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Chapter 22 : And Fame Again
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Avoiding romance meant Albus had missed some of the truly awful and fundamental moments of growing up. Sure, he’d fallen madly for a woman who’d systematically lied to and manipulated him, and had for two years believed the entire relationship hollow and meaningless only to discover it was painfully more complicated than that. But he’d never had a stupid public argument about what to do on a Hogsmeade trip, he’d never had petty jealousies and irrelevant miscommunications, and he’d never had to introduce a girl to his parents before.
But now the last was happening, only the girl was the one who’d lied to him in a very complicated way, and it was only his mother because his father had already met her when he’d let her out of prison.
‘Mum,’ said Albus, stood in the living room at the Godric’s Hollow house and wishing the floor would swallow him, ‘this is Eva Saida. Eva. This is my mother. Ginny Potter.’
‘Actually,’ said Ginny with a dangerous glint in her eye, ‘we’ve met. In Lisbon. Only she was calling herself “Lisa” back then. We didn’t talk much.’
‘I was hiding,’ Eva said, voice far too bland. ‘Trying to avoid too much direct contact with the authorities.’ Her hands were clasped in front of her, but Albus could see how hard she was gripping, could see the tension in her jaw, even if every inch of her was being forced into a calm, polite demeanour. She was a master of lies and identities, so he had to wonder if she was fighting the instinct to manipulate, or if she didn’t have a mask for being a guest in a quiet West Country cottage. Or she was genuinely too rattled to lie.
‘On account of that whole “spy and traitor” thing,’ said Ginny, too cheerful. ‘Yes, I can see why you wanted to keep a low profile.’ Albus shut his eyes, but then his mother was still talking. ‘The guest bedroom’s ready. My husband Floo’d ahead to tell me.’ There was a particular emphasis on ‘tell’ which Al didn’t like, but the argument between his parents about this was far too low on his priority list right then.
‘Thank you,’ blurted out Eva, and when Albus opened his eyes he found her staring at a spot inches above Ginny’s head. There was another, awkward pause. ‘You have a nice house.’
Oh my God, she really has no idea what to say. He fished wildly for a topic as his mother narrowed her eyes, and settled on the usually safe, ‘What’s for dinner?’
‘You don’t need to cook for me,’ Eva stammered.
‘Don’t be silly,’ said Ginny with a smile that wouldn’t melt butter. ‘If we’re putting you up for the night, you’re going to get fed. Dinner in this house is always something that can be reheated easily, because the Council of Thorns rampaging across the world, brutally massacring people, means my husband’s often back late. So we don’t wait for him. But I’m putting on a roast lamb.’
The points were so sharp even Albus felt them. He cleared his throat. ‘Please tell me James isn’t coming over.’
His mother gave him a look that said she wasn’t that cruel. ‘Sometimes, your brother fends for himself. Sometimes, he gives himself food poisoning, but there’s not much I can do about that.’
‘If you’re cooking,’ said Eva, stilted as ever, ‘can I help?’
The idea of his mother making dinner with Eva Saida’s help was enough to make Albus’ head spin, but mercifully Ginny looked like letting her into the kitchen would be an invasion too far. ‘No, no. It’s fine. I should get back to it. Al, you know where the spare room is. Make yourself at home.’
Her smile was still like a knife when she swept out of the living room and into the kitchen, and Eva shut her eyes, muttering something under her breath in Arabic that Al suspected was a once-forgotten prayer. When he approached, she looked up at him, expression flat. ‘She’s going to stab me in my sleep.’
‘No,’ said Albus firmly. ‘She’d kill you face to face.’
She let out a slow, controlled breath. ‘Then let’s see to this guest room. And if your father hasn’t sorted out the funds by tomorrow, I’ll just sleep in a ditch. Or a Dementor nest. You know, somewhere safe.’
‘My Mum is many things,’ said Al, leading her to the stairs, ‘but she’s not worse than Dementors.’
They climbed the stairs, past his bedroom, down the corridor to the guest room. He was at the door before he stopped and looked back to see her paused at the top of the landing, gaze roaming over every inch of the walls - at the pictures. Family photographs had waved on the way up, and they continued here, a gallery of memories in an eternal loop.
She jerked after a heartbeat of his eyes on her, and looked over apologetically. ‘Coming,’ she stammered, and hurried to catch up, but the stunned air about her remained.
‘This used to be James’. But he’s had his own place for years now. I guess with Lily still home for holidays and… and hoping I’d come back, James drew the short straw on whose room becomes a guest room,’ said Albus, not quite looking at her as he opened the door. ‘Thankfully they cleared out all of the Quidditch stuff. So many pictures.’
‘I’m not in the right house,’ mused Eva, ‘to say I don’t really care for Quidditch, am I?’
He thought that might be a worse admission than her entire identity being a lie. ‘You’re really not.’
She raised an eyebrow and he would swear there was amusement, but then she looked into the room and saw the clothes laid out on the freshly-made bed. ‘Oh, no…’
Albus grimaced. ‘I guess Mum realised you wouldn’t have a change of clothes, coming out of prison and all.’
Eva just stared. ‘I can tell when people hate me. Usually not hating me is the exception. She hates me.’
‘Maybe. But this family has made a tradition of taking in waifs and strays. I guess that’s some of her old stuff, though you’re a little taller, so maybe it’s been altered…’
Her gaze didn’t move from the bed. ‘Where’s the bathroom?’
‘Second door on the right -’
‘I think I’m going to shower before dinner. If there’s time?’
Still she didn’t move, so he stepped back, gave her space. ‘Probably. Yeah.’ There was no answer, so he left her to deal with the apparent trauma of a guest bedroom, and headed back downstairs. The sound of chopping wafted from the kitchen, and he stepped in to find his mother swishing her wand with unusual venom at vegetables.
She stopped when he came in. ‘You found everything alright? There are fresh towels in the bathroom -’
But then he’d crossed the kitchen to wrap his mother in a bear hug, burying his face in her shoulder. It was a thank you and a desperate plea for comfort and an admission of his utter confounding all in one, and she didn’t hesitate when she returned the embrace.
‘You’re mental,’ he whispered, shoulders shuddering with emotion and amusement. ‘You’re doing all of this and I don’t think she has a damned clue how to handle it, especially as you’re scaring the shit out of her…’
‘Good,’ said Ginny, and pulled back to press a hand to his cheek, her smile a thin knife-edge. ‘I can put up with you having as stupidly big a heart as your father, but you’ve got to let me have my fun.’
‘It’ll just be one night.’
‘So long as I can keep tormenting her,’ said Ginny, stepping away to return to the cooking, ‘she can stay as long as she wants.’
‘Yeah,’ said Albus, smile wry and pleased. ‘Just one night.’
The situation on the Niemandhorn Express could have been worse. At least they had separate bunks.
Rose had slept poorly, not just because her veins were fizzing with the evening of drinks and dinner and trying to act like she and Scorpius were normal people. Not just because the thought of Matt sometimes reared up to stab her in the gut with pain and guilt. But because Scorpius was asleep just below her, and in the darkened silence of the cabin, she could hear him breathing.
It was the simplest, most essential thing. And if she slept, maybe this would prove another one of those dreams where she woke up and he was gone and the world was cold and colourless.
She did, of course, slip away eventually, and when she woke it was with a start, because with the trundling of the train, in the bright morning light of their ascent into the Swiss mountains, she couldn’t hear him any more. Rose clutched the side of the bunk, stuck her head over to find the bottom bed empty, and her heart lunged into her throat, spots appearing in front of her eyes -
But the bed was slept in, the sheets rumpled, and of course this wasn’t fake because she was going to Niemandhorn with him and -
There was the sound of a toilet flushing from the bathroom compartment, and running water, and then the door opened. Scorpius froze, fully dressed. ‘Um.’
She realised she was staring at him like going to the loo was the most shocking thing that had ever happened, and shook her head, blinking away fatigue. ‘Nothing. Sorry.’
He looked away and went to the cabin window, pulling the blinds up. ‘Huh. Snow.’
She glanced over, watched the Swiss mountains swishing past the train, peerless white peaks stabbing upwards. ‘I guess we can’t be that far.’
‘Train comes in at ten o’ clock, local time.’ Scorpius reached for his pocket-watch, the one Harry had given him, which had been amongst the effects she’d hung onto for the last two years. ‘So we’ve got a few hours. Time for breakfast and to freshen up.’ He glanced over, and something curled his lip with that secret, amused smile.
Her throat tightened. ‘What?’
He blinked, and the smile died. His gaze snapped back to the window, going cold as the peaks beyond. ‘Nothing. Sorry.’
She closed her eyes and imagined tumbling off the bed into his arms, and then her mind sheared away with the stab of Matt, of two years, of her guilt, of how she’d changed to something cold and broken and distant, to how he’d changed into a murderer and she still wasn’t ready to think about that, let alone know what to feel about that.
Idle daydreaming had been painful, once, but now it was at whole new plateaus of danger.
Scorpius scratched his chin. He hadn’t shaved, and she tried to not remember the scrape of stubble in his kiss, the way the mess took off all his sharp corners, and then she wished she could Obliviate herself. ‘I’ll go check out breakfast,’ he said. ‘You, er. Do your girly things.’
‘Yes, girly things. Like getting dressed.’ Not for the first time, she remembered why Selena was sardonic at everything. It made life easier. ‘I’ll be plaiting pink ribbons into my hair and worrying about my nails and -’
‘I remember how you used to leave the bathroom -’
‘Because men always leave them intact…’
‘I,’ said Scorpius, with what sounded like genuine, haughty offence, ‘care greatly for personal hygiene and appearance. I don’t know how some other men, less good-looking men who certainly have less-good hair, handle their ablutions -’
‘Oh, I remember what you’re like; you shouldn’t be passing judgement on me for…’
The thought seemed to strike them both at the same time, and Scorpius cleared his throat as her voice trailed off. ‘Breakfast,’ he said. ‘Go be girly.’
The old Rose wanted to throw a pillow at him as he headed for the door. No, that wasn’t strictly right; the old Rose wanted to pin him to the door and snog him senseless before dragging him into the bottom bunk, but she couldn’t do that, either, and so she just stared at the ceiling until he was gone.
‘You are a bloody idiot, Weasley, what are you?’ Rose muttered as she clambered out of the bunk, voice taking on the cadence of Selena’s wryness. At least she hadn’t internalised her this time.
It was naive to think this wouldn’t happen. It would be naive to pretend she hadn’t known exactly what was going on when she’d volunteered to go with Scorpius. She was playing with fire, a moth drawn to the flame, and she’d started this even before Matt left her. That had her thoughts spinning with the guilty cocktail of pain and relief and loneliness, but she knew it had done what Matt anticipated: freed her.
It wasn’t that Rose was intending on seducing Scorpius on their world trip. There were far, far too many problems, and that the freshness of her breakup was not the biggest obstacle spoke volumes. But she’d done this for him, come on this trip for him, and even if it was the stupidest, most dangerous thing she could think of doing to her broken feelings and crooked heart, she also knew it wasn’t possible for her to stay away. This wasn’t about a sophisticated plan. This was about following an instinct that had sunk into her bones long ago.
Despite the danger of pain, it felt good to take a risk. She hadn’t felt capable of that in a long time.
She found Scorpius in the dining cart, where they’d sat the previous night and somehow talked about nothing of substance for long hours. It was like he’d prepared for breakfast while he waited, ready with that pack of nonsense conversation that he’d shuffled and now dealt with expert ease.
How good the croissants were. Whether they were allowed more orange juice, or only the one portion which could be generously called a shot. How many times Lillian Rourke had likely used the word ‘united’ in her opening speech to the IMC. It kept them going until a murmur ran through the carriage, and Rose looked from Scorpius’ smirking face to the window as Niemandhorn Castle drew into view.
It was not at the peak of Niemandhorn itself, because Niemandhorn, the mountain no Muggle could ever find, stabbed right into the clouds, taller than any of the Alps. The castle had been half-built, half-carved into the cliffside, a towering success of magical architecture and masonry. Stone as white as the snow gleamed in the morning sun, the fortification which could hold a world council, their security, additional staff, and stand up to any invasion force which didn’t want to suffer earth-shattering casualties, still and serene and formidable as the mountains themselves.
Scorpius let out a low whistle. ‘Okay. I’m impressed. And I’ve really gone off castles.’
‘I can’t think of a place that’ll be safer from Council attacks.’
‘Attacks, sure. Infiltration?’ He grimaced. ‘Infiltrators arrive the same way we do.’
‘We needed major security checks at Paris. They almost didn’t let us keep our wands. And we’ve been vouched for by the DMLE.’
‘Because there’s no way we could have been replaced en route. This could be Polyjuice in my shot of orange juice.’ Scorpius faltered as she glared at him. ‘I mean, it’s not…’
That dampened spirits as they finished breakfast and packed what little had been unpacked, ready to disembark by the time the train pulled into the lone station. The Express was the one and only way to get to the mountain, let alone the castle, and so the platform was heaving with those waiting to receive additional staffers, experts, anyone come to give their input to the IMC.
Neither Rose nor Scorpius studied the crowd that intently, just tried to push through it, because the only people in Niemandhorn expecting them were Lillian Rourke and her staff, and she had far better things to do than receive them. So it was with great surprise that they reacted to a familiar voice piping from below eye level, ‘Mister Malfoy! Miss Weasley!’
They spun with wide eyes to see the short, stout form of a House Elf wearing a well-tailored suit, buttoned to the neck, tie perfect, buttons on his waistcoat gleaming, and Scorpius beamed. ‘Harley!’
‘I always knew Malfoys were sneaky bastards,’ Harley, former Manager of the House Elves of Hogwarts, declared with a glinting grin. ‘Coming back from the dead? Pretty sneaky.’
‘What’re you doing here? Don’t tell me you’re staffing for -’
‘Staff? You’ve been out of the world a while,’ Harley scoffed, ‘so I’ll forgive you your idiot little Malfoy-brain assumptions.’
Rose cleared her throat. ‘Harley heads up the World Elf Alliance these days.’
Harley rolled his eyes and gestured for them to follow him off the platform, still exposed to the chilly mountain air, and into the depths of Niemandhorn Castle and its white, shining halls. ‘Britain leads the way on House Elf rights. But it’s not alone in the world, and the world’s being threatened by the Council of Thorns. Think of us as the House Elf equivalent of the IMC. We can fight, we can make ourselves useful…’
‘And you can play politics with world governments for more rights while you’re at it,’ Rose added.
Harley smirked. ‘I like to think we prove we’re as good, or better, than any wizard. Not that I approve of the idea we need to prove a damned thing, but it don’t hurt to put smug bastards in their place.’
‘So you’re here to represent the House Elves on the IMC?’ said Scorpius.
‘Yeah, I’m in the Convocation chambers in an hour,’ said Harley. Once they were in the sweeping halls of the main castle, the brisk breeze and clamouring crowds and trundling train far behind heavy, closed doors, he reached into his jacket and pulled out folded parchment. ‘Chairman Rourke told me you were coming; reckoned I’d want to know. I’d heard, of course, because the press went crazy, but I thought I’d give you the welcome. This place gets stupid busy.’ He handed the paper over to Rose, which she took with a small sense of satisfaction. Even if he was here for Scorpius more than her, at least he acknowledged she was the organised one. It was the little victories that counted.
‘Room numbers; you’ve got guest quarters for one night. Dining hours are on there, too; tables are in the main hall. Security is posted on delicate areas; it’ll be obvious where you’re not supposed to go. Otherwise, think of this place as a really important, draughty, hotel. Oh, and speaking of the press…’ Harley jerked his thumb over his shoulder. ‘They’re not allowed to linger on the platform. But we’ve got to pass through the welcome hall, and with the train coming in they are going to be thick there, and of course some of them have caught wind that you’re coming -’
Scorpius made a face. ‘They weren’t that mad for me in London.’
‘That’s because Dad kept them away from the hotel,’ said Rose with a sigh. ‘And we booked onto the train so last-minute I bet they didn’t know to find us at King’s Cross.’
‘This is the heart of the IMC,’ said Harley with a shrug. ‘Of course it’s up to its eyeballs in press. I mean, the non-Brits only care so much, you’re not exactly worldwide heroes, but coming back from the dead’s piqued curiosity.’
‘I’m used to press.’ Scorpius shook his head. ‘Let’s just get to our rooms, and then down to business.’
‘I’m going to be busy, no doubt,’ said Harley, ‘but if I can help, you let me know.’
‘Hopefully it’ll be easy.’ Scorpius grinned at the House Elf, and stuck his hand out. ‘I appreciate it, though. And it’s good to see you.’
Harley shook the hand, and gave Rose a respectful nod. ‘And you. Both of you. You kids try to stay out of too much trouble, now, you hear me? I’m this way, down to the Convocation, so… just tell the press to naff off.’
‘I tried that,’ Rose sighed. ‘It never works.’
‘Then I suppose you’re buggered,’ said Harley with his usual thoughtful regard, and swaggered off as best a House Elf could down a different corridor.
Scorpius stared at the doors to the hall, and drew a deep breath. ‘This is nothing we’ve not handled before.’
‘Just dump all questions on the DMLE,’ Rose suggested. ‘They’re used to that.’
‘Yeah.’ He grimaced, then opened the door and into the breach they went.
Niemandhorn sported many great halls of gleaming white stone, marble columns and buttresses, ornate carvings sweeping along walls and ceilings like something out of a winter fairy tale, but none of that could be appreciated when they were welcomed, along with the thronging of other passengers off the train, with flashing bulbs like lighting, and the babbling of voices the thunder to follow.
It wasn’t as if they were the most interesting story in Niemandhorn, but they were the newest, and they’d managed to keep away from the press since Scorpius’ return. This had only encouraged those who cared about the story, and the rest were picking up the scent, so trying to get through the hall was like trying to shoulder-barge a wave.
Most of it they could handle. Questions about Scorpius’ resurrection, about the past eight months, about his alleged association with Prometheus Thane were dismissed without real answers, the journalists told to refer to official DMLE press releases - of which there had been very few. The ones about Draco Malfoy were harder, but it was easy enough to say they knew nothing about his whereabouts and activities, because that was the truth.
But though Rose braced herself for the final, inevitable wave of personal questions, she almost fell over when a German journalist yelled over the hubbub, ‘Mister Malfoy! Miss Weasley! Is it true that your wedding’s back on?’
Was it progress that the question made her want to laugh? Scorpius’ stricken expression almost made that happen, so she grabbed his elbow and kept him moving, heading for the door to the stairway. ‘No,’ she said simply. ‘There is absolutely not going to be a wedding.’
Elaborating just gave them more quotes to twist, so she pressed on and then they were free, because the IMC couldn’t keep the press out entirely but they could stop them from following visitors to their rooms. Once they made it to the stairway they could move freely, tromping up in accordance with the directions Harley had given them, and it was only when they’d made it up one flight and turned a corner that Rose stopped, clutched her gut, and burst into laughter.
Scorpius just stared at her, which made her laugh even harder, and she had to lean on the wall. ‘Oh, Merlin,’ Rose croaked. ‘I’d forgotten that.’
‘They decided…’ It wasn’t funny. It had almost broken her the first time someone hurled the rumour at her in public, and she’d thought her father was going to punch a journalist. But now it was so distant, so ridiculous, that amusement was her only option. ‘After you died, the press decided all sorts of things. One of them was that we’d been engaged before you died.’ There had also, she recalled, the briefest rumour she’d been pregnant, but that hadn’t been more than a whisper before her mother had muttered things into certain ears, something about beetles, and she’d only heard about that one months after it had been killed.
‘Oh, bloody hell. Are you alright?’
‘I can’t breathe.’ After a moment she straightened, sobered, and rubbed her pained stomach. ‘But you’ve got to laugh, don’t you?’
‘Oh, come on. You’ve been back a week; of course you and I fell madly into each other’s arms and decided, hey, there’s a war going on, the situation’s super complicated, but let’s plan a wedding.’
He wasn’t laughing. He wasn’t even smiling; he just reached for the parchment and, with a stabbing guilt at her mirth she couldn’t understand, she let him take it.
‘Yeah,’ Scorpius grunted, turning away. ‘Yeah, that sounds like the sort of crap the press loves.’ Before she could summon a response, he’d pressed on, following the directions on the paper and tromping back up the stairway. ‘Let’s just get to the Alliance records and get the fuck out of here.’
A clean bed. A hot shower. A warm, home-cooked meal. All of it perhaps under the most awkward circumstances of her life, but if Eva Saida had survived ambush and torture and betrayal, she could cope with a bit of social discomfort.
Or such she had told herself through dinner at the Potter household. She didn’t know if she was relieved or not that Harry Potter did not make it home before she’d decided on an early night, genuinely tired and genuinely keen to avoid the chit-chat at the table with Albus and Ginny. She’d stayed mostly silent while the two had discussed politics in a rather bloodless manner, avoiding anything resembling controversy.
The food was superb. No wonder Albus knew how to cook. So she’d eaten while wondering what normal conversation around a dinner table was like for normal people, and knew she’d never be able to even pretend this far.
Sleep had not come easy, despite the comforts - or, more likely, because of them. By instinct she woke early and, feeling too penned in, found some clothes fit for exercise and slipped through the house bathed in the pre-dawn light to sneak out for a run.
Eva didn’t really know Britain. She’d never done a job in the country; the Ministry’s low tolerance for dark magic and formidable law enforcement made it a bad place to find work. She’d worked with plenty of Brits but always associated them, all of them, with the hustle and bustle of London. Godric’s Hollow was something else: quiet, sleepy, a slice of wizarding life pushed up against Muggle ignorance, and so peaceful that the perils of the world might have been a million miles away.
People were up at this time, and she wasn’t sure how many were Muggles and how many were wizards, heading out to walk their dogs or pick up the paper or milk, and all moving with a similar lack of care. They nodded. They waved. They said, ‘good morning,’ as if she were some well-known acquaintance instead of a new face.
It was all very suspicious.
But it was invigorating to get out, to breathe the fresh, cold November air, to feel leaves crunch under her feet and remind herself that there was a world beyond chilled cell walls. Even returning to the razor-sharp hospitality of the Potter home was not so daunting as she finished, trotting up the path and trying to keep quiet as she slid through the front door.
‘Tea?’ called a voice from the kitchen immediately, and Eva fought the instinct to swear and shoot. Ginny Weasley appeared in the door, holding a steaming mug, and her gaze landed on the wand half-drawn. ‘Most people don’t go for a morning jog armed.’
‘I’m not in the habit of going anywhere unarmed,’ said Eva, and didn’t worry too much about being polite because she knew she was being fucked with.
‘Oh, yes. Lots of dangerous ambushes in the shrubs of Godric’s Hollow.’
‘There were dogs. Big ones. They could have been spies.’
Something flickered in Ginny’s eyes. Eva wasn’t sure if it was approval. ‘Did you want that tea?’
‘Er, do you have coffee, please?’
Ginny just huffed and returned to the kitchen. Eva trailed, because she wasn’t sure what else to do. ‘So you’re not going to be here very long.’
Eva tried to pull out a chair at the kitchen table without making much noise. ‘Hopefully Director Potter will have the funds arranged. I really don’t - I appreciate you being hospitable -’
‘It wasn’t my choice.’ Ginny flicked her wand at the kettle and seemed to decide the best thing to do while waiting for it to boil was stare at it with cold judgement. ‘Neither my son or husband is particularly good at asking when they want to bring criminals under our roof.’
‘I’m sorry -’
‘Let’s not,’ said Ginny. ‘I’m sure my hospitality is the least you need to apologise for.’
Eva’s jaw tightened. ‘It’s something I can apologise for.’
There was a long pause, broken only by the whistle of the kettle. Ginny moved to the cupboards. ‘Milk? Sugar?’
‘Black, please. No sugar.’
‘I should have guessed.’
Eva half-rose, words thickening in her throat. ‘Mrs Potter -’
‘I don’t care,’ said Ginny flatly, turning around with a fresh, steaming mug. ‘Explanations, apologies, confessions; what I think of you is irrelevant, isn’t it?’
‘It should be,’ Eva conceded.
‘My son will make his own decisions. He’s good at that. I don’t -’
‘I think making decisions without regard for the ones we care about is a pretty good way to let more hurt into the world.’
Ginny stopped short, and Eva wasn’t sure if she was affronted by the interruption or struck by the words. ‘He doesn’t need my approval for his actions. He does need my support, and he has that, unquestioningly.’ She slid the mug across the kitchen table.
‘Mrs Potter…’ Eva hesitated, then grabbed the mug. It was the easiest next step, but now she’d done it, she had to find a new next step. ‘I don’t pretend my role in this ends anywhere but a grave or a cell. But if I can help your son in this, or in the meantime, I will. If I can do something good in the meantime, for once, I will. I’m not here to corrupt Albus or distract him -’
‘Saida, you might be beyond even my worst nightmares as a girl for Al to bring home, but I’m more worried by the Council and the world than you.’ Ginny tilted her head as she sipped her tea, brow furrowed. ‘Of course, if you hurt him again, I’m going to hex your kneecaps off.’
‘That’s - I can’t argue with that.’
‘Damn right, you won’t. Drink your coffee and then you can help me with breakfast.’
‘This is going to be awkward,’ Matt muttered as he let Selena draw ahead of them down the corridor in the Ministry offices.
‘The latest phase of a worldwide crisis has just hit,’ she admonished, heels like gunshots on marble. ‘I’m rather sure Hermione Granger has more things to worry about than giving her daughter’s ex-boyfriend the evil eye.’
‘She’s a smart woman.’ His shoulders hunched in. ‘She can multi-task. Or delegate.’
‘If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my mother, Hermione Granger never delegates anything she can do herself.’
‘I thought you were trying to reassure me?’
Selena gave him a wispy smile over her shoulder. ‘I’m capricious.’
Somehow, that did reassure him, and he resisted the urge to clutch his bad wrist as they stepped into the offices of the Contagion Task Force, off from the side of the main floor of the DMLE. The stump was starting to burn when he was stressed, so these days it burned all the time.
Hermione Granger stood in the centre of the storm, a map shimmering with changing markers spread before her, staff racing to and fro. When she saw them, her eyes narrowed and Matt’s breath caught. ‘I don’t have time for social visits -’
‘I didn’t know we were on terms for social visits, Ms Granger,’ Selena pointed out as she led Matt over. ‘I know you’re busy -’
Matt squinted at the map. ‘Why? I mean, has the Council unleashed more Inferi?’
‘Not yet, but holding Athens and other magical sites in Greece allows the Council to use them as staging grounds for more attacks. They’ll have an easier time harvesting corpses for their Inferi. We can’t do anything about that; that’s a job for the IMC as a whole, but we have to make sure we have a decent distribution of cures and have the international situation under control…’ Hermione’s voice trailed off, and she pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘I don’t need to brief you.’
‘It was very interesting, though,’ said Selena politely. ‘Really, we should be given security clearance by now.’
‘It would save a lot of trouble,’ said Hermione through gritted teeth. Then she looked at Matt, who took a step back, and something softened around her eyes. ‘How are you, Matthias?’
‘I, er -’
‘I haven’t spoken to Rose, if that’s what this is about. She was with Al. Which is something, at least.’
Matt tried to not feel relieved. He knew Rose was now with Scorpius, and he honestly didn’t want to think about that. But knowing she’d had Albus to turn to, when one of the things he’d worried was if he was taking her support structure by going to Selena, was comforting. ‘I’m glad. This really isn’t about that.’
‘To avoid beating about the bush, we’re getting back in the game,’ said Selena flatly. ‘And we need the Chalice of Emrys.’
Hermione looked unsurprised, pushing herself upright. ‘You want to put it on your mantelpiece.’
‘She means we want to help studying it. Prometheus Thane reckons that if it’s destroyed, it’ll take Lethe with it,’ said Matt.
‘So let’s trust Thane,’ said Hermione dryly. ‘Lockett disagrees with him; did you know that? She thinks that it might deny us a cure. She’s trying to find another way.’
‘I’m not racing to fetch a hammer. But, with all respect to the Professor, she may know Lethe better than I do, but not many people know the Chalice better than I do. And I, in fact, have the one man who does.’
‘De Sablé.’ Hermione’s brow furrowed. ‘Don’t play games with me, Matthias. I’m not going to let you strong-arm me the way your father -’
‘I’m not doing things like Dad; I’d rather not get arrested for doing your job better than you,’ said Matt, nose tilting up. Selena shot him a warning look, but he ignored her. ‘What you really need to do is give me a job.’
‘Working for the team dealing with the Chalice -’
‘Leading the team dealing with the Chalice. Or, leading a team. I have people I know, people I can trust, people who’ll get the job done. Including de Sablé. This has the added bonus of freeing up Lockett to work on Lethe, not the Chalice. Which it seems you need her to do right now.’ Matt shrugged. ‘You know I have my father’s resources. Maybe he couldn’t cooperate with Harry Potter or Lillian Rourke, but I’m not in the business of intelligence gathering or vigilante action. But understanding the Chalice, making it work for us? With you, doing that, I can do business.’
Hermione watched him for a moment more, then harrumphed. ‘You’re so like him, you know?’
‘And to think for years I was told I take after my mother.’
‘You have to, a little, as you’re actually trying to work with us.’ Her lips thinned as she thought. ‘Alright, Mister Doyle. You’ve got a deal. Are you working out of that blasted warehouse of your father’s?’
‘It seems the best place to do it. Off the beaten track.’
‘You get to pick your team, but at least one will be from a list of candidates I will supply; don’t ignore the experience my people have accumulated.’
‘Understood, but I won’t have a spy or a liaison. I report directly to you.’
‘Agreed.’ Hermione glanced at Selena. ‘Are you formally in on this?’
‘Oh, yes.’ Selena gave her chirpy smile that didn’t reach her eyes. ‘I’m the official cheerleader for smart guys who need to save the world. I fetch them tea and buoy up their tragically low self-esteem.’
‘Your mother’s going to kill me,’ Hermione sighed. ‘But at least you’ll be at home. Very well, Mister Doyle, Ms Rourke. I’ll get the paperwork filled in. I need to be in about five different places at once right now, so you’re going to have to excuse me, but in the meantime, welcome to the team.’ She didn’t say another word before walking off into the crashing waves of chaos in the Contagion Task Force’s office, leaving Matt and Selena at the centre with the command table.
‘So,’ drawled Selena. ‘You walked in and demanded your own team leader position in an official Ministry task force. That’s a little different to what we talked about last night.’
Matt grimaced. ‘It made sense once I was talking; I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to ambush you with this -’
‘Oh, please.’ Selena waved a dismissive hand. ‘Like I didn’t know this was where it’d end up. I just didn’t think you’re be so bloody outrageous.’
He pursed his lips. ‘This feels weird. Why does this feel weird?’
‘Because we’re being legitimate, for once? We’re used to being scrappy, independent operators who care nothing for the rule of law.’ She shrugged. ‘I’m more scared that we’re actually qualified for this. When did that happen? When did we become responsible?’
Matt looked down at the still, motionless shape of his prosthetic hand, his arm still in a sling. He could twitch it occasionally, or make a fist, but nothing more complicated, yet. So there it sat, a lump of metal, a reminder of all he’d paid and the looming menace to come.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, and looked up to force a smile for her. ‘But I’m blaming you.’
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