Chapter 27 : House of Cards
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Greg swallowed, looking from the Head Auror to Lucas Brand’s pale face, and back again. ‘Not here,’ he answered, simply. ‘Come on, Luc,’ he beckoned. ‘Auror Office.’
Harry nodded, cancelling the Muffliato charm with a single flick of his wand, before turning swiftly on his heel to lead the two younger men from the ward, leaving Nathan to take Lucas’ seat beside his friend’s bed.
‘What… what happened?’ Charlie stammered. ‘Who was that man, in the park? What did he do? What did you do?’
Nathan swallowed, looking from the other boy’s bed to the gathered adults. ‘What can I tell him?’
Joshua Tregeagle answered on the men’s behalf. ‘Well, he’s got an imprint, and he’s in St. Mungo’s. I reckon you’re going to struggle to explain that if you don’t start at the beginning.’
Nathan smiled, thinly. ‘Yeah,’ he acknowledged, taking a deep breath. ‘I guess.’ He turned back to his old friend. ‘The man was a wizard, and he was trying to curse us. I tried to defend us with a shield charm.’
‘What?’ Charlie stared back at the blond boy. ‘What?’
‘It’s the truth,’ Nathan added, his voice quiet and almost apologetic. ‘I swear I’m not making it up,’ he shivered, ‘you’ve been unconscious for four days! Why would I make it up?’
The brown-haired boy held his stare, unblinking. ‘A wizard?’ he echoed, disbelievingly. ‘A real life wizard?’
‘Yeah. Just Like Magic.’
Charlie’s eyes widened, and his mouth fell open. ‘You… You mean…? That van?’
‘Yeah,’ Nathan confirmed. ‘That’s why you and Connor couldn’t always remember it properly, because they were wiping your memory…’
‘Connor!’ The mention of the other boy’s name startled Charlie’s brain into a panicked shout. ‘Is he alright? What’s happened to him?’
‘He’s fine,’ Nathan talked over his friend, gesturing back over his shoulder. ‘He’s here, too. St. Mungo’s Magical Hospital.’
Charlie pushed himself up slowly, supporting himself carefully against the end of his bed, to peer beyond Nathan’s body to the other blond boy. ‘Okay,’ he mumbled, turning to face the other first-years, still gathered around Nathan’s now-empty bed. ‘Who are they?’
‘My friends,’ Nathan answered simply, beckoning the other boys across the ward, and the watching adults stepped backwards obligingly. ‘Louis, Dan, Albus and Xan.’
‘Hi, Charlie,’ Louis was the first to speak up, and the other three first-years quickly echoed his greeting.
‘Hi,’ Charlie managed a cautious reply. ‘Are you all wizards, too?’
‘Yeah,’ Albus answered. ‘Everyone is at Hogwarts.’
‘Hogwarts?’ Charlie blinked again. ‘I thought your school was called Merchiston Castle…?’
Nathan blushed. ‘Um, yeah,’ he swallowed, ‘about that… I couldn’t tell you its real name before, it’s against the law to tell people about the magical world.’
‘So how come that person was after me… and after Connor? How did he know about us? How did he know where we were?’ A stream of questions began to pour from Charlie’s mouth.
‘I don’t know,’ Nathan whispered. ‘That’s the problem. I don’t think anyone does… but maybe, if they can find out who this Kevin is, they can work it out.’
On the other side of the fourth floor, Harry was trying to do exactly that.
‘Kevin Brand,’ Greg spoke on behalf of his old friend, who still stood ashen-faced in the makeshift office. ‘Lucas’ older brother… half-brother. He was three years above us at Hogwarts, in the same year as Matt and Oscar.’
Harry blinked. ‘Matt and Oscar?’
‘Matt was Quidditch Captain,’ Greg explained, briefly, ‘and he grew up in the same village as me. He’s probably the reason I ended up in Slytherin.’
‘Right,’ Harry acknowledged, picking up a quill and quickly charming it to take rough notes, ‘sorry. Back to Kevin. Did you know him well?’
Greg shook his head. ‘Not really,’ he answered, ‘but well enough to know how to keep out of the way,’ he shuddered involuntarily at the memory. ‘Merlin, if Slytherins all used to be like him then I can tell why people used to hate us. I couldn’t stand him, none of us could… Matt and Oscar often slept in the year above’s dorm to avoid him. There were no boys in the year above them,’ the teacher clarified.
‘Lucas,’ Harry turned his attention to the Healer. ‘You must know him better?’
The red-haired man shook his head, slowly. ‘Not really. I used to stay the holidays at the others’ houses, rather than go back and spend any time with him, but even when we were both home, I didn’t see him much. He used to shut himself up in his room and read weird books… Dark books…’
‘He was never shy of calling us mudblood, neither,’ Greg recalled, ‘the bastard.’
Harry nodded. ‘I get the feeling it might be worth my while having a few words with your brother, Lucas,’ he decided. ‘Do you know where he lives now?’
‘No,’ Lucas replied, ‘sorry. He got a job at the Ministry right after graduating from Hogwarts, and left home straight away. It was the end of my fourth year. I don’t think he ever wrote… or if he did, my mum never told me.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I never missed him, not once.’
‘Thanks, Lucas, Greg,’ Harry watched his quill finish its note-taking. ‘Not as helpful as I’d hoped for, but I guess it might be a start. I’ll get someone onto this.’
‘Good luck,’ Greg offered, making to turn for the door, before hesitating. ‘Harry,’ he began. ‘I’m going to take Dan to the Falcons-Wasps game tonight; Theo is playing. I wondered if Al might want to come along… if you thought that it was safe, given, well…’
The Auror looked up from his desk. ‘You’ll be fine,’ he assured the other man, ‘but take Teddy with you, just in case. What time’s it start?’
‘Fine,’ Harry nodded. ‘I guess we’ll still be here by then. You guys can Floo out…’ he paused. ‘Have you got space for Al to sleep over at yours afterwards?’
‘We can make some,’ Greg smiled. ‘I do teach Transfiguration, you know.’
Daniel shivered as he followed his teacher up the narrow staircase that led to the back of a bank of terracing at the Bodmin Moor Millennium Stadium, home of the Falmouth Falcons Quidditch team. ‘It’s cold, sir,’ he complained.
‘I warned you,’ Greg retorted, ‘and anyway, what did you expect? It’s the middle of December on the top of the moor.’
‘It’s still cold,’ Daniel countered, grimly.
The teacher smiled. ‘Is he always in this good a mood at Hogwarts, Al?’
‘Not always,’ Albus grinned, ‘but usually after Charms lessons…’
‘Oh, shut up, Al,’ Daniel crossed his arms, pulling his coat tightly across his chest. ‘It’s not as if you like it either, is it?’
Albus laughed. ‘At least I don’t just sulk all the way through my homework.’
Daniel stuck his tongue out.
‘Ah, real mature,’ Teddy put in. ‘Was I like this when I was a first-year, Greg?’
The teacher rolled his eyes. ‘Bloody hell, yes,’ he recalled, ‘and then some. Metamorph plus werewolf plus grumpy teenager is not a good combination.’
This time it was the turn of the two eleven-year-olds to laugh at Teddy’s expense, and the group of four wizards settled down to pass the few minutes left before the start of the match.
‘Have you been to many games before, Al?’ Daniel changed the subject as the cheers of the home crowd signalled the beginning of the game.
‘Yeah,’ the other boy nodded, ‘Mum used to play for the Harpies, so we’ve been to see them quite a lot. I’ve never been here before, though.’
‘It won’t be pretty, Dan,’ Greg cautioned. ‘Remember the way that Slytherin played against Gryffindor? Falmouth have been playing like that for years…’
‘Since the Broadmoor brothers,’ Teddy added.
Greg nodded. ‘The Wasps will want this to be over as quickly as possible… and without anyone getting hurt.’
‘Too late,’ the other man winced as a bludger struck Theo flush on the left shoulder, sending the Wimbourne player spiralling to the ground as he clung on desperately to the broom with his remaining good arm.
Daniel gasped, watching the beater grab for his wand as he touched down, before holding it tight against his injured shoulder.
‘Healing spells,’ Greg noted. ‘Pay attention when you learn them in Defence next year. They matter.’
The boys nodded, mutely, their eyes still focused on the teacher’s stricken friend.
‘You know the worst thing about being hit early on?’ Teddy remarked, before answering his own rhetorical question. ‘They keep on aiming at you for the rest of the game.’
The children flinched as another bludger passed within inches of Theo’s head, only for the blond man’s instincts to help him snap his neck away when it had seemed certain that the ball would strike him on the temple.
‘Come on, Theo!’ Daniel yelled out. ‘Don’t just let them get you! Hit them back!’
‘That’s the spirit, Dan,’ Greg smiled, ‘and don’t you worry, he can look after himself out there… not that he doesn’t come home with a few bruises now and then.’
It didn’t take long for the teacher’s prediction to be reflected in the action on the pitch, and within minutes Theo had exacted revenge on the Falmouth beater, striking him hard in the small of the back to the sound of jeers and catcalls from the home crowd.
‘I can’t believe they didn’t use to wear helmets,’ Teddy shook his head as another bludger clanged against the protection surrounding the Wasps’ keeper’s skull. ‘Imagine how much that would have hurt…’
‘I guess they were better at dodging,’ Greg suggested. ‘Now you don’t really need to worry if you get your head in the way, so you fly differently.’
‘What, you think they don’t mind if they get hit?’ the Auror queried. ‘That’s mental.’
Greg grinned. ‘They’re pro Quidditch players, mate,’ he noted. ‘Do you think they’re all that sane?’
‘Maybe not,’ the other man acknowledged, watching the Wimbourne keeper take another blow as he spread himself to deflect a Falmouth shot over the left-hand hoop, ‘but I bet the Wasps can’t wait for this to be over.’
Teddy’s analysis was exactly right – and despite close attention from the Falcons’ beaters, the Wasps seeker was able to pluck the snitch from the base of his own centre post as the clock ticked down towards the end of the first hour.
‘Job done,’ Greg observed, watching the successful seeker’s team mates cluster around his broom. ‘I bet Theo’s black and blue later tonight, though.’ He clapped his hands together. ‘Well then,’ he continued, ‘back to the Apparation zone and home to London.’
‘Can’t we Apparate from here?’ Albus queried. ‘Every time we went to the Harpies to watch Mum we could always just go straight home after the game…’
‘Security,’ Teddy gave a one-word answer. ‘Since the Dorset Derby… you know what happened there. All the League stadiums have been enchanted so that people can only come in and out in a special zone. Even Aurors,’ he added, pre-empting his cousin’s next question. ‘So there’s nothing to do but join the queues with everyone else.’
It took a little more than twenty minutes for the four wizards to filter away from the Millennium Stadium and travel instantly back to Flint Avenue in West London.
‘Thanks for tonight, Teddy,’ Greg bade farewell to his friend. ‘See you at the Hospital again tomorrow?’
‘I guess so, mate,’ the Auror nodded. ‘See you, boys.’ He gave the eleven-year-olds a quick mock salute, before vanishing into the London night and leaving Greg, Albus and Daniel to climb the steps that led to the teacher’s flat.
‘I don’t get it,’ Daniel muttered, dropping down onto the longer of the flat’s two black sofas as the living room’s lights flickered into life. ‘Quidditch,’ he continued, ‘sometimes it seems like half the sport is about hitting each other with bludgers, yet when Louis just grabs the other seeker’s broom it’s like he’s committed murder or something.’
Albus grunted, sitting down alongside his friend. ‘I guess it’s always been like that. Bludgers are part of the game… grabbing someone else’s broom isn’t.’
‘But Gryffindor would have won if Louis hadn’t have stopped him!’
‘It’s not part of the game, though, Dan,’ Greg interrupted the two boys’ dispute. ‘It’s like rugby… you can tackle someone, but you can’t trip them.’
‘That’s different, though,’ Daniel protested. ‘That’s like why you’re not allowed to trip people playing football. Grabbing someone’s broom is nothing like as dangerous as hitting a bludger at them!’
‘Well, handball isn’t dangerous when you’re playing football, is it?’ Greg challenged the boy’s logic. ‘So should that be okay?’
Daniel shook his head. ‘That’s not the same thing,’ he argued. ‘I’m just saying it’s stupid that you have a whole game that’s about beating the other team up, and you can’t do something as simple as that. It doesn’t make sense.’
Albus sighed. ‘That’s not the only thing that doesn’t make sense,’ he added. ‘No one has a bad thing to say about female Veela, no one… but look how Louis gets treated. Even the Aurors called him a half-breed,’ his voice rose, ‘and my Dad didn’t do anything to stop them!’
‘Al…’ Greg cautioned, only for the boy to cut him off immediately.
‘It’s true!’ the boy insisted. ‘You were there, you saw it!’
‘I know, Al, but…’
‘But what?’ Albus snapped. ‘Adults always tell you to treat everybody the same, but they don’t even do it themselves!’
Greg paused, waiting for the eleven-year-old to fall silent. ‘Albus,’ he began again, ‘do you always say everything you really want to say?’
The boy blinked. ‘What?’
‘Do you always say what you really mean?’ the teacher persisted.
‘I’m not a liar!’ Albus protested, jerking back to his feet. ‘I don’t lie to people!’
Greg took a deep breath, before turning to face the other first-year. ‘Dan,’ he asked, ‘when you wrote to Connor, did you always tell the truth?’
‘That’s different, though!’ Albus didn’t let his friend answer the man’s question.
‘Why?’ the teacher challenged him.
‘Because… because…’ Albus tailed off, his eyes quickly flickering around the room. ‘It’s got to be… We couldn’t tell Connor anything else!’
Greg raised an eyebrow. ‘But you could send him your owl, right?’
‘That was different, too!’ This time the eleven-year-old shouted his answer. ‘You said it yourself, you can break the Statute if someone’s life is in danger!’
The teacher took a backward step and settled onto the other black sofa, set at right angles to its partner. ‘It’s always different, isn’t it?’
Albus blinked. ‘It was!’ he defended himself.
‘So how come you’re so sure it wasn’t different for your Dad in that meeting?’ Greg changed his tack. ‘How come you’re sure he didn’t want to tell that tosser exactly what you did, but couldn’t?’
‘Remember when Sammy picked Louis for the Quidditch team,’ Daniel put in, ‘and we’d heard him arguing with that girl, when she called Louis a ginger freak… and Louis thought that was what Sammy thought too, cause he didn’t argue with her about it.’
Albus sunk back down onto the leather sofa, his argument deflating out of his lungs and his head sinking into his hands.
‘It’s okay, Al,’ the teacher reassured him, getting to his own feet as Daniel put an arm around his friend’s shoulders. ‘Your heart is in the right place, mate, and when that’s the case then people will forgive you an awful lot. Your Dad’s proud of you, Albus, and everything you’ve done this year.’
The boy lifted his head slowly, rubbing his reddened eyes. ‘Everything?’
A wry smile edged onto Greg’s face. ‘There a few things I suppose he doesn’t need to know about.’
Albus managed a watery reflection of the man’s smile. ‘Thanks, sir,’ he mumbled.
‘That’s alright, mate,’ the teacher nodded, turning to pick a stack of envelopes up from the kitchen table and tossing them towards Daniel’s lap. ‘Have a look through that lot,’ he instructed. ‘Toss the junk in the bin, let me know who the cards are from, and then stick them up on the wall over by the fireplace.’ Greg crossed the wooden floorboards to stand in front of the hob rings. ‘Theo’s never happy unless he’s got some pasta to come home to.’
A few minutes later, with the silver saucepan bubbling happily to itself, the two boys had sorted their stack of mail to leave a pile of handwritten envelopes that could only belong to Christmas cards, and began to work their way through their contents, letting the teacher know who had sent him season’s greetings.
‘Zac Davies,’ Daniel announced.
‘I know him,’ Albus recognised the name. ‘He plays for Puddlemere, doesn’t he?’
‘Yep,’ Greg confirmed. ‘He was in Slytherin with me, Theo and Lucas. It was the four of us.’
Daniel picked up another card. ‘Horace Slughorn,’ he read, ‘that’s a weird name.’
Albus snorted. ‘He used to be Head of Slytherin!’ he told his friend. ‘He taught at Hogwarts for ages. He taught my parents… and their parents.’
Daniel nodded, picking up an envelope covered with untidy handwriting. ‘This one’s for me,’ he noted, ‘from Max Deverill. He says he hopes everyone will be alright.’
‘That’s weird,’ Albus scowled. ‘Everyone will be alright? How come he knows where you live, anyway?’
Daniel shrugged. ‘I guess most people in Slytherin know I’m staying with Professor Bennett,’ he theorised, ‘and anyone can probably find out where a teacher lives.’
‘Yeah, maybe,’ the other boy didn’t argue, picking up another unopened card. ‘This one’s for you as well,’ he held it up. ‘Do you want to open it?’
‘Nah, it’s okay. You do it.’ Daniel reached for another card, running his thumb across the top of the envelope. ‘This one’s from someone called Aidan Mills, do you know who he is? Al?’ He turned to face his friend. ‘Albus…?’
The other boy’s face had turned ashen white. ‘D… Dan…’ he stammered. ‘Who’s Stephanie?’
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