Chapter 20 : 20. Tenderized Hearts
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Despite the fact that she’d convinced herself (eleven times in the last half hour) that Bunny’s fright shouldn’t be affecting her like it was, Wren walked on eggshells all the way to Summers’ office. It took her twice as long to get from Gryffindor Tower to the second floor as it should have, mostly from flinching at every shadow and halting at every unfamiliar sound. She’d spent almost three minutes huddled behind a suit of armor on the fifth floor landing, waiting for the wind to stop howling through a crack in one of the window panes… she didn’t even know what Bunny wanted from her, and it was at that point she’d had enough.
They’re just little rabbits, she insisted, sending the message firmly to Bunny. It wasn’t fair that she’d almost turned back to her dormitory twice, just because some random flicker of light made her start to hyperventilate. It was well past nightfall. There was supposed to be dancing torchlight and little noises as the castle (and an occasional house elf) reset everything for the following day, while students finished homework, or gossiped… or fulfilled their detention requirements.
Summers’ door was propped open. Wren stepped inside. Her heart was still double-timing, and her eyes darted around the room until she spotted a brass desk clock on a small pedestal by the door. Thankfully, Bunny’s hysteria hadn’t made her late.
She slid onto the bench by the wall next to Albus, who was already waiting. Wren couldn’t look at him. A few hours ago, he’d been mad at her for sneaking food from the kitchen (out-of-bounds to rule-abiding students), which was the exact thing he’d been doing (at exactly the same time). Wren was getting irritated at having to carry the guilt and panic of other people (and furry animals) around inside her. Hadn’t she been through enough on her own?
At first, she didn’t see the teacher, just a large, double-locking trunk that lay open so the lid was facing her. Then she heard the shuffling going on behind it. Summers’ voice came from the other side.
“Very disappointed…” He mumbled something else incoherent. A thin arm sprang out from the side of the trunk and jabbed a finger at his desk, punctuated by mutterings about “persons in the public eye” and “social responsibilities”.
The latest Britain's Wizard Watch was splayed over his work desk, featuring a two-page spread on Albus' world-famous father. Head Auror Harry Potter had a sickening greenish hue to his face, probably from the poor flash quality reflecting off the merpeople's tank next to him. Behind him was Albus (when he was still shorter) leaning to the outside of the frame. Unfortunately, the surrounding crowd didn’t allow his escape from the shot.
Albus shifted next to her on the bench. Wren watched a drizzle of rain start up outside the window, and hoped that detention wasn't going to be out there. She didn't mind the mud or the wet, but Bunny's constant fretting over the little rabbit had unnerved her to the point of not wanting to go anywhere with shadows.
She'd heard loads of stories about detention at Hogwarts: mostly from James. She was prepared to go anywhere that could be brightly-lit: cleaning the flagstones of the Great Hall with a toothbrush, or polishing the brass in the trophy room without a wand... anything but being in the dark where the shadows were. A bolt of lightning sliced across the window pane, and then Mister Summers stood up, dressed in thick protective wear, complete with rain boots and goggles.
Wren shrank back, and Albus stiffened. "You can't expect us to go outside in this weather," he said.
Summers threw two waterproof robes at them. "No, you're staying indoors."
Wren gaped at him. "Then what are the robes for?"
"Protection." Lightning flashed again. "You're going to need it.”
Albus and Wren looked at each other . "Against what?"
Summers led them down an unfamiliar staircase that veered off to the right of the Potions Wing. Another set of steep stairs followed, leading somewhere below the level of the Slytherin common room. He stopped about halfway down, gave them some brief instructions and a warning to fasten their robes tightly. Then he left them to find their way to the next sub-level on their own.
Albus reached the sub-level first and shifted the heavy waterproof robe over his shoulders. “Next time I see a camera out in public, the only thing they’ll get a shot of is my backside. I hate that picture they took of me.”
Wren stopped herself from making a quip about how photogenic Albus' backside was, remembering the way he'd stared her down in the kitchen. “You looked fine.” she said, lugging her own robe on. He'd looked better than anyone else in the miserable lighting of the Ministry's lower level conference room. "I'd have framed it differently," she admitted. Maybe to bring his face more in focus. She had trouble imagining a photo where he'd actually look bad.
She could feel Bunny’s pestering start up again, but refused to listen to it. Wren tamped down the rabbity feelings of alarm and dismay as she struggled with her own robe. The waterproof layer was thick and slick. The robe slid around on itself and was difficult to grasp. It must have some repelling qualities to it, probably to keep it waterproof. It was heavy, and it slipped through her fingers more than once.
When she finally got it on, she noticed Albus had been watching her and trying not to laugh. He looked like he'd been done for a while. The thick robe collar clung to his neck and draped the full length of him - he'd gotten his arms through the rubbery sleeves that sealed around his wrists. He held his wand loosely in one hand. "Ready?"
Wren stared down at her ridiculous robe, dragging the floor and waved her floppy sleeves that hung below her knuckles. It might be worth it to get wet, but then she thought of what might be in the drains... ugh. "I guess so."
They rounded the corner and were faced with a dark, dank corridor of large gated storage rooms. They passed one filled with old cracked cauldrons, and another that held defective brooms. Some of the brooms clanged around, still trying to take flight.
“I didn’t even know there were drainage ducts in the castle. I suppose it makes sense, since everything has to go somewhere.”
Albus found the unlit torches and set them aflame. Then he started tapping the walls with his wand, like Summers had instructed. When the hollow knock became a thick thud, he stopped. "Wanna go first?"
Wren's nerves flared. She hadn't done magic in front of anyone else outside of class. She'd been steadily improving, but it still might not work.
“It’s a simple flushing spell using pressurized water. We don't have to do it wordless like we did in class.”
“Yeah, alright." Wren traced her wand along the wall where Albus had located the pipe. There was a little thunking sound behind the stone. “What was that?”
“Dunno. Flush it,” Albus said.
Focusing her magic behind the stone wall was different from shooting water straight out of her wand. Wren pushed her intent into the water that was already there, and then just added to it. She held her breath and forced it through whatever the obstruction was. A hole the size of a bean tin opened at the base of the wall. The corridor flooded with murky water all the way to the toes of her trainers, and out floated a tiny, elf-sized sock.
Three more flushes and soon an assortment of quill nubs, a Firewhisky bottle that someone had forced down a loo, and some nondescript wads of parchment were piled in the middle of the corridor. Wren's trainers were soaked, while Albus stood a fair bit away from the growing puddle. “Your turn, Albus.” Wren said, as something bumped, like a big, wet hiccup.
Albus traced the pipe behind the stone with his wand. “Stand back. Let's see what it is.” He performed the flushing spell and the whoosh turned into a gurgle. The wall groaned. He pushed more pressure into the spell and a small black ball came hurtling out of the pipe. It hit the pool on the floor with a small splash, splattering Wren with a slimy dark gunk. She conjured a bucket and let it float inside.
“What do you think it is?” she asked, peering into the oily mess.
"The old Potion master's toupee'?" Albus chucked at his own joke and leaned over Wren's shoulder.
"Wait a sec."
Wren added a little clean water to the bucket. The ball shuddered. “Hey, it's moving.”
They both peered into the bucket as it spluttered and coughed. “Oh no, it’s alive!”
Wren siphoned the murky water out - little legs began kicking. With the oily slick washed off, it looked like a tailless rat. It's eyes popped open. Somewhere in those beady eyes was a wrongness she couldn't explain, the same wrongness that Bunny had warned her about.
Albus reached over her. "So this is what cute baby rabbits are supposed to look like."
"Albus, wait!" Before Wren could pull the bucket away, the animal bared a full mouth of needle-sharp fangs. It leapt up and latched onto Albus' hand.
He yelped and flung the thing off. Wren dropped the bucket and scooted away from it. The tiny fanged rodent hit the stone and squealed.
“Do we catch it, or let it go?” Wren asked as the thing’s noises kept rising in intensity and pitch. It sounded like a weasel with a sore throat.
“I don’t know,” Albus said, still clutching at his hand. “Can you get at it from behind? It’s got a nasty bite.”
Wren nodded and Summoned the bucket. Before she could move closer, a horrific shriek caused her to stop short. “What was that?”
“What was what?” Albus asked her.
Run! Hide! Get out!
Wren fought off Bunny’s demands and focused on the baby rabbit in front of her. The wall groaned, and the animal cowered closer to it, moving slowly towards the drain opening, keeping its beady eyes on Wren’s bucket.
“It’s trying to escape through the drain.” Wren lunged at it and Albus flanked its other side, wand ready. Then the whole corridor rumbled.
A slew of little black balls tumbled out of the drain.
Bunny’s panic took over. Wren screamed and leapt away from them, throwing the bucket in their general direction. Albus waved his wand wildly, throwing several well-aimed hexes at the things, but all he managed to do was make them mad. They spread across the floor in a line and crept towards him.
Wren felt herself tremble. Real, real… all real, Bunny chanted. When one of the rabbits was within five feet of her, she finally came to her senses and did the first spell that came to mind - she blasted the thing with a thick stream of water.
The burst hit it square in the face. It squealed and shook itself off. All beady eyes suddenly turned to her.
Wren sprayed water on them again, but she could only do one at a time. Then Albus was beside her, turning her stream of water into a thick wall, pushing the tiny monsters together.
Soaking wet and incensed, the clump of critters bared their vicious needle-sharp fangs and blinked away in a single flash of light.
Albus cursed under his breath and clenched his hands together. "It took a bite out of my wand hand. Can you heal it?"
It took two breaths to steady Wren’s trembling wand. "Episkey," she said earnestly, pointing at the shredded skin between his thumb and forefinger. At first, nothing happened. Then Albus grunted in pain, and the wound sealed itself.
"What the hell were those things? None of my spells did anything to them. How did you know what to do?"
“Bunny warned me about them yesterday. It was dark and cramped, and he was so scared."
Albus rubbed the puncture marks that were left in his palm. "Bunny told you this? If you knew about the monsters in the walls, why didn't you tell me?"
It took Wren a second to register that she'd said all that out loud. Her stomach lurched. "I... I didn't know, exactly."
Albus stood there, covered in wet muck from head to toe. His hair was matted to his head. Wren figured she looked just as bad. "But you just said..."
"It's hard to explain."
He looked slightly mad, and Wren's gut churned more. "Try."
"Bunny's inside my head," she cried. "He sends me pictures of things. I don't know how it works, but I had... visions, I guess, of being chased by those things. They eat flesh. I don't know how I know that - Bunny told me, sort of."
"How many are there?"
Wren counted from her recent memory. "Six. One in the bucket and five more came out of the wall after that."
"No," Albus said calmly. "Not just now. In your vision."
"I didn't see them like that. It was more of a feeling of panic, like a bad dream. Wait. You believe me?"
Albus frowned. "Course I believe you. We were just attacked by the things you said you saw in your head. Is that why you didn't tell me?" He looked up at the ceiling in exasperation. "My best friend is having freaky visions and didn't say anything. Did you tell Rose instead?"
"Not all of it. I didn't want to sound like I was going insane. I kept telling myself that the things Bunny showed me weren't real."
“What else has your rabbit told you?” Albus asked. He still looked skeptical, but he seemed open to whatever she had to say.
Wren thought about the little boy Dillon and the snippets she’d seen from his journey. She hadn’t figured out what any of that meant, but until now, she hadn’t taken any of it seriously.
If Bunny knew more about these little black monsters, where they came from and more importantly, how to get rid of them, maybe Wren could get him to tell her... show her more. Logically, if Wren was going to spout off crazy to anyone, she should at least get as much useful information as she could.
Albus was still staring at her, waiting for an answer. The underground air was starting to get chilly, or maybe that was just because Wren was soaking wet.
"Can we get out of here first?" she said. "I don't want to be around if those things come back."
"Right," Albus said. "Mister Summers ought to be told what we found in the drains. Where do you think he got off to?"
An image of two huge double doors with giant handles made Wren’s stomach growl, and this time it wasn’t from nerves. “The Great Hall,” she said immediately. Albus raised a skeptical eyebrow, and she added, “Bunny told me.”
They found Summers teetered dangerously on the top rung of a ladder, lubricating the hinges of the double doors to the Great Hall. Wholly unimpressed with their report of the potentially dangerous balls of fur and claws, he waved off the incident and injury.
"But they're dangerous," Wren said. "Albus got bit by one."
"Mmm. I'll tell the Gamekeeper to set traps tomorrow. Take your robes off and hang them over there," Summers said.
Summers removed his goggles and looked down at them. Wren gaped at how sunken in his eyes were. He flipped off a glove and rubbed at a web of veins that ran dark and thick down the side of his face and under his collar. He hemmed again.
"Just, err... pile them on the floor." He waved to a spot beneath the ladder with his oil can, splattering black drops over the muck and grime Wren and Albus already wore.
Albus shrugged out of his robe. It made a squelching sound when Wren's robe landed on top of it.
Wren looked up at her teacher, who had swung his leg dangerously over the end of the ladder. "Are you alright, Mister Summers?" she asked as he climbed down.
"Fine, fine,” he muttered, more to himself than to her. “It’s time. Need to go..." Summers wandered down the hall, leaving Wren and Albus in the entrance corridor.
They were filthy. And they smelled. Wren wrinkled her nose and shook some of the goo out of her hair.
She aimed her wand at her hair and whispered, “Augamenti”. A burst of water much greater than she’d wanted hit the top of her head.
After the water blast on her face and neck, her clothes were mucky and wet. Albus had fared better. His waterproof robe was well-fitting, so beyond his hair and feet, the rest of him was dry. He took his shoes off, took a few steps back and blasted them with a jet of hot air.
"Traps won't work if they can pop into nothingness," Albus said, pointing his wand at Wren's clothes. "Scourgify." The muck and grime disappeared, leaving Wren clean, and slightly damp.
She tried Scourgify on her hair with limited results. The water, along with Albus’ cleaning spell had taken most of the yuck away, but she was still going to take a long hot shower before bed. Albus finished tying up his shoes and stood. “We better get going.” He had one of those half-smiles, but it was probably because her hair looked so crazy.
Wren frowned and followed him down the corridor. It was better than how he'd been acting before, but she hadn’t deserved his criticism, not when he’d been just as guilty.
"I thought you were mad at me, back in the kitchen earlier."
"I was, a little."
"Why? Rose needed food. I knew how to get it. Like you did with Scorpius. He was such a twat today!"
"Yeah, he was. But that stuff you said about not needing to follow the rules started sounding too much like James.” He tried to blow the wet hair out of his face, but it just stuck to his forehead until he wiped it away. “I guess I was more mad at myself than you. I know you've been through a lot, but you were so different after this summer. I thought that maybe you got tired of hanging around with me."
"After all the stuff with Gran, things are different. I’m different. And Bunny..." Bunny, who she'd been ignoring all of her friends for. Why, exactly? “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want you around. I couldn’t ever get tired of you.”
When they got to the portrait of the sleeping Fat Lady, Wren turned to say good bye and ran smack into Albus' chest. "Ooof," she said as she was pulled into a big hug.
The Fat Lady let out sharp snort from her portrait. Wren peeked around Albus' shoulder, but thankfully the portrait's eyes were still closed. The Fat Lady let out another soft snore as Albus let her go. Wren didn't know what to do, where to look, so she dropped her arms to her sides and swayed on her heels.
"We hardly spend any time together anymore. Too bad it had to be detention."
Albus put his hands in his pockets. "I miss you too."
Comfort, she told herself. He was only trying to keep her from crawling out of her skin. Except now, her skin was crawling with all kinds of things. She wished that it would stop so she could look at him without him reading all her stupid angsty feelings all over her face.
"Wren, I know you said those things were dangerous, but I've never seen you so scared around any animal, ever. What's going on?"
"I was afraid of you thinking I was nuts. And for Bunny, that he'd be blamed for everything, just because he came from the same place as your rabbit. He’s not like them at all, and he’s trying to help. You should have seen what he showed me, Albus. It was terrifying!" She winced at her own words. "I sound crazy, don't I?"
“No, you don’t sound crazy. You sound like Wren. Always trying to save the furry things." Albus hugged himself this time, rubbing at his wet sleeves. "Promise me that you'll talk to me about stuff like you used to, or I might start thinking you don't like me anymore."
Wren watched him shake off a chill. She felt the cold too, and raised her wand to dry them off more, but stopped short when she saw his hand. The skin around his fingers had turned a deep purple.
"Albus, your hand!"
Had she done the spell so wrong that it was now hurting instead of helping him? "I'm so sorry. My charms are rubbish. I shouldn't have..."
No, no. She'd done it right. So what had gone wrong? Maybe… then Wren remembered what Albus had been up to all summer and it suddenly made sense.
Albus pointed his own wand at the wound, about to cast the spell himself. Wren swatted his wand away and started unbuttoning his sleeve.
"Wren, what are you doing?"
"Your arm bands, Albus. Take them off!"
Albus dropped his wand and pulled at his sleeve too. “I can’t do it with one hand. Help me!”
There were at least five bound to his arm. Wren had a hard time stretching them so they didn't rub against the dissolving skin between his thumb and forefinger.
She tried the healing spell again. This time it slowed the darkening of his skin, which was now up to his wrist, but the wound was still ugly and open. Albus swayed on his feet.
"Get Madame Pomfrey. I think I need..."
Albus turned pale and fainted in the corridor.
Madame Pomfrey met them at the entrance of the Hospital Wing and took over the levitation spell, immediately setting him down on a gurney.
Wren was frantic. "He's got anti-hex bracelets that kept the healing spell from working. I think he's got them on his legs too."
As the nurse rolled the gurney into position, Wren called out, "Take his pants off! Check all over!"
Pomfrey arched her eyebrows and shut the curtain, blocking Wren from everything.
Wren fell back into one of the chairs along the wall, exhausted. She’d never been more thankful for Wingardium Leviosa in her entire life. Under pressure, her spells had worked.
A few minutes later - hours - days - Pomfrey came out. "Thank you for your help, Miss Longbottom. If I hadn't known to look for the anti-hex bands, he might have lost an arm."
"How is he?"
"Sleeping." Pomfrey gave Wren a once-over, noting her damp clothes, the dried muck in her hair.
"You were out doing detention, I gather?"
"For Mister Summers," Wren said. “We were sent to unclog drains and all these flesh-eating rabbits came out of the walls. One bit him. Is there anything I can do to help?”
"You can go back to your common room and get cleaned up." Pomfrey scribbled a note and gave it to Wren. "This will excuse you from being out past curfew. Don't worry about Mr. Potter. He'll be right as rain in the morning."
Wren reluctantly took the parchment out of the older woman’s hand as Madame Pince came in.
"Ahh, Poppy!" The old librarian noticed Wren and frowned. "Am I interrupting something?"
Wren wanted to ask her why she'd lied to everyone about not seeing them in the library on Saturday. But she was exhausted and wet, and cold. All she wanted now was a hot shower and some sleep. So instead, she just said, "No," and headed to the door. As she left, she overheard the old woman speaking in hushed tones to the nurse. Wren turned curiously, wondering what they were talking about so late at night. Pince must have noticed, because she suddenly stopped and looked up. Wren shuddered and left quickly. The old librarian’s eyes reminded her of the baby rabbit monsters, dark and empty.
The fat lady was so tired that she barely bat an eye at Wren's second visit that night, and was already asleep by the time the frame creaked shut. On her way up the stairs to the dorm, she could hear the drip of the faucets behind the stone walls, now that she knew what to listen for. She bet Galleons that the castle was never going to sound the same to her ever again.
A/N: Must thank my wonderful betas, ladybirdflying and CambAngst for their patience and persisitence. Also thank you to 1917Farmgirl and Writeyourheartout for those word races that helped get this thing done!
If there's anything at all you want to comment on, the little box below would love to be filled with words. Thanks for reading!
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