Opening your eyes, you groan and blink, rolling over onto your back. Every part of you aches from the inside out, pain throbbing along your bones, every movement slow and painful. You know, though, that you’re not badly hurt - you haven’t broken or sprained anything - and you’ll be fine soon enough, but that information does little to soothe your temper.
A plant. You were dragged into this… wherever you are, by a plant. It wouldn’t be so bad, you reflect, if you weren’t an Auror. If you weren’t supposed to be good at noticing things, good at reacting to attacks, good at avoiding getting grabbed by the leg by a plant and dragged through a crack in a stone wall. As it is, however, you are only supposed to be all of those things because none of them have materialised so far this day.
The only good thing in this situation is that your wand is somehow still in your hand. Over your knuckles, the skin is stretched so tight it’s white, the bones winking through, your nails digging into your palm so hard you’re almost afraid of unclenching your fist, of seeing the raw half-moons gouged into your flesh by your own hand. You leave it be for the moment, figuring it’ll be good to keep hold of it for now.
Picking yourself up off the ground, you run a hand through your hair, thinking desperately. The question foremost in your mind is what to do next. According to the guidelines you’d memorised right at the beginning of the training course, you should send a message back to Headquarters telling them the situation - where you are, what had happened - and then find a way to complete your mission and get out. It sounds very simple, but perhaps in practise it isn’t going to be quite so easy, you muse, eying both the red-headed woman sitting up and rubbing her head with one hand and the thick, grey wall in front of you, stretching out for as far as the eye can see.
If you’re being honest, you aren’t sure of which one you’re more wary.
The woman glares at you and you find yourself taking a step back without thinking, all the time watching her like a man watches a swaying cobra.
“What are you looking at, boy?” she snaps, standing up. You feel a slight twinge of jealousy when you notice that she doesn’t appear to be hurt at all - she seems perfectly fine, unaffected even after falling twelve feet through the air.
“Nothing?” you suggest somewhat weakly. “I just… I was wondering if you were all right, that’s all.”
She throws you a dirty look that tells you elegantly that she doesn’t believe a word of what just came out of your mouth. Considering it had been a lie, you’re not too bothered. You’re more worried about the wand lying only three feet behind her. She hasn’t seemed to notice it yet, so perhaps, you think hopefully, you’re safe for now.
Swallowing, you decide to keep your mouth shut for now. Your gut instinct tells you that if you keep talking about anything at all - because, really, Merlin knows what would come out of your mouth - you’ll either end up getting hexed or punched, neither of which sound particularly appealing at the present time, especially when you have no idea where you are. Nevertheless, you imagine you’ll need all four limbs to make it back out past the plant alive.
Looking about you for the first time, you notice something strange. The grass is perfectly cut - short and shaven, as though someone had just passed one of those weird grass-eating things your granddad Arthur enthuses about frequently (lawn-munchers? You can’t remember and, somehow, it doesn’t seem particularly important right now) - all about you, a pair of flattened patches signalling where they both landed.
“Where are we?” you ask out loud. It looks like someone’s garden, after all - but who would build a huge, smooth stone wall around a house in the middle of nowhere? Oh Merlin, you hope you haven’t just committed breaking and entering. You’re pretty sure even Uncle Harry wouldn’t be able to get you off that one. It isn’t like you’d have any kind of defence, either. ‘A plant dragged me into it’ doesn’t really fly in a court of law, even in the wizarding world.
The woman shoots you another look, although this one is tinted more with disbelief than disgust, stooping to pick up her wand from the ground.
“Don’t you know anything?” she demands scornfully.
“I know a lot of things,” you retort childishly, stung by the remark. Of course you know lots of things - you’re an Auror, after all. You had to know things to graduate the training course, and you had to know things to even be allowed to turn up on the first day of said course. “I just… don’t know where we are.”
She rolls her eyes, looking over her wand carefully, checking for marks or dents. She’s not even looking at you, but you still catch the movement. It wasn’t as though she tried to make it unnoticeable.
Silence falls. Uncomfortable, stiff and tight, it sucks the oxygen out of the air, making it hard to breathe, drying your lips and your mouth, making you shuffle from side to side. You want to say something - feel that perhaps you should say something - but can’t think of anything. Words flutter about in your mind, but only single words. Sentences escape you.
“Seriously? You’re trying to tell me you have no idea what this place is?” the woman bursts out after a couple of long, excruciating moments, looking up at you with an incredulous, suspicious gaze. Her green eyes stare at you, imperious and demanding.
You stare back, completely baffled. This place… whatever it is, seems to be important to her, somehow. Significant. A beacon, a grail of some kind. In all honesty, you have no idea why. It’s just a lawn encircled by a wall. A very pretty wall, you could argue, but a wall nonetheless.
None of this is making any sense.
“Yes,” you say, emphasising it. “I don’t… I have no idea where we are, why we’re here… Merlin’s sake, I just got dragged through a crack in a wall that was perfectly solid and crack-less seconds before by a plant - a plant - and…” you shrug helplessly. “I’m completely lost.”
For a fleeing second, she looks amused, before it melts into a superior smirk that lingers, smeared with condescension. It’s the kind of look that you hate because it works so well, making you feel inferior and small and utterly, utterly weak. Even though you’re taller than her, you don’t feel it at the moment - you’re not aware of it. All you can see is the smirk. You look away, down at the grass.
She sighs. A short sigh, an irritable sigh. There’s something underneath, though. A current of accepting the inevitable, a current of admitting defeat. All the more surprising, considering who she is and who you are.
“Since you seem to be impossibly dense,” she snaps, a rustle of material making you glance up. She’s crossed her arms and the look she’s giving you is unquestionably serious. Odd. “I’ll tell you - but only if you promise not to go after it yourself, understand?”
“I won’t,” you promise easily, earnestly, truthfully. Inside, you’re curious about what this is now, about what’s going on, where you are, what she’s doing here, what she’s talking about but your natural caution holds you back. Curiosity is dangerous. It can get you killed.
“This,” she says, sweeping her arm in an expansive gesture, turning to one side to indicate the emerald lawn spread out before you, reaching out to the horizon, a fuzzy black line on the very edge the only indication that anything other than grass even grows here. “Is the home of the Fountain of Fair Fortune.”
Shock. That’s it. You can’t feel anything. There’s an urge to laugh bubbling up in your stomach, but it’s shoved back down again when you realise that she’s serious. She really believes - really, truly, with every fibre of her soul believes that this plain lawn is the home of the Fountain of Fair Fortune - a mythical fountain from a book of children’s fairytales.
It’s ridiculous. It’s insane. It’s absolutely, completely unbelievable, and, as much as you want to avoid the possibility of being cursed by a maybe-criminal, you can’t help but blurt out that it’s absurd.
She raises her eyebrows at you, an authoritative air settling on her shoulders, draping over her like a cloak. You imagine if it really was a cloak, it would be a deep, majestic purple, trimmed with gold. Velvet, of course - plush and expensive.
“No, it’s not,” she replies simply.
“Yes, it is,” you insist.
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it’s not!” she almost shouts, her voice raising, pitch and volume spiralling up together. She’s glaring at you again, her cheeks turning red to match her hair. This time, however, she’s holding her wand and you suddenly don’t feel much like an Auror at all. Qualified to duel Dark wizards? You don’t feel qualified to duel a kneazle.
“Okay, okay,” you back down hastily, holding up your hands in defeat, attempting to placate her. It seems to work because her face begins the slow fade back to pale, milky white, the colour broken by a sprinkling of freckles. “So, if this really is the Fountain of Fair Fortune, what do we do now?”
She opens her mouth, words leaping down from her brain to her tongue, eager to leave, before she closes it again.
“I don’t know,” she admits a moment later, frowning. “I think - well, according to the tale by Beedle, we’re supposed to run into a stream soon.”
“A stream?” you repeat, glancing about you somewhat aimlessly, as though hoping a sign would spring up from the ground saying ‘stream this way’ or the sound of running water tap-dancing lightly on your eardrums to lead you there. “I don’t see a stream nearby.”
“Idiot,” she snaps, and you wonder if she has some kind of temper problem. No doubt, you think, that’s why she’s in trouble with the authorities, why they wanted you to follow her. ‘Suspicious activities’ sounds a bit of a feeble excuse to arrest someone. Maybe she hurt someone? Cursed them? Stabbed them? Force-fed them a Potion which turned them into a woodlouse? “We have to go and find the stream. It won’t be far.”
“Oh,” you consider that, before nodding. It makes sense - it wouldn’t really do to make it too easy to get to the fountain, after all. Fairytales never do things the easy way: instead of avoiding the dragon and sneaking in round the back, Prince Charming always has to tackle the beast head-on. “All right, then. Which way do we go?”
Frankly, you want to get going - you’re ready for this, energy flowing through your veins, feeding into your cells, making you bounce slightly on the soles of your feet. You’re eager for the walk, for the adventure ahead. Although you still don’t believe it’s the garden of the Fountain of Fair Fortune, your imagination is full of scenes of you fighting off Acromantula, duelling Dark wizards and facing Dementors and Chimerae and all sorts of deadly creatures along the way. In the back of your mind, though, a small voice reminds you that the sooner you start, the sooner you can finish, leave and attempt to finish your mission somehow.
Adventure is all very well, but not if it causes you to lose your job.
The woman looks around, green eyes running over the scene, taking it all in, scanning the horizon for any hint of a water source - any hint, really, of anything that might help you. You’ll be surprised if she can actually see anything of any use - you couldn’t, when you tried. Just the faint fringe of trees in the far distance, an almost black blur, as though someone’s smudged a painting with their little finger.
“That way,” she decides. “We’ll go that way.”
At first, you stride across the lawn, you and her, blonde and red-head, Auror and criminal, in step with each other, matching each other perfectly. It’s almost like a scene from a story: the bold hero and the beautiful heroine marching off on their quest, ready to face whatever evil might fall into their path.
It’s not really like that, though, since you’re not a hero and have never been called ‘bold’ in your life, while the woman beside you can’t really be put in the ‘beautiful heroine’ category.
She’d be a good contender for ‘wicked stepmother’, you think briefly, before dismissing it. A comment like that is incredibly rude, even if it is only in your head.
You find yourself studying the scenery as you walk, taking it all in. The sky above you is moving, changing, turning with a sigh of wind, clouds buffeted about. Overcast, grey and dull, sunlight pokes through every now and then, long fingers reaching down towards you - extending, stretching, but never actually reaching you, never actually touching you. Instead, it filters out, trickling into the space around, filling the air up with light, so that it doesn’t seem quite so dreary any more. The grass glitters, light pulling the colour out of it, lightening it to a pale green, the colour of apple peel.
It doesn’t rain, though. The clouds loom over you one moment, running away the next, breaking up into white wisps, merging with others, and so the cycle goes. Looming, running, breaking and merging over and over and over again, until you don’t know where they began, where it all began, which is which.
You’re so busy, so fixated on the sky, that you don’t notice the creature dashing across your path until it’s almost too late.
As a flash of brown races from left to right, small and knobbly, knees bent, little feet powering into the ground, you stop. It’s a sharp, jerking movement. Your torso falls forwards, nearly over-balancing you.
A Jarvey chases the gnome, long tail flicking up into the air, claws raking through the grass, a stream of insults pouring of its mouth without pause. It’s gone in less than three seconds, vanishing off after the gnome, cutting a path across the smooth lawn.
You let out a breath you didn’t realise you were holding, feeling your shoulders sag, your heartbeat decreasing bit by bit. Truthfully, it hadn’t occurred to you that creatures might be living here, they might have found this place, wandered in somehow years ago, turning it into a veritable menagerie. Not really, at any rate - not realistically. The sight of the gnome and Jarvey calms your nerves somewhat. They’re hardly dangerous, after all, since the worst either can do is bite and scratch you and neither are poisonous.
Beside you, the woman gives a sigh. When you look at her, you see that one hand is pressed to her chest, her eyes wide with shock. You guess that she didn’t see either creature before you did.
“Are you alright?” you ask, the question hurried, rushed, quiet. You’re surprised your voice didn’t trail away at the end, fading into silence, as so often happens.
She looks at you, and although the glint of surprise in her eyes isn’t new, there’s a distinct lack of hostility, a lack of disdain and superiority.
“I’m fine,” she responds curtly after a moment. “Let’s keep going.”
Once you’ve started walking again, you wait a beat, two beats, three beats, four… before you can lose your confidence, you blurt out, “I’m Louis Weasley.”
The short phrase, barely four words long, hangs in the air like a weight on a string, swaying gently in a slight breeze you can’t feel on your skin. She says nothing; you swallow, awkward now, not sure what to do or say - not sure even if you should.
“Gwenog Jones,” the reply is firm, surprisingly so, but her eyes are fixed ahead, scanning the scene in front of you: the seemingly endless blades of grass, rolling away, flat, void of life.
You knew who she was before she said anything, of course - who could possibly like Quidditch and not have heard of Gwenog Jones? Particularly with your family (including an aunt who worked with her at the Harpies), it would be impossible. You don’t mention this, though, guessing that it wouldn’t enhance her opinion of you, and it seems pretty low already.
Oh well. It’s not as if you’re here because you intended to become friends with her - you’re supposed to be arresting her. Her opinion of you shouldn’t really matter that much (only it does, because, honestly, you want to be liked and accepted, even despite the tricky situation you’re in and the fact that you know it can only end badly if you succeed in your mission).
“So,” you wonder out loud, feeling an inexplicable need to say something. You’ve never been particularly talkative before - but now, now you are. “Why do you want to find the Fountain of Fair Fortune anyway? Everyone knows it doesn’t have any magical powers.”
“Mind your own damn business,” she snaps instantly.
“Right,” nodding quickly, you decide that perhaps that hadn’t been the wisest move. “Sorry.”
Skirting around a small pile of animal droppings buried in the tall grass, you keep tramping forwards, the soft thud your boots make as they hit the ground each time reassuring you, keeping you firmly in this world and firmly aware that this is, surprisingly, real. The sound is familiar; you’ve had these boots for two years now and you’ve got so used to them that even though your maman has complained numerous times that they’re ugly and old and frayed and dying (and, to be fair, they are) you’ve refused to let her throw them away each time. Now she just limits herself to giving the boots the dirtiest look you’ve ever seen every time you wear them - so, essentially, every time she sees you.
They’re comfortable, though, and that’s what’s important. Particularly now, since you’ve been sucked into this… well, wherever you are, with a probably crazy woman who has biceps like your Uncle Charlie.
Yes, familiar and comfortable are definitely top of the list at the moment.
You don’t dare look back as you keep walking. Even though you feel almost as though someone’s watching you - or something, maybe - you don’t turn around. It seems almost wrong to look back; more than that, a part of you is scared that you won’t have moved any distance at all, that you’ll just be marching on the same spot, believing you’re moving but never getting anywhere at all, stuck in this one space forever, until your body disintegrates, your bones crumbling to dust underneath you, joints worn out long before their time by the endless, repetitive motion.
You shiver. You’re scaring yourself, and it’s ridiculous. It’s a relatively pleasant day, the sun battling against the clouds crossing the sky, a gentle breeze brushing past you, rifling through your hair. There’s no way that something that evil could be lurking in somewhere that looks this pretty.
Besides, you think, a little more confidently now: it’s only a fairytale. A story told to children to help them sleep. Fairytales are easy, light and gentle - like marshmallows. You have absolutely nothing to worry about.
When you turn your gaze back towards the approaching forest-line, the band of dark green breaking up, beginning to form trees and bushes, your mouth falls open.
“Is that a house?” you ask, shocked enough that you slow down, almost grinding to a halt, as your brain tries to process the reality that someone actually lives here, in this Merlin-knows-where-and-what-it-is place. A small spark of hope ignites inside you as you realise that when you reach it, you can ask the person who lives there where this place is - what it is, find out if it really is a scene from a fairytale, like Gwenog believes. You can sort out this whole problem for once and for all.
“No, genius, it’s a very large snail,” Gwenog returns sarcastically, and you jump, flushing lightly at both the comment and the scathing look she shoots you. “Of course it’s a house.”
“Can you get snails that big?” you muse, mostly to yourself, pretending you don’t notice that Gwenog’s rolling her eyes at you.
Nothing more is said as you approach the house, the little wooden cabin growing larger and larger in your field of vision. At first, it looked like a brown igloo, almost dome-shaped and squat, barely big enough to allow one person to stand inside; now you can tell it’s more along the lines of a bungalow: rectangular in shape, it’s built entirely of wood, a small stream of smoke rising out of the chimney, almost invisible against the sky. In the window, a pair of faded yellow curtains peek round the edges.
You imagine a girl lives here - young and innocent and naïve, having wandered past by accident, snatched from the clutches of the outside world by the same plant that captured you, lonely and shy.
Picking up the pace, you start towards the house. A hand grabs your arm, holding you back, stopping you from moving any further.
“What are you doing?” Gwenog hisses in your ear.
You look back at her over your shoulder, the muscles in your neck stretching, giving her an expression which suggests the answer to that question is perfectly obvious. And, really, it is.
“Going to the house,” you reply, now pretty much certain she has some kind of anger management problem. Either that or your Veela blood is effecting her in ways it really shouldn’t be, seeing as this is the second time she’s grabbed onto you and not let go.
“Why?” she demands, adjusting her grip on your arm.
“Because they can tell us where we are,” you explain. “And how to find this Fountain thingy you want to get to. They live here - they must know something.”
“Fine,” she relents, releasing your arm finally. Flexing a couple of times, you think you can feel the blood rush back down, filling up the little capillaries in the flesh. “We can talk to whoever, but don’t mention the Fountain. I don’t need other people looking for it.”
With a nod, you tramp over to the front door. The grass around it has been flattened down, a make-shift path formed by the frequent pressure of feet passing back and forth. Lifting your hand, you knock twice on the wood.