall was Chaser on the Gryffindor Quidditch team and quite a star in her year, but Dorcas had gotten over her jealousy of anyone who could sit a broomstick without getting sick to their stomachs. She and McGonagall were both half-bloods, so that didn't have anything to do with it. Before Riddle came along, McGonagall had at least possessed a proper measure of common sense. Canoodling in the corridors with a Slytherin -- even one as admittedly easy on the eyes as Tom Riddle -- betrayed a serious failing in that department. Dorcas wondered whether she ought to take the Head Girl's responsibility in hand and have a talk with the girl, but Dorcas had never been in love: what did she know?
"You've called this meeting terribly late, Meadowes," said Riddle in a cultured drawl, "We were in the library."
"Oh, I just bet you were," muttered Dorcas as McGonagall tucked escaped strands of black hair back into her characteristic long plait. "Exams are over… there's ever so much to do in the library." McGonagall flushed. "Sprout's late. Did you see her?"
"There's a monster loose in the castle and there's a dead third-year in the Great Hall waiting to be delivered home." Riddle draped his arms across the back of an uncomfortable stone bench which would have looked more at home in an outdoor garden than inside a castle. "I'd imagine Pomona has her hands full patting down the sensibilities of some of the more easily frightened… the little Hufflepuffs can't help it." Tom shrugged at his offhand insult to Dorcas's House. "The one we should be looking for is Hagrid."
"Tom," said McGonagall carefully, settling down beside him, "Rubeus is fourteen years old and he cries when he squashes a beetle in Transfiguration. How could he have anything to do with poor Myrtle's death?"
"I've never trusted him. He's got a warped idea of what's safe and what's dangerous; he's probably feeding the monster pablum off a baby spoon." Tom Riddle turned a thin finger toward his companion's cheek. "You've got a little ink on your face. May I?" McGonagall blushed as Tom raised his wand, whispering a cleaning spell. Her eyes closed and her thin white-tipped lashes swept down to her cheekbone.
"On your own time!"
Minerva scooted nervously away from Riddle, whose smug smile resembled the gargoyle facing the entrance to the Prefects' bathroom. Dorcas had always wanted to punch that gargoyle.
"What's your purpose in calling us here?"
"I found something in the loo where Myrtle Renwick died; I need back-up."
Riddle continued to smirk. "Professor Dippet told us to be careful. That bathroom's been sealed till the Aurors finish their investigation."
"I don’t want to wait for them! All the evidence will be gone by the time they're through."
Tom Riddle flicked his dark forelock out of his eyes with a negligent hand. "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard."
"You're out of line, Riddle," Dorcas snapped.
"No, you're out of line." Riddle got up and paced around the room. Even through her fury, Dorcas noticed how McGonagall instinctively swiveled her body to mirror his movements. Merlin, what was wrong with the girl? "I'll have to go to Professor Dippet myself if you go through with this. He's said any one of us prefects should feel free to come to him individually at any time if we see anything suspicious."
"Fine. Go tell him everything. Do you think that will really help? Or do you want to put a stop to this bloodshed once and for all?"
Tom seemed to consider her words. "I want Hogwarts to be peaceful."
That wasn't exactly the answer Dorcas was looking for, but it was good enough to go on with. "Tom, I need you to break the Ministry wards on the door." Tom Riddle laughed. It was the sort of laugh that would have been infectious coming from another boy his age, but it had the opposite effect on both girls – even on Minerva McGonagall, who carried a torch for Riddle so bright, she could barely see past it. Minerva's nervous eyes glanced back and forth from Riddle to Dorcas. "Yes, I heard you were good at that… I do talk to Slughorn once in a while, you know. Let's go."
"I'll need Mulciber. He's the best at cloaking and concealment. It's a very exposed location, Meadowes. It's right in the middle of everything, it's practically on Professor Merrythought's doorstep."
"Mulciber's not a Prefect."
"I can't do it without him." Riddle softened his eyes. "Please, Meadowes. I want to help you."
Dorcas relented; even though Tom Riddle acting cute couldn't sway her, she knew they had very little time to operate before the evidence was gone. "Obviously Mulciber's going to have to keep his mouth shut."
"He'll do whatever I ask," said Riddle confidently.
They picked up Mulciber outside the Slytherin common room. Her fellow seventh-year followed too close behind her up the stairs. Dorcas had to restrain herself from using a shocking jinx on Mulciber's roaming hand to avoid making too much noise.
The door to the girls' bathroom was bound over with yellow Securotape crisscrossed in an elaborate pattern. Mulciber released a Disillusionment Charm that turned Minerva the exact colors of the tapestry behind her and a glamour that gave himself the semblance of the statue of Gregory the Smarmy. "You're good," Dorcas mouthed. Mulciber smirked. It was too bad his marks weren't better with talent like that.
"We're going in," she said. "Minerva, you're look-out. Mulciber, you're in charge of keeping things quiet. The signal's a barred owl hoot. Two calls and we're coming out."
Minerva nodded and held her wand ready. Riddle stopped by to confer with her. She leaned forward and kissed his cheek, whispering something that made him chuckle. He glanced over his shoulder at Dorcas and raised his wand to work on the Securotape.
Nervously, Dorcas watched Riddle work. She hoped she knew what she was doing in engaging his dubious help to get into the murder scene. He whispered a few spells, but half of them were non-verbal: they weren't even supposed to learn non-verbal magic till sixth year, but Riddle had clearly picked up the basics somewhere. She shouldn't be envious of a Slytherin. The tradeoffs weren't worth it.
At last, the Securotape floated up and away without setting off the shrieking, flashing alarm that was its hallmark. Riddle waved loosely at the canary-colored web. Mulciber cast another glamour, floating the false wards over the door. When they went inside Myrtle's bathroom, no one but Mulciber and McGonagall would know where they were.
The girls' bathroom smelled like a backed-up toilet. Dorcas covered her nose with her left hand and held her wand aloft with the right. All the candles had melted to nothing; no one had replaced them since the Aurors had sealed the area. Riddle and Dorcas lit their wands. They checked each bathroom stall and found nothing unusual except some poorly rhymed poetry scratched on the wall, speculating on Professor Dumbledore's romantic preference. In front of the row of cracked sinks, the Aurors had drawn a magical outline of Myrtle's stubby form. The outline glowed in faint orange, radiating up from the floor like poison. Even the dead girl's short pigtails were visible; the Aurors had been very thorough.
Dorcas's insides roiled with guilt. "I'm as responsible for this mess as anyone else."
"You're not, Meadowes. Bad things happen in this world… look, what's this?" Riddle grasped the hot water knob on the sink opposite the door. "There's some sort of carving on it… Come closer and look at it."
Dorcas moved cautiously toward the pillar of sandstone sinks in the center of the bathroom. Suddenly, both their wand lights went out as if someone had cast a nonverbal Nox. The bathroom was as dark as the inside of a dragon's stomach. "Riddle!" she snapped. "Get behind me! Show yourself!" she commanded the unknown presence. "I'm Head Girl!"
Something scrabbled out of the corner, its claws scraping hard on the chipped tile floor. Dorcas couldn't see a thing but she felt the creature's presence in the room, its life force vibrating with rage. Panic pushed acid up from her stomach and into the back of her throat. Her hands and thighs shook palpably with the pounding of each heartbeat. "Lumos!" she cried. It didn't work. She repeated the spell to no avail.
"Tom, try and light your wand!"
"It's not the wands, Meadowes! It's blinded us!"
"No!" Dorcas batted uselessly at her face, knocking her silver, oval-framed spectacles to the floor. Staggering backward, she felt her sturdy heel crushing the lens into powder on the tile floor.
The creature let fly with a cry like the sound of a coney's death scream at the end of the hunt.
"I think it's a reticulated fantail!"
"The call is very distinctive… they're related to the chimaera… Extremely venomous!"
"I've never heard of them!"
"They've heard of us!"
Dorcas fired her wand toward the source of the sound. "Stupefy!" The creature lurched forward, its breath coming hard with a thick, syrupy sound behind it like her grandmother's asthma. "Incarcerous! Arresto momentum!" Dorcas panted and backed up with quick, shuffling steps. Her shoulder blades pressed up against Tom Riddle's, and she could feel his breath coming as rapidly as her own.
"They can't be Stunned," panted Riddle, "We're going to have to knock it out. On three, the bathroom stalls. One…. Two… Three… Reducto!"
"Deprimo!" Dorcas added her spell to Riddle's. A booming explosion shook the room. Dorcas didn't realize she could see again until stone dust obscured her vision and she had to bring her hand to her face to wipe her eyes. "It worked!" Dorcas rushed over to the pile of fallen wooden planks. There was no unconscious monster lying underneath. Suspicion grew in Dorcas's mind. "Tom? There's nothing here."
His answer was too glib. "They disappear whenever they're injured badly enough. Whatever it was, it's gone."
Dorcas wasn't at all satisfied with Riddle's answer. She'd never heard of a reticulated fantail, but she had to admit to herself that she sometimes nodded off in Care of Magical Creatures; on the whole, she was impatient with animals. Dorcas ran a little water into her palm from one of the working sinks and bathed her eyes, shaking the excess into the sink. "Come look, this is what I wanted to investigate."
Riddle and Dorcas bent to examine the taps on the sink directly opposite the door. The taps were made of a soft metal, soft enough to have had something etched into the dull surface spotted with years of hard-water stains. If Dorcas squinted at it, it could almost be the outline of a snake.
"It's almost as if… The Chamber of Secrets," she suddenly realized. "It's a snake, Slytherin's symbol… This bathroom has something to do with the Chamber!"
Tom Riddle inclined his head as if conceding a superior move in a game of wizard's chess. "You're a credit to your education… It's a pity…"
"Tom!" said Minerva, rushing to his side through the flung-open bathroom door. Her arms wrapped around his waist and she buried her face in his upright shoulder. "We heard the most horrible sound! We thought you were dead!"
Tom Riddle pressed his lips against Minerva's smooth black hair. Over the other girl's black-robed shoulder, Dorcas saw the reflection of his dark eyes in the mirror: they were as impassive as ever, betraying no emotion at the embrace. "We had a visitor… it's gone now."
"Do you think it was the monster?"
"It's too dangerous," said Tom, "We have to get you back to your dormitory. Don't worry – I'll escort her."
"Thanks for your help," said Dorcas in a clipped voice.
"Any time, Meadowes."
Mulciber's scarpered, noted Dorcas, surveying the empty second-floor corridor leading down to Professor Merrythought's office. She would have to reset the crime scene and figure out how to reattach the Securotape herself before going to bed. Perhaps she could talk the Fat Friar into helping: the Hufflepuff house ghost had an excellent memory for security spells, and he was the least likely to turn her in to Professor Dippet.
Dorcas squatted down on the floor, feeling around in the dust for her broken glasses. "Reparo," she muttered. She couldn't find her grandmother's watch anywhere – her mother would kill her when term ended. My own ridiculous pride got me into this situation, and I'll have to get myself out. What was Riddle about to say right before McGonagall came in?
Tom Riddle pushed something golden and shining down into the deepest part of his robe pocket. "What's that?" asked McGonagall, peering curiously down at his thin white hand.
"Nothing," he said. "Don't worry about anything."
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