Pickwick Hornby walked through the corridors, down three flights of stairs, exited the stairwell and popped into the lift for the remaining descent to the M.O.M’s Atrium and its golden fireplaces. His hands shook with violent tremors, his brow was slicked with beads of perspiration, and his stomach felt close to the tipping point. One should be surprised, he thought, to see the Great Hornby thus affected at the prospect of his days’ work, the Great Hornby who had met face to face with Father Time, had wrangled lions of stone back into their hellholes single handedly, had traveled to the core of the earth for samples for use in wand healing medicine, had been head of the reconstruction team after Harry Potter and his band of misfits had destroyed the lobby back in 1995.
Nevertheless, tremble Pickwick Hornby did.
Harry Potter lifted a white, dusty-knuckled hand to the knocker on Professor Longbottom’s office door. The mirror in his temporary flat had explained without qualm the state of his appearance and had likened the bags under his eyes to shriveled kippers with particular relish earlier this morning. He hadn’t had time to explain to a looking glass
that he hadn’t gotten too much sleep throughout the night, especially since it should have known that anyway--was
in the room the whole time, wasn’t it?--but he found himself not for the first time envious of Ginny’s magically large store of restorative potions in the house at Godric’s Hollow. If today had been any ordinary occasion, he should have stayed there and apparated into Hogsmeade, but--and Ginny had understood--it wasn’t an ordinary day. As he waited, bouncing on the balls of his feet, for Neville to answer the door--he’d be there, surely, they’d made a plan and he was good for plans--he smiled, thinking of Hermione’s reaction when Ron would say, and he would have to eventually, Oh, yes, dear, I just sent our son into the Third Realm. But don’t worry, he’d had a bit of Ministry training prior.
More than likely, though, she’d sniff them out the moment Hugo set foot in the Ministry of Magic. He had a knack for garnering attention and his mother was so sharply attuned to it that, Harry realised, with the feeling of a stone sinking to his bowels, they were fated to her wrath on certain terms.
The door creaked and Harry jumped but smiled at Neville, whose head was peeking through the small opening. Harry realised it was cold, his hands were numb. He noticed too that Neville was looking pale, there were bags under his
eyes that could rival shriveled kipper any day.
“Peaky?” Neville asked, opening the door wider, seeming for the first time to understand it was Harry who stood at his office door so early in the morning, looking as though he’d gotten no sleep the night before.
“Rather,” Harry said, stepping inside, past Neville, past the small hutch filled with pulsing, neon-coloured plants with sticky tongues leaving films on the inside glass, through a small corridor into a mid-sized sitting room completely with fireplace, poufs and armchairs, the Gryffindor common room in miniature. Harry knew Neville was slated to take over as Head of House when Hagrid retired, which was soon. He shook his head. At the Ministry, and being--well, and being Harry Potter
, there’s no other way to say it--word got round before word was even uttered.
Neville clattered with pots and pans behind Harry in the kitchen over a small counter where the stove was. Neville had inherited the stove from Pomona Sprout, Harry knew, though why
he bothered to keep it was rather a mystery, as was the question concerning its origins. It looked quite honestly like something Arthur Weasley may have salvaged and repurposed for Wizardkind. You had to prod at the burners with your wand to get it to go, at any rate, and that sparked of the Weasley touch.
“Ready to send your best and brightest into the Third Realm?” Neville asked, and Harry turned round to see his brows raised, somewhat sardonic.
“Don’t tell me you’re nervous,
” Harry said, a laugh ripping from his throat. He cleared this a second later, as Neville’s whiteness did not abate and his smile hovered, then wavered.
“I don’t know much about other realms than this,” Neville said. “I expect Marjie would, but I’m no expert. I only know this--we could have killed the Acromantulas, and we could have killed the nymphs if we needed to. And that seems now ages ago. When we’re in the Third Realm, what we’ll encounter, if I understand right, is already dead.”
Ron wasn’t sure if he was more nervous to send Hugo into the afterlife or to sit through Hermione’s reaction to this news.
An owl floating along to the Owlrey one crisp, cold Autumn morning may have looked to the grounds to see below it a trail of mismatched people in motley assemble snaking their way through the grass and leaves to Greenhouse Seven, and if she had looked she would have noticed with some confusion the leader of this pack, whose curly unkempt hair and sparkling green eyes could be seen even at this distance and correctly interpreted to be full of some preternatural zeal for unknown tasks ahead. But you must understand that to an owl the concerns of human- and hugokind are not concerns shared, and she drifted with the morning breeze into the open window of the dropping-splattered tower.
“The greeting has assembled,” Hugo announced as he swaggered into Greenhouse Seven leading the troupe of early-morning wizards and witches.
“Meeting,” said Rose sleepily, patting her brother on the shoulder and sitting down at a potting bench in the front of the greenhouse before shutting her eyes and going quite still. The rest of the group assembled quietly, with several tired, early-morning grunts and shuffles, hardly lifting their feet off the soiled ground as they branched off and took their places at the benches they’d inhabited the night before.
“Heeting,” Hugo said, looking thoughtful. “Leeting, jeeting, seeting, feeting, reeting, weeting--”
“Hugo!” This was Marjie, standing at Uncle Percy’s elbow. Ghost Cedric was wide awake and buzzing in circles around Uncle Percy’s head. Each time Percy swatted at him as though he could be brushed aside as easily as a bothersome fly he withdrew his hand and winced at the coldness. Hugo knew how that felt, as though your very hand had been placed into the mouth of a dementor or worse, into the frozen carrots at Christmas before dinner while Nan was cooking to weed out the ones that had gotten shriveled. Hugo had always been secretly convinced, though, that the problem with the carrots was not that any of them had shriveled but that all of them had been turned to stone and nobody seemed to care.
“Good morning, Agents,” Harry Potter said, and the mill of bodies and voices quieted to listen to their leader. “Whose idea was it to meet at seven, anyway? Bloody awful.”
“Yers,” Ron muttered from a bench besides Aunt Muriel, who straightened up and bellowed,
“It was Harry’s idea to meet at--”
“What? Is that speak of maths? You young lot and your numbers! Give it a rest
Meanwhile, Hugo noticed Ghost Cedric looking at Aunt Muriel, source of the early-morning screeching, with the same glance that had propelled him into a punch-out with a suit of armour.
“Rest is good! Rest is great! And we’re glad we do not hate,” Hugo shouted, with a very pointed and obvious glower in Cedric’s direction. Cedric immediately looked sheepish and folded his hands in his ghost lap, settling down one table over. Hugo wondered in a burst of strange lucidity if after emerging from the Afterlife everyone present would also have a temper. Should he have been even more lucid he should also have wondered about the childish mannerisms and the superego which when kicked into high gear went overboard. Though not as much, he may have thought to himself, as a house elf’s.
The Minister for Magic gave a large groan as a blast of cold breeze shook the greenhouse walls and the hanging plants rattled, one of them letting out a large blast of fire and a roar.
“Maybe you should allot more tax dollars to the scholastic institutions of this fine country,” Marjie said in a sharp whisper into the M.F.M’s ear, but of course, everyone heard.
Uncle Harry cleared his throat. “You’ll notice that assembled at the forefront of the Greenhouse we have Pickwick Hornby, who will be managing the A Team, and Atticus Mangle, editor in chief of the Daily Prophet,
who will be managing--well, I’d say our first task team but really, he’s just going to be working with Flitwick, mainly. And, oh, Muriel, once you’ve gotten Olympe and Von Brautwurst on board.”
Hugo was sure, he could have sworn, that when he had marched into Greenhouse Seven bright and early on this yonder morn, he himself had felt the picture of confidence. Now, looking about him, both to the right and left (for Hugo was quite an observer and knew that both directions counted), he felt this confidence fizzle out of him with an unfamiliar pang. He thought he was very close to meditation by the time he had figured out, with a sinking feeling, what it was bothering him so about the selection of personages surrounding him: all older, perhaps wiser, and most certainly some of them were trained. He felt himself slump into his seat and began to pull up his coat around his face. If Hugo could say he had mastered anything since the Yule Ball fifth year, alas, it could not have been subtlety--Marjie noticed him pulling up his collar from two people over and reached behind their heads to give Hugo’s a proper bean. He lurched forward, choking on some vagrant spittle.
“Right ho!” said a small man at the forefront of the room, who looked very cold, he was shaking so. Hugo glanced around him at the panels in the greenhouse walls, then down at his own hands, clamped together in mittens. Perhaps he wasn’t entirely unsuited for the task ahead, he thought to himself, as he had been the one to have the presence of mind to wear mittens, and a Ministry official had not. Hugo perked up a bit and shuffled in his seat. The bench creaked loudly.
“Right ho!” the man said again.
“Wrong ho!” Ghost Cedric boomed, looking perilously close to zooming forward to strangle the speech out of little Mister Pickwick Hornby. Hugo heard the Minister for Magic sigh deeply before whispering,
“Cedric, I will not have you behaving in this way.”
“Sorry, Father,” Ghost Cedric whispered back, looking quite sheepish. Steam was rising around his form, and he settled back down to hover over his spot on the potting bench, looking sulky.
Hugo watched as Pickwick Hornby launched into his introduction speech, but listened to the Minister for Magic instead, who leaned towards Marjie on his other side and whispered, sounding downtrodden, “I’m so unused to all this scolding business! Heavens help me.”
“...training with me and my next-in-command,” Pickwick Hornby was saying. “She was unable to make it out of the Department this morning, what with all the preparations we’ve been working on all night to prepare for your crash-course.” He nodded and rocked back and forth on his feet, his hands clasped behind his back. “Right, so, if the A team will come with me, right this way, we’ve got a shuttle to the Ministry waiting.”
The greenhouse was quiet except for the shuffling of the tentacles of a very pink plant climbing up the back wall. Hugo turned to keep an eye on it as Harry Potter cleared his throat.
“That’s you,” he said, and Hugo turned to see his uncle’s glasses pointed at him, his green eyes bright and hopeful. When Hugo was a child he’d often thought he’d gotten his green eyes from Uncle Harry, though later he met Grandad Granger whose eyes were the colour of the lamb’s ears in Mum’s garden. Uncle Harry’s were more of the colour of grass.
“Hugo?” This was Ron’s voice. Hugo turned to him. “You going, then?”
“Oh,” Hugo said, and then realized everybody in the room was staring at him. Had he more perception, he should have realised that only a certain percentage of these were knowing looks: those from Uncle Harry, his father, Flitwick, Scorpius and Professor Longbottom. He might even have noticed those pointed at him in suspicion, and not for the first time: Marjie, Rose, the Minister for Magic. But he didn’t have that, and what he did notice was the eyes pointed in his direction for a reason other than another victory in a Quidditch match; his fingers began to itch to pull his jumper over his face, but a look from Ghost Cedric put him at rest. There was no need to provoke unwanted violence.
“A team, assemble, please,” Harry Potter said when he realised that Hugo might not understand the role he was meant to take; and besides, it might have been better this way. There was still much training to be had before Hugo would be armed to lead the team into the Afterlife, the Third Realm.
“A team consisting of: Hugo Weasley,” Harry said, resisting the urge to roll his eyes, a habit for which he was quite sure he could blame Hermione. He nodded at his nephew as Hugo went to stand by Pickwick Hornby, effectively dwarfing him. “Marjorie Barrows, Rose Weasley, Scorpius Malfoy, Professor Longbottom, and--Cedric Diggory.” Harry watched as the team lined up and, with a strange burst of pride, he smiled at them brightly. Hugo returned it in a knee-jerk reaction, his eyes crinkling into his skin to the point of disappearing, save a few faint sparkles. Cedric looked extremely pleased and buzzed back and forth along the line, a silver blur, and cold, if he happened to pass through you on his way.
“Mr Hornby,” said Harry Potter, looking at the man with a fond sort of sympathy, something which the man himself did not fail to note with extreme apprehension. “Thank you,” he said, and then, with a bright and nearly wicked smile, as Auntie Muriel began to snore on her golden chair and Percy Weasley cleared his throat, straightened the badge on his robes-- “and, good luck.”
a/n: you guys. you guys guys guys. i am SO SO SORRY that i took so long to update. things shouldn't take so long from this point out, because I needed to get through the transition and now that's done i have more notes for the next book :)