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Chapter 27 : Down in Flames
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Then Hector shifted under the sheets and his eyelids flickered open for his gaze to find her across the room. '...hey.'
'You're awake.' I was hoping to be a coward a little while longer. Rose wrung her hands together as she slipped across the room. The others remained, mercifully, asleep.
'Yeah. Feel terrible,' he groaned. 'Was I asleep when they gave the potion?'
Her breath caught. 'We're not giving out the potion any more,' she said, each word like lead in her throat. She stopped by the bed and resisted the urge to reach for his hand, born not out of wanting to but the comfort of habit. 'We're trying other things.'
She might have been a cold-hearted bitch but she wasn't about to tell him the truth and scare him. The conversation was going to be bad enough already.
His brow furrowed, and she hated him for it. Hated him for how weak he looked, how vulnerable he looked. Since Albus had told her the truth, hurt and anger had fizzed in her gut alongside a sense of betrayal - not by his actions, but by his character. She'd never thought him perfect but had argued with his detractors for months, especially Scorpius, believing him to be at worst thoughtless, but overall decent. Now she'd run out of excuses for him, and she hated that she'd had to make them for so long. It would have been so much simpler if she could hate him, too.
Instead he looked like this, and her heart could only swell with sympathy that made it hurt more.
'You think they'll work?' he croaked.
'Course they will. You're on the case.'
The knife twisted deeper, and she drew a sharp breath. 'Hector...'
His weak smile died. 'That's not a good "Hector".'
She bit her lip. 'It's not.'
For a moment fear flashed in his eyes - then realisation took its place as somehow he saw this was personal, not medical. 'Are you kidding me, Rose? Now?'
'I'm sorry -'
'You couldn't just smother me with a pillow?' Dark eyes were wide on his pale face, indignant.
'Would you rather I lied to you?' She wrung her hands together. 'Told you this when you got better?'
'I'd rather you didn't tell me this now. Were you waiting for the worst possible time for a breakup, or something?'
Indignation flashed in her at the prospect this was a preferred situation for her. 'I know about you and Miranda,' she blurted out.
Something surly tugged at Hector's tired face. 'Malfoy decided to play the victim when nobody's around to tell him he's wrong?'
'Malfoy didn't tell me, Albus did.'
'Potter believes everything Malfoy says, which don't speak so well of Potter -'
'Are you saying it's not true?' Silence fell at last, silence where Hector hesitated and she knew he was weighing up whether to lie. That made it an answer in and of itself, and Rose drew a deep breath. 'I'm sorry, Hector.'
'If you were,' he said, voice sluggish as he sagged back on his pillow, 'you wouldn't have done this.'
'I really -'
'If you're not giving me the potion again then I'm going to slip right back into a magical coma within, what, the hour? I don't fancy spending maybe the last minutes I have being awake for a while arguing this. Or, really, looking at you.' His voice was drained, exhausted, and that made his reproach even worse as Hector Flynn slumped onto his back and stared at the canopy over his bed.
Something twisted in Rose's gut, and she didn't know if she wanted to shout at him or burst into tears. A part of her considered it was a mercy, then, that she could take his words as a dismissal and a farewell. That she wouldn't have to summon some meagre parting words and that to stand up, turn, and go without looking back did not, at least, add to the guilt. She wondered if it was because she was beyond any further guilt. And then she remembered she was doing this for his actions, not hers, and wondered why she felt guilty.
And then she remembered Scorpius, and analysing why she felt terrible became an exercise in futility.
'I don't know if I should be impressed,' a voice drawled from her right as she climbed the stairs into the Hufflepuff Common Room, 'or give you a hug.'
Rose's head snapped around and her eyes narrowed. 'Rourke. You were listening?'
Selena lounged back on her seat. She had picked a ridiculous armchair, overstuffed and shapeless, the sort of chair which made it impossible for anyone to look poised. Sprawled back on soft cushions as she was, it rather ruined the effect as she examined her fingernails. 'It wasn't my idea. I have better things to care about than you kicking Flynn while he's down. No, Albus sent me.'
'It must have occurred to you by now that, just as he knew the truth via Scorpius, I knew the truth via Miranda? So he asked me to make sure that you're all right.'
'Why do you care?' Rose folded her arms across her chest.
'Believe it or not, Weasley, I thought you knew until our little chat a few weeks back. I thought your dear cousin had told you the truth and that you'd decided you didn't care that Flynn's a bit of a shit.'
'So why didn't you say anything?'
'Because it wasn't my secret.' Selena shrugged. 'When Miranda started putting the stories about, I expected Scorpius to give as good as he got. When he didn't, I assumed he wanted the whole thing to blow over. Or that, maybe, behind his impersonation of the world's most smug Golden Retriever, he was actually so hurt by what Miranda did that he didn't want to open himself up to the scrutiny. So what, really, was I supposed to do?'
Rose's nose wrinkled. 'And this is your best friend who did this.'
'I love Miranda, but I wouldn't trust her near a boy I actually liked. Of course, she's not the first girl to mess around with a guy she only moderately cares for in some desperate bid for approval or affection, some rampant need to fill an aching hole of loneliness - oh, wait, you'd know that, wouldn't you.' Selena wagged a finger at her.
Rose wasn't sure if she was talking about her relationship with Hector or the fling with Scorpius and hated that there were two candidates in her life for something so pathetic. So instead she put her hands on her hips. 'This is supposed to make me feel better?'
'I’m reminding you that Hector Flynn, underneath those biceps to die for - and my God if you haven't had his shirt off yet then I don't know why you bothered going out with him in the first place - is actually a bit of a cock. So, yes.'
Her gaze sank. 'He is.'
'For what it's worth,' Selena ventured, gaze sobering, 'I think you did the right thing.'
Rose's voice sank to a mumble. 'He can't even look at me.'
'He can't -' Selena got to her feet. 'You should be the one who can't look at him! He's the one who helped Miranda cheat on Scorpius then helped spread the lies about it!'
'Except he didn't cheat on me. And yet, while he's been unconscious, I've been snogging Scorpius.' Rose wasn't sure why she made this confession. It was like her moral high ground had been a house of cards and Selena was enough extra weight up there to bring the whole thing toppling down.
Selena sighed. 'I thought you were going to say something that stupid. You really are a desperate little cookie, aren't you, Weasley?'
Indignation stirred. 'Desperate?'
'Don't take it badly. We all are.' Selena crossed the distance and, in an act which surprised Rose so much she was too stunned to run, opened her arms to pull the other girl into a hug. 'We're in a very messy situation and sometimes being a bitch is a really useful survival mechanism.'
Rose stood there, stiff and awkward. 'I didn't kiss Scorpius to be a bitch.'
'No, you did it because you're scared? Lonely? Like we all are? And that he can sometimes be funny and charming and isn't all that bad looking was a plus? And then you found yourself feeling worse about that because you'd have to break up with your boyfriend who's possibly dying, then you found out your boyfriend's actually a bit of a shitbag so you didn't have much choice but to break up with him before he slips back into a magical coma he may never wake from, so you're feeling a lot like a bitch?'
'Is this supposed to make me feel better?'
Selena pulled back to hold her at arms' length. 'Feeling better,' she said sagely, 'doesn't include hiding from the truth. You know you and Flynn weren't right and were never going to be right. You know you two would have ended without Phlegethon. You know there's no good option here, to hurt him while he's down or to lie to yourself and hurt him later, or to lie to him and make yourself miserable with guilt until all this is over. I'm not going to pretend there's no such thing as a good lie, but there wasn't one in this situation. To be selfish, we're the ones who're still awake. We need to stay sane. Hector's just going to sleep. By the time he wakes up and can process this, it'll all be over.'
Rose looked away, lips pursing. She could summon no good argument to Selena's words, so when she eventually spoke, she said, 'Why did Albus send you and not come himself?'
It came out worse than she meant it, but Selena's lips curled. 'Your gratitude for my words of wisdom,' she drawled, 'is staggering.' Then she patted Rose's arm. 'He's with Scorpius.'
Rose sagged. 'I should talk to him.'
'Maybe not yet. You know what we're going to do?' Selena squeezed her arms, then let her go. 'We're going to go downstairs and have some tea.'
'It's not that I don't appreciate this,' said Scorpius, hands shoved in his pockets as he stood in the middle of the Headmaster's Office. 'It's just pretty clear you don't need me.'
Albus placed his hands on Stubbs' desk, peering at the magically constructed, translucent visual of the school the security orb was projecting in the air in front of him. He didn't so much as look at Scorpius at his complaint. 'Of course I do.'
'You don't.' Scorpius scowled. 'Look at you, you can control all the wards from here, keep surveillance of the castle up from here. You don't even need patrols any more, with breaking in here you've got everything. I don't get the wards. What am I supposed to do?'
Albus straightened and blew out his cheeks in that way he did when he was pondering something. Scorpius suspected the subject matter was what lie would be best told to soothe his feelings. He also suspected there were none.
Tim had been dead a week, and he felt like he was losing his mind. Professor Lockett hadn't emerged from her room, calling on the House Elves for all her needs - which included, Scorpius suspected even though Harley wouldn't tell him for sure, regular alcohol. Rose had resumed her research down in the dungeons, but Scorpius was avoiding the place entirely now and had no idea how that was progressing. Considering they'd had to scrap weeks of research with the devastating side-effects of the Alleviating Elixir, and no longer had a world-class potioneer to hand but a mere NEWT-level student, he suspected progress was poor. Selena still marshaled the House Elves with her usual efficiency but, he had noticed, a good degree more sluggishness now the children and teachers of Hogwarts remained unconscious. And he hadn't seen Jones in days.
The lethargy of hopelessness was setting in, and it would take more than some stirring words from Albus to make them all feel better. A boy was dead. Phlegethon could kill. And they were even further away from an answer than they'd been before.
It sounded, to Scorpius' ears, the perfect time to panic.
Albus ran a hand through his hair. 'Keep me company. Help keep me sane while we do this.'
A sneer tugged at Scorpius' lip. 'Shall I do a dance to amuse you?'
Albus' expression stiffened. 'I'm serious, Scorp.'
'So am I.' Scorpius pranced to the side, kicking his legs out in what would have been the beginning of some half-recalled steps from dance lessons his mother had once forced upon him, had Albus not interrupted.
'Stop it. Just stop - stop it.'
He did so, glaring. 'I won't be patronised and I won't be your distraction.'
'I said company!' Albus said, voice desperate. 'It's going to be long hours up here making sure we're safe -'
'Safe?' The word tore from Scorpius' throat, mocking. 'Of course we're not safe, didn't you notice?'
Albus bristled. 'You know what I mean.'
'You mean safe from incursions by magical creatures or Prometheus Thane's dark wizard hirelings - until Phlegethon kills us. Super safe, Al. Top marks.' Scorpius gave a mocking clap.
His friend's lips thinned. 'Don't do this, Scorp. Don't pick fights with me because you're feeling bad.'
'"Bad"?' Scorpius' eyebrows went into his hairline. 'There are a thousand ways to describe how I'm feeling now. "Bad" isn't even tenth on the list. You feel bad when you knock over someone's drink. We are way beyond "bad". We can't even see "bad".'
'I'm just trying to do something. Anything's better than giving up.'
'Not really. Pointless things just make us tired and cranky. Maybe we should have accepted your aunt on her offer to get us in quarantine somewhere else.'
Albus' eyes flashed as he looked up. 'Lily's still here,' he said, voice going tense. 'And my cousins. You can run if you like, but I'm staying.' It was the wrong thing to say, and Albus looked like he knew it the moment the words were out of his mouth.
'Yeah, because anything other than beating my head against a brick wall is cowardice. Right. Super. I'll see you later, Al.' Scorpius pivoted on his heel and stormed for the door that was perpetually propped open, deaf to Albus' calls for him to come back, to his apologies. It wasn't just anger and pain which made him kept going - he knew that, if he stayed, he'd probably just make things worse, pick another fight, get himself angry. Because anger was so much easier to deal with.
At the bottom of the steps he almost ran into Rose.
The papers she'd been holding went flying from her hand to scatter across the corridor, falling down about them like giant snowflakes. He didn't stop, not even at her noise of surprise, not even as she tottered and almost fell, not even as she bent to gather the lost bundle of paperwork. Not even when she called out his name.
So he was a good way down the corridor when she finally called out, 'I broke up with Hector.'
He did stop at that - then something cold twisted in his gut. 'Great,' he said, not looking over his shoulder. 'Now go back in time and do that a month ago.'
'I know what happened between you and Miranda.'
'So does half the school.'
'What really happened.'
Scorpius hesitated again, but finally he turned to face her, eyes flashing. 'You think,' he said, voice low and angry, 'that right now I give a damn about some stupid lie some stupid girl told about me so the world didn't know she was the bad guy?'
'I'm really sorry,' Rose said, expression crumpling. 'About Tim. About what I did to you. About how I've treated you.' She took a step forward, but even though the space between them was still huge, he stepped back sharply.
'Saying "sorry" doesn't make it okay,' Scorpius snapped. 'It doesn't make what happened to Tim okay, it doesn't make what you did go away. I'm not forgiving you just so you can feel better.'
She cringed, but nodded. 'Okay, but - don't drive everyone away. We can't do this alone, you can't spend the whole time here angry even with Albus -'
'Who said I'm angry with Albus -'
'I just heard you two shouting from down here!' Rose's gaze went pleading. 'You can be angry at me, but you know he's going to look out for you all he can, that's all he's ever done.' The anger was starting to fizz away from Scorpius' gut and he wavered, feeling the pool of pain underneath, like deep waters with drowning undercurrents underneath a surface layer of oil. If the anger burned away, he might drown. Rose seemed to see this, because she pushed on, voice quiet. 'I know this is going to sound weird,' she said, 'but I miss you. I miss your jokes. I miss your smiles. I miss you making my days that little bit less dark.'
'Smiles aren't so easy these days,' said Scorpius, throat rasping.
'They're not supposed to be. They don't have to be. But you withdrew from everyone before, and now things are worse I don't want to see you hurting yourself like that again, Scorpius.'
He flinched. 'Don't - don't call me that. Things aren't going to go back to how they were before, with the bickering and bantering and me winding you up and - it's just not, this is too real, and I'm way too angry with you - but more, I've got so many things to deal with right now that I really don't feel like also tackling you!'
Then there was movement at the foot of the steps up to the Headmaster's office, and Scorpius flinched again as he saw Albus standing there, gaze cautious. Rose looked between them, biting her lower lip, before she nodded. 'Then be angry with me,' she told him quietly. 'Merlin knows I deserve it. Which means I'm going to go. And, Al? He really is sorry.'
He almost wanted to shout at her for speaking for him, but the sombre look on Albus' face made him fall silent. 'I know,' said Albus.
Rose slunk off down the corridor, leaving just the two of them there in a silence which hung heavy on Scorpius' shoulders. He frowned at Albus' left boot. 'She doesn't talk for me,' he muttered. 'But I am sorry.'
'Mate, we're neither one of us perfect, least of all now, but of all the things we have to be sorry for, it's not how we're feeling right now.' Albus crossed the gap to clasp his shoulder. 'You take your time. But I'm right here, and I'm not going to let you do this on your own.'
Scorpius let out a long, shuddering breath, and tried to fight the quaver in his chest. Going to pieces wouldn't help. He knew. He'd tried. Finally, when he trusted his voice, he nodded, and looked Albus in the eye. 'Show me how to use these wards, then.'
'I'm not angry,' said Rose. 'I'm upset, yes. But this is my own fault.'
Albus frowned at his cousin across the workbench in the dungeons, covered with files upon files of her and Lockett's notes from their potions research of the last two months. He drew a slow breath. 'I didn't know you'd broken up with Hector.'
'Right before his last dose of the draught wore off. He's not woken up since.' She moved a file mechanically from one stack to the next. 'I had to, Al. After what I knew.'
'Maybe, but that doesn't mean you don't feel rotten about it.'
'I think feeling rotten's more or less the default around here now, don't you?'
'It shouldn't be. And yet here we are. Sweeping off to our private corners, our ones and our twos. Suffering alone and in quiet pairs. It's not good for us.'
'What in this situation could possibly be good for us?'
'Are you even finding anything in your research?' Albus looked dubiously at the stacks of paper. 'I'm not meaning that as a dig. But seriously.'
Rose pursed her lips. 'I will. All of this time and work on the Alleviating Elixir, it can't have been for nothing. This much time spent tackling Phlegethon, I refuse to believe we know nothing. I just don't know what we know, yet.'
'You don't have to keep busy just for the sake of being busy,' said Albus.
'It's that or go mental about how much we're screwed and how horrible a person I am, Al, I'm perfectly open to other suggestions,' said Rose in a fast, formal tone of voice which made it clear just how much her control was wavering.
He moved to the stool beside her, reaching for her arm. 'You don't need to feel bad about Hector. I should feel bad, I should have told you sooner.'
'I don't feel bad about Hector.' Rose hesitated. 'I feel like an idiot for defending him, and an idiot for thinking he was better than he is, and a bitch for dumping a guy right before he slipped back into a coma. And I'm on kind of shaky moral high ground to judge him by considering we were still together when I kissed Scorpius, who can't even bear to be around me.' She paused again. 'Okay, I feel pretty bad. Which is why I'm working.'
'Scorpius will come around,' Albus said, hoping he was right.
'Maybe he will, maybe he won't. I don't know what I think about him, other than that he's right to be pissed at me. I just need to take my licks for a while, Al. For his sake, and for my own.'
'That doesn't mean you hide in the gloomy dungeons as penance, Rose.' He squinted about the dark, dank chambers that had been his cousin's lair for so long.
'I spent hours down here when I wasn't being an enormous bitch.' She shrugged. 'Find me something better to do, something more productive to do. The way I see it, Mum's task force and the people outside Hogwarts are our best hope now. But I'm going to do this because I have to do something, and this might, just might, show up something useful.' Then she turned back to her files and Albus knew the conversation was over. Brow furrowed, he sighed and stood, heading for the steps up out of the dungeon.
In some ways, Rose's words and manner worried him more than Scorpius had. Scorpius was hurt, grieving - his reaction was normal, or as normal as could be under these circumstances. Albus had written to his parents asking for help, and been reassured he was doing the right thing for his friend by being a supportive, patient presence through Scorpius' good days and his bad.
Though he'd give anything for his best friend to make jokes again, proper jokes.
But Rose... Rose was somewhere different. Rose was just a few steps further down the same path Selena was on, the same path Scorpius would get to once he was done reeling in pain, the same path Albus knew he could see ahead of him. It would claim them all, save perhaps Methuselah Jones, whose mind Albus was never going to try to figure out. Desperation and helplessness would be enough to make them drown.
They needed hope. They needed purpose.
Albus was still mulling this over as he climbed the stairs to the Headmaster's Office, where he had been spending more and more of his time as of late. The wards did not need all that much maintaining, but he could spend a lot of time familiarising himself with them, with the magics he could do with them, with the security of the castle. It was better than nothing.
But it was not enough.
He almost jumped out of his skin to find someone else already in the office when he stepped through the door, stood in front of one of Professor Stubbs' over-stuffed bookcases. 'Jones! Bloody hell, what're you doing here?'
Methuselah Jones had barely been seen out of the library for the past ten days, but he seemed confused by Albus' surprise as he turned to the door. 'Reading,' he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Albus exhaled carefully to slow his thudding heart, and walked over to the desk. 'Reading what?'
'Death of Warwick - tragedy - informative.' Methuselah frowned at the bookcase. 'Confirms necromancy as true source of Phlegethon. Seemed likely with manipulation of dark magic. Now is certainly death magic.'
'Does this mean anything?'
'Implications for further symptoms, developments, are countless.'
'Any useful ones?' Albus asked, trying to sound kind and not impatient.
Methuselah pursed his lips. 'Not yet. Scoured books in Library. Now consulting resources of Professor Stubbs. Incredibly rare collection. Professor not, however, an expert in necromancy. Served as Defence teacher for many years but, above all, talented Arithmetician, weaponsmith, enchanter.'
Albus sighed and sank into Stubbs' chair. It was too late at night for him to fuss over respect for Thaddeus Stubbs. And he'd spent too much time in the Headmaster's sanctum for the place to remain sacred. 'You think the ritual's still at the heart of this?'
'Implications of necromantic ritual sourced at a site of notable death and dark magic are impossible to ignore,' said Methuselah, running a long finger down the spine of a book. 'Rituals only as powerful as the power put into them. Multiple wizards can combine energies but ritual is most effective on a site of power. Death of horcrux of Voldemort residing within your father empowers ritual. Ritual projects and empowers plague. Continues to infect.' He sighed. 'Nothing, in practice, we did not already know. Just strengthens connections. Theories.'
A long silence met his words, one where both boys knew and thought how theories wouldn't save the day. Then Methuselah offered, tentatively - or as tentatively as he said anything, 'Death of Warwick does offer suggestion for resolution of ritual.'
'Confirmation of necromancy. One spell exists which reliably cleanses necromantic presence from an area. Though is more commonly used to combat Dementors.'
'A Patronus?' Albus hated how conversations with Methuselah mostly consisted of him talking and everyone else asking questions constantly just so they could keep up. Contributing was impossible.
'Indeed. But...' Methuselah hesitated. 'Impossible to simply drop giant Patronus upon affected area some hundred metres in radius afflicted with constant presence of Dementors.' He shrugged. 'Without practical implications, is nothing but a theory. Besides. Cleansing of ritual does not cure those afflicted. Phlegethon remains. Require both cure and cleansing.'
Albus leaned back in his chair. 'Have you had any luck assessing our immunity?'
Methuselah shook his head. 'Without some assessment of origination of protective charms, work proves impossible. And immunity is not whole. We remain carriers.'
'I know. Which makes us stuck here.' Then Albus frowned at the orb controlling the security wards. 'Hang on.'
Methuselah froze, a book half-drawn from the shelf. He looked stricken. 'Wandering from this precise location will not minimise spread of -'
'Not that.' Albus stood, eyes lighting up, and he reached for the bell at the far end of the desk, ringing it once. Methuselah peered curiously until the air between them twisted and, with a crack, Harley emerged out of nothing, straightening his little bow-tie.
'Harley. Thank you.' Albus gave a broad, toothy grin. 'If you could, please, gather the other three and get them up here. I have something to discuss.'
'Malfoy and Ms Rourke are asleep,' said Harley. 'It's past midnight.'
'I know,' said Albus. 'But trust me. This is worth waking them for.'
When all five students were gathered in the Headmaster's Office some fifteen minutes later, Scorpius and Selena looked like Albus had best have a very good justification for having them dragged from their beds in the middle of the night. Rose had got up first, only to have Methuselah give her a vague shrug of uncertainty, and Albus had sat back in his chair and assured her all would be clear soon enough.
Selena quirked an eyebrow as she stepped through the doorway, last to arrive, and saw Albus in Professor Stubbs' seat. 'Huh,' she mused. 'Some visual.'
'It's a comfy chair,' said Albus, sitting up. 'Thanks for getting here so fast. I've had an idea, which means we have a plan.'
Selena folded her arms across her chest. 'I have an idea and everyone dismisses it. Albus has an idea and suddenly it's a plan for all of us?'
'When did you ever have an idea, Rourke?' asked Rose - though Albus noted her voice missed a lot of its usual bite.
'I don't know, Weasley, maybe if you weren't turning into the Thing In the Dungeon you'd be around more to notice it.' Selena, equally, gave a sweet smile which, while making her words sarcastic, lacked the routine vitriol.
He'd worry about that later, Albus decided, and lifted his hands. 'This is a good one,' he said. 'We can't leave the area because we're carrying Phlegethon, right? Even if we're immune, the plague's still residing in our bodies, it's just not doing anything, or spreading.'
'We do know all of this, mate,' said Scorpius, rubbing his eyes. He looked pale, and Albus felt a stab of guilt. He knew he'd not been sleeping well and did, at last, regret waking him if he'd been having success tonight.
'I know. But this means that if we're carriers, so are Thane and his people.' Albus gave a triumphant smile. And met just vague looks as the others didn't make the connections he had. He sighed. 'They have to have their own cure!'
Selena's nose wrinkled. 'I don't get it.'
'We know they're still in the area,' said Albus, trying to be patient despite his excitement. 'Rose and Scorpius found Thane, and why put in the immunity if it wasn't for them? They could have set the ritual to a timed activation and left. Instead, they're sticking around, probably to monitor the situation. Which means that unless they want to become walking carriers of Phlegethon too, spreading it wherever they go, they have to have access to a cure!'
Rose's eyes lit up. 'It'd be a stupidly long shot for them to wait for us or the Ministry to produce a cure.'
'And they wouldn't be guaranteed to get their hands on it anyway,' said Scorpius, colour returning to his cheeks. 'And it'd be mental to turn themselves into plague-carriers.'
'Logical safety precaution before intentionally unleashing a plague would include some means of curing or containing it,' Methuselah agreed. 'Though premise presumes logic on the part of those intending to unleash plague.'
'We don't know much about the people we're dealing with,' said Scorpius, 'but we do know Thane's a wand-for-hire. He's not an idealist. Why would a mercenary sign up for exposing himself to an illness when there's no available cure?'
'A lot of money,' said Selena. 'And the likelihood that the entirety of wizarding Britain would, eventually, cook up something?'
'I think it's likely they've got something.' Albus kept his voice firm. 'I think it's a likelihood worth acting on. Does anyone disagree?'
Everyone looked at Selena. 'I don't disagree,' she protested. 'I was just pointing out the possibility they're mental. Anyway, what do you mean, "acting on". Acting on how?'
Albus twisted the orb to bring the facsimile of Hogwarts grounds to life. 'I can expand the detection wards around Hogwarts from here to pick up any and all movement within about five miles of where the grounds technically end. Between that and the Marauder's Map, if Thane and his men are still monitoring the school and the area, if they're passing through, I can detect them.'
'Great,' drawled Selena. 'We can know where the wildly experience mercenaries are.'
'So we're going to train,' said Albus firmly, and stood. 'We're going to monitor their movements. Map them, figure them out. Find a way, if possible, to isolate one of them. Prepare an ambush on our terms playing to our strengths. Train for it. And then capture one of Thane's men, maybe Thane himself, and question them. Even if they don't know anything about a cure, they maybe know something valuable.'
He saw Scorpius grin for the first time in days, saw Rose's eyes light up, saw Methuselah give a slow nod. So, of course, it fell to Selena to toss her hands in the air. 'Again: mercenaries. We've just passed our OWLs.'
Albus nodded at Rose. 'Our parents fought off Death Eaters in the Ministry by the time they were our age -'
'You're not your parents!' she snapped. 'And didn't, like, people die in the battles they fought?'
A long silence met her words as they echoed about the suddenly rather small-seeming office. It was Scorpius who spoke at last, drawing a slow breath. 'Someone's already died, Selena.'
Her shoulders sagged. 'I know. But let's not get so desperate to act we do something stupid. Let's not go chasing legacies and wind up dead.'
Albus frowned. 'I am not doing this to be like my father -'
'Good,' said Selena, 'because you're not. We all know the stories. We all know what your parents went through.' Her gaze flickered from Albus to Rose, voice somehow both accusing and yet gentle. 'Fought Voldemort, Basilisks, Dementors, Death Eaters, over and over by the time they were our age. You're not your parents. You grew up normal. And normal people don't chase after mercenaries!'
'There is nothing about this,' said Albus, voice firm, 'which is normal. I know it's risky. That's why I'm not going to do anything without weeks of planning, of preparing. When we act, we will do everything to throw the odds in our favour.' He straightened, eyes narrowing. 'I'm doing this. I'm sick of standing around and waiting for a cure that's not coming. Lockett's given up - I haven't. This is happening. The only question is if you're in.'
There was barely a heartbeat's worth of silence before Scorpius spoke. 'You bloody know I'm in, mate.'
Rose nodded. 'We can work out the plan’s when, where, how, all in advance. We've got every chance. And it beats staring at Lockett's research notes.'
'High risk of danger and death,' said Methuselah, but he, too, nodded. 'Would like, very much indeed, to speak with someone involved in Phlegethon or at least ritual. Could prove enlightening.'
Then they all looked at Selena, who rolled her eyes. 'Why,' she asked archly, 'do I get treated like the evil bitch because, unlike children of heroes, I didn't throw myself on my sword at the first opportunity?'
'Nonsense,' said Methuselah. 'Observations and points were logical. Only sense will see us through, and organisation. Extensive research indicates bloodlines only of marginal use in magical potency. Let alone heroism.'
'I hope you're wrong on that one,' mused Selena. 'Because it would be useful. But don't be silly, of course I can't not-help. I just want us to all be clear on what we're talking about. What we're signing up to do.'
Albus nodded, giving a slow smile. 'Trust me,' he said. 'I'm taking this seriously. Which is why they're not going to know what's hit them.'
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