He Apparated from the Hogwarts grounds to the lane outside the cottage -- too tired to contemplate the walk home -- quietly slipped inside, took off his boots, and tip-toed upstairs and to the bedroom. He shouldn't have, not after what happened tonight: he should have remained at the Castle and helped Pringle with the patrols. But there were other, more junior faculty available to do that, and he could do the poor dead girl no earthly good for the time being -- so, quite sensibly, he decided he needed the comfort of his own home, bed, and wife.
He'd got quite good at returning late at night without waking her; the year before he'd taken the position at Hogwarts, when he still worked at the Ministry, he'd had to do it frequently. She'd grown accustomed to it and slept through all but his clumsiest movements. The past few years had seen a return to the old schedule -- not because of his Hogwarts duties, because he'd been given leave to live outside the Castle, but because it looked as though Grindelwald was attempting more mischief, and he'd been recalled to other service as well.
But tonight Elizabeth stirred when he entered the room, and murmured, "Everything all right?"
"Afraid not," he said softly as he set his boots beside the chair, and began divesting himself of robes and trousers. "We lost a student tonight. Myrtle Thomas. Dead."
"Oh, Albus," she said. "I'm so sorry."
"She was Felicity Mugwort's granddaughter," he mumbled. "She might have been mine as well, had things gone differently."
"I know," Elizabeth said gently, with a faint trace of amusement. "You showed me that particular tree."
"The worst bit is that we've no idea how it happened or who's responsible," he said.
"Aren't there any clues at all?"
"None. No solid evidence, at any rate. We shall have to wait for the Coroner's report before we make any headway."
He shivered in the chill of the room, but ignored the nightshirt she always left out for him to warm by the fire and padded over to slip into the bed beside her.
"What do you think it all means?" she asked.
"I'm not certain yet," he replied, and drew her back against him, snuggling (he'd never grown out of that, that need to spoon himself around her -- especially as his duties increased and took him away more frequently, and he needed to re-acquaint himself with the feel of her body and her scent, instantly comforting). "It's something in the Castle, we're fairly certain of that."
"Is there anything malicious there? I thought the Castle itself was safe, and only the Forest was dangerous."
"Nothing part of the fabric of the Castle itself is harmful, no. But things could be smuggled in, though it would take a great deal of magic to conceal it. And we can't tell at the moment if such a thing might have happened recently, or if it was done long ago and now it's coming to fruition."
"I don't follow that."
"The Founders might have left something, for example. We know Gryffindor left artifacts lying about. It's possible one of the others might have as well, and poor Myrtle may have stumbled across something."
He took a deep breath to try to relax himself, and then disentangled his hand from hers and pulled at the ribbon that bound the end of her braid.
"Don't know why I bother plaiting it, you always undo it," she murmured. "Destructive beast," she added fondly.
He smiled in the dark, drew his fingers through the braid to fan it out over her shoulders, and then buried his face in the fall of it across the curve of her neck.
"Thank you for not bobbing it," he said.
"I shall someday, just to give you a shock," she said sleepily. "It's become such a nuisance."
(It was an idle threat, though, and Albus knew it. He'd always taken pains to show her how much he loved the dark, glossy mass of it, and that hadn't changed, though her hair was just beginning to go grey.)
He settled in and tucked his legs more firmly behind hers: no hot-water bottle could ever soothe his knee-joints quite as well as the warmth of her body, and he'd had to admit that he needed that, now, the years having finally begun to take their toll.
Elizabeth drifted off quite soon, but Albus lay awake, staring at the moonlight through the window: even her steady breathing and the beat of her heart could not calm him this night, and he lay awake, worrying over Myrtle's death, the unknown threat to the school, and that enigmatic, impassive look on the Slytherin prefect's angelic face.
Mr Riddle was hiding something, he was certain -- but of all the students, those from Slytherin House were most difficult for Albus to read.
It could be something innocent. Compared to the murder of a girl, at any rate.
For the first time in over twenty years Albus had a sleepless night, and not even waking with Elizabeth and breakfast in his own home could soothe him.
E minor, the next chronological ficlet
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