Chapter 11 : Irons in the Fire
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Scorpius rubbed his eyes as he descended the steps into the Slytherin common room, and peered blearily at Selena Rourke. ‘I cannot believe you’re doing your hair.’
She stood in front of the enchanted glass giving the deep, gloomy view of the lake that cast its emerald sheen across the whole of the room, her hands picking delicately at hairpins. ‘There is absolutely no reason for standards to drop, Scorpius.’
‘The school’s quarantined with an illness incapacitating almost everyone. This is the exact reason for standards to drop. Who the hell is around to see you?’
She gave a superior little snort. ‘It’s no wonder you feel so, Scorpius,’ she cooed, ‘with your hair like that.’
His hands came up reflexively. ‘Wait - what’s wrong with my hair?’
‘See? You do care.’ With a flick she snapped her little hand-mirror shut. ‘You’ve crossed the threshold, my dear, from “rumpled” to “just got out of bed”.’
‘That’d be because I just got out of bed.’ But still Scorpius’s fingers were in his hair, fighting to flatten the worst of the wild golden curls.
‘It’s nine in the morning. Everyone’s normally up by eight.’
‘Again, see how there’s nothing to do,’ said Scorpius with a scowl. ‘Even the House Elves do their work silently. Or, silently enough.’
‘Oh, yes.’ Her face lit up. ‘Did you meet the foreman, Harley? He’s such a dear, doing all this for everyone who’s suffering, and he was kind enough to bring me a cup of tea in bed when I asked. It’s so sweet.’
Considering how abusive Harley had been the night before, all Scorpius could do in response was work his jaw with wordless outrage, but Selena continued, wrinkling her perfect nose. ‘Though I would rather not be sleeping in there. It’s so...’ Her voice trailed off, and she waved a hand vaguely.
‘Creepy as all hell to lie in a dorm with sick people? Distressing to roll over and see Oakes sweating and tossing and turning?’
‘I was going to say distracting; Boyce is so noisy...’
Scorpius closed his mouth. ‘Noisy. She’s infected with a horrendous illness and you’re calling her noisy -’
‘Oh, don’t be like that, Scorpius,’ Selena squeaked indignantly. ‘Of course I’m worried, Miranda and Abena are my best friends, but there’s nothing really I can do about it!’
He frowned, watching her, eyes studying every inch of the smooth skin of her face. ‘That’s why you got up early to fuss about how you look,’ he concluded. ‘So you didn’t have to sit in the dorm-room with them.’
She gave a genteel snort and began examining her nails. ‘As if I’m going to give Weasley the satisfaction of any clue I’m letting this get to me half as much as she’s letting it get to her - did you see her hair yesterday?’
‘She’d been up half the night and working in the Infirmary...’ Selena looked at him as though he’d grown a second head, and the words died in Scorpius’ mouth as he realised he’d actually been defending Rose Weasley. He cleared his throat noisily. ‘Anyway, she had a good idea last night - that maybe we could move into some of the guest rooms on the staff floor so we don’t have to lie in these depressing dorm-rooms...’
Selena tossed her head with the dismissiveness Scorpius recognised as a grudging acceptance this was a good idea. ‘Hmph. Perhaps. If Lockett will let us.’
‘Lockett’s all right.’
‘Professor Lockett doesn’t have a bloody clue what’s going on or what she’s doing. She’s a jumped-up researcher, Scorpius, you know this. She’s wildly unqualified to manage the school, manage us, manage a crisis. She should barely even be a teacher -’
‘But she is,’ said Scorpius, surprising himself with the stern tone in his voice. ‘And she’s got a better clue than any of us. We’re just going to have to live with it, Selena. With her, and with Weasley, and with Jones, until we get through this.’
She sniffed. ‘It doesn’t mean I have to pander to their whims.’
He folded his arms across his chest. ‘Anyway, I thought you liked Jones?’
‘What, because he was my best option for company in the Forest?’
‘Oh, yeah, I forgot,’ said Scorpius sarcastically. ‘Miranda’s marching orders meant you couldn’t talk to me.’ He felt guilty, briefly, as his old, familiar surge of venom towards Miranda mingled with the recollection of her blood on his shoes.
‘Really, Scorpius. As if I ignored you. I was the only one who didn’t,’ Selena pointed out. ‘Miranda’s my friend but she doesn’t dictate who I do and don’t talk to. We just happen to agree most of the time and did it ever possibly occur to you that I know exactly what she’s like?’
Silence hung in the air between them, taut and uncertain, and Scorpius again searched her expression for clues. But there was very little hint behind Selena’s indignation, and he couldn’t tell if she really didn’t know anything in particular - just broad strokes that nobody, really, was an innocent - or if Selena Rourke was a much better liar, and much smarter and more observant than he’d ever taken her for.
‘I didn’t talk to you in the Forest,’ she said, turning back to her mirror before he could reach a conclusion, ‘because you were sulking, and so was Albus, over whatever silly little spat you boys had. And I know what you’re like and it makes you surly and unpleasant, and Albus untalkative and judgemental. So my options were you two, Weasley, or Methuselah Jones. And if you ask Methuselah Jones to talk about something he wants to talk about, you might be bored beyond belief but at least someone’s talking to you.’
‘You were all clingy,’ Scorpius accused weakly.
Selena went back to arranging her hair. ‘He’s tall.’
The stone doorway to the common room scraping open made them both jump, but it was just Albus, burly form taking the steps two at a time. He was breathing hard, a flash of excitement in his eyes. ‘You’d better come quick,’ he panted, ‘to the Great Hall.’
Scorpius straightened. ‘Breakfast?’
Albus frowned. ‘What? Do you think I get this excited about breakfast, Scorp?’
‘Sometimes. What is it?’
He shook his head. ‘You’d better come see for yourself. Both of you. But I think someone’s trying to make contact.’
Selena made a small noise of protest at the notion of running, but she still scurried along with them as Albus lumbered back up the stairs and Scorpius loped after him. They weren’t far from the Great Hall, but were still the last there, Rose, Jones, and Professor Lockett having likely already been there from a more hospitable hour. They stood in a small cluster in the centre of the Hall, the long tables having been pushed to the walls, and in the middle of them hovered a small, flickering, silvery light.
Scorpius came to a stop next to Rose, squinting. ‘What is it?’
‘Not dark magic,’ said Jones before Rose could speak. ‘Began a few minutes ago. Keeps changing shape. Hints of words making through.’
‘And we’re just, what, hoping it’s good guys?’
‘So far there are no indications, Malfoy, that there are “bad guys”,’ said Lockett with, Scorpius thought, entirely unnecessary optimism as she frowned at the silver spark, her wand in hand. ‘This is likely some sort of effort from the Ministry to communicate.’
‘Besides,’ said Rose, her eyes locked on it with an entranced look on her face, ‘it feels... right.’
‘Feels right? That doesn’t sound very precise, Weasley -’
‘Do you have something useful to contribute, Malfoy, or -’
They all jumped as the spark suddenly expanded, swirling outwards before shifting, changing, and growing before it took a form, a very distinct and precise, albeit ghostly, form, small and hovering in mid-air.
Scorpius coughed. ‘It’s an otter.’
Jones quirked an eyebrow. ‘A patronus.’
Rose’s jaw dropped as she looked at the animal. ‘Mum?’
‘...this should be working. Is it working? Can you hear me?’ Scorpius was faced with the very disconcerting sensation of looking at an otter speak and sound familiar - not just for recognisably talking with the voice and mannerisms of Hermione Granger, but also for just how she reminded him of her daughter.
‘Oh, Mum told me about this, they used patronuses in the war to send messages securely,’ said Rose, her eyes lighting up. ‘It’s only one way and I don’t know to do it back -’
‘I can hear you, dear, I’ve had twenty-five years to perfect this spell in case anything ever happened,’ said the otter with a mixture of her daughter’s superiority and fond, happy reassurance.
‘What,’ said Scorpius dubiously, ‘you perfected a massive variation upon an already ridiculously advanced form of magic just in case?’
Hermione Granger’s patronus regarded him as if the question itself were pointless. ‘Well, yes, of course, Mister Malfoy.’
Scorpius winced. ‘Unless you’re a teacher, “Mister Malfoy” is what my father gets called.’
‘Really.’ The patronus sniffed. ‘I have other names for him. But I digress.’ It twirled in the air, shining with the glowing, silver light, to focus on Rose. ‘You’re well, dear? You’re on your feet. And Hugo...?’
‘He’s ill, Mum,’ said Rose, looking rather small, and Albus stepped up next to her and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘They’re all... stable, but they’re ill, we’re the only ones who’re uninfected, and we don’t know why...’
‘We do sort of know why,’ Scorpius mumbled.
‘We’ll get to that,’ said Hermione’s patronus, before it spun in the air to look at Lockett. ‘Professor. You can confirm that this is, in fact, it? The only people upright?’
‘I’m afraid so,’ said Professor Lockett with a frown. ‘Everyone is accounted for and presently stable, but incapacitated - too weak to be anywhere but in bed, the illness seems to, above all, sap the afflicted’s energy. We have the House Elves keeping them under supervision and caring for them, so far, thanks to your daughter’s efforts.’
Rose coughed demurely. ‘Malfoy helped.’
‘It was my idea!’ Scorpius protested.
‘That’s superb,’ said Hermione’s patronus, clearly caring more about the result than the credit. ‘The Ministry has put together a task force specifically to deal with this problem, which I have assumed command of.’ Scorpius privately wondered if this appointment had been made by the Minister or by herself, if the woman’s reputation was anything to go by. ‘We’ll be responsible for maintaining the quarantine, shipping in supplies where possible and working day and night to find a cure for this.’
‘I assume we have a means for getting in supplies which isn’t owls,’ said Lockett.
‘Some simple transfiguration of crates which we get to the quarantine line. Once they’re on school grounds you can recover them, so be sure to contact us when you have need of anything.’
‘How’re we supposed to get in touch?’ asked Lockett.
‘I will be making contact with you here, every morning, at nine o’ clock sharp. I was only late today because I still had to perfect the process through Hogwarts’ wards,’ said Hermione’s patronus, the otter looking a little defensive. ‘Though we will have to further analyse the illness before we can determine how it’s transmitted, and so if Floo or owls will be safe to use.’
‘So if we need to raise the alarm suddenly, we’re still shit out of luck,’ said Scorpius eloquently.
‘What’s happened to the Lillyvick portrait?’
‘It’s in Professor Stubbs’ office,’ said Lockett with a sigh. ‘And he’s been unconscious for the past day, and nobody knows his password.’
‘We shall have to work on alternatives,’ said Hermione’s patronus. ‘Unless any of you have had any success at conjuring a patronus.’
Methuselah Jones shook his head with rather unnecessary sharpness, but everyone else’s eyes landed on Professor Lockett, who seemed to shrink even smaller at the expectant looks. She coughed into her hand. ‘I’m a potioneer, not an Auror,’ she said defensively.
Rose looked like she might be about to press the point, but Scorpius saw a rather tense knotting of Lockett’s brow, and piped up quickly. ‘But speaking of patronuses, the Forest is still going crazy, Ms Granger.’
The otter cocked its head at him. ‘Define “crazy”, Scorpius?’
It was peculiar for a voice which sounded so much like Rose’s to be calling him by his first name. ‘Well, I - Jones, and me, and - and Hugo - we went out there. There’s got to be a reason it’s the six of us who’re unaffected, and there’s got to be an explanation for that explosion in the Forest the night before this all started. We were out there. That’s a link.’
Hermione’s patronus looked thoughtful. ‘I shall have the Ministry send me the report Professor Stubbs owled over on Saturday morning; I’ve not been examining those links. What did you find in the Forest?’
‘Darkness,’ said Scorpius ominously.
‘And Dementors,’ offered Jones, more helpfully. ‘Several.’
‘As if they were drawn there?’
Jones shook his head quickly. ‘As if they were breeding there.’
Selena made a face. ‘Ew. How do those things breed?’
‘They don’t breed, per se,’ said Hermione’s patronus. ‘In places of great darkness, death, and suffering, they... grow, manifest. Like fungus. But I’m sure we would have noticed such a place in such proximity to Hogwarts.’
‘It was the same place that flash happened - and no, it didn’t look like that Friday night,’ said Scorpius. ‘It’s changed, Ms Granger, and it’s pretty bloody horrible.’
‘These do all sound linked,’ Hermione’s patronus agreed, before turning to Lockett. ‘Professor, have you reached any further conclusions on the nature of the illness? We only have what Professor Stubbs last communicated to us, which were the initial symptoms.’
Lockett reached into her robes and pulled out a rather tidy scroll. ‘I’ve been going through Madam Pheasey’s notes and making some of my own,’ she said, at last sounding like an authoritative voice. ‘Madam Pheasey managed to witness approximately the first twelve hours of infection. The time frame between the first person and the last person to be afflicted displaying symptoms has been no more than twenty-four hours, assuming the six of us to be clean. You know about the light-headedness, nausea, and vomiting of blood. These are followed up by extreme fatigue and weariness, and often a fever, leaving the afflicted uncomfortable and bed-ridden. Some are lapsing into unconsciousness, others we have been trying to keep unconscious for their own comfort if the fevers are particularly virulent. The House Elves are keeping them supervised in case of change, fed, and cared for.’
Then she began to reel her way through the further details of the symptoms, the particulars, and Scorpius tried to not think about it. He’d stopped by the Slytherin second year boys’ room on his way down that morning, looked in on the thin, pale, young face of little Tim Warwick, and had wondered if what he felt looking at him was even a tenth of what Albus or Rose felt looking at Lily or Hugo. Because just that tenth was bad enough.
‘We shall get to work doing our own analysis and going through records,’ said Hermione’s patronus when Lockett was finished. ‘Perhaps we can find some past reference to anything matching this. Certainly this is a magical illness; the only question arises as to if this is something that’s naturally manifested -’
‘It’s not a question,’ Scorpius blurted out, then reddened as all eyes turned on him, not having meant to speak. But indignation rose. ‘It’s not. There were people in the clearing on Friday, I saw them. And now that exact place is a breeding pit for Dementors. Someone intended this, someone planned this. We have to think about more than just reacting; we have to act.’
Scorpius had never seen an otter look dubious before, but now he did - until Albus stepped up and nodded. ‘He’s right,’ he said, and Scorpius felt a rush of gratitude - and yet resentment, that he might not have been listened to without the support of the son of Harry Potter. ‘If someone intended it, they intended it for a reason. Is this an attack on Hogwarts, and if so, why? We have to try to figure this out and anticipate their next move. Are they going to come for us?’
‘We can put security at the perimeter of the quarantine,’ said Hermione’s patronus. ‘And send what messengers we can to contact the centaurs and see what, if anything, they know.’
‘I warn you that at least one of the major herds has been spotted close enough to Hogwarts grounds as to be in the quarantine zone,’ said Lockett. ‘You might not have much luck.’
‘We’ll do what we can. I suggest you make the security of the grounds one of your priorities, along with caring for the afflicted and studying the illness. I know you have a lot of experience with this sort of thing, Professor...’
Lockett looked stricken. ‘I have experience developing potions; my specialisation is in augmentative, not medical -’
‘And yet you developed some of the most major restorative draughts used to cure Dark Magic wounds in the last quarter-century.’
She swallowed. ‘That was a long time ago.’
‘And this is now,’ said Hermione’s patronus sternly. ‘Other than Madam Pheasey herself you are the most qualified Hogwarts Professor to be dealing with this situation. Perhaps more so with your background in research versus her specialisation in immediate care. You know what I’m thinking.’
‘If it’s been inflicted by a magical ritual then potions are only going to be of so much use; I can probably cook up something to combat the symptoms but without undoing the magic of the ritual they’re unlikely to provide an actual cure, and we don’t know anything about the ritual,’ Lockett said, looking thoroughly rattled. ‘That the ritual site has since become a breeding ground for Dementors would indicate that this was thoroughly Dark Magic used, and Dark Magic that’s afflicting the infected...’
Hermione’s patronus cocked its head and gave a ghost of a smile. ‘And there you said you didn’t have the appropriate experience.’
‘My draughts were for wounds, not curses -’
‘You know as well as I do that when it comes to Dark Magic, curing the physical affliction is the easy part. And you never specialised in the easy part of anything.’ The patronus straightened, regarding them all. ‘I will continue to update you on our research and our security; do the same for us in turn and I’m confident that the task force will be able to bring this situation to an end. You’re all, each of you, brave and capable and you should know the thoughts of the whole of the wizarding world are with you.’
Lockett was pale, but she gave a shaky nod. ‘Thank you, Ms Granger.’
‘Now, I don’t suppose I could have the privacy of a word with my daughter and nephew before I let you get back to work?’
Scorpius, Lockett, Selena and Methuselah left the gathering to go to the high table, where breakfast was laid out and which Scorpius and Selena set about without a great deal of enthusiasm. Methuselah had immediately engaged Professor Lockett with queries as to their next plan and the research process, most of which spun wildly over his head.
Scorpius picked at his scrambled eggs, magically kept heated, and although the House Elves were back to producing their usual fine fare for the still-conscious denizens of Hogwarts, he found his appetite to have faded as he looked across the Great Hall towards Albus, Rose, and her mother’s patronus.
Even from this distance he could see the tension in Albus’s shoulders, the waning strength in Rose, even the body language, of all things, of the ghostly otter before them. Then Albus put his arm around Rose in a brief, tight hug, and it was a long time before she pulled away, standing straight again, strong and defiant as he ever saw her to be.
The patronus winked out, and it seemed to take Albus and Rose a long time to walk back up to the high table.
‘...Jones and I were just saying, Weasley,’ said Lockett as they came up, clearly able to read the expressions on their faces suggesting they’d much rather just get down to work. ‘We need to confirm absolutely that the nature of this illness is Dark Magic.’
‘I don’t get,’ said Scorpius, letting his scrambled eggs tumble off his fork, ‘how it could be anything but. I mean, do you get non-evil plagues?’
‘Well, quite, like you get hexes and then you get Dark Magic curses,’ said Selena, and everyone looked at her with sudden surprise. ‘The difference between, say, harmful hexes and full on Dark Magic is actually rather simple: Dark Magic interferes with the natural order of things on a fundamental level, just by the way it works. What?’
Rose closed her dropped jaw. ‘How did you know that?’
Selena sniffed and began scraping butter across toast. ‘Oh, I see. I’m just supposed to be the prettiest one, not the smart one, not next to you and Jones with your high marks, or Albus learning things off his hero-father, or Scorpius being all witty -’
Rose’s expression didn’t change. ‘No, seriously.’
Selena’s brow furrowed. ‘You’re not the only one with family in the MLE Department, Weasley. Four of my ancestors have been in charge of it. Oh, I try to not listen when everything gets dreadfully dull around the dinner table at Christmas and they talk shop, but sometimes things will fall into my head despite themselves.’
‘Despite themselves.’ Rose’s lips twitched.
‘Anyway,’ said Albus hurriedly, and looked down at Lockett and Methuselah. ‘You can do some spells, right, to try to detect if there’s Dark Magic?’
‘It’s not easy,’ said Lockett, ‘but it’s a start. From there I can begin cooking up some mild doses of the various draughts to combat different kinds of Dark Magic affliction. I wasn’t lying when I said I’m more used to dealing with physical injuries, but your mother’s right, Weasley, Dark Magic is something which afflicts the soul as much as the body.’
‘So you think one of your potions can cure it?’ said Scorpius hopefully.
‘I doubt it’ll be that easy,’ said Lockett. ‘But I developed different potions to deal with different things. If we pick a selection of students and administer these low doses, we can see how that interacts with their symptoms. From there we can narrow down which directions to take.’
‘Testing?’ Rose wrinkled her nose. ‘Is that safe?’
‘No other way to know for sure,’ said Methuselah, who was twirling his fork thoughtfully as if it were a quill in class. ‘Several groups, multiple students subjected to the same dosage. Control group included. Must have as wide an array of test subjects as possible as to confirm the same results occurring for the same reason. Likely best to have a variety of students in each group - age, House, gender -’
‘That doesn’t actually answer my question, Jones,’ said Rose.
‘It’ll be safe,’ said Lockett. ‘Nobody will be subjected to more than one dose, and the doses will be mild; we’re not trying to cure anything out of the gate, we’re trying to see what makes a dent to point us in the right direction. We have the student records for any noted allergies or magical resistances, we’ll bear those in mind. Few people suffer because they’re unnecessarily given a rejuvenative draught.
‘The issue,’ she continued, leaning forward, ‘is going to be the brewing. A lot of these draughts require more esoteric reagents than your standard first year class’s needs. These potions are complicated and they will require time and ingredients. The latter of which we are much reduced on after a certain prank.’
Scorpius made a face. ‘In my defence, I didn’t know the apocalypse was going to come down on our heads.’
‘We’ll overcome it,’ said Lockett with a sigh. ‘Here’s what we’ll do: I’m going to start going through my own records and putting together a priority list of the potions that are most likely to have an effect and are easy to brew. Jones, I want you to hit the Library and start looking for options outside of my old research which might have an impact. Weasley, do a stock-check on all of our ingredients, and put together a priority list on what we don’t have that we need. Run anything by the Herbology greenhouses to see what we can farm from there.’
‘The Forest is still right on our doorstep,’ said Albus, ‘and is still a great resource for harvesting ingredients.’
‘And is possibly highly dangerous right now with the Dementors also on our doorstep. That’s your job, Potter. We don’t have access to the headmaster’s office, which is unfortunately from where most of the security wards of the school are controlled. But you get to be responsible for making sure we are as safe and secure as possible.’
‘Me?’ Albus gaped. ‘You’re the professor -’
‘I’m a potioneer,’ said Lockett. ‘And that’s where I’ll be doing my best work. I assure you I know very little more than you on the subject of Hogwarts’ defences; you’ll have unlimited access to the Library, including the Restricted Section, to find out what you need to.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Someone is going to need to liaise with the House Elves; to make sure they’re reporting to us daily on the condition of the students.’
Scorpius opened and shut his mouth, remembering his less-than-successful run-ins with Foreman Harley, and Selena perked up. ‘I can do that,’ she beamed. ‘Harley is such a dear, I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to me. I’ll also ask if he can spare any Elves to keep the Herbology greenhouses in order if they’re growing anything we need.’
‘Good idea, Rourke,’ said Lockett approvingly, and Scorpius thought his head was going to explode as the teacher got to her feet. ‘I think we all have a lot of work ahead of us -’
‘Wait, wait. What do I do?’ said Scorpius plaintively.
Lockett looked over at him, hesitating, before she said, ‘Work with Potter.’
But it couldn’t have been clearer that all she was actually saying was ‘stay out of the way.’
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