Melanie signalled frantically through the security gates. The Malfoy housekeeper looked disapprovingly at her.
"Mr Malfoy's in bed. Come back later."
"I haven't got later. I had to swap doing the breakfast washing up shift for serving lunch instead. And this is urgent. Can't you give him a message? Please?"
"More than my job's worth," Mrs P. was beginning, when the security gate suddenly swung open in front of her. Melanie, who had been leaning on it, sprawled forward onto the lawn. She scrambled to her feet to see the owner of the Manor emerging from round the back. Melanie blinked. Draco was unshaven; his eyes were bloodshot; he had clearly dressed by the simple expedient of grabbing whatever garments happened to be lying on his bedroom floor and throwing them at his body at random, and, in general, he strongly resembled a vampire currently suffering the hangover from hell.
"Well?" he snapped.
"Draco, you look absolutely terrible," Melanie blurted out.
"Thanks. Well, nice to know I'm not giving out any misleading impressions, then. What're you doing here, anyway?"
"I had to come. Look, that thing you said last night - well, it was a really, really bad idea."
He regarded her irritably. "I've realised that. And Neville's told me so as well. At some length, actually. So, as a matter of fact, you don't have to."
She shook her head, anxiously. "No, you don't understand. This is really important. Look, can we go inside? I honestly don't think it'd be a very clever plan for the Nelcorp trainees to see me talking to you."
He nodded. "Come on in. Have you had breakfast? I was just about to stare gloomily at a piece of toast myself."
"OK. If you've got eggs, or something. Or mushrooms. No meat."
He looked vague.
"Well, you can get practically anything here. I think."
He led the way to the breakfast room. Mrs P. had evidently not wasted the five minutes at her disposal. An array of silver-covered chafing dishes gleamed on the side-board, with small dancing will o'the wisps bobbing energetically about beneath them.
Melanie picked up a croissant and started to crumble it methodically in her fingers. She began talking rapidly at the same time.
"After we left the pub, they insisted on coming back to the staff quarters at the guest house. Oh, not all of them. Just Dudley. And Jake. Oh, that man's such a - such a - such a slimeball. He was just wallowing in it. Any chance to cause trouble. And I made them some coffee, and tried to calm them down a bit, but - well, Jake got Dudley talking. And I think - I think he probably said a lot more than he should've."
Draco had the heels of his hands pressed hard against his eyeballs. His elbows, completely unnoticed by him, were in a dish of scrambled eggs.
"Go on," he said in a muffled way.
"Anyway - look, you're not going to like this bit at all. I'm just warning you, OK? Well, then Jake talked Dudley into telephoning his cousin."
That got a reaction. Draco sat bolt upright, and stared straight at her.
"Oh, shit," he breathed. There was a pause.
"Well, go on. What happened then?"
"A stand-up fight, it sounded like. But after a bit Dudley obviously got a word in edgeways."
"I can just about imagine what the word was," Draco commented gloomily. "I bet as soon as he used the M-word that got Potter's undivided attention."
Melanie nodded. "I'm afraid it did, rather. So then they had this sort of three-way discussion, which went on forever (I don't think Dudley's father's going to be at all pleased when he gets the mobile phone bill). And - and this was the really weird thing - Dudley's cousin was obviously obsessing completely about what you said to me when you were trying to get Dudley to fight you outside - you know, about the dogs? And Dudley and Jake kept trying to remember it, and they kept getting it a bit wrong, and arguing about it, so in the end Dudley's cousin must have insisted I come to the phone, and they shoved it in my hands, and I thought at least it wouldn't make matters worse if I told him what you really had said. So I did. And then he went all quiet on the other end of the phone, and then his voice sounded really, really shocked, and he muttered something about crucifixion - is he some sort of religious nut, by the way -?"
"No, that's Neville's cousin - hang on a minute, he said what?"
Melanie looked nervously at Draco.
"Well, that's what I heard, anyway."
Draco stared across the breakfast table at her in sheer disbelief.
"But he can't possibly think that I'd - oh, bugger it, this is Potter we're talking about here, isn't it? Of course he would - look, Melanie, concentrate. This is important. What did you think I meant by what I said then?"
Her eyes were wide open, and puzzled.
"Well, I thought you were exaggerating for dramatic effect, of course."
Draco exhaled, and flopped forwards, slightly, as though a string had been cut.
"Well, thank god someone around here seems to grasp the concept of irony. I was thinking it'd got itself re-classified as an extreme sport."
Melanie waved a hand, explanatorily.
"Well, it was just basic movie bad-guy dialogue, wasn't it? You know - 'Take this wretch to the dungeons and hang him by his toes until tomorrow. Maybe he will feel more inclined to - co-operate - then. And cancel Christmas.' 'Yeth, marthter'. That sort of thing."
Draco seemed to have acquired a sudden inexplicable interest in the ceiling plaster-work.
"Yes, well, perhaps we won't go too far along that particular route. But you didn't think I meant it, did you?"
She shook her head, still feeling deeply puzzled.
"No. It just sounded like that stupid sort of stuff boys say in front of each other, to me. That's what I said to Dudley's cousin, too. But he obviously wasn't listening by that stage. Anyway, then he went all concerned on me, and told me I was in really serious danger, but that I wasn't to worry, he'd make sure I was protected, and in the meantime I had to be really careful, and steer well clear of you - and Neville - "
"Neville! The slimy bastard! How the hell, how the hell can he think that Neville would - He's fucking well supposed to be a friend of his, for god's sake."
Words failed him. Melanie took another croissant, recommenced dismantling operations, and continued.
"And I said that I thought he was over-reacting a bit - and he said I simply didn't have any concept of what I 'd got myself involved in - and then I - well, then I'm afraid I did something awful."
She blushed. Draco looked hopefully at her, and started to peel a banana.
"I -er - called him a patronizing little git, and hung up. Wasn't it dreadful? I can't think what came over me."
The expression on Draco's face suggested that he had just seen a very, very faint glimmer of light at the end of an exceptionally long tunnel.
"Sounds like an ordinary human reaction, to me. Look, can you do something for me? It's really important. And it won't wait. I take it Muggles have some sort of legal parchment thing, you know, some way of recording evidence, for use in court, later?"
Melanie nodded, in a baffled way. "Yes. They call them affidavits. They come up in Rumpole quite a bit."
"Well, can you do one of these affi - things, as soon as you can. Set down exactly what I said, and what you thought I meant - oh, and all about the trainees picking the fight, as well. And could you leave it safely with some really, really respectable Muggle? You know, someone like the Pope, or the Muggle prime minister -"
Melanie giggled nervously.
"I'm not exactly on document-dropping off terms with Tony Blair, actually. But Caitlin would probably do. She's my boss. She owns the guest house. And she's pretty cool. She knows heaps about dioxin residues, and Morris dancing. And she's the secretary of the local chapter of the Sealed Knot."
"Well, whoever. But as soon as you leave here, please."
"But I'm hardly going to forget it all in five minutes, anyway -" Melanie suddenly stopped. Her tone changed.
"Oh. I see."
Draco looked at her and nodded.
"You do, don't you?"
Her voice was subdued.
"How bad is it?"
"Well, I don't think I've actually committed any crimes they can do me for. But - well, the Cruciatus curse carries a mandatory life sentence. It wouldn't be too good if Potter manages to convince anyone who actually matters that I threatened to use it on Dudley."
Melanie bristled up.
"But that's completely ridiculous. They must realise that."
Draco looked immeasurably cheered by her support. 'Well, that's right, of course. Go round threatening to do something that illegal with half the village standing by as witnesses? I mean, what sort of idiot do they take me for?"
This approach left Melanie feeling slightly hesitant, but she decided that the presentational problem, if it ever came to it, would be Draco's barrister's rather than her own.
"Anyway," Draco added, "What happened then?"
"Dudley and me had a row," she confessed in a small voice. Draco looked at her.
"Golly. I hope either the staff quarters are really well sound-proofed, or that guest house is currently hosting a Banshee and Boggart Spotters Convention."
"Anyway, then he phoned his father - his father's on his way to see you now, by the way. He's supposed to get here by lunchtime. And I'd better go and help Dudley pack. I think he's decided to resign. And he'll be leaving the village today."
Her normally rather small eyes were wide with woe, and there she knew was a betraying puffiness about the lids.
Draco made a rather exasperated gesture with his hand.
"I really don't know what you see in that total loser."
"Look, I know he wasn't actually behaving very well yesterday." Her voice sounded defensive in her own ears. "But he's been under a lot of stress - the training course is, like, really intense, you know, and he's the youngest of the lot of them - and I think Jake's a terrible influence - and anyway -"
She swept her hand around the room in an expansive gesture. A lobster, sitting in the middle of a beautifully composed still life which occupied most of the wall opposite her, waved a claw back in a companionable manner. She gulped, slightly, but pressed on regardless.
"You just don't understand how difficult poor Dudley's childhood was. I mean, he didn't really get quality time with his parents, because his father was having to work just so hard to build up his business and give them all a decent lifestyle - and, obviously, they couldn't give him the attention and support he needed, just because they never knew what anti-social behaviour his cousin would pull off next, and they had to concentrate on that - no wonder he ended up with his history of eating disorders -"
Draco at this point appeared to be thinking of saying something, but Melanie continued relentlessly on, denying him the opportunity,
"And you just think - just because you've had this really privileged existence down here - that everyone's had it as easy!"
Her tirade ran down like a church organ whose bellows have burst.
Draco glanced round the breakfast room as though seeing it for the first time.
"Well, I suppose so. I mean, I probably did have a pretty OK childhood, all things considered. Compared to lots of people, anyway. At least until my father tried to kill me, that is."
Melanie thought she was probably looking as appalled as she felt.
"Is that true?"
He shrugged. "Yes. But we don't actually have time to go into all that ancient history now. And anyway, in my experience, people's childhoods don't really make all that much difference to whether they turn out to be nice people or not. I still think you could do a lot better than Dursley."
She smiled shyly at him. "Well, even if I were single, what chance do any of the rest of us have, anyway? After all, you're going out with the most fanciable man in this village."
To her surprise, this comment brought no answering lightening of Draco's expression. Instead, he rubbed his hands across his face in a rather lost gesture, and muttered, "Well, I hope that's still true. I've got to say, as of seven o'clock this morning it didn't seem all that likely to me."
Melanie looked at him, and wondered whether she dared put an arm round his shoulders. "It'll be all right -" she began tentatively.
"And another thing," he interrupted, "the dogs have gone missing. I thought earlier on that they'd just curled up somewhere quiet with their paws in their ears to block out the yelling, but they've had hours since then to reappear, and they just haven't. I mean, here we are, not really eating breakfast, so there's all sorts of completely untouched sausages, and bacon, and some weird rice stuff Mrs P.'s suddenly decided to start producing every morning, that smells of curried fish - from a springer spaniel's point of view, this is sheer unadulterated heaven, and where are they? It just isn't natural."
Melanie pulled her brows together. "Perhaps they've gone out chasing rabbits-?"
"Those two? I imagine they'd call for an armed back-up squad of specially trained hit wizards if they came face to face with a reasonably aggressive hamster. No, I'm going to get everyone I can scrape together out looking for them as soon as I've dealt with Vernon Dursley. And can you keep your eyes peeled, too? I shouldn't imagine I'd be too welcome on Nelcorp land this morning, but you can go there."
She nodded. Draco looked across at her.
"Though, come to think of it, I am going to have to burgle the Nelcorp bit of the Manor in about ten minutes. And you'll have to help me."
"But I don't know anything about burglary! And they've got state of the art electronic security and 24 hour video surveillance, too!" Her voice was an excited shriek. She allowed her brain a moment's review of the previous sentence and added defensively, "And it's morally wrong, as well."
Draco stretched, poured another cup of coffee, and said
"Oh, I don't need help with the burglary bit. The bit I'll need you for is showing me how to use the telephone I'm hoping to find when I get there."
Melanie looked at him in bafflement.
"You mean, you really don't know how ?"
"No. Why should I? We've got more effective means of communication. And if Potter had any proper wizarding pride he wouldn't have a telephone either, and I wouldn't be in this mess. Or at least he might have the basic common sense not to let his appalling family have the number."
Melanie looked up. "Oh, I didn't mention all that part - I thought you wouldn't un - be really interested. Dudley didn't have the number, and then directory enquiries said it was ex-directory -
Her brows raised, questioningly. Draco nodded.
"I do know that one. We have the same concept on the Floo network. And-?"
"Well, I was getting coffee refills, and when I came back in Jake had got onto the Internet on my pc - I've got an old one to do my pre-term course work on - you know about the Internet-?"
'Well, I know what it is, I think. I've no idea how it works."
Melanie snorted. "Well, come to that I don't know how that lobster over there keeps managing to give me dirty winks, but I know it is doing."
Draco's eyes tracked up and across in the direction of her gaze.
"Mm, I'm afraid that painting has been a bit of a trial recently. We used to keep it in the kitchen but Mrs P. said she wasn't prepared to put up with its making obscene gestures at her with its claws every time she cooked shellfish, and that it was it was her or it. Nasty decision. It's 17th Century Dutch, and quite valuable, and she's been with the family since before I was born, and quite apart from knowing where all the - er, yes, well, I mean, quite apart from the loyalty we owe her, she makes a crème brulée to die for -"
And, in at least one memorable case, of.
Draco gulped, as a treacherous recollection intruded into his mind. He continued hastily on.
"Anyway, we reached a compromise. I had it moved in here, since I don't normally have shellfish for breakfast - well, oysters have been known, but it doesn't seem to feel sensitive about those, for some reason. But go on. Jake got onto the Internet and-?"
"I think he must have hacked into the BT records. Anyway, he got the number and they dialled it and there they were."
Draco seemed happier than she had seen him all morning.
"Well, that's got to be illegal. I can certainly mention that. Every little helps. Well, come on."
Melanie looked hesitantly at him.
"There's just one question. Draco - who're you going to call?"
Draco widened his eyes in surprise.
"I'm going to call Tom Patullo, of course. One thing I have learned in a misspent life is that if you've seriously pissed off some senior guy in an organization, the only hope for you is to try to get someone even more senior on your side, fast. And it's going to take some very difficult explaining, too. Come on."
"If we'd waited," Dudley whined, "Dad could have run me down to the village in the car, and I wouldn't have had to walk."
"I couldn't wait. I've got to get back to serve lunch. Anyway, I thought you'd have wanted a last chance to have a talk. After all, if you're leaving the training program, I probably won't see you for ages. And it's a lovely day for a walk."
Dudley kicked a stone resentfully down the track in front of him, and said nothing. They were going down the path through the coombe, and had almost reached the small glade where she had had her moonlight adventure. In the August sunshine it looked sleepy, welcoming and harmless.
Suddenly, a faint, high-pitched whimpering sound made itself heard. Melanie came to a dead stop. Dudley failed to notice, and cannoned straight into her.
"What is it?" Dudley's voice was sulky, with a faint edge of panic.
"I'm not sure. Ssh."
The whimpering sound came again, from somewhere just off the path. Melanie made up her mind.
"Come on. I'm going to check what it is."
Panic was beginning to dominate in Dudley's features.
"You must be mad. It could be anything, round here."
"I think it's a dog. And it sounds as though it's in trouble. Look, are you coming with me, or do you want to wait here on the path?"
An expression of indecision crossed Dudley's face. It took it some time. At length, he evidently reached the conclusion that it was better to remain in company than to wait for whatever might be coming down the track next, or to proceed down the coombe alone. He trailed reluctantly after Melanie into the undergrowth.
A short distance into the woodland the earth started to fall away abruptly into a steep sandy slope, perhaps twelve or fourteen feet high, deeply grooved by channels cut by rainwater, and pockmarked with rabbit-holes. Melanie went cautiously to the edge of the drop and leaned over.
The whimpering got louder and more excited. Melanie wrapped her legs precariously round a small sapling, which creaked warningly, and angled her body further out over the drop, groping frantically downwards.
"Dudley, hold onto my ankles, will you? There's some rusty old wire mesh fencing caught round a tree stump down here: it looks as though someone's just tipped it over and dumped it. I think the dogs have got themselves tangled up in that. Hang on, sweeties, I'm coming. It's all going to be all right. Try not to wriggle, poppets, you'll just make things worse."
Dudley crept closer to the edge, which began to crumble, ominously, under the pressure of his knees. He backed away, hurriedly.
"Are you completely bonkers? You do know whose dogs those are, don't you?"
Melanie twisted herself round in a manoeuvre which almost dislocated her neck, and stared disbelievingly at him.
"Well of course I do. You saw them in the pub last night."
"Then you don't want to even risk touching them. They probably aren't even real dogs. God knows what you'd turn into if you let them scratch or bite you."
Melanie tried to think herself into an attitude of proper horror as she envisaged the perils of being turned into a were-spaniel, but the phrase "blissfully uncomplicated lifestyle" kept intruding. She shook her head firmly, and snapped
"Oh, don't be an idiot. They're perfectly ordinary, sweet dogs. I've spent a night with them sleeping on my bed, so I should know."
And, her thoughts continued relentlessly as Dudley's face swelled and empurpled with the strain of Too Much Information Overload, you have just convincingly demonstrated that not only can humans contract Foot-in-Mouth disease, they can pass it on to each other, too.
"It isn't what you think," she added hurriedly, with a quick mental parenthesis of and for goodness sake don't ask what it is, then, because I don't think you're going to be too much happier about that, either.
Dudley took a deep breath, and swelled up like a frog. Before he could utter, however, Melanie said rapidly,
"Anyway, you can't just leave the poor beasts to suffer, whoever owns them."
"Can't I? Just watch me. Those dogs are poison, Melanie, and as far as I'm concerned they can just stew."
Her eyes widened. She glared straight at him. Suddenly, she was projecting a hint of sabre-toothed tiger by her general demeanour.
"I simply don't believe I'm hearing this, Dudley Dursley. Well, if you aren't going to help me rescue them out of ordinary human decency, then you might bear in mind that if your cousin's right (and I can't see, myself, why you're suddenly behaving as though everything he has to say is the gospel truth, when you've kept on and on and on saying what an awful person he is up to now) you're soon going to have to work out just what you're planning to do when Draco asks you how come his dogs choked to death with you looking on and doing nothing about it."
Dudley obviously thought about this one for a bit.
"Well," he muttered grudgingly, "now you come to mention it, I expect my Aunt Marge would probably chop me out of her will if she found out I'd let a couple of dogs die, too. Though she always says, she never really trusts a dog with floppy ears- poncy little animals is what she calls them -"
Before this chain of reflection could lead him to shift back to his original attitude, Melanie seized the moment with decisive generalship.
"Will you hold onto my ankles? I reckon I can just about reach the nearest one if I have another eighteen inches or so -"
Reluctantly, Dudley took her firmly by the ankles. Melanie gathered all her efforts. She stretched herself as far as possible over the end of the sandy cliff, groping out for Marvolo's neck. She grasped a generous handful of scruff firmly with one hand and lifted him slightly away from the all-embracing mesh. Even that small movement eased the pressure on his throat measurably. He coughed, gratefully and damply, over her wrist.
"Don't worry, love," she muttered, holding him clear with a strained effort. "We'll have both of you free in a second or so."
She kicked, imperatively. Dudley shuffled a few inches closer to the edge, and leaned agonisingly forward.
"Are you sure?"
She reached out her finger-tips for Riddle.
"Come on, baby. It's all going to be all right now," she crooned. Riddle scrabbled, twisted, and aimed for her hand. With a final strenuous effort, just as the cliff edge moved, dangerously, under her and Dudley's combined weights, Melanie grabbed at Riddle's collar, caught it, and held on.
"I've got -!" she exclaimed triumphantly, as the cliff edge finally gave up the unequal struggle. Two humans and a brace of spaniels were instantly precipitated in one tangled, helpless mass onto the mesh fencing. As they shot down the slope she grabbed at the tree stump in a frantic bid to halt their slide. As she touched it the world whirled around, while from behind her midriff she felt a powerful pulling sensation pluck her, Dudley and the dogs away from anything she had ever experienced before. The last thing she was conscious of was Dudley's wailing voice.
"Oh, shit! I told you something like this would happen!"
The late afternoon sun lay golden over Whalley and a scattered string of little hamlets, which were strung out along the valley below him as Neville began his descent down from one of the spurs of the Hill. He had seen more grouse than people that day, and a possible hen harrier. A couple of obscure but useful moorland plants, which he thought might survive transplantation to a chalky soil, were carefully tucked into his backpack. He had also achieved a much more tranquil frame of mind. On his arrival that morning his grandmother had taken one look at him and delivered a no-nonsense prescription of,
"At least 15 miles across the moors, and don't come back until you've walked yourself into a bit of sense. When you've got to my age, you'll realise that in the right can be a damn cold and lonely place to be. Get lost, and I don't want to see you till supper."
It was still an hour or so short of that, but Neville was forced to admit her recipe was working. He reached the outskirts of the village of Wiswell and paused, indecisively. If he were to Apparate to the Manor now, he could drop the plants off at the orangerie, set matters right with Draco, and still, probably, be back at his grandmother's in time for whatever discussion about "family matters" she'd summoned him to Lancashire for. On the other hand - he was hot, sticky and tired. His hands were scratched and bleeding where the plants had put up a fight when he uprooted them. If he waited a bit - went on home - got changed, had a bath, discussed whatever his grandmother was getting so agitated about - then he'd have the whole rest of the evening free to get back to the Manor and resolve matters there. Thoroughly. Unequivocally. Slowly. Which was, all things considered, a much more cunning plan.
Close at hand the door of The Freemasons Arms stood invitingly open. It tipped the balance.
"Let 'un sweat," Neville thought with cheerful callousness, and grinned to himself.
Inside the landlord was leaning across the bar and reminiscing about his days in the RAF with the only other customer, a middle-aged stranger in a suit who was probably visiting management from the aerospace factory a few miles further down the valley. Neville had heard the current anecdote, which featured a Lancaster bomber, momentary inattention to landing, and "that quarry, you know, the inconveniently placed one they used to have behind the run-way in Malta", on numerous previous occasions, and knew it was winding down to its finale. He propped himself against a barstool and waited patiently for the punch line.
This, as it happened, coincided with the end of the stranger's pint, and his consequent departure. The landlord grinned at Neville.
"Nice to see you up here again. What can I get you? We've got a few interesting guest beers on today."
Neville looked at the beer pumps, and his lips quirked up whimsically.
"Pint of Dark Assassin, I think."
Unfortunately, when the landlord began pouring it only a few inches of froth plopped tiredly out of the tap and into the glass. He bent down behind the bar and lifted up the trap-door to the cellar, shouting down to someone below
"Oy, Thwaitesy! Can you change the barrel on the Dark Assassin?"
He looked apologetically across at Neville.
"It'll be about five minutes, I'm afraid. Do you want to have a pint of one of the others instead?"
Neville shook his head. "No thanks, Jack. Give me a glass of water, and I'll wait for the beer."
"OK. Don't mind if I pop out for a couple of minutes, do you? I've got something to see to out the back."
The landlord vanished. The pub was wrapped in a heavy, late afternoon stupor. A bluebottle buzzed lazily against the window of the bar. The only other sound was a faint knocking sound from the cellar, drifting up through the trap-door which the landlord had forgotten to shut. Neville stretched his weary legs out and yawned. It would be so easy just to doze off here -
"I really don't think you ought to be waiting for the Dark Assassin," a soft voice said from immediately behind his left ear. "It's very deceptive, you know. It's much more powerful than you think, and it can get you into a lot of trouble."
Neville turned, very slowly. There was a man and a woman behind him, dressed, like himself, in Muggle walking clothes. He had not heard them come in - a tell tale glimpse of silvery grey cloth on the floor by the woman's shoulder bag told him why. They had been there all along. More to the point, they had probably been with him all along. A prickle of fear ran along the back of his neck. It did not betray itself in his voice, which he kept level, friendly, and unsuspicious.
"Oh, I think you're wrong there. I'm pretty familiar with it by now - I don't think it's going to give me any nasty surprises."
The male half of the couple was, he guessed, about ten years older than himself, and sported a fair beard and an expression of such gelatinous compassion that Neville felt faintly sick. He favoured Neville with a knowing little smile. "Trust me on this one. Almost any alternative would be better for you."
"Really?" Neville raised his eyebrows. 'What were you planning to suggest?"
He gestured at the row of beer-pumps.
"Milk of Amnesia, was it? Or possibly Ambush Ale?"
His voice took on an edge he had not meant it to betray.
The woman took a step forward.
"You've guessed who we are?"
Neville shrugged. "No. But actually the more urgent question is why? And who sent you? And what are you planning to do to me?"
His gaze dropped unobtrusively to his backpack. Not unobtrusively enough. The woman gave a small shake of her head.
"Seriously bad move. I really wouldn't recommend it. In fact, to avoid accidents -"
Her wand was suddenly in her hand. "Accio!"
She plucked the backpack one-handed out of the air as it swooped towards her. She opened it, abstracted Neville's wand, and tucked it carefully inside her own bag, which she clasped firmly against her side, staying well out of Neville's reach. The backpack itself she dropped to the floor and kicked under a table. Neville winced.
"And I wouldn't waste energy expecting your Muggle friend to re-appear," the man added. "He's very helpfully giving a hand to our colleague, who seems to be suffering some car trouble in the lane. I believe he'll be quite some time. We thought we needed some privacy - some time to talk."
"I see. But perhaps I don't want to talk to you? It seems as though we don't have a great deal in common."
The man regarded Neville for a moment, and gently shook his head.
"Not at the moment, perhaps. But I hope you'll start sharing our viewpoint in the not too distant future. Anyway, perhaps on reflection we got off on slightly the wrong foot. My name's Paul, and this is Gemma. Think of us as your friends. We're here to help you. You may not realise it at the moment, but we know how much you need help, and it will be our privilege to bring it to you."
He extended his hand. Neville pointedly avoided taking it.
"Neville! Neville! " Paul's voice was soothing. "I can just sense the waves of anger and resentment coming off you. Believe me, we understand. We're going to be there for you, all the way. Think of it as a journey we're going on together."
"The only journey I'm proposing to go on," Neville said through gritted teeth, "is back home. Now. And you aren't invited."
He rose and strode decisively towards the door. As he had expected, Gemma moved into position to block his exit, pointing her wand directly at him as she did so. Her blue, slightly bulging, eyes were big and earnest; her voice had the same gentle cadence as Paul's.
"I think you're making a bad mistake. Look, you just need to listen to us for a few minutes. That's all we're asking you to do. I think when you've heard us out you'll see things in a different light."
Neville paused for a moment, and then nodded. He walked back to the bar, and sat down on the bar stool, resting his back against the bar counter. Coincidentally, his broad shoulders now blocked both Paul and Gemma's view of the area behind the bar. He said, clearly and a little louder than before,
"Fine. Talk to me. But before you start I'd like to make one thing clear. You used an invisibility cloak to corner me on my own. You've just taken my wand from me by force, and you drew your own when I tried to leave. You've decoyed away anyone who might help me. In my book, if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck then it probably is a duck. Or some less pleasant species beginning with D, anyway."
Paul and Gemma exchanged puzzled glances. Paul spoke first.
"Look, Neville, I know you must be feeling confused and resentful right now -"
"I wonder what can have given you that idea?"
"- But we are here to help. Your friends are very worried about you."
Almost unconsciously, Neville's fingers began to fiddle nervously with the beer mats on the bar counter. With an effort, he kept his voice level and continued to look Paul straight in the eye.
"Then I'm sure they'll be delighted when you pass on my message that I'm perfectly fine. Or, at least, that I will be when you finally let me out of here."
Gemma began to waft her hand in a gentle gesture, to and fro across her face, as though slowly fanning herself. Don't watch her fingertips. You must keep thinking straight.
Paul turned his full, soulful gaze on Neville, his voice softer than before, almost a singsong.
"We can understand that you feel trapped - nowhere to turn to - no apparent way out - "
"Yep. My sentiments exactly."
He might as well not have spoken. Paul continued, in the same singsong voice.
"You've got yourself into a bad situation - started dabbling in something which has got out of hand, something you thought you could control which is now controlling you. No-one's pointing the finger of blame at you. Hell, we all make mistakes. I've made plenty myself. And you - with all those issues and unresolved conflicts from your childhood - no wonder you got yourself into this self-destructive, masochistic relationship with Malfoy - I can see how at first that might have seemed like a way of dealing with your inner pain."
This took a second to sink in, then Neville sat bolt upright.
"Masochistic? You think I'm going out with Draco because I'm a masochist? You must be completely off your trolley. No masochist would get anything out of a relationship with Draco. I mean, you'd ask him to beat you and he'd just say: "shan't". "
Neville regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. He intercepted a quick, satisfied glance passing between Paul and Gemma.
Oh, bugger. That's blown it. In the league of seriously stupid, ill-timed quips that one's got to be a championship contender. Shows what intensive training from a master of the art can do for you, I suppose.
Paul put his head slightly on one side. "Well, that's a very interesting insight. I appreciate your sharing that one with us, Neville. And in the light of that, you can see why we can understand that you may not find it easy to leave this relationship without assistance - that you might be genuinely frightened about what his reaction would be if you told him it was over."
That hit straight into the solar plexus. Neville knew his face must have twisted into a betraying spasm of emotion because Paul and Gemma exchanged another Satisfied-Yet-Deeply-Caring glance.
Reaction? That blind look of shock - like someone who's been cut with a really sharp knife, and can hardly believe the sight of the blood welling up during that eerie initial moment of postponement of pain? Or that awful second of dawning familiarity in his face, which - if you hadn't at the relevant time been so far up yourself on a tidal wave of righteous indignation - you might have had the basic humanity to realise is what someone looks like when he knows - but has just had it proved again - that the safe refuges of his life are destined always to be betrayed from within?
He looked across at Paul and Gemma, and his lips curled.
What, you think the worst thing I would be afraid of is that he might hex me, for god's sake?
Paul nodded, solemnly.
"We're making a lot of progress, even in this short chat, I feel. In fact, I think you may be starting to realize how much you need the lifeline we're offering you."
Any line you offer me I shall take great pleasure in putting round your scrawny, pimpled neck. And pulling tight.
Neville looked blankly back at Paul.
"I'm sorry? Could you explain that a bit more clearly, please? What - lifeline?"
A note of quiet pride crept into Paul's voice. He steepled his hands over his chest, and leaned forward.
"Your friends have arranged for you to receive some intensive one-to-one counselling, at a residential centre we have, not far from here. Perhaps you've heard of Gerard Averose-Dubarry, the pioneering research mediwizard?"
Gemma's eyes took on the look of one who has seen the Holy Grail in a vision. Her voice dropped reverentially.
"It was such a loss to psychowizardry when he was killed in Recent Events. Fortunately he'd kept a duplicate set of his notes, and they escaped the blaze at the lab - ever since, some of us have been trying to go on, to reconstruct his life's work, how he would have wanted it to be. It's a sacred trust to us."
Unbidden, a memory flipped into Neville's mind. He knew, instantly, where it came from.
Those crisply defined edges and vivid colours, almost too real to be from the waking world, like the dreams you have when your temperature is well past 100 degrees and rising. No wonder nothing outside those sharp little movies you had on permanent re-run in your head ever came to be quite real, quite to matter. Here's where we came in - and in - and in again:-
"Nothing to be done here, of course. In a hundred years, maybe, when we understand more of how the brain works, and what happens to it when it's bent to breaking point by something like the Cruciatus curse - then, perhaps, we might have a chance. Of course, we'd have more opportunities if the Ministry would be a bit more flexible about its rules on experimentation - after all, I daresay those poor sods in Azkaban would welcome a couple of weeks leave of absence to help push back the bounds of scientific knowledge."
The Great Man's entourage gives a small, sycophantic, ensemble titter. He winks, catches the eye of the prettiest girl, and smiles, roguishly. Do I mean it or don't I? Come out with me this evening, and see if you can get me to tell.
There is an ink splodge from his quill on the pocket of his white robes. It is exactly the shape of Cuba. Eight year old eyes, prematurely old, are able to notice these things. The Great Man and his disciples move en masse out into the corridor. Through the open door, across the corridor, one can just see a tall, fair man come out of the office. Black robes; the entourage are respectful but not worshipping. Important, but not a Healer, then. The Great Man greets him - says something - and they laugh. Something so very familiar about the angle at which the dark-robed man holds his head as he laughs. Something there that matters - a lot - if one could only remember properly.
Neville blinked. Gemma and Paul came back into focus.
"Yes. I believe I do know who he was. And?"
"In fact, we've been able to take some of his theoretical work into actual practice, in treating witches and wizards who are suffering from compulsive sociopathic behaviour patterns - addictions of various sorts - involvement with dangerous cults -"
"Mm. I see. I'm intrigued. Under which of the three headings do you classify loving Draco, as a matter of interest?"
Again, he was aware that he might as well not have spoken. Paul smiled sunnily at him.
"You don't have to worry. The technique is proven to be just as effective however it's applied. Anyway, are you ready?"
Neville tensed. He had known the moment was coming, but had hoped that before it did the mysterious car trouble would have been cured, or a bunch of twitchers burst in from the Hill, eager for pints and to swap stories of corn-crake cries heard - perhaps - on the wind.
"For what?" His voice was cool. This was, after all, it. In the back of his ears a song one of his Muggle friends used to play him was banging away.
When they knock on your front door
How're you going to come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun?
But that, of course, was not how he had ever been. They had disarmed him earlier without a fight. They did not think the opposition he might put up was worth worrying about. They had not bothered to search for a second wand.
They were right, unfortunately. That wouldn't have been true of your father. Or your grandmother. Or Draco.
"Therapy, of course. After all, we're here to help you, " Paul said, his eyes baffled and faintly hurt.
Neville looked directly at him.
"And suppose I say no? Suppose I say, I don't trust you? Suppose I say, I think you're trying to kidnap me? Suppose I say: I'm not mad, I'm not vulnerable, and I'm not going?"
Gemma beamed at him reassuringly.
"We were prepared for an initially hostile response. In fact, we've found this experience a whole lot more positive than we feared. Of course, the whole counselling program depends on the patient being willing to buy into it. This is all completely voluntary. Of course, if you object -"
She reached into the depths of her bag and pulled out a roll of parchment.
"You might want to consider this."
It had the Ministry Seal hanging off it, the green sealing wax Manticore biting aggressively at the ribbon from which it was suspended. Neville looked at it, his stomach churning acidly.
"And that is -?"
Paul looked at him and smiled, compassionately.
"As we said, your friends are very worried about you. If you come voluntarily with us, then it will have an immeasurable effect. Everyone will know you couldn't possibly have been to blame for subsequent events - couldn't have known anything about it at all, you know. Was doing everything possible - voluntarily - to put matters right. If, of course, you knew anything whatsoever. Which everyone doubts. And this parchment will be able to lie on the shelf, a mere administrative detail. It was the best deal they could do for you, you know. Trust us."
Neville took a deep breath. His voice, when he spoke, was very low. They had to lean towards him to hear.
"What - is - that?"
Gemma's voice was still indescribably soft, indescribably caring.
"It's a compulsory committal order to St Mungo's. Your -er - friends and family thought it was the best alternative if you weren't prepared to submit to voluntary counselling. Better than Azkaban, by a long chalk, they thought."
There is a place whose horrors go beyond fear, beyond the memory of fear. You had thought Recent Events had tested you to the bottom of raw, visceral terror. It seemed, after all, that you had been wrong. Inconceivable as it seems, you can go so much lower than that, and still, somehow, remain conscious of where they have sent you. The island where dreams come true. Especially those you have when you're running one hell of a temperature.
Neville's voice was a bare breath. Gemma and Paul were looking deeply into each other's eyes, enjoying the warm satisfaction of a job well done, when he intruded his question into their perfect moment. They had to ask him to repeat it.
"What have you done to my grandmother?"
They stared at him, baffled.
It was obvious that his reaction had been unexpected. There was a pleasure in that, alone. It allowed him to make his voice a little louder.
"I said: what have you done to my grandmother?"
His voice had a low, dangerous purr. They would answer him, or kill him now. Probably, they would not kill him. If they did, it might not matter. He amplified.
"You said, friends and family. My grandmother would never have consented to any such order if the Dark Lord and his fifteen best henchmen were standing over her casting Imperius as a team effort to make her do it. So where is she? What have you done to her?"
Gemma looked at him, concern in every line of her face.
"That is, like, such a classic example of your problems. I mean, you just called You-Know-Who the Dark Lord and I don't think you even noticed you were doing it. Can you understand why your friends are worried, now?"
"My so-called friends," Neville said distinctly, "Can sod off. Where is my grandmother?"
Paul's expression was worried.
"I don't think you realize how bad things have been. I'm told your grandmother has been - well, the kindest way to put it is showing her age recently. Suffering from periods of confusion. Acting bizarrely. Refusing point blank to see members of the family. Encouraging that obnoxious house-elf of hers to brush off visitors with blatantly untrue messages. Showing signs of paranoia, even. Reporting intruders when there's no evidence that anyone's ever been there. That sort of thing."
Neville set his teeth.
"If Grandma thinks there have been intruders, then intruders there will have been. Evidence or no evidence. Though I'm extremely surprised she's never mentioned anything about it to me."
Gemma gazed at him pityingly.
"Are you, Neville? Can't you think of one really, really good reason why she might have been afraid to do that?"
Momentarily, sheer blind rage choked Neville's ability to speak. Then, very slowly, and with infinite care and precision, he said.
"Oh. I. See. You think she suspects me and Draco of having something to do with it."
Gemma nodded, obviously pleased that her not-too-bright pupil had cottoned on at last. Neville shook his head decisively.
"I don't believe for an instant she does. "
"Why not?" Gemma enquired, humouring him with an indulgent smile.
Because we've both still got our kneecaps.
He did not bother to speak the thought aloud.
"Anyway, you still haven't told me where she is."
Paul patted him gently on the arm.
"I realise this is going to come as a bit of a shock. Earlier today your cousin Eustace came round to the house to discuss your future with her. Obviously her mental trouble must have come to a head. She seems to have had some sort of brainstorm - I know this is distressing for you - and she just attacked him. Straight out of the blue!"
"Was he much injured?"
Gemma shook her head. Neville tried to keep the disappointment out of his expression.
"Fortunately, with the heightened alert status at the Ministry today, he had an official bodyguard with him. He managed to stun her before she could really hurt Eustace. But they had to sedate her, and they're keeping her in the secure ward, of course, so they can assess if she represents an on-going danger to herself or anyone else."
Do you idiots even know what danger is? Because from where I'm standing it looks like you've just jumped yourself right to the head of the queue to be that someone else.
"I see," Neville said levelly. "Neat. Do give Eustace my congratulations when you next see him. He always wanted to be head of the family. Pity he couldn't bear to wait another fifty years or so."
Paul's eyes assumed an expression of deep distress. He shook his head chidingly.
"I suppose it's inevitable that you've come to think of everyone's motives in that sort of way, living as you have been for the last year. But I can assure you, his only interest in this has been his sincere concern for your welfare. He told me so himself."
Neville got to his feet and gestured, violently, in a single movement of raw anger. His forearm swept empty glasses, beer mats and ash-trays in one confused mass from the bar counter to the floor on its other side. Without even pausing to check the damage, he said passionately
"Bollocks! I know what the bastard's after. But he's made a big mistake. He might be able to take me out, but Grandma can outplay him without even raising a sweat. I think anyone who might get dragged into this - family squabble - ought to consider very, very carefully which Longbottom they're planning to back. And who is really in charge at our house. Also - you keep on talking about my friends doing this, and my friends doing the other. Has it occurred to you at all that this is my life, and I'm entitled to have a say in how I run it? It's my decision who I go to bed with, and who I want to spend my life with, and as a matter of fact I'm pretty damn happy with the choice I've made. I'd be happier still if I was back at the Manor with Draco now. I don't see why I have to be bloody well answerable to some shadowy committee of self-appointed busy-bodies who decide out of the blue that they "have my best interests at heart"."
Paul smiled at him.
"Well, now you've got all that off your chest we'd better be going. No time like the present. Gemma, will you let the landlord know that Neville's coming with us, and he doesn't want the Dark Assassin after all."
"I wouldn't put it like that," Neville hissed. "I can rarely have wanted anything more."
Paul patted his shoulder. "We'll soon sort you out. You'll start feeling much more positive about things in a while."
They left the pub together. He was conscious all the way down the lane of the wands they kept him covered with, and the deeper threat of the parchment Gemma carried hidden in her bag.
Draco drained the last of the whisky in the tumbler, and looked listlessly into the flames. On this sultry summer night he had enchanted the fire in the grate to give out only a soothing breeze, but it was still offering no solutions. He had lit it in hope three hours ago, when the gathering dusk had driven him to call off the fruitless hunt for the dogs and retreat indoors, but nothing had stirred on the hearth since then. The Manor gave off its usual nightly litany of creaks and ghostly moans, but he was, tonight, the East wing's only living inhabitant.
The day had not improved since breakfast. The interview with Vernon Dursley had been short and unpleasant, and he had insisted on conducting it from the passenger seat of his BMW, Petunia at the wheel, and with the engine running throughout.
"I mean," Draco thought in an injured way, "2hat bloody good did the preposterous git think that would do, if I were to suddenly decide I hadn't given myself enough trouble already with that bloody family, and really made up my mind to curse him? "
At various periods later in the day various Nelcorp people had tried to get his attention by signalling with increasing desperation through the security gates. He had taken a perverse pleasure in interpreting Tom Patullo's advice to "not make a Godawful situation immeasurably worse by saying anything else out of turn until I can get there to deal with it" as a licence to issue firm instructions that no Muggle was to be allowed across the boundary onto Malfoy land.
"Unless," he had added to Mrs P., "they've found Marvolo and Riddle and come to bring them back."
Mrs P. had then attempted to cheer him up by regaling him with all the awful stories her grandmother had told her, about what Muggles had been proven to do to helpless domestic pets ("Seen it with her own eyes, she did, sir. It was frightful. She could never face shepherd's pie again after that.") until his nerve had finally snapped and he'd given her the rest of the day off.
Things, after that, had simply deteriorated. By five o'clock he had almost been driven to take matters into his own hands and Apparate to Lancashire, but his nerve, at the last minute, had failed. In the early part of the evening he had felt suddenly so in need of a conversation with anyone at all that he had put his head in the fire and attempted to contact Hermione, only to be confronted by her shocked, but determinedly polite and tolerant parents, who informed him that she had not yet flown in from a cousin's wedding in Boston, and might they pass on a message when she was over her jet-lag? Half an hour later a determined owl-tap on the window brought him instantly to his feet (fast, over a distance of two hundred and fifty miles, but they're breeding them much speedier these days. One benefit of Recent Events, I suppose). Postcard from his mother, who appeared to have now fetched up somewhere among the Dalmatian islands of Croatia. "Love to Neville. Who'd have thought any son of mine would be settled down in happy domestic bliss before he was twenty?" Thanks so much, ma. Second owl-tap, two hours later (much more plausible time estimate. Bigger owl, too. Much better speed over ground average). Invitation from a total imbecile to an Inaugural Lecture in memory of his father in support of the Anti-Dilution Alliance, a well-meaning body who, while deploring the extremist position taken by certain unconnected and largely unrepresentative persons in the past, nonetheless felt it incumbent on them to draw to the attention of pureblood wizards everywhere the need to propagate only with their own kind, and the fundamental importance of safeguarding unsullied wizarding bloodlines against rash and ill-considered mingling with Muggle and Mudblood genes, a cross-fertilisation which was quite unproven experimentally, and was therefore highly likely to lead to all sorts of horrific consequences if allowed to proceed unchecked.
"Only connect, you fuckwit, only connect," Draco muttered, and threw it in the fire.
The final straw came with the arrival of another owl, shortly before one in the morning. This one proved to be carrying an anonymous Howler which had been so badly composed that when opened it gave vent to a full-volume tirade of alternate slurs and lisps, occasionally rising to a feedback howl in moments of excitement, and without one word in seventeen being distinguishable. It went on for twelve minutes without a pause. Once it had run its course, the owl that had brought it stretched its wings at Draco in a move of ineffable contempt, ejected a pellet neatly into the whisky glass he had just refreshed, and took off out through the window into the night.
"Oh, sod it," he muttered with sudden decision, and hurled his whisky tumbler into the flames. It shattered with a satisfying crash. Without a backward glance he retreated from the room towards bed.