Chapter Thirty-Eight: Agony
Hermione couldn't sleep. The closer the start of term came, the more restless she was.
"Come in." She smiled at the knock on her door, expecting it to be Ginny or one of the twins.
"Can't," she was answered.
She blinked. "Ron?"
"Would you come out and talk?"
Hermione left the book lying open on her bed. She'd stared at the pages of A History of Sorcerers in Britain Since The Days of Merlin for so long she had no idea what the words were, much less what they meant. The image of Harry and the others at Mrs. Parkinson's funeral kept coming to mind.
"Are you going to be a prat or not?" Hermione asked shortly as she opened her door.
Ron swallowed, looking down at her through shaggy bangs that were in desperate need of a cut. "I'll try not to be a prat."
"That's something at least." Hermione snorted, not quite willing to let him off the hook yet.
"You know about Angelina?" Ron asked.
"Mum's going to go spare."
That really didn't deserve a response. That, in Hermione's opinion, was a gross understatement. Especially after witnessing Molly's reaction to Percy's wedding announcement in the Prophet.
"You know about Fred..."
"Ron, even as slapdash as the wards on the bedroom were done, they do work. George can cross the threshold into my room because he's married; Fred can as well."
Ron nodded again.
"Oh sit down!" Hermione rolled her eyes as she sat down on the sofa in the common room. "I'm going back to my room if you're going to stand over me and shuffle your feet all night."
"I've got my homework done."
Hermione couldn't help but smile. "Good, and still five days until we return to Hogwarts. That's a new record for you, Ron."
"You reckon Harry is alright?" Ron bit his lip.
Hermione blinked. "I thought you hated him..."
"I never said that!"
"Bloody hell, Mione, you saw him!"
The image of Harry at the funeral flashed into her mind. His black hair had been tamed for once by the weight of its length, reaching nearly to his waist. Draco's, Seamus', Neville's, and Blaise's the same. Harry's eyes had been so ... worn, so old and tired and suspicious and ... hard. It occurred to her then that Ron hadn't seen Harry since Draco and Pansy's wedding. Harry hadn't been as ... hardened then. Or as scared, exhausted and struggling.
"You didn't ... you didn't go to Mrs. Parkinson's funeral," Hermione said softly.
"Was he okay?"
Hermione didn't bother to point out that Ron had spent most of the last weeks going on that Harry had gone Dark and that Malfoy was behind it. Ron was a hot-headed idiot at times, but even when he was refusing to speak about Harry he wanted to know how he was. She shook her head slowly. "I don't think so. I don't think any of them were."
"Any of them?"
"Seamus, Neville, Millicent, Pansy, Zabini, even Malfoy."
"Those tattoos and the hair, even if I can see it for the wedding ... he barely looked like himself at the wedding."
Hermione looked at Ron, baffled. "What do you mean? Why can you see Harry growing his hair out for the wedding?"
"He's the head of his family, even if he is still a student. It's an old tradition; mum doesn't like anything to do with the traditions, so dad doesn't follow it. I think that's why she's always on Bill to cut his hair. He started growing it after he was done with his curse breaking apprenticeship."
Hermione thought a moment. She'd seen very few wizards with short hair, looking back on it, though she'd never really thought about it before.
"A lot don't bother keeping their hair long if they have a job where their hair would get in the way. For formal occasions, there are lengthening spells."
She made a mental note to look up Wizarding traditions when they returned to Hogwarts. She didn't think she had anything in her books on such things. Though now that it was mentioned, she cursed herself for being an unobservant fool and not noticing this before. Most wizards did have long hair, and all the adult men at Draco and Pansy's wedding, as well as Mrs. Parkinson's funeral had long hair, except for Mr. Weasley, Charlie and Percy. "Would it be proper for Charlie to have long hair?"
"He's still about a year off from being a full Dragon Master," Ron shook his head.
Hermione corrected her thoughts to remove Charlie from the list of men with short hair.
"We have to do something, Hermione."
"He's--he's not Harry."
"You haven't even talked to him in months!"
"I could tell just looking at him. He's all pureblood and--"
"RON!" Hermione said sharply. "I'm going back to my room if you're just going to start that 'Harry's gone evil' again! He hasn't! He couldn't have."
"What do you mean he couldn't have?"
"You saw him at the funeral--"
"You could have, too."
Ron glared angrily.
"He's changed, Hermione."
Hermione sighed. She couldn't deny that. "Changed doesn't mean he's gone dark. He wouldn't!"
"If Voldemort is possessing him..."
Ron glared petulantly. "Hermione, think. It's possible. Look at how different Harry was all last year. And he's spending all his time with Snape and Malfoy and a bunch of other Slytherins."
"And Neville, and Professor Lupin, and Seamus, and Luna."
"Ronald Weasley, just what does that mean?" Hermione demanded.
"Bloody poofter, and an O'Malley at that!"
"I've read almost nothing about any O'Malley witch or wizard."
Ron snorted. "That's because you only read decent books, even if they weigh a ton and are boring as hells."
"Ron!" Hermione said warningly.
Ron glared a moment. "Hermione, you just don't get it. There are some families that are ... just bad. The O'Malley's are one. They rarely go to Hogwarts. They've openly gone after Dumbledore more than once, even right after he'd defeated Grindelwald, according to mum. They were one of the few families mum warned us all against going anywhere near when we got to Hogwarts, not that it was likely that there'd be any O'Malley's at the school since they hate Dumbledore and most of them are less than human."
"Less than human?"
"Sidhe and Fae blood and Merlin knows what else."
"I don't believe you, Ron! You've shared a room with Seamus for five years and always got along, but now you find out what his great-grandmother's name is and you decide he's evil? That's absurd."
Hermione glared right back. "Honestly, Ron, I can't believe you sometimes. Seamus is..." She was going to say Seamus was the same as he ever was, but the boy she'd seen at Harry's side both at the wedding and the funeral had changed from the boisterous laughing boy who had dwelled in Gryffindor Tower the last five years. Still, it was utter rot to say that Seamus was suddenly classified as evil just because he was related to the O'Malley's. Especially when Hermione hadn't come across them in her extensive reading--at least no more than a name here and there listed in with others present at an event or listed in the roll of Minisitry officials from years gone by. There had never been so much as a full sentence on an O'Malley that she could remember reading.
"You're going to do the Teachers Program, aren't you?" Ron said, changing the subject.
Hermione bit her lip and nodded, feeling slightly guilty, which was silly but...
"Thought so." Ron sighed glumly.
Hermione was infuriated by that comment. "Well excuse me, Ron, for taking an opportunity..."
Ron shook his head. "No, you should do it."
"Don't sound so enthusiastic," Hermione huffed.
"Bloody hell," Ron muttered. "Going to be so strange this year, you and Harry both gone. Even Neville and Seamus."
"We'll still be at Hogwarts."
"It won't be the same, and you know it."
"We're not little children anymore, Ron," Hermione snapped. "It's late, I'm going to bed," she said, then hurried back to her room to avoid saying something she would regret. Ron... well, the conversation had been far more reasonable than Ron had been in weeks, but she was fast losing patience.
"Be a lot simpler if we were," Ron sighed, in answer to the not-quite-slam of Hermione's bedroom door.
Penelope Clearwater Weasley groaned.
"I've brought you some chamomile tea," Percy said, entering their bedroom.
"I thought morning sickness was supposed to come in the morning, not the middle of the night," Penelope said grouchily and very slowly moved to sit up. Moving too quickly at any time these days could set off a round of nausea with no warning. "This child is a Weasley to the bone!"
Percy shuffled uncomfortably for a moment.
Penelope took pity on him. He tried so hard but at times ... she loved him for it but there were times when he was so very properly inept it was painful. "The tea will be lovely though. It does seem to help ... a bit." She reached for the cup and sniffed. "Ginger?"
"Just a small pinch." Percy said uncertainly. "Mum used to drink chamomile with a bit of ginger when she was carrying Ginny."
Severus had put an abrupt halt to any conversation about Lupin's uncontrolled jealousy and the ... incident. He would not discuss it, nor would there be a repeat of the incident. He could not afford the least distraction, and a jealous werewolf would be a large distraction. Lupin had nodded and agreed quietly, embarrassed and horrified that the wolf had gotten the better of the man. Still, Morrigan's words that he had a future to look forward to loomed in front of him, worse than a death sentence. He'd resigned himself to being killed spying, or being caught by aurors and executed as a death eater long before Albus found out he had been caught.
Lupin was a Gryffindor and a werewolf: two big strikes against him. There was also the fact that the werewolf could be as bad of a mother hen as Molly Weasley. Severus snorted to himself as he remembered Morrigan's use of the ridiculous word 'soul-mate'--of course, she'd been thirteen when she came up with that and had stubbornly stuck to the term. At least Morrigan was sensible enough not to think that whatever she saw in his and Lupin's auras, and what ever romance-story terms she used, it would be all wine and roses. Hadn't she cursed him as a coward and fool time and again in the letters they had exchanged over the years for not even trying to begin something with Lupin, because some maggot had gotten in her head that he was lonely and needed someone?
Of course, Lupin did have more than a few items in the plus column, Morrigan's inane words not the least of them. Lily had liked the werewolf quite a lot, while she had barely tolerated the mutt. Alice had liked Lupin as well. Narcissa had had little to do with Lupin ever, even in class as students, but she never disliked him as she had Potter, Black and Pettigrew. Lupin's loyalty to the Potter brat was also a plus, in all truth. Lily's Brat. Severus still would like to throttle the rash, senseless, thoroughly ignorant boy, but he had proved this summer he was far more his mother's son than his father's.
Nevertheless, Severus still didn't like having a werewolf in the school. Though he had to admit, the circumstances had changed. The incident with Pettigrew and Black at the Shrieking Shack over two years before would not be repeated. It was known that Lupin was a werewolf now, and the Brat was older, old enough to be at less risk. Lupin's interaction with other students would be curtailed, and his Wolfsbane doses monitored by that whole tower of brats. Albus' previous 'Sweep-Everything-Under-The-Carpet-and-All-Is-Well-That-Ends-Well' flight of fancy had been intolerable.
Yes, circumstances had changed. A werewolf in a school was still not the wisest thing to have, but far more dangerous beasts had been on the grounds and inside the walls of Hogwarts. There were more people aware of what Lupin was, who would watch and be ready if unforeseen circumstances led to a fully grown, fully feral werewolf being loosed upon the grounds once again.
He glanced over at the man sleeping in the second bed the House Elves had finally gotten around to bringing in earlier. Lupin was attractive. They shared space well enough. Perhaps ... someday, if they all survived this war...
Severus gave a mental snort. He couldn't afford the distractions, yet here he was dwelling on possibilities he did not have the time and energy for... He hissed as pain stabbed through his arm.
"Lupin, wake up," Severus snapped at the man across the room.
Lupin growled. "And no one is going to notice your disappearances every third day, the way he's been summoning you?"
Lupin said nothing more as he helped Severus get dressed and cast the necessary numbing spells on his battered hands.
"Potter is to research Harlan Gentry," Severus ordered as they began the walk toward the apparition point.
"I'll see to it."
Severus went through a list of other instructions on the potions the brats were in the process of brewing, at least the ones he knew of; Lupin nodded and repeated back the instructions.
"SSssseverus, information has come to us that the Weasley family and Dumbledore's little band of followers are becoming increasingly splintered," Voldemort said.
There was still a leak in the Order, Severus thought. Merlin. "I have heard only whispers, I have not attended a meeting of Dumbledore's Order in two months. The old fool is being particularly closed mouthed; McGonagall and Moody seem to be stepping up with the Order as Dumbledore's been embroiled in Political snarls."
Truth, it was best to stick with the truth as much as possible. So much easier to lie with bent facts than with fabrications. "Nothing I have heard would do any good to repeat. Foolishness and insanity. Implications that Draco Malfoy and the Potter brat have become cozy have been amongst the rumors. In truth, the boys are scarcely able to be civil and have come to blows several times."
"Young Malfoy's loyalties?"
"Are still in question," Severus managed. "He seems to be settling for neutrality at the moment."
"I have not heard a word, My Lord." That was also truth; he had meant to question the brats but every time had thus far been distracted.
"Dumbledore's hiding him somewhere."
Doubtful, Severus thought. "I will make further discreet inquiries, My Lord."
"Potter's lessons? You're in charge of them?"
"Yes, My Lord."
"How have his studies gone thus far?"
What studies? When had there been time for studies? "The boy is impossible. He has the attention span of a gnat and about as much sense as one." That was true enough. Harry also had raw power in spades and a streak of intuitiveness that had kept his foolish young self alive thus far, as well as, as Minerva would put it, sheer dumb luck. The boy who took on a full grown mountain troll at the age of eleven had grown into a young man not all that much different. Raw power and sheer ignorance of what should or should not be possible seemed to be the two traits that kept him alive.
A group of Death Eaters apparated in. Nott, Avery, Goyle, and Bellatrix; she was obviously in charge of the group. There were also a half dozen others whose identities Severus couldn't begin to guess, which chilled him to the bone. Fresh recruits?
A slim redhead was struggling--Weasley. The middle one. The annoying know-it-all prefect--and his Ravenclaw bride.
"My Lord, a request if you please..." Severus began. "If I took one of them back alive, managed to rescue them," he sneered the word, "I would be that much more trusted, and perhaps able to garner more information. Dumbledore has been known to let things slip now and again in a trusting mood." More accurately, Severus had been forced to give up something minor that Voldemort could use to keep his own position as spy viable. "A simple extra ingredient in their healing potions would see to it that they were disposed of later without any suspicion."
"An excellent suggestion." Voldemort raised his wand. "Crucio! Though do not allow yourself to become too presumptive, Severus."
Severus fell to the ground as the curse wracked his body with blinding red agony.
"Choose, which will live--temporarily."
Severus eyed them critically. Penelope Clearwater--no, Penelope Weasley. Brilliant girl. Excellent with Charms and Arithmancy. She'd always been one of Severus' better students as well. Now, she was doubled over in agony with blood pooling at her feet and staining her nightgown. She was sobbing incoherently, weakly, nearly dead as it was. Goyle, Nott and Avery had obviously been allowed to play with her already. Severus didn't doubt Bellatrix had as well.
Both the girl and her husband had obviously been put under the Cruciatus more than once. Young Weasley still had a burning awareness--pain, hate and terror filled, but aware. Penelope Clearwater, however, had been hit with the Cruciatus one time too many. Should she survive, her life would be no more than the vague nearly mindless half-life Frank and Alice Longbottom were trapped in. Merlin, what an awful waste. There was no awareness left in her pain clouded eyes or expression.
Severus sneered internally at the fact that he could recognize it so easily. He'd learned, and had suggested more than one poor muggle was no longer any fun to play with when seeing the mindless broken look. Quite a talent. Knowing when someone had been tortured into a vegetable.
Why hadn't he known about the strike on the bloody WEASLEYS? His position was getting very precarious if he was kept from something so large as going directly after one of the Weasley clan. The girl was as good as dead. She'd never recover and quite probably wouldn't survive even if he managed to get her to Poppy in the next five seconds. He could only save one....
"Him. He's the Weasley. His rescue will gain more confidence. Especially with how disgusted Molly Weasley was by his marriage to the Clearwater chit," Severus decided in a cold, even voice.
Voldemort nodded. "There might be hope for your first born after all, Petrus. Severus, what do you suggest?"
"Another Cruciatus might be one too many, but there are other ... ways to deal with the boy," Severus suggested cautiously. He hoped to be able to get the boy out not just alive, but with his mind intact, though that might not be a mercy.
"My lord, please," Petrus said eagerly.
Voldemort's face contorted into an inhuman horrifying grimace, which could only be termed a smile. "Very well, Petrus. You and Severus may finish the girl and do what you will to the boy, as long as he survives for Severus to take him back."
Severus pointed his wand and willed himself to be steady. "Crucio!" Penelope Clearwater Weasley's screams tore through the air. Merlin, let the poor child's heart give out, he thought. She was losing blood heavily and looked deathly gray. Let the child die. The sooner the better. If there was any mercy in the universe, let her die.
He didn't dare cast an Avada Kedavra and end it quickly for the girl. If he did, then he might not be allowed to get the girl's husband away. Oh Merlin, let the child die, Severus screamed in his mind as he cast the curse again. "Crucio!" He could have wept with relief as the Clearwater girl's screams became weak gasps and finally stopped.
Petrus raised his wand to his grandson, and in a smirking tone, began: "Agonis."
Percy Weasley's screams filled the all-too-briefly silent air.
Severus trailed blood across the floor of Hogwarts' Entrance Hall as he staggered with the thin young man in his arms, terrified to use even so much as a mobilicorpus on the boy until the curses upon him were broken.
"He needs Poppy and possibly the Brats, you bloody pile of rocks!" Severus snarled aloud, lashing out at the first thing he could, the castle itself. The world spun and dimmed to black as Severus crumpled to the floor with Percy Weasley's bloodied unconscious body still in his arms.
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