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Oblivion by Slide
Chapter 10 : Confusion and Illusion
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 25

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Confusion and Illusion

Armand Corentin wasn’t sure who he’d upset, but he knew it was someone important. Possibly it was one of his superiors; possibly some cosmic entity.

It wasn’t that he explicitly wanted to be part of the teams striking across the world. He was a professional, not a man eager for bloodshed, and he had little fondness for the eerie shock-troopers of the Council of Thorns, the raised corpses of the Lethe-infused Inferi. Business was business, so he had neither reservation nor desire for the vicious attacks.

But he had even less desire to be stuck on the creaking, leaking freighter Naglfar. And he had an active hatred for being on the night watch while docked at Rotterdam in late October.

‘Tell me we’ll be going somewhere warm next,’ he groaned, watching the light-show of the Muggle city squatting against the night sky.

Reinhardt, on watch duty with him, lit his pipe. ‘In Europe? With winter coming? No.’

‘We could go to the Mediterranean -’

‘Only less cold. Not warm. No, we get no warmth until we transfer to Africa.’

Corentin brightened. ‘They’re swapping us with the Gjallerhorn?’

‘No.’ Reinhardt puffed on his pipe. ‘No, we stay here. In the cold. Waiting. Without hazard pay.’

Corentin let off a stream of French curses which had the corners of Reinhardt’s lips curling, but he was cut off by the rumbling at his breastbone. The two men exchanged glances, before they fished out the lockets hung about their necks, flicking them open to show the mirrors within.

‘Contact,’ came Erik Geiger’s gravelly voice, dark eye gleaming through the mirror from where he was bundled up, warm and dry, in the command centre. ‘Starboard side. Something breaching the wards.’

They were at the prow of the ship, but if there was an incursion, reinforcements would be needed. Wands in hand, the two hurried across the deck to where Eisenhorn and Bertonelli stood at the railing, peering into the darkness. Neither looked particularly concerned.

‘It’s nothing, sir,’ Eisenhorn was saying into her mirror as they got there. ‘Just some water spirits. They must have been attracted by the magic from the portkey enchantments.’

Geiger frowned as Corentin looked at his mirror. ‘That’s the bulk of them. One or two approaching from port. Drive them off if they get too close.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Eisenhorn said. She sounded as disinterested as she usually did. ‘But they’re not approaching further.’

Corentin went to the railing and peered at the darkness. He could barely see the shapes breaking the waves through the gloom, but then a figure surfaced at a patch engulfed by the lights of Rotterdam. There was a shimmer of gold on gold hair, on pale skin, and he gave a crooked grin. ‘It makes the evening nicer.’

He’d been careful to speak away from his communication mirror, but Eisenhorn rolled her eyes. ‘Not if they’re interfering with the detection wards.’ She looked at the reflection of Geiger’s eyes. ‘We’re on it, sir.’

‘A few spells will drive them off,’ said Reinhardt. ‘You two can handle it?’ He was already grabbing Corentin by the sleeve and pulling him back towards the prow of the ship.

‘A few water spirits?’ Eisenhorn looked insulted at the implication.

‘It’s good they pay us so well,’ Corentin muttered as Reinhardt led him around the deck, back towards their patrol sector. ‘Or they wouldn’t have professionals who can handle some water spirits.’

‘They don’t usually come this close to land.’

‘Like Eisenhorn said. Attracted by the magic. And maybe our pretty faces?’ Corentin grinned and elbowed Reinhardt.

And Reinhardt fell over.

Corentin’s wand was in his hand before his partner hit the deck, but as he spun he could see nobody. Not an attacker, not one of the other teams - they had gone too far around the ship - and so when the next Stun came spitting out of literally nowhere, he wasn’t ready. It hit him dead on and he collapsed to the deck with a solid thump that rattled his bones and made his head spin.

Which meant he couldn’t do more than gawk as the shadows shifted and a tall, broad, dark-haired man appeared out of literally nowhere, dripping wet, wand in hand. He stared, trying to work his jaw, lift his own wand, but it was all for nothing at the fresh spurt of magic, the sparks rocketing towards him.

Then darkness.

* *

Eva Saida was accustomed to suffering. Physical suffering, emotional suffering, psychological suffering. She had endured it, she had inflicted it, she had attempted to ease it. The last had been her least successful. But there were moments she thought she’d endure all of it all over again if it meant she didn’t have to spend another second clinging to the hull of the Naglfar, engulfed in the freezing waters of the Rotterdam harbour. Warming charms only lasted so long, and she didn’t have her wand. This was going to get dangerous if it lasted much longer.

So when a rope flew over the side, she didn’t stop to question if it was smart to clamber up; she was too damn cold. With a speed that surprised her, she scrambled up to the railing, and her heart lunged into her throat when she saw Albus stood over her.

It was all part of the plan. But she’d spent so long trying to scrub him from her mind, from her guts, that to see him again when all of her senses jangled with professional alertness was jarring.

And he’d changed. They all had, including her, but none as much as Albus. He no longer exuded that warmth, and his encouraging confidence had turned inward, a sharp and steely determination. It had been his greatest virtue that his power and strength spread outward, wrapping over others as protection and a reinforcement, but no more did he reach out.

You. You did this to him.

Forget Rose’s echoing grief, forget the fire that threatened to engulf Matt, and she wasn’t stopping to wonder what had happened to Selena these past years. This was the man who’d made her turn on her whole world, and in return she had shattered his.

‘All clear?’ she said as she grasped the railing.

‘Matt and Rose are at the aft. Starboard still not clear.’

She nodded, bracing her feet on the deck. ‘My wand?’

He pulled her wand from his belt. Under the shroud of the Cloak of Invisibility, he had got the wands through the Naglfar’s wards undetected, minimising everyone’s personal magical signatures as they approached. And once on deck, an illusion of mermaids and water spirits to confuse the wards as to what was actually approaching was child’s play. But they had no idea what lay beyond the decks of the Naglfar, and she didn’t want to be unarmed.

His grip on her wand was tight as he levelled it at her. It wasn’t a proper grip of a man who meant to use it, but she still had a wand in her face, and for a moment their eyes met, blazing dark against green as hard as jade. Her mouth went dry. ‘Albus…’

He could kill me here, lie to the others, say the guards found us. They’d never know. They probably wouldn’t ask.

Then a shadow shifted over his shoulder, and she moved without thinking. His wand was in his other hand, near the rope he’d conjured, and it was for that she reached. He was too startled, locked in his hesitation, and then she had his wand, was raising it, letting off a Stun -

- which hit the Thornweaver guard who’d just rounded the corner to see them.

Albus’ head whipped around as the Thornweaver hit the deck, and the hesitation left his face for shock and, she thought, something softer around the edges when he looked back at her. Shame? He let out a deep, quavering breath. ‘Good eyes.’

Eva swung over the railing, and flipped his wand back to him, handle-first. ‘You need to keep your eyes on the mission. You can kill me later.’

There was no point in pretending he hadn’t considered it. If only for a heartbeat. Colour rushed to his cheeks as they swapped wands, and for a moment he was the young man whose ideals had infected her, whose good nature had choked to death the woman she’d once been. ‘I don’t -’

‘This op goes better if we stop pretending, and if we focus on the enemy. I promise you’ll get your chance once Selena’s safe. In-fighting in the meantime is a great way for everyone to wind up dead.’ She looked up and down the deck before she met his gaze. ‘When this is over, find me. And we’ll finish this.’ If she was honest with herself, she had no idea what would happen at that finish. But it would get them through tonight.

He turned away without an answer, sent another spell at the fallen Thornweaver to keep them unconscious, and raised his wand up in a ready guard. ‘Let’s get to the others.’ She followed him down the deck, watching their backs, and soon the question of how Rose and Matt’s sweep was going was answered with the sound of magic. ‘Come on!’ Albus urged.

They rounded the corner to the open middle section of the freighter and burst into a firefight. Spells rocketed across them, and she had to grab the back of Albus’ sopping wet jacket to pull him out of the way of a Stun. But at least they could see both sides of the fight.

Everyone was spread out. One Thornweaver had Matt pinned down behind a packing crate, spells thudding into the wood and sending splinters flying while all he could do was reinforce his cover with magic so it didn’t shatter. Rose was in a better position, out in the open and up to her elbows in a pitched duel with the other Thornweaver, magic flying between them so quickly that even Eva couldn’t see whose spell was whose.

‘Stick with me,’ Albus said before she could offer input, and ran along the side of the cargo container they’d emerged from behind, keeping in its shadow with the hope they hadn’t been noticed yet. She was of a mind to split up and reinforce both allies at once, but she knew better than to argue once the call had been made. And she’d trusted his combat instincts once. She followed.

The Thornweaver on Matt was too focused on trying to blast his cover to smithereens to spot them, but it wasn’t to him that Albus went. He led her to a cargo contained on the port side, to the flank and behind the Thornweaver, and glanced to Eva as their shoulders hit metal. ‘Give me a boost up,’ he whispered.

She wasn’t sure why he was keeping his voice down under the spray of spells, but without a word she Levitated him up. He could have climbed, even if he’d be noisy and slow; they weren’t about to be noticed, and it was only when she heard the gurgle and thud of a body hitting metal that she realised.

There’d been a third Thornweaver on a vantage point up high, probably waiting for a clear shot before they struck and revealed themselves. She hadn’t even spotted them.

Albus’ head stuck over the edge a heartbeat later. ‘I got Matt. Go to Rose.’

There was a firefight between Eva and Rose, so that took looping around the back again. Matt was still pinned down, but she could see Albus settling for a clear shot on the Thornweaver raining spell after spell down on him. Al would be timing his strike, making sure he could get a Stun off in a lapse in the Thornweaver’s concentration so it could break through any Shield in one go. But that wasn’t her priority now, not her fight to assess.

The fight she had to assess was brutal.

Rose and the Thornweaver she fought had given up on niceties of Stuns. Both women were now hurling slashing strikes that ripped clothes and threatened lethality. Blood streamed down the side of Rose’s face from a cut at her cheek, and the Thornweaver’s left arm hung useless by her side, the bone broken. This had become a fight of kill or be killed.

Eva’s instincts approved. The crumpled embers of old memories curled up inside her gleamed a strange sort of distress; not compassion, but grieving for something long gone.

It was those embers, not her instincts, which won as Eva ducked behind a wooden crate and hurled spells to reinforce Rose. The Stun rocketed at the Thornweaver, but sheer bad luck had the woman spin away from the magic. Eva had to duck at the counterstrike -

Then a heavy, metal shipping container flew through the air and thudded into the Thornweaver. There had to be the most exquisite precision to its movements, because the container stopped the moment it sent her flying, and while the Thornweaver hit the deck hard, she was still breathing. The sparks of Rose’s spell barely died at the tip of her wand before she finished it off with a Stun.

Eva let out a string of involuntary curse words in her native Arabic, and that had Rose reel around, wand raised before she saw her.

‘Thanks for the distraction.’

Eva stood, blinking. ‘That crate could have easily killed her.’ The impact alone could have been enough, but the slightest miscalculation in its flight would have kept it going, turning anyone into a smear.

Rose lifted a hand to the cut on her cheek. It had not sliced through her cold, impassive mask. ‘I knew what I was doing. But I wouldn’t have been that sorry. She tried to Avada Kedavra Matt.’

I would have once thought that to be a good reason to not hold back. Now, she just didn’t know what to say, but the reminder of Matt prompted her to turn to the rest of the fight. Just in time to see Albus launch a spell with surgical precision to take down the last Thornweaver standing.

‘There’s no telling if they’ve raised the alarm,’ said Rose in a calm, matter-of-fact manner, like she hadn’t just almost turned a human being into a bloodied smear, when the four of them reconvened in the middle of the deck. ‘They’ve got two-way mirror lockets to communicate below decks. I don’t know if they got the chance to send a message.’

If her lasting legacy to the Council of Thorns was popularising that form of instant communication, Eva was going to scream. ‘We have to assume they did raise the alarm, and move fast.’

‘I say we split up,’ said Matt. ‘It’s confined space below decks; neither our numbers nor theirs will make much difference. We might find records in the command centre, or we’ll need the Portkey rituals to get the transport histories at the very source.’

‘Then I’m on the rituals,’ said Rose. ‘I’m the best at unpicking those. Which means I should take Al or Saida; you two are the best fighters, you should be split up.’

No arguments here. Eva looked between them. ‘I’ll go with Matt to the command centre. If there are additional Council wards or mechanisms there, I’ll have the best chance of figuring them out. And that’s where Geiger’s most likely to be; I know him, I know how he fights.’

‘I would prefer to avoid Geiger entirely,’ said Rose.

‘So would I. But we might not have that luxury. He’s one of Raskoph’s personal favourites; do not underestimate him.’

‘We’ve got the plan,’ said Matt. ‘If they raised the alarm, we might see reinforcements from elsewhere. So we’d better move fast.’

They split up, Eva leading the way to the aft stairway, the closest access point to where the magical signatures of the wards converged below deck. All of the ship’s defences had to be controlled from there, and if the Council was keeping any kind of records of what happened on board the Naglfar - which Eva wasn’t convinced would be the case - that was where they’d be.

The stairway was dank and gloomy, the air stagnant and salty, the walls dripping and mouldy, and they couldn’t advance quietly on metal steps. But it was empty, and so Eva kept her wand up and watched the hatches ahead for of the slightest twitch of movement, Matt close on her heels, sword in hand. She approved. In these close quarters, that could make all the difference.

But still she had to speak. ‘When did the lot of you become willing to kill?’

Matt took a heartbeat longer to answer than he should have. ‘We’ve not killed.’

‘No, but if Rose had twitched in the wrong way, she would have turned that Thornweaver into paste.’

‘You do what you have to in a fight. She didn’t kill anyone. And suddenly you’re passing judgement?’ His voice was tight. ‘I’ve seen your file, Eva Saida. I know how many people you’ve killed.’

‘Like hell has my every kill been identified in official records,’ she said without pride. ‘You didn’t even know I worked for Baz, and I assure you I’ve killed Thornweavers for him in the last two years.’

‘And you’re getting uppity about us?’

‘I would need to be truly delusional to judge. But it’s -’

Then his hand was on her shoulder, and she clamped down with iron control on the instincts which told her to blow a hole in his skull just for touching her without her permission. ‘Let me make this clear,’ Matt hissed in her ear. ‘I didn’t want you along because I like you, or because I forgive you, or because I think you shouldn’t be thrown in the darkest, dampest cell when this is over. You know about the Council. You’re a good fighter. That is it. So I don’t need your ethical opinions on people ten times better than you.’

She didn’t look at him, because then she wouldn’t be looking at the corridor ahead. ‘You want Selena back more than you want to indulge your personal issues,’ Eva said, voice calm. ‘That means that you’re the last person here I’m afraid of.’

‘Maybe,’ Matt grumbled, letting his hand drop. ‘But I’m the person here with you.’

She could have blasted him against a wall, proved that even with her back to him, she could drop him in a heartbeat. Once, she would have, just to make a point. But they had work to do, more important concerns than their group dynamics, and even though Eva wasn’t convinced the collective damage of the remains of the Hogwarts Five wasn’t going to get them all killed, she kept silent and carried on into the belly of the beast.

* *

‘If we see Geiger,’ said Rose, ‘we need to open fire as quickly as possible.’

Albus led the way as they advanced down the stairway to the cargo bay. ‘You kept up your fighting skills.’

‘The Council of Thorns spent the last few months trying to kill me. Again. You think I had a choice?’

‘You’re better than you were. More vicious.’

I don’t know if that’s better. Getting a look of shock from Eva Saida for her recklessness with lives was not an accomplishment of which Rose was proud. Then again, nothing made her feel proud these days. Certainly very little made her feel guilty, and almost killing a Thornweaver who would have slain her and Matt without batting an eyelid didn’t come close. ‘I want to get through this with all of us alive and safe. Including Selena.’

They cleared a doorway to the next stairwell down, saw nothing but gloomy metal and heard nothing but an echoing drip. Albus frowned. ‘The alarm can’t have been raised. There might not be many crewmembers left, but we’d have seen them by now.’

‘Unless they’re reinforcing key locations.’

‘Except we could just blow this whole boat up and cripple Council operations. No, they’d be intercepting us if they knew we were here,’ said Albus, and swung out into the corridor ahead of her. Then he froze. ‘Shit.’

‘What?’ Rose darted after him, wand ready. Then she, too, stopped. ‘Oh.’

‘That wasn’t us.’ Further down the corridor lay a pair of bodies, unmoving, their own blood pooled around them. They had the same kind of worn garb as the Thornweavers up top, and they were definitely dead.

‘Someone else is here,’ said Rose, voice dropping.

‘And they’re ahead of us.’ Albus gritted his teeth. ‘Forget subtlety. We need to move fast,’ he said, and pointed his wand down.

‘What’re you doing?’

He glanced up at her before the tip of his wand sparked. ‘Shortcut.’

She was reminded of the time they’d broken into the Headmaster’s Office in Hogwarts, three years ago now, inspired by the Marauders’ Map and the echoes of his grandfather and his friends. But back then their pressing concerns had been possible danger of possible death, and the teen-aged woes of her romantic tangling and mishaps with Scorpius.

Not definite death, definite abduction, and the grief of earth-shattering loss. The memory felt like it had happened to someone else.

But the principle held firm, and within seconds Albus was clambering through a hole in the deck onto the level below, clearing the way before he helped her down. ‘Three decks until the cargo bay.’

Searing through the floor made short work of those decks. ‘Let’s not break into the cargo bay like this,’ she said as her boots hit metal for the third time. ‘From the schematics, it’s about five metres high. We might not get an uninterrupted levitation down if someone is in there.’

‘Except that every wand is going to be pointed on the stairway,’ said Albus. ‘We attack like this, take them by surprise.’

Rose frowned at him. ‘You never used to be this foolhardy.’

‘And you used to be less cavalier with lives.’ Albus flourished his wand at the deck. ‘People change. Get ready to move the moment the way’s clear; element of surprise only lasts us so long.’

They were supposed to be the level-headed ones. The calm, thoughtful members of their family, the ones who didn’t do foolish, risky things. People did change, Rose had to concede, as the floor burst out from under them, and she dragged Albus down with her, casting a frantic levitation along with a shield. She could protect them, get them to the deck, and he could -


- hurl down fire at anyone objecting to their rude entrance.

The cargo bay was a huge metal chamber, dimly lit, devoid of any actual cargo. But it was all the brighter for the ritual markings etched directly into the metal, permanent enchantments woven into the hull itself which could grant the power of a Portkey to anywhere in Europe, maybe even further. They ran across the deck and up the bulkheads, crawled along portions of the ceiling, and gleamed a vivid blue to cast everything with an ethereal, unreal light.

Including the three Thornweavers who stood with wands pointed at the empty stairway.

The good news was that they hadn’t expected someone to come through the ceiling. The bad news was that there was no cover, and when Rose and Albus hit the deck hard, the levitation stopping bones from breaking but the impact still enough to rattle them, they were out in the open. One of the Thornweavers gave a bellowed warning in German, and then the air was thick with spells. Albus’ Stun on their descent had staggered one, but not dropped him, and so it was three on two. And one of them was Erik Geiger.

He was a big man, about the size of Albus, grey-haired and in long, traditional wizarding robes where his comrades wore plain, hard-wearing Muggle clothing. There was barely a flicker in his eye when he parried the first spell she flung, and when his counter-strike thudded against her shield, it was enough to knock her back a few steps.

‘I’ve got him,’ she hissed to Albus. ‘You take the others.’

He only grunted his assent, and like clockwork they moved. They’d not been back to back in a fight in over two years, but old habits died hard, and so there they were, spreading out so the Thornweavers couldn’t focus their fire, close enough that she could help him parry a spell, or so he could fling a distracting blast at Geiger to give her a spot of breathing room.

Her plan wasn’t to go toe-to-toe with one of the Council of Thorns’ most formidable wizards and win. But she reckoned she could hold him off until Albus dealt with the other two, and then together they could drop Geiger. It was an ambitious plan, Rose had to concede as she was forced to move twice as fast, cast twice as fast, duck and weave and parry with more effort than Castagnary and his goons had ever dragged out of her, but it was the best plan they had.

And there were heartbeats, as the magic hummed through her veins and the spells shot past her and rattled off her shields and the air crackled with death and power, where she felt more alive than she had since bursting into a chamber in Ager Sanguinis with an iron-clad resolution that failure was not an option.

She’d failed anyway. She would not do so again.

Magic fizzed past her ear, Albus let off a spell which dropped one of the Thornweavers, and the odds were shifting to even out, if not favour them -

Then two figures in the black robes and masks of Thornweavers emerged from the stairwell, and Rose’s heart caught in her throat. Geiger called reinforcements. We’re fucked.

The new arrivals sprinted across the cargo bay to line up with Geiger and his remaining crewmate. Their opening volley of spells were not subtle, were not sudden, and shields could easily be raised against them in time. But still the magic thudded into Albus’ protections, then through them, then into him, and then Albus was hitting the deck and Rose was stood alone against four Thornweavers.

Geiger let out a rattling exhale, worn and tired but triumphant. ‘Surrender,’ he said, ‘and I won’t -’

Then one of the masked arrivals shot him in the back, and chaos was come again.

What the hell is going on?

Geiger wasn’t dropped, but he and his comrades were turning on one another in frantic confusion, and for a moment nobody was paying Rose any attention. She turned to sprint towards Albus’ fallen form, but then the one who’d shot Geiger pulled off his mask, and a familiar voice rang out, one she’d never forget and had heard not all that long ago.

Prometheus Thane.

‘Weasley! Return the favour and give us a -’

It wasn’t conscious hatred that made her stop halfway to Albus and turn her wand on Thane. Even if he’d saved her in Hogsmeade, even if she wasn’t sure if Albus was alright, she couldn’t stifle the wave of sheer hatred which turned everything into a narrow, focused tunnel with only one, simple goal.

Kill him.

And now it was a three-way fight. Thane was forced back as he had to parry the blasts of Geiger and Rose, with no choice but to go on the defensive, and Geiger and Rose remained happy to take pot-shots at each other. Red and gold and green gleamed against the blue tinge to the metal, shrouding them in a kaleidoscope of spells and pain, and Rose knew that this moment was now the most alive she’d felt in years.

With vengeance at her fingertips.

There was a blast from behind her, and she was only dimly aware of Geiger’s ally dropping to the deck. Thane parried her Stun with gritted teeth, and looked to his counterpart. ‘Get her off me!’ he ordered. Even as she broke off from Thane to round on his masked ally, she couldn’t help but give a twisted grin of satisfaction that she’d left him that frantic, that hard-pressed. With or without Geiger’s help.

But then Thane’s ally was in her face, black mask too dull to reflect the spells flying around them, not even his eyes visible under the dark lenses. He was no Thane, no Geiger, and she could feel magic and hatred bubbling through her veins like a drug, enough to turn his spells aside, enough to hurl blow after blow down on him. He was using Stuns, but she had no such compunctions, and he was forced back, parrying and Shielding and barely able to hold his own.

Thane and Geiger were entrenched in their fight, and Albus still wasn’t moving, and a small part of Rose’s mind wondered where Saida and Matt were, if they were running into Thane’s men or Geiger’s. But even the concern for Matt didn’t override the fire in her, and so it was with grim satisfaction that she watched her opponent dive to one side to avoid her next spell, his shields not holding. It meant her reflexes were sharp enough that when a shadow loomed to her right, a new assailant she hadn’t expected, she was ready for it, reeling around to hurl her magic at -

Nothing. An illusionary opponent, just a shape who dissipated at her blast, a diversion. And then a spell from her masked enemy’s wand cracked into her side and sent her flying. She hit the deck hard, head spinning at the impact, and though she kept her grip on her wand, the world didn’t even out enough to let her regain control of the fight. The masked figure advanced, magic sparking at the tip of his wand, and had she been in his situation, she’d have fired right away, finished her off.

He didn’t, and she had to exploit that error. Not with a spell at him, because he’d be ready for that. Instead, magic burst to his left, hitting the bulkhead with a harmless crackle, and he hesitated. Until the engravings she’d hit, not with a hex but with a spell to unravel that section of the ritual, sparked - and exploded as the enchantments destabilised with a burst of now-uncontained power.

The world evened out for her as he went flying, hitting the deck with a shout of pain, clutching at his face. He wasn’t, she reflected with dissatisfaction, dead or unconscious, and she rose with her wand in hand, advancing to finish him off. He was lucky he’d worn the mask, she saw as he pulled the charred, smoldering remains away, because otherwise it might have done serious damage to his-

And Rose stopped when she looked down into the face of Scorpius Malfoy.

His eyes, more blue than ever in the shimmering lights of the portkey rituals, widened as they locked onto her, and there was that familiar twist of the lips of the wry, sheepish smile that had been etched into her dreams. He drew a raking breath. ‘I told you I’d come back every time.’

Blood rushed in her ears, hatred howled away for echoing, cavernous loss, and the tiniest shard of her that could still think screamed at her to act, to cast, to Stun him, to destroy him - that this was a trick, a manipulation from Thane, that she was playing into his hands.

She didn’t move. And that shard screamed that she was a fool when ‘Scorpius’, realising she wasn’t going to act, rolled onto one knee, lifted his wand -

And blasted Geiger with a spell that sent him flying through the air, only to be struck by a finishing blow from Thane. Magic echoed through the bay into oblivion, until there was only the gleam of the rituals, the blood pounding in Rose’s ears, and Prometheus Thane and the man who looked like Scorpius Malfoy turning to face her.

‘Well,’ said Thane, grimacing. ‘This is a bit of a pickle.’

‘Rose.’ The man who looked Scorpius lifted his hands, twisting his wand in his grip so it was pointed down, unthreatening. ‘It really is me, Rose, I promise -’

‘Not helping,’ snapped Thane, advancing. ‘This isn’t the time to -’

Don’t move!’ Her voice came out creaky, nearly hysterical, and now her breathing was harsh, ragged, air suddenly insufficient. ‘Thane, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but I’m going to kill you -’

‘You’re not,’ said Thane, sounding rather tired. ‘Because we outnumber you. You could let us patch up Potter, take the information from the ritual, and then go…’

The impostor looked at Thane, his brow creasing. ‘It’s not -’

‘I am not blowing this operation because of her!’ Thane snapped.

They all turned at thudding footsteps on the metal stairway, and Rose felt so light-headed she thought she really might pass out when Eva and Matt, who had a folder tucked under one arm, burst into the cargo bay with wands brandished.

They, too, froze. And Thane let out a deep breath. ‘Eva. It’s always lovely to see you.’

Eva Saida’s dark gaze flickered between the two men. ‘The feeling isn’t mutual. This is sick, Prometheus, even for you.’

‘I really am -’

Okay!’ Matt’s voice rang out to interrupt the man who sounded like Scorpius, authoritative despite the shake. ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but Thane, I’ve got you covered, and… whoever the fuck you are, Rose’s wand is on you. Saida, make sure Al’s alright.’

‘He’s breathing,’ came Scorpius’ voice. ‘I checked.’

‘You’re not talking,’ Matt continued. ‘We don’t have time to stick around. Geiger called in reinforcements; we could have more Thornweavers on us at any moment. But we’ve got the ritual records, so we’re going to get Albus up, and we’re going to go. And I swear, Thane, you’re going to get yours some day…’

Something flashed in Prometheus Thane’s eye - then he barely twitched, magic flew from his wand, and Matt was knocked into the stairs with a clattering of metal and a yelp of pain. Eva, stood over Albus, rounded on Thane, and Rose knew she was supposed to do something but wasn’t sure what -

Enough!’ That was Scorpius, and it sounded like him, not like a decoy breaking identity, even though his wand lashed out for a spell to disarm Eva - then, a split-second later, Thane, too. Leaving only the impostor and Rose with wands, and she had no idea what she was supposed to do with hers.

Thane scowled. ‘Malfoy, this is -’

‘This is my operation, Thane.’ The man who looked like Scorpius gave Rose a quick glance, noted the wand she couldn’t bring herself to point at anything, and turned to Albus’ fallen form. ‘Ennervate! Now…’

‘This is a trick,’ said Eva in a low, flat voice, gaze going to Rose. ‘This is what Prometheus Thane does. He finds your weak spot, he exploits it -’

‘We didn’t know you were here,’ the impostor cut her off. ‘We certainly didn’t have any of my hair lying around for a convenient Polyjuice Potion so we could… what? Manipulate you into cooperating? We’ve been doing perfectly fine with our own people for the last eight months.’

Matt sat up with a stiff groan. He’d dropped his wand, but Rose saw him reach for his sword, even if he was a long way away and had no chance of closing the distance. ‘I don’t care to theorise what Thane and his goons -’

‘Doyle; you decided to make a pass at Rose on San Salvador. I decided to forgive you on account of you getting yourself a little bit killed after exposure to Eridanos on Brillig Island to save us,’ the man who looked like Scorpius reeled off with Scorpius’ calm, dismissive superiority. He turned to Eva. ‘I… have nothing to prove to you. I don’t care if you believe me.’ Then he looked at Albus, who had sat up with a groan only for them to lock eyes, and there was a long silence cracked by the sound of a leak somewhere dripping onto the metal deck. Scorpius drew a slow breath. ‘We were mates since the Hogwarts Express. I once short-sheeted Oakes’ bed with linen made of Forever-Folding Thread and Professor Tully had to be called in to get him out. We won our last ever Quidditch match against Hufflepuff four-sixty to two-eighty, and you scored thirteen of those goals and I scored eleven, except I’m sure it’s twelve ‘cos it bouncing off Bellamy’s arse and through the hoop should really not count as his goal…’

She could see his throat tightening, hear his voice starting to tumble over itself, and it was like she’d fallen into a dream when he turned and his eyes fell upon her. ‘And you… and you and I… we stood in a jail cell in Lisbon and I…’ But his voice trailed off, the words lost, and for long seconds they could only stare at each other.

And you said you loved me.

Then Albus was standing, advancing with thudding footsteps, and grabbed the man who looked like Scorpius - to pull him into a bear hug. ‘What the hell - how the hell -’

‘I’m sorry - it’s a long story, I’m sorry…’ Scorpius all but collapsed against Albus, clutching at his jacket with white-knuckled fervour, and that was the moment where Rose felt something other than numb shock. Seeing how he turned to Albus, seeing how he returned the embrace, hearing the grief in his voice, she couldn’t help but lower her wand.

There was too much of a chance this was real.



‘Don’t screw around with the fuckhead! Trust the fuckhead!’

‘Heh, yeah. Trust the fuckhead.’

- Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis

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