Chapter 10 : Ten
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Dominique Weasley stood in the doorway of Victoire’s old bedroom at Shell Cottage, wearing a bathrobe over her silk nightgown. Dominique’s long, strawberry-blonde hair was tousled, but her eyes were bright.
“Just woke up,” said Victoire, although she had been sitting in bed all night, awake.
“Right,” said Dominique. “Well, happy Christmas! Louis is here! Come down and say hi.”
Victoire put on her old slippers and followed Dominique downstairs, wearing a pair of flannel pajamas leftover from her teenage years. When Louis, the youngest of the Weasley siblings, had grown too large to sleep in a cradle, Victoire had volunteered to move to the attic so that baby Louis could have her bedroom. She had offered up her room happily, not out of pure generosity, but because she loved the attic. It was a bit small and dusty, but it was worth it for the view of the ocean.
As the new Head of the Auror Office, Lance’s first act had been to send Victoire on a holiday. After putting up several days’ protest, Victoire had finally caved. She hated to abandon her assignment, and she didn’t believe that any number of weeks with her family would be enough to cure her insomnia – but she could tell that Lance would never send her back into the field unless she pretended to cooperate with him. Making Lance promise to keep her updated on the case, she had (as Diana Wade) written a letter to Rimmon explaining that her father had fallen ill and she had to return to the United States, and packed up for a quiet stay at Shell Cottage.
The quiet was turning out to be more poisonous than the bustle of Lance’s flat, which had replaced Dunmore’s kitchen as the rendezvous point of the entire Auror Office. In the days after Macario’s death, Victoire had rarely been at home. Work was a perfect distraction from the smell of burning flesh that constantly lingered at the edges of her memory. Here at Shell Cottage, there was nothing to distract her except for the occasional letter from Lance, who had come through on his promise of keeping Victoire filled in. At Victoire’s suggestion, Lance had sent some people to question realtors and shopkeepers alike about any large sales that had occurred directly after the Gringotts break-in. However, either because the shopkeepers were intimidated or because the Underworld agents had been discreet in their spending, the search had yielded nothing.
Lance had seen no point in arresting Rimmon Astoreth on charges of murder. Rimmon had been convicted of murder several times before, but – whether by buying out Wizengamot members or by tampering with evidence – had always been acquitted. Besides, in order to testify against Rimmon, Victoire would have needed to give up her undercover identity, something that she wasn’t prepared to do yet.
Victoire walked into the kitchen and found herself suddenly engulfed by a pair of thick arms and a very muscular chest.
“Hello, Louis,” she said, hugging her brother. “I can’t believe you got even bigger.”
Louis laughed, letting go of Dominique. He stood about half a foot taller than Victoire, and easily twice as wide as her. Louis was pure muscle, but he still somehow managed to look innocent and sweet, with large blue eyes, a goofy grin, and hair that was more yellow than blond.
“Happy Christmas, Vic,” said Louis.
Over breakfast, Victoire caught up with Louis, who had been working for Gringotts ever since he left Hogwarts. He had followed in his father’s footsteps, quickly becoming a respected curse-breaker, and had been to just about every ancient magical site that existed, from the ruins of the Yellow River civilizations to the cave-cities high in the Andes Mountains.
“What about you?” he asked, looking utterly ridiculous as he picked up a tiny spoon in his enormous fingers. “Have you been involved in that Underworld case the Prophet keeps going on about?”
Victoire almost dropped her teacup. “Yeah, I am.”
“Well, I bet that’s just about as interesting as any cursed mummy,” said Louis. “I s’pose that’s what’s been keeping you so busy? Dom’s always complaining about how you stand-up the dates she sets up for you.”
Victoire snorted. “Even if I weren’t busy, I’d stand them up.”
“What?” said Dominique, tearing her eyes away from her fiancé, Lorcan, for the first time since they had sat down for breakfast. “I’ve always tried to set you up with good-looking, respectable, young–”
“-toshpots,” Victoire finished the sentence for her sister, and turned back to Louis. “What about you, have you met anyone?”
“Er, sort of,” said Louis, with a meaningful look, “I’ll tell you about it later.”
Victoire nodded, taking this to mean that Louis had yet to come out to the rest of the family. One day during the summer after Victoire’s fifth year at Hogwarts, Louis had marched up the stairs to Victoire’s attic-bedroom with a determined look on his face, and confessed to her that he had an enormous crush on Elijah Smith, a Hufflepuff in his year. Victoire had sometimes wondered why Louis felt unable to confide in the rest of his family, but she had never asked him about it. If he didn’t feel ready, she figured, it was his own business.
Victoire took a large bite of omelet, ignoring her mother’s frown. So what if her table manners weren’t what they had once been?
Seconds later, she nearly choked on the piece of omelet when a loud voice issued from the sitting room.
“Excuse me,” the voice was saying, “but is there anybody there? Is this Shell Cottage?”
“That’s for me,” said Victoire, recognizing the voice immediately. She could feel the curious stares on her back as she slipped into the sitting room and approached the fireplace, where Lance’s head was sitting among the leaping flames. Victoire could hardly remember how Lance’s face looked without the dark circles that had become permanent fixtures underneath his eyes.
“Good morning,” she said warily. “I don’t suppose you just dropped by to wish me a happy Christmas?”
“Unfortunately not,” said Lance, coughing on a mouthful of ashes. “Would you mind if I popped over? I didn’t think it would be polite to walk straight into the house, as I’ve never met your parents before. But I really do need to talk to you.”
“Oh – yeah, of course,” said Victoire, stepping back from the fire. Lance’s head nodded briskly and disappeared from the fire. Then, a few moments later, it returned along with the rest of his body. Victoire crossed her arms self-consciously over her body, suddenly remembering that she was wearing a rather ill-fitting pair of pajamas. Lance was wearing a typical set of plain black robes. Victoire deduced that he was spending his Christmas morning with his work, as usual, and found herself wondering whether Lance had any family to spend the holidays with.
“Right,” said Lance, stepping out of the fire, “is there anywhere private where we can talk?”
“We can go up to my bedroom…” said Victorie hesitantly, “if you don’t mind meeting my family along the way.”
“I’d love to,” said Lance.
“Clearly, you don’t understand what meeting my family entails,” muttered Victoire, leading Lance back into the smallish but cheerful kitchen. “Everyone, this is Lance. If you’ll excuse me, we’ve got some things to–”
The rest of Victoire’s words were lost as her mother and sister all but leapt out of their chairs to kiss Lance’s cheek. Louis, Lorcan, and Mr. Weasley followed, shaking Lance’s hand jovially, while Mrs. Weasley tried to talk him into sitting down and having an omelet. Victoire blushed, feeling a lot like she’d felt when she had made the mistake of introducing her mother to her first boyfriend, back in her fifth year at Hogwarts. It was odd, seeing Lance here. He was a token of her Auror life – and he didn’t quite fit, standing here in the kitchen of Victoire’s childhood home.
“Oh, so this is Lance?” said Dominique, shooting Victoire a meaningful look. Victoire fought a groan as she remembered that she had once told Dominique that she had feelings for Lance, to get her to shut up about Teddy. “You’re definitely as handsome as Victoire always says.”
“Did you really tell them I’m handsome?” said Lance twenty minutes later, stepping through Victoire’s bedroom door.
Victoire, who had changed into some more suitable attire, scowled. “They’re just desperate to get me married.”
Lance chuckled. “My mum’s the same way. She always tells me I’ll never find a woman if I stay married to my job.”
Victoire smiled, feeling slightly fidgety as Lance glanced around her bedroom. She silently cursed herself for not having taken him to Louis’s instead – Louis had taken all his possessions with him when he’d moved out of Shell Cottage, and as a result, his bedroom was completely empty of any potentially humiliating artifacts. Victoire, on the other hand, had left it all behind. Her walls were still covered in Quidditch posters, and jars of collected seashells littered every available surface.
“The Chudley Cannons?” said Lance, inspecting one of the posters. “I always thought you’d have to be mental to support them.”
“It runs in the family,” said Victoire, sitting down on her – embarrassingly, unmade – bed. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”
Lance cleared his throat, suddenly businesslike. “I’m sure you’ve been reading my letters – so you’ll know that we still haven’t caught any of the five Ministry workers whose homes we searched. They’ve all vanished into thin air. I’m planning to send a team of two or three Aurors to Germany to question Farrah Dawkins’ ex-husband about her whereabouts, and I was hoping you’d lead them. Only if you think you’re up to it, of course.”
“Are you serious?” Victoire scrambled back off the bed. “When do you want me to go?”
“See, that’s the only problem,” said Lance, scratching his chin, which Victoire noticed was uncharacteristically unshaven. The scruff made him look even older and more worn. “We don’t want to give Mr. Holtzapfel any time to disappear like his wife did. I was hoping to send you off tomorrow.”
“I’ll start packing,” said Victoire, grabbing a pile of robes out of her closet and stuffing them into her trunk. Her head was racing and she loved it. It had been weeks since she had felt so full of purpose – and that lack of purpose, combined with the ghost of Macario, had been driving her mad.
“I thought it would be a good way to ease you back into the case,” said Lance, walking over to the window and staring out of it. “You know, as it’s not directly related to Lupin or Astoreth. The Prophet was right – it was far too dangerous, sending an Auror into that kind of setting without any real information. It wasn’t Dunmore’s fault, though. The undercover operation was my bloody idea in the first place.”
Victoire looked up from her trunk, blinking.
Lance always seemed so stoic. Even on the morning after Macario’s death, when Victorie had been falling to pieces on Lance’s bathroom floor, he had kept his head and fixed her some tea. Somehow it had never occurred to Victoire that Lance might be feeling just as miserable as she was.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she said quietly.
Lance didn’t turn around.
“I know,” he said dully. “But it doesn’t make me feel any better.”
Victoire knew exactly what he meant. She approached Lance cautiously, coming to stand beside him in the small square of light on the floor. She looked up at him, taking in the tired eyes and the strong jaw and the muscular, but tired, shoulders.
“Maybe you’re the one who needs a vacation,” said Victoire, putting a hand one of those shoulders.
“I can’t,” said Lance. “Not until I’ve seen Rimmon Astoreth locked up in a cell in Azkaban.”
“All right, then.” Macario glanced at Victoire with a hint of a question in his eyes. Then he turned and followed Rimmon back behind the bar and into the kitchen. As the door swung shut, Victoire could see the flames leaping inside – the whole kitchen was on fire.
“Macario!” she tried to jump up but she was chained to her chair. Now the whole pub was filling up with a thick, dense smoke that made Victoire cough and splutter. She struggled against her restraints, but her struggle sent the chair toppling over and she fell with it, and as she lay on the floor choking, she could hear Macario moaning, and Teddy talking about the weather.
Victoire woke up in a cold sweat, with the smell of smoke in her nose.
She forced herself out of bed, stumbled across the hotel room, and pulled open the curtains around the single, square window. Outside, it was morning. Muggles dashed through the street on their way to work, newspapers tucked under their arms, phones against their ears.
Victoire stared down at them, knotting her fingers into her hair. She felt a bit dazed and slow in the aftermath of the sleeping potion she had taken several hours ago. Back at Shell Cottage, she had gone off the potion, opting to spend her nights sitting awake in her bedroom rather than choking on the floor of The Vine and the Veela. But now that she was going back into the field, she knew that she would need as much energy as she could get – even if it meant suffering through eight hours of sleep.
Victoire had left for Munich in a rush, pausing only to say a quick goodbye to the Weasley family, stop by the flat and explain things to Lorelei, and visit Diagon Alley for a long-overdue haircut. Victoire’s long, honey-blonde hair had been sliced off at her chin. The new, short style would be much more practical in a dueling situation – though it was taking some getting used to.
She twisted her hair in her fingers and stared at the Muggles below, trying not to remember the dream.
Someone knocked on the door, and Victoire spun around.
“It’s Adamina and Ian!” said an energetic voice on the other side of the door. “Are you ready to go?”
“I thought I’d be hearing from you sooner or later,” said Horst Holtzapfel, grudgingly allowing the three Aurors into his home.
Holtzapfel’s flat was hardly less luxurious than his ex-wife’s, though it had a different feel to it. The walls were decorated with large, cubist paintings rather than medieval tapestries, and cubes of various sizes floated through the air, giving off a soft, bluish light. The flat was in a stylish building in a small, all-Wizarding section of Munich.
“You must be aware that we’re here to question you about your ex-wife, Farrah Dawkins,” said Victoire, taking the seat offered to her in Holtzapfel’s lounge room.
“Yes, of course,” said Holtzapfel gruffly. “But before we get around to all that fun, would you care for a drink?”
“I’d kill for one,” said Ian happily. Victoire shot him a glare.
“Wonderful,” said Holtzapfel, who was a rather short man with blond hair that stuck up from his head in a style that was entirely inappropriate for his age. He walked over to the bar at the corner of the room. “I got a bottle of spiced mead for Christmas that I’ve been dying to open.”
“Sounds perfect,” said Ian, lounging in his chair with his hands behind his head. Victoire felt a twinge of annoyance. Ian looked far too comfortable, considering he was sitting in the home of a possible suspect. If he didn’t grow up soon and learn to stop letting his guard down every time he was offered a drink, he was going to end up like-
Don’t think about that. Tendrils of smoke unfurled in her mind.
Victoire didn’t take her eyes off of Holtzapfel’s back as he withdrew four cups from a cabinet, and set them on the bar. Then he withdrew his wand from his pocket. Victoire tensed up, but Holtzapfel only used his wand to open up the bottle of mead. Pouring the dark-golden liquid with one hand, Holtzapfel used the other to perform a stupid sort of little twirl with his wand, before returning it to his pocket.
Victoire relaxed into her chair – and then jumped up again a second later, at the sound of several dozen angry, high-pitched screeches.
One panel of each of the floating boxes (which Victoire had though were only creative light fixtures) had swung open, releasing at least a dozen blue pixies from each box. Victoire fumbled for her wand as the creatures, swarmed around her, clearly more than a bit irritated at having been trapped in the cubes for so long.
“Isn’t there some kind of a spell you’re supposed to use on these things?” yelled Adamina, who had leaped out of her seat and was now sending Stunning Spells at the pixies.
“Dunno,” shouted Ian, firing several spells of his own, “I never paid attention in Care of Magical Creatures.”
Through the swarm of angry blue creatures, Victoire saw Holtzapfel disappearing through a set of double door. Swatting pixies out of her way, she raced after him, leaving Ian and Adamina to cope with the little buggers. But on the other side of the doorway, Holtzapfel was waiting for her, wand in hand. Victoire gasped as she was flung backwards into a wall, knocking over a painting framed with glass beads, which scattered themselves over the floor in every which way.
Victoire picked herself up and ran after Holtzapfel, stumbling a bit over the beads. He hadn’t been kidding when he said he’d been expecting a visit – like his ex-wife, Holtzapfel seemed to have rigged up his entire home with Auror traps.
“Every time with this bloody family!” screamed Victoire in frustration, turning a corner only to run straight into what seemed to be an invisible brick wall. Ignoring the intense, throbbing pain in her head, and the hot sensation in her nose, Victoire pounded on the wall with her fists, cursing furiously as she tried to think of some spell that would get her past it.
Her reflections, and her curses, were interrupted when she fainted several seconds later.