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The Harder They Fall by victoria_anne
Chapter 2 : Stand and Deliver
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 4


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We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.

Author unknown

*


Finn’s stomach was growling.

Sitting on his bed, he thought longingly of dinner in the Great Hall. He looked to the ceiling of the dormitory as if he could see through the smooth stone to the piles of tarts and pies on the tables. To the goblets of pumpkin juice and butterbeer. A loud thump startled him out of his daydreaming. Tom had just dropped three large books onto his own bed. Finn quickly looked back down at the book in his lap, the page open on the Disillusionment Charm. It had been two days since he and Tom had been tasked with finding Henry Potter’s illegitimate child for Grindelwald and made plans to steal the student records from the Headmaster’s office. Finn still hadn’t gotten the hang of making himself invisible with this particular charm.

The wand movement was hard when your arms were short.

He was meant to wiggle his wand around his head, reciting the incantation (nonverbally, at Tom’s request). After a number of failed efforts, he didn’t understand why Tom couldn’t just do it for him, when Finn knew he was more than capable. Finn had even praised him about it, but he’d still refused.

“You need to learn,” Tom had said last night in the antechamber, as the lanterns burned low and the room turned cold. “If we’re to make it to the Ministry, we need to impress Grindelwald. If you’re not up to the task, don’t do it.”

Don’t do it. Something in the casual way he said it made Finn feel like a sulking child.

Tom had continued, “I will rise in his ranks, with or without you.”

“What, you gonna rule by his side?” Finn had asked half-jokingly.

“Not by his side,” Tom had replied. “But I will rule.”

Finn watched as Tom began thumbing through the flimsy pages of the thickest book. It was a charm he was looking for - the Protean Charm, if Finn recalled correctly, but couldn’t remember to what end. It wasn’t in this year’s curriculum as far as he knew. Before Finn could muse on it further, the door of the dormitory flew open and Benedict and Radbourne walked in. Benedict belched loudly, coming to stand beside Finn. “What’re you doing?” he asked, reading over Finn’s shoulder. The smell of garlic and gravy mingled with his aftershave and made Finn’s stomach rumble louder.

He shut the book and rubbed his eyes. “Just a bit of extra Charms homework.”

“Why, Finlay James, I believe you are a swot.”

“Why, Benedict Malcolm, I believe you are rude.”

Radbourne sat on his bed and began tightening the laces on his shoes. “The first duelling club meeting starts in an hour.”

Finn brightened at this. He pushed the book to one side, hiding it from view behind his body. Finally, something exciting at Hogwarts. Something useful that didn’t require a book. He pulled his jumper over his head and bent to retrieve his own shoes from where he had kicked them off behind his trunk.

“I wonder if we can use human targets,” Ben mused, leaning against one of the posts of Finn’s bed.

Finn didn’t need to ask who Ben had in mind. Reminded of the other day in the library, he asked, “What was Patrick talking about, that happened over the summer?”

Ben stopped in the middle of rolling up his sleeves, jaw working as if he was grinding his teeth. “See you down there,” he said, and turned on his heel, slamming the door of the dormitory behind him.

***

Finn, Tom, and Radbourne stepped into the Great Hall right at eight o’clock thanks to Tom ushering them out the door even though Finn only had one sock on. The room had been transformed: the four long tables gone, creating a large area in which a few dozen students were milling. They filled the Hall with the sound of excited chatter, an incoherent hum that reminded Finn uncomfortably of a swarm of bees. Tall dummies were set up in a number of rows down the room, red targets painted on their wooden chests.

Looking past these, Finn found Ben toward the front of the Hall, talking with Corbin Rosier. Beside them was Lucretia and her cousins - or whatever they were - Walburga and Alphard Black. Finn caught her eye and winked, pleased when she blushed and turned away, a smile playing at the corner of her mouth. As he passed, he made sure to brush his arm against hers. It had been a while since he’d spent time with Lucretia.

Ben appeared to be back to normal; he was laughing with Rosier, running a hand over his cropped hair. When the boys reached them, Rosier grinned at Finn and Tom, and clapped Radbourne on the back. “Alright, mates?”

As more students filed into the Hall, Finn shifted his weight from foot to foot, eager to start. He’d never duelled before (he wasn’t going to count shooting random hexes at Hero and first years). The boys hadn’t joined the duelling club last year; not only because they hadn’t needed to, but because they didn’t want to be seen as scared, like the other students were. It was still a concern to risk coming off as another fearful student in need of protection, but if Tom wanted them here, they didn’t have a choice.

As the boys spoke loudly around him, Finn was imagining finding Potter’s child. He hoped they’d have to duel. The situation played over and over in his mind. Finn confronting him or her, pulling out his wand with threats to come quietly or else - as he had once seen his father do. Would the kid put up a fight? Doubtful. They would never be able to match Finn anyway. Grindelwald would be impressed and have no doubt in recruiting Finn into the Besmurten. He patted the pocket that held his wand.

“Can I have some quiet, please?” a familiar voice rang out through the Hall. A hush fell over the room. Finn’s stomach clenched with anticipation. Patrick and the Head Girl, a short fiery-haired Gryffindor, were standing at the front of the room where the staff table usually was. It had been removed for tonight, leaving Patrick and the Head Girl with a clear view, wands to their throats to augment their voices. Out of the corner of his eye, Finn caught Ben cracking his knuckles, eyes on Patrick. His curiosity over what was going on between the Avery brothers grew.

Patrick ran his eyes over the Hall. “Thank you. Now, welcome to this first duelling club meeting of the year! It’s great to see so many people return. We just have a few rules to lay down before we begin.” Patrick looked to the Head Girl, who began to explain the basics of how to work the dummy (which recorded points according to spell hits), the one offensive spell they were allowed to use (Impedimenta) and the two defensive spells (Expelliarmus and Repellum). They were to have teams of six with two people to a dummy. Finn wished she’d shut up so they could start.

“And yes,” Patrick said, “I’ll be taking team names once you have them, and a point system set up, but keep it appropriate, okay? Alright, pair up and grab a dummy!”

Benedict turned to Rosier, and Tom to Radbourne, leaving Finn and Malfoy eyeing each other appraisingly. Finn exhaled through his nose. He jerked his chin. “Let’s do this then.”

Malfoy inclined his blonde head politely - everything so politely - and drew his wand from his robes. They followed the other boys to a line of dummies in the middle of the room. Finn didn’t mind being in the center like this, he’d probably be an inspiration to the other students. Malfoy went first, and aimed at the dummy’s chest. His spell hit the rounded edge, far from the target. Finn held back a smirk as the dummy spun fast on the spot a few times. Then it was Finn’s turn. He retrieved his own wand out from his pocket and took aim. It vibrated softly in his hand, it’s excitement (or was it his own?) traveling up Finn’s arm, making his veins hum with anticipation. He was filled with a sudden feeling that this was what he was born to do; what his wand had been waiting for. The blackthorn wood became an extension of his own arm.

He threw an Impediment Jinx at the target. It hit the bullseye, and he looked at Malfoy smugly. Malfoy just said, “Well done,” and raised his wand once more. They went this way for a few minutes, from offensive to defensive and back again. While he waited for his turn on the offense, Finn let his gaze wander around the room. Patrick was by a pair of Gryffindor girls, showing one of them how to position their fingers. Finn didn’t think the hand on the girl’s back was necessary, but that was none of his business. Beside him, Radbourne had his wand arm raised and sweat glistening along his hairline. Tom looked bored as he changed the settings on the dummy, which was as tall as he. Although Radbourne’s head was facing the target, his eyes kept darting in Tom’s direction. Finn was frowning at the way Radbourne’s hand was shaking, when a searing pain shot across the back of his own fingers. He let out an exclamation as warm blood ran down his wrist. A splinter of wood had come loose after being hit by Malfoy’s spell.

Finn glared at him. “You did that on purpose!”

Malfoy looked aggrieved. “I did not! I’m sorry!”

“Sorry you’re a rubbish shot!” Holding his throbbing hand to his chest, Finn raised his wand in the other and threw a jinx at Malfoy. Malfoy blocked it - and the next one - nimbly, and shot one back. Finn ducked out of the way and the spell hit the dummy, sending it flying backwards into the wall with a loud crash.

“Stop!” cried Patrick, hurrying over to them from the Gryffindor girls.

Finn threw another spell blindly at Malfoy. A sudden force flung him backward and he fell painfully on his side, leaving a smear of blood on the floor. Finn lifted his head, panting, preparing to cast again when he saw Malfoy in the same position on the other side of the room. Patrick was between them, wand out; the one who had forced them apart.

“That’s enough,” he said, eyes flashing angrily. He raised his voice to be heard over the cheering crowd of spectators that had gathered, drawn by the scent of conflict. “That’ll do for tonight everybody. But well done! The next meeting is on Thursday, same time. Blishwick.” He approached Finn, who quickly got up off the floor, still clutching his hand, though the bleeding was already beginning to slow. “Watch your anger. You’re getting too old for petty disputes like this. Now, go to the infirmary to get that cleaned up.”

It was a good thing Finn’s other middle finger still worked, because he showed it to Patrick’s back as the older boy walked away. He searched the room for his friends, and saw Tom and Malfoy in the crowd of students by the door. Their heads were bent close together. Finn watched them disappear with a sting that didn’t come from his hand. Radbourne appeared behind him. “Remember when we first met Tom?” he asked quietly over Finn’s shoulder, following his gaze. “You felt threatened by his intelligence in class at first, determined to not like him because you thought he was cleverer than you. Now look at the two of you.”

Finn made a noncommittal noise.

Radbourne clapped him on the back. “Until you decided that studying wasn’t something you wanted to do, that is. Come on, let’s get your hand cleaned. Sleep calls to me.”

***

If owls didn’t use their wings for something useful, Finn would probably hate them too.

Even so, if one flew too close he would duck in an overstated manner - often to the sniggering of Benedict and Radbourne - and the sound of their feathers rustling gave him the shivers. He could hear them now, mingled with sleepy hoots, as he ascended the stone steps of the Owlery two at a time with a slight tightening of his stomach. He folded and unfolded the letter in his hands, his breath appearing as white mist in front of him in the unusually crisp September morning air. The letter was for his father: a list of the times Finn and Tom could use the Floo Network in the Head of Slytherin’s office. It had been all too easy to organize them. Slughorn was a man of habit.

He folded the letter closed for the one hundredth time as he turned the corner into the Owlery. His shin collided with something solid and warm. Stumbling, Finn let out an exclamation his mother forbade him from using, and narrowly missed hitting his face on one of the nesting boxes by throwing his hands out in front of him. There was the sound of smashing glass. Whatever he had tripped over released a similar high-pitched exclamation. Finn’s mouth almost fell open to hear such a word spoken in a girl’s voice.

It was McCroy. She sat on the floor, surrounded by tiny glass fragments, a dazed look on her face. “Ouch,” she said.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Finn demanded, waiting for his heart to slow from the fright. “Why are you on the floor?”

McCroy examined her hands - covered by crocheted fingerless gloves - and plucked a shard of glass from the brown wool. She dropped it to the stone floor with a tinkling sound. “I wasn’t to start off with. What are you doing stomping around knocking people over?”

“I do not stomp.”

McCroy just stared at him with her eyebrows raised. If she was expecting him to reach down a hand to help her up, she was going to be sorely disappointed. But McCroy didn’t even look at him as she gingerly rose from the ground. She flicked her wand, and the hundreds of shards flew back together and became a jar next to the letter he dropped in his haste to save his face.

“What are you doing here so early?” He stooped quickly at the same time she did, afraid she was going for this letter, but her hands closed around the jar.

“Enough with all the questions,” she said, straightening. “Last time I checked, the Blishwicks didn’t own the Owlery.” She shook the glass jar. “I’m looking for the daisy moth. I’m pretty sure you can find it up here, the owls won’t eat it.”

Finn blinked in surprise. It was barely eight o’clock. She was determined, he’d give her that. All he’d been planning to do was wander around the grounds later for whatever bugs he could find. He stepped around her. “Whatever you say, swot.”

McCroy turned back to the window. “I just really need this Ministry opportunity.”

“Why?” Finn asked, his eyes raised to the rafters, searching for his large white owl.

“I just do, okay?”

Finn held his hands up. “Alright, alright.” He spotted Adonis - snowy white feathers with a black spot on his head - and whistled at him to come down. Finn couldn’t help but scan the brown owls for Villain, but, of course, she was at home. There was no need for her to be at Hogwarts anymore. While he waited, he glanced down at McCroy’s chart, cocking his head to one side to read it better. Her designated half of winged monstrosities was already complete, and notes were scrawled in the beetle section.

“Hey!” he said belligerently, pointing to the parchment. “You’re doing my bit. I said I’d do it.”

McCroy threw a glance at him over her shoulder. “And have you?”

He lowered his hand. “Well, no, but -”

She turned back away, dark red hair covering her face. “I rest my case.”

Finn gritted his teeth, feeling irritated as he stretched out his arm for Adonis. He’d never known a girl to be this aggravating or obsessed with school work. He needed the Ministry opportunity, too. What made her so damn special? Adonis landed on Finn’s shoulder and obediently held out a foot. As he attached the letter, Finn thought on the small part of himself that was tempted to let her do all the work. He had more important things to focus on, after all. How would studying insects help him to help Grindelwald? He took Adonis to the window next to McCroy, who was back on the floor flipping through the pages of a book. The larger part of Finn - an impressive combination of good looks, pride and self-satisfaction - wasn’t going to stand by while a Hufflepuff insulted his intelligence. He leant against the cold stone and watched Adonis grow smaller against the horizon before he cast his gaze downward. The book open by McCroy wasn’t one he recognized for any of their subjects.

Annoyed she had an advantage, he asked, “What’s that?”

McCroy turned another page to a picture of a long human-shaped shadow on a mountain, a rainbow halo of light around its head. “The Brocken spectre,” she said, shrugging. “It’s one of Saffron’s dad’s books, I must have picked it up accidentally when I stayed with her over the summer.”

Finn came to stand next to her. “That doesn’t look anything like a spectre.”

“I know,” she said. “It’s a phenomenon on the mountain. Witches dance with demons up there.” She looked up at him, amused. “You know, Walpurgis Night and all that.”

“And who was he?”

She let out one of her ridiculous loud snorts. “No, night. As in that thing that happens when the sun goes down.”

Finn glared at her. “I’m not an idiot.”

McCroy stood up and brushed her stockings. “Her dad’s German. It’s a German thing. I think it would be fun, dancing at the top of a mountain.”

“It sounds stupid.”

She slipped the book back in her bag and picked up the glass jar. “You’re stupid.”

“Excuse me?”

She met his eyes. “You judge everything straight away by what you see. Life is too short to live that way, you know.”

“What are you, an expert?”

McCroy looked out the window, a blush traveling up her neck.

“An actual knight would be better,” Finn said.

She turned back to him and snorted again. “Is that what your little Slytherin group is? Knights to King Riddle?”

Finn narrowed his eyes, but heat crept up his own neck. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know what it means. You all follow him and do everything he says.”

Finn bit back the other word his mother had forbade him to use, and it took every ounce of his will to keep his fingers away from his wand. McCroy didn’t notice his struggle. Instead, she let out a sudden exclamation and brought the glass down on the stone bottom of the window with such force that Finn was surprised it didn’t shatter again. “Gotcha,” she said triumphantly, peering into the glass. A small black moth with yellow spots crawled up the inside of the jar. He watched it with half a mind, too distracted for the creeps, McCroy’s words drumming in his mind.

Finn Blishwick didn’t belong to anyone.

Without a word to McCroy, he left the Owlery and headed back to the castle. He strode purposefully toward the Entrance Hall, to the giant blackboard that displayed the duelling team points. The boys were all part of the team, why did the name have to be up to Tom? Finn grabbed a stick of chalk and scanned the board, finding their names under a team of Ravenclaws (Aquilae Volantis), the space for their title still fortunately empty. Resisting the urge to add a rude drawing beside Malfoy’s name, Finn scrawled The Knights of Walpurgis, because he and the boys were a gathering of demons if ever he saw one.

He stepped back to admire his handiwork - and their number of points - pleased to have done something with dignity before he went to hunt bugs.

***

It was late by the time Finn returned to the common room with a chart splotched with ink and hands covered in dirt to show for his hard work. It was later still when he and Tom left for Professor Dippet’s office to take the student records. Anxiety over what they were about to do threatened to overcome him, but Finn fought the feeling down to seem as collected as Tom, with only sweaty palms and a tendency to touch the rune-face of his watch to suggest he felt otherwise. At the end of the Headmaster’s corridor, they stopped, hidden in the shadows. Tom turned to Finn, who immediately performed the Disillusionment Charm - successfully on the first try.

The gargoyle in front of Dippet’s office sat on all fours, wings tucked behind dark stone body. Its already grotesque face twisted in an expression that was anything but impressed as Tom (and Finn) approached it. Tom drew himself up straight. “Dragon scale,” he said. There was something so commanding in his voice that Finn was almost surprised that the gargoyle didn’t immediately jump out of the way. Instead, it flicked its eyes in Finn’s direction. By the time Finn blinked, they were on Tom again. As Finn tried to calm his nerves with deep silent breaths, he reassured himself it must have been a trick of the light. After a few agonizing seconds, the gargoyle nodded and moved aside to reveal a wooden door. Tom knocked on it. Finn’s skin prickled in anticipation. He couldn’t help but glance down at himself every few seconds, but his charm was infallible; there was nothing but a faint waver to the stone floor where Finn’s body should be.

“You have five minutes,” Tom murmured to him.

Instead of the invitation to enter that Finn had been hoping for, there was the faint sound of footsteps, then the rattling of the doorknob, before the door opened and Professor Dippet appeared, light from the office flooding where Finn and Tom stood. Finn quickly stepped into the shadows, lest the light somehow betray his presence.

“Ah, Mr Riddle,” Professor Dippet said amiably, his thin body blocking the door. “What can I do for you?”

“Good evening, sir,” Tom said, taking the smallest of steps away from Dippet. “I hope I’m not disturbing you?” He spoke quietly; even Finn was straining to catch the words. He wondered what Tom was playing at, when Dippet took a step further into the corridor.

“I’m sorry Mr Riddle, you’ll have to speak up.” The old man waved a hand vaguely around his ears.

The office was visible behind Dippet now, Finn caught a glimpse of the patterned carpet and the glinting spherical objects that covered the surface of a desk; Tom was drawing him out. Dippet shuffled further forward to catch Tom’s next words. Another step and Finn could slip past him into the office. Adrenaline was making his heart beat so loud that, were Dippet not hard of hearing, he feared it would give his position away. Finn took a step closer, but stopped when he heard voices drifting toward them down the corridor. He threw a panicked glance at Tom, and while the other boy’s eyes darted once in the direction of the voices, he didn’t seem perturbed by them. Finn relaxed slightly, and took another step when one of the voices said his name. Curiosity overcame him, and with a glance at Tom and Dippet, he slipped around the corner - this would only take a second, he just wanted to see who it was. Peering around the corner - as if he weren’t already invisible - he saw two darkened female figures, and recognized McCroy’s voice and the clacking of Worley’s bracelets.

“… worse than Blishwick,” McCroy was saying. She leant back against the railing, arms crossed over her chest.

“I dunno about that,” Worley said, bent to tie a shoelace. “I know how you feel about commitment but you’re allowed to look, B. Even you can’t deny he’s very handsome.”

“Oh, yes I can,” McCroy replied. “That attractiveness is skin deep, trust me.”

Worley straightened. “What are you doing about the assignment then?”

Finn inched closer, straining his ears to hear. She didn’t think he was good-looking?

“I’ll just do it myself,” McCroy said. “I’ve nearly completed it as it is. I doubt he’d be any help anyway, he’s just going to drag me down.”

Her words caused an old memory to stir in his brain. Suddenly he was eleven again, and his parents held his and Hero’s end of year exam results in their hands. The hand that held Hero’s perfect scores was gazed down at in pride. The hand that held Finn’s was met with disappointment.

Why can’t you be more like your sister, Finlay?

His parents hadn’t realised how hard he’d tried. Hadn’t understood that sometimes it was difficult for him to concentrate. He and Hero may have been twins, but they were not the same person, and he’d spent the rest of his life showing them just how different they were. He was startled from his reminiscing by a racking cough; McCroy’s silhouette was bent double, Worley thumping her back. “It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” Worley said over the sound, her voice grim. “Didn’t you just take the potion?”

McCroy straightened. “I’m fine.” Her voice was quiet but terse.

“Have you asked your aunt about the St Mungo’s treatment?”

McCroy laughed bitterly as she continued walking down the corridor. “You know Aunt Maia; she hates anything to do with magic. Besides, you remember what the Healers said…”

Finn didn’t hear the rest of her sentence; her voice faded as they turned the corner and were gone. By the time he returned to Tom, Tom was nodding and thanking Dippet, and the old man disappeared back into his office. Finn’s heart sank; he’d missed his chance. He waited until he heard the lock click, then drew his wand from his invisible trouser pocket to reverse the spell. On the third try, he reappeared, and Tom turned on his heel and began walking swiftly down the corridor, leaving Finn to jog to catch up.

“I want you to get some crystallized pineapple,” Tom said once Finn drew even with him.

This was so far from what Finn expected that his heart felt lighter again. If Tom expected him to be the one to go through the records, perhaps he had time to try for them again. “Got a sudden craving, do we?”

Tom looked affronted, their footsteps echoing in the quiet corridor. “It’s Slughorn’s favorite treat.”

“How do you - oh.” Legilimency. Finn scratched his head. “Er, sure. I could go to Hogsmeade this weekend, I suppose.”

Tom nodded once. When they neared the entrance to the Slytherin common room, he said, “Give me the records.”

Finn swallowed. “I - er - I don’t have them.”

Tom stopped in his tracks. With a great amount of reluctance, Finn stopped as well, staring at his shoes. When Tom didn’t speak or move, Finn slowly raised his eyes to his face.

He never understood why people thought disappointment was worse than anger.

Tom’s face was livid, his shoulders taut and his eyes wide. “You’ve cost us time,” he said, his voice remaining as even as always. “Not to mention opportunity. Old as he may be, Dippet is no fool.”

“We can’t - can’t try again later?”

Tom’s eyes narrowed fractionally. White hot agony shot through Finn from the inside out. He fell to his knees, could feel every blood cell traveling through his veins because every one was on fire. He arched his back against it, muscles spasming and opened his mouth to yell, but no sound came out. Tom stood over him. “I said no. I should have known you weren’t up to this. You’re becoming a disappointment, Blishwick. And I know it was you who selected the duelling club name,” he said, and a fresh wave of pain crashed through Finn. “Never make the mistake of thinking you can disobey me again.”

Finn tried to reply, but again, only an incoherent noise came out, the apology lodged in his throat. But it didn’t matter; Tom had already disappeared down the corridor with a swish of his robes, leaving Finn curled up and shaking on the floor.

***

A/N: I have the usual (and most wonderful) suspects to thank for this chapter. Julie, Chiara, Jill and Ysh - thank you, my darlings ♥

Aquilae Volantis means Soaring Eagles in Latin.


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