When Draco awoke he found a steaming mug of coffee, a bowl of hot water and a towel at his elbow. There was also a small pot of some salve of which the dominant ingredients seemed to be - he sniffed it - arnica and eucalyptus, with an undercurrent of something spicier and more exotic. He presumed it was intended for the relief of his feet, which were now putting up an acid chorus of resentment at the previous day's maltreatment. He recognised a peace offering when he saw it, but snorted, audibly, in a deliberately unconvinced way. You don't get round me that easily, oh no.
The morning sunlight slanted into the cellar through gaps in the trap door. The legionary had departed together with the ghost of his hangover to face eighteen hundred years worth of justified indignation from his centurion. There was a speaking emptiness about the cellar; a palpable air of waiting to see how he took things. Perhaps peace offering was pitching matters too low. Perhaps, the silence enquired of him, propitiatory sacrifice was what he was looking for? He took his time about washing, and then paused.
"Oh, come out of there," he said loudly and irritably. "I can hardly tear you limb from limb before you've told me where to find Neville, now, can I?"
A small and subdued figure now dressed in a T-shirt advocating the merits of Moorhouses' Black Cat Ale emerged from behind the further row of barrels. He regarded her severely.
"I warn you," he said levelly, "I'm giving serious thought to what I ought to do to you. And your chances of getting off with a whole skin after your performance last night will be greatly enhanced if we manage to rescue Neville within the hour. So what have you got to suggest, then?"
Betsey looked miserably at him.
"I is really really sorry," she mumbled. "But I is meaning it for the best. And Thwaitsey and me, wese been thinking. And wese got a plan."
Meditatively, Draco began rubbing the salve into his feet, trying to repress an appreciative sigh as it identified each separate muscle, bone, tendon, nerve and sinew, mounted little relief expeditions to find the knots and strains in each of them, and then despatched individualised packages of warmth and comfort to the disaster zones.
Ruthlessly refusing to allow the tidal wave of pleasurable relaxation sweeping up from his toes to provoke him into forgiveness, Draco made his voice icily non-committal. "Go on. I'm listening."
Betsey eyed him nervously. Evidently she was trying to work out how far he was likely to push his resentment at her cavalier treatment of him last night.
God, that stuff's amazing. Worst thing father ever did, getting rid of the Malfoy house-elf. Whatever provocation he said he'd had. One would never have thought these feet had done twenty miles - a lot more, probably, counting all those detours - yesterday. It was really rather impressive, come to think about it. For a first effort. Without the right gear. Neville will be pretty startled when I tell him. And perhaps Betsey did have a point. Much easier to break into somewhere in daylight. Rested. When they aren't likely to be expecting you.
Draco set himself resolutely against the treacherous urging of his feet to take a merciful stance. Despite everything, it was not as if he had any intention of surrendering the moral high ground any time soon.
Wonder if that stuff works on backs, too? And if it's a family recipe, why the hell hasn't Neville mentioned it before now?
His mind spun away down by-ways of irrelevant speculation. Evidently Betsey read some softening in his face, because her whole body suddenly became less tense, and she gestured excitably. "They is holding Master Neville in a big house up the valley not far away. We is going there now. And on the way I is telling you about how I is planning for you to rescue him."
Draco would have to say that, as cunning plans went, he wasn't getting the subtleties of this one. Betsey almost leapt up and down on the spot in frustration at the evident blankness of his response.
"Pixies? Even if we could find some, what on earth use are pixies going to be?"
Betsey flailed her arms impatiently. "Not pixies. PIGSIES."
In a final effort to communicate, she dropped to hands and knees and made loud snuffling and oinking noises, looking up at Draco in the hope that the Knut, by now, might have dropped. He raised his eyebrows.
"Pigs? How the fuck are you planning to use pigs to break into a house, which, I might remind you, is defended by three people with magical powers, for god's sake?"
She pulled him further into the shade of the little copse, from which they could see the imposing gateway of the house in which Neville was being held. A discreet slate plaque set in the wall to one side of the main gate announced "Oakenclough Grange Research Facility. PRIVATE." Round the lawn and gardens there was a dry-stone wall. Oakenclough Grange was not as big as the Longbottom house, or even Gaia's Place, but it was a substantial, elegant building of local stone, in its own grounds; perhaps once it had been the cherished retirement dream of some Muggle mill owner with less money than some, admittedly, but more taste than the average. A cedar of Lebanon spread a patch of tranquil shade on the lawn in front of the house's serene, patrician façade.
"Is only two people. One of the wizards is already leaving, earlier. He is having other patients to see. Thwaitsey is watching. Now is being our chance."
She gestured at the field next to the house.
"They'se free range pigsies. If you is encouraging them to free range into the house's gardens, one of the other two is having to come out to deal with them. Then you is able to be taking their wand."
"Me?" Draco's jaw dropped. "Why do you think I'm the right person to bring off this idiotic idea? Just - I mean, just how do you think I'm going to encourage a mob of pigs to assault that place in the first place? I mean, what do you take me for?"
He gestured, wildly, with one thumb, even though in the back of his mind some fragment of his over-active imagination was already composing his motivational address to the troops.
Look, guys - I'm not trying to bullshit you here - it's gonna be a meat-grinder out there. And anyone who hesitates when the chips are down - well, he's just gonna be hamburger -
He blinked. Betsey glared at him.
"But you must be knowing about pigsies. Master Neville is telling Madam that your father is breeding the finest herd of pigsies in the whole of Dorset and Wiltshire."
Draco looked at her.
"And, if you knew anything about my father, you'd know that all that meant was that he paid the best expert he could find to buy him a bunch of prize winning Old Spots whose pedigrees went back nearly as long as the family. He then dumped them in some custom designed pigsties somewhere out on the estate with a hand-picked head pig man and a deputy pig man, and, for all I know, a full singing and dancing chorus of assistant pig men, all given orders to make sure they were coddled, and cleaned, and polished down to the last trotter, in case my father took it in his head to show them off to visitors. He never had anything else to do with them until they'd been treacle cured."
Not too different, come to think of it, from his approach to fatherhood. Though at least the pigs got killed humanely. "A stressed pig is a tasteless pig." after all.
Betsey's eyes were assuming a touch of manic determination, which Draco recollected, queasily, from last night. She took a deep breath, which made her small body puff up to twice its normal size.
There was no possibility of retreat. Betsey was quite emphatic about that. With considerable reluctance, Draco cast one backward glance at her, shuddered elaborately for the benefit of his self-image, and then, in the teeth of her grim air of determination, shinned over the dry-stone wall, which divided the farm field from the road.
The large white sows in the field began to look up at him from the serious business of snuffling about and rolling in the mud. He gulped, dry mouthed, and made hopeful shooing movements in their general direction.
"Er, look, you lot - er - I mean -"
The whole idea was completely dotty. It couldn't possibly work. He coughed again, nervously, in the general direction of the snuffling hordes.
"It'd just be handy if you could - like - well -I mean -er- oy, just take a hike, will you! Over there - in that direction - yes, that'd be good -"
Ahead of him he could hear an excited cacophony of high-pitched grunts and squeals; Betsey, he supposed, practising her farmyard impressions to dramatically successful effect. Suddenly he had to leap aside to avoid being trampled as the pigs started heading en masse for the dry-stone wall, which formed the boundary of Oakenclough Grange. Bugger it. This is really not supposed to happen. Its actually working.
The piggy multitude thundered on. The fragile wall toppled before their relentless advance. They were into enemy territory, and the narrow bridge-head established by their initial strike broadened into the sustained development of a front across the whole of the lawns as reinforcements poured through the gap. Reconnaissance parties were already making their way round towards the back of the house, perhaps forming the vanguard for search and destroy missions against vulnerable vegetable patches and fruit-bushes. An extensive defoliation programme, presumably intended to remove patches of cover under which any guerrilla resistance could re-group and counter-attack, was already in progress at the front of the building.
Well, in the light of the unexpected success of Phase 1, perhaps I'd better ensure I'm properly positioned for Phase 2.
Gemma waved her wand absent-mindedly at the kettle, and it burst, instantly, into cheerful whistling. She made herself a full pot of coffee, poured a mug-full and savoured each mouthful. The sunlight slanted into the pine-panelled kitchen. Celestina Warbeck's bright, up-beat tones echoed out of the radio in the corner of the kitchen, and she cocked half an ear, awaiting the morning news bulletin. The Daily Prophet had arrived by owl fifteen minutes ago, but Paul had snaffled it, along with his own coffee, on his last break, and taken it back into the therapy room with him before she had had a chance even to skim the headlines. From long experience she did not expect to get a glance at the newspaper for another couple of hours at least. Gemma smiled, indulgently, into the depths of her coffee mug. Bless him. As team leader, Paul always bore the emotional brunt of a deprogramming, and, as the last thirty-six hours had demonstrated, this one had turned out unexpectedly demanding. He deserved his little treats and privileges. The facility could hardly operate without him, after all.
What the heck -?
A high-pitched, intense squealing burst from the garden outside. By force of habit Gemma cast a quick, bothered glance towards the therapy room, even though she knew that nothing could penetrate the soundproofing charms on it until Paul chose to emerge. The door, as she had expected, remained solidly shut.
And he's just begun this morning's session. And Julian's half way to Madrid by now. So that just leaves you. Ah, the joys of being the junior member of the team.
She moved to the window, and gave a deep sigh of exasperation. As she expected. It had happened before, though not on this scale - what is it with that idiot Muggle farmer and his wall? Why can't they use mortar in these parts like sensible human beings? - and the damage on that occasion had left the lawns a torn-up morass minutes before a group of American psycho-wizards were due to arrive for a guided tour of the facility. She bit her lip as she remembered Paul's well-chosen words to her about that particular disaster. Well, I certainly can't let that happen again.
She snatched up her wand and bolted for the garden. Pigs were everywhere: rooting, munching, generally causing havoc. The herbaceous borders already resembled a well bedded-in water-buffalo wallow. She stood in the midst of it all, almost weeping in sheer frustration. Where do I bloody well start?
"Can I give you a hand?"
Gemma looked up in surprise. The offer had come from a young man who was leaning over the wall surveying the general scene of piggy chaos with an expression which appeared to mingle amusement and concern. Gemma suppressed an exasperated hiss.
Wonderful. As if I didn't have enough to deal with, I've now got to handle some blasted Muggle who wants to be helpful, for crying out loud. Well, that rules out using my wand, at least until I've got rid of him.
"Well, it's very good of you, but I don't think - "
"I was brought up in the country. My father bred pedigree pigs," the young man said helpfully. His eyes quirked up into a smile. "And, if you don't mind my saying so, that's a lot more than a one woman job. In fact, I'd say that looks like a pretty fair general average."
She took a slightly closer look at him.
Well, he is remarkably good looking. For a Muggle. I wonder if he lives locally? Not one of the local yokels, by the sound of him, anyway. In fact, rather classy. That's a very sexy voice. And, after all, since he is volunteering -
"Thanks. I'd really appreciate it." She gave him her most winning smile. "Well, do you want to hop over the wall, then? Don't worry about damaging it, I think the pigs have done quite enough to it that you couldn't possibly make it any worse."
And if he does know something about pigs, perhaps he can contain the problem at the front of the house, while I can start picking them off with my wand at the back. And if he does spot anything odd, there's always Obliviate. I wonder if it'd be quite ethical if I just modified his memories a bit, rather than blotting them out altogether?
"Right, then," she said brightly, once he had joined her on the driveway of the house. "Perhaps if you try shooing them off the front lawn, I'll see what I can do about the ones that have got round the back."
He nodded - momentarily, she thought she caught a faint glimpse of something inexplicable in the depths of his grey eyes. Then he smiled.
"OK. That suits me."
She turned away from him to make her way round the back of the house, and was suddenly arrested in her tracks, acutely conscious that the point of something was digging into the soft skin of her neck, just over her carotid artery. A low voice purred in her ear.
"Your wand, please."
Not a Muggle, after all, it seems. She trembled, from head to foot, with a mixture of fear and fury. While her mind was still wrapping itself round the half-formed thought, "Why bother asking? Why not just use Expelliarmus?" one firm hand had reached round in front of her, locating and removing her wand from the sleeve up which she had concealed it when she first noticed him. The low, conversational purr continued.
"Thank you. Now take me into the house. No tricks."
She bit her lip. She was a professional, with a job to do, and he was obviously an interloper. No scientist. It was her duty to resist. She stopped moving and set her teeth.
"And suppose I refuse? Suppose I scream for help?"
Her attacker paused for the length of two heartbeats. Then, thoughtfully, with no more emotion than if she had been asking whether he thought it might rain later, he murmured,
"I don't suppose you've ever seen someone whose vocal cords have been Transfigured into molten lead?"
She shook her head, wordlessly. The voice continued, gentle and deadly.
"Then it would be a shame for you to see it for the first time in a mirror. You'd miss all the finer details."
She gulped. The convulsive movement pulsed her neck momentarily against the point of the wand resting against it. He obviously felt the miniscule change in pressure through the wand.
"Good. I'm glad to see we understand each other. Inside. Now."
Once they were in the kitchen he turned to face her.
"Now, suppose you tell me where you've got Neville. And what you're doing to him. And, in your own best interests, I recommend not lying to me."
The voice was still a low, feral, purr. No limits echoed in its every syllable. The wand - her own wand, she noticed with slight surprise - remained pointed straight at her as he asked the question. She was surprised at her own surprise; her perceptions seemed to have been shut away behind a thick sheet of plate glass. Everything around her was slightly blurred; her limbs worked in slow motion. The only things she could focus on were his eyes: funny, they never told me ice could burn. Amazingly, she found she could still speak: Paul, she thought, would be proud of her after all.
"We're treating him. He's in good hands, now."
He raised one eyebrow. "Not an answer. Specifics."
Her anger boiled to the surface.
"We're trying to repair the damage you've caused. Oh, yes, I've worked out now who you are. That little threat you just came out with convinced me who you had to be. But you aren't going to win. Whatever you might think, violence isn't the answer. Whatever Dark magic you used to get Neville into the state he was in when we rescued him, trust us. We'll be able to repair it. Scientifically."
"Science?" Ten planets could not contain the contempt he managed to load into a single word.
"Yes, science. Healing science - something I shouldn't imagine you take the slightest interest in. And I daresay you've never heard of Dr Averose-Dubarry, who founded our facility."
He raised both eyebrows this time.
"Uncle Gerard? Of course I have. He gave me my first proper broom, as a matter of fact. Ninth-birthday present. Junior Nimbus, custom turbo-charmed."
That was definitely not in the script. Gemma, furious with herself, felt her face betray her surprise.
"You - you're making it up. He can't really have been your uncle, to begin with. His name's wrong."
She felt its inadequacy as a retort, even as she said it. He shrugged.
"Courtesy title. Old friend of the family. One of my godfathers, actually, I think. Who cares? But tell me. What has my dear, late, Uncle Gerard and his - experiments - got to do with this - ah - facility?"
He dragged out the last word until it was almost a hiss. Her nerve almost broke as she heard it. She could remember Julian and Paul discussing the problem, less than a week ago at supper, when they had first been given the assignment and had been planning their strategy. It had seemed pleasingly academic, then. Is he, or isn't he? And does it make a difference to what we do? Julian, who prided himself on his ability to strengthen his clinical technique by a careful admixture of input from Muggle scientific traditions, had declared roundly, "You're spouting rampant Lamarckism. A blonde and a brunette don't produce a blond baby, however much Polyjuice the father's had and however powerful a Dark magician he might be. And that's that." Whereas Paul, more cautious, had urged restraint: Muggle genetics, he had pointed out, was only a theory, to be weighed judiciously in the balance against other, more established, theories with a greater weight of magical experiment behind them. Perhaps also, he suggested delicately, Julian had not been studying Muggle science long enough to pronounce definitively on the issue at hand: his own inexpert view would have come to the opposite conclusion.
Staring into Draco's eyes, seeing her own wand levelled point-first at her throat, Gemma knew intuitively which theory she espoused.
The hissing note deepened. She chose her words carefully: after all, they might well be her last.
"Dr Averose-Dubarry was a great man."
Draco looked at her disbelievingly. "Uncle Gerard was a great windbag. With a nasty set of talents. In some quite specific areas. The Imperius curse, for example."
His eye swept her insolently from head to toe, and back again.
"He used to keep his hand in at Imperius by practising on his prettier research witches. You wouldn't know anything about that bit, I expect."
Gemma flushed, hotly.
"That can't be true! That's got to be just - malicious gossip. Small minds always try to get at people with real vision - and - and charisma. You can't possibly have any real evidence of anything of the sort - "
Draco's expression was deeply sardonic.
"Well, I agree I only know about it by word of mouth. I don't think Uncle Gerard was into boys. Even if he had been, he wouldn't have risked pissing off his major research funder that badly. I mean, my father might have had his quirks, but he'd have been pretty well bound to object to that one, don't you think?"
Gemma held on, hard, to one single thought.
Lies. He lies for his own purposes. And of course he does it well. He was bred of lies, after all.
Draco's voice went reflective.
"Mind you, it was Uncle Gerard's own mouth I heard it from. Surprising how invisible you can make yourself, once you've worked out that the grown-ups always produce the really interesting stuff if they think you're working too hard at your Arithmancy homework to hear them."
Gemma did not deign to comment. Snail slime slithered over the tombstone of a genius. A colossus. One of the innovative pioneers of psycho-wizardry.
She set her eyes on a point in the middle distance. She was a scientist. One had to put up with the sneers of the unenlightened, superstitious masses. They would understand what you had done for their sake in the end.
"I'm sure you're interested in exactly what Uncle Gerard's principal research project was," Draco added conversationally. With a supreme effort Gemma stopped her facial muscles moving by one iota. Draco continued anyway.
"The problem that bugged my father is that Imperius requires much too much of the attention of a seriously talented wizard. Custom-designed, you see. Inefficient. Not susceptible to mass-production. And, because you're forcing it on them, if the subjects resist it strongly enough, they can always cast it off in the end. If only you could persuade them to do it to themselves, father always used to say. And that, of course, is what he was backing Uncle Gerard to bring off."
That calumny could not be allowed to go unanswered. She spluttered, indignantly.
"Rubbish! Dr Dubarry was interested in helping people free themselves from addictions and compulsions of all sorts - he developed his therapies to enable people to unlock the strength of their inner self - "
Draco's voice was hard.
"Inner self delusions, more like. 'Batter them back to the bare rock; and then, when they have nothing else to take as model, let them build themselves up again freely and joyfully in the image I choose for them.' I assure you, my father always insisted on value for money. And I know exactly what he was paying for when he backed Uncle Gerard. So - you should think about this if you believe in your therapy."
His voice was the whisper of granite against granite. She could not stop herself leaning forward to hear better.
"If you have succeeded - in any way - in harming Neville by those filthy methods - bear this in mind."
"During Recent Events, I saw people die because they couldn't take Cruciatus any longer."
Although he was not tall he seemed to tower over her, his hands on her shoulders, forcing her back against the kitchen wall. She was no longer capable of saying anything. His eyes were wide and pitiless: his voice barely audible even at six inches range. As he hissed out the words his spit flecked her face.
"Perhaps you should start praying now for the death they got."
Abruptly, he released her. Suddenly she could breathe, even start to take in her surroundings again.
"Anyway, I've gathered enough. So, he's in there, isn't he?"
Draco nodded towards the door of the therapy room. Gemma fought the inadequacy of her response.
"How the - I never said - "
"You kept sliding glances at it whenever I mentioned Neville. After that, you looked everywhere but there."
She was barely capable of acknowledging this. She was already sliding into unconsciousness when the Stupefy spell hit her as a blessed release.
The therapy room was windowless, its walls a neutral shade between not-quite grey and not-quite magnolia. The light came from a fluorescent panel in the ceiling and beat pitilessly down on the only furniture: a heavy oak desk with a tooled leather top, behind which Paul sat in an imposing swivel chair upholstered in designer-aged brown leather, and a couch, covered in some non-descript cloth, arranged to face the desk. The height of the couch, Neville had worked out during the first few minutes of the first therapy session, had been precisely calculated to establish the appropriate power relationship between the man behind the desk and the man on the couch. Any lower, and the patient - subject - victim - risked dropping out of view altogether. Furthermore, the dynamic between chair and couch would change utterly if the couch were effectively nothing more than cushioning on the floor. You do not stretch out at ease on the carpet to receive correction for your errors, and be threatened and cajoled back into the paths of right thinking.
The therapy room had come last on the tour of the facility, which Paul and Gemma had insisted on when he first arrived. Then, they had shown the house off to him with chirpy enthusiasm not unmixed with pride. He was nagged by a sense that they were expecting him to be more impressed by its scale. Surely, their every gesture seemed to say, surely you must see now that we are right. See how impressively we are equipped.
In fact as he moved from room to room in the haze generated by their bright, up-beat chatter he grew increasingly alienated. There was no room here for complexities, for shades of emotion. Every corner of the spotless building was brightly, almost garishly, painted. Every stone seemed to have been sent on a positive thinking course. The décor scorned subtlety. The walls of the once elegant dining room which overlooked the lawns had been covered in faux-naif murals; the sunlit study-bedrooms on the first floor were a riot of primary colours and boldly patterned, peasant-weave rugs. He maintained a remote, monosyllabic politeness throughout the tour, his mind endlessly calculating. Was there anyone in the cellar of that pub? Did they hear me? Did they realize what it all meant? And, above everything, how long will it take him to get here?
Finally, almost apologetically, they had mentioned that before he graduated to his room on the first floor, and to the gentle regime of self-analysis, introspective exercises and group discussions prescribed for intermediate candidates on the programme - and what a pity that there were, at present, no such candidates in the facility to speak from their own experience of how far they had progressed - there was a necessary, if hopefully short, mandatory period during which more direct measures would be applied.
Paul had eyed him owlishly, as they sat at the pine table in the kitchen with mugs of coffee - decaffeinated, Neville noted, with a quirk of wry humour, which he was careful not to betray in any way.
"Habit," Paul had said profoundly. "It's impossible to over-estimate the destructive effect of habit. The mind digs cart tracks for itself. However much you may wish to change, habit will still drive you back along the old, well-worn grooves. That's where we've found Dr Dubarry's teaching so valuable. We always start our counselling programme with a structured period of intensive one-to-one therapy - it may be longer, it may be shorter - that entirely depends on the subject. What we're aiming for, however, is to facilitate your breaking down those ruts, flattening out that cart-track, realizing that there's a whole vast savannah across which you can travel, not just those narrow, destructive paths you can't move yourself off at present. Once you've accepted that, we can start to give you maps across that open country, free you to take new journeys, ones you aren't capable of even imagining at the moment. Neville, I know you aren't able to appreciate this at the moment, but trust me. You're on the edge of something big. Something really exciting."
Paul had swallowed the last of his coffee with an air of decision.
"Come. No time like the present."
Neville, suddenly dazed - did they put a mind-numbing potion in that coffee? - had stumbled to his feet as Paul gestured commandingly with his wand.
The door to the therapy room swung suddenly open. Dizzy as he was, Neville had not been able to repress a sudden shiver as he passed through it. Paul had smiled understandingly at him.
"Don't worry. I'm sure in your case this stage will hardly take any time at all. And afterwards - you simply cannot conceive what happiness and relief you'll experience. You won't be able to believe how you could possibly have tried to resist getting treatment. Trust me."
It had not, actually, turned out like that at all.
Paul had explained the theory to him in the first session.
"How you need to see this phase, Neville, is as essential ground clearance. We're trying to help you cultivate new growth, but your conditioned emotional responses and negative thinking patterns are taking up all the oxygen and sunlight which it needs to be able to come through. Think of this as just a simple pruning process, not something that's going to harm you or of which you should be nervous in any way."
Well, he's obviously taken the trouble to tailor his opening metaphor especially for you, a forthright inner voice commented, sounding rather like Professor Sprout. But there's a man who clearly wasn't concentrating at all in Herbology classes. And he's plainly never been on the wrong end of the backchat you get from a Cursing Camellia when you start cutting back the deadwood. Or had to hold down a Venomous Tentacula to trim off the little suckers.
Neville had assumed an expression of dumb incomprehension, and started to plan a complete overhaul and replanting of the Manor's neglected water-gardens in his head while Paul's voice droned on. Then, he became aware of the background noise. It hummed and throbbed - almost too low for hearing - pitched somewhere between a whine and a hum. There were very slight variants in its speed and tone. The variants occurred on a regular pattern - or did they? It was hard not to start listening for them and trying to work out the sequence. Once one started down that route it was impossible to stop. Neville's vision of the water-gardens as they could be with sufficient time and attention devoted to them dissolved under the noise's pitiless intrusion. Fixing his attention on the speaker seemed the only way to obtain partial relief from its ubiquity. Paul was looking reverential; it was clear he was quoting the words of the Great Man himself.
"Dr Dubarry's own diary describes the very moment he made his tremendous breakthrough. He heard a mediwitch on a busy ward in St Mungo's complain one day "All this noise - you simply can't hear yourself think!" It was then, as he records:
'I knew intuitively what had been wrong with my earlier experiments. I had thought the answer to detaching subjects from their established bad habits of thought lay in solitude - in isolation - in darkness. As though a lightning flash was illuminating my mind, I realized in an instant that this almost inevitably reinforced within the subject the old mental pathways. After all, what other road were they being offered? What was needed was a means of putting up roadblocks on the established mental routes. And that mediwitch's exclamation of irritation had shown me exactly how to put them there! But I could develop that insight still further. If noise, why not light? If light, why not smell? If smell, why not taste? If taste, why not temperature?' "
Paul gestured proudly round the therapy room.
"This is the place, Neville, in which you'll begin the transition between the person you were, and the person we're here to help you become. This therapy room is based, as closely as we could manage, on the plans drawn up in Dr Dubarry's own notes for an ideal facility - though, of course, he never lived to see it built. Another act of criminal waste to lay at the door of He Who Must Not Be Named and his hangers-on, of course. Hangers on like your friend Malfoy, that is."
Then, Paul had picked up his wand, pointed it at himself and muttered "Strepitum lucemque deliqua". He added, for Neville's benefit:
"We found that it was hard for the counsellor to facilitate these one-to-one sessions if he - or she, of course - was too close to what the subject was experiencing at the same time. It produced too great a confusion about their respective roles. In extreme cases it even provoked an unhealthy degree of emotional identity between the counsellor and the subject. We lost a couple of very promising psycho-wizards that way: they just felt that they couldn't maintain the right level of emotional detachment to allow them to continue. All very sad. So we put in a lot of effort and developed these filtering spells, so that I, as your therapist, can distance myself from the stimuli you'll be experiencing, to enable me more effectively to act as your guide and mentor. You should realise how dedicated the team are to this therapy. All these spells were developed experimentally just for this purpose, and the team voluntarily tested them out on themselves. And I can tell you that was quite scary, the first time I did it."
His gentle smile did not quite hide a glow of quiet pride. He coughed, sat back in the leather chair, put his feet up on the desk and looked Neville straight in the eye.
"Anyway, we'd better start. No time like the present."
After that, things had become quite bad.
Neville had not left the therapy room since. A small, door-less alcove provided a toilet and a small washbasin, though the tap ran cold water only. Such sleep breaks he was allowed he took on the couch. There were no coverings. The light stayed on throughout. So did the noise. He suspected that he was being monitored to check if he actually managed to drop into true sleep, and that they made a point of waking him to start a new session whenever he did so.
Food was presented at curiously irregular intervals, which certainly bore no resemblance to whether he felt hungry. Hunger would perhaps have offered some guide to the passage of time in that clock-less, windowless room. It was always the same; a white substance with roughly the texture of cottage cheese, and no taste whatsoever. The counselling team assured him that it was good for him, that however long he stayed in the therapy room he would suffer no ill effects from the monotonous diet. And then they would add, pointedly, that rest and a more varied menu were within his own control: he only had to start showing some progress.
There were three of them, and they took the role of counsellor in shifts. He was only left alone for brief intervals, erratically spaced. Typically, the duty counsellor would leave the therapy room in mid sentence; his or her replacement would start the next session half way through a new sentence on a different topic. The abrupt shifts of subject were accompanied by equally abrupt shifts of tone and emotion: gentle cajolery and encouragement could change, almost within the same word, to towering anger and frustration. He learned to watch their eyes covertly as they spoke to him: Paul rarely, Julian and Gemma more frequently, telegraphed an upcoming mood swing by tiny eye-flickers. It became important for Neville to anticipate them. The little internal sense of victory he felt when he did so successfully gave him impetus to keep fighting, to give no ground that was not wrested from beneath his feet. No pasaran. The victories became harder to win as the effects of sleep deprivation piled up. He started to see things out of the tail of his eye, things that were not there when he turned his head round.
During one rare moment when they had left him alone he found himself asking Snape, who for some reason had appeared in the swivel chair, why he had hated him so much at Hogwarts. Snape curled his lip.
"That way you had of looking like a rabbit in front of a stoat, boy, just before you started gibbering randomly at me. Would showing a bit of backbone have been beyond your capabilities? And, in between the panicked flurries of verbal diarrhoea, that dull, blank, uncomprehending stare. Have you any idea what looking down at that, day in, day out, does to a teacher? I could have forgiven your blowing things up. Pupils with genuine talent blow things up. And anyway, why do you suppose I put you between Potter and that Granger know-it-all in the first place? Damage containment, boy. But was it unreasonable of me to expect you to demonstrate a spark of intelligent life?"
The phantom Snape metamorphosed abruptly into a large purple guinea pig, which sat on the desk and said (still, oddly enough, in remarkably Snape-like tones),
"There couldn't have been anyone in that cellar, you know. Rescue isn't coming. What's the point in hanging on? Why don't you just give up - do what they say?"
His lips moved.
Because it isn't the family style. And I can't be the family failure forever. So sod off.
The guinea pig wrinkled its nose in disdain, and vanished. The door swung open and Julian entered to commence the next session. He smiled brightly at Neville.
" - and relationships with other family members too, of course, don't you think?"
Julian's eyebrows went up questioningly as he looked across at Neville for a response.
Right. Verbal diarrhoea interspersed with periods of total dumb idiocy. That should get him going nicely.
He began to ham up his Lancashire accent, to a point which his grandmother would have certainly ticked him off for, if he'd tried it in her hearing. It wrong-footed them; they half-suspected that they might be being sent up, but it seemed each time they looked down at the dull-eyed, slow spoken patient on the couch their doubts about whether he was capable of it resurfaced. It undoubtedly irritated them, though. If I can get them to hit me, how many points do I score for my side? With Gemma, who, he suspected, was the weakest link of the trio, he started to experiment with a stutter, and then with bizarre sentence constructions, idiosyncratic pronunciations, foreign phrases, and random quotations from Muggle literature. Her response to the latter convinced him she knew even less about the Muggle world than Draco did. He increased their frequency and obscurity, blessing his adolescent enthusiasms for Dylan Thomas and T.S Eliot. She struggled to understand him through three sessions, evidently panicking in case she was failing to pick up early signs of the elusive break-through. The next session after that, she and Paul came in together. Unusually, they both came round to his side of the desk. Paul's face was grim, Gemma's anxious. His voice, however, was set in a tone of gentle rebuke.
"Gemma's been telling me that the damage that Malfoy's done to you has been more insidious than we'd hoped; that the slippery, devious habits of mind he's managed to instil in you are surfacing even as we're trying to pull you out of that whole morass. We've been having a long talk about you, Neville, and we've decided that the situation justifies a step we very rarely take."
His hand slipped inside the pocket of his robes. Even in the stark light in the therapy room the liquid in the tiny phial flashed diamond sparkles as Paul raised it high.
"You're being evasive, Gemma tells me. That's not wholly a bad sign, you know, Neville. It shows that we're getting close to the heart of your problems. The reactionary part of your brain - the part that's still clinging on to those negative habits of thought - senses we're closing in for the victory. Naturally it's putting up its best defence. But we aren't going to let that happen. We care for you too much for that. It's time we gave you - the real you - a bit of help in coming to terms with just how Malfoy has managed to corrupt you, and what we can do to cure you. Gemma!"
Before he could react Gemma was behind him, catching his nose and lower jaw and forcing them open - like giving Marvolo and Riddle worming potion - a stray part of his brain thought cynically - while Paul swiftly tipped the contents of the phial to the back of his throat. Gemma brought his jaws together smartly. Involuntarily he gasped, and swallowed.
That was the first time they questioned him under Veritaserum. It was not, however, the last.
He continued to fight on, with increasing despair but undiminished doggedness. The results from the Veritaserum sessions disappointed them, he could tell. No wonder, you imbeciles. What advantage is it to you to be told the exact truth, if you have no conception at all of the right question to ask?
They started to look for alternatives. That was when they almost broke him. Some deep instinct of self-preservation welled up in the nick of time. After that, the hallucinations became more frequent, and he started encouraging them to come in.
Things were not going well in the current therapy session. He could sense Paul's frustration, like a visible fog drifting across the room. He shivered. Very definitely not a good sign. The things in the corners of the room were getting bolder, too. They were all around him, except in the straight line of his direct gaze. The purple guinea pig had popped in for a visit, and was sitting on the desk between him and Paul. It chirruped encouragingly at him, and gave him a curious wave of one paw, almost a salute, which he decoded, somehow, as its equivalent of thumbs up sign. Then it vanished.
Paul's fingers had begun to drum on the desk. He looked down at them, frowned, and clasped them round his cooling coffee mug.
"You know what Malfoy's doing now, Neville? I mean, if your stubborn attitude's out of some perverted sense of loyalty to him, I think you ought to know."
He tapped briskly on the newspaper in front of him. Neville had not managed yet to work out whether Paul's habit of always having a book or newspaper on the desk before him during the sessions was intended merely to convey casual disrespect -"you have to listen to me, but I listen or not as I choose "- or was a more subtle attempt at bribery. "There is a world out there still. And you have to do so little - so very little - to earn it for yourself."
" Er - what? What's that about Draco?"
It took little deliberate effort, now, to assume a dead, flat tone. Weariness pressed down with a physical force all around him. Paul smiled at him, compassionately.
"Well, I'm afraid it doesn't look as if he's wasting any time worrying about what's happened to you. He wasn't too far away from here last night, coincidentally - Manchester, it seems - but he's gone back down South again. Partying the night away, wherever he is. And definitely leaving anyone who might be interested in no doubt that he sees himself as entirely available."
Despair hit like a hammer blow. There was no one in that cellar. No one passed on my message. And so he must think, because he's not heard a word from me, that I've still got a strop on. And if he's got himself in the papers, it sounds as though he's decided to do something idiotic, just to show me how little it bothers him. And no one's going to come for me. Ever.
For the first time he dropped his head into his hands. Above him Paul's voice had assumed a note of barely concealed triumph.
"Well, I think that shows you why we've been devoting all this effort to save you from your delusions, Neville. And I think now it would be valuable if you shared your thoughts about this development with me, so we can analyse them together."
Paul's voice became momentarily slightly muffled. Neville had no doubt why. He was bending down to pick something up from behind the desk. Neville knew exactly what it was. He suppressed an anguished gasp with an effort.
NO!! Not that. Not about this!
He abruptly reached the point of no return. This has to end. He no longer cared how. It might be possible to wrest Paul's wand from him. He wouldn't be expecting a physical attack. Or perhaps he could force Paul to kill him. One way or another, he did have the means to end this. He had thought of himself as helpless for too long.
Very cautiously, without any betraying head movement, he opened his eyes. With sudden incredulous elation he saw through the lattice of his fingers that a wand had just appeared out of nowhere, and was lying on the floor within easy reach.
Paul was still bent behind the desk, fiddling with something.
"Now, Neville," he began, his voice sounding strained with the effort of stooping. "Let's try this the easy way first. What would you say your dominant thought was at this moment in time?"
"Oh, that's easy," Neville breathed fervently. "Wish fulfilment."
Paul straightened up in sudden response to the new note in Neville's voice. Over endless hours of therapy, Neville had gauged the relative distance and position between the couch and the person in the chair to the nearest millimetre. There was no possibility that he would miss. The stunning spell took Paul directly between the eyes, and he keeled over backwards before he had the chance to utter a syllable.
Neville dropped his head into his hands and shook with reaction for at least half a minute before a half-suppressed noise caught his attention. He looked up. The door had suddenly swung wide open. A blessed shaft of sunlight was streaming straight into the therapy room. Draco was leaning against the doorjamb.
"Hi, gorgeous," Draco said.
Draco contemplated Gemma's unconscious body, and satisfied himself that, even if the stunning spell wore off earlier than he planned (and of course, with a borrowed wand you could never really know) the cords with which he had tied her to a kitchen chair would hold her safely immobile. Betsey Apparated into the kitchen, looking anxious. Draco put a finger on his lips, and gestured at the door behind which Neville was being held.
"Get those pigs rounded up and off the premises before we're awash with Muggles trying to collect them," he hissed at her. "I'm going in to get Neville out. Check in fifteen minutes - if it's all going ok, then stay on guard out here in case the third one comes back or anyone else shows up unexpectedly. Got that?"
She nodded, her eyes wide.
"And - Betsey - "
"It was a good plan. Sorry I took a bit of convincing."
She grinned, and vanished. Draco turned his attention to the door. Gemma had not made any attempt to attract attention through it. That was interesting. She might have been too scared to try or - she might have known that any attempt to call for help would not be heard. Soundproofing charms? Very probably. He repressed a shiver. He had seen too much to like the idea of a facility where the interrogation room had been carefully soundproofed by an interrogator who then locked himself inside. Better take no risks. He picked up Gemma's wand again.
Celestina Warbeck died in mid-squawk. The pig noises from the garden were cut off as though by a guillotine. Wrapped in an envelope of pure silence Draco moved cautiously to the door. Rapidly, he marked out a small, rough oblong with the wand at about knee height on its wood.
"Perfora !" he breathed gently.
The wood wavered momentarily, became like smoke, and then the hole appeared. He knelt down to it.
"- entirely available," the soft, unctuous voice drifted out. He took an instant dislike to its owner, of whom he could see nothing. Neville, apart from one bare foot, was also outside his line of sight. He could, however, hear him make a sudden, quickly bitten off noise, which sounded like pain.
The owner of the voice had obviously heard it too. The note of indecent triumph made Draco clench his teeth.
"Well, I think that shows you why we've been devoting all this effort to save you from your delusions, Neville. And I think now it would be valuable if you shared your thoughts about this development with me, so we can analyse them together."
Noiselessly, Draco got to his feet. He put his hand on the door handle so that there was no danger of the door springing open. He pointed the wand at the lock.
Recent Events had taught him two ways of opening doors soundlessly: one, while he was a Death Eater in training, and the other after he had joined the allies. With a slight perverse sense of defiance, he used the method he had learned first. With a very slight "click" the door unlocked itself, and the handle moved slightly under his grasp.
Draco leant down again, and put his eye to the hole. The owner of the voice was bending down - Draco caught a glimpse of fair hair and the back of a sunburned neck.
Thank goodness. He's got his back to me. And I bet he can't see Neville from that angle, either.
He looked at the wand in his hand with momentary doubt. The back of that head was remarkably tempting.
No. Not the right thing at all.
He muttered the banishing charm almost inaudibly. The wand vanished through the hole in the door.
The unctuous voice purred again.
"Now, Neville. Let's try this the easy way first. What would you say your dominant thought was at this moment in time?"
Well, I'd lay odds that it includes a slow and painful death for you. Preceded by several months of disfiguring and excruciatingly embarrassing skin diseases, I shouldn't be surprised. Wonder what he's going to say?
"Oh, that's easy. Wish fulfilment." The voice was alight with sudden hope.
Thank god. He's got it. My cue, I think -
Draco turned the handle. A fair-bearded man was lying supine on the carpet behind a heavy oak desk. Neville, wearing a pair of green hospital pyjamas slightly too small for him, sat on the edge of a low couch with his head in his hands. Something about his attitude of despair provoked Draco to a quick intake of breath.
What have the fuckers been doing to him?
Neville looked up. Draco made his voice light.
Neville's eyes swept over him in a lost, rootless way, and his stomach turned over within him.
"Draco?" The voice was dull, barely present.
"What the hell have you done to your hair?"
A muscle at the corner of his mouth, which Draco had not realized he was holding tense, suddenly relaxed. He came further into the room, and bent down by the unconscious man, feeling for his wand. It felt subtly greasy in his hand as he picked it up, and he dropped it fastidiously on the desk.
"Long story. I gather you don't care for the colour?"
Neville shrugged, indifferently, and resumed looking at his hands as though he had not seen them before. Draco abruptly discarded all the more exuberant - not to mention sophisticated - versions of this reunion he had rehearsed in his head over the last two days.
Not down to bare rock, no. But clinging on to the tiniest ledge, so he can't tell where his fingers and toes end and the rock begins. Let alone which way to move so he can safely find solid ground.
They had been caught like that in Recent Events, once. He had been guarding Neville's back against the expected Death Eater assault, when Neville had been tasked with collecting quantities of some obscure rock plant, which was needed for some urgent healing potion or another. The boiling peat brown water of a Scottish salmon river rushed through a gorge between smooth rock sides twelve or so feet below them. He'd been yelling to Neville for god's sake, to get on and pick the bloody things, before they had half the Dark Lord's forces breathing down their necks, when he'd realized that Neville was hearing nothing, that he was looking with transfixed horror down into the raging waters, and was unable to go forward or back.
Memory carried Draco on. His voice remained light, conversational.
"I can't say I like that light much. And what's that bloody noise?"
He picked up Gemma's wand, which Neville had allowed to drop to the carpet, and pointed it negligently at the light fitting, which exploded in a mass of shards. The noise suddenly stopped, too. Its absence was an intense, almost physical, relief. And I've only just entered the room. How long has that been going on?
He moved to sit on the couch next to Neville, sliding his hands inside the open front of the pyjama jacket and round Neville's back. Every muscle had been braced for so long in patterns of resistance that they stood out in ridges, and had forgotten how to relax. Draco felt with his thumbs for the line of Neville's spine and pressed down hard along it, rubbing each vertebra in turn and then massaging outwards with his upper palms and the base of his fingers in slow, firm, careful circles. It's me, remember? You don't have to fight them on your own any more. Neville turned, burying his face against Draco's collarbone. The smell of terror, and despair and sheer exhaustion came off him.
Draco kept talking, still in the same conversational, unhurried drawl, as his hands continued to move in rhythmic patterns up and down Neville's back.
"Anyway, while you're making personal remarks about my hair, can I get a word in about these pyjamas? Considering it's the first time I've ever seen you in the things, you might have gone for a sexier style."
Neville's voice was muffled.
"When they gave me these, they made it clear to me that graduating back to proper clothes would be a reward I had to earn - quite specifically."
Draco's tone was unchanged. His hands kept moving.
"What it is to have principles. I can't think of much I wouldn't have done - or at least promised - in order to get out of those pyjamas."
"Wouldn't you?" Neville's voice was still listless. "What they wanted - specifically - was for me to confirm that I agreed with them that you were a shallow, selfish, reckless, scruple-free egomaniac who didn't care three Sickles that our relationship had driven a complete wedge between me and all my old friends."
"Really? I'm surprised that you had any trouble at all with that one. It sounds like a pretty accurate paraphrase of your last speech to me on Wednesday morning."
Draco's voice came out with a sharper edge than he had intended, but his hands never stopped in their rhythmic movements. Neville pushed himself up from the couch, so that he could look Draco in the eye. So close, the etched lines of distress on his face were magnified to an unbearable degree. His eyes were bloodshot and staring. His voice was hopeless, lost, beyond hurt.
"Perhaps when I realized who I seemed to be sharing my views with I changed my mind."
Draco pulled him into a hard embrace.
"It's okay, sweetheart," he muttered into his hair. "I got your beer mat. S'ok."
Neville gave a convulsive shudder in the circle of his arms. "It's not ok. Not at all. Do you realize what a risk you took giving me the wand instead of taking Paul out yourself?"
"Mm? What risk? I know you can stun people. Saw it in Recent Events, remember?"
"That's not what I meant."
Neville began to shiver. Draco, unobtrusively, picked Gemma's wand off the couch, and muttered "Calefacio". The surrounding temperature warmed up to something which orchids might have found oppressive, but which had little discernable effect on Neville's shivers.
"Do you know just how close I came to killing him instead?"
Draco put his head on one side, considering this, still holding him tightly.
"Unless you've been taking lessons in Avada Kedavra that you haven't been telling me about, I shouldn't think you came that close," he said reasonably. "It takes a lot more practice than it looks, you know. Although, I grant you, a sufficiently large dose of and I really mean it might make up for quite a lot of raw edges in your technique."
Neville's voice was very low.
"And suppose I had brought it off?"
Draco's voice was still reasonable. "Well, admittedly I could do without the complication of a corpse on my hands this morning. But we'd have done something about it. Transfigured the body to a few kilos of sand and dropped them off at the nearest beach, say. Cast priori incantatem twice in quick succession with the wand, so that no one could work out what it'd been used for before. And I expect we'd have been able to frame that indescribably earnest woman in the kitchen for his disappearance. I imagine, from the little I'd heard from him, that anyone who'd been working with him any length of time would have a cast-iron motive for doing him in. So, you see - not really a problem. Even if you'd done it. Which you didn't."
Neville made a sound which was somewhere between a giggle, a sob, and a hiccup, and was infinitely heart-rending however one tried to classify it.
"God, it really is you."
Draco clicked his tongue against his teeth. "Some people take a lot of convincing, I must say."
"Well, I've been hallucinating a bit. Quite a lot, actually. I think."
"Well, I think I can show you the difference. Did any of your hallucinations try this?"
Suddenly, calm, gentle, relaxed, controlled seemed to be so many empty words. Words for idiots. Words for statues. Without knowing how he'd got there, his lips were pressing hard against Neville's mouth, his tongue forcing his lips apart, his hands rough, panicked and everywhere, his entire body pressed into service to say "Look, I'm here. I've come so far for you. I want you. I've missed you so much. I want you. I need you. I don't know who I am without you." Their bodies were entangled on the couch - finally close enough after too long a time - surely there could be no more room for misunderstanding -
Neville's palms were both suddenly flat against his chest, pushing him away.
The sound was one of infinite pain. Shocked, he fell backwards off the couch, hit the floor, rolled, and came to a wary stop.
"It isn't you. Please, don't think it's you."
Neville's head was back in his hands. The pain came clearly through the dull, indifferent edge to his voice this time.
"It's just that - that's too much. Right now. I - the only way to describe it is that I can't see in colour, right now. I want to - but I can't. And trying to scares me so much. But it isn't you. Please. Believe me. It isn't you."
Draco approached, hesitantly. He picked up Gemma's wand from the carpet where it had fallen.
"I think you'd do better with some fresh air. And daylight. Is that wall load-bearing, do you think?"
Without waiting for an answer he blasted it apart in a blinding white cloud of disintegrating plasterboard, opening a wide, irregular hole through to the sun-lit dining room with its floor length windows giving onto the garden. There was a pause while the dust settled.
Neville smiled, wanly.
"God, it's wonderful to see trees again. I was forgetting what they looked like. But could you do something for me?"
"Anything. Ask away."
"Can you fix my eyes? Paul lost his rag a bit earlier when I started dozing off and he's enchanted them so I can't shut them. You've no idea how uncomfortable it is."
The shocked gasp Draco was about to utter was strangled unborn by an effort of sheer will. He doesn't have the strength to deal with righteous indignation at the moment. The valiant attempt at matter-of-factness in Neville's tone told him more than he wanted to know about what had been going on. He sat down on the couch, caught Neville's chin in his hand, tipped his head back and looked carefully into his bloodshot eyes.
"Mm. I see. Why didn't you say, earlier? They must be giving you gip. But I don't like using a borrowed wand to cast a spell that directly affects your body - "
Neville looked puzzled. "I'll take the risk. That one seems to be working pretty well for you. But why aren't you using your own?"
"Ah." He chose his words carefully. "I'm afraid the Ministry's tracking mine. I - er, well, did I not mention I'm on the run? Hence the hair. Hence not getting here till now. I'm really sorry I couldn't spring you yesterday, but getting here was an absolute nightmare. I had to come by Muggle train - "
"Hm. I suppose I should know by now that phrases like 'It's ok' acquire a very idiosyncratic meaning by the time you've finished with them. But on the run? What have you done?" He must have caught a hurt look on Draco's face, because he added, hurriedly, "Allegedly."
Draco put an arm round his shoulders. "Oh, nothing serious. They want me for kidnapping. And suspected murder."
"Murder? Who are you supposed to have killed? Not Eustace, by any chance?"
The determined lightness in his tone was heartbreaking. Draco tried to imitate it.
"Now, wait for your birthday. Don't spoil the surprise."
Neville gave a half-choked giggle. "No, honestly. Who are you supposed to have killed?"
"Well, you, for one. Melanie, and Potter's cousin for two others. Probably half the country, by now, for all I know. I haven't seen the Daily Prophet today. But don't worry about it. It's all under control. Well, mostly. Let's see about those eyes, first."
Draco paused, and then muttered "Libera palpebras". Neville blinked, once, then repeatedly, trying not to gasp with pain as the lids scraped over the dry surface of his eyeballs. He shut his eyes tightly and turned his head so he could press his face into Draco's shoulder. His voice was muffled.
"God, that's good. It's amazing how much you come to appreciate darkness when you can't have it."
And darkness, at least, seems to be something I can be trusted to deliver.
It was an effort to keep his tone calm and practical, and to avoid letting the bitter edge come through.
"Anyway, let's get you into some proper clothes, and we can get out of here. And you'd better take that Paul object's wand, if you can bear to pick it up - we can probably find yours with a bit of effort, but I expect the Ministry's got it logged, as well. So you'd be better off using his, if you can stand it. But we've got a lot to do, so we'd better get going."
Neville looked up, suddenly, an expression of horrified recollection on his face. "We can't just go. There's a parchment I've got to find. They said - they showed me a Ministry order. If I didn't come with them voluntarily they were going to - to have me committed to St Mungo's. We've got to find that and burn it - "
He was struggling frantically now, clawing at Draco in his efforts to get away from the couch and start searching. Draco held on firmly.
"Hey, calm down. Of course we'll find it. But you aren't thinking straight. The Ministry may be a bunch of timeserving old farts, but one of the things they are good at, is files. If that's a genuine Ministry order - and I don't suppose you were in any fit state to check it through when they produced it - no, I thought not - then they'll have copies on file. Burning it won't do any good. No, we'll find it, and then I'll get Betsey to take it down to our lawyers: get them on the job of getting it cancelled or rescinded or whatever's needed. They'll be able to do a much better job on that side of the problem than we can."
"Yes. She's around somewhere. She's been an absolute star. That tosser Eustace gave her clothes yesterday, and if she thinks that she's got a sporting chance of getting him sacked for abuse of his position I should imagine it'll make her day. But don't worry. We'll sort it."
Neville's voice was coming from some cold, dead place outside all hope; a place where all doors were shut against one, and where the wind cut one to the bone.
"If you don't - Draco, will you promise me something?"
The tone was a warning. Tone and expression together chilled Draco to the bone.
"Mm?" he enquired cautiously.
"If they do try to put it into effect - if there's no other way - in that case Over my dead body is not a figure of speech. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Draco drew his brows together.
"I sincerely hope not."
Neville shrugged, impatiently. "I'm saying I'd rather be dead than in St Mungo's. Or back here. And, from what you were saying, it's obvious you do know how to perform Avada Kevadra."
"'Fraid so. Sort of thing my father thought was an essential skill for his son and heir. Though in case you're wondering, I haven't actually wiped out anything more sentient than the odd pheasant with it. And even that took six months practice. But Mrs P. appreciated them."
"I see. Sort of 'Become a Death Eater and say farewell to game pie lead pellet misery.' "
Draco eyed him nervously. "Have you been saying that sort of thing to them?"
He nodded in the direction of the still unconscious Paul. Neville shrugged, indifferently.
"Probably. Like I said, I've been hallucinating a fair bit."
With sudden decision Draco got to his feet. "Then we'd better make sure we find your clinical notes and get rid of them, too. Can't have comments like that flapping around out of context."
"Well, and will you? Promise, I mean?"
He bit his lip. Neville's eyes were wide and the naked pleading in them was horrifying. With sudden decision, he nodded.
"My word on it. If there's no alternative, I won't let them take you. Over your dead body it is."
Of course, I don't intend to let it come to that. Or - if it does - it'll be over an awful lot of other people's dead bodies first.
He did not bother to speak the thought aloud. Neville exhaled with relief, got to his feet himself, and, collecting Paul's wand as he passed the desk, preceded Draco out through the door of the therapy room. As Draco turned to follow him he was struck by a sudden thought. Unseen by Neville, he dropped to the carpet next to Paul and cut off a lock of Paul's hair, concealing it in a pocket of his jeans. Then he followed Neville from the room.
The search of the facility was easier than they had feared. Neville's wand and clothes (neatly cleaned and pressed) were set out on the bed in the first of the first floor rooms they came to: ready, they presumed, for his expected graduation from the therapy room. Finding the records was even easier; they found the most imposing door on the ground floor and discovered, as they expected, that it belonged to the facility's research director, and that the clinical records of the unfortunates who had passed through there were arranged in alphabetical order in filing cabinets which it was the work of moments to break into.
"Lousy security," Draco observed. Neville smiled, a little grimly.
"Why should they worry? After all, these are all the records of volunteers. They're probably out there now in our world with happy smiles on their faces, saying how much they owe to this programme and recommending it to all their friends' families."
Draco cast him another sidelong glance. He was obviously trying hard, but he teetered in an uneasy balance between the dull hopelessness that had scared Draco so much earlier, and bursts of wholly uncharacteristic cynicism.
"Keep the patient list, anyway," he advised. "We can send it back down south with Betsey. Nothing like having evidence of what these bastards have been up to. And who they've been doing it to."
"And you never know: there might be something that still can be done for them."
They cast a final glance around the office. "Got everything you need?" Draco enquired.
Neville looked down at the parchment with the Ministry seal and at the patient list. He nodded.
"Sure? It's your last chance."
"It's ok. Do it."
Draco paused, and then raised Gemma's wand.
The blaze was swift and all consuming. They stood in the passage and watched through the open door as the towering blue flames licked outwards towards them and then ebbed, dwindling back in upon themselves, shrinking and fizzling to nothing in the centre of the room. Only the elegant framework of the room was left, stark bones under a superficial coating of soot: all the furniture, papers, carpets and curtains had been taken by the fire.
Betsey, in accordance with instructions, had arranged the still unconscious bodies of Gemma and Paul, tied securely to chairs, in the remains of the therapy room. Neville paused on the threshold.
"Do we have to come back in here?"
Draco reached for his hand. "Not if you don't want to. But I think you'll feel better about it later if you take the opportunity now you've got it to face them from the other side of that desk, when it's you holding the wand. Especially since this time you'll have the support of your very own, dedicated, evil henchman."
Neville raised his eyebrows. "You?"
"Who else? After all, you can't say I'm not qualified for the job. In fact, evil henching is something I was practically conceived for."
There was a thread of almost genuine amusement in Neville's quick snort of laughter.
"Well, who am I to stand between you and your destiny? Come on. Let's do it."
Paul and Gemma lolled in their chairs. Draco raised his eyebrows enquiringly. Neville, white to the lips, nodded.
They came sluggishly to life in front of them. Their expressions of dawning horror as they realised who was confronting them were, Draco reckoned, well worth the price of admission. He perched himself nonchalantly on the edge of the desk (he had ceded the swivel chair to Neville without argument) and smiled sunnily down at them.
"Neville's been telling me about the questions you've been asking him. You do seem to be rather interested in me, I must say. He wanted me to ask you if there's anything I can do to satisfy your curiosity, since I'm here?"
Paul blinked, then turned to Gemma.
"How the hell did he get in here?"
Draco interrupted before Gemma could get beyond an opening stammer.
"Oh, she invited me in. To help with a pig infestation in your garden. And look!"
He gestured expansively through the ragged hole in the wall of the therapy room towards the dining room windows, and the hippopotamus wallow that had once been a lawn. "How's that for service? No pigs!"
Paul gritted his teeth with an effort. "I also notice, no wall. No garden. You'll pay for this vandalism, you barbarian."
Draco put his head on one side. "Well, it's not as if I can't afford it. Out of petty cash, actually. But I'd be very surprised if I did end up paying, you know. I mean, what're you planning to do? Sue me?"
"When the Ministry get through with you there won't be anything left of you to need suing," Paul hissed.
"Optimistic, aren't you? Look, no pigs; also no Aurors. You obviously haven't been keeping up with the news."
Paul smiled, suddenly and nastily. "Oh, I have. I really have. I suggest you show your boyfriend the photograph on the front page of that newspaper you're sitting on, and try to explain what you were doing last night when Neville might have expected you to show up here."
Draco raised his eyebrows, and glanced down at the Daily Prophet on the desk. His lips twisted convulsively, but by dint of a considerable effort he managed to avoid any exclamation escaping them. He paused, and took a deep breath.
"I have no explanation of any sort for that photograph," he finally muttered, in a studiedly neutral way, pushing it across the desk to Neville. "I certainly had no idea it'd been taken. And - I find it very disturbing that it could have been."
Paul's eyes glittered in triumph. Neville looked at the photograph in a bemused way, then across at Draco, and then back down at the photograph. He looked up at Draco.
"You find it deeply disturbing? Any idea how it makes me feel?"
There was an indescribable note in his voice. With an almost overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude, Draco recognised it as deeply suppressed hilarity.
"I hardly like to speculate," he murmured. Their eyes met, briefly, but in perfect understanding.
Paul obviously sensed that his flung hand-grenade had failed to detonate, but had no idea why. He shook his head from side to side, sadly.
"If we could only have kept you with us a bit longer, Neville," he muttered sadly. "We might have succeeded in getting to the bottom of how he's doing this to you. But it's all obviously deeper and Darker than we suspected at first."
"What is?" Draco enquired. Gemma, who had obviously been screwing up her courage to speak since she had regained consciousness, hissed:
"He means the relationship between you two. We've had no success in working out what it's all about."
"Really?" Draco put his head on one side. "Good sex and bad jokes. Where's the complication?"
Unobtrusively his hand stole behind him, to brush over Neville's fingertips as they were resting on the desk. He felt a slight answering pressure back.
Gemma inhaled sharply.
"And I suppose you're about to claim that threat you made to me earlier was just - a bad joke?"
"No." His tone was absolutely matter of fact. "I meant every word of it. And, believe me, it's something I'd do without hesitation or regret. But, for present purposes, only if I'm asked. What happens to you now is Neville's choice. This bit is up to him. I'm - think of me purely as his executive arm. I recommend you throw yourselves on his mercy."
He smiled again, knowing it would not touch his eyes, and was rewarded by seeing her flinch.
Paul's lips curled.
"And you expect us to believe that? That you're volunteering to act as number two to a -"
"Careful." The warning purr was unmistakeable. Paul shrugged.
"Have it your own way. But you'll excuse me if I say that I don't believe in this desire to take second place. Not in your father's son."
"Eh?" His brows creased in puzzlement, Draco turned to Neville. "I'd say that being a side-kick was something my father had rather got down to a fine art, wouldn't you agree?"
Neville's lips compressed in a grin that had nothing to do with amusement.
"Your parentage is one of the things they're obsessed with. If you'd any idea how many times they've mentioned it - "
Draco's eyes widened.
"Oh, golly. This isn't that Polyjuice nonsense again, is it?"
Neville nodded. Gemma, gathering her courage, muttered defiantly:
"Well, I see you know about it."
Draco's tone was studiedly indifferent.
"Of course I do. You didn't suppose no one would have had the nerve to mention it to me before, do you? Personally, whenever I meet someone who believes it I have serious doubts whether they've ever had sex. And I know for a fact they've never met my mother."
Gemma flushed. "What's your mother got to do with it?"
He shrugged, elaborately. "Well, that confirms the sex part, anyway. If you really can't see what my mother would have had to have to do with it, it's hardly my place to enlighten you."
Gemma was almost apoplectic with fury. "That's a very personal remark!" she snapped.
"Well, from what I can gather you've spent most of the last thirty six hours enquiring into my sex-life. It doesn't strike me you've got any leeway on the personal remark front."
"That's different! It was for therapeutic purposes - to try to get to the bottom of Neville's perverted masochistic obsession with you - "
"I rest my case," Draco said pointedly. "Anyway, for your information, knowing my mother, I can't imagine either the Dark Lord or my father taking the risk."
Paul's face was suffused with disbelief. "Taking the risk? The most powerful Dark wizard since Salazar Slytherin and his most trusted lieutenant being scared of a blonde clothes horse without three OWLS to rub together?"
"Well, I'll remind you which one of the trio still happens to be alive," Draco snapped. He looked at Neville.
"You've had two days of these bozos and you still don't want me to kill them?"
Neville shook his head. "I want to stay better than that. I've made my mind up. But - there is one thing."
He bent down by the side of the desk, and picked up something from the carpet, putting it onto the leather top. It was an elegantly crafted silver bowl, with a swirling silver liquid in it. Neville's hands were shaking slightly as he put it down. Draco looked from it to Paul and back. His voice dropped to a whisper.
"Is that what I think it is?"
"It's a Pensieve, yes." Neville's voice was unutterably weary.
"Hm. I see. Thought-stripping." His eye fell on Paul, who, for the first time, flinched. "Do you know how many Death Eaters ended up in Azkaban for thought-stripping alone?"
Despite everything, Paul's voice was still strong, unswerving in the depths of its conviction.
"It isn't like that in our facility. We don't like using these methods, but when we come up against a blockage that's clearly been implanted using Dark methods - then we'll use every tool in our power to help that person. And when the Veritaserum wasn't working, I authorised the therapeutic use of the Penseive."
"Veritaserum as well? How very illegal. And how very - Uncle Gerard."
Paul continued doggedly on, an evangelical light in his eyes.
"It was in Neville's own best interests. Therapeutically. And it isn't illegal with the patient's consent."
Draco's tone was low, mocking.
"And had you got it?"
Paul ignored the mockery.
"We would have done. It was only a matter of time. And the value of the method to the therapy justified our anticipating our eventual compliance with the rules. I think you'd find it salutary. Go ahead. Dip in. I can assure you, you'll be very surprised."
There was a half-broken gasp from behind him. Draco shook his head, his eyes on Paul all the time, apparently mesmerised by him.
"I rather think not. Levo!"
The silver bowl rose, unsteadily, into the air. Draco, still, somehow, keeping eye contact with Paul while he did it, guided its course through the hole in the wall and out through the floor length dining room windows, increasing its velocity as it moved until finally it crashed, hard, into the branches of the cedar of Lebanon. The silver liquid vanished into the August-baked earth at its roots.
At that, Paul finally lost his temper.
"You - unutterable hooligan! Do you realise the value of the records you've just destroyed? I was going to write a paper - "
Everyone in the room recoiled at the sheer volume of the shout, including Draco. Neville got to his feet behind the desk, and put Paul's wand, which he had used to cast the Dumbing Hex on him, back into his belt. He turned to Draco.
Draco reached out a hand and gripped his arm. "No problem. I've got enough trouble with the things in my own head I don't want to face in the cold light of day to want to go nosing about in yours. Anyway, are you sure I can't persuade you to change your mind? Just a bit of Cruciatus on these two?"
Gemma was dead white. "You couldn't do that. It's - it's illegal."
Draco's lips curled back from his teeth in what he certainly intended to be a truly disconcerting grin. It was clear from their expressions that he had succeeded.
"Not with the subject's prior consent, I understand."
"But we wouldn't consent - "
"You would by the time I'd finished casting the Imperius curse on you first. In writing, if I wanted. In fact, in bloody Japanese calligraphy - if I happened so to choose. And anyway, it'd be for therapeutic purposes, which I understand justifies a little bending of the strict letter of the rules- "
"Therapeutic purposes? Cruciatus?" Gemma's voice was high and indignant. Draco nodded.
"Yup. I should imagine seeing you two writhing in agony on the floor would make Neville feel a great deal better."
"Don't tempt me," Neville muttered. "No, just Obliviate them and knock them out again, and we'll get going."
"Okay." Draco eyed them firmly. "Right, stick your tongues out. And start counting backwards in threes in your head from 7194. Got that? Good. Obliviate. Stupefy!"
They lolled back into unconsciousness. Neville looked at him. "What was all that 'stick your tongue out' business?"
Draco shrugged. "Oh, just something some Muggle taught me about anti-Obliviate techniques. Anyway, where next? To get the Ministry off my back, I'm pretty well bound to see if we can find Melanie and that disgusting lard-arse Dudley, but I wouldn't mind getting some breakfast first if you know anywhere safe round here. I haven't eaten since yesterday, and that was Muggle railway food. Honestly, I think I've worked out now what Snape's doing with the potions ingredients which his students chop up too incompetently to use. I bet he's making an absolute fortune selling them for railway sandwich fillings. Oh, and I bumped into him in Oxford, by the way. He sent his love -"
"That's nice," Neville said absently, and then, in a tone of utmost horror and disbelief,
Draco grinned. "Just checking."
Neville snorted. "I may have been hallucinating but it never got that peculiar. Anyway, as far as breakfast goes, the best bet would be Martin. He's my oldest friend in these parts."
"Martin?" Draco's voice was politely neutral. "I don't think you've mentioned him."
Neville looked slightly defensive. "Well, don't take this the wrong way, but he's a Muggle. And you can get a bit twitchy about Muggles, you know- "
"I'm coming round to them." A sudden thought struck him, and he smiled. "You aren't going to believe this, but I'm actually employed by one. At this very moment."
Neville's jaw dropped. "I can see we've got a lot of catching up to do. Well, you might as well know most of my friends up here are Muggles, actually. Given that most of the witches and wizards in these parts are relatives, you understand. In fact, I don't mind taking the outside chance that your father was You Know Who provided you're prepared to overlook the absolute certainty that Eustace is my cousin."
"Deal." They shook hands, solemnly. Then Draco added "Given your Great-Aunt Enid appeared to know my grandfather, there's a horrible possibility that he's actually my cousin, anyway. Ugh! Don't let's think about him. Anyway?"
"Oh, Martin? Well, quite apart from me wanting to avoid the relatives, the family thought I was going to be a Squib, for ages. So they thought they'd better be prepared. So I was sent to a Muggle primary school, and did various sorts of Muggle things like cubs, and hiking clubs, and guitar lessons and such. Anything to get me out of the house, really. And after I went to Hogwarts I carried on doing them in school holidays. I met Martin through that sort of thing. He runs the local cave rescue team."
Draco raised his eyebrows. "You aren't going to tell me pot-holing was one of the things you were doing in your holidays?"
"What, me, go in for a sport where you can simultaneously be drowned, trapped and fall to your death? With that head for heights I conspicuously don't have?" Neville looked sceptically at him. He shook his head.
"No. But I used to play as ringer on their pool team. And drive the van for the rescues when I was home, as soon as I'd learned how. I got some Aging Potion off Fred and George in our fourth year, and Hermione showed me how to forge a Muggle birth certificate, so I've had a Muggle driving licence since I was fifteen. It used to free up a man to go underground. And I got quite decent at guiding them remotely with locating spells. It was quite good practice for Recent Events. You only have to go to the pub a few times with people who've got the spattered brains of people they haven't quite rescued on their cagoules for you to get quite a different sense of priorities. Anyway, Martin's house is the sort of place where, when I have to go there, he has to take me in. So I suggest we get weaving."
Draco nodded. Betsey had left the duffle, together with Neville's gear, which she'd retrieved via Thwaitsey, in a neat heap in the corner of the kitchen. There was, really, very little left to do. He gestured at Neville.
"See you outside. I'll just check the ropes on those two in the interrogation room."
He heard the door close, and then he ducked quickly inside. Paul and Gemma were still lying unconscious, tied side by side in chairs. He bent quickly by Gemma's side. It was the work of seconds to ensure that a lock of her hair joined that of Paul's that he already had in his jeans' pocket. He joined Neville in the garden.
Neville's friend Martin turned out to have round, gold-rimmed glasses of the type made famous by the late John Lennon, a seriously receding hairline, which he apparently compensated for by wearing the remains of his greying hair at shoulder length, and a general air of amiable puzzlement. Neville turning up on his doorstep at half-past eight in the morning with no prior notice he took firmly in his stride. He promptly invited Neville and Draco in, and asked hospitably whether they had breakfasted and, if not, what might he get them? They were seated in a comfortable pair of collapsed armchairs either side of his fireplace, drinking coffee and fending a couple of inquisitive cats off a plateful of drop scones he had plonked in the fender in front of them, before he allowed either of them to get a word of explanation in edgeways.
"I think it's only fair to warn you," Neville said reflectively round a mouthful of drop scone, "I'm currently by way of being an escaped lunatic."
Martin shrugged. "Why should I worry? I run a pot-holing club, for Christ's sake. All my friends who aren't dead are certifiable." He looked at Draco. "And - er - are you also - ?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, Martin," Neville said, realizing that in his panic he had skipped the niceties of introduction. "This is my friend - "
"David Molloy," Draco said firmly, extending a hand. "You can call me Moose, but frankly, I'd prefer it if you didn't."
He shot a hurried don't worry you aren't hallucinating and I'll explain later glance at a startled Neville over the top of his coffee cup, and went on rather rapidly.
"No, as a matter of fact I'm just plain old fashioned on the run. But between the things I've been framed for, the things I've been accused of to bolster my cover story, and the things I've actually done but for perfectly justifiable reasons I'm currently completely confused as to why."
Martin blinked. "Bummer," he said, with vague but evidently heartfelt sympathy. He shook his head thoughtfully, and then turned back to Neville.
"You know, Neville," he said with the air of one coming out with a great philosophical truth, "You do know the weirdest people."
Palpable affront steamed off Draco. Neville said defensively
"Oh, don't worry about him. He's just afflicted with a rather unfortunate sense of humour - as are the rest of us, actually."
Martin turned to Draco looking shocked, and deeply apologetic. "Oh, please don't think I was getting at you. After all, I've only just met you. No, Neville. I mean, you may have thought I looked a tad surprised when you showed up, but I hadn't seen you for months, and as I'd had this really strange guy with a wooden leg who claimed to have worked with your father turning up on my doorstep asking after you not thirty minutes ago-"
Neville assumed a suddenly stuffed expression; Draco guessed he probably looked no less appalled himself, but recovered quicker. In a rather choked voice he said
"This guy - he wouldn't happen to have had a glass eye, would he?"
Martin beamed. "Oh, you do know him, then?"
Neville's mouth was just framing a response when a voice spoke from the entrance to the living room.
"Hold it right there, laddies."
Alastor Moody appeared to occupy the whole doorway, his eyes flashing sinister energy at them from two different directions.
"Expelliarmus!" he muttered, and the two wands which Draco and Neville had drawn seconds too late spiraled neatly through the air into his hands. He tucked them into his belt, and turned to Draco.
"And the spare you've got down your sock, laddie," he growled. Reluctantly, Draco relinquished Gemma's wand, and Moody added it to his collection. Martin, meanwhile, was standing there open mouthed. Moody glanced briefly at him.
"You seem to have some funny friends for a Muggle, son" he hissed. "I think you'll find life much pleasanter in the kitchen. Imperio! Scram!"
Moving like a sleepwalker Martin drifted off through the other door. Moody turned his head over his shoulder towards him. "And feed those cats while you're at it. I can't abide the little beasts clambering all over me when I'm conducting an interrogation."
As the stench of tinned cat food made itself felt through the open kitchen door the two cats dived headlong in pursuit, tails quivering. Moody turned to Draco, looking at him rather as one of them might have looked at a trapped mouse.
"Hm. So you claim you can't remember which crimes you've committed, and which were merely part of your cover story, eh? Well, as I understand your father was famous for saying in his day, nothing like Cruciatus for sharpening up someone's memory. Believe me, son, this will be my pleasure."
He raised his wand. Draco braced himself for the impact of inconceivable pain. There was a quick, loud, almost incoherent gabble of Latin behind him and in an eye-blink Mad-Eye had vanished, utterly.
Only, it seemed, he had been replaced by -
By a rubber duck, sitting bemusedly on the hearthrug surrounded by four dropped wands.
Draco turned round, very slowly. Behind him Neville was standing, Paul's wand in his hand, a touch of berserker glitter in his eyes, gibbering incredulously to himself.
Draco took two strides towards him, grabbed him firmly by the shoulders and gave him a solid shake.
"Awesome! Do you realize what you just did?"
Brought to his senses, Neville peered somewhat nervously over Draco's shoulder. His face changed.
"Oh, my god. I turned Mad-Eye Moody into a rubber duck. I mean, I turned Mad-Eye Moody into a rubber duck. I actually turned - "
"I think I got the message," Draco interrupted ruthlessly. He turned round. "And so did he. Wow. Just - wow."
Neville sank down onto the sofa in an attitude of deep depression.
"I don't think you really understand," he said earnestly. "I just turned an old colleague of my father's into - into a bathroom accessory."
"Well, excuse me if this sounds like heartless gloating, but from where I'm standing you just managed to take out the most famous Auror of the twentieth century. Single-handed. With a borrowed wand. Before breakfast. Which, while this might not be the most tasteful compliment you're ever going to get, would certainly have impressed the hell out of every single one of the old colleagues of my father. You might even have got a favourable review from his boss."
Draco could sense from Neville's expression that this line of argument was being somewhat counter-productive. He changed tack, sat down next to Neville on the sofa, and put his arm round his shoulders.
"Looked at from another point of view, he did deserve it. After all, he'd just cast Imperius on your oldest friend - he was about to use Cruciatus on your lover - you were the last person left in the room - supposing he was going for the Grand Slam, eh?"
Neville brightened perceptibly.
"Well, there is that." He set his jaw. "And he underestimated me. He didn't even bother to check if I'd got a second wand, for goodness' sake."
Neville cast a sidelong glance at the hearthrug. The duck eyed him beadily back. There was a hint of a wail in Neville's voice, as he said:
"But what are we going to do with him?"
Draco assumed a pensive expression.
"Well, speaking strictly for me, I rather thought of bouncing him off the walls a few times."
Neville was evidently thinking about this. There was a moment's silence.
"Draco! That'd be completely unfair, incredibly childish and really, really illogical."
Draco nodded, happily. "I know. But it would also give me this deep and ineffable sense of total fulfilment."
However, when Martin, looking faintly shell shocked, re-emerged from the kitchen, he found Neville carefully putting a paper label round the neck of the duck which read: "Please look after this duck. To be called for. Do not harm this duck. IMPORTANT." Draco was leaning against the mantelpiece trying to project an air of disappointment.
"Anyway," Martin said with the determined air of someone who is hell-bent on ignoring anything unsatisfactory in his immediate world-picture until his perceptions chose to rearrange themselves on more explicable lines. "Is there anything else I can do for you? Don't take this the wrong way, but you are both looking a tad on the bedraggled side. There's oodles of hot water if you want baths, and I can find you some towels - "
Draco could see that Neville was expecting to have to fight him tooth and nail for first go at the bathroom. And that's not surprising. He must be desperate to wash the stink of that place off him. Slightly self-consciously - anything to get a reaction beyond that dead, listless gaze he drops back to whenever he stops concentrating - Draco assumed his most nonchalant drawl.
"I'll love a bath, but do you mind if I use your phone, first?"
It worked; Neville evidently decided that witnessing him using a Muggle telephone was worth postponing ablutions for. He goggled with open incredulity while Draco brought off a minor (but triumphant) victory against the dark forces of directory enquiries with only minimal technical support from Martin and got through to Caitlin with surprising ease. Draco's covert, sidelong glance to see how Neville was taking this caught him listening with ears agog. Draco concluded the initial phase of enthusiastic greetings with "Look - if the Ministry aren't still hanging around can you get hold of Mrs P. somehow - yes, I know, but tell her I told you to ask for the recipe for the crême brulée she served on 14th February 1995 - no, of course she won't give it to you, but she'll know it had to be me who was asking - and then ask her to get hold of my mother if she can find her and tell her to get on up to Lancashire pronto - to find Betsey and ask her for directions - and to say it's seriously urgent if she ever wants to see her little lad again - oh, and tell her to tell ma I liked the shorts - so did Neville, I think - oh, and make sure she knows about the first of the options that journalist mentioned - say we're on our way there - just as soon as we've had baths - yes, it bloody well is worth taking the time out for - ok, well, noted - thanks - yes, will do - yes, they all looked fine when I left them - and the pterodactyl was still on the roof, yes - no, I don't give much for its long-term chances, either - yes, well, bye - "
He hung up. Neville looked at him.
"Did I gather you were calling for back-up?" he enquired. Draco shook his head vigorously.
"Nope. What I was doing was calling for fore-up. If there's a choice between me, or an expert with prior knowledge of the territory, twenty years more experience and considerably greater natural abilities than me to lead this expedition, then who am I to insist on doing it just because the other candidate happens to be my mother, and I might have some feeble hang-ups about how it might look to the rest of the world? You know, prats like your friend Potter might call it cowardice, but I prefer to think of it as the ruthless application of logic to the practical business of survival."
The ends of Neville's mouth quirked in what Draco hoped was the ghost of a smile. "You mean, like spotting that when confronted by a bloodsucking caped nutter in a dark wood Away is the sensible direction to run?"
Draco nodded vigorously. "Exactly. Anyway, what was that about baths?"
He was beginning an excessively casual slope in the general direction of the bathroom when Neville caught him pointedly by the elbow.
"Oy. My go first, I think."
Draco paused, as though about to argue the point, and then made something of a pantomime of changing his mind. He nodded.
"OK. I suppose I can handle it for once."
His hand brushed firmly over Neville's arm in a quick, reassuring, stroking movement. Martin turned to Neville helpfully as he was about to vanish through the door to the stairs.
"Aren't you forgetting your duck?"
Neville had the air of someone who could easily have said rather more than he did.
"I - I think I'll just leave it," he choked, and fled in the general direction of the bathroom.
Martin caught Draco's eye.
"Is he all right?"
Draco paused. His tone was defiantly upbeat.
"I hope so. I think so. Definitely. More or less, anyway."
Martin continued to regard him steadily. Draco's gaze shifted, defensively.
Why press on with the fake optimism when neither of us is actually buying it?
"Um - well, perhaps a bit less than more, actually."
"He's been coming here since he was about ten, after one sort of family or school upset or another. And I've always admired him for being a resilient so and so. He's always been able to put whatever it is behind him after a few minutes or so chatting, and then go out and face it again. This is the worst I've ever seen him."
"Me, too. And I don't know what to do about it."
Martin raised his eyebrows. "I'd say from a fairly brief glance you were coping. And, heaven knows, I know a bit about that. And the reverse. And I owe Neville."
He nodded across at a framed photograph on the mantelpiece. Despite the static convention of Muggle photography the girl pictured sparkled out of it. She was dressed in climbing gear, which assaulted the camera lens in a riot of fuchsias and pinks; the sun blazed off the expanse of sparkling snow and rock behind her. But her mirrored sun visor had been pushed up into her brown tangle of hair to allow her to laugh straight into the eye of the camera. Despite the competition, her eyes were the brightest things in the picture. The lines of Martin's mouth softened as he looked at her.
"Beth. My late wife. Even when the pain was at its worst, towards the end of her illness, Neville could always make her laugh. I don't know what I'd have done without him coming here."
Draco heard an unaccustomed awkwardness in his own voice.
"What happened? When?"
"Cancer. Just over two years ago."
Martin turned away, and reached up blindly to the mantelpiece to straighten the photograph. As he did so the cuff of his shirt fell back, revealing a silvery scar, which started at the wrist and ran up the arm, vanishing under the sleeve. Draco had little doubt that there was a matching one on the other wrist.
"Perhaps you'd better go and check that Neville's okay," Martin said without turning round. Draco paused, but said nothing before vanishing from the room.