Chapter 28 : Stephanie
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Albus nodded. ‘Here,’ he added, simply, passing the other boy the card he had just opened before sitting in silence and watching him read its message.
‘Stephanie…’ Daniel mumbled, ‘Stephanie is my mum...’ He passed the card back to Albus before letting his head fall into his hands, his elbows resting on his knees.
‘Shit.’ Albus managed a thin, ironic smile, before getting to his feet and carrying the offending message across to Greg, who had already been distracted from his cooking by the boys’ reactions. ‘I think you should read this, sir.’
The teacher took the card from the eleven-year-old, opening it to read an untidy scrawl of fountain pen. Letters of wildly differing sizes barely managed to keep in line as their words fell haphazardly across its inside. ‘How are you enjoying your new school, you little shit?’ Greg read the first line aloud, before following the rest of the message inside his head.
The quiet only broke as the flat’s front door clattered open and Theo pushed his way inside. ‘Greg!’ he greeted his flatmate brightly, only for the other man to shake his head.
‘Not now, mate,’ he cautioned, holding the card out. ‘Dan just found this, from his mother. Basically tells him she’s glad he left, and that I should get rid of him too.’
‘You’re not going to kick him out, are you?’ Albus queried, nervously.
Greg turned back to face the boy. ‘Do you really think…’ The teacher tailed off, noticing that the other first-year was still slumped, head down, on the black sofa. ‘Fix your own pasta, Theo,’ he whispered to his friend, before padding slowly across the flat to sit down beside the unhappy boy. ‘Danny,’ he began, reaching an arm around the eleven-year-old’s shoulder. ‘I promise that’s not going to happen here. I don’t know how it’s gonna work out, mate, but if you want to stick around with me and Theo then you’ll always be more than welcome.’
Daniel didn’t answer, but instead shuffled along the sofa to rest his head against the man’s side.
‘It’s okay, mate,’ the teacher reassured the boy once again. ‘Just ignore it.’
The eleven-year-old looked up, blinking hard and hoping that nobody would comment on his reddened eyes. ‘What about the last bit, though?’ he asked. ‘When she says she’s learned about our world, and that I’m going to have a nasty surprise.’
‘She’s just trying to scare you,’ Albus suggested. ‘Right?’
‘Probably,’ Greg agreed, ‘but still, I want to know how she’s found out my address.’
Theo nodded. ‘It must mean that she’s managed to find some kind of the link to the magical world, right?’
‘Right,’ the teacher didn’t argue. ‘Sounds like your Dad ought to have a look at this, Al?’ he suggested. ‘No complaints about that?’
Albus shook his head. ‘No,’ he confirmed, before reaching out to lift another card from the glass-topped living room table. ‘We should take this one too,’ he added, picking up the card bearing Max Deverill’s signature. ‘He says, “I hope everyone will be alright…” He’s not stupid, he wouldn’t write that for no reason. It doesn’t make sense!’
‘Fine, Al,’ Greg nodded. ‘Does Max know anything about all of this?’
Albus paused, deep in thought for a moment. ‘I don’t think so,’ he ventured, ‘but he has been helping Dan and Nath send their letters to Charlie and Connor all term… and there was that attack at his house back in, like, November, wasn’t there? Louis probably knows him better than we do: he’s on the Quidditch team with him.’
‘Never be surprised,’ the teacher murmured. ‘I think Louis is staying with Nathan tonight, isn’t he?’
‘Yeah,’ Albus confirmed.
‘No time like the present, then,’ Greg gently shook Daniel’s shoulder, before standing up and heading for his fireplace. ‘I’ll see you later, guys.’
Greg couldn’t help but recall the first time he had set foot in North Ascot as he Apparated into the side of the village churchyard a handful of minutes later, having first checked that the Head Auror was happy for him to ask the questions he had in mind. ‘I guess those two boys are getting on a little bit better tonight than they did that afternoon,’ he recalled, talking to himself as he stepped through the tree-lined cemetery towards the iron gates of Church House, the Llewellyns’ family home. ‘Wish it was that warm again, though…’
Four months earlier, the wizard had bypassed the security codes on the door with a wave of his wand, but now, with Philip Llewellyn very much aware of the magical world, there was no such need to be underhand.
‘Hi, Philip,’ the teacher announced his arrival over an intercom, ‘it’s Greg. Are the boys still up?’
‘Probably,’ the reply crackled back. ‘Is everything alright?’
Greg allowed himself a smirk. ‘Define alright,’ he observed, wryly. ‘No one else is in St. Mungo’s, if that’s what you mean. I’m just trying to follow something up that these two might know about better than anyone.’
‘Righto,’ the scientist acknowledged, pressing a button that remotely opened the tall gates. ‘See you in a moment.’
‘See you,’ Greg echoed, turning to make his way up the gravelled drive towards the white walls of the old house, noticing as he approached the building that the householder now stood in the doorway to offer a greeting. ‘Thanks, Phil.’
Philip nodded. ‘They’re in Nathan’s room. Top of the stairs and first on your right,’ he explained, before hesitating as he watched the other man climb the staircase. ‘It’s not any more trouble, is it?’
‘I hope not,’ Greg paused to answer, ‘but given that nobody properly knows what on earth is going on here, I can’t promise anything.’
‘Understood. Let me know if you need anything else,’ he turned away, leaving the teacher to continue his way upstairs, following his directions to knock on the door of the boys’ room.
‘Nathan?’ Greg called out. ‘Louis?’
It only took a moment for the blond boy to open up. ‘Sir…?’ he blinked, taking a step back and pulling the door wide. ‘Um, do you want to come in?’
‘Thanks,’ the teacher accepted the boy’s invitation, allowing himself a thin smile as he watched the eleven-year-old hurry to clear a place for him to sit, before turning his attention to the other boy in the room. ‘It’s a bit different from the first time you came, hey Louis?’
‘Just a bit,’ the redhead agreed, before changing the topic of their conversation rather than dwelling on the memory. ‘How come you’re here, sir?’
‘Straight to the point, right?’ Greg tried to deflect the abrupt nature of Louis’ question. ‘Well, fair enough. Dan has had a bit of a weird Christmas card come through, from Max Deverill, and I just wondered, seeing as you know him better than either Al or Dan…’ The teacher tailed off, noticing the colour draining from Nathan’s face. ‘Nathan…?’
The blond boy had begun to shiver, and his breathing turned staccato as Greg turned to face him.
‘Nathan?’ the teacher repeated, reaching out a hand to steady the boy’s shoulder, but the eleven-year-old only looked down at his own feet. ‘Louis,’ Greg looked back to the other boy, struggling to find the words he wanted to use. ‘Do you know… did something happen…’
Louis swallowed, glancing anxiously between the man and boy. ‘Are we going to get into trouble?’ he repeated a fear he’d voiced at St. Mungo’s hospital just a handful of days earlier.
Greg winced. ‘Look, mate,’ he hesitated, ‘I don’t really know what’s going on here any more than you do… maybe even less, if Max is involved somehow. All I want to do is work out what’s happening, and help catch whoever’s behind it all.’
Nathan shuddered, violently. ‘But, but…’ he stammered, ‘what if, what if I did something, something when I was only trying to help…’
Greg took a deep breath, shifting himself across to sit beside the frightened boy. ‘Then we’ll find a way to make up for it,’ he answered, simply. ‘If we help solve this, then I reckon any little trouble’s got to be worth it along the way.’ He paused. ‘What happened, Nathan?’
The blond boy sniffed hard, clearing his throat. ‘Can you remember that story about his grandma’s house being burned down?’ he asked. ‘Well, Max has been helping us deliver our letters all year, because he knows the stamp charm,’ his words started to hurry. ‘Then that day came, and the Prophet was saying that there was bound to be some connection between everything that happened… and I told him, I told him about Charlie, and gave him his address… I just wanted to help…’ Nathan blinked twice, before looking back up at the teacher, who acknowledged his confession with a tap on the shoulder.
‘Would Max have known Connor’s address, as well? Greg asked, and the boy nodded an answer as the teacher continued to think out loud. ‘This was before anybody went after either Charlie or Connor, too, right?’
Nathan took a moment to process Greg’s thoughts, before jolting away from him with a sudden start. ‘You don’t think… you don’t think they only knew where they lived because, because…’ he tailed off, unable to finish the sentence that had formed in his mind.
Greg swore under his breath. ‘I don’t know, Nathan, no more than you do…’
‘Max wouldn’t do that!’ Louis broke his own silence with a shout of protest. ‘I swear he wouldn’t… and anyway, why would he be writing a Christmas card to Dan if he had?’
‘Same answer, Louis,’ the teacher sighed, ‘same answer. I don’t know.’ He lowered his voice, turning to address the other first-year. ‘Nathan,’ he paused for a moment, waiting for a response that didn’t come. ‘I’m sorry I had to come and ask you about all this… but we needed to know if there was any connection to Max, and there is…’ He broke off, noticing the blond boy’s tense shoulders and shallow breathing. ‘I’m so proud that you were brave enough to tell me the truth.’
Nathan managed a weak smile, and the teacher shuffled down the side of the bed to sit beside his pupil once more. ‘Thank you, Nathan,’ he gave the eleven-year-old a moment to compose himself before speaking again. ‘Now,’ he continued, ‘the last thing I want you to go and do is to spend all your time worrying about it all now. Even if they did use that letter to find out where Charlie and Connor lived, it’s not your fault. If they wanted to know it that badly, they’d have managed to work it out some other way.’
‘I… I guess,’ the blond boy stammered.
Greg smiled. ‘Good lad.’ He ruffled the boy’s hair. ‘Just remember, mate, whatever happens, Slytherins…’
‘…Stick Together,’ Nathan completed the teacher’s sentence, his thin smile growing more determined as he spoke.
‘Always,’ the man confirmed, ‘and that’s me included, too. Whatever happens, I’m on your side.’ He stood up, letting his hand rest on the eleven-year-old’s shoulder for a moment as he did so. ‘I’ll see you soon, guys.’
‘See you,’ Louis spoke for the two boys, watching the teacher leave the room before pushing the door shut in the man’s wake. ‘I’ve never shown anyone else this before,’ he changed the subject of their conversation, taking a deep breath, ‘but I’ve been talking to Teddy about how he manages his transformations, and I think I’m starting to understand it, just a little bit…’
It didn’t surprise Greg to find out that both Daniel and Albus were still awake when he returned to his London flat later that evening, despite the clock on the wall having edged past eleven.
‘Were you gonna send them to bed, Theo?’ the teacher asked, shoving his flatmate along one of the black leather seats in order to create enough space for himself to sit down. ‘Or just wait for them to fall asleep on the sofa?’
Theo grunted. ‘We never went to bed early when we were first-years, did we?’
Greg rolled his eyes. ‘We did a lot of things when we were first-years,’ he recalled. ‘That doesn’t mean we should be encouraging these guys to do the same.’ The teacher turned to face the children. ‘Early start tomorrow, lads,’ he explained. ‘I’ve got an eight o’clock meeting with Al’s dad.’
This was enough to divert the boys’ attention from the television set in front of them. ‘What did you find out?’ Albus asked. ‘Did Lou and Nath know anything?’
‘You can ask them tomorrow,’ Greg dismissed the question, ‘and that’s final.’
Albus sighed. ‘Night, sir,’ he grumbled, nudging his friend on the arm and pushing himself slowly to his feet.
‘Night,’ Daniel echoed, standing up and leading his friend into the room the two boys would be sharing overnight.
‘Night, guys,’ Greg acknowledged. ‘See you in the morning.’ He leant backwards, twisting over his shoulder to watch the flat door close, before quickly casting the silencing charm in its direction. ‘This is getting messy, mate,’ he summarised. ‘The boys are right. This goes way deeper than coincidence… not that I ever thought it didn’t.’
The teacher shared the story of his day, from Charlie’s revival and the frightened boy’s false identification of Lucas as Kevin Brand, through to Nathan’s revelation of the link between Max and the muggle-born boys.
‘Good job we finished Falmouth off quickly, then,’ Theo observed, wryly.
Greg raised an eyebrow. ‘Good for you as well, mate,’ he countered, ‘the way they were aiming at you from the start.’
His housemate didn’t argue. ‘What do you reckon, then?’ he turned back to the subject of the mystery connection between the first-years. ‘What next?’
‘No idea,’ Greg shrugged. ‘I guess I wait for that meeting with Harry, tomorrow morning like I said. It’s his job, not mine.’
Theo nodded. ‘If it’s that bastard Kevin involved, then count me in for whatever help you need.’
It was a few minutes after eight o’clock by the time Greg had left Albus and Daniel in the Borthwick Ward, leaving himself free to meet the wizarding boy’s father in the privacy of his makeshift office.
‘Sorry, Harry,’ the teacher apologised. ‘Boys and mornings… not a great combination.’
‘Tell me about it,’ the Auror mused, leafing through a collection of loose pages on his desk. ‘Thanks for that update on the Deverills last night, Greg,’ he acknowledged. ‘I’ve tried to dig out everything we know about them, and about Kevin Brand… and I’m afraid there’s not much to report.’ Harry turned a sparse sheet of parchment around to face the other man. ‘On leave from the Ministry at the moment. He no longer lives at the address on our records, and he’s left no information as to where he might be found.’
‘Slytherin,’ Greg remarked, cynically. ‘Where do we begin, then?’ he asked.
Harry pushed his chair back and away from his desk. ‘Somewhere we do know somebody lives,’ he asserted. ‘Time for a parent-teacher meeting with the Deverills. Ever been to Swindon?’
Greg shook his head.
‘First time for everything, then,’ the Auror’s eyes briefly sparkled. ‘I guess we’d better Side-Along…’
A crack of Apparation later, Greg found himself standing in a narrow, grey terraced street in a town he didn’t recognise. Two rows of cars double-parked either side of the rutted tarmac, leaving barely enough space for a single vehicle to thread its way in between. The buildings themselves reflected the December sky’s dreary pall, squatting behind unloved pebble dash and flaking window frames, and only set back from the uneven pavements by thin, overgrown yards that could have been no more than a yard wide.
‘Beautiful…’ the teacher muttered, coughing as he spoke. ‘I can’t imagine why I’ve never been here before on holiday.’
‘Touché,’ Harry remarked. ‘The house isn’t far along here.’ The Auror started walking, before pausing to reach into the pocket of his cloak. ‘I think it’s best for everybody if no-one knows I’m here. As far as you’re concerned, it’s a routine visit, something you’re doing as a new Head of House, talking to pupils and their parents about the first term. Don’t make the slightest reference to me, to the Aurors, to anything to do with this investigation, whatsoever.’
‘Fine,’ Greg nodded, his eyes scanning around the street before drifting back to Harry. ‘What’s your plan, Harry…? Harry? Where the hell are you?’
‘Same place I’ve always been,’ a disembodied voice answered. ‘Just harder to spot. It’s only a bit further down the road now – number 34, next to that van.’ Harry’s footsteps tracked the teacher’s for another few dozen yards, before they too fell silent beneath a whispered Silencing Charm as the Auror followed Greg’s path. The men stopped outside a peeling front door, which looked as if it might have been red before years of weathering and neglect had allowed it to fade to a watered-down pink, and Greg reached for the doorbell.
The clatter of feet against floorboards told the teacher his ring was being answered, and within a few moments a squat, balding man, no taller than Greg’s shoulder and with a glaring sprawl of tattoos that covered his left arm and shoulder beneath an ill-fitting vest, appeared in the doorway.
‘Yes?’ the man prompted him, bluntly.
Greg tried to force what he imagined to be a relaxed smile across his face. ‘Good morning,’ he greeted the man. ‘Professor Gregory Bennett, Hogwarts School. Just dropping by for an end-of-term visit, checking up on Max’s progress.’
The short man made a noise that was somewhere in between a groan and a growl. ‘Better come in, then.’ He turned his back to Greg, shuffling back into his hallway whilst the teacher held the front door open for long enough to let Harry silently follow. ‘Malachi,’ the man snarled. ‘MALACHI! Down here, now!’ He thrust open a door that led to a cramped sitting room, gesturing sharply that Greg should enter.
Following the man’s directions, Greg edged through the doorway, taking in the musty air that hung amidst a clutter of old furnishings and dusty blankets, whilst the dull thump of feet on the floorboards above betrayed the waking steps of a fourth-year.
‘Lap of luxury,’ the teacher observed sarcastically, half to himself and half to his invisible companion, the sound of footprints growing louder as their owner trudged downstairs. ‘Max…?’ Greg’s voice strained as he set eyes on a scrawny, gaunt figure, only dressed in pyjama shorts, that entered the sitting the room. The blond boy’s skin was a near-translucent milk white, stretched across his ribcage, and his eyes seemed to stare into the middle distance beyond Greg’s face. ‘Max?’ he repeated. ‘Are… are you alright?’
The fourteen-year-old’s answer was forced and mechanical. ‘Yes,’ he deadpanned, his eyes never once blurring back into focus. ‘Fine.’
Greg swallowed instinctively, feeling his throat tighten and dry as he heard the boy’s reply. There was nothing familar about his body language, or his tone of voice; nothing that resembled the self-confident seeker that he had got to know. ‘Never be surprised…’ McGonagall’s advice ran silently through his head, and the teacher resolved to keep his word and maintain the pretence of an educational visit. ‘Is there anything you’d like me to help you catch up on, that you missed at the end of term?’
Greg swore under his breath. ‘Do you think you’re going to be ready for the Quidditch game against Ravenclaw after the break?’
The teacher sighed, before falling silent as the slight disturbance of an old newspaper atop a gnarled coffee table told him that Harry was on the move. ‘It was a good result against Gryffindor,’ Greg decided that, in the absence of a plan that made sense in his own mind, he might as well just keep talking. ‘Do you think we’ve got a chance of winning the Cup?’
‘Same here.’ This time Greg paused, rather than pushing on with his ill-fated questioning, watching as a circle of skin on Max’s neck folded backwards, giving away the impression of a wand tip, before fading as quickly as it appeared. ‘Max…?’ the teacher repeated his initial wary question as the boy stumbled, blinking as a dust-filled beam of dawn light broke between the thick curtains. ‘Max?’
‘Sir?’ the boy echoed, losing his balance and reaching out to steady himself on the teacher’s outstretched arm, before slowly twisting his neck around as if he were taking in his surroundings for the first time. ‘What… I mean… how…’ he glanced downwards at his own pallid chest and thin pyjama trousers. ‘Shit!’ Max’s eyes grew wide, before the tell-tale crack of Apparition echoed into the corridor outside the sitting room.
Before either man or boy had chance to draw wands or take stock of the situation, they had been surrounded. Eight men, clad in simple dark muggle sweatshirts and black woollen balaclavas that showed nothing more than their eyes and the bridge of their nose, had swarmed the room and – wands outstretched – trapped Greg and Max where they stood.
‘Malachi,’ a severe voice intoned, and Greg felt the boy jolt away from the speaker, lurching back against his own tense frame. ‘Malachi Archimedes Xanthus Deverill,’ the voice repeated. ‘Come away from him.’
‘Fuck off!’ Max gathered the courage to answer back, despite shivering violently as he spat the swear word.
The speaker’s posture, on the other hand, never wavered in the least. ‘Fine,’ he dismissed the boy’s defiance. ‘Have it your way. You have served your purpose. Incarcerous!’
Two lengths of rope sprung forth from the end of his wand, wrapping tightly around Max and Greg and knocking the Slytherins briskly to the ground in the process.
‘You know what to do,’ the man ordered, leaving his fellows to seize the two bound bodies, cover them in rough hessian bags and carry them roughly out into the back of the van outside the terraced house.
Harry Potter didn’t need to see the green lettering on the side of the vehicle to know exactly what he would be able to read as it pulled away.
‘Ow! Fucking hell!’ Greg lost his battle to control his language as the white van jarred over a speed bump, knocking his head against the side of its cargo hold. He jolted sideways, struggling to free himself from the shroud of the hessian bag, clumsily grabbing its insides with the ends of his fingers as he tried to wriggle free. ‘Max…’ he mumbled, shifting his jaw to loosen the gag across his mouth. ‘Can you try and grab the end of the bag between your feet?’
A muffled grunt echoed from the teacher’s left, and a few moments of struggle later, Greg had managed to emerge from his cocoon and begin to help the fourth-year find his own way out.
‘Thanks, sir,’ Max offered, and the teacher nodded his acknowledgement.
‘Not really much to see out here, mind,’ Greg remarked, acidly. ‘Just the back end of a truck,’ he sighed. ‘How much do you know, then, mate? How much do you remember?’
Max looked away, staring despondently down at his own pale chest as a shiver wrapped around his body. ‘I don’t know,’ he avoided the question.
‘What about the Christmas card?’ Greg pressed. ‘The one you sent to Dan… everyone will be alright.’
The boy shook his head. ‘I don’t know,’ he mumbled, again. ‘I don’t understand. Sometimes it was like I realised what was happening, and others, like this morning, it was like I was just sleepwalking through everything.’
‘Imperius…’ Greg muttered.
Max shivered again. ‘Do you really think…?’
The teacher nodded, slowly. ‘I’m no expert, Max, but everything looks like it… that or some other kind of mind-control. When I was talking to you this morning, it was like talking to a different boy.’
Max’s expression crumbled. ‘I’m sorry, sir…’
‘Forget it, mate,’ Greg brushed off the boy’s apology. ‘It’s not your fault. It’s bloody hard to resist the Imperius Curse, and the fact that you managed to send that card to Danny shows you were giving it a damn good go.’
The fourth-year tried to force a thin smile onto his face. ‘I guess…’
‘It’s alright,’ the teacher repeated his reassurance, struggling to brace himself against the back of the van as it veered around a roundabout, before letting the vehicle fall silent as it accelerated onto a dual carriageway, and Max dropped into a fitful sleep.
It wasn’t until nearly an hour later, as the van slowed down to slalom through a series of tight turns, that Max fully stirred. The vehicle drew to a halt at the end of a cul-de-sac, before jolting into reverse gear to swerve into a parking garage, and throwing the two captive wizards around its cargo bay as the driver slammed on his brakes. The squeal of rubber gave way to the slamming of doors before a burst of artificial light streamed into the back of the white van.
Greg blinked, struggling to adjust to the sudden brightness, before a figure, standing a handful of yards away from the now-open doors, blurred into his vision. ‘Shit,’ he swore. ‘Stephanie.’
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