Everything had sorted itself back to normal after the Second Task -- including me: I'd calmed down enough to look at it more rationally, though it had strengthened my bias against Sport in general and Wizarding Sport in particular.
Other than a little spot of trouble with Goyle, Ian was doing well. Goyle had presumed to push Ian around once too often, still assuming that he couldn't retaliate and not realising that McGonagall had lifted the Limiting Charm. So one day in the Potions classroom corridor Ian quite calmly pulled out his wand and hexed Goyle.
Goyle looked quite silly with chicken's wings instead of arms, I was told. Unfortunately I didn't get to see it myself: McGonagall called me to her office and informed me. But I quite appreciated the implication. My nephew could be rather witty, on occasion.
Snape was surprisingly nonchalant about it. Of course he took a good round number of points from Hufflepuff, as he'd caught Ian: but he didn't go for my throat or take it out on Ian, either, although he glared at me when I couldn't restrain a giggle.
"This is a serious matter, Professor Hunter," McGonagall scolded me. "Mr. Goyle is still in the Infirmary, and Madam Pomfrey has not yet been able to remedy the situation --"
"I know; it's terrible --" I chortled, and had to stop to compose myself. "In Ian's defence, I believe there has been provocation throughout the year. Professor Snape was aware when it started," I said with an apologetic look his way, "and I did note at the time that Ian might choose to retaliate, though I expected something physical rather than hexing."
"Provocation or no, hexing is most strongly discouraged: I cannot allow it to pass unremarked," she said firmly. "I am considering reinstating the Limiting Charm."
That made my hackles rise. "Is that a standard -- would you do so to any other student?" I snapped in outrage. "I fail to see why Ian should be a special case simply because of his history --"
McGonagall was rightly offended by my tone, just as I was rightly indignant that she would single out Ian for such a drastic punishment. It looked to be a very nasty situation indeed, and I would undoubtedly be the loser in the confrontation.
"Professor McGonagall, you know as well as I -- though perhaps Professor Hunter does not -- that student hexing occurs with appalling frequency," Snape drawled. "Mr Neill was unwise enough to act outside my classroom and be caught; I doubt the situation warrants more punishment than I have already meted out. And whatever measures Professor Hunter might take to discipline him, of course -- as I'm certain she will," he added with a pointed look to me.
I'm afraid both McGonagall and I stopped in mid-argument and stared at him, mouths gaping.
"I warned Goyle off the provocative behavior," he calmly informed McGonagall. "He continued it at his peril. As far as I am concerned, the matter is settled."
I sat back in my chair, stunned: McGonagall snapped her mouth shut, and blinked rapidly several times.
"Well," she finally managed, "if you are satisfied as Goyle's Head of House, then there's little point in proceeding." She gave him a suspicious look, but Snape merely returned it impassively; I had the distinct impression that Snape usually prosecuted these things to the full extent of the law. "However," McGonagall continued, turning back to me, "I shall expect you, Professor Hunter, to impress upon Mr Neill the inappropriateness of his behavior."
"Of course. That goes without saying," I said hastily.
"Good: it's settled, then. Now, if you will both excuse me --"
Snape and I exited posthaste.
Where in the world would he have learnt a chicken wing hex?
"'101 Ways to Hex Enemies and Influence Wizards,' presumably," Snape said dryly in my ear, and I jumped: I hadn't realised I'd said it out loud. "You will, of course, make clear to him that it was 'inappropriate'?" he murmured as we walked down the corridor.
I considered it briefly. "'Inadvisable,' certainly. I can't say the thought of the school's biggest bully with chicken wings impresses me as inappropriate -- I wouldn't be able to keep a straight face."
Snape's lips twitched upward. "Do tell the boy that it is 'inadvisable' to settle his scores outside my classroom. I'm afraid I won't be as forgiving in future." And he left me, striding off in the direction of the dungeons.
There it was: 101 Ways to Hex Enemies and Influence Wizards, a tatty little paper-bound book put out in the 1950s, on the back of a shelf in the darkest corner of the library. A quick glance at the table of contents made me shudder. Goyle had got off lightly: Ian could have done any number of awful things to him, including giving him a goats' beard and horns, or reversing his feet -- choice of left for right, or heel to toe. It wasn't consulted much, evidently, but Ian had checked it out just last week.
And higher up on the slip, with a date from the late 1960s, was scrawled S. Snape. He'd checked it out several times, actually.
I thanked God that Snape did indeed have a sense of humour -- or an appreciation for Ian's deviousness. And I strongly suspected that Hagrid deserved a few more yards of butterbeer. I can't imagine Ian would have gone looking for such an obscure book without a hint.
I replaced the book and went home to consider a) Ian's punishment and b) whether I could deliver the attendant lecture without giggling.
The Hufflepuff stand at the former Quidditch pitch was packed, so I retreated to the faculty stand. Sitting with Ian wasn't really an option at that point, in any case -- he'd been asserting his independence frequently, and was more comfortable with his mates when I wasn't with him.
He was starting to demonstrate a certain patronising bossiness with me that I wasn't certain I cared for -- not in class, of course, he knew better than that: but I thought the summer hols at Lucy's would set that right, so I didn't worry much.
Ian was becoming so... male, in a way I'd never noticed before. I supposed it wouldn't bother most mothers, but I'd only had three years with him; the changes seemed to happen so rapidly now. I guessed my attitude needing adjusting, as much as his.
Now, this task was more to my liking: a very classical conceit, making ones' way through a maze, confronting obstacles and puzzles, overcoming ones' own deficiencies and fears to do so... Theseus and the Minotaur; the Hero with a Thousand Faces. A very potent metaphor for Life.
What a pity that it went so horribly wrong.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the third and final task of the Triwizard Tournament is about to begin!" Lugo Bagman's magically magnified voice boomed over the field (why is it that obsolete athletes always gravitate to commentary? Don't they have any other interests in life?). I mentally tuned him out -- I'd gotten quite good at it, picking out only the essential information, like translating Snape's caustic wit into something resembling civility.
And speaking of the Devil... he'd made his way up the stand and tardily took the seat next to me, pale and uncomfortable. He'd been more snarly than usual the last few days, so I merely nodded a greeting and turned back to Sprout as Bagman announced the rankings.
Bagman gave a shrill blast of his whistle, and Diggory and Potter entered the maze.
"Do you know what they have to face?" I yelled in Sprout's ear, over the crowd noise.
"No, but it's probably things they've dealt with in class -- Diggory, at least, Potter may not be advanced enough: boggarts, magical creatures, a puzzle or two..." she bellowed back.
"But finding a way through the maze will distract them enough to make it interesting?" I guessed, and she grinned and nodded.
Very like Life, then.
It was quite boring, actually -- especially as Bagman insisted on trying to entertain the crowd, since we couldn't see what was going on inside. So Sprout and I continued to chatter, and Snape sat, brooding and unapproachable, occasionally rubbing distractedly at his arm. Or at least it was boring until ten minutes in, when a shrill scream came from the maze -- Delacour, obviously -- and hushed the crowd immediately. But there was no distress signal sent, so after a brief confab between McGonagall and Bagman, no monitor was sent in after her.
"They're warded, though they don't know it," Sprout explained to me. "Even if they fail at one of the challenges, they won't be too badly hurt; so no sparks, no rescue."
Like the lake, then; well, that was a comfort. (Not on your life.)
The monitors did scramble, however, thirty minutes in when a red signal shot up from about two-thirds the way into the maze.
"Can you --" Sprout popped up from her seat, and scanned the maze. "-- Blast it, I should have stopped the growth at 15 feet, can't see a thing --"
It was evidently fairly serious; instead of making their way back down the corridors of the maze, the monitors shot holes thorough the hedge and Levitated an unconscious Krum to the side of the pitch. Pomfrey hurried over and examined him as the monitors anxiously conferred.
"If he was warded, he shouldn't be unconscious, should he?" I asked Sprout.
"No, he shouldn't," Snape said tersely next to me, and I turned to him: his eyes were fixed on the maze, grim and blazing, and he was clutching his arm. Sweat beaded his forehead, even in the evening chill. "Someone's used a curse on him."
And that someone had to be Diggory or Potter -- Delacour was out of the running as well. The monitors had returned to the maze and were now, ten minutes later, bringing out the unconscious girl.
"Won't one of them be disqualified, if they took out their competitors?" I asked Sprout.
"Undoubtedly -- but Dumbledore will check later," Sprout explained. "He'll check their wands to see who did it -- OH!" she squealed, and grabbed my hand, nearly crushing my fingers.
We could see Diggory and Potter now: they'd both reached the center of the maze, and Diggory was making a run for the Cup -- Sprout was bouncing up and down with joy --
And a gigantic shape scuttled into the clearing between the boys and the Cup. It was huge, and it was the worst possible thing in the world, as far as I was concerned: a spider. And it was headed straight for Diggory.
And then Potter did the unexpected: instead of sprinting for the Cup, he raised his wand and sent Stupify at it. Grand gesture: too bad it did absolutely nothing but tick the monster off.
Sprout collapsed in her seat, moaning and anxiously twisting her free hand in her muffler; the crowd was screaming, some shouting suggestions over the din.
It turned its attention to Potter and waddled, with amazing speed, toward him. He tried to dodge the creature, but it was too late: the beast had him in its pincers, and was swinging him 'round. We could hear him scream. The wards obviously didn't prevent all injuries.
Diggory couldn't ignore Potter's distress. He scrambled for his wand and sent another spell at the spider, but it too glanced off. Perhaps he'd hurt it, though, for it dropped Potter; and then both boys raised their wands and yelled "Stupefy!" --
-- and the beast shuddered and collapsed into the nearest hedge. After a stunned silence, the crowd roared approval.
But neither boy moved to take the Cup. Potter lay on the ground, clutching his leg: Diggory stood looking at him, barely three metres away from the Cup as it glistened in the moonlight on its plinth.
"Go, Cedric," Sprout pleaded, and clutched at my hand in suspense; I heard Snape hiss "Merlin's balls, boy, take it!" to my left.
Instead, Diggory loped over to Potter and they proceeded to talk it out: then he helped Potter stand, and they staggered over to the Cup.
Sprout wrenched her hand from mine and buried her face in her hands; Snape let loose another string of profanities.
The pair approached the Cup and stood, hands poised, before they simultaneously grabbed the handles --
-- and they simply disappeared from sight.
Something was very, very wrong.
"What is it?" I demanded Sprout, who sat ashen-faced and absolutely still.
"It must have been a Portkey," she mumbled. "The maze was to have opened clear back to the entrance; they weren't supposed to Apparate -- you can't Apparate on Grounds, not without special arrangement --"
Snape and Dumbledore were arguing with Bagman, and then Minister Fudge joined the debate: he overruled both the Hogwarts authorities, and Snape stalked away from the group, enraged, and darted into the maze, wand at the ready.
"Now, Ladies and Gentlemen," Bagman announced with an idiotic, strained grin, "just a little hitch; we're going to figure out where the Champions have gone, just stay in your seats, we'll clear it up in a tick --"
"Eejit," I spat, and turned to Sprout, "he's going to have a riot on his hands. Shouldn't we get the children clear of this?"
"I'd do, but Minister Fudge -- oh, gods," she gasped, "the Diggorys -- I'd best go see to them --"
And she hurried down to the couple, who were anxiously quizzing Dumbledore.
McGonagall, Flitwick and Hargrid were in the center of the maze, sussing out the area with their wands, looking for traces of the boys, I supposed; Snape had been, but was now prowling uneasily at the periphery of the hedge, Moody watching him with an unusual interest.
We sat there for nearly an hour, through Bagman's ridiculous and increasingly frantic efforts to maintain control -- and I was tempted to fetch Ian and take him back to the castle, whatever the bloody Minister's wishes; and then things got immeasurably worse.
Diggory and Potter suddenly popped back into existence, lying at the entrance of the maze. Potter was face-down, his arm firmly twined around Diggory; Diggory was face-up, and even at this distance I could see that his eyes were open and unseeing.
Very possibly dead.
The officials rushed to them. Dumbledore bent over them briefly, and then moved to Potter, gently trying to disentangle him from Diggory; Fudge examined the limp body, and then straightened and let out a shocked, audible "Diggory! Dumbledore -- he's dead!"
And all hell broke loose in the stands.
It was utter chaos. Some of the Hufflepuffs had stampeded onto the pitch and had wounded some of their housemates in the process. Luckily the Prefect, Callow, had kept his head and restrained most of them. "Go round up the others, and meet us in the Common Room," I told him, and he shot off to collect the strays as I led the others back to the castle.
Most of them were suffering from shock. Fudge's idiocy had made it clear that one of their own was gone, and, loyal Hufflepuffs that they were, they were distraught. Callow returned with the others, and we worked out a triage for the actual physical injuries, and made sure the others had plenty of chocolate and tea; I sent Hannah Abbott for my first-aid box, and for the next hour we bandaged what we could. Ian had been shoved off the stand, and his left wrist was sprained, but a little ice would help with that. Another First Year, Laura Madley, was worst: she'd actually been trampled, her ankle twisted badly, and her head bashed against the stand. I wasn't happy with the way her eyes looked.
Sprout popped her head in briefly.
"I've the Diggorys to deal with; can you handle --?"
"Got it," I said firmly. "I need to take Madley to the Infirmary, but other than that.... There's no doubt, then?"
"None." She was grim. "Albus is dealing with Potter now, and he'll make an announcement tomorrow. In the meantime, have Callow get them to bed."
So I talked to them and confirmed, gently, that Cedric Diggory was dead, and that Headmaster would tell them more in the morning. Callow herded them to their beds, and I picked up Madley -- a skinny little thing, fortunately -- and carried her to the Infirmary.
The public ward was deserted: the Hufflepuffs had been the worst in terms of panic, and the other students were evidently unharmed and in their Common Rooms. But there was no sign of Poppy Pomfrey, so I sat inside her office with a sobbing Madley in my lap, trying to calm her down.
I could hear voices raised in the private ward, on the other end of the room: definitely McGonagall and Fudge. That's probably where Pomfrey was. I left the door to her office open, so I could catch her if she stepped out...
...and so I could overhear whatever the hell was going on in the private ward. I admit it: I am a Nosy Wench. But I doubted I'd learn what was really going on any other way.
After McGonagall's initial outburst, I didn't hear anything for a very long time, but I certainly felt something. A familiar roil of power seeped out of the room, and I knew Dumbledore was in there as well.
"You are blinded by the love of the office you hold, Cornelius!" I heard him thunder at one point, and even at this distance it shocked me. "You place too much importance --"
-- and I lost the rest amidst Madley's whimpers. By the time I'd soothed her there was dead silence from the room, and then I could hear Fudge's annoyed voice responding. I couldn't make out the words, but his tone was threatening.
If he was threatening Dumbledore, he was more a fool than I'd already pegged him.
Fudge stormed out of the private ward, slamming the door behind him, and glared at me as he left the Infirmary. Madley had gone silent -- she was drifting off; I shook her awake, and anything I might have heard was lost when she started whimpering again.
Bill Weasley left the room next, giving me a startled glance, but not a word. I'd never met him, but the red hair and body type branded him as a Weasley: by a process of elimination -- as I'd met both Charlie and Percy -- I knew it was Bill. He looked grim. He was quickly followed by McGonagall who swept past, totally focussed, with neither look nor word to me.
Pomfrey finally came out, headed for the corridor, and stopped short.
"Twisted ankle, I think, and I don't like the condition of her eyes," I told her. Pomfrey examined Madley and shook her head grimly.
"Concussed," she confirmed, and grabbed a potion from the shelf behind her. "Look, I've got an errand -- can you give her this and sit with her until I'm back?"
A scream from the private ward made us both jump, and Pomfrey nearly dropped the potion. "Mum, shut up! It's okay!" we heard Ron Weasley yell.
Pomfrey shoved the bottle in my hand. "Ignore it," she said of the fracas in the other room. "She can sleep after she's had it all," she threw over her shoulder as she left.
I took Madley to the nearest bed, got her into a gown and under the covers, and was wheedling her into taking the medicine, when a huge, black dog slipped from the private ward, ownerless, and ran out of the public ward at top speed, paws scrabbling wildly on the highly polished floor as it made the turn to shoot through the door.
It merited barely a shrug of my shoulders. After nearly a year of House Elves, bouncing ferrets, and Floo travel, a dog in the Infirmary was mundane. And whatever it was, it had done me the favour of leaving the private ward's door cracked open: I could now hear what was going on inside.
"Severus, you know what I must ask you to do," Headmaster said calmly. "If you are ready... if you are prepared...."
"I am," Snape's dark baritone replied.
"Then good luck," Dumbledore said softly, apprehensively.
Snape swept out of the room and halted after a few steps, his eyes fixed on me as I bent over the child. He was even paler than usual, his eyes cold, glittering with purpose.
He started to detour to the bed, and reached for his wand: I shook my head.
"Concussed; Pomfrey's seen her. I'll stay with her."
He stilled, and stared at me a moment longer; then, with a nod of his head, he swept past me and out the door.
Holy shite. Whatever this is, it's very, very nasty. Deep waters, indeed.
There was only one thing I could think of from my past reading about the Wizarding World that was this dangerous, this upsetting to these folk.
But it isn't possible... is it?
Madley had settled down and drunk all her potion, so I pulled a screen around the bed and sat with her, waiting for Pomfrey to return. I heard Dumbledore leave the Infirmary, but if he noted us he didn't stop.
For which blessing I was intensely grateful. I needed to think this through before I dealt with anything else.
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