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Chapter 31 : Cold as Ice
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'So we have our target.' Albus tapped his wand against the translucent, three-dimensional image of the whole school produced by the security orb set into the headmaster's desk that controlled Hogwarts' protection wards. 'Over the past few weeks I've been monitoring human movement at the outskirts of the grounds and I'm confident I've now established a pattern.'
Rose scribbled something down on her notes. 'So they are still out there.'
Albus looked at the grim faces of his four classmates and seemed to decide there was no reason to lie. 'They are,' he said. 'And watching us. They have a regular patrol pattern which normally keeps them near the Forest. But it looks to me as if their intention is to come within sight of the castle at multiple points, and from the south-east it's not possible to get in sight of the castle without breaking into open ground.'
Scorpius raised an eyebrow. 'The Quidditch pitch?'
'They break cover near there, yes.' Albus moved his wand to the representation of the stands on his map. 'From the time they spend there I suspect they're casting some form of spell, probably a surveillance charm. Which would be why they come so close; the wards would repel such a charm from the outside, but I haven't yet set the wards up to completely block human access, just monitor it. So they can come inside, cast their spells, and be on their way.'
'Do they not care that we can tell they're there?' said Selena.
'They might not know,' said Rose. 'We only recently got full control of the wards. Previously all Al could do was monitor them and that was mostly for non-human interference. And we didn't know they were doing this until we actively checked.'
'It's true that I've still been coming to grips with Hogwarts' full security measures,' said Albus. 'But I've definitely found them now.'
'So,' said Methuselah. 'Alter wards. Block them out.'
'That won't help us capture one.'
Selena's gaze pinched. 'Are we still on that?'
'It's very possible,' said Albus, a little hotly. 'They come on their own, I've identified one's routine quite precisely, and with proper planning I'm sure that we can pull it off. Our training's got better... except for maybe the Patronuses...'
Albus finally scowled. 'My books call them Patronuses, Jones.'
'Your books are wrong. Common misconception. Simply because masses repeat inaccuracy does not reduce the inaccuracy -'
Rose's nose wrinkled. 'I thought the Latin would make it Patroni, actually -'
Methuselah waved a dismissive hand. 'Wizarding terminology and spells derived from off-shoot of Latin heavily influenced by Middle English -'
'Okay, so.' Scorpius clapped his hands together. 'The plan? Let's not forget we all committed to this.'
'Yes, how could we forget such madness,' muttered Selena.
'Oh. Yeah.' Albus ran a hand through his hair, then perched on the edge of the desk. 'It's a good plan. They won't see it coming.'
By the time he was done explaining, nobody had any complaints to raise. Rose looked thoughtful, Selena wore a dubious expression, but neither one of them spoke. Scorpius was the first to break the silence, giving a firm nod. 'Sounds good to me,' he said. 'When do we go?'
'Next week,' said Albus. 'I want the weather to calm down a little bit. It might work to our advantage, but... might work to his. I do have one job in the meantime. Thanks to the Marauder's Map I now have our target's name: Elijah Downing. Find out all you can about him.'
'Without, I assume, asking my mother,' said Rose.
Albus winced. 'That might get a little bit too close to what we're doing, and you know she'll do her nut, Rose.'
'I know. I don't disagree with keeping it under our hats,' said Rose. 'I was just checking if you wanted me to lie.'
'We'll stick with Hogwarts records for now.' Albus nodded, and tapped the orb with his wand to dismiss the facsimile of the school from the air in front of them. 'If that's all, then we can get back to what we were doing.'
Scorpius lingered as the other three left, watching Albus sift through the notes he'd taken, the scribbled diagrams for planning and tactics which were as intricate as any he'd put together for a Quidditch match or training session. So he made absolutely sure the footsteps of the others had echoed down the stairs and were fallen to silence before finally he spoke. 'You sure this is a good idea, mate?'
Albus made a face. 'I'd rather not get doubt from you, too, Scorp -'
'I'm not doubting so much as checking. You look like you're carrying the whole world.'
'Someone has to get through this.'
'I'm not objecting to you giving orders and making plans. I am objecting to you assuming responsibility for the lot of us. We're going along with this because it's a fine chance and it makes sense. That doesn't make this your fault if it all goes wrong.'
Albus fidgeted with his wand. 'It will,' he said, 'because it's my idea we're going along with. If it goes wrong it'll be my fault, because without me pushing this we wouldn't have done it.'
'No, we'd just sit around doing nothing and improving nothing.' Scorpius stood. 'I don't like to plan for failure, I just want to make sure you know this is something we all understand and accept.'
Albus gave a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. 'I do get that, Scorp. But thanks for looking out for me.'
'It's my job.' Scorpius returned the smile, trying to hide his worry. 'Especially considering you didn't originally plan on doing this.'
'The ambush and capture. You had no intention of us going toe-to-toe with a mercenary at first. You just put the idea out there to give us hope, to give us something to work towards.'
Albus narrowed his eyes at him. 'You're a canny bugger, mate, you know that?' He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. 'What can I say? Training's gone well. Really well. And I have, actually, managed to get a trace on them. I didn't think I would. It doesn't sound so mental any more.'
'It does,' said Scorpius, 'but that's okay, the best plans do.'
'I wouldn't even think about it if it weren't odds of five-to-one.'
'I know.' He nodded. 'I didn't tell you to berate you, Al. I told you to show that I know this isn't what you had in mind originally, but I'm still behind it, 'cos I trust you.'
Albus nodded, lips thinning. 'All right, mate. Thanks.' He hesitated, twisting his wand in his hands. 'You've seemed better the last few weeks. Since Christmas.'
'I've felt better.' Scorpius shoved his hands in his pockets.
'Arguing with Rose less.'
'We... made peace.'
'By which you mean, "are we going out on the sly and just haven't told you yet".' Scorpius shook his head. 'No.'
Albus hesitated. 'This isn't going to be a thing, is it?'
'You mean, more than there's already been a thing -'
'I knew where I stood with the last one.'
Scorpius sighed and looked to the window. 'No,' he said again at length. 'I'm not sure what this is, but it shouldn't be a problem. We're just - would you believe that I like her, Al? And right now I am stressed and tired and yeah, maybe she does make me feel better but I don't - things are -' He stopped again as words failed him, scowling. 'I like her. So I want to be careful. And right now I don't feel careful. I feel like a broken Bludger that might shoot off in any direction. And that is getting better. But not yet.'
Albus's expression had fallen as he watched him talk, before he finally gave a slow nod. 'Even aside from everything that's gone on, Miranda really did screw you up, didn't she, mate.'
Scorpius forced a casual, one-shouldered shrug. 'That's different -'
'But you did really like her, fair threw yourself at her when you'd figured that out even halfway, and struggled a hell of a lot to get over her.'
Another shrug. 'We're just sixth years, mate. These aren't going to be the loves of our lives.'
'That doesn't mean they can't hurt.' Albus nodded. 'All right. You just take it easy, though, mate, and you know where to find me?'
But Scorpius extracted himself as quickly as he could, leaving the office and his friend's unhelpfully accurate questions, and hurried his way along the corridors and stairways on a route which he had trodden every day for the fortnight since Christmas. It was familiar by now, which was why he could walk the route almost with his eyes shut, and why he had little to no enthusiasm when he made it to the corridor he wanted, the door he wanted, and hammered on the wood expecting no response.
'Professor? It's your daily bugging from Malfoy.' He didn't stop knocking even as he called. She wouldn't answer. She hadn't yet. And still, each day he was going to come until one or both of them cracked, and he wasn't breaking yet. 'You can open up any time and I won't hold it over your head that you ignored me for so long. I'll be gracious.'
There was still nothing, and still he hammered on the door for a good few moments more - though the only motion from the rest of the corridor came from a couple rooms down as Harley let himself out of Professor Sprout's room, and eyeballed him dubiously.
'Still at it, Malfoy?'
'Still and until I get my way.' Scorpius glanced from Harley to the room of Professor Sprout, and hoped it had just been a regular checkup. He felt sorry for Sprout; she had only been supposed to be out of retirement for the one calendar year, filling in for Professor Longbottom, and was supposed to be gone from Hogwarts now the new year had come. Instead she was plagued and bound to the school.
'Until you get your way. Sounds like the sort of thing to make you stroppy, yes.'
'You could, you know. Open the door for me.'
'I could.' Harley shoved small hands in the small pockets of the small but exquisitely-tailored suit jacket. 'Or I could stab myself in the eye with my letter-opener. That's also a thing that could happen.'
'Oh. Good. So glad we had this talk, Harley. Your concern for the staff -'
'Professor Lockett left instructions as to how she was to be handled; me letting in nosey students isn't on that list.'
'Except she's shutting herself away -'
'I'm here to do a job, Malfoy. I do the job. I'm taking care of sick kids and staff and otherwise I'm conducting my duties as directed by the ranking Ministry official, whom you took great pleasure in reminding me all those months ago is Professor Lockett.'
'Even if she's -'
'Even if she's in there polka-dancing with a Niffler, it's not my place to judge or take action or let you countermand her orders.'
Scorpius scowled at the House Elf's implacable face. 'Albus said you let him into the -'
'Staff room, yes. Under unusual circumstances, with legitimate reason for concern. Since then the Professor's made it quite clear I'm not to do that again.' Harley folded his arms across his chest. 'I'm a professional. I do my job. And if I bent the rules, it wouldn't be for you, Malfoy.'
Although Harley making digs against him was not unusual, for some reason his final emphasis, like he'd been personally wronged twisted Scorpius' gut more than it normally did, and he turned sharply. 'Will you stop taking things out on me because of my name -'
'I don't, I take them out on you 'cos of your manner -'
'Which you took offence to in the first place because of my name.'
Harley cocked his head. 'First: when you originally came down to the kitchen, I didn't know who you were. I had the pleasure of that discovery later. Second: boo hoo, is the rich kid sick of getting the disadvantages instead of just the perks of reputation?'
'I don't need you to remind me of how much of an arse my father is, Harley,' Scorpius spat. 'I get the reminders myself on full-sized posters bathed in neon lights. I get that he treats House Elves, including the one we employ, like crap, like objects, because he treats everyone like an object whose sole purpose is to cater to his every whim, and like we should be grateful for the mere opportunity - including me, his son! So don't assume that I have a happy time of things, or that I'm ignorant, or that I subscribe to his own form of abusive narcissism!'
His words echoed down the corridor, and though Harley's expression didn't change very much, his eyes did widen a fraction. Scorpius realised, chest heaving with frustration, that this was the first time he'd ever overtly stated to the House Elf just how much he did dislike his father. Every previous argument had been met with bickering and defensiveness on both sides.
It took Harley a moment to reply. When he did so his voice was lower, more measured, cautious. 'And when you inevitably inherit everything your father has,' he said. 'The wealth. The leadership of the family name. His business interests, seats on various boards, all that influence. What do you actually intend to do, if you hate so much what he does with them?'
It was such a simple, obvious question that it took Scorpius aback entirely, and he worked his jaw wordlessly for long moments before stammering, 'I - I hadn't really figured on much beyond "not be like him".'
Harley considered this for a moment, hands back in his pockets. At length he nodded, pulled his small pocketwatch from his waistcoat, checked it, put it away again, before finally he began to amble down the corridor. 'Then on that day, Scorpius,' he said, voice still low and mellow, 'the day when you're your own man, not your father's son, I imagine you and I will be due another conversation.'
Scorpius gaped at him as he passed, but couldn't summon either the words to make him stop, or even the concept of what he'd say if he did. He stood in bewildered silence for a moment, watching the little House Elf trot off, before finally he turned back to the door that had been his original goal.
Just in time to see the narrow gap it had been opened by, less than half an inch, disappear as the door was slammed shut again and whoever was peeping through the space disappeared.
He swore, and kicked it. 'Professor! This is ridiculous! You can't hide in here forever!'
'I can,' came the muttered reply of Professor Lockett. 'Leave me alone, Malfoy.'
'I got your present,' he said, and felt stupid for saying it, even though this was why he'd bothered even trying to talk to her again in the first place. But there was no further reply, only silence from the Potion Mistress' chambers and so, for what felt like the hundredth time by now Scorpius sighed, shoved his hands in his pockets, and sloped back off down the corridor to leave her be with her loneliness and demons.
In late January the snow wasn't going anywhere. Rose had fussed at their footprints all the way down until Methuselah had rolled his eyes, swished his wand, and swept fresh flakes onto their trail to leave it as if they had never come. But Scorpius was more bothered by the cold.
They couldn't be too close to where Albus had told them Downing would be. They were none of them experts in concealment, and the disadvantage of Downing being out in the open was that there was precious little cover in the immediate area. So they were huddled up inside one of the Quidditch stands, looking down at the long stretch of field between them and the Forbidden Forest, the area they were expecting him to arrive.
Even though they were in shelter, wooden boards provided only so much respite against the chill. Scorpius rubbed his hands together before tugging his coat further around his shoulders, and resisted the urge to stamp his feet. It would be too noisy.
Rose ceased her peering through the gaps in the wooden boards to look over to the next stairway tower up to the stands, the one in which Selena and Methuselah waited. 'They had better be paying attention.'
'As opposed to what. Snogging?'
'Selena can't get Jones to stop paying attention to his reading long enough to give her a good seeing-to. I doubt a life-or-death situation is what'll have them tongue-wrestling.'
'She has some success.' Rose tossed her hair. 'More than she lets on to you, anyway -'
'I know they're a thing -'
'A pretty regular thing. I was just hoping life-or-death situations didn't encourage them.'
Scorpius suppressed a shiver. It wasn't all cold. 'How do you know, anyway? When did you two get chummy?'
'After I dumped Hector. We started having tea together. It's nice. We can talk girl things for once.'
Girl talk. The most dangerous thing on the planet. Scorpius did shiver this time. 'Methuselah Jones is going out with Selena Rourke. Forget Phlegethon. Forget even me and you. If you'd told me everything that was going to happen this year back in August, that is the one I would have called the most unlikely.'
'I think it's sweet.'
'He's got all the personality of a chalkboard. A plain one.'
'That's unfair, I think they're good for each other.' Rose wrinkled her nose and peered through the gap in the boards again, though this time looked down the hill. 'Though I realise I was berating them for paying too much attention to each other and not enough to being on lookout. While we weren't paying enough attention to being on lookout because we were too busy gossipping about them.'
'We've still got ten minutes.' Scorpius checked his wristwatch. 'Well. Seven.'
She looked at him, surprised. 'You don't have your pocketwatch?'
'Dad. Arsehole. Remember?'
'I know, but -' She cut herself off and shook her head. 'We should watch.'
So they did. Scorpius tried to not shiver, then wondered if he should be gallant and give his coat to Rose if it was so bitterly cold. That sounded like both something he was supposed to do, and a pretty crappy deal. He glanced at her. She looked more snug than him. His nose wrinkled, and he went back to watching.
It couldn't have been more than ten minutes, but in the still silence of wintery Hogwarts, it felt like an hour or more before finally there was a rustling from down towards the tree-line. Rose put a hand on his arm, as if he hadn't noticed, but he just gave a short nod and the two remained silent, barely daring to breathe. Another minute passed from first rustle until a figure finally, cautiously picked their way out into the open expanse of the slope up towards the Quidditch stand. They were nothing but a silhouette from here, a tall shape working their way along the snowy fields up the hill at them.
They stopped at about where Scorpius guessed they would, based off Albus' diagrams, halfway up the field. Not right up by the Quidditch stand, but finally far up the hill enough that they could get a good sight of the school beyond, and anyone looking down from the castle itself would likely find it impossible to see them against the dark shapes of the forest behind. It had to be Downing. He was a short man in a grubby overcoat, but stocky and broad-shouldered, dark hair shoulder-length and greasy, face unshaven. Further details were too hard to make out from this distance, and so Scorpius settled for continuing to wait uneasily as Downing lifted his wand and set to work.
Long moment passed. Scorpius inhaled a hissing breath through his teeth. 'C'mon, Al.'
Rose's hand touched his elbow again. 'He knows what he's doing.'
'I just wish he knew it sooner.' And just as he'd said that, everything went wrong.
If the plan had gone right, the four of them didn't need to be there at all. Albus could have handled it on his own, with just one spell. But they were sensible enough to know that it could go very wrong indeed, and if it did, then Albus would likely need backup. Which was why they were here.
They couldn't see Albus. Nobody could. That was, Scorpius supposed, the virtue of an Invisibility Cloak, the one Albus' father had gifted to him at Christmas, saying his need at Hogwarts was greater than Harry Potter's need as an Auror. So it was just from a patch of thin air some metres above Downing's head that the red sparks of a Stun flew, aimed right at the man. It was a perfect aim at Downing's back. There was no chance it would be anticipated or dodged.
So Scorpius' heart almost stopped when Albus' Stun splashed off an invisible magical barrier a foot away from Downing's back.
Rose swore. 'A perpetually-maintained Shield Spell? That's complica-'
'Fight first, admire later, Al's in trouble,' Scorpius hissed, and bolted for the doorway.
They were too far away to use spells, at least with reliability or aim. That was the virtue of Downing's position - it left him exposed but he would easily see anyone coming in time to beat a hasty getaway. If evasion was his plan over fighting, then it made more sense than cowering in cover, where an interception could lead to a fight in a confined space.
So they themselves were going to have to run across open ground to get to him.
It was a mixed blessing, then, that Downing's attention was on Albus first. He whirled around even as the Stun splashed off his Shield and already he was casting. Not a targeted blow, for the line of magic between Downing and Albus' wand was faded, but already the mercenary had anticipated he was dealing with an unseen foe - and how best to tackle this. Scorpius didn't know what the spell was that erupted from Downing's wand as he swept it across, but it came with what looked like a harsh gust of wind that caught Albus mid-air, Invisibility Cloak or no. The sweeping force was enough to knock him and his broom out of the sky, and Downing's success was signified with an eruption of snow bursting upwards around his invisible form at the impact.
The impact which was also enough to knock the cloak from his shoulders and leave him exposed and dazed on the ground.
Swearing, and not entirely aware of if he was even being followed by Rose, let alone the other two, Scorpius jerked his wand out, a Stun at the tip of his tongue. It rocketed across the field even as he sprinted to be close enough to do something, anything - but from this distance his aim was off, and the sparks splashed past Downing and Albus alike harmlessly.
But it did alert Downing to the foursome racing down the open hill at him.
Downing kicked Albus' wand out of his hand, Albus too stunned from his crash to resist, before whirling to face the slope. Magic sparked at the tip of his wand - and just as Scorpius tried to remember how to cast a Shield Spell for the first time in earnest, he heard Methuselah shout. Not a shield charm. But something else, something Scorpius recognised as vaguely like the spell he had used to sweep away their footprints. Snow was, indeed, disrupted - but instead of being swept away, a huge patch about four metres in diameter was swept up, winds from Methuselahís wand whipping it into a roiling mass of ice and snow, before it was flung at Downing and Albus. The two of them disappeared in the whipping, miniature blizzard Methuselah had summoned, lost in the swirl of white and wind, and Scorpius had to mentally congratulate the other boy. It would block all of them, even Albus, from Downing's sight while they closed the distance.
Then the small blizzard, the cloud of frenzied snow and ice, burst outward, growing bigger, bigger, until Scorpius found himself sprinting into it. Frozen wind stung his cheeks, and he had to throw his arm in front of his face to not be blinded, staggering against the sudden resistance - but not stopping.
He was lucky he saw Downing's next spell, an arc of vicious red light, come bursting out of the blizzard surrounding them all. But he had no chance of casting a Shield and so threw himself forwards and to the side, hitting the snowy ground hard. The spell whizzed overhead and Scorpius rolled, pulling himself upright, glad he'd practised such for emergency crash landings off a broom - and carried onward. He couldn't see a thing, just white, and had to carry forwards and pray it was in the same direction as Downing.
As suddenly as he'd been blinded, he saw them. Two huge shadows in the blizzard surrounded by erupting sparks and lights as Albus and Downing threw curse and shield at one another. But Albus was losing ground, and as Scorpius pushed himself faster, Downing thudded a Stun into his gut which sent Albus collapsing onto the snow.
Instinct drove Scorpius on, not to cast a spell - but to hurl himself bodily at Downing, driving his shoulder in the mercenary's side. Downing folded around him with a grunt, and the two of them fell, landing hard on the ground.
And Scorpius realised he had no idea what to do next.
Before he knew it, Downing had planted his elbow in his chest hard enough to leave him gasping for breath - and then he was flipped onto his back, any remaining wind long gone from his lungs. Scorpius flailed desperately to bring his wand up, but then a strong hand swatted his arm to the side and that alone was enough to kill his concentration.
Downing rose to his feet like he'd been barely staggered, his wand whipping down to level in Scorpius' face. There was a moment where all Scorpius could do was blink as he felt his mind go blank, a low, dull panic swelling in his gut. This wasn't the first time he'd come face-to-face with true danger. Evading the centaurs, investigating the ritual site twice, escaping Acromantulas and entangling with Prometheus Thane - they had all been dangerous. But the danger hadn't been imminent, or he'd been under some sort of effect or, most commonly, there'd been something he could do about the danger. Even running. Right then he was helpless, fully-aware of what was happening, and about to get a spell to the face off a trained and dangerous mercenary. Suddenly Scorpius realised that cowardice wasn't about choice, it was about some base instinct in blood and bone overwhelming any of the mind's lofty ideals about bravery and screaming at the body to survive.
Magic sparked at the tip of Downing's wand - and then he stiffened and fell over as a pair of Stuns thudded into his back.
Scorpius just slumped, letting himself collapse on the snow, gasping for breath not just at the blows he'd taken, but the shaking, horrified awareness running through him at just how close he'd come to, if not death, then probably nothing remotely pleasant. Only distantly was he aware of Methuselah and Selena scrambling up to him to make sure he was all right and Downing was staying on the ground; only distantly was he aware of Albus' voice confirming he, too, was in one piece, only distantly did he register Methuselah incanting a spell and the blizzard dying around them.
Something nagged at him, though, and he wasn't sure what. He sat up.
'He's down, I've got him secure - make that bloody snow stop it, Jones,' said Albus, sounding unusually terse. He was hunkered over Downing, already getting him magically bound and gagged.
'You could say thank you,' said Selena archly as Methuselah concentrated and waved his wand to make sure the last of the buffeting breezes and snowflakes stopped. 'For both the snow stopping you getting blasted and us two, you know, actually being the ones to take him down.'
Albus sighed, though didn't take his hands off the Stunned mercenary. 'You're right. Thank you.' He glanced at Scorpius. 'You all right, mate?'
'Battered. I'm fine, though.' Another niggle, but Scorpius was stood before he glanced at them - Albus securing Downing, Methuselah finishing off his incantation, Selena giving him a scrutinising look - and realised what it was. 'Where's...'
The moment he looked around, the moment he could think through the adrenaline and panic that was ruling all of them, narrowing all of their vision to just their immediate surroundings - the moment the blinkers were raised, he saw her. And it was like his blood had frozen colder than the snows around him.
He ran. Back the way he'd come, back up the hill. Back up to where she'd fallen, hit by the spell that had been aimed at him, the one he'd dodged out of the way of. The one which had hit her in the gut but hadn't stunned her.
The one which had left her a crumpled, unmoving bundle in the snow and a slowly growing pool of her own blood.